“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.

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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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!

“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

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

By guest contributor Alexis Stanford

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

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

1.) Love is not for the risk averse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And finally…

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nowhere is safe

I was a freshman in college on 9/11. We were in morning chapel when the first tower was hit, and we came upstairs to the cafeteria in time for the big screen TV to show the second tower fall. It seemed like a movie, none of it felt real. That day changed so many things; the way we feel when we see the New York City skyline, the way we travel, the way our military has operated, the way we perceive threats of violence, the way we perceive each other. That fear has only escalated, particularly in the past few years. Now we have other major cities and other public places to add to the list: Nairobi, Paris, Orlando, Istanbul, Brussels, Aleppo…the list goes on. It can be easy to feel unsafe, to be tempted to just not go anywhere anymore.

In the middle of these years of escalating fear I first watched the documentary “Man on Wire” and the subsequent feature film “The Walk“. They tell the story of Philippe Petit, a young tightrope walker and performance artist who in 1974 illegally hung a tightrope wire between the Twin Towers and walked back and forth across the gap. Petit captured my imagination with his stunt because of the way he viewed the event.

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When Petit was 17 he had a toothache and was sitting in a dentist office in Paris. While flipping through a magazine he came across a drawing of the plans for the World Trade Center that was soon to begin construction in New York City. At that moment, Petit’s primary goal in life became to walk between the towers. He single-mindedly practiced his craft, what he considered his art. He never used a safety harness, it was always just him and his balance pole and the wire. He practiced constantly on a wire strung between trees, having his friends hang from the wire and shake it to simulate the high winds that would be blowing at the altitude of the WTC.

He flew back and forth from Paris to NYC multiple times to scout the location and to find insiders who could help his very elaborate scheme. Preparing for the walk was like a bank heist for performance art. When the day finally came it took them all night to hang the wire, and as one of his friends said, “It was the worst wire we ever hung.” Petit’s face was uncertain as he was getting a feel for the wire and the conditions. His friend goes on with tears in his eyes, “but then I saw his face change, and I knew it was all ok.” Petit walked back and forth eight times. He lay down on the wire looking up at the sky. He sat on the wire and looked down at the crowd that had formed on the street. He only came down because the police threatened to bring a helicopter to forcibly remove him from the wire. Reporters and police immediately asked him why he would do such a crazy thing. Petit answered, “I just danced at the top of the world and you ask why?!”

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That’s the joy that I want to draw from Petit. I’m terrified of heights and “The Walk” is stressful to watch in that regard (he didn’t have a harness…he didn’t have a harness!!!). But you get to share in Petit’s love of his art, the beauty that he sees in “dancing at the top of the world.” He wasn’t thinking about the fear of the fall, he was thinking about the beauty of life and of doing what he was made to do. Watching both films gave me a new memory of the World Trade Center, and a new way to think about places that we associate with fear.  I remembered that our gathering spaces can be marked by friendship and beauty rather than death.

9/11 changed everything for my family too. My brother Jesse had joined the Marine Corp Reserves that summer, when none of us thought a foreign conflict was imminent. He spoke to my mom on the phone that day and told her, “Mom, I’m ready. This is what I was trained for.” He was deployed in the fall of 2004 after finishing college and starting seminary, and was killed in action on January 26, 2005. The absolute worst case scenario for my family had become a reality.

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Tragedy brings you to your knees and when you look up you realize you’re kneeling at a crossroads. You can either be paralyzed by the knowledge that pain and loss are always a moment away, or you can cast yourself upon God’s limitless healing and the hope of the resurrection from the dead. It took me two years to leave the crossroads, but God’s mercy led me down the path of healing and hope.

One of the things I learned in the process was that Petit isn’t the only one whose life dangles on a wire. Every moment of every day each of our lives are hanging by a thread. We’re each one slippery patch of ice, one faulty jet engine, one cancer diagnosis, one angry bullet away from death. How do we live with such an ever-present reality? By embracing the truth we repeat from the prayer book, “We have no defender but you, O God.” We live in an age of darkness by following the Light that no darkness can overcome. Our risen Savior gives us the courage to board an airplane, to get behind the wheel, to attend public events, to enter the voting booth, and to love others deeply without fear and without loneliness.

It’s true that in today’s climate any public place could be a potential target. And it’s also true that this is still our Father’s world. We were still made to love the goodness of all that God has created, and we were made to be together rather than alone. Even if the worst case scenario does happen to us or to people we love, we are assured that death and violence are not God’s final word. Each day we live in the hope of being raised with Christ and of God’s world being restored to a place that is free of death and sorrow and pain. Each day we have the freedom to not live in fear but to welcome each morning as a gift from God, our true Sustainer of life.

This is my Father’s world.
O let me ne’er forget
that though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world:
why should my heart be sad?
The Lord is King; let the heavens ring!
God reigns; let the earth be glad! 

 

The Blood Between Us — braided veins

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

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

via The Blood Between Us — braided veins

Finding your Roots: The mini-series and the Exodus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Habakkuk: This country is going down the tubes

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Other Minor Prophets study guides (in chronological order):

Nahum: When The Man is keeping you down

Haggai: Life in the Ruins

Joel: The Bible’s horror poetry