Finding hope after “13 Reasons Why”

What was your worst day? In what ways do you still think about it? How does it still effect you now? We all carry around our own personal blend of wounds and disappointments. This may be a factor in the show 13 Reasons Why becoming such a phenomenon among young people. A Netflix original, it has only been out for a couple of weeks and already is one of the most viewed series they’ve created.

Based on a book by the same title from author Jay Asher, this novel follows a teenage girl named Hannah Baker. You learn at the beginning that Hannah has committed suicide, for reasons that are unclear to the people around her. Before her death she recorded 13 cassette tapes explaining what led her to the point of taking her own life, each directed at a specific person and documenting the hurtful nature of their actions towards her. Through Hannah’s narration you relive the last year and a half in her life and gradually see the full picture of what contributed to her depression and suicidality. It is a very sobering take on the effects of bullying and trauma, and the ways that we impact one another.

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In general I have quite mixed feelings about the show. I would not characterize it as “enjoyable” to watch. It unflinchingly exposes the ugliness of the thoughtless and dismissive ways we can treat one another, as well as how easily someone can become isolated and fearful. Part of the draw of the show is that, sadly, most of what it portrays about high school relationships is accurate. Young people are deeply resonating with it because it feels very relatable to their own lived experience. The storylines deal with everything from petty teasing, to stalking, to sharing intimate photos without someone’s consent, to harassment, to sexual assault. It is all very painful to watch, and I don’t blanketly recommend it (see bottom for content guide.)

It raises some concerns for me that it might inspire copycat scenarios. On top that, many viewers are trivializing the content with memes or 13 Reasons “Promposals” which seem to miss the important message the show is communicating. Still, the majority of the audience is understanding the severe implications that our behavior towards others can produce. Everyone experiences more than we realize on the surface. We have the opportunity to either build people up or tear them down.

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It was fitting that Ivan and I watched the show during Holy Week, the lead-up to Easter. As I participated in a Good Friday service, 13 Reasons Why was on my mind. Good Friday also invites us to take an unflinching look at the darkness within and around us. It is meant to offer intense reflection on what it is that sent Jesus to the cross. It was our sin, our disobedience, and our failures that warranted a death sentence, a verdict which Jesus took upon Himself in our place. Everything that tempts us to despair was nailed to the cross that day.

He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. – 1 John 2:2

Many of us know this message: Jesus died for our sins to offer us forgiveness and mercy. That is always very good news. What we don’t often think about is that if Jesus died for the sins of the whole world, by implication, He also died for the sins committed against us. Jesus took our place to absorb the punishment that we deserved, and the abuses that we didn’t. His death covers the sins we commit and the sins that others have inflicted upon us. When Jesus says, “This is my body, given for you” He offers to trade places with us in every way that we need. He not only sees our sins and says, “I committed those acts,” He also looks at our wounds and says, “That happened to Me, those sins were directed at Me.” That includes taking on the ways that others have insulted us, betrayed us, ignored us, discriminated against us, abused us.

On the cross Jesus incurs all the damage those experiences create, and offers us His freedom and wholeness instead. In trading places with us He identifies with all our sufferings and allows us to move forward in the security and healing of God’s blessing, “This is my beloved child, in whom I am well-pleased.” (Luke 3:22) When you bring to mind the worst ways that the sins of others have played out in your life, you can imagine them happening to Jesus. That doesn’t mean living in denial of your past, but you get to live now in the fullness of personhood that Christ always experienced. Always knowing that you are fully accepted and fully loved by God and that nothing will ever change that.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. Dying on the cross was a gift, but so is the resurrection. Christ’s resurrection from the dead is the cosmic game-changer. It means that suffering, separation, and death can never define us. They don’t have to be the final word. There is no evil strong enough to keep Jesus or us in the grave. Because Jesus lives, nothing can truly crush us.

Here’s something we don’t always notice, Jesus comes back with His same scarred body (John 20:24-29). He doesn’t come back just in spirit form or with a brand new body that has no prior history. Jesus comes back with the same body that endured extreme brutality but is still whole. The resurrection teaches us that there will come a day when we will inhabit our bodies with complete peace and unity. No longer struggling with mental/emotional anguish, no longer in bondage to loneliness and anxiety, no longer haunted by memories of abuses our bodies endured. We will be united with our bodies and move in God’s world without fear, without shame, and without pain. The promise of identifying with Christ will become a reality in our physical, lived experience.

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That is the good news that I kept wanting to share with Hannah, and that I want to share with you. Life is hard. Other people do terrible things and we do plenty of terrible things back. But that isn’t the end of the story. None of us are defined by our worst day. There is no sin or pain so great that Christ did not claim it as His own. And when the dead in Christ are all raised, you’ll live in your body that weathered the storm and is now fit for eternity.

 

 

Content guide: Be advised that this show depicts multiple scenes of graphic sexual violence. The show creators’ stated goal is to show the horror of assault to help observers understand how traumatizing it is for survivors, but watching it may not be worth it for some. Hannah’s suicide and death is also depicted. In Beyond the Reasons (an extra feature on the Netflix season) the creators explain in helpful ways why they chose to film it this way and they had many mental health care professionals consulting on the project. If you have personal experience with losing someone to suicide, this scene may be deeply painful to experience. Use discretion in your viewing, this show will not be appropriate for all audiences.

Getting the most out of “Get Out”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heather’s Top Ten Films of 2016

In our current era of franchises and reboots, I find myself valuing creativity and originality more than ever. And in a year that was largely marked by conflict and argument, I wanted stories that added something valuable and beautiful to the conversation. 2016 brought our country face to face with ourselves. It forced us to ask who we are and who we want to be, and several films attempt to help us engage these questions. So with those general themes in mind, here are the films that stayed with me the most in 2016

10. Manchester By the Sea

I thought the performances and story in this film are remarkable, but this is probably the movie in my top ten that is most likely to be replaced (we haven’t yet seen Hidden Figures, 20th Century Women, or Silence.) The strength of the film is by far Casey Affleck’s gut-wrenching lead and the character development and plot progression are very strong. It’s just a crushingly sad story, which is the primary reason why I wouldn’t want to come back to it repeatedly. But Affleck is certainly deserving of the accolades he’s been receiving, and it’s a very well-made film.

9. 13th

Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. Heb. 13:3

This may or may not win best documentary of the year (although my fingers are crossed), but I think the topic is one of the most important issues of our time. Ava DuVernay (director of Selma and the outstanding TV show Queen Sugar) lays out the historical roots behind mass incarceration, starting with the 13th Amendment to end slavery. The amendment opened a loophole to continue controlling and limiting black Americans who are convicted of a crime; from forced labor, to losing the right to vote, to losing access to social services. As the Civil Rights movement opened up new legislation and opportunities, mass incarceration soared in the second half of the 20th century. Some harsh realities are exposed about our country’s legal system and systemic patterns in our society. This documentary will probably feel liberal to a conservative audience, but please don’t tune it out. Scripture frequently calls us to care for prisoners, and this is an issue that needs to be free from political partisanship and viewed through a lens that remembers all people are image-bearers and worthy of equal dignity and care. Regardless of who you voted for, please watch this doc (available on Netflix) and consider how the Bible calls the Church to respond.

8. Loving

I also have a full review of this film which you can read for more depth. In brief I’ll say that in its subtly and normalcy we find enduring hope that average people can change the world.

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7. Sing Street

I needed some charm and optimism in 2016, and I found that in Sing Street. A great combination of upbeat music and creativity with real struggles in family life, bullying and poverty, I found this story to be more enchanting than La La Land. The original music is infectious, the characters are relatable and inspiring, and it made me believe that better things are possible.

6. Moonlight

Ivan wrote a complete review of this film that you should read. All I want to add is to agree that this is a unique story that I’ve never seen before and that brings something new to the conversation of identity and how we shape one another. Before watching it I listened to an NPR interview with the director and playwright who wrote the source material, and that helped me appreciate the film much more fully. If you’re planning to see it, I would recommend doing the same!

5. Jackie

As 2016 marks the end of a presidential administration and also the year of Hamilton, this picture asks the question, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” In the midst of grief and shock, Jackie Kennedy was working tirelessly to establish the Kennedy legacy and the narrative that the world would use to recall JFK. Set against the backdrop of her work as First Lady to compile US historical artifacts in the White House that would reflect the legacy of our country, over the course of a week she insures that the Kennedys would be added to that shared history. We watch her plan a memorial service while navigating on-going threats of violence, and while packing up her family’s life as the Johnsons begin moving in and taking over what she and John didn’t have a chance to complete. I’m sure every outgoing administration wishes they had more time to finish their goals and projects, and the Kennedy’s offer a particularly gripping version of that transition. Jackie gives us a chance to learn from her grief for what is passing and to hope for how history might remember us.

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4. Hacksaw Ridge

I didn’t expect to like this movie as much as I did. The issue of religious liberties has been on the forefront during this election cycle, and Hacksaw presents a challenging and helpful approach to this debate. Using great character development and a sincere performance from Andrew Garfield, we watch Desmond Doss endure extreme persecution for his religious convictions of non-violence. He refuses to respond with anger and contention, but instead remains unwavering in his desire to serve and protect the very people who are threatening him (including the Japanese). He doesn’t combat religious persecution through whining and power struggles, but through loving other people in profoundly self-sacrificial ways and making the lives of others better because he is with them. I think evangelicals have much to learn from Doss on what it looks like to become indispensable parts of our communities through love and service, not defensiveness and impersonal legislation. Let’s be involved with our neighbors in ways that challenge their stereotypes of us and fosters meaningful and nurturing friendships.

Be aware that the film is very violent, more so than Saving Private Ryan. I personally just looked away from the screen several times and I was okay. The violence is depicted in a purposeful way to show the stark contrast between how easy it is to destroy life and how hard it can be to preserve it. There are scenes of domestic violence that may be upsetting, but which are also used purposefully in the story. For some it may be best to refrain from watching it, but if you can handle the violence, the beauty of the compelling love of Christ is well worth it.

3. Fences

I read Fences in grad school but remembered very little and absorbed even less. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis bring it to life with poignancy and heart. I rarely see a narrative that follows a black working class family in the mid-20th century, so this is a story that is doing something different. It asks big questions about generational patterns, how we are shaped and how that influences the way we shape others. The film feels a lot like a stage production, which I enjoyed. Live theater isn’t available in every community and in the year that the African-American History Museum opened in DC, I’m grateful for many outlets that are elevating and sharing African-American culture. Plus August Wilson is from Pittsburgh, the movie was filmed in Pittsburgh, and it’s showcasing our city!

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2. Hell or High Water

Typically summer movies get buried, but this movie has staying power! The writing is fantastic, the performances are riveting, and a bank-heist cowboy story gets a modern twist. This movie draws on still-relevant themes of poverty related to the housing crisis as two brothers struggle to pay off their family’s land before it’s foreclosed upon. The desperation of generational poverty and domestic violence are explored with dignity and compassion as this family does whatever it takes to rewrite their story. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen in a long time, and certainly deserves nominations for writing and acting.

1. Arrival

This movie captured my imagination and emotions and transported me in a unique way. It’s a female-centric story where a compelling female lead demonstrates compassion and courage and innovation and brilliance in a way that’s inspiring. The story is far more than an alien invasion trope, but asks profound questions about communication and what it means to connect with others. We learn that vulnerability precedes trust, relationship is formed through hospitality and grace. The gift we offer to each other is the way we see the world. In a year of division and ugliness, Arrival offers some much-needed beauty and hope for why we bother to love and pursue others. (Check out Ivan’s full review here.)

Ivan also compiled his top ten of 2016, some are the same and he also choose different ones than me!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Loving” – Quietly Changing the World

“I’m pregnant.”

A young woman nervously shifts after blurting out this news, waiting for her boyfriend to respond.  To her relief, he’s happy and excited. He loves her and is committed to her and to their child. Soon afterwards he proposes and they sneak off for a simple wedding. Sounds pretty unremarkable. This young couple who are poor and living in the same rural community have fallen in love and want to build a life together. Except that it’s 1958 in Virginia and he’s white and she’s black, and it’s illegal for them to marry.

Thus begins the film “Loving” which tells the true story of Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving, an interracial couple who were behind the Supreme Court case to legalize interracial marriage. Their struggle to live in their home state as a married couple and family became a turning point court case during the Civil Rights Movement. A landmark ruling that broke down racial barriers and changed our country forever.

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The film quietly asks a very powerful question, “What kind of people change the world?” On the surface, the Lovings are not a splashy and charismatic couple. The film’s director Jeff Nichols pointedly depicts their deep normalcy and simple desire to be a healthy family. Both Mildred and Richard are poor and not college educated. They seemed to be kind and friendly people, but they largely kept to themselves and were by no means on a crusade of epic proportions. Their path to world-changing was marked by small decisions based on what was in front of them at the time.

The first decision was to marry and honor their relationship and child with fidelity and love. Then when they were forced to leave the state or be jailed, they moved to DC and did the best they could to build a home for their growing family. But they missed their relatives and the peace of the country, and wanted their children to be in a safer environment closer to family. So when Mildred is presented with the suggestion to write to the Attorney General, Bobby Kennedy, she takes a chance to ask for help. From there it was small steps of meeting with a lawyer, continuing to communicate with him about their case, being photographed for Life Magazine, and hoping that things could be better. We see Mildred in particular gain a growing sense that their case could benefit many other people and she exudes a quiet optimism that change could be possible. On the day that their case is heard before the Supreme Court, the Lovings weren’t in attendance. The day in court is a very minor part of the film, Nichols choosing instead to focus on the family at home going about their normal lives together (but still nervously waiting for the phone to ring.) Because of their persistence to believe the life they wanted together was possible, 9 years and 3 children after they first married they are able to see an outcome that changed their lives and opportunities for countless other couples since.

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Who comes to mind when you think of people that changed the world? Is it famous people in history books? People that have biographies and Broadway musicals written about them? For most of us, we don’t immediately think of the ordinary people around us in our daily lives, and we probably don’t think of ourselves. But world-changing doesn’t happen all at once when we decide it should, it happens gradually when people begin taking small steps to do what they can in their realm of influence. Richard and Mildred didn’t decide in 1958 that they wanted to catalyze a Supreme Court case and force the government’s hand to change federal legislation. They decided that they wanted to do right by each other in their immediate situation, and then went from there.

I once heard a speaker at the Jubilee Conference talk about Daniel in the Bible and the long road of faithfulness over our lifetimes. Daniel is known for facing off with lions and having God save him when he was thrown into a den of the ferocious beasts. What we don’t often think about is that Daniel was in his 80s when that happened. He’s known for a spectacular event that every Sunday school kid has heard, but we don’t write songs about all the normal years he spent in Babylon quietly honoring God every day with the work and opportunities that were before him. Scripture is filled with other ordinary people who were under-qualified and unremarkable and yet who were invited to join God in doing spectacular things.

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You may or may not have to chance to do something that changes history in a way that other people will notice and remember, but maybe being extraordinary isn’t the point. Life is full of unexpected twists and turns, unforeseen challenges and gifts. Each day is an opportunity to honor God in our decisions and relationships. Only God knows where it might go from there.

“God must love ordinary people, He made so many of them.”

– Abraham Lincoln

We all look different in “Moonlight”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moonlight

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

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

While you watch:

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

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

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

The creation story inside “Moana”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You may hear a voice inside

And if the voice starts to whisper

To follow the farthest star

Moana, that voice inside is

Who you are”

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

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

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

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

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

“I am everything I’ve learned and more

Still it calls me

And the call isn’t out there at all

It’s inside me

It’s like the tide, always falling and rising

I will carry you here in my heart

You’ll remind me

That come what may, I know the way”

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

While you watch:

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

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

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

Answering the big questions with “Arrival”

“What is your purpose on Earth?”

This is the central question of director Denis Villeneuve’s alien invasion thriller, Arrival. Villeneuve is known for slow-build, tense storytelling like Prisoners and Sicario and with Arrival he applies that expertise to a 300 level Comm Theory class. The film isn’t so much set around asking that question to the audience or the aliens as much as it is the journey to understanding how to ask this question, “What is your purpose on Earth?”

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This is the job of famous linguist Dr. Louise Banks played with care and intensity by Amy Adams. That’s right, Arrival is about the super sexy field of linguistics. It is Dr. Banks’ job to ask this question to alien visitors who showed up unannounced to 12 random places around the globe. Have you ever had a problem communicating with someone who speaks your language, maybe even someone in your own family? Where in the world would you even start with a brand-new alien race?

Here the tension of Arrival begins. What if this is an alien military invasion on a global scale? What if this is an elaborate plot by this alien race to pit Earth’s military powers against each other? What if the aliens have discovered we are the only planet in the universe to master having “pizza anytime” and have come to partake in some sweet, sweet Bagel Bites? Until we figure out how to communicate with the aliens, we will never know.

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If you’ve never thought about how complicated human communication is, Arrival will make your head spin. We live in a time with some of the most widely accessible and powerful communications technology, so why is it that we still find it so hard to talk to one another, to understand one another?

At its core, Arrival, is about learning to communicate with the “other.” The timeline of our history is littered with the consequences of fearing those who are different from us. Fear comes from the aliens’ unpredictable behavior. Is their behavior truly threatening or is it scary because it’s not what we would do? Tensions come from the frustration of not being able to talk to the aliens. Is this language barrier an act of war or does that frustration come from our belief that the burden of communication lies on our visitors? We would be put at ease if they just spoke our language. They came to us after all.

When we reach a comfortable cocktail of confusion and fear in our communication with others it is easy to find any number of meanings in their actions. If you watch Arrival, and I recommend that everyone should, allow the movie to reveal the barriers you have in communicating with people different from you. Do they look very different? Do they not speak your language? Do you fail to understand why they do some of the things they do the way they do them?

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Discovering these barriers and breaking them down are a worthy exercise. Intimacy with the “other” is something God calls us to in our human relationships. An easy example might be marriage, though this is not the sole relationship where emotional intimacy and support is possible. The further we get into our marriage, my wife and I continue to understand our biggest obstacle is that we are two different people.

We think differently, we perceive differently, we experience differently, and we respond differently. To me, a clean bathroom looks visibly clean. To my wife, a clean bathroom involves bleach. To me, laundry is separated into whites and colors, hot and cold wash. To my wife, laundry instructions are a humble suggestion. Yes, at times, the fact that we are the “other” causes pain, fear, and confusion but as we live into our otherness we experience some of life’s most profound beauty.

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Do we ever really know ourselves unless we experience ourselves through the eyes of the “other”? Do we ever really experience the love of God unless we have been loved by someone who objectively knows us…and loves us anyway? When we make space in our lives for the “other” we open ourselves up to the deeper mysteries of how God loves us. That is what we offer each other if we can learn how to talk to one another. You might just find your purpose for being on this Earth.

Breaking down these barriers is difficult and is the hard, emotional work we see Dr. Banks go through in the film. It requires strength, it requires grace, and it requires an open mind. We are always more comfortable with people that are most like ourselves. It is easy to love those with whom it is easy to communicate, but imagine how much bigger your love could be. Imagine how much bigger a love you could receive. Having your space invaded can be scary, but just imagine how terrifying you are to the “other.”

While you watch:

Most countries are finding it difficult to communicate with the aliens, what makes Dr. Banks different? How does her approach differ from her scientist and military co-workers? What are her beliefs behind her methods and why is it more successful?

Who do you have the most trouble communicating with? What are the barriers that make that difficult? What could you do to break those barriers? How does Dr. Banks break down barriers in the movie?

Nowhere is safe

I was a freshman in college on 9/11. We were in morning chapel when the first tower was hit, and we came upstairs to the cafeteria in time for the big screen TV to show the second tower fall. It seemed like a movie, none of it felt real. That day changed so many things; the way we feel when we see the New York City skyline, the way we travel, the way our military has operated, the way we perceive threats of violence, the way we perceive each other. That fear has only escalated, particularly in the past few years. Now we have other major cities and other public places to add to the list: Nairobi, Paris, Orlando, Istanbul, Brussels, Aleppo…the list goes on. It can be easy to feel unsafe, to be tempted to just not go anywhere anymore.

In the middle of these years of escalating fear I first watched the documentary “Man on Wire” and the subsequent feature film “The Walk“. They tell the story of Philippe Petit, a young tightrope walker and performance artist who in 1974 illegally hung a tightrope wire between the Twin Towers and walked back and forth across the gap. Petit captured my imagination with his stunt because of the way he viewed the event.

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When Petit was 17 he had a toothache and was sitting in a dentist office in Paris. While flipping through a magazine he came across a drawing of the plans for the World Trade Center that was soon to begin construction in New York City. At that moment, Petit’s primary goal in life became to walk between the towers. He single-mindedly practiced his craft, what he considered his art. He never used a safety harness, it was always just him and his balance pole and the wire. He practiced constantly on a wire strung between trees, having his friends hang from the wire and shake it to simulate the high winds that would be blowing at the altitude of the WTC.

He flew back and forth from Paris to NYC multiple times to scout the location and to find insiders who could help his very elaborate scheme. Preparing for the walk was like a bank heist for performance art. When the day finally came it took them all night to hang the wire, and as one of his friends said, “It was the worst wire we ever hung.” Petit’s face was uncertain as he was getting a feel for the wire and the conditions. His friend goes on with tears in his eyes, “but then I saw his face change, and I knew it was all ok.” Petit walked back and forth eight times. He lay down on the wire looking up at the sky. He sat on the wire and looked down at the crowd that had formed on the street. He only came down because the police threatened to bring a helicopter to forcibly remove him from the wire. Reporters and police immediately asked him why he would do such a crazy thing. Petit answered, “I just danced at the top of the world and you ask why?!”

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That’s the joy that I want to draw from Petit. I’m terrified of heights and “The Walk” is stressful to watch in that regard (he didn’t have a harness…he didn’t have a harness!!!). But you get to share in Petit’s love of his art, the beauty that he sees in “dancing at the top of the world.” He wasn’t thinking about the fear of the fall, he was thinking about the beauty of life and of doing what he was made to do. Watching both films gave me a new memory of the World Trade Center, and a new way to think about places that we associate with fear.  I remembered that our gathering spaces can be marked by friendship and beauty rather than death.

9/11 changed everything for my family too. My brother Jesse had joined the Marine Corp Reserves that summer, when none of us thought a foreign conflict was imminent. He spoke to my mom on the phone that day and told her, “Mom, I’m ready. This is what I was trained for.” He was deployed in the fall of 2004 after finishing college and starting seminary, and was killed in action on January 26, 2005. The absolute worst case scenario for my family had become a reality.

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Tragedy brings you to your knees and when you look up you realize you’re kneeling at a crossroads. You can either be paralyzed by the knowledge that pain and loss are always a moment away, or you can cast yourself upon God’s limitless healing and the hope of the resurrection from the dead. It took me two years to leave the crossroads, but God’s mercy led me down the path of healing and hope.

One of the things I learned in the process was that Petit isn’t the only one whose life dangles on a wire. Every moment of every day each of our lives are hanging by a thread. We’re each one slippery patch of ice, one faulty jet engine, one cancer diagnosis, one angry bullet away from death. How do we live with such an ever-present reality? By embracing the truth we repeat from the prayer book, “We have no defender but you, O God.” We live in an age of darkness by following the Light that no darkness can overcome. Our risen Savior gives us the courage to board an airplane, to get behind the wheel, to attend public events, to enter the voting booth, and to love others deeply without fear and without loneliness.

It’s true that in today’s climate any public place could be a potential target. And it’s also true that this is still our Father’s world. We were still made to love the goodness of all that God has created, and we were made to be together rather than alone. Even if the worst case scenario does happen to us or to people we love, we are assured that death and violence are not God’s final word. Each day we live in the hope of being raised with Christ and of God’s world being restored to a place that is free of death and sorrow and pain. Each day we have the freedom to not live in fear but to welcome each morning as a gift from God, our true Sustainer of life.

This is my Father’s world.
O let me ne’er forget
that though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world:
why should my heart be sad?
The Lord is King; let the heavens ring!
God reigns; let the earth be glad! 

 

Finding your Roots: The mini-series and the Exodus

“You can’t buy a slave, you’ve got to make a slave.” So says Kunta Kinte’s slave overseer prior to a vicious whipping. This line summarizes the film’s history of the struggle to subjugate African slaves and their ensuing fight to keep their minds and hearts free. The goal of slavery is to rob a person and a people of who they are. To make them forget their identity, to strip away family ties, to stamp out any memories and relationships that could give one strength and purpose. To extinguish the spark of humanity and replace it with numbness, despair and faceless productivity.

This is the struggle that Roots (based on the 1976 novel by Alex Haley and 1977 original miniseries) chronicles as the miniseries follows the Kinte family from West Africa in the mid-1700s through the end of the Civil War in the United States. It follows their fight to remember where this family came from in the face of the horrors of slavery and this vile institution that desired to take everything from them. Kunta (played powerfully by Malachi Kirby) remains determined to hope for freedom and to keep his family name and story alive. He diligently teaches his daughter Kizzy the names of her grandparents and the place where he grew up as part of the Mandinka tribe. He passes on the tradition of naming their children under the stars of heaven, proclaiming that their name is their shield. The story fades a little with each generation, but the name continues to ring across the decades of persecution and oppression.

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One of the reasons why the miniseries originally struck such a nerve is because slave owners were very successful in suppressing the history and family lineage of African-Americans. It was a common practice to split up families, to severely punish slaves who learned how to read and write, to take every measure to erase the family trees of slaves. But we all have a deep longing to know our stories, to know where we came from and why we are in the world. Roots gave a glimpse into what that might look like for many African-Americans. To see what it took to remember one’s name and to survive with incredible strength in the face of deep evil and cruelty.

Roots isn’t the only origin story of an enslaved people. The first five books of the Bible (in Hebrew “Torah” or “Law”) are written to a newly freed people who have lost touch with their story and their cultural identity. Moses is widely held to be the primary author of these books, though others may have contributed as well, and he is writing to a people that have been slaves to the Egyptians for over 400 years. They had an oral history but no written account of what it meant to be a Hebrew and who their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob really were. The Egyptians were harsh slave owners who treated them “ruthlessly” (Exodus 1:14), so they knew about Egyptian culture and gods, but little about Yahweh. So Moses started telling them their story. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth…This is who we are, our God is so powerful that He created something out of nothing, and made it very good. And He made us in His image, men and women as partners with great value to be image-bearers and to mirror the character of God in this wonderful world. Our God made us on purpose to cultivate the beauty of the creation, and gave us a unique and important role to play.

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And then Moses gives them plenty of genealogies as the story continues. Names that are hard for modern readers to pronounce and which we often skip, but which would have been treasures to the enslaved Hebrews. They may have turned to each other and marveled, “Our God knows our names! He has a record of each of our people and kept close track of our history. He called our ancestors by name and made promises to them. And now he has heard our cries and kept a record of them too (Ex. 3:7-10), and He rescued us. Yahweh hasn’t forgotten us, He remembers everything.” When it seemed like they had lost everything after centuries of slavery, they found out that they served a God who watched them closely. Now He was calling them by name and leading them into freedom and His protection. When their oppressors told them they were expendable, their God told them they carry a glorious Image within them.

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God chose an enslaved people who were an ethnic minority to be the bearers of His redemptive story in history. The Bible was written by oppressed people for people suffering under physical and spiritual slavery. This was personified by the Israelites and has played out for all of humanity ever since. I think it’s little short of miraculous that despite heretical misuses of scripture to perpetuate slavery, so many African-Americans still managed to encounter the love of Jesus Christ and a deep hope and faith. I praise God for the Spirit’s ability to transcend evil and suffering to propel beautiful truth through terrible lies. We all serve a God whose light shines so brightly that no darkness can overcome it (John 1:5).

The realities depicted in Roots are gut-wrenching and I hated so much of what I saw. It called me to grieve and repent over the ways that America still falls short of full restoration and equality. There are ways in which I need to identify with the Egyptians and tremble over God’s judgment. It called me to explore what I can change about myself and my particular sphere of influence to move closer to God’s desire for healing. And it filled me with gratitude that no child of the Living God can ever truly be lost. Every person that God has created is endowed with eternal value that no other human can ever erase.

Luke 12:6 Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

Viewer discretion guide: the mini-series seeks to depict slavery as accurately as possible. That means significant physical violence and three generations of sexual violence. There is no nudity and the sexual violence is depicted with sensitivity, but is still atrocious and hard to watch. You should expect to feel troubled and emotionally distraught. Check out Ebony’s review for additional guidance in this area.