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Today I ended up somehow watching a very concise version of the movie Home Alone 2: Lost in New York on YouTube. I haven’t seen the movie since it came out back in 1992. I originally saw because I had been a finalist for a teen movie critic competition for the city newspaper, and, in the last round, they wanted the finalists to write a movie review of Home Alone 2. The movie was so bland (not amazing, but entertaining enough to get me through the two hours), that my movie review also turned out bland. (I think that it’s easier to pick something apart if it’s fantastically awful, or write a glowing review of something totally amazing.) As a result, I wasn’t good enough to be selected to be a teen movie critic. So I still feel a tiny bit bitter about that (almost 3 decades later…), so I’m going to try writing another review to redeem the previous one! Here goes–

Home Alone 2: A Christmas Cookie Cutter That Doesn’t Stand the Test of Time

It’s the original Home Alone but in Manhattan. It’s incredibly formulaic — John Hughes wasn’t even trying to be subtle about it: at the beginning of the movie, Kevin McAllister’s parents send him up to sleep in the attic, the night before a big family trip, as punishment, and they warn him about having a repeat of the previous Christmas. It’s almost like John Hughes greeted us at the theater with, “Hi! I’m going to serve up the same stuff from two years ago, and I know you’re going to pay for it. Thank you for your $7!” [this is what movies cost back when Home Alone 2 first came out]. And we all loved Kevin so much, with his endearing screams and witty comments, that we were happy to fork over our money.

So here are many common elements it shares with the original Home Alone (based on the 15-minute version I watched):

  1. Kevin offends his family.
  2. Kevin is sent up to sleep in the attic.
  3. Kevin wishes out loud, to his mother, that he could spend Christmas apart from his family.
  4. The family wakes up late the next morning and rushes to catch their flight.
  5. Kevin gets separated from his family [and ends up on a flight to NY, while his family members end up in Florida]
  6. Kevin has access to a cash horde to finance his time alone. This time he has his parents’ cash and credit card, which is way more fun than his older teen brother Buzz’s life savings.
  7. Kevin stuffs his face with ice cream and treats, while watching a sequel to Angels with Filthy Souls. 7a. He uses clips from this sequel to scare away the hotel staff who suspect he’s staying at the Park Plaza by himself, just the same way he used movie clips to scare away the pizza boy and Harry & Marv (they happen to escape from prison, end up in Manhattan, and cross paths with Kevin).
  8. There is much Christmas cheer. Kevin’s hotel room is all decorated, reminiscent of his house in Home Alone which has a very strong red and green theme in its decor.
  9. Kevin sees a scary pigeon lady in Central Park, who ends up being Kevin’s ally and plays the counterpart to Old Man Marley, except she throws bird seed instead of road salt.
  10. Kevin sets up ingenious traps to foil Harry and Marv’s planned robbery. In this case, they plan to rob a children’s toystore of their cash donations for a children’s charity. At least, this movie has incorporated an element of altruism.
  11. Harry and Marv catch Kevin, but Kevin is saved by the pigeon lady.
  12. Kevin’s mom is scouring Manhattan frantically trying to find him.
  13. Kevin says he’d give anything to see his mom again, and she shows up miraculously.  Naturally it’s very picturesque because they’re at Rockefeller plaza in front of the giant tree. (Refer to #8 above.)
  14. Last but not least, the soundtrack is by John Williams — the Home Alone soundtrack is one of my favorite Christmas musical compilations.

Here is the template for success, and yet, even though we dumbly handed over our money 26 years ago, Home Alone 2 hasn’t really stood the test of time, which is the true determinant of quality, not box office receipts. The truth is, when we laughed during Home Alone 2, it was only because it reminded us of the parallel scene in the original movie. Home Alone is the beloved original that everyone comes back to, again and again, year over year. Last night I went to see Home Alone, accompanied by the symphony orchestra performing the soundtrack live: it was packed and people were having a jolly time, watching Kevin splash his face with aftershave. I guess we do get wiser with age.

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Please don’t read this blog post if you’re teetering on the brink of depression b/c it will surely push you over the edge. It’s a very realistic look at what God actually promises us.

