How Gladiator, Andy Dufresne, 80s Rock, and Fantasy Literature Helped Me Understand Heaven

As far back as I can remember, heaven and hell have captivated my imagination. I was born into the home of Baptist missionaries, grew up in church and was lovingly raised with the ever-present awareness of life’s brevity and eternity’s endlessness. My impressionable mind quickened at mentions of life after death. I was mesmerized, overwhelmed and confused. I was well trained – my parents and my church made sure of that – so these uncertainties had no basis in poor discipleship. I received a firm foundation and accepted the truth I had been taught. I still know and accept that truth.

Throughout my childhood, I wrestled to understand what Scripture says about our eternal destination. To this day, my mind and soul battle over the concept and theological implications of eternal punishment. That, as they say, is a story for another time. (If you need more clarity on that to be sure you are not reading the words of a heathen, be assured that I accept the traditional theology on hell.)

My internal struggle with heaven has been a completely different fight. I have never doubted the existence of a literal heaven. My belief in a good and loving God makes heaven more than a reality. It makes it an absolute certainty. How could a perfectly loving and kind God not create an eternal home for his children? Belief was not my issue. My confusion resided entirely in the tangible specifics that are detailed in Scripture.

I am going to open myself up to criticism, but when I was a child, I thought as a child, and heaven sounded a little boring to me. Bowing before the throne and singing for all eternity did not appeal to my young heart the way I knew it should. That bothered me. It made me feel less spiritual – less saved – even though I knew that was impossible. As I matured, I slowly began to understand that much of the language used in Scripture to describe heaven is both figurative and literal. (Revelation 21:10-27)  I became convinced that there will be an eternity of singing and worship. (Rev 4:8-11) I became convinced that there will be streets of gold and all the rest. I also became convinced that our words and language and ideas and paintings and songs were barely scratching the surface. That also bothered me. If heaven was meant to be the believer’s eternal home (John 14:2-4), surely it should be a home I longed for – a home I ached for.

Instead, my view of heaven felt subdued and anti-climactic. All the talk in Scripture of eternal singing, precious gemstone architecture, mansions,” Holy, Holy, Holy” chanting, and all the rest sounded so alien to me. Those things bore little resemblance to the best things in my life. It made me feel that all the things I loved in life: family, home, the beauty of creation, music, and friends were not good enough. It made me feel that those things were going to be replaced by things that were more important and spiritual, but that did not have the same deep, emotional pull on my heart.

I have always needed both mind and emotion working in tandem for the deepest truths to engage my faith fully. My early understanding of heaven did not connect to my heart, my emotions. I hasten to add that even at a young age, I realized my understanding of heaven was limited. I knew that in death, entering the very presence of Jesus would erase all misgivings I had. I knew heaven would not disappoint in the least, but I felt it was wrong of me if I did not try to gain a fuller understanding of heaven while still on earth. So, my journey to a deeper, fuller, and more resonate connection to heaven began in earnest.

 

Bill and Ted’s Heavenly Instruction

 

In the spiritual masterpiece of the 1980s, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, our heroes, the aforementioned Bill and Ted, travel through time in a phone booth. (Don’t ask.) They do so to prepare for the final exam in their high school history class. At the beginning of the film, they are visited by a man from the future who tells them that they have to pass their history class or they will be split up and their band, Wyld Stallyns, will never exist. If Wyld Stallyns does not exist, the music they create will never exist, and that music is destined to bring an end to war, hunger, and all sorts of other bad things. (Seriously, it does not matter. It is a very dumb movie.) About midway through the film, they accidentally travel to the future. In typical 80s fashion, the film’s picture of the future is full of pastels, lasers, ambient smoke, and sunglasses. The future also has a song playing in the background that hit me like a bolt of lightning – “In Time” by Robbie Robb. You have probably never heard of it or the singer. And if you heard it now, you would probably shake your head and stop reading. Yet, for a kid that loved 80s rock like it was a part of his soul and responded to power ballads like an addict to his drug of choice, that song, in that moment in the film, felt like poetry, inspiration, and theology. This scene was the film’s view of utopia. It was a picture of the world as it could be, if Bill and Ted could graduate high school, form their band, and create their world changing music. In the film’s vernacular, it was heaven.

