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A RECAP FROM MY LAST POST: Remember Walt Kowalski (from the movie Gran Torino)? Walt is living a lonely, isolated life in a world that looks so different from his past. He’s turned himself into a gruff, crude, angry old man who pushes everyone away. His defense mechanisms (his ego defenses) are so strong that he’s placed himself on a trajectory toward a lonely, painful ending. His only legacy will be the perfectly kept, spotless car from his past – a Gran Torino – which has come to symbolize the way he wished life still was – something good from the past he religiously hangs on to.
Is there any hope for a man like Walt Kowalski? Is the Gran Torino all there is? Here-in lies the power of this contemporary story, especially in light of this Season’s theme of death and resurrection. There are two spiritual traditions centering on two powerful stories that both Jews and Christians celebrate this time of year. Both stories have a lot to say about the important dynamics of spiritual growth and transformation. Both center around the experiences of death and resurrection.
Notice THE STORY OF THE JEWISH PASSOVER. There’s an existence of bondage and slavery in the foreign land of Egypt (with an accompanying loss of a sense of true identity and purpose) – there’s weeping and wailing and death and status quo and survival. The people have gotten use to living with a certain frame of mind (with strongly developed defense mechanisms) and a corresponding way of life – victims, hopelessness, death – as the chart in my last post shows, fear-anger-shame. Then there’s an appeal by Moses on behalf of their God to exit this life of slavery and bondage and enter their true Life (a life promised by God that will be lived out in the Promised Land). And God will provide a way of escape. How? They must choose to trust in this Life-giving, Nourishing God by spreading the blood of a killed lamb over the doorposts so the angel of judgment on the Egyptian slave empire will “pass over” their homes; then they must leave their homes and follow Moses out of the country; then they must willingly escape across the Red Sea (once God divides it) in the face of the enemy army to “pass over” to the other side away from their land of bondage and into their resurrected new life.
Notice the process: God promises – they choose to trust – they follow specific directions – they walk away from their old life – they go into the unknown, face pain and danger – and they finally choose to keep going, all the while learning about their reclaimed Identity, until they arrive at their New Life (the Promised Land) where they can finally live in complete alignment with their God-given identity. Cross – Resurrection. All along the way, their egos are dying on the cross as they follow God and God provides what they need to make intentional choices. And the result is a resurrection to their New Life. The point is, you can’t have a resurrection to a new life without also choosing to leave something else behind.
NOTICE THE STORY OF THE CHRISTIAN EASTER. In this Christian story, the Way of Jesus is all about the confidence with which he lived his life all the way to the end. In spite of all the voices trying to tell him who he was, who he should be, whom he shouldn’t be, he developed a powerful security in his identity as God’s beloved son. Only a really secure person can serve so unselfishly and compassionately and courageously. Right? That’s why the Gospel of John (chapter 13), when it describes Jesus in the upper room the night of his betrayal celebrating the Jewish Passover service, says about Jesus, “And Jesus, knowing who he was, where he had come from, and where he was going, took off his outer garment, took the servant’s pitcher of water and a towel, and washed his disciples’ feet.”
Only a really centered person, who has learned to move from a small-s “self” to capital-S Self, who has learned who he truly is, who God has called him to be, can face the powerful religious and political systems of his day and oppose them for all the right reasons – in spite of their vigorous persecution and vitriolic aggression against him. Only a truly centered and secure person can deliberately break the unjust rules and boundaries of his time and proclaim a message about the Kingdom of God being a world of justice and compassion for everyone, knowing that this message, along with all of his courageous acts of love, will be dangerous and potentially life-threatening.
Here’s the way one author puts it: “The way of Jesus involves not just any kind of death, but specifically ‘taking up the cross,’ the path of confrontation with the domination system and its injustice and violence. His passion was the kingdom of God, what life would be like on earth if God were king and the rulers and systems of this world were not. It is the world that the [Hebrew] prophets dreamed of – a world of distributive justice in which everybody has enough, in which war is no more, and in which nobody need be afraid … Jesus’ passion got him killed. But God has vindicated Jesus. This is the message of Good Friday and Easter … The way of the cross leads to life in God and participation in the passion of God as known in Jesus.” Marcus Borg, Jesus, pp 291-292.
