23 Blast: Blinded Teenager Learns To Play, Live Again (Movie Review)

Travis Freeman, a real-life teenager from Corbin, KY., goes blind overnight, throwing his world into darkness and impacting the lives of those in his family, on his football team, and within the community. But this is a bigger-than-Hollywood kind of sports story, the kind even Disney couldn’t dream up, as Freeman (played by Mark Hafka) decides that playing it safe is not an option.

Dylan Baker, known best for his roles in the Tobey Maguire Spiderman films, The Good Wife, and Damages, makes his directorial debut, teaming with Bram Hoover, a Corbin, KY. native, who wrote the script about Freeman’s life and co-stars as Freeman’s childhood friend, Jerry. These two, along with a cast-against-type Stephen Lang as a good guy, motivational Coach Farris, take us on a story that uses humor and football to navigate through a story about losing it all and finding a new way forward. [Seriously, it’s amazing that there are some Scent of a Woman-like funny moments to a movie that is otherwise about

In addition to the dynamics involved with Freeman’s blindness, there’s an ongoing side story about how Coach Farris handles Jerry, who is the team’s starting quarterback, a troublemaker, and unable to remember the plays he is supposed to call! Farris grinds against the expectations of Corbin’s athletic director, Duncan (Timothy Busfield), and the Friday Night Lights-like pressure of high school football in the state of Kentucky. There’s a sense that if the two childhood friends are going to make it, they’re going to need each other.

Thankfully, they’re not alone.

Alex PenaVega (Spy KidsThe Remaining) plays Ashley, a fellow Corbin High student, who has admired Freeman from afar, and becomes one of the few people to seek him out in his recovery; Becky Ann Baker (the director’s wife) plays an advocate for those with disabilities and Freeman’s rehabilitation coach, Patty Wheatley, who refuses to let him stay down when he first goes blind. Both of these women prove to be steadying influences in the Freemans’ lives, even as Freeman’s parents (Baker and Kim Zimmer) find themselves incapacitated by their son’s struggle.

Most of us are going to find ourselves encountering roadblocks to our happiness, our way of life, and our hopes and dreams. 23 Blast asks us to consider how we respond to those challenges, and what we would do to overcome them. The fact that Freeman overcomes life and football makes this a feature film, but if Freeman can overcome blindness, what have you deemed too tough to overcome that you should be fighting? If you’re fully capable, what are you doing to be a support to someone who needs it? If you’re a person of faith, what witness do you share when you’re facing adversity?

23 Blast is entertaining, funny and poignant, but don’t let it fool you: it has a message that it wants you to hear loud and clear.

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The Judge: What Lies Do We Tell Ourselves (Movie Review)

The Judge makes me want to be a better dad.

Like a sequence out of the Old Testament (the feud between Jacob and Esau, the favoritism toward Joseph and its consequences), the screenplay by Nick Schenk (Gran Turino) digs into the family dynamics of the Palmer family in Carlinsville, Indiana, upon the death of the matriarch. Successful trial attorney Hank Palmer (Robert Downey, Jr.) returns home to pay his respects, but ends up embroiled in a small-town murder trial when his father, the Honorable Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), is tried for the hit-and-run of a convicted murderer. While the story follows a John Grisham-like process through the investigation and trial (thanks to a solid delivery by Billy Bob Thornton as the state’s prosecutor), it ultimately comes down to family and what it means to reconcile.

I’m rarely offended by vocabulary in a film, but The Judge seemed intent to beat us with the bombastic way that the Palmers interact with each other, as well as with the judge’s other sons (Vincent D’Onofrio and Jeremy Strong). These men have made a living and a life out of their use of words, but when it comes to each other, they are mean spirited, stubborn, and vicious. It’s clear in their ability to ignore each other and to scream at each other, and it stems from several situations in their past that are gradually drawn out through the course of the movie. But love? Love appears to have nothing to do with this!

Love does have something to do with the side story about Hank and his high school sweetheart, Samantha (Vera Farmiga), and the way that each of them has seen love and lost it through the time since they parted. Samantha tells Hank that there are stories (lies, really) we tell ourselves to feel better, and he asks her what lies she would tell him– it’s a moment when we can recognize that, for all the words spoken by a Palmer, there is so much left unsaid and unanswered in the course of their lives. There’s a divisiveness to their family because of what they don’t talk about even as they seem to talk, yell, and argue so much.

The film itself blends humor (it’s a terribly funny movie at times) and some of our most serious experiences (the death of a parent, care for the aging, divorce, parenthood, etc.) into a story that touches on it all. Unfortunately, it’s a little choppy; it may actually try to do too much in the course of its two-hour-plus run time. But it’s ultimately a deeply effective movie in getting us to think about our own relationships with parents, spouses, and children. (Moments after the film was over, the group I went with stood speechless in a circle, unsure where to begin!) The truth is that everything would have been different if one of the two Palmers at the center of our story would’ve been willing to budge, but both of them believe that the other has committed great offense to them, that anger is the appropriate response to what holds them apart. The reality is that we are often too proud to be the first one to admit we made a mistake.

