What Will Become of the Church?

There was a time in Ancient Israel when the Israelites were worshipping the god Molek. He was one of many pagan gods they were worshipping, but he was distinct in his sacrificial requirements. Molek demanded child sacrifice. The idols of Molek were hollow iron statues with outstretched arms. A fire would be built within the base of the idol, making the entire statue red hot. Then children would be placed in the fiery arms of Molek, sacrificed to grant the desires and prosperity of their parents.

It was this abhorrent practice that contributed greatly to God’s punishment of Israel in the form of the Babylonian Exile.

33 They turned their backs to me and not their faces; though I taught them again and again, they would not listen or respond to discipline. 34 They set up their vile images in the house that bears my Name and defiled it. 35 They built high places for Baal in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to sacrifice their sons and daughters to Molek, though I never commanded—nor did it enter my mind—that they should do such a detestable thing and so make Judah sin. – Jeremiah 32:33-35 (NIV)

After centuries of unheeded warnings from Deuteronomy to the prophets, God acted to put a stop to Israel’s abuses and sinfulness. The global superpower of Babylon swept in and laid siege to Jerusalem. An initial wave of Hebrew captives was taken to Babylon, as chronicled in the books of Daniel and Ezekiel. Daniel and his friends are just teenagers, captives in a foreign land, paying the price of centuries of selfishness and disobedience from their ancestors. They were separated from their faith community and their central expression of worship in the Temple in Jerusalem. Their faith was in shambles, their society was in ruins, their reputation on the global stage was in tatters.

And yet at the very same time that the Israelites continued to sacrifice their children in the arms of Molech, a last-ditch effort to save themselves, God was rescuing teenagers from the fires of Babylon. The faithful young people who refused to worship the king of Babylon, who incurred the punishment of the fiery furnace, those young people saw the faithfulness of the Lord. God has always protected the future of His people, even when their elders do not.

I cannot speak for every young Christian today, but I know I have felt very alone in the last four years. The generations that raised me to value character and integrity, to pursue absolute truth rather than moral relativism, to do what is right even when it is difficult and unpopular, so many in those generations have fallen into idolatry. The idolatry of Christian nationalism, of political power and control, of party affiliation over ideology, of selective moralism, of adherence to what one wants to believe rather than what is true. And the future of the Church has been the attempted sacrifice. Young Christians have felt abandoned on the front lines of culture, trying to still proclaim the truth and beauty of the Gospel even as our elders dismantle so much of our collective witness. There have been many times when I have felt despair for the Church since 2016, and I felt it deeper than ever on January 6th, 2021. Who will believe our claim to absolute truth now? Who will view us as compassionate and intelligent people that seek the common good? Who would want to be part of our faith communities when what we are projecting is foolishness, ignorance, violence and blame?

Then I remembered the teenagers in Babylon. All must have seemed lost to them too. And yet God shielded them from death. God gave them unexpected favor with those in power. God visited them with His presence. God honored their risky faithfulness when it seemed like nothing mattered anymore. God fulfilled His promise to give them a future and a hope.

If you are a young Christian who relates to what those young exiles were experiencing, you too have a future and a hope. Jesus has never and will never allow the Church to die. A lot of things are in tatters, maybe including our faith. We are dealing with a fallout that has been many years in the making, much of which was not our direct doing. But we must not give up, for the hope of the Church lies in our generations. God has always called His people back from exile, back from the precipice, back to a place of restoration.

Rest in this truth, that God will be our Defender and make a way forward for us. Because the story of the exiles did not end in Babylon. It culminated in a star rising in the West. Bible scholars believe that the Wise Men who followed the star to Jesus were Babylonians. How and why would they have responded to a star that rose over Israel? Perhaps because God gave a legacy to the exiles. Perhaps because one generation’s faithfulness in the midst of conflict and alienation planted seeds of curiosity, of Biblical scholarship, of wonder. Seeds that lay dormant for several more generations until the time was right to spring forth. If those teenagers had never been carried to Babylon, the Gospel might not have been carried there 400 years later. The Lord can use one generation to transform the Kingdom of God. One generation with a future and a hope.

What will our generation’s legacy be? That will be up to Jesus’ guidance and providence, but there is much reason for hope. So I encourage every young Christian to take your discipleship and growth very seriously. Invest your time and energy into learning the Bible and being deeply rooted in God’s Word. Find faithful mentors who are displaying the Fruits of the Spirit to support you and encourage you. Build up your peers and those younger than you to keep persevering, keep sharing the Gospel, keep seeking the common good, keep connecting with a church. It may be rocky for a while. There may be more fiery furnaces coming our way. There may still be loneliness and conflict, relationships beyond repair. But we know that we are protected by our Eternal God, and we can move in hope that perhaps ours will be a Kingdom-changing legacy. Crazier things have happened before.

Wonder Woman 1984: Train wreck or Triumph?

“Life is good…but it could be better!”

