Tuesday, July 8, 2014

What I'm Working On

Photo Credit: Daniel Walsh (Creative Commons)
All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.
-Proverbs 14:23

The first half of 2014 has been a full season.

Full = Busy. Exhausting. Joyful. Frustration. Adventure. Burnout. Endurance. Fruit.

Full means there's been a lot of hard work. Sometimes it feels like a slog up a muddy mountain, slippery and filthy and draining, where my legs and heart are barely able to sustain my life. Other times it feels like an exhilarating run through the forest, dodging and leaping forward with enthusiasm, a smile on my face and sweat on my brow.

I'm typically challenged and thrilled with the presentation of hard work and new challenges, but I also know I struggle with Sabbath-keeping. Thus, in the midst of all this hard work, I'm taking a few vacations over the summer to play, read, write, and sleep, to simply be present with my family.

Here's what I'm working on, both in these past few months and in the season to come:

Open Vancouver:

I'm part of the organizing team for this unique and exciting youth ministry gathering coming to Trinity Western University on September 26 and 27. You can read my post about Open Vancouver here, and check out the website for details. My friends Marko and Adam from The Youth Cartel will be present, there's a lunch included in the price of $25, and we have a fantastic list of proposals for presentations. Registration should open in the next few weeks!
When the Game Stands Tall:

When the Game Stands Tall is an upcoming sports movie releasing August 22 about the high school football team led by coach Bob Ladouceur and their 151-game winning streak, the longest for any American sport. With it's focus on the coach's faith and the presence of spiritual themes and truths, this film could replace Remember the Titans as the primary sports film for youth ministry. I viewed an early version of the movie in March, and wrote two curriculums for the film: I created a small group discussion guide for Athletes in Action, and I wrote a 7-day devotional guide for 30 Hour Famine (World Vision), which you can download for free here.

The Giver:

Based on the phenomenal children's book by Lois Lowry, The Giver is an upcoming young adult dystopian movie about a unique teenage boy chosen to carry the memories of the past for his seemingly-ideal community. Starring Jeff Bridges, Brenton Thwaites, Meryl Streep, Taylor Swift, and Katie Holmes, the film releases August 15. I had an opportunity to fly down to Los Angeles to see a pre-screening of the film (my official review will come in early August), and loved seeing Lowry's novel come to life on the screen. While some significant details have been changed in the adaptation, the heart and themes of the film are present, and the story is brimming with spiritual themes and interesting ideas about human emotion, freedom, and faith. I wrote a three-part small group Bible study and discussion guide on The Giver for The Youth Cartel, which should be releasing in conjunction with the film in August.

My Third Book:
I've dropped hints here and there that I've been at work on a third book, and it's true--I am. The process for writing it has been slower than anticipated due to all the other things I'm working on, so I won't let this blog post be the big announcement about the book's details. Here's the teaser: it's a book about movies and youth ministry. Essentially, this book will unpack my theological framework for how and why I engage with movies, and how to practically and positively utilize films in the spiritual formation of young people. It's probably the most excited I've been about writing, and I'm going to have to work hard to keep the content under the publisher's word count--I could just go on and on about movies and theology!

Plus, I am...
  • Taking a John Stackhouse class at Regent College. I'm still pursuing a master's degree at Regent; it's just going to take five more years! Just finished this class about heaven, hell, and eschatology, and now I have plenty of books to read and time to rethink my position on hell (I'm now leaning towards the belief of conditional immortality, aka annihilationism.)
  • Hiring three people for our youth ministry team. We're finishing up the completion of our youth and young adults ministry team with an admin assistant, a full-time intern, and a full-time young adults pastor. (read more about it here).
  • Overseeing and discontinuing an evening service at our church. Yes, discontinue. As in, I helped lead the difficult decision to close one of our church services after being "in charge" of it for about six months. There's a long story behind this, and maybe it'll manifest itself in a blog post, but suffice to say that I was part of the process.
  • Overseeing the renovations for our church's youth room. I'm not doing a lot of hands-on work--that would lead to disaster--but it's always in my mind, and I'm constantly checking on progress and how our budget is looking.
  • Co-lead an international short-term missions trip to Colima, Mexico. Our team of 19 people will be in central Mexico for 10 days, July 18-28, to serve with a sister church, Pan de Vida. We'll be serving in orphanages, leading a youth group, visiting a local detention center, and going on prayer walks. It'll be a full 10 days, so please be praying for us.
  • Speaking for a week at Stillwood Camp. I loved speaking at Stillwood last summer, and I'll be with the older teens in mid-August this year. I'm still working on what I'll be sharing, but I'm eager to see how Jesus works in the lives of young people that week. You can check out where else I'm speaking here.
Finally, I joined Twitter. I know, I know, I said I wouldn't do this. But, I did. People change their minds; it's part of what makes us human. Twitter has been a fascinating new social media experience for me. I follow a lot of movie directors and film critics, as well as youth ministry / church friends and leaders. Follow me, @joelmayward.

That's what I'm working on. It's hard work, yet the spiritual fruit is profitable, and I love what I get to do! What have you been working on?

