The Blood Between Us — braided veins

A very dear and very thoughtful friend wrote this today. We’re blessed to know her.

Alton Sterling Philando Castile Black bodies are more than a hashtag. This, for you and unnamed others, in higher hope. ____________________________________________________________ I’ve been hiding. The past 2 days, I’ve been hiding and peeking around corners and turning off the lights and pretending I’m asleep a lot. When I am with people (especially white people), I’m still […]

via The Blood Between Us — braided veins

A Father’s Day Psalm of Lament

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Let’s face it, for so many, Father’s Day can be a painful reminder of the worst moments of our lives. For some it is a reminder of what they’ve lost. For others it can be a reminder of what they never had. While still more have only been given abuse and violence from their fathers. Father remains as a loaded, painful word but one that God chooses to call himself. How do we reconcile that? The authors of the Biblical psalms processed heavy, complicated emotions through their poetry. What follows is an attempt to process Father’s Day through the form of a modern day psalm of lament.

Expect a parallel and thematic structure of a psalm without the poetic verse structure of a PhD in Literature. It begins with the question of how a God that is supposed to be all good and all powerful can ask us to call him a word that to so many means loss, evil, and pain. It ends with a reminder that the only thing that defeats death is life and even if our fathers never gave us anything good we have the opportunity to bring goodness to the world. Even in the darkest family situations, hope can survive in the next generation. We have been adopted as children of God. Given absolute love and compassion by the creator of all things. In light of the gospel, my hope is that the connotation of that word can be transformed.

Oh Lord, how can I possibly call you father

when all that word does is remind me of loss?

You are the Father of Fathers but

when I hear that word I think of the day mine left.

How can I feel close to you remembering what I’ve lost

feeling again and again that day when he died?

It seemed on that day as if separation was king

dealing decrees of disease and death into my life.

My father was a good, good man

so how could you let him die?

You claim to be a good, good God

but now that word, “father”, means death.

Still others have lost more than me

never having a moment with their fathers worth grieving.

I can’t imagine what that word brings to mind

for those who never had someone to fill it’s image.

Even worse I can’t imagine what that word feels like

for those who had a father that only made them feel pain.

Our hearts ache 

for those for whom that word means verbal, violent, violating abuse.

This cannot be the way things are supposed to be.

What then?

If there is a good connotation of that word

what is it?

Lord you are patient and kind and loving,

is that what “father” is?

You are gentle and gracious and powerful,

is that what my father left behind?

You, oh Lord, are the father of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,

and, at times, they were not faithful.

Your people, Lord, again and again and again

create space for sin to remain in the world.

Yet the hope of Abraham was Isaac

and the hope of Isaac was Jacob.

The death and decay of sin that defines our fathers’ day

gives way to new hope always present in new generations.

Our father’s cycles and chains

can always be broken.

While death has struck it’s only blow

I still live and will live.

Not only that but those words that “father” should mean

love, patience, kindness still live.

It is because of who my father was that in me

gentleness, graciousness, and power still live.

I live therefore my father lives

because I am my father’s greatest hope.

In the same way our Heavenly Father is proved good

because he gave the world his Son.

Death, decay, violence, and violation

do not get to have the last word.

We were born of our fathers

to ensure that what struck them sees no victory.

Death will always win

if we do not give life.

Hope will always end with us

unless we pass it on.

Even if to me that word is marked by death

it is also marked by love.

While for so many of us that word carries a sting

by its nature it also carries new life.

Lord I can say you are good

because death is not the end.

Lord I can call you father

because I am your child.

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Me and my dad.

Finding your Roots: The mini-series and the Exodus

“You can’t buy a slave, you’ve got to make a slave.” So says Kunta Kinte’s slave overseer prior to a vicious whipping. This line summarizes the film’s history of the struggle to subjugate African slaves and their ensuing fight to keep their minds and hearts free. The goal of slavery is to rob a person and a people of who they are. To make them forget their identity, to strip away family ties, to stamp out any memories and relationships that could give one strength and purpose. To extinguish the spark of humanity and replace it with numbness, despair and faceless productivity.

This is the struggle that Roots (based on the 1976 novel by Alex Haley and 1977 original miniseries) chronicles as the miniseries follows the Kinte family from West Africa in the mid-1700s through the end of the Civil War in the United States. It follows their fight to remember where this family came from in the face of the horrors of slavery and this vile institution that desired to take everything from them. Kunta (played powerfully by Malachi Kirby) remains determined to hope for freedom and to keep his family name and story alive. He diligently teaches his daughter Kizzy the names of her grandparents and the place where he grew up as part of the Mandinka tribe. He passes on the tradition of naming their children under the stars of heaven, proclaiming that their name is their shield. The story fades a little with each generation, but the name continues to ring across the decades of persecution and oppression.

