Here I Raise My Ebenezer

There is a lot of fun history in our city. On a corner downtown, sits Sun Records where the likes of Johnny Cash, Jerry lee Lewis, and, of course, Elvis got their start. Walk on through Beale Street where neon lights and live music fill the air any given night. Splash around with the Peabody ducks, who nabbed some name dropping on this season’s breakout TV show “This Is Us.” All of these places are fun to visit and, while there, you can take some totally boss, smiley selfies with your travel mates. Every city has landmarks that collectively tell the story of that place. With any given city, though, the fun places don’t tell the whole story.

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Some cities like Memphis, Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma, have some very different attractions. Attractions that most never learn about in school. In these places you will find monuments, memorials, and museums documenting the history of the mid-century American civil rights movement. The story of this movement paints the walls of these places with a mosaic of emotions. At these sites, you might see a picture, a plaque, or a statue of unimaginable violence next to a visage of great victory and freedom. In the shadows of the grave markers of children, resides generations inspired by their innocence, courage, and sacrifice.

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At the end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Arkansas river in Selma, stands several monuments paying respect to a collection of the prominent figures that crossed that bridge in the marches from Selma to Montgomery. These marchers were protesting unfair voting laws across the south. Next to those monuments is an Ebenezer, a pile of large stones, an image pulled from the Bible to mark significant events in the history of God’s people. These markers help God’s people remember the story of that place, the good and the bad. Why did God think it necessary to mark our journeys with these monuments?

First of all, these landmarks help us remember. Throughout the Bible, God continuously reminds his people who he is. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the beginning and the end, the Alpha and Omega, the great I Am, the Lord of all, the deliverer of God’s people out of Egypt, the creator of all things, our Father, our King, our Shepherd, and on and on, are all images God recalls for our benefit. God establishes his credibility with us by recalling the great victories and freedom he has delivered and the intense evils he has delivered us from. We need to remember these things especially in times of darkness, when we feel farthest from God, and prone to disbelief. God answers those feelings by reminding us where we’ve been.

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Secondly, these memorials act as a mirror bringing us face to face with the realities of our story. Our country was established with a broken system, one that denied the humanity of certain people. These are systems, though they have been battled, that we still feel today. Some would say we live in a post-racial society, that the images featured on the walls of these museums are from the distant past, that we’ve moved on, and we all experience equality.

But then we hear the cries white nationalists for a return to segregation, already very segregated worship services, the right to vote being challenged in certain states, racial slurs scribbled across the home of one of the world’s most prominent athletes, nooses being left at the National African American Museum, and so on and so on and you wonder have we really moved on? In some ways, yes, in others, no, but these mirror images from today and yesterday help to remind us of the work that has been done and the work still unfinished.

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The monuments, memorials, and museums of the civil rights movement are not always fun places to visit. Taking selfies might be the last thing on your mind. The truth of America’s history of oppression is hard to experience in any form. The mixture of emotions one might move through while reliving these sites takes a toll. It is exhausting, but imagine how exhausting it must be to live through it every day. The long-lasting effects created by the systematic and cultural traditions present in America’s foundation have great influence on the livelihood of many people even today. If we don’t maintain and visit these Ebenezers, will we ever remember to change? If we hear the Lord cry out for justice, and ignore it are we not the people James is talking to,

“For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.”

Having hope that we are not doomed to repeat the ugliest chapters of our history begins with remembering the stories behind the landmarks.

Here I raise my Ebenezer

Here there by Thy great help I’ve come

And I hope, by Thy good pleasure

Safely to arrive at home

Jesus sought me when a stranger

Wandering from the fold of God

He, to rescue me from danger

Interposed His precious blood

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“Anne with an E” – Breaking the slate clean

“Hey, Carrots…Carrots!”

For any Anne of Green Gables fans, this is one of the most iconic scenes in L.M. Montgomery’s beloved first book. Anne is an orphan who has been mistreated and used for free labor her whole life. Living at the turn of the 20th century, this was no joke. We’ve all seen Newsies. We know that child labor laws weren’t exactly a thing. Not only has Anne been an orphan her whole life, she’s also a red-head. Long before Molly Ringwald and Emma Stone, having red hair was considered a source of shame and inferiority.

So here Anne is, sitting in a new classroom surrounded by new children, in a new home with a dubious level of security, and a popular boy immediately teases her about her hair. In the midst of Anne hoping that her life might be different, she is reminded of all that she can’t leave behind. She responds by doing what most of us have wanted to do at one time or another, breaking her slate over the offender’s head.

