I suppose you, and the people (I know, our letters are indeed seen by more eyes than our own), are probably tired of hearing about movies. The thing is, I just can’t help it. When I watch movies or read books, pieces of their stories inevitably and loudly speak to my own. Like this past Saturday night, mom and I watched a new movie, “Resistance.” It is about a Jewish man, Marcel Mangel, who is an aspiring actor during WWII. He ends up joining the French Resistance to save orphaned Jewish children from the Nazis. Before he joins, Marcel desires to become famous as an artist. He mimes and paints. His father is a butcher, and his father was a butcher, and his father was a butcher. Marcel’s father is worried Marcel’s pursuit of art will not provide for him, so he makes Marcel work at their butcher shop as well. One night, Marcel is painting in his room. His father comes to him and asks why he so desperately wants to be an actor?
“Why do you go to the bathroom?” Marcel questions him back. His father thinks he is making fun, but Marcel is obstinate and asks him again.
“My body gives me no choice.”
Marcel nods his head, “That is my answer to your question.”
Of course, my first thought was playing soccer. Then writing. Is this my answer? Everyone is watching the Last Dance documentary on Michael Jordan and the Bulls right now (if you aren’t, I am not sure what else you could possibly be doing). We all knew how great of a competitor and basketball player MJ was before this series, but now, the episodes are unveiling to us this very answer. It seems that MJ wanted to win and be the best so badly because his body gave him no choice. He was wired this way in every sense. As Marcel’s father rightly states, as humans, we must relieve ourselves of waste. Our bodies are physically designed to do so. There is no choice. Maybe some people will consider MJ’s competitiveness and desire to be the best as merely a choice. I may have, too, before watching the documentary, but as I learn more about MJ and his basketball career, it is rather clear to me it may not be so simple as merely a choice.
Athletes often talk of eating, breathing, sleeping and living their sport. I think it is one of those phrases that has become colloquial and cliché. Like if you’re a serious athlete, this is what you do, the everyday, or if you want to be a serious athlete, this is the formula. Note, why this is such an elevated and coveted thing, though, even honorable. As humans, we all know eating, sleeping and breathing are necessary to physically survive. We physically resist death by these activities. Resisting death, or living (at a certain pitch of existence), is a coveted thing to us; in fact, we spend a lot of energy avoiding the inevitable end we all arrive at. Putting competing or playing a sport (very much a choice), on the same level as eating, breathing, sleeping or going to the bathroom (not a choice), suggests a kind of honor and elevates living from merely resisting death. Putting something before or on level with physical need for survival suggests that something is more or just as important to us. When we say we are in love with someone or something, the most honorable showing of it is putting that something or someone before our existence. We no longer organize and orient ourselves around our own being but around this other thing or person. Whether we recognize it or not, if our love is genuine, we are claiming there is another kind of death in addition to, and possibly far worse than, the physical. Namely, the death of not loving. And resisting this kind of death is much more important. Thus. there is the physical sense of living, the functioning of our bodies at a certain pitch of existence, and there is also the elevated sense of living, spiritual or purposeful, if you like.
Deeming myself quite a fierce competitor and serious athlete, I take pride in the endless hours of energy I put into my craft, but still, I am not solely organized around soccer. I love it, but it also shares time with other loves, and it is not to be confused with my purpose. Soccer manifests it. Eating, breathing, sleeping and living a sport is the everyday desire, and it is the formula for being the best, but very few, if any, I would say make the desire a physical reality. Let the physical and the purposeful life unite to become almost seemingly one thing. It seems this is most nearly what MJ did. Competing to be the best for him was most nearly a must. Just as going to the bathroom.
Winning may seem a far cry from an honorable purpose such as loving, but I think it still holds up the truth a desire can be more than a desire. Purpose can be as real as physical need and very much intertwined with it. MJ may have had more desire to be the best than any other basketball player, but if he didn’t have the body he had, the innate athleticism, he would not have been the best. The coming together of the two, desire and physical ability, to the point of becoming one thing, made Michael the best. Like his body was completely attune to the purpose of winning and being the best. It was on board. Not even on a human level, some would say.
I am not trying to be the next MJ in soccer or writing. I cannot be, and this is the point. I think, hopefully, we have at least landed at there being the possibility of something more important to us as humans than resisting physical death. This is the honorable or elevated life. Living purposefully, or spiritually, I would say. For something as seemingly trivial as basketball or acting can be just as important and necessary to someone as going to the bathroom. The union of purpose and physical design.
Basketball or soccer or acting just happen to be the way purpose manifests itself. When we receive a gift, the giver usually intends we use it to do something we may not ordinarily be able to do. Basketball and acting may not be necessary on their own just as a gift is not necessary. We can get along without it. However, when these gifts are infused with purpose and united with our design, they become quite like breathing.
