Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The School Girl Strikes Back: A Heart-Warming Story

"Blessed are those who are persecuted..." Matt. 5:10

The following article ran in the Chicago Tribune this past week - and I thought it was good to repost it. As a Star Wars devotee and a movie lover, this story warms the heart - and hopefully gives strength to the "dark side" of bullying and marginalization, even among children:

The School Girl Strikes Back
November 19, 2010 Chicago Tribune Newspaper
By Duaa Eldeib, Tribune reporter

Even when she dressed up as a princess for Halloween, Katie opted for the one from Star Wars.

The force is definitely with this 7-year-old.

So when the first-grader told her mother she no longer wanted to take her beloved Star Wars water bottle — which incidentally matches her Star Wars backpack — to school, and instead asked to take a pink bottle, Carrie Goldman's mommy radar went off.

"It didn't make sense," the Evanston mom said.

After some coaxing, Katie told her mom what a few boys had said to her at lunch last week.

"They were saying that only boys like Star Wars. Girls don't," Katie said.

Then the bright-eyed, chess-playing, ballet-bowing little girl cried. It was enough to make any parent's heart break.

Her mother reminded her it was a OK to be different, to which Katie, who is adopted and the only one in her class who wears glasses, responded, "But it's not OK to be too different."

Goldman, an artist who blogs for ChicagoNow, posted the story online this week with the title "Anti-Bullying Starts in First Grade." It went viral. More than 8,000 people commented, Tweeted and Facebooked the story.

"It touched an innate goodness in people," said Goldman, 36. "A lot of people are reaching out because they see their kid in Katie."

Each night, Katie read a few of the encouraging comments (prescreened by her mother) aloud.

"You are awesome and cool for loving Star Wars!" one wrote. "Be true to who you are," said another. And a few shared variations of "I am totally jealous of your water bottle."

The PTA president sent out the post on the school's e-mail list, Goldman said, and the father of another first-grader sent his daughter to school clad in a Star Wars shirt. The girls sat together at lunch, and Katie squealed as she shared the news with her parents. It was her dad, Andrew, a high school math teacher, who got her hooked in the first place.

The next day, Katie swapped out the pink bottle for her trusted Star Wars one.

By Friday she was back to her Katie self, triumphantly declaring, "I'm wearing a Star Wars shirt right now."

Friday, November 19, 2010

Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, Part 1

"My soul is sorrowful, even unto death. Stay here and keep watch." Mark 14:34

When filmmakers decided to break J. K. Rowling’s seventh tome, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, into two parts – there was much uproar amongst fans and Potter purists who felt this was a very poor decision. Even outsiders were skeptical that the fissure of the book’s storyline was simply a case of financial greed on the part of filmmakers and would ultimately tarnish the experience.

Now after seeing the first installment of this two-part experience, I am starting to agree with those naysayers.

The end of Deathly Hallows, Part 1 leaves you hanging. It’s not the cleanest cut in a story I’ve ever seen - and perhaps it will make more sense next summer when the second part is finally released. But at this moment, the inconclusive nature of the movie leaves me uneasy.

By cleaving the story in half, this film is able to focus on one thing very well. In this case, it’s a survival travelogue of our three central characters, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron (Rupert Grint).

Having distanced themselves from their classmates at Hogwarts and suspicious of the government, the trio hide in whatever ways they can: by disguising themselves (as seven Harry Potters to confuse Death Eaters), by escaping to the Weasley’s homestead, and after those are foiled, by apparating into forests, towns, and even downtown Muggle London – wherever they can feel safe… for a little while.

On this perilous journey, Harry, Hermione, and Ron try to figure out how to find and destroy “horcruxes,” items of special significance in which are held pieces of the soul of the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). But as they get closer to figuring things out, they also become more visible to the enemy.

Not only does this hiding and seeking wear down the trio, it also causes tension between them. As they get closer to defeating darkness, they are also led deeper into temptation, jealousy, and anger. The tight friendship they share begins to unravel just when they need each other the most.

Good relationships in life run that risk. The closer people get, the more vulnerable and exposed they are to each other. As we grow closer to love and holiness, the stronger the darkness wants to creep in.