We often hear directors say that the location of their film is a character in the story, for WW84 that can be said of the backdrop of the 1980s. At first, we could be tempted to think that setting the sequel in the 80s is just a fun excuse for great outfits and nostalgia for the dying shopping mall. But director Patty Jenkins deserves more credit than that. The 1980s was a time of booming prosperity, big hair, big guitar solos, big promises. Promises from politicians, scheming businessmen, televangelists, and fitness instructors that our dreams could come true if we just followed them. If we gave them our vote, our money, more money…all our desires could be fulfilled. And then what happened? The cynicism and moodiness of the 90s. A social bursting bubble when we realized not all that glitters is gold. WW84 sets out to explore the promises of the things we believed, and the cost of their deception.

The film opens with young Diana (a delightful Lilly Aspell reprising her role) learning an important lesson back home in Themyscira. That cutting corners and taking shortcuts is appealing in the moment, but you’re only deceiving yourself and others with that approach. There is no honor or achievement without the truth. This shapes a huge part of Diana’s character and future trajectory. Wonder Woman is very much defined by a love for honor and truth, most obviously expressed by her wielding the Lasso of Truth.

As we catch up with Diana in 1984 America, her origin continues to shape her career. She frequently saves the day as Wonder Woman, but moves in public as Diana Prince, senior anthropologist specializing in Mediterranean civilizations at the Smithsonian. Not only is she using her superpowers to serve others, she is also using her extensive knowledge of ancient Greek mythology and culture to serve academia. This is who Diana fundamentally is, a woman who utilizes her talents and abilities to pursue truth in the world.

Spoiler Warning

This is where things start to get dicey. Diana and her colleague Minerva (played wonderfully by Kristen Wiig) come across a strange artifact. From the beginning, the artifact is giving us clues about its nature. It is a stone that appears to be valuable but is actually cheap and common, frequently used for counterfeits. It is mounted on a gold ring inscribed with Latin, indicating that it is a “Dreamstone” and that those who hold it will be granted a wish. But the glittering Dreamstone holds a dark secret. Eventually Diana realizes that it was created by the Greek god Dolos, a god of deception and treachery. The promise of the granted wish is actually a trick. The bearer will indeed receive what they desire, but it will cost them that which is most precious. In the attempt to take shortcuts to attain our desires, we lose much more than we receive. Diana unknowingly wishes for the love of her life, Steve Trevor, to return to her. He does, but it begins to impact Diana’s powers. And Steve isn’t truly restored to her, it is only his soul that is inhabiting the body of another man. A counterfeit for the real thing. It is a deceit that posits itself as a loving reunion but is costing Diana her ability to help others and costing the anonymous man the life he was leading.

The stone falls into the hands of Maxwell Lord, a pondsy-scheme-would-be oil baron determined to use the stone to give himself the status and power and acceptance that he has always craved. The movie shines with Pedro Pascal in this role, he creates a character that is layered with arrogance, desperation, insecurity and sadness. He wishes to become the stone itself, transforming him into a granter of wishes and stealer of worth. As he tricks more and more people to make selfish and thoughtless wishes, the world around them descends into chaos. People make wishes based on self-interest and what they believe will make them happy and secure but the ripple effects damage everyone else. The stone takes far more than it gives, making those in its power believe they have it all.

This theme is an insightful exploration of the 1980s, the deceptions that we believed and what it cost us. It is also a powerful exploration of spiritual idolatry. As Christians, we believe that to worship anything other than God is to worship idols. To place our trust in something that promises us security and fulfillment. Wealth, achievement, relationships, acceptance, substances, political power. Things that glitter and make us feel on top of the world, but which erode us from the inside out.

15 The idols of the nations are silver and gold,

    made by human hands.

16 They have mouths, but cannot speak,

    eyes, but cannot see.

17 They have ears, but cannot hear,

    nor is there breath in their mouths.

18 Those who make them will be like them,

    and so will all who trust in them. – Psalm 135:15-18 (NIV)

As the psalmist says, we become like that which we trust. If we place our trust in things that are lifeless and empty, that is what we will become. But the Deceiver never stops with us. The real cost of idolatry is on the people around us. Those who love us, those who follow our influence, those under our care are the ones who suffer most. As Andy Crouch says in his excellent book Playing God, “idols ultimately claim our children.” It is the vulnerable in our lives and in our society that pay the highest price.

Maxwell Lord almost sacrificed his child in the pursuit of his own desires. It is only when Diana renounces her wish and walks away from the false shadow of Steve that she can see the truth about her situation and invite others into seeing the truth behind the glitter. The truth is hard, and costly, and humbling, but never so costly as living as a prisoner to lies.

This was true in the 1980s and continues to be more resonant then ever in 2020. Leveraging lies in order to attain and retain power have been rampant. Spinning false and dangerous narratives about the pandemic and about the outcome of the election have been driven by selfish desires for power. It is the vulnerable in society who have paid for this deceit. The next generation of young Christians are the ones who will be left to pick up the pieces of a Church in ruins. The children are the ones being most damaged. The truth is rarely comfortable, it is certainly rarely easy, but in the truth lies freedom. Freedom cannot be found in power plays, in shortcuts, in counterfeits of how we wish things were. It is only when we face and accept the truth for what it is and put others before ourselves that we can find genuine flourishing.

REVIEW: “Reading While Black: African American Biblical Exegesis as an Exercise in Hope”

“Black people are not dark-skinned White people.”

