Finding hope after “13 Reasons Why”

What was your worst day? In what ways do you still think about it? How does it still effect you now? We all carry around our own personal blend of wounds and disappointments. This may be a factor in the show 13 Reasons Why becoming such a phenomenon among young people. A Netflix original, it has only been out for a couple of weeks and already is one of the most viewed series they’ve created.

Based on a book by the same title from author Jay Asher, this novel follows a teenage girl named Hannah Baker. You learn at the beginning that Hannah has committed suicide, for reasons that are unclear to the people around her. Before her death she recorded 13 cassette tapes explaining what led her to the point of taking her own life, each directed at a specific person and documenting the hurtful nature of their actions towards her. Through Hannah’s narration you relive the last year and a half in her life and gradually see the full picture of what contributed to her depression and suicidality. It is a very sobering take on the effects of bullying and trauma, and the ways that we impact one another.

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In general I have quite mixed feelings about the show. I would not characterize it as “enjoyable” to watch. It unflinchingly exposes the ugliness of the thoughtless and dismissive ways we can treat one another, as well as how easily someone can become isolated and fearful. Part of the draw of the show is that, sadly, most of what it portrays about high school relationships is accurate. Young people are deeply resonating with it because it feels very relatable to their own lived experience. The storylines deal with everything from petty teasing, to stalking, to sharing intimate photos without someone’s consent, to harassment, to sexual assault. It is all very painful to watch, and I don’t blanketly recommend it (see bottom for content guide.)

It raises some concerns for me that it might inspire copycat scenarios. On top that, many viewers are trivializing the content with memes or 13 Reasons “Promposals” which seem to miss the important message the show is communicating. Still, the majority of the audience is understanding the severe implications that our behavior towards others can produce. Everyone experiences more than we realize on the surface. We have the opportunity to either build people up or tear them down.

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It was fitting that Ivan and I watched the show during Holy Week, the lead-up to Easter. As I participated in a Good Friday service, 13 Reasons Why was on my mind. Good Friday also invites us to take an unflinching look at the darkness within and around us. It is meant to offer intense reflection on what it is that sent Jesus to the cross. It was our sin, our disobedience, and our failures that warranted a death sentence, a verdict which Jesus took upon Himself in our place. Everything that tempts us to despair was nailed to the cross that day.

He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. – 1 John 2:2

Many of us know this message: Jesus died for our sins to offer us forgiveness and mercy. That is always very good news. What we don’t often think about is that if Jesus died for the sins of the whole world, by implication, He also died for the sins committed against us. Jesus took our place to absorb the punishment that we deserved, and the abuses that we didn’t. His death covers the sins we commit and the sins that others have inflicted upon us. When Jesus says, “This is my body, given for you” He offers to trade places with us in every way that we need. He not only sees our sins and says, “I committed those acts,” He also looks at our wounds and says, “That happened to Me, those sins were directed at Me.” That includes taking on the ways that others have insulted us, betrayed us, ignored us, discriminated against us, abused us.

On the cross Jesus incurs all the damage those experiences create, and offers us His freedom and wholeness instead. In trading places with us He identifies with all our sufferings and allows us to move forward in the security and healing of God’s blessing, “This is my beloved child, in whom I am well-pleased.” (Luke 3:22) When you bring to mind the worst ways that the sins of others have played out in your life, you can imagine them happening to Jesus. That doesn’t mean living in denial of your past, but you get to live now in the fullness of personhood that Christ always experienced. Always knowing that you are fully accepted and fully loved by God and that nothing will ever change that.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. Dying on the cross was a gift, but so is the resurrection. Christ’s resurrection from the dead is the cosmic game-changer. It means that suffering, separation, and death can never define us. They don’t have to be the final word. There is no evil strong enough to keep Jesus or us in the grave. Because Jesus lives, nothing can truly crush us.