In the New Testament, Jesus has his own close-knit group of friends: Peter, James, and John – who witnessed the raising of Jarius’ daughter (Mk. 5:37) and the Transfiguration on the mountain (Mk. 9:2). As the movement began to unravel in the final days, Jesus drew them close to his side again in the Garden of Gethsemane, confessing privately to this trio: “My soul is sorrowful, even unto death. Remain here and keep watch.” (Mk. 14:34) Then only a stone’s throw away, Jesus experiences the pain of temptation (Mk. 14:35-36) and anger at the drowsiness of the disciples (Mk. 14:37-38,40).

Our own closest friendships and our most intimate relationships can be wonderful and joyous, but like Harry, Ron, and Hermione – and Jesus, Peter, James, and John – they can also be closest to our biggest struggles. Because of that, we must take great care of those people and be ever mindful of our experiences, conversations, and reactions to them.

In Deathly Hallows, as in previous Potter films, the greatest “magic” is the love, support, and sacrifice of friends. In a way, Harry never defeats his foes due to any spells or incantations, just like our own troubles won’t go away so easily. Instead, in each movie, it’s the people and their relationships with Harry that ultimately save the day.

In our own Muggle world, the keys to our survival and success are the connections of the people we have around us. Our own future depends on the health and fulfillment of the bonds we have with our friends, family, and loved ones. When those connections are weak, so are we.

Perhaps the abrupt ending to Deathly Hallows, Part 1 is a mirror to our own lives. Unlike half-hour sitcoms or many two-hour movies, life’s problems don’t get solved so quickly. And just when we close the door to one situation, another seems to open. Most of life is lived in the in-between phase, just like audiences will be from winter to summer between Parts 1 and 2 of this seventh Potter film.

So what are we to do? Taking a cue from the movie itself, it is best to survive the great in-between with the company of other people, especially those most dear to us. Alone, we get caught in our thoughts and temptations – but with others, we grow stronger and better.

In his own great in-between phase in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus needed to be surrounded by his cherished companions, Peter, James, and John. While they may irritate him at times (look to Simon Peter’s encounters with the Lord for a few examples of this), they were the ones he loved so much – and they were the ones who continued the movement beyond the cross to come.

With months to go before the final installment – and with the finality of our life’s challenges somewhere in the distance – why not experience this in-between time with those God has given to journey with us? It’s what Jesus would do.

Monday, November 15, 2010


"The invaders charge. They climb barricades. Nothing stops them... undaunted and fearless, unswerving, unstoppable." Joel 2:7

In Unstoppable, the people of rural Pennslyvania come face to face with a runaway train carrying toxic chemicals, speeding along an uncertain track towards certain disaster. And like the train itself, with each successive frame of film, the movie rumbles on faster and faster.

The circumstances of why the train gets on its way are secondary to the fact that no one seems to be able to stop it.

Engineer Dewey (Ethan Suplee) can't catch up to it on foot. Allegheny & West Virginia Railroad (AWVR) executive Michael Galvin (Kevin Dunn) cannot solve the situation with orders barked far away on a conference call. And yardmaster Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson) is buried under the tension and frustration that her options are running out quickly.

And while veteran engineer Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington) and rookie Will Colson (Chris Pine) are going about their daily transport on the rail line, some of the craziest ideas come to them - and they make the conscious decision to race after the runaway and put a stop to the mess once and for all.

In a sense, then, Frank and Will become the unstoppable force of the movie - undeterred by bosses trying to fire them and the odds stacked up against their efforts.

While we are not chasing 75 mile/hour locamotives in our lives, it certainly feels like we are constantly chasing life's struggles, trying to catch up and take control of whatever situation we're dealing with. But the question that remains for us is: who are we most like at those times?

Do we give up like Dewey, not confident we have what we need to take control at the very beginning? Or are we the person who doesn't like to get their hands dirty, preferring to sweep troubles under the rug and blame others? Perhaps we're like Connie, overwhelmed and feeling helpless, looking for an answer - any answer - that might put things back to normal?

These are common experiences when we face our problems, like the swarms of locusts and empires spoken of by the prophet Joel: "The invaders charge. They climb barricades. Nothing stops them... Undaunted and fearless, unswerving, unstoppable." (2:7, Message translation) The prophets warned the people that their enemies would come at them without reservation - and that God would judge them not on their defenses but on who they would become in reaction to the dangers lurking in the distance.

Our troubles often feel "undaunted and fearless, unswerving, unstoppable," but we are called to be more like Frank and Will than the others in this story.