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Immigrant

I know what it means to be an immigrant. Having only moved to Canada less than two years ago, I am still living in the liminal state of being a temporary resident in this beautiful country. While my experience has not been without stress, anxiety, and jumping through bureaucratic hoops, my immigration story is not filled with the emotional turmoil and ethical quandaries presented in James Gray's affecting period piece, The Immigrant. Presented at the Cannes Film Festival last year, Gray's film has received only a small distribution in North America, making it a hidden treasure of 2014 worth pursuing. While much of this summer's blockbusters will be filled with monsters, robots, and aliens (or monster alien robots), The Immigrant is a quiet and dramatic morality tale that feels at once familiar and unexpected.

Opening in 1921 on Ellis Island in New York, Ewa (Marion Cotillard) is a Polish nurse seeking a new future in America with her sister, Magda. With both parents dead, their sisterly bond is clearly evident--they only have each other in this world. When they are separated in the immigration process--Magda to the infirmary, Ewa to the line for deportation--it appears their hopes of a better life seem dashed. Enter Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), the conflicted and quietly dangerous man who offers to help Ewa be reunited with her sister. Ewa only has to work for him and earn some money first. His line of work is slowly revealed to be a pimp, "saving" young immigrant women from deportation and taking advantage of their plight to stay financially afloat. He is clearly infatuated with Ewa, only making their tumultuous relationship more complex. She's uninterested in his romantic pursuits, but she needs him to remain in the country and gain income to save her sister. He needs her because he believes he loves her.

This "love" of Bruno is tested with the entrance of Emil (Jeremy Renner), a charming magician and Bruno's estranged cousin. When Emil notices Ewa--and subsequently notices Bruno's desires for her--he strives to woo her with visions of a new life in California or beyond. Between Bruno and Emil, and still set on being reunited with her sister, Ewa finds herself caught making difficult moral decisions. "Caught" is the best term for it--she doesn't look for these plights or situations. They are thrust upon her in intrusive and violent ways. She knows she is not an object, yet she also knows that it requires money to obtain freedom for her sister, and she knows she'll do whatever it takes to be reunited. Bruno knows this too, and uses this knowledge to his manipulative advantage, all while internally wrestling with the subsequent guilt of placing the woman he loves into the hands of other men for money.

An aside: for a film set in the context of brothels and prostitution, there is not a single unnecessary scene of sensuality. While there are brief moments of nudity, none feel inappropriate to the narrative or objectifying to women in general. These places and the men that inhabit them are never portrayed in positive tones; it is the women here who are strong and resilient, who overcome their horrendous circumstances.

What makes The Immigrant such a well-crafted and powerful film is not only the acting (though Cotillard and Phoenix give perhaps their best performances of their already-stellar careers), or the images (haunting shadows, amber tones, and exquisite details transport a person into 1920s New York)--it's the complexity, the layers of depth and wondrous insights into the nature of humanity, freedom, morality, and forgiveness. While this film easily could have slipped into expected tropes of the genre--a love triangle, melodramatic performances, nice costumes, etc.--it defies convention without becoming inaccessible. In his expansive and insightful essay on The Immigrant, Jeremy Purves writes the following:
I believe one of the reasons The Immigrant will only grow in our estimation is that it rejects any simplistic or one-sided views about good and evil.  Its portrayals of both good and evil are completely sincere, but sincerity does not necessarily deny complexity.  Based on this, I do not believe it to be a spoiler to say that neither Bruno nor Emil are portrayed as wholly evil or wholly good.  Both men have some good intentions.  Both men, like the rest of us, have their own selfishness to deal with.  And both of their characters ask us to question our own motivations and capacity for blindness.  When a character in the film has to learn something about “the power of forgiveness” and then to make the decision whether to practice it as an act, it is difficult to see how deciding whether to forgive or not to forgive will not be heartbreakingly human in either case.
Without going into spoilerish territory, I can say that this film offers one of the strongest pictures of grace and forgiveness in a film this year, or perhaps the past ten years. The more I think about each character's choices--their spoken promises to one another, their decisions, their knee-jerk reactions and defense mechanisms, their confessions--I find there are further depths I have yet to mine for gems of truth and insight. The two scenes of confession between Ewa and Bruno are particularly noteworthy, and each are transformative for both characters, bringing about repentance and freedom and healing. These confessions are moments of revelation, where the interior struggles and shame of one's heart is poured out into public hearing. These are explicitly Christian confessions, as Ewa's faith is weaved throughout this story as a source of strength for her character, a moral anchor in the waves of her tumultuous circumstances. It's refreshing to see a film portray faith as a strength without brow-beating or cynicism. By the end of the film, Bruno may not be a convert to Christianity, but he certainly has experienced the healing described in James 5:17:
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
The Immigrant is a strikingly honest film. Though characters are duplicitous and behave with mixed motives and questionable morals, they are nonetheless themselves, wholly authentic and raw, in a story that feels like it could only be birthed out of reality. The entire narrative rings true, from opening to close, and the final scene is entirely satisfying with a beautiful closing shot that could be framed in an art gallery. This isn't a film meant for two hours of escapist entertainment, though viewers will certainly not be bored. It's one of the more thoughtful and thought-provoking films to come along in a great while, and while my story as an immigrant cannot directly correlate to Ewa's story, there is something here beyond immigration that captivates the human mind and heart.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Doing With - Finding Kindred Spirits for Your Team

Choosing teams on the playground during elementary school recess is essentially a childhood rite of passage. There are two team captains, typically the kids who have the appearance of being natural leaders (i.e. they're bigger and louder) while the rest of the potential players line up and the ritual begins. If I ever found myself in the rare position of being the captain, I typically took a posture well-known by the other kids: I would pick my friends first. It didn't matter if they were good at the game or not; they were my friends. Some captains picked the strategy of choosing the biggest, most athletic kids, regardless of relational equity or quality of character. They just wanted to get the most points. But I found myself drawn to the people I liked, the people I knew I would have fun playing the game with, the people who gave me joy, the people I trusted. Even if we didn't win, we'd have a blast doing it together.

