upper room daily devotions

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Ruined - A Review

Written by Lynn Nottage and directed by Kate Whoriskey, Ruined is a powerful play about sexual violence, personal power, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It is playing at Seattle's Intiman Theatre through August 15.

Set in Mama Nadi's brothel along the border of the rainforest in the Northeast of the country, the play deals with the lives of four women in the midst of the ongoing conflict in the DRC. During a visit by Christian, a man who travels the area peddling everything from cigarettes to beer to people, Mama Nadi buys one new "girl" for her brothel (Salima) and reluctantly takes in another (Sophie), who is "ruined." At her brothel, Mama Nadi walks a fine line between protecting the girls and exploiting them. She is a shrewd businesswoman, who will not be conned or cowed in her own place. Within the walls of her business, Mama Nadi rules. Yet, the war encroaches. Soldiers and rebels alike make their presence increasingly known and their troubles begin to be felt within Mama's protected fiefdom.

The play takes an unflinching look at the routine use of sexual violence in the DRC's decade long conflict. Over 5 million people have died in this conflict (roughly half of those have been children), and although the war officially ended in 2002, hundreds of thousands of people continue to die every year. The country is roughly the size of Western Europe and most of the violence takes place in the extreme Northeast, along the Rwandan and Ugandan borders. To this day, almost 2 million people remain displaced inside of their own country. Eight nations have been involved in this "civil war" as well as over 25 militias and factions. Ethnic and tribal strife fuel the ongoing conflict. Also behind much of the violence are countries, corporations, and people who want to gain control of the country's vast mineral wealth. From diamonds to gold to copper to coltan (the common use word for columbite-tantalite), the DRC is one of the most mineral rich countries in the world. Coltan, of which most people have never heard, is in use by almost everyone in the world; it is found in cellular phones, gaming devices, and computers.

It is this backdrop of war, international conflict, and sexual violence that Ruined takes place. All of the women at Mama Nadi's are victims of sexual violence, as are untold numbers of Congolese women. In 2009, over 8,000 women were victims of rape as factions continued to use rape as part of their tactics against one another. With most cases unreported a UN official has called this the "rape capital of the world." For the women at Mama Nadi's, as is the case for most women caught up in this conflict, there is little to no medical or legal recourse for them. Families routinely turn away from violated family members because they have been "ruined."

However, as much as this play deals with sexual violence, it also uses the image of the woman's body and Mama Nadi's business as metaphor's for Congo as a country. Just as the women have much of their lives taken by violence, so does Congo. Just as men come and go at Mama Nadi's with no way to identify liberators from thugs, so it is in Congo. The desperate attempt of Mama Nadi to maintain her independence from and assert her power to the men who come through her door reflects the struggle of the Democratic Republic of Congo to establish its identity as a nation - post-colonial, post-tribal, and post-war. It seems no coincidence that the two men who frequent Mama Nadi's are named Harari and Christian, symbolizing the presence of other African nations encroaching upon the DRC and the numerous churches and NGOs that have made their way into Congo. When Mama Nadi holds up a precious object and calls it her "insurance policy," all of Congo can be seen holding up gold, diamonds, tin, copper, and coltan yelling at the world to look. I have been to Congo, and it makes perfect sense to me after seeing the miles upon miles of barren land left behind after strip mining that many in the country would say that it has been Ruined.

Yet the play also holds a lot of hope. Even in the midst of war, girls find a way to be girls. They have desires and hopes. They read books and look at fashion magazines. They argue over the little things in life. The play's hope is found in its characters' humanity. It shows us that in the midst of unimaginable loss, dreams find a way to survive. In the midst of violence and despair, love does make a home.

The last cast member I will mention is the music. In addition to the men who frequent Mama Nadi's bar, there are two musicians - a guitarist and a drummer. Music is important in Congo and it is vital at Mama Nadi's. Whether the songs are about loss, dreams, pain, war, escape, or love, they are songs of the heart, something Ruined is filled to brimming with. If you are in Seattle and can handle the subject matter, get yourself to the Intiman and see this play. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Inception - A Review

I went and saw Inception, Christopher Nolan's new movie about dreams, reality, and guilt. Ostensibly about industrial espionage, the movie quickly moves from the basic heist/fantasy/espionage format and gives the audience and experience like no other. The movie is fantastic.

Okay, it felt a little long at times and don't spend too much time trying to make sense out of everything, and other than Leo DiCaprio's character (Dom Cobb), the other characters receive scant attention. Was this oversight due to time, focus, or, was it intentional? I didn't care. Inception is the most gorgeous movie I've seen in a long while - and by gorgeous I refer to something more inclusive than the movie's look. This is a gorgeous and rich film that plumbs the depths of human anguish and scratches its way through human hope. "Take a leap of faith" is said by more than one character (or is it?) throughout the movie.

