Tuesday, November 20, 2007


"All in good time, we will reap what we sow." Galatians 6:9

What's ironic about the new film version of Beowulf is that it warns against the very things that made the original Anglo-Saxon poem so popular in the first place.

Reputation and legacy were the foremost concern of the old English, who wrote the epic story of Beowulf ten centuries ago; but in the movie, reputation and legacy are the very things that weigh down and eventually destroy the hero. That said, it's probably a good thing we have evolved as a culture.

We first meet Beowulf (played by Ray Winstone) as a warrior who has built his own legend, supported by the adoration of his countrymen and reinforced by his own suave storytelling. He comes to the aid of King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) as his kingdom is being torn apart by Grendel (Crispin Glover), a hideous, deformed monster who eats people because he cannot stand the noise of merrymaking. But Beowulf does not come to help because he wants to help the frightened people of the kingdom; he comes because of reputation.

This proves to be his undoing. Because of this reputation, he won't rest until his legend has been written. Even love of the queen Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn) cannot stop Beowulf from securing his legacy. While this chain of events leads the hero to establishing his own kingdom, it also leads him to a life of unhappiness.

Beowulf sowed the seeds of reputation, pride, and power early in his life. In ancient days, this might have been admirable or noble. But to what end? By the end of his life, he reaped what he sowed: a harvest built on dishonesty, deceit, and cowardace? In the film version of this epic tale, we find that Beowulf must literally reap what he had sown - his own son (a spectacular dragon birthed from an illicit affair with Grendel's mother, played by Angelina Jolie).

If we are destined to reap what we have sown, what seeds have we already planted that we must account for? Did we build our careers on the backs of others or through hard work? Did we come to the aid of others for our glory or out of love of neighbor? Do we cover up the secrets of our past from those we love or are we honest and forthright? Are we more concerned about our own legacy, reputation, and image than about the world around us?

In Paul's letter to the Galatians, he reminds the readers, "If you sow in the fields of this world, you will reap a harvest of corruption; for if your seed-bearing ground is the Spirit, you will reap an everlasting life. Let us never grow weary of doing good in our day to day lives. So long as we keep up our good efforts, all in good time, we will reap what we sow." (Gal. 6:8-9)

While God is merciful, we cannot rely only upon that mercy for last-minute help. We cannot say, "One day, when I settle down, I will do the right thing." We cannot say, "I can get away with this for now, and make it up later." We cannot say, "It's just one little lie, one little fib." Each and every day, with each and every action, we plant the seeds of our life. If we plant bad seeds now, imagine what we will have to contend with in the days to come.

Beowulf thought like this, and it got back to him in the end. We do not know when our time of judgement will come. We do not know when the harvest will come in. What we do know is what seeds we've planted, and what we need to do to make it a beautiful harvest.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Fred Claus

Everyone gets a second chance.

Santa Claus isn't perfect. He may be a saint, but he's not perfect.

In Fred Claus, a light-hearted holiday movie with Vince Vaughn as the titular character, the older brother of Santa (played by Paul Giamatti).

We learn that Fred, a Chicago repo man, lives a sad life, angry to live in the shadow of his infamous brother since the time the two were kids growing up long ago. But despite his imperfections, Fred possesses great wisdom - some even greater than Santa himself.

When we catch up with Fred in this movie, he has been thrown in jail for stealing money from the Salvation Army Santa on Michigan Avenue; his relationship with girlfriend and meter maid Wanda (Rachel Weisz) is down the tubes; and he's desperate for money. Santa says he'll bail out his brother and get him some cash if he just comes up for a visit to the North Pole.

When we arrive at Santa's village, we learn of the black-and-white world of "naughty" and "nice." Fred is put in charge of stamping letters as one or the other; the "nice" get presents while the "naughty" get nothing (and just where does Santa draw the line between the two?... it's a philosophical question, don't you think?).

Philosophy aside, Fred simply can't take it. He stamps all the kids "nice" so that everyone gets a gift; unfortunately that haults production at the North Pole and due to this backlog, the sniveling efficiency manager Clyde (Kevin Spacey) shuts down the whole Christmas operation altogether.

