Is Your God Big Enough?

Buechner speaks to my soul

Be careful who you associate with (2 Cor 6:14). Don’t listen to your itching ears (2 Tim 4:3). Don’t be one who goes against sound doctrine (1 Tim 1:10, among others).

In a nutshell, be careful what you read, who you hang with, and how you approach new ideas. I’ve been warned of this by many a well-meaning brother and sister in Christ.

This mentality has always puzzled me. It has also frustrated and angered me when it is behind attempts to convince new or curious Christians that there is only one way to follow Christ.

Yet, as a parent, I think I understand the inclination–you would want to help protect your children, not just in body, but in mind and spirit. You want to shield them from evil in whatever form it takes. Children are impressionable and their time hanging with the “wrong” crowd can influence them just as much as the time they spend around the “right” crowd. It’s good to know what is going on and who they hang with. I get it.

On the other hand, if my child were already partaking in misadventures with the “wrong” crowd, I’d be thankful to find someone from the more well-behaved end of the spectrum taking an interest in him.

Building relationships with people from a diversity of experiences, both shared and different than our own, makes for a more well-rounded life and a kinder, gentler world. It develops an understanding that it’s okay for people’s experiences, worldviews, and religious beliefs to differ. This understanding helps us to relate others in an increasingly diverse and connected world.

To wit: If spending time around people with varied life experience is important, why wouldn’t I also spend time with people of varied spiritual perspectives? How does my faith grow and deepen if I remain cloistered in the company of like-minds unwilling to engage with others in our increasingly pluralistic world? The idea that one ought to fear new or out-of-the-box thinking is insidious in nature and, I’d argue, a cancer on the church today. It happens outside of religion, too. Challenging the status quo is a difficult, painful idea to put forth, particularly when the very notion that change might be better and necessary is met with derision from some or all sides.

Working toward understanding by getting to know different people, religions, and ideas is a good thing. Asking questions not just of others, but of ourselves and of God is a good thing. Introducing and challenging our faith communities with radical ideas that allow for a more inclusive, accepting, loving church is a good thing.

Where would we be without such challenges to the norm? Well, religiously speaking–we’d be without Christianity. We’d certainly be without Protestantism. We’d be without 41,000 denominations. We’d all be practicing some strange, perhaps paleolithic form of religion, or perhaps we’d have none. And, I have to tell you, without these “new thinkers,” what we think of as “traditional” Christianity and “family values” would not exist. These are ideas that are relatively young in the history of humankind.

In science, we’d still insist the world was flat. We’d be without medicines to heal ourselves, we may all be clustered on one continent. We might even be without language. Without challenging the status quo, women wouldn’t be able to vote; in fact, no one would. We’d stay mired in patriarchal, monarchical societies subject to the whims of powerful rulers who care not for the poor and suffering of society. There would be no America. Enslaving our fellow human beings would still very much be en vogue and we wouldn’t question it. Our world would be left with little semblance of the justice we are called to do, and we would walk around blindly adhering to these injustices (and yes, I realize that even as I type this, in some ways, we still are).

So perhaps instead of chastising the new thinkers and holding court on the same old doctrinal stances–rigid in our inability to accept that God is still speaking, terrified of even considering the idea that God didn’t STOP communicating with humankind after the final book of the Protestant Bible was written (2 Peter, between 120 and 150 AD)–we might engage these new ideas prayerfully and respectfully. We might consider for a moment that the God who created the folks who concocted our “traditional” doctrine is the same God who created those who are now thinking outside of that box. Perhaps instead of approaching church with an us vs. them exclusivity, we might invite everyone to participate fully in the relational process of knowing God and each other through dialogue and ever growing community.

And yes, I mean everyone. Let’s invite the homeless persons in our communities. Let’s invite in our LGBTQ friends and neighbors. Let’s welcome the marginalized people of other faiths and of no faith. Let’s invite in the doubters and questioners. Let’s invite in people whose races, ethnicities, and cultural backgrounds differ from our own. Let’s invite in those younger than us and those older than us and those just like us. Let’s welcome them all. Let’s display the hospitality we are called to display and let us do so joyfully, with thanksgiving in our hearts and openness in our minds. Let us embrace them fully in the same way we God embraces us. Let us listen and try to relate, accepting that we do not have all the answers, but that a Power greater than us does.

Finally, I ask: what are we so afraid of?

Is it our God who is not big enough for our questions, changes, and diversity, or is it really our doctrine that is too small to embrace people and ideas in the same radical vein of Christ?

