We just had an Epiphany

What takes up most of your time? What do you spend the most time doing? Would you notice if something new appeared in that setting? This past Sunday marked the first week of Epiphany, the season in the Church calendar where we celebrate the coming of the Wise Men to find the recently born Jesus (Matt. 2:1-12). It is one of my favorite seasons because it has so many layers. It asks us to reflect on the ways that Jesus has revealed Himself to us and appeared in our lives. It marks the expansion of the Gospel as the first Gentiles (the wise men) recognized Jesus as the Savior of the world. And it demonstrates that God honors years of faithfulness to bear fruit we might never have imagined. Epiphany lasts until Lent, let us dig into all that this season offers.

Where did Jesus appear to you in 2017?

We know very little about the wise men. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that they were scholars who specifically studied the stars and the natural world. They studied the night sky so closely that they noticed when a new star inexplicably appeared.

Wise-men from the east came to Jerusalem saying, ‘Where is he who is to be born King of the Jews? We have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him. – Matt. 2:2

I know next to nothing about astronomy, so it boggles my mind that a star could look so significant that it would cause observers to assume a great cosmic event must have occurred. What an incredible thing that God can communicate to humans through the natural world in such a way that we could realize deep spiritual thruths. The star was so special that it prompted these men to travel a great distance, likely over the course of months and even a couple of years, to find the Person that was living in its light.

The wise men saw the star because they were pursuing their vocations as scholars. They were doing their normal jobs and received this revelation in the process of their work. In the same way, where did you see Jesus show up in the course of your work and daily life last year? Where were you shaped in the process of living out your calling? Jesus can reveal Himself through the spectacular, and also through the very mundane. Spend some time thinking about where you saw Christ through simply paying attention to the life you have been given.

Jesus is for everyone

We have no indication that the wise men were Jewish, in fact they almost certainly were non-believers. They were definitely living far outside of Israel and were foreigners to the Jews. And yet Jesus revealed Himself to them in a way that they could understand. It made no difference that they spoke a different language or came from a different culture. Jesus is a savior who can cross any barrier that humans experience. Our current cultural moment is still very much defined by fear and distrust of anyone who is not like “us.” We struggle to find common ground and to reach out to one another. Let us draw on the power of Jesus to cross any border and find ourselves united by the Light of the world, the One who came to be a blessing to all nations.

What if Jesus saves your enemies?

Most Bible scholars have concluded that the wise men were from the region of Babylon, east of Israel. This is the place to which Israel had been exiled several centuries earlier. When God sent the people into exile there, He commanded them to make it count.

Build houses and dwell in them; and plant gardens and eat the fruit of them. Marry and be given in marriage, bear sons and daughters and multiply, do not diminish. Seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away into captivity, and pray to God for it; for in its peace you will have peace. – Jer. 29:5-7

They were not to just sit around, biding their time until they could leave. They were to see their time in Babylon as meaningful and capable of impact. What if the wise men were primed to see the star because of faithful Israelites who had lived out their worship of God in Babylon? Perhaps the period of the exile had left traces of God that the Babylonians were meant to find. They likely would have had access to Hebrew Scriptures and as scholars may have developed an interest in Yahweh (Hebrew for LORD) and a desire to learn more about Him. God may have honored the years of faithfulness in exile to allow new believers to find Jesus.

That is a beautiful thought, and also difficult. The Babylonians were not great people. Their attack on Jerusalem was brutal and they were a pagan culture. In every way they were enemies of God’s people. And yet Jesus chooses to intentionally target them for an invitation into the redemption story. It is easy to rejoice when people we love find Jesus, it is much harder when people we hate are called to become our spiritual brothers and sisters. And yet if we were all once enemies of God (Col. 1:21-22), Jesus saving enemies is very good news. Consider where you can be a blessing in places you might rather not be. A particular facet of your work, certain relationships in your life, classes you are tired of taking. Jesus may have plans for your presence in those places that you cannot yet imagine. Pray for the Holy Spirit to give you compassion for others and a desire for their good. May we all know Jesus more and make Him known in the places to which we have been called.

Prayer for Epiphany

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that Your people, illumined by Your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that He may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who with You and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, now and for ever. Amen.

– Book of Common Prayer

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Ivan’s Top Ten Movies of 2017

It’s the end of another year in cinema and, looking back on the year that was, I can definitively say that we are living in a golden age of television. That’s right, with streaming services and cable channels churning out tons of risky, unique stories on the small screen, I can’t help but be disappointed by the onslaught of passable, at times directionless fare we got on the big.

I had a ton of fun with movies like Wonder Woman, Thor: Ragnarok, and Spider-man: Homecoming but then screamed in disappointment at a underwhelming new King Kong, a beautiful but bloated Blade Runner sequel, and, in my opinion, an offensively bad first shot at the Justice League. By the time awards season rolled around, I was feeling pessimistic about the movies 2017 had to offer.

I still don’t think it’s been a particularly strong year for film. Here’s hoping the trend of studios trying to make their own Stranger Things will pass soon. Even some of the early awards favorites like The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri failed to connect with me. However, after a solid binge of movies we missed or were recommended to us, I’ve filled out my top ten movies of the year.

10. Split

Confession time. I love M. Night Shyamalan. Sure he peaked way early with The 6th Sense, and may have made a few enemies with The Last Airbender, but I still think he’s brilliant. Thankfully, we are moving into an era of not having to hide Shymalan fandom any longer. After surprising fans with The Visit, the “Shy-man” was back to form and this year rocked my world with Split. An incredible performance by James McAvoy and a story that both narratively and visiually kept me guessing makes this one of Shymalan’s best. Perhaps my favorite parts of this film were the things unsaid, the nuanced details I’ve since gone back and realized. Toss in a beautiful theme that would make Alessia Cara proud, and I’m ready for the upcoming sequel.

9. The Lego Batman Movie

When 2014’s The Lego Movie came into my life, I thought there couldn’t be a movie more tailor made for me. To that, The Lego Batman Movie says, “hold my drink.” Legos, super heroes, jokes, stunning animation, and a story about friendship and, really, the family of God, come on! Does it get any better? Batman isn’t even my favorite superhero, but watching him make mouth sounds to lobster thermidor warming in his microwave made me fall in love. Here’s hoping for a Robin-centric sequel. Fly, Robin, fly.

8. Detroit

From two movies that I’ve already watched multiple times, to two movies I’m in no hurry to watch again. The first of which is Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit. Telling the story of the 1967 events that tore a city apart, Bigelow brings her expertise in depicting war to the streets of Civil Rights America. The content is horrific and has left audiences split, but I don’t remember this story even being a footnote in my history books. The story has to be told, and, to do the story justice, the horrors had to be real. Our history is ugly and Detroit puts that ugliness on display. There is so much in the movie that will break your heart, but, after everything Bigelow takes her audience through, watching John Boyega’s character, Melvin, in his final interrogation scene might bring you to your knees. Read Heather’s complete reflection on Detroit here.

7. Wind River

Throughout Wind River, you’ll hear again and again how desolate, how draining, how terrible the living conditions are in its rural Wyoming setting. That narrative is so present it’s often the sole excuse given for the deplorable actions in the film. You may even feel cold watching the movie. Then you realize, for many of the characters, they have no choice but to live there. Writer/director Taylor Sheridan, who topped by list last year with Hell or High Water, here tackles the shocking reality of missing indigenous women. I’ve got mixed feelings about depicting sexual violence in film, but, again if this story is going to be told it has to be given justice. Wind River is heartbreaking, suspenseful, and masterful storytelling but telling that story means shining a light on the dreadful things happening in America’s dark shadows.

6. Molly’s Game

Molly Bloom is a fascinating person and her story, written in her book “Molly’s Game,” is a fascinating story, but those things do not make a fascinating movie. Aaron Sorkin’s writing makes a fascinating movie especially when telling remarkable true stories. Just as he did with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Apple’s Steve Jobs, in Molly’s Game, Bloom, a former world-class skier who at 26 was earning millions of dollars running poker games for celebrities and mobsters, gets the total Sorkin treatment. In the hands of a less capable storyteller, this movie could have been a Rounders remake, but alongside thrilling performances by Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba, Sorkin’s directorial debut had me all in.