We choose the teammates we love to do games with.

Now as a pastor, I have the task of hiring for three different positions for my church's youth ministries leadership team, including a full-time young adults pastor. It's been an enlightening, exciting, and daunting endeavor as a leader. Choosing a leadership team requires a great deal of discernment, humility, patience, and a knowledge of one's vision and values. Finding the right team chemistry is vital, and I've been blessed to be a part of some incredible church leadership teams where the team dynamic is defined by mutual trust and shared values. I know what I want in a team because I've experienced it before.

A few weeks ago, I attended an evening lecture at Regent College featuring author and pastor Mark Buchanan. He shared that he would choose leaders based on what he called the "Numbers 11 Principle." In Numbers 11, the people of Israel are complaining to Moses so strongly that he eventually pleads with the Lord to kill him at once rather than continue to face the criticism and whininess of the people. Instead of killing Moses, God gives him the following command:
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them, and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you. And I will come down and talk with you there. And I will take some of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them, and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you may not bear it yourself alone. (Numbers 11:16-17, ESV, emphasis mine)
God takes some of the Spirit on Moses and places it on these trusted leaders. It's interesting that God doesn't just give His Spirit directly; He gives it through Moses, a sharing of His Spirit that mingles with Moses's spirit. This is more than just team chemistry or synergy or alike personalities--these are kindred spirits, shared hearts, what Buchanan called "deep calling to deep." There is something mysterious and beautiful and complex here, a sharing of the Spirit of God to stand together and bear the burden of the people. Buchanan encouraged his listeners to seek out these kindred spirits and do ministry together.

One of my ministry friends, Brian Berry, uses the language of locking arms or stacking hands together. I love the image of interlocking limbs as teammates, the intertwining partnership it embodies. And when people on the same team or project aren't kindred spirits, there is an underlying tension behind every decision, a fumbling of locked arms and an awkward de-stacking of hands. It's akin to the feeling of going for a high-five with someone and completely missing; we're not fully with each other in this.

Kindred spirits. Stacked hands. Locked arms. Partners in the Gospel. Whatever the phrasing, these capture something I've experienced in the past decade of ministry: there are certain people you just love doing ministry with. It goes beyond personalities or interests--this is the experience of shared values, shared hearts, shared minds, and a spiritual connection permeating it all. It's the reason I moved to Arizona years ago--I was following the call of a kindred spirit, someone I loved and trusted. It's the reason I came to British Columbia--I found kindred spirits here that I didn't even know existed until the Spirit of God brought us together. It's the reason I married my wife--she is a kindred spirit, a person I eagerly want to do life with, no matter where God leads us together.

We choose the people we love to do (fill in the blank) with.

As I'm hiring for positions and looking to build a team, I'm looking for kindred spirits. I'm looking for people to do ministry with for the long haul. That withness is essential for any team, whether on the playground, together as parents, or a pastoral team.

Who are the kindred spirits in your life? How do you know?

Monday, June 23, 2014

Top Youth Ministry Movies: Part 5

(Links to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. Link to Top Youth Ministry Movies You Can Show To Your Youth Group)

I love movies and I love youth ministry, so when the two interconnect, it's a beautiful thing. Here is part five of my top youth ministry movies: ten more films about adolescence, youth culture, discipleship, and identity formation, listed in alphabetical order. These aren't films for showing to your youth group; these are films for youth workers and parents to explore youth ministry themes. Use discretion and wisdom when deciding to watch any film.

Breaking Away (1979, Peter Yates) The Oscar winner of "Best Original Screenplay" in 1980, this affecting sports film is about four friends and the summer after their graduation from high school Dave, Mike, Cyril, and Moocher spend much of their days lazily swimming in a nearby flooded quarry, unsure of their futures and taking out their adolescent frustrations on a local university gang. Dave stands out from the group for his passion for Italian competitive cycling, a passion that frustrates his pragmatic father but inspires his lackadaisical friends. Breaking Away wrestles with the post-high school graduate's vocational anxiety, embodied with the inspirational idealism of Dave and his participation in the Little 500, a local Indiana bike race. The film features a very young Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, and Jackie Earle Haley in their teen years, and has become an American sports film classic.

Carrie (1976, Brian De Palma) I hesitate to list any scary supernatural film (see my theology of horror movies blog series for more thoughts on a Christian response to the horror genre), but this seminal horror movie based on Stephen King's novel is more than just a frightening film--it's cautionary tale about repressed sexuality, the effects of teen bullying, and an exploration of separatistic fundamentalist religion. When mousy Carrie (Sissy Spacek, in a career-defining role) experiences her first menstrual period in the middle of the gymnasium locker room showers, the subsequent ridicule she experiences at the hands of her peers is humiliating and infuriating. Her psychotic and abusive mother (Piper Laurie) keeps Carrie under her thumb through the authority of a fundamentalist religion akin to Christianity, but missing all aspects of Christ's grace and love. Carrie's realization and exploration of telekentic powers is a parallel to her adolescent experience of puberty--she realizes she has power and the ability to make her own autonomous choices. A young John Travolta and others plot to expand their humiliation of Carrie at the prom, leading to catastrophic results. (Caveat: Carrie is an R-rated horror film, with frightening scenes and nudity/sexuality. It's not an easy film to watch, so please don't consider its inclusion in this list as a blanket recommendation for its content or similar films.)

