Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Forbidden Kingdom

"You need to empty your cup. Then you can refill it." - Lu Yan (Jackie Chan)

Day after day, we cram a lot of "stuff" into our lives. We cram our overblown schedules, countless reminders, and small tidbits of knowledge into our brains, so much so that by the time we can rest for a night or for a weekend, we feel emotionally and mentally bloated. It was in the midst of a busy week of my own that I took a break and saw The Forbidden Kingdom, a kung-ku movie which marks the first on-screen collaboration between martial arts actors Jackie Chan and Jet Li.

At its core, this is a film about a Boston teenager named Jason (Michael Angarano) who loves kung-fu classic movies so much that, during a life-or-death encounter with street thugs, he is whisked away to the ancient China of his dreams where he teams up with three martial arts masters, Lu Yan (Jackie Chan), The Silent Monk (Jet Li), and the Golden Sparrow (newcomer Yifei Liu), to deliver a legendary stick weapon to its rightful owner, the imprisoned Monkey King (playfully portrayed by Jet Li).

What prevents young Jason from accomplishing his mission, according to Lu Yan, is that his head is filled with so much stuff that he does not have the power to learn more. "You need to empty your cup," Lu Yan says. "Then you can refill it." Jason must unlearn what he has taken in - to truly be proficient in kung-fu and save the day.

In my daily life, I find I fill up my world with a lot of "stuff," and when the day is done, I hardly have room for anything more. Like Jason, I must empty my cup so that God can refill it for me.

Otherwise, if I do not go through this emptying, there is so much that can go right past me. Have you ever experienced that, when you are so overwhelmed that you miss something incredibly important? Sometimes I need to be more aware of my surroundings, so that I can learn the truly valuable lessons in life.

Let us pray that we can look at our own lives and see if our cup is too full of useless "stuff," and have the wisdom to empty it and refill with something more, something deeper.

SIDE NOTE: One thing that haunted me about the film was the fact that one of the bully characters, the one who tries to kill our heroes in Boston, prominently wears a golden cross around his neck. It reminds me that so many people wear Christian jewelry or display Christian symbols, but some do not let that symbol or image seep into their souls. Like a driver with violent road rage who has a fish decal on the back of their car, we must ask ourselves if we are true to the images of faith we carry around with us. This bully was hardly Christian, yet wore his cross for all to see. Let us pray never to wind up in a similar situation when we betray the very faith we wear on our sleeves.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Nim's Island

"Go forth from the comfort of your home and from the security of your father's house to a distant, faraway land that I will show you... there I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing to others." Genesis 12:1-2

Nim's Island is a classic story of adventure, challenging both its characters and its viewers to uproot themselves from their comfort zone and to chart a new course into a great unknown.

The story revolves around three major characters who must embark on their own journey, even if it means being alone and afraid of what comes next. Nim Rusoe (Abigail Breslin) is an eleven-year old girl raised by her father and scientist Jack (Gerard Butler) on a volcanic tropical island in the middle of nowhere in the South Pacific. The journey begins as father and daughter seperate for the longest they have ever been apart (a few days and nights) when Jack goes out into the deep blue sea in search of microscopic marine organisms. But when communication is cut off and a storm ravages Jack's boat, the adventure really begins.

Meanwhile on the other end of the Pacific, when Nim calls for help over email to her favorite author and literary hero "Alex" Rover (who is actually the incredibly agoraphobic Alexandria Rover, played by Jodie Foster), the author feels the call to adventure for the first time as well.

As the three try to find each other across thousands of miles of ocean, they learn what adventure truly means. Nim had always thought "adventure" was a fearless hero. Jack had always thought adventure was just being on a volcanic island with his daughter. Alexandria had always relegated adventure to her books instead of to herself.

