Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Sherlock Holmes



"Act not without thought, and then you will have no regrets." Sirach 32:19

The newest movie version of Sherlock Holmes, staring Robert Downey Jr. in the title role (with Jude Law as his sidekick Dr. Watson), certainly ups the adreneline more than previous incarnations. But there is still one thing that hasn't changed in the reboot: Holmes' incredible ability to think before he acts.

There are two major times in this movie when the titular character is seen thinking before he acts (and my only major complaint about the movie is that I wish there were more): the first is during a rescue operation in the opening scenes of the film when Sherlock thinks about how he is going to get past a guard; the second is during a boxing match when Sherlock is trying to figure out how to defeat a much larger opponent in the boxing ring.

These may not be the best examples (since they involve violence), but they showcase the ability to think before taking action - a nice antidote for a reactionary world (inspired, ironically, by the action movie genre this film sits within).

The biblical sage Sirach tells readers of Hebrew Scriptures: "Act not without thought, and then you will have no regrets. Walk not down a path where you might be trapped, and don't let the same thing trip you twice... Pepare your words before you speak them and you will be listened to. Draw upon your training and then give your answer." (Sir. 32:19-20, 33:4)

When people get into arguments, it escalates when one side speaks before they think, often blurting out something with little evidence or support. A salesperson relies on these impulses, hoping the buyer won't give too much thought to the financial concerns. And still others rush headlong into major life choices without thinking thoroughly about the consequences.

The character of Sherlock Holmes is a great example of the thoughtful action hero, especially in this cinematic incarnation. Yes, he is a man of action and quick wit, but this is based on a lifetime of extensive thinking.

Few are immune to an impulsive nature - and sometimes it serves us well. When we know what we want, it's important to proactively pursue it. However, good decisions are rarely made in haste.

Consider the parable of the ten virgins (cf. Mt. 25:1-13). Five women acted impulsively and forgot the oil for their lamps, while other five thought ahead and prepared their oils for the long night ahead. When the time came for the guest of honor to arrive, the five without any oil left were out making up for their mistake and missed the wedding feast. Here Jesus tells us that even the smallest details must be thought out first before acting impulsively - otherwise we might miss something as important as the Reign of God in our midst.

In whatever we do, the sage Sirach and Jesus both challenge us to think first (or as the old carpenter's adage goes, "Measure twice, cut once").

So before making that next decision, whether big (career, house, relationships) or small (what to eat tonight, what to wear today, etc.), think first - for the consequences of any action might be more than we realized.

Elementary, my dear Watson...

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Avatar



"Which of these characters, in your opinion, was the hero?"
Luke 10: 3:36

When you watch a movie like Avatar, with whom do you most identify?

More often than not, I have found that people connect with the character of the hero. In this particular case, it's Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic retired Marine in the year 2154 who embarks on a special mission to the alien world of Pandora (probably a moon of the planet Jupiter).

His is the story we follow from start to finish. Sully's mission is to telepathically control his "avatar" - a ten-foot tall blue-colored alien/human hybrid that has no brain activity unless it is given by the human controller - so that he can infiltrate and negotiate with the Na'vi aliens. On his first mission out into the Pandoran wilderness, however, Sully gets lost in the jungle.

This development in the story leads the hero to meet and connect with a local tribe of the Na'vi through a chance encounter with the beautiful tribal princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).

Unfortunately, as we follow Sully's adventures in wonderland so intensely, very few would identify with the corporate and military leaders back at home base. Why unfortunately? Because unless we clothe ourselves with each of the major characters, we won't know which one really fits us at this particular moment.

The risk of always identifying with the hero is that a person can become self-righteous and justified in everything they do, without discerning or reflecting on the possibility of their own sinfulness, shortcomings, or misguided motives.

When speaking in parables, Jesus did much the same thing as the movies do for us. He laid out several characters - but didn't always let his audience identify with the hero.

For instance, in the familiar Good Samaritan story (Luke 10:25-37), Jesus challenged his listeners to see themselves as each of the characters - the victim, the robbers, the priest, the Temple assistant, and the Samaritan ("Which of these characters, in your opinion," Jesus asks, "was the hero?" Lk. 10:36). Of course he ends the lesson by imploring his disciples to be the Good Samaritan, but before doing so, it's good to see which character reflects us right now.

So using the movie Avatar, which character are you most like at this moment in your life?

Are you Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), the compassionate yet stubborn teacher who longs for earlier days when she was able to make a difference without much interference?

Are you Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), the efficient profit-seeking businessman whose primary objective is meeting his objective, regardless of personal cost?

Are you Trudy Chacon (Michelle Rodriguez), the soldier who thinks twice about the inhumane and unethical acts she is asked to carry out.

Are you Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the brash and brazen military commander with an overly aggressive personality and a penchant for vengeance?

Are you Norm Spellman (Joel Moore), the dedicated worker who spent his life training and studying, only to be passed over by a co-worker like Sully with much less experience?

Are you Eytukan (Laz Alonso), the Na'vi tribal warrior who doesn't like outsiders like Sully, but over time begrudgingly accepts them into his inner circle?

As I looked at this list, I have been several of these characters at different times in my life. Yes, at first, I gravitated towards identifying with the hero character Sully - but I caught myself and wondered who else I might connect with, for better or worse. Seeing this bigger picture helped me to grow beyond my comfort zone and self-righteousness.

The character Sully had to ask himself the same thing. Who was he going to be? He could have been any of the people in the story (Col. Quaritch, Norm, Dr. Grace, Trudy, etc.), but he chose to follow the path of his hero, Neytiri. It wasn't an easy decision, just as the Good Samaritan is not necessarily the easiest character to identify with in Jesus' parable.

But before we can jump into the hero's shoes, we must first see where we are right now (even if it means putting ourselves into the role of the bad guy) - and how we can move to the greater calling that the character of the hero gives us.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Blind Side



The Difference Between Charity and Justice

When watching The Blind Side, the unlikely story of Michael Oher and the kindliness of Leigh Ann Tuohy (played respectively by Quinton Aaron and Sandra Bullock), it was heartwarming to see such Christian charity played out on the silver screen.

However, it saddened me that I couldn't emulate the charity since I am not rich and do not live in a big enough house like Leigh Ann Tuohy. I couldn't really do what she did since I don't have the means to carry out such charity.

And it might be easy for me to disassociate myself from the lead characters and their generosity had it all just been an act of Christian charity.

But The Blind Side is about so much more than charity. It's about social justice. What's the difference? Charity is when you impact another's life... justice is about letting othes impact you for life. Charity means giving to those in need, but justice means working hard so that those needs no longer exist.

At first, the Tuohy family acted out of good charity, perhaps to ease their own personal struggles with racism in the South (as Michael Oher is one of the only African Americans in his school). But over time, Michael has an impact on Leigh Ann that changes her life. Not only does she let the homeless kid stay longer than expected in her house, she goes deeper - visiting his old neighborhood "on the other side of town" and seeking out Michael's mother to see how she can help him and his plight.

At first it was charity, and then it grew into a march towards social justice.

It might be hard to identify with the rich Tuohy family and their charity (or it might suffice to look upon their actions from afar and admire their benevolence), but everyone - regardless of how rich or poor they are - can act with justice.

What issue or cause will impact you? What injustice will you stand against? What means so much to you that it will change your life - so that justice might be done for others?

Going to a soup kitchen or donating clothing to GoodWill are great charitable works - but justice asks us to go further. How do we work at eradicating poverty in our local area so that soup kitchens and GoodWill thrift stores are no longer necessary? To make that happen, it will require that our own lives will be changed, uprooted, and impacted.

Perhaps there are other issues that you feel passionately about. Whatever the cause might be, we are challenged to do more than charity. We are called to act with justice.

It might seem impossible - to affect so much change in the world. It can seem overwhelming, but The Blind Side shows us that one act of justice can go a long way (and that's all that God asks us to do). The Jewish Talmud offers this bit of advice:

"Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justice now. Love mercy now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you fee to abandon it."

Have a charitable heart, but have hands and feet ready to move for justice. Like Leigh Ann Tuohy, it will transform you and change you - and that's when God is at work.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Invictus


"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Lk. 23:34

Invictus is an incredible story of reconciliation and the triumph of forgiveness.

The events of the story are based in real life: anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman), freed from 27 years in prison, becomes the first democratically elected president of South Africa and in his first term in office, charts a new course for reconciliation between the white and black populations of his country - using rugby as the lynch pin.