My favorite CS Lewis essay is “The Weight of Glory.” In this piece, he summarizes what guarantees Scripture give us. “The promises of Scripture may very roughly be reduced to five heads. It is promised

  1. that we shall be with Christ;
  2. that we shall be like Him;
  3. with an enormous wealth of imagery, that we shall have “glory”;
  4. that we shall, in some sense, be fed or feasted or entertained; and
  5. that we shall have some sort of official position in the universe”

This is very sobering b/c it really indicates no guarantees about our welfare on Earth. I think what is problematic is that we will read stories in Scripture where God makes specific promises to individuals (e.g., Abraham), and we then erroneously appropriate those verses/promises for ourselves. I don’t know why pastors / seminaries don’t do a better job at helping lay people learn how to study Scripture and discern between promises God makes to everyone (e.g., what’s listed above by CS Lewis) and specific promises He made to individuals and DO NOT APPLY TO US. As a result of this totally sloppy, and frankly self-focused and almost narcissistic, way of interpreting Scripture, we have unfortunately absorbed a health and wealth / prosperity gospel into our theology. We expect God to deliver us from our current circumstance. I am not saying He will not, but sometimes He does, and sometimes He does not intervene. There’s no formula here.

And fortunately, since I (and perhaps some of the folks reading this blog) are fortunate enough that things work out for us generally in this life (because we are part of the global 10 percent, and we have access to a wealth of resources, not limited to social networks, family support, education, living-wage employment, clean air and water, money, etc.), it does seem like we are generally delivered from most challenging circumstances.

But in reality, this is not true for people who are at the bottom of the pyramid, many of whom worship Christ. Every day people die from lack of food and healthcare, families are separated, children are orphaned, people are trafficked, women, children, and others are violated, etc. God’s promises of deliverance did not bear out in their lives on Earth. Even for those who are of the top 10 percent, there are many ailments that are not addressed on this side of Heaven — many blind, deaf, and mute who do not recover their senses; many with diseases who die young and not healed (my mother being one of them); many hearts broken which never fully heal, whether it’s because of the death of a dearly loved one or a loss of a relationship.

So the solace of Advent and Christmas, and the heart of the gospel message, truly lie in the guarantee, promise, covenant, fact that we are saved from the jaws of DEATH, to eternal life. Should God choose to deliver us from earthly circumstances and trials, that is a bonus.

It’s interesting, b/c since many of us in the 10 percent are not at the brink of death (unless we’re aging and have terminal illnesses), we don’t confront our mortality day to day. Death is not a pressing concern (unless there’s a natural disaster and the apocalypse comes upon us). And so the solace that Christ brought to us isn’t as much of a solace. At least not for me. For those whose survival hangs on a thread, the gospel becomes truly good news.

So how then does a global ten percent-er live day to day with this hard truth that nothing on Earth is guaranteed, and while Heaven is guaranteed, it may feel like a distant glimmer, almost like a fairyland? The bottom line is I honestly can’t rely on God to have my back in this life — whether it be in my job context, my prospects for dating/marriage, my ability to sustain myself financially, my health, my relationships with friends, family, coworkers, etc. It used to be, that when I lived under the delusion that God has my back, I could give “freely” because I trusted Him to honor and replenish what I had given, in this lifetime. I didn’t have a scarcity mindset. It turns out I was motivated by entirely the wrong theology.

However, now that I’m moving one layer deeper into theology, it turns out that faith actually means giving and loving with no guarantee or hope of return in this lifetime. As such, I lack faith. I find that I am becoming increasingly stingy about giving financially b/c I don’t believe it will come back to me. Maybe I’ll get an extra jewel or two in my crown in Heaven, but if it means that I will struggle financially during my retirement, I don’t think it’s worth it.

So the question, while embracing the hard reality that God may or may not have my back on earth, how do I live by faith? I think of the book of Daniel and the King threatening to throw his friends Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego into the furnace to burn them alive. And yet in Daniel 3:16-18:

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

That is truly faith! In some weird way, I sort of wish that they had perished in the fire because this would be an example in Scripture where God didn’t come through and people couldn’t just explain that away. We are quick to embrace happy endings, and yet sad endings are typically what happen 99% of the time.

I remember my pastor taught about how obedience is a response to knowing (in a deep, personal way) God’s love. And so maybe the motivation to obey is not b/c of how God can deliver or bless us in this life, but more because we are enthralled with Him and then act sacrificially. But that’s where I truly struggle. I don’t feel a deep emotional love for God — like Heaven, He’s an abstract concept to me. And hence I don’t know if I will ever be able to live deeply in faith for Him and lay down my life for others as Christ did. I’m just a bit too self-protective to do that.

