6.23.2017

A Movie Review in Two Parts, Part 2 - The Perfect Allegory of Our Time

As we left the theater, Christian was buzzing with excitement. He declared Kong: Skull Island is now his new favorite movie. Well, second favorite right behind Doctor Strange. The jump scares weren't too scary. The combat scenes kept him engaged. He loved seeing the bond built between Kong and the photographer Mason. Marlow's comedic relief made him laugh. He was stunned by the scenery from jungles to village to boneyard, to riverways. And the size of the monstrous King Kong filled him with awe, so much so that he started cheering for the beast before Marlow revealed Kong as the island's guardian.

image courtesy of Warner Bros and Legendary Pictures

On the drive home, Christian had one question. "Why was Packard so determined to kill Kong?" He couldn't understand how Packard was unable to see what everyone else understood to be true - that Kong was a hero. He's a good monster. How could Packard be so blinded to hate that he ignored all of the advice given to him?

I gave him the simplest and truest answer I could provide.

Some people live in a world of black and white. For these people, everyone is classified as for us or against us. They divide their world into an us and them. We are the good guys and they are the enemies. Packard was one of these people. He was a career military man fresh from the battles of Vietnam. He thought of the war as a just cause and wanted to continue fighting. With US troops returning home, Packard saw the mission to Skull Island as a new battlefield. War was his purpose and he needed an enemy. As a well-trained soldier, Packard believed he was the good guy which automatically made Kong the villain. The deaths resulting from the initial firefight with the giant ape only served to confirm Packard's preconceived notions. Packard took the loss of life personally and he could only place the blame on Kong.

The beast was nothing more than an enemy to be defeated and no amount of reason could dissuade Packard.

As we talked, I began to explain more. The simple explanation really doesn't adequately answer Christian's question. How could one man's quest for revenge blind him to the goodness of his enemy? Because that's how hatred works in real life. We live in an era of identity politics where our world is divided between us and them. It is easier to scapegoat the other than to accept and remedy our own flaws. We're Americans and they are Mexican immigrants. We're Americans and they are Syrian refugees. We're the moral majority and they advocate gay rights. We're white America and they are black. It makes us afraid and people act stupid when they're scared.

We see this black and white world in our government. The Democrats view themselves as the good guys and the Republicans as treasonous foes. The Republicans think they're the patriots and the Democrats are enemies of the state hellbent on destroying the USA. Congress is eternally deadlocked refusing to come to the bargaining table, constantly seeing the other side as the party of bad ideas.

We see this black and white world in our churches. We want our houses of worship to remain safe for us. We separate into groups: we are saved, they are pagans. We isolate and ignore God's call to preach the gospel to all peoples. We struggle to build any meaningful connection with outside groups from the homeless population to the LGBT community. We are lost trying to help those with addiction or mental illness. We fail to live up to the biblical call to care for orphans, widows, and foreigners. We're us and they're them and it is easier to build a wall to separate us from them than it is to treat them with love like God.

We see this black and white world in armed conflicts on every continent of this planet. The enemy is always dehumanized to absolve soldiers from the emotional toll of warfare. Vietnamese soldiers were called Charlie. Combatants in the Middle East have been called ragheads. We're the good guys and they are the enemy.

There is a problem with such an outlook on life. No one thinks of themselves as the bad guy. No one looks at their actions and think "Yeah, we're totally evil. We're definitely going to hell for this." Even as Bashar al-Assad gasses his own people and drops bombs on schools and hospitals, he sees himself as a hero. The ISIS militants carrying out horrific acts of terror in Paris and London see themselves as holy and just. Vladimir Putin believes he is a good guy. El Chapo thinks he's decent man. Theresa May believes she is on the side of all that is right. President Trump thinks he's the best. Alex Jones, Sean Hannity, Steve Bannon, and Kellyanne Conway all think they speak truth. Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell, and Paul Ryan believe they want what is best for our nation. CNN and FOX news portray themselves as the most reliable source of news. Taco Bell claims to serve good food.

In Packard's hatred for Kong, he represents everyone who seeks to separate the world into us and them. He is the living embodiment of Trump's travel bans. He is Brexit. He is China's human rights violations. He is religious extremism. He is patriarchy, homophobia, and discrimination. He is the conflict between police officers and the African American community. He is everyone's racist uncle. He is YouTube's comment sections.