Here’s something we don’t always notice, Jesus comes back with His same scarred body (John 20:24-29). He doesn’t come back just in spirit form or with a brand new body that has no prior history. Jesus comes back with the same body that endured extreme brutality but is still whole. The resurrection teaches us that there will come a day when we will inhabit our bodies with complete peace and unity. No longer struggling with mental/emotional anguish, no longer in bondage to loneliness and anxiety, no longer haunted by memories of abuses our bodies endured. We will be united with our bodies and move in God’s world without fear, without shame, and without pain. The promise of identifying with Christ will become a reality in our physical, lived experience.

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That is the good news that I kept wanting to share with Hannah, and that I want to share with you. Life is hard. Other people do terrible things and we do plenty of terrible things back. But that isn’t the end of the story. None of us are defined by our worst day. There is no sin or pain so great that Christ did not claim it as His own. And when the dead in Christ are all raised, you’ll live in your body that weathered the storm and is now fit for eternity.

 

 

Content guide: Be advised that this show depicts multiple scenes of graphic sexual violence. The show creators’ stated goal is to show the horror of assault to help observers understand how traumatizing it is for survivors, but watching it may not be worth it for some. Hannah’s suicide and death is also depicted. In Beyond the Reasons (an extra feature on the Netflix season) the creators explain in helpful ways why they chose to film it this way and they had many mental health care professionals consulting on the project. If you have personal experience with losing someone to suicide, this scene may be deeply painful to experience. Use discretion in your viewing, this show will not be appropriate for all audiences.

You’re Better Off Alone

I think Eve has gotten a bad rap. When humanity falls and sin enters the world in Genesis 3, it’s Eve who first eats the forbidden fruit and who offers it to Adam to share with her. She’s the one that Adam blames when God confronts them about their disobedience. She’s the one who most often takes the heat for ruining God’s perfect world. Some even go as far as to say she is the cause of everything bad in the world. The explanation I have most often heard is that this happened because she was weak and gullible. (I have a whole blog post about why I think it’s not that.) But when we look at the creation of Eve as a helper suitable for Adam, I think there’s a deeper strategy to why Satan targeted her first.

When Adam is still alone in the garden both he and God recognize that it is not good for him to be the only one of his kind (Gen. 2:18, the first thing in God’s perfect world to be declared “not good.”) God remedies this deficit by creating Eve, to whom Adam responds with deep joy:

23 The man said,

“This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
for she was taken out of man.”

We might be tempted to say that Eve is created as an afterthought as God is trouble-shooting this new world, but certainly God deserves more credit than that. What if God was intentionally allowing Adam to feel the void of loneliness in order to set a pattern with humanity, a pattern of understanding that we alone are insufficient? What if we need something outside of ourselves to more fully understand God and to more fully experience the world?

As Eve mirrored God’s image in a way that was unique from Adam, they both understood more about who God is through being in relationship with one another. For those of you who are married or simply have a close friendship with someone of the opposite sex, you know that there are fundamental ways in which they are very different and “other” from you. There are things about them that are inherently mysterious and which you can never fully comprehend because you are just not the same. Yet you are drawn to them and want to keep trying to know them better and to share life together. It is this pursuit of the other that teaches us more about how we pursue God, and, possibly, about how God pursues us.

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Our Lord is far more mysterious to the human heart than we are to one another and yet God is at the same time near and loving. When we grapple with the challenges of knowing one another, we are being trained to recognize a God who is more vast than we can imagine but Whose image lives inside of us. A God whose “thoughts are not your thoughts” but who knows us better than any other and invites us into close relationship.

This plays out on a cultural level as well. God’s character is far more complex than any one person or people group can encompass. Each culture around the world magnifies an aspect of God, and when we do the hard work of coming together we experience more of who God is through one another. This is obviously not easy to do, it is much easier to be with those who are like us. But just as Adam was experiencing less of God and less of the world in his isolation, we make God smaller when we remain in homogeneity. It becomes far more tempting to believe that God looks and thinks like me, and I begin to reduce God into my own image when that is all I see. The struggle of relating to those who are very different from me forces me to remember that my God is big and limitless.

