Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Reflections on Open Vancouver

This past weekend, Trinity Western University and North Langley Community Church hosted the first Open Vancouver, an open-source youth ministry training event. Created by The Youth Cartel, the Open movement has spread to seven cities, with Vancouver as the first Canadian gathering. Eighteen presenters shared about a wide range of ideas and practices, and we focused mainly on youth ministry in the Vancouver area. Having been a part of Open Seattle for two years, I was eager to be part of the organizing team putting together Open Vancouver, and loved seeing how this little event felt like a glimpse into the kingdom of God. I was stoked that my Youth Cartel friends Adam McLane and Mark Oestreicher could attend this event too. These guys mean a lot to me, and it was sweet to have them on Canadian soil.

Here are three aspects I loved about Open Vancouver:

Variety. We had such a unique diversity of presenters and participants from all over the Vancouver area and beyond. Mennonites, Baptists, Catholics, Presbyterians, non-denominations, and my friend Chris, who described himself as a "former charismatic moving into the orthodox church." We had people share on deeply theological concepts, to as pragmatic approaches to culture and church ministry, as well as personal rants or exhortations. I met Father Terry, an elderly Catholic priest serving in Vancouver who wants to reach young adults with the gospel.

Conversation. I loved seeing conversations happening around tables and in hallways, people sharing ideas and contact info with one another. The beautiful part about Open events is their collaborative and conversational tone. It was sweet to catch up with awesome people like Morgan Schmidt and Jason Ballard and Geoff Stewart and Blair Bertrand, and meet new friends Let's just get a bunch of awesome people in a room and let them share ideas with each other.

Simplicity. Open Vancouver wasn't flashy or high production--it cost $25 per person, and that included a lunch. Yet it also wasn't mediocre or slapdash--the presenters gave quality content, the setup and registration were top notch, and everyone did their part to make the whole event awesome. We didn't have a worship band or tons of breakout sessions or hundreds of people; we kept it simple, local, inexpensive, and accessible.

Thanks to Adam McLane, Matt Wilks, and Clay Imoo for being the organizing team for Open Vancouver this year. You can see more at the Open Vancouver website, and listen to the audio from some sessions at under the Open Vancouver tag.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

VIFF Reviews: Wild; Foxcatcher

I'm attending the Vancouver International Film Festival, featuring over 350 films over 16 days. I'll be seeing less than a dozen of these films, and I'll record my reviews and reflections here. I was present for the opening gala at the Centre for Performing Arts and viewed two biopics about unstable individuals struggling with the consequences of their decisions, featuring Oscar-worthy performances from their lead actors:

Wild (Jean-Marc Vallee): Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallee follows up Dallas Buyers Club with the adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's memoir about her journey from heroin addiction to freedom via the Pacific Crest Trail, a 1000+ mile hike from the border of Mexico to the Pacific Northwest. Cheryl is portrayed by Reese Witherspoon in what is sure to be an award-winning performance of physical and emotional weight. Told in a series of flashbacks as Cheryl reflects on her choices, circumstances, and what brought her to make the rash decision to embark on such a grueling journey, Wild is directed in a manner to embody the scattered, reckless, and emotional nature of Cheryl. There are lots of fits and starts, quick cuts and edits, followed by long moments of quiet as Cheryl treks across the wilderness. Cheryl is a parallel to the backcountry where she journeys--beautiful and rugged, wild and delicate. It's a surprisingly funny film too; Cheryl's outbursts and silly determination made the audience often. Whether she's throwing her boots off a cliff, attempting to put on her enormous backpack, or being interviewed by a "journalist" for the "hobo news," Witherspoon fills Cheryl's journey with both humor and pathos.

Witherspoon's performance is laudable, yet it's Laura Dern as her spunky and joyful mother who caught my attention, reminding me of a more grown-up Poppy from Mike Leigh's film Happy-Go-Lucky--she embodies proven optimism on the far side of pain. A single mother trying to make the most of raising two children on a waitress's paycheck, she never quite falls into the common trope of the "wise fool." She has a simple philosophy on life, and simply wants to choose happiness over cynicism, hope over despair. Brief flashbacks to Dern dancing in the kitchen or sitting with closed eyes in the warmth of the sunset are comforting contrasts to Cheryl's darker memories.

While God isn't a central figure in Wild, he's quietly present in the midst of Cheryl's pain. In one scene, Cheryl and her younger brother pray for their mother's health, with Cheryl taking on the classic prayer posture of closed eyes and folded hands. Her brother chides her for her attempts at spirituality. Neither seems to take the prayers too seriously at first. Yet in a few moments, both are quietly offering their prayers and hopes into the atmosphere, hoping their wishes for a miracle will be answered. When that miracle never happens, Cheryl's response to God is one of rage, screaming a hearty "f**k you" into the heavens. There are a lot of these middle-finger moments with Cheryl; she's got quite the vocabulary for expressing her pain and frustration, shifting from poetry to cuss words with seamless ease. Take caution: Wild is difficult film to watch sometimes, and Cheryl's downward spiral involves addictions to sex and drugs.

