“Last Chance U” and You

Football season has begun. In today’s world, this means the season of talking about concussions, hearing about the horrors of domestic violence, your sports news crawl spelling out the newest round of DUI arrests, and debating the National Anthem. Has any professional sport come under more fire in past few years than football? In the midst of the controversy, comes another entry in the Netflix docuseries, “Last Chance U.” For some, football is life. Football is identity. Football is hope. As we debate football’s place in society, “Last Chance” has a great deal to say.

The show tells the story of East Mississippi Community College and their reputation for being the landing spot of college football’s most troubled top prospects. EMCC gives players with promise a chance to get their academic and criminal records in line in order to earn offers from the country’s most prestigious football powerhouses. Every man on the roster is missing a key that would unlock a position with the likes of Auburn or Ole Miss. After all, this is the place where brand new Denver Bronco, Chad Kelly, went to junior college.

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Wrapped in this premise are the stories of these young men. This is their last chance. If it were me, given a last chance, I would approach it with military precision. EMCC not only offers them a football team complete with the eyes of recruiters, but academic counseling to make sure they are eligible for those Division 1 scholarship offers when they come. Watching these young men, though, might send you searching for a tackling dummy to hit. They skip class, they sleep through coach’s meetings, they verbally assault professors, and as their counsellor, their biggest champion and cheerleader, is giving them advice, they nod to her blankly as music blares through their headphones. So many of these student athletes are playing fast and loose with their last chance.

Thankfully the series doesn’t show these seemingly disrespectful behaviors in a vacuum. Rather, the show gives the time to hear these young men out. As each episode plays, the pieces of their puzzle come together perfectly into a picture that is hard to reconcile. So much of their lives have been a series of confusing and painful contradictions.

The classroom doesn’t make sense. Now in college they are being told to work hard academically after years of schools giving them grades to keep them on the field. Meetings don’t make sense. They’re being told to listen and change when they’re athletic skills have always kept them out of trouble. They’re being told to sit there when, in their minds, they know all these professors and counsellors want is the use of their bodies. Society doesn’t make sense. They are so close to being like their heroes who appear bullet proof from racial oppression protected by fame and money, but they’re not there yet. They are still very much subjected to a world that often makes them feel like they can’t win, a society that makes them question if it wasn’t for football would they have any worth at all?

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The only place that does makes sense, the only small piece of sanctuary they’ve found, is that level patch of grass where they get to be heroes and saints. The football field has clear rules and clear systems of penalty and reward. If they do their job between whistles, they will succeed. This isn’t always the case off the field. On the field their enemy is easy to see. However, they can’t sack inequality. They can’t put a spin move on racism. At this point in their academic careers, no number of reps seems to help them understand algebra. Coaches scream in the locker room for harder hits. It takes a level of violence to play the game, but those same coaches then call them thugs when they use that violence to protect each other and lack compassion when that violence spills into the players’ lives. The game of life doesn’t make sense, football does. So that is where their hope, effort, and identity goes, everything else has become a waste of time.

I still believe football has a place in this world. I was never blessed with the stamina of a soccer player or the speed and agility of the best baseball players. The Lord did give me the size and strength to play football and the sport gave me a lot in return. When coached well, football can actually teach you discipline, resilience, teamwork, and how to manage your emotions for good. Coming from Steelers country, I also know how football can unite communities in powerful ways. For many of the Lions of EMCC, these helpful, good aspects of the game have been lost through lives lived in a world that tells them they’re winners in a system that has ill-equipped them to win.

In season one, this is most apparent in running back DJ Law. He feels inadequate in the classroom so he’s constantly falling behind and skipping class. The penalties of failing and missing class are outlined clearly at the beginning of the show and he has surpassed them all. Cut to the head coach saying they do everything they can to help players succeed only to roll that back admitting they don’t do everything. They do everything to win, so Law remains on the field. There are resources all around him to help him work through his academic challenges, but why go through that when all that really matters is football. Researching Law’s story after the show only provides more tragic evidence. He had an offer to play for a good school but got injured. Without football, his grades fell even further and now he’s no longer in school.

Towards the end of season two there is another heartbreaking example. Standout Isaiah Wright struggles through the season with several painful situations. Throughout his life, he’s been rewarded for what his body can do, but when he is injured and trying to take care of his body he’s penalized and yelled at. On top of this, Wright is dealing with a deeply sad life situation that I won’t spoil and has no idea how to handle his emotions. All of this amounts to incredible emotional and mental confusion. This confusion carries over onto the field. In one game, he fails to catch a punt that results in giving his team terrible position on the field and gets yelled at. Next time he tries hard to catch the punt but does so giving the team even worse position, and he gets yelled at. Even though anyone who has ever returned a punt knows when and when not to catch the ball, Wright, unable to reconcile everything that’s happened to him, can’t make these decisions and can’t handle the failure that results. He melts down. He loses his best scholarship offers and settles for a Division II school. Again, researching him after the show reveals he spent less than a year at his new school and has since dropped out with no prospect of returning elsewhere.

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Anyone working with young people would benefit from watching “Last Chance U.” Questions of identity constantly plague our next generation. Football, like anything else vying for our identities, can cause terrible damage if it is all a person has. “Last Chance” tells the story of young men who have had limited choices in where to place their identity. What could have happened if Law or Wright were given something else to motivate them? What if they could use sports for their intended purpose and not place the entirety of their hope in them?

Thankfully, season two also tells this story through linebacker Dakota Allen. Allen arrived at EMCC after nearly being charged with armed robbery. He lost his spot on Texas Tech’s football team and was labeled a menace to society. Episode 4 opens with Allen being baptized at the home of one of his coaches. After football was taken away, Allen needed something else to place his identity in and the advice he heard most often was to pray. This led to a deep belief in Jesus Christ. The episode in punctuated by Allen in church listening to his pastor exclaim the unending grace and mercy Jesus provides. As tears stream down Allen’s face, it’s obvious he knows what it means to have a another chance. I’ll let you see for yourself how his story plays out on the show, but I will tell you it was fun watching him playing on national TV as the season opened this year.

