Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

"Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found.  I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay:  small acts of kindness and love.  Why Bilbo Baggins?  Perhaps because I am afraid, and he gives me courage."  - Gandalf the Grey, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Too often, we think like Saruman.  It's time to think more like Gandalf.  Or perhaps even more appropriately, it's time to act more like Bilbo Baggins.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey takes us on another J.R.R. Tolkein adventure.  Over a decade ago, director Peter Jackson gave us the incredible story of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Tolkein's masterpiece in cinematic form.  This time, however, we go back farther into the history of Middle Earth, before the fellowship and the ring, when the object of the journey wasn't saving the world, but simply reclaiming one's home.

As we begin this tale, we meet Gandalf again (Ian McKellen) encouraging young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) to accompany thirteen dwarfs on a epic adventure to the Lonely Mountain - the "Promised Land" of the dwarfs that had been overtaken by the dragon Smaug sixty years prior.  The colorful collection of lost dwarfs is led by the great warrior Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), and they need a hobbit like Bilbo to sneak into places they cannot.

Bilbo doesn't seek this adventure, but he ultimately decides to join the dwarfs anyway - mostly because he takes pity on their homelessness (and for a hobbit like Baggins, having a comfortable home is a blessing all creatures should have).  Despite thoroughly enjoying his comfort zone, Bilbo has a compassionate heart and generous spirit - one that Gandalf saw in him before he saw it himself.

Of course, some on the high and mighty White Council doesn't share Gandalf's vision.  This Council, you see, is made up of really important people like Gandalf and his fellow wizard Saruman (Christopher Lee), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), the elf lord of Rivendell, and the Lady Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), the mightiest and fairest of the elves in Middle Earth.

In a private conversation with Galadriel, Gandalf confesses that he puts his faith in simple, ordinary people rather than in great powers like the White Council.  "Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found," declares Gandalf.  "I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay: small acts of kindness and love."

Whether it is facing off against the dragon Smaug, or the growing threat of the Necromancer, or any form of malevolent trolls, goblins, or orcs, Gandalf chooses to put his bets on those like Bilbo or the quietest of the dwarfs over wizards, elves, or kings.

Too often, we think as Saruman does:  we put our faith in seemingly important people to solve all our problems.  We tend to put our bets on politicians, celebrities, corporate heads, media figures, and household names - locally or globally.  We bet on them to fix our economy, eradicate crime and poverty, and bring peace and happiness to our worlds.  And too often, they don't deliver.

Perhaps it's time to think as Gandalf does:  to put our faith in others and in the gifts God has given to us, rather than waiting for some greater power on earth to solve everything for us.

As I write this, I am troubled by the recent tragedies of gun violence in Colorado, Oregon, and most recently, Connecticut.  Yet in the midst of this darkness comes the story of "ordinary folk" like Vicki Soto who sacrificed her life so that others might live at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.  People like Vicki "keep the darkness at bay" for she gives us an example of selflessness and love that we can all follow.  She, and others like her, are truly lights in the darkness of such horror.

We need to believe in people like Vicki Soto in our own lives.  Who are the kind, loving, and compassionate souls we know - who get little recognition for the little things they do to make this world a better place?  And how can we ourselves become more like Vicki, by being selfless in the face of violence, hatred, and darkness in our daily lives?  

Like Gandalf, God puts his faith in people like this.  Even in the person of Jesus Christ, God trusted the salvation of humanity to a man who lived his whole life in poverty, who walked up and down unmarked roads of a forgotten Roman province, and who died the death of a forsaken criminal.  The Father didn't trust in the great powers like kings, emperors, or high priests for the task of redemption - but in the simplicity and ordinary life of a Galilean peasant.

And also like Gandalf, we grow frightened.  But let people like Vicki Soto give us courage and strength.  We may not be president, pope, or king, but that just means we have even more power to hold darkness at bay and to change the world.  

Let us pray for Christ to live in more "ordinary folk" like you and me and those in our everyday lives - and in so doing, let us pray for great things to happen because of these people!

Saturday, November 17, 2012


"With malice towards none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right..."  Abraham Lincoln, March 4, 1865 (Second Inaugural Address, Washington DC)

Steven Spielberg's epic Lincoln is a magnificent study in character.  The screenplay itself is a bit long and winding, full of 19th Century political intrigue and all the details of domestic life in the White House at the end of Lincoln's presidency. But what cannot be denied is the incredible richness that the actors brought to the historical characters we see on screen.

First and foremost, Daniel Day-Lewis does a remarkable job embodying the sixteenth president.  For over two hours, we get to see Abraham Lincoln as never before - a mix of humor, zeal, compassion, and melancholy in the face of the United States' most divisive period of history.

Day-Lewis shows us a man who was politically shrewd but firm in his convictions that slavery was wrong and all people must be treated equally and with loving compassion.  And to calm himself in a daily grind that would break most people, Lincoln is seen here as a simple country boy who loved telling campfire stories in whatever setting he found himself - from the war room to the bedroom, with soldiers, congressmen, servants, and whoever would listen to him.    

We know of oft-repeated statements the historical Lincoln once proclaimed, "A house divided against itself cannot stand..," "Four score and seven years ago...," and from his Second Inaugural Address, "With malice towards none, with charity for all,, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right..."  But up until now, excepting students of history, few of us knew the humanity behind such grand eloquence.

In this film, we understand the complexities of the man:  political yet personal, calculating yet compassionate, commanding yet willing to listen to those around him.  Decades now removed from this man, we often wonder why those on the right and left, the conservative and liberal, the religious and irreligious all hail Lincoln as a hero.  Lincoln shows us one possible reason... the man was truly a man for all seasons: a balancing act on the tightrope of history.  

As we seek balance and tapping into all the gifts God has given us, we can look to Abraham Lincoln as a role model.  While our daily struggles are not keeping the Union intact in the face of secession, they can seem so.  It can be easy to verge to one side or another - to be aggressive without compassion, or to be melancholy without hope - but we are called to live on a similar tightrope - and like Lincoln, make it across to the other side, whenever that end may come for us.

Daniel Day-Lewis is certainly the focal point for the film, but there are other great studies of character: Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), the devoted wife whose life seems to be crumbling around her, yet kept stable and calm by a loving and solid husband - and my personal favorite in the film, Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, the radical Republican abolitionist whose dreams of racial equality are unfolding before his eyes in the last four months of Lincoln's presidency.

For much of the movie, Stevens appears as a curmudgeon, bitterly fighting what seems like a losing battle (with political views that are about a century ahead of his time).  He bristles with fellow congressmen, political opponents, and the president himself.  Stevens demands perfection from society, and that perfection cannot come soon enough for him.  Anyone who gets in the way of that utopia is often on the receiving end of Stevens' fiery sermons and political speeches.

We may be or we may know people like Stevens, angry and bitter - and a person others may not want to be around.  Tommy Lee Jones is an actor who probably didn't need to do much acting for this part, either.  He gives us a portrayal that we both support and cringe at the same time.

But once again, Lincoln shows us that character is everything - and the entirety of that character is not necessarily what we see on the surface.  Late in the film, we come to find out the reason for his single-minded dedication to abolition and equality, and as radio commentator Paul Harvey often said, "and that's the rest of the story."

Character is important.  Character is key.  Lincoln was one that shown marvelously in public, and Stevens is one that was defined by what was private.  We should not be quick to judge one or the other too quickly, for like each one of us, there is much more of the story yet to tell.

Perhaps that is why Spielberg took two-and-a-half hours to tell this story.  Real character is not something that can be assessed in a moment.  It takes depth and time.  It takes patience.

As we look around to the people and characters in our own lives, perhaps we need to take some time there as well - to truly understand who it is that God has placed along our path.  Our judgements of others can come quick, like those who quickly assessed Stevens or Mary Todd... or even Lincoln.  Chances are, behind even the most private of people, there is a grand story yet to be told.  May we discover those stories - and be willing and compassionate enough to enter into them in new ways.

Sunday, November 11, 2012


"Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?"  1 Cor. 15:55

Please note that this review contains a few spoilers.

You just can't keep James Bond down for long.  For fifty years, Ian Flemming's infamous MI6 agent has escaped from the clutches of death time and time again.

In the opening sequence of the latest (and one of the greatest) 007 film, Skyfall, James Bond (Daniel Craig) is shot and presumed dead.  And even though an obituary is written for him, death just doesn't suit our hero very well.

