REVIEW: Minding the Gap

Death defying kickflips from concrete ledges. Balance bending rail grinds that will leave you breathless. One of this year’s films in the running for the Academy Award for Best Documentary is “Minding the Gap,” a film that should have also been nominated for its cinematography. The film is about the skateboarding community in Rockford, Illinois and features camera work that could have only been honed in alleyways, empty swimming pools, and public stairwells trying to capture the sickest tricks. The film is about the sport it depicts so well, but as it unfolds is about something else entirely, generational patterns of sin and hardship.

As filmmaker Bing Liu follows his skater friends around, he allows the story to develop naturally. Digging deeper into their lives he begins to recognize the broken homes and abusive families they come from. These dark commonalities give Liu the open door to shed light on the unusually high rates of domestic violence in the city of Rockford. Unfortunately, this is a trend continuing in Liu’s friends as they enter young adulthood.

MTG 2

They have trouble keeping jobs, they drink excessively, and they abuse their significant others. Liu takes his evolving movie as an opportunity to unpack his own childhood with help from his mother. It’s heart-wrenching hearing his mother show deep remorse for the ways Liu was abused by his stepfather, while also documenting the disintegrating, unhealthy relationship of his friend Zack and the mother of Zack’s child. Two generations living out the same story.

This generational deja vu is something very human, and something God speaks into from the very beginning. In Genesis 20 we read,

“Now Abraham moved on from there into the region of the Negev and lived between Kadesh and Shur. For a while he stayed in Gerar, and there Abraham said of his wife Sarah, ‘She is my sister.’”

Now stop me if you’ve heard this before. As Genesis continues in chapter 26,

“So Isaac stayed in Gerar. When the men of that place asked him about his wife, he said, ‘She is my sister,’ because he was afraid to say, ‘She is my wife.’”

You’re not going crazy. Here are father and son, Abraham and Isaac, their hearts filled with fear and insecurity, lying an identical lie. They didn’t trust God and took the protection of their wives into their own hands. In both cases, the lie backfires and they nearly lose everything. In families, in institutions, and in the hearts of man we are prone to these generational patterns. We are stuck dragging the heavy chains of the past, slaves to the sins of our parents. They are thick chains, but they are not unbreakable.

MTG 4

The book of Deuteronomy gives us a painful instruction manual. In chapter 12 we read, “Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains, on the hills and under every spreading tree, where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Asherah poles in the fire; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places. You must not worship the Lord your God in their way. But you are to seek the place the Lord your God will choose from among all your tribes to put his Name there for his dwelling.”

The prior inhabitants of God’s chosen land left patterns behind, almost grooves in the land leading to the worship of their gods. These verses are warning God’s people that if they’re not careful as they enter the land, they could easily click into the grooves of the past. The only way to prevent this is to tear it all down. Patterns are comfortable, they’re easy. Sometimes clicking into the routines of the past even feels good. The process of tearing it down is always the opposite. Changing the direction of a generation always comes with pain.

MTG 3

For Liu and his friends it involves bringing the generational patterns into the light with his film. Zack will see this film and come face to face with some of his worst moments. Liu sat behind his camera and watched tears stream down his mother’s face. Even as an outsider, it is heartbreaking to watch, but that feeling of lament is the feeling of chains of the past being broken. What you hear in the film isn’t just plastic wheels filled with ball bearings hitting pavement, it’s the sound of shackles falling off. It’s the sound of future generations being freed. “Minding the Gap” is about skateboarding in Rockford, Illinois, but it’s also about hope.

Advertisements

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.

Tree of Life Synagogue and the Need for Weariness

Some families take vacations to Disney World. My family would vacation in Pittsburgh. This was partly because my grandparents lived there, partly because Pittsburgh is a wonderful city. I spent 12 years post-college living in the Pittsburgh region and in many ways regard it as my home city. It is a city known for its many distinct neighborhoods, my favorite of which is Squirrel Hill. I have spent countless hours there with family and friends. A predominantly Jewish community, it also houses restaurants and shops from a wide range of cultures and nationalities. It has the best movie theater in the city, and is a welcoming neighborhood full of vibrant culture and life. Despite the terrible violence there on October 27th, nothing will change that.

When I first starting seeing breaking news that a Pittsburgh synagogue was being attacked, I knew it was likely in that lovely community. Watching the story unfold, my primary response was weariness. After a week that was already marked by hatred and violence with the mail bombs, this was overwhelming. I felt sadness and anger, but mostly I felt numb. This has to stop. Things have to change.

