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Monday, May 22, 2017

Christians Under the Moonlight: Thoughts on the Movie and More.


[Spoilers Ahead]
While Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight" shoulders a strong message about the complicated realities of queer black male existence in America, the film smartly avoids any sermonizing.

Rather than lead the audience on a guided tour to "discover" what they should want for the characters, the ensemble of souls Jenkins creates are so eminently identifiable and sympathizable in their real human brokenness, we cannot help but want what they want.

And what does the movie's main protagonist want above all else?

Validation.

The story is split into three acts, each centered on Chiron, a black boy growing up in a Florida ghetto at the height of the eighties crack epidemic.

Each act represents a different period in Chiron's life, from socially isolated elementary school aged boy to same-sex attracted teenager and finally conflicted and closeted gay man, over the course of the 111-minute film.

At the mercy of a world he doesn't understand and which clearly doesn't understand him, Chiron's search for validation is borne of necessity.

Chiron's father manifests only in a solitary passing reference, and the young boy is forced to watch his working single mom and only parent transfigure into a one-track minded crack addict whose long days spent hustling for "rocks" leave little time for actual parenting.

This parental void is filled by a surprisingly paternal neighborhood drug dealer, Juan, and his live-in partner, Teresa, an irony not lost on Chiron's juvenile mind.

"Do you sell drugs?", he asks Juan.

"Yeah."

"And my mama...she do drugs, right?"

Neither he nor Juan presses the point any further.

Neither have to.

Chiron's misfit status crystallizes together with his same-sex attraction as he enters his teenage years, leaving him the impossible choice of passing as something he is not or existing on social the margins of his community, a choice familiar to many queer men of color.

Juan teaches young Chiron to swim
For Chiron, the margins are where he gets the tar beat out of him for no other reason than he's an easy, visible target.

The margins are where friends and enemies alike bury him alive under an avalanche of nicknames, slurs, and accompanying identities no young man would choose for himself.

An example of the latter is Chiron's best friend Kevin who simply calls him "Black", referencing his ebony hue in a subtle hat tip by Jenkins to colorism in the African-American community.

This psycho-social torture and physical terrorizing makes Chiron's choice to break out beyond the margins a clear one.

In a violent revenge attempt against a neighborhood bully (sure to jar viewers in its brutishness), Chiron is whisked down the pipeline out of high school and into juvenile detention, his future and outward persona radically altered.

Gone is the old Chiron, and his once lanky shy self retreats into a ripped, hard, drug-dealing body double with a potentially damaging secret burning like a fire shut up in his bones.

That is, as a teenager, Chiron and his buddy Kevin once shared an intimate moment together on the beach that reached well beyond the bounds of platonic friendship.

Despite this, when it's put up time, Kevin betrays Chiron to save his own skin (which leads to the violent episode landing Chiron in juvie) and the two lose contact.

So when Kevin calls Chiron out of the blue years later wanting to apologize for mistakes made and reconnect, the allure of closure proves too strong to resist.

Even in the light of betrayal and the passage of time, Chiron could never shake Kevin.

A symptom of his desperate search for affirmation?

An appreciation of the complexities that led to the broken bonds of friendship?

 Love?

You decide.
Kevin and Chiron on the beach.

Whatever the case, by the final scene, when Chiron rests his head on Kevin's shoulder contentedly, at peace with himself having found peace with the only person (male or otherwise) he'd ever really loved, we the audience want to want what he wants, what he never could have but finally has.

However, this poses a real problem for Bible-believing followers of Jesus who want the happiness of our gay friends and neighbors, but are unwilling to compromise on God's design for sexual relationships displayed in the conjugal marriage union.

Still, it almost seems cruel after all Chiron has endured to roll in like rain on a parade and douse the little spark of happiness he's managed to ignite.

Yet the earnest contention of the Christian faith is not "choose happiness or Christ",  but "choose happiness in Christ."

The choice between Jesus and whatever keeps you from him is a choice between whatever it is you're holding on to and something Infinitely Better.

I cannot go as far as affirming the validation Chiron finds in the arms of another man, not so much as a same-sex attracted person of color (which I am), but as a Christian (which I also am).

