Saturday, December 24, 2011

It's a Wonderful Life

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor..." Luke 4:18

At Christmas, one of the most popular traditions today is watching favorite holiday films - and for many, one movie in particular still stands out above the rest: Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946).

This charming tale tells the life story of George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), a simple man from Bedford Falls, New York, who dreams of traveling the globe - but due to one circumstance after another, remains in his hometown to tend the family business: the Bailey Building & Loan. After years of hardship, on Christmas Eve night 1945, George reaches the end of his rope and contemplates suicide - until the angel Clarence (Henry Travers) is sent from heaven to save him from certain death.

Very little of the film is actually about the holiday, except that the movie's most critical encounter (George and Clarence) takes place on Christmas Eve. But in another sense, that date may be the least important connection to the feast and what it stands for.

George Bailey's life is, in fact, a wonderful reflection on what the coming of Christ is really all about. This understanding is captured in two passages from Luke:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior...He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things and the rich he has sent away empty.
(Lk. 1:46-47,52-53) and

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.
(Lk. 4:18)

This canticle of Jesus' mother Mary (Lk. 1), praising what God can and will do through her son, lays the foundation upon which she raises Jesus to become the man we call Lord. And in one of his first public addresses (Lk. 4), Jesus echoes his mother's song by laying the cornerstone of his own ministry in Galilee and Judea.

It is by these Gospel standards that our hero, George Bailey, lives out his life - and that we can do as well, at Christmastime and throughout the whole year.

As we see in Wonderful Life, George has grand dreams for himself. A natural explorer, he has saved up money for a trip around the world - and is just about to embark on this journey when tragedy strikes. His father dies, leaving his Building & Loan to an uncertain fate - and must choose between his long-hoped-for adventure and saving the family business from collapse. He chooses the latter.

Again, four years later, when his brother Harry (Todd Karns) returns from college, George resurrects his travel plans and hopes to leave the Building & Loan to Harry's supervision. But when his brother gets married and gets a job offer from his new father-in-law, George again defers, putting the dreams of his family before his own.

And on his wedding day, with a fantastic honeymoon planned out with his new bride Mary (Donna Reed), a Depression-era bank run occurs - and to rescue his customers from poverty, George uses his honeymoon savings and, in so doing, helps the low and middle class citizens of Bedford Falls through the crisis.

George always had a chance to escape, to make a wonderful life for himself, but he choose to help those in need - his family, his friends, and his community - sacrificing his dreams on their behalf. He followed Jesus' commands to the utmost: "Go and sell all your possessions and give them to the poor" (Mt. 19:21) and "No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what he has left behind is fit from the kingdom of God." (Lk. 9:62)

In a season that is so preoccupied with receiving gifts from others, the lessons of George Bailey and the Gospels can be hard to swallow. So instead, we might minimize the impact of this film to sentimentality and the love the friends.

But Wonderful Life is a movie that should really challenge us. This is a prophetic tale of social justice just as much as a misty-eyed holiday classic.

George Bailey teaches us to look beyond ourselves and our wants - and to even look beyond our family and friends - and see instead how we can address the needs of the greater community. At Christmas, we are challenged not just to love our parents, children, and closest friends, but to take action for the poor, the disenfranchised, the sick, the marginalized, the helpless, and the dying.

It's not easy to do it. George Bailey could only take so much sacrifice - and on Christmas Eve, contemplated suicide. But the angel Clarence reminded him - and our God reminds us in prayer: "Whoever loses his life for the sake of the Gospel will surely find it again." (Mt. 16:25)

It's not easy to do it. But there are small steps we can take to move closer to that prophetic call. We can more intentionally work for social justice causes. We can find out who the poor and disenfranchised are in our local community, and work to help them. We can give freely to those who go without.

It's not easy to do it. Especially at Christmas, it can be hard to think beyond our gifts and our family and friends. And when the Salvation Army bell-ringer is gone and the holiday food drives are over, the poor and hungry will still be there. It's not easy because the problems are often so big.

So as we celebrate Emmanuel at Christmas, it falls to us to carry on the mantle of Christ when we leave our churches and finish our holiday meals. Like George Bailey, we need to be reminded how wonderful our lives will be when we step up and serve the world, sacrificing our blessings for the sake of others.

It's providential that It's a Wonderful Life is still with us decades later. But the next time we see it, let's make it more than a cliche, more than a seasonal favorite - and make it our rally cry to be more like George Bailey in our world the other 364 days of the year. If we each did that, then all humankind may be able to say "it's a wonderful life" and for that, "glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace and good will to all."

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Tower Heist & In Time

"Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour of the night when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake... so, too, you must also be prepared for at an hour or day you do not expect, the Son of Man will come." Mt. 24:43-44

In the middle ages, tales of Robin Hood stealing from the rich became incredibly popular among the poor peasants of the English countryside. And during the Great Depression, movies about money-stealing gangsters were the favorite of low income Americans. Could it be that, today, in our recessed economy, we are once again drawn to stories about the downfall of the rich?

Two movies this month, Tower Heist (staring Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller) and In Time (with Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfriend), revolve around this very issue: the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer - and someone needs to stand up to this injustice.

Tower Heist is a comedy where a band of apartment complex workers, whose pensions were lost in a Ponzi scheme involving Wall Street executive Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda), take matters into their own hands to redistribute Shaw's wealth to their fellow employees. While their actions are still criminal, one cannot help but root for the motley crew led by Murphy and Stiller. Too often, the richest 1% can get away from crimes that the other 99% must suffer for... and we cheer on those who try (albeit illegally) to balance the scales of justice.

In Time, in much the same vein, is an action thriller set 150 years in the future when money doesn't exist and the only commodity is time. Humans are paid in hours and minutes - and the more time given, the longer one has to live. What happens is that, even without physical money, the rich will still live longer and the poor will die sooner. The film follows one poor man living in the ghetto (Timberlake) who, after unexpectedly receiving a century of time, decides to set matters right and steal hours, months, and years away from those with time to spare.

Despite their divergent approaches, both movies remind us of what Jesus said in the Scriptures: "the poor you will have with you always..." (Mt. 26:11) - but also what he said about the proper placement of the poor in our world: "many who are now first should be last, but those who often finish last must be the first." (Mt. 19:30).

Too often, those who enjoy riches and power are so consumed with their wealth and dominion that they forget that God's kingdom is about equity and social justice. Even if we have limited income, temptation can come to each of us to squander or lord our possessions above those who do not. At one point or another in our lives, we have been guilty of misusing the gifts - spiritual or physical - that God has graced us with.

Our time on earth, Jesus also says in Scripture (specifically Mt. 25:31-46), will be judged according to how we helped the poor, the hungry, the suffering, and the marginalized in this life. Money, power, and prestige will matter for nothing.

So we cheer on our movie heroes (like the feisty band of misfits in Tower Heist or Timberlake and Seyfried's Bonnie-and-Clyde characters in In Time) just we would cheer on Christ, who redistributes favor based on those who deserve it most. Perhaps we should tune into that excitement we feel when the rich get their comeuppance in these types of films. Perhaps this is God's way of urging us to do what we can to tip the scales of justice in favor of those who need it the most.

So when should we start moving in that just direction? Right now. Not after the holidays or when we feel secure enough in our own financial situation. Not when things settle down for us or when we have the time to spare. Instead, God calls us to action as soon as we can.

In these two movies, the heroes had an impact because they didn't wait. They jumped into action when the need arose. "Be sure of this," Jesus tells his disciples, "if the master of the house had know the hour of the night when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake... so too you must also be prepared, for an hour or day you do not expect, the Son of Man will come." (Mt. 24:43-44).

Let us make the most of the time given to us. In Time reminds us that those who think they have all the time (i.e. money and power) in the world do not really "live" - but those who recognize that their last moment could be around the corner live life to the fullest. The same should go for us.

As we do not know the day or the hour, we should make sure that the life we live now is lived to its fullest extent: by giving to the poor, loving the marginalized, deepening our relationships, forgiving our enemies, and taking in all of God's grand creation.

And that time is now.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Spiritual Popcorn, Halloween Style

What can scary movies teach us?