I Will Always Be on the Side of Love

Meme hat tip to @TheWordShared

Meme hat tip to @TheWordShared

For nearly four years, despite my seminary studies and perceived ministry call, my family has been unchurched. I could go into a long explanation as to why, but the short version is that it wasn’t high enough on my priority list, we had a lot going on, and our family (which included our two very young sons) wasn’t ready yet. Eventually, “the stars aligned” and we found a faith community that both fit us and where we fit. This community has accepted my entire family with open arms and welcoming hearts. I’ve had the honor to preach my first two sermons there despite not having completed seminary yet. It can’t be merely coincidence that this community we’ve found is called Faith UCC.

If you’ve been following this blog or me, personally, for the last several years, you’ve noted my progressive evolution. If you’re paying attention, you should also have seen that my progressive views have only shifted my focus toward following Jesus, but have not, in any way, compromised my faith. In fact, I spend more time studying scripture, praying, and examining spirituality than I ever have even at the height of my seminary course schedule. Becoming an open, progressive Christian has only drawn me closer to God, not pushed me further away. Doubts? Yes, I have them. Everyone does. It’s a part of faith. I can’t speak for everyone’s experience, of course, but this has been mine.

People like me are often accused of watering down the gospel, capitulating to culture, or not taking the bible seriously because we don’t read it literally. I knew I had found the right denomination when I read my own thoughts echoed on the UCC website: it is precisely because I take the bible seriously that I cannot possibly take it literally (but, more on my problem with biblical inerrancy in future blog posts).

When I look at the bible, I try to interpret it through my Jesus-Kingdom-Love lenses. This is also how I try to conduct myself in my daily life. Because I believe that Jesus is God (and The Word) made flesh, I take his own words as my living imperative: Love God and love your neighbor

If, as we read in Romans, love is the fulfillment of the law, then whether I get the minutia of doctrine correct is not the measure of my faith or my love of God, is it? If doctrine is the measure of one’s faith in God–determining whether one “goes to heaven” or doesn’t–and there’s only one proper way to interpret scripture, yet there are tens of thousands of denominations (yes, you read that right, more than 41,000) that differ on various doctrinal positions, then there’s going to be a whole lot of people left out, isn’t there? 

Put simply: I will not put the words of Paul and other authors of scripture before God. I will not elevate the bible to a position equal to that of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. I refuse to lift the bible up as a fourth member of the Godhead. It doesn’t belong there. I take it seriously, I use it to help me understand God, it informs my faith, but it is not flawless and meant to be taken wholly literally. The bible is a holy book, but it is only a book; it is not God.
I could be wrong. I don’t really know much of anything, but I do have faith. I have faith that God is a loving God and that God is always good. I have faith that God has given us brains capable of interpreting scripture, our surroundings, and our experiences, and that God wants us to use those brains.

And yet, I understand that I can only see any of that through the prism of my own experience. If someday I stand before God and God says to me, “Jessica, you’ve loved too much, you’ve accepted too many,” I think I’ll be okay. If my greatest sin is that I refused to condemn others for their differences, well all right then. The plank in my eye is not small, so I’ll refrain from picking at the specks in my neighbors’.

The sin management of others is not my job. Neither am I a member of the Christian police. I will admit that it is difficult, as a flawed human being, not to judge others. I tried not to do that when I sat on the Christian right, but I failed sometimes. I try not to do that as a member of the “Christian left,” but I still fail sometimes.

Most importantly, know this: wherever a debate rages over faith issues with both sides bolstering their argument by proof-texting the other (civil rights, LGBT issues, hell, women’s roles, etc.), I will always be on the side of love. Where my own reading of the bible causes me to wrestle over conflicting views within scripture, I will always be on the side of love.

LOVE WINS.

What does love look like? I don’t know precisely, but I do know what love looked like in the example of Jesus. Paul tells us what he thinks love looks like and what love does not look like in 1 Corinthians 13.  And so I will choose love. I will choose to show my best version of love to everyone I meet. It’s been said so much over the last few weeks, but it’s true: Love wins. Ultimately, love wins because God wins. In my mind, it’s as simple and as complicated as that.

You’re free to disagree, of course, and I’m still going to love you.

On Chronic Illness and Why the Spoon Theory Now Makes Me Uncomfortable

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I began writing this post yesterday…

I do not discuss my lupus much here on the blog aside from the occasional mention. I was diagnosed at 15; I’m now 33. There just didn’t seem to be much to say that hadn’t already been said. Yesterday, however, we moved to the next “phase” treatment and I feel compelled to say something in this juncture.