5. Baby Driver

Baby Driver is a technical achievement. If you’re unaware, director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), wrote this heist movie with the entire soundtrack in mind. The soundtrack is pumped through the headphones of lead character, Baby, who uses music to drown out his chronic tinnitus. Wright then took that soundtrack and blocked, crafted, and choreographed a symphony of chases and action scenes. It is breathtaking. Every step, every gunshot, every background noise plays into the music creating a chaotic harmony that puts fully on display Wright’s filmmaking genius. Underneath the technical skill, also lies a story about maintaining innocence in an increasingly harsh world. If you’re anything like me, you won’t want to put Baby in a corner, but straight into your blu ray player for repeat viewings as you unpack everything Wright jammed into the film. The soundtrack is also available on Spotify in case you find yourself on the run. Read my complete reflection with companion Psalms for Baby Driver here.

4. Get Out

The best theater experience I had this year (maybe ever), including Star Wars, was Get Out. With every twist and turn the the sold out theater came unglued with gasps, laughs, and screams. When it came to its climatic end, row after row jumped to their feet cheering, clapping, and dancing in the isles. It was cinematic magic. For many, it was a therapeutic, genre bending take on the horrors of their reality. With Get Out, Jordan Peele is giving audiences a creative taste of his own experiences. I suggest you watch it, maybe with someone who doesn’t look like you, because it is a film best enjoyed in community. Read my complete reflection on Get Out with discussion questions here.

3. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I love The Last Jedi. Come at me! I’ve often considered my Star Wars zeal to be fairly moderate. I’ve read some comics, but haven’t read the expanded universe novels. I have a few toys on display, but haven’t attended a convention or own my own stormtrooper armor. I’ve seen every episode of Clone Wars, most of Rebels, and both Ewok spin-off movies. I’m a fan and I know that fans love how much they know about Star Wars, and director Rian Johnson took that hubris and knocked us right off our high horse. I would say, the majority of the hardcore fans I know did like it, but still there’s a lot of hate out there and I just don’t get it.

I don’t want the galaxy to return to the state it was in when Episode I begins, a too-big-for-their-britches Jedi order and a world steeped in bureaucracy. It has to evolve to something more. For decades now, Star Wars has been a beautifully simple story that anyone can relate to, but as the universe expands, the complexity has to expand. War is not simple, and The Last Jedi, led by a conflicted and weathered Luke Skywalker, isn’t a simple story and one even the most learned fans couldn’t see coming. The original Star Wars was a surprise to fans in 1977, and now the finale of this new trilogy has the opportunity to do the same. Read my complete reflection on The Last Jedi here.

2. Mudbound

Mudbound is a beautiful and tragic film. Director Dee Rees took a book about life post-WWII in the Mississippi Delta and created a film that feels like your reading an epic southern novel. This is a time-period that feels like a world in flux. America just got back from helping to liberate countries at war, countries ravaged by hate, violence, and prejudice and, yet it was an America that was still being ravaged by hate, violence, and prejudice. Under their brilliant auteur, this cast gives so much life and breath to the lives of these characters. Sometime soon Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton, Detroit) will win an Oscar and I hope it comes from this one, along with a potential statue for Mary J. Blige as well. Mudbound has the ability in the matter of minutes to take you from the thrilling hope of progress, togetherness, and healing into a space of fear, division, and ignorance and still the characters keep pressing on into the future. As we keep pressing on today, it was a helpful reminder of the ups and downs of progress. Read my complete reflection on Mudbound here.

1. Logan

Logan did the impossible. I hate Wolverine. I hate that he is a terrible teammate. I hate that he constantly runs into battle with no plan just screaming and slashing. I have hated his two solo movies, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The Wolverine, mostly because they feature him running, screaming, and slashing for two hours. Even in X-Men movies I like, for example Days of Future Past, Wolverine is the worst part. Seriously, watch the final battle in Days of Future Past…with no plan and no thought he runs straight at Magneto, who can control the very substance Wolverine is made of, and immediately gets tossed aside. He’s the worst, but Logan made me love him.

All of his mistakes, all of the running, screaming, and slashing, is coming back to haunt an older, regret-filled Wolverine. He now hates the things I hate about him. This is an uncomfortably violent and bloody film, but that is kind of the point. His life has been defined by violence and this is now a cycle he can’t rip his way out of. Tragedy has struck everyone he’s been close to and all of the running and screaming in the world couldn’t save them. Logan plays out as Wolverine’s penance. Throughout the film he is emotionally and physically torn apart piece by piece until there is little left.

Still, what is left, is hope. What Wolverine had never realized in movies before is that he’s not the X-Men’s greatest weapon, but he could have been their greatest protector. As he comes to terms with his mistakes, he begins to change his role and, in doing so, preserves the future of mutant-kind. Also, watching Logan care for an aging Professor X, with an awards-caliber performance by Sir Patrick Stewart, showed me vulnerability I’ve always wanted and had never seen from Wolverine. As superhero fans begin to expect more complex stories from their big blockbuster films, the brutal and emotional Logan has sent me running and screaming into the next era of comic book movies.

Check out Heather’s Top Ten movies of 2017 here!

Heather’s Top Ten Films of 2017

This has been a strange year for movies. Normally I have a very difficult time narrowing a list down to what I consider the best ten of the year, but in 2017 it has been a challenge to fill a list of ten. In my perception so many films lacked heart and focus. Movies like “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri” and even “The Shape of Water” felt flat or preachy or simply lacked resonance. For me there was a deficit of beauty, and stories that captivated. Perhaps it reflects our cultural moment in 2017 that we are all struggling to find meaning and honesty. We are still struggling to open our hearts to one another. That may have influenced the stories we told this year and the way we reacted to them. Here are the movies that stayed with me and caused me to think, feel, and connect to the human experience.

Honorable mention: These did not make the final cut but were well crafted stories that could be worth your time.

Molly’s Game – Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, Molly’s Game is terrific. Sorkin is known for snappy dialogue which Jessica Chastain and Idris Alba deliver perfectly. Based on the true story of a young woman who creates a high-stakes poker empire, you do not want to miss this superbly written, wonderfully acted film.

MOLLY'S GAME

The Square – This is a Swedish film so the European style may feel strange to some, but it is a thoughtful exploration of the way humans relate to each other. It is quirky and uncomfortable at times, but makes beautiful use of motifs and symbols. If you are looking for a movie to give you plenty to process later, give this one a try.

Ingrid Goes West – This was a small movie which came out over the summer that focuses on Instagram culture and how we curate ourselves to others. It highlights the tendency to collect experiences in order to present a meaningful life. What is special about this take on social media is that it explores how we use the platform rather than categorically condemning it. The ending is controversial, but I find myself frequently returning to the themes in the story.

The Big Sick – The ideas in this story will feel familiar to audiences of Aziz Ansari’s Netflix show “Master of None”, but it is a warm and funny true story. It is acted beautifully with Ray Romano and Holly Hunter turning in particularly poignant performances.

Top Ten:

  1. The Beguiled – Director Sophia Coppola’s most recent film, a clever remake of a 1970s “exploitation” film of the same name and based on a novel. The original film was heavily sexualized, focusing on the male lead Clint Eastwood. The novel was also authored by a man, and the story follows an inter-generational group of women living in a girl’s school during the Civil War when all the men were away. One injured soldier wanders to their home and they take him in to tend his wounds. What I love about this story is the way Coppola reclaims the emphasis of the film to turn the focus onto the dynamics of women relating to one another during an extraordinary time period. Make sure you watch the special features for the film, Coppola’s vision for the story is beautiful as are her relationships with her cast.

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  1. Coco – Pixar’s major film for the holidays is a charming and heartfelt story about family, legacy and forgiveness. The animation is stunning, the music is catchy, and the narrative is well developed and sweet. A great choice for the whole family!

 

  1. Baby Driver – The remarkable aspect of this film is the incredibly creative and precise use of the soundtrack. The story follows a young getaway car driver nicknamed Baby who suffers from constant tinnitus. To balance out the ringing in his ears, he has a collection of iPods with carefully selected playlists so he has music for every situation throughout his day. The soundtrack to the film is the music Baby is listening to, which is intricately choreographed with each movement and sound in the movie. Writer/director Edgar Wright gave the screenplay to the cast on iPads so they could listen to the corresponding music which would punctuate each scene as they read. The story is fairly simple but the use of sound editing makes it a feat of filmmaking that will you bring you back for multiple viewings.

 

  1. The Last Jedi – You do not have to be a Star Wars fan to enjoy this movie (although it probably helps). There are many things to appreciate about this installment. The cinematography is breathtaking, the characters are wonderful, the story is developed well. What struck me most is the theme of generational hand-off. How does the older generation work through their past failures and habits and empower the next generation to take their places? How does the younger generation step up to wisely channel our energy? These are important questions for the Church that Star Wars could help us think about.

 

  1. Ladybird – This is a great coming of age story that embraces and also transcends the genre. Director/writer Greta Gerwig lends an insightful take to not only depict youth but also parenthood and place. Ladybird beautifully explores adolescent ambivalence between trying to distance oneself from roots and what has shaped us, and desperately wanting to feel connected to those same things. With a wonderful lead performance by Saoirse Ronan and terrific supporting roles, this was a stand-out.

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  1. Wonder Woman – This movie produced one of the most emotional connections I had with a film this year. I think for me and for countless women in the US and around the world, Wonder Woman met a need we did not know we had. She is a female super hero in the truest sense. She is strong and capable and compassionate and determined. Her power is not in acting like a man, but in channeling the best of femininity. There is a specific scene in the middle of the film when Diana runs towards a fight, without hesitation and without fear. I still feel proud and empowered every time I think of this scene and what it means to see a woman act with courage and advocacy. The third act of the movie is a little clumsy, but otherwise it is a rare gift in the super hero genre.

 

  1. Silence – Based on the Japanese novel of the same name, this adaptation was ten years in the making for Martin Scorsese. It was released in early January 2017 which is why I am counting it in this year’s contention. The book is a haunting story of Portuguese Jesuit priests who were missionaries to Japan in the 1500s. The plot deals with faith, culture, doubt, martyrdom, and the question of where is God in human suffering. It is also a rare movie that portrays white characters entering a foreign culture in a way that honors and elevates the Japanese characters, treating them as equals with meaningful dialogue and autonomy. The runtime is long and the content is intense, but the story raises questions that are worthy of your wrestling.

 

  1. Mudbound – Ivan wrote a full review so mine will be brief. What I appreciated about this film is that it told a story not often highlighted. It follows two WWII GIs, one white, one African-American, coming back to the Mississippi Delta and readjusting to a Jim Crow South. The US tends to ignore our racial history between 1865-1965 so this is a story that very much needs to be told.

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  1. Detroit – This summer offering was met with some controversy, perhaps because director Kathryn Bigelow’s approach was misunderstood. As a director who has previously told stories that follow war and torture, she lends a fascinating take to US race relations. Her style brings a fresh lens to how we might view the policing of communities of color. It is very intense to watch, but that is the point. Check out my full review for synopsis and thematic analysis.

 

  1. Get Out – I typically avoid horror films and have mixed feelings about the genre, but writer/director Jordan Peele blew me away with his February release. He harnessed the best of what horror can be, turning a magnifying glass onto daily realities to reveal the underlying atrocities. The narrative is a horror film about racism, cultural appropriation, and turns many classic tropes on their heads to bring the audience face to face with our prejudices. It is wildly creative and I think a brilliant work. The violence is relatively minor for the genre, so even if you dislike horror as I do, consider giving it a watch.

 

Viewer content guide: Please note that some of my selections are rated R and/or contain adult content. In my opinion the value of the overall story is worth the potentially offensive content, but use your own discretion and look up ratings before viewing.

 

The Power of The Last Jedi

“You underestimate the power of the dark side,” says Darth Vader to his son and desired apprentice Luke Skywalker. It’s one of those Star Wars lines that sticks with you. The line is meant to strike fear in young Skywalker, but it puts on display one of the major themes of the saga and one that is so beautifully at the center in the newest installment, The Last Jedi. In an expansive galaxy like that of Star Wars, with expert pilots, exotic alien creatures, and supernatural warrior priests, who has the most power? What does true power look like?

Luke_vs_Vader

The easy answer for many long-time fans would be “The Force.” After all, according to Obi Wan Kenobi, The Force is “an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.” The genius of The Last Jedi is that it, not only calls into question what we know about The Force, but shows us that it is not the be-all-end-all of power in the galaxy. The ancient war that has been waging for decades across the saga, framed by a simple conflict between light and dark, just isn’t that simple after all. Which is a lesson Luke Skywalker, the legendary hero of the original trilogy, has had to learn the hard way.

What the new movies have done so well is thematically and narratively explore the lives of the old cast through the eyes of the new. 2015’s The Force Awakens did this through Han. Han Solo has always been the ultimate lone wolf, on the run from one thing or another. In Episode VII, we meet Finn and Rey, two people at a point in their lives where they are ready to escape and Han is the perfect spiritual guide. Throughout the movie Rey, ready for a father figure, bonds with Han and with his ship, the Millennium Falcon, which has been the ultimate getaway car throughout Star Wars cannon. Finn escapes his life as a Stormtrooper and is confronted with a decision to keep running or be a part of something bigger. There are so many parallels to what we know of Han’s story in both Finn and Rey. The Force Awakens was very much Han’s chapter. In the same way, The Last Jedi is Luke’s.

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Even in the final moments of Episode VII, there is a literal hand-off of the story taking place. Now if we’re going to explore the life of Luke Skywalker that means we have to explore The Force, the history of the Jedi, and the allure of the dark side. The Luke we meet in The Last Jedi is a failure. He tried to live up to his legend and lost control setting into motion many of the events of the new movies. He’s spent his time since absorbing all of the past mistakes of the Jedi, knowledge that brilliantly ties together the mythology of the prequels to the original trilogy. Back in 2015, I wrote about the failures of the Jedi order, but basically Luke has realized that the Jedi failed because of their own quest for power. At their peak, the Jedi assumed reign over the galaxy, but just when their power peaked, when they thought they had it locked down, they were vulnerable to manipulation, deceit, and were over thrown. This was the story of Episodes I-III.

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Into Luke’s despair and regret walks Rey pleading with him to be her mentor, to show her where she fits in the grand scheme of things. Really, what she is pleading for is exactly what the Jedi were supposed to be. It is very difficult to be defined by your power when you are actively trying to help someone become more powerful than you. At the end of The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren tells Rey she needs a teacher, a sentiment she repeats to Luke. She doesn’t need a Jedi knight to ride into battle, she needs a Jedi master. “We are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.” I won’t tell you who says this to whom in The Last Jedi, but it might as well have been Jesus talking to his disciples or Barnabas talking to Paul.

Pastor Efrem Smith tweeted recently, “If Christians were meant to pursue political power at any cost, Christ wouldn’t have turned down Satan’s offers in the wilderness.” At the height of Jesus’ ministry, he gave up his life and at the height of his power, after resurrecting from the dead, he ascends into Heaven giving space for the apostles to lead. This has to be the example Barnabas was following when it came time to develop his apprentice, Paul. In Barnabas we have the man who vouched for the murderer Paul, the man who took that villain and trained him to be a Biblical hero, but to do all that he had to risk all of his power and eventually give it all away to Paul.

Last Jedi 2

This is also a lesson ace pilot Poe Dameron must learn in The Last Jedi. He has been flying by on his ability and skills for too long, and now must learn what it really means to lead the rebellion. Luckily, he is surrounded by resistance leaders who, just like Luke has learned his lessons about the Force, have learned their lessons about war. Without the legend of Luke Skywalker supplying hope to the resistance, Poe and Leia are racing against the clock to keep the rebellion alive. What is perhaps most heartbreaking about The Last Jedi is that, as Han’s story handed off to Luke at the end of Episode VII, Episode VIII, in so many ways, hands the story off to Leia and the resistance. This, however, is a chapter we will never totally see. The story of Princess Leia has ended off of the silver screen.

There are times in The Last Jedi where it feels like everyone is failing, and they are. The film reminds us, though, that failure is the greatest teacher. When we feel like we can’t fail, like the prequels’ Jedi order or Supreme Leader Snoke, or when we are afraid to fail, like Luke when he was training Ben Solo, we may have failed already. What does it look like to give your power away to the next generation? What does it look like to lay your life down in the ultimate resignation of your power? The answers to those questions are the ones Rey, Poe, and the resistance learn in The Last Jedi and will guide the saga into Episode IX.

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Wrestling Your Friends to Church

I like to get there early. This gives me time to mill around in the lobby and do some people watching before I find my seat. Once I find my seat there is always a pleasant murmur filling the space as others file in. Everyone is excited, cheerful, brimming with anticipation for things to get started. Without warning, the lights go out. In the darkness, we all know…this is only the beginning.

Since the turn of the millennium, I’ve been to over 20 live professional wrestling shows and they have all started virtually the same way. There is a rhythm to the experience. The most seasoned wrestling fans are privy to the cues. They know the lights turning off is the call to worship. They know when a wrestler is punching another in the corner of the ring they need to start counting to ten. They know when a wrestler kicks out of a pin before the count of three it’s time to yell “TWO!” at the top of their lungs.

Faith and Wrestling 4

Did you know there was such an ingrained cultural liturgy in professional wrestling? I recently took a group of non-wrestling fans to a live event put on by World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and I watched their faces as they witnessed the show play out. It was a consistent mix of confusion and unbelief. There was so much they didn’t know or understand and this left them bewildered and, dare I say, bored.

How did this happen? The art of wrestling has been capturing my imagination for almost two decades. The problem is I didn’t prepare them enough. I never gave them a chance to participate fully in the experience because I never told them about the liturgy of the event. Don’t we do the same thing with church, though? When you invite someone to church, how do you prepare them for the liturgy, the cultural norms that guide the experience? Do you prepare them at all? I wonder if there is anything I can glean from my experience bringing newbs to a wrestling event that can translate to how I invite people to church?

Call and Response

Wrestling fans are constantly Woooing. The lights go off at the beginning…”WOOO!” A wrestler open-hand chops another wrestler across the chest…”WOOO!” Basically, if there are any moments of stillness in the ambient noise in the arena…”WOOO!” It’s the fault of wrestling legend, “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair. The 16-time champion often slipped into fits of wild Woooing with the crowd jumping in. Now, because Woooing is fun and easy, it is the common response to a lot of what happens in the show. It might be the closest thing we have to a wrestling “Amen.” If you know nothing about Flair, however, it might sound like you’re surrounded by crazy people.

Faith and Wrestling 2

This may have been how I felt the first few times I attended a more traditional church service. The person upfront would say or do something and the crowd would respond together. Of course, I had no idea what they were saying. It felt like there was so much I didn’t know. I felt left out, so confused, somewhat embarrassed, and started to check out. The Lord’s Prayer? The doxology? The people in the pews might as well have been Woooing. It was nonsense to me.

This isn’t confined to traditional churches, though. Most churches feature a set of music, right? Well, when I started going to church, this was my least favorite part. It wasn’t that the band was bad or the music was lame. It was because I had no idea why we were doing it. When was the last time you thought about every element of your worship service and wondered why you do it? Could you explain that to someone who had no context for it whatsoever?

Wrestling Psychology

When I was a novice pro wrestling fan there was one wrestler who grinded my every gear. His name was Bret “The Hitman” Hart. His style in the ring wasn’t flashy. Hart didn’t take many death defying dives off the top turnbuckle and wasn’t big enough to hit punishing clotheslines. The Hitman wrestled a slow, methodical pace that, as the uninitiated, I found to be the equivalent of a sleeper hold. As I begun to understand more about the art form, though, I discovered it wasn’t so much what you did in the ring but when you did it. Hart is a legend because he was a master at working the crowd, or as most people in the know would call it, wrestling psychology.

The most skilled at wrestling psychology are basically emotional conductors who pull the audience through a symphony of different feelings throughout the match. Performers read the temperature of the fans and that dictates what they do. The right move at the right time can take a match from average to phenomenal. As much wrestling as I’ve watched over the years, every once in a while, the best wrestlers can surprise me and send me off my couch into the air screaming with anger, shock, or pure joy.

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The mistake new wrestling fans often make is wanting a match filled with big stunts and not a big story. It’s the story that matters, though. The bigger picture, the greater context happening before, during, and after the match. When you invite someone to church do you prepare them by selling the big stunts? The music is amazing. The preaching is awesome. They serve awesome coffee. Experiencing a church service that way might send new attendees away from the Bret Hart of churches. Our greatest worship experiences come when the leaders move us into a big story, a story that taps into our lives and emotions, a story that moves us from sitting on the spiritual couch to leaping in the air in victory.

Wrestling Isn’t Fake

“Professional wrestling is fake isn’t it?” This is the question that most often follows any invite to watch wrestling. As my friend, Tommy, told me after I took him to a live event, “Why do people get so hyped about something that isn’t even real?” Let me settle this once and for all. Professional wrestling is scripted, live sports entertainment. The physical feats that happen in the 20’ by 20’ ring are real, the story is on par with any scripted show on television. Wrestling isn’t fake, it’s entertainment. People ask me all the time how I, a grown adult with advanced degrees, can enjoy professional wrestling. I show them this video.

Daniel Bryan, Triple H, John Cena, “The Macho Man” Randy Savage, and Chris Jericho are all 100% real to the kids who watch pro wrestling and sometimes I need to be reminded what it’s like to be a kid. Wrestling pulls me into mental spaces where anything is possible and the world is filled with fascinating, diverse casts of characters. Growing up has a way of beating skepticism and cynicism into our hearts. When I walk into the wrestling arena I get to leave the weight of disbelief the world has thrown on my shoulders at the door and start believing again.

I love the ways the Gospel of Jesus Christ inspires me to be creative and believe the place I live can be better than it is. When I first walked through the doors of a church sanctuary my guard was way up. I built a wall around me with bricks of guilt, shame, and mistrust. Not only that, I was terrified. I’m not sure if I was more afraid of being told I was a bad person, church making absolutely no sense to me, or that it might make perfect sense and change my life forever.

Jesus eventually broke through the wall and the fear. It might have happened sooner if someone told me that Jesus could handle all those things I was feeling. I didn’t have to build a wall, I didn’t have to be afraid. It wasn’t that I could leave all of that weight at the door when I walked in, but Jesus was inviting me to leave it at the foot of the cross. The Gospel becomes real when you approach it with fresh eyes like a kid watching The Rock deliver The People’s Elbow.

How intentional are you with your church invites? How intentional are you when planning a worship service? Are you setting your neighbors, friends, and loved ones up to have a genuine interaction with the Lord of All? If I can get my wife to drop the stigma of professional wrestling and give it an honest chance, I believe you might be able to do the same thing with someone that carries a pretty heavy stigma about church.

One of my favorite pastors is such because I feel so cared for by him through the course of any given worship service. The bulletin thoughtfully explains each element of the service and at several points he pauses to give easy-to-understand instructions, especially for elements like communion. I love it when a worship leader stops for a second to explain why they chose this particular hymn or why we’re reciting this particular creed. Coming from someone who still feels awkward at church sometimes, I promise these things aren’t a waste of time. What if we took greater care with our friends before, during, and after the church service? What if we set them up to become massive fans of Jesus and his bride? Occasionally, I wonder if our church leaders could learn a thing or two from the liturgy of professional wrestling

“Last Chance U” and You

Football season has begun. In today’s world, this means the season of talking about concussions, hearing about the horrors of domestic violence, your sports news crawl spelling out the newest round of DUI arrests, and debating the National Anthem. Has any professional sport come under more fire in past few years than football? In the midst of the controversy, comes another entry in the Netflix docuseries, “Last Chance U.” For some, football is life. Football is identity. Football is hope. As we debate football’s place in society, “Last Chance” has a great deal to say.

The show tells the story of East Mississippi Community College and their reputation for being the landing spot of college football’s most troubled top prospects. EMCC gives players with promise a chance to get their academic and criminal records in line in order to earn offers from the country’s most prestigious football powerhouses. Every man on the roster is missing a key that would unlock a position with the likes of Auburn or Ole Miss. After all, this is the place where brand new Denver Bronco, Chad Kelly, went to junior college.

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Wrapped in this premise are the stories of these young men. This is their last chance. If it were me, given a last chance, I would approach it with military precision. EMCC not only offers them a football team complete with the eyes of recruiters, but academic counseling to make sure they are eligible for those Division 1 scholarship offers when they come. Watching these young men, though, might send you searching for a tackling dummy to hit. They skip class, they sleep through coach’s meetings, they verbally assault professors, and as their counsellor, their biggest champion and cheerleader, is giving them advice, they nod to her blankly as music blares through their headphones. So many of these student athletes are playing fast and loose with their last chance.

Thankfully the series doesn’t show these seemingly disrespectful behaviors in a vacuum. Rather, the show gives the time to hear these young men out. As each episode plays, the pieces of their puzzle come together perfectly into a picture that is hard to reconcile. So much of their lives have been a series of confusing and painful contradictions.

The classroom doesn’t make sense. Now in college they are being told to work hard academically after years of schools giving them grades to keep them on the field. Meetings don’t make sense. They’re being told to listen and change when they’re athletic skills have always kept them out of trouble. They’re being told to sit there when, in their minds, they know all these professors and counsellors want is the use of their bodies. Society doesn’t make sense. They are so close to being like their heroes who appear bullet proof from racial oppression protected by fame and money, but they’re not there yet. They are still very much subjected to a world that often makes them feel like they can’t win, a society that makes them question if it wasn’t for football would they have any worth at all?

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The only place that does makes sense, the only small piece of sanctuary they’ve found, is that level patch of grass where they get to be heroes and saints. The football field has clear rules and clear systems of penalty and reward. If they do their job between whistles, they will succeed. This isn’t always the case off the field. On the field their enemy is easy to see. However, they can’t sack inequality. They can’t put a spin move on racism. At this point in their academic careers, no number of reps seems to help them understand algebra. Coaches scream in the locker room for harder hits. It takes a level of violence to play the game, but those same coaches then call them thugs when they use that violence to protect each other and lack compassion when that violence spills into the players’ lives. The game of life doesn’t make sense, football does. So that is where their hope, effort, and identity goes, everything else has become a waste of time.

I still believe football has a place in this world. I was never blessed with the stamina of a soccer player or the speed and agility of the best baseball players. The Lord did give me the size and strength to play football and the sport gave me a lot in return. When coached well, football can actually teach you discipline, resilience, teamwork, and how to manage your emotions for good. Coming from Steelers country, I also know how football can unite communities in powerful ways. For many of the Lions of EMCC, these helpful, good aspects of the game have been lost through lives lived in a world that tells them they’re winners in a system that has ill-equipped them to win.

In season one, this is most apparent in running back DJ Law. He feels inadequate in the classroom so he’s constantly falling behind and skipping class. The penalties of failing and missing class are outlined clearly at the beginning of the show and he has surpassed them all. Cut to the head coach saying they do everything they can to help players succeed only to roll that back admitting they don’t do everything. They do everything to win, so Law remains on the field. There are resources all around him to help him work through his academic challenges, but why go through that when all that really matters is football. Researching Law’s story after the show only provides more tragic evidence. He had an offer to play for a good school but got injured. Without football, his grades fell even further and now he’s no longer in school.

Towards the end of season two there is another heartbreaking example. Standout Isaiah Wright struggles through the season with several painful situations. Throughout his life, he’s been rewarded for what his body can do, but when he is injured and trying to take care of his body he’s penalized and yelled at. On top of this, Wright is dealing with a deeply sad life situation that I won’t spoil and has no idea how to handle his emotions. All of this amounts to incredible emotional and mental confusion. This confusion carries over onto the field. In one game, he fails to catch a punt that results in giving his team terrible position on the field and gets yelled at. Next time he tries hard to catch the punt but does so giving the team even worse position, and he gets yelled at. Even though anyone who has ever returned a punt knows when and when not to catch the ball, Wright, unable to reconcile everything that’s happened to him, can’t make these decisions and can’t handle the failure that results. He melts down. He loses his best scholarship offers and settles for a Division II school. Again, researching him after the show reveals he spent less than a year at his new school and has since dropped out with no prospect of returning elsewhere.

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Anyone working with young people would benefit from watching “Last Chance U.” Questions of identity constantly plague our next generation. Football, like anything else vying for our identities, can cause terrible damage if it is all a person has. “Last Chance” tells the story of young men who have had limited choices in where to place their identity. What could have happened if Law or Wright were given something else to motivate them? What if they could use sports for their intended purpose and not place the entirety of their hope in them?

Thankfully, season two also tells this story through linebacker Dakota Allen. Allen arrived at EMCC after nearly being charged with armed robbery. He lost his spot on Texas Tech’s football team and was labeled a menace to society. Episode 4 opens with Allen being baptized at the home of one of his coaches. After football was taken away, Allen needed something else to place his identity in and the advice he heard most often was to pray. This led to a deep belief in Jesus Christ. The episode in punctuated by Allen in church listening to his pastor exclaim the unending grace and mercy Jesus provides. As tears stream down Allen’s face, it’s obvious he knows what it means to have a another chance. I’ll let you see for yourself how his story plays out on the show, but I will tell you it was fun watching him playing on national TV as the season opened this year.

The title of the show is accurate. Football offers a finite number of chances and often takes more than it gives. If football is all that makes sense in the world, if it becomes the center of identity, then one bad hit or bad play will bring that world and identity down. With care, football can offer an avenue to express God-given gifts and achieve building blocks for life-long success. This can only happen if a young person is given the chance to place their identity into something that offers the infinite. In a world that is often unforgiving, the Gospel gives chance after chance after chance to be forgiven.

Why I Can’t Leave Social Media

What is the current status of your relationship with social media tools? I’m guessing it’s complicated. Let’s face it. It has been a rough couple of years for our online communities. Ideological differences, a heated US presidential election, the spread of fake news, more aggressive cyber bullying, more relatives joining networks making it less cool, and on and on and on. Creating lists of reasons to unplug probably takes most of us mere seconds. Many of you may have even done a Google or two to find a pastor or digital mentor to tell you it’s healthier or more spiritual to walk away. Forgive me, but I just can’t do that.

Who are the most vulnerable people in your life? Who is the person or people in your life that are particularly susceptible to any of the most horrific forms of online abuse. Now imagine your social network is a party. Your loved one walks through the door and moves through the party looking for community. Think about who might be in this room. In a shouting match over by the chip bowl are your conservative uncle and liberal cousin having it out in all caps. Behind your loved one in the bathroom line is that weird guy from the neighborhood who just keeps repeating, “I like the way you look in that outfit.” Leaning against the far wall someone stands, not really participating in the party, but just yelling racial slurs and jokes about people with disabilities. Are you ready to leave your loved one at this party?

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“I couldn’t have done this without social media. The world would not have known,” says 20-year-old Libyan cyber activist Danya Bashir. “We are blessed with the social media,” says blogger and women’s rights activist Manal al-Sharif. “The power of women is in their stories. They are not theories, they are real lives that, thanks to social networks, we are able to share and exchange,” said Egyptian-American activist Mona el-Tahawey, kicking off a summit that brought more than a hundred of the Middle East’s leading female activists together in Cairo. For millions of the world’s most vulnerable citizens, the social media party is their greatest or only life line, their only platform.

What a privilege it is for me to even have the option of leaving the party. What a privilege it is for me to sit back and say I’ve got too many platforms, too many places for my voice to be heard. Social media tools offer incredible power and the cat is so far out of the bag at this point only a worldwide ban on electricity could shut them down. If we’re serious about caring for and being a blessing to the world around us, we might need to reconsider unplugging and reorient our beliefs and usage of the apps on our devices.

Do you believe that there is an original, created good imbedded in our social media tools? Why were they originally created? Imagine the whole world connected. Sharing information and resources and forming relationships across oceans and continents. The image bearers of God no longer limited by obstacles of distance and time. This good potential is still in there. The next time you start a post with, “Social media tools have made me…,” I invite you to rearrange that sentence.

Humans have been passing the blame since day one. Adam pleads with God in Genesis 3, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” Oh, Adam, honey. You just blamed Eve and God for your original sin. When it comes to social media tools are we blaming the cart for the way the donkey is pulling it? We have always been bad at communicating with other humans. We have always compared ourselves to others. We have always and will always hurt each other with our words. Tell me if this describes you or someone on your timeline:

1 An unfriendly person pursues selfish ends

and against all sound judgment starts quarrels.

2 Fools find no pleasure in understanding

but delight in airing their own opinions…

13 To answer before listening—

that is folly and shame.”

Did the author of Proverbs 18 just describe an internet troll? Well they also include a stern warning later on. “21 The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.” If the words of our tongue are words of death that is the fruit we’ll be eating. Anyone need some Tums? Before your acid reflux gets the best of you, don’t miss the hope in that warning. Yes, we can spout words of death…but we can also author words of life. Look back in Proverbs 12, “18 There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” How can we create spaces online that breed words of life and have the power to bring healing?

The best place to start is in prayer. Pray for forgiveness for the words of death you’ve typed or ignored. Pray for protection against the pitfalls our sinful hearts fall into like comparison traps, pornography, and bullies. Pray for a heart that desires loving your enemies, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless, and that is ready to build online communities that are a healthy platform for the least, the lonely, and the lost. We are all works-in-progress so as you’re continuing to pray for these things also pray for the Spirit to grant you wisdom. Here is a beautiful entry from the Book of Common Prayer that I find relevant. It is a plea for those who influence public opinion.

“Almighty God, you proclaim your truth in every age by many voices: Direct, in our time, we pray, those who speak where many listen and write what many read; that they may do their part in making the heart of this people wise, its mind sound, and its will righteous; to the honor of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

There are two players in this game, the users and the tools. Now that we understand a little more about the user, let’s talk about the tools. In my research on building relationships online (I wrote my thesis on the Twitter marketing of World Wrestling Entertainment), I found that academia refers to social media tools as “technology mediated communication.” This title is fairly self-explanatory. The normal communication model consists of a sender, a message, a receiver, and feedback. This exchange is hindered by what we call noise. Noise influences how the message is received. In online communication, there is incredible noise. It’s harder to read non-verbal cues like tone and body language and online tools rarely ever exists in a vacuum. They’re surrounded by tons of visual and audible content.

It is harder to communicate online. Social media tools are often where nuance goes to die. However, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. I would argue we have two common responses when communicating online gets tough; retreat completely or make our online communication one-way (i.e. self-centered). Sometimes it’s a mix of both. In the younger generation, there is a skew towards using Instagram as the primary tool. I get it. Parents and other relatives have made Facebook super lame. They check up on you, constantly post nonsense, and barely know how to use it. It makes sense to retreat to the least interactive, most self-centered medium. Even with current updates, Instagram culture remains one of the most one sided forms of social media.

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We have taken tools meant to increase participation in the world and made them into soap boxes for projecting ourselves. Are you projecting or participating? What is your selfie ratio? Do you post selfies more than other-peopleies? Do you tag people or do you subtweet (talking about a person without tagging them)? Do you use hashtags, the best way for online tools to gather communities and organize content? Do you take more nuanced conversations off-line to really listen or do you spend your time wording your rebuttal?

I have seen vulnerable people come to life in our physical community because of the space created in our online community. I’ve been able to join in the trenches of painful situations with people outside of my geographical or cultural reach. I’ve been impacted by the stories of people who are drastically different from me. We have been given tools that allow us to record what God is up to in the world. Through this online collection of the stories of myself and my community, we are co-authoring our digital testimony across statuses, pictures, snaps, and tweets. If Jesus is Lord over every square inch of creation then that includes every inch of the endless online void. Invite God into your online spaces, create profiles that aren’t just about you, and stay at the party. We need you.

Combatting White Supremacy with Narratives Not Our Own

The vast majority of white people wouldn’t identify as white supremacists. The vast majority of whites think white supremacy is ugly and unacceptable. It is also true that a significant portion of the white community does not have close relationships with people of color. Additionally, it can be easy for white Americans to see minority-generated art (such as movies and TV) and assume it is made for a minority audience and is not for them.  But when we have few friends of color, and seek out little or no stories that are about people who don’t look like us, we are allowing our stories to be supremely white.

When we aren’t regularly seeing stories about people in different walks of life, we unconsciously think that everyone’s story is like ours. We become confused and sometimes angry about the way others react, or we say thoughtless things that we don’t realize are insensitive and insulting. The more we immerse ourselves in a variety of stories, the more readily we can empathize with people of color and think more effectively about our own actions and perceptions. Especially for people who are limited by geography and do not live in diverse parts of the country, seeking out the stories of others is a very simple way to broaden your understanding. If you were upset by the events in Charlottesville and want to fight semblances of white supremacy in yourself, here are some suggestions for movies and TV that you can watch in the coming months to help make your narrative less white:

Television 

Queen Sugar

I think this is hands-down one of the best shows on TV right now, and a lot of us haven’t heard of it. In its second season, Queen Sugar airs on OWN and is produced by Ava DuVernay (director of “Selma” and the upcoming “A Wrinkle in Time”). It’s a contemporary story set in New Orleans about three siblings and their extended family, and their struggle to maintain the family sugar cane farm. The storylines and characters are very complex and the show does a fantastic job of addressing social issues in ways that nearly always feel natural and relatable. The first season is streaming on Hulu, the current season is available for purchase on OWN’s website (or on demand).

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Black-ish

A sit-com on ABC, this show is funny and at times exaggerated  while also addressing issues of race and socio-economics in poignant ways. It’s about a successful black family in the suburbs navigating the differences between how the parents grew up (in a poor neighborhood and a hippy commune) and how to raise their children to understand race in America in light of their current affluence. I appreciate that the show depicts a wide range of modern black experience in humorous and heartfelt ways.

Luke Cage

This is a recent addition to the Marvel universe on Netflix. Luke is a super hero whose super power is being super strong and bullet-proof (an intentional play on the vulnerability of black men who live under constant threats of violence). The show is set in Harlem where the community is being pulled in many different directions between crime and renewal. Luke is caught in the middle as he tries to protect his neighborhood against violence and corruption. The show is quite gritty and has some adult content, so check the viewer warnings and decide if it’s right for you.

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This Is Us

This show was wildly popular so many may have already watched it. It’s a show that has a blended cast and talks about issues of race very thoughtfully. The cast is phenomenal and the writing is great. The family is predominantly white so for audiences who are unfamiliar with diverse narratives, it is a good entry point into more diverse entertainment. Use this show to start paying attention to how black characters are portrayed, how many scenes/lines they have compared to the white characters, whether they are portrayed as equals or as weaker/inferior, etc. The first season is streaming on Netflix.

Movies

Hidden Figures

This movie does a wonderful job of striking a balance between gritty realism and inspiration. Based on real people and true events, the film tells the story of black women working at NASA during the space race. It’s informative, it’s very engaging, and it’s appropriate for young audiences as well as adults.

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Creed

I’m a life-long “Rocky” fan, and director Ryan Coogler does a terrific job of breathing new life into this franchise. Actor Michael B. Jordan plays the son of Rocky’s rival and friend, Apollo Creed. The film has strong black characters and explores powerful themes of family and hope. One of my favorites in a long time!

Get Out

This is a technically a horror film so it’s not for everyone, but I normally can’t do scary movies and I was fine. The genre of horror at its best is meant to focus on a social issue and magnify it through the lens of fear. (The majority of horror films fail to do this, so don’t hear this as a blanket endorsement for all horror.) Writer/director Jordan Peale creates an extremely clever exploration of the appropriation of black culture and black bodies. He reverses the typical trope of the black side character being the first to get killed off, and forces the audience to confront our perception of black men as aggressors. If you can hang in there for a few scenes of violence and some suspense, it will be worth it. Check out Ivan’s full review here.

Fruitvale Station

Ryan Coogler’s directorial debut, this film was ahead of its time in discussing police violence. Based on the true story of a young man, Oscar Grant, in San Francisco killed by subway security in 2008. The film tells his story and the events of his final day. It is sobering subject matter and simply shows Oscar as human. An early role for Michael B. Jordan, this is a helpful choice for exploring the topic of the relationship between the black community and police.

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Please think about trying some of these suggestions, and please know that this is only scratching the surface. My hope for you is not that you will watch a handful of these options and then feel that you know all black people. I hope that this will spark on-going interest to learn more and to also seek out personal relationships with people who don’t look like you. This is one simple step out of many that we can all take to move towards being a more hospitable and unified country.

Note: I’ve enjoyed a few comedies, “Ugly Betty” and “Jane the Virgin”, which are Hispanic-centered. This is an area of American entertainment that needs to keep growing. Unfortunately there are very few options for Asian American media. “Man in the High Castle” on Amazon has one of the largest Asian casts out there, but it is also sci-fi and is therefore limited in its exploration of current cultural issues. “Master of None” (Netflix) from comedian Aziz Ansari is a brilliant look at first-generation children of immigrants as well as broader racial/social trends. (The show will be fairly edgy for many viewers which is why I am not widely recommending it.) As audiences our money and viewership matters and we can join with others in asking for more stories and representation than is currently being produced. Keep paying attention to how different people are portrayed and put your support behind art that is complex and equitable. 

 

Men and women can’t be friends

“You realize of course that we could never be friends,” Harry says to Sally, slyly sneaking this disclaimer in to open the conversation of how sex always gets in the way of friendship. Possibly, he was just trying to work sex into the conversation any way he could. It is 1989, and Billy Crystal sits in Meg Ryan’s passenger seat painting a picture of gender relations past, present, future in the film When Harry Met Sally. It is a statement that, at the time, was describing gender relations in a post-sexual revolution era, but it also predicted how men and women would relate today in our world of app-based community and romance. Harry expresses his worldview in this context of two flirty college students, and it is charmingly funny, but when we look at where our churches are in the department of gender relations, it is nothing to smile about.

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As the millennial generation continues to put off getting married, we feel a larger and longer relational gap. To fill this void, many turn to positive, healthy friendships for belonging and community. Many more, though, participate in hook-up culture and online dating, where people of the opposite sex are commoditized. What is then created is an environment where relationships are defined by sex and isolation is created by the void of loving friendships.

The church might be feeling the fallout of this trend most. Recent research shows that because of this, women are making their exit. According to Barna Group, since 2003 the percentage of churchgoers that are female has dropped 12 points, and it is not because more men are coming in. Coupled with this, Barna also reports that only 17% of women feel like they are “very emotionally supported” in their church or synagogue.

I wonder if we trying at all to create environments where marriage isn’t the only priority in male-female relationships? But here we are, and I think our churches could be spaces where our current generation, which is relying heavily on friendship as their main source of affection and support, should find what they are looking for. This is not a quick and easy task. Even though community is a major priority in the church, our inability to form friendships between men and women can leave us like Ricky Bobby in his first interview, scrambling to figure out what to do with his hands. If something doesn’t change soon, if we do not find a way to encourage friendship among singles, thereby offering women the support they need, we could lose an essential component to representing the image of God in our places of worship.

Men and Women Need to Communicate

Sadly, our culture doesn’t stress communication and friendship between men and women. Sex and romance are the current language of male-female relationships. The current state of interpersonal communication is frightening. Reading through Parks & Recreation star Aziz Ansari’s book Modern Romance makes talking to the opposite sex seem like a myth, a rarely sighted animal that culturally never shows its face. Look at the narrative both men and women have been presented in popular movies and TV. Men are always the heroes, flying, swinging, or smashing in to save the day. This is true for the latest Marvel films, anyhow. The most recognized and powerful Marvel female leads, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts and Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster, weren’t even invited to the party in the latest installment of the Avengers franchise. Why would they come anyway? In a bloated, male-driven superhero movie they more than likely would have served as little more than scenery. They are excluded unless the narrative calls for romance.

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Looking for a positive narrative for women, let’s investigate Disney’s Frozen. In a lot of ways, the film has become a beacon of hope in the normal princess narrative because it is a female-driven story about sisterly love and triumphing over the societal pressure for women to hide who they are. Nevertheless, you won’t find positive inter-gender friendship-building in this most recent Disney flagship. It is reasonable that Anna lacks the skills to make friendships. Being locked in a kingdom her entire life could do that. But when she emerges from her isolated world, she falls for the very first man who catches her attention. Here is the problem with the majority of our princess narratives: The action begins when the man arrives and ends with the happily-ever-after wedding. There always has to be a love interest, right? Even the resourceful Tiana from Princess and the Frog and the courageous Mulan from Mulan have narratives revolving around a love interest. What made these women who they are? It wasn’t the men. Just once, wouldn’t it be nice if Kristoff and Anna stayed friends or Tiana opened her dream restaurant without being betrothed to Prince Naveen?

If we look at the narrative of Jesus’ life, though, we find that He didn’t think it necessary to have a love interest in order to have women around. Luke 8 tells a little bit of the account:

Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.”

These women were diverse, faithful, and incredible. Perhaps what stands out at first glance is how they financially supported Jesus’ ministry. They were dedicated to the cause as well as the cross. They followed Jesus all the way to the end and beyond and no wonder! Look at Mary Magdalene. Think about the absolute torture her life consisted of before meeting Jesus. What a story she has to tell. Our author, Luke, is a great example for our churches to follow. His first few lines tell you how he was a meticulous recorder of the history of Jesus. Many believe as he was on his travels alongside Paul, gathering information for a complete record of this story, he collected manuscripts and conducted interviews, interviews in which the women in Jesus’s life and ministry were not left out. In fact, it is likely that he even interviewed Mary, mother of Jesus. Can you imagine that conversation? Luke hearing firsthand Mary’s incredible story of being visited by an angel and life never being the same again. Our biblical authors didn’t pass these women up, and it means our churches shouldn’t either.

Today, we have our first female NFL coach, the first female graduates of Army Ranger school, a U.S. women’s World Cup title, a female mayor bringing gangs to peace in Compton, and on and on and on. These are opportunities and contributions that we do not see in male-dominated cultures around the world. Where women are oppressed, the culture suffers.

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Why then does it seem that the church is still behind in this area? Can you imagine what stories the church is missing by not communicating well to the women in our midst? Jesus didn’t have women there alongside Him by accident; He thought it was necessary, and we’ve got to move beyond the romance narrative and have real conversations. Men and women need to seek each other out, talk face to face, and learn to ask good questions. You’d be surprised how infrequently women are asked, “What do you think about that?” Does the way we communicate with women in church communicate their value? Based on the Barna stats, it doesn’t sound like it. Our churches need to seek out women’s stories, talents, and opinions because they have great value.

Men and Women Need Borders Not Boundaries

Men and women in the church need to have more conversations and interactions if they are to lean on each other as friends. This is normally the point in the conversation when we talk about building up walls. Stories of professional athletes and pastors never going to lunch with women or riding in cars or elevators alone with them creates a sense of fear and confusion. Well get your trumpets ready, people, because we are walking around those walls and bringing them down.

For decades, male leaders in the church have lived by what is affectionately called, “The Billy Graham Rule.” It is said that the famous preacher and evangelist Billy Graham had a “rule” for his interactions with women. He would never be alone with a woman who was not his wife–not in a car, an elevator, or a meal. His thinking is that this is the best way to guard his marriage and his ministry. The fear is both internal and external. It is internal because it squashes a situation where temptation will abound. It is external because even the idea that a leader might be out alone with a woman could cause rumor, suspicion, or false accusations. This could be a valid fear for a church leader. But with one quick Bible app search, you’ll read what Jesus thinks about fear. Where is our trust in our sovereign Lord if fear is this severe in our churches? Also, what if these rigid boundaries are causing more harm than good?

In a recent article for Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics blog, Dr. Halee Gray Scott tells some of the horrors of creating strict boundaries in gender relations:

“As a researcher who focuses on female Christian leaders, I hear it over and over. The first female vice president of a Christian organization confessed she missed out on opportunities to advance her projects because the president made business decisions over lunch, and he promised his wife he wouldn’t eat lunch alone with women. It was enough to make her want to quit.”

Yes, it can cause a myriad of problems to be alone with someone of the opposite sex, but strict boundaries can shut people out of important, valuable ministry. Instead of creating giant walls in our relationships, what if we created helpful borders that can be moved and crossed when appropriate? We’ve got to find a balance and that may involve balancing our intentions. 

Men and Women Need the “Friend Zone”

Oh, the “friend zone,” a term so dreaded in our society that it spawned a Ryan Reynolds romantic comedy, Just Friends. But what if the friend zone is exactly what we need in our churches?

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The friend zone begins with creating flexible borders, not steel-reinforced boundaries. For example, let’s say we are never going to hug anyone of the opposite sex in our church. After all, physical touch alludes to romantic affection (and not everyone even likes being hugged). But is this the model Jesus presented to us? Jesus touched. Jesus hugged. Jesus embraced people of all walks of life. It is true that hugs can become inappropriate, but they can also be incredibly appropriate. One way to navigate this is to always ask if it’s ok to hug someone. This can be awkward and difficult, but abandoning all physical contact creates a world much like a 7th grade dance floor, with each gender on the opposite side clinging to the wall for dear life. The church is about unity not division. There is no exact science or standard you can set because everyone has different needs and feelings about things like physical touch, spending time alone with someone, and frequency of communication. We need to work through these spheres with individuals to create a space where people are heard and friendships can flourish. As with anything that isn’t clear cut, mistakes are bound to be made but our churches and our friend zones need to have grace and forgiveness built in.

It may also be necessary to redefine why we are in the church. The church should not be defined by the romance narrative of the culture. Can anyone point me to the scripture reference where it says that the church is there for you to find your mate? The church is God’s invention to equip His people and bless the world, to restore shalom to all areas of life. Finding your future spouse may be a result but it’s not the main idea. Let’s say God has called you to be married. How many people are you going to marry? So then, what happens with all of the other opposite gender relationships in your life? If you are currently married, making your spouse your only friend is a surefire way to put crippling pressure on them to be your only source for support. The God of the Bible is a God of community, and friendship is a gift God has given us.

When marriage becomes your main target for bonding with people of the opposite sex, then it’s difficult to build relationships, even friendships, that aren’t defined by sex in some way. This is exactly what Harry was talking about.

“This myth, then—the belief that sex wholly explains the depths of our most profound relationships—has led many of us in recent decades to feel suspicious of, uncertain about, and at times even ashamed of deep friendships and has hindered our search for closer and more fulfilling ones,” says Dr. Wesley Hill, a leading voice in the spiritual friendship movement. Creating the friend zone involves both genders meeting in that space with the motive to hear each other’s stories, provide love and support, and build a vibrant, diverse church community.

Men and Women Need Each Other

Creating churches where genders are constantly divided is an effective mode of making people lonely and isolated. Do you remember the book Men Are from Mars, Woman Are from Venus? However gimmicky the title may be, there is some truth to the idea that men and women are different. Sometimes it does feel like we might as well be from different planets, but we both come from the same image. We carry the image of God together as the human race, and we need each other to show that image to the world and to the people in our church.

In my role as a campus minister, I get to meet and work with too many women who come from a background where they never had a healthy relationship with their father and have never been shown love and respect in a dating relationship. In fact, many come to college having been used and degraded in almost every relationship in their lives. What if a woman like that comes into a church environment where she is treated like something to fear? What if she is treated only as the romantic interest of a greater narrative? She will never experience the image of a Father who will never use and abuse her. She will never experience the image of a brother who has her back. She may never have the space to build relationships that speak the Gospel into her life.

When creating our friend zone, we must be looking and thinking about people as friends first. It means our first thoughts about these people are how we can love and serve them and wondering how they will positively contribute to the Body of Christ. It means recognizing gifts and hearing stories. It means bringing our true selves into our churches and sharing that with others by communicating openly and honestly. We’ve got to navigate these waters with the intent to be Kingdom builders, to welcome people of any gender into our houses of worship to meet our servant King. It’s time for our churches to step up and prove Harry wrong. Men and women can be friends, and if we are going to help our churches flourish and truly reflect the image of God we, in fact, are called to be friends.

This article originally appeared in Christ & Pop Culture Magazine. (Edit 2017)

On the run with Baby Driver

What’s your favorite song? Sorry, that’s a vague question. What’s your go-to road trip song? How about your shower song? Do you have a song for rainy days? What do you listen to after a break up? Is there a song that makes you dance involuntarily? Music can serve so many of our emotional needs. It’s hard to imagine life without the songs we pull into our own personal soundtracks. Baby Driver, writer/director Edgar Wright’s new film, begs us to inspect our lists of go-to tracks and wonder what they tell us about how we see the world.

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For Baby, the title character in the film innocently played by Ansel Elgort, life is about escaping and there is no greater escape than music. The life pumped through his earbuds not only drowns out the tinnitus he acquired as a boy, but also pulls him out of the dangerous activities he’s being forced into. Baby has a face and a heart that fits his name but a life that’s filled with crime, drugs, and violence. This duality of morality pushes him into the songs in his many iPods to drown out the hum in is ears and the ringing of his conscience.

In his life of crime, is there a better profession for someone like Baby, constantly on the run from himself and others, than a getaway driver? In fact, Baby is the best getaway driver Atlanta has ever seen. The darkest day of his life happened in a car and as soon as he could see over the wheel (and learn how to steal cars) he made sure the driver’s seat would become his sanctuary. Somewhere along the line, Baby boosted the wrong car and found himself in serious debt with Doc, a notorious crime boss played by Kevin Spacey. Under Doc’s thumb, all Baby can do is listen to his music and drive. During the film, he pushes the pedal to the metal speeding closer and closer to freedom from what his life has become.

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It took Wright years to make this film because he broke many of the rules of traditional filmmaking. He assembled the soundtrack and wrote the scenes around the songs. Normally, movies are made the other way around…writing the scenes and then finding the music for them. It’s easier that way because you may not get licenses for the music. However, Wright had a vision and what a vision it was! He created a symphony with the world around Baby. Footsteps, car horns, tire squeals, sirens, screams, explosions, and gun shots sync to the beats placing the audience into Baby’s ears.

Anyone familiar with Wright’s other works (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) will appreciate his attention to detail. The soundtrack to Baby Driver has the diversity of a Guardians of the Galaxy more than it does the Pitbull laden playlists of your typical cars and crime action romps. Like a deep track book of Psalms, the music takes you on a ride through just about every possible human emotion. It is the kind of soundtrack that proves no song can be your favorite for every occasion.

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Baby Driver asks you to take this ride through Baby’s shuffle to find out just what kind of person he is. Is he a victim of circumstance? Is he more of a willing participant than he lets on? Baby can’t escape these questions forever. Luckily, music isn’t just a method of escape but is also how Baby experiences and processes the world. The life Baby leads is so saturated with music that his steps are in time. The slow jams give him time to reflect on his crimes, the screeching guitar solos perfectly accompany his anger, the break-up songs help explore his trauma, and the love songs help him hope for a better tomorrow.

Our favorite tunes offer us the same invitation to allow the words, the notes, and the spirit move us through whatever we’re dealing with. Watching and listening to Baby Driver might give you some new songs for your playlists but hopefully it also helps you think about what you’re using as your guide of melodic self-reflection. This is one of those films we’ll study in film schools because of its spectacular craftsmanship. It captures the complexity of being human in a unique way. So don’t be surprised if it also helps you study yourself. What songs are you drawn to and when? What are you often working through? What are you escaping from? Sometimes you have to face your music.

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Baby Driver Psalms Companion

Looking to take a ride through human emotion? The Book of Psalms in the Bible is God’s ultimate playlist. Here are some of the themes pulled out of Baby Driver and a selection of Psalms to help guide you through them.

Who are we?

Psalm 8

Psalm 139

Break up

Psalm 147

Love

Psalm 136

Conviction

Psalm 51

Celebration

Psalm 148-150

Hope

Psalms 16

Psalm 23