Frances Ha (2013, Noah Baumbach) Full of an ironic twist of wit and anxiety, Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha is the best filmic portrayal of the millennial generation's emerging adulthood phenomenon. Frances (co-writer and indie hipster romantic comedy veteran Greta Gerwig) is a feisty misfit, running through urban streets with abandon, spontaneous and full of life, passionate about her hopes and dreams, yet struggling with the whole idea of growing up. Shot in stark black-and-white while set in 2012 New York, Frances Ha pays homage to early Woody Allen comedies (Manhattan, Annie Hall) and the French New Wave films of the 1960s, Godard's Breathless, in particular. Frances Ha is filled with beautiful, cathartic moments which happen in fits and spurts: Frances sitting with the crying college girl in the dorm hallway; Frances' monologue telling the woman at the dinner party about her ideal romantic moment, where two eyes catch across the room and there is a "knowing" of each other that is beyond sexual or emotional longing; Frances running and dancing through the streets of New York with a reckless freedom. It is this last image--Frances running--that sticks in my mind the most. The world around her is a blur as she rushes forward, uncertain about the obstacles or opportunities that lie ahead, yet running at full speed. She is the poster child for the millennial generation's struggles and hopes, rushing with abandon into the future. (My review)

Frozen (2013, Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee) Disney is reconstructing its princess romantic identity. Beginning with Tangled, then Pixar's Brave, and now with this past year's Frozen--a wonderfully charming film featuring two princesses, sisters caught up in a magical adventure of danger and love--the concepts of love and femininity are taking some significant and positive shifts. Rather than portray passive princesses overwhelmed with temporal feelings-driven love, true love is embodied by sacrificial action. In Frozen, this definition of love is explicitly stated by Olaf, a magical snowman created by Elsa, who shares simple wisdom with Anna in a key moment. Frozen deconstructs the act of "true love's kiss" and replaces it with a sacrificial act of Anna saving her beloved older sister from impending death. Anna and Elsa are the Disney princesses of a new generation, portraying younger women who find their strength and voice and vocation without sacrificing their femininity. Frozen is a powerful story of teenage autonomy, the value of familial relationships, and the nature of authentic love. (My review)

The LEGO Movie (2014, Phil Lord, Chris Miller) Without spoiling anything, The LEGO Movie wonderfully explores the spiritual nature of creativity and our relationship with the Creator. More than anything, it sends a deeper message of moderation and discernment, where the abundant life is experienced by neither "following the rules" or "just doing what feels right." The LEGO Movie offers a Third Way, a way between polarization and politics, a way that is far more difficult to navigate but offers copious rewards when embraced with wisdom and discernment. Creativity and imagination are part of the created order--and there is order here--where we partner with the Creator in the making of culture. Even the portrayal of God is unique, where Father and Son create together in harmony and unity, while the mysterious Spirit guides and comforts as the world is built anew. The imagination and world-building in The LEGO Movie are par none; the humour is the most laugh-inducing I've had in a year; and the surprises in storyline, character cameos, and direction the film takes are all delightful. There strong parallels between this film and The Truman Show, the Toy Story films, and even The Matrix trilogy. The LEGO Movie, like the best Pixar has ever offered, manages to capture both the imaginative heart of a child and the thoughtful maturity of adulthood, capturing an audience in a holistic manner. As I've reflected upon the movie, I keep recalling more ideas, more delightful memories, more nostalgic moments. I'd be hard-pressed to find much I didn't like about this film. Everything is definitely awesome about The LEGO Movie. I feel like a kid again. (My review)

Mud (2013, Jeff Nichols) In the heart of the American South, two adolescent young men--it just doesn't feel right to call them "boys"--find a fugitive man hiding on an island in the middle of the immense Mississippi river. No, this isn't a Mark Twain story. It does hold on to the timeless character of Twain's tales--an innocent sweetness wrapped up with weighty moral and spiritual issues, all carried along by the great river. Ellis and Neckbone, two fourteen-year-olds from small-town Arkansas with a weathered motor boat, are seeking adventure in the form of a boat lodged high in a tree. What they find is Mud, the titular character of Jeff Nichols' latest American filmic masterpiece. Mud is aptly portrayed by Matthew McConaughey with a dangerous Southern charm and rugged idealism. Mud is a man on the run, and the boys decide to help the magnetic absconder. Ellis is one of the best embodiments of a young teen I've seen on film. Portrayed by Tye Sheridan (the youngest brother in Malick's The Tree of Life), Ellis is idealistic, naive, rash, and courageous. He strolls into adult situations with a quiet confidence beyond his fourteen years. He asks out the senior girl without a drop of insecurity or insincerity. He still says "ma'am" and "sir" to his parents, but also talks about girls with Neckbone. Ellis is a romantic, pining for true love, outraged when he cannot seem to find it for himself or in the adult relationships he observes. Questions begin to surface, like who am I? and what is love? and am I capable of giving and receiving love? and where do I fit in this world? Autonomy from his parents, affinity with Mud, and the boldness to make ethical decisions and take action to carry them out all stream from this boy like a slow-moving unstoppable river, driven and shaped by the currents. (My review)