But there is great wisdom in what Fred has done. While he hasn't excused the bad deeds of the "naughty" kids, he has given them a second chance. What Fred understands and what Santa doesn't is that sometimes kids need to be loved, to be told they're special in someone's eyes, to be given a second chance. Even Santa repents, and ends up giving long-ago "naughty" kid Clyde his Superman cape, showing him that love and compassion is the perfect answer to jealousy and hate.

Fred reminds Santa that the world is not black-and-white. "Nice" kids can sometimes be naughty, and "naughty" kids have the potential to be really nice.

Santa wasn't perfect, but thanks to his big brother (who needed a second chance himself), he was able to treat all children as he treated family.

At Thanksgiving and Christmas, let's vow to love our enemies and any "naughty," unlikable people we know. Perhaps that love might be the second chance that might turn their lives around. Jesus told us (in a rough translation), "If someone wants to battle you over what you deserve, give them half your stuff anyway" (Matt. 5:40).

Give freely to all people, even the "naughty" ones - this is the gospel message that Fred Claus gave his brother, and that Jesus gave to us. Let's pray we will be able to follow it.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


Life is beautiful.

The movie Bella, a low-budget international film which debuted over a year ago at the Toronto Film Festival, was recommended to me through several pro-life groups around the Diocese of Joliet, where I work.

Intially recommended to me as an anti-abortion movie, Bella turned out to be so much more than that.

In a nutshell, Bella is a story that takes place over twenty-four hours - it is the journey of Jose,(Eduardo Verástegui), a restaurant chef and former soccer star living in grief, guilt, and self-loathing; Nina (Tammy Blanchard), a just-fired waitress who finds out that she's pregnant that morning; and Manny (Manny Perze), the restaurant owner and Jose's brother.

Jose, Nina, and Manny are stuck in their own lives, afraid to connect with the outside world. Manny is lost in his business, Nina is lost in her confusion, and Jose is lost in his past.

Over the course of the 90 minutes of this film, Jose and Nina leave the restaurant and help each other out of their fears, while Manny learns the lessons of isolation the hard way when his best chef and his best waitress quit on the busiest day.

Jose draws Nina out of her dispair and challenges her to make the right choice for her child. Nina gives Jose new life after living in horrible guilt over an involuntary manslaughter several years back. Jose and his family help Manny remember to see people as more than workers in his restaurant.

This is a film about relationships and opening up.

This is a film about overcoming our past and facing our future.

This is a film about the beauty of life - all of life.

Earlier in his life, Jose accidentally took another life in a tragic car accident. Manny drives the life out of people through his actions and negativity. And Nina has the choice to bring new life into the world through an unexpected pregnancy. And through it all, through the building of new relationships, the dignity of life is re-established for these characters.

Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, past Catholic Archbishop of Chicago, spoke often of the "seamless garment" of life - that we ought to concern ourselves with the preservation and love of all life - from unborn children to the homeless, depressed, and sick, from the criminal on death row to the elderly and fragile. Bernardin taught that our passion for defending life should be seamless, that it shouldn't just be for one issue, but every single aspect of the human experience.

On this earth, we are called to care for ourselves, for each other, and for each other's lives. Just because we cannot see and interact with an unborn child does not mean we should not take care of it. Just because we aren't living near an Iraqi insurrgent does not mean we have the right to kill them in war. Just because we have authority over other people does not mean we can strip them of their dignity. Just because we hate the crimes committed by a murderer does not mean we should become killers ourselves and support their capital punishment.

In Bella, Nina was called to care for Jose. Jose was called to care for Nina and her unborn child. Nina, Jose, and their family were called to care for Manny. And Manny was called to care for each and every one of them, too.

Each of us is called to care for all of life, even those we don't know and even those we don't like.

When we see our lives with the purpose of caring for all life around us, when this "seamless garment" ethic becomes ingrained in our souls, we won't have to worry about abortion, war, capital punishment, poverty, disgrace, rape, or hatred and prejudice.

Life is beautiful.... bella. All life, everyone, everywhere, everytime.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

American Gangster

"Persevere." Matt. 24:13

American Gangster is an unsettling film.

This is the real life story of Frank Lucas (played here by Denzel Washington), an African-American Harlem mob boss who rose to power in the late 1960s and 1970s.

