“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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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Between the Snap and Me

What is the story behind your profile picture? That avatar is the door to who you are as a person in so many ways. It’s the image you have chosen to represent everything one might need to know about you…or what you want them to know about you. It accompanies every thought, share, or like that are the building blocks to your online persona. Often times this image is carefully crafted, a small point of control we can exercise in our lives.

But what happens when a friend takes that control out of your hands and tags you in a picture that was shot at an upward angle or doesn’t hide your muffin top or shows that O-Town t-shirt you only wear when you’re among your most trusted friends? Devastation. The scramble to untag can be ferocious and daunting. What if people saw it? What if the people whose opinions you care about the most saw those characteristics that send your lips into a gradual frown the more you look into the mirror? Image control is out the window.

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Recently, I was honored, blessed, convicted, scared, sad, angry, encouraged, discouraged, inspired by the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates in his book “Between the World and Me.” In the book, Coates pulls his readers into his mind as he contemplates what control a black person in America has over their body. “I believed, and still do, that our bodies are our selves, that my soul is the voltage conducted through neurons and nerves, and that my spirit is my flesh.”

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Coates writes from his experience protecting his body as it is surrounded by the dangers of racism in America in its many forms. When he comments on being afraid for his own body his story is haunting and, even further, when he talks about fearing for the body of his child, it’s terrifying. Many of the situations he described throughout his journey are physical threats, but today the range of racism has almost no bounds.

We saw this recently on the college campus where I serve. The scope of racism extends beyond the body and into the image. The danger isn’t just physical its digital. Think about the image that we all carry from the very beginning. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” All of us, together, male and female, black and white, all the nations, carry the image of God, the image of the creator of all things. That image is powerful. It’s beautiful. It’s unique among creation.

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Profile pics have given us some semblance of power over our image. On our campus, however, someone took that image of some of our students and cut deeply into it with words of death. A Snapchat was sent with a racial slur written over it. The victims of those words had no opportunity to filter the lighting, crop out what they didn’t want to show, or perhaps lobby for a reshoot if they blinked. Their image was stolen and marred for what I am guessing was supposed to be a harmless joke.

“There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts…” If you can’t quite understand the damage, Proverbs 12 puts it into perspective. The blade of rash words is swift and severe. It only tears down, it fogs the image. In an act of fleeting communication that was supposed to disappear within the 10 second limit of a Snap, a group of Americans, college students, lost control over their image.

Still don’t understand why this incident was so harmful? After all, it was an innocent joke that was only for the eyes of the sender’s closest friends. Imagine someone changed your profile pic to the worst picture anyone ever took of you. We can see the hairs you usually wax off. We can see the dark circles under your eyes. We can see those rolls that you usually hide with vertical stripes. Now add to that equation the weight of centuries of oppression, misunderstanding, and hate.

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The library at Howard University where Coates spent hours and hours.

Every vulgar phrase those black students have ever heard in their lives was affirmed with that one that appeared on the Snap. And then it spread like a deadly bacteria going viral in their time lines, news feeds, group chats, and even the local news. The headlines of their minds read that they are less than human. That split second decision of the sender took their image, the image of God, the image of personhood away from them.

John Perkins once said of the work of racial reconciliation, “You don’t give people dignity. You affirm it.” That is what I want for all of the students on our college campus. For the image of their creator, their personhood, their dignity to be affirmed. So often this work begins by looking closer.

That is what is so beautiful about the work of artist E.J. Brown. Brown took images, images that have been imposed and stereotyped onto his fellow students of color, and reclaimed them. To get the full impact of these images you have to look closer. See the cap and gown the subjects are wearing. Read the degrees spelled out across their chests.

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In an instant, an image of a group of black students at our library during finals week was transformed into a deadly sword thrust. The other half of that verse in Proverbs 12 can teach us all about the power our words can have, a lesson I hope the Snap sender will receive through this. “But the tongue of the wise brings healing.” As much as words have the ability to destruct, they also have the ability to construct, build up.