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One of the reasons why the miniseries originally struck such a nerve is because slave owners were very successful in suppressing the history and family lineage of African-Americans. It was a common practice to split up families, to severely punish slaves who learned how to read and write, to take every measure to erase the family trees of slaves. But we all have a deep longing to know our stories, to know where we came from and why we are in the world. Roots gave a glimpse into what that might look like for many African-Americans. To see what it took to remember one’s name and to survive with incredible strength in the face of deep evil and cruelty.

Roots isn’t the only origin story of an enslaved people. The first five books of the Bible (in Hebrew “Torah” or “Law”) are written to a newly freed people who have lost touch with their story and their cultural identity. Moses is widely held to be the primary author of these books, though others may have contributed as well, and he is writing to a people that have been slaves to the Egyptians for over 400 years. They had an oral history but no written account of what it meant to be a Hebrew and who their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob really were. The Egyptians were harsh slave owners who treated them “ruthlessly” (Exodus 1:14), so they knew about Egyptian culture and gods, but little about Yahweh. So Moses started telling them their story. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth…This is who we are, our God is so powerful that He created something out of nothing, and made it very good. And He made us in His image, men and women as partners with great value to be image-bearers and to mirror the character of God in this wonderful world. Our God made us on purpose to cultivate the beauty of the creation, and gave us a unique and important role to play.

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And then Moses gives them plenty of genealogies as the story continues. Names that are hard for modern readers to pronounce and which we often skip, but which would have been treasures to the enslaved Hebrews. They may have turned to each other and marveled, “Our God knows our names! He has a record of each of our people and kept close track of our history. He called our ancestors by name and made promises to them. And now he has heard our cries and kept a record of them too (Ex. 3:7-10), and He rescued us. Yahweh hasn’t forgotten us, He remembers everything.” When it seemed like they had lost everything after centuries of slavery, they found out that they served a God who watched them closely. Now He was calling them by name and leading them into freedom and His protection. When their oppressors told them they were expendable, their God told them they carry a glorious Image within them.

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God chose an enslaved people who were an ethnic minority to be the bearers of His redemptive story in history. The Bible was written by oppressed people for people suffering under physical and spiritual slavery. This was personified by the Israelites and has played out for all of humanity ever since. I think it’s little short of miraculous that despite heretical misuses of scripture to perpetuate slavery, so many African-Americans still managed to encounter the love of Jesus Christ and a deep hope and faith. I praise God for the Spirit’s ability to transcend evil and suffering to propel beautiful truth through terrible lies. We all serve a God whose light shines so brightly that no darkness can overcome it (John 1:5).

The realities depicted in Roots are gut-wrenching and I hated so much of what I saw. It called me to grieve and repent over the ways that America still falls short of full restoration and equality. There are ways in which I need to identify with the Egyptians and tremble over God’s judgment. It called me to explore what I can change about myself and my particular sphere of influence to move closer to God’s desire for healing. And it filled me with gratitude that no child of the Living God can ever truly be lost. Every person that God has created is endowed with eternal value that no other human can ever erase.

Luke 12:6 Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

Viewer discretion guide: the mini-series seeks to depict slavery as accurately as possible. That means significant physical violence and three generations of sexual violence. There is no nudity and the sexual violence is depicted with sensitivity, but is still atrocious and hard to watch. You should expect to feel troubled and emotionally distraught. Check out Ebony’s review for additional guidance in this area.

Habakkuk: This country is going down the tubes

When you read Habakkuk, you’d almost think he’s talking about the 2016 election. He’s very dissatisfied with the state of his country (Israel) and is complaining that everything is a mess. The land is full of violence and conflict and it feels like no one remembers how to do what’s right anymore. Habakkuk is fed up with his country; he’s angry and ready for God to change things. If you’re growing increasingly angry and anxious watching this election cycle unfold, then this book might be for you.

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This prophet is unusual literarily in that Habakkuk does not directly address the people. The book is a dialogue between him and God and almost reads like a personal journal. The prophet is upset at Judah’s (the southern kingdom of Israel) moral and spiritual failures and is complaining that God has done nothing to stop them. He then does not particularly like God’s answer that He will judge Judah using Babylon, also a wicked nation. Habakkuk at first thinks this seems contradictory or foolish. How could an even more evil nation be used as God’s instrument to discipline his wicked nation? (Each political side is probably asking that when they think about the possibility of the opposing candidate winning the presidential election. How could God possibly use them, they’re the worst?!?!?) Ultimately he is reassured that God will judge all wickedness and none will escape unpunished, both in his own nation and in Babylon.