But in this broken visage, I see an underlying desire for wholeness all Christians will eagerly affirm as we point the way to Jesus as the summit of what it means to be at home with ourselves and to discover true wholeness at the Source.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The God Who Meets Us at the Ledge

I keep wondering where I was the precise moment his body crashed through the roof of the seventh floor.

I couldn't have missed him but by a few minutes, judging by the blood that had barely begun to pool around his head where he slammed into the smooth, solid stone floor.

What was I doing as he made his one-way climb up the elevator?

What was I thinking as he approached the ledge of the city's tallest building and took flight?

"One more hour and I'm out of here"

 Crash--7th floor.

"The weather is gorgeous"

 Crash--6th floor.

"I wish I outside"

 Crash--5th floor.

"Almost done"

 Crash--4th floor.

For the briefest moment, as I rounded the corner and found him crumpled there, it was as if I had entered an alternate reality where Death confronted me to my face and a simple service hallway now doubled as a tomb.

The light let in by the gaping hole in the ceiling made the dust shimmer and dance, coming to rest softly on the body of a man whose life ended 3 floors ago.

He was so still. I have never seen anyone so still. His stillness strangled the prayers in my throat.

"Oh, God, no." "Oh, God, please." "Please, no, God."

There would be no resurrection this time.

No miracle healing.

No happy ending.

Which made me wonder: where God was as he approached the ledge?

I am driven by the deep conviction that the God of Jesus whom we meet in the pages of Scripture does not sit in the heavens above aloof and emotionally detached from our frail human lives.

In stark contrast, God manifests Himself powerfully at the very ledge of our misery.

And while we ask what good is God at the ledge if people still jump, the question subtly reverses His role and ours.

Call me a sheep, but I confess God as the Sovereign Lord of the universe and the supreme Ground of all Good whom no man can gainsay.

His worth does not hang on how often He deals with evil and human suffering to our liking.

Our assurance instead is that He "works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will" (Eph. 1:11; emphasis mine).

He wastes nothing. Nothing is in vain.

And this is God's purpose: "He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death' or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away" (Rev. 21:4).

We know God can accomplish this because He is mighty, wise, and benevolent.

We know he will accomplish this because it's precisely what he did at the cross.

A seemingly insignificant act of human evil, whereby a Jewish peasant died for crimes he didn't commit, became the means by which death was defeated, sin slain, and countless men came to count God as their Heavenly Father.

What man intended for evil, God in His sovereign arrangement and foresight used for ultimate good.

The way God interacts with human evil and suffering is not in stopping every tragedy or wicked act.

Rather, like an artist or a craftsman, He pieces together the good and the bad into a mosaic that will one day reveal His ultimate end: the elimination of all evil and suffering through the victorious return of Jesus to the earth.

Where there is smoke there is fire. Evil and suffering are the smoke alerting us to a world on fire with sin and leaving us asking for a solution.

An old rugged cross and an empty tomb are God's answer.

God meets us at the ledge with nails marks in his hands and feet telling us he died so we don't have to.

God meets us at the ledge in the shadow of a cross victorious over the lies that make men throw themselves off 49-story buildings.

God meets us at the ledge with a promise of a future glory so weighty it makes our worst problems seem light and momentary.

While the Bible itself agrees, "yet at present we do not see everything subject to him", it reminds "we see Jesus...now crowned with glory and honor because He suffered death, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone" (Heb. 2:8-9).

God was with that man on the ledge.

And while he still chose to jump, the cross is my assurance his death will not have the final word but that of Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Why I am Not Praying for My Future Wife.

Most of us struggle with praying for the people we do know, much less people we do not!

However, years ago, a friend wrote a heartfelt letter detailing his petitions before God on behalf of his future wife--who he had yet to even meet.

Now, I will admit it: I am a cynic.

And I read his letter with a cynic's eye.

Yet, cynical as I am, I had nothing but positive regard for the thought behind his gesture.

Praying God would prepare his heart and the heart of his future wife struck me as a pious and worthwhile.

