Porn vs. The Covenant

Sex is awesome. There, I said it. Sex was created by God as a part of the grand plan of the flourishing of creation. It doesn’t take very long for the topic to be broached in the Bible. God tells his people to get busy early and often, but aside from being fruitful and multiplying, sex has tremendous personal and spiritual significance.

God Loves Sex

It was difficult to choose pictures for this post so I’ll just post books about the topic!

Because of this, God created a covenantal relationship within which sex can be explored, appreciated, and realized in profound spiritual ways. The flip side is that outside of that covenant, sex continues to have that powerful significance. So when I say sex is awesome, I mean it. It is something to be in awe of, to have a reverence for, a respect for.

Paul’s letter in 1 Corinthians is littered with helpful discussion around sexuality aimed to help the people of Corinth see the significance of sex. This is not so much a finger wagging list of do’s and don’ts but rather instructions on how to take full advantage of this beautiful thing God created for us. “Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body,” says 1 Corinthians 6:18. We can see that there is something powerful about sex. Later on, Paul even talks about not using sex as a tool of power and manipulation (1 Cor. 7). At its heart, sex isn’t designed as a commodity to be utilized but, as Tim Keller calls it, a ceremony of covenant renewal.

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Not a book just for the ladies!

This involves what we are called to in that pesky verse 21 that prefaces everyone’s favorite submission passages in Ephesians 5, “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Both parties in this covenant submitting to each other and in that place powerful, spiritual, and beautiful things happen. The Bible often says that it is through this act of covenant renewal, this act of completely giving ourselves to another person, being completely in the service of another person that we “know” each other more fully and in that we can understand God in a new way. After all, God chooses to serve us similarly as an unconditional, gracious, loving servant.

How, then, does pornography interact with God’s desire for human sexuality? Well if you’re still with me after those first few paragraphs then pornography is an intense distortion of all of that, it is almost the exact opposite of the Biblical picture we get of sex. It takes something that is a gift from God and takes God completely out of the equation. Sex then becomes a commodity and those engaging in it are merely consumers not servants. There is not much mention of masturbation in the Bible outside of one really context-heavy passage starring a guy named Onan (Gen. 38). However, throughout the Bible we have this picture of covenant renewal and submission to another person. This simply cannot happen when you’re riding solo.

Solitaire

That is what is so dangerous about pornography. This form of sexual interaction is entirely self-focused and this has observable effects on the way men act in relation to women. Recently, on NPR’s Fresh Air, Terry Gross interviewed author Peggy Orenstein whose book Girls & Sex talks about many current trends with female sexuality and sexuality in general but also the effects of pornography on our society. She says that statistically speaking when engaged in or seeking sexual interaction men are prone to be completely focused on themselves and in women the trend is reversed.

Fashion designer Jessica Rey also spoke about the current state of the male brain in her Q talk on the evolution of the swimsuit. Here she cites neurological studies that indicate that when men are in this mindset, when women are objectified and sex is a commodity, they view women as inanimate tools, a means to an end, and nothing more.

When we take sex in our own hands (pun intended), taking God out of the equation, we are prone to distort our view of sex and actually try to take God’s role as provider. Anytime we think we are on the level with God we are vulnerable to the ugly side of arrogance and entitlement. In a world in which we are the providers of our own sexual relationships, we set expectations where we are entitled to sex and when we don’t get what we are entitled to anger, violence, and harm are usually not far behind. Today we have more organizations than ever fighting against sexual violence yet statistics remain virtually the same and in some areas worse.

No More Eli

We see this all around us as these expectations and the commoditizing of sex leads to sex trafficking and high-risk sexual activity. According to Orenstein, the pressures placed on young women today lead to the spread of disease like gonorrhea, unwanted pregnancy, and depression. Pornography creates not just a distorted view of sexuality, but, for the many that interact with sex in this way, it also creates a distorted view of ourselves.

We live in a culture of instant self-gratification with extensive access to pornography and, according to Time magazine, this has negatively altered the way we experience sex. It is supposed to be awesome but, often times, in our hands sex becomes a weapon of mass destruction. God has an opinion on sex, it is found all over scripture, and it is emotional, beautiful, spiritual, fun, exciting, gratifying, and good. It can be very difficult in our lives to trust God to give us these things, but when we rely on God to provide the gift of sex to us we may begin to see it this way too.

