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


"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.