Harry Potter Life Lesson #4 – Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost – Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Columbia, SC

In the late summer of 2007, the biggest question in the first world was: “Does Harry Potter die at the end of the series???”  We flooded to bookstores, we stayed up till all hours, we drank in the last installment of the now-legendary series by J.K. Rowling.

I won’t spoil the ending for you in case you haven’t read it yet, but I will say: it’s something like Jesus.  As the last book opens, they are frightening times in the wizarding world; things have gotten out of control since the dark lord came back to power.  Wizards, you see, live alongside non-magical people, and the world of magic, though it usually doesn’t encroach upon “normal” life, has started to spill over.  Catastrophes, tragedies, and strange occurrences are taking over England; people are getting scared.  Throughout the last book, the tension mounts—how is evil ever going to be destroyed?  The forces of darkness have grown powerful—you know, they feed on fear—and the good forces have been picked off one-by-one, leaving fewer and fewer of the faithful left to fight.  It is starting to look very much like evil is in control, like evil is the owner of the world.

The dark lord—that is, the head wizard of evil magic, whose name is Voldemort—has very carefully built his kingdom.  He has defended himself on every side; he has informants within all the structures of government and bureaucracy, in the schools, and even within the inner circle of the good wizard society.  Voldemort, this dark wizard, knows that fear is very powerful, and feeding on the fear of others provides energy for his movement.  How can a good wizard, who has vowed not to use those spells which cause death, stand against the ever-more-powerful forces of evil and darkness?

Voldemort built his kingdom on the power of fear and death.   He gained power by killing others through the use of violent spells and instilling fear in the hearts of those who witnessed and heard about his actions.

A lot of our society is built to help us to focus on fear and darkness.  We have car insurance, health insurance, homeowner’s or renter’s insurance—these are all policies we buy to hedge our bets that something bad will happen to us.  Our movies are full of violence and malice, our news programs and websites are focused on tragedy and destruction.  Best-selling books are full of soul-tarnishing language and situations.  These bombarding influences are like a late summer deluge while you’re driving on the highway—they’re completely blinding, making it near impossible to imagine that there is another way.

But our epistle helps us see that there IS another way of looking at our world.  We’re challenged by the author of Hebrews to recognize and pay attention to the invisible things that are happening around us.  We know that this world we see isn’t a faithful account of everything that exists.  We know from experience that there’s more going on around us than what we can look at with our eyes—that’s part of J.K. Rowling’s point about the magical world.  It’s not so far-fetched as it seems at first glance, because each of us, if we pay attention, have been in the midst of curious, wonderful, strange interactions and situations, events that may seem like magic.  We might call them the Holy Spirit.  The way of fear and death and temptation isn’t our only option, though they’re often more easily seen than the way of hope and life that God offers to us.

When each of us had fallen into sin and death, we when let fear into our hearts, having taken our focus off of Jesus and allowed the stormy waves of life to distract us, God sent Jesus to steal us back from the evil house in which we’d been taken captive.  In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, which we will remember and celebrate in a few minutes at the altar, God offers us a way out of darkness, into the light and love of God.

Part of Jesus’ exhortation to us to “be ready” is to be trained out of fearful reactions and out of habits of darkness, and to replace these habits with attention to Jesus’ rescuing acts in the world, and the embodiment of God’s love.

This past week, I went to Trinity’s children’s choir camp at Kanuga.  During their time together there, they break bad singing habits and learn how to most excellently use their voices, as well as their whole selves, to worship God.  It’s a sort of retreat—it’s training to recognize and strengthen good habits, and to dismiss bad ones.  It’s not just singing, though; the whole program is shaped so that they’re constantly reminded that it is for God’s glory that they practice and they sing.  They’re learning how to pay attention and be ready for Jesus to rescue and reveal himself them, both by what they’re taught, and by how they pray together five or more times a day.

In moments of great evil, we fall back on our habits; will we fall back on faithfulness, or fear?

In 1942, a small village in rural France, led by their pastor, Andre Trocme, fell back on faith, and stood up to evil.  Despite the fear and darkness enveloping the world at the time, these Christians—and even non-Christian townspeople—banded together to hide, nourish, and protect almost 5000 Jews from the evil Nazi regime.  The small village hid people in private homes, on country farms, and even in plain sight, producing counterfeit ration cards and identification.  When raids of German troops would come through, the town had a system to warn the victims who would flee into the woods.  After the troops left, the villagers would take to the woods, singing a song, which was the signal of safety.