Mandela looks to the Springboks, South Africa's national rugby team, to rally the nation together across racial lines. For years, while the team was loved by the white people, it was despised by the black population because it symbolized apartheid. But Mandela, who once hated the team, believes that mutual support of this sport might help build bridges towards national peace.

To do that, he takes time out of governing a country to inspire and motivate the team's captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon), who in turn rallys his teammates to victory.

While the sports story is exciting to follow as the Springboks make their way to the 1995 World Cup, the more inspiring tale is the one between a president and his country After 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela could have governed in anger and vengence; but instead, he looked at the white people of South Africa and said again the words of Christ on the cross: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." (Lk. 23:24)

Mandela charted a course towards bold forgiveness, the kind Jesus spoke about in Scripture. For instance, scholars tells us that "when someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn and give him the other" (Mt. 5:39) means that a blow to the right cheek is an ancient sign of agression against a lesser person; however when you offer the left cheek (causing the aggressor to fight you with an open hand, not the back of the hand) levels the playing field.

Mandela was doing just that. By rooting for a team that the white people of South Africa loved was a way to level the playing field - and a route to bold forgiveness. He then asked his fellow black countrymen to do the same: forgive the aggressor by loving what they love.

Invictus is a story of inspiration to anyone beaten down by oppression - personally and societally. "Forgiveness is good for the soul," says Morgan Freeman's Mandela. Forgiveness levels the playing field and takes the wind out of the sails of the oppressor.

Who in your life angers you? Who frustrates you at every opportunity? Do they make you feel insignificant or belittled by their words or actions?

The people who come to mind for you are the people that Mandela, in the spirit of Christ, are asking us to forgive, for they know not what they are doing. These are the people whom Jesus commands us to boldly turn the other cheek, level the playing field, and love unconditionally. This is a hard road, but that's why we have inspiring role models like Mandela to urge us on.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Twilight: New Moon



"A man had two sons..." Mt. 21:28

Above and beyond the teen craze and the unfolding vampire saga, at its core, the new movie Twilight: New Moon is simply a story of the struggle between two forces - and a young woman's journey navigating between them.

Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) is the girl in the middle of all this drama (or one could also say she is the cause of all the drama). Bella is a high school student dating a vampire, one Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) - who then becomes a high school student dumped by a vampire. In her misery, she falls into a deeper relationship with an old friend Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner).

Without Edward around, Bella and Jacob grow closer - that is, until Jacob becomes a werewolf. This is defnitely not your typical teenage romance to be sure.

At this point, Bella is caught between her never-extinquished feelings for Edward and her growing affection for Jacob. Sadly for Jacob, when news arrives that Edward is about to kill himself because of misinformation about Bella's fate, the young girl races off to Italy to save her vampire lover... leaving her werewolf friend in the dust.

Aside from the unique details, this movie boils down to a competition between two forces: Edward and Jacob, the vampire and the werewolf. These two guys are comparable to the two sons that Jesus references in his parables throughout the New Testament. In one of those stories (cf. Mt. 21:28), a father asks his two sons to work in the vineyard - one says "yes" but abandons the work; the other says "no" but decides to do it anyway.

In my opinion, Jacob is the son that initially stays away, but decides to step up to the plate in the end. Edward is the one that abandons the work when times get tough (no matter what Edward's excuse is for leaving later in the film). Sadly, Bella's heart goes to the one who probably doesn't deserve it, while the good son, Jacob, gets left behind.

Which of the two sons in Jesus' parable are you? or which of the two guys in New Moon are you most like: Edward or Jacob? When we are asked to take a stand, do we give an empty show of support or do we reluctantly step in when it's the right thing to do?

There is much talk about this movie amongst fans - half are "Team Edward," rooting for Bella to stay with the vampire; half are "Team Jacob," hoping that Bella goes back to the werewolf. I suppose I would be "Team Jacob," but not for the reasons most of the young girls have for supporting this charater. My reason is that Jacob is the better of the two sons - a trusted friend and someone who will protect and defend the ones he loves.

I guess I will have to wait until the third movie to see where things go from here.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

2012



"But of that day and hour no one really knows..." Matt. 24:36

The movie 2012 - about the end of the world as predicted by the Mayan calendar centuries ago - is a classic disaster movie in the vein of Armageddon, Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, Earthquake, or The Towering Inferno.

And while it might seem odd for a church worker like these, I love watching these disaster flicks. But it's not just for the special effects and epic scale of these movies; it's seeing how humanity reacts whenever they know their imminent doom is approaching.

2012 follows the journey of Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), an incredibly lucky guy in the face of the apocalypse - it's truly amazing how he can outrun earthquakes and volcanos while everyone else just perishes. To put it simply, the planets are in alignment, which means that the sun is erupting in violent ways (why? i don't know...) and thus, the earth is cooking like a microwave - it's plates are shifting and moving at incredibly fast rates, causing turmoil for us earthlings.

But no matter how it happens, from plate tectonics to an alien invasion, asteroid, or global warming, these "the world is ending" disaster movies challenges audiences with the same question over and over again: why will it take Armageddon for us to finally learn how to be loving, compassionate, and merciful towards each other?

Why can't we learn that lesson now - before the aliens, the asteroid, or the erupting sun hurls towards us?

In the first century (just like at the years 1000 and 2000 A.D. and several other occasions), there was a widespread fear of the "end times." Even the disciples of Jesus were caught up in the hysteria, to which Jesus looked at them and said,

"But of that day and hour no one really knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son - no one except for the Father. For as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. In those days before the Flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and going about their days up to the day Noah entered the ark. They did not know it was coming... Therefore stay awake... be prepared! For you do not know on which day the Lord will come again." (Matt. 24: 36-39, 42)

Sadly, the disciples and the early Church didn't get it - and they continued to live in fear that the end was coming tomorrow. When the fear wore off after several centuries, quite sadly, the people (including the Christians) forgot their humanity and we entered the dark ages.

There's a popular saying that goes something like: "Look busy... Jesus is coming!" That seems to be society's mentality - let's wait until the last possible second to start living the gospel; in the meantime, just look busy.

Perhaps as long as society keeps forgetting to be more peaceful, loving, compassionate, and forgiving with one another (on a personal and a global scale), we will keep having disaster movies to keep reminding us of the message: Be prepared, live the gospel, love one another - for you do not know on which day the end will come.

PS: This message hit home for me this week. One of my co-workers suddenly and unexpectedly passed away yesterday. In my reflection on this tragic event, I wondered what my last words were to her or how I treated her in this last week of her life. Was I prepared and did I treat her with gospel compassion and love - or did I forget this timeless message?

Whether the last days are coming in the year 2012 or if they come tomorrow, let us all pray that we will live each day as if it were our last.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

This Is It



"Let the one among you without sin be the one to cast the first stone." John 8:7

Michael Jackson left the world in late June 2009 - his voice silenced for the last time. But his spirit comes alive in This Is It, a film from concert producer Kenny Ortega who, with Jackson, was developing a London concert experience when the artist unexpectedly passed away.

The movie is part documentary and part music video - a delight to anyone who enjoyed Michael Jackson's music, dancing, and ground-breaking concert experiences.

But underneath the songs and choreography is the image of a simple child-like man who just wanted to perform for his fans. While it's true that Michael Jackson has endured much scrutiny in recent years (some deserved, most not), the musician-artist in this video is far from the monster that a number of people have painted him out to be.

Throughout the movie, you can hear Jackson apologizing to the dancers, musicians, and crew, not wanting to offend anyone by his direction - or gently telling others, with utmost sincerity, "God bless you." It seems all he wants to do is love others completely for who they are.

It's evident that the public negativity has affected Michael, despite his genteel demenour. With passion he belts out the troubling lyrics of "They Don't Really Care About Us"... You're raping me of my pride, O for God's sake, I look to heaven to fulfill its prophecy: set me free. These words (and the other haunting lyrics of the song) show us a Michael Jackson beat down by those who just didn't understand him or humiliated him before the world.

The situation that Michael Jackson had to undergo reminds me of the biblical story of the woman caught in adultery. In John's Gospel, the scribes and Pharisees chase an adulterous woman to the feet of Jesus who admonishes the crowd: "Let the one without sin be the one to cast the first stone." (John 8:7). Jesus reminds us that it's easy to point fingers in accusation, to see the speck of wood in another's eyes without tending to the beam in our own eyes (cf. Mt. 7:1-5) - so easy that we forget our place in judgement.

