Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Shazam! on the importance of family, the practice of politics, and the nature of evil

My family and I saw “Shazam” in the theater a few weeks ago. It’s a fun little movie from the DC Comic universe—a combination of action, magic, some drama, and a few larger themes. Maybe it’s because I’m a nerd and a labor economist, but beyond the entertainment, three things struck me as particularly interesting.

First, the movie was really nice on “family”. Most obviously, as Shazam, Billy Batson is yet another superhero to emerge from the world of adoption and foster care. (Consider Superman, Batman, Spiderman, etc.) There are practical reasons for using this as a literary device. But as someone who is passionate about family and taking care of orphans, the positive attention toward both is welcome.

Related to this, the foster parents (for Billy and the host of other children) are not flawless, but they’re still heroes. They are neither over-bearing nor hands-off in their parenting style. In the face of difficult circumstances and challenging family dynamics, the couple is loving and courageous, realistic but amazing. (For another recent movie on foster care and adoption, make sure to check out “Instant Family”.)

Second, I’m not sure whether the writers and the director were aiming for political commentary, but I saw an angle there too. The villain, Dr. Sivana, seems to pursue power mostly for its own sake. In contrast, think of Thanos from the Marvel universe. He wants power to do something drastic—given his ideas about environmentalism and population. He’s wrong ethically and practically, but at least he has a goal.

Maybe the movie simply suffers from lazy writing. But Sivana’s pursuit of power paralleled contemporary politics, where the primary agenda seems to be to win elections and gain power. What do the major political parties and their politicians have to offer? Not much. What do they do with power once they get it? Not much.

Instead of viable ideas, we mostly get talk and personal attacks. Take popular positions. Make vague promises. Utter attractive tag lines to entice voters. Spend a ton of money and push the costs to future generations. Speak loudly but swing a small stick. Partisans and politicians are passionate about winning the war, but they don’t know how to win the peace. They’re far more focused on victory and power than on truth, logic, economics, or science.

Third, I was intrigued by the movie’s depiction of good and evil. Dr. Sivana is a caricature of evil. He’s two-dimensional—boring, really. Again, he doesn’t seem to have a goal—aside from gaining power and exacting some “I told you so” revenge. He’s the same static character throughout the movie. In contrast, Shazam is the life of the party. He wrestles with his personal flaws. He changes and grows as a human being throughout the movie.

This reminds me of C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce. Lewis depicts Hell as gray drudgery where nobody wants to be near anyone else. Meanwhile, visitors from earth can’t walk on Heaven’s grass because it’s so sharp to them.

Sin often has its pleasures. (Why else would it tempt us?) But sin faces diminishing marginal returns; it requires more and more to satisfy. It reduces its practitioners to drones; it fixates on activity rather than intimacy. (See also: social media.) It often lives in a bubble and fails to cultivate real and lasting relationships. It imagines political solutions rather than building relationships and community.

At the end of the day, evil is two-dimensional and boring—to those who have seen and experienced something greater. As Lewis writes in The Weight of Glory about our desires: they are “not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” 

In its own way, Shazam encourages us to avoid the temporary but ultimately-boring temptations that come our way. Instead, we should focus on living life—and living it to the full.

DC28:20 graduation at KCIW

On July 8th, Kurt Sauder, my wife Tonia, and I were honored to attend the graduation for a “DC28:20” group at the Kentucky Correctional Institution for Women (KCIW) in Pewee Valley. Renee Patterson and Rachael Buschman did a terrific job in leading a group of ten ladies through DC28:20—Getting Equipped for its 36 weeks, their first experience with prison ministry.

The ten ladies studied about two hours per week and met weekly to have a facilitated discussion of the week’s material. Along the way, they studied a variety of topics that are crucial to developing a Christian worldview—everything from the humanity and deity of Christ to applications such as managing conflict, work, and evangelism.

DC28:20 includes Bible reading and then a discussion of what the Spirit has shown each person. (Over the 36 weeks, they read the entire New Testament, Proverbs, and a sampling of Psalms.) During the testimony part of the graduation, many of the ladies talked about reading the Bible more regularly and learning how to apply it to their lives. In the Church, we often encourage people to read their Bibles. But too often, we don’t help them enough with accountability or applicability.

DC28:20 also includes Bible memory. Many ladies mentioned particular verses that had impacted them. “Grow in the grace and knowledge” (II Peter 3:18) was mentioned a few times—along with Hebrews 4:12 and II Timothy 2:15. Jeannie quoted Ephesians 4:2 which was probably helpful to her on a daily basis: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”

We heard the usual array of blessings from their time in a DC group. Stevie found confidence to share her faith. Jeannie and Lily learned how to persevere through the 36 weeks. Jenny said she understood God much better—not just as Savior but as Friend. Many of them enjoyed the group as a family. In terms of the need for discipleship with Jesus, it turns out that there’s amazingly little difference between those inside and outside the walls of a prison.

