While I can’t vouch for him morally, Woody Allen’s new movie Rifkin’s Festival is pretty good. The title character Rifkin is an aging film director. Once beloved, Rifkin’s serious, “important” films are increasingly overlooked. He’s at a film festival with his beautiful wife, who’s working the festival and who’s attracted to a handsome, rising director. Spending the festival reflecting on his life, Rifkin feels discarded, disillusioned, depressed. One day, while walking on the beach, he meets a shadowy stranger in a black, hooded robe. Rifkin meets Death — and immediately starts complaining: “I’m not ready! I’ve made so many bad decisions! My life is empty!”
But Death corrects him: “Your life isn’t empty. Your life is meaningless. Don’t confuse the two. If your life feels empty, you can make it full.” “With what?” Rifkin asks. Death answers: “With work. Family. Love. The usual B.S. Even if it doesn’t work out, trying is good for you.” Then the encounter ends; Death begins to fade away “When will you be back?” “It depends.” “On what?” “Do you smoke?” “No.” “Well, that’s good.” “Do you exercise?” “Every day.” “Good. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables; avoid saturated fats and processed foods; and don’t forget your colonoscopy.”
That’s actually pretty good advice — except for the part about life being meaningless. God gave us life so we could have meaning and make meaning, which leads us to another encounter on a shoreline where a beach conversation takes place not with Death, but with Life. Peter meets the Christ; the God-Man Jesus, who tells Peter: I want you.
Which is basically what God in Christ says to us all: I want you. I want you to live. Really live. I want you to have a rich, full, meaningful, good life, which you can and will have if you follow me in love.
Here are Jesus’ basic teachings: Trust God and don’t worry. Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and you will have all that you need (Matthew 6:25-33). Do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Luke 6:31). Forgive seventy times seven (Matthew 18:20-21). Judge not lest ye be judged (Matthew 7:1). Be compassionate and generous (Luke 6:38). Share with those who are least and last; hungry and hurting (Matthew 25:31-46). Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind; and love your neighbor as you love yourself (Matthew 22:38-39). Love everyone just as much as I love you all (John 13:34).
Whatever you are presently doing; wherever you are in the course of your life, whether you’re on top of the world or trudging through hell, these teachings, this way of life, is the standing invitation God is always extending to you: Here. Now. In this moment. And every moment. In these words of our Savior to you: “Follow me.”
You don’t have to become a missionary and travel to the ends of the earth. How about just incarnating Christ-like love in your workplace? Or by forgiving someone who has badly hurt you? How about spending a little less on yourself and giving more to charity? How about turning your worries over to God by turning your anxieties into prayers?
All of this sounds “simple.” But this simplicity is not simplistic — or easy. In fact, much of following Christ into deeper life with God is radically countercultural. Dethroning the fearful ego; deposing the tyranny of the false trinity of me, myself, and I in order to embrace the freedom, simplicity, and grace that God wants to give us takes effort. But as we make the effort, God will make the way so we can live fuller, happier, richer lives — lives that will not end when this part of our life is over.
A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step — and continues one step at a time. Whether it was Peter 2,000 years ago or you today, the invitation is the same. The journey is, too. Just take the first step — and then another and another and another. Look to God; trust in God; and just do the next right thing. God will guide you. You don’t have to be perfect — because God already is. You don’t have to have everything all figured out — because God already does. Just be willing. Give it a try. Take the next right step into the good, living, loving future that God has for you. As you do, you will be blessed. Your life will be good. You will walk with Christ, and God will see you home.