Ordinary People (1980, Robert Redford) Probably most famous for winning "Best Picture" over Scorcese's Raging Bull in 1981, Redford's Ordinary People is nonetheless a quiet and meditative exploration of the effects of loss on a normal American family. The accidental death of a beloved eldest son brings incredible turmoil to the Jarrett family, particularly with Conrad, the younger brother and survivor of the accident that cost his brother's life. After a suicide attempt and rehab in a psychiatric hospital, teenage Conrad ends up in regular meetings with a counselor, Dr. Berger, a compassionate and blunt man who can handle Conrad's painful feelings of loss and brokenness. The mother, Beth, also can't handle the brokenness in her heart, and her bitter refusal to forgive or show love for others comes out in painful and explosive ways. Though she cannot admit it, she holds Conrad responsible for the death, and the pain seeps out of her like liquid through fissures in a cracked dish. I recall watching Ordinary People in a high school religion class and being struck by the portrayal of a distraught and dysfunctional family that looked perfectly ordinary on the surface. Now as an adult, I see the underlying pain of families often in my experience as a pastor, the dysfunction both consistent and unique for each family. Tolstoy said it well: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Short Term 12 (2013, Destin Cretton) Filmmaker Destin Cretton has crafted a world that is both heartbreaking and heartwarming--it's certainly emotionally moving, and I found myself wiping my eyes numerous times. Short Term 12 is one of the most affecting and honest portrayal of youth work I've seen on film, sitting alongside The Kid with a Bike and About a Boy. While the youth workers in Short Term 12 are facility employees and therapists, there are strong parallels to Christian youth ministry, both in the church and the community. (I wish there were more Christian films that expressed the pathos and artistry and spirituality of Short Term 12. We need more of those films.) The young people of the facility are wounded by abandonment and abuse, frightened and cautious about opening up their souls to the adults around them. They reveal their pain through their art. A rap song from a troubled young man named Marcus is devastating as he reveals his past through the profane and affecting lyrics. Jayden shows Grace a children's story she wrote and illustrated in her notebook, a tale about an octopus being slowly eaten by a deceitful shark. Mason and Grace just listen and weep and empathize. It's a typical day in the life of a youth worker. This may, in fact, be the best contemporary film portraying youth ministry in a post-modern, post-Christian world. (My review)

The Way, Way Back (2013, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash) The Way, Way Back falls in line with typical summer movie themes--awkward teens, miserable experience in a beautiful vacation spot, hilarious side characters, etc.--without slipping into cliches or sentimentality. The opening scene features 14-year-old Duncan (perfectly portrayed by young actor, Liam James) sitting in the back of a Buick. A brief conversation with his mom's boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carrell), is incredibly demeaning--when asked what he'd rate Duncan on a scale of 1 to 10, Trent gives him a 3. Duncan's awkward eyes and iPod earbuds designed to block out the world reminded me of so many other young teens with the same internal question--am I really just a 3? Do I really matter? Is life always going to be this difficult? After discovering a nearby water park and suddenly becoming a member of the staff, Duncan begins to live in two different worlds. In the world of Trent and the vacation home, he is aloof, ignored, and viewed as an annoyance to be tolerated. In the world of the water park, he has authority, autonomy, responsibility, and community. With Trent and his friends, Duncan is inferior and boring. With Owen,  (the hilarious water park owner portrayed by Sam Rockwell) and the water park employees, Duncan is a beloved peer. With Trent, Duncan is a 3. With Owen, Duncan is a 10. It's not that Duncan is being hypocritical by living two different lives; he's embarking on the adolescent journey of autonomy, finding his own sense of self in the world, trying on a variety of identities to see which one truly fits best. And water park Duncan is winning the identity contest, thanks to Owen's invitation into his world. (My review)

Waiting for 'Superman' (2010, Davis Guggenheim) In the documentary Waiting for 'Superman,' filmmaker Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth, It Might Get Loud) tackles the broad subject of public education by looking at five individual children whose futures will be largely defined by the schools they attend. If they go down one path--specialized charter schools funded by public finances--they are nearly guaranteed the chance to go to college. If they head down another--public schools determined by their zip code--they enter a system seemingly designed to guarantee their failure in high school. Guggenheim's big question--what is wrong with public education and how do we fix it?--is one with simple-yet-complex solutions. There are a variety of factors in play here, such as the educational system, the policies, and the educators' priorities and values about what is truly important. These factors raise important questions for the American church. Whose preferences are more important, the older or younger generation? How can the older lovingly guide the younger? Is there such thing as a 'bad' youth pastor--or at least poor youth ministry practices--that could be hindering the spiritual growth of students?  (My review)

What youth ministry films would you add? Share in the comments!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Half-Year Favorite Movies for 2014

Time seems to move more quickly the older I get. In my thirtieth year, I can't believe this season has gone already and summer is nearly fully upon us. I wish I had the opportunity to see more foreign and limited-released films; unfortunately, I've only seen the films given major releases in theatres. With the year of 2014 at a halfway point, here are five of my favorite movies from the first half of the year (this is, of course, subject to change by the end of 2014, as opinions ebb and flow with the tide of time and multiple viewings):

5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Thrilling action and ethical gravitas made this my favorite sequel so far in the Marvel "Avengers" franchise. This film comes across more in the vein of a spy/thriller story, with government conspiracy and the "lone framed man on the run" motif. The action is brutal and impressive--Captain America is a much more physical hand-to-hand fighter than many of his Avenger friends, the Hulk notwithstanding--and the weight of every punch and every moral decision is felt.