Around Halloween, we often pull out our favorite scary movies (or those not-so-scary ones that still remind us of this dark and autumnal time of year).

We might think about familiar classics like the original Dracula and Frankenstein (both released in 1931) or silent movie icons like Lon Chaney's The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Or maybe we prefer the screamers of the 70s and 80s like Jaws (1975), Halloween (1978), Alien (1979), Friday the 13th (1980), The Shining (1980), or A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). Even today, we might enjoy watching modern scare-fests like Silence of the Lambs (1991), The Blair Witch Project (1999), the Saw franchise (beginning with the first in 2004), and the most recent, the Paranormal Activity series (released in 2009, 2010, and 2011).

What drives these films (and their box office success stories) is that all of them center around the concept of fear. Filmmakers love to scare us - and audiences love to be scared. As distinct as The Mummy (1932), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), and Hostel (2005) might be, they all come down to fear.

These movies tap into a primal notion that we are all afraid of something or someone. Whether it's as simple as a fear of heights or spiders - or larger things like terrorism, crime, or losing one's job, fear can paralyze us and control our actions.

Seeing these movies might help us put aside our real fears for a few hours and enjoy an imaginary fright on the silver screen (or watching other people run in terror might distract us from our own situation). Perhaps these films allow us to laugh at the silliness that fear can bring - giving us strength to laugh at our own bogeymen. Or just maybe we want to test our strength - and show ourselves that we can withstand any horror.

But aside from a little escapism, what do these Halloween favorites teach us spiritually? Here are a few things that we might glean from this harvest crop of films:

1) "Fear not, beloved, you are safe. Take courage and be strong" (Dan. 10:19). These are God's comforting and encouraging words to the prophet Daniel - who spent his life in the frightening company of lions and really strange visions. But they might also be words that inspire heroes like Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in the Alien franchise (1979, 1986, 1992, 1997), Sarah Conner (Linda Hamilton) in the Terminator movies (1984, 1991, etc.), or Fr. Damien (Jason Miller) in The Exorcist (1973).

With a firm hope in God and using the gifts God gave them, these heroes prove that fear has no control over them in their quest to save the day and come face to face with their monsters. Not to say that these characters weren't frightened, but they overcame that fear and received the courage they needed.

The same might be said of us. We are called to pray to God for the courage to face our worst fears, to use the gifts and resources that God has placed before us, and move forward with confidence. We know God's love is the absence of fear - and we are armed with that at all times. We are challenged to take a step into the darkness of night and, like our movie heroes, stand courageously and be assured of God's constant protection.

2) Another thing that our favorite Halloween movies teach us is to stand together. While films where the monster knocks off characters one by one can be fun to watch, it is even more impressive when all the characters come together in the face of danger and fear.

In Ghostbusters (1984), Independence Day (1996), and the Harry Potter franchise (2001, continuing through 2011), an outside threat is defeated when characters work together. "Where two or more are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them," proclaims Jesus (Mt. 18:20) - and God gives great strength to those who sacrifice individual glory for mutual partnership in the journey towards victory.

In our age of polarization, now more than ever we are challenged to put aside our differences, reconcile with those who have hurt or wronged us, and love those outside our comfort zones - in order to truly be united against greater evil. Together we can often accomplish more than when we are on our own, but in order to get to that point, we must forgive, love, and show humility with one another.

Perhaps our favorite scary movies would have been a lot shorter if only the characters worked together from the beginning (instead of the creature dividing its victims and devouring them one by one); but that's the movies. In reality, coming together as one people is much more exciting to watch - and defeating our fears with mutual support is much easier than being stranded alone to face those demons.

3) In some, though not all, scary movies, the crowds misjudge the monster. In Frankenstein, and especially in its Mel Brooks' spoof Young Frankenstein (1974), we learn that the creature is not an empty horror in need of extinguishing - but rather a living, breathing person who is just afraid of fire (and has a short temper). Similarly, the Phantom under the Paris opera house is a lonely, rejected, disfigured man with incredible talent and a simple need to be loved.

In The Sixth Sense (1999), nine-year old Cole (Haley Joel Osment) is considered a "freak" by his classmates and family, but in all actually he is the heart of the movie, full of love and unconditional sympathy for those in pain. But so few people want to learn more about this misunderstood boy that he becomes a "ghost" himself - detached from a cold, dark world.

Sometimes the monsters aren't monsters after all. Once we get past the fear, we see something to pity or, more importantly, to love as another child of God. Perhaps the reason that Scripture tells us to avoid fear is because we're fearing the wrong things. The disciples were afraid of the Romans and the tax collectors, but as Jesus approached with love the Centurion and Zaccheus, he showed them that these men weren't the monsters they were made out to be.

We fear the unknown and who/what we don't understand. Are there people in our lives that we fear or avoid - who God might be calling us to love and embrace instead? As we learn in Night of the Living Dead (1968), even zombies are people too.

So who are the "misunderstood monsters" in our day and in our daily lives? Who are the misjudged "bogeymen" that we so easily shun, dismiss, ridicule, hate, or rally against - and should we reconsider our actions? For not all monsters in our favorite Halloween stories are actually monsters - and they have much to teach us about the way we judge and view one another. Let us pray that we might see them as God sees them before we end up like the mob with pitchforks, clubs, and torches.

Scary movies are all around us this time of year, but after we get a jolt on Halloween, let us pause on the Feasts of All Saints (November 1st) and All Souls (November 2nd) to look back at the spiritual lessons we can take from the horror, the silliness, and the truly frightening.

Consider this story, told in retrospect by the gospel writers, found in Scripture: "During the fourth watch of that stormy night, Jesus came to the disciples, walking on the water. When they saw him walking across the sea, they were terrified. 'It is a ghost,' they said, and cried out in fear. At once, Jesus spoke to them, "Take courage, it is I. Do not be afraid..." (Mt. 14:25-27)

Ghosts, storms, and terror... yet in the midst of all that, Jesus appears to comfort and save the frightened disciples. The same is true for us - for no matter how scary things get in our lives (from the little phobias that give us the chills, the spooky movies that we love to watch, or our fears related to work, home, health, money, and personal insecurities), we just need to know that God is there for us - to walk alongside us as we summon our gifts and courage, as we learn to forgive and love one another, and as we reach out to the misunderstood monsters. In all these, God is there, telling us every day: "Take courage... Do not be afraid."

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Real Steel

"You come against me with sword and spear and scimitar, but I cam against you in the name of the Lord of hosts...!" 1 Sam. 17:45

Real Steel imagines a world in the not-too-distant future where people demand so much violence from their boxing and wrestling matches that robots have taken over in the ring (since mechanical athletes can take a lot of physical punishment and quench the appetite for intense violence without the loss of human life).

This particular story, however, is told from the perspective of Charlie (Hugh Jackman), a tired ex-boxer who now makes his living behind the controls of low-end robots. Moving from county fair to illegal underworld boxing matches, Charlie can never seem to reach the big leagues - mostly due to his impulsive spirit and brazen overconfidence. He is stuck in a seemingly endless cycle where he ends up destroying his work and then begs for money to start over again, only to lose yet another robot in the process.

Against this backdrop, we come to learn that Charlie's son Max (Dakota Goyo) is now an orphan. It seems that Charlie has been battling these bad habits for awhile, as this is the first encounter with his son since he was born (as Charlie abandoned mother and child when things didn't go so well 11 years prior).

In a crude effort to cut his losses and make a few dollars, Charlie agrees to temporarily watch over Max for the summer in exchange for $100,000.

But once father and son are reunited, the story takes a new turn. Max becomes the most unexpected partner in Charlie's boxing business, offering advice and creative ideas that actually seem to work. Max also brings into Charlie's life a new robot: Atom, a beaten-up, near-obsolete, junkyard sparring machine.

Max sees himself in Atom... abandoned, overlooked, and sold for scraps... and because of this, makes it his mission to bring Atom up-to-speed and become the best fighter in the ring. His first test is to convince Charlie that he and Atom are worth taking a risk on. It's an important hurdle that, once overcome, yields an adventure where Atom actually moves up the ranks and, surprising to everyone, goes steel toe-to-toe with the international grand champion robot behemoth, Zeus.