For 18 years, I have lived in the “lupus inbetween,” vacillating back and forth amidst periods of exacerbation and stability. Though the initial years were horrible and my pregnancies rough, I haven’t required much more than a maintenance drug, some pain pills, and steroids to get through flare-ups for about 15 of those 18 years. While not pleasant, it could have been much worse for me. I know people who were diagnosed in recent years that have required more aggressive treatment than I ever have. It’s like they say, if you’ve met one person with a chronic illness, you’ve met one person with a chronic illness. Every lupus patient is different.

The last six months, however, have been incredibly difficult. At my last visit to the rheumatologist, he remarked on the “miracle” of me going 18 years without requiring more, even as he pumped my veins full of solumedrol and sent me home with oral steroids. This has been required at every visit since December of last year, so when I went in yesterday, I thought maybe I was in for more of the same. I was wrong.

To make a long story less long: the doctor suggested that we move to a chemotherapy drug to treat the next “phase” of my lupus. She ultimately left it up to me after explaining all of the pros and cons. She gave me a tutorial via analogy about the mechanism by which the drug works in lupus patients. She reassured me that my dosage will be but a fraction that of cancer patients’. Then she told me that I will have to be monitored closely and have blood levels checked more often. It will likely wipe me out, make me nauseous, and cause other unpleasant side-effects the day after I take it. It will take a full 6-8 weeks before we see it working. She explained this was the next best option and that it’s not as bad as it sounds.

I took my first dose last night, slept like the dead, and woke feeling more exhausted than when I went to bed. I feel sick and my head hurts. But if this helps the lupus and the side effects diminish over time (and are only limited to one day a week), it’s a trade-off I might be willing to accept.

Many people have read the spoon theory analogy of chronic illness. I recently reread it and began to feel uncomfortable with the “holier than thou” tone toward the end. Yes, I want people to show empathy to those with differences whether they be physical, emotional, mental, neurological, etc, but I think maybe the spoon theory rather leaves the healthy reader feeling pity instead. The analogy of spoons is apt (everything you do each day costs you “spoons” and people with chronic illnesses begin their days with far fewer “spoons” than do healthy people making it very difficult to get through each day). Yet, the presentation delves far too deep into the “woe is me” factor and definitely puts the burden of guilt on healthy folks who should not feel guilt over their well-being any more than I should over my lupus or my son should over his autism.

When I was a teenager and in my early twenties, it didn’t occur to me that I was placing this heavy load on my loved ones by sharing it with them. Now I feel some strange form of reverse guilt about it. Yes, I’m in pain every day, but I don’t need to make other people feel bad about it and I definitely don’t want them feeling sorry for me or for anyone with differences. I’m living my life and so is everyone else. We’re all doing the best we can to get through each day.

As most of you know, my favorite television show is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. At a pivotal moment in the series, Buffy makes another heroic and heartbreaking decision to save the world. She tells her little sister, Dawn:

The hardest thing in this world is to live in it. Be brave. Live.

Chronic illness is hard, but perhaps even harder than that is just living in this world. As we go through the hard work of living, we’re all in the same boat, doing the best we can, with the help and company of others along the way. By the grace of God, we make it through even if we feel like we are only muddling along. I guess what I’m really saying is that we have to be brave, friends. With or without sickness in our lives, God has given us life (or, if you prefer, some cosmic accident, or universal-mechanism brought us into being), and we must live.

On Bravery and Its Many Forms

Photograph by Mark Hogancamp. Linked to Travis Gettys’ article at RawStory.com.

There is a meme going around on the internet with a photo that is inaccurately attributed to being a real photo of U.S. soldiers in battle. The meme is meant to remind folks of what “real” bravery is, lest they mistakenly believe that someone coming out as transgender (such as, in this case, Caitlyn Jenner) is heroic. The article by Travis Gettys at RawStory attesting to the inaccuracies of the meme is here.

The story is a good lesson for the meme creator and the rest of us who might make them, but I would like to address another issue: “real bravery.”

Why are we fixated on this idea that there is only one kind of bravery? Truly, many military members, police officers, and rescue workers are brave.

Yet, it does not lessen their courage and heroism to state that someone else is brave for different reasons.

