By Rev. Meredith Gudger-Raines
I am the mom of two young children, so these days, I spend more time soaking up Disney music and learning about cartoon characters than I do reading great literature or commentaries. This being the case, our family’s current obsession has worked its way into me, calling up deep questions about identity, past and future, and where we are going.
In Moana, Disney’s 2016 film about a Polynesian chief’s daughter, our heroine wrestles with identity.
Who am I?
Who are we?
How do we know who we are?
Where do we go from here?
Moana pursues these questions, while also befriending a demi-god, battling a giant crab, honoring her parents, listening to her grandmother, and answering the call within.
In an early pivotal scene, Moana discovers that her ancestors were voyagers. She has always felt a call to the sea, but has felt out of place among her people, who never leave their island. In a flashback, we see her ancestors confidently living into their identity as explorers–not conquering, but working with the ocean to navigate the vast openness of the Pacific on sophisticated vessels. Songwriters Opetaia Foa’i and Lin Manuel-Miranda, using both indigenous language and English, crafted a triumphant song of jubilation, gratitude, confidence and identity to tell the story of this people.
We read the wind and the sky when the sun is high
We sail the length of the seas on the ocean breeze
At night, we name every star; we know where we are
We know who we are, who we are
Because they know where they are, they know who they are. They understand their place in creation. They know how to read the signs. They know who they are; they are the ones to whom the ocean gives life, home and purpose. With this identity secure, they can roam in confidence that they will always know the way back.
We keep our Island in our mind,
and when it’s time to find home, we know the way
We are explorers reading every sign
We tell the stories of our elders in a never ending chain
As the people sing, the animation telling the story is equally enchanting. Their song is embodied in their dance. Disney must have assigned an artist just to pay attention to shoulders; they bounce and dip to emphasize surprising-to-me rhythms. As a new island appears on the horizon, the chief squares his shoulders back in gratitude and satisfaction. They know where they are! They know who they are.
I am inspired by that jubilant confidence and ability. I envy it. I’m left wondering:
Do I know who I am?
Where are we?
Where are we going?
It often feels like we are a church that has lost its way. We are no longer the people who fill sanctuaries to the brim, ministers in their black robes and ladies in gloves and hats. We still live on old Main Streets, while the people have moved to the suburbs and back again to revitalized urban landscapes. Where are we?
We lament the loss, while quietly questioning if that post-war wonderland was actually our true identity after all. In the midst of our lament, we have arrived at a place where we can hardly stand to be together, proclaiming that union requires us to sacrifice deep tenants of our faith. We have grown expert at telling our story of decline and division, but something nags at us, calling, “This is not your real story. This is not who you are.” We just can’t quite seem to catch all the words to our jubilant song.
Meanwhile, when we emerge from our sanctuaries where we now see but dimly, we are blinded by a country that is feverishly arguing about who it is. Every week brings us new headlines about who gets to claim the American story.
What is our heritage, and which statues should we add or remove to celebrate that story?
Who is a threat?
Which lives actually matter?
What does our national anthem mean, and who owns it, and is it just as honorable to claim our right to freedom by kneeling in protest as it is to stand?
And how on earth will this divided union not perish?
In this season of hunched over gloom, I want that shoulders-thrown-back jubilation of knowing who I am. Shouldn’t we have that? Have I ever had that?
Yes, I have. In my summers with Sierra Service Project, I remember the community we created as youth served Native American communities by making home repairs. I remember the empowerment when teenagers learned to use power tools. I remember the realization of their own ability as teams saw the ramps and decks and stairs they brought into creation. I remember the feelings of gratitude and humbleness as elders shared their sacred stories and traditions with young people. I remember the personal invitations as we pulled each other into the center of the circle to celebrate our Love Feast.
Who are we? We are the beloved of God, given grace, forgiveness and life. We are called to see God in others, and love them as Jesus loves. And we did. We know who we are, who we are!
Friends, you must have a Moana moment, too. You must have had a time when you threw your shoulders back and sang your identity as an act of praise and worship to your Creator. You have it, or you wouldn’t still be part of this Church.
Look, I know how worn down we are. I know the need to apologize for all other Christians who have belittled the spirit within our neighbors instead of honoring it. I know the feeling of not knowing how to even meet people, let alone talk with them in a meaningful way. I know how overwhelming evil can be.
But I’m tired of shrugging in regret and defeat. I’m tired of talking about relevance as perpetually on the far horizon, before or behind. I’m tired of waiting. We have a song deep within us, and it needs to be remembered and sung.
Not just for our sake, but for the world’s. Our country has a song, and we are struggling to remember it. Doesn’t our country need a people who know what it is to be worn down, who know what it is to wander, who know what it is to be lost–and then be found? Our struggle doesn’t make us irrelevant; it makes us relevant. Our questioning isn’t a source of shame; our discovery is a source of promise. As we learn to sing through fear, can we teach others the same?
We are the beloved of God, given grace, forgiveness and love.
We are called to love as Christ loves us.
We know where we are.
We know who we are!
This is a song that cries out to be sung.
Meredith Gudger-Raines serves as the pastor of Ridgefield Community United Methodist Church in Ridgefield, Washington.
Photo of Moana figurine by Flickr user Brickset, CC BY 2.0.