Later in the movie, when asked by the central villain Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) about his hobbies, Bond quickly replies with "resurrection."  Over the years, 007 has escaped death countless times (one fan noted 4,662 to be exact), yet this latest "demise" gives him some time to reflect on his mortality and what is truly important to him (while recovering on some tropical island somewhere).

Yet death has no power over James Bond it seems.  Though quite far from the moral integrity of Jesus of Nazareth (and not counting the fact that one is the Son of God and the other a fictional character), the two do share an uncanny knack for surviving persecution and death in order to save the world.

"Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?" asks St. Paul (1 Cor. 15:55).  In this latest incarnation of Bond, we see our hero becoming a man whose whole existence revolves around protecting the innocent and punishing those who oppress, persecute, and destroy.  And with this as his central mission, death truly has no power.

We love watching Bond in part because we wish we could do all that he does - and with such class and sophistication.  It's impossible, right?  To some extent, yes.  We are not British secret agents with a license to kill.  But to some extent, we can be like Bond.

Bond has his convictions:  to protect, defend, and out-maneuver those who hurt others.   Should this not also be our mission?  Jesus instructs us to protect the defenseless and "be as cunning as snakes, yet as harmless as doves." (Mt. 10:16).  How do we stand for the vulnerable - the unborn, the poor, the persecuted, and the marginalized?   If and when we do this, we are honing our inner James Bond.

Bond also has his obedience.  No matter how unconventional his methods, he is loyal to Britain and in particular his demanding boss M (Judi Dench).  Whatever he may think of her prickly personality or rejection from the agency or the bureaucrats, he will always put aside his self-interests in the service of Mother Country.  The same should apply to us.  While we may think ourselves fully capable of doing anything, there are times we must be obedient to those in authority (from those on this earth to God above in heaven) who have a bigger picture than us.  It can be challenging to do in this in an age of individualism, but it certainly does Bond well.  Why not us too?  

Finally, Bond has a respect for traditions.  From his martini choices (shaken, never stirred) or his vehicle of choice (the Aston Martin DB5, which makes a nice return in Skyfall), Bond is a traditionalist.  In this movie's final act, Bond says "It's time to go back to the past."  The only way to defeat his nemesis Silva is to bring him into his past, whether he is proud of it or not.  The same must go for us.  When we keep to the traditions of our faith, our country, and our own experience - not being caught up in the brightest, shiniest object of the present moment - we can do great things.  Let us not forget where we come from, and the principles that have guided us for years.

When we stick to our core convictions, our traditions, and obey higher powers, we can become our own version of James Bond.  And if we live with integrity, compassion, love, and fidelity to God, then we can not only evade death like 007, but we can conquer it.

"Death will be swallowed up in victory," St. Paul says (1 Cor. 15:54).  When we live as Christ with conviction, tradition, and obedience, death will truly have no power over us.

Sunday, October 14, 2012


"When you give of yourself, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your almsgiving will be done in secret."  Matt. 6:3-4a

Argo is a declassified tale of real-life events that transpired in 1979 and 1980 during the Iranian Hostage Crisis and the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini.

While 52 Americans were held hostage after militant students broke into the United States Embassy in Tehran, six escaped into the homes of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (played here by Victor Garber) and (though not represented in the film) Canadian immigration officer John Sheardown.

Meanwhile in the U.S., CIA specialist Tony Mendez (portrayed by Argo director Ben Affleck) engineers a fantastic scheme to extract the six hiding with the Canadian officials:  in the wake of the science fiction renaissance brought on by Star Wars in the late 1970s, Mendez will travel to Iran as a Canadian film producer looking to film a low budget sci-fi adventure in the exotic locale of Tehran and leave a few days later with his six-person "production crew," that is the six American diplomats.

The ruse seemed so fantastic it was believable. To ensure credibility, Mendez brings Hollywood into the act by bringing aboard sci-fi make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin).  They develop storyboards, scripts, marketing, and actors - all kept in the dark on the ultimate purpose of their work:  to save American lives overseas.

For years, President Jimmy Carter, along with the real-life Ambassador Taylor, Sheardown, Mendez, Chambers, the six diplomats, as well as all those in the White House, State Department, and CIA who were involved with this covert operation, kept quiet on the details.  It wasn't until 1997 when President Bill Clinton declassified this story.

Secrets can often lead to corruption, but in this circumstance, it saved lives.

There is always a delicate balance between keeping information hidden, and we're not just talking about CIA missions or declassified stories. When it comes to our relationships with others, we don't want to exclude others from the facts; but at the same time, there is a place for discretion.

We live in the tension:  What do we share with others?  What do keep to ourselves?  Which of our actions should be tell others about?  Which should we keep hidden?

During one of his most memorable teaching moments in the New Testament, Jesus dealt with this internal conflict.  In the Sermon on the Mount, he spoke of three instances where secrecy is not only allowed, but encouraged:  in our prayer, in our fasting, and in our almsgiving.

"When you give of yourself, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your almsgiving will be done in secret." (Mt. 6:3-4a)   We live in a time when self-promotion is the norm, when reality television demands that nothing be kept secret.  Jesus' words increasingly fall on deaf ears.

Even in our churches, charities, and schools, we engrave plaques with donors and give prizes for those who do the most community service.  Practicing churchgoers often wear clothing, jewelry, or drive in cars labeled in a way that tells the world about one's religiosity.

Yet, despite other less-than-admirable actions, the CIA can teach us a lesson in discretion.

In Argo, one could argue that, even though he is credited for Spock's ears in Star Trek, Herman Munster's look in The Munsters, and the primates in Planet of the Apes, John Chambers' greatest accomplishment was saving the lives of six diplomats, not to mention Tony Mendez, Ambassador Taylor, and others in the Canadian embassy.  And for twenty years, he had to keep it completely secret.  His truest masterpiece was never to be known.

The same goes for Mendez, the Canadian government, and Jimmy Carter, who - in part - lost the 1980 election due to the public's assessment that he had been successful rescuing anyone from Tehran.  Their secrecy not only helped those stranded in Iran, but also reminded us of the importance of Jesus' words: "do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing."

It should also remind us not to judge others too quickly for their seeming lack of charity, spirituality, or discipline.  Perhaps, in secret, they are doing what Mendez, Chambers, and others once did.  Let us also remember that Jesus follows up his statements on discreet prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (in Matthew chapter 6) with an admonition against judging one another (in Matthew chapter 7).

So is there a dividing line between what should kept secret and what should be shared?  I believe so, yet I also think that such a line is different for each person.  In their hearts, they will know when they are pushing the envelope too far, stepping over that line for one's own glory.  When we act with humble hearts and do what is right for God, for ourselves, and for others, we will know what is best.

In the meantime, let us pray (discreetly, of course) that our minds and hearts will be more occupied by our desire to do those good things for the Kingdom of God - rather than to worry about how often we should reveal those deeds to the world.  

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Taken 2

"For the measure with which you measure will, in return, be measured out to you." (Lk. 6:38)

In the first Taken movie (2008), Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) wreaked havoc across Paris to find his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace), who had been kidnapped and sold into prostitution by an Albanian human trafficking syndicate.  Using his training as a CIA operative, Bryan kills and tortures anyone that gets in his way, but ultimately tracks Kim down and saves the day.

Like so many other heroic tales in the movies, we pay little attention to the body count as long as the goal of the film is accomplished: find the girl, defeat the villains, save the world, and so forth.

However, Taken 2 is the story of "what happens next."  It reveals that, while Kim was saved from a life of prostitution, there are consequences to the extreme measures taken to rescue her.  In the first film, Bryan killed many people including the gang of Albanians that kidnapped Kim at the Paris airport.  Now the Albanian father (Rade Serbedzija) of one of those men wants revenge.

Our actions have consequences.  In the laws of physics, for every action there is an opposite reaction.  In the Scriptures, Jesus says without hesitation, "For the measure with which you measure will, in return, be measured out to you." (Luke 6:38)   And St. Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, offers sage advice, saying, "...for a person will reap only what he sows." (Gal. 6:7)

For Bryan Mills, his singular focus on saving his daughter, no matter how noble, made him destroy the lives of others.  Now we see that those actions have serious consequences, as the Albanians out for revenge will stop at nothing in their resolve to punish our hero.  They seek to, once again, kidnap Kim along with her mother Lenore (Framke Janssen) and Bryan himself - and destroy them.

As the Book of Proverbs says, "Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of his fury will fail" (22:8)

Looking inward at our own lives, do we get so caught up in a singular focus or task that, like Bryan Mills in the first movie, neglect to reflect on the consequences of our actions as we move toward that goal?  For instance, are there times when we get so focused on getting a job done at work that we ignore our colleagues or family members in the process?  Or is there a cause that is so noble and for which we are so incredibly passionate about, but because of our passions, we end up ignoring other matters or end up hurting others in our fight for that cause?