By refusing to listen to the advice of the tracker, photographer, and former WWII pilot, Packard represents everyone who is unwilling to walk a mile in someone else's shoes. He is the lack of empathy that plagues our world. He is the resistance against diversity. He represents those who automatically dismiss anyone who disagrees as wrong. He is everyone you know who will not listen to anyone with differing viewpoints.

From that perspective, Packard is a lot like the angry minority that has taken over our government. He reminds me of the ugliest segments of our culture. He shows us the worst parts of ourselves. Sure, Kong: Skull Island is not a perfect movie, but it is the perfect allegory of our time.

6.22.2017

A Movie Review in Two Parts, Part 1 - About Kong: Skull Island

I wasn't sure what to expect of Kong: Skull Island. It's the second film in the Warner Bros/Legendary Pictures shared universe (AKA MonsterVerse), and I was a bit disappointed by the first movie in the franchise - 2014's Godzilla. But Kong received mostly positive reviews, looked visually stunning in a way that it must be seen on the big screen or not at all, the cast features Loki and Nick Fury, and I needed something to watch at the theater with my oldest on Father's Day. Additionally, Kong was directed by the same guy that brought us the quirky, sweet, and heartbreaking coming of age story The Kings of Summer. So I felt Kong was worth a shot. I was pleasantly surprised.

Now, let's be clear, this is not the best movie ever. There are flaws. It is heavy on exposition - often at a pace you'll miss it if you're not paying close enough attention. The character set up designed to make us care about characters that are eventually killed off is hit and miss. The ending, while satisfying, is wholly predictable. The tone shifts from a standard action genre romp with all of tropes, to mixing in horror elements, to a sci-fi reimagining of a National Geographic documentary, to an admiring tribute of Apocalypse Now, and back to a summertime adventure. At times, it felt like Kong didn't know what kind of movie it wanted to be.

In the film, John Goodman plays a manipulative cryptozoologist employed by Monarch - a government funded secret organization that exists to study and hunt down giant monsters. Goodman's Bill Randa believes an unmapped and unexplored island in the South Pacific is home to these creatures. As the Vietnam war comes to a close, Randa convinces a senator to fund a scientific expedition to the island complete with military escort. The crew travelling to Skull Island includes seismologist and Monarch employee Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), biologist San (Tian Jing), tracker and former British SAS captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), compassionate anti-war photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) finishing his tour of duty in Vietnam, and a bunch of mostly disposable soldiers and helicopter pilots belonging to Packard's squadron who really just want to go home.

Once on the island, they drop seismic charges from the sky which angers Kong, a giant ape. Or as one soldier asked "Is that a monkey?" Kong methodically brings down all of the helicopters in a fit of rage. The survivors of the various crashes are split into isolated groups and each attempt to achieve different goals.

Packard, with Randa, wants to recover the weapons cache from one of the other helicopters so he can confront and kill King Kong. Along the way they encounter a giant spider with legs like bamboo trees and a flock of pterodactyl-like vultures. In another group, Conrad, Mason, San, and Brooks trek to the north end of the island in hopes of rescue from an anticipated supply drop at an exfil point. This second group is captured by a local tribe and meet Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), a missing WWII lieutenant who crashed on Skull Island during a dogfight and lived with the natives since 1944.

Marlow explains his survival and the friendship he formed with his former enemy, a Japanese pilot who was also stranded after the same WWII dogfight. According to Marlow, the tribe worships King Kong and consider him their protector from bigger and deadlier lizard-like creatures called skullcrawlers. This second group invites Marlow to accompany them so he can return home a war hero. He agrees and escorts them on a boat he built from the wreckage of his and the Japanese planes.

The two groups converge and hope to reach the north shore, but are unable to continue because Packard refuses to give up his self-appointed mission: to bring down the monster Kong. Conrad, Mason, and Marlow attempt to convince Packard to leave Kong alone. They warn him that killing Kong will leave them vulnerable to something worse. But Packard refuses because he blames for the deaths of his men. He wants vengeance.

Earlier in the movie, after the helicopters all crashed, there is a stunning shot of Conrad and Kong staring each other down. It is pure cinematic magic where the anger in Conrad's eyes match Kong's fierce expression. Between the man and the monster, there is no love lost. That brief scene sets up a bitter rivalry with no possibility of a peaceful resolution. As a viewer, you know from that moment on that one will kill the other.

image courtesy of Warner Bros and Legendary Pictures

I won't spoil the remaining plot line. If you're a movie junkie like me, you could probably guess on your own. Yet by the time credits roll, Kong: Skull Island accomplishes what it set out to do - entertain. Many of the big action set pieces were thrilling. The cinematography was stunning and frequently far more beautiful than what is found in typical summer blockbusters and big studio tent-poles; a ton of credit is due to the director of photography. And John C. Reilly turned out to be the action star I never knew I needed.