This was a mantra used over and over again by Tom Burrell, the first Black man to work in advertising in Chicago. He began his career in 1961 when all advertising was targeted at White consumers. As the field began to realize the potential market of appealing to Black consumers, initially the strategy was to make the exact same ads but with Black models/actors. The assumption was that the things that speak to and motivate White people are universal. But Burrell knew that Black culture was a unique expression, the ads that captured White consumers would not connect with Black consumers in the same way. He revolutionized his industry by tapping into his own experience and perspective and translating that into marketing products in a way that reflected his culture and his context.

The belief that the White experience is universal is not limited to advertising. This attitude has pervaded American society, and the Church has not been immune. In my own experience at least, the Bible is typically interpreted through the lens of White culture, nearly always by White men. These interpretations and emphases are perceived to simply be “normal” and universally applicable. Rather than acknowledging that we all bring the lens of our historical/cultural moment to scripture and that is a normal aspect of the human experience, we have assumed that what stands out to us and resonates with us is the only way to understand the Bible. This at best limits the impact of God’s Word to speak, and at worst leads to misinterpretations that have contributed to gross injustice throughout history. It has the potential to foster idolatry. To put ourselves at the center of the story and to believe that the world revolves around us is an idol that has tempted humanity from the beginning. This has played out all too often in our reading and application of scripture, to the exclusion of our brothers and sisters in our communities and around the world.

This is what makes Rev. Dr. Esau McCaulley’s book, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope, particularly timely. Dr. McCaulley is an ordained Anglican priest, an Assistant Professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, and an Opinion writer for The New York Times. He is well-qualified to write a book about Biblical exegesis but Reading While Black is much more than a scholarly endeavor. The book is motivated by a deep desire to let the Bible speak, and a deep belief that all of God’s children may see themselves reflected in God’s story.

Reading While Black begins with a portion of Dr. McCaulley’s own story. He grew up in a Black conservative tradition, and then was educated in institutions that pulled him in different directions. Like many Black Christians and theologians, he sensed a disconnect between his lived experience and the ways the Bible was presented. It often felt like he either needed to view the Bible as a story about only the salvation of souls, or reject it as a tool of destruction that could have no bearing on the pursuit of modern justice. He sensed that there must be more than these two stark choices. It is this hope and belief that drives the rest of the book.

Each chapter seeks to address the struggles and unique experiences of the Black community by honoring the Biblical text in its fullness. The chapters range from topics such as the Bible and policing, the Bible and politics, the Bible and slavery, Black identity, and Black rage. The chapters dive deep into scripture and historical context, not doing hermeneutical backflips to arrive at a desired interpretation, but genuinely seeking God’s voice. Dr. McCaulley effectively shows that where the Bible has failed to come alive for marginalized communities, it has been a failure of emphasis and not a failure of presence. The Bible is more than able to speak on its own in powerful and heartening ways when we allow it to do so. Reading While Black is a profound illustration of the truth that the Bible is indeed alive and active, able to transcend culture and time to connect with and guide all of God’s people.

For BIPOC readers, I believe you will find tremendous affirmation and love in these pages. Where you have struggled to believe that God’s love is equally extended to you, where you have read passages about slavery and been filled with anger and confusion, where you have wondered if Christianity really is a White man’s religion, this book may be a healing balm. It is not filled with easy platitudes or interpretive avoidance; it is filled with hard-won truth that will speak to your soul. I hope it will strengthen your faith and renew your heart in ways you may not have thought possible.

For White readers, parts of this book will feel strange and confusing. It will reveal to you the ways that we have been unknowingly conditioned to view ourselves as the heroes of the story. The ways where our teaching has assumed that Black and Brown people are just White people in different skin. Pay attention to what makes you feel uncomfortable or what makes you want to push back and question. There were junctures where I felt defensive or wanted to doubt the conclusions in the book. After self-reflection, I believe this was because I was not used to being a guest in the reading of scripture. So I hope you will come with an attitude of generosity and humility, ready to rejoice with your brothers and sisters in the way that the Gospel of Christ can resonate in ways you were not imagining.

When we only want to read the Bible through one lens, we make God small. This does not mean that the Bible should mean whatever any given reader wants it to mean. Dr. McCaulley is not urging us all to just live our truth. But nor does it mean that the Bible has only a monocultural application or that our culture has no bearing on how the Good News can resonate. Rather, we affirm the goodness and glory of God when we read the scripture as a global community. We serve a Risen Lord who is able to embody timeless and universal truth that can also come alive in specific ways. Seeing the ways that the Bible applies to each of our lives enables us to better understand a vast Savior. Reading this book for me was a beautiful experience which prompted me to praise God more joyfully because He is the God Who Sees, Emmanuel who joins with all of His children more intimately than I could ever realize on my own. Please read this book. See yourself in God’s story. See your neighbor in God’s story. Be reminded that we serve a Sovereign Lord who reigns over all things, and in Whom all things hold together.

Reading While Black is available Sept 1, consider ordering from this terrific independent bookstore Hearts and Minds Bookstore

Graduation Advice from an Elder Millennial

I graduated college in 2005. That means by the time I was a senior I had already experienced the Columbine school shooting as a high schooler, 9/11 as a freshman in college, and one of my brothers was killed right before my 22nd birthday while serving in Iraq. I limped out of college into my first job, after three years of which I felt called into grad school and campus ministry. So I started a new job working for the CCO, which meant fundraising my salary, in the summer of 2008. That’s right, I entered a career that depended on raising financial support and then the market immediately crashed.  Not the rosy future I had envisioned for myself.

