Locations & Times

Presence, Anxiety, and Jojo Rabbit

As you begin the new year with all the potential and uncertainty ahead, what might it look like for you to be present? In this blog, Mackenzie Matthews explores practicing gratitude in the moment through the good and bad, and how a movie reminded her of the constant invitation we have to turn to God in the present.

by Mackenzie Matthews on January 16, 2023

In the 2019 Academy Award-winning movie JoJo Rabbit, we enter into the story of an innocent young boy in Germany who imagines Hitler as his imaginary friend. In the Hilter youth, Jojo journeys through the war as a child. With his child-like imagination, we see his perception of who Hilter is. Throughout the movie, as he discovers more about who Hitler actually is, his experience with his imaginary friend changes.

It is a beautifully creative film — funny and sobering.

Jojo's mother in the film, Rosie, played by Scarlett Johansson, remains joyful throughout the film despite the pressure alluded to in the movie. Her husband is absent, the film hinting at him being in the resistance. Rosie, we discover, is in the resistance herself, housing a teenage Jewish girl in the attic. Despite all of that, she at one point says, "We have to dance to let God know we are grateful to be alive."

I fell in love with this movie from the moment I saw it. It is in my top five favorite movies of all time; I am a sucker for a good World War II story. The human resilience, the bravery, the good and evil. The gruesome reality of the atrocities breaks my heart. The heroism and courage of those who acted despite the threat of their own demise inspires me. 

Jojo Rabbit was on TV recently. Thrilled, I watched again. I was struck and moved once more, but this time it had a new meaning. This time was the first time watching since I was diagnosed with cancer.

Now, Jojo Rabbit has nothing to do with cancer. But the themes of the film I now observed through the lens of my cancer experience. Fear, the unknown, and finding joy in the middle.

"We have to dance to let God know we are grateful to be alive."

In 2022, my year was profoundly shaped by cancer. Every week of last year was marked with treatment, doctor's appointments, surgeries, specialists. My cancer was aggressive, as is my treatment schedule. It disrupted all plans and has dramatically shifted the lens through which I view this life.

Getting diagnosed with aggressive cancer at 33 put our family into a crisis. We were thrust into this physical challenge and have been in survival mode. To be honest, I bet we will be for some time. It has thrown us upside down and inside out.

I learned a whole lot last year. One of my biggest teachings has been to be in the moment. Present.

It sounds nice, but it is actually pretty difficult to be present in the culture we live in. We are expected to be productive. We multi-task! We hustle from thing to thing, always driving a little faster than we should. Just me? Not to mention the constant flow of distractions. The 24-hour news cycle, the never-ending notifications, the tyranny of the urgent. We are the bugs to the light, a culture addicted to our cell phones.

Being present requires intentionality. A removing of noise. A settling into the moment.

I love the way C.S. Lewis speaks of the present moment in his classic allegory about the nature of temptation in The Screwtape Letters:

“The Present is the point at which time touches eternity.”

C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

Lewis describes the past as a place we could drift absent-mindedly, potentially believing our best years are behind us. He describes the future as a place that could be filled with anxieties. But he describes the present as the place God is. God is present in the now. 

In a year that I would have much preferred to hustle through, I embraced this idea — to be present, through the good and bad, the hard and uncomfortable. One step at a time. With God by my side. And for the mind of mine that regularly tends to fear what might be coming, to imagine a scary future so that I can "prepare" (hello anxiety), I have practiced the discipline of looking down to my feet. Where am I today? What is true today? Where are you, God? Be where your feet are. It's a self-leadership of my own thoughts to practice being present. 

Jesus said in Matthew 6, "Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?" (Matthew 6:27)  and "...do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own," (Matthew 6:34).

Be in today, He says.

God promises to be near to the brokenhearted. He is with us through the shadow of the valley of death. He cares for us, sets a table for us in the presence of our enemies. He rejoices over us with singing. We are never, ever alone.

Elisabeth Elliot, the famous missionary who deeply knew suffering, said, "Hard times come for all in life, with no real explanation. When we walk through suffering, it has the potential to devastate and destroy, or to be the gateway to gratitude and joy."

"We have to dance to let God know we are grateful to be alive." - Rosie from Jojo Rabbit.

Can you dance in the face of your circumstances, however heavy or crushing they might be?
Are you distracted or worried, worn out from the running?
What does it look like for you to "be where your feet are?"
To breathe deeply and experience the now with gratitude?

I want to share an excerpt of a prayer from Every Moment Holy Volume 2 by Douglas McKelvey. I highly recommend both volumes 1 and 2 — they have ministered to me beautifully in the last year.

This is titled "A Liturgy for Embracing both Joy and Sorrow"

Amidst the pain that lades these days,
give me courage, O Lord;
courage to live them fully,
to love and to allow myself to be loved,
to remember, grieve and honor what was,
to live with thanksgiving in what is,
and to invest in the hope of what will be.

Be at work gilding these long heartbreaks
with the advent of new joys, good friendships,
true fellowships, unexpected delights.
Remind me again and again of your goodness,
your presence, your promises.

For this is who we are:
a people of The Promise-
a people shaped in the image of God
whose very being generates all joy in the universe,
yes who also weeps and grieves its brokenness.

So we, your children,
are also at liberty to lament our losses,
even as we simultaneous rejoice
in the hope of their coming restoration.

Let me learn now, O Lord,
to do this as naturally as the inhale and exhale of a single breath:
to breathe out sorrow,
to breathe in joy.

to breathe out lament,
to breathe in hope.

to breathe out pain,
to breathe in comfort.

To breathe out sorrow,
to breathe in joy. 
to breathe out joy.

In one hand I grasp the burden of my grief,
while with the other I reach for the hope of griefs redemption.
And here, between the tension of the two,
between what was and what will be,
in the very is of now,
let my heart be surprised by,
shaped by,
warmed by,
remade by,
the same joy that forever wells within and radiates from
your heart, O God.

Amen.

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