Thursday, October 28, 2010

The 10 Miler

Going for run is kind of like going to the dentist. No one wants to do it. You begin this venture consciously knowing that some form of pain is involved; and yet, when it’s over, you’re glad you ran…or went to the dentist. Well, in theory that’s how it works.

This past Saturday I participated in a 10 mile run at Huntington Beach. It was a great day spent with friends and students from my youth group. As the race started, I found myself at the very end of the pack and slowly moved up past the joggers and positioned myself somewhere in the middle of this large group of runners. About four miles into the race, I noticed that I was running by myself. I began focusing on this kid ahead of me who looked like he was eleven. I made it my goal to pass him.

It wasn’t too long after this that I met Jeff. He ran up next to me and asked what my pace was. I replied: “No idea.” Truthfully, I didn’t care. I just wanted to finish the race. Jeff told me he wanted to run under 9 minutes a mile and I thought that sounded good. So, for the next six miles I ran with Jeff. We made some small talk, and spurred one another on. This was my first “race” since high school when I ran cross-country. For Jeff, though, this was just another typical Saturday morning. He likes running and participates in a number races throughout the year. I thought Jeff was a little crazy, but nonetheless, a nice guy.

Around mile eight, I realized that I was going to finish the race. Furthermore, I realized that Jeff was playing a huge role in helping me run. Maybe it was his enthusiastic remarks or the fact that I had somebody to keep in step with. Whatever the reason, my run that day was better because of Jeff.

Jeff’s willingness to befriend me and run with a complete stranger taught me a little bit about encouragement. There have been numerous spiritual gift questionnaires I’ve meticulously filled out and received encouragement as one of my gifts. I don’t know how accurate those tests are. I had a junior high student fill one out once and his number one gift was “speaking in tongues.” He asked me if that meant Spanish. I told him yes and it also meant the ability to speak Elvish.

My understanding of spiritual gifts has changed over the years. I’m not sure if encouragement is a gift some people have and others don’t. I think we often equate “being nice” with encouragement. (However, I know some really nice people who are not encouraging.) Real encouragement, though, is deeper than good manners and sentiments. True encouragement has less to do with the actual words we use and more to do with the time we’re willing to share with someone.  It has to do with presence. When we can say we’ve shared life with a friend and stood by their side through thick and thin, perhaps, then, we understand encouragement. I have people in my life who are constant like that. I know they will stick with me as the miles add up. Encouragement happens in those moments when someone asks us where we're heading. It continues when they stick by our side for the remainder of the journey.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Thoughts on Phantom of the Opera

I’ve only been to a few musicals. It wasn’t something I did growing. I mainly stuck to things I was familiar with like sports and action movies. All that changed, however, when I met my wife; a true thespian. She has shared her love of theater with me and I am grateful. Moreover, I feel slightly more sophisticated these days. The other night we went on another musical adventure, this time to see Phantom of the Opera.

While watching the production live, I realized that Phantom is a good story, full of themes that touch the human spirit. The main character, the Phantom, is a confusing and remarkable character. Throughout the musical he appears to be searching for something. Through allusions in the play, as well as knowing the background to the story, we figure out he desires acceptance. His life has been defined by failure and rejection. As a viewer, you don’t know what to make of him. Is he the villain or the hero? He does both heroic and villainous deeds in musical—murder, extortion, sacrifice, stalking—and you are drawn to ambivalence about him. I heard one writer describe the Phantom as a “Parisian Batman.” (After all he has a cool lair and some sweet gadgets. Furthermore, he has his own Phantom-boat which sort of looks like a gondola designed by Tim Burton.) What do you do with this character? You are mesmerized by him and scared of him. Kind of like Carrot Top.

The ambivalence continues as the story proceeds. You feel compassion towards him because of the facial scarred, Harvey Dent look he’s sporting. He desperately longs for compassion and your heart goes out to him. On the one hand, he has this bad boy image. He’s dark, elusive and has a great singing voice. This makes him romantic. And then you have to deal with his creepy stalker persona. Needless to say, he is complicated. My wife made a really good point about the “emotion” portrayed by different actors who play the Phantom.  At times, the Phantom comes across as defeated and weak. In the movie version, though, Gerard Butler does an amazing job of showing the Phantom is not a helpless, pitiful creature; rather, he is a tortured soul, in deep agony over his predicament. He is in love, even though he finds himself unlovable.

The ending scene I found particularly powerful. After the Phantom has unleashed his villainous rage on the opera house, he kidnaps Christine and takes her once again on his scary gondola ride to his secret lair. When the man she professes to love, Raoul, comes to her rescue, the Phantom puts a noose on his neck. He then tells Christine to make a choice: live with the Phantom and spare the life of Raoul or reject the Phantom and Raoul dies. A dilemma indeed. Christine, though, has a different plan. She pleads with the Phantom and then makes a bold move: she kisses him. The kiss causes something to change in the Phantom’s mind. It is a pivotal, musical-altering moment.

In writing and film, a kiss is often a symbolic gesture in many ways. A kiss symbolizes affection, love, even sacrifice. In this instant, the kiss reveals that Phantom has finally been shown acceptance and compassion. Until now, he’s only known rejection. He has become a slave to finding some way that he can be complete. Earlier in the musical when rejected, he lashes out on those around him. He has tried through the power of music and seduction, but was denied. Acceptance has always been his pursuit, his endeavor and his initiative. In the final scene, though, Christine chooses to share this kiss with him. The Phantom receives it. In all of his efforts to attain the one thing he desired, it happens without his initiative. He releases Christine and Raoul, and the musical comes to an end.

An easy way to figure out if a play is a comedy or tragedy is whether or not the main character gets what he wants. Although the Phantom doesn’t win the affection of Christine, it doesn’t mean the musical is a tragedy. He certainly pursues her and we can assume desires her, but there is something deeper that he as longed for: freedom. The Phantom has lurked in the shadows for years, searching to be free from his predicament. It becomes his obsession to the point of stalking his protégé and threatening her in order to find acceptance. But he doesn’t get it in this way. He becomes even more estranged. Finally, though, acceptance is given in the form of a kiss. Something he could never take, but only receive.

We want to live free. Perhaps this freedom we desire is from a sin or compulsive behavior. Maybe we desire freedom from the voice of self-doubt or low self-esteem, or even from our past. No matter what the desire, freedom will not happen by working harder or striving further in our lives. We cannot do enough to acquire it. Just the opposite is needed—to stop trying and start accepting. True freedom happens when we choose to receive from God.

Freedom is a byproduct of receiving life in Christ. Can we accept what Christ has done, and start a process of transformation, partnering with God’s Spirit at work within us. Can we choose not to take, but rather to receive what the Father has already done for us?