Ivan’s Top Ten 2018

This was a stacked year at the cinema! I’m not sure what’s to blame, but this has been my most challenging Top Ten list to date. There were a gaggle of really enjoyable big budget blockbusters like Avengers: Infinity War and the cultural milestone Black Panther. The family friendly genre was spoiled with the richness of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Paddington 2. That’s right, the Paddington sequel came out early this year and it was phenomenal! Documentaries made things difficult as well with the baffling Three Identical Strangers and the dizzying Free Solo proving reality is, truly, stranger than fiction.

More and more people were able to see themselves on screen in 2018. So much of what studios thought they knew about box office projections were defied nearly every week at the cinemas. The legacy of this year in film will hopefully be one that motivates producers to take more risks and tell more stories that surprise, provoke, and represent everyone. Here are those stories that moved me the most.

10. Leave No Trace (PG)

It’s hard to say why Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace was incredible. This is probably because a lot of the meaning and power behind the film were found in what the characters had a hard time saying. Granik doesn’t give you much in the way exposition in this story about a military veteran who chooses to live off the grid with his adolescent daughter, but so much is said in Ben Foster’s stoic and tormented performance. You know he loves his daughter more than anything. You know he’d do anything for her. But you also know that whatever scenes from his past are playing over and over behind his eyes, whatever trauma is boiling under his skin, whatever it is that he’s trying to escape…are driving him into isolation. It’s a subtle, heartbreaking picture of life after war, and one worth paying attention to.

Leave No Trace

Thomasin McKenzie and Ben Foster in Leave No Trace (2018).

9. First Man (PG-13)

First Man, an account of Neil Armstrong’s journey to the moon, is lightyears ahead of Damien Chazelle’s mundane and pretentious La La Land. Chazelle brings you into the rickety cockpit of the early space program while showing you that in order to reach the stars, you may have to detach from everything else. Ryan Gosling isn’t singing and dancing as the famous astronaut, quite the opposite actually. He perfectly exemplifies the stoicism of masculinity in mid-century America and the emotionless tenacity involved in taking this dangerous mission. Chazelle was the perfect director to ask these questions about what it takes to achieve such heights, a similar theme explored in his excellent film Whiplash. Helping guide the audience and her family through this mission is Claire Foy’s Janet Armstrong, Neil’s wife. Next time you find yourself staring at the moon at night, this movie may leave you thinking about Janet and so many others that were left behind here on Earth by men reaching for greatness.

Read Heather’s review of First Man here.

8. If Beale Street Could Talk (R)

One of the dictionary definitions of a “prophet” is, “one gifted with more than ordinary spiritual and moral insight.” I think James Baldwin was a prophet. His words paired with the directing of Barry Jenkins, the Oscar-winning filmmaker behind Moonlight, brings more than ordinary insight of life on Beale Street. A block of text begins the film explaining that the concept of Beale Street, is a street where communities of color form through systematic injustices. In this film adaptation of Baldwin’s novel, viewers get to see the beauty of such communities painted, through the camera lens, on the back drop of the oppression they experience on a daily basis. In the story of Tish and Fonny’s love, Baldwin and Jenkins highlight inequality in criminal justice, housing, religion, employment, education, and so much more. Too often ugly stories are told under a light that makes the subjects look ugly, but Beale Street tells the story of beautiful people who are victims of ugliness. The film tells a story that feels hopeless, but Jenkins tells truth without surrendering any beauty.

Read Heather’s review of Beale Street here.

7. Vox Lux (R)

At this point, it’s possible that Natalie Portman has an automatic entry on my Top Ten list whenever she has a movie coming out. In Vox Lux, she is riveting! The film tells the story of a mass shooting survivor turned pop music star. There is a moment in the film when Portman’s character Celeste wonders how she, as a mega celebrity who seemingly achieves more fame when she does harm than when she produces new art, compares herself to terrorists. This feels like a film for our times and one that Portman brings so much to. The monsters of fame and trauma have made Celeste a dangerous person to those around her, but when her wireless microphone is on, when there’s glitter adhered to her eyebrows, and when she is hitting every step of her choreography even those most hurt by her are caught up in her trance and you may be too. Vox Lux carries an R rating and viewers could use a heads up that the depiction of the mass shooting that opens the film is terrifying and graphic, but the film asks if that is a fitting mirror to our everyday reality?

Vox Lux

Natalie Portman in Vox Lux (2018).

6. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (PG-13)

Outside of Heinz Field over on the North Side of Pittsburgh, a big statue of Mr. Rogers overlooks the three rivers. It sits, sculpted with a signature sweater and tennis shoes, with on leg crossed watching with a smile on his face. This is, similarly, how he has supervised over much of my childhood. From doing ballet with Steelers great Lynn Swann to visits to the crayon factory to heartfelt reminders that I am loved and my feelings matter, Fred Rogers’s influence on me is immeasurable. With this year’s best documentary, I realized just how many others have been and continue to be influenced by Fred. The equation was this; a Presbyterian minister, primitive puppets, cheap sets, and a public access feed. All of this added up to magic and it all came from one man caring in a different way. This movie left me in my theater seat dreaming of all the people who have cared deeply about me and hoping that others have felt that way about me caring for them. Fred’s influence continues.

Fred Rogers Statue Pittsburgh

Fred Rogers statue overlooking Pittsburgh.

5. Eighth Grade (R)

I am not a middle school girl. Neither is 28-year-old stand-up comedian, Bo Burnham, but he has created such an authentic picture of today’s youth culture that anyone can relate to it. There are many seasons in life where humans will stop and wonder who they are. Post-college, mid-life, end-of-life, and others are all ages when our identity is worth evaluating, but is there a more tumultuous time than the first? We hit middle school and, all of a sudden, it’s a mad dash for acceptance, affirmation, and our own individual truth. Today’s kiddos are going through this pubescent tumult live on Instagram. Burnham researched hours and hours of YouTube vlogs to capture the vulnerability portrayed by actual middle schooler Elise Fisher. The product is a movie that will take you back to every acne break out and broken heart of your youth. Thanks a lot, Bo.

Bo Burnham

Bo Burnham, writer and director of Eighth Grade (2018).

4. Bad Times at the El Royale (R)

I want you to watch Netflix’s Daredevil creator Drew Goddard’s twisty-turny thriller, and to best do that you should have as little information as possible. What I will tell you is that it features two of my absolute favorite acting performances of the year. Cynthia Erivo brilliantly leads this wild ride and Jeff Bridges is only getting better as time goes on. Bad Times wrestles with morality, spirituality, and forgiveness so be ready to wrestle along with it. Nearly every scene in the movie changes what you think is happening and how you feel about each character. What never changes is how I feel about the movie. It’s a really good time.

Bad Times at the El Royale

Cynthia Erivo in Bad Times at the El Royale (2018).

