Three Levels of Greatness

There are three progressive levels of greatness:

1. Saved: Wanting to look great.



Hilary Faye (Mandy Moore) of the movie Saved wants to be admired even though there is basically nothing admirable about her. On a basic level she knows this but, on another basic level, looking the part is her top priority.

2. The Quick and the Dead: Wanting to be great.



In The Quick and the Dead "The Kid" (Leonardo DiCaprio) wants to prove that he is the greatest gunslinger in the west (especially better than his dad). This level of greatness is another form of self-glorification, but at least there is some kind of measurable accomplishment required here.

3. Kingdom of Heaven: Lifting a Cause that is great (especially a cause that is greater than oneself).



Balian (Orlando Bloom) risks life and limb to follow his conscience. This results in him getting banged up a lot as he stands up for those who can't defend themselves. I appreciate the way he is boldly confident all the while never thinking too highly of himself. Out of the three kinds of greatness, Balian seeks the best kind.

Unfortunately, Greatness #3 can lead to an obscure, oftentimes uncomfortable life, which will end in a less than glorious death. For this reason Greatness #3 is the most difficult kind of greatness to appreciate -- it seems like foolishness to our natural inclinations.

More to the point: The greatest people in the world demonstrate why God is great.


Terminator Salvation


“Learn to do good;
Seek justice,
Reprove the ruthless,
Defend the orphan,
Plead for the widow.”

--Isaiah 1:17

** Beware, spoilers ahead ***

Terminator Salvation stars Christian Bale as John Connor, Sam Worthington as Marcus Wright (man reborn as robot-man), Moon Bloodgood as Blair Williams (who has a crush on the robot-man), Helena Bonham Carter as Dr. Serena Kogan (the voice of Skynet), Anton Yelchin as Kyle Reese (John Connor’s past/future father) and Bryce Dallas Howard as Kate Connor.

Right away we meet Marcus Wright, a murderer on death row. About an hour before his lethal injection he decides to donate his body for scientific research. “Cut it to pieces,” are a few of his last words. About 20 years later he wakes up, only now he was partially organic, the rest robotic. He doesn’t understand what, where or when he is; he just knows that is alive.

Marcus goes on to save a couple of children as well as a young lady named Blair. That night he asks Blair “Do you think people deserve a second chance?” She answers, “Yes.” He isn’t talking about humanity fighting against extinction at the hands of robots, though she might have thought that. He means “Do I, the murderer who was supposed die by lethal injection, deserve a second chance.” Indeed, he was living that second chance as he uttered the question.

Marcus’s story is all about redemption. Redemption is bringing life out of death, injecting value into that which was worthless or producing good out of that which seemed to be pure evil. The last part of his life demonstrates the fruits of redemption, which is more redemption for others. Toward the end of the movie, he offers his own rebuilt heart to John Connor so that he can continue leading the Resistance against Skynet. In this way Marcus gives away all of his human self to help humanity strive toward a better existence.

At the same time, the fact that Skynet, the enemy, re-constructed him to be mostly machine makes it possible for him to live again. Though his rebirth was designed to destroy life, he uses his mechanical elements to infiltrate Skynet and ultimately help all people strive toward freedom.

In a similar way, Jesus Christ brought redemption to all humanity through a regular, human body. Right when humanity seemed fit only to destroy self and others, God came in the form of a human to inject life and a new nature into all people.

Notice that twice in Terminator Salvation Marcus is bound and then raised upright in a similar position as Christ on the cross. Marcus would eventually sacrifice himself to save countless other lives.

As the title of the movie implies, the humanity of that time is in dire need of salvation. John (the Baptist?) Connor saw something different in this man, Marcus, who was fully human as well as potentially immortal, if he kept living as a machine. Also, once or twice John is called a “prophet” who is destined to lead people to freedom from the machines.


A Charlie Brown Christmas


In A Charlie Brown Christmas, the Peanuts gang gives Charlie Brown a special assignment: Go buy a big, pink, shiny, aluminum Christmas tree for their Christmas play. So Charlie Brown and Linus set out for the tree lot, where they wade through a myriad of gaudy, metal trees to find the only natural tree in the lot, which happens to be pitifully scrawny and prone to dropping the few pine needles still clinging to it. Thus, upon his return, the children berate Charlie Brown for his choice. This inspires him to cry out in desperation, "Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?"