Max's story and Atom's story are not unlike many of the stories from the Scriptures, where the heroes emerge from the least likely places and to everyone's surprise. The message God seems to send is: don't underestimate the least, the powerless, or the forgotten ones.

Consider David, the lowly shepherd boy from the backwater country, unnoticed even by his own family. It was David, small and diminutive, who stood up against the mighty Goliath when no one else stepped forward. "You come against me with sword and spear and scimitar, but I come against you in the name of the Lord of hosts," said the young David (1 Sam. 17:45). When no one else thought he had a chance, it was David who proved everyone wrong.

Throughout history, God seems to favor the poor, rejected, and underestimated while others forget they're even there. Max and Atom fit well in that incredible tradition.

Do we ever feel like Max or Atom, underestimated by others? Or do we ever act like Charlie or Zeus, passing over the poor and rejected in favor of the strong and successful? Most likely, we have been on both sides of the ring at different points in our lives. Either way, it's never too late to learn this lesson again.

In his ministry, Christ reminded us of this when he befriended the lepers, the sick, and the blind; when he reached out to the short and forgotten Zaccheus up in the tree; and when he raised up a possessed woman to become the first witness to the Resurrection. It was Christ who taught us, "the first shall be last and the last shall be first" (Mt. 20:16), and through his death on a cross, fulfilled the wisdom of Scripture: "...the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone." (Ps. 118:22)

Whenever we feel that we are up against impossible odds, we must always remember that those are the places where God shines the brightest. God favors the lowly, and lifts up the least among us. And because of that, we also need to be conscious that we do not reject the least in front of us each day - for if we do that, we reject those whom God empowers.

Let us pray that, with faith in a God who loves the least, we might be lifted up when we feel the lowest. Let us also pray that we may never put down, ignore, reject, or diminish anyone in our path, most especially those whom we least expect to save the day.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

The Way

"Follow me..." Mark 2:14

The Way is a movie that took its own path to your local movie theatre. Refusing to let major Hollywood studios declare this independent film unfit for major theatrical release, director Emilio Estevez took the promotion of The Way to the people by way of a father/son road trip through America (see this article for a peek into that journey).

Except for Estevez and his father Martin Sheen, The Way doesn't feature any blockbuster stars or include mountains of special effects. Rather, it's the story of a simple journey - and in that simplicity, it shatters all expectations.

Sheen stars as Tom Avery, an American eye doctor whose only son Daniel (played in flashbacks by Estevez) has recently died while on pilgrimage through the Pyrenees mountains on his way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Tom immediately heads overseas to identify and collect Daniel's body - but while in France, he is inspired to continue his son's journey to Santiago.

We come to learn that this decision was a father's way to repair a broken relationship and come to understood who his son really was and what Daniel was trying to tell him in the last conversation they ever had together: "Dad, you don't choose a life. You live it."

With Daniel's equipment, guides, and backpack, Tom sets out on the very long journey across northern Spain just as his son would have done. This is an ancient pilgrim route (called the "Camino" or "Way") towards the shrine of St. James the Apostle, whose remains are found at the Cathedral in Santiago. However, this pilgrimage journey has actually very little to do with venerating the bones of a saint, but savoring the experiences one has along the road to get there.

Along Tom's path, he has his own unique experiences of pain, struggle, and faith - and has chance encounters with an assorted cast of characters including: Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), a kind-hearted, playful Dutchman who says he walks the Camino to loose weight; Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), an embittered Canadian who claims to make the journey to quit smoking; and Jack (James Nesbit), an Irish writer who tells passers-by that he is researching a book about the pilgrims along the road.

Like the travelers in The Wizard of Oz, Tom and these three companions learn that, while they started the journey alone, they want nothing more than to walk together (though not without inevitable complications and disagreements that come from the fusion of very distinct personalities as these).

The movie, like the pilgrimage, gets more interesting the farther along the path they go. With each passing kilometer, the pilgrim group has entertaining adventures, meet an eclectic collection of locals and fellow travelers, and discover more depth about one another than they ever hoped to learn. The destination, then, is not the culmination but rather the capstone to the journey: an affirmation of the beauty that was seen and a blessing to the redemption that had come.

The Way reminds us of the fact that pilgrimage is a lost art. Begun in an era before minute-by-minute busyness and the art of multi-tasking, people would go on pilgrimage as we today would step onto a plane for a much-needed vacation (not that we have much time for that today, either). The pilgrim way was a chance to cleanse oneself from the pressures of the world, to renew oneself during the inevitable periods of silence and routine that go into a very long walk, and to open oneself to the new experiences and new people that we may encounter along the way.

Perhaps now more than ever, we need more pilgrimage moments in our lives. Like the first apostles who left their work and anxieties behind and started down their pilgrim road with Jesus with a simple invitation ("Follow me..." Mk. 2:14), we, too, might need a gentle push to get us going along the way.

We each have a starting point (for Tom, it was a penance for the distance he created with his son; for Joost, it was the need to feel accepted despite his weight problems; for Sarah, it was an addiction; for Jack, it was writers' block)... but as we walk onward on our pilgrimage, we peel back the layers to discover an even-greater reason to make the effort. What might your starting point be? What pains, struggles, or rationale would you have to taking time for a pilgrimage? What might be your goal?

Taking time away might seem like a luxury we don't have, but the fact remains that there will never be a perfect time to set it all aside and set out on pilgrimage. Jesus' disciples had work still unfinished with they followed him; in this movie, Tom had appointments waiting back home and Jack had deadlines he had to meet. If we make the excuse that now is just not the right time, we may never walk the pilgrimage we are called to make. Imagine what might have been missed if the apostles refused Jesus' offer... or imagine how bad a movie this would have been if Tom just went back to America after identifying his son's body. Imagine how dull or crazy your life may be if you don't take your first step towards pilgrimage - whatever that may be for you.

And then imagine what possibilities there may be on your own road ahead. Imagine what your Camino would look like. Imagine the adventures, the people, and the personal growth that may be just around the corner for you.

The producers of The Way took their own pilgrim route to make a meaningful film, despite objections and doubts from big studio executives. The result is a simple and yet profound invitation to all those who watch to take their own journey. The Way may very well be the cinematic equivalent of Jesus' invitation to the first disciples, "Follow me..." The film may be challenging us to move ahead, to take that first step.

The questions remain, then: What will your first step be? What's stopping you? and Where will you go?

Blessings on the way.

Saturday, September 24, 2011


"See, I am doing something new! Now as it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" Isaiah 43:19

Moneyball is a film about charting a new and creative course of action against those who entrench themselves in long-standing traditions and presumptions... and to some degree, it's about baseball.

The movie is a dramatic re-telling (done very well, I might add) of a rather dull concept: the movement of high-level baseball executives towards relying more on analysis and sabermetric approaches to scouting ball players. But the producers of this film (and a creative writing team that includes the brilliant Aaron Sorkin) have transformed an otherwise boring piece into a David-vs-Goliath, come-from-behind tale of incredible proportions.

The story follows Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), General Manager of the Oakland Athletics (As), who is haunted by fact that, no matter how far he takes his team, he still loses the last game of the year every time. It's a sports irony that the team that loses the World Series (or the SuperBowl for that matter) is more embarrassed than the team that ended their season in last place. As the movie begins, we see that in 2001, the As went to the playoffs and lost to the New York Yankees (and in the off-season, lost three of its top players in trades to other high-profile teams, including the Yankees). Regardless of the As success, Beane can't help but feel miserable.

Into this fray comes Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), a fictionalized version of a real-life executive, Paul DePodesta, a young adult economics expert fresh out of the Ivy League who believes that something new must be done to shake up the long-standing tradition of baseball scouting. Brand's method relies more on stats and numbers than on gut instinct, which is what had carried major league scouting for decades. Beane, who himself was scouted on a gut reaction to his high school ball playing and subsequently failed in the big leagues, sees that this might be his ticket to ending the curse of losing that season's last game.

The complicated sabermetric system that Beane and Brand put into place has a strikingly simple goal: to get the ball players to first base. As Brand puts it, hits mean runs and runs mean wins. So the key is not to plan elaborate moves or media-friendly personalities in the field, but to simply get onto base. One step at a time - and the first step is the most important.