 

Habakkuk is likely a contemporary of Zephaniah and Jeremiah but the dating is somewhat vague. He’s probably not writing after the reign of Josiah so he is still before the Babylonian invasion. He’s on the final countdown for Israel, the time to repent is slipping away. Similar to Zephaniah, the people have been on a spiritual rollercoaster of rebellion and reform and Habakkuk is fed up with their current rampant rebellion. He’s tired of the flip-flopping and wants some justice (also feel familiar?) The format of the book is a pattern: the prophet complains twice, listens to God twice, and prays once. He ends with submission to God’s wisdom and trust in God to act righteously even if it comes in a form that Habakkuk did not expect.

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For additional context and insights, watch The Bible Project’s short overview. Take 10-15 minutes to read the 3 chapters, then consider:

  • Why do some people repent for a time, often under particular leadership, but then return to their old ways?
  • How do you relate to Habakkuk in feeling upset and angry over the sins of our culture?
  • Where do you also feel tempted to tell God how He should intervene?
  • How have you seen God act in unexpected ways in the past? How might that give you the same response as Habakkuk in trusting that God’s timing and approach will be perfect?
  • When you follow election coverage, how might Habakkuk’s prayer give you peace and calm?

3:17 Though the fig tree does not bud
    and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
    and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
    and no cattle in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
    I will be joyful in God my Savior.

Other Minor Prophets study guides (in chronological order):

Nahum: When The Man is keeping you down

Haggai: Life in the Ruins

Joel: The Bible’s horror poetry

Haggai: Life in the ruins

Haggai spoke to me in profound ways, in ways that I wish I had access to during my darkest times. I want to give extra space to reflect on the themes of Haggai and give you some questions for your own reflection.

The prophet Haggai is very clear about when he’s writing and what is going on around him. He’s preaching in 520B.C. during the second year of the reign of Darius (1:1) and even gives a precise day. The people began returning from exile in Babylon after Cyrus’s edict is 539B.C. so it’s still early in their resettling of Israel. He is very likely contemporaries with Ezra which is a good book to read parallel to Haggai as Ezra describes the initially slow process for rebuilding the temple. Haggai is concerned with answering the primary question of the Israelite remnant: is God still with us after our time of punishment in exile?

Haggai’s message centers prominently around the temple and Israel’s efforts (or lack thereof) to rebuild it. He points out that times have been slow and their prosperity doesn’t been returning like they hoped. They seem to be living paycheck to paycheck and never getting ahead. Haggai declares that this is a result of not prioritizing the temple, and by extension not prioritizing their relationship with God and seeking how to honor Him in the land. The prophet reminds the people that all they have comes from God, and if they don’t have much it’s because the Lord is trying to get their attention and call them into deeper relationship. If the temple is in ruins, so is their commitment to God.

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We know that the people have returned from Babylon a chastened and changed people because they respond right away rather than ignoring the prophet. This should be noted as deeply rare for the Israelites and a huge step forward in their faithfulness to God. Even if the land and the temple will never fully rebound and has been changed, they have also been changed in important and healthy ways that are bigger than their physical circumstances. The Lord is then quick to answer their fundamental question in 1:13, “I am with you.” The people can rebuild in hope because although they have been punished, they have not been abandoned, and Yahweh is not done with them.  If you feel like you have been in a season of God’s discipline, Haggai will remind you that the Lord desires you to turn to him and be free of destructive patterns, not tear you down.

The format of Haggai is fairly unusual for a prophet as he speaks in prose rather than poetry. The tone of the book is not warning against future judgment but on meaning-making over why things are currently in an unhealthy state. As always, there is a promise of restoration and the temple that is currently in shambles will one day be restored beyond even the height if its past glory. There is a renewed commitment to the kingly line of David in the person of Zerubbabel (2:20-23) which is a strong message that God’s fidelity still lies with Israel and His promises to them will find their fulfillment.

Haggai is a great book to read for people who feel like their lives are in some form of ruin. Israel is seeing how much deterioration has occurred in the land and it’s barely recognizable to them (Hag. 2:3). While there is neglect and self-centeredness happening in their relationship with God, there is also a sense of despondency and not wanting to risk rebuilding only to have it fall again. When we are in a place of prolonged disappointment and feel like we’re surrounded by nothing but rubble, we can also fear the idea of hoping for the future. When our realities look very different from our former hopes and dreams, the motivation to keep going can be at an all time low. We may feel this in life events and situations, we may feel it in our physical bodies as we or those we love struggle with illness and poor health. No matter where you see the ruins, we hear some very good news:

Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the Lord, ‘and work. For I am with you,’ declares the Lord Almighty. ‘This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’

Take 10-15 minutes to read this 2 chapter book, then consider:

  • Haggai’s observations about the people’s lack of prosperity harkens back to how God describes the land in Deut 11:11-12, a land that needs God’s tending in order to flourish. Haggai’s message is always true, that anything we have comes from God. How do we today see our progress blocked when we ignore God’s presence and sovereignty?
  • How does discipline shape us to be better and wiser? How do you see the redemption of the exile through their response here?
  • What does it look like for us to prioritize our relationship with Christ and keep that the center of all we do?
  • What have been some seasons in your life when it felt like everything was in shambles?
  • When your life is in ruins, where are we tempted to stop hoping and working for the future?
  • Where do we also ask God, “are you still there?” How is Haggai’s message of hope also good news for us?