As I think of the similarly gritty Dallas Buyers Club, I think Vallee focuses his films on characters who are pushed to the edge of darkness by their own unhealthy choices, then find unique and determined ways to pull themselves out of the darkness. There is a theme of individualism in both films--both Cheryl Strayed and Ron Woodruff are singular personas making the most out of terrible circumstances, taking it upon themselves to fix their problems. They rarely rely on outside help, and when they do, the focus still remains on the individual arc. While there are quirky and beautiful secondary characters who end up playing significant roles and giving powerful performances (Laura Dern in Wild, Jared Leto in Dallas), these are individual journeys, one man/woman's dogged fight against what life has thrown them. Yet the light of hope is brightest only in contrast with our deep valleys of brokenness, and Cheryl's journey from her valley of death into freedom is both compelling and affecting. Wild is a remarkable film, and a solid opening to VIFF.

Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller): Foxcatcher is a filmmakers' film. Excellent direction, a compelling and well-crafted script, phenomenal breakout performances, and nary a bad scene in the whole movie. I'd encourage the viewer to go in cold to the film, with as little knowledge of the true events Foxcatcher is based upon. A brief summary will suffice: two brothers and Olympic wrestlers, Mark and Dave Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, respectively), find themselves caught up in the dream of wealthy sponsor John du Pont (Steve Carrell), who wants to win another gold medal for America. Over time, this triangle of relationships becomes more complex and volatile, leaving none unscathed.

Director Bennett Miller is an expert in crafting fascinating biopics about bizarre real-life stories and the determined, exceptional men who lead them. Capote earned plenty of award nominations and gained Philip Seymour Hoffman his only Oscar for his performances as the titular eccentric author. Moneyball was more accessible, following Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) as he took the Oakland Athletics on a journey towards a potential championship through unconventional methods. Miller's first film, the 1998 documentary The Cruise, follows the quirky Tim Levitch, a New York city bus tour guide whose passion for the Big Apple is palpable. Foxcatcher fits perfectly in this vein, expanding the singular determined eccentric protagonist to three. There is also something distinctly American about each of these stories. From a passionate exposition on the largest city in the United States, to a biopic on one of the most influential American authors of the 20th century, to a heart-warming story on America's favorite past time and sport, to a political satire and thriller disguised as a sports movie (du Pont declares they are winning gold for America)--Miller clearly has something to say about the American dream, its strengths and weaknesses, its glory and its shadows.

The three leads are phenomenal in their portrayals of Mark, Dave, and John. I never thought I'd say this, but Channing Tatum might have the strongest performance of the lot, despite Steve Carrell's chilling transformation into du Pont, prosthetic nose and all. While the performances are excellent, the script doesn't allow us to truly know each man and their motivations, to see inside their heads and understand why this particular story unfolds. As I was exiting the theatre after the screening, the world that came to mind was aloof. Distant and cold, watching Foxcatcher unfold was akin to entering an unknown museum to look at the artwork--it may be beautiful to behold, but I was never fully engaged with the characters. Mark is mostly silent, communicating in grunts and wrestling moves. John is downright creepy. Dave is the most relatable, a family man who cares for his little brother; yet even his motives for staying at Foxcatcher farms are never understood.

Foxcatcher is disturbing, amusing, powerful, and detached. It's at once a sports film, a thriller, a family drama, and a political satire. I have no doubt it'll earn plenty of attention when award season rolls around, and those awards will be deserved. Yet Foxcatcher, for all its merits, never fully captured my attention or my heart. Du Pont, for all his dreams of winning gold, never won me over to his vision.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Ministry like Jeremiah (Part 4: It's Okay To Be Sad)

God has recently prompted me to read through the book of Jeremiah. I'll admit, I wasn't too excited about the idea. This lengthy prophetic tome is filled with blistering passages about God's wrath for the sinful nations, as well as Jeremiah's suffering at the hands of his own people. Yet as I read, I am reminded over and over again of God's faithfulness, His covenantal love for His people, and the nature of ministry. It is this latter point--the nature of ministry--that I wish to unpack here more fully.

Ministry Lesson #4: It's okay to be sad. Jeremiah could be described as moody, sullen, passionate, and depressed. Traditionally, Jeremiah has been given the title "the weeping prophet." The shoe certainly fits. Just read this passage in Lamentations 3, written by Jeremiah:

I am the man who has seen affliction
by the rod of the Lord’s wrath.
He has driven me away and made me walk
in darkness rather than light;
indeed, he has turned his hand against me
again and again, all day long.

He has made my skin and my flesh grow old
and has broken my bones.
He has besieged me and surrounded me
with bitterness and hardship.
He has made me dwell in darkness
like those long dead.

He has walled me in so I cannot escape;
he has weighed me down with chains.
Even when I call out or cry for help,
he shuts out my prayer.
He has barred my way with blocks of stone;
he has made my paths crooked.

Like a bear lying in wait,
like a lion in hiding,
he dragged me from the path and mangled me
and left me without help.
He drew his bow
and made me the target for his arrows.

He pierced my heart
with arrows from his quiver.
I became the laughingstock of all my people;
they mock me in song all day long.
He has filled me with bitter herbs
and given me gall to drink.

