A Cluster of Films

Granted, these may not be hugely popular, and may need to be sought online or at libraries, but two are definitely worth seeing. “The Leisure Seeker” is the sweet, final adventure of an elderly couple: Helen Mirren (with a Southern accent) and Donald Sutherland (with dementia). She knows exactly what she’s doing, guiding them on their rickety RV to the Hemingway house in Key West, Florida before her cancer does her in completely, then ending their long lives and marriage with a peaceful dose of carbon monoxide.  That may seem harsh, but it makes sense in the context of dwindling health and mental acuity. Along the way, they watch slides of their youth, their children, a collage of memory that others in the campgrounds quietly gather to watch and appreciate. It’s a reminder of the sacramentality of any life, viewed as a long trajectory. One of the most touching moments comes when Sutherland, seeing the beautiful Florida skies and ocean asks, “Are we in heaven?” He is alternately wise and vulnerable; she is scrappy, fierce and romantic. And her final letter warns their children that they may have run up a large credit card bill, orchestrating their Last Hurrah.

“Back to Burgundy” is set in a French vineyard, and reminds us how arduous it is to make fine wine. Three siblings, thrust into the job when their father dies, show how the family arena is always fraught: they argue because they matter so much to each other. Flashbacks to their childhood reveal why the domain is so important to them: they’ve been raised on identifying tastes and loving the vinter’s careful process. The film is full of life’s good things, for instance, a party for the whole crew once the harvest is in. They’ve worked hard, sweating in the sun: now they drink wine, eat, sing and dance. It’s reminiscent of the Biblical passage about God rejoicing over us as at a festival. The central trio cares deeply for each other and their heritage, deeply enough to work out differences over their inheritance.

“Red Sparrow,” on the other hand, feels like drinking sewage. It’s based on the tired premise that Russians = Bad Guys, Americans = Good Guys. Those who’ve read Chekhov, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy questioned that facile assumption even at the height of the Cold War—so why resuscitate it now? One brief scene at the Bolshoi ballet is the only saving grace—but it ends in catastrophe. After that, the action moves into a world where there are no ordinary blessings like children, grocery shopping, trees or humor: all is intense, abstract, ideological. Demeaning, dehumanizing processes and hideous torture occur in a place where it’s always winter. Subjected to terrible stress and physical pain, the lead Jennifer Lawrence becomes more remote, less likeable, even though at first she’s a victim, then ostensibly acts to save her sickly mother. Some of the settings are opulent palaces with lavish costumes—or grim jail cells– that make one long for the dilapidated farmhouse, sweaty t-shirts and earthy humanity of Burgundy.

Third Sunday of Easter

Today’s gospel defies all the self-help books about achieving inner peace. Peace is a gift, according to Luke. Furthermore, it comes unexpectedly, during confusion, mourning, fear and anxiety. The disciples find it too good to be true.

 

To alert them to reality, Jesus asks for something to eat. He reminds us of adolescents who are always hungry, or long-awaited guests whom we welcome with a special meal. This touchstone in human nature apparently convinces the skeptical. Wisely, Jesus starts with bodily needs, then “opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” (24: 45)

 

How ironic that he tells the poor, uncertain, wavering crew: “You are witnesses of these things” (48). They are hardly the finest spokespersons, but then, neither are we. We have the same mixture of doubt and certainty, anxiety and joy that they had. Jesus always seems to choose the most unlikely prospects. As Desmond Tutu says, Our God is an expert at dealing with chaos, with brokenness, with all the worst that we can imagine.”

 

But to all, he extends the same invitation: “touch me and see.” Only by coming dangerously close to this wounded Lord will we too know transformation of our wounds—and resurrection.

Thank You, Madam Secretary!

Long-suffering readers of this blog will already know my obsession with the CBS drama “Madam Secretary.” It tackles tough political issues with a brilliant woman in the US Secretary of State role. Now they’ve outdone themselves. If you missed it Sunday March 25, catch it online: https://www.cbs.com/shows/madam-secretary/video/4iyOQfZj9A_U0JQ7EcX9_jdBrGG5XBMM/madam-secretary-the-unnamed.

The genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar may be little known, despite the best efforts of Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times and Kevin Frayer’s dramatic photo essay in Time Magazine 11/27/17.  My blog has already detailed the atrocities, and the obscene non-intervention of Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the country, who ironically received the Nobel prize for her opposition to dictators. Over 600,000 Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh. Those who remain are treated atrociously by the Burmese military, callously killed and raped, and denied the most basic medical care, food, and shelter. The news media are denied access because the Burmese have a lot to hide.

I was impressed to see this horror surface in mainstream t.v., when on “Madam Secretary,” the US is poised to award the Medal of Freedom to Myanmar’s charismatic leader, fictionalized as a male, but with the same background as the current president. The Secretary of State shows him clear surveillance photos of the villages burned and the mass exodus of peoples. Most poignantly, she reveals pictures drawn by children of their parents being killed and their homes being torched. The leader protests that the issue is complex, that the US has its own refugee problems, quickly refuted by Secretary McCord: the Muslims have lived there for centuries. He argues too that a few Muslim militants attacked security forces, but she counters that the military reaction is wildly disproportionate.

How this genocide has been allowed to continue this long is a good question to raise with Congress, which supported the Burmese military with US tax dollars. “There comes a time when silence is betrayal,” said M.L. King Jr., and his words echo dramatically in the inertia of US non-response. We’ve come to a sad state when the t.v. industry raises the moral conscience of the nation more powerfully than its leaders, but let’s be grateful wherever that clear voice sounds.