While (hopefully) none of us are like Bryan Mills nor choose to kill without hesitation for our singular focus, we can easily fall into his line of thinking.  We can find ourselves so wrapped up in one thing that we loose sight of so much else.

Our actions have consequences, even (and especially) the ones we don't even realize we're doing.

Perhaps the first movie's Bryan Mills is so entrenched in his CIA training that he never realized that he was destroying others' lives in a passionate struggle to save his.  In this movie, it seems, he begins to notice those consequences.  Even in domestic matters, he has to live with the consequences of his actions in his broken marriage to Lenore or his overprotective relationship with Kim.

We, too, must start to wake up to the actions of our lives.  We have to be more conscious of what we are sowing in our race to the finish line.

In the business world, in an attempt to cut corners and save costs, millions of lives are negatively affected.  For instance, certain retail giants, in their corporate objective to offer customers low costs, choose to save those costs by using labor paid below poverty standards and treated with no dignity.  The same is true with international trade companies (especially those dealing with coffee, tea, and cocoa exports) and Wall Street tycoons.  What if, for a moment, those in the leadership of those companies decided to examine the consequences of their actions?

In another example, there are those who feel so charged up about a certain political or religious issue that they will stop at nothing to make their point.  This doesn't just apply to oppressive governmental regimes and religiously-inspired terrorism, but also to everyday individuals who are so very passionate about their beliefs.  Even in small ways, such zealousness can harm so many others in the process.  What if, for a moment, those who have such strong convictions stopped for a moment to ask themselves what consequences their words and deeds have had - and who or what has been harmed as a result?

Sure, it is fun to watch Liam Neeson crush his way through Istanbul in this movie, just as it was thrilling to watch him in the previous film.   So let us keep our desire for unbridled dedication to the movie theatres and the fictional story we see on screen - and not repeat his actions in our own lives.

Let's let Bryan Mills have his day, but let's be aware of the consequences of our actions in every day we have from here on out.  Let's be conscious of the people who may be hurt by our words or deeds, no matter how noble or profitable they seem to us at the time.

And should we find that we have hurt others in the process, let us pray for our forgiveness and that we might reconcile with those individuals or fix the damage we may have caused.

St. Paul concludes his Letter to the Galatians by saying that those who sow forgiveness, reconciliation, and love in the busy stretch of their lives will reap such blessings as well.  "For the one who sows for the Spirit will reap eternal life from the Spirit.  Let us not grow tired of doing good, for in due time we shall reap our harvest, if we do not give up." (Gal. 6:8-9)

In whatever quest we are on today or those we will engage in tomorrow, let us always sow good works: love, awareness, compassion, and patience - for those are actions with consequences we will most certainly want to receive from the Lord and from others.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Finding Nemo 3D

"Son, why have you done this? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety!"  Luke 2:48

Disney-Pixar's Finding Nemo has returned to movie theatres to show off its new 3D capabilities, and of course, to bring in a few extra dollars on a guaranteed investment.  Cynicism aside, re-releasing a movie like this is a treat because it really is a great film worth the few extra dollars to see it 3D.

The story is a role reversal of sorts.  Typically with a film about a youth getting lost in the wilderness, the focus is on the growth of the child, and to some degree this is true.  But the emphasis here is on the emotional and spiritual development of the father.

For those who haven't seen the movie or who need a refresher, Finding Nemo is a father-and-son tale of Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks), a clownfish so scarred by his past that he is fearful of anything beyond his anemone home, and Nemo (voiced by Alexander Gould), a wide-eyed kid with a slight handicap (his right fin is smaller than the left) and a desire to move out of his father's shadow.

On his first day of school, in an attempt to prove he can make it on his own, Nemo is captured by divers on the open ocean and brought to live in a fishtank in a Sydney dentist office.  Meanwhile, despite his fears, Marlin races into the deep to desperately find his son.  On the long journey through the Great Barrier Reef, he meets a cast of characters, but none so important as Dory (voiced by Ellen Degeneres), a Blue Tang fish with a short-term memory problem and a heart of gold.

In a way, Marlin becomes the hero of the story, fighting his way through danger and distance when his son is concerned, proving that love conquers all fear.  When the focus of our life is constantly pointed towards the love of others, we can overcome all odds.  Marlin, a fish normally afraid of anything outside the comfort of his home, was able to swim through dark deep abyss, go headlong into shark-infested waters, navigate among a forest of jellyfish, and make it through the belly of a whale - all for love of his son (and in some cases, love for his annoying companion Dory).

The film itself seems comparable to the experience of Mary and Joseph in the Scriptures, realizing they had lost their son in Jerusalem.  Like Marlin and Dory, they searched everywhere for Jesus - among relatives, in the dangerous city streets, and ultimately, after days and days, finding him in the Temple. (see Luke 2:41-52 for the whole story).

When they find him, Mary turns to Jesus and says, "Son, why have you done this?  Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety!" (Lk. 2:48)   To this remark, Jesus says he has been safe and secure all along in his Father's house.  What this does is turn the tables on his parents, and offers them a lesson in their desperate search.

Here the young Jesus asks his parents, and by extension asks us, to look closer at our own journeys of great anxiety.  Often when we are frantically looking for something or to complete something, our focus is on the end goal.  This was especially true of Marlin who was able to use this focus to make it through the vastness of endless sea.  But Jesus also asks us to take a moment and look around us and within us: when we are constantly moving "with great anxiety," we can forget the rest of the world and ourselves.

In his incredible journey to find his son, Marlin often took for granted the blessings he received along the way: the constant companionship of Dory, the unique encounters with oddly compassionate sharks and whales, the helpful wisdom of a school of moonfish, the sage advice of the 150-year old sea turtles gliding through life on the winds of the current, and an aquarium of welcoming fish (and one wayward pelican) in Sydney who protected his son unbeknownst to him.  And despite his closed-off attitude at times, they still wanted to help - and without that, Marlin would still be looking for Nemo.

Today, our lives our often run at an obnoxious pace, frantically searching for something or looking to finish this or that task so we can move onto the next.  We are Marlins swimming upstream.

When we live like this, we can often forget the people around us and the experiences that come to us.  We can be so focused that we don't stop for a moment for gratitude or even rest.  Our idiosyncrasies can go unchecked when we don't listen to the advice of those around us.  While it is true that focus can bring about our goals, let us also not forget that the journey is just as critical as the destination.

Finding Nemo is aptly named, as the time Marlin spent finding Nemo gave us, the audience, a remarkable story.  The reunion of father and son is the hope of the film, but the real joy for us is the journey.  Likewise, when God watches our lives, he may want us to succeed in all our tasks, but he especially enjoys watching how we got there.

Let us pray for each other that we may take a few moments, come up for air like a humpback whale off Australia's coast, and take in all we meet, all we see, and give thanks to God for all we received.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Bourne Legacy

"It is not good for the man to be alone..."  Gen. 2:18

In The Bourne Legacy, black ops agent Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) finds himself quite alone.

Cross is part of an international network of covert CIA agents spread out across the globe, but after Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) in the earlier movie trilogy exposed the Agency for its corruption and morally vacant tactics, that network is being shut down.

This means that all agents must be eliminated, but due to his increased stamina and heightened intelligence (by-products of his covert operation which have chemically changed his body and mind), Aaron has been able to survive the attack.  When a second drone is sent to kill him in the snowy wilderness of Alaska, he is able to fake his death and avoid further detection from the CIA.

And, in that moment, Aaron Cross is all alone.

Meanwhile, the CIA is also eliminating the scientists who created the chemical formula that fueled those seemingly-invincible covert operatives; and when one scientist, Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz) survives that massacre, she too is all alone.

Fortunately, their loneliness does not last too long.  Aaron is able to track down Marta just in time to save her from yet another CIA-ordered attack.

They find, in short order, that they need each other.  Apart, each will inevitably die:  Marta has no training to go up against wiretappers, snipers, government agents, and hungry reporters out to get her without Aaron's special skills and creative evasion tactics; and Aaron will mentally implode without a viral cure that only Marta, with her scientific expertise, can provide.

"It is not good for the man to be alone," God says of Adam in the first chapters of Genesis (2:18).  The same goes for Aaron Cross, for Marta Shearing, and for any of us.  It is not good to be alone - and not because we will be hunted down by the CIA if we were to be.

