I am a huge fan of underdog movies, from Cinderella on up. I love it when our hero is someone no one would think has any value, and then he rises to the occasion—much to the shock of everyone around him, including himself.
I just finished watching Kung Fu Panda 1, 2, and 3. And before any of you stone me for diving into something so obviously oriented toward Zen and other Asian philosophies, hear me out. (And, in case you haven’t seen the Kung Fu Panda series—and in my opinion it is definitely worth seeing—allow me to warn you of spoilers in what I may choose to share.)
Our central character is a big, fat, roly-poly panda, of course, who dreams of being a Kung Fu warrior. We are shown he seemingly has none of the natural instincts for something as graceful and powerful as Kung Fu. And yet, it is his single greatest passion.
As it turns out he is chosen by the wisest in the land, against all odds and seemingly by accident, to be the “Dragon Warrior.” This is something all the other Kung Fu warriors aspire to, have been training and competing for. He literally lands in front of the finger pointing at him. So he begins to train in Kung Fu—but he is awkward, clumsy, impossible to train—or so it appears. And all the other seasoned warriors would just as soon he quit. But, in fact, this improbable panda is the one chosen by “the universe” to become their protector.
We watch his progress in the first and second movie—how he grows and matures, honing his warrior skills through encounters with the bad guys—who also underestimate him. But he still doesn’t really know who he is. The warriors around the panda come to respect him, where once they held only contempt. They begin to see his potential. But the panda still doesn’t really know who he is.
It is only in the final movie he discovers his entire earthly back story and comes to grips with his destiny as he faces his most formidable villain.
There are so many truths in this last segment. The panda has come to genuinely care for those around him. And because of that he makes an incredible sacrifice. But even his sacrifice is not enough to stop the villain. All along his road of discovery he has touched so many lives around him and helped them see their own potential, even as he has struggled to find himself. They, in turn, reach out to help him as he is being consumed by his enemy.
We see them gathered together, each one calling out what the panda unknowingly taught them about themselves. And, to me, it is almost like a community of prayer. They are calling the truth out about themselves the panda helped each of them see. And as they do so their confession becomes empowered. They are also acknowledging, in a sense, his value to each of them. And it becomes strength and revelation to him about who he is called to be. This ultimately empowers him to overcome the evil.
There are so many parallels I see in this whole series. Of course, the panda represents the improbable people Michael and I have always seen ourselves to be, and all the improbable people who have been drawn to the ministry God has done through us. We grew and matured over the years through difficult challenges. And we learned about ourselves a little more each time—and about others—even as we shared those insights and confessions in song and story.
But perhaps the thing that touched me most about this particular film was watching the community of people who had come to love and care for the panda gather together and call out the truth about who he helped them to realize they were. Obviously, it’s nowhere near the same as interceding to God for his intervention. But the unity of community in that critical moment spoke powerfully to me.
The panda was supposed to save them. He made the ultimate sacrifice he could make, still ignorant of his true identity. But it wasn’t enough. In turn, the community didn’t realize the power they had to help him, but their love and compassion for the panda drove them to a moment of powerful confession. And in their communal confession came the power to save the panda. As he was strengthened and he finally realized and accepted his true identity, he received all the power needed to overcome the evil.
So many of us become trapped in the limitations of how we see ourselves and/or how others see us, label us, and treat us. But we are made in the image of God. This is the truth. And, for those of us who are born again, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to do things we might never have considered doing in our flawed flesh; things like the panda, we might have dreamed about, but never suspected we could actually participate in. And yet, clearly in scripture it talks about the “good works” God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10), or as I like to say, those holy dreams and passions He knit into our DNA.
I don’t believe for a moment that we can step into those good works in our own strength and understanding. We can only step into those God-given dreams in partnership with Him. But I think it goes beyond that. Some say “It takes a village…” Actually, it takes the Body of Believers to help us see what God has called us into. We need each other to strengthen, correct and encourage us along the way—to lift up our arms when we are weary and yielding to the evil that would consume us, by interceding in prayer.
Michael and I are so very grateful to all those who have held us and our family up over the years in faithful prayer. We truly didn’t know what we were doing when we began—or who we were. But God did. And He put it on people’s hearts to pray and encourage and bless—to minister to us, even as we ministered to others, sometimes quite unknowingly, like that big, fat, roly-poly highly-improbable panda.