The title of the show is accurate. Football offers a finite number of chances and often takes more than it gives. If football is all that makes sense in the world, if it becomes the center of identity, then one bad hit or bad play will bring that world and identity down. With care, football can offer an avenue to express God-given gifts and achieve building blocks for life-long success. This can only happen if a young person is given the chance to place their identity into something that offers the infinite. In a world that is often unforgiving, the Gospel gives chance after chance after chance to be forgiven.

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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.

A Father’s Day Psalm of Lament

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Let’s face it, for so many, Father’s Day can be a painful reminder of the worst moments of our lives. For some it is a reminder of what they’ve lost. For others it can be a reminder of what they never had. While still more have only been given abuse and violence from their fathers. Father remains as a loaded, painful word but one that God chooses to call himself. How do we reconcile that? The authors of the Biblical psalms processed heavy, complicated emotions through their poetry. What follows is an attempt to process Father’s Day through the form of a modern day psalm of lament.

Expect a parallel and thematic structure of a psalm without the poetic verse structure of a PhD in Literature. It begins with the question of how a God that is supposed to be all good and all powerful can ask us to call him a word that to so many means loss, evil, and pain. It ends with a reminder that the only thing that defeats death is life and even if our fathers never gave us anything good we have the opportunity to bring goodness to the world. Even in the darkest family situations, hope can survive in the next generation. We have been adopted as children of God. Given absolute love and compassion by the creator of all things. In light of the gospel, my hope is that the connotation of that word can be transformed.

Oh Lord, how can I possibly call you father

when all that word does is remind me of loss?

You are the Father of Fathers but

when I hear that word I think of the day mine left.

How can I feel close to you remembering what I’ve lost

feeling again and again that day when he died?

It seemed on that day as if separation was king

dealing decrees of disease and death into my life.

My father was a good, good man

so how could you let him die?

You claim to be a good, good God

but now that word, “father”, means death.

Still others have lost more than me

never having a moment with their fathers worth grieving.

I can’t imagine what that word brings to mind

for those who never had someone to fill it’s image.

Even worse I can’t imagine what that word feels like

for those who had a father that only made them feel pain.

Our hearts ache 

for those for whom that word means verbal, violent, violating abuse.

This cannot be the way things are supposed to be.

What then?

If there is a good connotation of that word

what is it?

Lord you are patient and kind and loving,

is that what “father” is?

You are gentle and gracious and powerful,

is that what my father left behind?

You, oh Lord, are the father of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,

and, at times, they were not faithful.

Your people, Lord, again and again and again

create space for sin to remain in the world.

Yet the hope of Abraham was Isaac

and the hope of Isaac was Jacob.

The death and decay of sin that defines our fathers’ day

gives way to new hope always present in new generations.

Our father’s cycles and chains

can always be broken.

While death has struck it’s only blow

I still live and will live.

Not only that but those words that “father” should mean

love, patience, kindness still live.

It is because of who my father was that in me

gentleness, graciousness, and power still live.

I live therefore my father lives

because I am my father’s greatest hope.

In the same way our Heavenly Father is proved good

because he gave the world his Son.

Death, decay, violence, and violation

do not get to have the last word.

We were born of our fathers

to ensure that what struck them sees no victory.

Death will always win

if we do not give life.

Hope will always end with us

unless we pass it on.

Even if to me that word is marked by death

it is also marked by love.

While for so many of us that word carries a sting

by its nature it also carries new life.

Lord I can say you are good

because death is not the end.

Lord I can call you father

because I am your child.

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Me and my dad.

Should we stop sharing that “Newsroom” clip?

“Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?”

Have you seen that video? It was probably shared with a comment like “The most honest piece of television EVER!!!” or “MUST WATCH!!! So true!” As I write, this clip from the HBO show The Newsroom, from the top three versions of it on YouTube, has 13 million views. Odds are, you’ve seen it. Especially since, even though the show has ended its run and the clip is now four years old, it keeps getting shared and shared and shared. This probably happens because it taps into something very real.

Politics are emotional and we are in a season in our country where politics, in its current form, have the center stage. It’s an election year and might be the most televised presidential election we have ever had. How many debates have we had during the primary process? I’ve lost count. What’s intriguing is that this viral clip seems to speak to both sides. Conservatives look at the current state of our country and ring out loud the mic drop moment of this video, that America is not currently the greatest country in the world. Liberals are attracted to this video that was featured in a television program with a rigorous liberal bias that was actually speaking out of frustrations with the current trends in conservative politics. It’s a video for everyone.

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The problem with this particular clip, however, is that the core message of it isn’t featured in the scene itself. This clip, by itself, is out of the context of the first season of the show which ends revisiting this moment and finishing the thought this clip begins. By itself this clip is angry, intellectual, and, actually, pretty dismissive. It is the perfect social media mic drop. The clip bashes viewers over the head with well thought-out, well-researched rhetoric and is now used to put people in their place.

All this is said not to take a side on political issues, but, instead, is to recognize what the phenomena of this clip says about how we use social media. There is something incredibly satisfying in having the last word, of saying something so smart that no one can answer it. There is something gratifying about verbally putting someone in their place. Trust me, when I come face to face with some of my mortal enemies like Hulk Hogan who beat my hero Macho Man Randy Savage at Wrestlemania V, Vontaze Burfict of the Cincinnati Bengals, or Joel Schumacher the ruiner of the 90’s Batman franchise, I would love nothing more than to give them a piece of my mind! But by treating social media this way are we taking a tool designed to bring us together and using it as a weapon to tear us apart?