My first connection was made:  Worship in heaven will be spiritually satisfying in ways we cannot grasp. As silly as it might sound, the song “In Time” playing in that specific scene gave me a picture of heaven I responded to on a purely emotional level. It challenged my immature view of heavenly worship – something that seemed dry, stuffy, and boring – and told me that if I could enjoy and respond to music on earth like this, I had nothing to worry about when it came to music created and conceived by the Lord of every good thing.

 

Zihuatanejo

Zihuatanejo opened my eyes a little more. In The Shawshank Redemption, Andy Dufresne is unjustly imprisoned. He is surrounded by inmates and prison officials that abuse him at every turn. Over time, he becomes close with one fellow inmate, a man named Red. It is to Red that Andy shares his dream:  to escape prison and make his way to the coastal town of Zihuatanejo, Mexico. From all appearances, it is a hopeless dream. Red listens to Andy but sees the dream for the fantasy that it is. To Andy, Zihuatanejo is heaven. Andy is convinced he will make it there one day. He knows that he does not belong behind bars.

Eventually, Andy does break free. Shortly after, Red is released, yet he does not feel free. The only life he has known as an adult is one of incarceration and life on the outside feels alien to him. Mostly though, he misses his friend. He finds a place to live and gets a job, though the work is unsatisfying and humiliating. Once out of prison, Andy leaves clues and money to help Red make the trip to join him. The film closes with a breathtaking shot of a beach, crystalline blue waters, and Andy and Red embracing in the sun.

I had made a second connection: Heaven is a place of reunion. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) It will be a time of reunion with those who have journeyed before – those we have loved and lost – and those who have walked with us on the road of faith. When we reach our final resting place, we will be welcomed and embraced by those that mean the most to us; brothers and sisters in Christ that share a bond that transcends any human connection. While my fear of heaven being impersonal and ethereal were not based on anything I was taught, seeing Andy and Red embrace on that beach removed those fears and misconceptions. Our faith is one of relationships and heaven will only serve to make those relationships more fulfilling because they will not be limited by human frailties and time.

 

Gladiator’s Biblical View of Heaven

 

The credits were rolling and the lights were back on, but I could not leave. Deep down, I knew I had experienced something true. Something deeper and more important than swords and spears, choreographed fights and battles. What I felt then, I was unable to fully articulate until some years later, but even in my inability to put words to my emotions, I knew Gladiator had opened my eyes a little wider and made heaven all the more real.

Gladiator tells the story of Roman general, Maximus. He is betrayed by the usurping prince Commodus. This betrayal leaves him at death’s door and his family executed in the vilest manner possible. The rest of the story follows Maximus’s attempt to set things right – to bring justice to those who wronged him and to fulfill the dying wishes of the previous Caesar, his friend, Marcus Aurelius. We will not take time to argue the merits of a film that on one level amounts to little more than a revenge tale. That is a fair criticism of the film but does nothing to diminish my point. At the film’s conclusion, as Maximus drifts between life and death, he sees a vision of his wife and son waiting for him in the afterlife. This is the one thing Maximus has longed for the entire film, even before his family’s death: Home. His view of heaven was to be home with his family. Forever.

It was then I made my third connection: Heaven is the greatest home we will ever know. Scripture is clear that at the end of all things, God will bring the new heaven down to the new earth, and his children will live there forever. This new heaven and earth will be so amazing, we will not even think about the old ones anymore (Isaiah 65:17,21). It will be our home, but better, the way our home was meant to be from the beginning. It will not be some dreamy fantasy of clouds and harps and things we do not recognize or appreciate. It will be real and tactile. It will feel like the best version of the best day you have ever had, but fuller, deeper, and more real than you can imagine.

In discussing this scene with friends, fellow REO contributor, Josh Crowe, put it this way: “That scene…with the music and wheat and other-worldliness was the first time in my adult life that I pictured heaven as a real place. Until then I had always thought of heaven as ‘a place in the clouds’. Since then, it’s taken on a reality that I can’t quite explain.” My connection to heaven took on a far more powerful reality when I realized that God’s new heaven and earth will be His way of correcting all that went wrong on this earth. It will be the redemption of all the wrong that sin has wrought, and a refashioning of all the good in creation. It will take the best of our world, our home, and make it better.

