Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Monster House

Reacting to anger and fear with love and compassion.

While I thoroughly enjoy the holiday of trick-or-treating, I did not see this Halloween-set movie in the theatres when it opened this past summer because it was being released in an odd time of year for such a haunted movie.

So I saw Monster House this past week on DVD, and it was much more rewarding to have waited until the autumn season to experience it.

This computer animated film, about three neighborhood kids who grow suspicious about a “haunted house” across the street (they have eyewitness proof that the house has devoured kids’ toys, a pet dog, and their babysitter’s boyfriend), is, at its heart, simply a story of how we deal with anger and fear.

The kids experience a mix of that anger and fear toward the house (voiced by Kathleen Turner) and its owner, Mr. Nebbercracker (voiced by Steve Buscemi). In this swirl of emotions, the three kids resort to spying, panic, and invasion of private property.

Almost in reaction to their fears, the house itself becomes angry and ultimately eats them (yes, you read that right).

We learn that the house became “haunted” because of an unresolved anger and fear that Constance, Nebbercracker’s wife, had as she died. She was abused and laughed at in life, was killed when she fell into concrete due to that same abuse; she then carried that same resentment and anger into the afterlife, into the very fiber of her husband’s home.

This non-stop reactivity between the neighborhood kids and the haunted house has fed into a seemingly endless and vicious cycle. That is, until one day when one of the kids realizes that compassion and understanding are what is truly required for all of this to end.

In our own lives, we experience much of the same. We are tempted to return anger for more anger. Sometimes we interpret Jesus’ message to “do onto others what you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31) as “if someone doesn’t like you, you don’t have to like them either.”

What’s so bad about that, you might ask? On the global stage, this cycle has erupted into Shi’ite and Sunni infighting (or Israeli and Palestinian wars) in the Middle East, or in our country, the polarization of Democrats and Republicans in Washington D.C., especially right around national elections like we have this very year.

The cycle, whether personally or in the world, ends when hatred is greeted with compassion.

It’s not easy, though, as the film suggests. In the movie, we see that the compassion of the kids was rejected by the house; the home gets even more angry and tries to kill the kids and her husband. It would have been easy to give up the compassion route then, but the kids and Mr. Nebbercracker continued to fight fire and anger with water and love.

It eventually paid off in the end of the story, but it took serious effort and unconditional understanding. This is what forgiveness is all about, and this is the very principle that Christ died for, and continues to offer up to us: stop this vicious cycle, forgive one another, offer compassion for hatred and understanding for anger and fear, thereby leaving any vengeance to God, and we can be busy working for peace and justice.

This and only this is the true way of the Gospel.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Departed

“…when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you.” Matt. 5:11

I won’t give anything away about The Departed, but I will say that its ending was a letdown.

Up until the final scene, this was a well-acted, well-directed movie about two double agents (Leonardo Dicaprio and Matt Damon) who work for two leaders in the Boston community, one a police captain (Martin Sheen), another a mob boss (Jack Nicholson), whose agents go undercover in the other’s organization. It sounds confusing, but it works for a great work of cinema by one of Hollywood’s greatest directors, Martin Scorsese.

In the days following seeing this movie, as I was wrestling with its letdown ending, it occurred to me: life is not really full of happy moments that wrap up neatly in two hours.

Life has awkward, difficult, and challenging moments, and resolutions don’t come for days, weeks, even years. In the meantime, the road can be hard.

When Christ talked about the Kingdom of God, he did not talk about harp-stringing angels and cloudless sunny skies; instead, in the weeks preceding his death, he talked to those in Jerusalem about the coming persecutions and even prepared his disciples for these times: “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad for your reward in heaven will be great.” (Matt. 5:11-12).

In life we aim for the resurrection, as Christ did in his ministry. But resurrection cannot be achieved unless there is sacrifice, hardship, and even death to self. At any moment in our life, we can get discouraged because, like The Departed, it isn’t wrapping up nicely.

As I write this, it has been weeks since we have put our house on the market to be sold; in those weeks, very few people have visited and we are far from selling our home. Every evening I come home from work without having sold our place, it seems like a bad, uncomfortable, awkward ending to the day. That’s how life is, in big and small ways.

I know I have wanted to just give up at times like that. It’s natural and it’s human to want to do that. But we are called to higher standards. We are called to hope in our own resurrection.

These pain, suffering, and death experiences in our lives are known as “the paschal mystery,” mirroring our life with the life of Christ who at his last Passover, had to suffer and die before rising again. When our lives are judged, we will not be judged for having bad days, but how we got through them and how we believed in the hope of resurrection.

The ending of The Departed leaves us hanging, leaves us wanting more. That’s great. That’s life. When we go to bed tonight, we will have some issues in life that we have not yet resolved; however, we live our lives in hope because we live for something more.

At times like that, we are called to rise to the occasion and gladly experience the passion; only then can we get to the resurrection that awaits each and every one of us.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Man of the Year

“Ephphatha! Be opened!” Mark 7:34

Politicians hear a lot of voices. It’s getting near to a national Election Day, and I can see this reflected in the hourly newscasts. Politicians and elected officials hear the voices of the voters and their families for sure, but also their special interest groups, their advisers, the other politicians, the media, and their donors and fundraisers.

But do they ever truly listen?

In Man of the Year, Robin Williams plays Tom Dobbs, a Jon Stewart-inspired late night comedian who decides to run for the Presidency of the United States. He hears a lot of voices swirling around him, including an unwelcome one from a woman who wants to inform him of illegal voting issues. His advisers tell him this is one voice he should not listen to. But Dobbs is an honest politician, and he decides to listen anyway.

What is inspirational is that this upstream voice is telling him that he shouldn’t even hold public office, and even more inspirational is that he actually listens to it. (Remember this is a fictional story of politics; we can only pray to God this can actually happen!).

In a world where we have talking heads on every cable channel, and where we are constantly talking and talking, where, when, and how is there time to listen clearly?

In the gospels, Christ opens the ears of the deaf on more than one occasion. But these miracles are not just medical breakthroughs, but a life lesson to those around him. By giving the deaf the gift of hearing, he is telling those around him: Open your ears, shut your mouths, and just listen for a change. And when we read those gospel passages, I think Christ is still imploring us to do the same, now more than ever.

So what are we listening for?

We stop to listen for the wisdom in others’ voices. Christ can use others to speak to us; therefore, the words of Christ might just be on the lips of the next person we run into.

In my life, I find that God speaks to me not through visions or even at Sunday mass, but more often than not, he speaks to me through those I meet in my daily routine. Perhaps it was the person behind the counter at Starbucks or the one sitting next to me on the train to work, or my wife when I come home from a long day at the office. God can use any of us to be the conduit through which he speaks.

We are called to open our ears, close our mouths, and let God through.

Postscript: We are also called to listen to all voices, even the ones we don’t want to hear. At election time, there are too many people listening only to voices that they enjoy hearing; we are challenged to hear what else might be out there. Unless we appreciate what all sides have to say, how can we truly make a well-informed vote or even a well-thought-out decision in our daily lives? Let’s challenge our own selves to, as Christ said, “Ephphatha! Be opened!” (Mark 7:34) and open our lives to all that God might be calling us to do.