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?

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Giver

What makes us human? Is it our intellectual capacity? Our use of language to communicate? Maybe it’s our genetic structure, something in our DNA that makes us different from other living beings. Perhaps it’s our conscience and ability to make moral decisions, or our emotions and capacity for love. Are we just a mashup of atoms and cells that move and breathe in a particular way? Or are we creations with a soul, filled with meaning and purpose and design?

In The Giver, the filmic adaptation of Lois Lowry’s acclaimed novel, this anthropology question is the conspicuous motivation behind an urgent search for young protagonist, Jonas. Unlike the novel, where Jonas is only a boy turning the age of 12, Jonas is now 18-years-old, an emerging adult in his Community. In the Community, there is no suffering or pain, no choices or emotions. Everyone submits to the code of Sameness, having never experienced joy, loss, family, courage, or love. Even death is disguised as being “released to Elsewhere,” and there is no mourning for the released person.

Upon his ceremonial entry into adulthood, Jonas is chosen by the elders in the Community to become the Receiver of Memory. This important role comes with unique responsibilities—Jonas is, somehow, to carry within him the memories of the past transferred to him by the Giver (Jeff Bridges), an elderly man living on the edge of the community. As the Receiver of Memory, Jonas’s eyes begin to open to the possibilities of joy, love, family, and the freedom of choice. Simple memories—riding on a sled through the snow, dancing and laughing at a medieval wedding, the sunset viewed from the bow of a sailboat on the vast ocean—begin to awaken something within Jonas that feels more human. Even ordinary things, like the leaves on a tree or the rainbow reflection of sunlight through water, begin to captivate Jonas’s attention. He starts to feel more awake and alive to the world around him, which becomes a threat to his Community, most notably embodied in the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep) and her mission to keep Jonas and the Giver under control.

While the filmic adaptation feels true to the essence of the book, The Giver is missing some of the pathos, consequence, and mystery that makes the novel so intriguing. Lois Lowry has been quoted saying the film is “very good” but lacks something on screen that is more fully captured in the novel: mystery and discovery.

…I had a little trouble with the ending: In the book, it’s ambiguous, but the movie-­people…felt that the ending should not be so ambiguous. You know, I’m a writer, I like to retain subtlety and nuance.”

While readers delightfully discover quite late in the novel that the world of the Community is seen through black-and-white, this is obvious from the beginning of the film (though the filmmakers do some remarkable and interesting things with the color scheme and tones, where the palette is less of a true grayscale and more of muted colors and tones, growing brighter or duller with the presence of Jonas and his increase of memories). It’s all a bit too on-the-nose, and the allegory sometimes feels like it’s being told more than shown. This could be due to the inclusion of Jonas’s voiceover narration, a first-person sharing of his story from the point of view of the future, leaving little wonder if he survives or escapes his perils. Hopefully I don’t sound too harsh; the book is nearly always better than the movie, and while this isn’t a great film (though a great novel), it’s certainly a good one. The final moments, while lacking in the intensity and weightiness of the novel, are still affecting and cathartic, and the film is a worthy entry in the recent batch of YA dystopian films.

Thwaites as Jonas is solid as a na├»ve teen discovering emotions, memories, and love. Akin to the characters in a similar filmic black-and-white alternative culture, Pleasantville, Jonas and his Community has the sheltered innocence of someone lacking exposure to the darker realities of our world. I was also pleasantly surprised to find this was the first collaboration between Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges, who both give the strongest performances in the film—their conversation about the nature of humanity in the climatic scene is thought-provoking and affecting as they each defend their positions. Taylor Swift's role is mercifully short, lasting only brief moments in a particular scene involving her playing the piano (of course!).

Ultimately, The Giver explores the unique beauty of humanity by posing a number of questions to Jonas, and thus the audience—what is the nature and power of memory? Of emotion? Of morality? Of love? Of faith? There is plenty in The Giver to elicit spiritual conversations, but the tragedy of The Giver is in its timing and release: in a world where young adult dystopian novel-to-movie adaptations are a dime a dozen, The Giver ironically falls into the trap of Sameness it so readily condemns. See the film, but before you do, pick up the novel and dive deep into Lowry's intriguing prose. There's a reason her book is a modern-day classic in the children's literature pantheon, and she says it herself--subtlety and nuance. 

