Tag Archives: friends

The Gospel According to Pixar: Toy Story

I doubt it was an intentional allusion, but did you notice what shape these two form? Look familiar?

I doubt it was an intentional allusion, but did you notice what shape these two form? Look familiar?

Where do you find meaning? This is a big question. It may be THE big question. What is the meaning of life? What is the purpose of living? You may not realize it, but this is the question of the Toy Story saga. Over three incredible movies, the characters of Toy Story are searching for meaning.

The toys, especially the two main characters, Woody and Buzz, at different times face existential crises searching for meaning as they come to grips with their own mortality. Their mortality is wrapped up in the life of their owner, Andy. In the first movie Buzz faces the reality of being a toy and not a Space Ranger. In the second movie Woody has to choose between “immortality” in a museum, or life with a kid who will eventually grow up. In the third movie all of the toys face their impending loss of purpose as Andy goes to college.

When Woody meets Buzz, Woody is a sure and determined leader of the toys. He knows his purpose. He has a laser focus as Andy’s favorite toy. When Buzz shows up his status is threatened. To make matters worse, Buzz has delusions of grandeur. Woody mocks Buzz because Buzz believes that he is a space ranger. He comes to Andy’s room convinced that he is on an alien planet, and must find and defeat the evil Zurg.

Buzz faces a crisis when he realizes that the storyline of his life isn’t real. It is just a storyline for a TV show designed to sell toys. He is one of thousands of Buzz Lightyears” that line supermarket aisles. It is Woody who convinces Buzz that his purpose is far grander than defeating Zurg.

“I can’t help anyone… I’m not a Space Ranger. I’m just a toy. A stupid, little insignificant toy,” says Buzz.

“Whoah, hey, wait a minute. Being a toy is a lot better than being a Space Ranger,” Woody exclaims.

“Yeah right.”

“No, it is. Over in that house is a kid who thinks you’re the greatest. And it’s not because you’re a Space Ranger, pal. It’s because you’re a toy. You are his toy.”

Woody redefines Buzz and gives him purpose. No longer does his purpose revolve around catching the evil Zurg. Instead, it is to be with a boy. Toy Story ends with Woody and Buzz realizing something about their purpose. Woody is not defined by his status, and Buzz is not defined by his ‘job.’ They are both defined by their relationship to Andy, and to each other.

In Toy Story 2 it is Woody who has the crisis when he discovers that he is not just a toy, but that he is a collectible. His value is altered, and he is faced with a decision. He can define himself through Andy, where his value will inevitably deteriorate as Andy grows up and plays less with his toys; or he can define himself as a collectible and be a part of a museum forever.

Knowing that Andy will eventually “put him away,” he decides to go with immortality at the museum. Fearing that he has been kidnapped, Buzz and the other toys go on a perilous adventure to find him. Risking everything for the sake of their friend, they finally find Woody, and the following scene ensues:

We witness Woody’s change of heart when he is reminded of who he is. He is reminded of the mark that was placed on him by the one who loved him more than all. He is reminded of the love of his friends, and the fact that they were willing to risk everything for him.

Jesus, when speaking to his disciples at the Last Supper in the Gospel of John tells them this, “This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:12-13, CEB). Jesus had a firm grasp on the transforming power of love. He said these things to the disciples when he knew that his time on earth was coming to a close. He says these things to them even while he knew that his path led to the cross. He told them they were his friends. He told them to love each as I have loved you. He told them there is no greater love than to lay one’s life down for one’s friends. Then he went out and did it.

That’s the kind of love that can transform hearts. That is the kind of love that can make people stop on their tracks and reconsider their path. Another way of putting it: It’s the kind of love that can cause you to repent, and believe that the Kingdom of God is at hand.

Woody’s heart was transformed by the love of his friends. In all my time as a writer, pastor, and Christian, I don’t think I’ve ever convinced anyone to Christ. I don’t think I’ve ever persuaded anyone to repent. If I’ve done anything, I’ve loved them to Christ. If I have done anything, I have loved people to a deeper understanding of God’s love. I’ve written, preached, talked, teached, but nothing counts as much as the times that I have been a friend. I’m not sure I’ve ever laid my life down for a friend, but I have laid down my time. I have laid down my own vulnerability. I have laid down my compassion and kindness.

More importantly, when I have had moments of doubt. When I have questioned everything. When I have wondered aloud about my own purpose, it has never been a well-constructed argument that brought me back. It has been the time, care, kindness, and love of friends that has reminded me. There have been times when competing ideas of the purpose of my life have waged a war in my mind. Like anyone, I have had late nights wondering about where the value of my life may lie. There are times when I’ve been lost, but every time there was someone there to remind me to look down at the bottom of my foot, recall who and whose I am, and come back to my purpose: to love.

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teal ribbonCancer sucks.

Are there any two words written that were ever more true?  Is there anyone that read that sentence and didn’t think, “Yep, it sure does.”  It sucks more than the suckiest suck that has ever sucked.  Sorry about the 10-year-old mouth, but I think most would give me a pass.

My Mom has cancer.

