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.