 

Taliesin’s Vision

In The Pendragon Cycle, Stephen Lawhead’s epic retelling of the story of King Arthur, Merlin, and the Knights of the Round Table, we are introduced to the bard Taliesin. He is a singer, a poet, and most importantly, a prophet. His life and vision pave the way for Merlin and Arthur. Though raised in pagan druidism, when he encounters the True God, he easily hails him as Lord. It is with this new faith that he is given a vision of the world to come. A world he hopes to help usher into existence. His words, near the end of the first book in the series, pierce me like an arrow every time I read them:

I have seen a land, a land of shining goodness where each man protects his brother’s dignity as readily as his own, where war and want have ceased and all tribes live under the same law of love and honor.  I have seen a land bright with truth, where a man’s word is his pledge and falsehood is banished, where children sleep safe in their mother’s arms and never know fear or pain.  I have seen a land where kings extend their hands in justice rather than reach for the sword; where mercy, kindness, and compassion flow like deep water, and where men revere virtue, revere truth, revere beauty above comfort, pleasure or selfish gain.  A land where peace reigns in the hearts of men.  Where faith blazes like a beacon from every hill and love like a fire from every hearth; where the True God is worshiped and His ways acclaimed by all. I have seen this land. I have seen it and my heart yearns for it.

Here was one final connection: The Kingdom of heaven is here and coming. We live in the time between times. Jesus ushered in the Kingdom with his life, death and resurrection, yet the ultimate fulfillment of His kingdom will only come at the end of the age. As believers, we have seen the Kingdom of heaven and our hearts yearn for it. One of my favorite passages of Scripture, from a book that I have wrestled with since I was eleven or twelve years old, is Revelation 21:4-5a. It is a message of hope and renewal. ‘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.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” I did not realize the importance of the final five words when I was young. At times, I fail to realize them even now. “I am making everything new!” Heaven will be something we cannot imagine, yet will have the flesh and bones of the very best of what we know and love now. The very things that matter most in life: love, faith, family, kindness, fellowship, mercy, grace, home, and peace will be lovingly perfected by the One who made all things. He will fashion this new heaven and earth from the ashes of what has come before and he will declare, “I am making everything new!”

My view of heaven is incomplete but God is doing His best to answer my questions and fill in the gaps. He is using His Word and His character. He is also using the fumbling attempts of man. He is using flawed, fragmented images and unfinished, imperfect connections to reveal Himself. These connections are pushing me back to Scripture to find a fuller picture than I realized was there. This journey has taken me from feelings of confusion and trepidation to deeper trust, assurance, and expectation. So, I pray, much like the Apostle John, at the end of his Revelation, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!”

 

“Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” – Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption

 

 




The Shadow Proves the Sunshine: The Legend of Switchfoot

The band Switchfoot hit the Christian music scene in the late 1990s with their debut entitled The Legend of Chin. Their popularity exploded in 2003 with the success of their fourth album The Beautiful Letdown. It was a mainstream success and garnered them a lot of radio play and millions in album sales. They have recently released their tenth studio album Where the Light Shines Through, and they show no signs of slowing down. As a band they have always done a great job of avoiding the lyrical clichés and formulaic music that are so common on Christian radio. With nearly two decades and ten albums under their belt I felt it was time to evaluate their career with one of my favorite writing gimmicks: Overrated, Underrated or Properly Rated. Let’s take a look at each album and see how they stack up.


220px-thelegendofchinThe Legend of Chin – 1997.

Underrated.

Much of this was written when Jon Foreman (lead singer, primary songwriter) was in high school or shortly thereafter. Many fans dismiss this album because it was all over the place stylistically and was not as focused lyrically as later albums. I completely disagree. There is a carefree nature to this record that they have never recaptured on anything they have done since. The songs move in unexpected (but very welcome) directions and are just plain fun. They would get better as a band as time went by, but they never sounded like they were having as much fun as they did on this record.


 

220px-newwaytobehumanNew Way to be Human – 1999.

Overrated.

While this isn’t exactly a sophomore slump it is a step down from their debut. Jon Foreman seemed to try to force fit a course in systematic theology in every three-minute song. While I applaud his effort the results were decidedly mixed. Musically they played it safe way too often.