 

My friend is a fanatic about Mr. Rogers b/c of the depth of his Christian faith. He was one of the few famous people who actually was in real life as he portrayed himself on television, which is heartening at a time like this (i.e., #metoo). I am reading a book by Amy Hollingsworth, The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers: Spiritual Insights from the World’s Most Beloved Neighbor, which is a compilation of her reflections about him. Below are some quotes she uses to frame her reflections.

Ms. Hollingsworth writes about how Fred Rogers believed in helping children to express, not suppress, their emotions, but also to control / channel them in ways that would not hurt others. Mr. Rogers would play piano or swim, if he felt angry. Here’s an accompanying quote from Madeleine L’Engle’s book, The Irrational Season:

Righteousness begins to reveal itself as that strength which is so secure that it can show itself as gentleness, and the only people who have this kind of righteousness are those who are integrated and do not suppress the dark side of themselves.

She also writes about how Fred Rogers taught her who her neighbor is: the person standing in front of her. He emphasized the importance of seeing God in each person we encounter. Here’s a quote from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov:

Know this: You should judge every person by his merits. Even someone who seems completely wicked, you must search and find that little speck of good, for in that place, he is not wicked. By this you will raise him up, and help him return to G-d. And you must also do this for yourself, finding your own good points, one after the other, and raising yourself up. This is how melodies are made, note after note.

The author also reflects on the power of being fully present to someone, and quotes from Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s The Gift of Peace:

I tried to look everyone in the eye and make each person feel that he or she was important, the only one present at the moment…. When you convince people that you really care and that, even if hundreds of others are around, at that particular moment they are the only ones that count–then you establish a new relationship…. You have somehow mediated the love, mercy, and compassion of the Lord. In other words, the encounter also has a significant religious dimension: It helps strengthen the bond, the relationship, between each person and God.

How I wish I could have that mindset whenever I interact with people… Sometimes in a group gathering, my gaze wanders, wondering whom I would rather speak with, whom would I potentially gain more from? It’s usually a consumeristic lens that I take, versus a perspective of giving and blessing.

 

I’ve just been thinking about how we all seem to be hardwired to reciprocate — if one person does a good deed for us, we want to do a good deed for them. It seems like a reflex we cannot suppress — even the bad guys in stories can’t suppress it! I think of Harry Potter and Peter Pettigrew.

In book 3, Harry spares Peter’s life:

“Pettigrew owes his life to you. You have sent Voldemort a deputy who is in your debt… When one wizard saves another wizard’s life, it creates a certain bond between them… and I’m much mistaken if Voldemort wants his servant in the debt of Harry Potter… This is magic at its deepest, its most impenetrable, Harry.”

In book 7, Peter/Wormtail attempts to kill Harry:

‘You’re going to kill me?’ Harry choked, attempting to prise off the metal fingers.

‘After I saved your life? You owe me, Wormtail!’

The silver fingers slackened. Harry had not expected it: he wrenched himself free, astonished, keeping his hand over Wormtail’s mouth. He saw the rat-like man’s small, watery eyes widen with fear and surprise: he seemed just as shocked as Harry at what his hand had done, at the tiny, merciful impulse it had betrayed, and he continued to struggle more powerfully, as though to undo that moment of weakness.

Grace begets grace. Peter’s intentions were overwhelmed by a deeper impulse.

It seems like we’re built to respond to grace, like Someone created us to be responsive to Him and His nature. The extent to which we’re able to reciprocate that grace demonstrates the extent to which we’ve experienced it directly. I think it’s hard to extend grace when we’ve not felt God’s grace in our own lives, even if we know of it intellectually.

Since the election of Trump, it’s fascinating how much I’ve been hearing calls to unity within majority-culture churches. I think this recent article in the New York Times, “A Quiet Exodus: Why Black Worshipers Are Leaving White Evangelical Churches,” explains why these calls to unity fall flat. Minorities often interpret these calls to unity as a manipulative attempt to silence and stuff their concerns… I agree — I mean, as the church, aren’t we supposed to care about other parts of the Body which suffer and suffer along with them? I think of 1 Corinthians 12:26: “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”  Part of that suffering includes the ways minorities are treated differently, both individually and structurally, so shouldn’t we openly address and care about that? Acknowledging all concerns and trying to address them as a Body seems like true unity to me. I’d love to see someone write a thoughtful article about what church unity really means — define it in biblical terms and especially for this current time.