We always ask graduating seniors “do you know what you’re doing next?” We assume that they should know the answer and we rarely warn them that one’s early-mid 20s are often extremely tumultuous and unpredictable. That is only heightened for those who are graduating this year in the midst of a global pandemic and likely recession. As someone who can relate, here is what helped me survive and grow in challenging times.

Say yes to random opportunities

I had an entry-level job in Student Affairs after I graduated. It did not pay a lot, it was not glamorous, and I could have done the minimum requirements for it. But whenever additional opportunities came along, I took them. I volunteered as a faculty/staff advisor for the women’s club rugby team. I attended our annual professional conference and the second year presented a workshop on supporting students in trauma. I collaborated with other offices across campus to offer campus-wide events. When my church gave me opportunities to lead and serve, I jumped in. When a friend and coworker invited me to the CCO’s annual Jubilee Conference, I said yes. All of these experiences helped me grow personally and professionally, made me more competitive for grad schools, and eventually led to my next step. Whatever job you get, even if it does not seem impressive, make the most out of it. And if you cannot find a job, look for involvements in your community. The need for service and support is significant right now. Invest in your area and you never know what networks and connections you will make in the process.

Invest in a church family

I was an emotional wreck after college. I was processing the trauma of losing my brother, I was trying to adjust to a new town and new job, I was lonely and depressed. I bounced around to different churches for about a year, and then landed at a small Anglican church plant nearby. That church became my home for the next 7 years. They invited me to join the leadership team after a year. I did not know how to help lead a church plant but I was committed so I said yes. I had the chance to be a lay delegate multiple times at our annual church network conference. It meant sitting through a long day of Robert’s Rules and not understanding half of what was going on, but it shaped me to see myself as an active agent in my local congregation and in our global denomination. Beyond interesting leadership experiences, the church gave me a family. We were in a small college town which means I had very few peers to hang out with, but I had older couples that took an interest in me, and young families that invited me over. I did not have many other young professional friends but I was far from alone. Those people loved me and supported me and cheered me on during an otherwise untethered season in my life. It can be hard to find a church. It takes time to build relationships and to open up. But it is the best investment you will make.

Cultivate your mental/emotional health

I think a lot of us feel like a train wreck after college. Whether you go to college or not, our 20’s are a time when we are working through family dynamics and past hurt. We are continuing to discern who we are and what we are supposed to do next. It is often a lonely time with a lot of transition in friendships and community. And it is a time to lay a healthy foundation that we can build on for the rest of our lives. Investing in our mental/emotional health during this season is an investment in a stable future. It will be stressful at first. To face past trauma, to confront unhealthy patterns, to address areas of sin/idolatry in our hearts is never easy or quick. But ignoring those struggles does not mean they go away; it only means their presence in our lives is prolonged. Now is the time to grit your teeth and go to counseling. Find a mentor who can encourage and guide you. Meet regularly with a pastor or trusted spiritual guide. That may have to be online for the foreseeable future, but do not let that stop you. It will get so much better and getting to a place of greater inner stability is invaluable.

Ask for and accept help

I had no idea what I was doing in my 20’s, and that is ok. I think actually most people have no idea what they are doing most of the time. I had SO many people that gave me needed advice, who answered my ignorant questions, who shared their life experience, who were patient with me. There is no shame in needing help and needing to ask questions. Some of my most frequent advice for anyone starting a new job is to ask lots of questions. It is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of proactivity. Do not let embarrassment of pride get in the way of allowing others to walk with you and give you any support that you need.

Be patient with yourself and the process

When we graduate we think everyone is expecting us to have it all together and find our one true path that we will pursue forever. Especially in our age of technology where we see our peers with viral YouTube channels, or creating apps, or being social media influencers, we think we have to be an immediate success when we are young. But Maya Angelou was 41 when she wrote her first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Betty Friedan was 42 when she wrote The Feminine Mystique. C. S. Lewis was 52 when The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was published. Jesus was 30 when He started His public ministry. Do not compare yourself and your timing to everyone else. You are not “behind” where you think you are supposed to be. Focus on being faithful to each opportunity and each relationship in front of you.

“One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.” (Luke 16:10)

This is not a time when you have to achieve huge success, this is a perfect time to learn faithfulness in small things. And that foundation of small-scale faithfulness, small-scale trustworthiness, will eventually be honored by the Lord in increasingly impactful ways. Be patient, stay faithful, stay hopeful. As a wise friend of mine told me, “The way we make decisions in current circumstances is how we are likely to make decisions in the future. A ‘yes’ to God today increases the likelihood of a ‘yes’ to God tomorrow.” Say yes to God today, and trust that He will provide the next yes and the ones after that.

Wondering what to do for Lent?

Some of us have grown up in churches where Lent was an annual practice and a core part of our worship and rhythm of our year. Many of us are hearing about Lent for the first time or are familiar with it but have never engaged with it in an intentional way. Wherever you find yourself, I believe that Lent can be a vibrant time of spiritual growth, repentance and soul-searching, discipline and focus.

