How to Train Your Dragon.
I adore Tanlged. And Finding Nemo... Toy Story 3 also. And definitely the Madagascar movies. What can I say? I’m a certified fan of magnetically sentimental, witty, colorful, and frenetically animated films of the CGI variety (only the cream of the CGI crop, that is. Antz anyone? … or not.)
So recently I watched How to Train Your Dragon with the two children whom I nanny. We saw it on the big screen as part of a summer $1 kid’s movie program. I sauntered into theater #9 and settled into my seat with my 116 ounce “medium” diet coke (do they expect that to fit into my bladder, or should I be sharing that behemoth with a family of 5?!) expecting a pleasantly entertaining 90 minutes.
90 minutes later I left soaring.
Now, to be fair, I’ve been called “super sentimental” by several friends recently. And I probably am. Well… not probably. Just am. So I’ll embrace it. I thrive on nostalgia. I throw myself wholesale into whatever story grabs my attention. That’s me. It makes me affectionate. It makes me a fairly gifted (some would say) storyteller. It makes me thoughtful. It makes me empathetic. It makes me me. If you know me well, you get this.
But apparently it also makes me live in radically vicarious ways through movies like How to Train Your Dragon. … Seriously? How to Train Your Dragon?? Shouldn’t I be tossing all of my emotional eggs into The Notebook basket instead? I am, after all, a single 24-year female with a romantic disposition. Shouldn’t I be watching Titanic and swooning for hours, then watching it all over again and crying tears of emotionally charged longing? … or something?
For the record, Titanic wasn’t my thing. And The Notebook left an off taste in my mouth… like Splenda covered jelly beans: sweet, but pointless.
No, no. Instead, I found myself swooning (if that’s the right word) over an animated movie about a skinny, outcast viking boy named Hiccup and his feisty dragon pals.
Yet not so weird, I suppose. It took some thought, but a few powerful things became clear as I attempted to sort through the surprising emotional impact of this film.
Here are my two observations:
1. It’s all about timing.
The question of which movies (or stories of any kind) impact us the most is largely dependent upon when we absorb them. Presently, I’m wrestling with some serious feelings of inadequacy, a strange loneliness, and the sense that I haven’t found my “groove” or “niche.” I’m hungry for stories about similarly situated people who find freedom and victory, people who battle their way out into spacious, secure places. That’s why Hiccup and his dragon tale drew me in. The storytelling was high quality, yes. But far more importantly, I saw myself in Hiccup. I felt for him, because I feel like him. Thus, his ultimate victory infused me with hope for my own story. Yes, I’m talking about a simple animated film. But that proves the sturdiness of the principle: no matter how simple the story, we are drawn magnetically to stories that mirror our most present and intimate struggles.
That’s why timing is key. Stories speak to us differently in different seasons of life. Our present pains color our responses to the stories we encounter. This holds true in relationships also… When we are miles away in experience from the present struggle of a friend or family member, deep empathy is hard to come by. (How difficult is it for a blissful newlywed to understand the wrenching pain of a divorce after 20-years of marriage? … It’s impossible). Spirit stirring empathy can’t be faked. Nothing can replace the soul-deep understanding of one who is walking through the same hell as you are at the same time. That’s how the surest bonds of friendship are often formed. There is nothing quite as healing as the look in the eyes of one who feels your pain as you feel it… and who says to you with the full weight of authenticity: “I understand.” In the instant that we hear those two words, we are no longer alone. We are no longer cut off, isolated in our pain. Someone is ducking under our yoke to carry it with us. And there is nothing in this world so relieving as that.
That fact makes Jesus Christ infinitely precious to our souls. If timing is the key in truly understanding and sharing each other’s pain, then no one will be able to understand us %100 of the time. Our dearest friends will encounter seasons of success while we slog through pain and failure. We will feel cut off. Abandoned. Alone. Misunderstood.
But there is One, the Lamb of God, who is intimately acquainted with our sorrows… one who was tempted in every way as we are tempted. One whose Spirit intercedes constantly for us with groanings too deep for words. One who bore in His body our every reproach, our every pain, our every lust, jealousy, resentment, rejection, abandonment, rage, and depression. He always understands.
He understands the searing stab of betrayal that cuts to the heart of a wife whose husband has been unfaithful. He understands the terrifying sense of rejection that a 5-year old faces when daddy abandons him forever. He understands the shattered heart of the 17-year old girl who wakes up to realize she’s lost her virginity to a boy who used and discarded her like a plaything.
The timing is always right with Jesus. Always. No struggle we face leaves him combing his hands through His hair grasping for answers He doesn’t have.