While this sounds natural, the film shows that the other scouts, the news media, and the As manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) are furious of this change. For them, to ignore fielding and crowd-pleasing players is just plain silly. But Beane and Brand stick to their method, in the hope that something fresh and new will win the day.

While society lauds its greatest heroes as those pioneers who charted new territory, it is still so very difficult to try anything new. The "default" position of many people is to maintain the status quo and live within their comfort zone. Businesses, family life, sports, governments, the film industry, the media, financial institutions (and yes, even churches) prefer to keep things as safe and stable as possible.

But faith teaches us something different - though often with much resistance throughout history. Patriarchs, prophets, and evangelists have all gone against the status quo (and many have been exiled, shunned, or even killed as a result). Why? Because ours is a God of shattered expectations!

In Isaiah, God tells his people: "Remember not the events of the past. And the things that have been done since long ago, consider not. See, I am doing something new! Now as it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" (Is. 43:18-19)

For as adventurous as we want to appear, we long to keep the status quo. We like things the way they always have been and always should be. God knows this flaw and gently tries to move us to new heights. Whether in our faith lives, at home, or in our work, God urges us to never become too settled, lest we miss an opportunity or a chance to move forward and upward.

There is also a great analogy of God's desire to break the status quo with the ball playing methods that Beane and Brand proposed: just get on base, one step at a time. We often fear change because we get overwhelmed at the possibilities it gives us. We fear it so much that we forget to look five feet in front of us (or in baseball, 90 feet to first base) to realize that real change begins not with an explosion but with a footstep.

Are there areas in your life (at home, at work, in your faith journey, in your relationships, and so forth) where you feel that you're simply maintaining the status quo? As a result of this, do you feel that you're just treading water and really moving no where? Is God calling you to change - to perceive something new?

Each of us has been there - and it can be frightening to change because it means leaving the comfort zone. But God is always there with us (see Mt. 28:20 for proof), urging us on to make that change one simple step at time. It's not always going to be easy to make these new moves - and like Beane and Brand, there will be resistance from others, temptation to give up, and frustration that things aren't changing fast enough. But with God by our side, we are challenged to never give up, never surrender.

Let us pray that we may all have the wisdom and courage to uproot the status quo that might be draining us - and to try new things, to set off in a new direction, and to chart a new course towards a world that will transform us. God be with us as we go.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

"Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's..." Mark 12:17

From the time that the last frame of Charlton Heston's Planet of the Apes (1968) came into focus, audiences have wondered: how did we get there? how can it be that, two thousand years into our future, apes have become the dominant species on earth? what could have happened that caused this fictional landscape?

Now, over 40 years later, filmmakers have given us some possible answers. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) is a re-imagining of the modern day origins of this reversal of fortune.

It seems that it all began with Caesar (digitally acted by Andy Serkis), a chimpanzee born of a genetically-tested primate who went on a fatal rampage in order to protect her child. After the ape-testing program was discontinued as a result of this, Will Rodman (James Franco), a dedicated young scientist at the lab, saved Caesar in a Moses-like fashion by hiding him in his home for next several years.

Without genetic tampering, Caesar still inherited and built upon the intelligence of his mother. Raised in Will's human household, Caesar learned not just skills like writing, using utensils, and sign language, but also the values of compassion, justice, and mercy.

But when Will's Alzheimer's inflicted father Charles (John Lithgow) accidentally gets into trouble with the neighbors, Caesar jumps in to protect him; unfortunately, though, the chimpanzee's strength and power proves dangerous with unprepared humans. Again like Moses, he is exiled - and caged with other primates in a prison-like facility.

Ultimately, and in yet another nod to the Moses story, Caesar finds a new home with his own kind and leads them out of slavery towards a promised land among the California Redwoods.

It's not the Moses connection that haunted me about this film, though. Instead, it was the social issues that this movie raised that stuck with me long after the movie's eye-opening (and creatively telling) closing credits were over.

The social concerns that Rise of the Planet of the Apes introduced included:

* Disruption of nature, especially in the poaching of primates in their natural habitat

* Genetic testing, especially severe tests done on animals without care for their health (and not realizing that animal and human reactions to tests aren't necessarily the same)

* Misguided corporate business ethics: not really caring about the humanity behind their tactics - instead all-consumed with financial gain and profiteering

* Violence and the mistreatment of others/animals by violent-minded people (exemplified here by the guards at the primate facility, especially one played by Tom Felton)

* Care and treatment of those suffering from diseases like Alzheimer's

And while not specifically portraying this, the imprisonment and treatment of the apes mirrors issues such as human trafficking, dismissal and poor conditions of the homeless and those with mental illness, and cultural genocide and oppression by the rich and powerful.

The filmmakers pile on the social issues as if to say this is how society crumbles and could potentially lead to the fall of the human race (and thus the rise of the apes). This is also a lesson the Church has promoted through its social teachings over the centuries. A nation is defined by how it treats its poor and most vulnerable citizens - and by that standard, those definitions are not necessarily stellar.

Some think faith and culture/society should be separate. They say that churches should spend their time praying and worshipping instead of getting involved in political and social matters (like those mentioned above). But faith isn't just about conversing with the Almighty - it's also about transforming the world.

One of the most intriguing passages from Scripture involves Jesus proclamation to "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's." (Mk. 12:17) On one hand it seems to support those who say that religion and the social world shouldn't mix - each one should stay in their own corner. Yet this is not what Jesus was going for. He was saying: be people of the world AND be people of faith. Concern yourself with transforming your faith AND the world around you.

This movie does not pretend to have all the answers for the questions it raises. But it does open our eyes to the world we currently live in.

It is no fiction that corporations are profiteering off the backs of the economically stricken. Nor is it fiction that our genetic and scientific tests are pushing the boundaries of ethics. And it is not fiction that violence, oppression, trafficking, and environmental abuse is taking place as we watch this movie - perhaps even in our own backyard.

And perhaps this is where we return to the Moses connection. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Moses wasn't just the man who split the Red Sea or went up Mt. Sinai. Moses was a leader who, against all odds, stood up for those who were oppressed, beaten down, and forsaken. He stood in opposition to the violence of the Egyptians, to ethnic cleansing of the Israelites, and to those who would abandon the Law for their own selfish gain.

If we are to prevent the fictional unraveling of society as portrayed in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, we need people of faith to stand up as leaders for the social issues of our day. We need to channel our innermost Moses like Caesar the chimpanzee - and bring the gospel into the world.

Where do we start? Like the movie, there are so many concerns - and it can seem overwhelming. The best advice is to look to one or two (perhaps ones that we have a personal connection with or ones that we have the most resources at our disposal to combat) - and with those, seek out ways to integrate the church's teachings into that issue... and get to work at it.

Let us all pray that we have the courage to transform our world.

AN ADDITIONAL NOTE: It is also fascinating that, in the film, Caesar never resorted to murder to make his point. His first foray into human speech came when he shouted "No!" to the killing of the guard who abused him.

The environment of love and compassion that he was raised in (through Will's home and family) must have triggered in him a gospel-like aversion to murder. And when he took on the mantle of leadership of the other primates, he encouraged them as well to avoid the taking of human life. His example, though not perfect, is put in contrast to the belligerence and trigger-happy reaction of the humans who had no problem with killing and violence.

Perhaps this is yet another lesson we can take away from all this. No matter how much we are mistreated and abused (a social issue in and of itself), murder and war are never the answer. Rather, our God calls us to turn the other cheek and to love our enemies - and in so doing, we transform not only ourselves but the world around us.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Cowboys & Aliens

"Go first and be reconciled with your brother and then come back together..." Matt. 5:24

Cowboys & Aliens juxtaposes two longtime movie favorites (rugged men of the Old West and extraterrestrial visitors) - and throws them together for a fun story that most fanboys will love. But there is certainly more to this flick than two hours of popcorn and air conditioning.