What pains us when we see the Bourne movies, this one not withstanding, is how alone the protagonist seems to be.  Aaron and Marta, like Jason Bourne before them, are without support and far from the comforting embrace of a community or other kind-hearted souls. They must rely on their own ingenuity and expertise to make it through each moment of these movies.

So it is good that the two in this movie aren't completely alone.  They have each other, and hopefully, over time (i.e. sequels), they will find others to lean upon in times of need.

"I will not leave you alone," says Christ to the disciples at the Last Supper (John 14:18), "...and when this is over, you must come back and give strength to your brothers." (Luke 22:32)   Christ won't leave us alone, and this is possible by reliance on God and reliance on a community who loves us.  So, too, we must find those who will never abandon us - and we, in turn, must not abandon those whom God has given us in our lives.

For all his chemically-induced powers, Aaron Cross is nothing without Dr. Shearing.  And for all her intelligence and experience, she is powerless without him.  Who are those people in our lives who give strength to our weakness, and whom we strengthen in theirs?

It is not good for us to be alone, but in our culture of self-reliance and individuality, we can be tempted to forge our own way in the wilderness, like the cover operatives in the beginning of this film.  We can do it by ourselves, we fool ourselves into thinking.  But if that were the case, each of us would have our own planet upon which to exist.

Instead, God created us today with over seven billion other companions on this earth.  We are strongest when we do not run alone, when we look to the common good above our own, and when we strengthen and seek strength from one another.

In that spirit, let us pray for each other, and in our common prayer, we will never ever be alone again.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

A Summer of Discontent

"Woe to those who turn judgment into wormwood and cast justice to the ground... Woe to those who yearn for the day of the Lord! For them, this is a time for darkness without light..."  Amos 5:7.18  

In the summer of 2012, two gritty, bloody shootings have dominated headlines - one during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in a Colorado movie theatre on July 20, another by a white supremacist during a religious service at a Wisconsin Sikh temple on August 5.  Both of these events, and the countless others that don't make the evening news, are tragedies that deserve our attention and our prayers.

On movie screens, meanwhile, the films themselves are fully immersed in an era of cinematic grittiness.  

This has been exemplified by two recent films: Christopher Nolan's third Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, itself a reboot of the 1980s/1990s more comic-themed franchise, and Total Recall, a reboot of the early 1990s adventure film of the same name based on Philip Dick's short stories.

Gone are the cartoon special effects of Tim Burton or Paul Vehoeven, as well as the tongue-in-cheek acting of Michael Keaton (or Val Kilmer or George Clooney) and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Gone are the fun catchphrases ("Where does he get all those wonderful toys?," "Never rub another man's rhubarb," "Get your ass to Mars," or "Consider that a divorce" to name a few).

Instead, these new films are only a few shades different than the reality from which moviegoers are often escaping.  Their tone is darker, their violence more bloody, the fear more gripping.  Such parallel moviemaking can make it hard to tell the difference between a real-life terrorist who donned a gas mask to kill innocent moviegoers and the fictionalized terrorist Bane who dons a gas mask to kill innocent citizens of Gotham City.

Yet both films also offer a lesson, even if veiled in grittiness and frustration:  The Dark Knight Rises says that true heroism comes not from masked vigilantes with fancy weapons, but from the kindness and compassion of everyday people; Total Recall challenges us to appreciate and live for the present moment instead of pining for the past or escaping to some idealized vision of the future or reality.

If we hear these messages, we are called to reject injustice in all forms, violence in all manner, and apathy and indifference to the difficulties before our very eyes.  

As the prophet Amos declared with fiery zeal, "Woe to those who turn judgment into wormwood and cast justice to the ground!" (Amos 5:7), taking to task those who discriminate, terrorize, and kill for their own selfish gain or prejudice.

Again he says, "Woe to those who yearn for the day of the Lord!  For them, this is a time of darkness without light!" (Amos 5:18), pointing at those who prefer to look to their own comfort, especially those who spend more time praying for themselves than using their resources to help those most in need.

Terrorism, escapism, evasion, and hatred have no place in the Reign of God.  Yet when the world feels overwhelming, when morality seems to be diluted, when all we want to do is run away, it is understandable that people move in such negative directions.  It might seem, to some, to be the only direction they can go.

This is not to excuse those who fall into the temptation of giving into these sins, but when the world seems as gritty as a Christopher Nolan film, it offers us a better sense of what's at stake.

The films of the first two decades of the 21st century have moved away from the comic escapism of late 20th century movies, in an attempt to better mirror the reality in which we live.  Should we return to the innocence of those simpler days?  Should we, like Amos warns, yearn for a "Day of the Lord" when God will just smite those who think differently than us?   Neither option seems viable, let alone healthy in building the Reign of God.

Instead, we look to what these two films challenge us to do: first, to put down our arms (consider how many times Christian Bale's Batman rejects the use of weapons) and work towards peace through compassion and social justice (consider the actions of Rises' real hero, John Blake played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt); secondly, to not pine for a life other than the one God has graced us with, and to live in the present moment, fully aware of its flaws yet fully infused with a sense of hope for those who suffer and are in need of our love and support.

Nonviolence, peace, compassion, justice, presence, and hope.  In the face of the horrible tragedies in Colorado and Wisconsin, we need all those tools in our bat belt to make it through - and one more that wasn't quite so pronounced in these two films:  forgiveness.

Without forgiveness, peace will be shallow and fleeting as division and envy will surely bubble up to the surface once more.  Without forgiveness, we will fall into an obsession on the missed chances in the past or seeking vengeance in the future.  Without forgiveness, hope begins to fade.

In this summer of discontent, we can debate the origins of the shooters or argue over the next course of action (gun control or greater accessibility to them?), but if we lack forgiveness, these discussions will go on endlessly until the next horrible event.

Forgiveness is key.  It was not highlighted as well as it should have been in Total Recall or The Dark Knight Rises, but that doesn't mean that the movie of our own lives cannot have this underlining theme.

Let us pray and struggle towards the forgiveness of these shooters, as well as all those who hurt us personally or societally.

When we do that, the grittiness of everyday life will start to slip away, and we can together work towards a real Hollywood ending in the Reign of God on earth.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man

"Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two."  Matt. 5:41

In the first Spider-Man film in 2002 staring Tobey Maguire, the classic line passed on with sage wisdom from Uncle Ben (then played by Cliff Robertson) was "with great power comes great responsibility."

In The Amazing Spider-Man, the 2012 reboot with Andrew Garfield now in the lead role, that advice has broadened, and while never explicitly said, seems to say: power or no power, we all have been given a great responsibility.

Like the original ten years prior, this movie tells the origin story of how Peter Parker became Spider-Man.  This time, however, more emphasis is put on the mysterious disappearance of Peter's parents early in his life.  As a teenager, he obsesses about finding out why they vanished, so much so that he is all-consummed with this journey that he neglects his surrogate family, Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field), in the process.

While the search for one's origins and family is understandable, it completely overwhelms Peter - leading an otherwise caring, cautious, and generous young man to do some irresponsible things like sneaking into a scientific research laboratory - and ultimately getting caught in a room of genetically-altered spiders (one of which, almost as on cue, bites him and begins his transformation).

After an argument with his aunt and uncle (regarding his self-obsession with his biological parents and the consequential forgetfulness about his current family), Peter storms off by himself.

In what may be the most pivotal scene in the film, Peter sulks into a convenience store and finds he cannot fully afford a bottle of milk (being short two cents); the store clerk is hardly sympathetic, saying that Peter's plight is not his concern.  A minute later, when the store gets robbed, an angry Peter tells the clerk that this new circumstance is not his responsibility either.

Both the clerk and Peter sound familiar to our ears.  How often do we say, "It's not my responsibility"?  When a car is stuck on the side of the road with a flat tire, is it our responsibility to help?  When a colleague or neighbor is struggling, is it our responsibility to help?  And even when we are in the midst of our own problems, should it really be our responsibility to help someone else when no one has yet to come to our aid?  Can't someone else take that on for now, or at least until our own issues are taken care of?

Even if we apply the 2002 Spider-Man philosophy to things ("with great power..."), this movie's Peter Parker, and all of us by extension, still seem justified in our inaction...  because we don't often feel we have great power (and on most days, feel powerless). So what concern is it to us?  Why should we go out of our way to help someone else?  Their plight has nothing to do with us.  Maybe someone with great power can take care of that, but not us.

Over time, this attitude creates a wall around us, like Peter Parker obsessing over his personal life, oblivious to the world around him.  We can become insular, focusing only on the problems we've been handed and acting for others only when it benefits our situation.

