By Dan Clendenin

A couple weeks ago I saw the movie Rocketman, a dramatization about Elton John that debuted at the 2019 Cannes film festival in May. Just as I settled into my massive recliner to watch a fluffy biopic, I was jolted by how abruptly the film begins (spoiler alert).

Elton John is dressed in a bright orange devil costume, replete with enormous feathered wings and a helmet with horns. He is strutting down a long hall and through a doorway. But he isn’t bursting onto a stage, as you expect. No, he barges into a room of very normal people who are sitting in a big circle. This is a group therapy session at what we later learn is a treatment center.

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John sits down in the circle. The room is silent. All eyes are on him. After shedding his wings and his horns (an interesting symbolic action), he begins: “My name is Elton John. I’m an alcoholic, a cocaine addict, and a sex addict. I’m bulimic. I also have problems with shopping.”

What?!

This isn’t a religious confession; John once said that if he had his way he would “ban religion completely.” But it’s a confession nonetheless, and a brutally honest one. My impression was that of a man longing to unburden himself to the world. To liberate himself by telling the truth. Since John was one of the executive producers of Rocketman, we can be sure that he approved of every detail in the story. By repeated flashbacks to this first scene throughout the movie, it’s clear that this is Elton John’s story of redemption.

Then comes another jolt just a few minutes later. The second song in the movie’s soundtrack, co-written by John and Bernie Taupin, is called “I Want Love.” It was released in 2001.

I want love, but it’s impossible
A man like me, so irresponsible
A man like me is dead in places
Other men feel liberated

I can’t love, shot full of holes
Don’t feel nothing, I just feel cold
Don’t feel nothing, just old scars
Toughening up around my heart

But I want love, just a different kind
I want love, won’t break me down
Won’t brick me up, won’t fence me in
I want a love, that don’t mean a thing
That’s the love I want, I want love

I want love on my own terms
After everything I’ve ever learned
Me, I carry too much baggage
Oh man I’ve seen so much traffic

But I want love, just a different kind
I want love, won’t break me down
Won’t brick me up, won’t fence me in
I want a love, that don’t mean a thing
That’s the love I want, I want love

So bring it on, I’ve been bruised
Don’t give me love that’s clean and smooth
I’m ready for the rougher stuff
No sweet romance, I’ve had enough

A man like me is dead in places
Other men feel liberated

But I want love, just a different kind
I want love, won’t break me down
Won’t brick me up, won’t fence me in
I want a love, that don’t mean a thing
That’s the love I want, I want love

I want love, just a different kind
I want love, won’t break me down
Won’t brick me up, won’t fence me in
I want a love, that don’t mean a thing
That’s the love I want, I want love

The confession of brokenness, the experiences of alienation and abandonment, a suicide attempt in 1975, and this universal longing for love that we all have form the theme of the entire movie.

John grew up in an emotionally distant family that didn’t know what to do with their musical prodigy and gay adolescent. And so he acted out, seeking love in all the wrong places and ways. By his own description, he is very lucky to be alive today. When some of the movie makers wanted to pitch Rocketman as a PG-13, he objected, “I did not live a PG-13 life.”

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Unlike Freddy Mercury in the other breakout biopic last spring (Bohemian Rhapsody), Elton John did find love. The movie ends where it began, in that same circle of chairs at the treatment center. In a bit of magical realism, all the important characters in his life reappear in the circle, and with each one of them John has made his peace. As the credits roll, a note informs us that he has been sober for twenty-eight years, and raised over $400 million for HIV-AIDS causes in fifty-five countries.

In the life of Jesus we see the love of God. In Luke 15, to take just one example, the enemies of Jesus complained that “this man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” To emphasize this Divine Welcome, God’s unconditional acceptance of every one of us, Jesus tells three parables that repeat the same point — the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son.

People felt safe with Jesus. He exuded compassion.

Jesus welcomed the people that we ignore and despise. The sexually suspicious. The religiously impure. Ethnic outsiders. Rich tax scammers and lazy poor people. Soldiers of the Roman oppressors. The chronically sick and the mentally deranged. Women with multiple marriages, widows, and children. His closest disciples who betrayed him.

The people who didn’t feel safe with Jesus were the religious experts who appointed themselves as gatekeepers of God’s love. They had good reasons to feel unsafe. In Matthew 23 Jesus denounced them with “seven woes” as hypocrites, snakes, and blind guides.

When Jesus welcomed the unwelcomed, when he accepted the unacceptable without any preconditions, he angered the religious experts. Luke says that they “muttered.” In the parable of the prodigal son, the older son got angry at his father’s indiscriminate compassion for his younger brother.

Whether then or now, there’s a bitter irony in how the simple act of accepting another person angers some people. But whereas the gatekeepers get angry, Jesus says three times in Luke 15 that there’s “joy in heaven” when the lost sheep is rescued, when a misplaced coin is found, and the prodigal son comes home.

And so the beautiful words in the powerful poem by Edwina Gateley: “Let your God love you. / Say nothing. / Ask nothing. / Let your God look upon you. / That is all.”

The only thing we can do is to accept that we are accepted. In the words of Paul Tillich, “You are accepted. You are accepted by that which is greater than you. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted. If that happens, we experience grace.”

Dan Clendenin: dan@journeywithjesus.net

Image credits: (1) IMDB.com and (2) IMDB.com.

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