Movies Are Prayers by Josh Larsen, Free for CAPC Members
In Movies Are Prayers, Josh Larsen exemplifies how critical engagement with a film can be an act of neighbor-love.
When your kids are on a school break and you find yourself losing your mind with all their snack requests, sometimes you take them to a movie. That’s what pushed my husband and me to take all four of our young children to see Disney’s Frozen II over Thanksgiving break. I genuinely expected it to be an exercise in motherly love, running kids to and from the bathroom and making sure my 2-year-old didn’t wander off in the dark theater. I didn’t expect to need tissues.
I didn’t expect Disney’s Frozen II to draw me closer to God in the midst of depression, or to teach me about Mary, the Mother of God. But as I sat in that movie theater, with my two youngest children at my side, tears started to well up in my eyes and spill over within the first ten minutes of the film.
This fall has been a struggle for me, both as a mom and as a human. The days start early and stretch out so long, and even though this is my favorite season of the year, I find myself teetering at the edge of depression’s cliff.
There is a deep loneliness that comes with knowing you don’t exactly fit in. In the original Frozen, I saw it as the young Elsa tried to control the gift she had over water, a gift so powerful that it eventually felt like a curse. In Frozen II, as queen of Arendelle and reunited with her sister Anna, Elsa has a loving family once again. She knows that love is the answer to the questions she had about her power, and yet, her loneliness persists.In Elsa’s story, I see a path that Mary might also have taken as she learned to lean into the delicate whisper of God’s voice. In her humanity, Mary had to learn to say “yes” over and over again in the small things.
Not only is she isolated in her role as queen, she has started hearing a voice that no one else can hear. It’s troubling to her, but she decides to give it a chance to speak to her. Deep down, she feels it’s the voice of something—or someone—good. She follows it into the unknown.
I learned young that there is a loneliness that comes when you’re bigger than everyone around you. Too much. Too big. Too loud. Too opinionated. This was the message I got about myself, growing up in a conservative Bible church in the South. Southern Christian women were supposed to be small both in size and opinion, two things I would never be, no matter how hard I tried. Vain were my attempts to stuff myself into a smaller space, physically and spiritually. The bigness of both my personality and my body caused fear and shame, not unlike the bigness of Elsa’s power does for her in the first Frozen.
It was the voice of God in the wind that drew me out of that narrow view of my personhood.
I was seventeen and sitting on a bench next to the pond behind myself, trying to pray. Suddenly, my heart quickened and I got the impression that God was telling me that He liked me as a person. God enjoyed me? That delicate whisper was revolutionary to me, because I was so consumed with being perfect, i.e. smaller in body and soul. But no—God liked me! That must mean that I was not too much for God! And I began to wonder if maybe He made me this way on purpose.
The whispers continued here and there over the next several years, and I found myself drawn to women in the Scripture who didn’t try to make themselves smaller. Rebekah, Sarah, Deborah, Ruth, and ultimately, Mary of Nazareth.
The more I considered her story, the more I realized the bigness of Mary’s character and personality in light of the culture I grew up in. I come from a culture where questioning those who are in spiritual authority over you is seen as an act of defiance rather than one of faith, but Mary understood that she can question the messenger of God without lacking faith. I come from a culture where reputation is everything—especially regarding pregnancy—and yet Mary was willing to risk her life to bear the Child of God before she was stable in marriage. I come from a culture where women don’t preach and a concern for social justice is a liability, not an asset. And yet I see that Mary preached a sermon praising the God of justice in her Magnificat.
And all this makes me wonder—did Mary know the loneliness of being too much like Elsa does? Like I do? And if so, what did she do with that?
It takes Elsa a few whispers to yield and follow the voice in the wind. It makes me wonder how many times God had tried to speak His delight to me before I heard Him on that bench. How many times did Mary hear the delicate whispering voice in the wind before God sent Gabriel to her for the biggest ask of all?
Second to Jesus’ “yes” to the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night He was betrayed, the “yes” of Mary in the first chapter of Luke is the most radical “yes” that has ever been spoken. I have to believe that it wasn’t the first time she said yes to the voice of God.
Jesus tells us that we can hear His voice (John 10:4), and in the story of the talents He indicates that being faithful over small things will make us faithful in the big things. In Elsa’s journey, I see the wisdom of Jesus portrayed in front of me: she yields to the good voice and little by little learns to trust the delicate whisper, following the call of the wind, the fire, the earth, and the water to the river Ahtohollan. What would Elsa have done if in the first Frozen, Pabbi Troll told her she was the fifth spirit? How could she possibly have held the weight of that calling without casting the whole world into a frozen darkness?
In Elsa’s story, I see a path that Mary might also have taken as she learned to lean into the delicate whisper of God’s voice. In her humanity, Mary had to learn to say “yes” over and over again in the small things. It’s a learning process even for Mary, destined to be the Mother of God. Could Mary have had the same “yes” if Gabriel’s appearance was the first time God communicated with her? Obviously, I don’t know the answer to that, but I have my doubts.
All this thinking about the “progression of yes” for Elsa and for Mary leads me to the realization that if I want to get to the big, earth-changing call of God on my life, it starts with “yes” today. Even in this present darkness I find myself in right now, I hear the song of Elsa’s sister Anna urging me to just “do the next right thing.” One foot in front of the other, a progression of yeses that lead from the small things to the big ones.
The implications of these “yeses” for me might be generational reparations like come for Elsa and Anna, or the salvation of the world like Mary. Not that by myself I can save anyone, but that I am an integral part of God’s story here on earth. And learning this: that the bigness of my whole self, and all the gifts and talents God had placed in me—they weren’t in opposition to the plan of God for my life. To interpret that saying attributed to St. Iranaeus, the glory of God is Amanda fully alive; it simply isn’t my destiny to be smaller. It’s my destiny to say yes.
This path of yes might indeed be a lonely one for now. But I have met many fellow yes sojourners on my way this far. Because of the yes of Mary and the gift of the Holy Spirit, God is with me even when I feel utterly alone. And so, whether the voice of God comes in the delicate whisper of the wind or in angelic visitation, may the Holy Spirit give me the boldness to overcome being “afraid of what I’m risking if I follow” and choose to go, one foot in front of the other, into the unknown.
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