Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Keep Looking "UP"

I wrote this for The Dialogue, the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, I'll post here on the blog my columns for the weekly newsletter. I mention it just so that folks who read the snail-mail version can skip this post if they choose.

In a sermon a few weeks back, I shared my thoughts about seeing the new Pixar animated film UP. I expected it would be a good film, after all it’s Pixar, the same company that brought us Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and others, but I was unprepared for the film’s powerful moral and spiritual message. My 6 year-old son, Julian, enjoyed the talking dogs and the flying house and so did I, but I was blown away by the movie’s themes of loss and renewal. (WARNING: If you haven’t seen the film, spoilers begin in the next paragraph.)

The movie’s plot centers around Carl Fredrickson, voiced by the great Ed Asner, who is an aged widower. When we meet Carl as a child, we witness his idolization of the great adventurer, Charles Muntz, who heads off to South America to prove the existence of an exotic huge bird. The young Carl meets a girl named Ellie who shares his passion for adventure and who also dreams of heading off to South America like their shared hero. The two children grow up, fall in love and life happens. We are privy to a montage of their life and love together over the decades that is poignant and wonderful. When Ellie’s death comes, we share Carl’s grief and his regret over never having travelled to South America as he and his wife always dreamed of doing together.

Life holds little for him, so the elder Carl, a retired balloon salesman, decides to head off for his long-imagined jungle paradise by inflating thousands of balloons and sailing his house to South America. Unbeknownst to him, a young scout named Russell who is looking for a merit badge in helping the elderly is unwittingly swept along for the ride. After a variety of adventures, Carl with his walker and Russell with his camping gadgets find themselves in a wondrous hidden valley in South America. There they meet Charles Muntz, the long-lost adventurer, who is embittered by past humiliations and his own form of grief. In their struggle to save an elusive and endangered jungle bird, Carl sees in the fate of his childhood hero his own potential for ending his life lonely and embittered. He ends up literally letting go of his past to save an exotic bird and his new friend Russell. Upon returning to the States, the elderly Carl devotes himself to caring for the fatherless young Russell and learning to open his heart once again.

My two paragraph summary does not do the film justice. The characters are fully developed and so is Carl’s grief. We share his struggle over choosing to hold on to what remains of his past and shutting out any future heartache versus learning to reach out to others again even though letting go of grief means letting go of a big part of what remains after a loved one has died. As a minister who often interacts with elderly widows and widowers—as well as younger ones as well—I find myself wanting to host a screening of UP for all of the grieving people I know.
What is so amazing about this film is that it does not gloss over the pain. It’s rather remarkable that an animated film could actually plumb the depths and mysteries of grief far better than a live-action film. When Carl chooses to make a new life for himself, we the viewers share his struggle but rejoice at his decision to live again. The end is anything but sappy; instead it is a powerful testimony to the gifts especially seniors have to offer to younger generations even when they feel they have nothing left to offer anyone.

I can’t count the number of times I have had conversations with elderly members of the churches I’ve served where I have struggled in vain to convince them they still matter and have gifts to share with others. I know well the humoring smiles that say, “Just wait until you’re my age and have had a few surgeries and attended a few dozen funerals. You’ll see how hopeless life can be.” There’s no doubt that I have an experience gap and cannot fully understand the grief that comes to so many later in life, but I maintain my belief that apart from the most extremely immobilized of us, we all can be used by God to share love and wisdom with others no matter our age.

If you don’t believe me, I would like to recommend a movie called UP to you.

Grace and Peace,


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