He has broken my teeth with gravel;
he has trampled me in the dust.
I have been deprived of peace;
I have forgotten what prosperity is.
So I say, “My splendor is gone
and all that I had hoped from the Lord.”

I remember my affliction and my wandering,
the bitterness and the gall.
I well remember them,
and my soul is downcast within me.

The gritty imagery is palpable. Imagine filling your stomach with bitter herbs, chewing on gravel, living in the depths of darkness, or being mangled by a roving beast. This isn't the image of the brave, heroic leader leading the charge. Jeremiah is a whimpering mess. And for good reason. He's experienced a great deal of suffering in his ministry. So he responds like any of us would respond--he's sad, angry, depressed.

There are no ministry leaders in the biblical narrative who didn't experience seasons of deep sadness. Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Elijah, David, Jonah, Peter--they all have moments of weeping, mourning, or anxiety. Earlier this year, megachurch pastor Perry Noble took a significant risk in authenticity when he admitted to experiencing depression, suicidal thoughts, and having to take medication. His bold step was a move in the right direction, dismantling the myth that the pastor or ministry leader must be the "strong one" who always has it all together. Sadly, the response many Christians had to Robin Williams' death also revealed our ignorance and lack of empathy about depression and anxiety, with a few louder voices dismissing his suicide as an act of selfishness

If there was a singular example of a ministry leader who experienced sadness, we only have to look to Christ. He was the man of sorrows, despised and rejected by men (Isaiah 53:3). He knows our grief and pain, and can empathize in our sufferings (Hebrews 4:15, 5:8). He's the one who wept so strongly in the garden of Gethsemane that blood and sweat poured from his brow.

Jesus wept. So can I.

It's not that we revel in our sadness or remain in depression. It's simply to say that being sad is okay, that there are some Sundays when I seriously don't feel like going to church services, that I can experience the same anxiety and melancholy moments like anyone else. In the midst of this, I can also authentically point others to hope in the midst of pain and depression, just as Jeremiah does in the middle of Lamentations 3:

Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.”

The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him,
to the one who seeks him;
it is good to wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.
It is good for a man to bear the yoke
while he is young.
His compassions are new this morning. Even if you are experiencing sadness or depression, there is genuine hope. It *will* be okay. The Lord is our portion. Wait upon him for healing and strength and grace.

If you're beyond a temporary season of sadness and experiencing ongoing burnout or depression, I humbly encourage you to seek help and support from people who genuinely care about you.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

I Want To Be An Unbusy Pastor

Photo Credit: Mickey_Liaw (Creative Commons)
I collapsed on the couch after another full Saturday of ministry commitments--my "day off" but we all know that isn't really true most weeks--while my children proceeded to destroy the living room. Couch cushions, puzzle pieces, Lego figures, and the books from the nearby shelves were being methodically scattered about. One book from the shelf ended up near my feet--Eugene Peterson's memoir on being a pastor--and as I picked it up, a page caught my attention. An asterisk and bold line in the margin, written there by my own hand years ago, caused me to read the following manifesto over and over. This was a response from Eugene Peterson to the elders at his church in the early years of his ministry, a season where he was running at full-sprint and knew it would cost him, that something needed to change.

I share Peterson's manifesto here as a reminder of my own desires and personal views of the role and vocation of a pastor, and hopefully as an encouragement to those who are trapped in the lie of busyness equals success. I've slightly adapted it, using personal names of my family instead of Peterson's:
I want to be a pastor who prays. I want to be reflective and responsive and relaxed in the presence of God so that I can be reflective and responsive and relaxed in your presence. I can't do that on the run. It takes a lot of time. I started out doing that with you, but now I feel too crowded. 
I want to be a pastor who reads and studies. This culture in which we live squeezes all the God sense out of us. I want to be observant and informed enough to help this congregation understand what we are up against, the temptations of the devil to get us thinking we can all be our own gods. This is subtle stuff. It demands some detachment and perspective. I can't do this just by trying harder. 
I want to be a pastor who is present. I want to be a pastor who has the time to be with you in leisurely, unhurried conversations so that I can understand and be a companion with you as you grow in Christ--your doubts and your difficulties, your desires and your delights. I can't do that when I am running scared. 
I want to be a pastor who leads you in worship, a pastor who brings you before God in receptive obedience, a pastor who preaches sermons that make scripture accessible and present and alive, a pastor who is able to give you a language and imagination that restores in you a sense of dignity as a Christian in your homes and workplaces and gets rid of these debilitating images of being a 'mere' layperson. 
I want to have the time to read a story to Copeland and Eloise, to listen to the stories of the day from Katie. 
I want to be an unbusy pastor.
-adapted from Eugene Peterson, The Pastor, pg. 278

After Peterson shared this with his elders, they turned it back to him: "so why don't you do this? What's stopping you?" For Peterson, and for myself, it's not just the busy culture we live in or the expectations of others. It's the personal commitment and discipline to practice Sabbath, to overcome the tendency of being a frantic people-pleaser, to value my own soul and my family's well-being over ministry obligations, and to empower the whole church to serve and build-up one another in meaningful and sustainable rhythms. It's the (unhealthy) belief that the church--it's people, programs, problems, etc.--rest on my shoulders, and I must carry them all with a stoic diligence. Perhaps I need to unshoulder the burden on to the Shepherd who can truly and wholly care for the flock.

