Sunday, February 27, 2011

"Nunsense" Ends Chapter One, "The BFG" Gets Theological

Posted by Bob Wall
This afternoon, at least two exciting things happen in the life of our theatre. The first, chronologically, is that our artistic director, Bruce Miller, will lead the Acts of Faith discussion following our sold-out performance of The BFG in the historic Empire Theatre. The second, which will follow the first by about 15 minutes, is that our equally sold-out performance of Nunsense at the Tavern will end triumphantly with its final curtain call in Hanover before being revived this coming July at Willow Lawn.

Bruce takes his Acts of Faith responsibilities very seriously. When I asked him to tell me about the faith connections associated with The BFG, he referred me to this sermon, preached by Pastor Larry Wimmer at Belmont United Methodist Church, in a small town suburb of Boston, Mass in 2008.

"When I was looking for the perfect Theatre IV entry into the Acts of Faith Festival, I found this sermon on line," said Bruce. "It's why I picked the show. After seeing our production, it seems particularly appropriate."

I read the sermon, and found it full of insight, hope and wonder. Here it is.

"Fee Fi Fo Fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman!"

Usually when there is a giant in the story he is the bad guy, scary, vicious, bloodthirsty, ugly, etc. so leave it to Roald Dahl, the English storyteller, to come up with something completely different. In his classic children's novel,
The BFG, a little girl named Sophie is kidnapped by a giant in the middle of the night and carried far away to a land where giants live, naturally she is terrified thinking the giant is going to eat her after he boils her first. But as the story unfolds she discovers that her giant is the BFG - the Big Friendly Giant - and is the just the opposite of everything she thought and everything she feared and it turns out that everything she had expected to be horrifying is not horrifying at all but in fact just fine. In fact, he saves the day.

I know it probably seems far-fetched to see how a silly story like this one can shed any light on the mysteries of our relationship with God but I daresay there are many ideas we have about God that are not so unlike what Sophie thought of giants before she actually met the BFG. Our views about God are often hidden even from ourselves because they are what we have picked up along the way without realizing them. God as a big scary giant is not so far-off from what we might have imagined as children and whether we know it or not what we imagined as children does not just leave us because we have grown older. Often what we have learned as children or by accident must be unlearned

Think about the image of God we get from the passage in Ezekiel. Ezekiel is a prophet in the time of exile. Early in the exile there are those in denial who still hope that things will soon be restored to the way they were but Ezekiel sees things differently. He sees a long and even more terrible exile to come and he is right. Soon Jerusalem itself is completely destroyed and those in exile are no longer just scattered in a foreign land their home is no longer there to return to. At this moment in time God does not seem all that friendly to the Israelites. After all there is at least one explanation that things have gotten so bad because the people have not been obedient. God actually punished people for disobedience in this particular way of thinking and God was most certainly scary, someone to be feared. It is interesting that when God asks Ezekiel if these bones can live Ezekiel says something akin to "you tell me" with respect of course. This after all is the God who lifted the red sea and then dropped it down on hundreds of Pharaoh's troops killing them all, the God who sent plagues to kill thousands, who, the story goes, brought the rains and a flood to destroy everything but a remnant, the God of utter devastation and wrath, a mighty God who can hold the whole earth in the palm of a hand and is as ready to crush it as to bear it up. Scary indeed. Worse than any giant of our childhood's imagination. (They weren't even that big!)

"Fee fi fo finner, I smell the blood of a nasty sinner!" Most of us have been raised with a little bit of this angry God scenario ready to crush us for our evil ways.

Later when it is Lazarus who has died the family wonders why they have not been spared this universal horror. "Lord if you had been here this would not have happened." was the general tone and implied was, I guess, 'you don't care enough about us.' Still in the mindset of the people, God seems to be pretty monstrous if it is God who decides who lives and who dies.

The thing is we got it all wrong. God is not a monster. God is the BFG. The big friendly God, if we only knew, the one who saves us rather than destroys us, the one who loves us rather than despises us. God tells Ezekiel that these bones will live. Lazarus after Jesus himself wept openly, rose up and walked out of the tomb. This is who God really is. God is the giver of life, the creator, not the destroyer. This is God in the deep places not the God in the shallows where what we have learned from random experiences and encounters, from the media, from what we have read or misread of the Holy Scriptures, heard or misheard from the pulpit, we carry a lot of baggage in our subconscious mind and it is not all true.