4. X-Men: Days of Future Past. The latest installment to the X-Men franchise is this year's X-Men: Days of Future Past, a thrilling time-travel ensemble film that attempts to harmonize the previous films while embarking into new territory with familiar characters. Literally, this film changes everything. This is a comic book film driven by its characters, not by their powers or the action scenes.The final showdown is less about the externals and more about the inner choices each character must make for themselves, a choice between violence or peace, fear or love. (My review)

3. The Grand Budapest Hotel. Quirky and outlandish, The Grand Budapest Hotel tells its complex narrative with a dry wit and a twinkle in its ornate eye. Every scene is beautifully constructed with precise detail and a reverence for design. The story is layered with fascinating characters that could only exist in a Wes Anderson world of weirdness and wonder. I want to rent this film and just watch it frame by frame, noting the intricacies of each scene. Love him or hate him, Anderson has a unique style that he infuses in each of his films, and The Grand Budapest Hotel feels like the most Andersonian of the lot. (Note: My favorite Wes Anderson film remains Moonrise Kingdom, and I doubt that film will be superseded.)

2. NoahThe book is nearly always better than the movie, and Darren Aronofsky's fantastic Noah is no exception. But this doesn't mean the movie isn't a worthy work of artistic merit on its own. A dream project for the filmmaker, Noah is the filmic mashup between a Narnian-like fantasy story, a Shakespearian family drama, and a Biblical morality tale, all rolled into an epic cinematic experience. More than anything, Noah raises deep spiritual questions, and invites discerning viewers into discussion and exploration of moral themes and paradoxes. In the end, Noah isn't a perfect film, but it's certainly a fantastic film, in both senses of the word--extraordinarily good and imaginative and fanciful. For those who are hesitant about Noah--particularly those who claim it isn't "biblical" enough--I would invite them to watch again with open minds and hearts, seeking truth and beauty in the flood of this tale. (My review)

1. The LEGO Movie. An animated kids' movie about toys is my favorite film of the year thus far? It's true. Everything, in fact, is awesome about The LEGO Movie, a hilarious and colourful exploration of artistic creativity and the beauty of wise moderation. The imagination and world-building in The LEGO Movie are par none; the humour is the most laugh-inducing I've had in a year; and the surprises in storyline, character cameos, and direction the film takes are all delightful. While this story seems like a typical "good Rebels versus evil Empire" tale, the final act takes the film to a new level of creativity and depth. Without spoiling anything, The LEGO Movie wonderfully explores the spiritual nature of creativity and our relationship with the Creator. More than anything, it sends a deeper message of moderation and discernment, where the abundant life is experienced by neither "following the rules" or "just doing what feels right." The LEGO Movie offers a Third Way, a way between polarization and politics, a way that is far more difficult to navigate but offers copious rewards when embraced with wisdom and discernment. (My review)

What have been your favorite films from the first half of 2014? Share in a comment!

Monday, June 16, 2014

How to Train Your Dragon 2

When I saw the original How to Train Your Dragon in theaters, it was the best use of 3D in a movie I'd seen yet, and remains a memorable keynote experience in my history of movie-watching. It was one of my favourite films of 2010, somehow coming ahead of Toy Story 3 (though I've since revisited both films and Toy Story 3 has grown in my affection to an almost-equal standing with HTTYD.) So my expectations were quite high for the How to Train Your Dragon sequel, an action-packed dragon-flying adventure set five years after the first film. I offer a sigh as I likely find myself in the minority in my reflections: while the second film is fine, it isn't exceptional and doesn't compare to the beauty and imagination of its predecessor.

How to Train Your Dragon explored so many rich themes in its imaginative and complex world. There was the father-son dynamic between the awkward Hiccup and the brutish Stoick. There was the conflict between the worlds of Viking and dragon (human and nature, respectively). The coming-of-age story of a young dreamer struggling with affinity and autonomy in a harsh world was captivating as young Hiccup transformed from an outcast to a leader in his community through the power of patience and understanding. Hiccup fostered reconciliation between the dragons and Vikings, painting a beautiful picture of biblical stewardship of the creation around us.

In contrast, How to Train Your Dragon 2 has a lot of cool flying dragon sequences...and that's about it. These are awe-inspiring in themselves, and there were numerous moments where the visuals forced a quiet "whoa" from my lips in wonder. Yet instead of a picture of stewardship and understanding, the climatic lesson to be learned here is to fight and protect, a blow-for-blow battle against two men who are shadows of one another. While Vikings and dragons live in peace in Hiccup's community of Berk, a dragon army is being captured and created by Drago Bludvist, a hulking antagonist with little-to-no backstory or motivation for his depravity. He's just a bad guy who wants to capture dragons and destroy Berk. How he manages to capture and control dragons is never really explained (he has an "alpha" mind-controlling dragon called a Bewilderbeast, but it's unclear how a tiny man yelling loudly could motivate this powerful and impressive creature), while Hiccup and company prefer their method of harmonious dragon-riding. Hiccup naively attempts to reason with Drago and convince him through reason that war is unnecessary, but Drago (of course) doesn't comply, leading to the final dragon-vs-dragon showdown. For this film, might makes right and standing up to the bully by punching him in the face wins the day.