From the title to the minor plot details, this film enjoys the collision of opposites. The two main stars of the show, Jake Lonergran (Daniel Craig) and Col. Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), are pitted against each other - one an outlaw, the other a businessman - yet find that they have more in common than they'd like to realize. Lonergran and Dolarhyde are both shrewd and intelligent; they both have hard exteriors but hidden soft spots for love and family; and both are played by Hollywood action heroes with their own major movie franchises (Bond and Indy).

In addition to the two leads, the film treats us to more dichotomy:

a confident and gun slinging preacher (Clancy Brown) partnering with a uncertain and gun-shy agnostic (Sam Rockwell); the town's mysterious woman (Olivia Wilde) who knows more than she lets on and the town's sheriff (Keith Carradine) who knows less about all the happenings than he wants to admit; the brash band of cowboys and townsfolk who go in with guns a-blazin' and the Apache Indian tribe who patiently wait and watch; and of course the aliens with their superior technology set in contrast to the people of the late 1800s prior to their own industrial revolution.

With all these opposite forces colliding, it is no wonder then that the town at the center of the movie is called Absolution. This word calls to mind the final stage in the sacrament of reconciliation when God offers forgiveness for the strife one has caused in their life.

But Jesus reminds us that it's not easy to get to that point. In the Scriptures, he tells his disciples, "If you come to the altar and there recall that your brother has anything against you, go first and be reconciled with your brother and then come back together to the altar." (Mt. 5:23-24). Before absolution comes reconciliation.

Reconciling with those who offended us and hurt us can be difficult. Reconciling with our own failures and shortcomings can be even harder. Yet God is much like the Cowboys & Aliens' filmmakers: He loves to bring the opposites together.

It is tempting to stay locked in combat like outlaws and Native Americans, but this conflict gets us no where. It's tempting to stay there because being against something or someone helps to define us ("at least I'm not like them..."); we fear that reconciling and coming together might compromise our identity or expose us to our own insecurities and doubts.

In the first decades of the 21st century, this polarization has crippled the United States. On a variety of topics, nearly everyone thinks of themselves as a heroic cowboy in juxtaposition to some mistrusted alien. Politics, religion, and culture itself seems divided to the breaking point.

Yet still God calls out to us, locked in such dirty combat: "Go first and be reconciled..."

If we ever hope to truly live in the town of Absolution (which Jesus proclaimed as the "Kingdom of Heaven"), we have to wander in the wilderness and make amends, confess our sins, and extend love, service, and compassion to those we would otherwise spend a lifetime hating.

Who in our lives do we dislike, despise, or feel that we're on opposite sides of whatever spectrum we're going through? Who do we pit ourselves against saying, "at least I'm not like them"? Who has caused us pain and hurt - and who have we yet to forgive? If we ask what the first step in the road to Absolution might be, the answers to these questions might give us a clue.

Even before we run to prayer, Jesus challenges us to first seek reconciliation with the cowboys, aliens, and polar opposites in our lives.

Perhaps this is why the movie title did not say "Cowboys vs. Aliens" but left it intentionally vague with the "&" between the two. In our own lives, God, too, desires that between all His people, the "vs." be replaced by "&"... and it all starts with us. Blessings on that journey ahead.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Captain America

"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." Matt. 5:5

When I first saw trailers for Captain America: The First Avenger, I must admit that I was a bit skeptical - from the belligerent militaristic overtones of the gun play to the word "avenger" in the film's title (a word that finds its root in the non-Christian reaction of "vengeance"). But what surprised me was the pure heart that lay at the center of this classic comic-book superhero movie.

During the first third of the film, we see the era of the Second World War through the innocent eyes of a short, often-ignored young adult by the name of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans with a CG-altered body reduction). Poor Steve, meek and mild compared to the fighting boys making their way to the War, is regularly beaten up in Brooklyn alleys and rejected by most of the young women who come in contact with him... yet all the while, he maintains a pure and loving heart. He does not harbor anger, bitterness, or regret. Instead, he desires only to do the right thing and extend compassion to all around him.

It is this scrawny young man with a heart of gold, then, that truly stays with us through the entire movie - even after scientists and military brass inject Rogers with a special serum that amplifies his cellular structure, making him a "super soldier." For underneath the newfound brawn and muscle still beats the heart of someone whom Jesus once extended his love towards: "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth." (Mt. 5:5).

Rogers' meekness taught him some valuable lessons... principles that would give him a strength beyond the strongest soldier on the battlefield. When asked if he wanted to kill Nazis (an easy question asked in movies many times before to a chorus of "oh yeah!" by many a film character), Rogers responds "I don't want to kill anyone. I just don't like bullies." Even against one of the most vicious enemies our world has ever known, Rogers has learned that killing is no answer. However, at the same time, those who disregard the dignity of life - and oppress and persecute those weaker or different than they are - must be brought to justice and accountability. And when a grenade threatens to kills a platoon of soldiers, it is the meek and mild Rogers that sacrifices himself for the sake of others - proving his understanding of selflessness and love for all God's people (even those who just recently persecuted him).

This is what true heroism is all about. No impenetrable shield or six-pack of stomach muscles comes close to the strength of the gospel if truly lived out in daily life.

Blessed are the meek, says Jesus. This familiar beatitude rolls off the tongue so easily, but what does it really mean? Blessed are those who are ignored, rejected, persecuted, beaten down, overwhelmed, physically or emotionally weak, less-than-perfect, absent-minded, poverty-stricken, shy and quiet. Blessed are the ones that we often forget or the acquaintances that barely register in our memory. Blessed are the people who are laughed at for their mistakes or their appearances. Blessed are those who get picked last on the sports team or those who can't seem to get ahead in their work or their classes. Blessed are those with two left feet or those considered unattractive. Yes, blessed are all those people - believe it or not.

Jesus says that it is these people, from whom the world has taken so much away, that will ultimately be first in God's eyes.

This beatitude, which we often overlook each time we hear it, is perhaps one of the greatest challenges Jesus offers us. Do we contribute to the persecution and frustration of the meek? Do we cause those who are meek to fall into sadness and depression? Do we forget the meek as we go throughout our daily lives? If we have ever done that, and in some respects we may all be guilty of this oversight or neglect from time to time, Jesus challenges us to help the meek inherit the earth.

In the film, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) took a chance on the meek - and lifted them up higher than any special serum could ever do. Perhaps it was because they themselves were once put down (as a woman or as a Jew), but they were able to respond well to Christ's challenge to love and look out for the meek.

This beatitude (and the film) also offers us another challenge: if we find ourselves in the role of the meek person, what are we to do? Take vengeance on our persecutors? Sulk in bitterness and anger? Give up on any hope for a brighter future? No... we are called to turn the other cheek, respond in love, show kindness to our enemies, and above all, be selfless and sacrificial on behalf of one another (even those who put us down). The meek will gain their strength when they live life as if they were the strongest person - because in so doing, they really do inherit the earth. Their strength is what lies beneath the meekness - a strength embodied by Jesus of Nazareth and all the saints from Christ's time to our own.

Blessed are the meek like Steve Rogers. Blessed are the meek who occupy our daily routines - the forgotten ones, the persecuted ones, and the unloved ones - for we are called by Christ to lift them up. And blessed are us when we are meek, for if we live by the tenets of the gospel, we will have an impenetrable shield beyond price: the promise of salvation.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2

"No greater love is there than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends." John 15:13

It has all led up to this. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, is the culmination of the seven movies that preceded it - wrapping up all the loose ends and giving final meaning behind all the series' storylines and secrets.

In the end, after our central characters have come of age and learned more than classroom studies at Hogwarts, it comes down to three basic kernels of wisdom: 1) there is greater depth to people, if only we take the time to look for it; 2) heroism is forged in courage, goodness, and hope; and 3) evil has no power over selfless, sacrificial love.

(NOTE: this review will contain spoilers, as they are essential to understanding the spiritual connections that this movie makes; if you have not read the book or seen the film, be aware of that spoilers will certainly follow)

There is greater depth...

One of the benefits of stretching a story for seven books (or eight feature films) is that we have the benefit of discovering the rich depth that many of the characters possess. From the first movie onward, we have learned and re-learned the lesson that first impressions and assumptions rarely give us the full picture.