The Way of Jesus shows what can happen when a person is so centered on God and God’s passion, is so centered on God’s calling and one’s true Identity, that they are empowered to let go of every image and defense mechanism that isn’t the truth about themselves, and then live with courage and boldness to love and give no matter what and no matter who they’re confronted by.
The power of the Jesus story is how it illustrates the Way to New Life, the abundant and joyful life, the divine life that we’re designed to enjoy. Two powerful symbols that describe this Way: the Cross, and the Empty Tomb; death and resurrection; the laying down of the ego, in order to find, to reclaim the Essential Self.
It’s interesting how so many of us want the new life without the pain of the cross. We expect there to be a “silver bullet” that suddenly launches us into our true Selves without having to go through the “grave” of the ego. We are constantly tempted to project a certain image of ourselves in order to protect ourselves – so we make choices to protect that image at all costs. Instead of living out of our core truth, instead of having the courage to be who we really are, to live in alignment with who God has created and called us to be.
BACK TO “GRAN TORINO”
So how does this way of the cross and resurrection, this sacred portal and thin place, get lived out by Walt Kowalski in the movie “Gran Torino?” What happens with the central metaphor of his prized and perfect Gran Torino, that symbol of escape from the real world into his safe, secure, predictable fantasy world?
Walt has spent multiple decades shining and polishing and nurturing his Gran Torino – he has invested himself in this car because it has come to represent the way he wished life still were. That car has become his ego defense mechanism and he continues massaging it, hoping for a better world.
But haven’t you noticed that often the very things we do to get what we’re really looking for are the very things that keep us from getting it? Walt’s anger, shame, and fear – and the ways he lives those feelings out – are not helping him get what he’s really seeking – autonomy, security, and positive attention. His Gran Torino is a powerful symbol of misguided focus.
Until that prized Gran Torino one night almost gets stolen by who Walt thinks is one of the local gang members – and then finds out that it’s his next door neighbor’s teenage son. Which then catapults Walt kicking and screaming into the whole life of this Asian family who has been to him up to now a foreign enemy. As they respond in humility and kindness and graciousness, mortified over the shame from their boy’s actions, Walt begins to get to know them. In ever so slight ways, he lets his guard down and his heart opens up to this new world around him. He ultimately begins trying to mentor this boy who has no father at home, bringing him into his world as well as going into the boy’s and his sister’s world. Walt begins to see that there’s another way to look at and experience life in this new reality – that there are people who can see him for who he really is – who accept his grumpiness and crudeness as just an exterior he’s gotten use to using that in truth masks a gentle and kind heart, a grandfather’s heart.
Their love and kindness pursue him in spite of his angry attempts to deflect them. Love wears him down. And what he begins to feel, he begins to like. What he sees of himself when he looks through their eyes, he begins to like. He finally finds his true Self evidenced by his final act of selfless giving. True to what Jesus once said, “The one who gives up his life for my sake will find it.”
In the end, Walt’s Gran Torino, the very symbol of his insecurity, becomes a symbol of his resurrected life. He gives this prized car to this Laotian boy – the very boy who tried to steal it now gets to use it and then ultimately own it. Walt has gone through the cross of letting his ego be transcended by his truer Self and has experienced a resurrection of love, compassion and kindness. The very Gran Torino he hung on to as his old way of survival and security becomes transformed into a symbol of his expanded life – a sacred portal, a thin place.
QUESTIONS: So where might you see yourself in Walt Kowalski’s story? What are your ego defenses – how do you tend to respond when you don’t get your way or when you feel threatened? What is your Gran Torino that you’re using to protect your ego? What do you tend to hang on to that symbolizes your desire for security, autonomy, attention? Where in your life do you need the resurrection of your true Self? What does the cross look like for you – where does your ego need to die so that your truest Self can be resurrected?