Dillard of course was aware of this when she wrote of a moment in her life when God's presence was felt: "It was as if God had said, 'I am here but not as you have known me." In another place she writes this incredible word: "Hold hands and crack the whip and yank the Absolute out of there and into the light, god pale and astounded, spraying a spiral of salts and earths, god footloose and flung. And cry down the line to his passing white ear. "Old sir! do you hold space from buckling by a finger in its hole? O Old! Where is your other hand? His right hand is clenching, calm, round the exploding left hand of Holy the Firm.

Who is our God? What do we know of God? Were we there when the foundations of earth were laid? What is our image of God, our understanding of such things? Were we there when the morning stars sang together and all the children of God sang for joy? There is the mystery, the awesome, the fearsome but there is also the kindness, the mercy, the friend, the BFG, the big friendly God who wants nothing more than to save us and to teach us what love is. Which God, if any, do we know?

How do we ever know anything?

Maggi Dawn who is a fellow in theology at the Cambridge University in the UK writes of her experience: When I was taking my first degree in theology most of the building blocks of my faith were up for serious examination. I asked one of my professors how it was possible for faith to survive this kind of intense intellectual scrutiny. He thought for a while then said, "Once upon a time I believed in a great many things. Now I believe only in a few things, but I believe in them more deeply that I ever thought possible. That God exist, that God is love, that Jesus is the son of God, these things I believe, everything else is up for debate. She goes on: I never forgot his words and as I began to allow my own rather stern vision of God to be mellowed the God who always demanded a little more than I was able to give began to give way to the God who breathed love and kindness and freedom into my heart.

The God who breathed love and kindness and freedom. (I am not making this up.) The God who breathed. Hear that. This breath of God is what will cause those bones to live again. It is what raised Lazarus and Jesus. It is what invades the very depths of our own souls and fills us with light and life. The breath of God somehow implies an intimacy that if God is a giant it is not a monster who roars flames and drips blood but it is a giant who breathes quietly and gently, and who tenderly offers life to us with each breath we take, A God who is not hard and unmoved but soft enough for love.

When I went off to seminary I had been serving three churches in the farm country and they were all terrified that I would lose something by learning theology and they were right. I too went through many beliefs, unlearned a few things, learned a few things and landed in the arms of the BFG: the big friendly God who loves us and made us for love and that is our hope. I too have learned many things and have no doubt forgotten more than I have remembered, but this is what I believe more deeply than I can even tell you: God is not neutral but deeply involved in human life. God is not mean but generous. God does not seek our end but our beginning. God is not about death but life. And God is always on the side of love.

God is different than anything else we know. Life is hard, even cruel at times, and it is easy, if we think of God at all, to think that if God is not to blame for the troubles of this world then God is surely not doing enough to help us. There are plenty of things that can destroy us, real and imaginary most frightening giants of violence and destruction. There is much to fear in this life but God is our friend, the one we can turn to rather than run from in the time of trial. Why does this matter today? Because we have to learn who to trust and what to count on to get through the night. While there are real monsters that we can rightly fear, there is also reason not to be afraid. This is the good news for those who bravely take the leap of faith and put their trust in the God who breathes life into the bones of despair and loss, who raises Lazarus from the tomb, the God who, in short, overcomes death with life.

In the story there is a moment when little Sophie discovers that she has been captured by the good giant, this is what happened:

(The Giant had been telling Sophie about the kind of human beans Giants like to eat.)

Sophie decided that this conversation had now gone on long enough. If she was going to be eaten, she'd rather get it over and done with right away than be kept hanging around anymore. "What sort of human beings do you eat? she asked trembling.

"Me!" shouted the Giant, his mighty voice making the glass jars rattle on their shelves. 'Me gobbling up human beans! This I never! The others, yes! All the others is gobbling them up every night, but not me! I is a freaky Giant! I is a nice and jumbly Giant! I is the Big Friendly Giant! I is the BFG. What is your name? 'My name is Sophie," Sophie said, hardly daring to believe the good news she had just heard.

Ours is the freaky God, the BFG, the one who is different than all the other cruel and painful and deceitful giants of the world who teach us that life is hard and mean. Our God is the one who despite all the suffering and injustices we have known, the tears of every generation, even and including the tears of God, the one God who assures us that life is good and love will save us despite all we know so far, the God who will unbind us and let us go.

Like Sophie, we hardly dare to believe the good news we have just heard.

I hope Rev. Wimmer reads this and learns the far-reaching impact of his sermon.

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