What is Lent?

This is a practice that the Church has been observing for centuries. It is meant to mirror the experience of Jesus fasting in the wilderness for 40 days, preparing for His earthly ministry and ultimate sacrifice. It is a time to seek the presence of Christ in intentional ways in preparation for Easter. It can be a spiritually rigorous and intense experience at times, but one that is meant to make the joy of the resurrection that much sweeter and triumphant! You can read more about the themes of Lent here.

How do I decide what to do during these 40 days?

Before you choose a specific practice, start by reflecting on what’s going on in your life recently. Do you have a big decision or new chapter coming up? Are there unresolved emotional wounds in your life that you’ve been avoiding dealing with? Is there a fractured relationship that you want to mend but don’t see a way forward? Are you wrestling with habitual sin? Have you struggled with consistency in your pursuit of Bible reading and prayer? Are you feeling distracted and distant from others? Determine what you are feeling most urgently and where you need to invite the work of the Holy Spirit to join with you.

From there, consider adding something positive into your routine and/or taking something away. The goal of a Lenten fast is not to be perfect and to “do better” as a Christian. The goal is to insert disruption into your normal routine in a way that will allow Christ to be more at work within you. By shifting your habits and schedule, you can more readily make room for Jesus in new ways. With that goal in mind, here are some practices to consider:

Prayer focus

Particularly if you are anticipating a decision and new chapter, wrestling with unhealed emotional pain in your life, or habitual sin you can’t conquer, this may be a good place to start. Make the decision to pray about these things regularly and open your heart to God’s working in those areas. This will need to be marked by willingness to then actually let God lead and move! It is ok if you are hesitant and scared at first. It is ok if you have to start slowly in opening up to God about what you are really dealing with. It is ok if it is deeply unsettling and you feel vulnerable and exposed. Be brutally honest in prayer, don’t think you need to give God polished prayers of what you think He wants to hear. Be open about what scares you in this process, where you’re wrestling with distrust, where you don’t want to let Him in, where you’d rather keep hiding or relying on yourself. The more you are honest with God, the more you’ll allow Him to meet you in authentic ways. There will be days where you want to shut down and give up, keep your eyes on our hope of the resurrection and the promise that Jesus makes all things new!

Food or device fast

Last year my husband and I fasted from gluten and dairy. That is the most extreme fast I have ever done, and it is not necessary to do something like this every year. It definitely disrupted our normal habits very extensively and just the act of doing something different as a gesture of faith was very impactful. You can consider fasting from one form of food such as sugar, soda, caffeine, chocolate, meat, etc. If you give up a food, try to use it as reminders to pray and seek the Lord throughout your day. When you are tempted to consume the thing you have given up, turn to prayer and invite the Spirit to help you and work in your mind and heart. Remind yourself that you are empty apart from Christ and that you need the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit to sustain you and truly satisfy you. If you are struggling with feeling like your life is chaotic and unfocused, something simple like this could be a good choice to bring focus and discipline into your days.

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Many people choose to fast from their devices in some form. This could mean being off social media, being off one specific platform, limiting the time of day you are using devices, setting your phone to grayscale to curtail it’s impact on you, etc. Perhaps you are always playing music on Spotify or other streaming.  You may need to close those apps for set times of the day and be in silence with your thoughts and allowing Christ to be with you in the stillness. One suggestion would be to adopt the practice of “scripture before screen”, reading your Bible before you open your phone. It could also include putting your phone away during meals and when you are with others. If you are dealing with feelings of disconnection and anxiety, this might be a good option for you.

Introduce a positive new habit

I will ALWAYS recommend spending more time in God’s Word. Set a goal of being in your Bible/Bible app every day. Pick a book of the Bible that you want to gradually work through and start simple with one chapter a day. Find a friend who wants to do the same so you can encourage each other. The more you are immersed in the scriptures, the more you will know God and recognize His guidance and wisdom in your life. If you’re wanting to grow closer to God during Lent, Bible reading is an excellent strategy.

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You can also make intentional time for reading other books you know will be encouraging and formative. Maybe it’s being disciplined to attend Sunday worship and Bible study/small group every week. Think about opportunities you have that you know will help you learn and grow but that you have a hard time doing consistently. Lent is a great time to make them a priority and to give the Lord your time and focus in a new and sacrificial way.

Don’t give up

It is very likely that you will not be perfect at your fast. If you slip up and forget something or slip into an old behavior, don’t give up! Keep going even if you make mistakes. The Lord desires our hearts not our perfect behavior. If your heart is wanting to pursue Christ during Lent, God will receive that and meet you in ways you might not expect. Take this step of faith and obedience, keep going, and have an open heart before the Lord to see how He wants to reveal Himself to you along the way.

REVIEW: The Two Popes

Comedian John Mulaney hosted Saturday Night Live earlier this year and joked about the idea of his Jewish wife converting to Catholicism, “How would I even have that conversation? What, do you come home with a brochure, and you’re like, ‘Hey, honey, allow me to tell you about an exciting not-new organization. Don’t Google us!’”