Peter learns his lesson all too soon, though, as the store thief runs into Uncle Ben, who has been out looking for his nephew.  Even though Ben is trying desperately to reconnect with Peter, he takes a moment and makes this robber his concern.  He tries to talk to him, but is quickly shot and killed.  The gunshot gets Peter's attention, and he soon discovers the dead body of his uncle.

His lack of responsibility, it seems, has cost him more than he could have imagined.

With or without great power, we are charged with concerning ourselves with the welfare of all God's people - even the ones we don't even like.  In the Gospels, Jesus says, "If anyone wants to go to law over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well.  Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two.  Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on anyone else who may want to borrow." (Mt. 5:40-42)

What Jesus is getting at is encouraging us to get out of our own bubble.  We have a habit of thinking only about our own welfare, or at most, the welfare of our closest friends and family.  Anything else is of no concern to us.  Jesus challenges us to go the extra mile, and to never turn our back on anyone, no matter how insignificant they may seem in our life right now.

Had Peter Parker followed Jesus' advice in this scene, we would have had the joy of watching Martin Sheen's performance as Uncle Ben for the rest of the movie.  Sure, Peter was angry and upset; one might argue that he - or any of us - would be justified in taking the time to shut out the world.  However, it is precisely at times like this that we need to follow Jesus' advice even more purposefully.

Sin and temptation are greatest when we are preoccupied with our own selves.  Conversely, the greatest love happens when we extend ourselves to others when it is most difficult for us to so.

As Peter dons the Spider-Man outfit in this movie, he begins to realize that the world's concerns are his own, no matter how much he is personally hurt by others.  This is what makes a superhero: when we can look beyond our own needs for the sake of another. Whether we have great power or not, we are all called to the great responsibility of loving and helping the world around us.

In fact, the most exciting scene in this film is not due to the web-slinging or acrobatic tricks of Spider-Man, but thanks to a bunch of blue-collar New York construction workers who pave the way for the epic finale.  For some of them, it wasn't even their job or their concern; but they stepped up.  They didn't have power or authority, but they could do something for someone in need.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once remarked, "Everyone can be great because everyone can serve.  You don't need a college degree to serve.  You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve.  You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve... and you can be that servant." (The Drum Major Instinct, 1968).

Everyone can be great because everyone has the capacity to get outside themselves to serve others.  Everyone, then, has a great responsibility given to them.  If only everyone stepped up to that responsibility.

It doesn't mean single-handedly saving New York City from the clutches of The Lizard monster or swooping in to save a child stuck in a car that's dangling over a bridge.  It doesn't mean we have to start a soup kitchen in our homes or travel to the third world right now and live a life of poverty, though it also doesn't mean that these aren't possible either.

But it does mean that we need to start somewhere, somehow.  It means concerning ourselves with people other than ourselves, other than our family, and other than our friends.  It means helping a stranger in need or an acquaintance that seems to be struggling.  It means making ourselves aware of global issues and social concerns, both locally and internationally.  It means going the extra mile even if we're not asked to do so.  It means giving away our goods even when it's not the holidays or the latest food drive.

No matter what it is for you or me, we can all go beyond ourselves for something. Imagine what would happen if everyone did that.  Now that's a superhero story everyone would be excited to hear - and one that God hopes we all have a starring role in.

It's a story, though, that starts very simply - one that starts with you and me.  So what are we waiting for?

Thursday, July 05, 2012


"...when I became a man, I put aside childish things..."  1 Cor. 13:11

Ted is certainly a raunchy adult comedy veiled in a most unexpected way:  through the heartwarming story of an adorable teddy bear come to life one Christmas night.

The movie asks the tongue-in-cheek question of "what would happen if the magic of childhood fantasy continued on beyond adolescence?"  When we were kids, many of us probably imagined our toys coming to life or being enveloped in a reality where all our childhood dreams came true.  Movies had been and continue to be made on this premise - but Ted wonders "then would would really happen next?"    

In this parable, John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) is a young adult who once received his wish:  his beloved teddy bear came to life to keep him company when no one else would, and to comfort him when things got rough.  That same bear, though, is still around - all grown up alongside his human buddy John.

What we see is that in the intervening years, Ted (voiced as an adult by Seth MacFarlane) has enabled John to fulfill all his fantasies, including the ones where hard work and commitment can be avoided in lieu of rest, relaxation, and fun.

Now John is confronted with some very adult realities:  establishing a career and making responsible choices with his casual relationship with his girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis).  Unfortunately, the temptation of avoiding these decisions is all the more amplified by Ted's presence and persistence.

At one time or another, all of us have been challenged to move from our cherished, sometimes nostalgic, experiences of childhood and adolescence to the new, and yes, sometimes harsh, realities of adulthood and maturity.

Some of us have made that move seamlessly, but others have had more difficulty with this transition.  Looking back can be so much easier and refreshing than facing ahead, especially if the outlook is unknown or uncertain.

To cope, we can cling to the people, objects, and perspectives we had when we were younger - hoping that they will carry us through in the next stage of life as they carried us through before.

John needed Ted when he was younger.  When the other kids excluded him and insulted him, he needed someone or something else to remind him of his worthiness and to build up his confidence.  But as he grew into adulthood, John no longer needed someone to comfort him (exemplified in a couple of scenes where Ted and John still huddle under the blanket in a thunderstorm); instead he needed someone to push him beyond his comfort zone.

What he needed now is the influence of Lori in his life; but as long as Ted continued to enable John, he would never truly be ready to move into the maturity he needed that Lori could provide.

Clinging to nostalgia and warm experiences from our younger days can seem tempting when faced with the cold splash of reality on our faces.  Sometimes it's good to remember our roots and to tap into our past, but to remain there is to bury ourselves in quicksand.

"When I was a child," St. Paul recounts in his own self-reflection in his first letter to the Corinthians, "I used to talk and think and reason as a child.  But when I became a man, I put aside childish things."  (1 Cor. 13:11)

St. Paul does not say that he extinguished the elements of his past; in fact, historians say, he retained the traditions of his Jewish roots to further inform and craft his Christian evangelization.   Instead, he put them aside when he needed to - and embark into adulthood with a willingness to enter into new situations, new understandings, and new opportunities, untested though they might be.  St. Paul then challenges us to do the same.

What are the "childish things" that we might cling to a bit too much?  What in our past do we rely so heavily upon that we can be blind to the world around us now?  Who are we comfortable listening to or hanging out with at the expense of others in our lives?  Where in our lives are we stuck - and could it be because we have closed ourselves off to the new and potentially wonderful possibilities right in front of our very eyes?

Reflecting on this can also open us up to examining the habits in our lives that are keeping us from truly maturing and growing.  John and Ted engaged in some really immature habits in this film from drug use and a disregard for women to poor work ethic to outright selfishness without consideration of others.

Are there things in our lives that need a re-examination?  Are there things we do that keep us from becoming the best we can be?  Are we truly, in our heart of hearts, comfortable with the person we are when we head down paths similar to John and Ted?

It's not to say that fun must be avoided or extinguished from our lives, but that responsibility and a commitment to selfless, positive actions should be incorporated in with them.  In that same passage from 1 Corinthians, St. Paul goes on to say that, when we truly integrate our past with our present, our childish tendencies with a mature appreciation, we will be more complete ("we shall know ourselves as we are fully known," 1 Cor. 13:12b).

Let us pray that we may continue to grow by putting whatever we have always clung to by the side, being open to new people, objects, and perspectives, and integrating all of this so that we may be who God intended us to be.  Blessings to all in that journey!

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter

"Affliction produces endurance.  And endurance develops strength of character.  And character strengthens our hope - and that hope does not disappoint."  Romans 5:4-5a

As a fan of history and of action movies, I was very much looking forward to seeing Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter this summer. For me, this was going to be pure popcorn entertainment in a cool air-conditioned theater on a hot sunny day.

For the most part, it was a creative thrill ride, but after leaving the multiplex, I couldn't help but feel a bit disappointed, tempered only by the fact that I was really trying to like what I just saw.

But the more I reflected on the film, the more disappointed I got.  From plot holes to its video-game editing, from lackluster acting to diverting from some really good story points in the original novel on which it's based, Vampire Hunter just wasn't what I had hoped it would and should be.

At some point in our lives, all of us have been disappointed by something or someone.  Whether it's a day that didn't go as planned, a weather forecast that was completely wrong, an encounter with a person that derailed, or finding out that someone in our lives made the wrong decisions or said the wrong things... we run into disappointments more often than we'd like.