In Deathly Hallows, Part 2, the greatest example of this is Severus Snape (played with rich precision by the acclaimed Alan Rickman). Beginning a decade ago with Sorcerer's Stone, Snape has always raised the eyebrows of his students as well as we, the audience, for his sinister tone of voice, his sharp and biting wit, and his dark and suspicious ways. When he killed Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) in Half-Blood Prince, it seemed his reputation was sealed: Snape was indeed an evil man.

But in this final installment, we learn that, beneath his brooding veneer, Snape was perhaps the most heroic of characters, risking everything for the sake of Lily Potter and her son Harry (Daniel Radcliffe). There was truly more depth to Snape than we (or Harry) had ever known. J.K. Rowling's convenient plot device of the "pensieve," which allows its users to glimpse into the past through memory strands or tears, gives us the opportunity to see the complete backstory - and open our eyes to a new appreciation of the people we thought we knew.

Despite what Harry initially thought of his potions teacher, it is through this incredible moment of exposition that he learns that Snape was capable of great love and affection, of helping others when they needed it, and of admirable restraint when he himself was persecuted (by, to Harry's sadness, his own father and mentors). There was more depth there than Harry ever realized, but unfortunately this realization came too late - as it was only made possible by the tears of a dying Snape.

In our social media world, it is all-too-tempting to view people with passing superficiality; and the more "friends" we acquire, the more difficult it is to go in-depth with any one of them. These tangential connections cause us to make assumptions and ignore the rich depth that God gives all people. Harry was blind to see what lay beneath the hard exterior of Professor Snape - and it was too late when he finally learned the truth. Who in our lives are we being superficial with? Who do we know only in passing - and are they worth more than such a weak relationship gives us?

In this last film of the series, we finally get to see the depth of emotions that Slytherin bully Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) possesses. Torn between his allegiance to his parents, his long-held prejudices, and his growing conscience, it is sad that we get to see so little of Draco's struggle (perhaps we'll see them in the deleted scenes?)... but again in his character development, we get to see the depth we all have - if only we take a moment to look a little more closely.

Heroism forged in courage...

Throughout the series, the filmmakers have pushed our focus towards the three central characters: Harry, Hermione (Emma Watson), and Ron (Rupert Grint). Through all their adventures, we have seen the heroism of these three friends shine through with admirable radiance. Consider, for instance, how the trio treated the elves and goblins as equals, unheard of in this fantasy universe - and shocking to the recipients of such kindness.

However, in Deathly Hallows, Part 2, we finally get to expand the list of heroic acts - and in some respects, transcend it - by getting a glimpse at the heroism of characters like Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch), Professor McGonagall (Maggie Smith), and most especially Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis). Their heroism is forged in summoning up the courage to stand against those who would oppress and hurt others.

When Harry reveals his presence in Hogwarts in the middle of the film, McGonagall - who up until now has reluctantly stepped forward to stand up to the school's corrupt administration - is filled with a hope she has yearned for all year... and is able to confront the enemy and defend her students. But even more courageous is Luna and Neville who have led the student body in an active underground resistance. More than the adults, these young students face persecution and beatings for their beliefs - yet continue to stand true to their core values and in the hope that goodness will prevail.

But perhaps the most telling scene comes near the very end when the evil and victorious Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) enters Hogwarts with the dead body of Harry Potter being carried in as the prize trophy of his triumph. Even then, as hope seems all but extinguished, Neville steps forward when absolutely no other person would dare to tread. Courageous to the bitter end, Neville proclaims that what they fight for is even greater than the Chosen One Harry Potter - and witnesses to the fact that love and goodness is more important, more powerful than anger, temptation, worldly power, and evil. Initially seen as the weakest and most vulnerable student in Sorcerer's Stone, Neville has become the most inspiring one of all in the last act.

Are we ready to stand courageously for what we believe in? Are we willing to put everything on the line for our faith and our hope in something greater? Will we risk ridicule, reputation, or even life to make a difference? Heroes are often seen as those with special abilities, popularity, and power - but Neville, like the prophets in the Scriptures, transcend these narrow understandings of heroism. He reminds us what real "heroes" look like... those who go against the grain, stand courageous, and are willing to risk everything for hope and goodness.

Selfless, sacrificial love...

In the end, what ultimately defeats the evil embodied by Voldemort is love. Not the typically-shown image of romantic love of fleeting emotions and heightened sensuality, but the kind of love that St. Paul writes about to the Corinthians: "love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous. It is not pompous. It is not inflated. It is not rude. It does not seek its own interests. It is not quick tempered. It does not brood over injury. It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things." (1 Cor. 13:4-7)

This love is the one shown by the valiant and brave characters of this series, who offer compassion to all creatures - from Muggle to magician, from dwarf to elf to goblin, from giants to dragons, and from the smartest to the struggling students. This love is the one shown by a mother to her son - so much so that it saves the life of the infant Harry the night when Voldemort came to kill the Potter family. This love is shown by millions and millions of fans around the world who waited patiently through seven books and eight movies and who were inspired to treat others in the non-magical world as Harry treated all he met.

But in a special way in Deathly Hallows, Part 2, Harry Potter realizes that the only way to truly vanquish evil was to sacrifice his own life for the sake of the wizarding world. Like Christ, he was frightened but willing to walk towards certain death so that others might live. He embodied the Lord's words, "No greater love is there than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends." (John 15:13). And it wasn't just Hermione and Ron that Harry was doing this for - because for Harry, his "friends" included all people, even those he didn't know and even those he didn't much like. No greater love had Harry than to lie down his life for Luna and Neville, for McGonagall and the Hogwarts staff, for the Weasleys and for his girlfriend Ginny (Bonnie Wright), for the Muggles unaware of this hidden world, and yes, even for the Dursleys, the Malfoys, and all the Death Eaters. To give one's self completely for others was perfect love... and this above all else is what destroyed Voldemort and his evil.

It is also telling that, no matter how dire the situation ever was, Harry never used an unforgivable curse. His was always a defensive spell, never an offensive one that would hurt another. Even towards Voldemort, the seventh book recounts, Harry chose not to use a killing curse to win the day... but a simple "expelliarmus" - the most nonviolent spell possible. Because of this selfless act, Harry is able to retrieve Voldemort's weapon and put an end to the destruction.

For Harry, this love needed seven years to fully develop. He needed seven years to fully understand the meaning of selfless sacrifice, which ultimately wins the day. He needed seven years of good mentors like Dumbledore, Sirius Black, McGonagall, Remus Lupin & Tonks, Mad-Eye Moody, the Weasley family, Dobby the house elf, and Hagrid to show him the way of maturity, sacrifice, righteousness. He needed seven years of experiences with fellow students like Neville, Luna, Ginny, Fred & George, and of course Hermione and Ron to give him the tools for the end. He needed to forgive and be forgiven by Snape, Draco, Peter Pettigrew, and the Dursleys to fully grasp the meaning of unconditional love.

In our own lives, all that God has given us - our experiences, our friends, and even our struggles - are there to prepare us for perfect love and redemption. Harry needed his adventures with sorcerer's stones, the Chamber of Secrets, the innocent prisoner of Azkaban, the trials of the Goblet of Fire, the protective Order of the Phoenix, the secrets of the half-blood prince, and the journey to uncover the Deathly Hallows to prepare him for the final battle of good and evil. So in our lives, what have our adventures at school, at work, with our families, and in all that we have seen and done thus far - taught us? Have we learned anything from the past - so that we are equipped for the future? Have we learned the true meaning of love? Have we grasped the significance of selfless sacrifice? Have we received the hope that goodness, justice, and mercy always wins out over vengeance, violence, and death?

If not, then God still has hope in us - that all the previous chapters of our lives have not been in vain - and that we, like Harry, will be ready to stand up when the time comes.

One final note... It is inspiring, to say the least, that even though Harry has defeated evil, he relinquishes power in victory just as selflessly as he approached certain death. He drops the resurrection stone in the forest, stops using the invisibility cloak for protection, and breaks the elder wand - to show that true power actually found in the human heart. So even if we have done what God calls us to do - and we find victory over evil - we are not to boast, brag, or lord our righteousness over anyone.