Indeed, if you listen to Contemporary Christian Music, songs like Rebecca St. James's "Wait for Me", as well as Praying for You" by Mandisa illustrate an evangelical trend of actively praying for a marriage relationship not even on the horizon.

I find this a well-intentioned way of reminding ourselves that prayer must form the locus of the Christian life.

Jesus taught his disciples to pray "thy [God's] will be done", so to pray God's will be done in the life of an unknown mate is commendable in my eyes.

So, let me explain why I am not praying for my future wife.

I think I did once or twice, but the bar was pretty low, like "Lord, can you make sure she exists. please?" and "I hope you didn't go to the wrong address!"

But, seriously, while I tend to think positively about prayers for a future Mr. or Mrs. Right, it is not something I can do.

And it is not that I do not want to get married.

I challenge you to find another 21 year old male who wants to get married and have 19 kids (no joke) like I do.

Indeed, the intensity of this possible future generated persistent feelings of "missing out" as childhood friends began marrying and starting their own families.

However, my life was altered upon being given godly counsel to think about my life and the ways I was serving God at the time and ask how that would change with the responsibilities of a marriage relationship.


Beginning to read 1 Corinthians 7 deeply with fresh eyes to see, something stirred in my heart and I had to face the possibility that I would prefer to serve the Lord as a single man.

Phrases like "free from concern", "concerned about the Lord’s affairs", "devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit", and "undivided devotion to the Lord" (vv. 32-35) in describing the single Christian had such a ring of truth and appealed to me on a deep spiritual level.

Would the singleness last for a few years, decades, or for life?

I did not know.

All I knew was that dividing my time, decisions, finances, and thoughts between God and another person in a marriage relationship was a thought that made me unhappy.

Again, it is not a matter of not wanting to be married, just that the idea of giving my "best years" to anyone but God has changed how I view the options before me.

(Also, as an aside, imagine me trying to explain this to a group of teen guys, which I did, who looked at me like I confessed to plucking the wings off butterflies and enjoying it.)

I am not praying for my future wife because I want to keep my heart open to the possibility there will not be a future wife.

And even if marriage is to come, I want to serve God now with a heart undivided, not waiting or anticipating a possible future relationship state, but using my singleness as way to bring God glory and to testify to the all-sufficiency of Christ.

If anyone takes this post as "anti-marriage" or even anti-praying-for-your-future-spouse, they are crazy.

The same Paul who wrote 1 Corinthians 7 also wrote Ephesians 5.

Jesus was single, but he affirmed the sacred, divine origin of the marriage bond.

Some of the godliest and most inspiring believers I know are modern-day Priscillas and Aquillas who have mentored and supported me.

I thank God for them.

At the same time, I believe God is still calling folks like the Apostle Paul and others who, as the Lord Jesus said and did, will "make themselves Eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of God".

Wrestling with the conviction that such a person is me, I have tabled preparation for a future relationship in favor of meeting God where I am and asking Him to use me as I am, no strings attached, for however long my present state brings Him glory. 

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Priority Number One: "Beauty and the Beast" and Gays.

It's been 60 years since the Sexual Revolution, 9 years since the defeat of Proposition 8, and 2 years since gay marriage went national, and gay people still have the gall to keep existing!
 
Indeed, they not only continue to exist, but insist on showcasing their deviant way of life on television and in the cinema, known to all as the Last Refuges of all things wholesome.


I hear the new flick "50 Shades Darker" is all about the benefit of being disciplined!



Oh, wait.

A different kind of discipline?



Nevermind...


But, seriously, all this gay stuff is getting out of hand.

How are families across America supposed to enjoy the copious straight fornication in "How to Get Away with Murder", for example, with interruptions from the charming Connor Walsh (Jack Falahee) and all his meddlesome gay fornication (an actual thing I heard, by the way)?


This is it, folks. Sodom and Gomorrah.


Helming this rainbow train of moral decrepitude is Disney, which recently snuck a gay kiss scene into one of its cartoon TV shows and will feature a gay romance in the upcoming live-action remake of "Beauty and the Beast".


Call Nana, call the youth group, call your Christian Mingle date--movie night is cancelled!