Walking away from the theater, I wanted to hug my kids tighter, and be less critical; I wanted to tell my wife I love her, and that we’re in it for the long haul. To me, that’s a successful film, if it can make you think, and process, and forgive. That’s story, scriptural or cinematic, and it’s the lifeblood of the lessons we learn and the hope we have for change.

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Samson’s Story: 4th & Long (Sunday’s Sermon Today)

Some stories we read because they inspire us and lift us up; some stories we tell because they warn of what could be if we continue down the path that we’re currently on. Some stories, like Samson’s, are a beautiful blend of both.

Samson’s story begins like so many others in the Bible: a childless couple is visited by an angel who tells them that they will have a child. But this child comes with stipulations: he will grow up a Nazirite, a people set apart for God who will not drink wine or eat bad food, and who will never shave his head. Isn’t it ironic that anytime there’s a “you will not do this,” there’s always a time when that very thing happens?

The man and his wife are quite intentional about obeying the rules that God has laid out. They even go so far as to seek out the advise of God in how to best parent this child– and it’s evident in the ways that they raised him to behave. But again, we all know that the best parenting can still lead to problems, that we all have a mind of our own and we don’t always listen to good advice.

Initially, it says that “He grew and the Lord blessed him, and the Spirit of the Lord began to stir him” (Judges 13:24-25). Initially, Samson was ‘the man after God’s own heart’ that we see in Abraham, David, the disciples, etc. Now, none of them were without their times of struggle and Samson is no different.

Somehow, Samson went from Godfearing and Godpleasing to Samsonpleasing and a sense of false fearlessness. Somehow, Samson saw his strength and power as a shield of invincibility that meant he was untouchable. Somehow, Samson, like many of us, got caught up in the grind, the typical, and lost sight of the miraculous and the amazing… and the Godly.

I don’t know if you’ve ever felt this way, but these are the words of a real-life person struggling with their faith, and where they stand in the world. I wonder, if Samson would’ve been the writing, expressive type, if he would’ve written this:

I used to be deeply involved in my [faith community] and committed to my faith. I started to find I believed a little–or a lot–differently from my friends. When I talked about these changes, people didn’t know what to do with me. I’ve been trying to figure out how to deal with my new questions and old relationships and have felt lost, but also freer. I had no idea there were other people like me struggling with the same thing. (from Faith Shift by Kathy Escobar)

Or, maybe Samson was just a dumb jock and he blundered into the stories that follow…

One day, Samson went to a Philistine city (somewhere he shouldn’t have been) and saw a young woman there (who he shouldn’t have been looking at) who he told his parents was “the one” (who he shouldn’t have even considered!) (Judges 14:1-4). They tried to talk him out of it- to marry a woman of his own race and religion, but he would have none of it. An aside tells us that God himself had fed this desire in Samson’s heart because he wanted to use Samson to overthrow the Philistines. Sometimes, God lets us run the course of our rabbit hole meandering, because we need to figure it out for ourselves– and God is no puppet master.

The first feat of Samson, like Hercules, comes soon after, when he tears apart a lion with the Spirit of the Lord upon him; he later returns to the site and finds honey bees have created a honeycomb inside the lion’s carcass and he eats some. He’s so tickled by the situation that he tells a riddle to the men of his new wife’s town; when they’re unable to answer it, they convince his wife to find out the answer and reveal it to them. Upon discovering that he’s been betrayed, Samson rampages to a neighboring town and kills thirty men there to achieve the promised reward for the men who solved the riddle.

The second feat is just as vindictive: when Samson’s new father-in-law gives his wife away to a second man, Samson is so angry that he ties three hundred foxes to lit torches and sends them running through the fields and vineyards of the Philistines, burning them all to the ground. The Philistines respond violently, killing his wife and her father, and Samson hides in his own hometown. When his neighbors see that the Philistines intend to find Samson by whatever means possible, they whine to him that he must turn himself in. He lets them take him prisoner, and when he’s brought to the Philistines, his third feat is unleashed.

There, the man upon whom God’s favor rests snatches up the jawbone of a donkey, and slays a thousand men. For his troubles, Samson was rewarded by leading the Israelites for twenty years. And the Philistines keep trying to find ways to remove him as a threat because they can’t seem to stop him. So the Philistines employ a beautiful woman named Delilah to seduce, entrap, and conquer Samson- they know his fondness for women, but they don’t know that they will set in motion the story that leads to Samson’s third and final feat.

