SLIDE Harry Potter has just been speaking to my soul.
I’ve been listening to a podcast that is taking the Harry Potter books five chapters at a time and then the hosts have an hour long discussion about all that is packed into them - the themes, the fun, the moments that make you want to cry.
Also, (obviously this is fortuitous) during this stretch I’ve been listening to this podcast, SLIDE Amazon Prime day shows up with an offer of $24 for the whole set of 8 Harry Potter movies. God wanted me to have this -- it’s impossible to interpret this another way… So now my wife and I have rewatched all 8 movies over the last two weeks.
SLIDE A lot of what the hosts of this podcast talk about are why Harry Potter is so captivating and why the fandom around it feels so connecting to so many people. And there are lots of reasons why, but one really stands out to me - it’s a theme that again and again comes up in the long story, and that at one point in the third book, The Prisoner of Azkaban, shows up so powerfully. When they read the passage on the podcast I just started crying - it was speaking to me so much. And I was like getting off the bus with my headphones in walking down the street - I looked like an idiot surely.
SLIDE The Moment is this: A character named Professor Lupin is talking to Harry, who is feeling isolated and weak because he is being affected much more than the other students at his school by these magical creatures called Dementors, who when you’re in their presence suck all of the good thoughts and feelings and memories out of you and leave you with only your worst thoughts and feelings and memories. Harry fainted last time he interacted with them, but no other students did, and the book so wonderfully captures how that would feel to a middle school kid.
Throughout the book Lupin becomes a father-figure to Harry, whose parents were murdered when he was a baby, so the interaction between them feels full of love and care and understanding and warmth -- actually the movie I think does this scene from the book a bit of a disservice -- in the movie it’s like Lupin is informing Harry of something, but in the book Lupin connects deeply with Harry emotionally, meets him right where he’s feeling small and says: “You are not weak. You have nothing to be ashamed of.”
And then he explains to Harry that the reason the Dementors affect him more than the other students is because in the back of his memory are horrible experiences that the rest of his classmates could scarcely dream of -- referring to the murder of Harry’s parents.
And it is Harry internalizing what Lupin tells him -- that his losses and hurts do NOT make him weak, and that he has NOTHING to be ashamed of -- that gives him the strength he needs to make incredibly heroic choices later in the culmination of the story.
That just is so powerful to me -- the way Lupin sees and understands Harry. The message he delivers, flipping what Harry thinks makes him a loser into what makes Harry strong.
SLIDE This theme here that grabs me so much is how renewal is born out of loss...
Or put in the terms Jesus offers us: BUILD how resurrection is born out of death...
This is everywhere in the Harry Potter story, and that’s why I love it.
And, this is everywhere in life, period - in everything... Loss and renewal explains the natural world of plant life and the seasons fall-winter-spring-summer, It’s in our own biology (building muscle is tearing down old muscle so new stronger muscle can form), This is the pattern of the life of every star, and, at the molecular level, the life of every atom, We see it in the way we learn (by failing and then trying again), And of course we see it in every hero’s journey (from fictional heroes like Harry Potter to historical heroes like Nelson Mandela, who went from a prison cell to president)
Jesus spoke of this reality this way: Unless a grain of wheat goes into the ground and dies, it remains a single grain of wheat. But if it goes into the ground and dies, it bears much fruit.
And then Jesus lived this reality in the most literal way — in his death & resurrection.
One theologian puts it this way: Death and resurrection is the shape of life, the shape of the universe In Jesus, God shows us this is what all of life comes down to
And this absolutely feels like it can explain my whole life. After the challenge of student teaching I developed resilience An experience of loss leading to renewal, death to resurrection After an experience of being labeled and torn down by a supervisor, I experienced a previously unknown level of love from friends who knew who I really was - they encouraged me, cried with me, walked with me through a six month period of going to work everyday to a place where I felt misunderstood and viewed as a failure Again, loss leading to renewal Learning how to more accurately identify and healthily process my emotions has come only after discovering, through a personal growth tool called the Enneagram, how angry I am all the time even though I don’t want to admit it Again, loss and renewal, death and resurrection Building a healthy and intimate and mutual relationship with my wife came only after years of pursuing romance as a way to try to fill all of my unmet needs and experiencing again and again either dissatisfaction or being turned down Death of an old way that wasn’t serving me, being raised to a new way The reason I’m a person of faith at all is experiencing God’s comfort after losing my mom to cancer There’s no bigger example in my life of loss leading to renewal.