Wait a second, everyone, never fear, the Evangelicals are here!

Yes, the Evangelicals, the ultimate arbiters of moral values and duties (with paid time off during election years).


We've stopped burning library copies of "The Shack" long enough to focus our moral energy on Disney's homo-ness with all the intensity of some kind of righteous Care Bear Stare.


No one less than the fiery son of evangelist Billy Graham, Franklin, has already called for a Christian boycott of the film and it's "LGBT agenda".


Ah, the venerable Franklin Graham.



You remember Frank, don't you?

Or, as his friends like to call him, the Charles Martel of Evangelicalism who, when not demonizing gay people, spends his time demonizing Muslims:


"We are under attack by Muslims at home and abroad. We should stop all immigration of Muslims to the U.S. until this threat with Islam has been settled. Every Muslim that comes into this country has the potential to be radicalized--and they do their killing to honor their religion and Muhammad. During World War 2, we didn't allow Japanese to immigrate to America, nor did we allow Germans. Why are we allowing Muslims now?"


After the Jihadist inspired shooting that killed four in Chattanooga, while all the fake "liberal" Christians advocated against sweeping generalizations and rising tensions, Graham knew that what the raging fire of our country's division really needed was some kerosene.


And with gas can in hand, he was apparently just the man for the job!


Lest we forget, it was Graham who helped us refocus the issues when Donald Trump was found to have bragged about groping women and trying to cheat on his wife with married women.


"No one is giving him a pass", Graham wrote.


Yeah, guys, Franklin Graham definitely did not give Donald Trump a pass.


I mean, sure, he voted for him and all, but did you see that stern Facebook post he wrote?



He even used the word "inexcusable."


Mmmm. Courage.


Joining Graham in the holy war is One Million Moms (a project arm of the American Family Association) whose sterling record in the war against having to see gay people is renowned.

You'll recall it was One Million Moms who tried to force J.C. Penny to fire its spokeswoman Ellen Degeneres because....wait...lemme check my notes...one moment...oh, that right: she's a lesbian! 


"Funny that JC Penney thinks hiring an open homosexual spokesperson will help their business", the group wrote, continuing, "More sales will be lost than gained unless they replace their spokesperson quickly."


Because apparently it's okay to buy clothes designed by gay people as long you don't have to see their faces on TV.


LifeSiteNews, family associations across the nation, and at least one drive-in theater have also made it clear they will not stand for the advance of the Gay Agenda, even in the form of a tiny gay subplot in a movie overwhelmingly about a beauty and a beast.


And all God's people said: are you kidding?


While I believe the crusaders on the religious right believe they are fighting the good fight, it's the very battles they choose that condemn them.


We just look so silly.


And not the self-sacrificial, full of grace and truth, love your neighbor, advance the Kingdom of God at your expense kind of silliness that pleases God and confuses the world.


It's the kind of silliness of a people who cannot bear that they've lost a country that was never ever theirs to begin with, to the extent that the same people so up-in-arms about fake sexual sin (and, yes, I believe homosexual behavior is sin), supported a man with a flagrant history of real sexual sin in the hopes of power.


Sounds so familiar...

This isn't about Christianity, or the Church, or Jesus, or the Bible; it's about a worldly power struggle Jesus himself refused to indulge.


We live in a free, modern, liberal democracy where everyone can express themselves, whether in media or sitting next to you at the Waffle House, with unparalleled freedom.

This means that, as Christians, we will be surrounded by things that contradict our convictions, including same-sex relationships.


I do not begrudge anyone for not seeing a movie because it upsets their conscience, nor do I disagree with those who find the addition of a gay subplot in "Beauty and the Beast" odd, if not extraneous.


But don't make this about Christianity.


We are surrounded by sin and compromise in our churches, in our communities, and in our families, yet we embarrass ourselves by freaking out at anything related to the "normalization" of gay people.


Of course, we should not support what the Bible clearly says is sinful.


Yet how deeply troubling that we seem more concerned about safeguarding our beloved childhood tales than with safeguarding the Faith against the seduction of power.


When will we wake up and recognize we the builders of a New Kingdom, not the clean up crew for this old one?