What of the special needs child who, though frightened, bravely faces a new challenge?
What of the cancer patient who undergoes painful treatments so that she might live longer for her family?
What of the man who finally admits to himself and the world that he is homosexual knowing he may not find the acceptance and love he so rightly deserves?
What of those persons in the Middle East protesting for their freedom knowing that with every word they put their very lives at risk?

I could go on and on. My point here is that It need not be a competition, friends. Bravery does indeed come in many forms

On Caitlyn Jenner and Our Call to Love


I had an insightful seminary professor whose words planted in my mind and heart seeds that are still sprouting. She once reminded our class, “You can only see from where you stand.” These words have been at the fore of my mind since I heard them, but never have they been as important as on weeks like this.

My only “issue” with Caitlyn Jenner springs from the understanding that perhaps she wasn’t as honest with her ex-wives and children as she could have been. And yet, I can’t judge or cast aspersions because I can’t possibly imagine the complex cacophony of emotions involved with living the vast majority of her life feeling like she was born with the wrong physical body, especially in the era she was raised. I pray that people like Caitlyn find peace in finally becoming (in body) who they have always been in mind and spirit. I also pray for the families who have to cope with the implications of these truths to a degree none of us can really understand.

The bible doesn’t discuss transgender issues, but I’m seeing a lot of comments from folks who are trying to make sense of this from a biblical perspective. Many are confused. I sympathize with that struggle, though I think perhaps some are over-thinking it. We want to believe that God doesn’t make “mistakes.”  I’m not sure God did; Caitlyn has always been exactly who she is deep down. It’s just that she has finally developed the courage to express that truth to the world.

In fact, while God may not make mistakes, we know nature does. We do not always know why people are born with bodies contrary to what is typical. My son was born with autism. I developed lupus at the age of fourteen. My best childhood friend died of cancer at the age of seven. Caitlyn Jenner was born in the wrong body. Some people are born with both sets of reproductive organs. Some people are born missing limbs or other body parts. Some people get grey hair in their teenage years. None of this makes any sense in our limited human understanding.

For better and sometimes worse, people go to great lengths to make their outsides match their insides. Children who are born with birth defects have them repaired, if possible. We treat physical and mental illnesses that interfere with our ability to function in the world. People have cosmetic surgery, dye their hair, wear makeup, get tattooed and choose clothes that help them project an image more consistent with who they are in mind and spirit. Yet there is nothing inherently wrong with any of us. We are all just trying to live our best and truest lives.

Christians are not called to judge or look down on anyone; we are called to love. There is no caveat to Christ’s most important two commands: love God and love others as yourself. Period.

I pray that, as we all try to make sense of the world from where we stand, Christians heed this call to love by eschewing the instinct to judge and condemn, instead expressing the compassion within.

I think that trans woman Laverne Cox said it best,

I hope, as I know Caitlyn does, that the love she is receiving can translate into changing hearts and minds about who all trans people are as well as shifting public policies to fully support the lives and well being of all of us. The struggle continues…

Amen and amen.

A Believer Because of My Doubts

A writer I greatly admire is working on a new book and recently posed an interesting question:

“What is/was your biggest need as you crossed into a new kind of Christianity?”

This is such an important question and one I felt compelled to give considerable thought. Many of you understand that I’m going through a spiritual evolution of sorts. It’s been a bone of concern and dismay with some of my loved ones who feel I’ve strayed too far from my conservative roots. They aren’t wrong. I have, but isn’t this just part of growing up? Isn’t change an inevitable piece of what it means to be human, live, and experience the world? Rest assured, I have not undertaken this evolution lightly and I proceed with caution along it.

Some of those closest to me respond by lovingly proof-texting my assertions and quotes. Some of the most frequently utilized passages are Rom 12:2 (Do not be conformed to this world…), Matt 7:13, 15 (..the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, Beware of false prophets…), and 2 Tim 4:3 (…having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires…). I do appreciate that people care enough to try to turn me toward what they believe Christ taught, but I believe that G-D meets us where we are. I’d like not to conform to the things of this world, but I do LIVE in the world. God came to us as Jesus IN this world. We have to continue living in this world until we move on to whatever comes after it. It’s really all we have, isn’t it? All we know with any certainty is that we have to survive and live in this global community until we don’t.

Soul-searching and evaluating our hearts and beliefs is something that all people do at some point. It is integral to living. For some of us, re-evaluation leads us deeper “into the fold.” We lean into or fall back to what we were raised in because, perhaps, it makes the most sense. Others find this a time of leaving behind old ways and moving toward new. If God sees fit to meet us where we are (and I believe God does), then we have to accept the idea that we are all gloriously imperfect beings who are doing our best to grapple with a complex confluence of needs.