Delilah sets out to find out what the source of Samson’s strength is. Three times, Samson gives her the wrong answer, she reports back to the Philistines, and they fail to defeat him; he finally relents and tells her that he can’t ever cut his hair, and, while he sleeps, they shave him bald. His power has been muffled, stripped from him, like Superman in the presence of green Kryptonite. As he lies there helplessly, these men who have longed for revenge gouge out his eyes and lead him away in shackles. He is put to work as cattle would be, driving the wheel for grinding with his strength, reduced, like the prodigal son, to the work of something less than human, a reminder that the spirit of the Lord is no longer upon him.

We don’t know for exactly how long he sweats all day, taunted and beaten; we don’t know how many nights he lay there in the dark, which wouldn’t have been any different than his days, only lonelier; we don’t know what he thought about, whether it was repentant or angry or a combination of both. But we can imagine.

Then, one day, the Philistines drag Samson to entertain the guests at a party, to gloat and celebrate how they have defeated the mighty champion of the Israelites. They see that he’s blinded, in chains, and beaten, and they assume that he is finished, without threat, or power. But Samson prays- the first time we see him pray- “Sovereign Lord, remember me. Please, God, strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes.”

That one prayer restores his strength but not his sight; in that one prayer, he is returned to his supernatural strength, his Hulk-like power, and with one final effort, he brings the entire house down on himself, on the officials and politicians, on his enemies and the enemies of God. In that final moment, Samson’s vision, if not his sight, was restored and he remembered who he was. This is a defining moment- a spark where Samson recognizes whose he is, who made him, and what God called him to be.

Ultimately, when it mattered most, Samson remembered the prayers his parents had taught him, remembered who he was and whose he was, and he acted in faith that God would give him the victory. It’s a story that inspires us to believe inspire of the odds… and reminds us of the cost when we fail to follow through when we know what we’re supposed to be doing.

It’s ironic: sometimes when we can’t do what we’re used to, whether it’s get out of bed in the morning (because we’re sick), or go the places we want to (because a car is in the shop), or do what we want to do (because we lack the money), we sit around and examine our own lives and see things the way they are for the first time. Sometimes, we need a good long look in the mirror of our souls where we really are, who we really are, and what needs to change.

I imagine it’s what was going on inside the heart of Samson, when he was blinded. I imagine he saw his pride and lusts and apathy that had governed his decision making. I imagine that he recognized that the good things he had been made for, ruling over his people justly, leading them well, battling evil in the form of the Philistines- that somehow what had started off good had corrupted him, and gone to his head. I imagine he remembered the songs and Scriptures his parents had taught him. I imagine he remembered what it was like to have the Holy Spirit come upon him in power… and how it felt when he was without it.

I wonder if we don’t need our own moment of introspection, our own reflection over our own spiritual inventory. Are we living in the grace of God or are we just faking it? Are we really following what God wants for our lives, doing what Jesus would do if he were us? Are we rising above the challenges that the world throws at us… or are we bogged down by the inconsequential and unimportant?

In Romans 8:31-39, Paul reminds us that God is with us, that we are more than conquerors because God is with us. It’s the kind of truth that I believe Samson remembered, standing chained and blinded between the pillars of that palace. I’m sure he could’ve been bogged down in what might’ve been, in what he should’ve done. I’m sure there were plenty of moments of self-pity, apathy, and grief.

But in the closing moments of his life, Samson made a choice. He made a choice to go for it, to believe that God was in charge and to give it all he had. It’s the kind of moment that begs a sports analogy…

It’s the baseball team down to its final out that sends its most experienced but wounded player to the plate.

It’s the soccer team that finds it all rests on this last penalty shot, and the only player left is hanging on with a badly sprained ankle.

It’s the football team whose season hangs in the balance, too far to throw it or kick it, the team that recognizes that it must go for it on fourth and long.

Paul understood the stakes. He knew that as he approached the end of his life, there was nothing else that mattered as much as following Jesus. He believed that in Jesus, nothing could separate him from the love of God.

Samson understood the stakes. He’d been shamed, wounded, and humbled, but he had one more round in him. He was like the quarterback recognizing that the other team is chomping at the bit, bringing the blitz, as the clock is clicking toward zero, and it’s fourth and long.

For so long, Samson had lost sight of what was really important. He’d put more stock in what he could do than in who gave him the power to do it; he’d forgotten the lessons of his childhood, the way he was supposed to act, and instead fallen for believing that he could do whatever he wanted. Samson had fallen in love with his own exploits, succumbed to the pride of what he’d done. Samson had been blinded by his own reputation, deafened by what others had to say in praise of his mighty feats.

But when it mattered most, when he could make things right again, he would go for it on fourth and long, with nothing in himself to cling to and everything on the grace and mercy of God. That’s how Samson’s story of dire warnings for us about pride, lust, and faithlessness, turns into an inspirational story of power and faith. [It’s why my friends, the Merritts, chose to make their athletic line of Christian-inspired shirts www.7samson.com because Samson was a flawed warrior, but one who can inspire us to do and be more.