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Unfortunately, using content out of context to drop a mic on someone is not new to the world of Christianity. Words have power and, perhaps, no words have more power than scripture. Taken out of context scripture can do all kinds of things. It can pretty much prove any point you want to prove or correct anyone you think is wrong. We see it on protest signs telling families at military funerals that they’re going to hell. We see it in any of the shows in Shondaland as gracious permission to be whoever you want to be doing anything you want to do. In his “Gospel in Life” series, Tim Keller defines these two extremes as legalism (everything is bad) and license (everything is okay). Keller goes on to define a third option.

The third option, somewhere between legalism and license, is the gospel. The gospel isn’t a tool to make a point, it is the point. True, the gospel is convicting. Also true, the gospel is gracious. However, neither is the whole story. How can we exist somewhere in the middle? How can we create gospel-centered space in our online social communities? It starts with an invitation.

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Social media mic drops are the opposite of inviting. With the mic on the floor, conversation…community is dead. But, like we talked about a few paragraphs ago, mic drops are fun! It is way more fun to drop a piece of knowledge and assume the online world will click like or retweet affirming that you are the most brilliant thinker of our time and communicate to you that their lives have been changed just for knowing you. Does that ever happen?

If our online conversations fail to be inviting it becomes difficult to do anything but fight. One mic drop leads to another and another, feelings get hurt in a medium without verbal and non-verbal cues, and frustration with our friends and the medium sets in. But if we see all of our communication as an invitation, our conversations can change. Think about the way that Jesus communicated.

First of all, Jesus often communicated points, revealed peoples’ hearts, and created deep community by asking questions. Even trapped between a political rock and hard place when presented with a conundrum about taxes, Jesus’s first response was a question (Mark 12:15). Jesus often invites others to evaluate the heart behind their beliefs. Any modern day Don Draper out there will tell you the first step in successful communication campaigns is research, asking questions. How would your online community change if it was filled with more wonder? Wonder what brings someone to their beliefs. Wonder where others’ hearts are.

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Jesus didn’t only ask questions. He also answered, but, when he did, his answers were inviting. In that encounter about taxes, his final response was, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” The Pharisees thought they gave Jesus two options…affirm paying taxes, siding with the government alienating his followers…deny paying taxes, siding with his rebels becoming a criminal. Affirm the government’s sinful behavior or convict the behavior of his followers. There is always a third way and in his response Jesus is inviting the Pharisees to examine what in their lives belongs to God. It is an invitation to know God and God’s sovereignty on a deeper level.

So what is the invitation in that Newsroom clip? Well it doesn’t come in the clip with 13 million views. It comes in one of the final scenes of season one. The question is asked again, by the same young woman, but the answer changes. What if we stopped dropping mics on each other, but instead invited others into our lives? What would it look like to create space where they also want to invite you into theirs? What if social media was more about people than it is about points? Let’s all keep our mics in hand, ready to contribute, ready to invite, ready to pass it rather than drop it. What makes America the greatest country in the world? You do.

Why I’m #TeamIronMan

In my most honorable hopes and dreams, on the political, ideological battlefield of Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War, I am #TeamCap all the way. Captain America is super strong, super genuine, super honest, super filled with integrity, and super human. He is everything I want to be. Tony Stark (Iron Man) on the other hand, he is flawed, riddled with guilt and shame, and guided by fear and arrogance. So if I’m being honest with myself, in my true/human heart, I am #TeamIronMan.

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If you haven’t seen Civil War yet and plan to this is the time to turn away, read my spoiler-free piece on grace and #TeamCap, and come back after. Because to talk about Tony’s flawed, human heart we have to go to Spoilertown. Yes, that was a *SPOILER ALERT*. This is a *SPOILER REVIEW*. Run away now if you don’t want *SPOILED*.

There are interesting parallels to the development of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and the story they have built for the man that started it all, Tony Stark. It was all kind of an accident. Marvel took a B-level hero and by creating a fun story with a perfectly cast lead, launched a blockbuster-making machine. In the first Iron Man film, through a series of coincidences including Tony’s imprisonment by terrorists, his will to survive transforms him into a hero. This launched the Earth into a hero-assembling machine and began to bring bigger and bigger threats to humanity’s doorstep. Thus the trajectories of Iron Man and Captain America begin on their inevitable collision course.

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In the MCU, Captain America is an American soldier who fights throughout WWII. He’s been to basic training, he is willing to give up his life for his fellow soldiers and relies on them to feel the same way. Not only that but he is eventually frozen only to wake up 70 years in the future when everyone whom he loved was dead or dying. This leaves Cap’s world with only fellow soldiers…only people he keeps at arm’s length because he knows the cost of war. Cap’s world view is that of sacrificial servanthood. A servanthood he lives into as a superhuman with the powers to take on any threat with very little limitations.

Then there is Iron Man. Tony Stark grew up in privilege. He is a scientist, inventor, builder, businessman…not a soldier. The MCU takes place in his current life time that features a humanity that Tony increasingly cares for because he is a part of it. Throughout the first two Iron Man films he is strong, battle-tested, and has few limitations, but something happened through the course of The Avengers and Iron Man 3. The universe got bigger as did the threats to humanity. The Earth got smaller as did Tony Stark.

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Once Tony, who was fighting alongside a Norse God at the time, took a look through an intergalactic worm hole and saw one of the endless powerful threats on the other side, desperation set in. It was no longer enough to be a regular human in a suit of armor.

The world, the people he loves (primarily Pepper Potts), and Tony himself are vulnerable. In Tony’s mind we need thicker armor and better weapons. This mindset leads to the creation of Ultron, the A.I. baddie in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Which then leads to massive casualties. This then enslaves Tony by his guilt, shame, fear, and doubt.

For Cap, any loss incurred during war is expected. Mostly because he signed up to die if necessary and has the powers to make sure, under most circumstances, that won’t happen. For Tony, any loss experienced is devastating because the threats are now big enough that at any moment his armor could fail and the loss could be him or, worse, Pepper. In his deepest fears, he expects no loss at all.