The truth is that God’s love is always stronger than any darkness or evil—we’ve seen in the death and resurrection of Jesus that God’s love is stronger than death itself.  God rescues us from sin; we don’t have to be overpowered by our temptations or by fear any longer.  Because of our relationship with God through Jesus, our mediator and our advocate, we are able to be free of fear, and we are able to choose good things and withstand temptations.

A significant part of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is built on the tension between Harry and Voldemort, as the two of them come from very similar situations.  They’re both abandoned orphans, they both have no idea that they are magical until the same wise old mentor explains it to each of them, and they both are very, very talented and powerful wizards.  One of the great questions readers are left to ponder is how Harry turned out good, while Voldemort turned out evil.

One possibility is that Voldemort chose to wallow in the loneliness of his upbringing, he decided to depend on himself alone to be his savior from tragedy, and the only tools he could use on his own strength were darkness and fear and evil.

Harry, on the other hand, realizes that life without commitment to and love for others is hardly worth living.  God created us for himself, to share his light and love and joy with us.  This is the life for which Jesus rescues us: that we might be free of fear and darkness, and to cultivate good habits of love and faithfulness, for each other, and most of all, for God. Amen.

Harry Potter Life Lesson #3

Wizards know how to party.  Did you notice that in the Harry Potter series?  A favorite cafe of mine in St. Louis boasts from its bakery case, “Treacle Tart: A Favourite of Harry Potter’s.”  Each of the seven books provided a sort of liturgy–that is to say, as reader, you knew what to expect at the outset of each new volume: we’d open with Harry away from school, then he’d go to school, then everyone would attend a feast.  Adventures abound, and then would come winter finals, and a Christmas feast.  More adventures, some stress, mounting tension over the great quest of the year, and then an Easter week feast.  A climax, a resolution, the end of the school year…

Why bother with these feasts, or with including meals at all?  On a more detailed level, where do our heroes meet before (almost) every Quidditch (a wizard sport) match?  They meet early in the Great Hall to eat.  Where do our heroes trudge before classes and between exams?  To the Great Hall.  To eat.  (TOGETHER).

For aficionados of the Harry Potter series, one of the most vivid sites at Hogwarts is that of the Great Hall, the gathering place for the community, the place where everyone eats together.  During Ron & Hermoine’s months-long fight, they still sit together and eat (in silence) at the Gryffindor table in the Great Hall.  As a sort of reset button and a moment that can be counted on, the feasts of Hogwarts (and at times, the characters’ homes and camp sites) provide a figurative space set apart.  Worries are forgotten during meals, people are most able to keep their mental demons at bay–those eating together pull each other into the present, allowing moments of enjoyment and peace in the midst of the battles against evil which creep ever closer throughout the series.

Something happens to relationships when humans eat together.  The wizards celebrated, mourned, and counted time by their meeting to eat.  We do the same thing, sometimes (not as often as we did, perhaps, in times past), but I wonder what would happen if we did it more of the time–if we recognized the power of sitting down in uncomfortable places and eating together.

It’s not a coincidence that JK Rowling included big, important meals in her series; I think she was reminding us of the power of sitting together at the same table and eating in spite of broken friendships, tragedy, or danger.  Continuing to show up at the table at the appointed time, even when you aren’t sure if your eating partners will, is a way we can be present for each other the way that God has been present to us already.

The wizards’ parties were a way to show their love and commitment to each other–it’s a celebration of their relationships–as well as a place that can offer a familiarity and safety in the midst of upsetting circumstances.  Whether you are with your loved ones at a glorious spread on fine china in a well-appointed dining room, at a diner late at night hunched over pie and coffee, or huddled around a fire outside eating something that the campfire burnt, it’s what happens in the moments you share, more than the food itself, that you remember and that encourages you–feeds you.

Harry Potter Life Lesson #2

The illusion of control.