There’s another point in the life of Jesus, where he is talking about this reality, using a different analogy — I want to read it. But quickly, first, if you’re someone who grew up in the evangelical world, or around a lot of people in the evangelical world, you might have to put on the shelf for a minute what you’ve ever heard about this analogy Jesus uses: BUILD “being born again”. That’s a phrase that comes with some very particular baggage in Modern America -- about determining who is in or out, who is a serious born again Christian and who is not, And I don’t believe Jesus is actually talking about that when he uses this phrase. So if you’re feeling some of that baggage and the mention of the phrase “born again”, I invite you to discover something else here from Jesus that is really powerful
SLIDE Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” 3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” 4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” 9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked...
SLIDE Nicodemus‘ response to Jesus’ very mystical words is, I think, a perfect representative for where all people often get hung up on our roads of life that include so much loss/renewal, death/resurrection, rebirth/new life — That place we often get hung up is in our heads — We get hung up on the “mechanics” of the idea. We don’t have time for your mysticism, Jesus! We want to think our way through this stuff, or reverse-engineer the process, So we can be ahead of the curve, So maybe we don’t have to get hurt or don’t have to come to the limits of our ego or don’t have to say sorry.
Like Nicodemus, we get bogged down in unimportant questions — we miss the forest for the trees.
As a pastor, I pretty often end up in conversations with people about life-change or about growth or (to borrow the Jesus phrase) about what it means to enter the Kingdom of God.
And what always strikes me is how enamored we all can get with the next good idea that supposedly is going to change our lives, or unlock the life change we’ve been longing for —
I do this all the time. I’m a collector of quotes and good ideas and thoughts I find brilliant. I save them all in an app… and the app is called Evernote… and if you want to hear more, I WILL tell you, because I love productivity apps. Some of you know this — And that’s not bad. My Evernote collection does serve me.
But, in my own life and helping to pastor others for a decade now, my experience has taught me that: Reading another self-help book or article or quote is very rarely the life changer for me or for anyone. In the church world, learning another interesting thing about the Bible is very rarely the life changer for anyone.
But it is so understandable that we want it to be! Because that would be so much easier than the reality Jesus suggests At one point, Jesus gives yet another image to talk about this (implying his disciples must share in his flesh and blood, his coming suffering on the cross), and many of the disciples voice their discomfort afterward — “this is a hard teaching? Who can accept it?” they ask. We can’t help but hear, above all, the bad halves in each of these — the having to become a helpless infant again, the loss, the death. And who wants to hear that?
And yet, I’m finding, I DO want to hear that. Because, even as a straight white male, who grew up in the privilege of a middle class family in the most affluent country in the history of the world, with all of the protection from suffering those things have afforded me... Life has still taught me that I can not and never will be able to run away from the inevitability of losses and deaths and needs for rebirth. I won’t even pretend to be able to speak for those of you without the privilege I’ve inherited. No doubt your familiarity with this inevitability is ten times mine.
All life faces these things — No one has the choice to suffer or not suffer. Our only choice, really, is: try to run away from suffering, or try to courageously walk through suffering
This is why, when I can get past my Nicodemus “hang up” questions, I DO want to hear what Jesus has to say — hard truth and all — Because Jesus is treating me like an adult. He is talking to me in a way that resonates with how life actually feels, which is often very hard, And to be clear, I don’t believe God is mysteriously behind all of the losses and deaths that we experience in life -- I don’t believe he causes them to happen so his grand plan to renew or resurrect will happen, Or allows them to happen like a distant puppet master who wants to see a good show that has conflict and resolution In Jesus, we are shown God’s role in our suffering -- NOT as the source of it. But as a companion in it -- a companion who knows suffering all so well. And then this companion God offers incredible hope into our suffering: Loss and death are not the end of the story! Because the shape of life is death AND THEN resurrection Jesus is saying to me: this death has come your way, yes, Vince, and now we must face it together, BUT... If a grain of wheat goes into the ground and dies, it bears much fruit.