3. A Quiet Place (PG-13)

Parenting is absolutely terrifying to me. The idea that I would have responsibility for the well-being of something as uncontrollable as another human being, one with very little inhibition or wisdom, is a nightmare. This is a nightmare The Office’s John Krasinski brings to terrifying life in A Quiet Place. There’s no room for error for Krasinski’s Lee who, along with his real-life wife Emily Blunt’s Evelyn, attempt to navigate their children through a word with unspeakable danger. The kids in the film are so authentic. Even in a world of monsters, they are kids with all their selfishness and wild tantrums kids have. A Quiet Place forces you to scream not only at the monsters but at these kids that just won’t sit still! The world Krasinski builds is immersive and doesn’t let you escape until the very last frame. It’s impossible to sit back, relax, and watch this one, but that makes it such a thrill.

Read Heather’s review of A Quiet Place here.

2. Crazy Rich Asians (PG-13)

Just when everyone thought Marvel’s Black Panther was going to be the only financial surprise at the box office this year, Crazy Rich Asians came in breathing new life into a genre many thought was gone forever to a world of mediocrity. Romantic Comedies have always been one of my guilty pleasures, but Crazy Rich Asians defies the category. I’ll admit I’m as guilty as the studios when it came to my expectations for the movie. I hoped to laugh, I hoped to have a cross-cultural experience, but, I never expected to be so deeply moved. I had heard an interview with the film’s director, Jon M. Chu, before seeing the movie that added context. He spoke about his complicated relationship with the Coldplay song “Yellow,” how he wrote a letter to Coldplay talking about his experience as an Asian-American for whom the color was often used to belittle, and how important is was to include the song in his film. For Chu, this film was about capturing a story not often told. It was about showing others the beauty of his culture, and the minute that song played in the film, I started crying. This wasn’t just a romantic comedy, this was a movie with incredible characters and a meaningful story tied richly into their culture and tradition. It was one of many statements made this year that there are stories to be told outside of the majority culture and movie-goers responded making it the second highest grossing non-franchise movie of the year.

Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

1. Roma (R)

Netflix has a record of changing the way we experience content. It seems every week there’s a new streaming service, and competition has never been more intense to create the next great work. Well sit down, Prime Video. Get out of the way, Hulu. Who even invited you, Crackle? Netflix has offered us this year’s best film, Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma. This black and white, subtitled movie is autobiographical for the Gravity director. It tells the story of a maid, like the one who cared for him as a child, living and working in an affluent town in Mexico. The town of Roma basically runs through the hard work of indigenous Mexican women, and Cuaron drops the audience into her life, into her language, and into the politically volatile world of 1970’s Mexico. It was so surprising, and emotional. Cuaron cast a first-time actress, Yalitza Aparicio, to bring his lead, Cleo, to life. She fills Cuaron’s long, expansive frames with such beauty and authenticity. Much like Cuaron’s Children of Men, he rolls the camera and allows scenes to develop and evolve with very few cuts or movements. This is very much his love letter to Mexico and the woman who inspired Cleo and the film, Cuaron’s own live-in maid, Libo. This is a letter very much worth reading and the great thing is that anyone borrowing somebody’s Netflix password has access to it.

Roma

Yalitza Aparicio in Roma (2018).

Check out Heather’s Top Ten here!

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Manhood & “Creed 2”

The story of Creed II, the follow up to 2015’s revitalization of the Rocky franchise, really begins in 1985 when Sylvester Stallone’s iconic character, Rocky, met perhaps his most infamous foe, Ivan Drago, played with stoic intensity by Dolph Lundgren. The seeds that have become the Creed franchise were all planted in this fourth installment in Rocky’s story.

It’s in that movie that Adonis Creed’s (Michel B. Jordan) father, Apollo (Carl Weathers) was killed by the mad Russian in the middle of the ring after Rocky fails to throw in the towel and stop the fight. When Apollo fell to the mat for the final time, the conflict of Adonis’s life began to take shape. Apollo didn’t want Rocky to throw in the towel. He was done fighting, and fighting was all he had. This tragedy launched Rocky towards a fight with Drago, a fight that would leave Drago to a life of disgrace and bitterness. And this tragedy left Adonis not just fatherless, but also without any of the answers his father was lacking about life.

Creed 2 GIF

Creed II (2018)

In 2015’s Creed, Adonis had to wrestle with his identity as a Creed and as a fighter. What did it truly mean to be Apollo’s son? It’s a question he was asking from the beginning when Mary Anne, Apollo’s wife, told him who he was. It’s a question he asks every time he steps in the ring. By the end of that initial story, Adonis dons his father’s trademark trunks adorned with the Creed name, as well as his mother’s, Johnson. Through that first film, Rocky taught him how to fight, how to embrace who he is. Creed II, however, gives Adonis even deeper questions to answer.

If movie one was asking what did it mean to be Apollo’s son and a fighter, the sequel is asking what does it mean to be a father and a man? Rocky IV happened in the middle of a decade that was, in many ways, defined by toxic masculinity. The everyman with the heart of a champion from the Academy Award winning Rocky, was replaced by a greased up, steroidal version. This was true of some of Stallone’s most well-known roles. John Rambo went from an intense critique of our treatment of Vietnam veterans to one giant muscle with a machine gun. Look to other popular culture from the 80’s and you’ll be drowning in a testosterone tsunami. Raunchy teen comedies were a dime a dozen, and Hulk Hogan was flexing his way into a household name.

This was an environment where Apollo Creed thrived. He could prove his manhood with every foe punched into oblivion, but when we meet him in Rocky and Rocky II, he’s already a star in decline. How then can he prove his manhood? Based on Adonis’s age, Apollo’s extramarital tryst that conceived him had to have taken place in close proximity to his death by Drago’s glove. Still he stepped into the ring with the Russian. Sex couldn’t make Apollo a man. He lost to Rocky. He was outmatched by Drago. Boxing could no longer make Apollo a man. So, he threw in the towel on life. Apollo’s inability to find a manhood that was more than muscle gave Adonis a life without a father.

Rocky 4 Staredown

Rocky and Ivan Drago before their iconic fight in “Rocky IV” (1985).

In Creed II, we find that Ivan Drago similarly suffered to discover meaning beyond boxing. His loss to Rocky knocked him down further than we saw in Rocky IV, and because of that his son, Viktor, grew up with a bitter boxing coach rather than a father. Viktor is nothing more than a tool Ivan will use to restore his own manhood, to redeem his loss to Rocky. To truly win by the end of Creed II, Adonis needs to break this cycle of toxic masculinity. He has to find something beyond all the drills, the fights, and the bright lights of fame. He can’t avoid being a Creed, but he has to avoid being Apollo.

