Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Paul Blart: Mall Cop

"Work is a good thing for us - a good thing for all humanity - because through work, we not only tranform nature, adapting it to our own needs, but we also achieve fulfillment as human beings and indeed, we become "even more human."
- Pope John Paul II, 1981

Paul Blart: Mall Cop is the story of an honorable working man. In this movie, many people don't give Paul (Kevin James) much of a chance. They look down on him because of his roles as a security guard in a local shopping mall. But no matter what anyone thinks of him, Paul keeps on going.

More often than not today, we look down on ourselves and upon others with certain careers. For others, they might look at their current line of work as a “transition” job - hoping something better might come along. While ambition isn’t a bad thing, our mind is rarely on where we are, constantly looking beyond and ahead of ourselves to the grass which looks greener on the other side.

Paul Blart could have thought like that. Mall security seemed to be passing the time as he dreamed of being a New Jersey state police officer. But instead of treating his mall job as a time of transition, he treated it as his current vocation, in other words: a calling at this point in his life. In looking at it this way, his understood it as a career of service and protection, and because of that outlook, he was able to save innocent lives and foil the bad guys in the movie. Had he seen mall security as beneath him or as just a paycheck, the outcome might have been much different and definitely much worse.

It wasn’t easy for Paul Blart to live with this sense of vocation, as it's not easy for any of us to view our jobs this way. In the film, the other characters around him discouraged his spirit and his drive. And even as Paul resisted his negativity, those around him mistreated and humiliated him even more. In addition, he struggled with his health and with his relationships, further adding to the frustration of keeping his mind on his call to serve and protect.

But when someone is this confident that God is calling them to be right where they are, nothing can get in the way. Nothing can get in the way of a mall cop becoming a superhero, as Paul Blart turned out to be in this enjoyable movie comedy.

For centuries, Christians have held up the dignity of work and the rights of workers. What separates us from the animal kingdom is the fact that we spend our lives working with a sense of purpose and vocation. Because of that, all work must be respected and all those who labor should be treated with dignity and honor. In 1981, Pope John Paul II released one of many documents and speeches on the subject of labor and work. In one such work, he said: "Work is a good thing for us - a good thing for all humanity - because through work, we not only tranform nature, adapting it to our own needs, but we also achieve fulfillment as human beings and indeed, we become "even more human." (Laborem Exercens, no. 9).

What the Pope was saying was that our work gives our lives real purpose when we treat it as a calling from God to serve His people.

Whether we realize it or not, God has called each of us to our jobs right now. At this moment in time, there is no one better to do our jobs than you and me and everyone else. No job is beneath us. No career is less than admirable. No work is without meaning, especially if we view our employment as a vocation to the world and to one another.

And when we encounter others in service to us, from the cashier at the Wal-Mart down the street to the stock broker on the commute from the city to the suburbs, how do we treat them? Do we give them honor for what they do, or do we add to their own struggle with vocation by making them feel less than their worth?

We need to appreciate the people around us, and by helping honor them, we remind them that their job is truly a vocation. We can thank them for what they do. We can make their encounter with us an enjoyable one. We can forgive them if they make a mistake. We can do our part to make their jobs easier.

We are asked to treat ourselves and other workers this way because not everyone has the resiliency as Paul Blart did in Mall Cop - as someone who took the persecution and humiliation and still honored his calling.

I have a friend who has a similar job to Paul Blart. He works for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) at a nearby airport (you know: those people who put your carry-on luggage through the scanner and who ask you to go through the metal detectors on your way to your gate).

I realize it’s not fun to go through security checks these days, but my friend tells me that a number of people treat him and his fellow TSA agents very poorly. That’s unfortunate because these people are simply doing their jobs, namely protecting and serving the people and the security of the country. They are called to serve those of us who travel, but can be spat upon by the very same people. Even with all of the abuse and frustration, what inspires me is how well my friend continues to treat his job as a vocation.

Is his a perfect job? No. But at this moment in time, he is the perfect person for that job - just as you and I are the perfect people at this moment in our jobs.

I think we need more Paul Blarts in our country today. No matter what job we’ve been given, we need to treat it with respect and honor. We need to ask ourselves: How can we serve others through our work? How can we give our best selves to this job we have now? How can we honor others who give their lives to their work?