The third (and next film) in the MonsterVerse is titled Godzilla: King of the Monsters. But after seeing Kong: Skull Island, I dispute the validity of that title. Kong is king. When the fourth film, Godzilla vs. Kong rolls out in 2020, I will be cheering for the big ape.

6.16.2017

Changing Perspectives: Committed to Non-Violence

In three short verses in Matthew chapter five, Jesus provides instruction on how to assert your own sense of dignity when others attempt to strip it away. He told us how to maintain our humanity when other seek to humiliate us.

When we understand the context – the culture and laws of the original audience, it changes our perspective. We can take off the western lenses we normally use to read scripture and view it from the standpoint of someone living under the oppression of Roman occupation. I can no longer see this passage as a lesson in humility, instead I see it as a call for justice. Jesus never intended us to be doormats. Jesus never wanted us to passively suffer abuse. He knew we would be mocked and persecuted, but he wanted us to know that we could still insist others show us respect. He knew people would treat us like crap, but he continually reminded us that we were worth more – that we had inherent value as adopted children in God’s family.

So, he gave three pieces of instruction. If someone insults you as unworthy, dare them to treat you like an equal. If someone tries to make you experience shame, make them feel ashamed. If someone uses the law to burden you, use that law to your advantage. These are acts of generosity, but they are also acts of rebellion. They force your abuser to see your humanity and regret their cruelty.

If you see me as an equal, maybe you won’t slap me again. If you’re embarrassed to see me naked, maybe next time you won’t take my clothes. If you don’t want to me to carry your pack for two miles, maybe you won’t force me to carry it at all. Maybe, if you see me as a human being, you will treat me like one. Maybe, if you see my dignity, you will respect me.

At the end, Jesus tells us to love our enemies. He gives us options to avoid the harm our enemies want to cause us, then he tells us to love them and pray for them. This whole passage is soaked in grace. How much better could this world be if we showed love and grace to those who oppose and mistreat us? How much stronger would we be if we held the boundaries to say, “you can’t treat me like this” but still hope our enemies experience blessings? What could we achieve if we looked at our opponents and said, “I won’t let you hurt me, but I want the best for you.”

Nowhere in this sermon does Jesus suggest we act with vengeance. He does not instruct us to repay violence with violence. Jewish law allowed an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. But Jesus insists such measures are counterproductive. Instead, he says, “don’t resist.”


When faced with oppression or abuse, we think there are only two options: fight back or let it happen. Jesus shows us there is a third option: challenge it. Don’t fight against them, show them so much grace that their actions seem absurd. Don’t resist an evil person, subvert them. You can’t control them. Instead, let their behavior lead them to their ruin, you don’t have to go down with them. What Jesus advises we do in the face of adversity is passive. It’s non-violent. It is more rewarding than suffering in silence and it is far more effective than revenge.

A slight change in perspective. And suddenly, I see Jesus’ words as something so much more audacious, more daring, more dangerous, more rebellious, more subversive, more powerful, and more beautiful than I ever have before.

I also believe this message is more essential now than ever before in American history. As the government seeks to restrict our freedoms, we need to demand they see our dignity. Under threat of foreign and homegrown terrorism, we must demonstrate our humanity. To combat school bullying, we should empower and protect the powerless. With a populace struggling through drug addiction and mental health issues, grace is needed in abundance. During protests opposing racial discrimination and police brutality, we need a little peaceful subversion.

None of the challenges facing our country can be solved with violence. Thankfully, Jesus gave us three non-violent methods to subvert the powers that be: turning the other cheek, giving the shirt off our backs, and going the extra mile.

6.15.2017

Changing Perspectives: Go the Extra Mile

The third directive Jesus delivers has become common in our modern lexicon. It is an idiom that has taken a motivational form. “If someone forces you to go with him one mile, go with him two miles.” We have shortened it to the phrase: go the extra mile.

With our modern perspectives, we take this to mean we should go above and beyond expectations. Do more than required. Put in the extra effort. After all, in America, we don’t reward people for doing the basic duties of their jobs, we want them to exceed bare minimums. We don’t want good experiences, we want greatness – such an impressive experience is only achievable if we go the proverbial extra mile.


Of course, this isn’t what Jesus was talking about. It is a nice notion and I won’t dispute that contributing greater effort is a worthy cause. But Jesus wasn’t talking about working hard. He was talking about the law.

