Who will survive “The Walking Dead”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

walking dead morgan

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

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

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

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

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

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Welcome back to the Internet!

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

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

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

Connection

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

Social Media

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

Disconnection

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

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

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

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

Community

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

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

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

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

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Moses in “Zootopia”

11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” – Exodus 3:11

In the face of the new calling on his life, with God’s voice in his ears telling him exactly what to do, Moses takes full advantage of this personal conversation with the creator of the universe. “Who am I?,” Moses asks. This was probably a question Moses asked every day. We see the effects of a narrative Moses had been given throughout his life. The God of the universe is telling him he has been tapped for an incredible purpose and Moses’s first reaction is self-doubt.

Judy Hopps

You see Moses was a man caught between cultures, with a mishmash of an identity, carrying the weight of past failures. When God tells him he will be the deliverer of the Hebrew people Moses balks citing his lack of identity, lack of knowledge and spirituality, and lack of gifts and skill. Basically, Moses is asking what is the use in trying, Lord? I’m just Moses, a nobody, a murderer, a shepherd, and that’s all I’ll ever be. God’s answer is one that can carry even us through the deepest valleys of self-doubt, but before we get there…let’s go to Zootopia because in Disney Animation’s newest film that very same question is posed. What’s the use in trying?

Zootopia is a story with battling narratives. The narrative printed across the brand of Zootopia, a city where eons of predatory instincts in the animal kingdom have been squashed in the name of peace and prosperity, is that “You can be anything.” In reality, though, written on the faces of the older generation is a different narrative. “You can be anything…as long as it aligns with your zip code, species, gender, and place in the food chain.” No one whose worldview is based in reality would ever truly believe that first narrative. Enter a young Judy Hopps, a rabbit from a rural area that has bought into the brand of Zootopia.

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Despite there never being a bunny cop, in the face of pressure from her parents to accept her fate as a carrot farmer, Judy remains a trier. The question of what’s the use in trying has never crossed her mind. Judy is a beacon of hope in the world of Zootopia because not only is the film her story, a story of trying, but it’s also the story of how the roads of this world are paved with the broken hearts of triers everywhere.

This fact is hidden behind the smiley façade of Judy’s parents and it is emotionally told through the life story of Nick Wilde, a sly con-fox, who fails to understand where Judy gets her optimism. With these characters in place we get to see the narratives of Zootopia played out from beginning to end.

ZOOTOPIA

In Judy’s parents we see the end of the story, a life lived believing reality says there are limits to what you can accomplish based on your class, species, and culture. In Nick, we see a character with a fresh break in his heart. We get to hear his story of trying only to have culture slap a muzzle on his predator snout. He even says at one point he’s stopped trying to be anything other than what other animals see him as. Then there is Judy who is in the midst of having her heart broken. We get to witness the process in action, the world beginning to break her down. It’s through these stories you start to realize Zootopia isn’t about animals at all…it’s about us.

Young Nick

Disney is the crew that brought us the line, “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down in a most delightful way.” The sugar of Zootopia are the stunning graphics, adorable cartoon animals, self-aware jabs at Frozen, and the fun, pop beats of Shakira. The medicine is a hard look at the state of race/gender/class relations in America. These same narratives battling in Zootopia are at war in our reality every day.

The narrative painted across the brand of America is that racism is a non-issue, that we’ve moved past the dark marks on our history. You can be anything you want to be in America. There is a narrative at war with this, though, and we can see the effects in minority communities. Across the board, people of color are less likely to apply to top institutions even when academically qualified, less likely to choose fields with top starting salaries like STEM majors, and less likely to come into higher education prepared for academic differences between high school and college.

We are at most two generations removed from the civil rights movements of the 50’s and 60’s and our current minority communities are still lacking opportunities and environments to establish economic and academic success. This is a situation that is crying out for a different narrative. There is a moment in Zootopia where Judy breaks through the narrative Nick has built in his life. She tells him that he can be more, that his story isn’t over yet. This changes Nick’s life.

Nick and Judy

Recently, I attended the Jubilee Conference in Pittsburgh, and there I got to hear Dr. Brian Bantum, author of “Redeeming Mulatto: A Theology of Race and Christian Hybridity,” speak on diversity in higher education. His story is unique. Someone late into his academic career broke through the narrative of his life and told him that he had the knowledge and the gifts to become a PhD. And he did.

Dr. Bantum went on to say that had he not had professors of color, compassionate mentors, and others in his life guiding him, achieving the academic success that he has would have had to be a “pure act of imagination.” Without a different narrative he might have answered those encouraging him with doubts. He may have even asked them, “What’s the use in trying?” or even “Who am I to be a PhD?”