Haggai 1 Jan 27th

Other Minor Prophets study guides (in chronological order):

Nahum: When The Man is keeping you down

Habakkuk: This Country is Going Down the Tubes

Joel: The Bible’s horror poetry

Should we stop sharing that “Newsroom” clip?

“Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?”

Have you seen that video? It was probably shared with a comment like “The most honest piece of television EVER!!!” or “MUST WATCH!!! So true!” As I write, this clip from the HBO show The Newsroom, from the top three versions of it on YouTube, has 13 million views. Odds are, you’ve seen it. Especially since, even though the show has ended its run and the clip is now four years old, it keeps getting shared and shared and shared. This probably happens because it taps into something very real.

Politics are emotional and we are in a season in our country where politics, in its current form, have the center stage. It’s an election year and might be the most televised presidential election we have ever had. How many debates have we had during the primary process? I’ve lost count. What’s intriguing is that this viral clip seems to speak to both sides. Conservatives look at the current state of our country and ring out loud the mic drop moment of this video, that America is not currently the greatest country in the world. Liberals are attracted to this video that was featured in a television program with a rigorous liberal bias that was actually speaking out of frustrations with the current trends in conservative politics. It’s a video for everyone.

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The problem with this particular clip, however, is that the core message of it isn’t featured in the scene itself. This clip, by itself, is out of the context of the first season of the show which ends revisiting this moment and finishing the thought this clip begins. By itself this clip is angry, intellectual, and, actually, pretty dismissive. It is the perfect social media mic drop. The clip bashes viewers over the head with well thought-out, well-researched rhetoric and is now used to put people in their place.

All this is said not to take a side on political issues, but, instead, is to recognize what the phenomena of this clip says about how we use social media. There is something incredibly satisfying in having the last word, of saying something so smart that no one can answer it. There is something gratifying about verbally putting someone in their place. Trust me, when I come face to face with some of my mortal enemies like Hulk Hogan who beat my hero Macho Man Randy Savage at Wrestlemania V, Vontaze Burfict of the Cincinnati Bengals, or Joel Schumacher the ruiner of the 90’s Batman franchise, I would love nothing more than to give them a piece of my mind! But by treating social media this way are we taking a tool designed to bring us together and using it as a weapon to tear us apart?

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Unfortunately, using content out of context to drop a mic on someone is not new to the world of Christianity. Words have power and, perhaps, no words have more power than scripture. Taken out of context scripture can do all kinds of things. It can pretty much prove any point you want to prove or correct anyone you think is wrong. We see it on protest signs telling families at military funerals that they’re going to hell. We see it in any of the shows in Shondaland as gracious permission to be whoever you want to be doing anything you want to do. In his “Gospel in Life” series, Tim Keller defines these two extremes as legalism (everything is bad) and license (everything is okay). Keller goes on to define a third option.

The third option, somewhere between legalism and license, is the gospel. The gospel isn’t a tool to make a point, it is the point. True, the gospel is convicting. Also true, the gospel is gracious. However, neither is the whole story. How can we exist somewhere in the middle? How can we create gospel-centered space in our online social communities? It starts with an invitation.

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Social media mic drops are the opposite of inviting. With the mic on the floor, conversation…community is dead. But, like we talked about a few paragraphs ago, mic drops are fun! It is way more fun to drop a piece of knowledge and assume the online world will click like or retweet affirming that you are the most brilliant thinker of our time and communicate to you that their lives have been changed just for knowing you. Does that ever happen?

If our online conversations fail to be inviting it becomes difficult to do anything but fight. One mic drop leads to another and another, feelings get hurt in a medium without verbal and non-verbal cues, and frustration with our friends and the medium sets in. But if we see all of our communication as an invitation, our conversations can change. Think about the way that Jesus communicated.

First of all, Jesus often communicated points, revealed peoples’ hearts, and created deep community by asking questions. Even trapped between a political rock and hard place when presented with a conundrum about taxes, Jesus’s first response was a question (Mark 12:15). Jesus often invites others to evaluate the heart behind their beliefs. Any modern day Don Draper out there will tell you the first step in successful communication campaigns is research, asking questions. How would your online community change if it was filled with more wonder? Wonder what brings someone to their beliefs. Wonder where others’ hearts are.