Samson went blind so that he could really see. But he finally recognizes that his place, his purpose, was tied to fighting for God against the Philistines. That was his job, what he was put on earth to do, and it was not too late for him to be that person. He’d spent so long chasing things that didn’t matter like pleasure and the praise of others, but that he could still be faithful even after all he’d done and focus on the audience of one.

And in the moment when it mattered most, he prayed- and God delivered.

So what do you see when you inspect yourself? When you look into your spiritual mirror, what’s needs to change? What has God put you here for and what are you doing about it? Have you been faithful for so long that one more thing seems to be a stretch or are you simply trying to figure out how to make time to be at church week after week? Is it the big things that you are called to seek or is it merely getting the little things in order, one by one?

Too often, we fall for thinking that just showing up in church is enough. We give God that hour a week, and figure we’ve checked it off our lists. But there are some dangerous truths in the story of Samson.

You can be baptized, consecrated to God, and still not be a follower of God.

You can show up on Sunday morning and say all the right things, but if your life doesn’t reflect what your lips say during worship, it doesn’t really matter.

You can be a ‘good person’ your whole life, and when the clock is ticking down to zero, you can still not have anywhere to stand.

Samson knew his words and deeds had to go together. In James 2, the apostle writes, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” Samson knew faith needed to be met by actions, by a life lived to the glory of God.

Sure, this is Old Testament action, the battle between good and evil played out in a war. Our war isn’t physical, us versus them, but against selfishness, against oppression, and addiction, and hunger, and hopelessness, against apathy and thinking that this is all about us.

We know that God wrote a new chapter in the way that people understand good versus evil when he sent Jesus. Sure, Jesus preached about how to let go of the things that hold us back and spent time with people working out their issues. But when push comes to shove, Jesus hung there nailed to a cross and in his defining moment, on fourth and long, he chose to die. Unlike Samson, he didn’t take his enemies to death with him, but instead, gave them a shot at eternal life. Jesus made the cross an emblem of freedom, an emblem of death-to-life, a reminder that while the hopelessness of our sin and death can feel overwhelming… this isn’t how the story ends.

Earlier, before his crucifixion, in Matthew 16, Jesus said that whoever wanted to follow him needed to take their cross up and daily, to put down all of the other junk they’d been carrying so that they could be fully “in” with him. It sounded good- but then Jesus went out and made the cross even more than a symbol. He made the cross in itself a defining moment, one that we’re supposed to wrestle with for ourselves.

Are you wrestling with it? Do you consider the defining moments of Samson and Jesus’ life and see places where you chose wrong, or right? What are you going to do about it?

Ultimately, the story of Samson leads us to more questions about ourselves. I can answer them for you, but only for myself. But I think we’re called to pray about them, to consider them, and figure out how we can move forward in faith to love God better.

What do you need to put down? What do you need to be blinded from so that you can see God? What needs to happen for you to recognize that time is of the essence because God can use you to help bring the kingdom of God upon the earth?

Are you committed? Are you fully present to God, to contribute your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness? Or are you holding something back, content just to check the whole church thing, the whole belief thing, off the list, or are you really engaged, the way Samson initially was, bathed in the Holy Spirit of God?

It’s fourth and long. Ball is snapped, it’s time to make a decision. Are you ready to stand up and be counted?

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Amy Simpson’s Anxious: Tackling Worry, Anxiety, & Fear (Book Review)

Amy Simpson, author of Troubled Minds, tackles the layers of worry, anxiety, and fear in her latest book, Anxious: Choosing Faith in a World of Worry. From the get go, she’s clear that a faithful focus doesn’t replace counseling or medicine as means to caring for oneself or one’s family, but she’s firm in her understanding that we often try to take on more of life than we’re supposed to. In fact, Simpson writes that “a castle of our own, erected by our own pride, forms a wall between us and God, and must be dismantled lovingly by a generous King who invites us into his kingdom, a kingdom that needs no wall, a fortress of impenetrable strength, a place of welcome and love and beauty and peace that will never be abandoned” (11). This is the kingdom that Simpson hopes we’ll live into, if we’ll take up faith and put down the three emotional struggles we often pick up instead.

Just to be straightforward, Simpson doesn’t act like fear is always artificial (or even bad). But she does write that when we worry, we become obsessed “with seeking to live in God’s domain, to be like God in ways you weren’t created to be” (23). This worry is something that she says is conditioned into us, often by the culture around us, in terms of characteristics like “civic worry,” an overabundance of information, and social media, but regardless of their origins, they damage us. It’s these situations that Simpson provides examples of (as in the case of substituting for the Sunday School class) that tie her proposals to the real world we live in and can relate to more often than not.