But in This Is It, we see a gentle spirit beaten down from years of hatred - one who responds not with vengence, but with reminders about the environment ("Earth Song"), about racism ("Black or White"), about war ("Heal the World"), about comforting others ("I'll Be There") and about self-reflection and discernment ("Man in the Mirror").

Michael Jackson was not perfect, but through his songs, he was a prophet and an inspiration. Seeing the impact he made on the crew and the other dancers on stage, we can see how he impacted the world for the better, no matter what insults came his way.

Let us all pray that we will be slow to judgement and abundant in kindness, that we might be as blessed as Michael Jackson to make a difference in this world.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Surrogates



"How beautiful you are... how pleasing... my love, my delight!" Song of Songs 8:7

Surrogates is set in the not-too-distant future when technology has advanced so much that humans can control a robot to walk around, go to work, and interact with others - to be their "surrogate" while they stay safely in the comfort of their bedroom all day long.

It doesn't seem hard to believe. If the internet can serve as our primary communications tool in the early 21st century, how much farther along will it be when we'll use the technology to do more than share information online?

In the movie, this comfortable cycle is interrupted by a brutal crime - where someone has found an even greater technology to destroy not just a surrogate robot, but the end user sitting in their bedroom far away. The surrogate of FBI agent Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) and his partner investigate, only to find that the problem goes deeper than they would have imagined.

Due to an accident with his surrogate, Greer is forced to face the world on his own. Initially shocked by this change of pace, Greer starts to open his literal eyes to the cold, impersonal universe that humanity has developed.

Greer longs to literally touch his wife Maggie (Rosamund Pike) - and connect with her like they used to years ago. But like everyone else in this isolated world, she refuses such barbaric ideas.

With all the technological tools at our disposal (like this very blog), how much are we relying on it to make our mark on the world? While Facebook is a wonderful invention, is it starting to replace real social networking done in person? Neighborhoods are already impersonal, with neighbors hardly knowing the name of the person who lives five yards away.

When society starts turning impersonal, our faith challenges us to live without our surrogate technology. In the Scriptures, the beautiful wisdom book, The Song of Songs, expresses this desire for humans to be in touch with each other. The poet declares quite vividly, "How beautiful you are... how pleasing... my love, my delight. Your very figure is like a palm tree... I will climb the palm tree and take hold of its branches..." (Song of Songs 8:7-9a).

The poet here longs for real human interaction, to quite literally touch another person. The question comes back to us in today's world: when was the last time you were hugged? If you're in a relationship with someone else, when was the last time you held hands or kissed?

Sometimes we are too busy or too anxious to be close to someone else. It's much easier to write an email or make a comment on Facebook. It's quicker to text them than to actually talk to them. Or our impersonal nature prevents us from really showing someone else we care. But like the poet of Song of Songs, let's take hold of someone else and draw them close to us.

Surrogates shows us the dark future - when we have let machines do our connecting for us. That future doesn't have to happen. We have a choice. We have each other.

Friday, September 04, 2009

District 9 & Inglourious Basterds

Rewriting history...

This August, two movies asked audiences the "what if?" question, wondering what history would have been like had certain things happened.

District 9 is the story of an alien spacecraft that stalled out over Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1990 and the strained interspecies relations that marked an alternative history over the past two decades. By this creative take on the alien movie, this film wonders if humans would actully treat extraterrestrials as poorly as they treat one another.

In a movie set in a totally different universe, Inglourious Basterds is director Quentin Tarantino's creative vision of how he would have ended Adolph Hitler's reign in World War II in the 1940s. In this revisionist history, an assassination squad of Americans and Jews (not the Allied armies marching across Europe) are the real threat to the Third Reich - a fitting take considering Hitler's horrible actions in real history.

District 9 looks at human nature and throws up its hands, resigning itself to the fact that humanity cannot change its stripes - and will always trend evil. Basterds takes another approach - answering humanity's evil with equal parts evil ("an eye for an eye"), thinking that somehow balances the scales of history.

These two parables mirror real reactions. In response to trouble or hurt, many people live with regret, wishing they could re-write history and, as Sam Beckett did in Quantum Leap, "put things right that once went wrong." In response, some think it's all fatalistic and that it doesn't really matter anyway, while other people seek vengence or violence to satistfy their anger.

The Gospel, though, says neither response leads anywhere.

When we are hurt, we are called to forgive all others ("Offer no resistance to one who is evil." Mt. 5:39a), and yes, that even includes Hitler. And fatalism, the belief that we never learn and history continues to repeat itself, allows no room for good works and God's grace.

Instead, Jesus challenged his disciples to "go forth" to "cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and drive out deams" (Mt. 10:8) With those actions, history won't be re-written, but it will be changed and affected for the better. Instead of wishing the Jews killed Hitler, the gospel charge is to affect the present world so that anti-Semetism or hatred of any kind might be eradicated. Instead of giving up on people and their prejudices, the gospel charge is to be different, serving the poor and welcoming all people in Christian love.

So instead of looking backward and re-writing history, Jesus calls on us to change history - to make our mark on the world for the sake of the Gospel. We can all look forwad to that future.

******* Postscript 9/15/09

As I continued to reflect on these films, I noticed something else that was lacking: an attitude of gratitude. When we look back on the past in regret, we aren't thankful for the gift that the event or day or experience was to us.

Approaching the past, no matter how great or how sinful or hurtful it was, with gratitude to God can lift the heavy burden of anger or frustration from our lives. I am grateful to God for the sins of the past because they teach me a better way to head into the future. I am grateful for the way history was written because the world today would not be the same without the past.

Reviewing the day, the year, and the past in thanksgiving is a good discipline to have. St. Ignatius of Loyola instructed his students to do the same in their evening prayers. Reviewing the day (or anything in the past) with regret serves little purpose. Looking at yesterday with gratitude allows us to discover the face of God moving about in the world with greater clarity.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Julie & Julia


"I have called you by name. You are mine... You are precious in my eyes." Isaiah 43:1,4

Julie & Julia is the story of two real-life people half a century apart in their journey into cooking.

Julia Child, as most anyone knows, is a chef and television personality and the author of Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961). Julie Powell, on the other hand, is an average American woman who succeeded in cooking all of Julia Child's 524 recipes in one year and documented the experience in her own book, Julie & Julia (2005).

The movie is a delightful back-and-forth between the two women's lives. One critic scolded the film for equating a young adult novice cook from Queens with the accomplished and infamous Julia Child, saying that the two were far from equals.

In terms of accomplishment, I would say the critic has a point. But I don't think that's what he meant, and that's where I have a problem.

The life story of Julia Child (played in the film wonderfully by Meryl Streep) reveals that she was not born a cook. In fact, she did not learn the art of French cooking until she was well into her 40s and began on television in her 50s. The film shows that she stumbled upon culinary interests when she was trying to figure out what to do with her time in Paris while her husband Paul (Stanley Tucci) worked as an officer for the U.S. Information Agency. She then struggled to get anyone to publish the 700+ page cookbook she and her French co-writers had developed.

Julia's experiences reveal that she was very much human, just like anyone else... just like a young adult such as Julie Powell (Amy Adams) just trying to make her own way in the world in the early 2000s. Julia's story may give us an insight into a genius cook, but Julie's story gives us hope. For average, everyday people, Julie's story is all-too-familiar.

Like so many others, Julie feels lost in her bureaucratic cubicle job. Like so many others, Julie is trying to figure out what she's really passionate about. Like so many others, Julie feels just a little bit cramped in her home, with never enough room to move around. And like so many others, Julie just wants her voice to matter in the world.

Julie's story is one that I can identify with. She's a fellow blogger, only her love is Julia Child's cooking whereas mine is popular movies. The blog was Julie's way of sharing her insights with others, hoping it might make a difference for someone - just as this blog is my way of sharing my insights with you, hoping that it might make some difference in your life.

So in this film about two women's adventures into cooking, one story is not better than another. Julia Child might be more famous, but Julie Powell proves that God mades us all worthy of our story being put to celluloid.

To God, all our stories are special and worthy of a Friday night at the movies. To God, each of us has a unique journey to take - and watches with great anticipation what our next move might be. Society today has a way of extolling the rich, famous, and powerful, as if their stories are better than ours - even when your story and my story might be more interesting than those of the celebraties on TMZ.com or the world leaders at a G-8 Summit.

That movie reviewer who critized the film for making Julie and Julia equals doesn't see people as God sees people - as all incredibly special in their own right. But what about you? Do you think that your story - and the stories of those average everyday people around you today - are just as great as your role models', heroes', and favorite movie stars' stories? God does.

It is God that says to us: "I have called you by name. You are mine... You are precious in my eyes" (Isaiah 43:1,4) God has called Julia Child by name and Julie Powell by name, and they are both precious in God's eyes, each unique and wonderful in their own way.

God has called you by name. God knows you and you are His. You, just like Julia & Julie, the President and the Pope, Meryl Streep and Amy Adams and any famous actor, the saints, the prophets, and all the great people of history, are precious in God's eyes. He is waiting to see what you'll do next in the great movie of your life... and so am I and all those around you.

So go ahead, and make your next move. Make your life as extraordinary as God knows it is.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Funny People


"...in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health..."

In Funny People, we find out right away that famous comic George Simmons (Adalm Sandler) has been diagnosed with an untreatable blood disorder - not a very funny circumstance, to be sure.

Before this revelation, George Simmons seemed to live life to the fullest - making a lot of money, staring in several successful movies, living in an opulant mansion, being connected to all sorts of celebraties, taking different girls to bed each night, and so forth. But upon discovering the news that he was dying, his life screeched to a halt. He started to re-examine what he had done and began to make amends for the mistakes of his past.

He decides to return to his roots by doing stand-up comedy like he used to - and to do this well, he grooms an up-and-coming comic named Ira Wright (Seth Rogan) to write his new jokes but also to accompany him on this final leg of the journey. Upon Ira's advice, he strengthens the bonds between himself and his celeb friends. In effect, he becomes a new man.

In my work in the church, I have seen so many people come back to God and rediscover a new version of themselves when times are rough. Sickness, job loss, grieving, economic hardships, persecution, and uncertainty can bring people into a deeper relationship with God and help them become a better person in the process. The image of God as a gentle comforter, or a "good shepherd" who looks out for his sheep, is very important to those who are struggling through life.

SPOILER ALERT: But what happens when times are good? In Funny People, George finds out that the experimental medicine he was taking is actually working - and he is cured. Sadly, this news makes George revert back to his old ways, even though he claims he is a changed man. He falls back into old habits and rejects those who are trying to help him.

In the Christian wedding ceremony, the officiant asks the bride and groom whether or not they will be with each other in all circumstances, "...in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health..." Using that popular phrase and applying it to our relationship with God, are we with Him in good times and in bad times, in sickness and in health, when we're down on our luck and when we're doing well, when we're alone and when we're surrounded by friends...?

It's common to come to God and be a stronger person when life isn't going so well. But it's uncommon to return to the gospel and become honorable and just when life is great.

Sadly, our churches do not have enough rituals to celebrate the good times and to, as St. Paul says in Romans 12: 15, "laugh with those who laugh and weep with those who weep." We have great pastoral care to comfort the broken-hearted and to tend to the sick, but do we have the tools to be with people when things are going smooth?

Regardless, I urge you to come to God and be a part of a faith community even when things are fantastic. George Simmons missed the point and took the easy route by coming to his senses when things were rough while falling into bad habits when things looked great. Don't repeat George Simmons' mistakes.

Instead, let us pray for each other that we may turn to God in all circumstances, at all times, and in all ways.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince


"He who fears the Lord honors his father and serves him... Even if his mind should fail, be considerate towards him, and with all your strength, do not revile him. For kindness to a father will not be forgotten - it will serve as an offering to God and take lasting root." Sirach 4:7, 13-14

For six years, Harry Potter has struggled to find (and keep) a father figure since learning about the tragic death of his parents to save his life. Characters like Hagrid, Lupin, and Sirius Black have served as temporary guardians over the course of six films, but none has had the lasting impact as Hogwarts Headmaster, Albus Dumbledore.

In this sixth movie, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Price, Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) has decided to stop the games and start sharing important lessons and memories with Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) - so to prepare him for what must come next.

Up until now, Harry and the Headmaster have had a challenging relationship. In past years, Dumbledore stayed distant from his prize student to protect him from harm - although Harry incorrectly interpreted this as indifference. Now in Harry's sixth year as a student at Hogwarts, Dumbledore must become the father figure and mentor that Potter deseprately needs.

This caused me to think back to the teachers and father figures in my own life - the people who have passed on their wisdom through their words or deeds.

I recall the charismatic pastor of my church growing up, who exemplified what it means to serve others and lead with inspired vision. He baptized me as an infant and was a powerful presence in my childhood and adolescence - and remained a role model in my young adult years. Sadly, he passed away a short while ago. What I regret is that I am no longer able to learn from him or watch his example. That priviledge I enjoyed as a youth has been taken away from me.

What role models and mentors do you have? Who has had a profound impact on you? And who continues to make a difference in your life story? - in other words, who is your Dumbledore? As you reflect on this, ask yourself if you spent enough time "at the foot of the master," whoever that might be for you. Are you living up to being the person that your role models and father figures would expect of you?

On the flip side, are you a Dumbledore to someone else? Perhaps you are, but don't realize the mark you have made on others' lives. How have you helped someone else, and even more importantly for you, what have you learned from those you lead?

In addition, when people come to you with questions or the desire to be guided, do you shut them off or do you embrace that relationship? From my personal experience, I have had other role models in my life who have been "too busy" to teach me. This has caused me some distress and uncertainty - so if you find yourself doing that to someone, be sure to heal those wounds.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, The Book of Sirach (a lesser-known work found in Catholic Bibles and in the Apocrapha of Protestant ones) talks about the lessons of one generation to the next. In it, the author states: "He who fears the Lord honors his father and serves him" (Sirach 4:7). Honoring past generations and teachers is key for those of all ages.

"Even if his mind should fail him, be considerate towards him, and with all your strength, do not revile him," says the author - bringing to mind a key climactic scene in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. "For kindness to a father will not be forgotten - it will serve as an offering to God and take lasting root." (Sirach 4:13-14)

Be kind to the generations who have gone before you. Learn from them. If you have a mentor or father figure, cling to them and listen to what they have to say. If you do not have such a person in your life, find one before they pass by. And if you have lost touch with that teacher, reconnect before it's too late.

I wish I had another moment with the one in my life who passed away too soon. But God has given us memories to guide our way when we're on our own. Like diving into the Headmaster's Pensieve in the movie, take time to reflect on the past and continue learning from it. As Sirach says, let it take lasting root - and you will be forever changed.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs



Going deeper with the dinosaurs...

When I advise people on figuring out what God might be saying in the movies, there are a five major things to look out for: the plot, the characters, the setting, the overall movie-going experience, and a fifth option: the thrill of the sights and sounds.

For Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs, what connected to me was the fifth item: the excitement of seeing dinosaurs rumble around on screen.

When I was a kid, one of the things I wanted to do when I grew up was become a paleontologist, a scientist that digs up and studies dinosaur bones. While I never got into the scientific stuff, I still to this day enjoy a good dinosaur tale -and this film is no different.

In this Ice Age movie, the familiar woolly characters Manny (Ray Ramono) and Ellie (Queen Latifah), the anything-but-slothful Sid (John Leguizamo) and the sabre-toothed Diego (Denis Leary) stumble upon some tyrannosaur eggs (don't mind the fact that millions of years seperated these creatures; we are led to believe, in this movie, that a whole "lost world" of ancient dinoaurs exists under all that ice in the ice age).

As the film progresses, the eggs hatch and little tyrannosaurs pop out, and of course, the mother Rex comes to reclaim her hatchlings - along with Sid, which causes the rest of the ice age team to race after their friend and have their own adventures underground.

But the plot didn't really matter. I just wanted to see the dinosaurs.

So how is this spiritual? Well, when it comes to the sights and sounds, it's very much about a personal experience. What is it about that fun, quirky sight or sound that gets to you? And why might your mind keep going in that direction?

For Ice Age, the fun-loving strool through the Mesazoic Era reminded me of my own childhood, and why I was so captivated by these age-old monsters. For me, the dinosaurs were my imaginary protectors - and no problem was too big that a T-Rex couldn't solve. Well, I've grown up and I now realize that dinosaurs aren't coming back anytime soon.

So I pray on this. And then it occurs to me that I still have a Tyrannosaurus in my corner. My Rex is God, who is truly larger than life and can devour any problem the world might bring.

That leads me to the Scriptures where I read the psalmist as he says, "Tremble before Him, all the earth and say among the nations, 'The Lord is king.' He has made the earth firm, not to be moved and governs all creation with equity... Then shall all the trees of forest and the creatures of the earth exult before the Lord, for He comes to rule the whole earth." (Ps. 96:9-10,12-13).

My prayer is complete. The might and power of the dinosaurs still live within my world, only this time that strength comes not from the fossils, but from the heavens. God is the one that will protect, defend, and rumble beside me.

This conclusion reminds me that no fun sight or sound that appeals to me in the movies is too trivial, and all thoughts can lead to a deeper spirituality. I learn never to underestimate the smallest aspect of an enjoyable film, for God is so big he can roar through anything.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Public Enemies



If we do not learn the lesson of history, we are bound to repeat it.

Public Enemies takes place during the Great Depression of the 1930s, which we watch today as we sit in our movie theatres in another time of great depression.

In fact, the irony is not lost on us when we watch John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) cool off from the summer heat by escaping to see gangster movies, just as we, the audience, cool off from our own summer heat to watch this particular gangster flick in 2009.

For me personally, this movie was like taking a stroll down memory lane. I grew up near Crown Point, Indiana (where Dillinger escaped from prison with a wooden gun), went to college not far from Michigan City (where he staged another escape), lived for a short time after college just off Fullerton Ave. where I used to see movies at the Biograph (the exact spot where Dillinger was gunned down), and now live and work in some of the areas where the movie was filmed (in fact, every day on my way to work, I pass by the prison seen in the first scene of Public Enemies).

All these connections point to the old adage: If we do not learn the lesson of history, we are bound to repeat it.

In Dillinger's time, the economy was so horrible that some people turned to a life of crime just to stay afloat. Added to that was the blatant corruption in law enforcement at the time. The police did little to stop the outlaws because they were bribed, which paid more than their salaries. In fact, the Feds did not include Chicago Police in their raids against Dillinger because so many people in the department were being paid off.

Added to this was the rise of celebrity culture in the 1930s. Dillinger and his gang were public heroes, not public enemies, to the masses of people desperate for some entertaining distraction from their misery and strife.

To counter this growing threat, the newly formed Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) thought the only tactic was to capture the gangs "by any means necessary," according to J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup). Torture and brutality were now acceptable means of justice.

If we do not learn the lesson of history, we are bound to repeat it.

In the Scriptures, the prophets are constantly reminding the people of Israel of this adage when they kept repeating the sins of the past over and over again. Their words even ring true today.

When Amos declares, "Woe to those who turn judgment into wormwood and cast justice to the ground!" (Amos 5:7), he could be talking to the high priests and aristocrats of his day, to the corrupt police and FBI torturers of the 1930s, or to corrupt politicians in our time.

When Amos admonishes, "Because you have trampled on the weak and stolen from them their treasures, even though you built elegant houses and counted your money, it will all be taken away from you! Even though you planted your vineyard, you shall never drink from its wine!" (Amos 5:11), he might be speaking out against the hierarchy of ancient days, or the outlaws like Dillinger who steal what little money was left in the Depression, or to those who take advantage of the middle class, the worker, or the everyday people trying to live within their means in the 21st Century.

Perhaps the movie is titled Public Enemies in the plural rather than the singular to show that it was more than a single person that we should learn our lessons from. In this movie, we need to look carefully at all the parties involved - the gangsters, the corrupt police, the vengeful FBI, or even the clueless public preferring outlaws over justice.

We are once again faced with economic trouble, yet another time ripe for the events of this movie to unfold again, but this time around, let us pray that we are up to the challenge and might face this new era in gospel-inspired ways.

Then, when we face this crisis anew and learn our lessons this time around, Amos promises something greater as he prays to God: "Let justice roll down like water and righteousness as a mighty stream!" (Amos 5:24)

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen


"I am the resurrection and the life..." (John 11:25)

There is a lot of noise and computer-generated effects in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, but at its core, this movie is oddly about a quiet and sure hope in the resurrection.

Since the events of the first Transformers movie, the autobots, led by Optimus Prime (wonderfully voiced by Peter Cullen), have become a secret government agents, using their advanced technology to help root out evil around the world.

Meanwhile Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is off to start a new life in college while trying to maintain a long-distance relationship with his girlfriend Mikaela (Megan Fox).

The action of the film takes off when the global-domination-bent decepticons resurrect their fallen leader Megatron (voiced by Hugo Weaving), who comes to take revenge and extract valuable information from Sam. At the last second, the gallant Optimus saves his human friends and sacrifices himself so that Sam and Mikaela can escape unharmed.

From this point forward, Sam must have faith that hope is not lost and Optimus is not truly gone. It is this faith in the resurrection of his savior that motivates Sam to overcome all obstacles and survive a vengeful robot attack on the earth.

Sam's faith challenged me to ask myself, "How much do I really believe in the resurrection?" DO I really have hope in something greater than the present world?

In the Gospels, despite being around Jesus for years, the disciples Martha and Mary question their own hope in a better future when their brother Lazarus dies. Jesus tells them with conviction that "I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, even if they die, will live, and everyone who believes in this hope and in me will never die." (John 11:25-26).

To believe in the resurrection means to believe that death is not the last word. On a smaller scale, to live in a resurrection-based faith means to live in hope, that no situation will ever end in defeat, in negativity, in crisis... that there is always something greater that lies just beyond.

Do I believe this? Do I live in a hopeful way? When times get tough, do I give up or do I strive onward, with a belief that things will get better.

Jesus showed us that resurrection is real and that life and goodness always have the last word. So no matter how bad it seems, even if killer robots from outer space come to extinguish our sun and try to destroy all life on earth, having hope in the resurrection is the best thing for us.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Taking of Pelham 123


"The one who conceals his sin will never prosper, but the one who confesses and forsakes his sins will obtain mercy and forgiveness." Prov. 28:13

The Taking of Pelham 123 takes us on a thrill ride through the subways of New York City. The movie is basically a two-hour stand-off between two men: a transportation dispatcher named Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) and the subway hijacker who calls himself "Ryder" (John Travolta).

Early in the film, Ryder commandeers a subway train and takes the passengers as hostages in an attempt to demand $10 million for their ransom from the mayor of New York City (played by James Gandolfini). Garber is the dispatcher of the hour who investigates this crisis and in so doing, establishes a gentlemen's rapport with Ryder.

Both men are troubled souls, we come to find out, and in this way, kindred spirits (which endears one to the other throughout the ordeal). Both Garber and Ryder were down on their luck at one point in the past, and to compensate for that struggle, did something illegal to try and get ahead.

But on this day, despite their common misdeeds of the past, they are on opposite sides of this game of cat and mouse.

What puts them on those opposite sides is the choices they have made in life. Both had done something wrong or something shameful in their past, but each one handled it differently. They made a choice on how they would pick themselves up again after their respective falls.

Garber probably accepted a bribe from Japanese investors, but has chosen to face the consequences and whatever justice lies before him. Ryder was convicted of financial corruption, and is now bent on getting revenge against those who accused and humiliated him.

Their stories reflect an ancient tradition of proverbial wisdom in the Hebrew Scriptures. In many of the proverbs of the Bible, there is a juxtaposition of the wise and the foolish, the innocent and the criminal, the just and the unjust.

The Taking of Pelham 123 shows us another proverbial story - of the one who hides his sin and becomes bitter and the one who quietly faces justice and lives honorably... or as it is written in Scripture: "The one who conceals his sin will never prosper, but the one who confesses and forsakes his sins will obtain mercy and forgiveness." (Prov. 28:13)

What seperates one from the other is the choice we make after a fall. We all make mistakes, and many of us have suffered humilitation in the past. The question is not how far we fell, but how well we rose up again. We could be bitter, bury our insecurities, and become vengeful, or we can hold our heads up high, admit and confess our sins, and forgive those who stand against us.

If we are followers of Christ, there is really only one choice, and that is to follow the lead of Jesus and act with honor, humility, and forgiveness. Anything else, as the Proverbs say, "will never prosper."

