Monday, May 31, 2010

Robin Hood

"When the Church hears the cry of the oppressed, it cannot but denounce the social structures that give rise to and perpetuate the misery from which the cry arises."
- Archbishop Oscar Romero (Aug. 1978)

Robin Hood has been a timeless tale for hundreds of years, appearing most recently in a gritty version directed by Ridley Scott with Russell Crowe in the titular role. The timelessness of the tale stems from its one simple principle: steal from the rich and give to the poor.

This policy of economic redistribution was radical in the Middle Ages and is still dangerous in our own day. Robin Hood reminds us each century (and now each decade through film) that the poor and oppressed should have the same rights and privledges as those who have money and power. This swashbuckling tale brings to life for its listeners and viewers the teachings of Jesus including: "Blessed are you who are poor... who are now hungry.... who are weeping... but woe to you who are rich... who are filled now... who laugh now." (Lk. 6:20-25).

In Ridley Scott's version, Robin Longstride (Crowe) begins his rebellious streak by speaking truth to power - telling the English king, Richard the Lionhearted, to his face that the crusades are foolish endeavors which God would not condone, even though the war is being fought in his name. This gospel-inspired declaration compels the king to punish Robin for his stance; but akin to the Acts of the Apostles, Robin and his men escape from their shackles and leave the crusades.

But this is only the beginning of Robin's journey. Despite their disagreement, Robin honors the king after Richard's death by taking his crown back to England - and making his way to Nottingham to return the sword of a fallen knight to that soldier's family.

What Robin sees in England, however, is oppression of the poor, an excess of taxation from the crown, and the corruption of the rich and powerful - so he begins to act, not just for himself but on behalf of those who are beaten down by medieval life.

These actions call to mind others who have stood for the poor and oppressed against injustice and tyranny over the centuries. One individual who comes to mind is Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero. Made the archbishop of San Salvador in 1977, Romero unexpectedly advocated a new paradigm - to take power away from the corrupt government of El Salvador and give it back to the people. He spoke out for human rights, an end to violence, and excessive poverty that had crippled the country.

"When the Church hears the cry of the oppressed," declared Romero in August 1978, "it cannot but denounce the social structures that give rise to and perpetuate the misery from which the cry arises." Like Robin Hood, he encouraged and gave hope to the poor - to stand up for their rights, despite persecution and even death.

Also like Robin, Oscar Romero was made an outlaw for his gospel beliefs - ignored by the United States, who stood idly by while people died; shunned by some leaders within his own Catholic Church, who did not want to upset the social order; and targeted by the government of El Salvador - who eventually assassinated him in March 1980.

Living the gospel is never easy - it will require taking up the cross and suffering for what is right. It might mean persecution from power and even opposition from those closest to us. Like Robin Hood, it might even make us an outlaw. But to stand for justice and speak out against corruption, oppression, and violence - and possibly suffer for those beliefs - is to walk in the company of people like Archbishop Romero, as well as Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, the Apostles and Martyrs, and of course, Jesus of Nazareth. But remember, that's not bad company to keep.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

LOST Finale Reflections

"Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit." Luke 23:46

SPOILER WARNING: Do not read on unless you have seen the finale episode of LOST or don't care one way or the other. But be warned that this blog will include major spoilers.

The final episode of LOST, appropriately titled "The End," gave closure to one of the finest television shows in history. In fact, it spoke a lot about closure for all of us.

It seems that the flash-sideways that we have seen this past season are not an alternate reality or a dream sequence, but a purgatorial experience in preparation for the afterlife. The island experience was real, after all. It was so real, in fact, that it seemed to be the most important experience of conversion and redemption in all our castaways' lives.

Characters like Jack, Locke, Sawyer, Kate, and Hurley came to the island alone, isolated in their airplane seats, minding their own business - as most of us do every day of our lives. Before the crash of Ocean 815, these men and women were in need of healing, forgiveness, and penence - not unlike each one of us in the real world.

But for most everyone, the island had a significant impact on their lives. Without the distraction of the anxieties of everyday life, the castaways were allowed to retreat and reflect inwardly. With the other men and women that crashed and survived, these people were able to find out what real community and real relationships were all about: love, sacrifice, and peacefulness. And through those connections and through life-changing experiences on the island, they achieved some much-needed redemption for the sins of the past.

This sixth season, however, gave us a new perspective from which to view these events. In the afterlife, in this purgatorial time after our death, the castaways had to tap into the most important thing that ever happened to them while alive to unlock the door of paradise. And (surprise!), for most of them, it was their island experiences that made the difference.

Throughout this past season and these afterlife moments, when each character felt true love, a warm touch, or an incredible joy, it brought to mind what made their lives so special. They, like Jesus on the cross, were able to say, "Lord, into your hands I commend my spirit" (Lk. 23:46). Recognizing their redemption was the "ticket" into heaven.

In addition to putting to rest many of my lingering questions, the LOST finale also made me reflect on what mattered the most to me. Did you feel the same way, too?

When in my life was I welcomed home like the lost son in Luke 15 (or like Jack and his dad in the finale)? Where did I feel the redemptive power of forgiveness, healing, and love - from God and from others in my life? If I were in LOST, what scenes would flash before my eyes when I surrendered and commended my spirit... when I saw how God graced me over and over again?