This serves as a valuable epilogue as we look ahead to the future. The ultimate victory is not just in defeating the forces of evil, but in bolstering and living out the forces of goodness, compassion, selflessness, and love every day of our life. May all of us have such a wondrous journey as this.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Larry Crowne & Transformers 3

"Live simply that others may simply live"

During this year's Independence Day weekend, two very different movies arrived in theatres: Larry Crowne, staring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, and Transformers: Dark of the Moon, featuring Shia LaBeouf and a lot of CGI alien robots. I had the opportunity to see both in a short span of time, so the two have weaved their way together in my prayers this week.

Both films were set in present day with the reality of today's economic recession as the baseline for their stories. For example, compare the circumstances that face the movies' central characters: Sam Witwicky (LaBeouf) cannot seem to find a job, despite saving the earth in two previous films; Larry Crowne (Hanks) loses his job due to downsizing and the need for college-educated management, despite being a model employee and dedicated workhorse.

Yet this is where these two movies part ways - both in storyline and in the approach the filmmakers took to their production.

In Transformers, Sam longs for the high that accompanies the thrill of fighting alongside autobots in order to save the planet. It seems he spends his life avoiding anything close to normalcy, choosing a new girlfriend (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) for her model figure, good looks, and money - and complaining an awful lot about being left out of the military-industrial complex. His attitude is a mixture of cockiness, apathy, and frustration - which means he fails at almost every job interview and causes his eccentric parents to perpetually roll their eyes at him.

And even when Sam gets his wish to land in the middle of an alien battle, he pushes even harder for an intensity to stave off the boredom of life and the fact that he isn't always front and center. It seems, though, that Sam's only advocate is the movie's director Michael Bay, who provides our hero with enough noise and complex action sequences to permanently damage any movie theatre's sound system - including an excessively long and explosive battle tearing up the streets of Chicago.

On the other end of the theatre this weekend was a much more quiet film, Larry Crowne. It's not a depressing movie by any means... quite the contrary: it's a lighthearted comedy with characters to care about and a great emotional payoff.

While Sam Witwicky took his career rejection with smug disdain, Larry takes his downsizing more graciously. After a few tears, he picks himself up and begins looking at new possibilities - not because he is bored with his current life but because he feels he is being offered a new opportunity to impact his world.

Humbly realizing that he can't obtain the jobs he wants without a college degree, Larry enrolls at the local community college. His life begins to chart a new course almost the moment he rides into campus (on a scooter he purchased at a neighbor's yard sale - a more economical transportation than his gas-guzzling SUV).

On his first day, three things propel him into a new future: he makes friends with Talia, a fellow scooter student (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who wants to help Larry (whom she affectionately calls "Lance") find his less-anxious inner self; he begins public speaking classes taught by the overwhelmed Mercedes Tainot (Roberts), who helps Larry to understand and appreciate the spontaneity of life; and he takes a basic economics class taught by an enthusiastic, if perhaps a bit self-absorbed, professor (played here with witty charm by Star Trek's George Takai), who helps him to better grasp the economic possibilities of the world today.

Larry Crowne is a story of renewing oneself in a positive light even when confronted with the worst situation. And what is even more enlightening about this film is how many characters respond out of goodness and love for another - not to get ahead, not out of obligation, and not expecting anything in return.

Talia has no agenda when she invites "Lance" to her scooter gang, or when she helps Larry learn the art of feng shui. Larry and Mercedes don't need to give big tips to the pizza delivery people, but they do because it's the right thing to do. When Mercedes is a little drunk, even though she invites Larry into her house for some foolin' around, he calmly declines and encourages her to sleep it off (even though he has a secret crush on her), simply because it's the right thing to do.

"Live simply so that others might simply live." This quote, which has been attributed to a variety of people like St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, Mahatma Gandhi, and Mother Teresa, is what Larry Crowne gets and Transformers ignores.

In the reality of an economic downturn, when things start slipping from our fingers, it is tempting to cling to unnecessary luxuries, hoping they'll never go away. This is the path Sam Witwicky took, leading to more and more destruction. But Larry Crowne took the road less traveled, and it really did make all the difference.

One would think that when Larry abandoned his SUV and a flat screen television in exchange for a beat-up blue scooter, he was crazy. Then again, the same was said about Francis of Assisi, Elizabeth Ann Seton, and Mahatma Gandhi (except the part about the blue scooter).

What Larry lost physically he gained in so many other ways. He found friendship, confidence, his culinary skill set, and a budding love interest played by Julia Roberts.

This week's trip to the movies was akin to Elijah's experience in the mountains of Horeb (1 Kings 19): he looked for God in the noise of thunder, the reverberating feel of an earthquake, and the spectacle of fire - but could not find him there. But when he stopped for a moment to listen to the small simple breeze, he discovered the true power of the Almighty.

Transformers was a spectacular exercise in cinematic excess, but God is not always in the complexities, especially when life has taken a turn for the worse. Larry Crowne, which barely registered at the box office (like a still small breeze in the corridors of the multiplex), was a hopeful (and quite a fun) tale of simple living, fertile soil for God's presence.

This is not to say that the third installment of Transformers was devoid of spiritual meaning (quite the contrary - as it paints a wonderful analogy of God's protection that never abandons us). However, when put side by side, this weekend's two opening films provide a great juxtaposition of approaches to a people stuck in a struggling economic climate.

The hope that Larry Crowne provides is refreshing and grounded in great spiritual and Scriptural tradition - from Elijah to Jesus, from Benedict of Nursia to Francis of Assisi, from Elizabeth Seton to Gandhi. It reminds us that even when faced with rejection, we are called to lift our heads in hope in God and in other people. It offers us some great examples of people doing what is right and just, not out of a selfish hope that "karma" might reward us for our efforts, but out of a genuine care and concern for the welfare of another. It opens our eyes to seeing that living without excess is nothing to fear or be ashamed - in fact, it's quite enjoyable when we surrender to God's will and the possibilities he has in store for us.

Live simply, so that others might live... Live without desire, personal grudges, selfishness, and anger. Live without clinging to our property or jealously exploiting situations as to hedge our bets. In all these things, we not only save ourselves, but we do a favor for all creation.

Live simply. Live life to the fullest. Live for others and for the glory of God above.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Cars 2

"Like a shoot from the parched earth, there was in him no stately bearing to make us care about him, nor any appearance that would attract us to him..." Isaiah 53:2

Poor Tow Mater, the rusted-over and somewhat annoying tow truck voiced by Larry the Cable Guy in Cars 2. Above all the cool car races, spy intrigue, and exotic international settings in this animated sequel, it is the story of Mater (as he is commonly known) that most touches the heart.

Despite his awkward nature and unsightly appearance, Mater is an unconditionally kind vehicle, almost to a fault. When his friend Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) comes back to the sleepy town of Radiator Springs after a season of racing, Mater rolls out the red carpet and wants to spend every waking moment with his buddy... even when McQueen simply wants some peace and quiet (and the company of his sweetheart Sally, voiced here by Bonnie Hunt).

Without McQueen (the only car to really return Mater's overreaching affections in any way), Mater seems lost and alone. He exemplifies Isaiah's description of the suffering servant:

"Like a shoot from the parched earth, there was in him no stately bearing to make us care about him, nor appearance that would attract us to him. He was spurned and avoided by others, a man of suffering accustomed to infirmity, one of those from whom others hide their faces. He was spurned and we held him in no esteem." (Isa. 53:2-3)

Poor, poor Mater. His awkward looks, his obsessive personality, and his strange idiosyncrasies are sometimes too much for those around him. Yet McQueen reluctantly takes him on a global racing tour - if only out of gratitude for Mater's kindness and friendship.

But once again, in the lead-up to and in the crucial final moments of a race in Japan, Mater messes up. The relationship between friends has broken - and Mater unknowingly falls into the midst of an international spy caper (where his accidents actually save the day and endear him to his handlers, who think he's putting on quite a show).

Mater makes us think of those people in our own lives who may not completely fit in. This old tow truck reminds us of the ones we often forget about, pass over, or if we do notice them, we regard as annoying, obnoxious, or undesirable.

Do you know someone who fits that description? Do you feel that you are or that you are seen as someone like this? How do you react to people like this and/or how do people react to you?