I think this may be what the Apostles experience in Acts. They were all MJs of the faith. After the death and Resurrection of Jesus, its almost as if they had no choice to preach the Gospel. They were so completely and thoroughly aligned with their purpose, to spread the Word of God and testify of Jesus, they could not, not do it, even in the face of the threat of physical death. They truly lived, breathed, ate and slept the Gospel because not doing so was a worse kind of death than the physical shutting down of their bodies. They lived well and purposefully, precisely because something mattered more to them than dying. They were very near death, all the time, due to the message they were spreading and the current climate of persecution. The threats didn’t sway them. Their physical need of surviving had been transformed from deterring them in their purpose to aiding them. Dying well by living well. Living well to die well.
In the movie Tolkien, the coming about of our beloved J.R.R. Tolkien is unveiled. Tolkien and three of his closest friends form a group and call themselves the “Tea Club, Barrovian Society, T.C.B.S for short. They are “a quartet of artists and would-be world changers” [Reel World Theology]. The boys adopted a battle cry to bolster and stay true to their purpose as world-changers. “Hel” in Norse myth is both the place awaiting those who die dishonorably, “ignoble death,” and name of the god who rules it. Hel or Helheimr, then, is the battle cry serving as a reminder ignoble death “could be avoided by dying in battle or performing some other final, honorable act” [Reel World Theology].
I am not sure the Apostles were using this Norse myth battle cry to bring them courage in their efforts of proclaiming the Gospel, but the reminder that the life worth living is one lived for something was quite fresh to them in the Resurrection of Jesus. They had organized their whole lives around their Lord and Savior and were utterly convinced an eternity of dishonor and disgrace awaits those who do not. They had no choice but to proclaim what they knew.
World-changing and evangelization seem like big things. Tasks for the well-equipped and knowledgeable. Tolkien and the boys in the T.C.B.S were first artists before being called to serve in WWI. It was through the arts they were going to be world-changers before the desolation of The Great War claimed two of their lives. Determined, still, to be world-changers as soldiers, they died honorably and stayed true to their promise of Helheimr.
The battleground of a war or the very real threat of death from persecution are quite obvious circumstances for the cry of honorable death. Though most of us may not find ourselves in these places, I believe there is a longing somewhere in all of us to shout Helheimr in the cruxes, even the joys, of our lives. Poet Walt Whitman’s version of this is “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world,” and there is an amazing scene in Dead Poet’s Society depicting the power of this barbaric yawp to free ourselves from the lie of worthlessness. Interestingly enough, the name of the master deity, Odin, in Viking mythology not only means “fury” but also “poetry” [Reel World Theology]. Honor easily finds its place in fighting and possibly dying in battle, but poetry? What is honorable about the arts? About basketball? Or in any non-threatening space for that matter? How do we live honorable and elevated and purposeful lives when there is no foreseeable enemy breathing down our necks, no threat to prompt the bringing out of the cry of Helheimr or a barbaric yawp?
When I worked at Roma Sports Club, I kind of had my hands in everything. I coached soccer, coached fitness and sports performance sessions and worked at the facility. I expected coaching would bring me a ton of joy, as I always had a desire to coach. I got a little taste of it being a graduate assistant in Texas with TCU and my girls’ team. Coaching my U10 boys was way more challenging than I thought it would be going in. A Helhiemr before practices those first two weeks would have been rather helpful. I truly didn’t know how it was going to turn out, but I ended up loving those boys like my own sons.
Still, the biggest surprise came from working at the facility. I remember one weekend we had soccer games going on all day. Our staff responsibilities were keeping things clean, of course. Emptying trash cans, sweeping, replacing toilet paper in the bathrooms, wiping down tables, etc. At the end of a long Saturday, after sweeping up popcorn just to sweep up some more afterwards and more again after that, finally, all the games were finished. It was just me and one of our other staff members left at the facility. He was off taking care of some other things before we could close, and I was sweeping up the end of the popcorn, at last, in the bleacher area by the turf field. It was quiet, and I remember feeling so content. Like if sweeping up popcorn and emptying trash bags was my lot and what I did the rest of my life, I could find joy and honor in it. Not because I was at war with people dropping their popcorn constantly or desired so badly to clean but because I had something to do it for. I loved this place. I loved the people I worked with. I could live purposefully by organizing myself around this kind of Love and find honor in something so simple as cleaning floors. This could be my small way of world changing. God can surely use sweeping for His goodness just as He can use fighting valiantly in war.
I hope I have done well enough to explain this is not some nice sentiment to uplift the very much less than MJs of the world. Covid has turned our heads back to the honor and joy found in small things. Our frontline soldiers are civilians, neighbors, and volunteers. These roles have always allowed people to be world-changers if they wanted to be, and now, we see they truly can be. Living purposefully and elevated and honorably is always available to us. Regardless of however this purpose manifests itself, still, it compels us. Physical death loses its sting, for losing purpose is a much worse kind of death. Fear and difficulty are still certain to try to turn our gaze, but it no use. We have already organized ourselves around something or Someone who has placed Himself at our center. We do what we do out of a Love our very bodies recognize and follow. For it has been woven into our physical design. We are ready to cry Helheimr and sound our barbaric yawp in defense and joy of this Love. It gives us no choice.