Here I Raise My Ebenezer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here I raise my Ebenezer

Here there by Thy great help I’ve come

And I hope, by Thy good pleasure

Safely to arrive at home

Jesus sought me when a stranger

Wandering from the fold of God

He, to rescue me from danger

Interposed His precious blood

Our Sunday Best

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Don’t be surprised by Wonder Woman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wonder Woman herself, Gal Gadot, with director Patty Jenkins

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

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

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

Justice League

Getting the most out of “Get Out”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone should read this book!

It was the Spring of 2007 and I stood before a collection of fellow college seniors, a random collection of communication professors, and, by chance, the president of my university. This was one of my first attempts at wearing a full suit and tie combo that matched. The assignment was the capstone to our Senior Seminar course, a class designed to prepare us to enter the workforce. It was a presentation of what we’d learned throughout college and where we planned to be once we graduated. In the chaos of my final months at Slippery Rock University, I had no idea what was next. So I stood there and, in front of that eclectic group, said, “Maybe I’ll become President of the United States of America!”

Obviously, I was the most ready to graduate. (Side note: I graduated a semester after all of my roommates)

Aside from POTUS, the only other career path I was considering at the time was professional wrestler. Obviously, I had no idea what I was doing. My Senior Seminar and other classes did prepare me for certain aspects of life after college, but there were still many, many gaps in my expectations and understanding of life after college. The wisdom I wish I had, the topics I wish my courses talked about more, are now featured in one of the most practical books I’ve read this year, Erica Young Reitz’s After College.

At first, the book made a lot of sense for my current work with college students. I approached it as a tool to help me talk to my students about what to expect once they graduate. However, it had me asking the question, “Do we really ever stop transitioning?” Yes, After College is really helpful for a college audience, but it was an incredible oil check for me. It allowed me, many years after graduating, some space to drop my dipstick in and see how I’ve been doing in the years since leaving college.


Reitz is a co-worker of mine in the CCO. She works on the campus of Penn State University and some time ago realized that transitioning out of college was one of the major struggles her students were facing and one that some of their broader campus ministry efforts were missing. So she decided to focus on it, figure it out, do research, collect stories, and invite powerful voices into her students’ most stressful seasons of transition. The Senior EXIT program was born and for years Reitz has been fine-tuning this content and that work really shows.

After College is comprehensive. Topics cover everything from dating, finding a church, a theology of work and place, handling money, making decisions, setting expectations, and learning to love your family as you enter adulthood. These are not easy topics, but Reitz’s poetry and experience alleviate much of the immediate stress of these areas of life with loving, pastoral care. She ushers her readers through teaching that can range from comforting to convicting with powerful sensitivity. It is obvious that she deeply cares for her students and, while reading, I knew she deeply cares for me.

For anyone thinking about using this resource with college students it is formatted to easily cover over the course of an academic year (as Reitz does through her Senior EXIT program) or even through a single semester. The chapters are the perfect length for students to incorporate into their weekly workload and each chapter includes sources for further Biblical and extra-Biblical reading. Also included are discussion questions sure to help even the most stoic student process these transformational topics.


I wouldn’t limit this resource to just graduating seniors. After College will be life giving to anyone in the tumultuous decades following college and beyond. My wife and I are both in our early thirties and while I was reading this book we were in the midst of making a major life decision. Reitz’s words spoke to me in that season and helped us approach our upcoming giant leap of faith with confidence that our lives will constantly be changing but God never does.

God was faithful to me when I left college, when I eventually went on to grad school, when I started my career in campus ministry, when we made the decision to move several states away, and will be there for me at every stage of life. If you or anyone you know would benefit from that reminder and more, you will be hard-pressed to find a better voice to present it.

Ivan’s Top Ten Movies of 2016

It may seem like this year we’ve lost too much. Celebrities, loved ones, journalism, gorillas, never having seen Kevin Spacey as a cat…we saw major losses in these areas in the year that was 2016. While we can lament these as well as a summer of fairly disappointing blockbusters, 2016 still did produce some incredible cinema experiences.

While we were never quite mentally prepared for the darkness of Nocturnal Animals, couldn’t pull together the energy to watch another Tom Hanks biopic in Sully, and were scared away by mixed reviews for Snowden and Florence Foster Jenkins, we did make it to the movies a lot this year. So as we all anxiously await the release of 2017’s hottest offerings (ex: Monster Trucks), and spend our holiday off time looking to catch up on what this past year gave us, here are my top ten favorite movies of 2016.