Not every punch Creed II throws lands. It’s not as ground breaking as its predecessor, but in the stories of this next generation of men there is something really special. If viewers can go along with Adonis (and Viktor) on this journey and reflect on what it is that could make him successful in the end, perhaps we can all learn from the mistakes of the past. The sweaty machine gun masculinity of the 80’s was a steroid-fueled façade. If men are going to fight the good fight of life, it involves humility, partnership with women, and profound selflessness. For Adonis, this is a painful lesson, but one that takes him beyond his father’s legacy.

Full of “Venom”

Kane, a delightful British bloke played by John Hurt, is all smiles at the table. Having seemingly recovered from his close encounter with a face-sucking alien, he’s excited to eat a normal meal and share a laugh or two with his ship mates. Unfortunately, this meal isn’t going to sit well with the newborn extra-terrestrial calling Kane home. Fans of the 1979 space horror classic Alien know where this iconic scene is headed. It’s a scene that works for many reasons. Sure, it’s shocking with a high gross-out factor, but it also delves into metaphor playing with perhaps one of life’s greatest existential dilemmas…what is it that truly lies beneath our surface? This question is most recently explored in Sony and Marvel’s Tom Hardy vehicle, Venom.

Venom Transform GIF

Venom (2018)

Our outside isn’t scary. Think about all the channels we have to control what others experience from us. Everything from a fresh haircut to a hot new fit to a flattering selfie camera angle, helps us regulate how others see us. Aside from physical appearance, we have all kinds of mechanisms that act as bouncers keeping those who might want in on the right side of the velvet rope. Talking about the weather or a simple “I’m fine” are some of my favorites. No, our outside is safe, but our inside is a different story.

Who are you really? If everyone knew every thought you had or every feeling that has captured your heart would they still love you? Forget love, would they even like you? As pretty as your outside is, what if nobody could handle the monster hiding inside? So we hide in fear, but all of that hiding and fear can give us the false impression that we are the good guy in our story, a false impression Venom’s lead character carries. When we’re introduced to Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), a popular investigative reporter and charming beau to Anna (Michelle Williams), he has total control of his outside. However, his inside starts seeping out and over the first act of the film his life totally unravels. Still, Brock tries his best to keep his outside intact. He lies to himself. He’s not the problem. He’s not to blame. He’s still a really good guy. Except, he’s not and it takes a lot for him to realize it.

By a lot, I mean it takes a sentient, parasitic alien goo inhabiting his insides. This isn’t just any alien goo, though, it’s Venom, one of Spider-man’s most popular and visually memorable villains of all time. Venom is a species called a symbiote. They pair with a host, merging in every way. The lines blur between Brock’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors and Venom’s. They become one on such a level that they refer to themselves with plural pronouns. “We are Venom,” the pair will say.

It’s said in the film that the symbiotes need to find a compatible host to survive. Hold on. Venom is a homicidal psychopath. He’s a villain. If Brock is the good man he thinks he is, if he’s the good man that exists on the outside, why does he make such a good host for the bad guy? The most intriguing and entertaining components to this story take place in Brock’s journey of self-actualization. This only happens because Brock’s ugly inside gets a face and starts oozing out to the surface. Is he all bad? No, but his goodness doesn’t begin to shine until he confronts the darkness inside.

Spider-Man Venom Animated Series

Venom and Spider-Man from the “Spider-Man” (1994) animated series.

Shouldn’t we all be so lucky as to have a parasitic alien inhabit us? Here’s the good news, though, as scary as our insides can be to us, they’re not to God. When we find ourselves in a place where we’re exhausting our energy to keep our deepest darkest feelings at bay, are we really living in the freedom Christ offers us? When we engage in practices of prayer, confession, and repentance we are letting our inner horror movie out. When we willingly bring that darkness into the light before God and others, those things that bring us guilt or shame or embarrassment, those things that we think will surely expel any love we’ve ever experienced, those things that we think will drive others away, the opposite of that begins to happen.

Here’s the thing about God, as Romans 5 says, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” God knows us already. You can’t hide your scary bits. When our insides stay hidden, they have power and control over us. They take up real estate in our hearts and minds, but once they’re let out, it opens up space for something else to dwell. When we acknowledge our sins and place them at the foot of the cross we can say along with Paul in Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

When the darkness inside meets the Light, it doesn’t stand a chance. This is how our hearts change. We will never scare God away, and others that have God dwelling in them can handle our horrors as well. God dwelling in us creates a symbiotic relationship between us and the Holy Spirit. That relationship probably won’t turn us into a superhero but may give us everything we need to bring actual goodness into the world instead of the false veneer of goodness we present. Venom isn’t the greatest movie in the world, though fans of the character and Hardy will probably find it to be an entertaining depiction. Some of the film’s treasure lies in its call to self-reflection. It might just be time for us all to let the monster out.

The Names of “The Hate U Give”

There is a pastor that I know who is really gifted at making baptism feel really personal. As the person approached the fount, there would always be an exchange where this pastor would read their full name aloud, and then explain the etymology or meaning of the name. “This is…,” he would say as he announced their name, “…their name means courage (or love, strength, etc.).” Another pastor I know, has the person state their full name and then says, “[insert name here], child of the covenant, very loved of God.” Usually, a life altering pivot point is what brings us to the baptism fount. I love that these pastors use it as an opportunity to continue to remind each person who they are. Our names come with some powerful purpose, promise, community, and love attached to them. God knows us and call us by name.

The baptisms I’ve been honored to witness, have been powerful ceremonies where the subjects’ names have been used to remind them of the new life ahead. In recent years here in America, another cultural ceremony has become all too common. One that involves names being read, tweeted, and shouted through megaphones. The names of some fellow image bearers have gained a new meaning in death. Tamir Rice. Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. Antwon Rose. Botham Shem Jean. These names have become a cry of lament. Their meaning has shifted from purpose and promise to loss and pain. These are the names of people of color who died in incidents like that depicted in the film, and the book it was adapted from, The Hate U Give.

The Hate U Give GIF

The Hate U Give (2018)

Police brutality and excessive use of force have become hot button issues in American society. It is one of those issues that has always bubbled under our collective surface but found a new boiling point in the digital age. Those names and the many like them are now loaded guns. For some they inspire protest and action, for some they tap into fragility or fear, and for others all they call forth are tears. So how on earth could a young adult novel or it’s film adaptation cover such an emotionally charged topic?

The Hate U Give does it with grace, truth rooted in experience, compassion, and authentic performances. In the story, Starr (an Oscar-worthy performance by Amandla Stenberg) is witness to an unarmed friend being murdered by a police officer during a traffic stop. The film follows the personal, social, and societal fallout for Starr following the crime. As a white man, I am limited in how well I can translate Starr’s experience for you, but I can speak to what I experienced during the film. There was pain that it might be tempting to become numb to and there was hope I pray we never lose.

Following the murder in the film, some of the heartbreak comes from how painfully familiar the older generation was with what was happening. The film opens with Starr’s father explaining how to, best as he possibly could, survive the average traffic stop. Later he knows Starr will be haunted by the trauma in her sleep. The book and film get its title from Tupac Shakur, a late prophetic rapper whose words I wish would become less relevant. The events in this story are the same act in the same play that people of color can’t seem to get out of.