One of the more inspirational moments in Coates’ story was in describing his pursuit of knowledge, heading to the library everyday to devour up to three books in a session. He is a brilliant mind that was forged in those days and nights at Howard University. It makes me wonder what kind of minds are housed in our library? What kinds of future leaders and innovators are gathering around those books? What I do know is that there is potential in those students, a potential put in them by the image of their creator.

Are you going to eat that?

Beginning in my teen years I’ve had a love/hate relationship with food. This is the time of life when most women (and plenty of men) start becoming self-conscious about weight and physical appearance. I was no exception, and began interacting with food as alternately a tool and a weapon. I’m not naturally slender and tend to gain weight easily, so the way I felt about myself was heavily tied to the way I was eating. I would overeat as a tool to self-soothe or eat very strictly in an effort to lose weight. Then food would quickly become a weapon wielded against me as a capricious master, one that I could never fully control. Either I would be “good” during a period of discipline and self-control, or I would eventually start being “bad” and eat more than I ought. My litmus test on the good/bad scale was always my weight. My worry was not about living in freedom as a steward of God’s good creation, but about being thin and “good” in the eyes of our culture.

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It wasn’t until graduate school where I had to attend an Overeaters Anonymous meeting for an addictions counseling class that I recognized that in many ways I was a slave to food. As I listened to the group members share about their thoughts and impulses, I saw myself in a mirror. Food was controlling my life by defining the way I viewed myself. I was consumed by trying to not overeat and then by guilt if I ate too much. As I thought about the 12 Steps, I knew that I had to apply the first two to myself:

1. We admitted we were powerless over our addiction—that our lives had become unmanageable.

2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

This was a turning point in my life. I stopped seeing my relationship with food as being defined by weight, and saw it defined by sin. My inability to treat food as a good gift from God had caused me to abuse it and use it to meet my own needs and desires in selfish and unhealthy ways. This wasn’t about being thin, this was about being holy.

Here’s a fun exercise, try word searching “feast” in a Bible website like Biblegateway.com. You’ll quickly see that all of humanity has this love/hate relationship with indulgence, and that God cares very much about it. Sin and idolatry come when we take something good that God has made for our flourishing, and try to exert our own control and lordship over it. We treat it as our own rather than a good gift to enjoy.

God gets frustrated with the idol of self-indulgence (or restriction and subsequent abuse of our bodies) because we are abusing what is His, and in so doing we pursue our own destruction. (Jer. 16:8, Hos 2:11) The Lord loves good food and feasting as a source of rejoicing and community.

How priceless is your unfailing love, O God!
    People take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house;
    you give them drink from your river of delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;
    in your light we see light.

Psalm 36:7-9

After all, Jesus told us to remember His death and sacrifice through a meal (Luke 22:14-23). Food itself is always very good, it’s only our twisted idolatry that leads us to use it in unhealthy ways.

So what would it look like to be free in the ways we relate to food? To be free from the self-righteousness of false control, and free from fear and shame? In my journey it started with Step 2. I admitted to Christ in prayer that I was powerless to control this abuse in my heart (if your struggle isn’t food, insert your habitual sin(s) that you can never fully control). I had to ask God to do what I could not do for myself: to rewire me to desire food in a better way. I didn’t need behavior modification, I needed a heart change.

Here’s the funny thing about admitting helplessness to God and asking for help…He actually helps us. Over time the Lord created changes in my impulses and thoughts, and the way I reacted to temptations in my environment. He routed out the sinful desires of my heart that were making me a slave, and replaced them with the freedom of humility. No longer do I fear food but am free to enjoy the fruits of God’s earth with gratitude and appreciation.

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A celebration of joyful community at the CCO’s Ocean City Beach Project last summer

I still pray regularly for the Lord to help keep me from sin in my eating habits, it’s an ongoing process. But always I am motivated by the beautiful hope that Jesus teaches me how to feast with joy rather than shame. As the honored guest at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb (Matt. 22:1-14, Rev. 21), He invites me into a celebration of full hearts and rich communion.

On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare
    a feast of rich food for all peoples,
a banquet of aged wine—
    the best of meats and the finest of wines.
On this mountain he will destroy
    the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
    he will swallow up death forever.
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears
    from all faces;
he will remove his people’s disgrace
    from all the earth.
The Lord has spoken.

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Celebrating Moon Festival with IUP Taiwanese students, a feast that brought our nations together

The Muddy, Bloody Truth about Grace

It was difficult to find a place to park my car in the fray. As I walked through the sea of muddy, cold, bloody young people, the scene was shocking. This was ground zero. I got as close as I could and fixed my eyes down the street on a line of police officers armored head to toe in riot gear. The crowd is defiant at first but then starts to dissolve quickly by the bark and the sharp teeth of a police dog being guided through the melee.

An ambulance pulled up to the curb and there is a young man who is obviously embarrassed, hiding out in the open as his peers record every second of his worst moments for the world to see. The paramedics finally get him on the gurney and I see his face. His eyes are swollen and soaked with tears, his nose is crooked, he still tries to hide his face that is already hidden by a dark, crimson mask of mud and blood. I couldn’t believe all of this was happening in my front yard.

The Grandview party at IUPattys 2015.

This was not the recent riots in Baltimore (or Ferguson or New York) this was a celebration of IUPattys Day, a student-driven holiday on campus at Indiana University of Pennsylvania where I am currently in mission. This year the new apartment complex on my block was the site of the biggest party of the weekend. Increasingly, this area is privy to more student foot traffic and as far as my yard is concerned, more student trash.

An IUPattys riot from 2014

Every week we walk the grounds of our house to find beer cans, cigarette packs, lots and lots of empty Sheetz food containers, bottles, bags, shoes, etc. After IUPattys it was exceptionally worse. Not only was there more than a bag of trash scattered in the yard but our picket fence took some serious abuse. Planks were kicked in, points were cracked off, and our ceramic owl left face down in the grass.

My broken fence.

The question that arises as I reach down again and again and pick up those beer cans and try to piece my fence back together is through the pain of this destruction, do I love my college students any less? The quick answer is I can’t and I won’t, the long answer is more complicated and perhaps will help look upon current events with a little more love.

Young people have an incredible amount of energy and a penchant for wanting be involved in something. At IUPattys, that involvement means destruction. Recently, in Baltimore the assembly had a different cause with very different emotion, passion, and energy behind it, but the result was still the same, destruction.

Watching the narrative of a burning Baltimore play out across multiple news platforms still makes it difficult to see the hearts of those rioting and looting. Still some watch these scenes and what they see is an enemy. The question then is how does Jesus call us to interact with our enemies?

Read Luke 6. Jesus’s claims about our property were something he wasn’t afraid to uphold himself. He wouldn’t tell us to offer up the other cheek without being willing to take his lashes and he wouldn’t tell us to offer up our cloak and tunic without being willing himself to hang naked on that cross for all to see. The protestors very well might be criminals and criminals take and destroy, but are we spending too much time counting what they’ve taken and not asking what we could be giving?

Volunteers in Baltimore cleaning up on the morning after.

Grace is the first gift that comes to mind. We do not get to chose how the oppressed and the fearful react to oppression and fear. We also do not have the advantage that God has by seeing exactly what is in the heart of those breaking windows. However, we can remind them that Jesus died for every shatter and his love is always theirs for the taking.

Ears that hear might be another gift worth giving. Destruction and demonstration like we saw in Baltimore screams that they have something to say and are not being heard. Every demonstration wasn’t violent. The voice of Baltimore and other communities in the nation crying out is complex and requires attentive ears.

Then what do we do with all of this energy? The energy of our young people needs guidance and leadership. Without leadership they can leave worthy causes like the muddy, bloody student on the lawn in front of my house.

“If you’ve got the energy to destroy, you’ve got the energy to rebuild.” – Local Baltimore activist and radio host Farajii Muhammad

That is why I loved seeing Baltimore city councilmen praising the hundreds of peaceful protesters and de-escalators, watching Ray Lewis shrieking with grief that the vision of Baltimore’s builders is being ignored, and witnessing community volunteers with brooms in their hands sweeping up the ashes on the morning after.

Do the flames in Baltimore make you love those people any less? I hope not. My job on campus at IUP is to not love the partiers any less. Especially when it costs me something, my job is to give them grace, a kind ear, and guidance. However, more often than not, it also means cleaning up their trash.

A familiar can in our yard.

Transitioning to a life of service

In just a few short weeks, millions of brand new college graduates will be hitting the “real world.” So in our ministry it has been difficult to avoid the onslaught of anxieties that accompany this tremendous life transition. We have started a conversation about what the church can offer a transitioning college graduate. Our hope is that these words supply comfort and hope that, amidst the chaos of change, a loving sanctuary awaits. However, solely envisioning what the church can offer you might be a tad short-sighted. So on top of the consistency and community the church provides it also has a call for you as you head into post-college life. I’ll give you a hint: it may not involve weeks or maybe months of binging Netflix. So let’s look ahead and wonder what is it that you, as young adults, can offer the church?

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Hands and Feet

If you are not moving far away from home (which many won’t) or immediately beginning gainful employment (which many don’t), post-college life can be the first time in a long time that you don’t have project groups to meet with, papers due, or textbooks to read. This is an incredible opportunity to explore longer term missions work!

You probably aren’t strangers to the weekend blitz builds or alternative spring breaks that were offered in college, but now could be the best time to go exploring God’s creation and God’s calling on your life with longer missions engagements. For the last two years, a student we met at one of our campus ministry summer projects has been abroad serving in a country they’d never been to. They had done mission trips in college but wanted to find out more about their personal calling as well as get a taste of what it’s like to be grounded and committed to serving a place. God calls us not only to vocations but to places and the hope is that, wherever you go, even if it’s a new place, you will be a blessing.

For our church, as supporters of this student’s mission, this means our arms are now lovingly extended and wrapped around the people in that country this young person is serving! All of a sudden our global missions reach has increased by leaps and bounds. There are hundreds of quality missions organizations out there. Do some Googling and be open to a world of possibilities!

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Questions

If you are on the verge of graduation, I have no doubt that you have been bombarded with questions like, “What are you going to do with that major?” or “What do you think the next five years holds?” I can already sense your heart rate going up. Well it’s time to fire back some questions of your own. One beautiful thing about young adult Christians, especially those who became Christians during college, is that you do not have it all figured out. What exactly does The Bible mean when it talks about God’s glory? How does having “Christ in me” change my life? How do I actively engage in a ministry of reconciliation?

Chances are there are wonderful people in your church that have well-thought out answers to questions like these that are the product of years of wrestling and praying with God. Sometimes though, those answers and insights lay stagnant. Paul constantly writes reminders of the Gospel in his letters. Have you ever heard the phrase, “Preach the Gospel to yourself every day.”? People need to be reminded of what they believe! Inviting your church community to enter into these big questions with you is an invitation for them to be reminded of God’s goodness, purposes, mercy, grace, etc. Go to adult Sunday school classes, Bible studies, and small groups and bring your questions, your church will thank you!

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Vision for the future

I have mixed feelings about calling our young adults “The Future of the Church.” In many ways, you are that. Literally, you will probably out live many of the people older than you in the church. In the future, you will be the church. However, you are the church right now!

God’s house is multigenerational and God wants collaboration amongst generations. You have the distinct benefit of a lack of experience. You haven’t been to years of vision conferences and church board meetings. You haven’t seen brilliant ideas be employed poorly or seen God transform not-so-brilliant ideas into fruitful ministries. Your dreams for your church may not be new. You may have an idea that has been presented years ago when it wasn’t the right time to employ it, but this could be the perfect time for it to work! Sometimes ignorance comes with courage and with fresh eyes can come creativity, ingenuity, and innovation! I wonder what unique perspective you can offer your community? Seek out venues where you can have a voice. Solicit responsibilities in the church. You do not have to wait to be a culture maker!

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