During his life, Jesus ministered to people under Roman rule. The Empire used military might to expand their territory. To maintain control and order in the far-flung territories away from the heart of Rome, Caesar used the practice of impressment to coerce locals into joining the military, serving in loyalty to the emperor. Along with this method of conscription, impressment afforded soldiers special rights and privileges under the law. One of those legal allowances is that a Roman soldier could compel a Jewish native to carry their gear for one mile.

The packs these soldiers had to carry were heavy and could weigh up to 100 pounds. Roman soldiers were human just like the rest of us; it is understandable if they grew weary lugging their burdens around in the deserts of ancient Israel. To motivate them, and provide occasional relief, the law granted them the ability to force a Jew to carry their pack for one Roman mile – equal to 1000 paces. If you were a Jewish citizen, you were not allowed to resist. To do so would be an act of rebellion and the Roman empire delivered harsh punishments to anyone who defied them.

This is why Jesus chose the language he used. The word ἀγγαρεύσει (angareusei) is only used once in the New Testament, when Jesus talks about going one Roman Mile. Angareusei means “compelled to go” or “forced to go.” If anyone angareusei you one mile, go two. There is another word Jesus used in the original language that adds context lost in English translations: ὕπαγε (pronounced hupagey) which means to be led away under someone else’s authority. Jesus is describing a situation where one of his listeners could be compelled or forced to walk a mile by their authority according to Roman law of impressment.

If I lived with these laws dictating my life, I would do everything I could to avoid Roman soldiers. If I saw them coming my direction, I would turn around and walk the other way, ducking into random alleys or stranger’s homes. If they caught up with me and decided I needed to carry their packs, I would not be given a choice. Their orders were not requests. I would be, like Jesus said, forced to go.

To be asked to carry the pack for a soldier was demeaning. It was forced hard labor for no other reason than your heritage and ethnicity. They knew their status was above you and their demands reinforced the notion that the Jews were a conquered people. This was the definition of oppression. Which makes the second half of Jesus’ statement confusing. If going one mile was so brutal and humiliating, why would he tell us to go two miles?

Just as refusing to carry a soldier’s pack for a mile when ordered to do so was a crime punishable by imprisonment, that same law dictated that the soldier could only force a Jewish citizen to go one mile at the most. There were limits. The Roman Empire had to balance their desire to subjugate the citizenry with the need to discourage insurrection.

Jesus knew that Roman soldiers could force you to go one mile, but they could not make you go two. And just as a Jewish citizen would be jailed for refusing to carry a pack for a mile, the soldier could face consequences if the citizen were to carry that pack for more than a mile. Carrying a pack for the second mile is generous, but it is also challenging. The Roman soldier would be faced with a decision: demand you stop or risk the possibility of punishment. Regardless of what option the soldier takes, he would be more hesitant to order another Jewish citizen to carry his gear.

Being forced to carry a heavy pack for a mile was humiliating. The generous offer to carry it for a second mile shifts the humiliation to the soldier. Going the first mile robbed the Jewish citizen of their dignity. By going the second mile, they reclaimed their dignity. By going another mile, the Jewish citizen was demonstrating their humanity to a soldier who viewed them as a lower class of people. If a Roman soldier didn’t want me to carry their pack a second mile, they shouldn’t have asked me to carry it for the first mile.

In this verse, Jesus wasn’t telling his audience to work harder, put in more effort, or be more generous. He was giving them a way to say, “I exist and I deserve better.”

6.14.2017

Changing Perspectives: Give the Shirt Off Your Back

Let’s go streaking! Or not. I mean, it depends on how confident you feel about yourself when you’re naked. We live in a body-shaming culture, creating an atmosphere where most people would be embarrassed to shed their clothes. Outside of strip clubs and nudist resorts, bared skin and exposed bits tend to generate feelings of shame. So, if you do not like the idea of being seen wearing nothing, then streaking isn’t something you would enjoy.

Americans have an awkward relationship with nudity. It is at once glorified and demonized. We seek it out for our own titillation yet treat the object of our lusts with hostility. By American standards, if I see you naked, you should be humiliated, not me. However, in biblical times, people had an opposite reaction to nakedness. Back then, I would feel ashamed to see you naked – not the other way around. We see this evidenced in the life of King David. When we study his stories, we can see how he reacted to ogling and being ogled.