Linus responds, "Sure Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about." He then steps out on stage where everyone can see and hear him and starts quoting Luke's Gospel (2:8-14) "And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."

The children stand speechless. Charlie Brown, with a renewed spirit, leaves the auditorium by himself, taking his little tree with him. Approaching Snoopy's flashy, decorated doghouse, he decides to borrow an ornament for his tree. But the tree bends in half under the ornament's wait. Charlie Brown reacts saying, "I've killed it. Oh! Everything I touch gets ruined." Sulking away, he leaves the tree behind him, still bent to the ground. Then the other children enter the scene. Linus stands the tree upright, using his blanket to support its base. As one, the group transfers Snoopy's decorations onto the tree, transforming it into an attractive, confident looking Christmas tree. Soon thereafter Charlie Brown returns and sees his tree standing there, full and stately. The movie ends with all the children yelling, "Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!" Then the credits roll as they chime in to sing "Hark! The Herald Angel Sing."

***

Notice the parallels between Charlie Brown's tree and the Christmas story Linus quotes from Luke's gospel:


--The little tree and the infant Jesus are so small and fragile that they cannot survive without the warmth and support of a simple blanket.


--The little tree and Christ's incarnation are easy to take for granted at first glance, but they represent a spark of genuine life amidst a distracted and inherently artificial world.


--Charlie Brown's tree was the only living tree in the entire lot, while Christ is the Fountainhead of Life for the entire lot of humanity.


--Both the tree and Jesus Christ endure humble beginnings, but their inherent beauty eventually becomes recognizable to average, naked eye.

Sufjan Stevens -- The Transfiguration

(Photo courtesy of Joe Lencioni)

Transfiguration Lyrics:

When he took the three disciples to the mountainside to pray,
His countenance was modified, his clothing was aflame.
Two men appeared: Moses and Elijah came; they were at his side.
The prophecy, the legislation spoke of whenever he would die.

Then there came a word of what he should accomplish on the day.
Then Peter spoke, to make of them a tabernacle place.
A cloud appeared in glory as an accolade; they fell on the ground.
A voice arrived, the voice of God, the face of God, covered in a cloud.

What he said to them, the voice of God: the most beloved son.
Consider what he says to you, consider what's to come.
The prophecy was put to death, was put to death, and so will the Son.
And keep your word, disguise the vision till the time has come.

Lost in the cloud, a voice: Have no fear! We draw near!
Lost in the cloud, a sign: Son of man! Turn your ear!
Lost in the cloud, a voice: Lamb of God! We draw near!
Lost in the cloud, a sign: Son of man! Son of God!

***

As humans seeking God, our great challenge is to keep the faith. We have been given free will to exercise for good, which is an extremely difficult task, but God created us for this purpose.

On some days Christ might appear to us transfigured, clothing all aflame, with God's voice booming down in affirmation. But much of the time God's face seems veiled, as with a cloud.

The Truth makes so much sense, but who among us has the fortitude to cling to Him despite our endless trouble, fear, doubts and our nagging weaknesses?

We might construct a tabernacle for ourselves, as Peter suggested to God, to shore up our faith. Maybe hardened brick and tradition piled on top of each other would give us a predictable point of reference, in case God's face seems veiled. But this is misguided. Such thinking compromises our mission, which is to live and die for Christ. We are dying already; we can't avoid death. The question is, what are we living and dying for?

We struggle against discouragement and doubt, but not without purpose. Christ Himself is our Edifice. His is a difficult Way in that He does not make room for fleshly compromises. But, if we trust Him to maintain our faith and our daily sanity, then and we won't have struggled in vain.

The fact that God's face is covered in a cloud so much of the time is strategic. This relates to our purpose for existing, which is to seek Him despite our limited perspectives. We will inevitably struggle, but everyone struggles. If we are following after Christ as we go, then we struggle with heavenly purpose.

So, in the mean time, let's keep singing songs that remind us of God's glory such as this one by Sufjan Stevens, especially during those times, as he said, when God seems "lost in the cloud."