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Jesus didn’t only ask questions. He also answered, but, when he did, his answers were inviting. In that encounter about taxes, his final response was, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” The Pharisees thought they gave Jesus two options…affirm paying taxes, siding with the government alienating his followers…deny paying taxes, siding with his rebels becoming a criminal. Affirm the government’s sinful behavior or convict the behavior of his followers. There is always a third way and in his response Jesus is inviting the Pharisees to examine what in their lives belongs to God. It is an invitation to know God and God’s sovereignty on a deeper level.

So what is the invitation in that Newsroom clip? Well it doesn’t come in the clip with 13 million views. It comes in one of the final scenes of season one. The question is asked again, by the same young woman, but the answer changes. What if we stopped dropping mics on each other, but instead invited others into our lives? What would it look like to create space where they also want to invite you into theirs? What if social media was more about people than it is about points? Let’s all keep our mics in hand, ready to contribute, ready to invite, ready to pass it rather than drop it. What makes America the greatest country in the world? You do.

Joel: The Bible’s horror poetry

The prophet Joel has a lot of things going for him. He’s got some iconic verses about the Holy Spirit, he purposefully transcends a specific time period, and he writes poetry that feels like a horror story. He’s writing in Jerusalem, likely after the exile because he doesn’t mention a king or specific idolatry, although dating the book is somewhat difficult because he doesn’t give more context clues. This lack of specificity however allows the community of faith to find this book easily applicable to any given time period. It’s a lament over the need for God’s punishment and a warning against further repercussion, but ultimately hopeful with a prophecy that would find its fulfillment in Acts 2.

Pentecost-Mosaic

One of his biggest themes is the “day of the Lord”, a recurring phrase used five times. “Day” refers to any time that God’s presence is made known, both in judgment and deliverance. This could mean fear and punishment as well as hope and restoration. What is most important to Joel is God’s presence, not necessarily what the presence brings. He asks us a searching question; do we believe that even God’s presence in judgment is better than God’s absence?

Literarily the book is mostly poetic with exaggerated imagery to enhance Joel’s warning and urging to repent. He references a current situation of a locust plague and laments over this time of national tragedy. The locusts are likely literal and are also a prophetic forerunner of military invasion that could come like a swarming plague sent to get Israel’s attention.

Take 10-15 minutes to read it through. For additional context and themes check out The Bible Project’s short video.

Discuss:

  • Are we willing to desire God’s presence even in judgment? Why would we think that even that is better than His absence?
  • Look at the example of David in 1 Chron. 21:8-13. What does he know and believe about God to choose God’s hand over the other options?
  • How does God often get our attention today when He calls us to repentance?
  • Look over Acts 2 and the way Peter quotes Joel 2:28-32. How does God take the community of faith from lament and punishment to hope and continuous communion with the Spirit?

Other Minor Prophet study guides (in chronological order):

Nahum: When The Man is keeping you down

Habakkuk: This Country is Going Down the Tubes

Haggai: Life in the Ruins

 

Why I’m #TeamIronMan

In my most honorable hopes and dreams, on the political, ideological battlefield of Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War, I am #TeamCap all the way. Captain America is super strong, super genuine, super honest, super filled with integrity, and super human. He is everything I want to be. Tony Stark (Iron Man) on the other hand, he is flawed, riddled with guilt and shame, and guided by fear and arrogance. So if I’m being honest with myself, in my true/human heart, I am #TeamIronMan.

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If you haven’t seen Civil War yet and plan to this is the time to turn away, read my spoiler-free piece on grace and #TeamCap, and come back after. Because to talk about Tony’s flawed, human heart we have to go to Spoilertown. Yes, that was a *SPOILER ALERT*. This is a *SPOILER REVIEW*. Run away now if you don’t want *SPOILED*.

There are interesting parallels to the development of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and the story they have built for the man that started it all, Tony Stark. It was all kind of an accident. Marvel took a B-level hero and by creating a fun story with a perfectly cast lead, launched a blockbuster-making machine. In the first Iron Man film, through a series of coincidences including Tony’s imprisonment by terrorists, his will to survive transforms him into a hero. This launched the Earth into a hero-assembling machine and began to bring bigger and bigger threats to humanity’s doorstep. Thus the trajectories of Iron Man and Captain America begin on their inevitable collision course.