I want to be an unbusy pastor. By God's grace (and a little repentance and discipline), I'm beginning to believe I can.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Ministry like Jeremiah (Part 3: Faithfulness is Success)

God has recently prompted me to read through the book of Jeremiah. I'll admit, I wasn't too excited about the idea. This lengthy prophetic tome is filled with blistering passages about God's wrath for the sinful nations, as well as Jeremiah's suffering at the hands of his own people. Yet as I read, I am reminded over and over again of God's faithfulness, His covenantal love for His people, and the nature of ministry. It is this latter point--the nature of ministry--that I wish to unpack here more fully.

Ministry Lesson #3: Being faithful to God is the vital metric for ministry success. When God first calls Jeremiah to be a prophet, he responds like nearly every other leader before him--he responds with doubt and uncertainty. Who me? I'm too young! I don't know how to speak. But God touches Jeremiah's mouth and commands him to speak His words, to be His voice to the disobedient Israelite nation. Then God says something alarming:
Get yourself ready! Stand up and say to them whatever I command you. Do not be terrified by them, or I will terrify you before them.
"I will terrify you before them." This divine pep talk has some frightening implications. Who are you more scared of--people or God? Who is the one really in charge here, who calls the shots and is sovereign over circumstances? The answer is clear, so Jeremiah obeys. He isn't alone though; God clearly promises to be with him and protect him along the way. His purpose is to please God, not people.

If Jeremiah was trying to please people in his ministry, he certainly didn't do a great job. He's arrested, thrown into a cistern, and mostly ignored. For example, a large group of Israelite leaders approach Jeremiah after Babylon has invaded and taken many people captive. They have the following exchange:  

“Please hear our petition and pray to the Lord your God for this entire remnant. For as you now see, though we were once many, now only a few are left. Pray that the Lord your God will tell us where we should go and what we should do.”
“I have heard you,” replied Jeremiah the prophet. “I will certainly pray to the Lord your God as you have requested; I will tell you everything the Lord says and will keep nothing back from you.”
Then they said to Jeremiah, “May the Lord be a true and faithful witness against us if we do not act in accordance with everything the Lord your God sends you to tell us. Whether it is favorable or unfavorable, we will obey the Lord our God, to whom we are sending you, so that it will go well with us, for we will obey the Lord our God.” (Jeremiah 42:2-6)

They promise to trust and obey Jeremiah, to listen for God's heart and be faithful to His guidance. After ten days of prayer and listening, Jeremiah tells them to remain in the land of Israel and not go to Egypt. Whatever you do, just don't go to Egypt.

How do the people respond? They call Jeremiah a liar and head for Egypt, the very thing Jeremiah told them not to do, the act they promised they wouldn't do. The results: God's judgment continues to pour out on the Israelite nation and Jerusalem burns at the hands of Babylon. God continues to remain faithful to Jeremiah to the bitter end, and He promises a future salvation for His people. But the present remains pretty bleak, and Jeremiah never experiences a significant "success" moment in his ministry.

When I am discouraged in ministry, I have to come back to the specific vocational calling God has revealed in my life. It's not about my own frustrations, nor is it about my personal triumphs. My motivation must stem from outside myself in the mission God has invited me to join. Think Jeremiah who was called by God at a young age to be God's voice to His people. Jeremiah preached and prayed and prophesied for his entire life. The result? No one listened, the people continued their downward spiral into sin, and ultimately were dragged away into exile while Jerusalem burned.

Was Jeremiah a successful ministry leader? Not by our standards. Zero converts, tons of sinners, and the city burned down. He didn't write a best-selling book (in fact, Jehoiakim burns Jeremiah's scroll). He didn't have thousands of followers or a thriving multi-site megachurch, unless you count exiles in Babylon, Jerusalem, and Egypt as "multisite." He probably wouldn't have been invited to speak at leadership conferences, as he likely would have cried the whole time anyway.

Faithfulness is success. Was Jeremiah faithful and obedient to the calling God gave him? Yes. That has to be our standard for success as a leader in the church. We need to fear God, not people. May you hold fast to the truth of who you are in Christ and your vocational calling, regardless of circumstances, people's opinions, or the apparent response. Our metrics for success in ministry must be obedience to Christ.

What is your metric for success in ministry? Are you fearing God or people?

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

On Turning 30

Photo Credit: Lhoretse (Creative Commons)
I turn 30 today.

My twenties are over, and they've been awesome.

I graduated from college, got married, became a full-time pastor, moved to another state, bought a car, bought a house, had two children, wrote two books, and moved to another country in my twenties.

This doesn't include the countless conversations, laughter, tears, and memories from the thousands of beautiful and fascinating people I've encountered over the past ten years. This decade has been full and fulfilling, and I am humbled and grateful for the grace bestowed upon me.