The most staggering thread in the testimonies (and learning more details from Renee and Rachael): all of them had troubled family lives and many had fathers or other prominent men in their lives who were absent or abusers. This is where the group’s “shepherd” was so helpful. Dale Clover was there every week as someone with experience in prison ministry. (He had co-led a DC group at Luther Luckett.)

We thought that a male presence would be helpful for a few reasons. But we did not anticipate that God would use Dale’s graciousness as a father figure in such a transformative way. There were many tears of joy at the celebration, but the most powerful moments were centered around the ladies experiencing a godly man and gaining a new and greatly improved view of their good, good Father.

Southeast and Further Still Ministries picked up the tab for the books. And Southeast paid for the graduation meal. (Thanks to both!) Renee and Rachael had asked what the ladies wanted to eat. The only request was fresh fruits and vegetables. I watched a lady eat (and enjoy) a blueberry for the first time. Another lady said that she hadn’t eaten a radish in 34 years. (I joked, “me neither”!) It was wonderful but sobering to watch them enjoy the basics that we take for granted.

Aside from blueberries and radishes, the six of us were able to leave the prison and enjoy our freedom after the event—while the ladies continue to “pay their debt to society”. Kara mentioned Galatians 5:1,13 as a favorite memory passage and talked about finding freedom in prison. How often are inmates freer than those on the outside? Let us make sure to use our freedom to pursue spiritual freedom and spread that freedom to others.

Names have been changed to protect anonymity.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Chicago / family vaca 2019

