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At the Movies: Leo

Leo (2023) © Netflix. Image Courtesy of IMDb

For the first time in my life, I can say with confidence that I am well acquainted with lizards.

This isn’t really something I ever aspired to before, but three years ago, our youngest son, Henry, who loves all creatures, asked for a bearded dragon for his tenth birthday. Because I have a very hard time saying no to this particular child, that’s what he got.

Lizards are hard work. They are not my favorite creature on God’s green earth, but they are a step above snakes in terms of animals my husband and I are willing to invite into our home. The beardy taught us a lot of things about lizard life, from lifespan (bearded dragons’ average lifespan is 8-10 years) to live food (they eat live crickets, mostly, in addition to a balanced diet of leafy greens and fruits). 

When Joey, our bearded dragon, died suddenly last summer while we were on vacation, we had to break it to Henry. We took a walk together on the beach and told Henry the bad news. 

He was heartbroken. It was his first felt loss, his first taste of grief in this world, and he worried about why Joey died. Was there something we could have done? The vet assured us there was not, that sometimes this happens. My husband and I wrapped our son in a “Henry sandwich” as he tried to come to grips with this loss, and then walked with him while he processed his grief.

Joey’s short life was not lived in vain. He taught my son many things, about responsibility, nurturing care, and the importance of cleaning smelly terrariums. But most of all, he taught me about my son’s capacity to love and to grieve, to mourn and to recover.

Lizards can teach us a lot about life.

Leo

Leo is an animated movie available on Netflix and produced by Happy Madison, the company that brought us millennials such favorites as Bedtime Stories, Grownups, Happy Gilmore, and 50 First Dates.

I’m not going to lie, I am a sucker for Adam Sandler films. Bedtime Stories might be one of my favorite family films. If you haven’t seen it, cue it up alongside Leo for an Adam Sandler family movie marathon.

I digress. In Leo, Adam Sandler plays a sweet little lizard named Leonardo (Leo for short), who has served as the fifth grade classroom’s class pet since 1949. This means Leo is getting up there in age—a realization that sends him into lizard shock at the beginning of the film. 

“I’ve wasted my life!” He laments. How much longer does he have here?!

Leo thinks he only has one year left to live, and he does not want to live it in a classroom terrarium. It’s time to break out of this prison, check off the items on his bucket list, and explore the wild outdoors.

When a grouchy substitute teacher is determined to teach the class responsibility by sending each student home with Leo each weekend, Leo seizes the opportunity and plans his great escape. This is his chance! 

Instead, Leo discovers a far greater mission than exploring the world—a mission to change the hearts and lives of the little people caring for him.

Finding the Love: Faithifying Your Viewing

For the first time in my life, I find myself in deep with a whole bunch of Leos.

No, not lizards. Older friends and mentors like Leo, who are doing the good and meaningful and powerful work of calling out the potential in younger people like me (okay, I’m forty-one going on forty-two, so not that young… but younger). They have resisted the strong tide of the culture to invest all of their energy into a life of leisure and self-interest. Instead, they make time for me and others like me, to listen, to coach, and to share their lives and their wisdom.

This is what the kingdom of God is supposed to look like—lots of Leos looking after the hearts and minds of lots of fifth-graders in the faith.

It’s what Jesus models in the gospels. Rabbi Jesus looked around him and saw his future apostles. He saw them right where they are, with all of their human flaws and tendencies to get things wrong. He saw through that to the very heart of the image of God in them, and then called that potential out.

“Come, follow me,” Jesus said (Matthew 4:19 NIV), and he will bring forth your fullest potential. He will enlarge your life’s sense of purpose and meaning. He will refine you and shake you and shape you and fill you with every good thing.

The only way to disciple people is by crawling into their current existence, like Leo, and hearing their hearts troubles and doubts, sitting with them in their suffering, and showing them Who can rescue them. “Everyone’s scared,” Leo says in the film. Jesus saw that, too. To comfort us, he didn’t promise to take away our fears. Instead, he said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27 NIV).

Just like Leo, Jesus promised to come alongside us in our fears. God gave us the Holy Spirit so that we won’t be alone. “I am with you always, to the very end of the age,” he said (Matthew 28:20 NIV).

Leo is not the fifth grade classroom’s savior, but he is a wise teacher. He has eyes to see the young people in front of him. He walks in the same tradition of the Pauls and Timothys and apostles, choosing to see the image of God in the people around him and calling to that deeper, truer self, helping them more fully experience the love and the mercy available to them. He made sure they knew they were never alone.

We can do that for the fifth graders around us. We can do that for each other.

It’s the way we manifest God’s kingdom, right now.

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