 


 

03_learning_to_breatheLearning to Breathe – 2001.

Overrated.

At this point the band continued to grow in popularity while not really improving that much musically. All the problems with New Way still plagued this record although, to be fair, it is an improvement. It has not aged that well though and it’s unfortunate that Dare You to Move which is by far the best song on this record was re-recorded (and improved) for the next album.


 

the_beautiful_letdownThe Beautiful Letdown – 2003.

Overrated.

They added another member to the band for this album to help provide a fuller sound and it definitely paid off. The lyrics are the strongest they had written up to that point in their career and they finally decided to stop playing around and just rock on songs like Meant to Live. This album set the stage for everything that was to follow. Why do I say it is overrated? Because most fans and critics consider it their best work and to put it bluntly – it isn’t. There are still a couple overly happy pop/rock songs that should have never seen the light of day. I’m looking at you, More Than Fine.


 

220px-nothingissoundcoverNothing is Sound – 2005.

Underrated.

Coming on the heels of a fan favorite like The Beautiful Letdown this album had higher expectations than anything they had recorded before or since. For some reason many fans did not like what they heard. I am NOT among them. The band added a second guitarist so the sound was bigger than it had ever been before. Foreman wrote some of the best lyrics of his career on songs like Happy is a Yuppie Word and The Shadow Proves the Sunshine. For the most part he accomplished his goal of taking complex subjects and communicating them effectively while working within the limitations of a three to four minute song. I’m not sure what people were expecting when they heard this album, but I have very few complaints.


 

220px-switchfootohgravityOh! Gravity. – 2006.

Underrated.

A forgotten record for many fans. Even their record company dumped this at the worst time of the year for sales purposes as this was the final album on their contract. Let me be clear, this is far from their best work, but it is also far from their worst. Any record that has a song as great as Awakening gets points in my book plus the title track is a lot of fun.

 


220px-hellohurricaneHello Hurricane – 2009.

(Slightly) Underrated.

This is their best album. Hands down. Perfect mix of hard rockers, melodic rockers and ballads. Great radio songs and even better deep cuts. There is a confidence in both the music and lyrics that had not been seen before in the band. I consider it slightly underrated because most fans acknowledge that it is among the best work in their career, but I will not rest until EVERY SINGLE FAN sees it my way!

 


vice_versesVice Verses – 2011.

Properly Rated.

Quite a few similarities between this album and Hello Hurricane. It is not quite as good as its predecessor but definitely among their best. It was well received by fans and critics alike. The album’s closer Where I Belong is among the top five songs they have ever recorded.

 


fadingwest-switchfootFading West – 2013.

Properly Rated.

The shiny production (some have called it over produced) and pop direction of this record took some time for me to get used to. It also does not help that the best songs are all at the end of the album. The reviews and fan reception were mixed and that is probably fair since there are flaws. It has definitely grown on me, though. Several really good to great songs on this record.

 


switchfoot_where_the_light_shines_throughWhere the Light Shines Through – 2016.

Too early to tell.

The band decided to try a lot of different styles musically on this record. Sometimes it works (I Won’t Let You Go, If the House Burns Down Tonight) sometimes it doesn’t (Bull in a China Shop, Shake this Feeling) but they deserve kudos for challenging themselves and not repeating the same album over and over again. The lyrics are well written as usual and more overtly “Christian” than anything they have done in years. Only time will tell where this one fits in the band’s canon.


Switchfoot has displayed remarkable quality and consistency over the years and there is no reason to think their best work is behind them. We have included a Spotify playlist to spotlight some of their top songs.

 




Five Ways an Adult Can and Should Honor His or Her Aging Parent

As far as I know, there is no age limit on the biblical command to honor our parents. Throughout the Bible we see grown people showing deep respect for their parents. One fact about getting old that we all must face is getting slower both physically and mentally. This is a nasty fact of life. As adult children, it is our duty, honor and privilege, to continue to honor our parents as they face these latter years. There are five great ways that we as adults can and should show this to them. Most of these “ways” will specifically deal with honoring aging parents with dementia.