So what will the next ten years look like? I have no idea. When I look back upon the life I've lived thus far, it's full of unexpected blessings and beautiful surprises. I never planned any of this. Oh, I had plans. But not these ones. These turned out far better, and were usually in spite of me and directly connected to Jesus and his guidance.

Even though I'm unsure what the next decade will look like, I'm still going to set some goals and see where they lead. I'm publicly posting 30 goals for my 30s, right here and now. This isn't an exhaustive list--I have unspoken dreams for my life that aren't ready to be posted on a blog yet--but it's a pretty full one. So if the Internet and blogs still exist in ten years, this will be a public record of what I was aiming for.

Here are 30 goals I'm setting for the next decade of my life:

1. Lead each of my children to Jesus
2. Get a masters degree. (Maybe two--one in theology, one in education or English/writing)
3. Get a doctorate
4. Surprise my wife with a special vacation or celebration
5. Write a book
6. Write another book
7. Become a professional film critic; be a member of a film critics circle
8. Ride first class on a plane
9. Attend an international film festival
10. Do a silent retreat and/or spend a night at a monastery
11. Meet my birth mother
12. Speak to 1000+ people at a gathering or conference
12. Take a creative writing class
13. Go on an overnight backpacking adventure in the woods/mountains
14. Buy a house
15. Take each of my kids on an individual trip, just them and Dad
16. Drink a bottle of wine worth $100+
17. Meet an author / celebrity I respect
18. Get another tattoo
19. Teach a university course

  • 20. All of N.T. Wright's New Testament theology (Christian Origins and the Question of God) 
  • 21. The Brothers Karamazov or Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky 
  • 22. Inferno; Purgatorio; Paradiso, by Dante Alighieri 
  • 23. Paradise Lost, by John Milton
  • 24. Confessions, by St. Augustine
  • 25. United Kingdom - England, Ireland, Scotland 
  • 26. Australia 
  • 27. New York (again) 
  • 28. Chicago 
  • 29. Greece and Turkey (locations from Acts and the early church)
30. Watch the entire Sight and Sound Top 250 of 2012 (or 2022)

Things I hope I'll always be doing: love and follow Jesus; love and support my wife; love and encourage my children; teach and disciple others in the way of Jesus; live the Gospel.

One of my personal values is to live a great story. I'm confident the Author will continue to tell a great story in and through me in the next ten years.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Ministry like Jeremiah (Part 2: Suffering is Inevitable)

God has recently prompted me to read through the book of Jeremiah. I'll admit, I wasn't too excited about the idea. This lengthy prophetic tome is filled with blistering passages about God's wrath for the sinful nations, as well as Jeremiah's suffering at the hands of his own people. Yet as I read, I am reminded over and over again of God's faithfulness, His covenantal love for His people, and the nature of ministry. It is this latter point--the nature of ministry--that I wish to unpack here more fully.

Ministry Lesson #2: Suffering is inevitable when you're obedient to God's calling. Jeremiah is criticized, ridiculed, beaten, imprisoned, and mostly rejected by his countrymen. Often God calls him to do things that make little sense to him, such as purchasing a field in the midst of a siege (chapter 32), or placing a yoke-bar on his neck to demonstrate the yoke of oppression and exile that is coming from Babylon (chapter 27). People don's listen to him; they call him a liar and a fraud and flagrantly disobey his exhortations and God's commands. It's not a glamorous job. When God calls Jeremiah in chapter one, he says, "They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you and will rescue you."

A few years ago, I wrote the following in Leading Up: Finding Influence in the Church Beyond Role and Experience:

In Romans 5, the apostle Paul makes a startling paradoxical statement that has huge implications for church leaders:

Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.

For Paul, suffering leads to hope. It produces perseverance and character, and this causes us to rejoice out of the love that God has poured into our hearts. This steadfastness and integrity in leadership can only come from a complete trust in the God who loves us. We are to ultimately be guided by the Holy Spirit, not by leadership principles found in a book.

Leading up entails sufferings. I don’t want to lie to you; being in church leadership is not all fun and games. You will suffer long nights of wondering if your vision is even from God. You will suffer frustration at the hands of bureaucracy and church politics. You will suffer from people who question your authority and leadership capacity due to your job description, age, gender, or experience. You may suffer the pain of being fired. You may suffer from broken relationships and a deep doubts about the goodness and faithfulness of God. Remember that this suffering has the power to transform your character, to allow you to become an even better follower of Jesus, which will in turn make you a better leader in the church. Invite Christ to enter into the suffering with you. In Psalm 23, the Divine Shepherd leads the sheep through the valley of the shadow of death - not around, not away from, not over, but through the valley. On the other side wait green pastures and quiet waters and the calm rest of the soul.

More than ever, I believe leadership in ministry entails suffering. Since writing these words, I've had to come back to them multiple times in various moments where I wondered about God's love, my vocation, and whether this ministry thing was worth the sleepless nights and emotional toil. Yet I've always stayed the course, because obedience to God transcends the suffering. He doesn't abandon people to their suffering; he enters into it with them, walking with them through valleys of death and dark nights of the soul.