While Simpson does lay out theories and practical steps for us to escape our dangerous patterns, she brings it back to the place we have in God’s plan for the world. She quotes Scripture, and connects the story to the Biblical narrative in a stream of faithful people who followed God even in the midst of danger and stress. This includes one of my favorites, Philippians 4:6-7, “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.” And that’s just it: Simpson doesn’t imply that we’ll get what we want or that the situations we’re in will change, but she challenges us to change our approach and outlook on those situations.

Anxious: Choosing Faith in a World of Worry is a quick read but a thought-provoking one, and Simpson ties the theoretical with the practical, the theological with the actual. It’s a book we need in a today’s world and we’d all be better for it. As Francois de Fenelon says, as quoted here, “The future is not yet yours; it may never be. Live in the present moment. Tomorrow’s grace is not given to you today. The present moment is the only place where you can touch the eternal realm.”

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Fury: The Unglory Of War & The Nature Of Man (Movie Review)

I’m no war movie buff. But the experience of Fury is rattling around in my soul like a live grenade inside the belly of a tank. Explosive and tension filled, the film pushes war into the forefront of our vision but puts us in the position to decide for ourselves how deeply we will let the introspection go. As graphic as Lone Survivor and yet as emotionally exploratory as Zero Dark ThirtyFury combines a terrific writer/directorial effort by David Ayer (Training DayEnd of Watch) with lifetime best level performances by Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Pena, and Jon Bernthal. Welcome to Oscar season? More likely, this is an introduction to one of the greatest war films of all time.

In the opening vignette, Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Pitt) takes down an S.S. officer in a scene reminiscent of the lull-you-to-sleep-and-then-pounce of films like DriveMystic River, and A History of Violence. That knot at the pit of your stomach clenches before we even know where we’re going, and it lasts well past the closing credits. Under Collier’s watchful eye, experienced soldiers “Bible” (LaBeouf), “Gordo” (Pena), and “Coon-Ass” (Bernthal) ‘welcome’ the green, former typist Norman Ellison (Lerman, Noah) to be the assistant driver of their tank, Fury. We’re tense because they are almost constantly under fire from German forces at the end of World War II in 1945, but also because of the dichotomy of Ellison’s sense of right and wrong in war and that of the more experienced soldiers.

Several scenes stand out, which I will not divulge too much of now, but which should be referenced. There’s the case of a surrendered Nazi and Collier’s judgment that to become a man, a soldier, and a warrior, that Ellison must be the one to execute him because it’s either the Nazi dies or Ellison does. There’s the occupation of a German town, and the subsequent display of how the soldiers handle the possessions and people left behind, that left me wanting to close my eyes out of sheer anticipation of what could happen. And there is the final battle more than hinted at in the trailer where the Fury’s crew must decide their own fates at a crossroads.

I want to dive into the theology and spirit of the film, from Bible’s quotations to the various conversations the men have. But it’s clearly a movie filled with style (a blending of ‘old school’ John Wayne war flicks with Ayer’s own sense of violence and culture) and historical knowledge of situations and real experiences. It’s scored well by Steven Price (Gravity, Academy Award for Best Score) and shot well, by Russian cinematographer Roman Vasyanov, who also worked The East and End of Watch. It’s the reminder that Pitt’s smolder can be the engine to drive a movie, that LaBeouf is more than a plagiarist, that Lerman’s turn in Noah as a tormented son was merely the beginning. But there’s too much not to get to with the concepts and ideologies.

Sure, war is hell (thank you, General Sherman), but other movies have already emphasized that. Fury hones in on what it actually does to a man’s heart and soul. We see the ideology of Bible, in the way he prays with dying soldiers and tells the crew that God has called them to this, that they see their own calling in battling back the German forces. We see it in the way that Collier proves noble at times and vicious in others. We see it in the way that Coon-Ass (I prefer ‘Animal’) sees something in Ellison that he admires but can’t bring himself to embrace. We see it in the realization that Collier holds that God’s grace keeps them alive, not luck.

Fury is an extrapolation of “there are no atheists in foxholes,” but it goes deeper into what they believe as they try to numb their minds to the men they’ve killed and justify for themselves why God exists and this violence could happen in and through them. It’s a reminder that war isn’t cool or fun or glorious but rather the least human situation humankind finds itself in, aiming weapons against another human being with the intent to push them out of existence. It’s a staunchly different picture than those films that gratify violence by unmarked ‘heroes’ and seem to say that pointing a gun at another human being and firing is somehow easy. Instead, we find ourselves wondering whether the war makes the men behave the way they do or if war instead that vehicle that unlocks in them what is already there.

All of this leads to basic theological questions like “what is humankind’s true nature?” and “How can I be a person of faith in the midst of violence?” We see it when Bible asks Ellison if he is saved and Ellison tells him he’s been baptized; Bible tells him that those aren’t the same thing, but that Ellison should be prepared to see the worst of what a human being could do to another. [I'd argue that Ellison sees both over the course of the film.] I sensed at one point, no, several points, that Ayer’s was asking us to consider humanity and not just American patriotism or anti-Nazi fervor.