The under-appreciation of a summer popcorn flick is nothing compared to other, more critical events in life that might disappoint us - but it illustrates the point that, every now and then, we will face realities that run counter to our hopes and expectations.

We can often view disappointments as punishments from God, or at the very least, see them as personal attacks upon us as we shout out, "Why me, God?  Why now?"  They are not a curse like the bite of a vampire, but an occasion to rise to new heights.

Despite its flaws, the film itself shows how Abraham Lincoln (played as an adult by Benjamin Walker) struggles with his mother's death (by a vampire in this retelling) - first in sadness, then in vengeance, but ultimately in strengthening his resolve to end suffering, oppression, and slavery in any form.

How we respond to our disappointments and struggles is what is important, not the intensity of the suffering that spurred us on.  Life has plenty of sadness and frustration, but if we stop there, it only grows.  We can choose to wallow in disappointment, lament our present circumstances, and tell others of our hurt and anger; or we can move towards something better.

In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul tells those of us who will encounter bad days in our lives: "Affliction produces endurance.  And endurance builds strength of character.  And character strengthens our hope - and that hope does not disappoint." (Rom. 5:4-5a)

We will all face affliction of some sort at some point in our lives, from sickness to disappointment to outrage.  For a time, it can be comforting to stay in that place and seek sympathy from others.  It can be tempting to build strength through proclaiming our status as a victim.  But this is not real strength for it keeps us grounded in the negative, and often inspires divisiveness against those who initially disappointed, angered, or hurt us.

Instead, we are, as St. Paul says, to endure (not suffer through), strengthen our character (not strengthen our argument), and to work towards hope and reconciliation (not hatred or bitterness).   When we do that, in any circumstance, our disappointments will begin to fade away.

This process also helps us to see the good in the worst of circumstances.  Even though Vampire Hunter was far from the best movie I have seen so far this year, it did have some moments that I did enjoy and for which I am grateful that I had a chance to see on a hot summer day.

It reminded me that the real life Lincoln had a strength of character to overcome his afflictions and adversity that didn't require wielding a silver-coated axe or fighting vampires in the South.  It reminded me that Lincoln was an action hero that conquered with incredibly moving words and a firm commitment to the best principles of the nation.

This real Lincoln was the one who once said that, despite the fact that half the country hated him and the Republic, we must still act "with malice toward none, with charity to all."  So much of his fractured nation had disappointed Lincoln, but he chose not to wallow in that frustration or act out of spite against those people; instead, he pointed us towards forgiveness, compassion, and love of neighbor.

On our worst days, or when we are incredibly disappointed by another person or circumstances beyond our control - or even by our very selves, would we stand up for those gospel values as Lincoln so boldly did, and as Christ so clearly defined for us?

In God's eyes, it is not so much how or why we fell down or who or what pushed us to disappointment - but rather, how we rose up again - and how we found His goodness despite the worst.

Let us all pray that frustration and failings will never have the final word, for with God by our side, in our hearts, and through our actions, the hope we offer will always conquer disappointment.

Sunday, July 01, 2012


"Do not ask me to abandon or forsake you, my mother.  For wherever you go I will go, wherever you lodge I will lodge.  Your people shall be my people, and your God my God."  Ruth 1:16

Brave is the enjoyable tale of Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), a fiesty young Scottish princess who defies convention, hoping to chart a new course in life, independent of her family and the expectations that come with royal living.

One of these expectations that is that Merida must marry one of the firstborn sons of three other Scottish clans.  Her father, King Fergus of Clan DunBroch (voiced by Billy Connolly), arranges the Highland Games - so that the winner of these competitions can take the hand of his daughter.

Of course, being independent-minded, Merida is not only dissatisfied with the choices, but downright mad at the fact that she has so little choice in this arranged marriage ritual.

In an act of defiance, Merida sneaks into the competition and, since she is also a firstborn, plays for her own hand.  Already a skilled archer, she easily wins the Games.

While her father is somewhat tickled by the warrior-like daughter he has raised, Merida's mother Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) is furious.  After her little trick at the Highland Games, she drags her daughter away for a scolding - telling Merida how she embarrassed the family and make a mockery of tradition.  Being just as angry, Merdia lashes back at the queen, tears the family tapestry, and runs off into the wilderness.

Aside from the castles and royal bloodline, Merida's family is not unlike many of our own.  Expectations and time-honored traditions are often met head-on with independence and untested ideas.  Emotions run high when family members run counter to either side of these arguments, whether intentional or not.

And like the royal household of Clan DunBroch, as we get more frustrated with one another, we dig in deeper:  one side solid and unwavering in their devotion to tradition, the other side ablaze with the unquenchable need to break free.

Brave, however, gives us a wonderful parable to caution all sides before things get out of hand.

Following the will-o-the-wisp on her escape from the castle, Merida discovers a witch hidden in the forest - from whom she asks for some spell to change her mother.  All she wants to do is make her mother see things her way, and she hopes the witch has an easy remedy for this family disturbance.

SPOILER ALERT:  In short order, the witch gives her a cake that does indeed change her, but not in the way that Merdia had expected; Elinor transforms into a bear, the very creature that has vexed the DunBroch Clan for years.  Merida immediately regrets her decision, and helps her mother escape the castle before Fergus finds out and accidentally kills his wife in the process.

On the run, Merida and Elinor, despite the horrible circumstances, get the chance to spend time together - and learn more about each other with each challenge that confronts them.  In the process, they also start to see the world through the others' eyes.  Merdia begins to trust tradition, Elinor begins to respect independence.

NO MORE SPOILERS:  It's amazing what a little time together can do for us.  In our quick-paced society, where we have but a moment to spare to connect with one another, we rarely get time to really get to know those around us, including our family and friends.  Our relationships become very surface-oriented because we have little time or energy to go deeper.

Even at the worst of times and up against a deadline, Queen Elinor and Merida get to carve out a wonderful opportunity to spend time as mother and daughter.

What would happen if we had the same chance with the family, friends, and strangers in our own lives?  What if we could put aside our mountains of tasks and expectations for a moment, and spend some quality time with the person we say only a few words to each day, or even the family members closest to us who are actually so far from our everyday reality?  What if we could shut out the noise and distraction so that our world could just be filled with one other person for a few hours?  Imagine what we would discover.

In the Scriptures, the ancient story of Ruth comes to mind.  In this Hebrew tale, Naomi, an Israelite woman, must make a lonely journey across the desert to her homeland after her husband and sons have died in a foreign land.  But Ruth, her foreign daughter-in-law, insists that she must accompany her on the journey, too.  Even after Naomi protests, Ruth chooses to stand by her side.

"Do not ask me to abandon or forsake you, mother," Ruth says.  "For wherever you go, I will go, wherever you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God." (Ruth 1:16).  Like Merida and Elinor, Ruth and her mother-in-law will go from being foreign acquaintances to a real family.

But time together is the key factor here.  How little time do we spend, even with those closest to us?  We are often so caught up in our daily tasks, our independent spirit, or our devotion to our own traditions, that we lose sight of the people around us.

Let us walk a mile in another's shoes, simply by walking a few miles with them on their journey of life.  Let us carve out some time to get to know people beyond the simple pleasantries.  It's amazing the spells that can broken by taking a few moments with another human being.

If we find ourselves too busy to do this, let us re-examine our priorities.  When the stuff of life and our reliance on our own perspective is greater than the connections we have to the people God has placed into our lives, something is off.  This is the path that Merida and Elinor were on at the beginning of this film - and it got them into serious trouble.  Let's learn a lesson from this Pixar parable and curtail our own blindness before things get really bad.

Finally, let us pray for the end to all divisions in families and among friends and neighbors, whether locally or globally.

There is too much division in our world, and not enough spending time with each other.  Just imagine the possibilies and hope that can emerge from a world when we walk in each other's shoes for a moment or two.

Let us keep that image of the Kingdom in prayer as we move forward in our own ways at mending the brokenness closest to us.      

Wednesday, June 13, 2012


"When I behold your heavens, the work of your hands, the moons and stars which you have set in place, I ask: What are we, then, that you should be so mindful of us?  Who are we that you should care so much for us?" Psalm 8:4-5

Prometheus is not seeking to be a mindless summer popcorn movie.  This is a film that, instead, asks a lot of deep questions... BIG questions like "what is the origin of life and why were humans created?"  Not something you'd normally expect in the midst of mega-blockbusters in cool air-conditioned multiplexes.

The movie is set almost a century into our future (the year 2093 to be exact) when the spacecraft Prometheus is sent to a distant solar system that our human ancestors painted on cave walls thousands and thousands of years ago.