This is how I originally answered the writer’s call on his Facebook page:

I think my needs are/were emotional, tangible, and spiritual. I need/needed to find a sense of community, love, and acceptance coupled with compassion from all angles. I need/needed to have some way to articulate what I was feeling and thinking with some foundation in biblical texts in order to “defend” and/or validate those thoughts and feelings. And I need/needed to feel comfortable living in the tension that comes with really wrestling with both the biblical texts and with what it means for humanity and for my very understanding of God.

As I reflected on the question and my response, I realized I had left out a crucial component of the self. Our minds, given to us by our Creator, have needs, too, do they not? I contend it is intellectually dishonest to claim that anyone has a righteous monopoly on scriptural interpretation. Everyone is using human intellect to grasp scriptures that have been interpreted by human beings, translated by man, and originally recorded in a different time (several, actually), under foreign cultural traditions, and directed at specific audiences. It is impossible to strictly read the bible without “outside” influence. We are all subject to our own cultural, historical, and personal biases.

As a life-long student, it is incredibly disheartening to have that love and need to learn called into question and/or identified as a path to spiritual destruction. I know that God is big enough to handle my doubts and questions. I cannot fathom a God too weak to stand up to rigorous intellectual query. I stand in profound disagreement with the idea that the G-D who created me: mind, body, and soul, would require me to turn off my brain before engaging with scripture. I find it offensive that the same Jesus who sat among religious teachers listening to and questioning them as a child (Luke 2:41-50), would ask me to accept scripture at face value, checking my brain at the door of the churches I enter into. If the new Christian litmus test requires me to choose between believing every word of scripture is literally, factually true (inerrant) and throwing it all out the window–well, then I guess I’d have to throw it out the window and find some other way to connect to God. But thankfully, Jesus did not give this ultimatum. I can find truth and solace in God and the scriptures, believing Christ died and rose, without being excluded because of my questions and doubts.

I was once told that the more I spent time in the “Word of God,” the fewer questions I would have. The answers to my questions, the solution to my doubts, the elixir for my troubled soul–all of it–simply required more bible study. I have found the exact opposite is true. Over the last fifteen years, spending increasing amounts of time reading scripture has only posed bigger, more complex questions. I open, read, and prayerfully reflect on scripture now more than ever. I have grown into a person of complex faith, no longer needing to force myself to reconcile with Christian apologists.

For my faith to stay together, this evolution is a necessity. Every single day, this journey leaves me feeling closer to my Creator, my fellow human beings, and the natural world around me. There are days when I get too philosophical and begin questioning my very existence–fully embracing the proverbial existential crisis. And then there are days when I want nothing to do with biblical scriptures, but just want to experience the Divine in the mundane parts of life, in serving others, in nature, or in the smiles and giggles of my children. 

I suppose that most of all, I just want to do right by God, by humanity, and by all that is good in the world. I try to do my best to follow Jesus. I know it is well with my soul if I seek to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with my God. I do not know all the answers, no person on this Earth does, and that is okay.

Hell Unraveled: 7 Questions about “Eternal Conscious Torment”

In her book, Faith Unraveled: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask Questions, Rachel Held Evans writes, “Some Christians are more offended by the idea of everyone going to heaven than by the idea of everyone going to hell.” This puts into words a notion that has troubled me for as long as the “great hell debate” has been on my radar. Some will say that if you throw out the traditional view of hell, you may as well throw out the entirety of the bible. I vehemently disagree, but until now, I had little defense other than to point out that not all who follow Jesus take every word in the Bible as literal fact or as life’s constitutional guide.

My evolving view of scripture puts me squarely in the camp of reading the bible as a collection of literary works containing truth. I do not place the collection of scripture we know as the bible above God or even as equal to God. I feel there is a fine line between learning from, reading, and prayerfully consulting scripture and literally worshiping the bible. I wonder if we can become so entrenched in the words it contains that “bible believing” becomes its own form of idolatry.

To some, this makes me a bad Christian. Others use this to exclude me from their notion of Christianity all together. Since Jesus Christ never, himself, defined Christianity, I cannot speak to what it makes me or doesn’t make me. I will say this: I do my best to follow Jesus and allow Christ’s teachings to shape and change my heart. And, as far as I know, “right doctrine” isn’t the key to the Kingdom, anyway. As I continue prayerfully seeking God, loving, learning, and serving, perhaps the only thing I know to be true is this: it is well with my soul.