Herein lies our struggle. It is true that certain individuals drain the energy and that their awkward nature can be time-consuming for others and sometimes embarrassing in public settings - yet we are called to love all God's people unconditionally - and we are called to strive towards excellence, maturity, and leadership.

It's a delicate balance between loving others and ourselves despite our flaws - and moving towards growth and self-improvement.

Mater has some things to work on: his smothering tendencies, his understanding of other cultures, and his lack of focus to name a few. In the same way, we must constantly look within to see how we can be our best self (and in a compassionate yet instructive way, help others to grow). This is where spiritual direction, coaching, and education come into play.

Yet at the same time, Mater is someone to be loved. Like the suffering servant in Isaiah, he still offers himself for others despite rejection. He looks at his dents and rust stains as markers along the way of serving those in need and loving his friends, just as Isaiah proclaims "by his stripes, we were healed." (Isa. 53:5) We, too, must love even those who seem out-of-place...for within them is the Holy Spirit.

It is easy to see this Spirit in those we love and cherish, in our family and friends. But God's face dwells within those we would otherwise reject - and if we should ignore, pass over, or laugh at them, are we not persecuting our Lord yet again?

It is our challenge, then, to handle those who look or act differently with intentionality. We might encourage them or help them to grow, but we should never abandon them. We are called to support and to love the "Tow Maters" in our lives, whoever they might be.

Let us pray that we may all balance how we treat others - and if we ourselves are victim to others, let us pray that God will send us good people to treat us with the love we so deserve.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Green Lantern

"Take courage and do not be afraid, all you who hope in the Lord." Psalm 32:25

The Green Lantern presents a rather complicated universe that includes a corps of green protectors who watch over 3,600 sectors of the cosmos and promote intergalactic peace and justice, all led by a high council of Guardians from the central planet Oa.

To be honest, when this film started throwing out all these mythological pointers, I was a bit overwhelmed. But beneath the complex exposition lies a basic story of the tension of courage and fear - carried out by the struggle between free will and paralyzing inaction.

Set against this grand landscape is also the story of one man's journey into this new reality: Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds), a reckless test pilot who is chosen by the light of the Green Lantern corps to succeed the most noble of their group upon his sudden death. And immediately upon taking on his superheroic responsibilities, Hal is thrust into the most dangerous battle ever faced by the Guardians of the Universe... no pressure, right?!

The main villain of the story is the appropriately-named Parallax (a tentacled blob of evil voiced by Clancy Brown) who is the ultimate embodiment of paralyzing fear - and who is headed straight towards earth since our inhabitants are naturally prone to fear anyway... making any such conquest an easy task.

Set against this terror are the members of the Green Lantern group, fueled by an energy force of free will (considered the greatest power since it converts inner thoughts into realized action); unfortunately, for being so creative, brave, and strong, they cannot seem to stop the spread of the fear-inducing monster. So it falls to the rookie human to save the day.

The movie's mythology closely resembles the theology of our own universe - where the evil and fear of the darkness is set against the goodness and courage of the light.

Even more specifically, it is fear that paralyzes us - and makes us easily susceptible to vengeance, rash decisions, and quick fixes. Fear leads to anger, hatred, and evil. Many of the worst atrocities ever committed in human history were born of fear - from the Nazis who feared the Jews to modern fundamentalist terrorists who fear the power of freedom.

Against this backdrop stands God, who represents hope in the midst of the worst fear. The psalmist sings, "How great is the goodness, O Lord, which you have in store for those who return to you and take refuge in you... Take courage and do not be afraid, all you who hope in the Lord." (Ps. 33:20,25). In the New Testament, Jesus says many times, "Do not be afraid," to the disciples in the storm and several times after his death-defying resurrection.

It is natural to be afraid. It's human instinct to hide our faces from frightening realities. Yet God calls us to rise above our ordinary emotions to become extraordinary in the face of danger.

As Hal's love interest Carol Ferris (Blake Lively) tells him when he is ready to give up in the movie, we are not supposed to be fearless - but instead, we are not to allow fear to define us, control us, and tempt us towards even greater evils. Fear is a part of the human condition, which we cannot escape, but we have the free will to fight it.

By acknowledging his fear but not letting it overtake him, Hal is able to face the ultimate monster. God has hope that we will be able to do the same. By giving us the gift of free will, each one of us has the power to overcome the darkest, most fearful situations.

We are all able to be truly superheroic - thanks, of course, to the God who strengthens us.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Super 8

"A time to discover and a time to forget. A time to hold close and a time to let go." Eccl. 3:6

There were times in my childhood that reminded me a lot of the events in Super 8, a J.J. Abrams-directed and Steven Spielberg-inspired film that follows a band of teenagers in a rural Ohio town in 1979 and the incredible events that happened there that summer.

Being a Generation Xer like J.J. Abrams, this movie reminded me of what it was like to grow up in the 1970s and 80s - of simpler times when the biggest concern a kid had was whether or not the cute girl from school noticed you. It was a time to discover new possibilities and dream of the future (it's then ironic and thought-provoking, of course, that as an adult, one dreams more and more about the past).

Super 8 tells the story of Joe Lamb (newcomer Joel Courtney), a young boy who recently lost his mother, and a collection of his friends who are spending their summer vacation making a zombie movie. One evening, on the night that Alice, the pretty young girl in town (Elle Fanning), joins the makeshift cast, the young filmmakers witness a horrible train wreck that starts a chain of unexplained events in their little Ohio town.

What sets this movie apart from other blockbuster fare is that this is a coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of a mysterious alien conspiracy - rather than a story about aliens that needed some kind of plot in the background. In fact, the extraterrestrial in this film is less important than the relationships among and the exploits of the teens on screen.

This change in moviemaking perspective draws the audience in a little further than a typical summer popcorn flick. No matter what age we are, many of us can easily identify with times like these (whereas the imagination needs to work overtime to identify with alien invasion stories).

This allows us to see the real story - of a young boy and his widower dad who are having a tough time letting go of the woman in their lives suddenly taken from them after an accident at work. It gives us the freedom to pay attention - to the new world opening up before young Joe in the form of an amateur movie production and a burgeoning crush on the new girl in his life.

Changing Super 8's perspective also shows us the struggle that the faceless government operatives are dealing with - the challenge of imprisoning an alien life form or letting their monster go home.

Sure, there are great special effects, frightening abduction sequences, a noisy firefight between the soldiers and the creature on the streets of a small town, and conspiracy theories running underneath the surface of this film. But those all make way for the thread that unites all the characters: knowing the time to hold on or to let loose.

In the Scriptures, the author of Ecclesiastes outlines the balance we face every day between extremes - birth and death, reaping and sowing, and in one verse, "a time to discover and a time to forget. a time to hold close and a time to let go." (Eccl. 3:6).

In this story, so many characters must find that balance - between discovering new possibilities and forgetting the pain and agony of the past, between holding and clinging onto the things that drag them down and letting go of the things that keep them from reaching new heights.

Joe must overcome the hurt and pain of his mother's death. His father Jackson (Kyle Chandler) must learn to forgive the people who accidentally caused his wife's passing. Alice's father Louis (Ron Eldard) must get past his drunkenness and guilt to be a good father and a respectable member of the community. The military men must let go of the alien in their possession for decades - and allow the creature to go home to the stars.

There are times for all these things, as the author of Ecclesiastes says, but in prayer and self-reflection, we can begin to know when is the best time for each.

In our own lives, when is it time to hold close to the memories of the past - of our dearly beloved friends and family, of nostalgic journeys into a childhood in the 70s and 80s, of past sins, failures, and hurt? And when is it time to put those things to the side - and discover a new world in our future? We wrestle with knowing the best time for each of these in our lives.

Where in our life are we unbalanced? Where in our journey of faith are we too extreme in one direction? What have we forgotten? What do we need to let go of, even if for a short while?

Seeking balance and being at peace with ourselves can seem like a daydream, but God calls us to live in that tension - and to keep finding ways to achieve that inner calm that results from a balanced soul. Then we can be as confident as Ecclesiastes and say with that book's author that there is an appointed time for every thing under heaven.