That leads us back to Moses and the answer he received to his doubts. Over and over again, in different ways, with different words God repeats to Moses, “I am God. You are mine. I will be with you.” Maybe you will never be whatever you want to be. My window of being the first astronaut to play electric guitar on Mars is closing more and more every second. There are some limitations to what we can accomplish but at the very least God tells us that we are all created in His image. We have the power to achieve amazing things in that image. We can flourish. In America, we really can’t be anything that we want to be, but no matter what your race, culture, or gender is you should have the opportunity to at least try.

Star Wars: A Rey of Hope

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

Rey scavenging

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

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

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

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

Furiosa

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

Rey alone

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

Rey inside star destroyer

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

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

Luke Training

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

Rey crying

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

Are you going to eat that?

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

The Last Supper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 36:7-9

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

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

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

OCBP Feast

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

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

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

Moon Festival

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

All the Feels – The Psalms

I’m a person of strong emotions. Our culture largely values rationalism and logic, and it’s easy for me to think that I need to ignore or overcome my emotions. The Psalms present a different narrative. This book of the Bible is a compilation of prayers, and was in many ways the prayer book for the Jewish people. In it is expressed every human emotion and type of experience. The psalms give us permission to be human and to experience deep emotions, and they offer a guide for how to bring these emotions to God.

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Psalms of Praise – Believe the hype

When we think about praising God, we often presume an element of happiness and joy. We praise God in response to something good that happened or that we observe in the world. This is not a bad thing and we should certainly offer songs of praise and gratitude when we are reminded of God’s goodness and power to work in our lives. At the same time, it is also deeply necessary to praise God when we are in the midst of darkness and struggle. When we are most overwhelmed by fear and despair, we need to remind ourselves and others of what is true: The earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord (Ps. 33:5). The Psalms employ many metaphors and beautiful language to describe God’s traits and the way He interacts with the world. But keep in mind that the psalmist is not merely speaking in hyperbole to puff God up. When we extol the goodness of the Lord, we state the facts about the truth of the universe.

From heaven the Lord looks down
and sees all mankind;
 from his dwelling place he watches
all who live on earth – Psalm 33:13-14

This means that to praise God while in the throes of trouble does not mean putting on a happy face to pretend everything is great. It is to silence lies of hopelessness through telling the truth about the God we serve. To praise God is to offer gratitude and joy, and also to reorder our focus and understanding of how the world works.

Cursing

Psalms of Cursing – You mad, bro?

The imprecatory psalms can be very difficult to process and often make us uncomfortable with the harshness of their language. Should we really be praying for our enemy’s children to wander as homeless orphans (Ps. 109)? Aren’t we supposed to forgive and turn the other cheek? First of all, the psalms of cursing show us that we should be upset when evil seems to have the upper hand and that we are allowed to desire the punishment of unrighteousness and injustice. We are required to be honest about what is wrong in our world and to name those things before God. Secondly, we are assured that God hears the cries of His children. These psalms show us that even if no one knows the ways that we have been injured by others, God knows and we expect Him to care. Imagine how comforting these psalms could be to a young girl kidnapped by Boko Haram, or to brothers and sisters constantly threatened by ISIS, or to a child who is being abused and is afraid to tell anyone. God sees every wound inflicted within His creation, and even if human advocates don’t arise, we know that God will bring justice in the end.

Also, take time to turn the psalm on yourself. In our thoughtlessness and selfishness we have all acted as an enemy towards someone else. It could be through obvious offenses that cause us guilt and regret, or cursing at a driver that aggravated you on the highway. On a regular basis we malign and injure other image-bearers. We have also all been enemies of God.

Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation – Colossians 1:21-22

Because we all fit the category of “enemy”, Christ turned the cursing psalms on Himself to bear the curse that we deserve. He stood condemned in our place and drank the Cup of Wrath that we couldn’t have survived. Next time you feel uncomfortable with one of these psalms, think of Jesus enduring that punishment so that you might be spared. And give thanks.

Bottles of Tears

Psalms of lament – You can cry if you want to

A seemingly obvious but important truth of the psalms of lament is that they assume the followers of God will suffer. Sorrow is not inherently a sign of failure or punishment, but an expected part of life. They again show us that when we cry out to God in our distress, we can expect Him to hear and to care.