The first example is in 1 Chronicles 15 and 16. The ark of the covenant had been stored in the home of Obed-Edom for three months. His whole household was blessed during that time and David wanted to bring it back to Jerusalem where it belonged. He gathered the temple guards and servants to help carry the ark and returned to Obed-Edom’s home to retrieve it. When David and the Levites returned to Jerusalem with the ark, it was a time of celebration. There was a parade, music, singing, and dancing. David got caught up in the moment and stripped down to nothing but his linen ephod. He bared his body and partied hard.

Saul’s daughter, Michal, was watching all of this. She was not impressed. According to scripture, she “despised him in her heart.” That is a strong reaction to seeing someone dressed in less than appropriate. This story is repeated in 2 Samuel 6. In this passage, David returns home after the celebration where an angry Michal was waiting. She greeted him with a “how dare you” speech. She complained about how he was “going around half-naked in full view of the slave girls.” She called him vulgar. From Michal’s perspective, she was ashamed to see her husband dancing naked in public. Michal believed the servants and slaves should also feel the same embarrassment from witnessing David’s indecent display.

Later, in 2 Samuel 11, the roles were reversed. Instead of women seeing David nearly naked, David was peeping on a bathing neighbor. Scripture makes it clear that David was not where he should be; it was the time of year when kings went off to war, yet David was chilling at home. One night, while taking a walk on the palace roof, he noticed a sexy lady taking a bath. He was literally creeping on the girl next door. Multiple bad choices followed; the subsequent verses tell of an affair, attempts at fraud, and a murder conspiracy. The next chapter, a prophet named Nathan visits and rebukes David. The shame for seeing Bathsheba naked belonged to David. The guilt of the affair was David’s. And the penalty of killing Bathsheba’s husband also fell on David. As David finally realized the weight of all he had done, he said, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

When Jewish audiences listened to Jesus preach, this was their understanding of nudity. In their history, Michal was ashamed to see David naked, but David was shamed for seeing Bathsheba naked. Nudity humiliated the viewer, not the nude person. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus was speaking to a crowd with these sensibilities. When he told the crowds, “if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well,” they had a different perspective than we do.

To fully understand what Jesus wanted to convey, we need to talk about first century fashion in the Middle East. Average citizens would have dressed in two layers. The tunic (usually translated into English as a shirt) covered the body as the inner layer. Over the tunic, they wore a cloak or mantle which we translate to mean coat. This dual layer is a foreign concept to us because in the modern world, we only wear coats when it is cold outside.

Jesus addressed people losing their shirt in a lawsuit. The only reason you would be sued for the shirt off your back is if you didn’t have the financial means to be sued for currency. When the collector came to take your shirt (or rather, tunic) they were taking a piece of your dignity. It was as if they were saying, “You can’t even afford to pay your debts, so I am taking your most basic article of clothing.” There is something cruel about this situation. How embarrassing would it be today if the IRS raided your closet to satisfy your tax debt? How awkward would it be if casinos insisted you removed an article of clothing every time you lost a hand of blackjack?

But we as Americans are callous. We read this scripture and think, “they took your tunic, at least you still have your cloak.” Yet Jesus urged his listeners to give that up too. They took your tunic, let them have your cloak. With Jewish fashion, if you gave away your cloak and tunic, you’d either be naked or stripped to your chonies. This is the biblical call to go streaking.


In our western view of shame and nudity, this would be humiliating for us - like that bad dream where you show up to work or school completely naked; everyone points at you and laughs. But Jesus' contemporaries didn’t think like we do. Ancient Jews were more embarrassed to see a naked person than they were to be naked.

There is only one reason a collector would sue to take your shirt: to disgrace you. How would you ever be able to reclaim your dignity? Give the collector your cloak too. Now they have all your clothes and you’re butt naked. For Jesus’ original audience, they would know such a subversive act would cause the collector to feel shame. The collector would suffer the humiliation they intended to inflict upon you.

Which reminds me of David’s response when Michal protested his revealing dance. He said, “I will become even more undignified than this.”

6.13.2017

Changing Perspectives: Turn the Other Cheek

Hit someone. Not literally, rather imagine yourself hitting someone. Likely, you see that person standing in front of you, face to face. If you're right-handed, you throw a right jab into their left shoulder or on the left side of their jaw line. If you're left-handed, it's a left jab to their right side. Or if you possess a mean streak, you delivered an uppercut, sending your foe sprawling backwards and possibly knocking them out. We've watched enough Rocky movies. We played Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! We know how this works.