American Gangster treats Lucas' story as a grittier version of The Godfather, but in this movie, you don't feel affection for the crime lords; in fact, you can't wait until this man is put away. But for two hours, you watch a killer live a life of luxury and comfort while kids die in the street from the drugs he sells and while he and his soldiers brutally kill innocent men and women.

Watching the worst of the worst get away with murder, and then watching the cops around him do nothing because of their own greed and corruption, was a very unsettling, unpleasant experience watching this movie.

Add to that the story of Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), an honest New Jersey cop who lives a life of truthfulness, righteousness, and innocence partly due to his own search for redemption for his past - his womanizing, his cheating, his bad marriage. The road to redemption is never easy for Roberts, who is assigned to the Lucas case to track down the mob boss.

Both Roberts and Lucas are men in need of redemption. But only Roberts succeeds.

This movie is a reminder that living honestly is not going to be luxurious, living innocently is not going to be easy, and living the gospel will probably mean suffering in one way or another. This movie is also a reminder that, sometimes, the "bad guy" gets all the perks, and even gets away with murder (at least in this life).

In Matthew 24, Jesus describes times of tribulations for his disciples. Jesus said it wouldn't be easy, but at the same time exhorted his followers not to take up arms against it, but "the one who perseveres to the end will be saved." (Matt. 24:13).

This movie is one giant tribulation. And while Lucas finally faces justice (to the melody of "Amazing Grace," no less), we find out that his punishment was minor compared to the murders, corruption, drug-trafficking, and horrors that this man committed. We might get discouraged that justice wasn't truly done for all that he did.

But that's just part of tribulation. In the end, the punishment of this world won't matter much to God. It will be in His hands then. But if we persevere in honesty, truthfulness, honesty, gentleness, kindness, compassion, and love, it won't matter how this world treats us.

We are all like Roberts and Lucas, in desperate need of redemption.

But we are called to be like only one of them: Richie Roberts, enduring the hardships that go along with being gospel-driven people. It might be rough, tough, and unsettling, but God prays for us that we will persevere regardless, and come out clean on the other side.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Bee Movie

Is that it?

In Bee Movie, Barry B. Benson (voiced by Jerry Seinfeld) is destined to be another typical worker bee in the hive, but that destiny is something he desperately wants to avoid. When given a tour of the hive and its honey manufacturing, he wonders "Is that it?"

Too often, we also ask this of ourselves, especially when we're stuck in the same routine day after day, month after month, year after year. "Is that it?"

So Barry got creative and snuck out with the flight squad so that he could see what else is out there. He winds up stuck on the outside, with no other option than interact with humans. While "bee law" forbids conversations with humans, Barry still decided to go for it. The first person he speaks to is the florist Vanessa (voiced by Renee Zellweger), with whom he makes an instant connection. But he keeps asking "Is that it?" Not only does Barry want to go out of the hive, not only does Barry want to talk with humans, but Barry still wants more. He wants to develop a serious relationship with Vanessa. He wants to make it big in the real world. He wants to crusade against human honey production, a trade that we've had since the dawn of time.

But this is where it gets bad for Barry (and the rest of us). Because of his constant uncomfortability with his present circumstances, he ends up destroying our ecosystem and its balance of nature. The honey stops, the flowers die, the world becomes lifeless.

Unfortunately, Barry was selfish, always unsatisfied with the world around him. His goal in life was to find "greener grass" on the other side of the fence. It wasn't until he realized that the gift of honey was not to be hoarded and hidden, but to be shared. He realized his life wasn't meant to be leaving the hive all alone, but to be shared with old and new friends alike. He realized that he couldn't keep Vanessa to himself, but he had to share her with the world.

How often do we keep thinking of ourselves like Barry? How often do we get down on ourselves because of the hand we're dealt in life? How often do we ask "Is that it?" instead of thanking God for the "it" we've been given?

Do we trust God enough to know that he will take care of us? Do we trust God enough so that we won't have to look at our lives now and ask "Is that it?"

If God so loves the bees (and the birds and the lilies of the field, as in Matthew 6:26-30), and provides for all their needs, will he not do the same for us? God has provided and will continue to provide enough for us in this life so that we never have to ask "Is that it?" ever again.