There’s a case to be made for division and separation as a means of holding people accountable for bad behavior and sin (whether by omission or commission). When Hitler was in power in Germany, the church divided, with one faction opposing and taking a moral stand against Hitler. Also, think about the conservative churches who left and separated from their liberal denominations (e.g., Anglican vs. Episcopal) in the name of defending orthodoxy regarding LGBT issues, and yet these churches don’t consider this “divisive”, but probably view themselves as nobly defending the Christian orthodoxy. And yet these same churches will play the unity card to try to keep congregants from leaving over issues of race and social justice, by over-simplifying these issues and saying that “focusing on race is divisive”.

I’d argue that leaving a church because you feel that they have turned a blind eye to social justice issues is morally and spiritually equivalent and as defensible as leaving a church because it’s turned a blind eye to orthodoxy about LGBT issues. Leaving the church over social justice issues is a moral wake-up call for the church. The Bible has a lot more to say about caring for the poor, widows, orphans, aliens, etc — much more so than the handful of verses related to homosexuality. It’s unorthodox to NOT care about social justice issues. So I reject the blanket, silencing call to unity within the church, unless there’s a more nuanced way to address it and open up a genuine dialogue towards being more inclusive and empathetic of points of view of minorities and those who have been disenfranchised. If the white evangelical church is unable to do this, it will continue to fade into irrelevancy and endanger its core mission of spreading the gospel.

I finally read A Christmas Carol, and have established another holiday tradition. It’s a very short read, and I liked it immensely. It’s nice to know that Dickens can write stories that are uplifting 🙂

Here are a few quotes I liked:

‘There are some upon this earth of yours,” returned the Spirit, “who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name; who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.”

~~

“And how did little Tim behave [at church]?” asked Mrs. Cratchit….

“As good as gold,” said Bob, “and better. Somehow he gets thoughtful sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.”

~~

Really, for a man who had been out of practice for so many years, it was a splendid laugh, a most illustrious laugh. The father of a long, long line of brilliant laughs!

~~

“Why bless my soul!” cried Fred, “who’s that?”
“It’s I. Your uncle Scrooge. I have come to dinner. Will you let me in, Fred?”
Let him in! It is a mercy he didn’t shake his arm off. He was at home in five minutes….Wonderful party, wonderful games, wonderful unanimity, won-der-ful happiness!

~~

“Now, I’ll tell you what, my friend,” said Scrooge, “I am not going to stand this sort of thing any longer. And therefore,” he continued, leaping from his stool, and giving Bob such a dig in the waistcoat that he staggered back into the Tank again, “and therefore I am about to raise your salary!”
Bob trembled, and got a little nearer to the ruler. He had a momentary idea of knocking Scrooge down with it; holding him; and calling to the people in the court for help and a strait-waistcoat.
“A merry Christmas, Bob!” said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year! I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this every afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob! Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!”

~~

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew….

[I can visualize and hear Gonzo narrating this part in The Muppet Christmas Carol version!]

I was talking to a friend about my question about how to resist scarcity, and she commented that people in the early church probably didn’t have that mindset. She hit on something. One concrete answer to scarcity is community.

Here’s one often quoted set of verses from Acts about the early church (2:42-47):

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

I think one root of the scarcity mindset is individualism. Things feel more scarce when we think we are in it alone, that no one will share with us if we have need. So then we’re less likely to share with others what we have, when they have need. What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours. The delineations are clear from when we are very young. There’s more of a collective sense of ownership in structures like marriages and families. But as families begin to fragment (with the nuclear family becoming the focus while distance grows between extended family members), and fewer people are getting married, there’s an increase in the number of individual households and a deeper sense of isolation and self-reliance. Blood ties are not as strong or helpful as before.

So how do we build a community where everyone voluntarily shares resources and we’re all truly in it together? How do we cultivate the mutual trust needed, so that I don’t feel like a fool giving sacrificially to help another, but when I’m in trouble, no one will bail me out? It sounds like someone has to make the first step, take the first risk. I know that the Sunday School answer is that Jesus took that first step for us already, but somehow it doesn’t quite feel enough to make me want to entrust what I have to others.