Friday, June 12, 2009

Imagine That

"There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens... a time to keep, and a time to cast away." Eccl. 3:1,6

There is an old saying, that when you go to heaven, you probably won't say to God, "Gee, I wish I spent more time at the office." Life is about balance, but we have such a hard time achieving that in our lives.

Imagine That is a film that reminds us to examine our lives and find the balance we so desperately seek. And balance is not the same thing for everyone. Each one of us has a unique tipping point.

In the movie, Eddie Murphy plays Evan, a financial executive who struggles to find his balancing point. His daughter Olivia (Yara Shahidi) is struggling too. Her parents are divorced and neither seems to pay her any attention; consequently, with the help of her blanket, she creates a magical imaginary universe to escape and hide from the struggles in the real world.

Balance is the key for everyone. In the Scriptures, the author of Ecclesiastes reminds us that "There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens... a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to be serious and a time to dance... a time to seek and a time to lose, a time to keep and a time to cast away..." (Eccl. 3:1,4,6)

Like Evan and Olivia, we all struggle with balance in our lives. We try to balance between work and play, between the "have to" and the "get to," between personal and public, between reality and dreaming. If we stay too long doing one thing, everything else suffers.

In the film, Evan was so wrapped up in his work that he forgot to play, and Olivia was so wrapped up in her fantasy world that she forgot to develop relationships with her parents in the real world. How often has that happened to us, too?

Imagine That is a good movie that should cause us to take stock of our lives. How are we doing in balancing all the various aspects of our world? For me, I know I need to spend more time in personal prayer and private time. Even in my off-time, I usually spend it with people - but rarely take a moment for myself. As I reflect on this movie, it reminds me to work on that area of balance in my life. What about you? What do you need to balance better?

Let us pray that we will all discover the appointed time for everything, and in so doing, find the inner peace we long for all our lives.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Up



"Why are you standing there looking up at the sky?" Acts 1:11

Have you ever had the experience of watching someone on television half your age who has accomplished so much already? I know I have, and it leaves me with a frustrated feeling that I have not really had the chance to leave my mark on this world.

That's what old Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner) felt, too, in the Pixar film Up. Sure he enjoyed his life, but he never realized all the dreams that he and his wife Ellie had over the years. The two of them always wanted to explore Paradise Falls in the jungles of South America, but life got the best of them.

In a scrapbook, they never got to fill in the pages marked "Things I'd Like To Do." And after Ellie dies, Carl dwells alone in his frustration.

But soon, adventure calls - when the city wants Carl's house torn down and Carl put into a retirement village. With thousands of helium-filled balloons, Carl charts a course for Paradise Falls, away from everyone but his happy memories.

I kept thinking back to Carl's scrapbook throughout the movie. How many times have I daydreamed about all the "Things I'd Like To Do" too? And how many times have I fallen short of those dreams because life happens to get in the way? For me, it's been far too many to count.

Carl and I kept thinking back to all the things we haven't been able to do - instead of focusing on what we actually did. Carl learns this lesson when he becomes a surrogate father-figure to a lost Wilderness Explorer Scout named Russell (voiced by Jordan Nagai). Russell thinks back to his own dad and how he misses the "boring stuff" - sitting by side of the road with his dad counting cars that go by, heading out for ice cream, camping in the backyard... and this causes Carl to wonder what things he might have missed staring at the sky and daydreaming.

A movie like Up reminded me to take notice of all the "boring stuff" of life. And in this economy when we can't afford luxary vacations and exotic activities, perhaps God is giving us a chance to stop and look around us - and enjoy some of that "boring stuff" of everyday life.

In the Scriptures, when Jesus ascends to the heavens, the apostles stare endlessly into the sky. But angels come down and ask them "Why are you standing there looking up at the sky?" (Acts 1:11). Instead, they tell them, go into the real world and find Jesus there. So they did exactly that, and in the poorest person, they saw the face of Christ, and in the most common meal, they experienced the presence of God. It was in the "boring stuff" that they found their dreams.

So when my wife and I got home from the movie, we took a nice long walk. It was a beautiful sunny day and we strolled around the neighborhood and taking in the sunshine and nature. Sure, it wasn't a walk on a Hawaiian beach or in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, but it was perfect in every way.

How many other times have I done some of that everyday stuff like a walk in the neighborhood, and missed the fact that every moment is a gift from God - not just the exotic and the exciting?

It's fine to dream and hope, so long as we don't lose track of the world around us. Carl had a great life with his wife Ellie, and that was the exciting adventure of his life - no matter if it was in the South American wildlife exhibit at the local zoo rather than the actual South America.

Stop and look around you every now and then, and thank God for all that "boring stuff" that makes our lives so rich and blessed.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Terminator Salvation



"I call heaven and earth today to witness against you. I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live." Deut. 30:19

What is the difference between man and machine? That's the question that Terminator Salvation asks as it continues the story of John Conner (Christian Bale) in his fight to save humankind from technology that has turned against its maker.

At first glance, it's a silly question. What's the difference between me and my lawn mower? or between my friends and my laptop? Of course you can tell the difference. Or can you? Terminator Salvation shows us people who act like robots and robots who act like humans.

On one hand, you have the army general in this movie who wants to effeciently win the war against Skynet (the "motherboard," for lack of a better term, of the machine world) regardless of the human life that will be lost in the battle. He's the guy who clearly thinks like a machine. On the other hand, you have Marcus Wright, the hybrid terminator (a mix of human tissue, data processors, and a metallic skeleton, played by Sam Worthington) who has not yet been programmed to do harm, that tries to protect the very people who seek to unplug and destroy him. He's the robot who clearly thinks and acts like a human.

It's more than metal that distinguishes you from your computer. It's the ability to make moral decisions wisely.

In this film, Skynet manufactures Marcus Wright from remnents of his former human self, including his beating heart. He was designed to infiltrate the human resistance, but what the machines did not realize was that they left his conscience in place - a conscience God gave each of us to act human in the best possible way, if we choose to follow it.

Our consciences show us the way. They allow us to know good from evil, and encourage us to choose the better route, even if that is less efficient, more troublesome, or even sacrificial.

In the Scriptures, God lays out this choice to the people of Israel before they entered the land of Canaan. God told them: "I call heaven and earth to witness against you. I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the Lord, your God, heeding his voice, and holding fast to him." (Deut. 30:19-20)

As our technology rises in our own world (eerily similar to the rise of technology in John Conner's fictional world on screen), we can start to act like the machines that make our lives easier today. We can make our choices based on efficiency, ease, and self-preservation (like our Blackberry or our toaster oven), or we can make them based on the Gospel.

Acting with compassion, forgiveness, patience, understanding, and selflessness may not be the most efficient route. It might be troubling and arduous to act this way. It might even mean we must sacrifice our time, money, energy, or life for the good of another. But making these choices is what makes us the best version of humanity that we can possibly be.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Angels & Demons

"Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from? Is it not from your passions that you make war among your members?" James 4:1

There's been a lot of passion and anger on either side of the new movie Angels & Demons (a companion film to The Da Vinci Code, also based on a Dan Brown novel), and interestingly enough, this conflict exists within the plot of the movie itself.

In the film, the Catholic Church (and specifically the Vatican) is under attack from a secret society, the Illuminati, on the occasion of the conclave to select a new Pope to lead the one-billion million Catholics around the world. And so the Vatican turns to an old adversary, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) to consult on resolving the mystery.

What Langdon soon discovers is that the Illuminati (the "enlightened ones," as they call themselves because of their love and appreciation of science over religion) are striking back against the Church because of the conflicts and divisions they have had in the past. "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," seems to be the motive behind the threat to destroy the Vatican, getting revenge for scientific oppression.

At the same time, the young Camerlengo (Ewan McGregor) in temporary charge of the Vatican while a Pope is being selected seems to be up to the Illuminati's challenge. He believes that war is upon them and the Church must act as "God's warriors" against this elusive threat.

Division and strife often create even more division and strife. War begets war. Hatred is matched with hatred. These truisms are not just apt for the plot of Angels & Demons, but also true about our very own families, workplaces, neighborhoods, countries, and yes, even our sacred religions.

One side of any division demonizes the other. Just like the title of the movie, internal conflict can draw stark contrasts between us and the other side. We are angels, righteous and true, while the opposite side must be demons, irrelevant and ugly. Of course, this drama sells a lot of books and movie tickets (and Dan Brown has profited much from creating this mess).