You have kept count of my tossings;
put my tears in your bottle.
Are they not in your book? – Psalm 56:8

Our tears are precious to God. He doesn’t just tell us to buck up and get over it, but keeps close record of our weeping. These psalms also show us that something happens when we are honest about our sorrow before God. Depression and anxiety can be very isolating and cause us to withdraw. But God invites us to come forward and bring our thoughts and feelings into the light of His presence. The psalms never describe a tidy resolution to the psalmist’s distress (“I told God and then I got everything I ever wanted”), but they always shift in tone by the end. Not because the situation has changed, but because our hearts are changed when we know we have been heard. It may take days, months, years for us to know that we have been changed. It took me two years of crying out to God during a season of grief and darkness before my heart was healed. But it was this continual process of honesty and rawness in prayer that moved me down the road of healing. Silence, isolation, or a mask of happiness will not bring renewal to a hurting heart. Full and authentic expression of sorrow in the presence of Christ is what will bring the balm of healing and restoration.

If you would like to study the psalms in more depth, please feel free to utilize my three-part Bible study series. My thoughts in this post and in our study guides have been significantly influenced by Ellen Davis’s book Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, a work which I highly recommend.

Getting Involved with God

The Muddy, Bloody Truth about Grace

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

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

The Grandview party at IUPattys 2015.

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

An IUPattys riot from 2014

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

My broken fence.

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

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

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

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

Volunteers in Baltimore cleaning up on the morning after.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A familiar can in our yard.

Tithing: Forgive us our debts

I have bad luck with cars.  A Frenchman wrecked my Pontiac Sunfire  in 2008 (small price to pay for a hilarious story that involves cuss words in foreign accents), I’ve slid off the road in snow storms, hit multiple animals, and then this winter my husband and I hit a deer.  My third Honda that had a mere 164,000 miles on it was officially totaled, and now I had to figure out how to replace it.

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Two weeks prior to my fateful encounter with PA wildlife, my dear friend Geraud also hit a deer and totaled his car.  Both of us had insurance, but Geraud had worked for a long time to get his car and had just purchased it 6 months earlier.  This meant that when the insurance calculated his claim, the value of the car was worth less than his outstanding loan and he had several thousand dollars left to pay off.  He would be making car payments for another year on a car that no longer existed, and with no hope of getting a replacement car until the debt was paid.  Geraud has a very caring family but they were not in a place to be able to help him financially.  I owned my car but it was old with high mileage, so my insurance claim was only about 1/3 of what I would need to find a suitable replacement.  So we were both in a predicament.

My grandfather passed away over the summer, a man who had a varied and complex relationship with the rest of my family, and with whom I had no relationship.  At exactly the same time as these two car accidents, I was notified that I would be receiving a modest inheritance from him.  When I heard this news I felt a wide range of emotions.  I primarily felt strange and in some ways guilty for being given this money by a man that I didn’t know.  I felt like I now owed him something and was in his debt, an impossible debt to repay to the deceased.  I was at a loss as to how to process this situation.

At that point, the Lord revealed something to me about money and all of our resources.

14 “But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able thus to offer willingly? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you.

– 1 Chronicles 29:14

As C. S. Lewis puts it, any gift that we offer to God is like a child asking his father for a sixpence to buy him a present.  All that we have is not our own possession, but is our allowance from our Heavenly Father with which to cultivate the creation.  In light of this truth, the inheritance wasn’t my grandfather’s money but was an inheritance from the Lord.

As I was thinking about the situation of the two cars, I had a deep sense that the inheritance money was provided at this time to meet the needs of both of God’s children.  My husband and I decided to tithe from the unexpected provision that we were receiving to offer a shared inheritance with Geraud.  The 10% that we were sharing was not enough to get Geraud a new car, but it was enough for some starter funds to begin a crowd-sourcing drive.  We opened a Rally campaign expecting that it would take several weeks to raise the full amount that was necessary to pay off Geraud’s loan and to give him a down payment for a new vehicle.

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The Rally.org campaign for Geraud lasted less than a week!

Because of the kind of person that Geraud is and the kind of Christian network that he has, we raised $6000 in five days.  His earthly family may not have had that kind of money, but his spiritual family does.  We called it his “Jubilee car” as a reminder that we serve a God who specializes in cancelling debts. God’s resources offered two of His children a rich inheritance in their time of need.  Not an inheritance that comes from human hands with any strings attached, but an abundance from our Father who owns the cattle on a thousand hills.  Such generosity bids us to know the blessing of freely offering back to the Eternal Giver.

Created #LikeAGirl

Eve

I once asked a male friend, “Do you think you’re more in the image of God than me because you’re a male?”  He seemed unsure of himself and uneasy, but his kneejerk reaction was, “Yes. God is male and so am I.”  I spent several years wrestling with whether or not that was true, and trying desperately to see myself reflected in the Trinity and in the Church.  Did God want me to be a vibrant part of His body?  Are women meant to be equal co-laborers with men or are we really just the runners-up behind the MVP?