On to the main "plot." It has become typical for corporations to hire highly trained teams to "extract" information from people while they dream; it's a new form of espionage. The challenge for this team, and for its team leader, Dom Cobb, aka the Extractor, is whether it is possible to "plant" new ideas inside of people while they dream. Is it possible for a team to delve inside of a person's dreams so that upon awakening this foreign idea feels native, real, as though it were their own thought? The general understanding is that such a procedure has never been done successfully, even though Cobb says that it has. So, with Cobb's leadership, the team undertakes a mission to plant an idea in the heir to an energy conglomerate. However, the real plot is about Cobb himself - his demons, his fantasies, his realities, his regrets, his pain, his love, his hope, his disappointment, his sorrow - his need for redemption. Through the movie, he is working those things out. He is on a quest to "go home." So, really, the rest is just an environment for his story (although the movie's insistent continuity in following its own internal rules is a fascinating thing to watch).

Critics reviewing Inception make the obvious comparison to Memento, another of Nolan's movies, during which he began the screenplay for Inception. And, it isn't far off the mark to see a little of The Matrix here, too. In the sense that this movie plays with reality and unreality, and dream versus reality, this is true, but Inception picks up on Momento's use of dream and unreality and creates something quite new. Momento pales in comparison to what Inception accomplishes. Nolan gives us a maze and we never know where we are or exactly where we are going, but I didn't feel "conned" (as some critics have felt). I trusted him to lead me on an adventure, and he did. It could be that the perfect reviews written early on skewed the experience for later reviewers. Perhaps the hype overshadowed the actual viewing experience. I think the movie lives up to the hype, but it does so in a sneaky way. While it will visually dazzle, in many ways this is an intimate movie. It wasn't made to be big. It does not rely upon FX for the sake of utilizing FX. Every movment, every visual, every scene goes to support the story.

During the last scene, you could hear a pin drop in the completely full theater where I saw it. The tension was palpable. And when the movie was over you heard audible gasps throughout the whole room and some shouts and applause. Simply put, that doesn't happen very often. It is visually rich and subtly acted. The screenplay, while very good, is a bit verbose and pedantic in the first third of the movie. The music, well, it will transport you. It's obvious that composer Zimmer and writer/director Nolan understand each other well. Zimmer composed the music for Batman Begins and The Dark Night, and you will hear influences from those scores, but this music was composed for this movie, and it is perfect. As an aside, the musical choice to use "Non, je ne regrette rien" was evidently made prior to Marion Cotillard joining the project, so, evidently the "La Vie en Rose" connection is coincidental. Weird, huh.

That's my review. If a narrative experience is more important than understanding, you may love this movie. I sum it up this way - a story about forgiveness, grief, and self-discovery wrapped inside of a sci-fi, fantasy, espionage, heist package.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Postures During Worship

My children's sermon today was about postures in worship and how there are three basic postures in worship that are utterly different from the rest of life.

The first posture is a subordinate posture - to sit at the foot of a master. Worship is to sit at the foot of a teacher or even God and to listen eagerly and yet patiently. The second posture is the posture of prayer. In the West that posture has been head down, neck exposed - a posture of complete trust that the one whose presence you are in will not harm you, but will welcome you. And the third posture is the posture of receiving. Arms in front and open. For people more used to earning than receiving, this posture can be quite difficult to maintain. We want to fix, make right, do, be in charge, opt out, and do every other thing except receive. To receive is a vulnerable thing - what if someone revokes the gift? The challenge is to trust the divine one enough to know that the gift cannot and will not be revoked. The gospel was the story of Mary and Martha - Mary at the feet, Martha unable to lose her distractions and see the holy before her.

My word for today: accept what is handed, especially the good stuff.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Honest and Humble Churches and Scapegoating

Every now and I become preoccupied with the idea of "honest and humble faith." It is this preoccupation, in part, that has led me away from blogging on a regular basis. I've been trying to leave open space for God to work in my life without succumbing to the need to fill every moment with talking, writing, and exhorting. Part of my vocation is grounded in helping others also to seek a more humble and honest way through the world. Yet, here I am blogging...