1. Be Willing to Do Anything to Take Care of Them No Matter What – Every situation is unique. There are a seemingly limitless amount of family situations. It might simply be more practical for other siblings or family members to have a more hands-on, lead role in taking care of them than you. But if your parent or parents are in need of assistance, you do need to have a hand in deciding what to do. You and your siblings and family need to agree on what needs to be done. For my own family, the role of primary caregivers went to me and my elder sister since we are single and my brother and other sister are married and have family obligations of their own. Things may not look exactly like this for you—or not at all like this. The point is, you need to be willing to do whatever it takes to make arrangements for your aging parent to be completely cared for. This may mean massively rearranging your life to benefit theirs. It may mean arranging for their continuing care with your dying breath. Jesus did this very thing while he was dying on the cross. As he was being tortured to death, he instructed his trusted disciple, John, to take care of her as if she were his own mother (John 19:26-27). That right there is a heartbreakingly inspirational example of full commitment to do what it takes to care for a parent. And if our suffering Savior was willing to take care of his parent, shouldn’t you?

     The point is, you need to be willing to do whatever it takes to make arrangements for your aging parent to be completely cared for.

2. Express Your Love Frequently. Mom has been gone almost seven years and although he still has a lot to offer, my 80-year-old dad is slowing down both mentally and physically. I am convinced that one of the very best things a child can do is to shower his or her parent with love with frequent hugs, quality time, and an abundant quantity of their own particular love language. Tap into this love language and love them with it with all of your heart. For my dad, it’s hugs and acts of service. I spend all day helping my dad, so technically I have acts of service covered. But it is easy to get absorbed with my own work, though, and zone out his constant questions and repetitive statements. So really, can most of it really be considered quality time? I think not. I’m working on this. Really spend time with them and patiently listen to and answer the things they say a million times every day. They may not remember it, but again, it is your duty, honor, and privilege to actively honor your parent with abundant love until one of you dies.

3. Be Patient. This may be the most difficult thing to do consistently. The slower your parent gets both mentally and physically requires that you do a whole lot of patiently waiting. It means that you will have to repeat yourself over and over, that you will hear questions and stories over and over, that you will spend hours helping them do a simple task. And those are just some examples. There is a very, very good chance that you will frequently want to run down the road screaming and pulling out your hair. There is also a very good chance of you getting angry with them and wanting to say something mean and disrespectful. Don’t. Just don’t. (I’m working on this as well.) Remember, this is your parent, the one you have been commanded to honor. Plus, this is the person who raised you, who potty trained you, who wrestled with you, who playfully stuck your foot in his or her mouth when you were a baby, who helped you with your homework, who took you to doctors and dentists, who sent you through school, and a million other things. And they did this all with dedication and patience. Now it’s your turn.

     Remember, this is your parent, the one you have been commanded to honor.

4. Preserve Their Honor – One of the oldest stories in the Bible involves the disgrace of a child for failing—or even attempting—to preserve his father’s honor. Not long after Noah and his family came out of the ark, he started a vineyard. He got drunk from the proceeds one night and lay naked in a drunken stupor. Ham saw this sad state of his father and instead of preserving his honor, he went and joked about it with his brothers. They did the honorable thing and immediately took steps to restore it. Your parent or parents might become in a state where it will be your duty to preserve their honor in the eyes of the world. You will also need to preserve it in your own eyes. Shem and Japheth’s actions involved covering up their father’s nakedness while at the same time making sure they themselves didn’t look at it. You may be their last guardian of any dignity. There may unfortunately be times when it is not possible to save them from some indignity. Do the very best that you can for as long as you can. Guard their honor faithfully and with full commitment.

5. Let Them Have As Much Independence as Possible for as long as possible, but be aware that they are dependent. While you should be fully willing to help them with everything, it is also a good idea to give them as much independence as possible. However, it may also mean keeping a close eye on them in any of these independent activities. For instance, Dad likes to take frequent walks around town. At this point in time, his dementia isn’t so bad that he won’t remember his way home and he knows the Pleasant View area around our home pretty well. Plus, for Dad engrained habits don’t rely on memory. For these reasons we are fine with him going on these frequent walks by himself (plus I’m too lazy to go with him all the time). However, we always know what he’s doing and where he is. He also has a cellphone, which helps if he is gone a little too long and we want to make sure he’s okay. Just honor your parents by letting them make as many of their own decisions as possible for as long as possible. It may get to the point where you will need to manage all of all their personal affairs. As long as they are capable, out of respect you should at least involve them in these things. This goes back to the patience thing, because this will often mean that the process will be a lot slower, more unnecessarily complicated, and that you will be constantly explaining to them what is going on.