**(no particular spoilers–if you’ve been not-living-under-a-rock the last decade, you’ll learn nothing new here to spoil the plot of the HP franchise)

As the series develops (now somewhere in the middle of book 5), the characters’ struggle to understand and submit to reality intensifies; it’s clear that Harry Potter’s Muggle (non-magical) relatives are willfully ignorant (or openly hostile) of any supernatural happenings in their lives.  Most other Muggles, too, are accustomed to a particular way of interpreting reality which shields them from any confrontation with magical, supernatural realities.  Put simply: there is nothing more to life than what meets the eye (and if there is, one promptly shuts one’s eyes).  Understandably, to be challenged with inexplicable phenomena is distressing–one hardly knows whether “up” is still “up.”  By the second half of the series, even magical humans are willfully blinding themselves to the growing reality of evil in their midst.  The truth is too disruptive to life as we know it, and the possibility of ignoring that truth is still open to us (so we take it).

We could apply this principle to so many parts of our lives–the Isaiah Women’s Bible Study has done so this year–whence comes our food and clothing, how are our brothers and sisters without jobs or homes treated, what is happening to the earth because of our lifestyle choices?  Today I want to consider a particular aspect of our social formation: our insistence that we’re in control of our lives and our destinies (and that our freedom to control ourselves is a good, desirable thing).

I’ve been noodling a movie I saw a few months ago, “Young Adult.”  In it, Charlize Theron plays a moderately successful author of a teen (young adult) book series, who returns to her hometown for a short visit and tries to reignite a romantic relationship with her high school sweetheart, who has moved on, gotten married, and recently added a baby to his happy family.  He’s bogged down with commitments–a steady job, a wife, a kid, a mortgage…  She’s fancy-free–no domestic relationships, a job that only requires a laptop and internet connection, the single life in the big city (the Mini-Apple, that is)…  Our society would have you believe that the one with all the constraints, all of life controlled for him, stuck in a stable, habitual sort of life, is the unhappy one, but as the film depicts (and as myriad surveys of physical and emotional health underline), it’s the “free” person who finds herself deeply unhappy.  Part of the problem is that she hasn’t been able to move on from being a young adult herself (like the characters in her books), but part of the problem is also that she’s made sure not to make any decisions which would threaten her freedom, tie her down, or require a commitment of her.  When we’re under the impression that everything is within our control, we are miserable, overwhelmed by freedom, and we become unhinged when out-of-control things happen in our lives.

How ever dimly, Harry Potter and other characters realize that the world is not under their control and seek to commit themselves to those people and causes and principles (and stories) which provide the sort of foundation needed to understanding the world in which they find themselves. Harry’s friendships with Ron and Hermione define who he is to those at Hogwarts, his school (just as his relationship to his mother, father, godfather, and teachers also shape what it means to be Harry Potter).  Harry’s actions, fighting evil and falling into an excess of dangerous situations, form the contours of how he is recognized and understood by others.  It is the choices that we make to give up our freedom that make us who we are–Harry is committed to his friends; they continue to eat together and study together when they are in a tiff.  Often due to circumstances beyond his control, Harry is thrust into situations where he confronts evil head-on; ruled by the story he’s been given about his early years (having survived a murder attempt as a tot), he chooses to continue to fight the evil forces of the wizarding world.

One wonders–was he really “free” to choose to fight in the first place?  “Freedom,” as exemplified by Charlize Theron’s character in “Young Adult” is the path which is easiest–the path that requires the least of you, leaves your as unfettered and unaccountable as possible.

Harry’s life has been completely shaped by events beyond his control, events which suggested a course for his life long before he was capable of choosing anything. He did choose to continue on the path that was set out for him by these early, formative events, but what propelled him on this path, what made the path “obvious” was the same thing each of us should seek in discerning our life paths–the one which leads to more life–the path toward the good, the true, and the beautiful.

Harry Potter Life Lesson

Sometimes life feels like this:

“Harry was now trying hard not to panic. According to the large clock over the arrivals board, he had 10 minutes left to get on the train to Hogwarts and he had no idea how to do it; he was stranded in the middle of the station with the trunk he could hardly lift, a pocket full of wizard money, and a large owl.”
(- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone )

You’ve found a wonderful, new life, one that makes sense of those parts of your life that didn’t before, the transition to this new life may be painful, but in a very deep way, it fits. Then, the real test comes–you have to leave your old life behind & do something that seems very strange to the inhabitants of the world from which you came. You suspect the new world and life will be ever so much more fitting and good for you than the old one, but you don’t quite know yet. Then, on the precipice, you’re suddenly left alone between these worlds, holding the strange items (actions, convictions, perspective) that draw you to this new life, laughed at by those in your old life for these strange things to which you now ascribe.

I think someone said once, “Follow me.”