When Jesus talked about someone striking your cheek, this is what we envision. We think boxing matches. We think mixed martial arts. We think drunken bar-room brawl. We think "Meet me on the playground after school." We think a couple of guys who are up to no good started making trouble in my neighborhood.

This is America, we think fist to face.

But first century Jews and Roman citizens would not have had the same approach to the sermon that we do. Jesus was also specific in his language making it clear that he wasn't talking about bare-knuckle fighting. The two words Jesus used that provides us context are the method and target of this hypothetical strike.

First, the method. Jesus said, "When someone slaps you ... " There are two ways to slap someone: with an open palm or with the back of your hand. In the original Greek language, the word was ῥαπίζει – pronounced rhapizei – which means to strike and is where we get the English word rap (think Edgar Allan Poe “some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door”). On its own, this word could be any kind of hit from a punch to the use of a blunt force weapon. Yet most translations use slap for a reason which has everything to do with where the slap lands.

The target of the strike is the right cheek. Jesus’ words were δεξιὰν σιαγόνα or dexion (meaning the right-hand side) siagóna (meaning the jawbone or cheek). Jesus describes it as follows: when someone rhapizei your dexion siagóna – strikes or hits your right side’s jawbone or cheek.

Why is this important? Remember, Jesus lived in first century Palestine. Toilet paper wasn’t used until the sixth century in China, and it wasn’t commercially patented in America until 1857. During ancient times in the Middle East, people used their left hand for sanitary purposes. The Jewish crowds who were listening to Jesus preach would have considered their left hand to be unclean. They would only strike someone using their right hand.

Go back to imagining yourself hitting someone. They are facing you and you must punch their right side using your right hand. It’s a little bit awkward. Now resort to a slap. If you use an open palm with your right hand, you’d slap their left cheek. If you want to strike their right cheek with your right hand, you would slap them with the back of your hand. This is where it gets interesting. It is embarrassing to get slapped. That has never been a kind gesture in any culture. But in the Roman Empire, a backhanded slap was reserved for those whom the assaulter feels are inferior. In other words, if I were to slap your left cheek with an open fist, I would be insulting you, but I would see you as my equal. But if I were to deliver a backhanded slap, I would still be insulting you, but I would also be demonstrating how I think I am better than you – you wouldn’t be worth an open fist.

This understanding makes the words of Jesus much more radical. He begins, “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek,” and ends with instruction “turn to them the other cheek.” Modern audiences miss what Jesus is trying to say. We read this and think Jesus wants us to get beat up. “Well, if someone hits you, let them hit you again!” That is not the point Jesus wanted to make. Instead, he was urging you to assert your own worth.

If someone slaps your right cheek, they see you as a person with lesser stature. If someone slaps your right cheek, show them your humanity. Turning your other cheek doesn’t guarantee you’ll be hit a second time. The possibility is there, but only if they see you as an equal. Turning the other cheek is your way of saying, I’m here. I’m human. You are not better than me. Show me some respect.

6.12.2017

Changing Perspectives: Fighting Back

The 80s and 90s were strange times to be raised in the church. Our parents faithfully honored the opulence of PTL with Jim and Tammy Faye but we lived meager lives. We received mixed messages about the virtues of pride and humility. Our youth pastors tried to simultaneously embrace the silliness of the 80s and the angst of the 90s. We weren't allowed to see movies at the theater or attend school dances because those activities could lead to hand-holding, hand-holding led to kissing, kissing would inevitably tumble into sex, and sex before marriage was the ultimate sin. Yet our moms spent their days watching soap operas - shows where everybody was having extra-marital sexual affairs with everyone else.

As a kid, no other conflicting lessons confused me more than the formal and informal teachings on violence. Pastors would preach a sermon on the verse declaring "blessed are the peacemakers" while choirs would sing "Onward Christian Soldiers." We were taught to be pacifists in Sunday school, then went home and watched The A-Team. Our parent's generation celebrated both Martin Luther King Jr's non-violent protests and Braveheart's battle cry "They can take our lives, but they will never take our freedom!" We were given the advice to play nice, and then told to toughen up. War and violence were often praised with equal measure as peace and passivity. After all, Jesus taught us to love our enemies but he also flipped tables. It was difficult to understand Christ as both a lion and a lamb when our cultural icon for a lion was Bruce Willis in Die Hard and our symbol for a lamb was Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile.

