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.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

X-Men: First Class

"Not as humanity sees does God see, because you see the appearance but the Lord looks into the heart." 1 Sam. 16:7

There are many characters that run through X-Men: First Class as this film franchise prequel tells the story of how a myriad of mutants come together for the very first time.

We are introduced to a more egocentric, dashing, and youthful Dr. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and a troubled and increasingly embittered Erik Lehensherr (Michael Fassbender), who would one day become the dark antihero Magneto. Their stories form the core of the film as friendly compatriots in helping those with genetic mutations discover their true selves and relinquish their fear of those who would oppress them.

Charles' and Erik's differing approaches to the relationship between mutants and humans was played out in yet another character's origin story - in the person of Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), a shape-shifting young woman whose natural appearance was that of a scaled blue creature with yellow eyes and deep red hair.

When Raven was aligned with Charles Xavier, she adopted his approach to mutation: integration and cooperation. When in the company of other humans, she changed her appearance to fit into the crowd - and in many cases, kept this look even in the private company of close friends.

Yet when Erik Lehensherr came into her life, he encouraged Raven to be who she really was - to not be ashamed of her natural appearance. "You are beautiful," he told her, "just as you are."

Despite all of Charles' love of interspecies dialogue and hope, he acquiesced to humanity's natural tendency to fear the unknown and the stranger. He didn't want to upset the apple cart or rock the boat if he didn't need to. Integrating into human society was his goal, allowing mutants to be who they were - just as long as it didn't interfere with everyday life.

And despite the villainous Magneto who Erik eventually becomes, he looked upon his fellow outcasts with love and saw in them great beauty and greatness. In some respects, Erik's approach mirrored God's way of looking upon the world, as explained in the Scriptures: "Not as humanity sees does God see, because you see the appearance but the Lord looks into the heart." (1 Sam. 16:7)

Poor Raven always thought less of her natural appearance (perhaps brought on by her trusted confidant Charles who averted his eyes from her blue scaled skin); however, when she heard Erik's kind words and met the affections of another mutant with an awkward appearance (Hank McCoy played by Nicholas Hoult), she began to love who God made her to be.

The X-Men franchise has long had a particular appeal to audiences because so many people can identify with mutations or imperfections. Whether it's a physical, mental, or emotional distinctiveness, no human being is a cookie-cutter image. Despite the commercials that promise perfection, no one is truly flawless.

What Charles Xavier (and real-life geneticists like him) call mutations, God calls the varied beauty of creation. We often run from these so-called imperfections, hiding them so we can fit into "normal" society. Like Raven, we even go to lengths to change our appearances so no one will notice what makes us different or unique.

But it is precisely those imperfections that God loves the most about us, believe it or not. However, what God does look out for is how we will use those special and unique aspects of our appearance, our personality, and our mind to love one another and to glorify the heavens.

Jesus himself called out to the mutants of his day - by ministering to the lepers, the possessed, the tax collectors and prostitutes, the poor and marginalized, the blind and the lame, the outcast and the rejected of society. It was these imperfect, flawed human beings upon which he built the Reign of God. He saw them as beautiful, as God sees humanity.

Poor Raven - caught between two understandings of mutations and imperfections. As we know from her alliances in later movies, the balance between Charles' and Erik's philosophies are not as clear-cut as black and white. Even though Erik saw her as God sees her, he also favored violence and vengeance as the response to anyone who saw mutants as less than perfect. And while Charles Xavier had much to learn about loving the mutations, he was drawn to forgiveness and patience in the long run.

Poor Raven. Poor Mystique. Hers is a tragic tale - one that many of us can identify with. We long to be loved by the world as God so loves us. We want to cling to anyone who will accept us for who we are - but can sometimes be blinded to see if those who accept us are also so gracious in all aspects of their lives (consider, for instance gangs and kindred groups that may alleviate fear for its members but cause havoc for all others).

Being an outsider is a tough road. But it doesn't need to end like Mystique's did.

Instead, in the real world, we have the opportunity to follow Christ - who combines Xavier's philosophy of integration, kindness, understanding, and patience with Magneto's approach to personal strength, inner beauty, and giftedness. Sadly, in this film (and in many cases in our world today), the two sides split. But in Christ, they come together and are perfected. Let us follow that path - and in so doing, truly become "first class."