“Selma” left me speechless, but I can’t stay that way.

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Speechless. That is how the film “Selma” left me. The horror of the hate and the violence…speechless. The awe of the man that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was…speechless. The talent of the film’s director, Ava DuVernay, and the performance of the man who wore King’s shoes, David Oyelowo…speechless. The weight of a struggle that, as a white man from a predominantly white, rural area of Southwestern PA, I will never fully understand…speechless.

What “Selma” also did, however, was remind me that as a follower of Jesus, in the face of the strife of my brothers and sisters, I am not able to remain speechless. I must, then, attempt to understand. How is this accomplished, though? Luckily, “Selma” also answers that question.

We must enter the lives of people who are different from us. We must be in community, community driven by love, love that is not exclusive. When we are in community we must then open our ears and listen. Listen to people like author and Senior Director of Mobilizing for Sojourners, Lisa Sharon Harper, who said in a piece called “The Other Lie” that followed the events in Ferguson,

“Every human being on the face of the earth…every person on the street, and every single person in Ferguson—is made in the image of God. That means, all things being equal, every single person on earth was created with the command and the capacity to exercise Genesis 1:26-27 dominion, which means to steward or in modern terms, to exercise agency or lead. To diminish the ability of humans to exercise dominion, is to diminish the image of God in them—and to diminish God’s image on earth. And the fastest and surest way to diminish the ability of humans to exercise agency, to lead, is through poverty or oppression.”

We must listen to people like my colleague and friend, Cole Arthur, who struck an important nerve as she cried through her keyboard,

“I tell myself that the last thing the world needs is another black voice telling it to pay attention to black voices. So I read every other voice I can find. And I cry. And I pray. And I theatrically punch my headboard. And I keep my voice tucked deep between the lies that I don’t matter and nothing will change.

But as I lay here trying to tuck that voice a little deeper, a little farther back, it begins to scream. Like nothing you’ve ever heard because it’s like nothing I’ve ever felt. Because Eric Garner… and I can’t breathe. And Trayvon Martin and I have a little brother and I can’t breathe. And he had his hands up and I’m typing with mine, and no one can breathe– no one can think– no one can live if, despite all our best efforts, at the end of the day, the color of my skin ignites so much fear in a person, that they’d rather kill me than speak words to me.”

As your ears, eyes, and heart are open to the struggle that these women are describing you will realize that you do not have to fully understand this struggle the way that your brothers and sisters do to love them, to sit next to them, to advocate for them, to affirm the dignity they are given as living, breathing children of God.

Oh what it must have been like to be in the presence of Dr. King. It becomes very easy for him to become a video clip or a sound byte to us, but “Selma” never lets him be that. He is Dr. King, a Nobel Prize winning, well educated preacher, but he is also Martin. He was a man, an imperfect man, but a man that spent years of his life leading like very few can. He had to be on every minute of every day.

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The events that happened in Selma seem like they should be foreign to us, a distant memory, but as the film unfolded I heard the echoes of these tragedies all around me. Specifically, a moment when a young, black man is slain by a point blank shot from an Alabama State trooper, and my mind travelled to a little over a year ago when I watched another movie called, “Fruitvale Station (worth looking up if you haven’t seen it).”

In “Selma,” Dr. King visits that slain young man’s grandfather and assured him that as much as he’s cried for his grandchild that was taken far too soon, “God was the first to cry.” A reminder that on top of being a Nobel laureate, leader, academic, and husband, Dr. King was also a pastor. My prayer is that those words will supply comfort and peace to my friends and I want them to know that I am behind God in that line ready to cry with you.

Lisa Sharon Harper’s full article

Cole Arthur’s full post

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Boyhood: Capturing the Reality of Life

The funny thing about children is that they are always watching. They are always observing the world around them, taking it all in. The scary thing about children is wondering what they are absorbing. The smallest conversations, actions, facial expressions, etc. can transform a moment for a kid, and change the way they see the world. This is something that is depicted with terrifying reality in Richard Linklater’s sociology-experiment-of-a-movie, “Boyhood.”

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For those who don’t know, the gimmick behind “Boyhood” is that it was filmed over the span of 12 years with the main cast all aging in real time. We join young Mason (Ellar Coltrane) at the age of five staring into the sky wondering, dreaming of what, we can only guess. From there we watch as new characters enter and leave his life like a revolving door all while he looks on with his deep blue eyes that are washing over everything in his environment, consuming all of the sights, sounds, and movements his world has to offer.