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A lot of buzz has surrounded Netflix’s new adaption “Anne with an E.” A grittier and more realistic take on the classic children’s book, Moira Walley-Beckett’s interpretation for the CBC has been drawing mixed reactions. On the positive side, the casting is excellent and the personality of each character is consistent with the source material. The setting of Prince Edward Island during the time period is brought to life in vivid detail. You feel immersed in the difficulty as well as the magic of life on a rural Canadian island. Some of the dialogue, particularly in the opening episode, are word-for-word from the book. What is different about this Anne (and drawing much of the criticism) is highlighting her background of trauma and uncertainty. The first few episodes include flashbacks from Anne’s life before Green Gables and take some creative license in speculating on this theme. At some points I found the backstory embellishing to be a bit excessive, and the last few episodes have a darker tone that departs further from the source material than I would prefer. But in general Walley-Beckett invites us to think about Anne as a human, not just a heroine.

Montgomery implied that Anne’s life before Green Gables was marked by servitude, being shuffled between homes and the asylum, and having experienced cruelty. Anne is continually penalized with suspicion and fear for being an orphan, as though that were somehow her fault. Her entire young life has been a struggle to belong, to feel wanted. She only arrives at Green Gables by mistake, the Cuthberts having sent for a boy but receiving a girl. Her hopes and dreams of having a home and a family are initially dashed when she finds out that she is not what they were expecting. “Anne with an E” explores what a real child would think and feel if that was her reality. A real child would experience flashbacks, would be paranoid about people’s motives, and would need to have found ways to cope.

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This is the greatest strength of “Anne”, blending the character’s famous imagination and optimism with her suffering. While Anne’s carpetbag might have been light, she arrived with some real baggage. Her way of processing her bleak life was to find resiliency in imagining something much better. She was instinctively drawn to books and stories and words in order to draw beauty from barrenness. Rather than detracting from the positivity of the book, I think this approach only enhances the power of Anne as a role model. Anyone can be optimistic who has never suffered, it takes real strength to go through the fire and still find beauty and joy in the world around you.

“Anne” also asks more of its audience than the popular 1980s adaptation. Part of the backlash against the new series is that it shows too much of the harsh reality and not enough of the whimsy and flowering landscapes. But in this response, viewers are sending a dangerous message to Anne and each other. We are functionally saying that you can only be beloved if you leave your baggage at the door and embody what others want you to be. Be upbeat, be charming, be pretty, and people will like you.

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And yet none of us are a blank slate. We all carry around painful experiences and sources of shame that cause us to feel trepidation about our place in the world. As with Anne, many of those things have occurred outside our control. In C.S. Lewis’ book “Til We Have Faces” there is a profound line

“Don’t you think the things people are most ashamed of are things they can’t help?”

We are at our most vulnerable when confronted with things inside us and around us that are not our choice. Our greatest shame is our powerlessness to make ourselves and our lives exactly how we think they should be. We want to just break the slate of our past and powerlessness and act like we are everything we want to be.

But at the end of the day we don’t actually want to be a blank slate, we want to be fully known and fully loved for all that we are. We want to be able to tell our whole stories and see that who we are is still worthy and lovable. In “Anne with an E,” Anne doesn’t break her slate in half over Gilbert’s head, she only cracks it. Perhaps this is the invitation “Anne” offers. To not try to leave our histories behind and pretend to be blank slates, but to find love and belonging as whole people.

Our Sunday Best

For some of us, church isn’t church without freshly pressed slacks, a necktie tied pinned with a gold chain, and shoes pristinely shined. For others, church is more like church as they feel a cool breeze through the knee hole in their jeans with their flip flops smacking and pattering announcing their entry. The term “Sunday Best” has a wide range of connotations across the tapestry of the body of Christ. As I reflect on my time touring the civil rights monuments of the American south, this term took on a whole new meaning. This new definition comes from a set of two pictures.

“And as long as I’ve got my suit and tie…all pressed up in black and white.” Justin Timberlake may have been trying to make the club a little classier with his 2013 hit “Suit & Tie” but long before one of Memphis’s favorite sons tried to bring it back, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sure was making it look good. It’s difficult to find a statue or picture of Dr. King in front of a crowd without his suit and tie. It was his suit of armor, a uniform of his vocation as a pastor, proof that whether he was behind the pulpit or in front a march, it was an act of worship.