Hints of Resurrection

I’ve long believed that we come to understand the “capital R” Resurrection only through appreciating “small r” resurrections—the stuff of daily life, like a sunny day after a long stretch of rain, a restored relationship, health after illness, energy after inertia, seeing a problem that seemed intractable in a new light, starting a difficult venture late in life. One woman even described seeing the ultrasound of her new grandbaby two weeks after her husband’s death. Life and death brush hands in a mysterious dance, and sometimes we catch a heartening glimpse.

For those who have grown weary of the struggle for sane gun control, the events since the Parkland tragedy have brought hope. Ever since Columbine, we’ve known this is a pro-life issue; that became increasingly clear after young children were killed at Sandy  Hook.  Yet church leadership which speaks loudly about abortion seems strangely silent on this life issue. So, for what it’s worth, one Catholic voice:

There seem to be arguments against even the mildest laws that are proposed, but this catastrophe has dragged on far too long, while gun manufacturers make millions. So why not try? Why not follow the lead of every other nation that solved this problem long ago?

After a deadly mass shooting in 1996 with an assault weapon, Australia banned them and hasn’t had a similar massacre since. (The US Congress enacted such a ban in 1994, but let it expire 10 years later.) Similarly, after a school shooting in Scotland, the UK passed strict gun control, which ended the problem now plaguing our schools and inner cities. Students’ signs carried during the March for Our Lives 3/24 said it eloquently: “Protect us, not guns.” “I’m not bulletproof,” and Tom Mauser’s (whose son Daniel died at Columbine) “This is your Vietnam.”

It’s heartening to see the Parkland survivors who just may tip the balance and achieve the critical mass necessary for legislation.  They aren’t deterred by the pessimism of “It hasn’t worked. We’ve been trying since Columbine.” Nor are they silenced by the tired NRA arguments that to them must seem as anachronistic as the muskets the organization so righteously defends. They see clearly through the obscene hypocrisy of legislators and president who send “thoughts and prayers,” then take millions in campaign contributions from the NRA. They are articulate, well-organized, and hold an impeccable stance: US kids shouldn’t be the only ones among civilized nations who are afraid to go to school.

An Easter resurgence of life, a spring-time burst of energy, a bright banner of hope—are these not all hints of Resurrection?

A Psalm for Spring

And just when we think

winter won’t end, a sliver

of light, a bird’s flute solo,

a tentative poke of green.

 

Thank God for sun on skin,

the pink bud opening to lilac,

rains that gild the branches.

 

Praise God for dandelion yellow,

pale coral, indigo, speckled petal

and new leaf tinged with red.

For warmth and bikes, ice cream

and longer light. As You transform

the earth, touch us too with

resurrection joy.

 

Fifth Sunday of Lent: “Come Forth!”

Today’s gospel/Cycle A (John 11:1-45) prompts us to ask where we ourselves are bound and death-like. Have we capitulated to the culture’s definition of us as consumers? Have we bought into the put-downs tossed off by the careless that do unintended harm? Do we resort to old categories (gender, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, marital status, socio-economic level), caging unique human beings? Jesus’ call comes to us all: “Lazarus come forth!” Shed those paralyzed trappings; enter into new and abundant life.

It is marvelous to consider Martha’s role in this miracle. She starts with an understandable complaint: “If you’d come sooner, my brother wouldn’t have died.” Yet she dares to hope for more, just as Mary once told Jesus at Cana, “they have no more wine.” Martha is far more creative than the bystanders, who never dream that this “Johnny-Come-Lately” could defy death and wrench their friend from the tomb.

Approaching his passion, it’s almost as if Jesus needs one slight affirmation. He must wonder whether those who’d been with him so long had the slightest glimmer of understanding. Peter had once professed that Jesus was the Christ, but in the next verse, Jesus is warning him because of his stupidity, “get thee behind me, Satan!” Martha, on the other hand, gives Jesus what he needs: her belief that he is “the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” Encouraged by her trust, Jesus asserts his truest identity: “the resurrection and the life.”

 

Fourth Sunday of Lent: Blind Dignity

Scripture scholar Thomas Brodie writes of the man born blind: His first words, ”ego eimi” mean literally, “I am.” But there’s more to this than a simple self-identification. They also place him in line with God’s self-definition, “I am who am,” and Jesus’ string of identifiers elsewhere in John: I am the bread of life (6:35) and light of the world. This spunky, uneducated man represents us all, made in God’s image. (The Gospel According to John New York: Oxford University Press, 1993, 55.)

Furthermore, the formerly blind man models how to trust. He’s so grateful to Jesus he believes him completely, and bows in reverence to him. He may not have read anything, but he stands in sharp contrast to the Pharisees who desperately cling to a tired tradition: “we are disciples of Moses.” Their blindness keeps them from seeing how awesomely God works in the present.

We shouldn’t pick on them when we all have our blind spots. Sometimes, metaphorically, we choose to hang out in the dark basement, rather than the gorgeous, light-filled ballroom to which God invites us. If we wallow in despair or anxiety, we overlook our amazing identity: created like God.

When Jesus anoints the man’s eyes with clay (John 9:6), it symbolizes the man’s human dignity and heals his blindness. Jesus himself will be anointed by a woman (John 12:3). So too, those baptized or confirmed at the Easter Vigil will be anointed with oil, like Israel’s priests, prophets and rulers. Story and symbol speak of our essential dignity.