If more people worked like Paul Blart, imagine the world we'd live in. For me, I imagine that might inch us ever closer to the Reign of God that Jesus spoke about in the gospels. And that's something worth shooting for. Let us pray for more Paul Blarts.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

"Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God." Luke 6:20

Slumdog Millionaire is more than your typical rags-to-riches movie.

This film follows Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), a young adult who grew up in the slums of Mumbai, as he wins twenty million rupees on the Indian version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" But what makes his story unique is that he won the grand prize because of all the things that had happened to him amidst his life of poverty and oppression.

We learn, through flashbacks after each question in the game show, that Jamal lost his mother when militant Hindus ravaged his neighborhood, and that he and his brother Salim (who are both played by several young actors throughout the film as they age) escape into a life of extreme poverty.

We learn that, as children, the two brothers (along with a newfound friend Lakita) were exploited by abusive human traffickers, but subsequently escaped by train, eventually ending up begging and stealing money at the Taj Mahal. We learn that in their early teens, Salim finds and kills the leader of the traffickers, leading to his own devolution into a life of crime - while Jamal ends up serving coffee at an international calling center. Finally, we learn that Jamal was on the show just to give hope to his childhood sweetheart Lakita (Freido Pinto), who is cloistered as one of many young girls at the beckon call of an Indian mobster.

These stories remind us of the unfortunate poverty that sweeps across India and other third-world areas around the globe. If for no other reason than to be made aware of this destitude that occurs beyond our borders, this movie is well worth it.

In the United States, we often forget the millions of people across our planet who live in such deplorable conditions, and a film like Slumdog Millionaire can help us regain that awareness, and challenge us to do more to eradicate poverty, and the conditions that bring it about. As Christians, we are called to give special attention to the poor and helpless, wherever they are.

Jesus told his followers, who were all below the poverty line of their day, "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who are now weeping, for you will laugh again." (Luke 6:20-21). In Luke's Gospel, we see a savior whose first mission was to the poor, the outcast, and the unloved.
We see a Jesus (who himself was quite poor) reach out to those who could not help themselves, and give them a confidence and happiness like they never knew before.

In this movie, it was Jamal who gave hope and inspiration to millions around India, as the poor huddled around television sets to watch one of their own move beyond their poverty. And what made it even more special was that Jamal did not go on the show for the money - but rather for the love and compassion of another, namely his friend Lakita.

In our lives, while we may not experience the extreme conditions that we see in the movie, we can get downtrodden by the economy, our jobs, stress and pressure, or the mounting expectations that others hoist upon us. We can focus inward and enter into a time of self-loathing and survival, just to make through one more day. We can go through life like this, throwing up our hands and getting angry at the world for our lot in life.

Jamal Malik should be an inspiration for us, too, if we fall into this trap.

Despite our worst days, Jesus calls us to provide for one another. It is in giving that we receive, and if we look beyond ourselves and our problems to help others around us, we will surely receive that happiness that Christ promised in the Sermon on the Plain in Luke's Gospel.

In addition, Slumdog Millionaire reminds us to be grateful for our life, every minute of it. Because of the events in Jamal's life, he was able to use them to win his twenty million rupees. In our own way, we can use our past to help our future. What happened to us when we were younger that might help us and help others in the here and now?

It's not easy to do this. It requires some self-discipline and humilty of understanding. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, taught his students and companions a way to take stock of our past. He encouraged others to look back at every moment of the day just past, but to do it with a sense of thanksgiving - for everything, both the good and the bad. At the end of a day, he taught, thank God for all the things that occured since you woke up. Doing this day after day creates a discipline of thanksgiving for all that has happened.

In looking back at his life, despite the poverty and ugliness he experienced, Jamal was able to find hope and inspiration for his future.

In doing this, I believe that each of us can better understand Jesus as he says "blessed are the poor... the hungry... the weeping... those who are hated, excluded, insulted, and oppressed." Blessed are they because they have the tools to grow in spirit. They have the tools to help others. And they have the tools to eradicate hopelessness in our world.