In an attempt to help a male loved one understand what I was struggling with, I asked him to consider a role reversal.  Imagine that God has always described herself as “God the Mother”, and Eve was created first and then Adam as her helper.  Imagine that it was Adam who ate the fruit and tempted Eve to join him in his sin.  Then God chose the matriarchs and made a covenant with Sarah to make her descendents more numerous than the stars.  The Old Testament is predominantly about women with occasional references to their husbands.  There is a period of great prosperity under the monarchy of the queens, and God speaks through the prophetesses.  The Messiah comes in the form of a woman and she has 12 female disciples.  The apostle Pauline writes the majority of the New Testament and instructs that men are to be silent in church and she permits no man to have authority over a woman, but they will be saved through procreation.  How do you as a man feel in that world?  Do you feel like you are an important and desired member of that community?

After wondering for a long time whether God really did want women to be subservient and silent, a friend said something that changed everything.  “I think Satan hates the Gospel first, and he hates women second.”  What if it isn’t God that hates me, but Satan?

Martin_PL_Satan_spying

According to the ESV study Bible, contemporary Ancient Near Eastern creation myths only tell of the creation of man, not woman.  The Bible is the only sacred manuscript that spends time telling the origin story of woman.  In Satan’s retelling of how the world came to be, he attempts to erase Eve from the narrative. God on the other hand, makes sure His daughters know where they came from and that He created them on purpose.

When we think about Satan deciding to tempt Eve first, historically Eve has been blamed and maligned for being weak and foolish.  He went after her because she was easily swayed and an easy target.  First of all, it’s important to note that the text makes it clear that Adam and Eve were together at the time (Gen. 3:6), both were part of the conversation and shared equal responsibility for the decision that they made.  Then if we think about a basic strategy for influencing a group, one would not start by attacking the weakest link.  If one takes out the weak link, the strong one that is left would be unaffected.  (“So what? I didn’t care what that person thought anyway.”)  I think that instead, Satan targeted Eve because he knew that she had influence with Adam.  He rightly knew that if he could get her, he could get both of them.  Eve wasn’t weak, she was important.

wisdom2-e1281804850921 Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly

I think we can find this idea reinforced in the book of Proverbs.  Solomon talks about two kinds of women, Lady Wisdom (Prov. 1:20-33) and Lady Folly (Prov. 9:13-18).  They are described metaphorically as well as literally.  They each show that women have crucial influence with men and in the world.  The kind of woman that a man aligns himself with will strongly impact the kind of life he lives.  Unfortunately we know that Eve encompassed both sides of these women.  She began as Lady Wisdom, and exerted her influence towards a path of folly.  I think the message we see is not that women are silly and empty-headed.  The message is that women need to take care to pursue wisdom from the Lord because our actions have power in God’s world.

There are several points I can make on this topic.  For now I’ll conclude with the idea that Satan is threatened by Eve in a unique way and he thrives whenever she is silent and powerless.  God endowed Eve with half of his image when He made her able to create life.  God is the creator of all things, and women reflect God’s loving creativity in our ability to bring new life into the world.  Satan is extremely uncreative and can’t generate anything original; he can only twist something that God already made.  All of his lies are distortions of the truth and are based on something that already exists.  One of several examples of this can be seen when Satan is tempting Jesus in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-14).  The best he can do is to misapply God’s words from scripture, he has no original thoughts.  Eve therefore can do the one thing that Satan cannot: bring something into the world that has never been before.  And that drives Satan nuts.

In cultures where women thrive and have a meaningful role in society, those communities enjoy innovation and prosperity.  In cultures where women are most oppressed and voiceless, the whole community is impaired and progress is minimal.  I do not wish to say that women are better than men or inherently less sinful than men.  I think we share equal depravity along with an equal measure of God’s image.  My hope is to put this forth as a corrective to centuries of blame and shame placed on women to justify mistreatment as their “punishment” for causing the Fall.  I hope that we will seize opportunities to see women reflected in God’s Word and in the Church, and together will mirror our wonderful Creator for the flourishing of all things.

A VIP Pass to Epiphany

Today marks the beginning of Epiphany, the liturgical season that focuses on the meaning of the incarnation.  “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” Jesus drew near to appear in our midst.  This is a time to celebrate that Christ has come, our waiting was not in vain.