But the finale also challenged me to examine my own sinfulness. I recall Ben Linus in this episode, who realizes that he must sit outside the gates of paradise for a little while longer. Ben has spent much of his life lusting after power and control - and, if necessary, hurting others to selfishly get his way. Recently in the sixth season, Ben has begun his process of redemption. In fact, when Hurley asks an improving Ben to be his #2 on the island, I couldn't help but recall the father of the prodigal son who looks at his "other" son and accepts him into the fold, too. Perhaps beyond the island events of this episode, Ben will continue his redemptive arc. But LOST reminds us that sin must still be accounted for... Ben must wait a little while longer to enter the gates - but the invitation is his for the taking (thanks, once again, to Hurley).

Speaking of Hurley, I was pleased to see that the island was handed over to him in the end. Hugo has been the most compassionate, nonviolent, selfless, and loving castaway. Most people thought of him as comic relief, leaving the hero stuff to Jack, Kate, and Sawyer. But it was none of those people to whom the island would ultimately go. His rise to island protector reminds me to never disregard those I might consider the least among us... for it is from those people, Christ tells us, that true leadership comes. "What the builders rejected has become the cornerstone" (Mt. 21:42). Who are the Hurleys in your life?

Finally, the finale challenged me to see how I might be like Jack - who died to protect the people he loved (his fellow castaways) and especially the people he did not even know (the world 'across the sea' where the evil smoke monster might destroy others' lives). It challenged me to act with social justice for the people I may never see or who may never know I did anything for them. In a sense, the people 'across the sea' never knew what Jack did to save them from harm. So how might I work at feeding the hungry, removing oppression from those abused, and serving the marginalized and unloved members of society? How can I sacrifice on their behalf?

These are just a few of the thoughts that I have taken away from LOST. There are many others that are creeping into my mind, my heart, and my prayers this week. LOST has given me much to dwell on and contemplate - heaven, conversion moments, community, sinfulness, leadership, and self-sacrificing for justice.

What about you? Where has LOST taken you? What might God be telling you, challenging you, or reminding you about? Feel free to share...

Saturday, May 22, 2010

LOST: The Series Finale

"Let us celebrate with a feast - for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again. He was lost but now has been found." (Luke 15:23-24)

After six incredible seasons, the television show LOST is coming to an end this weekend. Fans have speculated on the many theories and predictions of what the show might mean - and executive producer Damon Lindelof said recently, "...we have no shame in admitting that we are intensely spiritual people and that LOST is ultimately a deeply spiritual show." (qtd. in Entertainment Weekly, May 14, 2010).

From its very beginning, LOST has incorporated explicit religious references into the course of the show. Consider the biblical meanings behind the names of characters such as Jacob, Aaron, Michael, Benjamin, Daniel, James and John - or that Jack Shepherd's number, 23, lines up to Psalm 23, which begins, "The Lord is my shepherd. There is nothing I shall want..."

There have been statues of the Virgin Mary, a hollowed out Bible, baptisms, an altar boy, a monk, characters seen in prayer and making the sign of the cross, dialogue referencing 40 days of penance, Moses, doubting Thomas, the Ascension, and Adam & Eve. One character, Mr. Eko, carried around a "Jesus stick" with Scripture quotes as he painfully worked through a process of redemption for the sins of his past. In Season Six, the final act of the series, the debate has centered on the conflict between the goodness vs. the corruptability of humanity - and exploring the issues of good and evil - and the fall from grace.

In a recent episode, "Across the Sea," we found out that the island is akin to the Garden of Eden, where anything in this paradise can be touched except for the natural well at the center of the island, akin to the tree of knowledge forbidden in the second chapter of Genesis. We also saw that the island's confrontation originated from competing brothers - not unlike the biblical examples of Cain and Abel, Issac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, or James and John.

Putting aside these allusions and explicit references, LOST's spirituality has also relied on the twin concepts of isolation and community, life and death, faith and science, fear and courage, fate and free will, prejudice and diversity, war and peace, love and indifference, suffering and sacrifice, and most common to all the castaways' stories: sin and redemption.

The notion of a deserted island conjures up images of being alone, isolated, cut off from the world. But crashing in this place has actually had the opposite effect for the survivors of Oceanic 815. Even though they were around others in their previous lives, they were more isolated than they cared to admit; however, on the island, they found what real community was all about - what it meant to care for each other, to sacrifice for others, and to love one another. In a sense, LOST did that for its audience, too... thanks to the show, people were able to connect with each other like never before.

And for many of the castaways, their life prior to the island was not only disconnected from others, but it was filled with sin and angst. Sawyer was a con man; Kate was a murderer running from the law; Sayid was a torturer; Claire was an unwed young mother; Jack was an insecure, uncaring doctor; Locke had dependency issues; Jin and Sun were an unhappy couple under the shadow of the Korean mafia; Hurley had horribly bad luck; Rose suffered from cancer; Charlie was a drug addict... the list is endless. Or to use one of the passages on Eko's Jesus stick, "For we ourselves were once foolish, disobidient, deluded, slaves to desire and pleasure, living in malice and envy, hating ourselves, and hating each other." (Titus 3:3)

But when they came to the island, they were able to refocus and renew themselves. They were able to repent for their sins and look beyond their past. They were able to carve out a future full of hope and begin anew.