Friday, January 09, 2009


"Our God is slow to anger, yet great in power. The Lord never leaves the guilty unpunished." Nahum 1:3

In the end, history (and Hollywood) seems to have vindicated the righteous. Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, leader of the resistance to Adolf Hitler during World War II, was executed for his plot to overthrow the Fuhrer.

But 63 years later, in the movie Valkyrie, Stauffenberg (portrayed by Tom Cruise) seems to finally be given overdue credit for his efforts to bring Germany out from under the brutal regime of the Nazi Party.

In the discussions about war and pacifism, and when resistance goes too far, this movie will give people much to talk about. Theologians and Christian leaders have debated these notions for centuries, and still today we wonder what is the ideal response to hatred, violence, and evil acts.

In Valkyrie, Stauffenberg believes the only way to deal with Hitler is to kill him. Is he right or wrong? Regardless of how history turned out, how is a Christian to look at this situation?

These are the questions I wrestle with myself in the wake of seeing this movie. At first, I am there with Tom Cruise's character, rooting him on to succeed in the assassination attempt. But then I wonder if there could have been alternatives to this plan that did not involve murder.

In the history behind the Hebrew Scriptures, we come to learn that the Assyrian Empire of the Seventh Century B.C.E. was very similar to Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 40s. The Assyrians believed in expanding their control over the known world of that time, even if it involved killing or torturing anyone that got in their way. The prophet Nahum was sent to prophesy against them for their horrors:

"Woe to the bloody city, all lies, full of plunder, whose looting never stops... I will come against you and I will strip your power from you. I will show your nakedness to the nations, to the kingdoms I will show your shame." (Nahum 3:1,5).

But God did not tell the Jewish people to revolt against them (in fact, when they did, they were themselves destoyed). Instead, it was God's place to level the playing field: "Our God is slow to anger, yet great in power. The Lord never leaves the guilty unpunished" (Nahum 1:3). The people were to trust in their God to bring about justice.

(and for Colonel Stauffenberg, I suppose history is on his side since Hitler was severely punished in the minds and consciences of the generations after him and probably for many generations yet to come; God has not left the guilty unpunished, so it seems)

That does not mean that we are to stand idly by while injustice occurs.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul tells the followers of Christ to "put on the armor of God that you may be able to resist evil on the last days and hold your ground" (Eph. 6:13). But we must resist with compassion befitting a Christian, as Jesus told us also to "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Mt. 5:44).

In my understanding of the gospel, it seems that the dialogue between pacificism and just resistance needs to continue. It's never a cut-and-dry issue. A well-made movie like Valkyrie is a great way to start that conversation. Let us pray that, through such discernment, we might find the will of God so that we can do our part to resist what is evil in our world in the most Christian way possible.

Monday, January 05, 2009


"Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering." Yoda (Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace)

The movie Frost/Nixon is a captivating piece of political history, and warning for all of us on the dangers of fear, which lead to a life of deception, pride, and arrogance.

First some background: In the years following the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon escaped public accountability for his actions by getting a full pardon from Gerald Ford. In fact, Nixon was even planning a comeback to the political scene after the dust settled on Watergate. This film, Frost/Nixon, shows how, over the course of several interviews with British talk-show host David Frost (Michael Sheen), the former president (played here by Frank Langella) - who hoped these interviews woudl bring about his exoneration - was actually brought to justice.

At the core, the biggest flaw of Richard Nixon was an overwhelming sense of fear. Throughout his life, Nixon feared losing control to others who might have been more talented, gifted, or charasmatic than he. Fear was the basis of the Watergate break-in, and it was fear that further fueled the corrupt cover-up in the years to come.

Like Yoda predicted, fear led to anger and anger led to hate and hate led to suffering. For Nixon, this meant not trusting anyone and hating nearly everyone. And because of the political deception and corruption that resulted from his paralyzing fear, the nation suffered immensely and lost all faith in institutions (a lack of trust that still remains with many Americans today). And when Ford pardoned Nixon, it closed a chapter, but still left unanswered questions and unresolved justice.

In the years following, Nixon took David Frost up on his offer for over twenty hours worth of interviews out of a lingering sense of fear - fear that he might never be liked or beloved again in the minds and hearts of the American people. He felt these interviews would give him a new image, and would also pave the way for his comeback.