10. The Lobster (R)

The Lobster is really weird. In this story’s dystopian future, heartthrob Colin Farrell is a virtually un-datable slob. His character is then forced to a remote resort where the goal is to find your mate and marry them. The catch is that if you fail to find your mate in the allotted time you will live your remaining days transformed into an animal of your choosing. If you can handle that odd premise along with some explicit content, The Lobster offers a very unique and insightful commentary on who we chose to love. This was by far the most unique movie watching experience I had this year, but it will not be for everyone.

9. Sing Street (PG-13)

Yes, I saw La La Land, and no, it was not my favorite musical of the year. That title belongs to Sing Street. Director John Carney knows how to make musical movies…or are they movies with music? Either way they are enjoyable. You may know him for Once or Begin Again, both worth checking out if you haven’t. The back drop of Sing Street is the grayscale dinge of poverty-stricken Dublin in the 1980’s. Contrast that with the synthy bright colors of 80’s pop like Culture Club and Duran Duran and you have the stand-out coming-of-age movie of the year. Not only that, but at least once a week, I find the music in my head.

8. Fences (PG-13)

A theme that has emerged from many of my favorite films this year has been generational patterns and familial influence on our behaviors and personality. Fences takes place entirely on a back patio in a working-class neighborhood in pre-civil rights Pittsburgh and brings the poetry of playwright August Wilson to life. I left the film wondering aloud if Denzel Washington’s Troy was a good man and I’m sure almost anyone who experiences this story might answer that question differently. The characters are layered and emotions run deep with the pains of being a generation before the waves of significant change. Still, the patterns both in this family and the world are relevant for today’s culture. Are we doomed to repeat these same patterns? Are you above the mistakes of the past? Are you a good person? Fences makes you confront these questions.

7. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (PG-13)

There’s a chance that I will always be a supporter of having more Star Wars. Sometimes with that worldview, I get burnt. (Looking at you, droid-centric episodes of Clone Wars) With Rogue One, though, I felt the weight of the galactic rebellion more than ever and was given more context and depth to the universe I’ve loved for so long. Not many blockbusters landed on my list this year, but with its diverse cast and war-like feel, I couldn’t ignore the first in hopefully many Star Wars anthology movies.

Read my complete review here

6. 10 Cloverfield Lane (PG-13)

2008’s Cloverfield will always be one of the most memorable times I’ve had at the movies. It was point-of-view found footage done right. It was large in scale. It put audiences into a monster attack of a major city. 10 Cloverfield Lane is its wildly different sequel…maybe prequel…maybe not related at all thing and it was my favorite horror movie of the year. It locks you in a bunker with a few of the best performances of the year. Growing up watching Rosanne, I did not know I would be floored by the work John Goodman is capable of, but he carried this movie. The suspense, the mystery, the terror of this story rests on his shoulders and they are broad.

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5. Jackie (R)

If Rogue One gave me some welcome context to the fictional history of Star Wars, then Jackie did the same for actual U.S. history. We often hear tales of our highest office through the lives of the men who held it, but at different times in our country’s story the narrative was advanced by women. Director Pablo Larrain worked very hard to make this story about Jackie Kennedy her story. Even when President Kennedy is on screen he is in the peripheral. It is difficult to imagine all that Jackie was juggling in the weeks after JFK’s assassination, but Jackie sheds light on what it might have been like. It’s heartbreaking, powerful, religious, and probably the best performance by an actress this year.

4. Arrival (PG-13)

We struggle in our current climate to understand each other. Arrival sends an impactful message that we need other people, other cultures in our lives and does so through an inventive science fiction world. It also demonstrates how deep the divide in cross-cultural communication can be while giving hope that it is an obstacle that can be overcome.

Read my complete review here

3. Manchester by the Sea (R)

Manchester by the Sea might be more accurately titled We Don’t Need to Talk About This Now. This story is largely about grief, but it is an intensely relatable depiction of grief for me. The men in this film are like many I know, including the guy in my mirror. Conflict, pain, and feeling are easy to avoid until they’re not…until a bump on the head or swing of emotion forces everything out. Casey Affleck probably will earn best actor honors for his work here but he is supported by amazing efforts from newcomer Lucas Hedges and everyone’s favorite TV football coach Kyle Chandler not to mention brief but stellar moments with Michelle Williams. Manchester is a very authentic story…maybe too authentic. I wasn’t ready for a therapy session, but got to see many coping mechanisms I employ played out right in front of me. Don’t worry, though, we don’t have to talk about that now.