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The fashion of the movement also became intertwined in the fabric of its protests. Downtown shopping districts in cities denying blacks their human rights relied on the profits of selling the freshest Sunday looks. In an act of protest, citizens of these cities would refrain from buying new church clothes to send a powerful blow to an economy that was supporting systems of oppression across the south. Church clothes became a way of communicating power. They, also, became a way of communicating that the cause of civil rights was a worthy one. Which leads us to the first picture.

Sprawled across the steps of the Sixth Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL, dozens of civil rights leaders the likes of Dr. King, Rosa Parks, and many more stood tall adorned in crisp suits and dresses. Looking at the picture you might assume the group was about to turn around and enter the sanctuary for a vibrant holiday church service. In reality, this crowd was prepared for a date with a prison cell. They were turning themselves in to the police, a situation many of them were familiar with throughout the marches and protests that helped define the movement. They gladly went to jail for their rights and the rights of their sisters and brothers. This was an occasion that called for their Sunday best. It is a picture filled with dignity, honor, and hope. The second picture is a different story.

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“Daddy let me watch from his shoulders,” is etched across the sculpture of a fancy hat in a style you might see in an episode of Mad Men. The others in the collection feature similar sentiments. One hat boasts about being excused from school. Another describes packing a picnic. To the right of the hats are a series of screen printed ties. Printed on each one is a group of people decked out in their Sunday best. Hats, ties, smiling children on shoulders, and a fresh picnic packed with all the summer favorites, this is the second picture. As the art exhibit seen at the Rosa Parks Museum explains, this was a common scene at a lynching.

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Letters on the wall explain that the time between the decades prior to the turn of the 19th century and on through the late 60’s saw thousands of known lynchings. Black people were hung from trees, burned, beaten to death, etc. for charges such as talking to the wrong person, eating at the wrong restaurant, or trying to register to vote. As informal mobs brutalized human beings, thousands would gather to watch with smiles and laughter all while wearing their Sunday best. Isn’t it interesting that these spectators were covered by layers of fine clothing, but they stand in that crowd exposed for future generations to see? No amount of expensive material can hide evil from God’s sight.

Throughout church history, high priests and pastors often wore elaborate outfits for everything from holidays to your average Sunday. Some were prescribed by scripture like that of Old Testament temple priests. When it came time for Jesus to enter the scene, though, he saw that these ceremonial clothes had become a way of trying to hide the sins of the religious elites like the Pharisees. Looking at Matthew 23, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” Not long after, Jesus was beaten, stripped naked, and hung upon what scripture often calls a tree. He became clothed in all of our darkness, guilt, and shame and died for our sins. Then he rose, conquering death and assuring that we would have access to eternal robes of righteousness.

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As I look at both of these pictures, I need to cling to the robes Jesus has wrapped me in. It was humans that stood in those lynching crowds with smiles on their faces. It was humans that hit children with high powered fire hoses and vicious dogs. It was humans that sent a pastor and a seamstress to prison for trying to live with dignity. Humans are capable of unspeakable evil even while wearing the nicest threads. I am human and the painful past of America is terrifying to me because it reminds me that I am capable of evil.

Fortunately, Jesus redefined our Sunday best and established his own high fashion. He sees our broken heart behind anything we try to cover it with and offers us his love anyway. He not only covers us with his Sunday best but gives us the ability to clothe others in his love. Jesus saves me from evil and inspires me towards good. In stripping down their victims, the people in those horrific lynch mobs exposed their own sinful hearts that will define their history. Jesus’s robes of righteousness defined Dr. King’s legacy and I pray they’ll also define mine.

 

For more information on the history of lynching in America, the Equal Justice Initiative led by Bryan Stevenson has created this website: lynchinginamerica.eji.org

Don’t be surprised by Wonder Woman

Let me describe a scene to you from the most recent Star Wars movie, Rogue One. Tell me if it feels familiar to you. The story’s lead Jyn Erso has agreed to help the Rebel Alliance gain access to her former mentor Saw Gerrera. They travel to Empire occupied Jedha, home to Gerrera and an ancient Jedi Temple. It’s not long before Erso and the rebels are caught up in scuffle, as Star Wars rebels tend to do. Erso is being led around the planet by rebel leader Cassian Andor. Andor has been carrying the weight of rebellion on his shoulder for years. He is constantly burdened by the safety of the mission and his team. There is a pride to this burden and this pride leads to my least favorite scene in the movie.