David Frost also seemed to suffer from fear - fear of being labeled forever a funny talk-show host and eventually falling into obscurity once the popularity from his talk shows faded away. His fear led him to care more about getting sponsors for the telecast and looking good for the camera than believing in himself as a serious investigative reporter. And because of this fear, his first few interviews with the former president went poorly (in large part, since Nixon was more skilled at manipulation than Frost cared to admit).

But in a late night phone call between Frost and Nixon, as depicted in the movie, the British interviewer finally realized what kept him and Nixon from achieving their respective dreams: they were both overwhelmed with fear. When Frost made this realization, he got down to work, put aside the fear, and believed in himself.

When Frost got past his fear, he succeeded. Sadly for Nixon, he never got past his insecurity and failed to get the comeback that he always dreamed of having.

The reality is that, no matter if we are politicians or talk-show hosts, or if we are everyday men and women in regular jobs, we all can fall prey equally to our fears. Fear often keeps us from getting to our life goals and fear, if unchecked, leads to mistrust, anger, deception, corruption, manipulation, pride, and selfish arrogance (as it did for Richard Nixon).

Fear is something that each of us - no matter how famous or average we perceive ourselves to be - has to deal with. What will make us infamous in God's eyes is how we handle that fear.

I find it interesting that one of the most common phrases in Scripture (if not the most common) is the admonition: "Be not afraid." If something appears over and over again in the Bible, it's a sure bet that this is important.

Yoda, too, was right. Fear is the first step towards "the dark side" (or in our Christian terminology, "sin"). If we can overcome our fear, we can not only avoid doing sinful acts, but we can experience life more fully. Jesus and the multitude of other biblical figures who tell us "be not afraid" understood how abundant life could be, if only we get past our fears.

So let us pray for ourselves, that we might overcome our fears and insecurities in life, or at the very least, learn to manage and live with them. Then let us pray for those who are trapped by fear all their lives, that they, too, might find ways to manage or vanquish their anxieties and worries and embrace the confidence God has in store for them (and for all of us).

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Our Favorites of 2008

What was your favorite movie of the year?

On New Years, we take a moment to look back and what was - and look forward to what is yet to come. As we stand on the treshold between two years, we pause in the doorway to reflect on what was great about the year and what wasn't.

I asked a few friends to do the same - to think about their favorite films of 2008. Not the best film, the most Oscar-worthy, or the most critically acclaimed, but their favorite movies.

Tony and Karen loved the year's biggest blockbuster, The Dark Knight. Liz liked Horton Hears a Who. Lisa enjoyed The Boy in Striped Pajamas. Jeff appreciated Slumdog Millionaire. Becky remembers 27 Dresses since she saw it the day before her daughter was born. Sr. Christine really enjoyed The Secret Life of Bees. Heidi liked Iron Man. DeDee said Milk was her favorite, while Janet preferred The Duchess. Jeff can quote Step Brothers. Maria and Janice both couldn't chose just one; between the two of them, they liked 21, Mamma Mia, Twight, and Four Christmases, respectively. And my wife Sarah thinks everyone should see Kung Fu Panda, her favorite movie of 2008.

This list is great not because the movies here are all Academy Award-winners. In fact, some of them were critically panned and booed on their release. Rather, this list is great because they are my friends' favorites regardless of anything or anyone else.

Our favorites are our favorites for many reasons. For Becky, it was 27 Dresses' proximity to such a special experience in her life this year; while for Sarah, it was Kung Fu Panda's fun and profound story of discovering your inner hero that made it perfect for her. For others, the reason can be as simple as enjoying the music, finding a actor or actress particularly attractive, or that it made us laugh like never before.

Favorite movies reveal more about us than they do about the films. Favorite movies remind us, in the midst of busyness, work, and stress, what's truly important to us in our lives.

So as we approach a New Year, take a good long look at your favorite movie or movies this past year - and ask yourself why they are so special to you. And when you find that reason, whether deep or simple, you will find what truly matters to you right now. Spend a moment in prayer, thanking God for that revelation, and resolve to make what truly matters to you a major part of the New Year ahead.

If each of us spent a moment doing all that, I can only imagine how great 2009 will surely be. For all those reading this blog post today, a blessed and happy New Year!