A study group in The United Methodist Church has concluded that the denomination should do away with guaranteed appointments because, according to the article, they contribute "to mediocrity and ineffectiveness and emphasize the needs of the ministers rather than the mission of the church." Accountability is important for clergy - very important. But, accountability for what, exactly? Accountability for knowing liturgy; accountable for knowing how the Church, for centuries, has set the Table for Holy Communion; accountable for knowing laws on reporting abuse (and doing so); accountable for understanding Greek and Hebrew so that we can interpret the Bible with at least an approximation of accuracy; accountable for competent interpersonal skills; accountable for basic administrative skills; accountable for creating and maintaining healthy boundaries within the congregation and within the annual conference; accountable for keeping a Sabbath, daily prayer, and personal devotion; accountable for knowing the life situations of our congregation members and the realities of our neighborhoods; accountable to do what exactly? I believe that these are not what drives this report. This report is a red herring; it is a scapegoating. Any who knows me will know that I agree that we have ordained and continue to ordain some people more in need of ministering than they are gifted and called to minister. Even so, I believe what drives this report is a desperate attempt to name why the church is hemorrhaging members. This is a report about membership and institutional survival. I don't think it's honest. It wasn’t generated out of a desire to address clergy accountability; it is an attempt to name those responsible for a dwindling denomination.

Moreover, I don't think that the denomination as a whole is ready to be honest...or humble. It has become obsessed with growth. If this obsession were born out of a missional desire to touch people's lives with the gospel, I would be right there with them. And while I, of course, believe that the church wants to reach people for Christ, I don't think that is the major driving factor behind almost anything that we are doing these days. It is institutional survival. What tells me this is our frenetic attachment to anything from the business world that might lead to growth. I hear words like "captured learnings," "best practices," "business plan," and "marketing plan" bandied about like we are Starbucks. Of course we need to be intentional about how we spread the Gospel. Of course. That is not my point. My point is that growth is being talked about as though it were the goal. Growth is not the goal. That is the goal of a virus. Rather, healthy congregational growth is just one - albeit an important one - measure of a successfully proclaimed Gospel. Growth is a result of lives touched and transformed. Growth is a measure; it is not the goal - at least in my understanding of Christ’s mission and ministry.

An honest denomination would ask where the underserved are located. It would ask if we are present in the lives of the broken, the poor, and the outcast. It would be funding more prison chaplains, sending pastors back for more CPE credits, teaching second languages and sponsoring cross-cultural experiences for pastors. It would strip down conference offices so that our congregations could become more connectional. It would encourage bishops to be visible faces of the denomination - right out in front of cameras and on the Internet - proclaiming justice. It would be building hospitals, not closing them. It would be opening medical co-ops, teaching parenting classes, and it would be honest about our places of fracture and division. It would name that our denomination isn't "opening doors" - not to LGBTQI people. It would name the reality that we have people with deep faith who struggle with their denominational identity.

An honest and humble church would name its errors in the world and seek repentance. It would confess our part in the slave trade, in segregation, in the displacement of Native peoples. It would name the continuing misogyny that is still at work in the church. It would not pretend that we are post-racial or post-ethnic. It would name the areas in which we still need to be shaped and stretched by the Gospel in which we believe but to which we have yet to fully submit. An honest church would say to our wealthy congregations that they need to do more than send mission trips away “to help to others who are unlike them - the unfortunate” and instead remind them that they no different from the people who are in need, just more fortunate. An honest church would seek the wisdom of those not in worshiping in our pews and who have never hear “O For a Thousand Tongues We Sing.” We would reach out with open arms to our ecumenical and interfaith partners in every place that our missions overlap. We would be more interested in binding the wounds of the world than leaving our mark.

I am blogging today because I want to be part of a church like this. I want to be part of a movement that knows in its marrow that it has a Gospel to proclaim and to embody. I want to be part of a church that recognizes that it is “on its way” to perfection, but humble enough to say that we’ve not reached it yet. I want to be part of a church that is hungry to be closer to the God we supposedly worship. I want to be part of a church that prayerfully and considerately places men and women in service to others through the mantle of ordination and then supports them with sabbaticals, continuing education, times for confession, and spiritual direction. I want to be part of a church that becomes so charged and impassioned for ministry that it sings with joy and dances in love rather than singing laments at days gone by and limping through programs. A honest assessment of The United Methodist Church may mean that it is time for us to let go of a great deal to which we cling very tightly. It is time to set our eyes on God’s holy kingdom here on this earth, just as we pray that we do each time we say the Lord’s Prayer, and to strive with every breath to live in the assurance that it already has come near if only we allowed our God to open our eyes and ears to its holy presence.

Thanks for telling me, church, that pastors suck because we can’t grow congregations. As someone who has inherited two congregations in the midst of 30 year declines, it’s nice to be labeled “ineffective” in reviving them. It’s not that I don’t want to work hard or have my feet kept to the fire. It’s that, in the end, I don’t think it’s my job to revive anything. From what I read in scripture, God is the one who revives. It’s my job to bring people to this life-giving God.

I expect the few who make it to the end of this tirade will have differing thoughts. I just hope that those who respond don’t misconstrue what I’m saying... Basically, I am asking that we hold one another accountable in Christian love - for doing what we actually can do.

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