I should briefly reference Joyeux Noel…(and say that I found myself wrestling with themes identified in Zero Dark Thirty) as I considered the justice of what the soldiers were called to do and the sacrifice which they give in terms of their spiritual and physical lives. It’s too simplistic to make it Ellison’s newbie versus Collier’s wizened veteran because Ayer’s depictions are too nuanced. It’s also a question of how we are driven by our faith, our hope, and our beliefs to justify behavior, ours or others, in holy wars and everyday decisions.

This is humanity, this is war, and this is life.

And we could all learn about ourselves if we considered the decisions we make about how our actions impact others, how we value life, and ultimately, what we believe in.


SPOILER: Read only if you don’t care or have already seen it!

The last shot, of the defeated, broken, and ultimately abandoned tank at the crossroads is one that I will think about for quite some time. For men who believed or came to believe in something greater than themselves, they literally die on their own cross by staying with Collier and fighting against insurmountable odds. Matthew 16:24 quotes Jesus saying, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Fury implies that these warriors did follow, were disciples, whether it was of Collier or Jesus, we may not be sure, but disciples who did die on the cross they were committed to in the end. This is powerful stuff!

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Moses’ Story: Everyone Is Someone’s Child (Sunday’s Sermon Today)

Before Moses was the guy standing in the middle of nowhere staring into a burning bush, before he was the man who would perform miracles and defy Pharaoh and his court, before he was the one who stormed his people across the Red Sea, received the Ten Commandments, and led his people thisclose to the Promised Land, Moses was just a baby in a basket floating down the river.

A baby who was condemned to die…

A baby who was given up by his mother because his chances were better floating on the river than staying at home

A baby who was marked for elimination because of where he was from, what his name was, and what he looked like.

Wow, cheery Children’s Sabbath sermon, you say, thanks, Pastor, for popping all of the balloons.

We have it straight from Scripture that stories like that of little baby Moses matter to God. Get this: James 1:27 says, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

Wait… the Bible says that religion, the practice of our faith, is to look after the underrepresented, those without parents, without husbands, without families? Look it up: it says it right there.

That’s what makes this story of God-fearing, God-representing, God-terrified Moses, the guy who didn’t want to be God’s mouthpiece but becomes the representation of God in the world, even more amazing. Because God uses people that everyone else has dismissed, forgotten about, and marginalized.

Several decades have passed since last week’s sermon (I know, some of you slept through that one!) The Egyptian pharaoh didn’t remember what Joseph had done (remember, last week, well several thousands years ago, he saved Egypt from the Great Famine-Recession-Depression of 1600 BC or some such) and this new pharaoh said all of the boy babies born to Moses’ people should be put to death. (Sorry, guys, you would’ve been in trouble; the girls were safe.) This new pharaoh worried that if there were enough Hebrew men, that they could overthrow their slaveholding oppressors and stage a coup. So he figured he would preemptively have them all killed off.

That’s when this story takes a sharp turn from the evil of one man to the goodness and courage of several women.

Even in the midst of persecution- what must’ve felt like worldwide persecution- God was raising up leaders. It’s like that commercial that starts with the man giving the speech (we get the impression that he’s going to be president) and then it rewinds to show how his mom and dad met through all of the crazy twists and turns that brought them together- all in thirty seconds. Even though the Israelite people were being starved and beaten and mistreated, even though they couldn’t see how their world would ever get better, God was raising up the answer to the problem.

But first the community responded. The first people to defy Pharaoh’s decree that all of these boys were to be killed were the midwives, the women responsible for helping the mothers give birth. They refused to execute the boys like they were told to, so even while Hebrew men were being beaten as slaves, there was a new generation of Israelites coming, a next stage of God’s people. Sometimes, the answer to oppression and violence and evil is that people have to get sick and tired of being sick and tired. It’s the opposite of that Batman Begins quote: all it takes for goodness to win sometimes is for people to decide to do something.

So here’s the answer to “what can we do?” lying in a basket in his parents tiny mud hut. The answer was Moses, but he was just a baby. A normal baby, with normal baby problems like diapers, and crankiness, and constant hunger, and little sleep. Oh wait, maybe I’m talking about his parents! Like many of us, they figured out how to make the baby but they didn’t know what to do with him once he was born. Born into a world of not enough, and violence, and fear, and a sense of hopelessness. A world that many of us can relate to today.

Moses was a baby, but he was an enemy combatant baby, if you can believe that. And his very existence put his family at risk, so his mother decided that the best option for him …. was floating down a basket on the river.

Not with her. Not with his family. In a basket on the river.