When God calls Jeremiah to be a prophet in chapter one, he says of the people and Jeremiah's fear, "They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you and will rescue you." Even in the midst of suffering, we can take heart and have courage, for the Lord is with us and for us. This doesn't mean we have to just put on a happy face and pretend everything is okay (more on that in a later Jeremiah post). It also doesn't mean God brings suffering into our lives with flippancy and malice (though it may be true that he allows suffering in certain circumstances, mainly for discipline and building endurance in us). This all simply means we can have confidence in the midst of pain, knowing our salvation is sure and we are not alone. Not only is he with us, he promises rescue and comfort, salvation and relief. Even if suffering is inevitable, it isn't eternal.

What suffering have you experienced recently? How have you experienced God's presence in the midst of suffering?

-Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure (J.R. Briggs)
-Mad Church Disease: Healing from Church Burnout (Anne Marie Miller)

Friday, September 5, 2014

Divisionary (Do the Right Thing)

This song by Portland, OR band Ages and Ages might be the catchiest one I've heard in 2014. It's also got some excellent spiritual/ethical themes and implications, and the music video captures this sentiment in a childlike and hilarious style:

Do the right thing / do the right thing
Do it all the time / do it all the time
Make yourself right, never mind them
Don't you know you're not the only one suffering

Even though I'm fairly sure the band wasn't thinking of these particular passages of Scripture when they wrote this song, they come to my mind regarding one's motives and desires in ministry:

Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Galatians 1:10)

For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. On the contrary, we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts. (1 Thessalonians 2:3-4)

For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God. (2 Timothy 1:7-8)

Do the right thing. Do it all the time. Please God, not people. Don't you know you're not the only one suffering for the sake of the Gospel?

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Ministry like Jeremiah (Part 1: Love the City)

God has recently prompted me to read through the book of Jeremiah. I'll admit, I wasn't too excited about the idea. This lengthy prophetic tome is filled with blistering passages about God's wrath for the sinful nations, as well as Jeremiah's suffering at the hands of his own people. Yet as I read, I am reminded over and over again of God's faithfulness, His covenantal love for His people, and the nature of ministry. It is this latter point--the nature of ministry--that I wish to unpack here more fully.

Here's what I'm learning about ministry from the prophet Jeremiah:

1. Love the city where God has placed you. Jeremiah writes a letter to the exiles who have been dragged off into Babylon, and it's a surprising message--love the city:
“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
Plant roots. Establish homes. Be present. Love the city you're in. Instead of viewing this season as a temporary trial--which, in a way, is true--choose to seek the welfare of the city. Many churches and ministry leaders view their city as a lost cause worthy of pity (at best) or a diabolical antagonist to their ministry and the gospel (at worst). Yet our cities are made up of people, the very same people who need the gospel and are in our church communities. To love the city is to love the people. I recently saw this fantastic talk from Rick McKinley for Q Ideas:

Rick is the pastor of Imago Dei in Portland, and I love the picture of a church choosing to love their city with passion and fervor, truly believing that the gospel, church, and culture have an intertwining almost-trinitarian relationship, weaving in and out of one another in a dance. Both Rick and Jeremiah remind us--loving the city is a critical component to gospel-centered ministry.

Years ago, when I first moved to Mesa, AZ, I did not love that city. Having just transfered from the lush diversity and quirkiness of Portland, OR, Mesa felt bland and beige as a culture. Oh I loved the people of my church family, and was devoted to the ministry I was doing with junior highers. But the city of Mesa, not so much. It took years of prayer and repentance, asking God to stir up a love in my heart for the whole city, not just the people coming to our youth group. The more I read through Scripture, the more I realized that Jesus loves the city, and if I love Jesus, then I must love what Jesus loves.

Jeremiah calls the exiles to love a hostile city. They are the enemy! This is Babylon, the very city and culture that is pictured as the opponent to God's people throughout the Bible. Yet Jeremiah still exhorts the people to love this city where God has led them, to be salt and light in a dark place. Instead of pulling a Jonah and running away from the city or calling condemnation upon their heads, Jeremiah calls for grace. Rather than throw judgment upon the city and its people, or to completely avoid and condemn culture around us, we are simply called to love and extend grace and good news to our neighbors. After all, we're going to end up in a heavenly city. Let's begin to practice heaven in our own cities today.

How can you begin to love your city more? If you don't love your city, pray that Jesus may convict your heart and stir up an affection for the city where He's placed you. He changed my heart for Mesa; I hope he'll continue to stir up a love for Langley. I keep a map of Langley on the wall above my office desk to remind me to pray for my city, to seek its prosperity and peace in the name of Jesus.

-Good News in the Neighborhood (Adam McLane, Jon Huckins).
-Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Tim Keller)

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

On Christian Tabloids, or YOU'LL BE SHOCKED BY WHAT I SAY NEXT

Photo Credit: PinkMoose (Creative Commons)



Since joining Twitter a few months ago, these are the kinds of links and statements that stream into the world of social media. Similar links and statements appear on Facebook, some of them church-related, while Buzzfeed quizzes and Fox News "reports" vie for the rest of our attention span.