Gimmicks can lead filmmakers down some treacherous roads, for examples see the onslaught of point-of-view films in the wake of “The Blair Witch Project” or the decreasing interest in M. Night Shyamalan movies as audiences became accustomed to surprise twists. However, this year we saw some quirky gimmicks used brilliantly (see “Birdman’s” one-shot). What makes “Boyhood” so effective is that we are seeing real people really moving through time, the movie expresses a sense of reality that the best make-up artists in the business can’t provide.

As an audience when we are watching biographical movies we are trained to expect tragedy. You expect people to experience life-changing accidents, heart-breaking deaths, or at least the embarrassment of a parent walking in on something no parent wants to see. Linklater builds these suspenseful moments again and again in “Boyhood,” but with no expected pay off. We have seen story after story of people formed by tragedy, but the truth is that lots of people move through life being formed by very normal experiences: the first time you get a note from a girl in class, your first beer, the first time you shoot a gun, the first ride in your dad’s classic GTO. This again, adds to the reality of the movie.

This may sound mundane and uninteresting but the draw of “Boyhood” is that we experience this story with the wide-eyed wonder of Mason. We are interested in the characters in his life because he is. Mason, as most kids do, says anything and asks everything. The benefit is that we get to see how people react to being asked curious, blunt questions. What this creates are two versions, the audiences’ and Mason’s.

The audience may experience Patricia Arquette’s mom as a strong woman who has survived incredible pain to work through school and become a master’s level psychology professor. Mason barely knows what she teaches or does. Every move she makes is her trying as hard as she can to give her kids a better life. Rarely does Mason or his sister understand why they have to move or why mom is crying. The heartbreaking reality of how little we appreciate our parents.

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Mom is contrasted by Mason Sr. played by Ethan Hawke. Raising the kids is easier for him. He gets to swoop in and do fun things with them. He gets to be overly romantic and idealistic. It’s no wonder that by the end of the film, Mason is a spitting image (down to the wrinkled button-up T and scraggly goatee) of his father.

The examples Mason gets are of very real people who are wandering through life without a clear sense of whether or not they are doing things right. They get excited, they move, they fail, they cry, they do it all again. Mason experiences it all and the result is the latter parts of the film being filled with him asking what life is really all about. No one has given him an answer and you can believe he’s been looking for it.

Mason’s penchant for wonder and observation leads him to photography which symbolically fits the entire scope of the film. “Boyhood” is about the moments that make up life. Linklater provides these moments in many ways: fashion, hair styles, music of the time. Mason loves capturing those moments, freezing them, examining them. There are very few overly dramatic or intense scenes, but “Boyhood” is engaging and beautiful because it is life displayed in a way movies rarely can capture and, by the end, it may have you asking what your life is really all about.

A VIP Pass to Epiphany

Today marks the beginning of Epiphany, the liturgical season that focuses on the meaning of the incarnation.  “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” Jesus drew near to appear in our midst.  This is a time to celebrate that Christ has come, our waiting was not in vain.

The Wise Men in Matthew’s Gospel give us a wonderful illustration of the magnitude of Jesus’ advent on Earth (Matt. 1-2).  One of the most compelling explorations of who these unknown men were can be found in Lew Wallace’s 19th century epic, Ben Hur.  The first 40 pages of the novel dream about who the 3 men might have been and how God called each of them to pursue a mysterious star.  Most scholars now believe that the men likely came from Babylon, while Wallace postulates that one was Greek, one Indian, and one Egyptian.  We can be nearly certain that this is inaccurate, but the heart of his character choices reflects a true knowledge of for whom the Savior came: everyone.

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Wallace paints a picture of the men converging part way through their journeys, each having received a calling and an assurance from the Spirit that they would be led to other seekers of Truth and would all be led to the Redeemer. When their paths come together, they pause to share a meal:

“Speaking together they said this simple grace: ‘Father of all – God – what we have here is of Thee; take our thanks and bless us, that we may continue to do Thy will.’ With the last word they raised their eyes, and looked at each other in wonder. Each had spoken in a language never before heard by the others; yet each understood perfectly what was said. Their souls thrilled with divine emotion, for by the miracle they recognized the Divine Presence.”

One by one they share their stories of how God spoke to them and how the star first appeared. One by one they followed it to this meeting point and their joy and awe increased with each story from their brethren.  As night fell, they gathered their supplies to continue their nocturnal quest together.

“By and by the moon came up. And as the three tall white figures sped, with soundless tread, through the opalescent light, they appeared like specters flying from hateful shadows. Suddenly, in the air before them, not farther up than a low hill-top flared a lambent flame; as they looked at it, the apparition contracted into a focus of dazzling luster. Their hearts beat fast; their souls thrilled; and they shouted as with one voice, “The Star! The Star! God is with us!”