And so the joke has gone for many years now, especially since the early 2000’s due to the string of articles from The Boston Globe’s investigative journalism team. The Catholic church has a marred reputation that has been rooted in scandal and the unimaginable trauma of thousands of victims. Even more recently, a 2018 investigation conducted across the dioceses in Pennsylvania revealed 1,000 victims involving 300 priests in that state alone. There are big questions about the health and future of this global organization. Netflix and Oscar nominated director Fernando Meirelles are asking those questions in their new film, The Two Popes.

The Two Popes Anthony Hopkins

In the film, Meirelles and The Theory of Everything writer Anthony McCarten imagine several conversations between Pope Benedict XVI and, then, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio who would go on to be Pope Francis. The conversations in the movie, that are shot with an almost documentary style, are based on some meetings that did take place between the two figureheads, but they are also based on a huge cultural turning point within the church.

The Vatican needed more than a change in leadership, though that did happen when Benedict renounced his position and Francis was elected. They needed more than a return to charity and service, though Francis has made it a focus. They also needed more than addressing issues like climate change and sexuality, though Francis has shown incredible compassion in those arenas. What the Catholic church needed was something far more powerful, repentance. The church needed to clean house at the top and clean house in their hearts. Confession is, ultimately, what Two Popes is about.

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Whether they are protestant or catholic, church leaders are supposed to reflect Christ to those they serve. The Apostle Paul calls them “ambassadors” for Christ. The goal is that as someone meets you and experiences your love and service they are, in a way, meeting Jesus. How can you be anything but grieved, then, by the idea that, for thousands, Christ was an abuser? That grief is painted all over Jonathan Pryce’s face as he portrays Cardinal Bergoglio. The whole film is a delicate, nuanced dance between the two popes and Pryce’s dance partner is the legendary Sir Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict.

The two popes take jabs at each other’s stances on doctrine, tradition, and the direction of the church. Their conversations disturb the birds in the gardens of the Pope’s summer estate and echo against the painted walls of the Sistine Chapel. Hopkins’ Benedict snorts and scowls with guarded fear that Bergoglio desires to see the whole institution torn down. The Cardinal pleads and cries with desperate urgency that the culture Benedict has created is driving people out of the pews. They both are wrestling with being a part of something that has caused so much harm and become the butt of the world’s joke.

The Two Popes Jonathan Pryce

When the film shows you the global scale of the Catholic church or takes you into the mysterious election process, when you see the thousands of people gathered to stare at a chimney, it is easy to feel the authority the Pope has. Both Benedict and Bergoglio brought great authority into these conversations. They had served for decades. Benedict very much had his mind set on the past while Bergoglio had his feet planted and eyes focused on the future.

Jesus has the greatest authority in the universe. Being Christ-like takes authority, but they get absolutely nowhere by swinging their experience and knowledge back and forth. Being Christ-like also takes profound vulnerability. Jesus could heal the leper and make the blind man see but at the end of the day he hung on the cross exposed to the world. To end the stalemate in the film, that’s exactly where the two popes have to go, to the cross. The third act of the film is one of vulnerability and confession.

While watching the film, I found myself laughing at the joke. That’s all we can do with our pain sometimes, right? Laugh at it. Take away its power by making it a joke, and the pomp and the arrogance of this ancient tradition played right into the comedy. By the end, though, as these two men are baring their souls to one another, my eyes were on the cross and the reconciliation I’ve seen in my own life. I’m not sure if the world will ever forgive the Catholic church for their grave injustices, but I do know one way to find forgiveness is to ask for it.

REVIEW: A Hidden Life

There is a lot of flashy, star-studded content about World War II out there. Rightfully so. It was an era when the world stood up together against a very obvious and treacherous evil. The conflict begs to be adapted again and again. Just this year, Jojo Rabbit approached the time period with humor and heart and Amazon Prime’s sci-fi series Man in the High Castle, that depicts how the world might have been different if the Axis Powers won, entered its final season. Over the years, audiences have followed Patton, banded with brothers, and saved Private Ryan through tons of explosive battles and even more explosive Tom Hanks performances. Now, into the catalog of World War II fare, comes the quiet and contemplative A Hidden Life.

A Hidden Life Church

Director Terrence Malik has been to WWII before with the fondly remembered The Thin Red Line, but this time he avoids the traditional trenched and barb-wired battlefield. That often-used setting is traded in for the Sound of Music-esque Austrian countryside. Malik adapted this story from the personal letters between farmers Franz and Fani Jägerstätter. He uses his signature style of frenetic edits and wide-angle lenses to pull the audience into this family’s quiet opposition to Hitler’s regime.

As the story winds tighter and tighter, Fani and Franz share these letters that are so rich with faith and love. Austria has never looked so lush with deep greens and bright blues, but soon it becomes a frigid, isolating prison. All I could think of were those infamous sweeping shots of Julie Andrews spinning while taking in fresh air and music from the hills. In A Hidden Life, Fani claws with her bare hands screaming her suffering into those same blades of grass as their village ostracizes her. Franz, eventually, finds himself behind actual bars locked away from any color at all. The world has left them both pale, cold, and empty. Yet they reach out to each other with warm, comforting blankets of scripture. This is where they find their freedom.