In the early church, there was already disagreement and division. In a letter we now have in our Bible, St. James asks the first-century Christian community, "Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from? Is it not from your passions that you make war among your members?" (James 4:1) He implores them to "not speak evil of one another" (cf. 4:11) and to make peace, not war.

Even in the release of this film, there has been some hateful accusations being hurled across the aisle (from both sides). Just like the characters of the movie, the opposing sides prepare for war.

"Put away your sword!" Jesus tells his disciples when they see themselves as God's warriors (cf. Matt. 26:52, Luke 22:38). Christians are meant for peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation, not war and infighting. In Angels & Demons, the Vatican Chamerlengo believes a warrior Pope would be ideal for the Church. But this crusading philosophy has no place in a faith founded by the Prince of Peace.

Within our own struggles in life, whether it be in the workplace, in our families, or in our politics, how quick are we to make angels and demons of the two sides?

"Put away your sword!" Jesus implores us, and seek a peaceful common ground on which to build the Kingdom of God. Let us pray we will all seek that peace our world so desperately needs.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Star Trek



"I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away... and the one who sat on the throne said, 'Behold, I make all things new.'" Rev. 21:1,5

When I first saw the new Star Trek, I was a bit saddened. I was sad because the Spock and Kirk I knew from my childhood have gone away, and something new was emerging.

I grew up watching William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy race through space, in the television re-runs of the original series, or in the movies of the 1980s and 1990s. I remember the excitement of The Wrath of Khan and those lovable whales from The Voyage Home. But after I finished watching J.J. Abrams' new Star Trek, I realized I would need to put that behind me.

Even though the characters are the same in this new movie, things have changed. The story begins immediately with a new change: a Romulan ship was forced from the late 24th Century to the mid 23rd Century through a time-travel wormhole, altering the events of the past and thus creating an alternate timeline. This not only means the lives of our characters are forever changed, but it means that moviegoers' expectations have to be changed as well.

In this new timeline, James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) takes a different route to Starfleet, and his relationship with Spock (Zachary Quinto) begins more rocky than we had previously known. This also means that nothing can be assumed (and even characters we know and love from Star Trek's previous television shows and movies could possibly die in this new timeline).

In our own lives, we live with uncertainty. Even though some might imagine that "history repeats itself," it really doesn't. Every new generation brings its nuances and unique vision to the future that lies before them. It can be tempting to assume we can predict what lies ahead of us based on the past, and to a certain degree that is true, but you just never know.

And when things go differently than we had imagined them, we must pray that we can accept those changes and live in that new reality. Unlike Spock and the Romulans from this film, we don't have the ability to go back in time and change things. Instead, we have one shot. Life rarely has "mulligans," so we must do our best to make the best of our situation.

In my work with young adults, I encounter a number of people who dismiss or look down upon those who are younger than they. Or they label younger people as "not there yet." For instance, people will criticize college students because they aren't yet in the working world yet, or see single people as not married yet, or young couples as not parents yet, or young parents as not mature yet, and so forth.

People looked at Kirk, Spock, Scotty, and Uhura as "not there yet." But they were. Because, as the Star Trek movie poster beckons, "the future begins now." Something new is happening.

In John's vision in the Book of Revelation, the author "saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away..." (cf. Rev. 21:1). The future had arrived, and God proudly proclaimed "Behold I make all things new." (Rev. 21:5).

We can either stay mired in the past, thinking nostalgically about the way things were - in our lives, in our work, in our families, in our church, or in our world. Or we can follow our Lord, who makes all things new, and embrace the future, uncertain and unsafe as it might be.

In a minor way, I had to adjust my thinking about Kirk and Spock and the Enterprise. Sure, I would always have those wonderful memories of watching those old re-runs or movies, but a new generation has taken command of the bridge, taking me to tomorrow. So I must move on and boldly go where I have never gone before.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Wolverine



"Not all who wander are lost." - J.R.R. Tolkein

On the back of an elderly couple's pick-up truck in X-Men Origins: Wolverine reads a simple bumper sticker: "Not all who wander are lost." As we read this phrase, on screen we see a wandering Jimmy Logan (Hugh Jackman), dazed and confused and angry, dashing naked into this couple's barn and escaping those who destroyed his life.

Throughout this action-packed movie, Logan is a wanderer. He wanders through 150 years of history, having been born in the 1830s with the ability to age extremely slowly because of his extraordinary healing powers. Over those decades, Logan wanders through the life of a warrior, fighting in the American Civil War, two World Wars, and Vietnam.

But all who wander are not lost. After the Vietnam conflict, Logan and his brother Victor (Liev Schreiber) are conscripted to an elite fighting team filled with people with special powers.

Seeing the brutal descruction his gifts have caused humanity, Logan finds a new purpose for his life. He rejects the violence, to live a life of peace with a beautiful woman named Kayla (Lynn Collins) in the Canadian Rockies, far away from the conflict and agression of the world.

Sadly, William Stryker (Danny Huston), the head of the elite fighting team, manages to find him again and engineers Kayla's death, causing Logan to wander again - this time, back into his fold. With revenge in his heart, Logan agrees to a special project that will turn him into a super-soldier as indestructable adamantium metal is painfully fused to his bones and Logan becomes "Wolverine."

That's where Logan meets this elderly couple, who despite all evidence to the contrary, take him in and compassionately tend to his wounded heart. Seeing their kindness, Logan again finds his purpose - and the one who has wandered for so long is no longer lost.

Stryker wanted to turn Logan into an animal, as he had done with his brother Victor who has become the killing machine "Sabertooth." Stryker believes that, at our core, we are just carnal animals. He believes our history is littered with wars because we are just descructive creatures bent on killing one another.

But Logan is no animal. He is a good man with a kind heart, and even though he has the ability to kill at will and survive any attack, he prefers a peaceful life. This is how he becomes the Wolverine we know and love in the original X-Men movies.

Likewise, we are not animals. Humans have evolved above the rest of creation because we have the capacity to love, serve, and honor one another. We are not meant for war, but rather for peace. Jesus came into our world to remind us and show us that way, and to model for us loving self-sacrifice instead of violence and hatred.

Like Logan, we are all equipped with great gifts - each of them unique to who we are. We can use them for selfishness, destruction, and greed, just as Stryker might predict for us. Or we can use our gifts to better the world, just as Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) might teach us to do. Our gifts can cut people down like Wolverine's claws, but they can also lift them up.

Kayla reminds Logan, "You are no animal." And Jesus reminds us the same thing. He believes we are capable of so much more.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Soloist



"The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me." Mt. 26:11

In the movie The Soloist, journalist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) was just looking for a heart-warming public interest story in a homeless street musician Nathanial Ayers (Jamie Foxx). But he was not prepared for what he truly uncovered.

Nathaniel Ayers is a real-life Julliad trained musician who had to drop out due to his schizophrenic condition, eventually winding up on the streets of Los Angeles, homeless and poor with nothing but a two-string violin to keep him company.

Steve Lopez initially takes interest because he feels Ayers' story would sell a lot of copies of his paper (and thereby save him from a possible layoff). Over time, however, he discovers the nightmare of schizophrenia and the reality of the wretched poverty that lies just a block or two away from his workplace, and it becomes his newfound mission to save Nathaniel from both situations (and potentially save all the poor and mentally ill throughout Los Angeles).

It's a noble new vision, but it doesn't last. He soon finds out that, no matter what he does, he cannot "save" Nathaniel from anything, nor can he really put a dent in the fight against poverty. Like so many of us who ask what one person can really do, Lopez wants to give up - on this new idealism and specifically on a seemingly ungrateful Nathaniel Ayers.

I have often felt this way, too. I look at the issues facing us (poverty, disease, prejudice, war, environmental crisis, abortion, terrorism, and so forth) and get frustrated that I am so small while the problems are so big. Sometimes I figure it would just be easier to give up trying.

I don't think that God calls us to solve everything. In the gospels, when Judas confronts Jesus about this, the Lord looks at him and says "The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me." (Mt. 26:11). I have always been troubled by that Scripture passage because it seems Jesus has given up on the poor. But when I saw The Soloist, this line finally made some sense to me.