Those words were hard to even type.  It’s not something I ever wanted to say again.  Six years ago her ovarian cancer went into remission.  Six doses of chemotherapy spread out over three week spans knocked it out. We hoped it was knocked out for good, but we have already established the sucky nature of cancer.

After my Dad told me the news, these are the things I did:

I cried. I sobbed full force, white-knuckled into my pillow. I know cancer. Cancer and I work in a lot of the same places. I can meet cancer at a hospital, or at someone’s home, or in a conversation at church, and I seem to know what to do. I’m not saying that I’m altogether comfortable with cancer, but we’re familiar. This time though, I wasn’t ready. I thought we had an agreement.  Cancer isn’t supposed to bother me at home, but like I said, Cancer sucks.

I hugged my wife, because it was her turn. We seem to take turns being strong in moments like this. It is strange, but I seldom recall a time when we were both crying at the same time. Someone told me once that I’m supposed to be the spiritual leader of our home. That’s bullshit (again, sorry about the language, but my emotions are pretty raw). We are partners. Sometimes I’m strong and confident and fearless and protective and all that stuff. Sometimes I’m not.  Sometimes I’m fragile and raw and broken. Sometimes she kicks me in the ass, and says, “Get up. Suck it up, and get after it.” Sometimes she holds me, strokes my head, and lets me just be broken. It seems like she always knows when she needs to do either, and I love her for this.

We went to our friends house. We have good friends. We have the kind of friends with whom we can play “Cards Against Humanity,” and hold nothing back. Nuh-thing. We share the big celebrations like weddings and births and C-League Volleyball championships (Go Spiking Vikings).  We share the mundane stuff of life like carpools, Tuesday dinner, red wine, and school plays. As soon as I was able to stand, I needed to see our friends. We’ve already buried two parents together, and they know more than anyone that there are somethings that even my lucky rocket-ship underpants won’t help. At their house, the conversation went something like this:

“I just found out that my Mom’s cancer is back.”

“That sucks.”


Sometimes friends have the perfect words for the moment.

A couple of weeks passed before we were able to tell anyone beyond our very small circle. Finally yesterday I emailed the prayer chain at our church. I’m not sure why I was resistant. Sometimes I feel like a character in Harry Potter, afraid to say the name of You Know Who for fear that speaking it’s name will give it power.  Or maybe I can’t let go of ill-gotten notion that as a pastor, I shouldn’t be vulnerable. There are people in the church that are in need of care, and I how am I supposed to care for anyone when I’m hurting?

The text I’m preaching from on Sunday is 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, and starts with these words, “Rejoice always. Pray continually.  Give thanks in every situation because this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” You’ve got to be kidding me. (I typed and then deleted a certain expletive in between the words “be” and “kidding me” about five times. I decided to go with leaving it out, so you can re-read that sentence and put it back in, if you so choose).

Rejoice always? That’s going to be a hard sell.

That, however, might be the point. Rejoicing always isn’t about skipping along in a land of rainbows and gumdrops. Praying continually is not about kneeling, folding my hands, and closing my eyes to the world. Giving thanks in every situation isn’t about denying the parts of life that just plain suck.

I rejoice in the life my Mother has lived, and I rejoice in the life she continues to live. I rejoice in her strength. I rejoice in her faith. I rejoice that she just called me from Sam’s Club to ask if I needed a new top coat. “Yes,” I said as I paused from writing this very blog. “My overcoat is blue, and it would be nice to have a black one for funerals.”

You see, I deal with cancer all the time. Truth be told, we had no deal. I knew all along that cancer goes where cancer is not welcome. I’m not rejoicing in its return. Yet in the midst of all things I give thanks.

I give thanks for a Mom who gives me more than I could ever imagine. I give thanks for her partner, my Dad, who taught me that its okay to take turns being strong. I give thanks for my brother and sister, for getting the teal bracelets and doing all the things I can’t do because of distance. I give thanks for my own partner, for being strong enough to hold me up from time to time. I give thanks for my daughters, who teach me every day about grace. I give thanks for my friends, who right now are probably thinking, “I thanked your Mom last night.” I give thanks for my church, who didn’t get an invulnerable pastor. They deserve better.


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Filed under Christianity, Personal Reflection

Journey to Hope: Relationships

Week One of the Journey to Hope is about relationships.  Here is a seven minute discussion about the connection between friendship and hope.  The hosts of the program talk to a mother of an autistic boy.  She talks about how shattered she was when she first heard the news, and how relationships gave her strength.  Brian, one  of the hosts, Brian, said:

“Sometimes we don’t have the words.  Sometimes we don’t know what to do, but we can just be. And just sit, and perhaps hold someone’s hand and walk with them.  It’s not always about doing or saying something.  That bond can be transformational.”

I’m immediately reminded of Job’s friends.  There are times when I hear about a friend’s problem, and I feel like I need to rush in to solve the problem.  I often have to remind myself that a friend might not be looking for solutions.  It’s easy to offer answers.  It takes time, commitment and compassion to offer myself.  Friendship – true friendship – isn’t an easy endeavor, but it is so worth it.