It’s hard to judge Moses’ mother because we’ve probably never been in that situation but it has to have been hard on her. We have to believe that she spent sleepless nights worrying about what to do for him, and nights on her knees in prayer. She has to have believed that if God was really good, if God had a plan for her young son, then she was going to have to give up control of the situation and let God do God’s thing.

So his mother puts him in the basket… and his older sister, Miriam, watches over him. She’s the third woman in the situation, after the midwife and Moses’ mother, to really go big or go home (we’ll get to that in a minute) but it’s significant that a young woman, a teenager, was used in the process that went from left behind baby to national /spiritual leader.

Miriam is watching, hiding behind some bushes, and… the Pharaoh’s daughter shows up. Now, if you’ve heard this story before, put aside what you know and consider this: Pharaoh is the one having Israelite baby boys killed, and his daughter just walked up on one. What would happen if this worked normally? It would be one short story, right? It would be a story where the daughter obeys her ruler, her father, and culturally ends what is perceived to be a threat to her people’s existence.

But Pharaoh’s daughter defies Pharaoh. We realize that she saw an innocent baby who hadn’t done anything to anyone, not an enemy combatant; she recognized that people were afraid but that she wouldn’t make fear a factor for her; that even in the Egyptians, who will be painted as evil and awful by the end of the Israelites’ exodus, that at least one Egyptian was moved by God.

We don’t know what she was like otherwise, if her heart grew ten sizes that day like the Grinch, or if she was a normal person who recognized that there was something bigger in the world, or if she was just a woman who wanted to raise a baby. Whatever it was, she looked down at this baby boy who really didn’t have a chance, who was just one of a million kids like him who’d be subject to the Pharaoh’s wrath, and this woman, pulled him out of the water, and saved him.

And Miriam inserts herself into the action- and offers up her mother as the nursemaid to this baby that the pharaoh’s daughter has saved. The pharaoh’s daughter agrees and years later, Moses is returned to the pharaoh’s palace to be raised as the pharaoh’s grandchild. He’s learned what it means to be Hebrew- and Egyptian. And the pharaoh’s daughter calls him Moses, because “I drew him out of the water,” a remarkable story that could be a Lifetime film right there: “Abandoned Kid Rescued By Royalty.”

Instead, there are two things that are significant. The first is that Moses’ story doesn’t end there, that this might not even be the most remarkable part of Moses’ story! Moses is the single-most important person in the history of Judaism, which might (to some) make him the most important person to Christianity outside of Jesus. Consider this: if Moses isn’t used by God, then how does God fulfill all of the promises to deliver his people into the land they’re supposed to go to? If Moses isn’t used by God, then who does God give the Ten Commandments to?

[As an aside: did God appear to multiple people through burning bushes? That Moses was the most willing? Take a look at the story of Moses in Exodus 2 and ask yourself if he seemed willing...]

Moses is incredibly important- and he started out as a cast off baby.

That makes me wonder, on Children’s Sabbath, what we’re supposed to be doing for the Moses babies in our families, our neighborhood, our community, our church. Are we, the church, caring for widows and orphans as we’re instructed to? Are we lifting up, with our time and our money and the way we vote, the kids who eat free lunch at school and require extra tutoring? Are we caring for the children of working parents or alcoholics or those simply too young to know what to do with their own kids?

I wonder if we’re not called to be midwives. Or big sisters. Or, if in a world that has changed, if we’re not called to witness to the love of God by being those so culturally different that we’re called to be like Pharaoh’s daughter?

Last week, I was flipping through my Sports Illustrated. I’m a magazine junkie and average four a week, but SI is still (and always will be) the best. Depending on where you live, you either got the 1 Mississippi 2 Mississippi cover or you got the cover featuring Isaiah Lamb, one of the hundreds of thousands of student athletes who competed for school and went to class without a house to call home. See, Lamb and his parents washed in the bathroom sinks of a 24-hour laundromat, used the unoccupied chairs as a living room, and parked their car out back to catch some sleep. Lamb represents the Department of Education statistics that the SI article highlighted.

Stats like:

-In 2013, the U.S. D of E reported that of all the kids going to elementary, middle, and high school, 1.2 million of them didn’t have a regular place to sleep. No, that sounds too benign: there are over a million homeless kids under the age of 18 in the United States.

-Kids who have been homeless are 87% more likely to stop going to school than kids who have never been homeless.

-Percentages stink: Over 80% of kids who have been homeless have experienced serious violence and abuse; homeless kids go hungry twice as often; half of them can’t keep up to proficiency in reading or math.

Is your heart breaking?

These kids are homeless, and sometimes hopeless.

Isaiah Lamb was homeless.

Moses was homeless.

Jesus was homeless.

Ever wondered what would’ve happened if there would’ve been room in the inn?

Ever wonder what would’ve happened if… fill in the blank.