Finding a link between the future and the past, between planets light years away and our own earth, is what motivates archaeologists like Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), the scientific leader of the spacecraft's crew.  It is also what compels business industrialists like Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) and Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), and their self-motivated android David (Michael Fassbender).

Questions and curiosities like the origins of the universe and the act of creation have been on humanity's mind for as long as we could think and reason.  And when there is some indication that a few of those questions might get answered, like the crew of Prometheus, we are often ready to jump in feet-first.

This is where the movie takes a dramatic turn from being an exploration of deep theories to a story of survival.  Whether planned or accidental, the crew find themselves faced with uneasy answers and certain danger as they land on planet LV-223.

Yet through all the catastrophes, aliens, and infections that result from this interplanetary expedition, Dr. Shaw remains the stalwart force behind the crew, continuing to ask the tough questions and stay true to her beliefs that our origins have purpose and meaning.

Shaw stands as a testament to those who persistently pursue the discovery, knowledge, and understanding of the meaning and relationship of life, the universe, and the divine.

Too often, we live in the here and now, forgetting grand philosophies and theological truth in favor of surviving whatever situation we find ourselves in.  From time to time, this is okay to do so that we don't become aloof and distant from the world in which we live.  However, to push it off the side altogether is foolish and shortsighted.

For the most part, the crew of Prometheus was overly concerned about their survival and protecting their own self-interests - and ultimately paid the price for it (though I would expect no less in a science fiction horror story like this).  In the film, for instance, two characters (a biologist and a geologist who should be excited by the new discoveries in their fields on LV-223) run scared of the dark, get themselves lost (despite one being the mapping expert of the crew, but I digress), and make some fatal mistakes with alien slime, due in large part to their myopic focus on survivalism and their dismissal of the new discoveries that could await them.

Dr. Shaw, on the other hand, clearly shown with her cross necklace around her neck in most scenes in the film, kept her eye on and her faith in something far more important.  

She reminds us of the psalmist whose eyes are fixed on creation and the Creator: "When I behold her heavens, the work of your hands, the moons and stars which you have set into place, I ask: What are we that you should be mindful of us?  Who are we that you should care so much for us?" (Ps. 8:4-5)

As an archaeologist and a person of faith, Dr. Shaw knows how incredible the gift of life and humanity are.  She seeks to know more about the universe and the origins of the life she holds so precious.  She travels across the stars to find answers, and when they offer her more questions, she continues to pursue those, too.

It is this dedication and pursuit that keeps Dr. Shaw alive.  Nothing, even an alien infection, can divert her from the truth.

In our lives, do we act like the disposable crew members and focus all our energy on surviving our daily grind?  Or do we, instead, act like Dr. Shaw, keeping our eye on the ultimate prize?

One can imagine the psalmist in the Scriptures looking up at the night sky above him, breathing in the breadth and majesty of creation and his Creator.  How often do we do the same?  While unpacking the questions of humanity's existence and purpose might seem like a job for philosophers, theologians, scientists, and explorers, God calls us all to go deeper, "to put out into the deep and lower the nets for a catch" (Lk. 5:4).

Even though summer is often a time to rest the mind and body, and relax in an air conditioned movie theater, we cannot stay idle for too long.  It's good that movies like Prometheus want to pose fascinating and challenging questions of us.  It's also good that we don't go through life without really exploring big questions.

Let us take into prayer more than our everyday anxieties and worries.  God has created our lives to be bigger and more important than those fleeting concerns.

God has mapped out an entire universe to explore, yet at the same time, cares for the smallest parts of his creation.  Why is that?  How is it possible?  These are the questions that the psalmist poses, that Dr. Shaw has shot off into space to discover, and that each of us is worthy of exploring in our own way.

Blessings on your own exploration, and we all look forward to whatever new frontiers you may yet unlock.

(though do be careful in the very unlikely event that you do run into any creepy aliens... but as this movie shows, even then, you can still make it through if you're truly focused :-)  

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman

"I am not afraid... I was born to do this."  St. Joan of Arc

Snow White has come a long way.  No longer a soft cartoon character, this reinterpretation of the timeless classic shows us a new kind of woman: unafraid in the face of danger, unwavering in her single-hearted perseverance, and unwilling to let evil have the find word.

Snow White and the Huntsman surprises us not only in its revisionist storytelling, but also in the way it connects its two titular characters.   One might imagine that our heroine (Kristin Stewart) would spend a movie with a title like that pining over the huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) sent to kill her; instead, right from the beginning, the two becomes comrades in arms - with Snow White in the lead.

It's a refreshing take on the action adventure genre, typically dominated by men in the hero's role.  Even more impressive is that the other major person of interest in this tale is the evil queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron), who takes the prize as one of the most villainous characters to be seen on screen.

In a sense, the huntsman, despite his name on the movie poster, becomes a minor player in this drama - as do most of the other male figures in this film.  This one, then, is all about the women.

In this retelling, the height of Snow White's journey is her evolution into a Joan of Arc-like soldier, leading her troops into battle against all that is evil in an outfit that resembles most of the statues, paintings, and movie costumes we've seen of the popular French saint.  She rides upon her horse at the front of the charge towards the castle, inspiring the dwarves and townspeople alike to take back their kingdom and undo the injustices of a tyrannical regent.  And just like St. Joan in her own trial, this Snow White pauses for a moment in her prison cell to recite The Lord's Prayer in an appeal to her Creator.

Another group of female characters shine brightly in Huntsman:  these are the women of the village in the woods we meet halfway through the film who have taken it upon themselves to disfigure their faces so that Queen Ravenna cannot grow more powerful (backstory: she drains the age and beauty of young women to keep herself young with each passing year).

And despite escaping from the queen's grasp and hiding out in the wilderness, these refugees are anything but weak. They possess a wisdom and strength that the visiting huntsman can only hope to attain.  They also realize that the value of a woman goes far beyond their appearance, standing up to and fighting the evils of vanity and narcissism (embodied in a witch who stares endlessly into a mirror) through the values of self-sacrificial action and self-giving community.

For a pleasant change, it's great to see a film where women truly steal every scene.  They aren't dependent upon the men to save the day, which seems to be the case in many other films, especially in this genre.

So for me, this movie called to mind all the strong women in my life.  I thought about those women who serve as role models not just to other women, but to all people, who defend and protect those in their care, and who take on the mantle of leadership with both humility and confidence.

It also stands as a testament against the objectification of women.  Too often in my own moviegoing experiences, women are relegated to being the "damsel in distress," the "temptress," or the "arm jewel" to the male protagonists.  Not that all these depictions are trying to objectify women, but they don't leave a lot of room for women to be seen above and beyond these supporting roles.

In a fairy tale originally focused around the "fairest of them all," it seemed of all the characters on screen, the fairest were actually the ones who disfigured themselves.  They remind us that true beauty is found in those who stand against the evils of selfishness, corruption, and belligerence.

Who are those women in your life who possess the strength, conviction, and leadership that inspire you?

Who are the women who look into the face of conflict and evil today, and say, "I am not afraid... I was born to do this," like St. Joan of Arc?

Who are the people who embody the spirit of strong women of faith like Mary Magdalene, Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Sienna, Teresa of Avila, Dorothy Day, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta?   Who act like historical female leaders and role models like Empress Theodora, Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria, Catherine the Great, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Helen Keller?

In my life, I think of my wife and mother, strong women who have inspired me by their words and actions throughout my life.  I think of several teachers in high school, college, and graduate school who have not just opened my mind to new frontiers, but taught me life's most important lessons.  I think of my colleagues in ministry and in the church who have stepped forward despite the obstacles and out of a deep love of God and others.  And I think of my friends, family members, classmates, and others whom I have encountered over the years who have made an impact on the world that I can only hope to emulate.

Let us pray for all those wonderful women in our lives who stand out in their own right, dependent only upon the grace of God in all they do.  Through the intercession of strong saints like Joan and others, we look forward to all that they continue to do to illuminate our universe.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Men in Black III

"Let your patience be perfect, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing."  James 1:4

In our instant access culture today, we want everything at our fingertips - and we want it now.  The "Google phenomenon" allows us to know all we ever wanted to know about just about anything, and with our various devices and technology, we can connect to that information anytime, anywhere.

At first glance, the story and the experience of watching Men in Black III fits perfectly into that world.  Like its predecessors, MIB3 is fast-paced, quick-witted, and is set in a secret government installation that, because of its work with locating and monitoring extraterrestrial life on earth, can get access to just about anything, anyone, and any place its agents need to find.