Star Wars Episode 1 -- Midichlorians and God

During one of many awkward dialogues in Star Wars, Episode 1, Qui-Gon Jinn takes young Anakin aside to teach him how the Force works. The Force works really well for Anakin because has a lot "Force Genes," also known as Midichlorians. According to Qui-Gon (and Obi-Wan Kenobi) Midichlorians float around in people's body like little tubes of super-Force glue. The more of these pseudo-genetic things you have, the better you will stick to the Force (or the the Force will stick to you).

The fact that George Lucas tried to define the Force in such limited terms continues to offend Star Wars fans today (nine years later), because this was a misguided attempt to quantify something powerfully mysterious that was therefore better left out of any Webster's definition.

The same thing applies to genuine divinity as well. God is unquantifiable--that's part of what makes Him God. Not only is He too big to measure, He transcends even the concept of measurement. He makes Himself knowable through Jesus Christ, but this too is a mysterious phenomenon. Ultimately we will never be able to define Him in human terms, nor will we be able to wrap our mortal minds around Him. This is a good thing; this hints at the fact that He is God.

Star Wars fans respect the Force (even though they know George Lucas imagined it) to the point that they are upset by his attempt to quantify it (him/her?). Thus it is ironic that many, maybe even most, people are offended by God's infinitude.

It is both good and necessary that God is immeasurable by human standards; otherwise he would be excessively limited, or mortal and therefore not worthy. People prefer to impress an excessively human character on God, as if He has room to improve, but this would imply that He is not perfect already, which would make Him less than divine.

People liked the Force as it was before Episode One--untainted by this unsavory attempt at defining it in pseudo-scientific terms. Indeed, the ultimate question for all things -- "Why?" -- must transcend pragmatic phraseology. Science, for example, can tell us how things work, but it can't tell us why. Observing the way things are is a far cry from explaining why things are. Take gravity for example. We can observe the fact that two masses tend to exercise an attractive force on each other, but why? Someone must have invented the concept of gravity... why don't two masses repulse one another? Or electricity at the atomic level, or the fact that water expands when it is frozen... why?

To know God we have to surrender any right we think we have to define Him. He will never fit in a religious or intellectual box. He will always exceed our expectations... and these are all good things. Incidentally, getting to know God is the most effective way to expand our intellect, our faith and our ability to deal with this present life.

Dead Man Walking

Dead Man Walking stars Sean Penn as Matthew Poncelet (the guy on death row) and Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen Prejean (the nun who reaches out the Matthew).

The main theme of this movie is mercy. Sister Helen's desire to show mercy to Matthew conflicts with the parents of his victims, who would like to see him dead. The parents think that bestowing kindness on Matthew is the same as condoning his actions. But this is wrong. They also think that he does not deserve mercy since "he's an animal, not a person." But this is also wrong.

It occurred to me that, because of situations like this, it is useful to involve third parties such as Christian ministers. A man on death row might have a genuinely repentant heart (though this would not excuse him from his death sentence). If he truly desires forgiveness, then it would be inappropriate to wait for the relatives of his victims to forgive him because this might never happen and it's not necessarily their responsibility to forgive him (if they aren't Christian). Thus, it is necessary that a third party show the man God's mercy and, ideally, really mean it (like Sister Helen).

The parents of Matthew Poncelet's victims are taken aback by the fact that Sister Helen didn't visit them first... after all they are the victims. This sentiment is justified on one hand, but on the other hand it is not. Both parties need help. Practically speaking, Sister Helen is more in the right, since the parents can seek out all the counseling they want while Matthew is only able to see whoever goes out of their way to visit him. Matthew also requested a visitation, which, in God's kingdom, carries a lot of weight in itself. The parents did not request a visitation from Sister Helen.

To her credit, Helen takes it upon herself to visit everyone involved, listening and sympathizing with both sides. This is her much-needed job--to show mercy to both parties regardless of who seems more guilty. She does this with the knowledge that one or both sets of parents might hate her for trying to comfort Matthew.

Mercy has to be unconditional, otherwise it would stop being mercy. The fact that we don't deserve mercy is exactly why we all need it.

As I watched Dead Man Walking, I couldn't help thinking of Jesus' words, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick" (Mark 2:17). This isn't to belittle the sorrow of those who have suffered a great loss, but rather, this is to Jesus' credit, that He came to be the merciful Third Party that we all desperately need. I don't know what it's like to loose a son or a daughter but, even if I did, it would not affect this general truth that we all need God's mercy.

