Under the Rainbow (Tenth in Sermon Series, “From the Jonah Tale to Jesus’ Tales and from Hansel to Harry Potter: Celebrating the Power of Fiction, Sacred and Secular, to Convery Life-Changing Truths”)

 

 

I.
“The Wizard of Oz” was the favorite film and for that matter the favorite story of my childhood.  Unfortunately, it only came on television once a year. There were no film rental agencies in those days so anybody who wanted to see the movie version of L. Frank Baum’s brilliant tale, which was actually a cover for some rather heavy handed social and political commentary, had to wait for its annual showing on 1 of the 3 television networks.
My family went to church every Sunday morning and Sunday evening.  My father and mother tolerated no excuses for blowing off church–morning or evening. When I played sick, thinking and hoping the rest of the family would go on to church and get out of my hair so I could watch my show, they would play right along with my alleged sickness.  Mom would say that  since I was so very sick she just couldn’t live with herself if she were to leave my side.  She would stay at home with me, and of course she prevented me from watching television since I was so sick and, she insisted, needed my rest.  As a result of a no absence policy when it came to church, I only got to see Judy Garland and friends three or four times until I was a college student who could watch Sunday evening television if he wanted–even though my fellow holier than thous at our small Baptist college frowned on anyone who stayed in the dorm for either homework or television instead of going to church.  I didn’t miss many Sunday evening services even before I was appointed to a church staff as a minister of youth, but if “The Wizard of Oz” were coming on, frowns or no frowns from the hyper-religious Carson-Newmanites, I was in the t.v. lounge watching that amazing film.
The author’s, L. Frank Baum’s, political commentary is not our concern today. We are only looking at the surface story, which in and of itself is a wonderful thing, with lessons aplenty for both children and adults.
If you don’t know the story I will summarize very briefly. A young lady who thinks that she has a really rough time at home, not to mention how boring home is, longs and longs and dreams and dreams of a better place.  She becomes convinced, based on something she remembers from a lullaby sung to her as a little one, that there is this better place over there somewhere. Perhaps the birds convinced her that it was up there because they always seemed so happy to her and often flew far out of sight.  Maybe when they were out of the sight of human beings they were in that special place where everything went well for everyone and everything.  This gives Judy Garland, playing the girl, Dorothy, the opportunity to sing one of her most famous recorded songs, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” It was such a beautifully sung song with such an inspiring, hopeful message that it was nearly impossible not to join Dorothy in believing that there was a better place, somewhere far away from all that frustrated and confused and bored us.

Somewhere over the rainbow
Way up high,
There’s a land that I heard of
Once in a lullaby.
Somewhere over the rainbow
Skies are blue,
And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true.

Someday I’ll wish upon a star
And wake up where the clouds are far
Behind me.
Where troubles melt like lemon drops
Away above the chimney tops
That’s where you’ll find me.

Somewhere over the rainbow
Bluebirds fly.
Birds fly over the rainbow.
Why then, oh why can’t I?

If happy little bluebirds fly
Beyond the rainbow
Why, oh why can’t I?

Dorothy unfortunately gets hit on the head by some flying debris during a severe windstorm, and while she is knocked out she visits by way of vision her beautiful place over the rainbow. And that is where most of the story is set, in a place that she perceives to be beautiful, perfect, ideal, and all the rest.  She meets numerous others  dissatisfied with where they find themselves in life, and they decide to join her in seeking something better
There’s a lion who lacks courage.  There is a tin man who obviously lacks a heart, and there’s a scarecrow who is missing a  brain. They are led to believe that if they make their way to the great land of Oz and somehow find a way to make their requests known to the mighty Oz himself, something frankly few are able to  do, they have a shot at having their wishes granted. Sadly, the great Oz is a fake though he pretends to be all powerful so that after scaring them he may be able to help people feel better about themselves and their plights.
So Dorothy comes to find out that even her supposedly perfect place has its flaws, and in the end there’s no place like home so she yearns to be back at home surrounded by the people who love her.  When she comes to, after the effects from the blow to her head subside, that’s exactly where she is.
A tough lesson for Dorothy and many of us to have to learn, especially those of us who think that there is a place better than where we are living.  Maybe in some cases there is a much better way we can enjoy life if we are willing to change geographical locations; however, the bottom line is most of us find out if we try to make a move for a better life because we’re dissatisfied with how things are where we are that pretty much life becomes where we move the way it was where we left, and the moral of the story is that most of us live most of our lives under the rainbow.

II.
The function of the rainbow in the Noah story is to remind God that God will never destroy the Earth or the human race again by flood.  It is not to say that some other means of destruction will go unused by God, but God makes this covenant with humanity, with Noah as a representative of the humans who will hopefully be born in the re-population process, that there will be no more mass destruction of human beings, animals, parts of the earth itself by means of a flood. And so after a hard rain when the rainbow comes out God is reminded that causing another flood is a no-no. Well, I have to tell you, that makes me a little nervous. Why should God need a reminder not to do such a horrible thing?
Part of the answer to the question is another question:  why did God do such a horrible thing to begin with? Well, the way the story is told in the book of Genesis God wiped out humanity and much of the created order itself because God was so disgusted with the way humans had turned out that something had to be  done.  They were so much less than what God had wished them to be; they were disobedient, and they did not take pride in caring for the beautiful earth made for them so God simply says, “Let’s destroy them all and keep just enough to get things started again;  we’ll have to try this part a second time.”
It’s a gruesome story, really, but we can say that the rainbow softens the God otherwise portrayed as easy to enrage.  Even those who take the Bible, and this part in particular, literally, can breath a little more easily now.  At least, life under the rainbow will be free from one serious threat:  a destructive flood.
It would be nice, wouldn’t it, to have all the low points and potential low points removed entirely from the picture, wouldn’t it?  I think it would, and I don’t connect at all with those who say, “If you had no pain, you couldn’t understand pleasure.”  Uhm, ok.  So, for me I’ll happily accept a minimized understanding of and experience of pleasure in exchange for a no pain zone.
“The Wiz” is an adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz” intended to help people understand the African American experience.  There was a film, and there was a play.  In the film, Michael Jackson played the scarecrow.  In the film and stage versions, the Wicked Witch of the West of all people, played by Mabel King in both cases, is complaining about bad news and warning those around her not to bring her any of that:

When you’re talking to me
Don’t be cryin’ the blues
‘Cause don’t nobody bring me no bad news
You can verbalize and vocalize
But just bring me the clues
But don’t nobody bring me no bad news

Bring some message in your head
Or in something you can’t lose
But don’t you ever bring me no bad news
If you’re gonna bring me something
Bring me, something I can use
But don’t you bring me no bad news

The ancient Hebrew stories about the creation of the world pictured it, as per God’s intent, as a place without pain of any kind.  God was a lot nicer then; evidently, as the Hebrews saw it, God became jaded over the years because of the lack of appreciation on the part of humans for what God had done for them.  Sadly, God turns really mean most of the time.  That, of course, isn’t an accurate portrayal of God at any point in time.  From beginning to end, God, the alpha and the omega, is love.  Life has its hard times, but God is not the cause of those…ever.
The ancient Hebrews said that prophets who try to tell you life is nothing but sugar and spice and everything nice are false prophets.  If they cry out, “Peace!  Peace!”, when there is no peace, then none of their messages are to be heeded because they are either liars or people outside the realm of reality somehow.
One of the most damaging things the church can do and has done is to tell people who are in pain that their pain isn’t real or that they shouldn’t be feeling the pain.  That is hogwash.  The person of faith is not happy at all times.  I like what Samuel Taylor Coleridge says about happiness:   “The happiness of life is made up of minute fractions– the little, soon-forgotten charities of a kiss or smile, a kind look, a heart-felt compliment, and the countless infinitesimals of pleasurable and genial feeling.”
Constant happiness isn’t the result of having the right kind of faith, whatever that would be.  On the other hand, we, hopefully, would not let the tough and sad turns that life has thrown our way cause us to put a moratorium on happiness as if to brace for the unknown unhappiness bound to hit us sooner or later.  That’s a horrible way to live, though I’ve certainly known enough people who can’t seem to catch a break, as we say.  Something is always going wrong at some level.  Someone struggling with just this kind of thing said to me once, “Life has become for me a waiting game.  I live expecting the next shoe to drop at any moment.”  Such a sad way to live, but we can understand why someone bombarded with hurtful complications could end up at just this place.

Sometimes when it’s light
And you can’t see,
Sometimes when this world
Seems to be so cold
Sometimes when you’re lost at sea
Drowning in your pain
Sometimes the sun shines
Through the rain (Thomas Carl Keifer).

III.
There is no place where troubles melt like lemon drops–down here, anyway. Here under the rainbow most of us must deal with a combination of challenges and sadness mixed in with the blessings and gifts and joys and  opportunities.  Most of us live in the mix of good and bad, the simple challenges and heavy duty challenges.  We try to make the most of every opportunity that comes our way in life, and we hope that when the great tally is taken there will be more good than bad, not to please God or anyone else but so that the true enjoyment of life will have beaten out the distractions and the negativity.
In Alice Walker’s brilliant The Color Purple, several of the female characters are victims of domestic abuse. Their husbands beat them when they do something that is displeasing to the husbands. Along comes Sophia played in the film version by Oprah Winfrey who upsets the apple cart by making it known that she will not under any circumstances put up with being hit by her husband, Harpo.  She says she will kill him dead before she puts up with that kind of nonsense. Fortunately, their love for each other prevailed. He stopped hitting her, and she didn’t have to kill him dead. However, before  the resolution to their difficulty her husband, Harpo, goes to his step-mother, Celie, and asks what he should do with Sophia who will not do what he tells her to do.  Celie, herself a victim of serious physical abuse at the hands of her husband, shocks the reader or viewer of the film or stage play when she says to Harpo, the way you have to deal with Sophia in order to make her do what you want her to do since you’re the husband is to beat her.
Celie and Sophia are friends, and Sophia goes directly to Celie to protest the advice Celie gave to Harpo.  Sophia can’t believe Cellie would have said such a thing.  Celie attempts a mild defense, essentially saying that a wife has to do what her husband demands.  Besides, Celie goes on, this life will soon be over, and then you will have an eternity not to worry about being beaten by Harpo or anybody else. Sophia responds by saying I think you need to rethink.  I think you need to bash your husband’s head in and think on heaven later!
There have been whole groups of people who have lived out their entire earthly lives coping with the hardships of this world by focusing as much as they possibly could on that magic place over the rainbow.  We can understand it for some of these people; having that perfect place to think about was survival.  Others  knew better or at least their leaders knew better and still used this image of the perfect place somewhere else as a means of controlling their followers.  An explanation of the core of their various messages to their followers would be simply this:  if you don’t do what I tell you to do you will not end up in the good place–not now and not in eternity; instead of finally ending up over the rainbow you will end up in some place of eternal punishment.
Of the trouble most people have to endure, the majority comes to them not because they’ve done something wrong, but because of something over which they have absolutely no control.  Neither morality nor the subject of divine rewards and punishments should even come into conversations related to such troubles.  It’s wasted breath as Jesus demonstrated when his disciples wanted to use a real human being, blind from birth, as the foundation for discussing the relationship of suffering to sinfulness.  Of this blind man, one of the disciples whispers, we hope he whispered!, “Man, what kind of serious sin do you or your ancestors have to commit to be hit by such a humdinger of a divine punishment?”
In the disciple’s defense, that was the prevailing perspective on the subject; nonetheless, Jesus shut him up in no time flat and said, “There was no sin involved at all.  The only thing you need to talk about is how he suffers and if there are any possible cures of any kind.”
Rob Sheffield is a journalist who had this to say about how some people try to cope with the rough patches here under the rainbow:
“We’ve all heard people say, ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ Even people who say this must realize that the exact opposite is true. What doesn’t kill you maims you, cripples you, leaves you weak, makes you whiny and full of yourself at the same time. The more pain, the more pompous you get. Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you incredibly annoying.”
I don’t know who said this, but I like it:  “Life is about laughing and living in good and bad times, getting through whatever comes our way, and looking back with a smile.”   Neither do I know who said this, but I also like it:  “Life is like a roller coaster.  It has its ups and downs, but you have to decide whether to scream or enjoy the ride.”
I had the privilege last night of having dinner with one of my fairly recent former seminary students.  Those of you who know me know it had to be something really special to get me away from my sermon polishing on a Saturday evening.  I rarely leave my home on Saturday evenings, but this former student is special; and seeing him is rare so there I was.  He presently lives in Canada where he’s seeking his first post-seminary ministry opportunity.  He’s immensely talented as a preacher, and in other areas of ministry as well.  He’s a newlywed, right at the one year mark.  I asked him how marriage was going for him, and he said that he was surprised at the tough moments they had to deal with during year one; so much in love, and being such a positive person himself, he expected little or no tough times.  As I would have predicted, they pulled through with a serious, verifiable growing love.
Dorothy awakens on her bed, surrounded by all the people who love her most, some of the very ones who were getting on her nerves so badly that she thought escaping them would be ideal.  She’s clearly back under the rainbow now, and she realizes how much she loves those around her.  In the vision she had while knocked out, she dreamed after being away for awhile of getting back home, and she heard herself saying, “There’s no place like home.  There’s no place like home.”
As the film ends, Dorothy is home.  For the author, Frank Baum, “home” is a metaphor for life under the rainbow.  Everydayness for all of us, I suppose.  For most of us:  some good; some bad; some boring.  A place of comfort when injured.  A circle in which love is real and unconditional for the lucky ones under the rainbow.

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