A Hidden Life Scenery GIF

In order to do what Franz and Fani did, you would have to have a foundational belief that nothing on this Earth can take away the freedom we have in Christ. They deeply loved each other, their life in the rolling hills, and their beautifully precocious daughters, but, once their consciences flare in the face of true evil, they have to put their hope in an eternal good. Friends, neighbors, family, priests and lawyers tell them that they could compromise a little and be set free. To that Franz replies that he’s already free.

Another frequent appeal to get Franz and Fani to give in is that no one will ever know the stance they took. What they are doing won’t change the course of the war or send the population of Austria into revolt. If Franz doesn’t give in he will die just as he lived, quietly. What an interesting question for today. What makes a protest worth it?

What comes to mind for you when you think about modern social activism? Much of our social activism is criticized today because so much of it takes place online. On the surface, it often feels like the ability to post online or, as many call it, to hide behind a keyboard, doesn’t cost the tweeter anything. If only we could ask journalist Jamal Khashoggi if posting his opinions came with a cost. Even though the face of modern day social activism is a tiny blue bird on our phones, there are so many people behind those birds screaming to be heard and often dying silently in the dark. But they continue to tweet. Why?

A Hidden Life Franz Arrest

Franz Jägerstätter (played beautifully and stoically by August Diehl in the film) couldn’t compromise. His beliefs planted him and his family firmly into the ground where he made his stand. Fani Jägerstätter (played with intense strength by Valerie Pachner) couldn’t ask her husband to pledge allegiance to evil even if it would bring him home. Even if their protest came with a cost, the cost of their very souls was greater and, they believed, the reward on the other side of righteous suffering, on this plane of existence or the next, was even greater still.

It had to be a challenge to tell the story of a family stoically making a stance. World War II has a lot of flashy stories to tell, but this is a very bleak and colorless one. Yet, Malik tells it in vibrant colors with a style that gives this small protest a grand scale. There isn’t a beach to be stormed or a rousing high note to be sung, but there is an incredible internal battle taking place not just on this farm in Austria but in the hearts of every person confronted with how to respond to true evil. Malik gives you time between the breaths of levity and punches of grief to ask that question of yourself. What is the cost of making a stand and what is the cost of not?

Is Self-Care Just Self-Absorption?

If you are ever on Instagram, you know what I’m talking about. There are guides for self-care activities. Pictures being posted of ways people are pursuing self-care. Encouragements to others to make time for self-care. There are many ways in which these are good and healthy trends. God created a day of rest for all of us to take a break from working and to allow God to be sovereign in all things. Jesus periodically retreated into solitude to pray and rest. Space to rest and rejuvenate is a Godly thing.

As with anything, there are ways it can become selfish. It is very possible for self-care to turn into a lack of responsibility or engagement. To be more focused on our comfort than on working through hard things with others. To be an excuse to avoid commitments that we do not want to deal with. But behind many expressions of self-care is a deeper question of whether others can be trusted to care for us. A latent despair can underlie it where we feel the only one we can depend on is us. That requires much more than a face mask to remedy, it requires empathy and Christ-centered connection.

Who is most often seeking self-care?

In my observation, those who post about it the most on social media are women and/or people of color. We could resort to snap judgements and say these groups are “snowflakes” and lacking resilience. Or we could take a moment to look at the times when their posts are going up and what that may reveal about their/our experience of society. As a white woman my purview has limitations, but I will start with what I know. I most often see women talking about the need for self-care when topics of discrimination and sexual abuse have been prominent in public conversation. It ranges from accusations against public figures, a new television show or movie being released that features themes of gender-based issues, new legislation being passed that ignites debate, etc. These topics hit close to home for a lot of women and strike nerves that may be very raw. This can result in feeling emotionally drained, experiencing increased anxiety and depression, and having hard conversations with others. In these instances, self-care is often sought because we feel uncared for by our environment. The space we occupy feels threatening and so it is up to us to care for ourselves.

Similarly, these same types of struggles can emerge along racial lines (often intersecting for women of color). When there is a police shooting of an unarmed black man, or racist comments made by a public figure, or when church leaders exhibit a lack of support for justice issues, when co-workers are thoughtless and prejudicial, these events can have a very hurtful impact.  An understandable reaction is again to retreat into self-care practices. This can simply be to recharge after a draining day, and can also be a symptom of feeling alone in society. At times self-care can be an expression of isolation if it feels like you are the only one you can count on.

Take-Care

From Self-Care to Communal-Care

The Church of all places must be an environment where everyone can feel known and loved. That does not mean we all think exactly alike, or that there are not guidelines and boundaries for healthy relating, but it does mean that when one of us is grieved, we are all grieved.

So bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. – Gal. 6:2

Humans are inherently selfish, and Christians are no exception. Even in the Church we struggle to care about situations that may not directly affect us. Sometimes we doubt whether the situation is real, or we are so removed from it that we forget it exists. Either way, that contributes to our brothers and sisters often feeling as though they are in it alone. But if we start with a posture of loving curiosity, we will be much better positioned to join with one another in our joys and sufferings. How might this cultural moment be impacting someone who is different from me? How would I be feeling if this was happening to me and to people who looked like me? What are some questions I can ask to better understand the ways others are reacting that may feel strange to me? How can I share my time and resources to meet the needs of the Body of Christ? If we all started with these questions, then very few of us would be alone for long.