See you at the movies.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Spare the Rod? Why Christians Spank Their Kids.

Young me was spanked very infrequently, a smattering of spankings probably numbering less than 10 my entire childhood.

My home was also Christian in the sense that my parents were devout believers, raised my siblings and I to know Jesus, and took us to church every Sunday.

However, in my estimation, fatigue, not faith, made the difference between the few spankings I received compared to my siblings (as the last of six children, my parents were simply spanked-out and lenient).

Indeed, according to the data, evangelical Christians like my parents spank more than the non-Christian population, suggesting a positive correlation between this dynamic, biblically-based brand of Christianity and corporal punishment.

Yet and still, spanking itself has taken a hit in the past few decades due to stigma and study after study failing to find any benefits of this trusted form of correction.

Particularly significant is a 2016 meta-analysis of 75 studies ranging over 50 years which found “no evidence that spanking is associated with improved child behavior.”

So if the data suggests spanking does not work, why do Christians continue to spank, and that at a rate 15% higher than non-believers?

As an evangelical “insider”, I offer three possible reasons:

First, tradition.

Any "Fiddler on the Roof" fans ("Tradition, tradition..." )?

Spanking with its long history is embedded in our cultural psyche.

Furthermore, a quick inductive observation suggests spanking runs in the family.

If you were spanked, it is likely whichever parent spanked you was also spanked and that whichever parent spanked them was spanked and so on.

The common refrain is “I was spanked and I turned out fine.”

Fair enough.

The aforementioned meta-analysis did find spanking “associated with increased risk of…detrimental outcomes”, but noted that such associations were “small” and cannot be said to alone account for the outcomes they were associated with.

As long as we’re not talking about beating a child (think Adrian Peterson) or otherwise inflicting injury, I assume most Christian anecdotally draw on their experiences having been spanked and whatever benefit they perceive came from them and simply make their decision to spank on that basis.

Second, a perceived association between non-spanking and culturally conditioned or liberal forms of child rearing that challenge biblical thinking.

Highly regarded preacher and former seminary professor John Piper (who is very pro corporal punishment) had this to say about the origins of no-spanking thought:

“The heart of the issue is: Why does this person feel this way? What worldview inclines a person to think that you shouldn't spank a child? Where does that come from? Well it comes straight out of this culture…”

Reformed New Testament scholar Thomas Schreiner, reviewing a book on spanking, “wonders” if the no spanking author (himself a Christian) “is prone to domesticating the Bible to fit modern conceptions”, adding “God’s Word does not necessarily fit the cultural mores and thought conventions of our day.”

He further cautions the author against "land[ing] in the lap of liberalism.”

Examples can be multiplied, but as long as the case against spanking can be linked to liberalism and cultural accommodation in the minds of Evangelicals, they will most likely stick to their...spoons?

Third, (as implied above) the Bible.

No less than four biblical texts speak positively about corporal punishment, each located in the book of Proverbs.

While some (including myself) question a literal application of these passages, surely these proverbs would have been understood literally by the ancient community that received them.

And with a similar understanding in place, present-day evangelicals have paddled away.

Writing for Focus on the Family, Chip Ingram states, “[r]egardless of the method, the Bible's word on discipline clearly demands that parents be responsible and diligent in spanking, but strongly prohibits physical abuse of any kind.”

Dr. Paul D. Wegner, professor of Old Testament at Phoenix Seminary, makes a nuanced and more scholarly case for corporal punishment in his article subtitled “To Spank or not to Spank” published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society.

John Piper writes plainly, “If Jesus were married and had children, I think he would have spanked the children”, citing the teachings in Proverbs.

When it comes to their children, evangelicals prioritize the Bible, which has meant prioritizing spanking.

I don’t desire to debate the merits of spanking or the biblical case for it here.

I plan on not spanking whatever children I have because I was hardly spanked (the power of tradition!) and I don’t think it has any compelling benefits.

Furthermore, paddling or swatting blurs the line between force and violence too much for this pacifist.

I mean, would Jesus spank the children?

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Forever.


In a moment, my life was over and yet had only just begun. 