20181027smsShooting13-1540686467

When we look at God’s history with the community of faith, He has used weariness in the past to move us forward. Buried in the middle of the Old Testament book of Numbers is a remarkable passage about some unexpected fruit of growing weary. Numbers in general is an often overlooked book that packs a punch. It follows the time of the Israelites leaving their enslavement in Egypt and their forty years wandering in the wilderness. God led them out of Egypt through signs and wonders and guided them straight to the Promised Land. But the people were not ready. They were so accustomed to slavery that they could not imagine freedom. All they could do was look back at their bondage and believe that it was normal and as good as it gets. They could not imagine that the unknown could be better than the comfortable past, so they believed it must be worse. They froze because all they could see were giants, not milk and honey (Num. 13:31-33).

So God consigned them to 40 years in the wilderness, one year for every day that the spies were in the promised land (Num. 14). Enough time for the generation that was born in Egypt to pass away. An entire generation is born in the wilderness, a generation that is listed in the middle of Numbers (chapter 26). The genealogies in this book is typically where readers get bogged down, but they are there to show us when a change begins. Something significant happens with this generation born in the wilderness. They no longer look back, they start to dream about what is ahead.

The daughters of Zelophehad son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Makir, the son of Manasseh, belonged to the clans of Manasseh son of Joseph. The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah and Tirzah. They came forward and stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders and the whole assembly at the entrance to the tent of meeting and said, “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not among Korah’s followers, who banded together against the Lord, but he died for his own sin and left no sons. Why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had no son? Give us property among our father’s relatives.”

So Moses brought their case before the Lord, and the Lord said to him, “What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right. You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father’s relatives and give their father’s inheritance to them. Num. 27:1-7 (NIV)

The daughters of Zelophehad begin to imagine possibilities of things that have never been before. What if women could own land? Not only that, they are envisioning life in the Promised Land. They are thinking about what it will entail and they do not want to miss it. No longer are the people looking back to slavery as their frame of reference. They are looking ahead and dreaming about things that have not yet been.

These young women represent what God was trying to do in the people through their wandering. To bring change in their desires. To wear them out on life that is sub-par so they start dreaming about abundance. So that when they are led back to the edge of the Promised Land, they want to go in and never look back. They want to take hold of God’s rest, provision, equity, and goodness. They were meant to hate the wilderness and former bondage so they would love the fulfillment of God’s promises.

This story offers a similar application to our weary hearts today. It is normal and good to feel sadness and anger. It is fitting and right for us to hate the works of evil. And our Godly response can be to dream rather than freeze. Many giants of evil are dominating our cultural landscape, but we serve a God with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm (Deut. 7:19). Take your weariness to your community’s inter-faith gatherings and support your Jewish neighbors. Use your platform to remind yourself, and others, that acts of hatred and violence are not normal or as good as it gets. Research the candidates running for office in your region and go vote for people who will pursue righteousness and peace. Pray for the Lord to move all of our hearts away from selfish complacency and towards new possibilities for Kingdom flourishing. May we be a people who are shaped by the promises and power of God and who dream of things greater than we have yet seen.

 

Does Sexual Purity Do More Harm Than Good?

If you were a Christian kid in the 90’s and into the early 2000’s, you probably encountered some form of the “Purity Movement.” There were books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye and Passion and Purity that touted the benefits of courtship over dating. Celebrities like Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, and the Jonas Brothers wore purity rings. The Silver Ring Thing and other organizations held gatherings and were present at music festivals to encourage young people to commit to remaining sexually pure until marriage. It was a major topic in youth groups and Christian youth-based curriculum.

A recent book by Linda Kay Klein has drawn the spotlight back to this era in the evangelical church. Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement that Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free details her experiences along with interviews of many others. In a recent NPR interview, Klein tells her story of legalism and shame and the trauma it caused for her and others. She recounts stories of being told she needed to dress differently to prevent the boys from “stumbling” (a biblical term meaning to fall into sin), and that she ought to exhibit less knowledge and enthusiasm for learning so as not to undermine the leadership role of the boys. Along with countless others, she internalized shame and anxiety about her body and her thoughts. She was constantly worried that she would do something that would compromise her purity, a standard that was inconsistently communicated and therefore even more anxiety-provoking. During college and beyond she began to move away from the teachings she received about sexual purity, but struggled for years to have a sexual expression that was not also marked by visceral reactions of shame and anxiety. Through her own story and those she interviewed, she posits that the purity movement left a generation of young women traumatized.