The Wise Men in Matthew’s Gospel give us a wonderful illustration of the magnitude of Jesus’ advent on Earth (Matt. 1-2).  One of the most compelling explorations of who these unknown men were can be found in Lew Wallace’s 19th century epic, Ben Hur.  The first 40 pages of the novel dream about who the 3 men might have been and how God called each of them to pursue a mysterious star.  Most scholars now believe that the men likely came from Babylon, while Wallace postulates that one was Greek, one Indian, and one Egyptian.  We can be nearly certain that this is inaccurate, but the heart of his character choices reflects a true knowledge of for whom the Savior came: everyone.

Ben hur

Wallace paints a picture of the men converging part way through their journeys, each having received a calling and an assurance from the Spirit that they would be led to other seekers of Truth and would all be led to the Redeemer. When their paths come together, they pause to share a meal:

“Speaking together they said this simple grace: ‘Father of all – God – what we have here is of Thee; take our thanks and bless us, that we may continue to do Thy will.’ With the last word they raised their eyes, and looked at each other in wonder. Each had spoken in a language never before heard by the others; yet each understood perfectly what was said. Their souls thrilled with divine emotion, for by the miracle they recognized the Divine Presence.”

One by one they share their stories of how God spoke to them and how the star first appeared. One by one they followed it to this meeting point and their joy and awe increased with each story from their brethren.  As night fell, they gathered their supplies to continue their nocturnal quest together.

“By and by the moon came up. And as the three tall white figures sped, with soundless tread, through the opalescent light, they appeared like specters flying from hateful shadows. Suddenly, in the air before them, not farther up than a low hill-top flared a lambent flame; as they looked at it, the apparition contracted into a focus of dazzling luster. Their hearts beat fast; their souls thrilled; and they shouted as with one voice, “The Star! The Star! God is with us!”

What a lovely picture of God bringing people together from far-flung countries and cultures, unifying them with the Spirit, and using them to send the Good News back with them so all may know that the Messiah has come.  While the historical nationality of the Wise Men was likely not what Wallace imagined, we see Paul taking the Gospel to the Gentiles throughout the Roman empire, and an Ethiopian eunuch coming to faith in Christ (Acts 8) and taking the Good News back to northern Africa. Some 300 years later, one of the greatest Christian theologians of all time would be called forth from Africa, Augustine of Hippo.  Jesus was not a local god or a local blessing, but a game-changer for the whole world.  The Wise Men and the ministry of the early Church show us that while Christianity may claim an exclusive Truth, it does not have an exclusive guest list.  Christ came for all people and the entire world is invited to consider what His drawing near means for them.

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If you would like to study the Matthew account in more depth, feel free to draw from this study guide:

Advent: Dream weaver

For tonight’s passage we’re going to keep track of how many times God communicates through people’s dreams, and how many prophesies are fulfilled through the birth of Jesus. Who wants to keep track of the dreams? Of the prophesies?

Matt. 1:18-25

  • What was Joseph planning to do when he found out his fiancée was pregnant? Why was divorcing her quietly actually a very merciful thing to do at the time?
  • What does the angel tell him to do in the dream? What does Joseph do?
  • Someone look up the verse quoted in 23, Isa. 7:14
  • What stuck out to you about this account, or what’s something that you hadn’t noticed before?

Matt 2:1-12

  • Who are these men that come to see Herod? What are they looking for?
  • What is Herod’s reaction?
  • Someone look up Micah 5:2
  • What is his response back to the wise men?
  • What do the wise men do?
  • What dream do they have? How was God protecting Jesus through this?
  • What kind of person notices a new star in the sky and follows it to a distant country? What would it have been like to go on such a journey?
  • What does this incident of God drawing foreigners to Jesus’ birth tell us about God’s love for every nation?

Matt. 2:13-15

  • What is the next dream that happens in this passage? Why do they flee to Egypt?
  • Someone look up Hos. 11:1
  • What would that have been like for them?
  • Where else in the Bible have we seen Israelites going to Egypt for refuge? In what ways is Jesus identifying with His people through this experience?

Matt 2:16-23

  • What does Herod do?
  • Someone look up Jer. 31:15
  • Where else in the Bible have we seen a jealous ruler order infant boys to be killed? How is this another way that Jesus on an individual level follows Israel’s national history?
  • What other dreams happen? Where do Jesus and His family finally settle?

———-

  • What do you think of all these dreams and all of these OT prophesies?
  • As we heard in Ivan’s intro tonight, Advent is a time when we think about areas of our lives where we are waiting for God to show up. What comes to mind for you when you think about where you wish God would do something in your life or the world?
  • In these passages we saw God act with immense power to bring His plan of salvation into the world through Jesus. How does seeing God’s power in what we just read give you hope for His ability to work in your situations that may feel difficult or hopeless?