It's the Christian version of tabloid journalism.

You know, those magazines in the grocery store aisles that have little relevance to your actual life, but are fascinating due to their invasive and sensationalist articles. See who George Clooney is dating now! Will Prince William and Kate have another baby? What cereal did Ryan Gosling eat this morning?!*

Tabloid journalism tends to emphasize scandalous crime/legal stories and gossip about the personal lives of celebrities. They use aggressive tactics and volatile story-of-the-week moments to get more readers to indulge. With the advent of social media and instant information, the innate human desire To Know More About Everything is piqued. We read about Driscoll being asked to step down from Mars Hill, or about Gungor not believing in a literal Genesis, or about John Piper bidding farewell to Rob Bell** and we feed on those links like it's Shark Week.

Twitter and Facebook have become online Christian tabloid sources, increasingly becoming more volatile, reactionary, and temporary.

To be fair, not everyone I listed above as examples should be considered a Christian tabloid journalist. Many are writing and creating excellent content intended to inform, challenge, and encourage the online Christian community. Yet many in their audiences are the quick-sharing, quick-clicking, quick-liking or -favoriting folks who feed their minds primarily on what they read on the Internet. I know this because I'm doing my best to shepherd many of these social media-driven people, particularly the emerging generation of teenagers and young adults.

Why do we do this? I offer two possible reasons: 1) the cult of Christian celebrity, and 2) our culture of immediacy.

When we place Christian pastors, leaders, and writers on pedestals--or they place themselves up there by building their platforms--we can quietly and eagerly anticipate the moment when they'll fall. We also place a significant amount of weight to their words and actions, a weight they cannot carry as fallible people. Add this cult of celebrity to a culture that values receiving everything NOW--food, coffee, information, love, success, etc.--and we can begin to see the beginnings of the Christian tabloid phenomenon.

I'm writing this because I'm part of the problem. I quickly give in to my impulse To Know More About Everything and end up neglecting the important things I actually would need to know and experience. I can quickly give in to scanning RSS feeds over and above reading the Flannery O'Conner or Marilynne Robinson novels I'm attempting to finish. I can check on my feed instead of being present with my wife and children. More than anything recently, I've been convicted at my lack of prayer for the individuals and churches--real people--involved in these articles and posts. Instead of just critiquing or sharing links about Driscoll, Evans, Gungor, et al, I need to pray for them as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, real people with real stories, real wounds, and real hearts. I wonder what would happen in my heart (and theirs) if I devoted my impulse to scan online feeds towards prayers of encouragement, peace, grace, and joy for others.

The title of this post is misleading; you may not be shocked at all by my musings. I only hope they'll lead to a more thoughtful, prayerful, slower pace and posture in our culture of immediacy.

Why do you think the Christian tabloid phenomenon exists? What can be done to improve our use of social media in order to be salt and light?

*Answer: Honey Bunches of Oats
** Wait, that was, like, 3 years ago, which is essentially the medieval ages in social media.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Guardians Of The Galaxy

Not so long ago, in a galaxy fairly close in proximity to our own....

Guardians of the Galaxy.

Cue the music: Awesome Mix Vol. 1.

I realize the parallel between Guardians and Star Wars may be reaching. Is Guardians really *that* revolutionary of a film? Not really. But that doesn't mean it isn't a wonderfully quirky and entertaining film. It's the expansive universe of Star Wars meets the action-packed quirkiness of The Fifth Element, with a dash of an Indiana Jones quest. Unlike many of the previous Marvel superhero films, Guardians capably walks the line between visually-stunning blockbuster action and hilariously savvy humor. It takes common elements from sci-fi and superhero films, building upon them to create something at once familiar and unique.

The story follows the human Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), who after being abducted from Earth as a boy has developed into a not-so-infamous outlaw bent on making some quick cash, particularly from the macguffin of Guardians: a mysterious orb everyone in the universe apparently wants. Trying to avoid the evil Ronan the Accuser and his minions, his former partner-in-crime Yondu, and the Nova Corps, Quill finds himself in cahoots with a diverse cast of ruffians--Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is the daughter of Thanos and a highly capable assassin; Rocket and Groot (Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel) are violent bounty hunters and social misfits as a talking/walking raccoon and tree, respectively; Drax (Dave Bautista) is a literal-thinking knife-wielding tank of rage.

What makes this lineup stand out from previous iterations of the "we've got to work together as a team!" superhero movie (Avengers, X-Men, Fantastic Four, etc.) is their individual dysfunction and brokenness overcome by a sense of fellowship. While the other stories feature brooding loners (Logan in X-Men) and narcissistic one-man shows (Tony Stark in Iron Man), the Guardians feel much more like a band of misfits and outcasts, the rejects and losers of the world brought together for a singular purpose beyond themselves. Sure, X-Men also has the central theme band of outsiders, but they are trying to find peace and integration within their society. The Guardians just don't give a crap; while the X-Men want integration, the Guardians just want enough money to get away from it all. Quill is an orphan and abductee raised by a band of thugs. Gamora is also an orphan of sorts, adopted by the evil lord of the cosmos that destroyed her family. Rocket is the result of a science experiment gone wrong, an abused mistake left to fend for himself. Groot is a talking tree. Drax is fueled by the grief and rage from the death of his wife and family. As they work through their pain and confess their own brokenness, a community begins to form out of the remnants of their pain, a mosaic of broken pieces coming together to make a new whole. This team ultimately sacrifices their own individual agendas and risk their lives for the sake of a galaxy that has really given them nothing but pain, grief, shame, and bitterness. What begins as a group of selfish, isolated miscreants becomes...well...the guardians of the galaxy.