SLIDE Renewal, or growth, or resurrection, or bearing fruit, or new life, or entering the Kingdom of God -- however you want to talk about “what’s next” for you or me Any of this starts with courageously living through the losses, failures, deaths that life brings our ways. It takes things like… BUILD Asking for help BUILD Letting people in when we are depressed and want to hide BUILD Opening ourselves to love from others when we are out of love for ourselves BUILD Saying sorry, and admitting we said something to hurt someone BUILD Owning our mistakes, our impacts on others
These are not the kind of tips or tricks you’d read about in most self-help books… Ironically, I’ll quote a self-help book to make this point (but it’s a very good one!) Stephen Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People talked about the difference between self-help that focuses on surface level personality and self-help that focuses on deep character. Personality focus doesn’t get us very far because its ceiling is just tips and tricks that we might pull out and use from time to time but they don’t actually change who we are in any deep way So tips like: (1) use the power stance, or (2) dress for success, or (3) shake hands this way, or my favorite ones to joke about I learned from a friend here at BLV: how to sound smart in a meeting — say “let’s take a step back here”, or when someone gives a fraction or percentage, you repeat it back in the opposite form… “This is a third of our budget.” and you say “So you’re saying this is 33% of what we spend?” Those are all surface level personality focused On the other hand, says Stephen Covey, a character focus in self-help is about growing and expanding who we are at our core: our integrity, our trustworthiness, our capacity, our compassion
That’s where these sorts of suggestions live - at the deeper level of character. They are not quick fixes. They will not always maximize your success in a situation. They may even open a Pandora’s box for you. But if you courageously live them anyway, I think you will find that no such courageous choices will ever feel forgotten by God —
One way or another, God will use your courageous choices in walking through hard things to help you experience the power of renewal and resurrection and new life. Whether in the form of feeling a level of love and care from friends you never knew possible, Or in the form of some life change or personal growth or increased capacity, Or in the form of an increased ability to feel thankful or joyful, Or the unlocking of a passion to serve people in need because we ourselves were in that same need once, Or any number of things.
To end, I want to make two offers that perhaps will interest some of you.
At BLV right now, we’re turning our attention to the ways small groups this fall can help people in this community do life in connection with other people Last week, Nader, our resident Therapist and Spiritual Director, pitched one option for that (a group counseling experience he is offering), On Sep 9 and 16 we’ll have our small group fair, when you can hear about all the small group options we have to connect with others this fall - And in the spirit of what I’m talking about this morning, two of those options I’m going to tell you about right now
They are two different webinar groups I’m going to be leading Each will meet online once a month between September and Christmas You might be interested in one or both or neither… that’s cool too.
The first will be on this personal growth tool I mentioned has been so helpful to me: the Enneagram Specifically this will be designed for people who have some baseline familiarity with the Enneagram, and want to dig deeper into how it can help them in daily life and in future life planning.
The other will be on Leadership And I promise, right off the bat, if you’ve yawned your way through some work or school sponsored leadership development seminar, it will NOT be like that This is meant for anyone who, in any capacity, operates with people reporting to them — I highly recommend this if you are a supervisor or boss in your job, Or if you serve in a leadership role here at the church (or some other volunteer setting) and that role involves making asks of others, But also there are other surprising contexts in which we might find ourselves leaders — Like in our extended families, for example — I remember when at a family Christmas gathering some years back, it became clear that everyone in the room was hurting each other and talking past each other because, this year, a certain family member was out of town and they were always looked to as the leadership presence at family gatherings, so without them this family gathering exploded — If you are that person in your family, this is also for you.
I want to be clear... My goal with both of these webinars is NOT for people to just learn a bunch of good ideas (though I do think you’ll learn some)... We will not be focused on personality level tricks and tips. We will be focused on the character level. We will definitely have some topics to set up our conversations, BUT then the goal for the group is that we are getting to know the losses, deaths, and needs for rebirth each other are experiencing, And then creating space to encourage each other to live through those hard things in new courageous ways, based on what we’re discussing. My hope is that these groups will be more about accountability than about learning new things.
You can tell us if you’re interested in either of the Webinar groups on your connect card later in the service, or you’ll have the chance next month at our Community Fair Sundays.
For now, I’d love to pray for us. Would you stand with me?