     Be committed to honor your own parent for the rest of yours or their lives.

This brief list is not mean to be a thorough look at the subject. As mentioned there are many, many, many different situations. In addition, dementia can get really bad. Thankfully, my dad’s isn’t really bad yet, but if or when it does, I need to be committed right now to honoring him no matter what. Be committed to honor your own parent for the rest of yours or their lives. You will need to be proactive about stepping in to take care of them when necessary. They aren’t going to ask you to and they may not want assistance even if they need it. Be willing to help them even without getting any thanks from them for it. You do this and there will be much merrymaking throughout the lands, trees clapping their hands, and mome raths outgribbing.




Race, Nuance, and Eschatology

How’s it going to end? Is the end goal of the American justice system mass incarceration of African Americans and more black men shot by police? Or is the end goal a society where all people are given the same legal rights and protections?

Is the end of the Black Lives Matter Movement the day that black citizens receive the same benefit of the doubt as white citizens? Or does it end in more violence and dead cops?

How’s the world going to end? Will it end with all colors and languages and cultures singing the same song to the same Christ? Or with all people worshiping God in the separate space assigned him based on language and skin color?

Will the world end in perfect justice and perfect equality? Or in brokenness and pain? Will it end in a trumpet or a whimper?

My questions are more than rhetorical. I am genuinely frustrated, angry, and confused.  My generation is experiencing racial tension in a way that so many naively thought was a thing of the past. For others, vocalizing these issues is long over due. In an attempt to provide myself and others clarity, I am asking eschatological questions. I am asking–how’s it going to end? And I am wondering what that “end” means for us now.

In early Christianity, eschatology was concerned both with the final Kingdom of Christ on earth as well as the Kingdom that Christ preached in his first coming. Those who witnessed Christ’s first coming knew they were experiencing part of the eschaton, God’s perfect future. The guiding principle we find in the New Testament is an already/not yet paradigm. For instance, Christ’s first coming healed the sick and the blind, but his second coming will free humanity from all disease and sickness.  Likewise, Christ’s first coming broke the power of sin in the lives of his people; his second coming will abolish sin absolutely.

When it comes to racial strife, Christ’s death brought Jews and Gentiles together. This is a topic my friend Gowdy has explored profoundly. The unification of Jew and Gentile under the banner of Christ is one of the clearest themes of the New Testament. Unsurprisingly, this theme has an eschatological conclusion. Revelation repeatedly paints a picture of those from all ethnic backgrounds (“every tribe and tongue”) worshiping at the throne of God.

Another profound truth about biblical eschatology is that it is wonderfully practical. While there are different interpretations about the Church’s ability to usher in Christ’s Kingdom on earth, it is abundantly clear that God calls for His future to be alive in our present. If he is going to abolish sin, we are to root it out of our lives. If every tribe and tongue is to worship together, we must start now.      

      …it is abundantly clear that God calls for His future to be alive in our present. If he is going to abolish sin, we are to root it out of our lives. If every tribe and tongue is to worship together, we must start now.

I am privileged to have been in church services in West Africa where the congregation sang, “There is no Lobi, there is no Kulango, in Jesus Christ.” Unfortunately, this song isn’t sung often in the United States. If there is going to be a day where Christ will reign and his law of love will be the only law of the land, we must start to love our neighbor as ourselves now. If Christ’s reign will bring about justice, we should do justice now.

Our glorious future; our complicated present

The future that God has for his people is one of unity, perfect love, and justice; but the present is more than a little complicated. One of the biggest frustrations I find myself having with the current debate over police shootings of black men, police officers being murdered, and the Black Lives Matters movement is that there is no common ground. Statistics are being thrown out on both sides that would lead one to the conclusion that either the Black Lives Matters movement is built on a total lie, or that the entire justice system in America is built on a racist foundation. If we listen to one narrative, we must conclude that every time a police officer shoots a black man, it is not only a tragedy, it is also a grave injustice. If we listen to the other side, it should be criminal to question the actions of any man or women who risks his life to protect citizens. I’ve listened to both sides; I’m not sold on either.