Not only did Adam need Eve because she would not be the same as him, Adam needed to understand that God’s intervention and God’s help are always very good. Our mysterious God also knows us perfectly and is responsive to our distresses and needs. He is always powerful to see us and provide for us. Eve herself is not salvific, she was entirely human, but there are things about the way God brings her into the world that are a forerunner to Christ, the ultimate answer to our insufficiency. Just as Eve is sent to do what Adam cannot do for himself, so Jesus would come to complete a salvation that we could never achieve. Then Jesus would send the Spirit (another “Helper”) and continue demonstrating God’s very good help.

When Satan goes after Eve and takes her down, he understands that she had influence in Adam’s life. If Satan got her, he could get them both. He wasn’t just instilling distrust in Eve, but he’s trying to instill distrust in God’s help. The creation of Eve was meant to teach Adam and all other people that God sends us exactly what we need to flourish. Satan can’t survive if we always believe that to be true. In attacking Eve, he tries to undermine that truth and convince Adam that he can’t trust anyone and he’s better off alone. Satan wants Adam to believe he should put up walls and keep Eve and others at arm’s length. That they should both believe that no one can care for you like you can care for yourself so from now on you’d better not rely on anyone and just do you. On the other side of the coin Eve walks away thinking that it’s pointless to try to help anyone because they’ll just turn on you, so she’s better off alone as well. In so doing they begin a terrible pattern of distancing themselves from the other, and cutting themselves off from the fullness of God’s image.

9a. Slimy Girls

Don’t we all still struggle with that temptation today? (2016 made our fears and divisions and distrusts abundantly clear.) We all feel the temptation to keep others out and stay safely behind our walls where they can’t hurt us and can’t let us down. But that also means that we distrust God’s help and experience less of God’s character. We may even distrust the free gift of salvation and think there must be some strings attached. Or we let Jesus handle certain things in our lives but the stuff that’s high stakes and risky we want to take the lead on. When we’re trying to control our lives and other people we’re falling into that age-old trap of thinking we’re better off alone. That keeps us slaves to ourselves, slaves to anxiety and fear, slaves to sin and shame that we can’t break free from, slaves to loneliness and isolation. That is exactly what Satan wants. He has more power over us when we’re cut off and alone, and he starts losing power immediately when we reach out to Jesus and to other members of the Body of Christ.

We think we’re safer and stronger when we’re toughing it out on our own and not relying on anyone else, but, actually, we’re at our weakest and most vulnerable. Don’t believe the lies. Don’t give in to the temptation to keep others out. Take the risk of allowing Jesus to demonstrate His trustworthiness. Reach beyond the borders you have created around yourself. You just might find a boundless God who wants to give you everything.

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Getting the most out of “Get Out”

As a professional wrestling fan, I have been a participant in more than a few raucous wrestling crowds. The average pro wrestling crowd is a true cross section of America and, through years of observing the art form, I’ve come to recognize what kind of storytelling earns those crowd reactions. There are certain veins of the human experience wrestling easily taps into. Think about the saga of Stone Cold Steve Austin, the blue collar, unfiltered every-man, and his billionaire nemesis, Mr. McMahon.

The beats of this story were familiar to a wide audience. Who hasn’t had a bad experience with a boss? Who hasn’t felt bullied by someone to the breaking point? For months and months at a time Mr. McMahon would use his vast resources to keep Austin under his thumb. Then in the big matches…Austin would have his day and the crowd would go wild! The performers take the emotional stress and trauma many have experienced and supply a release of that pressure. When Austin punches McMahon, we all get the feeling of punching the evils in our life we can only dream of fighting back. It’s exhilarating and therapeutic. I love a good crowd reaction, but when similar cheers rang out from the audience at my viewing of Get Out, I couldn’t help but feel heartbreak.

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Get Out is a horror movie, written and directed by comedian Jordan Peele (Key & Peele). I’m no stranger to the horror genre so it’s easy for me to recognize the familiar tropes. What Peele does so beautifully is turn those tropes on their head and showcase the horror of the everyday experience of many people of color. Take away the wild twists, turns, and horror violence of the movie and there is still plenty of tension and horror. “[It] was to say there’s a monster lurking underneath this country. And even though you don’t always see it, it’s there, and lot of us know it’s there,” Peele told Ebony magazine of the film’s real monster, racism.

