Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Good Shepherd

“…a good, honorable, and righteous man…” Matt. 1:19

Being ethical, doing good works, acting with justice and charity, spreading kindness all sound wonderful, but when it comes to the daily grind of life, at work or at home, they can seem insurmountable tasks. It’s easy to do all these things in a vacuum, but not so easy in real life.

In The Good Shepherd, which has nothing to do with the parable in the gospel of John, is a story of fictional CIA agent Edward Wilson (played by Matt Damon), who truly tries to do good works in a political culture that seemed anything but good.

In this film, we see that this desire to do good works is not always met with reward; but no matter the odds or difficulties, he continues to do them. He does what was honorable and right (i.e. marrying a woman whom he does not love because a son needs to have a father; i.e. turning his favorite poetry professor over to the authorities because he might be a Nazi supporter), even though he is never thanked or embraced for doing it.

In a way, Edward reminds me of good St. Joseph, the unappreciated earthly father of Jesus, who did what was honorable and right (cf. Matt. 1:9) despite his poverty, his social status, or even being an outcast for raising a child out of wedlock. Even today, all the good that St. Joseph did is all but forgotten.

In a way, this fictional CIA agent lives a thankless life as well. Like St. Joseph, Edward is a father-figure (a “shepherd,” as the title suggests), who constantly looks out for the people of the United States and, in a special way, for his own family. Many of his colleagues are unethical, corrupt, and violent people, but he never seems to cave into that reality. And just like St. Joseph, he holds himself to a higher standard but he also never seems to get his due. No one sings Edward’s praises. No one sang St. Joseph’s either.

Many of us feel like Edward and St. Joseph: unappreciated for doing the right thing. Some of us work in jobs like Edward, where everyone and everything around us seems to be corrupt or unethical; we are tempted to give in, just to get ahead or just to get noticed.

In The Good Shepherd, Edward never gave into that temptation fully, and we are called by Christ to stay on that same path. In a way, we might read into the eighth beatitude of Jesus a new meaning: “Blessed are you when they ignore you, overlook you, and pass over you because you are a good, righteous, and honorable person, for you will be first in the kingdom of heaven.” (based on Matt. 5:10).

So if you read this and say, “hey, that’s me… unappreciated but honorable all the while,” then know that God is watching you, smiling at you, and waiting with baited breath to give you your just reward in the kingdom of heaven. Know also that the person writing this blog, in a spiritual way, knows that you do that and thanks you for it.

It’s thankless, yes, but this is the making of real sainthood, and you’re already on that path.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Night at the Museum

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.” Matt. 5:9

In Night at the Museum, a truly fun popcorn flick, the new museum night guard Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) discovers an unknown world at the museum in the midnight hour.

The premise of this movie is that, because of an Egyptian curse of some sort, everything in the museum comes to life in the middle of the night, from the towering Tyrannosaurus Rex in the lobby to the smallest monkeys in the Africa exhibit hall.

Daley is set up to fail at this daunting (and very strange) task, but how he handles himself is both fun to watch and inspirational to anyone confronted with an unknown danger. Our hero is the victim of typical passive aggressive behavior, which is so rampant in our society today. It is true that people in our century are more civil to each other, but even though many of us would prefer to avoid conflict, we still resort to passive aggressive tendencies to assert ourselves. The retiring museum guards, Daley’s ex-wife, and even Daley himself are all passively aggressive to each other in an irritating cycle.

And what about the unwieldy situation Daley is put in each night at his job? The dinosaurs, Huns, miniature cowboys, Romans, and Mayans, cavemen, Civil War soldiers, Egyptian guards, and African animals, among other creatures, are all out to destroy one another each evening. They are anything but passive, but they are certainly aggressive.

Not only must Daley navigate his own passive aggressive issues, but he must figure out a way to stop the museum inhabitants from internal combustion.

The gospel challenges us to rise above the conflicts (passive and pro-active alike). “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus told us. “…for they will be called the children of God.” (Matt. 5:9). Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams) reminds Daley that he has been thrust into the role of being a peacemaker, and in a way, Jesus reminds us in the Scriptures that each one of us are offered this role by our God.

Will we accept this role and rise above petty conflicts, or will be succumb to the whims of the world and keep on completing the cycle of passive aggressive behavior? Daley wanted to run away, but choose wisely not to give up. We, too, want to run away from such a daunting task (over the centuries, so many of his disciples have fled from being a peacemaker), but I believe Christ holds out hope for us.

Will we rise to that challenge or will we run from our greatness? We may not be called to wrangle dinosaurs and cowboys, but we are called to rise above aggressiveness in all its forms and help others make peace. Then and only then will we be called “the children of God.”

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Pursuit of Happyness

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…” Declaration of Independence, 1776

In writing this infamous passage in the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson made a significant change in the original wording (written by John Locke) from “life, liberty, and property” to the “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

It is significant because, in our world today, we seem to have gone back to John Locke’s image of inalienable rights instead of Jefferson’s.

