Monday, September 06, 2010

Going the Distance

"Why do you notice the splinter in your brother's eye but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye?... You hypocrite!" Matt. 7:3,5a

Going the Distance is a very modern romantic comedy staring Drew Barrymore and Justin Long as Erin and Garrett, two young thirty-somethings who fall for each other and then struggle to maintain a long-distance relationship between San Francisco and New York. Almost too modern.

After seeing the film, I struggled with how messy it was: the excessive drinking, some unnecessary drug use, the frequency of sex and sexual references, the bad and selfish decisions made by the characters, and an ending that left me unsettled. This was not the cute romantic comedy that the previews had advertised - and this disconnect irked me.

But life is messy. While some movies might whisk us away to a more idealized world, there are others like Going the Distance that paint a more down-to-earth picture of society today.

What occurred to me in my reflection on the film was that these are the people and the lives that I have been called to minister and pastorally care for. The story of Erin and Garrett is one which exemplifies the situation of many young adults in the twenty-first century: the difficulty of finding a job, the economic crunch that prevents high spending, the unchecked use of alcohol and drugs, sex as the first step of a relationship (not the last), and the prominence of social networking as a way to build relationships.

Much of the research that has been done on emerging adult culture points to the rise of these situations (see Christian Smith's book, Souls in Transition, or Robert Wuthnow's study, After the Baby Boomers, or check out the essays at

This movie challenged me to see the people beyond the messiness - and perhaps it might be a chance for all of us to look into the eyes of our fellow human beings instead of being blinded by their life choices and our reaction to them.

Jesus made this point when he declared, "Why do you notice the splinter in your brother's eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Let me remove that splinter from your eye' while the wooden beam is still in your own? You hypocrite! Remove the beam from your eye first - and then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from someone else." (Matt. 7:3-5)

Instead of judging Erin and Garrett (or for that matter, any real life young adults going through similar circumstances), I need to ask myself: How can I care for and love these men and women instead of quickly condemning them? What unhealthy patterns do I need to realign before I am able to minister to them with humility and love?

And looking outward towards these young adults, what can I do to help those suffering from job loss and economic hardship? Studies are showing that those in their 20s and 30s are being hardest hit from the current recession, more than any other age group. What are we, as Christian disciples, doing to reach out to them? If we are doing nothing, is it any wonder, then, that they resort to the bad habits shown in this film? Is it any surprise that bad decisions are made without any support and guidance that spiritual leaders can otherwise provide?

While some might condemn the rise of technology, this movie showed how social networking helped to keep alive a relationship built on a weak foundation. Online communication allowed Erin and Garrett to go beyond the superficial. Sometimes things got messy (phone sex or misinterpreted conversations), but the dialogue from coast to coast also helped them to discover a real person instead of just a convenient sexual liaison.

Be warned: Going the Distance is not for everyone and it might upset some sensibilities. It is not necessarily the clean, cute comedy one might hope to get from a movie staring Barrymore and Long. But for me, it was a reminder of the reality to which I have been called to serve - and a wake-up call to put aside hypocrisy and look into the struggles and issues that lie deeper than the vices that upset my worldview.

Pray for me that I may continue to be aware of my rush to judgment - and pray for all of us that we may work first on the wooden beam in our own eyes so we can see more clearly the messy yet wonderful world God has placed before us.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Eat Pray Love

"Give us this day our daily bread..." Matt. 6:111

Eat Pray Love is a two-hour-plus travelogue of the real-life author of the book that inspired the film, Liz Gilbert (Julia Roberts), a frustrated New York author experiencing a mid-life crisis.

At the beginning of the film, Liz decides, almost on a whim, that she no longer wants to be married to her husband Steven (Billy Crudup); after quickly jumping into the arms of a young actor (James Franco), she grows frustrated with that experience and makes plans to take a year-long retreat around the world. The rest of the movie is a three-part pilgrimage as she explores and then indulges in Rome, India, and Bali, respectively, to eat, pray, and love.

