REVIEW: Avengers: Endgame (Non-Spoiler)

C.S. Lewis is often quoted in A Grief Observed, “…pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” The last time fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe checked in with “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes,” The Avengers, they had taken the ultimate blow. In 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, their foe, Thanos, snapped his fingers turning half of the entire universe’s population to dust. Everyone on every planet in every galaxy lost someone.

 

Thanos Snap

 

If the Marvel franchise were reminiscent of the action/sports movies of the 1980’s, our remaining heroes (comprised mostly of the original 6 from 2012’s The Avengers) would engage in an exhilarating training montage, find Thanos, and punch him in the face even harder than ever before! So perhaps the biggest surprise in the much-anticipated Avengers: Endgame, is that the villain in about two thirds of the movie isn’t one you can punch at all. It’s grief.

 

In Infinity War, the Iron Man that started it all, Tony Stark, was forced to hold a teenaged Peter Parker, his budding mentee and pseudo-son, in his arms as he faded away. Black Widow, who had finally allowed a group of people to become her family, had to watch it all come crumbling down. The Mighty Thor worked tirelessly to forge a weapon to defeat Thanos only to come up torturously short instead getting a front row seat to the finger snap that caused the genocide. Captain America has always been a little different. He is all too familiar with the cost of war. What we walk into with this movie is an exploration of grief from many different angles.

 

Captain America Crying

 

Black Widow throws herself into her work, trying her best to keep a grasp on what was. Cap dives into helping others process their grief harking back of his visits to veteran support groups in Captain America: Winter Soldier. Thor, having had losses building up across several movies, had all of his hope for a brighter future riding on him being able to take out Thanos. He is coming completely unglued from the Avengers team, from his responsibilities as king, and his own health. Meanwhile, Stark, the team’s futurist, has embraced the present to build something new. Anyone who has felt a loss will likely relate to one of our heroes’ forms of coping. Grief works itself out in so many different ways, and there’s really no perfect script to handle it. 

 

Naturally, in the world of comics, the bad guys never triumph for long and evil is rarely afforded the final word. In the midst of their grief, a tiny light of hope comes along as the film launches into another wild Avengers adventure. Much like in Infinity War, we get to see new combinations of characters interacting and many memorable moments being created. Endgame is a gigantic movie with a runtime to match. Clocking in at a little over three hours, hardcore fans will be settled in for every second, but it will challenge the patience of fans on the peripheral. Hopefully, casual fans can hang in there, though, because the climax is nothing short of cinematic history unfolding. The final battle of this film redefines epic. 

 

Avengers Endgame

 

Yet pain insists on being attended to, and for those who have been following this franchise for the last 11 years across 22 films, there is going to be pain associated with Endgame. It very much is the end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it. Of course, the film sets up plenty to be explored in the future with Disney’s streaming service already promising limited series starring some of our favorites, but until Comic Con or D-23 (Disney’s annual convention) later this year there are no current plans announced for a Phase 4. 

 

This is the end and it feels like it, but what an end it is! Endgameis filled to the brim with threads and references built across the entire franchise. For those who have spent the last year rewatching all the films, studying every frame, quoting every quip, there is a lot of pay off and closure. For casual fans of the franchise who have been empowered by Scarlett Johansson, endeared to Chris Evans, charmed by Robert Downey Jr., or infatuated with Chris Hemsworth, there are plenty of laughs and thrills. It has been an incredible ride, and Endgame is a fantastic finale, but don’t be thrown off if you feel a little grief after saying goodbye to such a history making franchise.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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.

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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.

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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

Wrestling Your Friends to Church

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

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

Faith and Wrestling 4

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

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

Call and Response

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

Faith and Wrestling 2

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

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

Wrestling Psychology

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

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

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

Wrestling Isn’t Fake

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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.

Last Chance U

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.