What a lovely picture of God bringing people together from far-flung countries and cultures, unifying them with the Spirit, and using them to send the Good News back with them so all may know that the Messiah has come.  While the historical nationality of the Wise Men was likely not what Wallace imagined, we see Paul taking the Gospel to the Gentiles throughout the Roman empire, and an Ethiopian eunuch coming to faith in Christ (Acts 8) and taking the Good News back to northern Africa. Some 300 years later, one of the greatest Christian theologians of all time would be called forth from Africa, Augustine of Hippo.  Jesus was not a local god or a local blessing, but a game-changer for the whole world.  The Wise Men and the ministry of the early Church show us that while Christianity may claim an exclusive Truth, it does not have an exclusive guest list.  Christ came for all people and the entire world is invited to consider what His drawing near means for them.

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If you would like to study the Matthew account in more depth, feel free to draw from this study guide:

Advent: Dream weaver

For tonight’s passage we’re going to keep track of how many times God communicates through people’s dreams, and how many prophesies are fulfilled through the birth of Jesus. Who wants to keep track of the dreams? Of the prophesies?

Matt. 1:18-25

  • What was Joseph planning to do when he found out his fiancée was pregnant? Why was divorcing her quietly actually a very merciful thing to do at the time?
  • What does the angel tell him to do in the dream? What does Joseph do?
  • Someone look up the verse quoted in 23, Isa. 7:14
  • What stuck out to you about this account, or what’s something that you hadn’t noticed before?

Matt 2:1-12

  • Who are these men that come to see Herod? What are they looking for?
  • What is Herod’s reaction?
  • Someone look up Micah 5:2
  • What is his response back to the wise men?
  • What do the wise men do?
  • What dream do they have? How was God protecting Jesus through this?
  • What kind of person notices a new star in the sky and follows it to a distant country? What would it have been like to go on such a journey?
  • What does this incident of God drawing foreigners to Jesus’ birth tell us about God’s love for every nation?

Matt. 2:13-15

  • What is the next dream that happens in this passage? Why do they flee to Egypt?
  • Someone look up Hos. 11:1
  • What would that have been like for them?
  • Where else in the Bible have we seen Israelites going to Egypt for refuge? In what ways is Jesus identifying with His people through this experience?

Matt 2:16-23

  • What does Herod do?
  • Someone look up Jer. 31:15
  • Where else in the Bible have we seen a jealous ruler order infant boys to be killed? How is this another way that Jesus on an individual level follows Israel’s national history?
  • What other dreams happen? Where do Jesus and His family finally settle?

———-

  • What do you think of all these dreams and all of these OT prophesies?
  • As we heard in Ivan’s intro tonight, Advent is a time when we think about areas of our lives where we are waiting for God to show up. What comes to mind for you when you think about where you wish God would do something in your life or the world?
  • In these passages we saw God act with immense power to bring His plan of salvation into the world through Jesus. How does seeing God’s power in what we just read give you hope for His ability to work in your situations that may feel difficult or hopeless?

I’m not “Wild” about grief but love redemption.

Cheryl sits up, hunched over barely holding the weight of her body numbed by the drugs flowing through her veins. She is naked, bruised, colored by the smears of her makeup and the mattress on the floor she rests on is hardly offering support or comfort. Everything about the woman, daughter, thinker, sister, wife she once was is lost. Her body is lost to the drugs. Her dignity is on the mattress with the guy passed out against the stained wall. Her mother is lost to the disease all too common, cancer. Her mind is lost to grief.

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Real life Cheryl Strayed on the Pacific Coast Trail.

For those who have experienced grief, this tale might be relatable or understandable. The world changes on the other side loss. Before loss you feel safe. Before loss you are moving forward towards your dreams and goals. Afterwards the rules are different, you are different. How can you possibly move forward when you can barely move? How can the world have meaning when you can barely feel? This is the ride we get to go on with Cheryl Strayed in “Wild,” based on her memoir and starring Reese Witherspoon.

“Wild” tells a story about grief but also about guilt and shame and thousands of other emotions that we experience with Strayed as she pulls a Proclaimers and walks 500 miles and then walks 500 more on the Pacific Crest Trail. This journey is like watching someone go through an entire penitential Lenten season in two hours. Every step of the trail is a reminder of the pain she’s felt and wrongs she’s committed to those who are closest to her.

The walk is part of finding herself. After all, Strayed’s memoir is subtitled “From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.” However, the walk is also self-inflicted punishment. Strayed carries her pack like it’s filled with all her burdens and at the end of the day she has the scares to prove how heavy it is.