Civil War Tony 1

In the MCU, Captain America is an American soldier who fights throughout WWII. He’s been to basic training, he is willing to give up his life for his fellow soldiers and relies on them to feel the same way. Not only that but he is eventually frozen only to wake up 70 years in the future when everyone whom he loved was dead or dying. This leaves Cap’s world with only fellow soldiers…only people he keeps at arm’s length because he knows the cost of war. Cap’s world view is that of sacrificial servanthood. A servanthood he lives into as a superhuman with the powers to take on any threat with very little limitations.

Then there is Iron Man. Tony Stark grew up in privilege. He is a scientist, inventor, builder, businessman…not a soldier. The MCU takes place in his current life time that features a humanity that Tony increasingly cares for because he is a part of it. Throughout the first two Iron Man films he is strong, battle-tested, and has few limitations, but something happened through the course of The Avengers and Iron Man 3. The universe got bigger as did the threats to humanity. The Earth got smaller as did Tony Stark.

Civil War Tony 2

Once Tony, who was fighting alongside a Norse God at the time, took a look through an intergalactic worm hole and saw one of the endless powerful threats on the other side, desperation set in. It was no longer enough to be a regular human in a suit of armor.

The world, the people he loves (primarily Pepper Potts), and Tony himself are vulnerable. In Tony’s mind we need thicker armor and better weapons. This mindset leads to the creation of Ultron, the A.I. baddie in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Which then leads to massive casualties. This then enslaves Tony by his guilt, shame, fear, and doubt.

For Cap, any loss incurred during war is expected. Mostly because he signed up to die if necessary and has the powers to make sure, under most circumstances, that won’t happen. For Tony, any loss experienced is devastating because the threats are now big enough that at any moment his armor could fail and the loss could be him or, worse, Pepper. In his deepest fears, he expects no loss at all.

Cap isn’t a mindless, emotionless drone, but because he sees the world and war in this way he fights with freedom from the fear of death. Tony fights under the constant fear of death, and because of that puts incredible pressure on himself to try to fix things. He creates more armor, and creates more weapons. Which, to this point, has only created more death. There is a telling scene in Iron Man 3 when Tony is attacked at his home and dons his armor only to fall into the ocean in his heavy metal suit as his house crumbles on top of him. Under water, confined in his suit, with concrete raining down on him. This is a situation he incited, locked in his own creation…is suffocating.

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Cap has witnessed his entire life fade away into the past. Governments and agencies have fallen or changed, and all of his friends and family have passed. He lives knowing death is inevitable. Tony thinks he is stronger than death and therefore it is his responsibility to save everyone else from it. We see him struggle with this to the point of panic attacks in Iron Man 3 and we see him fall even deeper through the course of Civil War. His quest to save everything has driven Pepper, the one he ultimately was trying to protect, away. He is confronted by the mother of a causality from the Ultron incident that causes him to make a deal with the government which drives away half of the Avengers.

Then the Civil War story ends with Tony being confronted one last time with the limitations of his humanity. He thinks he is stronger/smarter than death. He thinks that he can save everyone, but the moment in his past where he truly interacted with the death of his loved ones, there was nothing he could do. When his parents died back in 1991, it was an act of this war the Avengers are still fighting. They died at the hands of The Winter Soldier a.ka. Bucky a.k.a. Cap’s best friend. In the concluding sequences of Civil War, Tony watches the footage of Bucky, another superhuman, murdering his parents. In that moment, all of the guilt, all of the shame, all of the fear, all of the doubt, all of the human limitations are lighting a fire that makes his blood boil for vengeance.

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I think about the apostles of Jesus. Jesus told them of a kingdom to come, a kingdom defined by everlasting life in the freedom of a sinless world. Then, to their horror, Jesus is arrested, beaten, and violently murdered for the world to see. They had believed that Jesus was God. They had believed that they would live in freedom. They watched Jesus heal the terminally ill and raise the dead. On Good Friday, they were left with all of the same emotions Tony had watching his parents die. That is guilt and shame that they couldn’t save Jesus from death. Also, fear and doubt that they also won’t be saved from a similar fate. In those dreadful days, their lives were defined/confined by death’s sting.

But then, on the third day, Jesus rose from the dead. In that moment, the disciples were released from that guilt and shame, their fear and doubt began to dissolve. Knowing that death was out of their control, they were free. Now that death was conquered by Jesus, their lives were defined by eternal life. Tony sees that death is outside of his power and so he seeks to take control of it one last time in the form of revenge against Bucky. He tries to control death by taking it in his own hands. The end of Civil War isn’t a happy one, but I hope that in the next chapter Tony begins to see the error of his ways. This is a hope that I have for myself because I often live under the chains of guilt, shame, fear, and doubt.

