The urge to speak with God face to face and understand great mysteries is a thread running through HBO’s third season of the dystopian religious drama “The Leftovers.” Last week, in episode 5 of the show’s final season, Episcopal priest Matt Jamison (played by Christopher Eccleston) finally gets a chance to unburden himself to God.
Although the man in the red hat who calls himself God, David Burton, is pretty obviously not God (Matt saw him toss a man overboard on a wild “ferry with benefits” ride), when Matt gets a chance to have a real conversation with him, he starts out a skeptic and slides into projecting the Almighty to get some answers. Matt wants it all to make sense:
“God has placed an obstacle in our way, but he wants us to overcome it.
He wants us to demonstrate our faith.”
Matt has overcome a lot. He almost died from leukemia as a child, his wife was rendered catatonic after the infamous “departure” (in which 2% of the world’s population disappeared one October day), she miraculously woke up and then left him, his church was taken over by a cult, and now his leukemia appears to have returned.
So, when Matt hogties God/David and makes him talk, he demands an explanation for all the hardship in his life, since, after all Matt gave his life to God’s work. This was the response from “God.”
“Everything you’ve done, you’ve done because you thought I was watching, because you thought I was judging,” he says.
“But I wasn’t. I’m not. You’ve never done anything for me; you did it for yourself.”
You have to admit, this is the heavy duty question for anyone who claims to serve God: Who are we doing all this for? God, our world or ourselves–or maybe all of the above?
In spiritual direction, a question like this calls for serious discernment. We need to sift and sort through our motives. We may think we are working for ourselves and find we are working for God. Or we may think we are working for God and find we are doing it all for ourselves. It can be difficult to separate what is our self-serving ego and what is true altruistic service to God and humanity.
I don’t expect to find theological or spiritual guidance on “The Leftovers,” powerful and compelling show that it is! But here’s what I would suggest to anyone in Matt’s situation:
- Ask yourself what your image of God is. If it is a man in a red hat that pushes people off a boat, then you need to evaluate if your God is big enough and good enough to be listening to. Who is God for you and what are God’s attributes? Even when you have a handle on that, you must consider (like Matt) that good questions can still come from troubled sources!
- Ask yourself who you believe you are doing all this for. Then check the “fruit of the Spirit.” Is your work building up community? Is your work in alignment with what you sense to be true about God? Look at the outcomes. As Jesus says repeatedly in the New Testament, “healthy trees produce good fruit.”
- Are prayer and humility part of your service? Continued prayer and discernment are necessary for serving God attentively.
It will be interesting to see where Matt’s path takes him in the last few episodes of “The Leftovers.” At the end of episode 5, he arrived at his destination seemingly at peace. Then he looked toward land and watched as activists from the party boat unleashed a lion that mauled God/David. Just another horrifying Leftovers image and the ultimate finishing touch to the Matt-facing-God encounter.
The Leftovers airs on HBO on Sunday nights.
Want to try spiritual direction? I have openings in my schedule for new directees—regardless of where you live. I can work by phone, Skype or if you live in the Phoenix metro area we can meet in person. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.teresablythe.net. Also visit my website for the Phoenix Center for Spiritual Direction.
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Photo from BEN KING/HBO