Advent Movie Series: Elf – 2 John 1:12
2 John 1:12
Although I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink; instead I hope to come to you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete.
The Second Letter of John is one of the shortest works collected in the Bible. Not much is known about its context, save for the fact that it is a letter written by a leader of one faith community addressed to the leader of another faith community. It is a letter of encouragement to the community to continue to prioritize truth and love, and act accordingly.
At the conclusion of the letter the author indicates that joy can reach “completion” or fulfillment only in face-to-face relationship.
I can think of many recent encounters with this truth. The first is when Lindsey and I went to Guatemala. There I was able to reconnect with a close friend and his family. We’ve stayed in touch as they’ve traveled the world, serving in the State Department, but this was the first time in a long time we were able to be together in the same place. There was a level of joy in spending time together that cannot be duplicated electronically.
Also, there was my encounter while at a conference in Nashville, TN a couple weeks ago. I was awake early and headed to a coffee shop. After ordering I found myself standing next to Olympic figure skater Scott Hamilton. I leaned over and told him how much he meant to me because we had both grown up in the same city – Bowling Green, Ohio – and I grew up thinking of him as a role model and hero. Much to my surprise, his face lit up when I told him I was from Bowling Green. We ended up having what I would consider to be a nice conversation. The chance encounter and five-minute face-to-face relationship indeed filled me with a sense of joy that I would have missed out on had I not awoken early that morning and decided to explore the city.
Joy is made complete when we come together and talk face to face.
In a way, this is the message at the heart of the Christmas film, Elf. For those of you who are not familiar with this movie, here’s a synopsis:
A human baby accidentally ends up in the North Pole. Santa's most trusted helper took the boy under his wing and raised him as an elf. But when he matured, and grew over 6 feet tall, it became clear that Buddy would never quite fit in the elf world. Told the truth about his real father, Buddy sets off for New York City to find him. Buddy soon learns that life in the big city isn't all sugar plums and candy canes. Everyone in New York seems to have forgotten the true meaning of Christmas, especially his father. And it's up to Buddy to save Christmas.
Elf is a story about identity, risk, bravery, and authenticity. At it’s heart, Elf is a tale about one man’s journey from the familiar to the foreign, in search of a face to face relationship he believes will bring real joy into his life. In the end, he initiates relationships with dozens of initially-reluctant scrooges, only to melt their hearts with his innocence, persistence, and joy.
Elf would have been a terrible movie if it was all about a human who lived happily ever after in the North Pole. Instead, the bulk of the movie deals with tension and a sense of being displaced and without a tribe to call his own.
In her chapter about “Ecstasy” in the book Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris writes,
“People like to know where they stand. And to be put “out of place” is a disaster; it conjures up images of eviction and homelessness…. But I am tempted to say that without ecstasy, there is no love. If we lack the ability to even imagine ourselves without a place, we are not likely to be able to love wisely enough to heal our society of its schizophrenia.”
Elf is a comedy all about joy. There is a slapstick sense to the film’s humor, but it is balanced nicely with a deeper elements about disappointment, identity, love, resilience, and hope. Joy pulses through Buddy’s veins (along with an inhuman amount of sugar). While Buddy’s joy initially comes across as annoying, he ends up transforming many peoples’ lives for the better.
I had picked out scenes from the film that illustrate each of the 8 Pillars of Joy, as written about in the phenomenal book The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu. In the book, they identify the 8 Pillars of Joy: Perspective, Humility, Humor, Acceptance, Forgiveness, Gratitude, Compassion, and Generosity. Much of the foundation work of joy is to be done alone, through meditation and contemplation. But joy only finds completion in relationship.
Perspective - your problem will pass.
Buddy most clearly embodies this in his eternal optimism. For him, each rejection and setback is only temporary.
Humility - you are deeply connected with all people.
Buddy’s mission is to spread Christmas cheer. He doesn’t set himself over and above others, rather he engages in unconditional love because, for him, no one is beyond redemption.
Humor - laugh at your problems, shortcomings and frailties.
Buddy has nothing to lose because he doesn’t take himself too seriously.
Acceptance - in order to make the most positive contribution to the situation, one must accept the reality of its existence.
Buddy understands a problem that few bother to recognize – namely, the absence of Christmas cheer.
Forgiveness - recognize you have hurt and will be hurt by others.
At the conclusion of the film, Buddy gladly receives his father’s acceptance without a trace of frustration or anger.
Gratitude - for whom and for what you are thankful.
Buddy sees everything and everyone as a gift and engages in the world in a sense of wonder and awe.
Compassion - Buddhist practice of tonglen – breathing in the suffering of an environment and breathing out love, courage, strength, and joy from one’s heart
Buddy single-handedly changes the environment of the department store, publishing office, disgruntled apartment of his family, and the mail room.
Generosity - desire to give gifts.
Buddy spends no energy debating who deserves what; rather, all he wants is for people to give and receive gifts.
This holiday season, perhaps what the world needs are more Buddy the Elves – people who engage in the world with a sense of wonder, seeking to spread Christmas cheer, and transforming entire communities. That sure sounds like Christian discipleship to me.
So may you come face to face with people who need your friendship and unconditional love. May you find joy in being displaced and uncomfortable. And may entire communities be transformed by joy and grace.