Communal-Care driven by Christ-Care

The only way we can sustainably join with each other is if we are animated by the love of Christ. In our own power we will very quickly become frustrated or impatient, we will very quickly feel attacked or misunderstood. But through the unifying presence of the Holy Spirit, we can care for each other in ways we did not think possible.

13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. – Eph. 2:13-17 

It requires the power of Christ to show generosity to one another, and it requires the power of Christ to let others know our struggles and support us in them. It is a humbling experience to share our stories, to share our wounds and vulnerabilities. And it is a humbling thing to be an instrument of Christ’s healing and assurance. Both are part of the Christian life because Christ first demonstrated both. Jesus was wounded for our sins, and was raised to life again to bring us eternal healing. We follow His example in acknowledging our pain and in seeking wholeness together. May we paint a picture for the world of what it means to be a people that are honest about our suffering and fatigue, and who never allow anyone to recover alone.

 

REVIEW: Avengers: Endgame (Non-Spoiler)

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

 

Thanos Snap

 

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

 

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

 

Captain America Crying

 

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

 

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

 

Avengers Endgame

 

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

 

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

Tree of Life Synagogue and the Need for Weariness

Some families take vacations to Disney World. My family would vacation in Pittsburgh. This was partly because my grandparents lived there, partly because Pittsburgh is a wonderful city. I spent 12 years post-college living in the Pittsburgh region and in many ways regard it as my home city. It is a city known for its many distinct neighborhoods, my favorite of which is Squirrel Hill. I have spent countless hours there with family and friends. A predominantly Jewish community, it also houses restaurants and shops from a wide range of cultures and nationalities. It has the best movie theater in the city, and is a welcoming neighborhood full of vibrant culture and life. Despite the terrible violence there on October 27th, nothing will change that.

When I first starting seeing breaking news that a Pittsburgh synagogue was being attacked, I knew it was likely in that lovely community. Watching the story unfold, my primary response was weariness. After a week that was already marked by hatred and violence with the mail bombs, this was overwhelming. I felt sadness and anger, but mostly I felt numb. This has to stop. Things have to change.

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When we look at God’s history with the community of faith, He has used weariness in the past to move us forward. Buried in the middle of the Old Testament book of Numbers is a remarkable passage about some unexpected fruit of growing weary. Numbers in general is an often overlooked book that packs a punch. It follows the time of the Israelites leaving their enslavement in Egypt and their forty years wandering in the wilderness. God led them out of Egypt through signs and wonders and guided them straight to the Promised Land. But the people were not ready. They were so accustomed to slavery that they could not imagine freedom. All they could do was look back at their bondage and believe that it was normal and as good as it gets. They could not imagine that the unknown could be better than the comfortable past, so they believed it must be worse. They froze because all they could see were giants, not milk and honey (Num. 13:31-33).

So God consigned them to 40 years in the wilderness, one year for every day that the spies were in the promised land (Num. 14). Enough time for the generation that was born in Egypt to pass away. An entire generation is born in the wilderness, a generation that is listed in the middle of Numbers (chapter 26). The genealogies in this book is typically where readers get bogged down, but they are there to show us when a change begins. Something significant happens with this generation born in the wilderness. They no longer look back, they start to dream about what is ahead.

The daughters of Zelophehad son of Hepher, the son of Gilead, the son of Makir, the son of Manasseh, belonged to the clans of Manasseh son of Joseph. The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milkah and Tirzah. They came forward and stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the leaders and the whole assembly at the entrance to the tent of meeting and said, “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not among Korah’s followers, who banded together against the Lord, but he died for his own sin and left no sons. Why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had no son? Give us property among our father’s relatives.”

So Moses brought their case before the Lord, and the Lord said to him, “What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right. You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father’s relatives and give their father’s inheritance to them. Num. 27:1-7 (NIV)

The daughters of Zelophehad begin to imagine possibilities of things that have never been before. What if women could own land? Not only that, they are envisioning life in the Promised Land. They are thinking about what it will entail and they do not want to miss it. No longer are the people looking back to slavery as their frame of reference. They are looking ahead and dreaming about things that have not yet been.

These young women represent what God was trying to do in the people through their wandering. To bring change in their desires. To wear them out on life that is sub-par so they start dreaming about abundance. So that when they are led back to the edge of the Promised Land, they want to go in and never look back. They want to take hold of God’s rest, provision, equity, and goodness. They were meant to hate the wilderness and former bondage so they would love the fulfillment of God’s promises.

This story offers a similar application to our weary hearts today. It is normal and good to feel sadness and anger. It is fitting and right for us to hate the works of evil. And our Godly response can be to dream rather than freeze. Many giants of evil are dominating our cultural landscape, but we serve a God with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm (Deut. 7:19). Take your weariness to your community’s inter-faith gatherings and support your Jewish neighbors. Use your platform to remind yourself, and others, that acts of hatred and violence are not normal or as good as it gets. Research the candidates running for office in your region and go vote for people who will pursue righteousness and peace. Pray for the Lord to move all of our hearts away from selfish complacency and towards new possibilities for Kingdom flourishing. May we be a people who are shaped by the promises and power of God and who dream of things greater than we have yet seen.