First glances, though, can be deceiving... and more often than not, because a "glance" goes by so quickly, those initial impressions lack the depth that lies within.  What's called for, then, is patience.

For fans of this film series, it has taken a lot of patience since the first movie was released in 1997, the second five years later in 2002, and the third ten years after that in 2012.  

In the story of the film itself, the passage of time is acknowledged as Agent J (Will Smith) and K (Tommy Lee Jones) talk about the fact that they've been tracking aliens and intergalactic threats as MIB partners for the past 14 years.  In our seemingly disposable and easily bored culture we live in, it's refreshing for a film (albeit a comedy) to feature people who have been consistently working in their field for as long as that.

But the real test of patience in the arc of these three films, it turns out, rests on Agent K.

Quick backstory of the movie:  the latest alien bent on destroying earth, Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement), has decided to go back in time from 2012 to 1969, so that he can stop a young Agent K from stopping him in his plans to invade the planet.  In a singular moment in the present day, Boris' time travel plot seems to have worked, as the Animal's Boglodite species begins its destruction of the earth and there is no protection since Agent K supposedly died over forty years ago.  It is up to Agent J to save the day.

In short order, Agent J travels back in time and meets up with the younger incarnation of his partner K (played here by Josh Brolin).  Together they work at stopping Boris before he can alter history.

Under all this quick-witted action, though, is the relationship between Agents J and K.  In present day, J has always been annoyed by K's reluctance to engage with him on a personal or even conversational level.  Above and beyond the extraterrestrial menace they must stop, J is most interested in discovering why his partner is so closed-off to him.

"I promised the secrets of the universe, nothing more," Agent K tells J in the present day, indicating (we eventually come to find out) that his silence is based on not revealing secrets that go beyond the facts and intricacies of space and time... or what we of faith might call the secrets of the Kingdom of God.

Because of this (and I won't reveal more for fear of spoiling the movie), Agent K has had to patiently wait over 40 years to reveal those other secrets, and Agent J has come to learn the patience he has rarely had in his work at MIB.  Good things come to those to wait.

Patience can be difficult for all of us, especially in our postmodern culture where, even though we are living longer and have more time available to us due to the conveniences of technology than previous generations had, we want to know everything - and we want to know it all right now.  Because we can quickly access when Men in Black III will be playing at our local theatre on our mobile devices, we think every aspect of our lives should be so accessible and quick.

It would do us well to learn the art of patience.  As St. James says in his letter, "Let your patience be perfect, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing" (James 1:4), indicating that the more we learn to wait, the more we will ultimately know - quite opposite of conventional wisdom today.

Agent K could have revealed his inner secrets to J over 14 years ago when they first started working together, but it wouldn't have had the impact necessary when the time was right for J to know those secrets.  We, too, must trust that God knows the plans he has for us (cf. Jeremiah 29:11).

The journey is just as critical as the destination, and if we rush down the road towards the end of the line, we miss all the opportunities along the way.  "See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.  You, too, must be patient.  Make your hearts firm, because of the coming of the Lord is at hand." (James 5:7-8)

What is it that we are anxious about?  Which of God's secrets do we want to know right now?  Perhaps where we will go next?  Who we will meet?  What our purpose or direction in life might be?  When we try to rush those answers, we can find ourselves in a situation later when we wish we could go back in time like Agent J and change things.  More often than not, we might tell our younger selves to be patient and to put aside our anxieties, because good things will come to those who wait.

We need a bit more patience in our lives.  The next Men in Black movie might not come out for another 20 years or more. Maybe never.  We may never know, but what is required is patience and trust.

Let us trust in God that the road upon which we walk is worth the destination.  Let us not pester God and others in our lives, as J pestered K all those years, to reveal the secrets of the universe (and beyond) to us right here and now.  Let us, instead, be patient - and in our patience, as St. James says, we will truly be perfect and complete.    

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Avengers

"Where two or more are gathered together..."  Matt. 18:20

The Avengers brings together a unique collection of characters, assembled from Marvel Studios' superhero films over the past few years:  Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), The Incredible Hulk/Bruce Banner (in this version, Mark Ruffalo), with newcomers Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner).

This motley crew is brought together by the secret government agency known as "S.H.I.E.L.D." to defend the planet earth from an alien invasion brought on by the Asgardian Loki (Tom Hiddleson), who also happens to be the brother of Thor.

Because the threat is so severe, no one superhero would be able to contain the invasion; in response, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the director of S.H.I.E.L.D., assembles the team from across the world.

At first, things don't go so smoothly.  Each of the players of the Avengers collective thinks they have it within them to single-handedly take on Loki and his alien army.  And when they do encounter one another, their personalities clash and verbal and physical fights ensue, further adding to the tension.   With the Avengers at each other's throats and with every superhero lacking all the skills necessary, they face failure early.

Tony Stark finds Steve Rogers to be a naive boyscout, while Rogers thinks Stark is anything but noble. Natasha has unresolved emotional feelings for Barton, but Hawkeye has unfortunately been brainwashed by Loki to work against the Avengers.  Thor thinks all humans are incapable of any effective defense, and they all find him a bit over the top.  Everyone fears the unpredictable ferocity of the Hulk, yet Dr. Banner just wants to keep everything calm and cool so "the other guy" doesn't emerge from within himself.

These tensions mirror any situation where we are forced to interact or work alongside people we don't know or don't consider friends or friendly.  From classrooms to workplaces, neighborhoods to churches, commuter trains to movie theaters, there are so many times when we must rub elbows with strangers and get along with less-than-desirable working partners in order to accomplish a task.

Our initial reaction might look very much like an early meeting of the Avengers.  We bicker and fight, or talk about the others behind their backs.  We form loose alliances with little emotional foundation, and back out when the going gets tough.

Yet for some reason, we were called to come together.  For the Avengers, it was an extraterrestrial threat.  For us, it might be because it's our job or a class.  It might be because we all want to see the Avengers movie in IMAX 3-D and we are stuck for 45 minutes in a line that stretches out the door with fanboys and families on all sides of us.  No matter the reason, sometimes in our lives, God puts us in uncomfortable or awkward situations with people we don't normally know, like, or care for.

"When two or more are gathered together," Jesus said (Matt. 18:20), "there I am in the midst of them."  God is present wherever community occurs, whether that be a loving family, old friends, or... amongst complete strangers and co-workers with irreconcilable differences.

What we must do, then, is put aside our individuality, our wants, and our righteousness, and humble ourselves in service to the greater good - and to one another.  God brings us together because we each possess gifts, but alone those gifts can only take us so far.  Captain America's shield can deflect any weapon or force, but he can't fly like Iron Man into the skies.  Hawkeye's archery has pinpoint accuracy, but he lacks the brute force of the Hulk.   So when we come together, we must be aware of our strengths, our weaknesses, and how we can all work as one team. God brings us together because the combination of His people can be greater than anything we can do alone, isolated, and separate.

From the twelve tribes of Israel and the mixed assembly of men and women who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the College of Cardinals and the people of New York City after 9/11, people have come together over the centuries for a greater cause than themselves.  They haven't always known or liked each other, but they got the job done.

Sadly, in our nation today, we find more solace in being around like-minded people of our religious, political, racial, economic, or social perspective than "crossing the aisle" to network with those who differ from us or have different skills, experiences, or political and religious understanding.  When we choose the route of surrounding ourselves with only those we like or know, we end up looking like our superheroes in the first half of the Avengers movie:  sloppy, irritable, ineffective, and incredibly defenseless in the face of trial, temptation, and evil.

Before his death, Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane for the disciples, who were themselves a motley crew of first-century Galileans:  "...that they may all be one as we are one: as the Father is in me and I am in him and in you..." (John 17:21)   By this passage, we know that Christ rejects divisiveness, especially among those who are brought together for a common cause.

In our jobs, let us pray that we can work together with colleagues and supervisors to do the job well.  In our classrooms, let us pray that we will come together to learn as fellow students on the academic journey with us.  In our neighborhoods, let us pray that we will break down the walls of silence and ignorance and come together around the place we call home.  In our churches, let us pray that we will not be so divisive and angry at other believers, and that we can pray as one, sing as one, and love as one. Finally, in our society, our nation, and our world, let us pray that the political, economic, social, racial, and national boundaries may be softened so that we can come together in peace more often.

We love watching the Avengers when they put aside their differences, when they honor and respect each other, when they extinguish their selfish pride, and when they work as one in service to the greater cause. In the same way, God loves watching us when we do the same with all those He so lovingly created.