These debates remind me of an experience I had in a graduate history course. We read a brilliantly researched book on American Slavery called Many Thousands Gone by Ira Berlin. Berlin studied the whole of America Slavery, which took him from the colonial period to the Civil War as well as to Northern Sates, Western States, and the Deep South. One of his major arguments was that slave conditions and degrees of autonomy were different depending on region and time in history. Slavery was a dynamic institution. He gave an example of a slave that had the autonomy to go alone on horseback as a courier for his master. In short, Berlin’s research brought a nuanced conclusion. He did not shy away from pointing out the oppressive brutality of the institution of slavery, but he also did not paint hundreds of years of history in different geographic areas in monolithic terms. For many in my class, his conclusions were unacceptable. They couldn’t tolerate anyone bringing nuance into the slavery issue. They had to see it as a supremely evil at all times in all places. Despite his fierce moral and economic criticisms of the “peculiar institution,” my classmates were ready to call for Berlin’s head. His crime was nuance. His crime was honesty.

     Nothing rescues us from oppression like moral transformation. And nothing transforms our morals like the Spirit of God. We must reject our culture’s tendency to slide into truncated narratives and embrace God’s grand story.

I am willing to make the same “mistake” as Ira Berlin. I don’t want to take sides between black people and police officers. I don’t want to choose between two reductionist narratives. I want to see some nuance brought to this issue, I want to see change, I want to see healing, and I want to see honesty.

We must be honest about bad policing, but we also must be honest about high crime rates among young black men. We must recognize that the criminal justice system is deeply flawed and often does not give the same breaks to a black person that it does a white person. At the same time, labeling black people as perpetual victims does no one any good. The Marxist undertones of the Black Lives Matters movement are too simplistic and have never been helpful to rescue anyone from oppression. Nothing rescues us from oppression like moral transformation. And nothing transforms our morals like the Spirit of God. We must reject our culture’s tendency to slide into truncated narratives and embrace God’s grand story.

      If we truly cared about people, we would preach against the sin that enslaves them. We would preach against the things that so deeply hurt them and others. We would preach against racial violence. We would preach against drugs, extra-marital sex, and abortion. We would preach against these things that cause so much pain. We would preach to white people, brown people, and black people. We do this because we know the only real solution to the problem of police shootings comes from moral change brought about by the work of God.

A call for change

Our eschatology should give us a vision of the future and a call to change what is going on in the present. Because of Christ’s coming Kingdom, we envision a new creation where our ethnic and cultural differences are only used to unite us in a greater tapestry of worship. Because of Christ’s present Kingdom we strive for change. We first must change ourselves and secondly our worship. To the extent that America’s churches are divided on racial lines, we are only a reflection of our sub-culture and not Christ’s Kingdom. We must work to change that.

Our eschatology should call for moral change. Because the future is a world where righteousness reigns, this calls for change. It starts with me and my own vices and prejudices, but it does not end there. If we truly cared about people, we would preach against the sin that enslaves them. We would preach against the things that so deeply hurt them and others. We would preach against racial violence. We would preach against drugs, extra-marital sex, and abortion. We would preach against these things that cause so much pain. We would preach to white people, brown people, and black people. We do this because we know the only real solution to the problem of police shootings comes from moral change brought about by the work of God.

Our eschatology should help us call for change in our laws. The issues in front of us are matters of civic concern and it is absurd to not discuss civic solutions. Mass incarcerations are only perpetuating a cycle of poverty and violence. Our justice system imprisons too many black people for too long. Mandatory minimum sentences often keep young black men (as well as whites) in prison for years for being at the wrong place at the wrong time or doing something like firing a warning shot. Youthful stupidity does not call for a 5 or 10-year mandatory minimum. Many of the laws that we have enacted to be “tough on crime” only lead to fatherlessness and more crime. They do not reflect God’s justice; they should be changed.