In this blog post, I do not aim to answer or fully engage the “great hell debate.” What I believe about “hell” hasn’t come into full view yet even to me. As a seminarian on extended break, I don’t claim to be an authority on the subject. All I aim to accomplish today is to ask some questions that I hope to address in future blog posts. That is, I am merely endeavoring to open a dialogue with myself, with others, and most importantly with God.

In no particular order, here are some of my pressing questions:

1. What is hell (eternal conscious torment, a literal place on Earth, a state of mind, ultimate destruction, “merely” the absence of God)?

2. Can the gospel really be “good news” if the majority of human beings (created in God’s own image) are going to hell?

3. Does God really want to “win” converts to Christianity using the threat of eternal damnation?

4. What does it mean to love and follow Christ without the fear of hell?

5. Can you still believe in the truth of the Bible and dismiss the traditional notion of hell?

6. Must a person have the intellectual knowledge of Jesus to follow him? (i.e. can someone live a Christ-like life and go to heaven even if they haven’t heard of Jesus?)

7. Is what we believe and do in this life the final word on our eternal souls?

I know these questions, like most of my questions and doubts, will ruffle some feathers. I also know, however, that I’m not the first to ask them and I won’t be the last. The God I seek to faithfully serve is big enough to handle these questions, so I will ask them and endeavor to find answers.

2014 Films: A Year End Review

The time has come for “Top ___” lists and I’m trying to get at least one of them up before 2014 is over. My good buddy, Jordan, will not let me forget all the years that my lists have come late and I’ve promised him to get these up sooner than later.

I have not seen all of the films I wanted to see in 2014, but based on what I have seen, these were my favorites (though maybe not the “best” quality). So, in semi-particular-order here we go:

11. Horrible Bosses 2 – This is really more “honorable mention” territory. I saw this movie for my birthday and it was just good, clean dirty fun. It helped to see it with some of my favorite people from back home and just have a hearty laugh. I found it better and funnier than the first. Had I been in a different mood at the time, maybe it wouldn’t have made the list, but I’m glad I saw it when I did. Jennifer Aniston just knocks my socks off in the role. Everyone says she’s not “diverse” enough, but come on. This is great stuff!

10. The Lego Movie – Oh, Chris Pratt. You make everything better, especially my beloved Legos.

9. Maleficent – I feel like this was Angelina Jolie’s year. She infused Maleficent with such humor and devious charm adding heart and emotion to the caricature of Maleficent that we see in (my favorite Disney animated film) Sleeping Beauty. I genuinely adore this film and its ability to surpass Maleficent’s long historical misunderstanding to show us the lighter side of the woman, the terror, the legend.

8. Wish I Was Here – A welcome addition to the Braff filmography. I have always loved his films and this is no exception. I was sorry to see that it didn’t do better in the theaters, but am so thankful to have seen and enjoyed it. I only wish I’d known sooner of the Kickstarter campaign for it and could have been a part of that. I love getting on board those types of projects.

7. This is Where I Leave You / Begin Again – I’m lumping these two together because they are essentially about growing up and finding oneself despite their very different settings (suburbs vs. city, family dynamics vs. navigating the perils of love and career). I could not have appreciated more the complex emotions portrayed in each production. I just so genuinely enjoyed both casts in their entirety. If I had to, I might give the edge to “Begin Again” because I can’t get enough Mark Ruffalo. Ever.

6. Captain America: The Winter Soldier – Marvel Cinematic Universe films make me happy. They just do. DC films make me introspective and gloomy (though I do love them), but MCU is just different. They have a different vibe. MCU gets it. They get me. The Winter Soldier’s tie into into Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD definitely helped pique my interest in seeing it AND elevated my love for the story. The wonderful thing about this movie, and most of the MCU films, is the heart behind and weaved throughout the story. This one was really an ode to the love we find in genuine friendships like that between Steve Rogers and Bucky.

5. Magic in the Moonlight – Woody Allen. Colin Firth. Emma Stone. Hamish Linklater. Enough said.

4. Guardians of the Galaxy – There has not been a superhero film this good since “The Avengers.” It was so good, in fact, that my husband even liked it. That, in itself, speaks very highly of its appeal and ability to bend genre and reach across the superhero/non-superhero fan divide. James Gunn’s script was flawless, as was every single performance in the entire movie. And, honestly, how are you not a Pratt-fangirl/boy by now?