In the middle of the skirmish, Andor is leading Erso around a chaotic battlefield reminiscent of scenes of modern warfare we’re used to today. Naturally, Andor can’t possibly account for every danger around every corner and he and Erso get cornered by a squad of dreaded Stormtroopers. Looking at Andor you see the face of failure. They’re doomed, dead where they stand. Suddenly, Erso kicks into high gear and drops both the troopers and Andor’s jaw. He can’t believe Erso single-handedly dismantled the troopers. He can’t believe Erso, who is the mentee of the very accomplished rebel they were there to find, who had been providing for herself for the better part of a decade in a conflict-heavy galaxy, who he had rescued from a prison labor camp alongside other hardened criminals, who is the daughter of one of the greatest geniuses in the galaxy, could possibly have the skills to survive that situation. So why is Andor surprised?

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Andor is probably surprised because decades of film history have told him that whenever a woman fends for herself, its surprising. This is a feeling of surprise Han and Luke felt the minute Princess Leia grabbed a blaster and led them down the garbage shoot. So here we are, it’s 2017, and we have our first big-screen adaptation of the world’s most famous superheroine, Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman has been around for decades, and, in that time, has fought her way from the Justice League’s secretary to one of the busts carved into DC Comics’ Mount Rushmore alongside her fellow pop culture icons of Batman and Superman. One would hope that, as we’ve entered a moment in cinematic history where studios are ready to put women in the title role and in the director chair, we would stop being surprised by what women are capable of. One would hope…

Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman and her male companion, Stever Trevor, enter a dark London alley. They’re carrying crucial intelligence the British military needs to gain an advantage in World War I and are being pursued by undercover German soldiers. Just like Erso and Andor in the battle on Jehda, Trevor leads them into a corner. He doesn’t see a way out, and he’s burdened by a need to find a way out of this hopeless situation. A German gun goes off and Trevor knows the bullet’s for him. A “ping” familiar to Wonder Woman fans rings out as Prince stops the bullet with her signature cuffs. Trevor’s jaw drops. He’s surprised that Wonder Woman, the one who saved him from a plane crash, the one who he watched take out a dozen German soldiers in an earlier battle, a woman he learned is from an advanced race of Amazon warriors from a supernaturally hidden home world, could possibly be the solution to them surviving the ambush.

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Wonder Woman, as a film, is filled with breathtaking action scenes, charmingly fun banter between interesting characters, and some of the coolest, most memorable superhero moments committed to film. It belongs at the top of the list of DC’s most recent efforts and right alongside its Marvel Comics (Avengers, Iron Man, etc.) peers. As reviews for the film have been positive, and as Wonder Woman continues to be a cultural icon, my fear is that story that comes out of the box office this weekend will be headlined by surprise.

Wonder Woman will lead the box office in bouncing back from the lowest Memorial Day numbers in about a decade. Last week, two movies were released that were supposed to kick start the summer cinema season. Helmed by a juggernaut franchise and a human juggernaut in The Rock, Pirates of the Caribbean 5 and Baywatch were financial disappointments. They led the summer into a dark alley and had studios questioning if they’d survive. Here comes Wonder Woman to save the day.

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Wonder Woman herself, Gal Gadot, with director Patty Jenkins

We live in a world with Aja Brown, the mayor of Compton, who led successful peace negotiations between rival gangs the Bloods and the Crips. We live in a world with Ava DuVernay, acclaimed director who not only became the first female African America director to helm a $100 million budget movie with Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time but, also, created the wildly complex and riveting Queen Sugar, a show she intentionally hires up-and-coming female directors to lead. We live in a world with Aung San Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest for 15 years for her political activism before being elected to lead the Myanmar government. We live in a world with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Olympic Judo Gold Medalist and sexual assault survivor/activist Kayla Harrison, activist for female education Malala, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and astronaut and engineer Ellen Ochoa. We live in a world where more women than men are graduating college. We even live in a world where even American Ninja Warrior has seen Jessie Graff break course records. There are women of wonder all around us.

The success of Wonder Woman shouldn’t be a surprise, and, hopefully, will send a clear message that we’re ready for more. Just recently, Academy Award winning actress Jessica Chastain, while serving on the Canne Film Festival jury, commented on the current climate of female representation in film, “It was quite disturbing to me, to be honest.” For this to change, our view of what women are capable of has to change. We have to believe women can lead brilliant, complex and compelling stories because they live those stories every day.

We’ve come a long way and Wonder Woman might be the beginning of something great. Her character, like the women of the world, has fought for her place on the marquee. We have forced women to fight for their place at the voting booth, in the classroom, in the lab, on the hill, in the battlefield, at the finish line, and in the conference room. Women will continue to fight, so when will men stop being surprised when they can fight better than us?

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