No. He looks at us with fiery tenderness and fierce devotion burning in His eyes, His passion mingled with tears of love, and He says, “I understand.”
He never calls our pain dumb or inconsequential. He doesn’t compare us to anyone else. He doesn’t point to the orphans in Africa who “have it so much worse.” He simply ducks down, slips His shoulders under our yoke, and says to us “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matt 11:28-30).
… Yes, a film about a boy and his dragon stirred all these thoughts in me. I’m telling you, timing is everything. The smallest spark of a story can set off fireworks of deep emotional connection within us if that story meets us at just the right moment… the moment when the story and our most present struggles converge seamlessly.
2. Why fear?
I haven’t forgotten my little “fear of God” study (see previous post), and How to Train Your Dragon roused some new revelations on the subject. The film doesn’t acknowledge God, so there’s no blatancy in the revelations… But, I found myself stirred by it’s underlying theme of the power of fear… and the surpassing power of fearlessness.
In the movie, a remote Viking village is relentlessly terrorized by hoards of dragons. The identity of the town (and it’s hefty people) is founded on this continuing battle against the winged reptiles. Dragon slaying vikings are worshiped and adored. Children are trained rigorously in the art of dragon slaying. The town lives and breathes and talks dragon slaying. This obsession springs from a deep-seeded fear of dragons… fear gives rise to protective hostility… and hostility hardens into full-blown enmity. They hate what they fear.
But Hiccup is different. This boy (with more than a little trembling) innocently engages the most dangerous of all the dragons. He has an openness, an untainted curiosity, and a tender sort of boldness that cause him to dig through the fears of his people and emerge on the other side of them, into a whole new realm of understanding and freedom. His willingness to engage with his fears, to look them in the face and see them for what they are (smoke and mirrors), ultimately sets his people (as well as the dragons) free from the tyranny of hatred and hostility.
How does this connect with fear in relation to God? I see it this way… Just like the viking dragon slayers, our fears come to define us, to dictate our core identity. We fear abandonment, so we live emotionally closed off lives, with tough/proud exteriors. We fear rejection so we cling obsessively to whatever thing, person, or lifestyle gives us a sense of belonging. We fear failure so we make excuses for our safe and stagnant lives, our unresolved struggles, and our untapped potential. We fear disappointment, so we bail on everyone and everything before we’re let down.
Fear confines us, strangles our liberty, and hardens our hearts against hope.
But there is a different kind of fear. A radically different kind. It resembles the fear that Hiccup embraced in the film… a trembling fear that accompanies the dive into boldness, into courage, and into love. That sort of fear is beautiful. It does not confine or harden us, but rather liberates and energizes us. It’s the adrenaline and the tremble that propel us when we step into the unknown, clinging with an open heart to hope… to love.
That is what the fear of the Lord looks like. It’s a Spirit-infused adrenaline and tremble that propel us past our dark fears, past our restricting fears, into an unknown future that we cannot fully understand or control… an unknown that has one vital constant: He is with us. He is in us. He is for us.
He who composed the symphony of the universe, who cups it’s boundaries in the palm of His hand… He. lives. in. us.
Doesn’t that leave you with a tremble?
The fear of the Lord is the sweet marriage of our our absolute powerlessness and depravity in the hands of a thunderously righteous God… and His relentlessly tender passion to woo us to Himself.
We come face to face with our inadequacy. With our insecurity. With our fundamental neediness. And instead of running away in shame or pride, instead of hiding behind a thousand other fears, we sprint towards Him… towards the One whose glory would knock us dead if our eyes beheld it. Our cavernous need meets His inexhaustible wellspring. And we tremble with awe and joy that He would delight, does delight, in pulling us close.
This is the fear of the Lord. It is vulnerable. It is raw. It feels deeply, it weeps, it rejoices, it risks, and it loves at all costs. It lives with a constant tremble, a sweet awe, and drop-you-to-your-knees sort of amazement at it’s Beloved God.
When that is the “fear” that defines us, we will be divinely empowered to face our lesser fears, dig through them, and emerge on the other side of them ringing the liberty bell. And like Hiccup, we will lead those around us into liberty too.
But, to ring that bell… we must dive into the unknown, release control, embrace the tremble of our powerlessness (and of His power in us), and shrug off what the world around us demands that we fear… We must take the plunge with these words in hand: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us” (Romans 8:35-37).
What is there to fear? … Nothing but the God who transforms our sacred fear into rapturous liberty.
So embrace the paradox: Live fearlessly… gripped and consumed by the liberating fear of the Lord.
All that from a simple animated film 90 minutes in length.
Thank you, How to Train Your Dragon, for being so much more than a movie. I’m pretty sure Titanic and The Notebook got nothing on you.