These two are examples of coming together despite their generational and cultural differences. They are people who trust in their experience, passions, and giftedness - and believe in themselves despite conventional wisdom. They put their sights on one singular and selfless goal: to save those they may not even know and, if necessary, lay down their lives so that these others might live.

We, too, are called to emulate their spirit - to be unstoppable agents of the gospel, to reconcile with those different from us, to trust in God and our own blessedness, and to set our eyes fixed on the selfless goal of laying down our lives for another. This is what the prophets like Joel called his audiences to be in the face of the oncoming storm - and this is what Jesus challenges each of us if we claim to follow him.

Then, we pray, we may all be truly unstoppable too.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010


"I loathe my life. I give myself to complaint. I speak from the bitterness of my soul... So leave me alone that I may recover awhile before I go to that place from which we will never return: the land of darkness and shadow, the black, distorted land where darkness is the only light." Job 10:1,20-22

How often do you think about death and the afterlife? For some, it's forgettable compared to the problems of this life. For others, it's a passing curiosity. For a few, it's an unhealthy obsession. And for people like Hereafter's George Lonegan (Matt Damon), thoughts of life beyond death are an albotross around the neck.

George Lonegan desperately wants to rid himself of his psychic "gift" to communicate with the dead - for it rarely ends well for others and it constantly kicks up the dust of death for him. In Hereafter, George tries to live a "normal" life as best he can, but the economy and others' curiosity cause him to revisit his melancholy existance over and over again.

On the other side of the pond, a London schoolboy Marcus (Frankie and George McLaren) loses his brother in a horrible traffic accident - and goes into a morbid obsession with finding answers to this disaster. He rejects his family and society in order to find someone who can show him a way to understand what happened.

The concept of the "hereafter" is one that almost all major religions have spoken about - and serves as the common link between every creature that ever lived on the planet. One day, we will each get a firsthand experience of a life beyond this one.

Hereafter begs the question: Just how much time should we really spend thinking about it?

George is surrounded by its implications - but wants nothing more than to escape its grasp. Marcus was once blissfully unaware of such questions - but now wants nothing more than answers. But perhaps the real course is somewhere in the middle.

In the Scriptures, the character Job is overcome by experiences of death - his children are killed, his health is failing, and his property and livelihood are destroyed. He bemoans: "I loathe my life. I give myself to complaint. I speak from the bitterness of my soul..." (Job 10:1) Like George, he wants these somber thoughts to pass him by: "So leave me alone that I might recover awhile before I go to that place from which we will never return: the land of darkness and shadow, the black distorted land where darkness is the only light." (Job 10:20-22)

There are times in our own lives when death surrounds us. Sometimes after a funeral, we cannot stop but think of death and darkness. When we watch the war, terror, and devestation on the news, thoughts of emptiness and shadow creep into our subconscious. And when our lives seem routine, boring, or sluggish, we wonder if this is all life is meant to be.

Our faith in the hereafter is a simple one, yet our questions and curiosities complicate it. Jesus didn't spend countless passages talking about the afterlife with the disciples; instead, we have a few passages about "many dwelling places" and that Jesus would "prepare a place for us" (John 14:1-2) or a final judgment in the next world based on our compassion and social justice in this one (Matt. 25:31-46).

So what are we to do? To blissfully ignore it or to whole-heartedly obsess over it? Neither. We are called to take a middle road like Jesus.

Spending our daily hours with thoughts of the afterlife, good or bad, means we don't get a chance to appreciate and live our lives to the fullest right now. If we're constantly worried about if we're going to get to heaven, we just might miss the chance to do something in this life that would guarentee our entry there (see that Mat. 25:31-46 passage for details).

On the other hand, if we never acknowledge an existance bigger than this one, how small our world will be! If we alone are the sum total of everything in our lives, how do we explain the magnificence of creation?

So instead we are called to a middle path - like the one taken by French journalist Marie (Cecile de France) who - once caught in a tsunami and momentarily killed before being awoken by villagers trying to save her life - now seeks to live in both worlds. The book she writes on her encounter with the hereafter is a source of comfort to both Marcus and George - and reminds them of the middle path.

Perhaps God gave us two eyes for this simple reason: to keep one looking to the present life - its everyday experiences and relationships - and to keep the other fixed on the next life - and its promises of eternal joy and happiness.

Let us pray to walk the middle road until the time when that road reaches the heavens.