Even the games we played as teens frequently took a brutal turn. My youth group's favorite activity was called "Wink-em Blink-em." This game's instructions are more complicated than could be fully explained in a simple blog post. However, it involved players winking at other players of the opposite gender prompting the person winked at to attempt an escape from the person standing behind them. It sounds innocent but my peers took it to extremes. Our rounds of Wink-em Blink-em often ended with bruised limbs, pulled hair, torn shirts, bloody scratches, and broken fingernails. Afterwards, an adult volunteer would lead a devotional reading Bible verses urging us to "make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification."

It was enough to make a kid like me question if it was even possible to be a peacemaker. After all, my generation came of age when one of the biggest songs played on the radio was about a bullied kid named Jeremy who spoke in class with lyrics like "the dead lay in pools of maroon below" and "he hit me with a surprise left, my jaw left hurting dropped wide open." In that pre-Columbine era, bullying was practically accepted. Or at best, it was ignored. This was all before the existence of programs like Dude Be Nice or the It Gets Better campaign. If you were (like I was) beat up or picked on, the recommendations we were given was either “stick up for yourself” or “just stand there and take it.”

The latter instruction was usually the one provided by well-intentioned youth pastors. They relied on the sermon on the mount, guided us with the words of Jesus. Blessed are the meek, the poor in spirit, and the persecuted. Rejoice and be glad when people insult and hurt you or lie about you. Don't get angry because anger is sinful. Befriend your enemies and pray for them. Don't resist an evil person. Turn the other cheek. Give up your clothes. Walk an extra mile. Give the bullies your lunch money.

I was a nerd growing up in an age where the geeks and nerds routinely got our asses kicked for being freaks. After getting teased and physically accosted at school, someone would tell me what the bible says. If someone hits you, let them hit you again. If they take part of your outfit, let them take it all. If someone forces you to do something, do it twice.

Derived from the fifth chapter of Matthew, verses 38-42 were the highlights of this passive advice. Even the NCV translation of the Bible titles this section "Don't Fight Back." I shouldn't need to say this but the "biblical" instruction I was given did more harm than good. I was led to believe that our purpose was to suffer. Whether intentional or not, the lesson I learned was that we were to be punching bags for the abusers, bullies, assholes, and jerks of this world.

Too often, we read scripture from a Western viewpoint. We filter the Word of God with modern bias. Yet, in doing so, we miss a very important detail about the Gospels: Jesus was a Jew. More than that, He was a Jew, living in ancient Palestine under Roman occupation. His people were an oppressed population ruled by foreign tyrants.

When we study passages like these verses from Matthew, we need to understand the meaning is far deeper, more audacious, and of greater power than we could ever perceive through the context of 21st Century Americana. When we begin to understand the culture and traditions of Jewish life combined with laws and expectations of the Roman Empire, we get a better perspective on what Jesus really intended. We can hear his words with the outlook of his original audience. His talk discouraging taking an eye for an eye was about human dignity as much as it was about de-escalating conflict. When interpreted with American ideals of vocabulary and syntax, what sounds like quiet resignation is actually a call of rebellion; it is a peaceful way of fighting back against the powers that be.

Over the past couple years, I have been learning more and more about what life was like when Jesus walked the earth. I'm unlearning unhealthy lessons from my youth and my perspectives are changing. What I am discovering in this process is that the Bible truly is living and active. I am finding out how the words of Jesus are bigger, better, and perhaps more wild and dangerous than I have ever known before.

6.09.2017

On the last day of school

For my kids,

Today was your last day of school and summer break has officially begun. This last year has been one of the most challenging seasons in your lives but also one of the most rewarding. You have all grown so much. Not just physically (y'all are taller) but also emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. It has been a joy watching you transform into the persons you were created to be.

Christian, your school year has perhaps been the most arduous. This is the year that everything changed - not only for you but also for all of your classmates. Gone are the days of elementary school and recess three times a day. You entered the brave new world of middle school. More teachers, more students, more text books. New things to remember like bell schedules and locker combinations. The social rules became more complex as you and all of your peers attempted to figure out where you belong in the hierarchy of popular kids, rebels, jocks, and geeks. Everyone is battling the insecurities that comes with middle school as you want to fit in and to be treated like grownups yet you're still kids.

I don't want to overlook the heartbreaks of this last year. I know how hard it is when people you thought would be a lifelong friend suddenly change and the friendship was lost. I know how much it hurts when you feel like no one understands you. I know the stress of trying and failing to keep up when it seems like your teachers set impossible standards. I've been there. You're not alone.