In the 15th chapter of Luke (realizing 15 is one of those important "numbers" on the show), we have three incredible parables that mirror the LOST experience of sin and redemption.

First, Jesus tells his disciples about the lost sheep: "Who among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine and go after the lost one?" (Lk. 15:4). This reminds us that our castaways are a community - and, according to Jack, they "live together and die alone." Being isolated was a fact of life off the island for so many, but now they realize that being all together is the best route. In the show, it seems bad things happen when people seperate into camps or groups (like The Others); but great things happen when people reunite and stand as one.

Second, Jesus shares the image of the lost coin: "What woman, having ten coins and losing one, would not light a lamp and sweep the house, searching carefully for that valuable coin until she finds it again?" (Lk. 15:8). Throughout the show, we have come to know that each castaway's story is worth telling. Everyone's story is important, worthy of at least an episode (yes, even Nikki and Paulo). Each and every person is priceless - and everyone's story is worth the universe to God. No matter how bad our past or how boring life might seem, God finds each of us worth every penny. LOST reminds us how special each of us truly are.

Finally, Jesus tells the infamous story of the lost son. In this story, two brothers (yet another reference?) go their seperate ways. One son goes off and squanders his inheritence by sinning and falling into desperation; the other son stays back and does his father's bidding (perhaps not unlike poor Ben Linus). But when the prodigal son finds himself alone and isolated (perhaps not unlike the experience of a deserted island), he realizes his sin, confesses to God, and longs to go home. When he returns, his father is overjoyed: "Let us celebrate with a feast - for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again. He was lost and now has been found!" (Lk. 15:23-24).

No matter how far the castaways have strayed, and no matter how much we feel we have strayed in our own lives, God is always there - like the father of the lost son - welcoming us home and forgiving us of our sins... that is, if we are ready to be found again.

LOST has much to say to us - but at its core is its very title. Being "lost" in our lives is an experience so common to all of us. Like the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son, God wants us to be found again and will do what He can to get to us... but the next move is ours. Just like the island in LOST cannot be found by happenstance, it takes real effort and action on the part of the lost to seek redemption.

As we approach the series finale, no matter what actually happens in the show, let us remember the great lessons we have learned over the past six years - and that at its core, the show (and our lives) are about the search for love, community, and redemption. Let's pray the show (and our lives) have the happy ending we so fervently seek. Namaste.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Iron Man 2

"Do not be wise in your own estimation." Rom. 12:16b

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is a superhero and he knows it. Iron Man 2 shows us another step in Stark's journey through his second chance at life - after his close call with death at the beginning of the first film.

Here in this sequel, Tony is fully aware of his technological tools, superior intelligence, quick wit, financial excess, and global popularity and power. Unfortunately, this superhero needs another superhero's Uncle Ben (who tells Spider-Man, "With great power comes great responsibility"). But without an Uncle Ben, Tony Stark continues on a flawed journey towards self-destruction.

This is definitely not your typical summer superhero story. Iron Man, it seems, it not rust resistant.

In this movie, our hero is launching his Stark Expo to show off the latest gadgets and bask in the attention and glory given to him by adoring fans. Meanwhile, he grows uncooperative with the United States government - refusing to share his resources out of distrust and outright haughtiness.

Not only is this standoff a fissure in collaborating with public officials and other companies, but it creeps into his personal life as well as he neglects his friends and colleagues in favor of faceless crowds and sleek racecars. These allies, including his business partner Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and old friend Lt. Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), stand by his side regardless of the self-destruction that ensues - but still Stark forgets to notice.

These acts of vanity fuel those who would and could destroy him and the peace he has fought so hard to secure.

In his advice to the Christian community at Rome, the powerhouse of the Empire in the first century, St. Paul instructs the men and women there to be careful of the power they wield in their churches and in their relationships with others, saying "Do not be haughty but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation." (Rom. 12:16) What Paul is saying is that pride and power can go to our heads quickly - and a good Christian should know when to say when.

When God gifts us with success in our work or our lives, when he graces us with talents and blessings, and when he opens the doors to opportunity, we should be thankful for all that. Self worth is good and reminds us of the goodness of the God who has given us so much. But in excess, dwelling on our strengths and powers can be troublesome.

Iron Man is a gift to the world - and the ingenuity of Tony Stark and his family is not something to be buried in the sand or, to quote Scripture, placed under a buschel basket. Instead that light should be placed where all have access to it - and not to worship and adore it (for only the giver of the gift should receive that glory, not us).

Instead of an Uncle Ben guiding Iron Man along his path, Tony Stark had to learn the lessons of responsibility and generosity of gifts the hard way. Being wise in his own estimation did no service to Iron Man - and it does no good to us.

Let us pray that we thank God, not ourselves, for the gifts and strengths given to us. And let us use those gifts to make the world, not our little corner of it, a better place than when we first found it.