Cap isn’t a mindless, emotionless drone, but because he sees the world and war in this way he fights with freedom from the fear of death. Tony fights under the constant fear of death, and because of that puts incredible pressure on himself to try to fix things. He creates more armor, and creates more weapons. Which, to this point, has only created more death. There is a telling scene in Iron Man 3 when Tony is attacked at his home and dons his armor only to fall into the ocean in his heavy metal suit as his house crumbles on top of him. Under water, confined in his suit, with concrete raining down on him. This is a situation he incited, locked in his own creation…is suffocating.

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Cap has witnessed his entire life fade away into the past. Governments and agencies have fallen or changed, and all of his friends and family have passed. He lives knowing death is inevitable. Tony thinks he is stronger than death and therefore it is his responsibility to save everyone else from it. We see him struggle with this to the point of panic attacks in Iron Man 3 and we see him fall even deeper through the course of Civil War. His quest to save everything has driven Pepper, the one he ultimately was trying to protect, away. He is confronted by the mother of a causality from the Ultron incident that causes him to make a deal with the government which drives away half of the Avengers.

Then the Civil War story ends with Tony being confronted one last time with the limitations of his humanity. He thinks he is stronger/smarter than death. He thinks that he can save everyone, but the moment in his past where he truly interacted with the death of his loved ones, there was nothing he could do. When his parents died back in 1991, it was an act of this war the Avengers are still fighting. They died at the hands of The Winter Soldier a.ka. Bucky a.k.a. Cap’s best friend. In the concluding sequences of Civil War, Tony watches the footage of Bucky, another superhuman, murdering his parents. In that moment, all of the guilt, all of the shame, all of the fear, all of the doubt, all of the human limitations are lighting a fire that makes his blood boil for vengeance.

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I think about the apostles of Jesus. Jesus told them of a kingdom to come, a kingdom defined by everlasting life in the freedom of a sinless world. Then, to their horror, Jesus is arrested, beaten, and violently murdered for the world to see. They had believed that Jesus was God. They had believed that they would live in freedom. They watched Jesus heal the terminally ill and raise the dead. On Good Friday, they were left with all of the same emotions Tony had watching his parents die. That is guilt and shame that they couldn’t save Jesus from death. Also, fear and doubt that they also won’t be saved from a similar fate. In those dreadful days, their lives were defined/confined by death’s sting.

But then, on the third day, Jesus rose from the dead. In that moment, the disciples were released from that guilt and shame, their fear and doubt began to dissolve. Knowing that death was out of their control, they were free. Now that death was conquered by Jesus, their lives were defined by eternal life. Tony sees that death is outside of his power and so he seeks to take control of it one last time in the form of revenge against Bucky. He tries to control death by taking it in his own hands. The end of Civil War isn’t a happy one, but I hope that in the next chapter Tony begins to see the error of his ways. This is a hope that I have for myself because I often live under the chains of guilt, shame, fear, and doubt.

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It’s also a change of heart vocalized by Black Panther. Talking to the film’s true villain, a man who lost everything in the Ultron incident and is now fueled by revenge, Panther says, “Vengeance has consumed you. It is consuming them. I’m done letting it consume me.” Maybe in time Tony will see that he cannot control death, but that he can live a life for others without the fear of dying. Maybe in time I’ll see that too if I remind myself of Paul’s words in Galatians 5:1…

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

Why I’m #TeamCap

“He’s my friend.”

“So was I.”

This stand-out line of dialogue heard in the early Captain America: Civil War trailers might be the most central exchange to the overall theme/lesson of Marvel’s newest chapter in their expansive cinematic universe. The title of the film implies conflict between friends on our well-established Avengers team. So I’m hoping that knowing Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man and Steve Rogers a.k.a. Captain America fight in this film doesn’t come as a surprise to you, but if so turn away now. Otherwise, keep reading as that is as spoilery as we’ll get.

Leading up to the film’s release, the studio asked fans to choose whether their allegiances rest with #TeamIronMan or #TeamCap. One of the accomplishments of Civil War, and there are many, is that leaving it, you probably won’t have a clear answer. Both sides were well explored and well represented in the film, and it made for some great conversation in the car ride back. Still, looking at the motivations of both our heroes…I went in as #TeamCap and left as #TeamCap. My reasons point back to that line of dialogue.

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The “he” in that line is Cap’s longtime friend and titular character in the last Captain America movie, The Winter Soldier a.k.a. Bucky Barnes. The Cap films have been building this relationship across all three of his solo stories and so it makes sense that it is central to this installment. A lot happens in this movie and the political and emotional circumstances that lead to all of the superhero sparring matches would take a lot of explanation, but for my money we will focus on the most important motivation for Cap…Bucky.

Basically, without spoiling too much for those who haven’t seen the other Cap movies, what you need to know about Bucky is that he and Cap were BFF’s since day one. While on a mission something happened and Bucky was assumed dead only to reappear years later as The Winter Soldier, a Hydra (the baddies) sleeper agent/assassin who did a laundry list of Hydra’s evil biddings. He was experimented on, tormented, memory wiped, conditioned, and mind controlled to do these things and really hasn’t had a chance to deal with or heal from much of that. That is mostly what Captain America wants in Civil War, a fair shake and a second chance for Bucky. His main mission is to see that Bucky receives grace.

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Unfortunately for Cap and Bucky, this comes to a head during a very charged political climate in the superhero world and Iron Man is on the other side of the issue. Now, after years and years of friendship and fighting side-by-side, the ideological differences between Iron Man and Cap are revealed for the whole world to see.

This is largely what Civil War is about…this conflict, but it is also a conflict that arises after years of being on the mission field. Lots of things can happen when you’re on a mission. You win battles, you lose battles, you learn more about yourself, you learn how to focus your work, and relationships come and go. This is not a foreign concept to our Biblical story.

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Seeing Cap and Tony waxing politics, beliefs, and strategies reminded me of a brief but significant moment in the ministry of Paul. Barnabas and Paul were a missionary team that saw their fair share of battles on the mission field. These battles were dangerous. These battles left scars (Acts 14:19). Throughout their journeys, though, we see Paul coming into a better and better understanding of the calling on his life to be the apostle to the Gentiles. His specific mission gains focus and his strategies begin to form around that focus. Then in just a few, somewhat vague lines of scripture, we see that Barnabas doesn’t share the same vision. They disagree and they part ways (Acts 15:36-39).

When I read through Acts and Paul’s follow-up letters to the places where he started churches, what stands out is Paul’s deep love for the Gentiles. What an amazing testimony to the Gentiles to have a man that objected so loudly and violently against them being included in the Body of Christ be the one called by God to tell them that the story of Jesus is for them. Paul became so focused on his calling it became more important than his own health and safety (Acts 16:16-40) and it also took priority over his partnership with Barnabas. Paul cared so greatly that this message of grace got to the Gentiles he was willing to fight for his strategy.

Civil Ware 2 

In Civil War, Cap risked losing friends, imprisonment, and death in order to protect Bucky so that one day he may experience the grace he so needed after his time as Hydra’s puppet. Being Bucky’s advocate was a dangerous position as was Paul’s being the advocate for the Gentiles. God has placed us all on our own personal mission fields surrounded by people that need grace, by people that need to be advocated for.

Civil War doesn’t have a very fun, clear cut conclusion. The battle is messy and it left a lot of physical and emotional scars. It was dangerous and scary. For Cap, though, Bucky was worth it because he is his friend, because he got a raw deal, and, perhaps, because he represents all of us. We all need second chances. We all need the freedom that comes from the gospel of our gracious God. If Bucky can’t receive that freedom what hope do we have? Is there someone in your life whose grace is worth fighting for?

Now Iron Man…that is a different story, a story about guilt, shame, and fear. Maybe I’ll have to write about that story too? To be continued…

Porn vs. The Covenant

Sex is awesome. There, I said it. Sex was created by God as a part of the grand plan of the flourishing of creation. It doesn’t take very long for the topic to be broached in the Bible. God tells his people to get busy early and often, but aside from being fruitful and multiplying, sex has tremendous personal and spiritual significance.

God Loves Sex

It was difficult to choose pictures for this post so I’ll just post books about the topic!

Because of this, God created a covenantal relationship within which sex can be explored, appreciated, and realized in profound spiritual ways. The flip side is that outside of that covenant, sex continues to have that powerful significance. So when I say sex is awesome, I mean it. It is something to be in awe of, to have a reverence for, a respect for.

Paul’s letter in 1 Corinthians is littered with helpful discussion around sexuality aimed to help the people of Corinth see the significance of sex. This is not so much a finger wagging list of do’s and don’ts but rather instructions on how to take full advantage of this beautiful thing God created for us. “Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body,” says 1 Corinthians 6:18. We can see that there is something powerful about sex. Later on, Paul even talks about not using sex as a tool of power and manipulation (1 Cor. 7). At its heart, sex isn’t designed as a commodity to be utilized but, as Tim Keller calls it, a ceremony of covenant renewal.

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Not a book just for the ladies!

This involves what we are called to in that pesky verse 21 that prefaces everyone’s favorite submission passages in Ephesians 5, “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Both parties in this covenant submitting to each other and in that place powerful, spiritual, and beautiful things happen. The Bible often says that it is through this act of covenant renewal, this act of completely giving ourselves to another person, being completely in the service of another person that we “know” each other more fully and in that we can understand God in a new way. After all, God chooses to serve us similarly as an unconditional, gracious, loving servant.

How, then, does pornography interact with God’s desire for human sexuality? Well if you’re still with me after those first few paragraphs then pornography is an intense distortion of all of that, it is almost the exact opposite of the Biblical picture we get of sex. It takes something that is a gift from God and takes God completely out of the equation. Sex then becomes a commodity and those engaging in it are merely consumers not servants. There is not much mention of masturbation in the Bible outside of one really context-heavy passage starring a guy named Onan (Gen. 38). However, throughout the Bible we have this picture of covenant renewal and submission to another person. This simply cannot happen when you’re riding solo.

Solitaire

That is what is so dangerous about pornography. This form of sexual interaction is entirely self-focused and this has observable effects on the way men act in relation to women. Recently, on NPR’s Fresh Air, Terry Gross interviewed author Peggy Orenstein whose book Girls & Sex talks about many current trends with female sexuality and sexuality in general but also the effects of pornography on our society. She says that statistically speaking when engaged in or seeking sexual interaction men are prone to be completely focused on themselves and in women the trend is reversed.

Fashion designer Jessica Rey also spoke about the current state of the male brain in her Q talk on the evolution of the swimsuit. Here she cites neurological studies that indicate that when men are in this mindset, when women are objectified and sex is a commodity, they view women as inanimate tools, a means to an end, and nothing more.

When we take sex in our own hands (pun intended), taking God out of the equation, we are prone to distort our view of sex and actually try to take God’s role as provider. Anytime we think we are on the level with God we are vulnerable to the ugly side of arrogance and entitlement. In a world in which we are the providers of our own sexual relationships, we set expectations where we are entitled to sex and when we don’t get what we are entitled to anger, violence, and harm are usually not far behind. Today we have more organizations than ever fighting against sexual violence yet statistics remain virtually the same and in some areas worse.

No More Eli

We see this all around us as these expectations and the commoditizing of sex leads to sex trafficking and high-risk sexual activity. According to Orenstein, the pressures placed on young women today lead to the spread of disease like gonorrhea, unwanted pregnancy, and depression. Pornography creates not just a distorted view of sexuality, but, for the many that interact with sex in this way, it also creates a distorted view of ourselves.

We live in a culture of instant self-gratification with extensive access to pornography and, according to Time magazine, this has negatively altered the way we experience sex. It is supposed to be awesome but, often times, in our hands sex becomes a weapon of mass destruction. God has an opinion on sex, it is found all over scripture, and it is emotional, beautiful, spiritual, fun, exciting, gratifying, and good. It can be very difficult in our lives to trust God to give us these things, but when we rely on God to provide the gift of sex to us we may begin to see it this way too.

Further reading:

The Porn Phenomenon – Barna Group

Fight the New Drug

Washed and Waiting – Wesley Hill

Who will survive “The Walking Dead”?

The Walking Dead is, at times, exhausting. Watching through any given season of AMC’s monster smash hit zombie drama is akin to reading through the book of Job. It can become a practice in watching characters you love continue to lose everything. The post-apocalyptic world around them continues to mar them as they wander around trying to survive. They make friends, they gain resources, they find shelter only to lose friends, lose resources, and lose their shelter. The biggest conversation as we take a tally of what’s left is: who will die?

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I wonder, though, are there other questions to ask? This season in particular, as lead character Rick becomes more and more of a killer, the show is begging us to ask more about the show, the character and ourselves. This is as good a time as any to warn you about a few things. First, if you haven’t watched all of season six there will be spoilers. Two, the horror genre is not for everyone. At times it is filled with graphically violent images and is not something everyone should watch.

That being said, the zombie sub-genre in general has a long history of thoughtful social commentary. From George A. Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead to the farcical Shaun of the Dead, when the genre is done well it holds a mirror up to our society around issues of race, commercialism, ambition, guilt, and shame just to name a few. So much like the bloodier, more graphic images of scripture, these stories when told with intention can help us dive deeply into ourselves. If horror media takes you to a place where those graphic images rule your thoughts and feelings, please stay away. But if you can enjoy it responsibly with discernment, in the words of film critic Jeffrey Overstreet, author of “Through a Screen Darkly,”

“There are some meaningful films in this genre – stories that comment on the horrors of contemporary culture. If we stop to consider why the monsters scare us, what it is that made them or what the creature’s victims have in common, we might be surprised at the insight we can gain. We may begin to understand the nature of the menace and learn to recognize monsters growing within our own chests.”

All this to say, as this season of The Walking Dead comes to a close, I think the most important question isn’t who will die, but what will survive? What will be left of society? What will be left of our characters? What will be left of hope? These are questions we see all of the characters wrestle with, but more prominently this season we see it in the ideological matchup between Rick and Morgan.

walking dead rick

In Rick, we see a man who has already lost so much. After losing the farm, the prison, and taking serious damage at Alexandria not to mention losing Lori his wife, his best friend Shane, Hershel his moral mentor, his hope for a new life with Jessie, and his son Carl being severely injured, he is a man that is holding on tight to what’s his. Like the season four episode “Claimed,” Rick is now laying claim to what’s left. He’s got dibs on the reigns of Alexandria, he is shacked up with Michonne (arguably the only woman that could survive being close to him), and he will do anything to protect his new life, family, friends, resources, and shelter. His first response to a threat is to nip it in the bud and kill or be killed. He is trying with all of his will to ward off death, the ever present enemy of his reality.

On the other side of the coin is Morgan. Morgan is different and thanks to probably my favorite episode of the current season, “Here’s Not Here,” we got to see why. He was a paralyzed, deadly, raging ball of imbalanced guilt and anger and was saved by a new moral code that all life is valuable. Morgan lives in a world with intrinsic value placed on the people around him. Rick lives in a world where Rick establishes value and the difference is clear in their behavior.

walking dead morgan

In Rick’s worldview the life of his friends have more value than the life of the baddies, thus it makes sense to kill anyone in his path. This is a concept that after six seasons was finally passed on to Glenn who killed his first living human with tears rolling down his face. In Morgan’s worldview he doesn’t determine value so the lives of his enemies matter. This most notably has effected Carol after she and Morgan came to blows over this worldview. Something was planted in Carol then, as now we watch her emotionally try to rip herself from her violent past to a more Morgan-like future.

With Rick and Morgan, The Walking Dead becomes a lesson in what survives, what is left, and what do we truly own? Over six seasons Rick has been in a constant struggle to have ownership of people, resources, and places only to continue to come face to face with how little control he actually has, a struggle that usually leaves a trail of death. Morgan got to a place where he realized nothing in this world is truly his and that allows him to let go of people, resources, and places and understand that survival doesn’t mean killing but it means living. We hold on tight to what we love, so tight that we do damage. And what are we protecting them from? Death? Well we follow a God that says that every life has value even beyond death.

walking-dead-cast

Surrounded by hordes of literal walking dead, it is understandable that our characters fear death. They look it in its decaying eyes every day. However, The Bible treats death very differently. Death is a mercy after the fall in Genesis 3 and death certainly is not the final word. Of course this is apparent in the resurrection of Jesus, but can be seen throughout the Biblical story. Take 2 Samuel 21:12-14, King David takes the bones of the fallen King Saul that were rescued from embarrassment and gives Saul and his son Jonathan the opportunity to rest in peace in their family’s burial site. The dead bones of Saul and Jonathan had importance.

Move ahead to the death of the prophet Elisha in 2 Kings 13. Elisha dies and much later a burial party scattered by murderous marauders tosses a dead body into Elisha’s grave and when it made contact with Elisha’s bones the dead man sprung back to life. Even death in the hands of God breeds life.

Where does this value Morgan places on the lives of others come from? If we are like Rick and create our own value, it can only go as far as humanly possible. That value will always be a fraction of that which God places on his children and his creation. When we clinch our fists around our idols, trying to own what was never truly ours, death is the ultimate fear. If we offer back to God what is his, then the only thing we have to fear is God…and he is our friend.

walking dead cast 2

Welcome back to the Internet!

Hello social media faster! Welcome back to your Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr, and/or Wuphf! Now that you’re back, can we talk? I would have said something sooner…but I don’t have your number and while you were fasting I couldn’t DM you. See I heard you say a few things before you left to “get your Lent on” that concerned me. You said some nasty things about my friend, social media. So let’s clear the air and think about how you, me, and your apps can move past this. When you left you said that social media is a distraction, it’s a land of comparison and facades, it produces unhealthy communication, and is a toxic environment.

You thought you were talking about social media…but I think if we talk it through…you’re actually talking about yourself. You’re not talking about the medium, you’re talking about the way you interact with it. I’m worried that in giving up social media you thought you were ridding your life of those unhealthy behaviors. It might not be social media’s fault, but actually a product of your sinful heart. I’m using a lot of “you” statements here, so before you get really mad at me can I just say that in order to say this to you, I had to say it to myself first. I had to dive into the deep end of my own sin patterns and research social media’s created purpose. I took master’s courses in social media and even wrote my master’s thesis on how we use our social apps.

So this doesn’t come lightly, it comes with my own experience and my own heavy, convicted, and forgiven heart. It comes with a hope that you won’t come back from Lent with the same patterns repeating in your use of technology. It comes at the defense of my friend, social media, and my desire to redeem social networks to restore them to their good, created purpose. Let’s take a look at those things you said while looking into our hearts and dreaming about what your online community could be.

Connection

What were online social networks and the apps that manage them created for? Some may argue and lament over the possible created purpose of Snapchat, but in general why were most apps created? The internet made a lot of things possible and is arguably one of greatest technological advancements in the past century…maybe ever. It connects us all. Right now if you wanted to you could email, video chat, shop, create, game with someone on the literal opposite side of our planet.

Social Media

There are beautiful things that are happening right now in the world because of this connection. One of my favorites is the brain child of actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt. This star of 500 Days of Summer and, more recently, The Walk is the host of an online artist community called “Hit Record.” Using this social network, he brings together artistic collaborators from all over the globe to create music, film, books, poetry, cartoons, etc. So a skilled storyteller from Istanbul can post a story then a gifted animator from Albuquerque, NM can animate it while a master musician from South Africa scores the final product. As this process unfolds, connection brings creativity to life.  Think about 1 Corinthians 12, the body of Christ explained. All of a sudden this body is larger, and more diverse than a pre-internet world could even imagine.

Disconnection

What went wrong, though? Evidence of the fallen, broken world we live in is written all over our newsfeeds. Those things you said before you left, I feel them too. Our social apps can be a doorway to unhealthy distraction and temptation, comparison and discontentment, and anger towards the people you love. This last one maybe particularly relevant during an election year. These elements of social networking breed shame, guilt, jealousy, rage, and whole slew of other emotions that you haven’t seen adorably personified by Pixar. But are they produced by the network or the networker? More importantly, why and how are they produced by the networker?

In my research at Point Park University, I investigated how World Wrestling Entertainment has successfully stayed ahead of the game when it comes to social media marketing techniques. What I concluded was that they sought to create connections not to just deliver information. They understand that social media tools were created for interaction not promotion by itself. This is something a lot of companies fail to understand. Some companies, celebrities, even churches use their social platforms as nothing more than an internet bulletin board. WWE uses social tools effectively because they aren’t just saying, “Like me,” “Buy this,” “Subscribe!” They are saying, “You matter, let’s talk.” They create interactions and then social bonds between their wrestlers and their audience. Taylor Swift could also teach a class on this subject.

Social Media 4

Taylor Swift wrapping gifts to send to some of her social media fans!

What if we all saw social networking this way? Aren’t we all prone to the same self-promotive pitfalls many companies fall into with their social tools? Narcissism is the enemy of building effective social network communities. When your posts and interactions are just about you…what you’re doing, who you are…what actions, events, behaviors others can give you affirmation for, then that’s not community at all. That’s not connection at all. Tools that were designed for conversation and community have become pedestals and soap boxes.

Community

The quest for healthy use of social media tools is the quest for healthy community. To help us on this journey let’s think about these tools in two ways. First, social media allows us to be the recorders of history and of how we are interacting with creation, our passions, and God. One of my favorite Biblical authors is Luke. On top of being a doctor, Luke was somewhat of a meticulous recorder of facts…he was kind of doing what journalism is supposed to be. Historians say he followed Paul on his journeys making sure every fact was verified and recorded. Check out his reasoning for writing his gospel:

1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, 3 it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” – Luke 1:1-4

If we think of our news feeds as a place where we can interact with and record life in this way, doesn’t that seem like a higher calling? Your tweets, posts, instas, and gifs can be signposts of the Lord at work. Whenever we click “share” it can be an opportunity to share the Gospel through our lives. Secondly, on top of seeing social networks as an arena for recording history, they can also be an arena to celebrate life. When we are interacting with each other’s lives sometimes it’s easy for things like arrogance, jealousy, and discontent to creep in, but if we see the realm of social media as a tool for celebration then we can be well on our way to combating those thoughts.

Celebrate the birth of a new child. Celebrate someone passing an exam or getting a new job. Celebrate someone’s love for funny cat videos. Celebrate popular culture. Celebrate conflicting ideas. Celebrate your offline community. Christ centered celebration of the lives of others can be incredibly life giving. If we take the joy out of our online communities, we may find ourselves losing the joy in our lives. “Like” with purpose. Believe the best in people that disagree with you. Write your happy birthdays not out of obligation but out of celebration. Follow trends to participate in the world. Add a few more people into your profile pic or selfies. Online community like any other kind of community works best when we look outside ourselves and focus on one another.

Social Media 3

Star Wars: A Rey of Hope

“Dear child, I see it in your eyes. You already know the truth. Whoever you were waiting for on Jakku, they’re never coming back.” Oh those eyes, those deep, expressive eyes. Those eyes act as a light speed tunnel for us on the thematic, cinematic, and emotional journey of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. These are the eyes of Rey, who makes The Force Awakens my favorite movie of the year because I think her story is exactly the one we need to hear, a story of survival and in that survival…hope.

Rey scavenging

However, now, many…many a critic, fan, and YouTube troll has come to the conclusion that Rey isn’t a complex or interesting character. That perhaps she is unfit to be our new Star Wars hero. That she is actually too perfect and not relatable at all. That in her trek through the film she sees very little conflict and is practically playing through the game with all the cheat codes on. To this I completely disagree, and I would argue that there is a lot they may have missed or been ignorant to in the film.

Before we take a closer look into who Rey is, it’s worth addressing why some have been blind to the larger aspects to her character that really nullify the argument of her being what some would call a “Mary Sue.” Rey is a woman. As much as we want to say how forward thinking we are and how much we love strong female characters, this Rey backlash reveals how, even unintentionally, some are still blinded by a bias against female action heroes. Would there be any backlash, any controversy at all if Rey was played by Chris Pratt?

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Not to pick on Andy Dwyer, but just last year we watched him play a character that was eerily similar to Rey…Guardians of the Galaxy’s Star Lord. He’s abducted as a child and forced to survive amongst a band of space pirates. When we meet him at the beginning of the film he is bumbling and overly confident…but then actually bests some of the main baddies in the galaxy to escape. Throughout the film we watch him do it again and again. He doesn’t really fail. Star Lord was a well formed hero that was equipped mostly before we entered his story and those experiences made him perfect for the mission he was about to go on.

Pratt’s character in Jurassic World was nearly a copy. He’s a super soldier in the movie that is functioning at such a high level raptors can’t help but respect him. All of his experience that led him there happened in his time in the military and we don’t see that in the film. Let’s say it, these characters are less controversial because they were men. After Jurassic World broke records most of the online rhetoric was focused on the movie’s heroine being able to run in heels. Preposterous, right? She was in a jungle after all. See this delightful take on why it actually might have been brilliant. Nobody was calling Pratt a “Mary Sue.”

Furiosa

It is easy for us to see The Avengers’ Black Widow and Mad Max’s Furiosa as strong female characters because they are immersed in universes led by men. That’s why we haven’t seen a Black Widow movie yet. Even Furiosa has an extremely slim chance of landing her own movie even though she was one of this year’s most loved characters on the silver screen. These are film universes driven and formed by men. Here’s what confuses me though, the same people that are critical of Rey, are the most vocal supporters of Furiosa. For my money, Rey’s character goes further than Furiosa’s and is oceans deeper than anything a stubbly Pratt has done recently. Rey is more a Buffy or a Jessica Jones than she is a Black Widow because The Force Awakens is her movie, her universe, her life. And what a life it is.

Rey alone

Rey is a survivor. What do we know about her? At a very young age, she was dropped off on Jakku in the hands of a sketchy scavenger in a community of vultures and thieves. Already her upbringing makes Luke Skywalker’s childhood look like a rousing round of Candyland. When we meet him, Luke is a whining, brattish teen eagerly awaiting the day he can abandon his life with two stable parental guardians, a stable job, and safe place to live. Rey endures her life of barely eating enough, living in isolation, working in dangerous conditions, and potentially living in even more dangerous conditions all because of the promise of a family that will come back for her. Luke can’t wait to leave, Rey is fighting her whole life to be able to stay. That is different and interesting.

Rey inside star destroyer

How was she so good in a fight? Well imagine the life she has survived living as an attractive, young woman on a lonely planet of starving scavengers. Beyond the types of aliens that would see her as food, picture the neighbors she had that would love to have her chained to them in a metal bikini, physical violations not so different from the mental violations she resists from Kylo Ren. Why was she able to navigate around the Star Killer base? Her whole life has been a ridiculous parkour training regimen light years ahead of the brief time Luke spent doing handstands on Dagobah. She knows Imperial technology and spacecraft, it has literally been her life. But then she pretty expertly flew the Millennium Falcon, what gives? In the brief amount of dialogue we get when she is on the Falcon she makes it clear that it has been a part of that shipyard for years and she has helped over the course of that time to work on it.

Rey’s back story perfectly outlines how she became the warrior that we see in the film, she’s a survivor, but she’s also not perfect. We see her make terrible choices in the film from nearly crashing the Falcon to hitting the wrong fuses to leaving the safety on her blaster on to running away from her destiny on several occasions, and most of these poor decisions have fatal consequences. Finn nearly dies several times as he sticks close to Rey, and Finn’s quest to save Rey ends at an extremely high cost for Han Solo fans. Rey is not a Mary Sue, she’s not perfect, but she is a survivor and I think that once the force awakened in her, attaching to that survival instinct, Rey could be the most powerful Jedi we’ve ever seen. Survival produces strength.

Luke Training

Luke was far less equipped to be a hero, but why does that make him more compelling? Why is a bumbling man more interesting than a well-equipped woman? If the story was about moisture farming, maybe Rey would fail, but this is a story about hope in the galaxy surviving and for that we need a survivor at the core. I would argue that Rey is just as flawed as Luke in some ways. The difference is, Luke’s flaws got his hand chopped off, where I would wager Rey would chop off her own hand to survive a situation her insecurities and flaws put her in.

Rey crying

This new trilogy is Rey’s story and Rey’s story has me actively asking what my life experiences are preparing me for. The hardships I’ve survived, the darkest moments in my life that I’ve seen the other side of, how will they help me in the future? Rey’s story is a story for all of us. As dark times come, as tragedy strikes, we will make it through and on the other side of that darkness is the light. Those eyes that are filled with this complex back story are screaming out to us to just survive because hope waits for those who endure. Rey was equipped for this new adventure because of her life on Jakku. What adventures is your life preparing you for? As the advice to Rey continues, “The belonging you seek is not behind you, it is ahead.”