Jefferson is no theologian, but he seemed to be right on when he wanted us to understand that in this world, we aren’t entitled to money, land, or possessions; rather, he sensed that God gave us three greater gifts: the gift of life, the gift of free will, and the gift to dream.

The Pursuit of Happyness, staring Will Smith as Chris Gardner, captures that understanding. There is one scene in particular that caught my attention; Gardner is walking by a stock broker on his way into work and notices his happiness (not to mention his shiny red sports car), and sees how all his colleagues going in and out of work have a general sense of happiness. It is at this moment in the film that pushes Chris Gardner to aim not towards money or a solid career, but towards happiness.

St. Paul reminded his Corinthian audience, “Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win.” (1 Cor. 9:24). Gardner, like the rest of us, are in the race of this world; but what prize are eyes fixed on?

Unlike his peers, Gardner was not after the fancy cars or even the financial security. What Gardner seemed to be after was true happiness. That was his prize, and like St. Paul says “we race to win an imperishable crown and in so doing, I never run aimlessly.” (1 Cor. 9:25-26).

What are we racing towards? Too often, we race for John Locke’s image of life: that we are in pursuit of property, wealth, and selfish ends.

Why do we have our jobs? To put food on the table? To pay the bills? To one day become rich or have a nice house? Or do we have a job so that we can be truly happy with our purpose on this earth?

Why do we get involved with church ministry or civic organizations? To meet others? To gain friends? Or do we get involved so that we can find happiness in our interests or in our faith life?

This film reminds us that we need to pursue happiness – or a more Scriptural term, “joy.” In the Christmas season, we are constantly singing about “joy to the world.” Joy is not just an empty satisfaction, but an experience of all being right with the world. Joy is not getting gifts at Christmas, but giving them away and seeing the smile on another’s face. Joy is not sitting down, propping up our feet, and relaxing over the holidays, but getting out there and making a difference in our world through our actions. Pursuing any of this is never easy, but the end product is a joy beyond compare.

What is our life directed towards? For what do we race through this world? Are our eyes truly set on the real prize? Property or happiness? I hope we all choose happiness a bit more often in the new year ahead.

Friday, December 01, 2006

The Nativity Story

“The child Jesus grew up before Joseph and Mary and became strong, filled with wisdom and knowledge, and the favor of the Lord was upon them.” Luke 2:40

Poor St. Joseph…

In most nativity scenes, in Christian tradition, and even in the pages of Scripture, Joseph has been nearly forgotten for centuries. His role is often portrayed as a supporting character, an also-ran to the Christmas story. But in The Nativity Story, Joseph finally gets his due.

This heart-warming religious film gives us a look at the familiar Christmas story through the lens of the two characters at its center, namely Mary and Joseph. The movie suffers only when it tries to be everything to everybody (the scenes with Herod and the wise men are interesting, but detract from the captivating story of the relationship between Jesus’ parents), but we get enough good scenes with Mary and Joseph that make it worthwhile.

The line that sums up the struggle that faces Joseph is a line he says to Mary on the way from Nazareth to Bethlehem, when he realizes this child will be divinely special: “I wonder if I can teach him anything.” Poor St. Joseph, worrying about his discarded status even before we get to the manger.

I think this is the struggle for any of us, whether we’re parents or not. We wonder if we can ever be teachers, mentors, or guides to anyone. I hear many young adult parents worry about how they can pass on anything when they themselves are still learning.

The film, however, gives us hope.

When we see Joseph accepting a wife who could be stoned for adultery, we wonder if Jesus learned from him how to love the sinners and marginalized. When we see Joseph angry at the money changers and Temple merchants in Jerusalem, we wonder if Jesus learned from him how this Temple is supposed to be a house of prayer. When we see Joseph and Mary helped by a good shepherd on their way to Bethlehem, we wonder if Jesus learned from them a model of selfless, compassionate leadership.

As the Scriptures say, “The child Jesus grew up before Joseph and Mary and became strong, filled with wisdom and knowledge, and the favor of the Lord was upon them.” (Luke 2:40) We can see from this, too, that it may very well be that Jesus learned how to do all the things we love about him from his own parents. It’s a perspective that even though it’s not directly stated in the Bible, seems to show the value of relationships with family, with our mentors, with our role models, and more specifically, with our parents.

This film gives us hope, and a challenge, that we are called to be like the Holy Family, and using the experiences and lessons from our lives to pass onto others, whether they be our children or simple people who know and respect us.

Sure, it’s human to worry that we’re not knowledgeable to pass on anything, but that’s what God wants from us. God calls us to use our flawed, human, but wonderful life experiences to help others, to teach others, and to guide others in their own lives.

It’s what the flawed, human, but wonderful Holy Family did, as we see in The Nativity Story, and it’s what we are challenged to do, too.