Further reading:

The Porn Phenomenon – Barna Group

Fight the New Drug

Washed and Waiting – Wesley Hill

Who will survive “The Walking Dead”?

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

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

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

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

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

walking dead rick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

walking dead cast 2

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.

Social Media 4

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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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.”

Between the Snap and Me

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

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

Between-The-World-and-Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do I have to forgive Michael Vick?

You may not know what it was like. Football was a huge part of my adolescent and teen years and when I was at my peak in the sport, my junior and senior year in high school, the player that everyone was talking about was Michael Vick. Watching Vick play football in the early 2000’s was like taking in the brooding shadows of a Caravaggio or popping and locking to the sweet beats of MJ.

Caravaggio "The Calling of St. Matthew"

Caravaggio’s “The Calling of St. Matthew”

Here in Pittsburgh we had our Slash, but Vick was changing everything. He changed the definition of the quarterback position, he broke records. Witnessing him weave in and out of defenders and launch the ball down the field made it seem like this was how football was meant to be played or at least this is exactly what God made Michael Vick to do. A football in his hands was like a pen in the hand of Emily Dickinson. My peers bought his jersey and voted him into Pro Bowls. For my generation of young athletes, Vick was a hero.

Vick's Madden Cover

Was. It hurt when Vick was convicted of dog fighting in 2007. All of a sudden his 1,039 rushing yards that season didn’t matter. His three Pro Bowl selections didn’t matter. He was a bad guy, a criminal, a violent abuser. We would have been fine if Vick just dropped off the face of planet and we didn’t have to deal with him ever again.

Vick headed to trial

But then, in 2009, he came back. He was now an advocate for the Humane Society. He was influential in creating more strict animal cruelty laws and sentences. His new team, the Philadelphia Eagles, chose the Humane Society to be recipients of $50,000 in grant money. And this created a problem.

I wanted Vick to be gone forever. I was fine placing him into the category of fallen hero and never thinking about him again. But he was breaking out of that category. In the words of the Humane Society, “Given the penalties available at the time he was sentenced, U.S. District Court Judge Henry Hudson meted out a strong penalty to Vick. He paid a steep price for his crimes, in addition to serving his prison sentence.” They go on to say, “Michael Vick was a role model for many young people, and he lost everything because of what he did to dogs. His story is the strongest possible example of why dog fighting is a dead end…We realized the potential that Vick has to reach at-risk youth and pull them out of the quicksand of animal fighting.” (Read more about Vick and The Humane Society)

Vick didn’t wiggle out of the crime he committed. He didn’t avoid apologizing. He actively did everything he possibly could on the hard, bloody road to forgiveness. And not just that, he’s trying to dissuade other young people to choose a different path. The truth is that out of this crime, because of his worst moments, Vick has now done more for preventing dog fighting than almost anyone. But do I have to forgive him?

Michael Vick

This is a complicated question. I have done a lot of terrible, hurtful things in my life, but it is incredibly possible, terrifyingly so, that I have yet to reach my worst moment. A moment when the deepest, darkest part of my heart that I don’t like to think about or see in the mirror surfaces. So the first part of the answer to that question is, “Am I forgiven?” See the problem with Vick not going away is that now I have to come face to face with what I have been forgiven of.

In the eyes of some, Vick has done something that all of PSA’s and grant money in the world couldn’t atone for, but that is exactly what Jesus’ death on the cross was for. If I can’t give grace to Michael Vick then it is entirely possible that I have failed to recognize my own need for forgiveness. I think about the woman in Luke 7. Jesus says, “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” My sins, which are many, have been forgiven, and because of that I can’t withhold my forgiveness for Vick. I have to recognize that the grace Jesus has given me extends to him.

Vick is now #2 for the Pittsburgh Steelers

Don’t think for one second Vick doesn’t realize how blessed he is to be able to play this sport again, and now with the greatest team in the history of NFL no less. Seeing that ball back in this sinner’s hand gives me hope. A hope that passes all understanding. A hope that one day, despite my worst moments, I’ll hold the instrument of my God-given gifts in my hands and create a masterpiece.

Is everyone thinking I’m weird?