Tupac The Hate U Give

Tupac Shakur’s prophetic legacy lives on in The Hate U Give.

Starr’s father, Maverick, tries his best throughout the film to give his children guidance based in the reality he knew, but he also tried his best to give them hope. That hope is expressed as he explains the names he gave his children. They were intentional to remind them who they are. He knew Starr was always destined to shine, he drew his son Seven’s name from the Biblical number of perfection, and his son Sekani’s name from the joy he hoped he’d never lose. Their names point towards a future filled with purpose, promise, community, and love. Mav knows that he had to give his children something more than hate. The Hate U Give reminds us that those names that we’ve seen tick across the bottom of the news or trend on twitter need to give us more than hate as well.

The Hate U Give is worth seeing, probably in community, and coupled with some rich discussion, prayer, and follow-up. It is a work of fiction, but it is an invitation to enter a very real experience. Khalil Harris is a fictional character, but Trayvon Martin was a real person. Sandra Bland was someone’s daughter. God breathed life into Eric Garner and gave him his image to bear. Oscar Grant walked, and talked, and laughed. The emotions and opinions attached to these names after their deaths can be exhausting, but if we ever hope to give the next generation a better world we better remember everything those names now mean.

How old is The Bible really?

Did you know The Hunger Games was first published 10 years ago? That’s getting pretty old, but not as old as Twilight, that is celebrating 13 years in publication. Sure both of those books have made a tremendous cultural impact in that time, but have they been nearly as significant as the now 21-year-old Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone? Harry is still a kid compared to our friends from Middle Earth. Fellowship of the Ring is closing in on retirement at 64-years-old while Bilbo’s original tale in The Hobbit is over 80!

These are easily Google-able facts that may impress people at parties, or, at least, make them feel old. Each of these novels has touched peoples’ lives and added significant content to our popular culture, but there’s an older story out there that perhaps beats them all. Have you ever wondered how old The Bible is? The answer is complicated. It’s potentially a trick question, but it’s one that has shaped how our most recent generation’s view the story of God and his people. Currently, the view that’s taking shape is not a good one.

“America the brave
Still fears what we don’t know
And God loves all his children it’s somehow forgotten
But we paraphrase a book written 3,500 hundred years ago”

In the lyrics of Macklemore’s smash hit “Same Love,” we find an answer and it’s not wrong. Though it’s challenging to pin down exact dates to a lot of what was written for the Bible, most scholars agree that the Old Testament had begun being written down a few thousand years ago. It’s true The Bible was written by humans who lived in a time just like J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien. It’s also true that when it comes to works of art, society often looks back and realizes that content was less than helpful. For example, since moving to the South, my wife has been challenging herself to read some prominent southern literature. While some used racist characters to expose their evil, there are others who lack such a critical lens.

So much is lost if this is how we view The Bible. If The Bible is just a book written 3,500 years ago, it becomes no greater than any other work of fiction in our libraries. Its content, its truths, are easily dismissed and with them God is also easily dismissed. Fortunately, The Bible itself doesn’t subscribe to this view. Was scripture written by humans? Yes. And no. Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 2:13, “And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.”

The Bible is not the word of men, but the word of God. The prophet Jeremiah talks of this unique relationship that extends beyond ink and paper in chapter 31 of his prophecy, “’This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,’ declares the Lord. ‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.’” This is echoed later by Peter in chapter 1 of his second letter, “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”

The Bible being the divine revelation of God makes it something different than To Kill a Mockingbird or A Lesson Before Dying. This is summarized in the Westminster Confession of Faith, “The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.” We’re talking about God, the creator of the heavens and the earth, the Alpha and Omega, who the very wind and waves obey, speaking directly to his people. Just as God breathed life into you and I, Paul says in 2 Timothy, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

Hebrews continues this thought, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” The word of God is alive and active. There is something different about The Bible, something that is difficult to put into words. John tried, though, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

The swords and sandals of the Biblical setting may seem foreign to us, but The Bible is not frozen in time. Woven into every stanza of poetry, every verse of song, every metaphor, every hyperbole, every sermon, every letter, and every punctuation is our living, breathing God who operates outside of space and time. God’s divine revelation of truth, wisdom, grace, hope, and love spoke to people at the beginning of written history, but before that God was still speaking. In the beginning, God spoke creation into being and long after Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John rolled up their scrolls, God still speaks.

If we limit The Bible to its publication date, we limit the scope of who God can be in our lives. How old is The Bible? It was published in eternity, co-authoring our stories forever and ever. It is living, and breathing life into the world day in and day out. It’s truth and power are written on the hearts of believers. It has always existed. It is God. It is love. How old is The Bible? It’s complicated.

The Art of Grieving Well

On a recent trip to Boston, my party became patrons of one of the city’s most famous local coffee shops, Dunkin Donuts. My usual order, a medium ice coffee with sugar free vanilla and whole milk, was prepared. I took it over to the sweetening station/trash area to enhance it with sweetener and punch my straw in. However, on this day, my straw and lid were unwilling to cooperate. As I darted the straw violently into the lid, the straw hole didn’t budge causing my drink to tip towards the floor. I leaped into action to save my drink only to send it suddenly into the trash. One second, I had a coffee ready to enjoy that would carry me through my day, the next, my brand-new, full coffee was at the bottom of the trash. Gone. Forever.

My grief didn’t last long. Once my friends stopped laughing at my misfortune, there was an easy fix. I ordered a new coffee and went on with my day. Grief deferred. How would this small accident have affected your day? Would it have stayed with you? Greif is a natural part of living in our fallen world. Very few people I know sit around and say, “I could use some more tragedy over here. I’m a little short on tragedy in this season of my life.” Stuff happens and we all know that. What we seem to have a hard time with is how grief relates to eternity. Humans are experts at marrying the two in devastating fashion.

Think back to your first love. Many congratulations to those who are reading this whose first love became their spouse and they lived happily ever after. This is not the norm. A broken heart can be devastating. Have you ever helped a friend through a break up? Usually one of the first pains communicated goes something like this, “Now I’ll never find someone.” In the world of higher education, where, for many young people, so much rides on standard tests scores, a bad result is often processed with the sentiment, “Now I’ll never get into college.” Are these two revelations true?

A break-up doesn’t mean you’ll never find a spouse. People get married every day, many of whom who have had broken hearts before. A bad test score doesn’t mean you won’t go to college. People who are terrible at school and tests go to college all the time! There is something about grief, no matter how small, that propels our thoughts into eternity. The feelings associated with loss are often devastating enough to make us feel like they’ll last forever. Sheryl Sandberg, in her book Option B, about processing the sudden loss of her husband, says there were three lies her feelings told her that had to be dispelled. “We plant the seeds of resilience in the ways we process negative events. After spending decades studying how people deal with setbacks, psychologist Martin Seligman found that three P’s can stunt recovery: (1) personalization—the belief that we are at fault; (2) pervasiveness—the belief that an event will affect all areas of our life; and (3) permanence—the belief that the aftershocks of the event will last forever,” says Sandberg.