The clever way the film is pieced together combined with Witherpoon’s performance pulls you in. You want to know what went wrong, you want to know how bad it got. And as Strayed goes back, deeper and deeper into the dark places she goes forward. The hike gets easier the farther she goes. The pack, sometimes literally, gets lighter.

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There are times in this film when you hate Strayed for doing drugs, for cheating, etc. The thing is she hates herself for the same things as she imagines doing them with her deceased mom, played beautifully by Laura Dern, looking on. There are also times when you will love Strayed for her insightful quotes, the comradery she forms with fellow hikers, her reactions to well deserved Snapples, and more. There are also times when you feel her fear, her frustration, and her sadness.

It is easy to feel with Strayed, one because of Witherspoon’s portrayal, and two because she could be any of us. This film won’t be a cake walk for anyone who has experienced the kind of grief Strayed has but it can be rewarding knowing that anyone deserves a second chance. Along the way Strayed gets to realize how much she was throwing away, how much she is worth. Perhaps the best part about this journey is that it didn’t make Strayed perfect, it redeemed her and made her stronger. The rules do change after your loved ones slip through your fingers, but Strayed proves you can still play the game.

In “Foxcatcher,” devaluing others leads to a grim ending.

The real-life John du Pont

John du Pont, dressed in his Foxcatcher best, being arrested after the murder of Olympic gold medalist Dave Schultz.

When I was a kid my favorite toys were action figures. These were not the dolls my sisters played with, they wore camo, carried guns, and always caught the eye of the lone female action figure I had (Dr. Ellie Sattler from “Jurassic Park” of course). As the only boy amongst my siblings, my narrative interests as I played with toys were very different from those of my sisters. They cared if Barbie finally landed Ken, while in my productions there was always more at stake, most of the time the safety of the entire world.

What drew me in to playing with these toys was the creative freedom I had. They could do anything and go anywhere I needed them to go to advance my story. I used old soda boxes to create elaborate city skylines and when my main villain needed the upper hand on my valiant hero his main mode of capture was freezing my protagonist in a glass of water. This is a good time to thank my mom for putting up with the lack of freezer space.

As time went on, I realized that the fantasy world I’d created in my soda box city didn’t have to be the end. I could put the action figures away and participate in the real world with real people. When we enter Bennett Miller’s hauntingly weird retelling of the real-life events that ended in the murder of Olympic gold medalist Dave Schultz, the picture he paints of Schultz’s murderer, John du Pont, is that of a man raised in wealth that maybe never separated the six inch plastic soldiers in his life to living breathing people.

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“Foxcatcher,” named for the ranch owned by du Pont that became a training ground for US Olympic wrestling in the late 1980’s, exhibits du Pont as a boy trapped in a man’s body. Every move is made to impress his mother that has little to no interest in anything but maintaining the gaudy brass sconce laden world that is their estate. He fills his ranch with action figures in the form of wrestlers led by world and Olympic champion Mark Schultz, whose book the film is based.

Maybe we see du Pont’s life when he has given up on participating in the world and just wants to play with his toys. These wrestlers are things that he can play with and exploit. Mark Schultz has been adamant that there were no sexual interactions with du Pont during his stay at Foxcatcher and I really don’t believe that Miller expresses an explicit homosexual tone in some of the scenes that are called into question. Du Pont’s actions in the film, to me, are exploitation. He is acting out all of his boyhood fantasies with real-life toys. We even see him buying a tank. What little boy doesn’t want to ride in a tank?

Carell’s performance, the shocking murder scene, the dark, foggy environment of the ranch are all frightening aspects to the film but perhaps the most horrifying piece of this true crime puzzle is how old money and a culture of wealth created the monster. The tragedy is that when he was done playing with his toys one Olympic gold medalist was no longer a champion and the other Olympic gold medalist, devoted coach, loving brother, husband, and father was dead. A possession of du Pont’s put back in the toy box because the game didn’t end his way.

“Foxcatcher” is undoubtedly filled with some of the best acting performances of the year. My sympathies to Channing Tatum who will more than likely be overshadowed at Oscar time by Carell in the lead and the awards veteran status of Mark Ruffalo who starred as Dave Schultz. Tatum was perfect and heart-wrenching as Mark Schultz, a role the likes he may never see again.

Tatum’s best scene in the film is an example of the emotional toll exploitation can have. Dealing with a loss and looking into a mirror, unable to recognize the person he has become in the wake of the life he has been leading as du Pont’s lap dog, he snaps and self harms. He spins into self-destruction. He loses his sense of worth he proudly felt at the beginning of the story with the gold medal around his neck. Du Pont’s whittling away of the personhood of those around him leads to an unhappy ending, a reminder of what it looks like to take away the value of another person.