The most affecting moments come with the revelation of Valka, Hiccup's long-lost mother who has been saving dragons from Drago's clutches for two decades. The reunion of Valka and Stoick is powerful and tear-inducing, but unfortunately Valka does little to contribute or actually move the story along, apart from showing Hiccup where he got his dragon-loving genes. A love-quadrilateral (there's more than three, so a "love triangle" doesn't seem like the appropriate designation) between secondary characters attempts at humour, but this is a much darker film overall than its predecessor. Even in this darkness, Hiccup feels strangely aloof, particularly in comparison to the first film.

Ultimately, How to Train Your Dragon 2 offers some impressive visuals and creative world-building, but the final act and overall message felt overtaken by the typical "let's have an epic battle sequence!" ubiquitous in the summer blockbusters of our culture. I may be a minority here, and perhaps this review comes across as more cynical than it should, as I did enjoy myself and found the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless to be delightful. Maybe I'm making too many comparisons to the beloved first film, but a series of films elicits comparability. Should a third film arrive in this series--and it likely will--I hope the filmmakers will lose the dragon battles and emphasize the power of love, humility, and self-sacrifice found in the original film.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Navigating Emotional Triangles

Photo Credit: stopherjones (Creative Commons)
This article originally appeared on the LeaderTreks blog.

Ever been sidelined by a conversation in which one person tells you how much another person is upset with you? Perhaps two people you care about—volunteers on your team, co-workers, siblings—are fighting and both want your advice on how to approach the other. Maybe a board member heard from a mother how much her student dislikes a small group leader, leaving you totally unsure about whom to speak to first. Or a co-worker shares with you his mistrust of another ministry leader with the disclaimer that he’s “just venting” or “it’s not a big deal.”
You’ve been triangled.
Each of these situations is an encounter with emotional triangles. In his book A Failure of Nerve, author Edwin Friedman defines an emotional triangle as “any three members of any relationship system, or any two members plus an issue or symptom.” He even suggests, “There may be no such thing as a two-person relationship.” Emotional triangles are inherent in any organization and require systems thinking to navigate with wisdom and humility.
There are some common principles for how emotional triangles operate. Emotional triangles…
…form out of discomfort and conflict between people.
…function to preserve themselves and oppose all intentions to change them.
…make it difficult for people to change their thinking or behavior.
…transmit a relational system’s stress to its most responsible or focused member.
This final rule is key for ministry leaders to grasp. Emotional triangles suck leaders in, regardless of the leader’s emotional capacity or desire to jump into a conflict. Getting caught in the grip of an emotional triangle (or multiple emotional triangles) is a common source for leader burnout and failure. In fact, Friedman goes so far to say that burnout doesn’t come from overworking, but from getting enmeshed in other people’s issues.
Here’s how getting triangled works: Person A (the leader) gets entangled in the emotionally-draining relationship between persons B and C, either due to a sense of responsibility for them or because they’ve placed their unhealthy emotional focus on A. Unfortunately, A has no direct control over the relationship between B and C. Yet A is still emotionally affixed to their relationship. Person A can’t “fix” B and C, but feels responsible for saving them, nonetheless.
It can feel empowering, even flattering, to be asked to help with these emotional conflicts. Maybe Matthew 18:15–17 comes to mind—aren’t I just restoring a brother or sister in Christ? But this isn’t Matthew 18 in practice; it’s simply emotionally-draining relational dysfunction.
So what can ministry leaders do to handle emotional triangles? Here’s Friedman again:
"The way out is to make the two persons responsible for their own relationship, or the other person responsible for his or her problem, while all still remain connected. It is that last phrase which differentiates de-triangling from simply quitting, resigning, or abdicating. Staying in a triangle without getting triangled oneself gives one far more power than never entering the triangle in the first place."
In other words, stay in the triangle without becoming a “third wheel.” Easier said than done, right?
Click here to read the rest of the article, including three practical tools for addressing unhealthy triangles.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Tent Life - Living as Strangers in a Foreign Country

Photo Credit: Christian Arballo (Creative Commons)

In the past few weeks, while I’ve been hanging out with a high schooler, they’ve asked me a question: 

“So, how long are you planning on staying in Canada?” 

They ask with a bit of trepidation, hesitant about their desire to hear the answer. Their question fills me with a sense of affection—they’re asking because they don’t want to see me leave any time soon!—and a bit of hesitation. If I’m honest about my answer, I really don’t know.  As an American immigrant living on a temporary visa, I’m still a visitor of sorts, a resident of Canada without a current sense of permanence.

I know what I want to say. I want to say that I’ll be here for the long haul, committed to planting roots and growing deeper in relationship with others. I’ve fallen more in love with the land and the people and the city and our church, and I have little desire to abandon any of it. Yet I’m also aware that my life isn’t about my personal comforts or aspirations or plans. This entire following-Jesus-with-my-whole-life thing is a journey of faith. Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. Faith is present certainty in God’s promises for the future based on God’s faithful actions in the past.