We all are faced with varying degrees of loss. Thus, another practical purpose for Christ visiting earth: To comfort, heal and restore people on both sides, those who take as well as those from whom something was taken. He is the best One to approach on all issues concerning justice, since He is both the Justifier and the one who will eventually carry out God's justice.

The Elephant Man (1980), starring Anthony Hopkins

Oh yeah,
I know I'm not broken
A little cracked
But still I'm not broken
I wanna laugh
But I think that I'm choking on reality

Please listen to me
There is no such thing as human debris...

-- Bad Religion, "Broken"

***

The Elephant Man stars John Hurt as John Merrick (the Elephant Man), and Anthony Hopkins as Frederick Treves (the physician who eventually becomes sympathetic with Merrick's situation). I learned after watching this movie that John Merrick's first name was actually Joseph.

Merrick's condition brings to light the best and worst of the people he runs into, from vindictive predators to those who go out of their way to comfort and care for him. For most of his life a greedy circus boss uses him as a lucrative sideshow. This man, as well as those who pay him to gawk, see Merrick not as a human being, but as a spectacle that exists for their entertainment.

Frederick Treves' first impression of Merrick is as Elephant Man, the star of a circus show. Merrick's identity is already established as a public spectacle, so Treves doesn't think twice about subjecting the man to further humiliation, though this time in front of a more scientific audience. But, as Treves continues to investigate Merrick's physical ailments, he can't help looking on his subject with increasing compassion. Eventually Treves becomes Merrick's main advocate. He introduces this former recluse to public life, giving him the chance to win the respect of London's high society. However, even as Merrick gains the respect of some, other predators emerge and expose him to additional public mockery for their entertainment as well as to make a quick buck.

The Elephant Man juxtaposes unbridled cruelty and genuine compassion. This movie reminds me of the fact that the world has a desperate need for morally solid men. Men needn't acquire exceptional strength or intelligence to defend the defenseless; they only need to listen to their consciences. Frederick Treves, for example, isn't outwardly religious or spiritually-inclined, yet he resists the men who try to exploit Merrick's condition.

The Elephant Man also illustrates our inherent inability to see people as they really are. At first glance, people are repulsed by Merrick's appearance. But, when people give the chance, he wins them over with his quality of character.

There also implications here for all of us from a spiritual perspective, though the roles are reversed. Christ can see who (or what) we really are spiritually--twisted, ugly creatures infected with putrefaction and death--but He chooses to look on us with love and compassion, even to the point of healing and restoring us.

Unlike Merrick, getting to know any of us who are distant from God would not lead others to admire us more... though we have learned to art of putting on a good show, we are naturally despicable in the way that counts--in our souls. But Christ goes out of his way to seek us out, give us comfort and eventually save us from ourselves. He is courageous and self-sacrificing for us to offset our fear and pettiness so that we might learn from His example and do likewise.

Midnight Clear -- People Need People

Midnight Clear is a realistic yet hopeful story about a handful of people who are grappling with severe depression and loneliness on Christmas Eve. They feel hopeless and alone in their own particular way until they run into each other and help each other out in their own particular way. The central thing these people do for each other is be there for one another. They squelch their relational neediness by reaching out to one another. Funny how that works, huh?

God built us to need other people, yet we are hesitant to reach out to others. Simply caring for others would benefit everyone, both givers and receivers, so why do we hold back? God gives us ample desire and opportunity to build up mountains of relational wealth, but most of us are too afraid, bitter or selfish to do anything about it.

I have witnessed God working powerfully through relationships for people who are courageous enough to follow Him in this area. He helps us to battle through loneliness and depression, but we also have to maintain a courageous faith. The solutions to all neediness in the world is not far off: All we have to do is step out (with the distinct possibility of failing) and care for others according to Christ's example. If we step out in faith to genuinely care for others and persevere in our efforts, He will lead us along and cause us to bear much fruit. This isn't easy but, like I said, I have seen this work out beautifully.

***

Luke's Gospel, Chapter 19:

Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small of stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him because he was about to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today." So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully. When other saw this, they all grumbled, "He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner." And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, "Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will restore it fourfold." And Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost."