Here I Raise My Ebenezer

There is a lot of fun history in our city. On a corner downtown, sits Sun Records where the likes of Johnny Cash, Jerry lee Lewis, and, of course, Elvis got their start. Walk on through Beale Street where neon lights and live music fill the air any given night. Splash around with the Peabody ducks, who nabbed some name dropping on this season’s breakout TV show “This Is Us.” All of these places are fun to visit and, while there, you can take some totally boss, smiley selfies with your travel mates. Every city has landmarks that collectively tell the story of that place. With any given city, though, the fun places don’t tell the whole story.

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Some cities like Memphis, Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma, have some very different attractions. Attractions that most never learn about in school. In these places you will find monuments, memorials, and museums documenting the history of the mid-century American civil rights movement. The story of this movement paints the walls of these places with a mosaic of emotions. At these sites, you might see a picture, a plaque, or a statue of unimaginable violence next to a visage of great victory and freedom. In the shadows of the grave markers of children, resides generations inspired by their innocence, courage, and sacrifice.

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At the end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Arkansas river in Selma, stands several monuments paying respect to a collection of the prominent figures that crossed that bridge in the marches from Selma to Montgomery. These marchers were protesting unfair voting laws across the south. Next to those monuments is an Ebenezer, a pile of large stones, an image pulled from the Bible to mark significant events in the history of God’s people. These markers help God’s people remember the story of that place, the good and the bad. Why did God think it necessary to mark our journeys with these monuments?

First of all, these landmarks help us remember. Throughout the Bible, God continuously reminds his people who he is. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the beginning and the end, the Alpha and Omega, the great I Am, the Lord of all, the deliverer of God’s people out of Egypt, the creator of all things, our Father, our King, our Shepherd, and on and on, are all images God recalls for our benefit. God establishes his credibility with us by recalling the great victories and freedom he has delivered and the intense evils he has delivered us from. We need to remember these things especially in times of darkness, when we feel farthest from God, and prone to disbelief. God answers those feelings by reminding us where we’ve been.

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Secondly, these memorials act as a mirror bringing us face to face with the realities of our story. Our country was established with a broken system, one that denied the humanity of certain people. These are systems, though they have been battled, that we still feel today. Some would say we live in a post-racial society, that the images featured on the walls of these museums are from the distant past, that we’ve moved on, and we all experience equality.

But then we hear the cries white nationalists for a return to segregation, already very segregated worship services, the right to vote being challenged in certain states, racial slurs scribbled across the home of one of the world’s most prominent athletes, nooses being left at the National African American Museum, and so on and so on and you wonder have we really moved on? In some ways, yes, in others, no, but these mirror images from today and yesterday help to remind us of the work that has been done and the work still unfinished.

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The monuments, memorials, and museums of the civil rights movement are not always fun places to visit. Taking selfies might be the last thing on your mind. The truth of America’s history of oppression is hard to experience in any form. The mixture of emotions one might move through while reliving these sites takes a toll. It is exhausting, but imagine how exhausting it must be to live through it every day. The long-lasting effects created by the systematic and cultural traditions present in America’s foundation have great influence on the livelihood of many people even today. If we don’t maintain and visit these Ebenezers, will we ever remember to change? If we hear the Lord cry out for justice, and ignore it are we not the people James is talking to,

“For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.”

Having hope that we are not doomed to repeat the ugliest chapters of our history begins with remembering the stories behind the landmarks.

Here I raise my Ebenezer

Here there by Thy great help I’ve come

And I hope, by Thy good pleasure

Safely to arrive at home

Jesus sought me when a stranger

Wandering from the fold of God

He, to rescue me from danger

Interposed His precious blood

Our Sunday Best

For some of us, church isn’t church without freshly pressed slacks, a necktie tied pinned with a gold chain, and shoes pristinely shined. For others, church is more like church as they feel a cool breeze through the knee hole in their jeans with their flip flops smacking and pattering announcing their entry. The term “Sunday Best” has a wide range of connotations across the tapestry of the body of Christ. As I reflect on my time touring the civil rights monuments of the American south, this term took on a whole new meaning. This new definition comes from a set of two pictures.

“And as long as I’ve got my suit and tie…all pressed up in black and white.” Justin Timberlake may have been trying to make the club a little classier with his 2013 hit “Suit & Tie” but long before one of Memphis’s favorite sons tried to bring it back, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sure was making it look good. It’s difficult to find a statue or picture of Dr. King in front of a crowd without his suit and tie. It was his suit of armor, a uniform of his vocation as a pastor, proof that whether he was behind the pulpit or in front a march, it was an act of worship.

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The fashion of the movement also became intertwined in the fabric of its protests. Downtown shopping districts in cities denying blacks their human rights relied on the profits of selling the freshest Sunday looks. In an act of protest, citizens of these cities would refrain from buying new church clothes to send a powerful blow to an economy that was supporting systems of oppression across the south. Church clothes became a way of communicating power. They, also, became a way of communicating that the cause of civil rights was a worthy one. Which leads us to the first picture.

Sprawled across the steps of the Sixth Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL, dozens of civil rights leaders the likes of Dr. King, Rosa Parks, and many more stood tall adorned in crisp suits and dresses. Looking at the picture you might assume the group was about to turn around and enter the sanctuary for a vibrant holiday church service. In reality, this crowd was prepared for a date with a prison cell. They were turning themselves in to the police, a situation many of them were familiar with throughout the marches and protests that helped define the movement. They gladly went to jail for their rights and the rights of their sisters and brothers. This was an occasion that called for their Sunday best. It is a picture filled with dignity, honor, and hope. The second picture is a different story.

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“Daddy let me watch from his shoulders,” is etched across the sculpture of a fancy hat in a style you might see in an episode of Mad Men. The others in the collection feature similar sentiments. One hat boasts about being excused from school. Another describes packing a picnic. To the right of the hats are a series of screen printed ties. Printed on each one is a group of people decked out in their Sunday best. Hats, ties, smiling children on shoulders, and a fresh picnic packed with all the summer favorites, this is the second picture. As the art exhibit seen at the Rosa Parks Museum explains, this was a common scene at a lynching.

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Letters on the wall explain that the time between the decades prior to the turn of the 19th century and on through the late 60’s saw thousands of known lynchings. Black people were hung from trees, burned, beaten to death, etc. for charges such as talking to the wrong person, eating at the wrong restaurant, or trying to register to vote. As informal mobs brutalized human beings, thousands would gather to watch with smiles and laughter all while wearing their Sunday best. Isn’t it interesting that these spectators were covered by layers of fine clothing, but they stand in that crowd exposed for future generations to see? No amount of expensive material can hide evil from God’s sight.

Throughout church history, high priests and pastors often wore elaborate outfits for everything from holidays to your average Sunday. Some were prescribed by scripture like that of Old Testament temple priests. When it came time for Jesus to enter the scene, though, he saw that these ceremonial clothes had become a way of trying to hide the sins of the religious elites like the Pharisees. Looking at Matthew 23, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” Not long after, Jesus was beaten, stripped naked, and hung upon what scripture often calls a tree. He became clothed in all of our darkness, guilt, and shame and died for our sins. Then he rose, conquering death and assuring that we would have access to eternal robes of righteousness.

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As I look at both of these pictures, I need to cling to the robes Jesus has wrapped me in. It was humans that stood in those lynching crowds with smiles on their faces. It was humans that hit children with high powered fire hoses and vicious dogs. It was humans that sent a pastor and a seamstress to prison for trying to live with dignity. Humans are capable of unspeakable evil even while wearing the nicest threads. I am human and the painful past of America is terrifying to me because it reminds me that I am capable of evil.

Fortunately, Jesus redefined our Sunday best and established his own high fashion. He sees our broken heart behind anything we try to cover it with and offers us his love anyway. He not only covers us with his Sunday best but gives us the ability to clothe others in his love. Jesus saves me from evil and inspires me towards good. In stripping down their victims, the people in those horrific lynch mobs exposed their own sinful hearts that will define their history. Jesus’s robes of righteousness defined Dr. King’s legacy and I pray they’ll also define mine.

 

For more information on the history of lynching in America, the Equal Justice Initiative led by Bryan Stevenson has created this website: lynchinginamerica.eji.org

You’re Better Off Alone

I think Eve has gotten a bad rap. When humanity falls and sin enters the world in Genesis 3, it’s Eve who first eats the forbidden fruit and who offers it to Adam to share with her. She’s the one that Adam blames when God confronts them about their disobedience. She’s the one who most often takes the heat for ruining God’s perfect world. Some even go as far as to say she is the cause of everything bad in the world. The explanation I have most often heard is that this happened because she was weak and gullible. (I have a whole blog post about why I think it’s not that.) But when we look at the creation of Eve as a helper suitable for Adam, I think there’s a deeper strategy to why Satan targeted her first.

When Adam is still alone in the garden both he and God recognize that it is not good for him to be the only one of his kind (Gen. 2:18, the first thing in God’s perfect world to be declared “not good.”) God remedies this deficit by creating Eve, to whom Adam responds with deep joy:

23 The man said,

“This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
for she was taken out of man.”

We might be tempted to say that Eve is created as an afterthought as God is trouble-shooting this new world, but certainly God deserves more credit than that. What if God was intentionally allowing Adam to feel the void of loneliness in order to set a pattern with humanity, a pattern of understanding that we alone are insufficient? What if we need something outside of ourselves to more fully understand God and to more fully experience the world?

As Eve mirrored God’s image in a way that was unique from Adam, they both understood more about who God is through being in relationship with one another. For those of you who are married or simply have a close friendship with someone of the opposite sex, you know that there are fundamental ways in which they are very different and “other” from you. There are things about them that are inherently mysterious and which you can never fully comprehend because you are just not the same. Yet you are drawn to them and want to keep trying to know them better and to share life together. It is this pursuit of the other that teaches us more about how we pursue God, and, possibly, about how God pursues us.

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Our Lord is far more mysterious to the human heart than we are to one another and yet God is at the same time near and loving. When we grapple with the challenges of knowing one another, we are being trained to recognize a God who is more vast than we can imagine but Whose image lives inside of us. A God whose “thoughts are not your thoughts” but who knows us better than any other and invites us into close relationship.

This plays out on a cultural level as well. God’s character is far more complex than any one person or people group can encompass. Each culture around the world magnifies an aspect of God, and when we do the hard work of coming together we experience more of who God is through one another. This is obviously not easy to do, it is much easier to be with those who are like us. But just as Adam was experiencing less of God and less of the world in his isolation, we make God smaller when we remain in homogeneity. It becomes far more tempting to believe that God looks and thinks like me, and I begin to reduce God into my own image when that is all I see. The struggle of relating to those who are very different from me forces me to remember that my God is big and limitless.

Not only did Adam need Eve because she would not be the same as him, Adam needed to understand that God’s intervention and God’s help are always very good. Our mysterious God also knows us perfectly and is responsive to our distresses and needs. He is always powerful to see us and provide for us. Eve herself is not salvific, she was entirely human, but there are things about the way God brings her into the world that are a forerunner to Christ, the ultimate answer to our insufficiency. Just as Eve is sent to do what Adam cannot do for himself, so Jesus would come to complete a salvation that we could never achieve. Then Jesus would send the Spirit (another “Helper”) and continue demonstrating God’s very good help.

When Satan goes after Eve and takes her down, he understands that she had influence in Adam’s life. If Satan got her, he could get them both. He wasn’t just instilling distrust in Eve, but he’s trying to instill distrust in God’s help. The creation of Eve was meant to teach Adam and all other people that God sends us exactly what we need to flourish. Satan can’t survive if we always believe that to be true. In attacking Eve, he tries to undermine that truth and convince Adam that he can’t trust anyone and he’s better off alone. Satan wants Adam to believe he should put up walls and keep Eve and others at arm’s length. That they should both believe that no one can care for you like you can care for yourself so from now on you’d better not rely on anyone and just do you. On the other side of the coin Eve walks away thinking that it’s pointless to try to help anyone because they’ll just turn on you, so she’s better off alone as well. In so doing they begin a terrible pattern of distancing themselves from the other, and cutting themselves off from the fullness of God’s image.

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Don’t we all still struggle with that temptation today? (2016 made our fears and divisions and distrusts abundantly clear.) We all feel the temptation to keep others out and stay safely behind our walls where they can’t hurt us and can’t let us down. But that also means that we distrust God’s help and experience less of God’s character. We may even distrust the free gift of salvation and think there must be some strings attached. Or we let Jesus handle certain things in our lives but the stuff that’s high stakes and risky we want to take the lead on. When we’re trying to control our lives and other people we’re falling into that age-old trap of thinking we’re better off alone. That keeps us slaves to ourselves, slaves to anxiety and fear, slaves to sin and shame that we can’t break free from, slaves to loneliness and isolation. That is exactly what Satan wants. He has more power over us when we’re cut off and alone, and he starts losing power immediately when we reach out to Jesus and to other members of the Body of Christ.

We think we’re safer and stronger when we’re toughing it out on our own and not relying on anyone else, but, actually, we’re at our weakest and most vulnerable. Don’t believe the lies. Don’t give in to the temptation to keep others out. Take the risk of allowing Jesus to demonstrate His trustworthiness. Reach beyond the borders you have created around yourself. You just might find a boundless God who wants to give you everything.

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But its my birthday, Jesus!

This story may sound familiar. She was all of sudden very frightened because her baby boy was on it’s way under fairly frightening circumstances. I’m sure she must have been thinking, “This is not how I wanted it to be.” There had to be an overall sense that she wasn’t ready. Mostly because the doctors had projected this child, her second and first boy in the family, to come over a month later on Valentine’s Day. Just as the first Christmas was a miraculous intervention, on this Christmas in 1984, God had other plans.

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This isn’t the story of Jesus, though it involves him, this is my story. The story of a Christmas baby that came unexpectedly. This is also a story of what it means to have the whole world celebrate on your birthday, and, in the midst of being lost in the shuffle, what it is I’ve come to celebrate.

I was premature by several weeks. As the legend goes, my family was out enjoying the festivities of Christmas Eve with our family down the street from the house I grew up in. Now some would call my mother clumsy. I tend to think she is just always going full throttle into the adventures of life with little regard for her own safety. On this night, well before my due date, she went a little too full throttle down the icy steps of my granny’s house, she fell, and my labor had begun.

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I can’t imagine what was going through my mother’s mind as they rushed to the hospital. Was her baby going to be okay? Was she ready for this child she didn’t expect? Had her actions placed her new baby in danger? I’m wondering if similar questions entered Mary’s mind on that first Christmas as well. Soon Cindy Moore’s relatively normal-sized baby (imagine how big my head would have been had I gone full term) was born and in good health. Her questions were answered but this day left me with one big question I ask every year.

Growing up, even though our births were tied together, I had not tied my life to Jesus. So the holiday was rarely about him, but Christmas was still a fun time of family togetherness. Thankfully, my parents did a great job of making my birthday as special as it could be on a really haphazard day. They always had a special gift set aside from the others. Then, at a certain point during the day we would stop celebrating Christmas and start with the singing, the candles, and the cake.

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Sometime in college, though, I decided to follow Jesus and my birthday took on a whole new meaning. Not only that, but now I work for the church so my birthday will never be a day off. As I watch folks with those cushy summer birthdays celebrate the growing trends of birth weeks or birth months, I’ve come to despise my birthday as a day that will never be about me.

Back to that one question I ask every year…why was I born on Christmas? Why am I birthday buddies with Jesus? Why in the world would God tie a day that is supposed to be about me to a day where everyone in the world has a million other things on their minds? Why, on a day when all I want to do is hang out with my friends at Chuck E. Cheese, is it impossible to hang out with anyone anywhere? So what exactly does this Christmas baby have to celebrate during the chaos of the holidays? Let me tell you.

christmas-baby-7Neither of my parents had particularly charmed lives. Our family history is filled with stories of abuse, family turmoil, and tragic death. Any one of those things can end up defining you for a life time. Our legacies can be marked by the worst moments of our lives, the greatest examples that we indeed live in a fallen world. These moments cause great division and pain, they create the need for reconciliation.

For some reason neither of my parents threw in the towel. My mother worked for decades to make the world better for children who were dealt a similarly bad hand in life. My father lived his life with a hope that if he worked hard enough his family’s lives would be better too. God is in the business of breaking the chains of generational sin and this is the fundamental hope that comes with children.

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Each birth marks the arrival of a brand new reconciler. This new life brings with it the hope and promise of two parents that the next generations will not be subject to the pain and oppression of the last. God appeared to his people many times but often in ways that were terrifying and might seem distant (pillars of fire and smoke). On Christmas, God appeared to his people as a child. Jesus came in the most relatable form to show us that pain, abuse, even death would not define us. My parents have lived their lives with a similar hope, that our story will be defined by something bigger and better than they could ever imagine.

My wife can tell you that I still succumb to the occasional birthday meltdown, but over the years of reflecting on this story of great hope and reconciliation I’ve come to see a bigger picture. My birthday isn’t about me…its actually about the hope of the entire world. My sisters and I are the next chapter in the stories of Cindy and Bob Moore…who were the next chapters in the stories of their parents.

Each new chapter brings new mercies and new grace. From an overwhelmed, shamed, teenaged mother among the filth of a stable to a shivering, frightened, bruised Mrs. Moore, Christmas is about the lengths and the depths God will go to bring peace and reconciliation to creation. He brought both Jesus and I safely into the world under unexpectedly dangerous circumstances. But of course he did, we have a lot of work to do together and that is definitely worth celebrating.

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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.

Haggai: Life in the ruins

Haggai spoke to me in profound ways, in ways that I wish I had access to during my darkest times. I want to give extra space to reflect on the themes of Haggai and give you some questions for your own reflection.

The prophet Haggai is very clear about when he’s writing and what is going on around him. He’s preaching in 520B.C. during the second year of the reign of Darius (1:1) and even gives a precise day. The people began returning from exile in Babylon after Cyrus’s edict is 539B.C. so it’s still early in their resettling of Israel. He is very likely contemporaries with Ezra which is a good book to read parallel to Haggai as Ezra describes the initially slow process for rebuilding the temple. Haggai is concerned with answering the primary question of the Israelite remnant: is God still with us after our time of punishment in exile?

Haggai’s message centers prominently around the temple and Israel’s efforts (or lack thereof) to rebuild it. He points out that times have been slow and their prosperity doesn’t been returning like they hoped. They seem to be living paycheck to paycheck and never getting ahead. Haggai declares that this is a result of not prioritizing the temple, and by extension not prioritizing their relationship with God and seeking how to honor Him in the land. The prophet reminds the people that all they have comes from God, and if they don’t have much it’s because the Lord is trying to get their attention and call them into deeper relationship. If the temple is in ruins, so is their commitment to God.

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We know that the people have returned from Babylon a chastened and changed people because they respond right away rather than ignoring the prophet. This should be noted as deeply rare for the Israelites and a huge step forward in their faithfulness to God. Even if the land and the temple will never fully rebound and has been changed, they have also been changed in important and healthy ways that are bigger than their physical circumstances. The Lord is then quick to answer their fundamental question in 1:13, “I am with you.” The people can rebuild in hope because although they have been punished, they have not been abandoned, and Yahweh is not done with them.  If you feel like you have been in a season of God’s discipline, Haggai will remind you that the Lord desires you to turn to him and be free of destructive patterns, not tear you down.

The format of Haggai is fairly unusual for a prophet as he speaks in prose rather than poetry. The tone of the book is not warning against future judgment but on meaning-making over why things are currently in an unhealthy state. As always, there is a promise of restoration and the temple that is currently in shambles will one day be restored beyond even the height if its past glory. There is a renewed commitment to the kingly line of David in the person of Zerubbabel (2:20-23) which is a strong message that God’s fidelity still lies with Israel and His promises to them will find their fulfillment.

Haggai is a great book to read for people who feel like their lives are in some form of ruin. Israel is seeing how much deterioration has occurred in the land and it’s barely recognizable to them (Hag. 2:3). While there is neglect and self-centeredness happening in their relationship with God, there is also a sense of despondency and not wanting to risk rebuilding only to have it fall again. When we are in a place of prolonged disappointment and feel like we’re surrounded by nothing but rubble, we can also fear the idea of hoping for the future. When our realities look very different from our former hopes and dreams, the motivation to keep going can be at an all time low. We may feel this in life events and situations, we may feel it in our physical bodies as we or those we love struggle with illness and poor health. No matter where you see the ruins, we hear some very good news:

Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the Lord, ‘and work. For I am with you,’ declares the Lord Almighty. ‘This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt. And my Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’

Take 10-15 minutes to read this 2 chapter book, then consider:

  • Haggai’s observations about the people’s lack of prosperity harkens back to how God describes the land in Deut 11:11-12, a land that needs God’s tending in order to flourish. Haggai’s message is always true, that anything we have comes from God. How do we today see our progress blocked when we ignore God’s presence and sovereignty?
  • How does discipline shape us to be better and wiser? How do you see the redemption of the exile through their response here?
  • What does it look like for us to prioritize our relationship with Christ and keep that the center of all we do?
  • What have been some seasons in your life when it felt like everything was in shambles?
  • When your life is in ruins, where are we tempted to stop hoping and working for the future?
  • Where do we also ask God, “are you still there?” How is Haggai’s message of hope also good news for us?

Haggai 1 Jan 27th

Other Minor Prophets study guides (in chronological order):

Nahum: When The Man is keeping you down

Habakkuk: This Country is Going Down the Tubes

Joel: The Bible’s horror poetry

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?

Newsroom 4

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.

Joel: The Bible’s horror poetry

The prophet Joel has a lot of things going for him. He’s got some iconic verses about the Holy Spirit, he purposefully transcends a specific time period, and he writes poetry that feels like a horror story. He’s writing in Jerusalem, likely after the exile because he doesn’t mention a king or specific idolatry, although dating the book is somewhat difficult because he doesn’t give more context clues. This lack of specificity however allows the community of faith to find this book easily applicable to any given time period. It’s a lament over the need for God’s punishment and a warning against further repercussion, but ultimately hopeful with a prophecy that would find its fulfillment in Acts 2.

Pentecost-Mosaic

One of his biggest themes is the “day of the Lord”, a recurring phrase used five times. “Day” refers to any time that God’s presence is made known, both in judgment and deliverance. This could mean fear and punishment as well as hope and restoration. What is most important to Joel is God’s presence, not necessarily what the presence brings. He asks us a searching question; do we believe that even God’s presence in judgment is better than God’s absence?

Literarily the book is mostly poetic with exaggerated imagery to enhance Joel’s warning and urging to repent. He references a current situation of a locust plague and laments over this time of national tragedy. The locusts are likely literal and are also a prophetic forerunner of military invasion that could come like a swarming plague sent to get Israel’s attention.

Take 10-15 minutes to read it through. For additional context and themes check out The Bible Project’s short video.

Discuss:

  • Are we willing to desire God’s presence even in judgment? Why would we think that even that is better than His absence?
  • Look at the example of David in 1 Chron. 21:8-13. What does he know and believe about God to choose God’s hand over the other options?
  • How does God often get our attention today when He calls us to repentance?
  • Look over Acts 2 and the way Peter quotes Joel 2:28-32. How does God take the community of faith from lament and punishment to hope and continuous communion with the Spirit?

Other Minor Prophet study guides (in chronological order):

Nahum: When The Man is keeping you down

Habakkuk: This Country is Going Down the Tubes

Haggai: Life in the Ruins

 

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.

Civil War Tony 8

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.

Civil War Tony 1

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.

Civil War Tony 2

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.

Civil War Tony 7

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.

Civil War Tony 3

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.

Civil War Tony 6

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

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

Why I’m #TeamCap

“He’s my friend.”

“So was I.”

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

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

Civil Ware 1

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

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

Civil Ware 3

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

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

Civil Ware 4

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

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

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

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

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