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It’s also a change of heart vocalized by Black Panther. Talking to the film’s true villain, a man who lost everything in the Ultron incident and is now fueled by revenge, Panther says, “Vengeance has consumed you. It is consuming them. I’m done letting it consume me.” Maybe in time Tony will see that he cannot control death, but that he can live a life for others without the fear of dying. Maybe in time I’ll see that too if I remind myself of Paul’s words in Galatians 5:1…

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

Why I’m #TeamCap

“He’s my friend.”

“So was I.”

This stand-out line of dialogue heard in the early Captain America: Civil War trailers might be the most central exchange to the overall theme/lesson of Marvel’s newest chapter in their expansive cinematic universe. The title of the film implies conflict between friends on our well-established Avengers team. So I’m hoping that knowing Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man and Steve Rogers a.k.a. Captain America fight in this film doesn’t come as a surprise to you, but if so turn away now. Otherwise, keep reading as that is as spoilery as we’ll get.

Leading up to the film’s release, the studio asked fans to choose whether their allegiances rest with #TeamIronMan or #TeamCap. One of the accomplishments of Civil War, and there are many, is that leaving it, you probably won’t have a clear answer. Both sides were well explored and well represented in the film, and it made for some great conversation in the car ride back. Still, looking at the motivations of both our heroes…I went in as #TeamCap and left as #TeamCap. My reasons point back to that line of dialogue.

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The “he” in that line is Cap’s longtime friend and titular character in the last Captain America movie, The Winter Soldier a.k.a. Bucky Barnes. The Cap films have been building this relationship across all three of his solo stories and so it makes sense that it is central to this installment. A lot happens in this movie and the political and emotional circumstances that lead to all of the superhero sparring matches would take a lot of explanation, but for my money we will focus on the most important motivation for Cap…Bucky.

Basically, without spoiling too much for those who haven’t seen the other Cap movies, what you need to know about Bucky is that he and Cap were BFF’s since day one. While on a mission something happened and Bucky was assumed dead only to reappear years later as The Winter Soldier, a Hydra (the baddies) sleeper agent/assassin who did a laundry list of Hydra’s evil biddings. He was experimented on, tormented, memory wiped, conditioned, and mind controlled to do these things and really hasn’t had a chance to deal with or heal from much of that. That is mostly what Captain America wants in Civil War, a fair shake and a second chance for Bucky. His main mission is to see that Bucky receives grace.

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Unfortunately for Cap and Bucky, this comes to a head during a very charged political climate in the superhero world and Iron Man is on the other side of the issue. Now, after years and years of friendship and fighting side-by-side, the ideological differences between Iron Man and Cap are revealed for the whole world to see.

This is largely what Civil War is about…this conflict, but it is also a conflict that arises after years of being on the mission field. Lots of things can happen when you’re on a mission. You win battles, you lose battles, you learn more about yourself, you learn how to focus your work, and relationships come and go. This is not a foreign concept to our Biblical story.

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Seeing Cap and Tony waxing politics, beliefs, and strategies reminded me of a brief but significant moment in the ministry of Paul. Barnabas and Paul were a missionary team that saw their fair share of battles on the mission field. These battles were dangerous. These battles left scars (Acts 14:19). Throughout their journeys, though, we see Paul coming into a better and better understanding of the calling on his life to be the apostle to the Gentiles. His specific mission gains focus and his strategies begin to form around that focus. Then in just a few, somewhat vague lines of scripture, we see that Barnabas doesn’t share the same vision. They disagree and they part ways (Acts 15:36-39).

When I read through Acts and Paul’s follow-up letters to the places where he started churches, what stands out is Paul’s deep love for the Gentiles. What an amazing testimony to the Gentiles to have a man that objected so loudly and violently against them being included in the Body of Christ be the one called by God to tell them that the story of Jesus is for them. Paul became so focused on his calling it became more important than his own health and safety (Acts 16:16-40) and it also took priority over his partnership with Barnabas. Paul cared so greatly that this message of grace got to the Gentiles he was willing to fight for his strategy.

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In Civil War, Cap risked losing friends, imprisonment, and death in order to protect Bucky so that one day he may experience the grace he so needed after his time as Hydra’s puppet. Being Bucky’s advocate was a dangerous position as was Paul’s being the advocate for the Gentiles. God has placed us all on our own personal mission fields surrounded by people that need grace, by people that need to be advocated for.

Civil War doesn’t have a very fun, clear cut conclusion. The battle is messy and it left a lot of physical and emotional scars. It was dangerous and scary. For Cap, though, Bucky was worth it because he is his friend, because he got a raw deal, and, perhaps, because he represents all of us. We all need second chances. We all need the freedom that comes from the gospel of our gracious God. If Bucky can’t receive that freedom what hope do we have? Is there someone in your life whose grace is worth fighting for?