From black to light in an impossible moment everything changed and the first thing I beheld: his face. I’d never seen him before; I’d seen him a million times. In the days of my fears, in the days of pain, loss, and sin—great sin—I’d seen him.  

A laugh catches in my throat and the tears pour. How do I move? Where do I go? Do I reach for him? Do I just stay here on the green grass of Paradise melting? 

He doesn’t wait. For me to decide. He never did. The only thing louder than my sobs, the beat of his heart. The heart that stopped for me. When he said it is finished. How long were we there? A minute? A lifetime? He says my name. My name. He knows my name. I could stay here forever. Forever. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Learn War No More: Christians in the Military as Proof of Apostasy.

When the Church sends its young people off to war, that is apostasy and it should concern all of us.

The U.S. Department of Defense issued a report on the religious affiliation of Active Duty personnel serving in the U.S. armed forces, revealing "[a]bout 7 out of 10 (69.8%) active-duty service members identified as Christian in 2014, according to the Defense Department. They range from 345,888 non-denominational Christians to two members of the European Free Churches

The survey was voluntary, so one can expect the number of religious personnel in any religious demographic to be higher than reported.

Of the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ: 10,700 service members.

Of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ): 7084 service members.

Of the Church of Christ: 10,776.

That equals 28,550 service member from the Restoration Movement tradition, a reality that grieves my heart deeply.

While a simple survey fails to gauge the spiritual depth and maturity of any Christian, what bothers me is that be the numbers an accurate reflection of Christian commitment among military men or not, the evangelical, Bible-believing churches of America have decided that to serve a worldly government in its army, the pinnacle of national idolatry, being willing to serve and die for one's country, is tolerable if not laudable.

This is a strange and twisted irony for the followers of the Prince of Peace.

In many Christian circles, few things are more sacred than the soldier.

A soldier can get a congregation to its feet quicker than a praise song or a baptism in some places.

I grew up in church hearing things like, "only two people were ever willing to die for you: Jesus Christ and the American soldier."

I stood inside a giant scaffolding flag erected inside of a church building to honor a service which Jesus Christ did away with when he told Peter to put his sword back in its place.

We drape the American flag on the cross of Christ and send our young people off to military with a prayer and our blessing.

We valorize and lionize military service while reading over the Bible's admonishment to live at peace with everyone, to not return violence for violence, and to love one's enemies.

While the willingness of a person to die for a cause may be admirable, the practical working out of that willingness is not necessarily so.

Such is the case with followers of Christ in the military.

Jesus refused to kill or take up arms against his enemies, as did the apostles and other New Testament Christians, the apostolic Fathers, and other early church fathers up until around the fourth century..

They viewed themselves as a separate people with a different calling.

As late as the Council of Nicaea in 325, re-joining the military after conversion could mean 13 years--yes, years--of church discipline (see Canon 12 of the Council of Nicaea).

You can scour the New Testament for every verse that explains how Christians should treat their enemies and you will come up empty for any verse justifying military service and all that entails.

On the contrary, Jesus tells us that his Kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36), which is under the immediate rulership of Satan (1 John 5:19) through his temporary ownership of all the world's earthly kindgoms (Luke 4:5-7).

We respect earthly government as God's way of preserving order and justice (see Romans 13) but it lies outside of the "perfection of Christ" and is not an option for Christians.

For professing Christians to make up the majority of the U.S. military and for the majority of Christian denominations to tolerate if not approve of military service for Christians is to our deep shame.

Indeed, is is my shame because this sin is my sin.

I sang the patriotic songs.

I stood to my feet in praise of soldiers and soldiering.

I pledged allegiance to the flag.

I believed and spread the lie.

This apostate form of Christianity is as much my problem and fault as anyone else.

I carry that burden.

But it does not have to continue this way.

The Church always has and will always have the ability to return to sound doctrine--up to a point.

It starts with personal repentance followed by congregational accountability and solidarity.

Even while some Christians are feeling more comfortable than ever with the current state of politics,  I see a remnant who are saying no to nationalism, militarism, politicism, and seeking to understand what it means to pray "they Kingdom come."

May their tribe increase. Before it is too late.