3. Veronica Mars – This is really a no-brainer. I was a contributor to this film on the first day of the Kickstarter campaign. For us “Marshmallows,” it was really the perfect closure for Veronica’s story with just enough open-endedness to leave the hope for a follow-up film. The movie even appealed to my grandmother, who has never seen the show and is decidedly outside of the target demographic. Well done, all.

2. The Grand Budapest Hotel – A year in which a Wes Anderson film doesn’t make my list of favorites would be a sad year, indeed. This was, perhaps, my absolute favorite of all of his films. Ingeniously told and brilliantly performed. The wisdom in the addition of Ralph Fiennes to the Anderson cast line-up cannot be overstated.

1. Interstellar / Unbroken – In the final analysis, each of these films is about ultimately about hope with emphases on other prescient and vital life virtues. As I sat down to write this list, I really could not decide which to put at the top. Interstellar was such an imaginative and far-reaching endeavor with each cast member putting forth among the greatest performances of their respective careers. I have never seen a Nolan film I didn’t genuinely love. I tell you truly: this is my favorite of his epics. Matthew McConaughey just keeps taking his craft to new levels of brilliance. As for Unbroken, as I said, I think this was Jolie’s year. Her eye for detail and ability to bring the truth of Louie Zamperini’s story to the screen is unsurpassed in its flawless emotional honesty. Jack O’Connell is my breakout star of the year. I’m so glad that Louie, himself, was able to see his larger-than-life story brought to screen before he passed. This one serves to bring us all hope and to display the transformative power of grace, mercy, and forgiveness.

There were a great many films I did not get to see this year, but I saw enough fantastic ones that I felt comfortable making my list this year without having seen everything. Among those I missed this year but hope to see before the Oscars: Boyhood, Selma, Into the Woods, Big Eyes, Cake, Nightcrawler, Fury. Had I seen all of those, I can imagine my above list would have been MUCH longer than it was.

Look Beyond Another’s “Cover”

One of many emotional scenes on The Walking Dead this season.

Recently, I read an article at CNN.com about “The Walking Dead,” in which Forbes was quotes as saying “‘The Walking Dead’ has officially made the zombie genre emotional.” This comment, while seemingly innocuous, got me thinking. For a long time, I have enjoyed shows, books, and movies that are judged (unfairly) as weird, wrong, or somehow lesser because they are a part of a genre that mainstream folks do not understand. From “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to “The Walking Dead,” people always find it strange that I find such value and meaning in shows with such absurd premises and silly titles. The Walking Dead is, on the surface, a “zombie genre” show, sure. But it has always been emotional because, at its core, it is a show about people in community trying to survive unimaginable circumstances. Thus, it is and will always be inherently emotional because it is written with so much truth, heart, and soul. Sunday’s episode didn’t make it “official,” it has always been so.

I am not sure who first coined the phrase, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” but it’s been around for so long that you’d think people would follow that advice. Yet, for all our quoting of this cliché, which is only cliché because it is good and true advice, we seldom follow it. From art (TV shows, movies, books) to people and communities, humankind is constantly making judgments based solely on looks. Maybe it’s just human nature. Maybe it is just an innocent response since “looks” are the first thing evident to us in the physical world. This tendency is so prevalent and, in the case of how it affects our interpersonal and community relationships, it is heartbreaking and even dangerous.

I don’t know what happened the day Michael Brown was killed, but I do know that his appearance had at least something to do with his death. Had he been an unarmed white woman, for example, Officer Wilson would have probably found another way to handle the situation that didn’t involve firing 12 rounds at an unarmed teenager. Police officers have to size up situations quickly and make literal life-or-death decisions, so it makes sense that Wilson would have to take all factors into consideration. Still, I cannot help but think that Michael Brown would be alive today if his skin color were lighter, his clothes a different style, or if the confrontation had taken place in a different town with fewer racial tensions.

Race isn’t the only arena where judging a book by its cover becomes problematic. Special needs people also face this conundrum. My son’s appearance as “normal” and his happy demeanor lead people to assume he is a typical child. They’ll say, “But he looks so normal,” or “I would never have known he had autism if you hadn’t told me.” This is not usually a bad thing except when Weston’s autism causes some sort of public meltdown. Then people assume Weston is just acting out, judging and condemning our parenting and his behavior rather than showing empathy and understanding. If he had a visible, physical disability, perceptions would be different, but our lives would be no easier. I can remember using my disabled parking permit when I was a teenager and being stopped by a mall cop telling me, “You cannot use that unless the handicapped person is in the vehicle.” I was disgusted with his assumption and hurt that I had to explain myself. It isn’t just the visibly disabled who need some help in this world.