While I have some serious issues with some of Liz's actions (especially her selfish divorce - and the quick extramartial affair she immediately clings to), what is incredibly telling is her desire for a sabbatical - the need to get away from it all.

Liz seems to humbly realize that the problems in her life might just be her own fault. She also knows that continuing along the same path in New York will only add to her angst and slow her progress towards achieving illumination. So, with this in mind, she plunges into an international retreat experience.

In Rome, she learns what family and friendship really means. In India, she learns to face her fears and her failings head on. And in Bali, she learns the value of simple living and good work.

Unfortunately, her on-screen journey is not one that leaves audiences with much hope. Few, if any, moviegoers can abandon their lives for a whole year while they spend excessive amounts of cash on gelato and spaghetti in Rome or a picturesque villa in the beautiful gardens of Bali. In fact, in today's economic climate, even a week-long retreat within their own country can nearly bankrupt a person.

But the fact remains for Liz and for each one of us: we need to humbly admit that we need to take the time to re-center, to re-connect, and to re-treat. So how do we do it - and not have to take twelve months overseas to make it happen?

One suggestion is to find a quiet moment each and every day. In the gospels, we read: "Rising very early before dawn, Jesus left and went of to deserted place, where he prayed." (Mark 1:35) Even the Lord, who seemed to have little time for a sabbatical like Liz, found a few moments each day to re-charge his batteries. Those quite moments, though, are usually short-lived, even for Jesus (see the next verse, 1:36 in Mark's Gospel: "Simon and those who were with him pursued him and finally on finding him said, 'Everyone is looking for you.'")

Another suggestion would be to connect with a spiritual director or coach - who can walk with us on our life's journey. Just as Liz sought out a guru in India and a medicine man in Bali, we might also consider finding someone with whom we can share our story and seek guidance. One of the most frustrating things that Liz and many of us experience is the concern that we will have to solve all of life's problems alone. Having a spiritual guide and coach, however, reminds us that we walk together on the paths God sets out for us.

Still another way to "reboot" ourselves is by making plans to participate in a retreat. This sabbatical can be for a day, a weekend, a week, or more - and should be carefully planned so that it fits into a budget or can be done in concordance with one's job, vacation time, and family. For some, this will be an organized retreat sponsored by a religious organization; for others, a self-guided silent retreat may be just the thing. Regardless, a retreat experience can give us an opportunity to take God up on his offer, "Remember to keep holy the sabbath day. Six days you may labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord... That is why the Lord has blessed the sabbath day and made it holy" (Ex. 20:8-10, 11) Find the time to create a sabbath - to pray, to honor, and to reconnect with the God who made us.

Even though Liz's journey may not be the best path to take, it does remind us of three of the things we need to constantly continue to work on in our lives: eat, pray, and love.

We must eat healthy and be grateful for "our daily bread" (Mt. 6:11) and all that God provides us. Too often, we devour our food without thanking God or others for providing it to us - and without remembering the poor and hungry who go without that food in a regular basis.

We must pray without ceasing, as St. Paul puts it. Whether to praise God or to ask his favor, prayer is an essential element to life - and it reminds us to be humble before our creator and to trust in the power of God to save us from our pain and sin.

We must love one another as we love ourselves. We must look beyond our selfish ways and be a servant to all. Love is not just an emotional high, but a way of life. Love means forgiveness, patience, compassion, and generosity towards each and every person we meet.

To remind us to eat, pray, and love to the fullest, Jesus gave us a simple prayer which incorporates these themes: "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil."

And if all we have time for in a given day is to silently pray this beautiful prayer, it will be a step along the right path.

Let us pray to the Lord of the Sabbath that we might have even more time to revitalize our souls in the hectic, self-centered, and angst-ridden landscape in which we sit. Let us pray for the rest we so desperately need. And let us pray for one another, that we might all find a way to connect to the God who gives us this life we live.