Sunday, April 18, 2010

Date Night

"What God has joined together, let no one put asunder..." Matt. 19:6

Phil and Claire Foster (Steve Carrell and Tiny Fey), who describe themselves as a "boring suburban couple with kids," are looking for a chance to re-charge their marriage - and after many attempts over the year - they finally get what they're looking for in Date Night.

The Fosters are not unlike many American married coupels today, focused on their jobs, their children, and all the everyday responsibilities so that their fragile world stays in place. But what often gets lost in the mix is intimacy. As a Christian community, we spend a lot of time working with couples preparing them for marriage - but unfortunately drop the ball when helping them with marriage (especially through the silent marriage killers of boredom, busyness, and fatigue).

Date Night is a fun, comedic tale that actually holds a mirror to these issues in society today. Phil works in accounting and Claire is a real estate agent - and both come home to the New Jersey suburbs each night exhausted and unmotivated. Even their occasional "date nights" are routine and uneventful.

But one particular evening away turns everything inside out. On a whim, Phil and Claire head to an upscale restaurant in Manhattan - to try something new (a great first step for the couple) - and when no reservations are available, they steal another group's table (again, trying something daring and risky). And in true comedic form, this one act makes for great laughs as the couple they are impersonating are actually in the middle of a dangerous high stakes operation with ties to corrupt city officials, prostitution rings, and crime syndicates.

In the midst of their whirlwind run, though, they discover each other. For the first time, they are honest and open about their feelings. And the danger and intrigue puts a spark back into their marriage (Claire is re-attracted to Phil's confidence and decision-making; Phil re-discovers how beautiful his wife is and how protective he is of her).

In many marriages today, the stigma of boredom, busyness, and fatigue can weigh heavily on men and women. In the words of one of the characters in the movie, they can turn a loving couple into "really excellent roommates."

In the Scriptures, Jesus tells us, "What God has joined together, let no one put asunder." (Matt. 19:6). This "asunder" literally means being broken into pieces - and when those silent but deadly killers attack us (like fatigue at the end of a hard day), they scatter a loving couple into little pieces. We end up compartmentalizing our lives to excess.

Carving time aside for date nights is a good first step towards fixing that, but as evidenced by Phil and Claire, it's not always enough.

To overcome the monotony of everyday life, it is important to "make things new." When we fall in love, we take a huge risk - but over time, we often get very comfortable with one another, and the unexpected falls away. Tapping into that sense of risk - whether it's going out to eat and stealing reservations at a fancy restaurant (the stealing part I don't recommend though) or if it's showing up with flowers after work one day - helps remind us that we should treat our relationships like the Israelites in Exodus, "with your loins girt, sandals on your feet, and your staff in hand... like those who are in flight, ready to go at any moment." (cf. Ex. 12:11)

Another way to "make things new" is to communicate. It sounds like common sense, but watch how Phil and Claire communicated on the first date night in the film... projecting their own insecurities onto their observations of other couples. But once the two were on the run on their second date night, they had no one but themselves to point to. Being open and honest might seem obvious, but it's amazing how little we do that with one another.

There are many more ways to spark relationships, but a third one that came to me in this movie is attractability. In religious circles, this is usually dismissed in favor of more virtuous notions of honor and respect. But being attracted is a core human emotion we cannot deny - and if we do, all the other virtues might never be realized anyway.

Throughout their date night escapade, Phil and Claire rediscovered anew how they were attracted to each other - and how attractable they could be to the other partner. Part of the problem is that couples don't notice how beautiful their spouse is - but the other part is that we second-guess our own beauty and attractiveness. In one scene near the end of the film, no matter how self-conscious Claire was at the time, Phil looked at her (in a comedic stripper outfit no less) with new eyes - and remembered just how wonderful his wife looked. But it took both of their efforts to see that.

Marriage is sacred - and sacred things are not boring, lifeless, or frustrating. Instead, they are life-giving, exciting, beautiful, and special. Date Night reminds us of that fact. Let us pray that we will not soon forget it.

Monday, April 05, 2010

How To Train Your Dragon

"The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone." Psalm 118:22

Poor Hiccup. In How To Train Your Dragon, this hapless teenager (voiced by Jay Baruchel) not only has an unfortunate name, but has the least Viking-esqe personality in the middle of a medieval Viking village plagued by dragons.

While most of the other Vikings (old and young) go off and fight the ferocious dragons and save the village from destruction, Hiccup stays behind as an inept apprentice to the blacksmith Gobber (voiced by Craig Ferguson). This poor young man is written off by everyone, including his own father Stoick (Gerard Butler), not to mention his secret crush Astrid (America Ferrera).

If he didn't live on an island, Hiccup would probably run off to someplace he would feel accepted and loved. But unfortunately, he is stuck where he is - which means he must stay and endure the fact that his own people either reject or ignore him every day.

Hiccup reminds me of the countless people we ignore throughout our lives. Whether they be the people who we know but write off and underestimate in our work, school, or community, or the anonymous poor, marginalized, handicapped, elderly, or socially awkward people we pass by on the street or in our daiy encounters, they all are the embodiment of poor Hiccup.

It's easy to write off certain people. If they don't fit in or if we're just too busy for them, we can simply forget they even exist.

Even when Hiccup shoots down a dragon to protect the city, his deeds aren't even believed. How could this inept young man really do that? So he trudges out into the forest to find and kill the dragon, hoping this might prove to the others that he is worthwhile. (this act reminds us of the measures that some people will take to be accepted or even noticed by others in our own time...)

But when confronted with killing the young Night Fury dragon, Hiccup couldn't do it.

He discovered that he couldn't kill the dragan not because he was inept, but because he is compassionate, loving, and empathetic (he later says of the incident, "I saw myself in him"). As he forms a relationship with the dragon, whom he names "Toothless," he finds and builds his confidence and, in so doing, draws the healthy attention of the very people who once rejected him in his village. Instead of resorting to violence, Hiccup taps into his creative energy to help the wounded and to protect others, even those who once persecuted him.

For many of us, we have been on both sides of this situation. At times, we have felt invisible to someone, desperate to get attention and be noticed for who we are. And at other times, we have been guilty of ignoring and rejecting those invisible people, either consciously or unconsciously.

In the Psalms, it is said, "I was hard pressed and falling, but the Lord came to my help... The stone which the builders rejected had become the cornerstone." (Ps. 118:13, 20).

When we feel like Hiccup, "hard pressed and falling," we must steady our sword and not resort to violence or negativity to draw attention. Peace, compassion, love, and gentleness should be our weapons against rejection. And when we feel like the Viking villagers, we must open our eyes to see the "Hiccups" in our midst, for they are the "cornerstone" of God's creation: it was the poor, the rejected, the marginalized, and the outcast that Christ most identified with in his time on earth and the very people he crafted into his church.

Throughout our lives from this point onward, we will again have experiences of feeling alone and rejected; we will also be put into situations where we will again have the opportunity to include or ignore someone else. When faced with these realities, let us remember Hiccup and his compassion to Toothless - and let us remember Christ and how he did not reject anyone and how he forgave those who rejected him.

When we remember that, we will surely make the right choice.