If we are to ever plant seeds of resilience for ourselves or others we have to dismiss grief’s lies of permanence, but we must also tell the truth about what is permanent. Imagine being the disciples having spent significant time with Jesus and bearing witness to his spectacular events. How would you feel when he was arrested? Then when he was beaten? Then when he died? Jesus must have known those feeling of permanence were coming when he’s quoted in John 16, “Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.”

Jesus gave them words to remember when the shock of loss would come. Words that would give life and remind them you will not always feel this way. It could be a worthy exercise for all of us to ask of the Bible, “What is eternal?” Nearly everything we hold dear exists in the finite. People will pass away. Resources will diminish. Our bodies will age. What is eternal? Perhaps Psalm 136:4-9 has an answer.

“To him who alone does great wonders,
His love endures forever.
who by his understanding made the heavens,
His love endures forever.
who spread out the earth upon the waters,
His love endures forever.
who made the great lights—
His love endures forever.
the sun to govern the day,
His love endures forever.
the moon and stars to govern the night;
His love endures forever.”

Until Jesus returns, until thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven, until God’s restoration of our fallen world is complete, we will experience grief, sadness, and loss. In Psalm 136, we are reminded that all that is finite is created by the Lord while simultaneously reminding us that God’s love endures forever. The gifts are fleeting. The giver of the gifts is eternal.

Jesus was being proactive in John 16 which isn’t a bad idea for us. Prepare for the grief to come by digging around in scripture. Write God’s eternal nature on your heart. Read through Psalm 136 a dozen times and allow it to define what’s permanent. The feelings we have that dig us into the deepest depths cannot stand against God’s forever love. Imagine being the disciples when Jesus was arrested, beaten, and died. Now imagine what they felt when he returned to them newly resurrected. You will not always feel this way.

Nothing But the Blood

My wife has impeccable style. She keeps an eye on trends, looks for ways to innovate, and is in tune with her body. One of her spiritual gifts is thrift shopping for unique pieces to pull her eclectic wardrobe together. Somehow, she always finds the perfect outfit. However, this particular gift often runs head first into conflict with one of her others, cooking.

Consider this a plea from the lead launderer in our household. Her most fabulous, well-fitting, stylish outfit is only ever one homemade tomato sauce away from ruin. What she doesn’t realize is that all of those splashes and splotches actually serve as a powerful, spiritual reminder for me of the nature of humanity. A reminder that draws me closer to Jesus and a reminder the pop culture world received from the stage of the MTV Movie and TV Awards this year. A reminder that nobody is perfect.

Chris Pratt, a mega-movie-star, made the MTV stage a pulpit from which he let his peers in on perhaps one of Christianity’s best kept secrets. Have you ever heard the phrase, “holier than thou”? This is, unfortunately, the reputation that many Christians carry in our culture. It might be a fairly earned reputation for some, but it’s a reputation based on a myth. Sure, it often seems as if Christians exist solely to stand on our soapboxes and tell the world how to live, feel, think, and what to believe. Isn’t that frustrating? What makes Christians think that they’re so perfect? Check out the profile of any popular Christian Instagram influencer and an air of arrogance might waft through your screen. What’s funny about that, and what makes this message well-suited to be delivered by a comedian, is that our faith is rooted in the exact opposite.

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“Nobody is perfect. People will tell you that you are perfect just the way that you are, you are not! You are imperfect. You always will be, but there is a powerful force that designed you that way, and if you are willing to accept that, you will have grace. And grace is a gift. Like the freedom that we enjoy in this country, that grace was paid for with somebody else’s blood. Do not forget that. Don’t take that for granted.” The Apostle Pratt was not that far off from the Apostle Paul when he says in Romans 3, “None is righteous, no, not one.”

This is Paul echoing the words of Psalms, “They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one. (Psalm 14).” So much of Christian love, Christian joy, Christian humility, Christian compassion, Christian thought, and Christian behavior begins with the realization that we are not perfect. Like the many causalities of my wife’s closet, we are stained with our imperfection, our human limitations, our human instinct towards sin.

What can wash away my sin? What can make me whole again? In the midst of John’s Revelation, we see a power greater than a Tide-to-go pen, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Not Oxy Clean, not Spray & Wash, not even Clorox Bleach could lift the deeply rooted stain of sin that splashed onto our perfect outfit when Adam and Eve fell in Genesis 3, but there is the blood of the Lamb.

What shocked me most about Pratt’s speech was the mention of the blood. Do you know anyone who gets a bit green in the face at the sight of red? Blood, for many of us, is gross. It’s so gross that it’s not polite to talk about. Even Christians often find it improper to bring it up. Sure, we talk about salvation and kneel at the cross, but that cross was bloodied. Then comes Andy Dwyer (Pratt’s character from Parks and Recreation) saying with a smile on his face that we are given freedom by someone else’s blood. He went there. Now the secrets out, the blood of Jesus is the key to the whole shebang.

Our love, joy, humility, compassion, thoughts, and behaviors are all realized in the blood of Christ. We are not perfect, but we get to tap into perfection through the blood of the only spotless human to ever live. Paul says in his letter to the Colossians, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” This stain remover doesn’t just make us look pretty. Now that same Spirit that dwells in Jesus can dwell in us.

All of a sudden, we are living bases of operation for God to conduct his mission of blessing the whole world. With the Spirit as the tenant of our hearts, we can accomplish far more than we ever will chasing perfection. Through the blood of Jesus, we are forgiven, and a forgiven heart is a forgiving heart. Paul describes this to the church in Corinth, “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us.” Here we see Christ’s perfection appealing to others through us not our attempts at perfection harming ourselves and others.

You could easily fill your calendar and your worries by trying to be perfect, but that pursuit is exhausting and oppressive. God would rather you pursue him. He went through great lengths for us to realize our imperfections and make it possible to do the impossible despite them. There is great freedom in knowing that no stitch of clothing, no number of likes, no amount of money, no square inch of stage or platform can provide perfection. Nothing can do that. Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

Ivan’s Top Ten Movies of 2017

It’s the end of another year in cinema and, looking back on the year that was, I can definitively say that we are living in a golden age of television. That’s right, with streaming services and cable channels churning out tons of risky, unique stories on the small screen, I can’t help but be disappointed by the onslaught of passable, at times directionless fare we got on the big.

I had a ton of fun with movies like Wonder Woman, Thor: Ragnarok, and Spider-man: Homecoming but then screamed in disappointment at a underwhelming new King Kong, a beautiful but bloated Blade Runner sequel, and, in my opinion, an offensively bad first shot at the Justice League. By the time awards season rolled around, I was feeling pessimistic about the movies 2017 had to offer.