When I start to think of the friends in my life, I can easily become choked with emotion. I think about people with whom I’ve shared a moment in time:

High school friends with whom I shared a television show, a “secret club,” a perfect night on the roof of The Odyssey, parties at Weed’s (not weed parties), and one great victory over the BBC.  I think of fraternity brothers with whom I shared a few beers, a few all-nighters, a few meetings of the TNC, a couple of trips to Virginia, and more than a few long, heart-felt talks.

I can think of the faces that have come in and out of my life and thank God for the moments that we shared.  I can think of teammates, classmates, and colleagues that populate my memories.  Even if we aren’t in contact anymore, I am so grateful to the people that have been the in the movie of my life.

And then I think of the co-stars.  The ones that have done more than shape me.  They are the ones that have formed me.  So much of my hope comes from my friends.

My friends have loved me through difficult times.  They have (as my Dad often says) “Multiplied my joy and divided my sorrow.”  We’ve been together trough the valley of the shadow of death, and we have celebrated the greatest joys.  There’s nothing like calling  a friend with good news, or lightening my load with a quick phone call that turns into an hour-long conversation.

I love my friends, and I probably don’t tell them that enough.  But then again, they probably know.  To my friends, thank you.  Thank you for being a source of hope, for showing me what it is like to walk with God.  Thank you for offering me forgiveness when I don’t deserve it, and helping me when I could never pay you back.  Thank you for revealing the love of Christ in your smile, your listening, your tears, and your embrace.  Thank you, above all, for reminding me that I am never alone in this world.

When I think of hope, I think of my friends.  And Jesus did to.

“‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.  This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.'” (John 15:9-13, NRSV)

It was to his friends that he entrusted his life.  He was abandoned, denied, and betrayed, but his faith in his friends held fast.  He knew that it would be his friends that carried out his mission in the world.  Jesus wrote nothing save for what he wrote on the hearts of his friends.  His friends would become the Church.  All that claim Christ as their friend today do so because Jesus trusted his friends so long ago.  For this we may all be grateful, for we are all offered the love that Jesus described – the love that is so strong that he would lay down his life.

The Journey to Hope: The Beginning

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Retired pastor

I used to joke that there is no such thing as a retired Pastor.  There is always a small church somewhere in need of a preacher, or a pastor that is going on vacation, or Bible study to teach, or a wedding to officiate.  I used to think that there is no such thing as a retired pastor.  I thought that, until I met one.

Every month I lead chapel at an independent living facility.  A few months ago I met a retired UM pastor.  He is in his late eighties.  After chapel this week I went to his room to talk. 

His wife lives in the community also, but she requires a higher level of care because of dimensia.  The two have been married 60 years, and they live under the same roof.  Yet he has his own sparsely decorated room and she has a seperate room that she shares with a stranger.

They have two kids, neither of whom live within 150 miles.  He was a United Methodist pastor in Illinois for many decades.  He served churches all over the state, from the Indiana border to the Mississippi River.  He told me about a book in which he has kept records.  In it are the names of those that he has baptized, buried, and married.  He also has some simple notes on every sermon he has preached. 

I have an identical book.  Mine has about five pages partially filled in.  His is full of names.  The names in the book represent people that he has lead to Christ.  There are names of babies that are surely middle-aged by now.  There are couples that have stayed together to celebrate silver anniversaries.  It would be almost impossible to determine how many lives he has transformed over the years.

He has friends all over the state.  People call from time to time.  One couple sent him a portable DVD player.  His son bought him a pretty nice flatscreen TV.  The walls in his room are bare save for an undecorated brass cross.  On the table next to his chair is an old worn out Bible and an Upper Room.

As we sat and talked he told me about some of the churches he has served.  I mostly listened as the words came pouring out.  I looked him in the eye and heard a small part of his story.  A couple of times I could see sadness in his eyes, especially when he talked about his wife or about family that lived so far away.  A couple of times I could see joy spread across his face as he talked of his grandchildren, or about some of his old churches.

Eventually, I had to leave.  He was gracious when I stood.  He had told me that he didn’t know how to connect his portable DVD player to the TV.  I could tell it would only take a cable and a minute to do.  I promised him I would come back and set it up for him.  I left him my address and phone number.  As I was leaving he asked for a hug.

“I really miss that.  It’s hard to hug my wife.  Sometimes I try, but…” he stopped.  I gave him a hug.  A real hug, and said goodbye.

On my way home I cried. 

Here is a man that has given his life to the church.  He had a book full of names of people that he has impacted.  He has friends all over the state.  Yet here he is, alone.  Here he is, in desperate need of a friend.  Dying for a hug.

I’m glad I could give it to him.  I’m glad I can be his friend.  I plan on going back.  I need to go back.  Maybe as much for me as for him.  When I look at him I see my possible future.  I see the loneliness of children scattered across the country, and the confusion of a gift I do not know how to use.  I see a book full of names, and the fear of having friends scattered all around the state, but no place to call home. 

So I will be his friend.  I will be his friend because he needs me, and I will be his friend because I need him.


Filed under Personal Reflection