 

Does anyone know the answer to this question?

I think the scarcity mindset is the root of sin. If you think about why Adam sinned in Genesis, the serpent had tricked him into thinking that God was holding out on him and Eve. The perception of lack and limited resources is what drives us to sin. It’s what causes countries to war. More subtly, it causes us to gossip against and undercut each other.  We feel threatened by our new younger colleague at work. We attend our college reunions feeling inadequate, but at the same time silently gloating when we realize that we either make more money, have a better title, a better-looking, more successful spouse, or more well-behaved children, than our peers. We endure happy hours and see people competing for the most desirable individuals as potential romantic interests. We compare, rank, and tear each other down because it’s a zero sum game: one person’s gain is another’s loss. And so trust is a rare currency — we coin terms like “frenemy” because we don’t trust our friends since we’re all gunning for the same finite prizes.

The perception of scarcity also is one main root of anxiety, that bookends our day. We wake up in the morning, worried that we have too much to do and not enough time to do it in, and feeling like we didn’t sleep enough. We go to sleep thinking about how we didn’t accomplish enough, and then lose sleep over this anxiety. The cycle continues.

How do we rise above this pettiness? It just seems logical to believe that the world is a closed system with fixed resources. I know that on occasion we have records of God  intervening and injecting additional resources from thin air into our system: Jesus’ multiplication of the loaves and fish is a prime example. And then there is the story of Elisha and the widow with her small jar of oil that miraculously replenished to fill many empty jars. And of course in Exodus, all the manna and quail. The problem is that these supernatural occurrences are occasional and unpredictable.

On a normal daily basis, we seem to live in a closed system, and so we operate in that manner. Optimists seem to want to encourage us to think otherwise, and live by faith that actually it’s an open system full of abundance. It’s hard not to think that is idiotic. I watch the news and see people dying for lack. Clean drinking water, food, and shelter did not miraculously appear for them, and the tangible consequence was that they died.

I can believe abundance exists in Heaven and beyond this life, and that any miracles we see here are merely glimpses of Heaven, a foretaste of abundance. But when we are here firmly planted on this Earth, in this now, how do we live with an abundance mindset, trusting in an afterlife of abundance, when faced with so much scarcity in our daily living? Are we called to sacrifice what scarce resources we have now in faith because of the abundance we will receive in Eternity? How does eternal abundance serve as an incentive to embrace our present scarcity?

I often hear people say, “I’m staying out of it; I’m not going to take sides; I don’t have enough information to make a decision.” However, that statement is implicitly choosing a side — in cases of a democracy, “abstaining” from choosing is implicitly choosing the side of the majority opinion. I know I’m oversimplifying it a bit and there are always nuances to consider. But making statements like “I’m not going to side with anyone” is also overly simplistic. And I would challenge the reason for not taking sides — if what is at stake is important enough, then it is important to do the work to gather the information to make an informed choice.

I was reading Madeleine L’Engle’s The Arm of the Starfish and there’s a good passage in here which advocates for choosing sides (between good and bad) and the impossibility of remaining neutral:

“I guess the real point is that I care about having a decent world, and if you care about having a decent world you have to take sides. You have to decide who, for you, are the good guys, and who are the bad guys. So, like the fool I am, I chose the difficult side, the unsafe side, the side that guarantees me not one thing besides danger and hard work.”

“Then why did you choose it?” Adam demanded.

Joshua continued to lean on the door. “Why? I’m not sure I did. It seemed to choose me, unlikely material though I be. And it’s the side that–that cares about people like Polyhymnia O’Keefe…. It’s the fall of the sparrow I care about, Adam. But who is the sparrow? We run into problems there, too. Now let’s have our coffee.”

 

I like this quote from Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember: Uncollected Piece:

The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming. But again and again we avoid the long thoughts…. We cling to the present out of wariness of the past. And why not, after all? We get confused. We need such escape as we can find. But there is a deeper need yet, I think, and that is the need–not all the time, surely, but from time to time–to enter that still room within us all where the past lives on as a part of the present, where the dead are alive again, where we are most alive ourselves to turnings and to where our journeys have brought us. The name of the room is Remember–the room where with patience, with charity, with quietness of heart, we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived.