Everyone should read this book!

It was the Spring of 2007 and I stood before a collection of fellow college seniors, a random collection of communication professors, and, by chance, the president of my university. This was one of my first attempts at wearing a full suit and tie combo that matched. The assignment was the capstone to our Senior Seminar course, a class designed to prepare us to enter the workforce. It was a presentation of what we’d learned throughout college and where we planned to be once we graduated. In the chaos of my final months at Slippery Rock University, I had no idea what was next. So I stood there and, in front of that eclectic group, said, “Maybe I’ll become President of the United States of America!”

Obviously, I was the most ready to graduate. (Side note: I graduated a semester after all of my roommates)


Aside from POTUS, the only other career path I was considering at the time was professional wrestler. Obviously, I had no idea what I was doing. My Senior Seminar and other classes did prepare me for certain aspects of life after college, but there were still many, many gaps in my expectations and anxieties I left college with. The wisdom I wish I had, the topics I wish my courses talked about more, are now featured in one of the most practical books I’ve read this year, Erica Young Reitz’s After College.

At first, the book made a lot of sense for my current work with college students. I approached it as a tool to help me talk to my students about what to expect once they graduate. However, it had me asking the question, “Do we really ever stop transitioning?” Yes, After College is really helpful for a college audience, but it was an incredible oil check for me. It allowed me, many years after graduating, some space to drop my dipstick in and see how I’ve been doing in the years since leaving college.


Reitz is a co-worker of mine in the CCO. She works on the campus of Penn State University and some time ago realized that transitioning out of college was one of the major struggles her students were facing and one that some of their broader campus ministry efforts were missing. So she decided to focus on it, figure it out, do research, collect stories, and invite powerful voices into her students’ most stressful seasons of transition. The Senior EXIT program was born and for years Reitz has been fine-tuning this content and that work really shows.

After College is comprehensive. Topics cover everything from dating, finding a church, a theology of work and place, handling money, making decisions, setting expectations, and learning to love your family as you enter adulthood. These are not easy topics, but Reitz’s poetry and experience alleviate much of the immediate stress of these areas of life with loving pastoral care. She ushers her readers through teaching that can range from comforting to convicting with powerful sensitivity. It is obvious that she deeply cares for her students and, while reading, I knew she deeply cares for me.

For anyone thinking about using this resource with college students it is formatted to easily cover over the course of an academic year (as Reitz does through her Senior EXIT program) or even through a single semester. The chapters are the perfect length for students to incorporate into their weekly workload and each chapter includes sources for further Biblical and extra-Biblical reading. Also included are discussion questions sure to help even the most stoic student process these transformational topics.


I wouldn’t limit this resource to just graduating seniors. After College will be life giving to anyone in the tumultuous decades following college and beyond. My wife and I are both in our early thirties and while I was reading this book we were in the midst of making a major life decision. Reitz words spoke to me in that season and helped us approach our upcoming giant leap of faith with confidence that our lives will constantly be changing but God never does.

God was faithful to me when I left college, when I eventually went on to grad school, when I started my career with the CCO, when we made the decision to move several states away, and will be there for me at every stage of life. If you or anyone you know would benefit from that reminder and more, you will be hard-pressed to find a better voice to present it.

Heather’s Top Ten Films of 2016

In our current era of franchises and reboots, I find myself valuing creativity and originality more than ever. And in a year that was largely marked by conflict and argument, I wanted stories that added something valuable and beautiful to the conversation. 2016 brought our country face to face with ourselves. It forced us to ask who we are and who we want to be, and several films attempt to help us engage these questions. So with those general themes in mind, here are the films that stayed with me the most in 2016

10. Manchester By the Sea

I thought the performances and story in this film are remarkable, but this is probably the movie in my top ten that is most likely to be replaced (we haven’t yet seen Hidden Figures, 20th Century Women, or Silence.) The strength of the film is by far Casey Affleck’s gut-wrenching lead and the character development and plot progression are very strong. It’s just a crushingly sad story, which is the primary reason why I wouldn’t want to come back to it repeatedly. But Affleck is certainly deserving of the accolades he’s been receiving, and it’s a very well-made film.

9. 13th

Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. Heb. 13:3

This may or may not win best documentary of the year (although my fingers are crossed), but I think the topic is one of the most important issues of our time. Ava DuVernay (director of Selma and the outstanding TV show Queen Sugar) lays out the historical roots behind mass incarceration, starting with the 13th Amendment to end slavery. The amendment opened a loophole to continue controlling and limiting black Americans who are convicted of a crime; from forced labor, to losing the right to vote, to losing access to social services. As the Civil Rights movement opened up new legislation and opportunities, mass incarceration soared in the second half of the 20th century. Some harsh realities are exposed about our country’s legal system and systemic patterns in our society. This documentary will probably feel liberal to a conservative audience, but please don’t tune it out. Scripture frequently calls us to care for prisoners, and this is an issue that needs to be free from political partisanship and viewed through a lens that remembers all people are image-bearers and worthy of equal dignity and care. Regardless of who you voted for, please watch this doc (available on Netflix) and consider how the Bible calls the Church to respond.

8. Loving

I also have a full review of this film which you can read for more depth. In brief I’ll say that in its subtly and normalcy we find enduring hope that average people can change the world.

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7. Sing Street

I needed some charm and optimism in 2016, and I found that in Sing Street. A great combination of upbeat music and creativity with real struggles in family life, bullying and poverty, I found this story to be more enchanting than La La Land. The original music is infectious, the characters are relatable and inspiring, and it made me believe that better things are possible.

6. Moonlight

Ivan wrote a complete review of this film that you should read. All I want to add is to agree that this is a unique story that I’ve never seen before and that brings something new to the conversation of identity and how we shape one another. Before watching it I listened to an NPR interview with the director and playwright who wrote the source material, and that helped me appreciate the film much more fully. If you’re planning to see it, I would recommend doing the same!

5. Jackie

As 2016 marks the end of a presidential administration and also the year of Hamilton, this picture asks the question, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” In the midst of grief and shock, Jackie Kennedy was working tirelessly to establish the Kennedy legacy and the narrative that the world would use to recall JFK. Set against the backdrop of her work as First Lady to compile US historical artifacts in the White House that would reflect the legacy of our country, over the course of a week she insures that the Kennedys would be added to that shared history. We watch her plan a memorial service while navigating on-going threats of violence, and while packing up her family’s life as the Johnsons begin moving in and taking over what she and John didn’t have a chance to complete. I’m sure every outgoing administration wishes they had more time to finish their goals and projects, and the Kennedy’s offer a particularly gripping version of that transition. Jackie gives us a chance to learn from her grief for what is passing and to hope for how history might remember us.

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4. Hacksaw Ridge

I didn’t expect to like this movie as much as I did. The issue of religious liberties has been on the forefront during this election cycle, and Hacksaw presents a challenging and helpful approach to this debate. Using great character development and a sincere performance from Andrew Garfield, we watch Desmond Doss endure extreme persecution for his religious convictions of non-violence. He refuses to respond with anger and contention, but instead remains unwavering in his desire to serve and protect the very people who are threatening him (including the Japanese). He doesn’t combat religious persecution through whining and power struggles, but through loving other people in profoundly self-sacrificial ways and making the lives of others better because he is with them. I think evangelicals have much to learn from Doss on what it looks like to become indispensable parts of our communities through love and service, not defensiveness and impersonal legislation. Let’s be involved with our neighbors in ways that challenge their stereotypes of us and fosters meaningful and nurturing friendships.

Be aware that the film is very violent, more so than Saving Private Ryan. I personally just looked away from the screen several times and I was okay. The violence is depicted in a purposeful way to show the stark contrast between how easy it is to destroy life and how hard it can be to preserve it. There are scenes of domestic violence that may be upsetting, but which are also used purposefully in the story. For some it may be best to refrain from watching it, but if you can handle the violence, the beauty of the compelling love of Christ is well worth it.

3. Fences

I read Fences in grad school but remembered very little and absorbed even less. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis bring it to life with poignancy and heart. I rarely see a narrative that follows a black working class family in the mid-20th century, so this is a story that is doing something different. It asks big questions about generational patterns, how we are shaped and how that influences the way we shape others. The film feels a lot like a stage production, which I enjoyed. Live theater isn’t available in every community and in the year that the African-American History Museum opened in DC, I’m grateful for many outlets that are elevating and sharing African-American culture. Plus August Wilson is from Pittsburgh, the movie was filmed in Pittsburgh, and it’s showcasing our city!

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2. Hell or High Water

Typically summer movies get buried, but this movie has staying power! The writing is fantastic, the performances are riveting, and a bank-heist cowboy story gets a modern twist. This movie draws on still-relevant themes of poverty related to the housing crisis as two brothers struggle to pay off their family’s land before it’s foreclosed upon. The desperation of generational poverty and domestic violence are explored with dignity and compassion as this family does whatever it takes to rewrite their story. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen in a long time, and certainly deserves nominations for writing and acting.

1. Arrival

This movie captured my imagination and emotions and transported me in a unique way. It’s a female-centric story where a compelling female lead demonstrates compassion and courage and innovation and brilliance in a way that’s inspiring. The story is far more than an alien invasion trope, but asks profound questions about communication and what it means to connect with others. We learn that vulnerability precedes trust, relationship is formed through hospitality and grace. The gift we offer to each other is the way we see the world. In a year of division and ugliness, Arrival offers some much-needed beauty and hope for why we bother to love and pursue others. (Check out Ivan’s full review here.)

Ivan also compiled his top ten of 2016, some are the same and he also choose different ones than me!

Ivan’s Top Ten Movies of 2016

It may seem like this year we’ve lost too much. Celebrities, loved ones, journalism, gorillas, never having seen Kevin Spacey as a cat…we saw major losses in these areas in the year that was 2016. While we can lament these as well as a summer of fairly disappointing blockbusters, 2016 still did produce some incredible cinema experiences.

While we were never quite mentally prepared for the darkness of Nocturnal Animals, couldn’t pull together the energy to watch another Tom Hanks biopic in Sully, and were scared away by mixed reviews for Snowden and Florence Foster Jenkins, we did make it to the movies a lot this year. So as we all anxiously await the release of 2017’s hottest offerings (ex: Monster Trucks), and spend our holiday off time looking to catch up on what this past year gave us, here are my top ten favorite movies of 2016.

10. The Lobster (R)

The Lobster is really weird. In this story’s dystopian future, heartthrob Colin Farrell is a virtually un-datable slob. His character is then forced to a remote resort where the goal is to find your mate and marry them. The catch is that if you fail to find your mate in the allotted time you will live your remaining days transformed into an animal of your choosing. If you can handle that odd premise along with some explicit content, The Lobster offers a very unique and insightful commentary on who we chose to love. This was by far the most unique movie watching experience I had this year, but it will not be for everyone.

9. Sing Street (PG-13)

Yes, I saw La La Land, and no, it was not my favorite musical of the year. That title belongs to Sing Street. Director John Carney knows how to make musical movies…or are they movies with music? Either way they are enjoyable. You may know him for Once or Begin Again, both worth checking out if you haven’t. The back drop of Sing Street is the grayscale dinge of poverty-stricken Dublin in the 1980’s. Contrast that with the synthy bright colors of 80’s pop like Culture Club and Duran Duran and you have the stand-out coming-of-age movie of the year. Not only that, but at least once a week, I find the music in my head.

8. Fences (PG-13)

A theme that has emerged from many of my favorite films this year has been generational patterns and familial influence on our behaviors and personality. Fences takes place entirely on a back patio in a working-class neighborhood in pre-civil rights Pittsburgh and brings the poetry of playwright August Wilson to life. I left the film wondering aloud if Denzel Washington’s Troy was a good man and I’m sure almost anyone who experiences this story might answer that question differently. The characters are layered and emotions run deep with the pains of being a generation before the waves of significant change. Still, the patterns both in this family and the world are relevant for today’s culture. Are we doomed to repeat these same patterns? Are you above the mistakes of the past? Are you a good person? Fences makes you confront these questions.

7. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (PG-13)

There’s a chance that I will always be a supporter of having more Star Wars. Sometimes with that worldview, I get burnt. (Looking at you, droid-centric episodes of Clone Wars) With Rogue One, though, I felt the weight of the galactic rebellion more than ever and was given more context and depth to the universe I’ve loved for so long. Not many blockbusters landed on my list this year, but with its diverse cast and war-like feel, I couldn’t ignore the first in hopefully many Star Wars anthology movies.

Read my complete review here

6. 10 Cloverfield Lane (PG-13)

2008’s Cloverfield will always be one of the most memorable times I’ve had at the movies. It was point-of-view found footage done right. It was large in scale. It put audiences into a monster attack of a major city. 10 Cloverfield Lane is its wildly different sequel…maybe prequel…maybe not related at all thing and it was my favorite horror movie of the year. It locks you in a bunker with a few of the best performances of the year. Growing up watching Rosanne, I did not know I would be floored by the work John Goodman is capable of, but he carried this movie. The suspense, the mystery, the terror of this story rests on his shoulders and they are broad.

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5. Jackie (R)

If Rogue One gave me some welcome context to the fictional history of Star Wars, then Jackie did the same for actual U.S. history. We often hear tales of our highest office through the lives of the men who held it, but at different times in our country’s story the narrative was advanced by women. Director Pablo Larrain worked very hard to make this story about Jackie Kennedy her story. Even when President Kennedy is on screen he is in the peripheral. It is difficult to imagine all that Jackie was juggling in the weeks after JFK’s assassination, but Jackie sheds light on what it might have been like. It’s heartbreaking, powerful, religious, and probably the best performance by an actress this year.

4. Arrival (PG-13)

We struggle in our current climate to understand each other. Arrival sends an impactful message that we need other people, other cultures in our lives and does so through an inventive science fiction world. It also demonstrates how deep the divide in cross-cultural communication can be while giving hope that it is an obstacle that can be overcome.

Read my complete review here

3. Manchester by the Sea (R)

Manchester by the Sea might be more accurately titled We Don’t Need to Talk About This Now. This story is largely about grief, but it is an intensely relatable depiction of grief for me. The men in this film are like many I know, including the guy in my mirror. Conflict, pain, and feeling are easy to avoid until they’re not…until a bump on the head or swing of emotion forces everything out. Casey Affleck probably will earn best actor honors for his work here but he is supported by amazing efforts from newcomer Lucas Hedges and everyone’s favorite TV football coach Kyle Chandler not to mention brief but stellar moments with Michelle Williams. Manchester is a very authentic story…maybe too authentic. I wasn’t ready for a therapy session, but got to see many coping mechanisms I employ played out right in front of me. Don’t worry, though, we don’t have to talk about that now.

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2. Moonlight (R)

Even people in the best of circumstances can have a hard time establishing personal identity. Moonlight is very much about trying to figure out who you are in the worst of scenarios. Aside from everything I’ve written already about Moonlight, this is a beautifully directed, written, and acted film. It deserves acclaim at every level of filmmaking. Like others on this list it won’t be for everyone, but it is a story seldom given the light of day.

Read my complete review here

1. Hell or High Water (R)

Many of the movies on my list this year are about families. I was floored by the complexity and inner turmoil of Denzel Washington’s patriarch in Fences. I found great inspiration in the matriarch America needed in Jackie. I empathized right along with Kyle Chandler’s older brother character in Manchester by the Sea. My heart broke when Naomi Harris’s character in Moonlight forces her son to give her money for drugs. Still, one role hit me hardest this year, Ben Foster’s sloppy, unlovable Tanner in Hell or High Water.

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In this modern day western, we witness the history of this family slowly unfold. The film makes you root for Chris Pine’s scruffy-yet-attractive Toby all the while his brother Tanner drives you crazy. As the story progresses, you start to see that Tanner didn’t become that way overnight and as Toby is making sacrifices for his children, Tanner has given so much more to offer his family a chance in a world that was beating them down. Hell or High Water is funny, suspenseful, action-packed, and an emotional punch in the gut. A punch Tanner would probably take for you if you were family. Overall, we learned a lot from these diverse narratives this year. We learned to do anything for family, to keep space in our lives for others, to express our emotions in healthy ways, and to be prepared to name your favorite animal. Mine is the T-Rex.

What “Hamilton” and “Rogue One” have in common

There were no Skywalkers, no wookies, no Millennium Falcon but Rogue One was a great addition to the Star Wars Saga. The movie’s conception began with a line from the opening exposition of 1977’s A New Hope,

“It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR…”

For the first time since this text initially crawled across the silver screen, we get to experience that story and I think I enjoyed it so much because I spent a large part of this year listening to Hamilton.

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A New Hope has never been my favorite Star Wars movie. Empire Strikes Back has always been the best, and nowadays I prefer the updated effects and filmmaking of The Force Awakens or the new stories in the animated Clone Wars or Rebels. Don’t get me wrong, I love episode four…I love the characters and the overall story but it has always felt more like a space adventure than it has a film about war and peace.

Watching the original trilogy over the years I always knew Luke, Han, and Leia would prevail, evil would lose, and at the end the Ewoks would throw a party that I’ve always wanted to be invited to. That is why I think I have never totally written off the prequels…their story is a tragedy and that is often more interesting than the feel-good original trilogy. The stakes of war have never been higher, though, then in Rogue One.

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This isn’t a movie about Seal Team 6, it’s about the soldiers that gave their lives before the glory was had. There are no blonde-haired, blue-eyed farm boys here. This is a movie about rebels, revolutionaries who are rough around the edges, riding the line between freedom fighter and terrorist. They’re more scruffy looking than any Star Wars character we’ve seen before and they aren’t chasing their destiny…they’re chasing freedom and basic human needs.  For decades, Luke Skywalker has walked around with a gold medal around his neck paid for with the blood of folks that must have thought it must be nice to have the force on your side.

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Luke, Han, and Leia all have one thing in common…they’re a little cocky. It is probably what has always put viewers at ease watching the original trilogy. We couldn’t imagine any of our main characters dying, because they couldn’t either. The characters in Rogue One don’t have the luxury of confidence. They are young, scrappy, and hungry and even knowing the chances of success are slim, the politicians aren’t behind them, and none of them are Jedis…they’re not throwing away their shot.

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Whereas the prequels were complex to a fault, Rogue One is complex in all the best ways. The weight of imperial control is heavier than it has ever been. The Death Star looms larger. The rebels struggle with giving up and some do. Even Darth Vader is scarier than he’s ever been. It’s more real. Our arts community has been living in the real-life story of Alexander Hamilton for more than a year now. Its highly relatable because it’s a human story that really happened. Rogue One felt more human, more complex. The characters are good guys until you get in the way of the rebellion. They are filled with contradictions, but so is independence.

The action of Rogue One also felt more grounded including a sequence that felt ripped from Black Hawk Down or The Kingdom. The movie felt familiar because we see these conflicts played out on the news every day. U.S. intervention in civil wars like what unfolded in Aleppo is made impossible to navigate because of the political and physical dangers. In the original trilogy, the rebel “alliance” could have just been a catchy name, but in this movie we get to see what that word means. It is a mix of governments, revolutionaries, terrorists, prisoners, and traitors.

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Hearing the dreams that Hamilton had of a free nation makes the American revolution more inspiring and relevant. Rogue One fills in some interesting gaps in the Star Wars Saga. Luke Skywalker’s victory in A New Hope means more because we have the names, the faces, and the acts that made it possible and they are normal people.

If I lost everything to the government, I would fight it. If I witnessed any of the horrors of imperial control, I’d be willing to defect. If I had spent my life dedicated to protecting and maintaining faith in the force, I would be willing to show what that faith looks like. The main character Jyn Erso says, “Rebellions are built on hope,” and there is truth to that, but if so, then they are held together by ordinary people. Rogue One asks us all to consider, if you had Darth Vader’s saber aimed at you, what would you stand for? What would you fall for?

“Loving” – Quietly Changing the World

“I’m pregnant.”

A young woman nervously shifts after blurting out this news, waiting for her boyfriend to respond.  To her relief, he’s happy and excited. He loves her and is committed to her and to their child. Soon afterwards he proposes and they sneak off for a simple wedding. Sounds pretty unremarkable. This young couple who are poor and living in the same rural community have fallen in love and want to build a life together. Except that it’s 1958 in Virginia and he’s white and she’s black, and it’s illegal for them to marry.

Thus begins the film “Loving” which tells the true story of Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving, an interracial couple who were behind the Supreme Court case to legalize interracial marriage. Their struggle to live in their home state as a married couple and family became a turning point court case during the Civil Rights Movement. A landmark ruling that broke down racial barriers and changed our country forever.

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The film quietly asks a very powerful question, “What kind of people change the world?” On the surface, the Lovings are not a splashy and charismatic couple. The film’s director Jeff Nichols pointedly depicts their deep normalcy and simple desire to be a healthy family. Both Mildred and Richard are poor and not college educated. They seemed to be kind and friendly people, but they largely kept to themselves and were by no means on a crusade of epic proportions. Their path to world-changing was marked by small decisions based on what was in front of them at the time.

The first decision was to marry and honor their relationship and child with fidelity and love. Then when they were forced to leave the state or be jailed, they moved to DC and did the best they could to build a home for their growing family. But they missed their relatives and the peace of the country, and wanted their children to be in a safer environment closer to family. So when Mildred is presented with the suggestion to write to the Attorney General, Bobby Kennedy, she takes a chance to ask for help. From there it was small steps of meeting with a lawyer, continuing to communicate with him about their case, being photographed for Life Magazine, and hoping that things could be better. We see Mildred in particular gain a growing sense that their case could benefit many other people and she exudes a quiet optimism that change could be possible. On the day that their case is heard before the Supreme Court, the Lovings weren’t in attendance. The day in court is a very minor part of the film, Nichols choosing instead to focus on the family at home going about their normal lives together (but still nervously waiting for the phone to ring.) Because of their persistence to believe the life they wanted together was possible, 9 years and 3 children after they first married they are able to see an outcome that changed their lives and opportunities for countless other couples since.

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Who comes to mind when you think of people that changed the world? Is it famous people in history books? People that have biographies and Broadway musicals written about them? For most of us, we don’t immediately think of the ordinary people around us in our daily lives, and we probably don’t think of ourselves. But world-changing doesn’t happen all at once when we decide it should, it happens gradually when people begin taking small steps to do what they can in their realm of influence. Richard and Mildred didn’t decide in 1958 that they wanted to catalyze a Supreme Court case and force the government’s hand to change federal legislation. They decided that they wanted to do right by each other in their immediate situation, and then went from there.

I once heard a speaker at the Jubilee Conference talk about Daniel in the Bible and the long road of faithfulness over our lifetimes. Daniel is known for facing off with lions and having God save him when he was thrown into a den of the ferocious beasts. What we don’t often think about is that Daniel was in his 80s when that happened. He’s known for a spectacular event that every Sunday school kid has heard, but we don’t write songs about all the normal years he spent in Babylon quietly honoring God every day with the work and opportunities that were before him. Scripture is filled with other ordinary people who were under-qualified and unremarkable and yet who were invited to join God in doing spectacular things.

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You may or may not have to chance to do something that changes history in a way that other people will notice and remember, but maybe being extraordinary isn’t the point. Life is full of unexpected twists and turns, unforeseen challenges and gifts. Each day is an opportunity to honor God in our decisions and relationships. Only God knows where it might go from there.

“God must love ordinary people, He made so many of them.”

– Abraham Lincoln

But its my birthday, Jesus!

This story may sound familiar. She was all of sudden very frightened because her baby boy was on it’s way under fairly frightening circumstances. I’m sure she must have been thinking, “This is not how I wanted it to be.” There had to be an overall sense that she wasn’t ready. Mostly because the doctors had projected this child, her second and first boy in the family, to come over a month later on Valentine’s Day. Just as the first Christmas was a miraculous intervention, on this Christmas in 1984, God had other plans.

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This isn’t the story of Jesus, though it involves him, this is my story. The story of a Christmas baby that came unexpectedly. This is also a story of what it means to have the whole world celebrate on your birthday, and, in the midst of being lost in the shuffle, what it is I’ve come to celebrate.

I was premature by several weeks. As the legend goes, my family was out enjoying the festivities of Christmas Eve with our family down the street from the house I grew up in. Now some would call my mother clumsy. I tend to think she is just always going full throttle into the adventures of life with little regard for her own safety. On this night, well before my due date, she went a little too full throttle down the icy steps of my granny’s house, she fell, and my labor had begun.

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I can’t imagine what was going through my mother’s mind as they rushed to the hospital. Was her baby going to be okay? Was she ready for this child she didn’t expect? Had her actions placed her new baby in danger? I’m wondering if similar questions entered Mary’s mind on that first Christmas as well. Soon Cindy Moore’s relatively normal-sized baby (imagine how big my head would have been had I gone full term) was born and in good health. Her questions were answered but this day left me with one big question I ask every year.

Growing up, even though our births were tied together, I had not tied my life to Jesus. So the holiday was rarely about him, but Christmas was still a fun time of family togetherness. Thankfully, my parents did a great job of making my birthday as special as it could be on a really haphazard day. They always had a special gift set aside from the others. Then, at a certain point during the day we would stop celebrating Christmas and start with the singing, the candles, and the cake.

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Sometime in college, though, I decided to follow Jesus and my birthday took on a whole new meaning. Not only that, but now I work for the church so my birthday will never be a day off. As I watch folks with those cushy summer birthdays celebrate the growing trends of birth weeks or birth months, I’ve come to despise my birthday as a day that will never be about me.

Back to that one question I ask every year…why was I born on Christmas? Why am I birthday buddies with Jesus? Why in the world would God tie a day that is supposed to be about me to a day where everyone in the world has a million other things on their minds? Why, on a day when all I want to do is hang out with my friends at Chuck E. Cheese, is it impossible to hang out with anyone anywhere? So what exactly does this Christmas baby have to celebrate during the chaos of the holidays? Let me tell you.

christmas-baby-7Neither of my parents had particularly charmed lives. Our family history is filled with stories of abuse, family turmoil, and tragic death. Any one of those things can end up defining you for a life time. Our legacies can be marked by the worst moments of our lives, the greatest examples that we indeed live in a fallen world. These moments cause great division and pain, they create the need for reconciliation.

For some reason neither of my parents threw in the towel. My mother worked for decades to make the world better for children who were dealt a similarly bad hand in life. My father lived his life with a hope that if he worked hard enough his family’s lives would be better too. God is in the business of breaking the chains of generational sin and this is the fundamental hope that comes with children.

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Each birth marks the arrival of a brand new reconciler. This new life brings with it the hope and promise of two parents that the next generations will not be subject to the pain and oppression of the last. God appeared to his people many times but often in ways that were terrifying and might seem distant (pillars of fire and smoke). On Christmas, God appeared to his people as a child. Jesus came in the most relatable form to show us that pain, abuse, even death would not define us. My parents have lived their lives with a similar hope, that our story will be defined by something bigger and better than they could ever imagine.

My wife can tell you that I still succumb to the occasional birthday meltdown, but over the years of reflecting on this story of great hope and reconciliation I’ve come to see a bigger picture. My birthday isn’t about me…its actually about the hope of the entire world. My sisters and I are the next chapter in the stories of Cindy and Bob Moore…who were the next chapters in the stories of their parents.

Each new chapter brings new mercies and new grace. From an overwhelmed, shamed, teenaged mother among the filth of a stable to a shivering, frightened, bruised Mrs. Moore, Christmas is about the lengths and the depths God will go to bring peace and reconciliation to creation. He brought both Jesus and I safely into the world under unexpectedly dangerous circumstances. But of course he did, we have a lot of work to do together and that is definitely worth celebrating.

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We all look different in “Moonlight”

“Running around, fishing in a boat of light. In moonlight, black boys look blue. You’re blue. That’s what I’m gonna call you: ‘Blue’.”

What is the best setting to tell a scary story? I’m imagining that you visualize a dark, moonlit night with your friends surrounding a campfire. The low light of the fire casts deep, cavernous shadows around your eyes. Maybe to enhance the effect you’ll hold a flashlight just below your chin.

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Light has a funny way of influencing our perception. It’s interesting that often when we talk about our mistakes or successes we employ a metaphor of a positive or negative light being cast. Let me cast some light on the story of Moonlight, a terrific movie out now directed by Barry Jenkins based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney. The film is about Chiron, a boy growing up in an impoverished project in Miami. His mother is an addict. His father is absent and his closest father figure is a local drug dealer. He also struggles with his sexuality. Take a minute and ask yourself where this story is going?

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Was it easy to write Chiron’s story for him? This is a light that we have seen shed before and Moonlight features many elements you might expect, but the beauty of the film lies in the unexpected, both for the audience as well as Chiron. The movie is divided into three acts providing snapshots of pivotal seasons in Chiron’s life that established his identity.

In each of the three acts, Chiron, who’s normal demeanor is stoic and silent, guarded against a world that has hurt him again and again, lets that guard down. He exposes himself to the love, support, and judgement of another. For fans of the Bible, this act is often translated to the sharpening of iron, right? We expose ourselves to have our rough edges smoothed out, to sharpen our character.

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This Biblical metaphor is intimidating to me for one reason, we are the iron. We all have the responsibility to sharpen and we are all vulnerable to the sharpening. My ability to sharpen comes with my bias, my emotions, and my selfish motivations that are part of being human. Which then begs the question, what bias, emotions, and motivations am I vulnerable to being sharpened by?

When you imagined how Chiron’s story would play out, what identity or narrative did you project on him? We often homogenize the people around us, fitting them into assimilated boxes of our cultural identity to fit roles that make us feel comfortable. Moonlight is, perhaps, equally about the dangers of forcing people’s identities into boxes as it is about the hope that comes when we are free to be defined by something that transcends stereotype.

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Chiron sits at the dinner table with Juan, his drug-dealing father figure. He asks him about a derogatory term he has heard which Juan explains is a word used to “make gay people feel bad.” Chiron then wonders if that term defines him. In this moment, Chiron is vulnerable to sharpening, wanting Juan, who has shown him compassion and love, to cast a light on him. Juan sets Chiron free by saying that he doesn’t need to have his whole identity figured out yet.

From there, Moonlight takes many turns you might not be prepared for…some expectedly tragic, some surprisingly uplifting, some powerfully universal. Fair warning this film will not be for everyone and an inspection of the film’s content rating will help frame your viewing. That said, the narrative of Chiron’s life features a complexity seldom seen in modern cinema. It is familiar, but unique. It doesn’t fit in a neat and tidy box.

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None of the specific instances, good or bad, define Chiron’s whole life. Each act is distinct. There is great freedom and hope in that. This is a freedom I am given by Christ. There have been many moments in my life that shined a negative light on me…but that light hasn’t defined my whole identity. There have also been moments that cast a positive light, that have brought me love and respect. That isn’t the full story either.

What if you were always seen in the perfect light? What would that change about the way you define yourself and make decisions? This is the beauty of the Gospel. Jesus not only took the punishment for our worst moments, he gave us the reward for his best so that God will always look upon us under a perfect, loving light. A light that will never be overcome by darkness.

While you watch:

What moments in the film surprised you? Why do you think that is?

What would you have told a young Chiron at the dinner table if he was asking you the questions he asks Juan?

When in the film does Chiron let others to define him? What is the result?

Looking for More is our movie reflection series to help readers look deeper into movies before, after, and while they watch.

The creation story inside “Moana”

I remember the first time I saw the ocean. It was in high school on our senior trip. I sat on the top deck of our ship, the trip was a low budget cruise, and stared into the horizon for hours. That moment staring into the endless ocean made my small town in Pennsylvania feel like a cage surrounded by bars of mountains and hills.

Often our imaginations are limited by how far we can see in front of us and, growing up, each of my horizons had an end. This wasn’t the case on the water. Witnessing the vastness of our world first hand opened my mind and with each passing year my worldview got bigger and broader. The ocean was calling.

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Disney’s new movie Moana begins with the phrase, “In the beginning…” For Bible readers, this should be a familiar opening line. As with Moana, this is how our creation story begins. This is a great reminder that Christians aren’t the only culture that has a story of how the world began…but of interest is what is familiar and what is different about these stories.

In the writings of ancient cultures there are lots of stories about the world coming to be from the violent death of a beast or through a cataclysmic transformation of one piece of matter to the world as we know it. The world is formed from something. The outlier here is The Bible,

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty…” (ESV)

Or for those, like me, who like the Jesus Storybook Bible,

“In the beginning, there was nothing. Nothing to hear. Nothing to see. Only emptiness. And darkness. And…nothing but nothing. But there was God. And God had a wonderful plan.”

The creation narrative in Moana begins with a goddess in the form of an island, Te Fiti, springing from the ocean to create all that is alive. In an attempt to capture the island goddess’s creative potential, her heart is stolen by the demi-god, Maui (my personal life coach, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). Years later, this theft sets in motion an intersection of the personal journeys of Maui and Moana and, in doing so, models for us what it means to follow our calling and tap into our own creative potential.

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Maui’s mistaken assumption is that life comes from Te Fiti…but the truth is that Te Fiti’s power, her ability to create life, her creative potential comes from the ocean. Maui believes that he can earn this creative potential through godlike feats. The tale and music of Moana tell a different story.

“You may hear a voice inside

And if the voice starts to whisper

To follow the farthest star

Moana, that voice inside is

Who you are”

Moana’s parents have a plan for her life. She is tapped to be the next leader of her people, but Moana hears a different calling inside. Very quickly she realizes that in order for her culture and people to survive she must listen to that calling, not from her parents, but from the giver of life. Moana is about following your calling and realizing the same creative potential that the ocean placed in Te Fiti, resides in everyone. Similarly, The Bible continues from earlier,

“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’”

God, our creator, made us to be creative. We have the responsibility to cultivate creation. This looks very different for different people and every day as I work with college students I see this first hand. Some of them were born to create lesson plans that will inspire young people, others have an innate ability to read accounting spread sheets, while someone else might have a compassion that compels them to heal others. This creative potential is given, not earned. When we answer the call of our creator to live into that potential the world flourishes.

This is the heart of our story as daughters and sons of God. We are called to enter every realm of this creation and bring the heart of Jesus with us to bless those around us. When we do our work with other motivations (looking at you, Maui) we often experience the exact opposite of flourishing, destruction.

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Moana’s ancestors were culture makers. The ocean called them off their island to explore the world and cultivate the vast creation. Her voyage throughout the film brings her to a place where she answers her call, understands her legacy as a culture maker, and comes to know that the journey of life is hard and she’ll need reminders of her purpose. The songs in the film seek to write this on her heart.

“I am everything I’ve learned and more

Still it calls me

And the call isn’t out there at all

It’s inside me

It’s like the tide, always falling and rising

I will carry you here in my heart

You’ll remind me

That come what may, I know the way”

God may seem too big and too distant to have a relationship with us, but the story of scripture echoed in the story of Moana are telling us that God dwells inside us. When we look in the mirror we are staring at the image of God and that image is crying out, inviting you to cultivate God’s creation. God is calling…

While you watch:

What defines Moana’s identity? What defines Maui’s identity? What defines yours?

Is there a voice, a feeling inside you that you can’t shake? Is there something you feel down in your heart that you should…or shouldn’t be doing? What is preventing you from answering this call?

Are you aware of what God has created you for or leading you towards? How will you fulfill this? How will you use your passions and gifts to be a blessing to the world…to bring flourishing to creation?

Answering the big questions with “Arrival”

“What is your purpose on Earth?”

This is the central question of director Denis Villeneuve’s alien invasion thriller, Arrival. Villeneuve is known for slow-build, tense storytelling like Prisoners and Sicario and with Arrival he applies that expertise to a 300 level Comm Theory class. The film isn’t so much set around asking that question to the audience or the aliens as much as it is the journey to understanding how to ask this question, “What is your purpose on Earth?”

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This is the job of famous linguist Dr. Louise Banks played with care and intensity by Amy Adams. That’s right, Arrival is about the super sexy field of linguistics. It is Dr. Banks’ job to ask this question to alien visitors who showed up unannounced to 12 random places around the globe. Have you ever had a problem communicating with someone who speaks your language, maybe even someone in your own family? Where in the world would you even start with a brand-new alien race?

Here the tension of Arrival begins. What if this is an alien military invasion on a global scale? What if this is an elaborate plot by this alien race to pit Earth’s military powers against each other? What if the aliens have discovered we are the only planet in the universe to master having “pizza anytime” and have come to partake in some sweet, sweet Bagel Bites? Until we figure out how to communicate with the aliens, we will never know.

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If you’ve never thought about how complicated human communication is, Arrival will make your head spin. We live in a time with some of the most widely accessible and powerful communications technology, so why is it that we still find it so hard to talk to one another, to understand one another?

At its core, Arrival, is about learning to communicate with the “other.” The timeline of our history is littered with the consequences of fearing those who are different from us. Fear comes from the aliens’ unpredictable behavior. Is their behavior truly threatening or is it scary because it’s not what we would do? Tensions come from the frustration of not being able to talk to the aliens. Is this language barrier an act of war or does that frustration come from our belief that the burden of communication lies on our visitors? We would be put at ease if they just spoke our language. They came to us after all.

When we reach a comfortable cocktail of confusion and fear in our communication with others it is easy to find any number of meanings in their actions. If you watch Arrival, and I recommend that everyone should, allow the movie to reveal the barriers you have in communicating with people different from you. Do they look very different? Do they not speak your language? Do you fail to understand why they do some of the things they do the way they do them?

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Discovering these barriers and breaking them down are a worthy exercise. Intimacy with the “other” is something God calls us to in our human relationships. An easy example might be marriage, though this is not the sole relationship where emotional intimacy and support is possible. The further we get into our marriage, my wife and I continue to understand our biggest obstacle is that we are two different people.

We think differently, we perceive differently, we experience differently, and we respond differently. To me, a clean bathroom looks visibly clean. To my wife, a clean bathroom involves bleach. To me, laundry is separated into whites and colors, hot and cold wash. To my wife, laundry instructions are a humble suggestion. Yes, at times, the fact that we are the “other” causes pain, fear, and confusion but as we live into our otherness we experience some of life’s most profound beauty.

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Do we ever really know ourselves unless we experience ourselves through the eyes of the “other”? Do we ever really experience the love of God unless we have been loved by someone who objectively knows us…and loves us anyway? When we make space in our lives for the “other” we open ourselves up to the deeper mysteries of how God loves us. That is what we offer each other if we can learn how to talk to one another. You might just find your purpose for being on this Earth.

Breaking down these barriers is difficult and is the hard, emotional work we see Dr. Banks go through in the film. It requires strength, it requires grace, and it requires an open mind. We are always more comfortable with people that are most like ourselves. It is easy to love those with whom it is easy to communicate, but imagine how much bigger your love could be. Imagine how much bigger a love you could receive. Having your space invaded can be scary, but just imagine how terrifying you are to the “other.”

While you watch:

Most countries are finding it difficult to communicate with the aliens, what makes Dr. Banks different? How does her approach differ from her scientist and military co-workers? What are her beliefs behind her methods and why is it more successful?

Who do you have the most trouble communicating with? What are the barriers that make that difficult? What could you do to break those barriers? How does Dr. Banks break down barriers in the movie?

Solo Cups, Sunsets, and What I’m Learning of Love

By guest contributor Alexis Stanford

We laughed. The sun set gloriously while we worked our way well into our second bottle of wine. While we sipped from our solo cups one of them told me about her experience on Our Time, the dating site for the “mature adult”. Her dryly humorous telling of how she, a multiple degree holding, more than financially stable, 5’8” woman attracted invariably the 5’2” man with the household income of $25,000 had me close to tears. We passed around the chenin blanc and I relayed to them how underwhelmed I’d become with men on Bumble and Tinder who are looking for someone to “ travel and go to the gym with but also chill and drink their favorite draft beer with all while playing with their new dog.” Our laughter peeled off the balcony of the bed and breakfast that had many years ago played host to summer camp experiences where I, and 12 or so other girls in two straight lines, laughed at our own stories. The house had watched us walk proudly out the back gate with our sunflower yellow bathing caps and beach towels ready to take on the world. Now, with almost 40 years between us, I a 26 year old single woman traveling for a weekend away with her mom, and these two best friends, one divorced and one never married, found that all it takes is a chance encounter, open heart, good (but cheap) glass (or two) of wine, and love as a discussion topic, to forge a bond that is as refreshing as brisk ocean breeze. The house was once again home to the familiar and the new, and I could feel it laughing with us.

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As we laughed I realized that there is a good chance I will never really figure it out. I like rules – a lot – and always have it in the back of my mind that if I can just figure out what the rules around a circumstance are I can win the game, gaining the control and comfort that comes with a predictable outcome. But there aren’t any rules for love. Atleast not for finding it, losing it, forging it, breaking or mending  it. We are all looking for it, but we don’t always find it where we think we will, and we haven’t always found it where we think we have. No matter our age, background, ethnicity, experiences, career paths, achievements or failures, aspirations or hopes, no matter what our story is, our story is almost never the one we would have predicted or written for ourselves. But our stories all share themes and threads that weave us together in a tapestry far bigger than we can imagine. And though these themes and threads are not rules, they do give me a thing or two to twirl between my fingers as I go along thinking, feeling, and living in this world. I lay them out now, next to my solo cup, and ponder what I see. What I see is this…

1.) Love is not for the risk averse

I hate risk as much as  I love rules. For most of the past 26 years I thought that there was a road map to the love of my life. That straying from the road would lead to landmines set to destroy my heart, reputation, and overarching chance of ever encountering that love. That staying on the road would lead to picture book romance, white picket fences and messy minivans, and the kind of happiness that only Nicholas Sparks himself could dream of. But at some point during this year – still unboyfriended, unkissed, and barely dated – I began to question whether there was a roadmap, or whether there was even a road at all. Maybe finding love is more like hacking through a jungle in the congo with nothing but a machete and a tour guide who doesn’t speak your language. Maybe it’s like ice skating on a lake, which may not be completely frozen, out in the middle of nowhere with no one to pull you out if you fall through. Maybe love is far more like the 7 ½ hours that comprise the middle of the Lord of the Rings movies than the first or last half hour. In other words, if you want love, in any of its shapes or forms you may just need to be willing to risk something. Maybe you need to be willing to risk everything. If love is what we hope it is, then it’s probably worth it.

2.) True love is not something you can fall into – at least not if you plan to survive it.

No more than one simply falls into the Amazon or the Arctic Tundra. Don’t get me wrong, those places are thrilling, full of wonderfully exotic creatures and experiences, and a semi-trailer full of amazing instagram pics. But I’ll be damned if I’m gonna go to either of those places without thinking through what equipment, time commitments, and preparations are required to prevent the journey from killing me. The kind of love that lasts, the kind that lives through barren deserts and floods, is a love that is chosen not stumbled upon. People who fall, trip, or throw themselves recklessly into love often walk away scathed unnecessarily, and some don’t walk away at all. At least not in the emotional sense. Love, of any kind, is not something to blindly stumble into, but conscientiously walk towards.

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Looking for love – or looking to be found by love – is a choice too. Whether I gained it from the true love waits movement, a few well-intentioned sermons or sister in Christ, or simply my own delusional interpretation of “the Lord giving me the desires of my heart”, I’ve realized that I had a theology that says “sit with your hands open and stare at the sky and wait for God to toss prince charming into your arms.” I realize now that theology like that is both preposterous and unbiblical.  He who finds a wife finds a good thing, but I am no longer in the business of playing hide and seek, shoving myself into the darkest recesses of every social circle in the world while I twiddle my thumbs eagerly and “wait”. If you are doing that I encourage you – stop it. Humans in general often have a hard enough time finding things even when they are right in front of their faces (where are my car keys again?). Let’s not make something that is already hard into mission impossible.

3.) That said true love isn’t a destination you can plan to arrive at on a specific date, in a specific way, with a specific person.

Falling in love is ridiculous but doing a choreographed, Balanchine-esque, pas de duex into it is equally ridiculous and unachievable. When love arrives, or when you arrive at love, you shouldn’t be found butt naked and clueless, but there is a very good chance you won’t be found in Oscar De La Renta either. I would think of of love like the unexpected friend of a friend who pops by because they remembered you lived in the neighborhood. When you answer the door you may still have your bonnet on but there is a good chance that before you answered you put on your bra.

There is a very good chance that being swept off your feet requires a little bit of lifting on one hand and a little bit of jumping on the other. A whole lot of  work and a little bit of magic. I haven’t found the kind of love that comes in a romantic relationship yet, but the other kinds – the love relationships I have with my family, friends, sisters, community – those loves all require me to tend them and nurture them. Thankfully, they also tend to give me grace and bloom even when I don’t expect them to or haven’t quite given them what I think they need. When I am less equipped than I thought is exactly when they give me more than I would ever think possible.

And finally…

4.) Love is itself to us far before we become it to one another

I have heard 1 Corinthians 13 quoted at multiple weddings. I have also heard multiple preachers remark on how often that passage is used out of context. We talk about how we need to grow more in the areas of patience, kindness, self control, or truthfulness all so that we can “be more loving.” I’m convinced that in the end we treat love more like a thing to be discussed, taken, earned, or well executed, then communed in and enjoyed. It’s like having your friends Jill, Kate, and Mary over for dinner and then spending the entire evening talking with Jill and Kate and completely ignoring Mary. Telling Jill and Kate about how wonderful Mary is, or how funny Mary is, or that one time Mary did, or how much you want to be like Mary, yet never even looking at Mary or really acknowledging her presence. Forget letting Mary actually speak; you all are too busy not even remembering that she is there.

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Love is here. Love is present. Love sees us in our pain and sits with us in our suffering. Love paints the sky with sunrises and soaks the parched earth with rain. Love laughs with us and smiles at us when we, like young babes, learn how to pick ourselves up and begin to toddle through the world. Love is all of itself to us everyday. And Love gives itself to us when we are the impatient, rude, self centered, resentful, quickly offended, entitled, lying, hopeless, unbelieving creatures that we were born into being. And it is Love itself that changes us; we do not so much learn to love as Love makes us become more than ourselves. Love plants itself in our grave, tends itself in us, and blossoms forth to makes us new.

As my new friends and I laughed together on the back porch of that B&B, Love laughed with us. I know that Love will cry with us too. Love will hope with us, believe with us, grieve with us, and live with us. Hopefully, when the time comes, Love will bring us together again to share more stories. Stories with both unexpected and gloriously good endings. Here’s to hoping that there is a good Chardonnay for us to drink when it does.

 

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Alexis Stanford is a 26 year old disciple of Christ who is still trying to understand the traffic patterns that define Northern Virginia.  She loves cooking, music, reading, the four kiddos she hangs out with because her job is awesome, and Jesus. If anyone asks, she is easily bribed with dark chocolate peanut butter cups from Trader Joe’s