Evangelism can be scary for a lot of us. We’re often afraid of offending or alienating people. We worry what they will think of us, will they think we’re weird or pushy or one of “those” Christians. (I’m not certain we even know what “those Christians” are anymore, we just know we’re not supposed to be in that category.) It’s also easy to put a lot of pressure on ourselves to say just the right thing, in the right casual tone of voice, that will appeal to the other person in just the right way.

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 First of all, let’s get over ourselves and remember that we’re not actually that important. People don’t think about us as much as we fear that they do. Whatever fears of judgment and rejection that keep us from asking questions and talking about our faith are more often than not wildly unfounded. Also the work of the Holy Spirit is far more powerful than any of us broken vessels. A friend of mine in ministry once observed, “It amazes me how much the Word stumbles forth.” God can and will use all kinds of people to expand the Kingdom. Brothers and sisters have come to Christ through way cooler and way weirder people than you, and all Jesus needs is your obedience.

Secondly, I think we can find a model for our Christian witness through the way God worked through the community of faith in the Old Testament. A lot has been written by far more learned people than me about the various “archetypes of Christ” throughout the OT. I’ll let their work stand, and I’ll add an observation. All of the faithful expressed Messianic traits, a way in which they lived that foreshadowed what the coming Christ would be like.

Moses acts as a continual intercessor throughout his ministry, coming between the people and God’s judgment (Ex. 33, Num 11, Num 14, just to name a few). He demonstrates our need for a mediator, someone who can bring us near to God’s presence (Ex. 33:7-11).

David is Israel’s best king, popular and successful and blessed by God (2 Sam. 7). He epitomizes a ruler who is submitted to the Father (1 Sam. 23, 2 Sam. 11), a shepherd who seeks the best interests of the flock, a man who (usually) wields his power with justice and mercy (1 Sam. 24). He also was in communion with the Holy Spirit (1 Sam. 16) and wrote scripture that was both present and prophetic.

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Elisha is a prophet who boldly requests a double portion of the Holy Spirit (2 Kings 2). His ministry presents striking parallels with the ministry of Christ. For more on this, see the Bible studies page for a 6 part study comparing Elisha and Jesus. His miracles paved the way for the people to get a glimpse of the power of God and to see God’s intent for wholeness in the lives of His people.

I named only three of countless other people you can find in the OT. Hebrews 11 will give you a good place to start for further reading. The Israelite people knew their history and the stories of their heroes. All of these people created familiarity with the heart of God so that when Jesus began his ministry, they could all recognize His work as something they had seen before and yet never to this degree.

God’s servants had made God’s hand memorable so the community could identify when ministry was coming from Him. The Israelites could look at Jesus’ work and think, “You look familiar, haven’t we seen something like this before?” They could read the familiar words of Ps 23, “The Lord is my shepherd”, and have that in mind when Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd” (John 10). Jesus proclaimed that every good and powerful thing they had witnessed in the past was from and about Him. He was the completion and perfection of everything they had been longing for.

I think the process of evangelism is something like that. We treat others and behave in ways that make Jesus familiar to them. We demonstrate Christ’s love through compassion, ethical practices that care for the well-being of all, taking time to let others know they are valued and loved, and by talking about the Word of God. We mimic Christ to the people around us so that when they do meet Jesus, they’ll say, “You look familiar…have we met before?”

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Just like the heroes that came before us, we are not Jesus. We are limited and flawed and fail to show God’s heart in perfect ways. And yet the Word stumbles forward, and we have the same calling to make Christ recognizable to His people. This is what propels us in evangelism and outreach.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. 1 John 4:7-12

We can’t see God’s form on this side of the resurrection, but we see His love through each other. We are the image-bearers through which God has chosen to show Himself. When we love others with the love that we have received, we show our family resemblance. We are the ones who love and serve so that when someone we love meets Jesus for the first time, they’ll say, “Have we met before?”

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

The Muddy, Bloody Truth about Grace

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

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

The Grandview party at IUPattys 2015.

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

An IUPattys riot from 2014

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

My broken fence.

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

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

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

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

Volunteers in Baltimore cleaning up on the morning after.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A familiar can in our yard.

Transitioning to a life of service

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

Philly Project 2014 Painting Ladders

Hands and Feet

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

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

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

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Questions

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

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

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Vision for the future

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

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

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