What I think Jesus is telling us (and tell Steve Lopez in this story) is that to truly solve the issue of poverty (or whatever else worries us), we must stop looking at the issue as a problem to be solved - but rather as people to be in relationship with. We are called to be friends with the poor, to look them in the eye as a friend would, and offer them our compassion and company.

Steve Lopez learned that he could not eradicate the problems of Skid Row, but he could be a genuine friend to Nathaniel Ayers.

God calls us to be in relationship with the Christ in one another. I believe that "you will not always have me" was Jesus' way of saying that time may eventually take care of poverty as a whole, but there is still an urgency to meet the poor one on one, because they will not always be there, and we will have lost out on the chance to meet Christ in the face of those people.

In a way, God gives us a challenge: The poor you will have with you always... so what are you going to do about it - and whose friend will you be? Let us pray that we will find the strength to enter into relationship with the poor, the marginalized, the sick, the dying, the mentally ill, and the rejected members of our community and society.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Monsters vs. Aliens



Monsters are your friends

In Monsters vs. Aliens, poor Susan Murphy (voiced by Reese Witherspoon) gets hit by a meteorite on her wedding day and proceeds to grow to over 50 feet tall in the middle of the ceremony. But that's not the worst part for poor Susan.

After she literally outgrows the wedding chapel, she is wrangled by the military and shipped off to live a life of solitude amongst other "monsters," away from civilization. That isolation, more than her newfound size (or the fact that she is given the new moniker "Ginormica"), is what makes her the most miserable.

What saves her, though, is the friendly company of several other "monsters" held in captivity like Susan - such as Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie), the Missing Link (Will Arnett), and the lovable blob B.O.B. (Seth Rogan)... not to mention the Mothra-looking Insectosaurus.

If they weren't imprisoned, Susan is told, there would be mass panic by the general public. People would be repulsed, disgusted, and frightened by these "monsters," so for everyone's safety, it is best that they not come in contact with the real world.

Of course, when aliens come to earth (led by Gallixhar, voiced by Rainn Wilson), the only ones who have a chance at stopping them are those dreaded "monsters." And despite being rejected by society, the monsters rise above the humans in this story and give their all for the sake of those who persecute and hate them. It seems monsters aren't so bad after all.

We may not have Bigfoot locked up in Area 51 somewhere, but we still can treat others like "monsters" in our world today. For being a human race blessed by God with so much diversity, it seems we can hardly tolerate those who act, look, and think differently than us.

How do we treat those who are handicapped, disfigured, sick, overweight, or socially awkward? Do we embrace them as one of our own, or do we marginalize and isolate them?

And if we ourselves are treated like monsters by others, how do we respond? Do we react with anger and vengence, or do we love and give ourselves to others despite how they treat us?

No matter what side we find ourselves on, Christ calls on us to love unconditionally and respond without hatred. In fact, Christ sees no sides - instead he views us all as one, even if our society has created labels and divisions. "I call you all my friends," he told the disciples at the Last Supper, despite their differences (cf. John 15:15).

Monsters, it seems, are our friends, too.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Doubt

"You shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor." Ex. 20:16

After watching the movie Doubt, you naturally come to one of two conclusions: he did it, or he didn't.

This film follows a battle between two parish leaders in a Bronx Catholic church in 1964. One of these leaders is the parish priest, Fr. Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is accused of sexual misconduct with a young African American boy who recently moved to the community. The other one is Sr. Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), the stern principal of the parish school and the one who leads the charge against Fr. Flynn.

Caught between these two giants is Sr. James (Amy Adams), a young Sister of Charity who sees the good in all things, trusts others completely, and struggles between this innocence and a real-world pragmatism. In some respects, the audience watches this battle through her eyes, not sure whether to trust Fr. Flynn or side with Sr. Aloysius.

Doubt gives us enough evidence for either case to be made, but not enough to make a definite conclusion. And this, all too often, is the way life really is.

Our lives are not like those movies where the audience knows every detail and the characters search for two hours trying to discover what we have known since the first few moments of the film. Our lives are more like Doubt, where we know only a portion of the truth.

The question in any decision or situation in life is how quick are we to judge - and how easy it might be for us to fill in the gaps with conjecture and gossip. Throughout the movie, Sr. Aloysius justifies this by saying that as we pursue justice, we might step a few steps farther from God, but it's all for the "greater good."

How often do we fill in the gaps, to make things easier on ourselves? How often do we rush to judgment without knowing all the facts?

In our modern society, we let other people (even people we trust) and groups (like the media) fill in a lot of those gaps (and today, technology allows us to dangerously spread those thoughts like wildfire). Without a full knowledge of the situation, we create our opinions, whether they be truly right or wrong.

In a public way, we draw those conclusions about politicians and elected officials, clergy and church workers, actors and celebrities, newsmakers and so forth. In a private way, we might do the same for family, friends, co-workers and colleagues, especially those who we struggle to like. In fact, it's easier to do this with people we already have a grudge against (in the movie, Sr. James notices this when Fr. Flynn and Sr. Aloysius don't see eye to eye on the songs to sing in the parish Christmas pageant, making the rift between them even wider).

In Exodus, God gives ten basic commandments to begin his law among his people Israel. We often wonder why these ten were given prominence over the other 400+ laws that God gave in the Sinai wilderness.

One idea I have had is that these ten are sins that can lead to so many others. These are ten where the slippery slope begins. One of those is "You shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor" (Ex. 20:16 - and yes, sorry, I used the King James phrasing here since I have always found it carries more weight and authority).

Doubt reminds us that "bearing false witness" is filling in the gaps. It's natural and human to do so. We the viewers find ourselves doing that at the end of the film, drawing our conclusions: did he, or didn't he? "Bearing false witness" means that we don't have enough to judge another person.

And when we encounter similar situations in our own lives, do we have confidence in God's omniscent judgment (which truly knows all things) to make the final call if our own experience does not lend itself to making that decision ourselves? Let us pray that we avoid filling the gaps, and believe in the goodness of people and all God's creation.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Knowing



"But of that that day and hour (when heaven and earth shall pass away), no one knows." Matt. 24:36

Knowing, starring Nicolas Cage, is a movie rich in biblical imagery and allusion. But you don't realize it until the last act.

The movie begins as a crypic thriller - for no apparent reason, a young girl in 1959 begins franticly writing down a series of unrelated numbers and handing it to her teacher to put in a time capsule to be opened in fifty years. Jump ahead to 2009 when the capsule is unearthed and Nicholas Cage's son happens upon the page of numbers.

Out of curiosity one night, Cage notices that several numbers correspond to the dates and death tolls of major catastrophes over the past fifty years, with only three dates still in the future.

Knowing poses an interesting dialogue with Jesus in Matthew's Gospel, when he says "But of that day and hour (when heaven and earth shall pass away), no one knows." (Matt. 25:36). In Nicolas Cage's experience, he does know the day and the place of these tragic events - but for what good? Cage tries to stop a subway disaster in New York, but is powerless to do much. The film seems to say, even if we did know the day and the hour, what good would it do us anyway?

What Jesus tries to teach us is that we spend a lot of time worrying about tomorrow, without giving much thought to today. Not that future planning isn't good, but we can get wrapped up in anxiety that we miss the world in front of our eyes.

In another passage in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus tells us, "Can any of you, by worrying, add a single moment to your life?... Seek first the Reign of God today, and all will be given to you anyway." (Matt. 6:27,33)

SPOILER ALERT: In this movie, Cage eventually realizes that the final prediction on the paper of numbers is for the end of the world. However, there is hope - his son and a friend have been selected by angelic beings from another world (which look eerily similar to the beings in the first two chapters of the book of Ezekiel) to escape the earth before it is destroyed in flames (and to re=populate another earth-like planet as a new Adam and Eve). Just like Noah in the flood, hope exists on the other side of disaster.

This is the pascal mystery we must all face. We know that bad days, loss, saddness, and even death await us all one day. We cannot hide from that fact. But just like Jesus, there is always hope beyond the worst circumstances.

Many of us go through life dreading the inevitable - whether it be a horrible final exam, a crucial doctor visit, the end of a job, the passing of a friend, or our own death. Like Nicholas Cage, we might even dread the end of the world as we know it. But life always lies just beyond. And in the meantime, we must make the best of the life we have right now.

In our lives now, we must reconcile with others, give freely to those who ask, be compassionate to those around us, and be honorable in all our actions. We must be hopeful people, with a belief that every dying is just an avenue to new life. Knowing that is good enough.