Now Iron Man…that is a different story, a story about guilt, shame, and fear. Maybe I’ll have to write about that story too? To be continued…

Beyonce, Lemonade, and the things we inherit

What happens when one of the most successful and influential artists of our time experiences a deep and fairly public heartbreak? She takes those lemons and makes them into Lemonade. Beyonce’s “visual album” was released on April 23rd and already it’s made history with every track appearing on the Top 100 charts. In her hour-long film that accompanies the majority of the tracks, she tells the story of a broken relationship and the process one goes through when one’s life falls apart.

This story appears to be about her 8-year marriage to Jay-Z and a possible affair that he pursued. This “power couple” that are at the top of their game and possess great popularity and acclaim are telling us that they are flawed. They hurt each other and are both feeling that hurt. The Queen B is saying that she is like every other woman who has been wronged by a man. With remarkable honesty and transparency (especially for a couple that is typically very private) Beyonce invites us to explore a shared story of wounded pasts and being prisoners of our histories. (Alyssa Wilkinson wrote a thorough and insightful piece on the composition and content for Christianity Today which I recommend for greater detail and viewer discretion guidelines.)

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The film is stunning and is an incredible work of art. I personally found it very haunting. I loved that she had such a wide variety of women in the video. I loved that she was both broken and powerful. It totally drew me in and I felt like I was part of it with her. She used her own vulnerability to elevate an important conversation about the way women, and particularly women of color, are treated and what we’ve been raised to expect as normal. She asks the question, what happens when you thought you had made it and then you’re just like the thing you were trying to avoid?

The question comes to us through the images of multiple generations of women, and it comes through the set locations of plantations and modern poverty. We get the visual sense that time moves on but some circumstances don’t change. Then we hear it most pointedly midway through the album on the track “Daddy Lessons.” This was the pivot point song for me when I realized that this wasn’t just about one woman hurt by one man, but a vicious cycle of reenacting the worst parts of our family histories and the patterns handed down to us. As Beyonce sings about her father teaching her to be strong and take care of her family, it’s all because:

My daddy warned me about men like you
He said baby girl he’s playing you
He’s playing you
Cause when trouble comes in town
And men like me come around
Oh, my daddy said shoot
Oh, my daddy said shoot

There’s the implicit longing to be different, to be the exception. And the deeper heartbreak, not just of personal betrayal, but of falling prey to the thing that you’re supposed to know better to escape. The humiliation of vowing, “never”, and of experiencing “again.”

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In my own extended family I only have to go back three generations to find addiction, domestic violence, divorce and infidelity, depression, suicide and tragedy. Am I doomed to repeat the sins and heartache of my predecessors?

The good news is that Beyonce and the rest of us are in very good company. God understands people who are trapped in generational sin and continues to use them in powerful ways. Abraham and Isaac both follow nearly identical paths of going to a foreign land (Gen. 12:10-20, Gen. 26:6-11), being afraid that they would be killed because their wives were beautiful, and passing Sarah and Rebekah off as their sisters in order to protect themselves. Both of these women were left vulnerable to marriage and adultery had not God himself intervened on their behalf. Then Jacob deceives his father and cheats his brother (Gen. 27), only to have his sons do the same to their brother (Gen. 37:12-36). David engages in adultery and murder to try to cover his tracks (2 Sam. 11), and the son of that relationship leads Israel down a path of disobedience that they would never fully turn back from through his promiscuity and sexual sin (1 Kings 11).

And yet those families are part of God’s story of redemption and each contributed in important ways to what God was doing in the world. Jesus enters into that family history (Matt. 1) and takes on their patterns and scars. He doesn’t try to distance himself from them but chooses to identify with very flawed people in order to demonstrate the kind of fresh start and freedom that He offers.

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And that’s the place where Lemonade turns hopeful. Not in distancing and hiding from our pasts but in confronting them in order to find something new. In “All Night Long” she sees the healing in the pain

With every tear came redemption
And my torturer became a remedy

We don’t break the cycles of those who came before us by believing we’re better; we break them by confessing that we are the same. We are all cut from the same cloth of humanity, all capable of failure and betrayal and blindness. But we serve a Christ who specializes in proclaiming freedom to captives and sight to the blind (Luke 4:17-19). A God who created a national economy that would prevent generational poverty (Lev. 25). When we invite the Lord to help us rewrite our stories and redirect our trajectories, then we’re not just relying on our own resolve and personal wisdom to create something new for ourselves.

We can share our experiences of deep pain and despair knowing that they are not what define us or indict us, and in fact can become our entry point into living more fearlessly and fully. We join with the same Spirit that raised Jesus Christ from the dead to breathe life into the scars and wounds that hold us prisoner, and to raise something new to life in their place. To experience a freedom that transcends history, circumstances, race, and gender, and invites all people into an eternal inheritance from our Heavenly Father.

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