I still don’t think it’s been a particularly strong year for film. Here’s hoping the trend of studios trying to make their own Stranger Things will pass soon. Even some of the early awards favorites like The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri failed to connect with me. However, after a solid binge of movies we missed or were recommended to us, I’ve filled out my top ten movies of the year.

10. Split

Confession time. I love M. Night Shyamalan. Sure he peaked way early with The 6th Sense, and may have made a few enemies with The Last Airbender, but I still think he’s brilliant. Thankfully, we are moving into an era of not having to hide Shymalan fandom any longer. After surprising fans with The Visit, the “Shy-man” was back to form and this year rocked my world with Split. An incredible performance by James McAvoy and a story that both narratively and visiually kept me guessing makes this one of Shymalan’s best. Perhaps my favorite parts of this film were the things unsaid, the nuanced details I’ve since gone back and realized. Toss in a beautiful theme that would make Alessia Cara proud, and I’m ready for the upcoming sequel.

9. The Lego Batman Movie

When 2014’s The Lego Movie came into my life, I thought there couldn’t be a movie more tailor made for me. To that, The Lego Batman Movie says, “hold my drink.” Legos, super heroes, jokes, stunning animation, and a story about friendship and, really, the family of God, come on! Does it get any better? Batman isn’t even my favorite superhero, but watching him make mouth sounds to lobster thermidor warming in his microwave made me fall in love. Here’s hoping for a Robin-centric sequel. Fly, Robin, fly.

8. Detroit

From two movies that I’ve already watched multiple times, to two movies I’m in no hurry to watch again. The first of which is Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit. Telling the story of the 1967 events that tore a city apart, Bigelow brings her expertise in depicting war to the streets of Civil Rights America. The content is horrific and has left audiences split, but I don’t remember this story even being a footnote in my history books. The story has to be told, and, to do the story justice, the horrors had to be real. Our history is ugly and Detroit puts that ugliness on display. There is so much in the movie that will break your heart, but, after everything Bigelow takes her audience through, watching John Boyega’s character, Melvin, in his final interrogation scene might bring you to your knees. Read Heather’s complete reflection on Detroit here.

7. Wind River

Throughout Wind River, you’ll hear again and again how desolate, how draining, how terrible the living conditions are in its rural Wyoming setting. That narrative is so present it’s often the sole excuse given for the deplorable actions in the film. You may even feel cold watching the movie. Then you realize, for many of the characters, they have no choice but to live there. Writer/director Taylor Sheridan, who topped by list last year with Hell or High Water, here tackles the shocking reality of missing indigenous women. I’ve got mixed feelings about depicting sexual violence in film, but, again if this story is going to be told it has to be given justice. Wind River is heartbreaking, suspenseful, and masterful storytelling but telling that story means shining a light on the dreadful things happening in America’s dark shadows.

6. Molly’s Game

Molly Bloom is a fascinating person and her story, written in her book “Molly’s Game,” is a fascinating story, but those things do not make a fascinating movie. Aaron Sorkin’s writing makes a fascinating movie especially when telling remarkable true stories. Just as he did with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Apple’s Steve Jobs, in Molly’s Game, Bloom, a former world-class skier who at 26 was earning millions of dollars running poker games for celebrities and mobsters, gets the total Sorkin treatment. In the hands of a less capable storyteller, this movie could have been a Rounders remake, but alongside thrilling performances by Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba, Sorkin’s directorial debut had me all in.

5. Baby Driver

Baby Driver is a technical achievement. If you’re unaware, director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), wrote this heist movie with the entire soundtrack in mind. The soundtrack is pumped through the headphones of lead character, Baby, who uses music to drown out his chronic tinnitus. Wright then took that soundtrack and blocked, crafted, and choreographed a symphony of chases and action scenes. It is breathtaking. Every step, every gunshot, every background noise plays into the music creating a chaotic harmony that puts fully on display Wright’s filmmaking genius. Underneath the technical skill, also lies a story about maintaining innocence in an increasingly harsh world. If you’re anything like me, you won’t want to put Baby in a corner, but straight into your blu ray player for repeat viewings as you unpack everything Wright jammed into the film. The soundtrack is also available on Spotify in case you find yourself on the run. Read my complete reflection with companion Psalms for Baby Driver here.

4. Get Out

The best theater experience I had this year (maybe ever), including Star Wars, was Get Out. With every twist and turn the the sold out theater came unglued with gasps, laughs, and screams. When it came to its climatic end, row after row jumped to their feet cheering, clapping, and dancing in the isles. It was cinematic magic. For many, it was a therapeutic, genre bending take on the horrors of their reality. With Get Out, Jordan Peele is giving audiences a creative taste of his own experiences. I suggest you watch it, maybe with someone who doesn’t look like you, because it is a film best enjoyed in community. Read my complete reflection on Get Out with discussion questions here.

3. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I love The Last Jedi. Come at me! I’ve often considered my Star Wars zeal to be fairly moderate. I’ve read some comics, but haven’t read the expanded universe novels. I have a few toys on display, but haven’t attended a convention or own my own stormtrooper armor. I’ve seen every episode of Clone Wars, most of Rebels, and both Ewok spin-off movies. I’m a fan and I know that fans love how much they know about Star Wars, and director Rian Johnson took that hubris and knocked us right off our high horse. I would say, the majority of the hardcore fans I know did like it, but still there’s a lot of hate out there and I just don’t get it.

I don’t want the galaxy to return to the state it was in when Episode I begins, a too-big-for-their-britches Jedi order and a world steeped in bureaucracy. It has to evolve to something more. For decades now, Star Wars has been a beautifully simple story that anyone can relate to, but as the universe expands, the complexity has to expand. War is not simple, and The Last Jedi, led by a conflicted and weathered Luke Skywalker, isn’t a simple story and one even the most learned fans couldn’t see coming. The original Star Wars was a surprise to fans in 1977, and now the finale of this new trilogy has the opportunity to do the same. Read my complete reflection on The Last Jedi here.

2. Mudbound

Mudbound is a beautiful and tragic film. Director Dee Rees took a book about life post-WWII in the Mississippi Delta and created a film that feels like your reading an epic southern novel. This is a time-period that feels like a world in flux. America just got back from helping to liberate countries at war, countries ravaged by hate, violence, and prejudice and, yet it was an America that was still being ravaged by hate, violence, and prejudice. Under their brilliant auteur, this cast gives so much life and breath to the lives of these characters. Sometime soon Jason Mitchell (Straight Outta Compton, Detroit) will win an Oscar and I hope it comes from this one, along with a potential statue for Mary J. Blige as well. Mudbound has the ability in the matter of minutes to take you from the thrilling hope of progress, togetherness, and healing into a space of fear, division, and ignorance and still the characters keep pressing on into the future. As we keep pressing on today, it was a helpful reminder of the ups and downs of progress. Read my complete reflection on Mudbound here.

1. Logan

Logan did the impossible. I hate Wolverine. I hate that he is a terrible teammate. I hate that he constantly runs into battle with no plan just screaming and slashing. I have hated his two solo movies, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The Wolverine, mostly because they feature him running, screaming, and slashing for two hours. Even in X-Men movies I like, for example Days of Future Past, Wolverine is the worst part. Seriously, watch the final battle in Days of Future Past…with no plan and no thought he runs straight at Magneto, who can control the very substance Wolverine is made of, and immediately gets tossed aside. He’s the worst, but Logan made me love him.

All of his mistakes, all of the running, screaming, and slashing, is coming back to haunt an older, regret-filled Wolverine. He now hates the things I hate about him. This is an uncomfortably violent and bloody film, but that is kind of the point. His life has been defined by violence and this is now a cycle he can’t rip his way out of. Tragedy has struck everyone he’s been close to and all of the running and screaming in the world couldn’t save them. Logan plays out as Wolverine’s penance. Throughout the film he is emotionally and physically torn apart piece by piece until there is little left.

Still, what is left, is hope. What Wolverine had never realized in movies before is that he’s not the X-Men’s greatest weapon, but he could have been their greatest protector. As he comes to terms with his mistakes, he begins to change his role and, in doing so, preserves the future of mutant-kind. Also, watching Logan care for an aging Professor X, with an awards-caliber performance by Sir Patrick Stewart, showed me vulnerability I’ve always wanted and had never seen from Wolverine. As superhero fans begin to expect more complex stories from their big blockbuster films, the brutal and emotional Logan has sent me running and screaming into the next era of comic book movies.

Check out Heather’s Top Ten movies of 2017 here!

The Power of The Last Jedi

“You underestimate the power of the dark side,” says Darth Vader to his son and desired apprentice Luke Skywalker. It’s one of those Star Wars lines that sticks with you. The line is meant to strike fear in young Skywalker, but it puts on display one of the major themes of the saga and one that is so beautifully at the center in the newest installment, The Last Jedi. In an expansive galaxy like that of Star Wars, with expert pilots, exotic alien creatures, and supernatural warrior priests, who has the most power? What does true power look like?

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The easy answer for many long-time fans would be “The Force.” After all, according to Obi Wan Kenobi, The Force is “an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.” The genius of The Last Jedi is that it, not only calls into question what we know about The Force, but shows us that it is not the be-all-end-all of power in the galaxy. The ancient war that has been waging for decades across the saga, framed by a simple conflict between light and dark, just isn’t that simple after all. Which is a lesson Luke Skywalker, the legendary hero of the original trilogy, has had to learn the hard way.

What the new movies have done so well is thematically and narratively explore the lives of the old cast through the eyes of the new. 2015’s The Force Awakens did this through Han. Han Solo has always been the ultimate lone wolf, on the run from one thing or another. In Episode VII, we meet Finn and Rey, two people at a point in their lives where they are ready to escape and Han is the perfect spiritual guide. Throughout the movie Rey, ready for a father figure, bonds with Han and with his ship, the Millennium Falcon, which has been the ultimate getaway car throughout Star Wars cannon. Finn escapes his life as a Stormtrooper and is confronted with a decision to keep running or be a part of something bigger. There are so many parallels to what we know of Han’s story in both Finn and Rey. The Force Awakens was very much Han’s chapter. In the same way, The Last Jedi is Luke’s.

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Even in the final moments of Episode VII, there is a literal hand-off of the story taking place. Now if we’re going to explore the life of Luke Skywalker that means we have to explore The Force, the history of the Jedi, and the allure of the dark side. The Luke we meet in The Last Jedi is a failure. He tried to live up to his legend and lost control setting into motion many of the events of the new movies. He’s spent his time since absorbing all of the past mistakes of the Jedi, knowledge that brilliantly ties together the mythology of the prequels to the original trilogy. Back in 2015, I wrote about the failures of the Jedi order, but basically Luke has realized that the Jedi failed because of their own quest for power. At their peak, the Jedi assumed reign over the galaxy, but just when their power peaked, when they thought they had it locked down, they were vulnerable to manipulation, deceit, and were over thrown. This was the story of Episodes I-III.

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Into Luke’s despair and regret walks Rey pleading with him to be her mentor, to show her where she fits in the grand scheme of things. Really, what she is pleading for is exactly what the Jedi were supposed to be. It is very difficult to be defined by your power when you are actively trying to help someone become more powerful than you. At the end of The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren tells Rey she needs a teacher, a sentiment she repeats to Luke. She doesn’t need a Jedi knight to ride into battle, she needs a Jedi master. “We are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.” I won’t tell you who says this to whom in The Last Jedi, but it might as well have been Jesus talking to his disciples or Barnabas talking to Paul.

Pastor Efrem Smith tweeted recently, “If Christians were meant to pursue political power at any cost, Christ wouldn’t have turned down Satan’s offers in the wilderness.” At the height of Jesus’ ministry, he gave up his life and at the height of his power, after resurrecting from the dead, he ascends into Heaven giving space for the apostles to lead. This has to be the example Barnabas was following when it came time to develop his apprentice, Paul. In Barnabas we have the man who vouched for the murderer Paul, the man who took that villain and trained him to be a Biblical hero, but to do all that he had to risk all of his power and eventually give it all away to Paul.

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This is also a lesson ace pilot Poe Dameron must learn in The Last Jedi. He has been flying by on his ability and skills for too long, and now must learn what it really means to lead the rebellion. Luckily, he is surrounded by resistance leaders who, just like Luke has learned his lessons about the Force, have learned their lessons about war. Without the legend of Luke Skywalker supplying hope to the resistance, Poe and Leia are racing against the clock to keep the rebellion alive. What is perhaps most heartbreaking about The Last Jedi is that, as Han’s story handed off to Luke at the end of Episode VII, Episode VIII, in so many ways, hands the story off to Leia and the resistance. This, however, is a chapter we will never totally see. The story of Princess Leia has ended off of the silver screen.

There are times in The Last Jedi where it feels like everyone is failing, and they are. The film reminds us, though, that failure is the greatest teacher. When we feel like we can’t fail, like the prequels’ Jedi order or Supreme Leader Snoke, or when we are afraid to fail, like Luke when he was training Ben Solo, we may have failed already. What does it look like to give your power away to the next generation? What does it look like to lay your life down in the ultimate resignation of your power? The answers to those questions are the ones Rey, Poe, and the resistance learn in The Last Jedi and will guide the saga into Episode IX.

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Wrestling Your Friends to Church

I like to get there early. This gives me time to mill around in the lobby and do some people watching before I find my seat. Once I find my seat there is always a pleasant murmur filling the space as others file in. Everyone is excited, cheerful, brimming with anticipation for things to get started. Without warning, the lights go out. In the darkness, we all know…this is only the beginning.

Since the turn of the millennium, I’ve been to over 20 live professional wrestling shows and they have all started virtually the same way. There is a rhythm to the experience. The most seasoned wrestling fans are privy to the cues. They know the lights turning off is the call to worship. They know when a wrestler is punching another in the corner of the ring they need to start counting to ten. They know when a wrestler kicks out of a pin before the count of three it’s time to yell “TWO!” at the top of their lungs.

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Did you know there was such an ingrained cultural liturgy in professional wrestling? I recently took a group of non-wrestling fans to a live event put on by World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and I watched their faces as they witnessed the show play out. It was a consistent mix of confusion and unbelief. There was so much they didn’t know or understand and this left them bewildered and, dare I say, bored.

How did this happen? The art of wrestling has been capturing my imagination for almost two decades. The problem is I didn’t prepare them enough. I never gave them a chance to participate fully in the experience because I never told them about the liturgy of the event. Don’t we do the same thing with church, though? When you invite someone to church, how do you prepare them for the liturgy, the cultural norms that guide the experience? Do you prepare them at all? I wonder if there is anything I can glean from my experience bringing newbs to a wrestling event that can translate to how I invite people to church?

Call and Response

Wrestling fans are constantly Woooing. The lights go off at the beginning…”WOOO!” A wrestler open-hand chops another wrestler across the chest…”WOOO!” Basically, if there are any moments of stillness in the ambient noise in the arena…”WOOO!” It’s the fault of wrestling legend, “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair. The 16-time champion often slipped into fits of wild Woooing with the crowd jumping in. Now, because Woooing is fun and easy, it is the common response to a lot of what happens in the show. It might be the closest thing we have to a wrestling “Amen.” If you know nothing about Flair, however, it might sound like you’re surrounded by crazy people.

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This may have been how I felt the first few times I attended a more traditional church service. The person upfront would say or do something and the crowd would respond together. Of course, I had no idea what they were saying. It felt like there was so much I didn’t know. I felt left out, so confused, somewhat embarrassed, and started to check out. The Lord’s Prayer? The doxology? The people in the pews might as well have been Woooing. It was nonsense to me.

This isn’t confined to traditional churches, though. Most churches feature a set of music, right? Well, when I started going to church, this was my least favorite part. It wasn’t that the band was bad or the music was lame. It was because I had no idea why we were doing it. When was the last time you thought about every element of your worship service and wondered why you do it? Could you explain that to someone who had no context for it whatsoever?

Wrestling Psychology

When I was a novice pro wrestling fan there was one wrestler who grinded my every gear. His name was Bret “The Hitman” Hart. His style in the ring wasn’t flashy. Hart didn’t take many death defying dives off the top turnbuckle and wasn’t big enough to hit punishing clotheslines. The Hitman wrestled a slow, methodical pace that, as the uninitiated, I found to be the equivalent of a sleeper hold. As I begun to understand more about the art form, though, I discovered it wasn’t so much what you did in the ring but when you did it. Hart is a legend because he was a master at working the crowd, or as most people in the know would call it, wrestling psychology.

The most skilled at wrestling psychology are basically emotional conductors who pull the audience through a symphony of different feelings throughout the match. Performers read the temperature of the fans and that dictates what they do. The right move at the right time can take a match from average to phenomenal. As much wrestling as I’ve watched over the years, every once in a while, the best wrestlers can surprise me and send me off my couch into the air screaming with anger, shock, or pure joy.

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The mistake new wrestling fans often make is wanting a match filled with big stunts and not a big story. It’s the story that matters, though. The bigger picture, the greater context happening before, during, and after the match. When you invite someone to church do you prepare them by selling the big stunts? The music is amazing. The preaching is awesome. They serve awesome coffee. Experiencing a church service that way might send new attendees away from the Bret Hart of churches. Our greatest worship experiences come when the leaders move us into a big story, a story that taps into our lives and emotions, a story that moves us from sitting on the spiritual couch to leaping in the air in victory.

Wrestling Isn’t Fake

“Professional wrestling is fake isn’t it?” This is the question that most often follows any invite to watch wrestling. As my friend, Tommy, told me after I took him to a live event, “Why do people get so hyped about something that isn’t even real?” Let me settle this once and for all. Professional wrestling is scripted, live sports entertainment. The physical feats that happen in the 20’ by 20’ ring are real, the story is on par with any scripted show on television. Wrestling isn’t fake, it’s entertainment. People ask me all the time how I, a grown adult with advanced degrees, can enjoy professional wrestling. I show them this video.

Daniel Bryan, Triple H, John Cena, “The Macho Man” Randy Savage, and Chris Jericho are all 100% real to the kids who watch pro wrestling and sometimes I need to be reminded what it’s like to be a kid. Wrestling pulls me into mental spaces where anything is possible and the world is filled with fascinating, diverse casts of characters. Growing up has a way of beating skepticism and cynicism into our hearts. When I walk into the wrestling arena I get to leave the weight of disbelief the world has thrown on my shoulders at the door and start believing again.

I love the ways the Gospel of Jesus Christ inspires me to be creative and believe the place I live can be better than it is. When I first walked through the doors of a church sanctuary my guard was way up. I built a wall around me with bricks of guilt, shame, and mistrust. Not only that, I was terrified. I’m not sure if I was more afraid of being told I was a bad person, church making absolutely no sense to me, or that it might make perfect sense and change my life forever.

Jesus eventually broke through the wall and the fear. It might have happened sooner if someone told me that Jesus could handle all those things I was feeling. I didn’t have to build a wall, I didn’t have to be afraid. It wasn’t that I could leave all of that weight at the door when I walked in, but Jesus was inviting me to leave it at the foot of the cross. The Gospel becomes real when you approach it with fresh eyes like a kid watching The Rock deliver The People’s Elbow.

How intentional are you with your church invites? How intentional are you when planning a worship service? Are you setting your neighbors, friends, and loved ones up to have a genuine interaction with the Lord of All? If I can get my wife to drop the stigma of professional wrestling and give it an honest chance, I believe you might be able to do the same thing with someone that carries a pretty heavy stigma about church.

One of my favorite pastors is such because I feel so cared for by him through the course of any given worship service. The bulletin thoughtfully explains each element of the service and at several points he pauses to give easy-to-understand instructions, especially for elements like communion. I love it when a worship leader stops for a second to explain why they chose this particular hymn or why we’re reciting this particular creed. Coming from someone who still feels awkward at church sometimes, I promise these things aren’t a waste of time. What if we took greater care with our friends before, during, and after the church service? What if we set them up to become massive fans of Jesus and his bride? Occasionally, I wonder if our church leaders could learn a thing or two from the liturgy of professional wrestling