All of these issues (and a great many others) are a problem in the tangible, physical world as interpersonal relationships can be complicated or prevented outright based on “covers.” Yet this isn’t a problem in the virtual world. People often lament the effect technology is having on our interpersonal relationships, remarking on how social media is destroying the very fabric of society by somehow breaking down our interactions and making them less personal. In some cases, that may be true, but I would argue that interaction via social media eliminates much of our tendency to “judge a book by its cover” thereby basing our relationships on something more than physical appearance. True, there are many “evils” in the internet world and when we hide behind our online presence or use virtual anonymity to hurt others, there are devastating results. I have, however, developed many great friendships based on common interests that are every bit as real to me as the friends I have stumbled upon as I go about my daily life. I have built lifelong friendships with people who for many reasons–including appearance-based judgements–I would never have met. Relationships not built on physical proximity are not automatically less real or more superficial. On the contrary. They can be much more genuine because they force us to look beyond the “cover” to the heart, mind, and soul of the person with whom we are engaging.

All of this to say: STOP THE INSANITY! But seriously. Whether we’re talking about people, relationships, books, TV shows–whatever–can we please stop diminishing or dismissing our respective “books” based solely on their “covers?” Can human beings finally acknowledge that the world–including the people in it–is more than its surface?

Resolution for the Old and New Year…

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I have been racking my brain for the last year trying to figure out precisely what I will write about. Most of the time, it flows from my brain to my fingers effortlessly after a while, but it’s the getting started that’s the tough stuff. That is probably why I don’t write as much as I’d like to–without clear direction or plan, I feel paralyzed. I’m this way with most things in my life. I have never been a “fly by the seat of my pants” type of gal.

New Year’s Resolutions really only ever serve the purpose of giving me direction to move forward into the new year, but rarely do I stick to them for the majority of the year. Resolutions and goal-setting have always resembled more a jumping off point that leads to additional jumping-off points. Seldom does my goal at the beginning of the journey look exactly like the end result (assuming there is an end result).

So instead of waiting until the new year to develop and begin a “resolution,” I’m going to make a plan today that will help provide much writing inspiration for future blog posts and maybe even for (in the very distant future) a book or two. This idea of mine is really rather revolutionary, actually. Are you ready for this game-changer?

I’m going to…

Wait for it…

READ MORE and WRITE about what I read.

I know, I know. It’s almost too much to process all at once. It is mind-blowing.

Okay, so I’ll drop the sarcasm. My husband might say, “Other than care for the children and the house and watch some TV shows, when aren’t you reading (or looking at your phone)?” It’s true. I am usually reading. Often in a book. Sometimes in a magazine. Frequently on my iphone, computer, or kindle. Reading more may not exactly seem a revolutionary or even a new one. I suppose it isn’t. I suppose this is an oft recited goal or resolution for many. I believe that it was, at one time, one of my resolutions–or part of one. The point of this, however, is to give this blog some clear direction and inspire me.

I am not speaking strictly of book reviews, although, I am sure I will reflect after particularly poignant literary explorations. I won’t wait to post until the end of whatever book (books, is more like it, I am never just reading one book at a time) I am reading. I will write when something I have read–whatever it is–has struck a particular chord with me.

Since my memory is terrible these days, I have determined that I’m going to need to begin a book journal so that I can keep track of what I’m reading and the things that strike me. I’m going to always have a notebook available whenever I am reading or reflecting, so that I can jot down thoughts to use as potential catalysts to what I hope will be blog posts of interest to a broader audience than myself.

I suspect that most of these books will involve some degree of theology and spiritual exploration. This is, after all, the area where I will be a professional and one of my passions in life. Since, however, my interests do also tend toward popular culture, I will continue to read and write about popular topics and may discuss the trials and joys of being a mom to two boys, one with autism.

In the next month, along with starting on this journey, I plan to create a “to-read” list. I’m going to make it flexible and public. I will announce when I am reading a particular book and invite you to follow along. This will be an Over-Dramatically Stated Book Club of sorts, I suppose, and you are welcome to join me!

I’ll begin working on my book-list today and post a working-list within the week.