Our family trip this year was less than a week—from June 28 through July 4. We were without (old man) Zach for the 2nd year in a row—a bummer, but that’s what happens when the kids get older, right?
In a nutshell, the trip was 1.5 days each of going to and returning from Chicago—with 72 hours in Chicago. It was another shorter vaca—unlike our monster trips to NY State in 2011, SD / COin 2012, and SF to Glacier in 2016. With Daniel as a freshman (not wanting to miss any soccer practices), we had to travel during “Dead Week”.
It was a relatively easy trip in terms of drive time and logistics, rivaling St. Louis / Memphis in 2018. It was quite expensive in Chicago and inexpensive otherwise. In terms of expense and ease, it was similar to our two Michigan trips-- southern in 2014 and northern in 2015. (Our trips to NC in 2010 and SC/NC in 2013 were considerably longer, but less expensive per day.)
Once we got past Indy, I found a bunch of fun little things to do, along with some hikes in surprisingly wonderful state parks. We did five things on the first day: 1.) The periodic table at DePauw U. in Greencastle—a little treat, esp. for Brennan (who plans to be a chem teacher). 2.) The “rotary” jail in Crawfordsville. In addition to its interesting design, one of its two hangings (John Coffey) was part of the inspiration for The Green Mile. 3.) A hike on Trail 3 at Turkey Run State Park—a phenomenal canyon along a stream bed. (We skipped the “ladders”, thinking it was a cul de sac and ended up finishing on Trail 5.) I’d recommend doing it counter-clockwise and be prepared to get your shoes wet/muddy. 4.) The Ernie Pyle museum and house in Dana—a wonderful tribute to the great WWII writer. 5.) A brief but interesting little stop at the Twin Groves windfarm overlook outside Ellsworth, IL.
On the second day, we hiked a terrific trail at Matthiessen State Park and then a good trail (St. Louis) at Starved Rock State Park. The latter came more highly recommended and is a far-more-popular destination. But we liked the former much more—after almost skipping it—much better sights with a lot less work. From there, we visited Reagan’s most prominent childhood home in Dixon—worth a stop. The combo of the Pyle and Reagan homes—just a few years apart—were both a reinforcement and a compare/contrast in how things were for folks, back in the day.
We drove into Chicago that evening, with dinner at the SuperDawg drive-in (ok) and a brief walk through a lovely neighborhood that included “Shit Fountain”. I joked with the boys that it might be the highlight of their trip. It didn’t rise to that level, but it was memorable and one more opportunity to walk through a nice part of Chicago.
I decided that we would stay in a hotel downtown vs. staying in the burbs near the subway—worth it, despite the taxes and parking. We stayed at the Fairfield Inn/Suites Downtown/River—excellent and a bit pricey, but well worth the added convenience. (Per night, we paid $151 for the hotel, $49 for parking, and $27 for taxes.)
On Sunday, we were on the North side of the river, starting with worship at Harvest Cathedral—with inspiring worship and a good sermon in a wonderful theatre/cathedral setting. It is a satellite campus of the church where Dave Stone is preaching a lot these days! It was exciting to see their hearty celebration with a video baptism at another campus. And afterwards, I ran into an old student of mine, Ericia, who is on an internship with CRU this summer!
Afterwards, we walked further north, aiming to see some fancy car dealerships for Daniel—even though they were closed on Sunday. (The area was very wealthy with higher-end shopping and really nice cars everywhere we looked.) We returned on Monday for Daniel to go inside the dealerships and take a ton of pictures. In particular, we really enjoyed our time at Gold Coast Exotic.
For lunch, we had Portillo’s Italian Beef—probably my favorite meal of the trip. After a break in our hotel room to wait out an impending rainstorm, we headed back out to see the John Hancock “360Chicago” view from 1000 feet up. Daniel and Brennan did “The Tilt” and thought it was ok. Afterwards, we walked to Navy Pier. We intended to have Giordano’s pizza, but the wait was an hour, even for take-out. So, we settled for sandwiches and milkshakes at Potbelly’s (solid/good). We finished up with perhaps the family highlight of the trip—playing bocce at Pinstripes ($5 per hour per player). 
After revisiting the cars on Monday AM, we hit Stan's Donuts (nice) and then headed south of the river into the Financial District. Mostly walking through another interesting part of the city (the part I had seen before, when attending conferences), we stopped by the lovely Chagall mosaic at Chase Tower Plaza and had lunch at Berghoff’s (good and a bit pricey but the lunch menu is in our range). We took an Architecture River Tour ($25 through Groupon)—the thing that received the most enthusiasm from my input providers—and it did not disappoint.
Afterwards, we took a Lyft (we had walked 22 miles up to then) to Grant Park. We walked through it, as well as Millennium Park (including pictures at “The Bean”, which was vandalized a few hours later!). On the way back to the hotel , we ran into Gus’ Fried Chicken (one of our favs from Memphis the year before). Tonia and the kids hit one of the crazy downtown McD’s for ice cream and we called it a night.
For Tuesday, we went to the Museum of Science & Industry—what got the second-most votes, and again, appropriately so. I purposed to go there for our last day in town, since a family membership includes free parking. The membership also includes a free exhibit (we chose the German sub—excellent) and 10 movie tickets (we saw Apollo 11—very good). Beyond that, Groupon had a deal it was only $125—a great bargain. The museum itself was large, varied, and terrific. On the way out of town, we grabbed dinner at a Mexican restaurant that only serves goat, BirreriaZaragoza—and everyone enjoyed that immensely.
We spent the night in Merrillville, IN—not ideal for drive-time, given the next day’s itinerary, but the closer options were much more expensive for some reason. Like Friday pre-Chicago, Wednesday post-Chicago was a set of smaller opportunities close to each other: 1.) The Albanese gummy bear factory. The “tour” was a bit disappointing—windows to view a bit of the process and three videos (with insufficient volume) explaining some of it. But the candy was really good! 2.) The Passion of Christ in St. John was tremendous: the stations of the cross—in bronze, with accompanying music and commentary. 3.) The Mt. Carmel monastery inMunster featured a solid stations of the cross and then two tremendous/unique grottoes. 4.) We drove by the birthplace of Michael Jackson in Gary—not much to see from the outside and a secular shrine of sorts. 5.) We wrapped up at the Indiana Dunes State Park, revisiting the first stop on our 2012 trip. I had conflated the Michigan dunes in the UP with those at Chesterton, so it was not as big as I remembered. But the dunes are still worth a stop, along with the op to be on a beach at Lake Michigan.
After the beach, we were going to grab pizza and head back to the hotel room. The van seemed to be fine, but suddenly we had two warning lights (brakes and battery). We got to Little Caesars and left the car running. When I tried to drive away, the car had more warning lights on and wouldn’t go into gear. I started it up again and it went into gear, but only went a half-mile before petering out…at 8:40 PM on July 3rd. Long story short: Just before closing at 9:00, O’Reilly Auto Parts connected us with a “really good guy” named Andy who towed the van and fixed the alternator the next morning for $40 in labor! Amazing! We still haven’t figured out how we’re going to try to bless Andy, who didn’t want anything else from us.
Next time…
Good times in Chicago; more convenient to stay downtown; and cheaper by using Groupon or other discounts where possible. (Look into the Chicago City or Go Chicago passes. And if you’re parking in Chicago, get the app for SpotHero.com.) Beyond that, there was so much more we could have done—and especially, places we wanted to eat. I’ll list both for you and for me—for the next time we get to Chicago.
Other things to do:
-Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum, Lincoln Park Zoo (free), Willis Tower Skydeck (although John Hancock is supposed to be better), Art Institute of Chicago, Architecture Center (esp. if you use their river tour)
-Music Box Theatre, Neo-Futurarium / Infinite Wrench theater
-Greektown, Little Italy, Chinatown
Other places to eat in Chicago:
-north of the river: Maggiano, SafeHouse, Malnati or Giordano’s for Pizza, Public House’s $15 milkshake with cake (400 N State St); Ed Debevic’s (if re-opened)
-Little Italy: Italian Beef and Ice on Taylor St. @ Al’s
-NW of downtown: Hot G Dog, Margie's Candies for world's largest sundae
-S and SW: Carnitas Uruapan; Johnny O's mother-in-law sandwich / hot dogs; Tacqueria Atotonilco’s tortas; Tamale Guy (4399 W 27th, but mobile)
Non-Chicago places to consider:
-UI’s Pollinatorium (Urbana, IL)
-Rialto Square Theatre and Route 66 Raceway (Joliet, IL)
-Mascot Hall of Fame (Whiting, IN)
-Railroad Restaurant and Museum (Monon, IN)