This year my parents celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. Apparently, that many years of marital bliss can cause you take temporary leave of your sanity, because to mark the occasion they decided to take the entire family to Disney World. Yes, we just returned from a long weekend of standing in very long lines, usually for the privilege of standing in another line. You may already know this, because based on the number of people who were there, I am thinking you had to be there too!
A trip to Disney is a fascinating experience, and for lots of reasons. For one thing, they are committed to a high level of excellence. The technology, the customer service, and the upkeep of the various parks is truly second to none. We in the church could learn a thing or two from Walt Disney about how to do hospitality and how to put our best foot forward. But the thing that has always fascinated me the most about Disney is that none of it is real. Every day of the year people line up by the tens of thousands to hand over huge sums of money to go stand in the hot sun and experience something that is all based on fictional characters. A mouse, a duck, a flying elephant, whatever-the-heck-Goofy-is, and a cast of fictional princesses and their leading men – these are enough to draw people from all over the world to come share a magical moment with family and friends, even though by the end of the day everyone is broke and the kids are screaming their heads off in sheer exhaustion. Why?
The answer is pretty simple. The good folks at Disney do a masterful job of telling a story everyone wants to be part of. There are plenty of places you can go to ride roller coasters and things that spin in a circle until you are nauseated, but Disney folds it all into a grand narrative. From the moment you enter the parking lot, everything and everyone is telling you the “happily ever after” story we all want to hear. Cinderella’s prince finds her. Winnie the Pooh gets his honey. Dumbo flies. Nemo makes it back home. Aerial the mermaid gets her man and her father’s blessing. And Mickey Mouse is always smiling, no matter how hot the Florida sun is baking him inside that costume. Even for perfectly rational adults, a few hours at Disney World offers an escape into a fantasy where everything seems to always work out just fine. That is the power of a good story, even one we know isn’t real.
As I write these words, the church is well into its Lenten journey towards the cross of Good Friday. Considerably darker than what you find at any theme park, this is a story of sin and rebellion and betrayal, and ultimately of death. Far from the happy tunes pumping out of Cinderella’s castle, this story is set against the backdrop of such ominous sounds as O Sacred Head Now Wounded and Were You There When They Crucified My Lord? In this story, the main character ends up hanging from a miserable cross until the life goes out of him, and his body is set aside in a borrowed tomb. And yet, here is the remarkable thing: over the centuries, literally billions of people have found this to be the truly compelling story of this life. Countless people from all over the world have declared their loyalty to the One who hung on that cross, many of them at great personal cost. Why? Because this is the story of redemption that not even Disney can tell. No amount of human imagination or creativity could ever conceive of the idea of a God who is so desperately in love with his creation that he leaves heaven to die in place of the very Ones who are rejecting him.
It all begs a question. What story are we a part of? What is the grand narrative that ties all the various strands of our lives together and gives them ultimate meaning? The world will offer us all sorts of fictional tales to answer that question. Some of them will be obvious cases of make believe, like a talking mouse or a magical castle. (There’s no great harm in a little willful escapism!) Other tales will make it harder to tell truth from fantasy, like the tales which say we can make everything work out fine if we just earn enough or accomplish enough or conquer enough or dream enough. Meanwhile, Scripture is telling a different kind of tale. It is the story of a God who redeems us by becoming one of us and dying for us. And while we might not be able to make everything work out fine and enable everyone live happily ever after, he has the power to raise the dead.
That is a story worth being part of.