Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

"There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens... For everyone, to eat and drink and enjoy the fruit of all their labor is a gift of God." Eccl. 3:1 & 13

In a recent interview, David Fincher, the director of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, said of his film, "It's a movie about death." But when seen through the lens of faith, this movie is actually more about life.

This is a tale, based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, about a man named Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) who is born old, but as he ages, he physically gets younger.

What I found most captivating was the great chapters in Benjamin's life. He grew up in the bustling 20s and the challenging 30s. He came of age just before and during the Second World War. He learned about want and loss during the 50s, and finally experienced true love (with his beloved Daisy, played by Cate Blanchett) in the excitement of the 1960s. After the birth of his child, he escaped to India during the 70s, only to return home to say his last goodbye's in the 80s and to finally lose his identity and memory in the 90s.

Each chapter, just like each decade, was unique. Benjamin always seemed ready to take on the next new challenge or take advantage of the next great opportunity - while being completely conscious of the present moment, exemplified by the scenes when he sees a gentle hummingbird buzz around the ocean in the midst of World War II or when he and Daisy take in the launch of an Apollo spacecraft as they drift away in a boat on a quiet Florida lake.

While the director David Fincher did focus a bit much on death and loss, he also knew that his movie went beyond that, saying "It's a grand love story that's steeped in death, in the things that we put so much effort into ignoring on a daily basis."

In our world, our own lives are often lived going forward, but always looking backward - asking ourselves "what might have been" or "what should have happened." Sometimes we focus obsessively on this past, so much so that we ignore the opportunities that lie ahead of us (and once we realize what we have missed in that moment, ironically we spend more time living in the past and regretting that mistake, too).

Benjamin's story is a great lesson for all of us. While he lives going backward, he always looks forward - to the next great chapter in his life. His love story is not just with Daisy, but with his life and everyone he had met along the way.

What if each of us lived our lives that way?

Sure we can't reverse the aging process like Benjamin Button, but we can learn to look forward to our next grand chapter while absorbing and appreciating the present moment. That's not to say we don't look back ever. But what if we looked back on our past with the goal of using that to improve our future.

So what chapter of your life are you living in right now? Are you taking in what it means to be alive in the first decade of the 21st Century? And are you ready to make your mark on the world in the next great chapter of your life?

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the eclectic book of Ecclesiastes is unique. In some aspects, the author Qoheleth sounds like the first quote from David Fincher saying that it's all about death, and all our work is in vain since it does not last. But in other aspects, Qoheleth also realizes that no matter our belief - whether a humistist notion that this is the only world we'll ever know or a Christian belief in eternal life - we need to experience and relish the life we have now.

"There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens," says Qoheleth, "A time to be born, and a time to die. A time to plant, and a time to uproot..." (Eccl. 3:1-2). Similarly, every one of us will have great chapters in our lives - times for different occasions in our life. The question is how we will take them in.

After reviewing all the opportunities that life presents us, Qoheleth concludes by saying "I recognize that there is nothing better than to be glad and to do well in this life. For everyone, to eat and drink and enjoy the fruit of their labor is a gift of God." (Eccl. 3:12-13).

Perhaps Benjamin Button lived his life according to the third chapter of Ecclesiastes. He knew there was an appointed time for everything and he savored it and excitedly anticipated the next experience, right around the corner. I would like to think that I might live my life this way, and I pray in the New Year, you might also start living your life going forward, never backward.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Yes Man

"So let your 'yes' mean 'yes' and your 'no' mean 'no.' Anything more or less is sinful." (Matt. 5:37)

Around Chicago, December has been quite gloomy. We have had rain, sleet, snow, fog, ice, floods, extreme cold, extreme heat, and yes, even a tornado warning. Most days lately, though, have been overcast - a veil of grey has seeped across the Midwest landscape. Blah.

This melancholy weather is similar to the way that Carl Allen (Jim Carrey) begins the movie Yes Man. He lives a miserable life doing the same, mundane tasks over and over again, with little joy to show for it. In a sense, this gloominess makes Carl draw inward, avoiding people and saying "no" to any invitation and opportunity that comes his way. He just wants to crawl into his December-like hole and coast through the rest of his life.

That is until he learns to say "yes" (thanks to a Tony Robbins-like motivational speaker played by Terrance Stamp).

With the urging of an overzealous friend, he tries saying "yes" just a little more often - and finds that it ends with some good results (such as getting a midnight kiss from a kind stranger named Allison, played by Zooey Deschanel).

He continues his "yes" trend, and finds himself pulling himself out of his overcast rut. He learns to do things he never thought he'd ever do (bungey jumping, reuniting with old friends, helping the homeless, approving wild loans for poor, kindhearted souls at the bank he works for, and so much more), and he starts to love every minute of it.

While the method has its flaws (such as saying "yes" to a mail order Iranian wife or letting his friend trash his car), it teaches Carl an important lesson: make your life colorful.

It made me wonder, and it might make you wonder, if we have fallen into patterns, bad habits, introversion, or a general negative outlook on life. I know I have, and it's those times I find myself asking "Why are things going so bad?" - when the answer is staring me in the mirror.

What if we lived a life where we were more positive? Not a ooey-gooey smile-all-the-time giddiness, but really being positive about the situations presented to us? What if we first looked at the opportunities to any risk rather than the fears and concerns? What if we approached our problems with eagerness rather than anxiety? What if we looked to help others rather than helping only ourselves?

Perhaps every now and then, we need to be "yes men" - when a poor man asks for our help, when a friend asks to talk, or when an risky opportunity comes our way.

Like the parable of the talents in the Scriptures (Matt. 25:14-30), it was the servant who took the risk and said "yes" that reaped the greatest reward. Or like the disciples themselves who risked and sacrificed their livelihoods to follow Jesus - who said "yes" to His "follow me" - that had their lives forever changed.

Saying "yes" to new and bold opportunities, to those in need, and to exciting directions in our lives can make our world a lot more colorful - not bleak and frigid like a Chicago winter.

But saying "yes" isn't some kind of game, as Carl Allen was playing it in the movie. As Zooey Deschanel's character reminds him (not to mention other characters who try to get it into Carl's head), our "yes" must be a thought-out, genuine embrace of the new (even scary) world that awaits us on the other side of the word "yes."

Jesus warned his followers that saying an honest "yes" was a major sign of one's integrity. "So let your 'yes' mean 'yes' and your 'no' mean 'no.' Anything more or less is sinful" (Matt. 5:37) said Jesus on the Sermon on the Mount. Being open and then embracing a positive outlook on life will surely have incredible results in our lives... so much so that Jesus wanted to make sure we were all aware of the power of that word.

We are called to say "yes" to the opportunities God puts before us: the chance to help the poor and suffering, the ability to grow friendships and relationships with all those we meet, the risk of making fools of ourselves for the sake of something greater, the fun and exciting ways that God has made this world colorful for His people, and a life of living the gospel always. It's these "yes" moments that will make us all forever blessed.