One of the geniuses of Martin Luther King Jr. was his eschatological vision. Two of his greatest speeches, “I Have a Dream” and “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” express a clear notion of what God will do in the future. They set forth the end goal of racial equality and called for changes to make this vision a reality. As the church, we too must allow God’s future to impact our present. When we do this we cast a vision of what life would look like when these vices are eradicated. It’s our job to cast this vision. It’s our job to live out this vision. Like Dr. King, it’s our job to call for “moral excellence.” It’s our job to shout, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”




Why I Didn’t Quit: My First Year Teaching in the City

I guess I was born to teach. It wasn’t exactly something that I chose to do with my life. It was just embedded in my DNA. Both of my parents are teachers. And from what I’m told, I just have that teaching “spark.”  It was a no-brainer for me to major in some form of education in college, and elementary education is what I eventually chose to do.

You go through your college courses asking yourself, “Do teachers really do this much planning for every lesson?” (No. At least I don’t.) and “I can’t wait to have my own classroom with cute bulletin boards and displays and the cutest reading corner!” (I have those things, but they are not “cute.” It’s the end of the year, people.) Most of what I saw in my college preparation for this field was just that–preparation. And I could have taken another 5 years of education classes and gotten my doctorate or something crazy like that, and never have been prepared for what was about to come this year.

Let me preface this by saying this is NOT my first year teaching. I did teach a full year last year, in 7th grade math, and now I teach 3rd grade – all subjects. But let me tell you, it was like last year didn’t even happen when I set foot into my classroom this year.

I’m going to spare you some of the details of the roughness that was and still is this year. But what you need to know is I work on the west side of Chicago. These rough days took me to the point where I would be on my break, crying, asking myself and God if I could really do this, if I really wanted to put myself through this. Then I would dry it up, because it was time for math. Rough days to the point where I was on the other end of a one sided phone conversation being cussed up one side and down the other. Rough days to the point where I came home, hair in disarray, dirt and Expo marker covering my hands, and collapsed on the couch.

I don’t say these things to make you feel sorry for me. If I told you what really happened, you might think I’m making it up. But what I’m here to tell you is why I still go back, why I haven’t broken, why I haven’t and won’t quit.

I sent out my resume to probably 50 different schools and met with principals all last summer. Only one principal gave me an interview. Only one principal saw me a second time. Only one job was offered. So I took it. Being a believer and praying for the way to be made known to myself, that was it. I was called to teach, and here the opportunity presented itself.

Reason #1 – I was called to be put in front of these children. These specific children that I have.


 

In September I got my roster with my student data. From what I was told, I was going to have some rough kids in my class, some challenges. The data showed me that the majority of my students couldn’t read, and at least a third were repeating the grade. My kids could barely add or subtract, let alone be prepared for multiplication.

Reason #2 – These kids can’t go through life without knowing how to add, subtract or read. That was an injustice in and of itself.


 

The first day of school came. They started right in. My students had a lot of anger in them. A lot of disrespect for authority was present. They had a lot of frustration and had no idea why or what to do with it. Confidence was lacking. They didn’t seem to understand any expectations (the nice word for ‘rules’) that I had set for the classroom.

Reason #3 – My kids needed security and consistency in their lives.


 

Security and consistency came with time. About Week 10 (around 50 days of school), I finally felt them break. It was palpable. They finally realized I wasn’t leaving, my standards weren’t changing, and they were going to act civilized in the classroom whether they liked it or not. It is only by the Lord’s strength and grace that I made it that far, and we weren’t even half way yet. But as time went on they started to blossom, and we all learned one way or another to multiply and to at least begin to read. They felt confident and successful for the first time it seemed.

Reason #4 – They needed someone to champion them, someone to make them feel like their success truly mattered.


 

At this point, almost 180 days have come and gone. As I’m writing this, I only have about 8 more days, about 60 more hours, to stand in front of my students before they leave me for the summer. And as excited as I am to have summer and to spend time with family and friends, a part of me is sad. They drive me bonkers and push my buttons every day. Their behaviors that I saw at the beginning of the year are coming back out because days of uncertainty are coming. But I will miss them. Through all the bad days, through all the tears, there were those moments–fleeting moments–when they got it. They understood what I was trying to do, what we as a classroom were trying to do. And that–that is why I go back.

Every teaching job, whether public, private, home school or other, presents its own unique challenges. My hope is only to encourage all teachers–and anybody working any job, really–that we all need good motivations to keep going. I have no doubt any teacher knows this, but we all need to be reminded of it once in a while.