To "ad venture" means, in Latin, to "go forth..." to go forth from our comfort zones into unchartered waters. I am reminded of Abram's call by God in the Scriptures: "Go forth from the comfort of your home and from the security of your father's house to a distant, faraway land that I will show you... there I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing to others." (Genesis 12:1-2)

Staying in our comfort zone may be comfortable, but it won't get us through the tough times in life that lay ahead. Christ called his disciples out of their comfort zones, out of their familiar surroundings, out of their own traditions and deep-rooted preferences into exciting, thrilling, but scary new worlds.

He called Peter out of the boat to walk with him on the water. He called his Twelve to walk with him through the Roman garrisons of Jerusalem. And he continues to call out to us to go out into where others will not walk.

Nim had to leave the comfort of her father to discover her own bravery. Jack had to leave the comfort of his island and research to discover his own ingenuity. And Alexandria had to leave her San Francisco home to discover she was actually the hero all along. If none of these characters had left their comfort zones, they may have never found their life's purpose.

Just the same, Abram left the security of his home country and discovered that he would be the father of three world religions. The disciples left the comfort of their fishing nets and families to discover that they would be the companions of the Son of God.

And what will happen and what will we discover when you and I leave our own comfort zones and step up to the call of adventure? Just imagine the possibilites that lie ahead of us...

Wednesday, April 02, 2008


"For the love of money is the root of all evil." 1 Timothy 6:10

The movie 21 is the true story of several MIT students who use their expert math skills to beat the odds at blackjack tables in Las Vegas, based on the book Bringing Down the House.

While some of the names of characters have been changed, the premise is still the same: Ben Campbell, an unsuspecting and incredibly smart college student (Jim Sturgess) gets in over his head but learns his lesson soon enough to turn the tables on his teacher and mentor Miky Rosa (Kevin Spacey) who has long before gotten over his head in this gambling scheme.

Ben is at first reluctant to try this, with his eyes focused on the prize of getting into Harvard and winning a robotics competition with his best friends. But boredom of his Boston lifestyle convinces Ben that a little gamble couldn't hurt too much.

At first, he succeeds at this tightrope walk. He keeps his cool, making just enough money to pay his $300,000 tuition to Harvard (a side note: this is a sad state of affairs that to be well educated is only the opportunity for the super rich or the super lucky with this astronomical cost of higher education dangling in front of us).

But the downfall happens when he loves the money more than his love of math or his dreams of higher education. Not only this, but he starts to love his rich self more than his previous life as an average, ordinary college kid. This sends him into a spiral that causes him to lose his cool, and eventually, lose all his money, his dreams, his friends, and his respectability.

It isn't money itself that St. Paul called the "root of all evil," but rather the "love of money" that gets this undistinguished honor. (cf. 1 Timothy 6:10)

Money is the means to an end: paying the bills, getting an education, feeding yourself, having a roof over your hear, enjoying life's little pleasures, donating to the poor and to charity, taking care of those you love... and moving closer toward your dreams. While I would love to live in a society like Star Trek where money doesn't exist anymore, we aren't quite there yet. So in the meantime, money helps us get to where we need to be.

But when we love money and the acquisition of money more than our life goals, dreams, and hopes, we ourselves can fall into a similar downward spiral. When our goals, dreams, and hopes become the acquisition of wealth, we also need to be careful.

Instead, when I find myself thinking like this and slipping into this trap, I like to spend some time refocusing on what's truly important to my life. I spend time thinking of and praying about my family, my friends, my work, my faith, and my dreams for myself and for the world. I also find it helpful to call up old friends and family, who care and love me for who I am inside, and talk with them. They keep me grounded, and I find any love of money starts to slip away.

That's not to say that we aren't encouraged to be professionally ambitious. We should work hard for a well-earned wage, and be responsible for how we spend it. But when the pursuit becomes more important than anything else, we need that time of refocus and renewal.

This is what young Ben Campbell did in the movie. He became truly rich when he reconnected with friends, family, his dreams, and his talents and gifts. His "love of money" was overcome by a love of people, a hope for the future, and a faith in genuine goodness of others.