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2. Moonlight (R)

Even people in the best of circumstances can have a hard time establishing personal identity. Moonlight is very much about trying to figure out who you are in the worst of scenarios. Aside from everything I’ve written already about Moonlight, this is a beautifully directed, written, and acted film. It deserves acclaim at every level of filmmaking. Like others on this list it won’t be for everyone, but it is a story seldom given the light of day.

Read my complete review here

1. Hell or High Water (R)

Many of the movies on my list this year are about families. I was floored by the complexity and inner turmoil of Denzel Washington’s patriarch in Fences. I found great inspiration in the matriarch America needed in Jackie. I empathized right along with Kyle Chandler’s older brother character in Manchester by the Sea. My heart broke when Naomi Harris’s character in Moonlight forces her son to give her money for drugs. Still, one role hit me hardest this year, Ben Foster’s sloppy, unlovable Tanner in Hell or High Water.

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In this modern day western, we witness the history of this family slowly unfold. The film makes you root for Chris Pine’s scruffy-yet-attractive Toby all the while his brother Tanner drives you crazy. As the story progresses, you start to see that Tanner didn’t become that way overnight and as Toby is making sacrifices for his children, Tanner has given so much more to offer his family a chance in a world that was beating them down. Hell or High Water is funny, suspenseful, action-packed, and an emotional punch in the gut. A punch Tanner would probably take for you if you were family. Overall, we learned a lot from these diverse narratives this year. We learned to do anything for family, to keep space in our lives for others, to express our emotions in healthy ways, and to be prepared to name your favorite animal. Mine is the T-Rex.

What “Hamilton” and “Rogue One” have in common

There were no Skywalkers, no wookies, no Millennium Falcon but Rogue One was a great addition to the Star Wars Saga. The movie’s conception began with a line from the opening exposition of 1977’s A New Hope,

“It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR…”

For the first time since this text initially crawled across the silver screen, we get to experience that story and I think I enjoyed it so much because I spent a large part of this year listening to Hamilton.

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A New Hope has never been my favorite Star Wars movie. Empire Strikes Back has always been the best, and nowadays I prefer the updated effects and filmmaking of The Force Awakens or the new stories in the animated Clone Wars or Rebels. Don’t get me wrong, I love episode four…I love the characters and the overall story but it has always felt more like a space adventure than it has a film about war and peace.

Watching the original trilogy over the years I always knew Luke, Han, and Leia would prevail, evil would lose, and at the end the Ewoks would throw a party that I’ve always wanted to be invited to. That is why I think I have never totally written off the prequels…their story is a tragedy and that is often more interesting than the feel-good original trilogy. The stakes of war have never been higher, though, then in Rogue One.

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This isn’t a movie about Seal Team 6, it’s about the soldiers that gave their lives before the glory was had. There are no blonde-haired, blue-eyed farm boys here. This is a movie about rebels, revolutionaries who are rough around the edges, riding the line between freedom fighter and terrorist. They’re more scruffy looking than any Star Wars character we’ve seen before and they aren’t chasing their destiny…they’re chasing freedom and basic human needs.  For decades, Luke Skywalker has walked around with a gold medal around his neck paid for with the blood of folks that must have thought it must be nice to have the force on your side.

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Luke, Han, and Leia all have one thing in common…they’re a little cocky. It is probably what has always put viewers at ease watching the original trilogy. We couldn’t imagine any of our main characters dying, because they couldn’t either. The characters in Rogue One don’t have the luxury of confidence. They are young, scrappy, and hungry and even knowing the chances of success are slim, the politicians aren’t behind them, and none of them are Jedis…they’re not throwing away their shot.

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Whereas the prequels were complex to a fault, Rogue One is complex in all the best ways. The weight of imperial control is heavier than it has ever been. The Death Star looms larger. The rebels struggle with giving up and some do. Even Darth Vader is scarier than he’s ever been. It’s more real. Our arts community has been living in the real-life story of Alexander Hamilton for more than a year now. Its highly relatable because it’s a human story that really happened. Rogue One felt more human, more complex. The characters are good guys until you get in the way of the rebellion. They are filled with contradictions, but so is independence.

The action of Rogue One also felt more grounded including a sequence that felt ripped from Black Hawk Down or The Kingdom. The movie felt familiar because we see these conflicts played out on the news every day. U.S. intervention in civil wars like what unfolded in Aleppo is made impossible to navigate because of the political and physical dangers. In the original trilogy, the rebel “alliance” could have just been a catchy name, but in this movie we get to see what that word means. It is a mix of governments, revolutionaries, terrorists, prisoners, and traitors.

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Hearing the dreams that Hamilton had of a free nation makes the American revolution more inspiring and relevant. Rogue One fills in some interesting gaps in the Star Wars Saga. Luke Skywalker’s victory in A New Hope means more because we have the names, the faces, and the acts that made it possible and they are normal people.

If I lost everything to the government, I would fight it. If I witnessed any of the horrors of imperial control, I’d be willing to defect. If I had spent my life dedicated to protecting and maintaining faith in the force, I would be willing to show what that faith looks like. The main character Jyn Erso says, “Rebellions are built on hope,” and there is truth to that, but if so, then they are held together by ordinary people. Rogue One asks us all to consider, if you had Darth Vader’s saber aimed at you, what would you stand for? What would you fall for?

But its my birthday, Jesus!

This story may sound familiar. She was all of sudden very frightened because her baby boy was on it’s way under fairly frightening circumstances. I’m sure she must have been thinking, “This is not how I wanted it to be.” There had to be an overall sense that she wasn’t ready. Mostly because the doctors had projected this child, her second and first boy in the family, to come over a month later on Valentine’s Day. Just as the first Christmas was a miraculous intervention, on this Christmas in 1984, God had other plans.

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This isn’t the story of Jesus, though it involves him, this is my story. The story of a Christmas baby that came unexpectedly. This is also a story of what it means to have the whole world celebrate on your birthday, and, in the midst of being lost in the shuffle, what it is I’ve come to celebrate.

I was premature by several weeks. As the legend goes, my family was out enjoying the festivities of Christmas Eve with our family down the street from the house I grew up in. Now some would call my mother clumsy. I tend to think she is just always going full throttle into the adventures of life with little regard for her own safety. On this night, well before my due date, she went a little too full throttle down the icy steps of my granny’s house, she fell, and my labor had begun.

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I can’t imagine what was going through my mother’s mind as they rushed to the hospital. Was her baby going to be okay? Was she ready for this child she didn’t expect? Had her actions placed her new baby in danger? I’m wondering if similar questions entered Mary’s mind on that first Christmas as well. Soon Cindy Moore’s relatively normal-sized baby (imagine how big my head would have been had I gone full term) was born and in good health. Her questions were answered but this day left me with one big question I ask every year.

Growing up, even though our births were tied together, I had not tied my life to Jesus. So the holiday was rarely about him, but Christmas was still a fun time of family togetherness. Thankfully, my parents did a great job of making my birthday as special as it could be on a really haphazard day. They always had a special gift set aside from the others. Then, at a certain point during the day we would stop celebrating Christmas and start with the singing, the candles, and the cake.

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Sometime in college, though, I decided to follow Jesus and my birthday took on a whole new meaning. Not only that, but now I work for the church so my birthday will never be a day off. As I watch folks with those cushy summer birthdays celebrate the growing trends of birth weeks or birth months, I’ve come to despise my birthday as a day that will never be about me.

Back to that one question I ask every year…why was I born on Christmas? Why am I birthday buddies with Jesus? Why in the world would God tie a day that is supposed to be about me to a day where everyone in the world has a million other things on their minds? Why, on a day when all I want to do is hang out with my friends at Chuck E. Cheese, is it impossible to hang out with anyone anywhere? So what exactly does this Christmas baby have to celebrate during the chaos of the holidays? Let me tell you.

christmas-baby-7Neither of my parents had particularly charmed lives. Our family history is filled with stories of abuse, family turmoil, and tragic death. Any one of those things can end up defining you for a life time. Our legacies can be marked by the worst moments of our lives, the greatest examples that we indeed live in a fallen world. These moments cause great division and pain, they create the need for reconciliation.

For some reason neither of my parents threw in the towel. My mother worked for decades to make the world better for children who were dealt a similarly bad hand in life. My father lived his life with a hope that if he worked hard enough his family’s lives would be better too. God is in the business of breaking the chains of generational sin and this is the fundamental hope that comes with children.

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Each birth marks the arrival of a brand new reconciler. This new life brings with it the hope and promise of two parents that the next generations will not be subject to the pain and oppression of the last. God appeared to his people many times but often in ways that were terrifying and might seem distant (pillars of fire and smoke). On Christmas, God appeared to his people as a child. Jesus came in the most relatable form to show us that pain, abuse, even death would not define us. My parents have lived their lives with a similar hope, that our story will be defined by something bigger and better than they could ever imagine.

My wife can tell you that I still succumb to the occasional birthday meltdown, but over the years of reflecting on this story of great hope and reconciliation I’ve come to see a bigger picture. My birthday isn’t about me…its actually about the hope of the entire world. My sisters and I are the next chapter in the stories of Cindy and Bob Moore…who were the next chapters in the stories of their parents.

Each new chapter brings new mercies and new grace. From an overwhelmed, shamed, teenaged mother among the filth of a stable to a shivering, frightened, bruised Mrs. Moore, Christmas is about the lengths and the depths God will go to bring peace and reconciliation to creation. He brought both Jesus and I safely into the world under unexpectedly dangerous circumstances. But of course he did, we have a lot of work to do together and that is definitely worth celebrating.

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We all look different in “Moonlight”

“Running around, fishing in a boat of light. In moonlight, black boys look blue. You’re blue. That’s what I’m gonna call you: ‘Blue’.”

What is the best setting to tell a scary story? I’m imagining that you visualize a dark, moonlit night with your friends surrounding a campfire. The low light of the fire casts deep, cavernous shadows around your eyes. Maybe to enhance the effect you’ll hold a flashlight just below your chin.

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Light has a funny way of influencing our perception. It’s interesting that often when we talk about our mistakes or successes we employ a metaphor of a positive or negative light being cast. Let me cast some light on the story of Moonlight, a terrific movie out now directed by Barry Jenkins based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney. The film is about Chiron, a boy growing up in an impoverished project in Miami. His mother is an addict. His father is absent and his closest father figure is a local drug dealer. He also struggles with his sexuality. Take a minute and ask yourself where this story is going?

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Was it easy to write Chiron’s story for him? This is a light that we have seen shed before and Moonlight features many elements you might expect, but the beauty of the film lies in the unexpected, both for the audience as well as Chiron. The movie is divided into three acts providing snapshots of pivotal seasons in Chiron’s life that established his identity.

In each of the three acts, Chiron, who’s normal demeanor is stoic and silent, guarded against a world that has hurt him again and again, lets that guard down. He exposes himself to the love, support, and judgement of another. For fans of the Bible, this act is often translated to the sharpening of iron, right? We expose ourselves to have our rough edges smoothed out, to sharpen our character.

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This Biblical metaphor is intimidating to me for one reason, we are the iron. We all have the responsibility to sharpen and we are all vulnerable to the sharpening. My ability to sharpen comes with my bias, my emotions, and my selfish motivations that are part of being human. Which then begs the question, what bias, emotions, and motivations am I vulnerable to being sharpened by?

When you imagined how Chiron’s story would play out, what identity or narrative did you project on him? We often homogenize the people around us, fitting them into assimilated boxes of our cultural identity to fit roles that make us feel comfortable. Moonlight is, perhaps, equally about the dangers of forcing people’s identities into boxes as it is about the hope that comes when we are free to be defined by something that transcends stereotype.

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Chiron sits at the dinner table with Juan, his drug-dealing father figure. He asks him about a derogatory term he has heard which Juan explains is a word used to “make gay people feel bad.” Chiron then wonders if that term defines him. In this moment, Chiron is vulnerable to sharpening, wanting Juan, who has shown him compassion and love, to cast a light on him. Juan sets Chiron free by saying that he doesn’t need to have his whole identity figured out yet.

From there, Moonlight takes many turns you might not be prepared for…some expectedly tragic, some surprisingly uplifting, some powerfully universal. Fair warning this film will not be for everyone and an inspection of the film’s content rating will help frame your viewing. That said, the narrative of Chiron’s life features a complexity seldom seen in modern cinema. It is familiar, but unique. It doesn’t fit in a neat and tidy box.

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None of the specific instances, good or bad, define Chiron’s whole life. Each act is distinct. There is great freedom and hope in that. This is a freedom I am given by Christ. There have been many moments in my life that shined a negative light on me…but that light hasn’t defined my whole identity. There have also been moments that cast a positive light, that have brought me love and respect. That isn’t the full story either.

What if you were always seen in the perfect light? What would that change about the way you define yourself and make decisions? This is the beauty of the Gospel. Jesus not only took the punishment for our worst moments, he gave us the reward for his best so that God will always look upon us under a perfect, loving light. A light that will never be overcome by darkness.

While you watch:

What moments in the film surprised you? Why do you think that is?

What would you have told a young Chiron at the dinner table if he was asking you the questions he asks Juan?

When in the film does Chiron let others to define him? What is the result?

The creation story inside “Moana”

I remember the first time I saw the ocean. It was in high school on our senior trip. I sat on the top deck of our ship, the trip was a low budget cruise, and stared into the horizon for hours. That moment staring into the endless ocean made my small town in Pennsylvania feel like a cage surrounded by bars of mountains and hills.

Often our imaginations are limited by how far we can see in front of us and, growing up, each of my horizons had an end. This wasn’t the case on the water. Witnessing the vastness of our world first hand opened my mind and with each passing year my worldview got bigger and broader. The ocean was calling.

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Disney’s new movie Moana begins with the phrase, “In the beginning…” For Bible readers, this should be a familiar opening line. As with Moana, this is how our creation story begins. This is a great reminder that Christians aren’t the only culture that has a story of how the world began…but of interest is what is familiar and what is different about these stories.

In the writings of ancient cultures there are lots of stories about the world coming to be from the violent death of a beast or through a cataclysmic transformation of one piece of matter to the world as we know it. The world is formed from something. The outlier here is The Bible,

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty…” (ESV)

Or for those, like me, who like the Jesus Storybook Bible,

“In the beginning, there was nothing. Nothing to hear. Nothing to see. Only emptiness. And darkness. And…nothing but nothing. But there was God. And God had a wonderful plan.”

The creation narrative in Moana begins with a goddess in the form of an island, Te Fiti, springing from the ocean to create all that is alive. In an attempt to capture the island goddess’s creative potential, her heart is stolen by the demi-god, Maui (my personal life coach, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). Years later, this theft sets in motion an intersection of the personal journeys of Maui and Moana and, in doing so, models for us what it means to follow our calling and tap into our own creative potential.

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Maui’s mistaken assumption is that life comes from Te Fiti…but the truth is that Te Fiti’s power, her ability to create life, her creative potential comes from the ocean. Maui believes that he can earn this creative potential through godlike feats. The tale and music of Moana tell a different story.

“You may hear a voice inside

And if the voice starts to whisper

To follow the farthest star

Moana, that voice inside is

Who you are”

Moana’s parents have a plan for her life. She is tapped to be the next leader of her people, but Moana hears a different calling inside. Very quickly she realizes that in order for her culture and people to survive she must listen to that calling, not from her parents, but from the giver of life. Moana is about following your calling and realizing the same creative potential that the ocean placed in Te Fiti, resides in everyone. Similarly, The Bible continues from earlier,

“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’”

God, our creator, made us to be creative. We have the responsibility to cultivate creation. This looks very different for different people and every day as I work with college students I see this first hand. Some of them were born to create lesson plans that will inspire young people, others have an innate ability to read accounting spread sheets, while someone else might have a compassion that compels them to heal others. This creative potential is given, not earned. When we answer the call of our creator to live into that potential the world flourishes.

This is the heart of our story as daughters and sons of God. We are called to enter every realm of this creation and bring the heart of Jesus with us to bless those around us. When we do our work with other motivations (looking at you, Maui) we often experience the exact opposite of flourishing, destruction.

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Moana’s ancestors were culture makers. The ocean called them off their island to explore the world and cultivate the vast creation. Her voyage throughout the film brings her to a place where she answers her call, understands her legacy as a culture maker, and comes to know that the journey of life is hard and she’ll need reminders of her purpose. The songs in the film seek to write this on her heart.

“I am everything I’ve learned and more

Still it calls me

And the call isn’t out there at all

It’s inside me

It’s like the tide, always falling and rising

I will carry you here in my heart

You’ll remind me

That come what may, I know the way”

God may seem too big and too distant to have a relationship with us, but the story of scripture echoed in the story of Moana are telling us that God dwells inside us. When we look in the mirror we are staring at the image of God and that image is crying out, inviting you to cultivate God’s creation. God is calling…

While you watch:

What defines Moana’s identity? What defines Maui’s identity? What defines yours?

Is there a voice, a feeling inside you that you can’t shake? Is there something you feel down in your heart that you should…or shouldn’t be doing? What is preventing you from answering this call?

Are you aware of what God has created you for or leading you towards? How will you fulfill this? How will you use your passions and gifts to be a blessing to the world…to bring flourishing to creation?