This has not been an easy year. Perhaps it is because of those struggles that the successes have been so much sweeter. It has been an honor to laugh with you and play with you and help you with your homework. It was a wonderful privilege to see you perform in two orchestra concerts, and to see you learn your instrument easier and quicker than I imagined. I have been astonished at the insight you have shown into the nature of life from the microcosm of your school to the grand existence of all humanity. Your tenacity in the face of adversity has been admirable. You want to save the world and after what I've seen from you this year, there is no doubt in my mind that you can do it.


Zu, my sweet girl. This is the year your chronological age reached double digits. Along with your birthday came your requests for more special rights and more responsibilities. I started allowing you to stay up later with your big brother, and even though you still fall asleep quickly after you get that extra time, you usually do so cuddling with me. You need to know that in those moments, there is nowhere else in the world I would rather be than right there with you.

Like your older brother, you faced many hurdles in school. Yet you faced them with a mix of grace, aplomb, and a healthy dose of silliness. You are on the verge of adolescence yet still clinging to childlike awe. This year, you have lived in that tension, with one foot wanting to remain in your childhood forever and the other foot longing to be older. You are one part Wonder Woman and one part Dora the Explorer. You'd probably be more like Dora except you keep misplacing your backpack. Inside this frame of a spunky girl, I see glimpses of the lady you will soon become - filled with fire, compassion, and sassy wit. It's like that Ben Folds song we both love: "You got your mamma's taste but you got my mouth."

I know I am not the only one who sees your potential. Which is a great relief to me. One of my greatest fears about being your dad is how woefully unprepared I am to be a dad with a daughter. When it comes to hair and make up and feminine stuff, I have no idea what I am doing. But I know that I don't have to do it alone because my friends all adore you. As you tackle new challenges next year and in the years to come, I know that you will have an army to support and encourage you.


JJ, the changes in you this year have been the easiest to measure. You are taller, leaner, stronger, braver and more articulate now than when the school year started. While the same is true for your brother and sister, this growth has been most obvious with you. You are a wholly different person than you were nine months ago.

Today, I see a little man. A sharp dresser with a style all your own, you insisted on wearing shorts through most of the winter - even when there was deep snow covering the ground. You are unafraid to dance when the music is playing and often bust a groove when there isn't any music to be heard. You long for autonomy - doing your homework with minimal assistance, volunteering to do chores assigned to your siblings, defining your own identity, and demonstrating scant interest in what anyone else thinks about you.

The thing that has impressed me most this last year and the biggest transformation in you is one you might not even realize you're doing. More than ever before, you are beginning to express yourself. You are attempting to communicate your feelings, your wants and needs, your hopes and fears, your dreams and passions, what makes you angry or sad, and what brings you joy. I don't have to tell you who you are because you already know, and you will not hesitate to tell me.


For all of us, this was a tough year but it was also a good year. Now the fun begins. For the first time in a long time, I am genuinely excited for summer. And I can't wait to see what next year brings.

Sincerely, Dad.

6.04.2017

What's in a Name?

Does your car have a name?

Just about eight years ago, I wrote about how we name things. Primarily homes and vehicles. I gave my first car (an '87 Acura Legend) the name Papa Smurf, but after getting married and starting a family, I was too busy naming pets and children to think about christening my transport. I even lamented the lack of monikers given to my cars in that post.

Mourn no more. If I was bummed that my transportation was nothing more than metal on wheels with no official title beyond make and model, then it was up to me to remedy that situation. Since writing the post about naming things, I set out to do just that once again.

First was a forest green Ford Explorer that wasn't in the best condition. That was "The Hooptie-Mobile." Then came a red Grand Am named "Rebel Red." After Rebel Red's engine imploded, I acquired an old silver Lexus that had some quirks. Some windows wouldn't roll down - one was bondo'd shut. The paint was peeling. The windshield wipers were slightly too big for the windshield, and the wipers only had one speed: frantic. It had something that looked like a bullet hole in the back bumper. And it did not like freeways - shuddering once it reached 50 MPH. But it worked. For a little more than a year, it got me to work, church, and the kids' schools. Thanks to some battery issues when I first got the car, I gave it the name "Ghost." It refused to turn over one morning but started up without qualms later that night. It was as if it knew I was going to have a gooey for lunch that day and insisted I walk to work to burn off the extra calories. Either that or a specter of some sort possessed it for a day, so it became the Ghost.

There is now a new car in my life. And it needs a name. Because of who I am, it deserves a truly geeky alias. Sven? Mjolnir? I don't know yet, but I am open to suggestions.


PS: It's a Honda. And the kids love it.