I once compared The Avengers to the church, summarizing the plot as "a group of individuals must save the world from an evil invasion led by a deceptive spiritual being from another world." Allow me to make a similar comparison with the Guardians--a group of broken-yet-gifted individuals are united by a common mission to save the cosmos from destruction by a malevolent threat. Even a summer blockbuster with a talking gun-toting raccoon can point us to our need for a savior. Perhaps the contemporary appeal of these superhero films stems from the deep cry within our collective soul--we long for Someone to come and redeem this broken world for the better, making the wrong things right and bringing justice, peace, and salvation for all.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Fear or Love - Two Perspectives on Engaging Culture

Photo Credit: dryhead (Creative Commons)
I was hiding. The coffee shop in Fort Langley was supposed to be a sanctuary of sorts, a place where I could quietly study, my headphones and americano protecting me from distraction and sleepiness. I was finishing the final chapter of Richard Mouw's When the Kings Come Marching In, a brief theological study of the vision of the heavenly city in Isaiah 60. Mouw identifies this city with the same heavenly vision from Revelation 21 and 22, examining the city's description and the implications for our present cultural engagement. Mouw contends that the kingdom city will be filled with redeemed culture--art, commerce, technology, politics, race relations, all redeemed by the salvific power of Jesus.

This is when I noticed her talking to me. The woman at the adjacent table was looking at me, her mouth silently moving in the rhythm of speech, drowned out by my in-ear headphones and the latest album from The War on Drugs (a fantastic record, and one worth purchasing). I removed my headphones and apologized. "Sorry, I couldn't hear you."

Apology quickly accepted, she began her speech again, sharing about the article she was reading about the pending economic crisis. Interest rates would spike, houses would be foreclosed, food would be in scarce supply, and no one sees it coming. She introduced herself as Mary, and asked me what I was reading. I shared that it was a theology book, and she wondered aloud if I was a Christian. I said I was a pastor, and she shared her own brief testimony of faith, how she had been connected with a local church, but currently was searching.

At first, I quietly considered her words with a calm understanding and propriety, though I honestly was looking for an opportunity to place my headphones back in and continue my studies. Then the conversation took a strange turn as she moved from the economic crisis and her faith to the need to hoard food and supplies, buy stock in gold, sell our homes, and move to the north of British Columbia to escape the impending tragedy. She spoke of concentration camps being built in California intended to round up the majority of the population; how electric hydro meters were instruments installed by "them" in higher government agencies to cause cancer; how she met a former Pentagon agent in South America who confirmed all her suspicions, that the conspiracy goes "right to the top." She had "connected the dots" and passionately implored me to tell the church so we could take care of our own. Would I tell my church? Would I help save the Christians from the impending disaster?

My articulate response: "Uh....."

While she shared her paranoia and fear with increasing fervor, I silently prayed, "Jesus, what do I say to her? How can I respond with grace and truth?" Her mindset was such a contrast from the book I had before me. While Mouw was speaking about the beauty of the heavenly city, with its rich heritage of art, language, and commerce, Mary was frightened by the very powers of the city and technology (ironic, as she was reading her articles on a MacBook in a coffee shop). She stared at me with frantic eyes, searching mine for a sense of fraternity, hoping for a kindred spirit in her fear.

Then the answer came to mind, a passage from 1 John:
This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.
I looked into Mary's eyes and said, "I hear a lot of fear from where you're coming from. And I don't think Jesus calls us to be afraid. Perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. So, I'm convinced nothing can separate us from this love. And I hope you'll experience the love and peace God gives us in Jesus. I think if we're seeking the kingdom of Jesus and entrusting Him with our lives, deep down we have nothing to fear."

She silently nodded, then sighed with a sense of defeat--I clearly hadn't been convinced. I packed my things and turned to go. She thanked me for listening, then turned back to her articles of fear.

I want to be more like Mouw and less like Mary

I believe we're called as Christians to engage and redeem our culture, not condemn or flee from it. I want to be a part of what N.T. Wright calls "building for the kingdom." This requires recognizing that we'll never full bring the kingdom of God to Earth, but that doesn't mean we're to be passive or paranoid about culture. Instead, with grace and humility, we work hard to create and promote justice, beauty, and truth in our world as signposts for the kingdom of heaven. This means moving past the fear, recognizing it's still present, and choosing to allow the love of Christ to be our primary motivation behind all we do. 

We don't avoid the fear; we redeem it as we step out in love. Let's live by love, not fear.

What is your primary motivation--love or fear?