Naturally, when the topic of race is approached in any medium, a flood of political backlash soon follows and this has already been the case with this movie. Get Out’s perfect 100% Rotten Tomatoes score was tarnished by a review from a right leaning website, a review that not only gets simple details wrong, it incorrectly categorizes the film as a comedy saying it doesn’t stand up against “classic” comedies such as the critical and financial flop Norbit. What is particularly difficult about reviews like this, is that, by reacting far too quickly and harshly, it misses the heart of what Get Out is saying.

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The story isn’t asking for political action. It’s not asking for widespread, big government intervention into issues of race. It’s not asking for the impeachment of the current president. It’s the cries of a biracial artist in America, from his celebrity platform, pleading for the majority culture to listen and immerse themselves in the horrors of everyday life for the minority. My viewing was so heartbreaking because it was clear this was the experience of many of the people I shared a theater with. Their cheers at the film’s climax were voices joining in to the cries of the filmmaker.

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Get Out is a gift, it’s a window into the life of our fellow human. My prayer is that viewers might be able to listen to the cries, to fight back the initial urge to react, and join in on the experience. While the film isn’t asking for political action, it is asking for the feelings and experiences of people of color in America to be validated. You might not immediately understand what is going on in every scene, but what an invitation to ask why you don’t or to see the movie with a friend of color. “That’s the nicest thing you can hear from a white person sometimes: ‘I don’t know,’” Get Out star Daniel Kaluuya told Vulture.

As much as this film is fun to examine (there are tons of small details pointing to the history of race in our country), Peele is also asking you to examine your reaction to each scene, particularly throughout the final act. This herculean, first-time directing effort manages to cover incredible ground touching on relationships between races, genders, cultures, and within races, genders, and cultures. Sometimes the movie features humor you’d expect from Peele while at other times it features situations akin to academic studies on race. The narrative you enter with Get Out is complicated but so is experiencing its themes in the everyday.

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“When I watched it, I was like, ‘This is how racism feels.’ You get really paranoid, and you internalize it, and you get really weird around people that are close to you, and you don’t understand it. You don’t know if you’ve got the right to be angry, and then it all goes f****** ape sh**, because you have this release of rage, because you’re not around people that you can talk about it with. The rage suits the genre. Like I said, there’s nothing more horrifying in life than racism,” Kaluuya says later in the Vulture interview.

If you are willing to ask some hard questions of the film and yourself, here are some I’d offer. *SPOILER WARNING* Some of these questions carry mild spoilers for the film.

– Rose’s father says a lot during the tour of the house…his relative was defeated by Jesse Owens, he would have voted for Obama for a third term, he feels bad about having people of color as servants…why might any or all of these situations make Chris uncomfortable?

– Even though the party scene is exaggerated, do you believe people of color often encounter conversations like these in real life (ex: a woman asks Rose if “being” with a black guy is better)?

– Once it’s revealed what is really going on at the Armitage home, what does it say about views of the black body through history? Have you or anyone you’ve known ever harbored anger or jealousy of the physical abilities of a person of color?

– Once it is revealed what is going on with Georgina and Walter, what does that tell you about the awkwardness of the interactions between them and Chris previously in the film? Why were these interactions so awkward?

– By the end of the movie you might realize there is actually more going on in the scene with the police officer at the beginning. Why might Rose have so adamantly jumped to Chris’s defense?

– Have you ever watched a slasher or horror movie before? They often feature a white female protagonist. Was your experience with the final villain showdowns in those movies the same or different than with Get Out? Particularly, when Chris has the film’s final villain in his grasp, do you feel differently than you might if the roles were reversed? Why?

This is a rated R film, so you may also want to take that into consideration before watching it.

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 understanding of life after college. 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’s 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 in campus ministry, 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?