Just look at the faith of Abraham
By faith, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tent, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise (Hebrews 11:8-9). 
He lived in a tent. Tents are inherently temporary, able to be quickly moved by a traveling pilgrim. Even though God had promised Abraham numerous descendants and that he'd be the father of a nation, he never saw the promise completed in his lifetime. Why did he leave everything behind and choose to live in tents, temporary dwellings in a land he never fully inherited? For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God (vs. 10). Abraham was longing for a heavenly country, a better country God had prepared (vs. 16). He recognized that a life of dwelling in God’s presence was better than any temporary comfort or circumstance. He was faithful and hopeful, and his very dwelling structure indicated his willingness to go wherever and whenever God led him.

So while I have no idea how long I’ll be in Canada—hopefully for a very long time!—I’m not particularly worried. God is present and faithful, and that is enough. I'm embracing the tent life. I remember reading in Sustainable Youth Ministry that all youth pastor positions are interim roles. Whether we're present for two months, two years, or two decades, every pastor is in their church (and this world) only for a season. We're strangers in a foreign country, longing for the day when we'll be wholly reunited with Christ in His kingdom. For now, we serve faithfully where He has called us, ready to pack our tents if He leads us to new lands.

As the summer approaches, I’m reminded of how much change and transition we all go through. From high school and university graduations, to summer weddings and the birth of children, to memorial services remembering people who have passed away, to new jobs or career choices, change is inevitable. Yet through all things, God is present and available through Christ. The people of Christ’s kingdom are all sojourners and strangers in a foreign country. We are citizens of a heavenly country, presently living with hope in the God who saves. We dwell in tents.

As we live the tent life, let’s put our whole faith in Him alone, hopeful and eager for the kingdom of heaven to come into our world!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

3 Dangers of Quick-Fix Solutions

The garbage can lid had a small fissure in the center of its diameter. The crack went mostly unnoticed for weeks, until the morning we walked outside and saw the enormous gaping hole in our garbage. Chewed plastic and raccoon feces surrounded the breach, taunting us. I wanted a whole new garbage can, but my wife and mother-in-law insisted that it'd be too expensive, that my mom-in-law had purchased a new lid for us on clearance, that if we could wait a week or so to pick up the lid all would be well.

So I did what any husband desiring to honour his wife and lacking in handyman skills would do: I duct taped the lid shut.

The raccoons just chewed another hole. This rupture in our garbage can's protective boundary expanded from the lid to the actual can, effectively destroying the rim that offered a seal of protection from the outside world. With days remaining before we would travel to pick up the new clearance lid from the States, I did the only think I knew to do: I duct taped the lid shut...again.

But we would not throw the same ineffective solutions at this problem. No, we would add more ineffective solutions. Through extensive Internet research, we discovered that marauding rodents don't particularly enjoy chili powder. Thus, along with our ingenious duct tape defense system, we added a layered moat of chili powder to our garbage can. Days layer, when we arrived back from my mother-in-law's home with a clearance garbage can lid in tow, we were met with the picture below:

Duct tape and chili powder won't stop a determined raccoon. Plus, the new garbage can lid didn't fit. We now need--and, really, have always needed--to purchase a new garbage can, one with a bit stronger lid.

I wonder if we often take the same quick-fix approach in ministry. Whether it's money (this will cost too much!), time (this will take too long!), or energy (I don't have the capacity for this!), many of the solutions we offer in ministry contexts are short-term and quick-fix, reactionary and impulsive decisions to put a band-aid on a wound requiring surgery.

Perhaps it's the quick acceptance or hire of a seemingly dynamic leader without examining their character. Maybe it's the quick paint job to cover the growing water stain in the ceiling, one that indicates a destructive ongoing leak. Maybe it's adding an extra meeting to the schedule in hopes of getting a team on the same page, when it's a lack of trust in leadership or poor organizational communication leading to the problem. Perhaps it's going with the cheaper website / sound system / seating because we just don't want to pay that much for something so temporary. But these quick-fix solutions often come back to cause more systemic harm than good.

Here are three dangers of quick-fix solutions in ministry:

1. They give the illusion of health and success. In a culture which values immediacy and decisive leadership, quick-fix solutions may offer temporary comfort and relief that looks like ministry health. Much like a fad diet may help a person lose large amounts of weight in a short period of time, a quick-fix solution gives an appearance of healthy change. But fast weight loss doesn't equal sustainable weight loss, and actually may be doing more harm to the body.

2. They ignore systems. A significant part of leadership is viewing every church and organization through the paradigm of systems thinkingThe predominant New Testament image for the church is a body. There are individual parts, but there is also the whole body, the whole church. Like the apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 12 about the body of Christ, if one part suffers, all suffer; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Problems begin to occur when one part decides that it is the most important in the whole body. Its vision, its ideas, its agenda, its programs, and its budget all take precedent over the other parts of the body. Quick-fix ministry solutions look only at the immediate problem and care little for the whole system. Each part affects the others, and a solution in one arena may create more problems in another.

3. They are rarely discerned through prayer and God's wisdom. When a problem is urgent and looming, it feels like there isn't time to pray and discern what God might be doing. Pragmatism begins to overrule providence. Yet God works in slow and quiet ways--the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, after all. When we embrace a spirituality of waiting, we begin to become more in tune with the rhythms of Christ. When he walked the earth, he never seemed rushed or urgent or overly driven to get things done. He was centered on his mission and focused on loving and healing people. Being more like Jesus requires times of quiet prayer and waiting and listening. When we adopt such a posture, quick-fix solutions become unnecessary.

What quick-fix solutions are you currently using in your own ministry context? Your family? Your marriage? What action can you take today to pursue sustainable and holistic health?