pure-9781501124815_hr

I am only a few years younger than Klein and remember all too well much of what she described. I also read Joshua Harris’s book in high school and also heard the narrative that sex before marriage will make you damaged goods that no good Christian man will want. I also absorbed a transactional faith that if you are a pure and modest woman, then God will reward you with a husband and a wonderful marriage. Although not as extreme as the teaching Klein received, I too internalized a largely sexist standard that women needed to help guard men from sexual sin (men bearing little to no responsibility for their sexual purity) and that men were to be the leaders in all relationships. I listened to her interview and felt deep sadness and sympathy for the pain she experienced. I know that it is real and valid, and worthy of affirmation and grief. In no way do I wish to diminish the very real hurt she received from destructive teaching. At the same time, I took a different path from Klein which is also worthy of telling.

My story is entirely a testament to the grace of God transcending toxic and unhelpful distortions of what is meant to be good and beautiful truth. Through the work of the Holy Spirit and faithful community around me, here is what I received instead. 

Purity is the wrong word

The very language that is used to describe a call for young people to abstain from sex until marriage sets up a false expectation. In a spiritual sense, to be pure is to be without sin. As Christians we believe that Jesus is the only human who has ever lived a sin-free life. Therefore to talk with young people about a very sensitive and intense topic using language that implies perfection is a sure recipe for guilt and shame. It is impossible to always remain 100% pure because even a stray lustful thought will mean you are no longer pure.

The way the movement was constructed led to an emphasis on personal behavior, which led to legalism, which leads to inevitable failure, which leads to despair and isolation. If our driving motivation is to be perfect for God, we are doomed from the start. Rather, we are made perfect BY God through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. In this life we will always struggle with sin and our hope is in the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, not our personal willpower. I had to reorient my perspective away from being focused on my own ability to be perfect, and towards a perfect God who loves me unconditionally and accomplishes what I cannot do for myself.

Celibacy is not a vending machine

I very much wanted to be married and yet was perpetually single. I was always highly involved with my church and in my mid-20s even entered vocational ministry. By all accounts I was doing everything right and was deserving of God blessing me with a great husband. Yet no husband presented himself. Over the course of multiple years I had to wrestle with what my celibacy was for. A particular parable from Luke was deeply convicting:

“Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10 So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” – Luke 17:7-10

On the surface this parable may seem harsh, but it essentially means that we cannot put God in our debt. I will never be able to work hard enough or be good enough for me to become better than God and for God to then owe me something. If that is the case, then everything I have is a gift from God. Nothing is earned by me but is freely bestowed by a generous God. The Lord did not owe me anything for my celibacy, I was only doing my duty.

This was one of the most important lessons for me to learn. I have seen a great deal of pain and despair among men and women who “did everything right” but remained unmarried or had marriages fall apart. This has led to disillusionment and in some cases rejection of their faith. If we have been taught and believed that making all the right choices will earn us the things we want, we will have little to which to cling when life disappoints us. I had to make peace with the idea that marriage is not a biblical guarantee and God does not owe me a life-long happy marriage. God promises me that He will always be with me, and says that is enough. I came to a specific turning point where I believed that God is worthy of my obedience because of who He is, not because of what I want from Him.

God asks hard things for good reasons

Celibacy is hard. I spent much of my 20s feeling lonely and wondering where to find affirmation if not from a boyfriend/husband. I was not single by choice, I was single by default. It can be draining to take care of yourself by yourself, it requires a great deal of emotional energy. I wrestled with discontentment and wanting my life to look different than it did at various points. And yet I would not trade those tumultuous years. The Lord showed me what it meant to depend on Him and to rest in being fully known and fully loved by God.

There were many evenings where I would sit on my patio and have a stream of consciousness prayer conversation with God about my day and about my thoughts and feelings. I would not have done that if a husband was there. God used what could have been a purely lonely time to show me what intimacy with my Creator can be. It was time of learning that God cares about the things that happen in my day that only I care about and is closely involved in my life. God is a comforter who sees my emotions, sees my confusion, and draws near to speak the assurance of truth. Jesus is trustworthy even when nothing else is going to plan. Those years were hard but also a precious gift.

Friendship and marriage are equally important

Not everyone can or should be married and marriage is not the only way to experience love and intimacy. The purity movement focused almost exclusively on marriage as the ultimate prize and gave us no idea for how to cultivate meaningful and lasting friendships. When churches focus the majority of their ministry on marriage and family, many others are alienated, and all of our lives are poorer for it. Intergenerational friendship has been a tremendous joy in my life that has added a great richness. No matter your stage in life, friendship is essential for knowing each other and knowing more of who God is.

Sexuality is highly spiritual

When it comes to teaching young people about biblical sexuality, we’re bad at it. The purity movement largely lost the beauty of why God calls us to sexual fidelity. It is so much bigger than, “sex before marriage is bad so just don’t do it.” God presents a much more lovely picture of what sex is for and why it is important. Frequently in scripture God will equate marriage with His relationship with the community of faith across both the Old and New Testament (Hosea, Eph. 5, Rev. 21 just to name a few). The sexual and emotional intimacy between a husband and wife is one of the clearest pictures of the spiritual intimacy we all share with God. The way we experience our sexuality is designed to be intertwined with the way we understand our connection to God.

In marriage a husband and wife commit their whole selves to one another. They commit to sharing everything about themselves and make a vow to love the other person unconditionally. Tim Keller frames it well in describing sex as an act of “covenant renewal.” The act of sex is giving yourself in the most intimate way to another person. It is meant to occur in a context of deep trust and vulnerability, an expression of not holding anything back from the other. This is the way that God loves us and commits Himself fully to us. To love us unconditionally and to never leave or forsake us. When we trivialize and dull our experience of sex we inadvertently diminish the way we experience God’s love and fidelity to us.

Waiting until marriage is a blessing

It is true that if you have remained celibate through training yourself to see sex as bad, a switch does not automatically flip on your wedding night to make you enjoy sex forever. But because sex is profoundly significant, it is still worth waiting for. Something unique happens when there is only one person that is the source of your sexual pleasure. When we also abstain from pornography and masturbation within marriage we are solely dependent on the other for sexual expression. We cannot find sexual pleasure apart from the person we have pledged ourselves to, and that creates a bond that is lovely and designed to last. Sex is also far more than only pleasure, it is a vulnerable offering of yourself in the assurance of emotional and physical trust and safety. Sharing your whole life with someone is not easy, and our American culture is increasingly skeptical of the benefits of marriage and monogamy. Yet God designed it this way because we need a deep and unique bond to help sustain us through the trials of life. Sex is a very good gift that is a powerful sustainer of love and unity.

This is by no means a comprehensive exposition of everything that the purity movement got right and everything that it missed. There is also much more to say about the ways that God heals our sexuality when it has been abused or misused, and the way we experience the connection of sexuality and spirituality in celibacy. My intention is to share from my journey, which is my own and therefore has limits. I welcome questions and on-going conversation about what has shaped your journey and your hopes for the Church moving forward.

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.

gettyimages-978186884

“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.

“This Is America” and the prophetic voice

The internet has been in an uproar. While Donald Glover was hosting Saturday Night Live he unexpectedly dropped a new music video from his hip-hop persona Childish Gambino, This Is America. It has 92 million views in less than a week, sparking debate and vigorous attempts to interpret the social meaning of the video. Directed by Hiro Murai, a frequent director on Glover’s FX show Atlanta, the camera follows Childish Gambino as he dances his way through a series of viscerally intense scenarios. The scenes depict Glover’s experience of being a black man in America, raising conversations around gun violence, black entertainment, the socializing of black children, protests, poverty, and more. (The video contains two brief scenes of shocking violence, a marijuana joint, and one curse word, all handled with artistic value.) For a thorough breakdown of the themes of the video without the moments of violence, go here.

TIA gif

From my vantage point as a white female viewer, I was most struck by This Is America’s use of distraction and redirection. The first time I watched the video I was captured by Gambino’s dance moves and expressions. The background action is often intentionally out of focus, making it that much easier to only notice the entertainment and ignore the chaos taking place behind him. Multiple times Gambino is surrounded by teenage school children, dancing in perfect synchronization with smiles on their faces. To be quite frank, my first thoughts were, “Wow, Donald Glover is actually a really good dancer!” For me that was a major part of the genius of the video. As a casual viewer I immediately fell into the trap of only being entertained without wrestling with the deeper themes of racism and violence in America. In so doing I was confronted with my willingness to only notice things that are pleasant to watch while tuning out harsh realities that lead to feelings of discomfort or sorrow. Is that not a widespread temptation in our society today? To be pleased when we are comfortable and angry when we are confronted with things we would rather ignore?

As I watched the video a few more times, I was soon reminded of the Old Testament prophets. From Isaiah to Malachi, the role of the prophets was to proclaim God’s word to God’s people. God spoke through the prophets over and over again to call the people away from sinful disobedience and back to God’s covenant relationship. The people continually fell into all kinds of destructive practices that were eroding their society. The prophets would call out the sins of the people, commanding them to return to the Lord before they became past the point of no return. There was always an assurance of restoration, God’s perfect balance of justice and mercy. God would act in response to violence and exploitation of the vulnerable, and would always seek the good of the people. Let’s look at a few of the prophetic exhortations:

The word of the Lord came to me:

“Son of man, will you judge her (Jerusalem)? Will you judge this city of bloodshed? Then confront her with all her detestable practices and say: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: You city that brings on herself doom by shedding blood in her midst and defiles herself by making idols, you have become guilty because of the blood you have shed and have become defiled by the idols you have made. You have brought your days to a close, and the end of your years has come. Therefore I will make you an object of scorn to the nations and a laughingstock to all the countries. Those who are near and those who are far away will mock you, you infamous city, full of turmoil. 29 The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the foreigner, denying them justice. ~ Ezekiel 22:1-5, 29

“My people, what have I done to you?
How have I burdened you? Answer me.

10 Am I still to forget your ill-gotten treasures, you wicked house,
and the short scales, which is accursed?
11 Shall I acquit someone with dishonest scales,
with a bag of false weights?
12 Your rich people are violent;
your inhabitants are liars
and their tongues speak deceitfully. ~ Micah 6:3, 10-12

27 Like cages full of birds,
their houses are full of deceit;
they have become rich and powerful
28     and have grown fat and sleek.
Their evil deeds have no limit;
they do not seek justice.
They do not promote the case of the fatherless;
they do not defend the just cause of the poor.
29 Should I not punish them for this?”
declares the Lord.
“Should I not avenge myself
on such a nation as this?

11 They dress the wound of my people
as though it were not serious.
“Peace, peace,” they say,
when there is no peace. ~ Jeremiah 5:27-29, 8:11

And the word of the Lord came again to Zechariah: “This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. 10 Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’

11 “But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and covered their ears. 12 They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the Lord Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets. So the Lord Almighty was very angry. ~ Zechariah 7:8-12

Stubbornly they turned their backs and covered their ears. America is not the nation of Israel, and to my knowledge Glover does not profess a Christian faith, but This Is America is tapping into some universal biblical truth. The prophets frantically tried to hold a mirror up to Israel to show them where their comfort and self-indulgence were resulting in the dismantling of their society. Those themes are echoed in this modern expression. The video confronts its viewers with the ways that our desires for comfort and excess are causing us to ignore the marginalized, allowing violence to go unchecked.

TIA cars

It is also fitting that this call is coming in the form of a music video that makes use of symbols and extreme imagery. God frequently commanded the prophets to physically act out behaviors that were metaphorical for Israel. Hosea marries a prostitute who cheats on him and runs out on him. Yet Hosea pursues her and brings her home, symbolizing in a powerful way God’s love and pursuit of an unfaithful people (Hos. 1-3). Ezekiel builds a mini replica of the siege of Jerusalem and lies on his side for 390 days, then his other side for 40 days to symbolize God’s judgment on Israel and Judah. He is given instructions to make a specific bread with specific daily rations, indicating that the people would eat “unclean bread” during the Babylonian exile (Ez. 4). Jeremiah is commanded to buy a linen belt, place it in the cleft of a rock by the Euphrates and leave it for several days. He then went and retrieved it, revealing that it was now ruined as a garment in the same way that Israel had become worthless in their disobedience to God (Jer. 13). He is also commanded to break a clay jar to symbolize God breaking all their tools of idolatry (Jer. 19).

God is a brilliant communicator who understands that as humans, just being told something does not always mean that it will sink in. Sometimes we have to see it acted out in order for the gravity of a situation to become real. In a very similar style, This Is America puts forth jarring representations of uncomfortable realities in a way that causes them to be unavoidable.

All good art elicits a reaction. The question now is whether our reactions can move past cultural decoder rings and into hearts softened by compassion and repentance. The prophets were notoriously hated and often martyred. Anyone bearing a message that the public does not want to hear is putting themselves at risk. Will we be better listeners than those that came before us? Will we listen when confronted with experiences we may not all share but which call us to active engagement? Will we hear the cries of the prophets that echo across time and place? I pray that we will respond, not just to modern art, but to God’s timeless love of justice and mercy.

We just had an Epiphany

What takes up most of your time? What do you spend the most time doing? Would you notice if something new appeared in that setting? This past Sunday marked the first week of Epiphany, the season in the Church calendar where we celebrate the coming of the Wise Men to find the recently born Jesus (Matt. 2:1-12). It is one of my favorite seasons because it has so many layers. It asks us to reflect on the ways that Jesus has revealed Himself to us and appeared in our lives. It marks the expansion of the Gospel as the first Gentiles (the wise men) recognized Jesus as the Savior of the world. And it demonstrates that God honors years of faithfulness to bear fruit we might never have imagined. Epiphany lasts until Lent, let us dig into all that this season offers.

Where did Jesus appear to you in the past year?

We know very little about the wise men. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that they were scholars who specifically studied the stars and the natural world. They studied the night sky so closely that they noticed when a new star inexplicably appeared.

Wise-men from the east came to Jerusalem saying, ‘Where is he who is to be born King of the Jews? We have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him. – Matt. 2:2

I know next to nothing about astronomy, so it boggles my mind that a star could look so significant that it would cause observers to assume a great cosmic event must have occurred. What an incredible thing that God can communicate to humans through the natural world in such a way that we could realize deep spiritual thruths. The star was so special that it prompted these men to travel a great distance, likely over the course of months and even a couple of years, to find the Person that was living in its light.

The wise men saw the star because they were pursuing their vocations as scholars. They were doing their normal jobs and received this revelation in the process of their work. In the same way, where did you see Jesus show up in the course of your work and daily life last year? Where were you shaped in the process of living out your calling? Jesus can reveal Himself through the spectacular, and also through the very mundane. Spend some time thinking about where you saw Christ through simply paying attention to the life you have been given.

Jesus is for everyone

We have no indication that the wise men were Jewish, in fact they almost certainly were non-believers. They were definitely living far outside of Israel and were foreigners to the Jews. And yet Jesus revealed Himself to them in a way that they could understand. It made no difference that they spoke a different language or came from a different culture. Jesus is a savior who can cross any barrier that humans experience. Our current cultural moment is still very much defined by fear and distrust of anyone who is not like “us.” We struggle to find common ground and to reach out to one another. Let us draw on the power of Jesus to cross any border and find ourselves united by the Light of the world, the One who came to be a blessing to all nations.

What if Jesus saves your enemies?

Most Bible scholars have concluded that the wise men were from the region of Babylon, east of Israel. This is the place to which Israel had been exiled several centuries earlier. When God sent the people into exile there, He commanded them to make it count.

Build houses and dwell in them; and plant gardens and eat the fruit of them. Marry and be given in marriage, bear sons and daughters and multiply, do not diminish. Seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away into captivity, and pray to God for it; for in its peace you will have peace. – Jer. 29:5-7

They were not to just sit around, biding their time until they could leave. They were to see their time in Babylon as meaningful and capable of impact. What if the wise men were primed to see the star because of faithful Israelites who had lived out their worship of God in Babylon? Perhaps the period of the exile had left traces of God that the Babylonians were meant to find. They likely would have had access to Hebrew Scriptures and as scholars may have developed an interest in Yahweh (Hebrew for LORD) and a desire to learn more about Him. God may have honored the years of faithfulness in exile to allow new believers to find Jesus.

That is a beautiful thought, and also difficult. The Babylonians were not great people. Their attack on Jerusalem was brutal and they were a pagan culture. In every way they were enemies of God’s people. And yet Jesus chooses to intentionally target them for an invitation into the redemption story. It is easy to rejoice when people we love find Jesus, it is much harder when people we hate are called to become our spiritual brothers and sisters. And yet if we were all once enemies of God (Col. 1:21-22), Jesus saving enemies is very good news. Consider where you can be a blessing in places you might rather not be. A particular facet of your work, certain relationships in your life, classes you are tired of taking. Jesus may have plans for your presence in those places that you cannot yet imagine. Pray for the Holy Spirit to give you compassion for others and a desire for their good. May we all know Jesus more and make Him known in the places to which we have been called.

Prayer for Epiphany

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world: Grant that Your people, illumined by Your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory, that He may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who with You and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, now and for ever. Amen.

– Book of Common Prayer