You don’t need to be a parent to be a mentor or a friend or a listening ear, or a change agent. Parents are responsible for raising children, but the community is responsible for shaping leaders, from school teachers to nursery workers to every adult who interacts with a child on Sunday morning. It’s our job to make a difference.

In fact, the change agent cited is often sports… or church.

Church makes a difference. In theory, we knew that already, because we’re here. But what if we look at the second insight in this story of Moses. A little lesson about water- and baptism.

The second insight I see in the Moses story involves that ongoing, cyclical story of how the human story is continually pulled out of the water. We are pulled from the waters when God forms the land in Creation; we are rescued first by Ark and later with the parting of the Red Sea. When we celebrate our baptism, we recognize a movement from death to life, from sin to salvation, from pain and self to joy and relationship that Jesus consecrated by being baptized himself.

In baptism, we recognize that God loved us first, that Jesus died on the cross for the sins of every single person who ever lived whether they will ultimately accept him or not. It’s not that Jesus died for the saved- he died for everyone, but no one has to accept that. Trip Lee asks, “When did you hear about the hero dying for the villain?” And that’s baptism, recognizing that we don’t deserve it, because we know us, we know what we’re really like and the things we can’t get out of our own heads, the addictions we can’t drop on our own, the self-destructive habits we can’t leave behind and Jesus died for you ANYWAY!

In Romans 10:9-10 it says, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.” Baptism is what we do to publicly profess we believe for adults- and in infants, it’s the way the family and community of a child make the covenant to teach that child about God’s love and the freedom in Jesus Christ. There was pressure for the midwives, for Moses’ mother, for Miriam, for the pharaoh’s daughter– how much more the covenant we make when we baptize our children and promise before the church to raise them in the experience of a relationship with God??

Today, we celebrate baptism- our own as we remember and those that will happen in our church today. The unity in the mighty acts of God like those in Moses’ life, the unity in the church as one body intended to care for each other especially the little ones, and the unity in the life and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This is big time stuff. This is the adoption of each one of us into God’s family. We’re not just the children of [say your parents' names out loud!] but also the children of God, made in God’s image and adopted out of our own sins. We are picked up, dusted off, lifted out of our cradle of papyrus reeds and tar, and given a new name.

We are redeemed to a life meant to make a difference. But what difference are we supposed to make?

To the church: there are Moseses floating down the river, waiting to be rescued, waiting to be taught that they’re loved and how to love. Are you willing to put your hands to holding, your dollars to supporting, your heart to loving, and your voice to praying? Are you willing to befriend children and teens in church who you don’t know, who might not like your music or dress like you, who have big questions about how God works and where they fit, and think you probably know the answers? If not you, then whom? There are homeless kids and there are churchless kids. Either way, they have needs and we’re supposed to step up.

You don’t have to have kids to be a midwife, or an older sister, or a Pharaoh’s daughter- you just have to be ready when the time comes.

And to you kids, teens, young people of our community (shout-out to the students of Mrs. Hardesty’s chemistry class!): I hope that you see here in the story of Moses, that it doesn’t matter who says what to or about you, or what you’ve done, it doesn’t matter whether you can feel loved or actually know love right now, God loves you and he’s got a plan. It doesn’t matter whether your parents live in the penthouse or it looks more like the outhouse, you are special- and loved. You don’t need to know what you’ll be when you grow up, you just need to know God loves you.

And I hope that you know, even on the days when you screw up, and fail to be who you know you can be, that God loves you- and so do the people of this church.

Breathe that one in: God loves you. Jesus died for you. You matter.

Whenever you need to be reminded, let me know, and I’ll tell you again.

I’ve been told – and some of you have been, too- “you can’t save them all.” Maybe, maybe not, but I believe we’re supposed to try.

Rise up, Church. There are children who need us.

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Empty Your Hands (A Mustard Seed Musing)

Sometimes, when I get to the front door, I realize my keys are buried underneath my phone, several receipts, and an assortment of whatever I’m carrying in my pockets that the kids have decided I need to hold onto for them. Not a big deal, right?

But when my hands are full, with my computer bag, the mail, my coat, a stack of files, the book I’ve been reading, and, well, whatever, it’s hard to get to my keys.

To get to my keys, I have to put something down. (Or risk stand stupidly on the steps with a computer bag hanging from around my neck, several things in my teeth, and assortment of stuff that I’ve dropped lying on the ground.)

I have to admit: I’m not very good at putting something down.

And yet, when it comes to things of cosmic, eternal importance, I need to empty my hands.

In Matthew 16:24-26 (NIV), Jesus says to his disciples,

Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?

I wonder what you need to let go of, whether it’s physical (like work) or emotional (like your hurt or your anger) or spiritual (like trust, doubt, or skepticism). What do you need to let go of so that you can take up the cross? Sometimes, it seems like picking up the cross is so hard. But I don’t think it’s the picking up that gets us.

I think we don’t know how to let go, to put something down.

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