It is this subtlety and nuance, this mystery and creativity and diversity--this is central to what makes us human. We were never meant to all be exactly the same, robotic and static in our development. The Sameness utopia revealed in The Giver isn't the paradise of Eden. From Eden onward, we were always meant to breathe, expand, create, dream, and flourish in a world of colors and vibrancy. We're works of art, invited by the Creator to continue in His creative endeavors. The Giver, both novel and film, are such worthy endeavors...yet I imagine we'll only find one of them in the future heavenly city, when the kings of the earth bring in their splendor--the beautiful, mysterious, nuanced, creative endeavors of the human race.

Monday, August 4, 2014


Every few months, in a moment of whim and nostalgia, I'll stop and look at the pictures and videos from the early days of our children's lives. I recognize that having a 5- and 2-year-old doesn't allow for many "early days" yet. Nevertheless, it always astounds me how much they have changed and grown in such a short period of time. Limbs and hair grow and expand. Motor and verbal skills transform in a matter of moments, from rolling-and-cooing to running-and-singing. The nature of time fascinates me. Time passes slowly and silently, treading constantly forward in a cycle from past to present, transforming our world in progress and decay. The book of Ecclesiastes says that God has placed eternity in the human heart, but in the meantime we are very time-bound beings. People grow, change, adapt, react, and mature in time. Richard Linklater's fascinating and affecting experiment with Boyhood offers a unique picture of this progression through time. Over the course of twelve years, filming short scenes using the same actors portraying the same character, Linklater has created an authentic experience of seeing memories unfold on film. The film follows Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as he grows from a daydreaming 6-year-old into a quiet and artistic college freshman at age 18.

Boyhood portrays Mason as a silent observer of the world around him. Opening with an iconic shot of him staring into the clouds, he never loses this head-in-the-clouds mentality as he navigates the ups and downs of his childhood and adolescence. He doesn't engage much, choosing to be a passive listener and spectator, surrounded by adults whose own decisions and advice drive his destiny forward through time. His mother (Patricia Arquette) tries to do her best as a single mom of two children, but continues to make poor choices regarding the men she marries and often seems overwhelmed by the cards life has dealt her. His father (Ethan Hawke) transforms from an impetuous wanderer and risk-taker into a mustachioed actuary (a business professional who deals with the financial impact of risk and uncertainty), eventually trading in the GTO for the minivan. 

While both parents are mature adults with their own experiential notion of wisdom, both are often floundering in life. Mason observes later in his boyhood that his mom is just as confused as he is. His father reduces the entirety of the meaning of life as, "None of us know what we're doing anyway. We're all just winging it." Mason is the quiet recipient of advice, wisdom, and unsolicited input from the adults in his life, adults who often don't actually have their own lives together. Do this. Be that. Try this. Trust me. But Mason doesn't seem to do much with their counsel, either with rebellion or devotion. He's a fairly passive character who doesn't much either right or wrong--he simply is, he just does, and Boyhood doesn't seem interested to present him as anything further.

A related aside: one observation I'm pondering is this--Mason never cries in Boyhood, at least not that I can remember. For a young man who feels deeply and has a brooding artistic side, he seems strangely aloof to his own emotions, rarely laughing and (apparently) never crying throughout his entire adolescence. Even in powerfully emotional scenes where key characters are injured, either physically or emotionally, Mason remains ever the stoic. Why is this? If Boyhood is partly auto-biographical from Linklater and Hawke's childhood experiences--both had divorced parents, and Linklater in particular has noted the biographical similarities--was this the experience the filmmakers wanted to express, a tear-less protagonist? It's not just the tears; Mason simply doesn't emote much at all, making him a somewhat intriguing character to observe, but not one to stir empathy. As an emotionally-driven man who experienced the ups and downs of my own boyhood, I recall many tears in my own experience, both from laughter and pain. Maybe I'm forgetting a crucial scene of pathos in Boyhood. If so, please remind me.

Boyhood is like a series of scenes that flash before one's eyes in the moments immediately prior to death, one's whole life in an immediate glance. Episodic and often with little context, each moment plays out with both ordinariness and profundity. Watching Boyhood is like opening up a stranger's family photo albums and glancing through all the pictures, trying to make sense of the person's life in the images. This can be both a beautiful and a boring exercise, and Boyhood is often both at once. It has its moments of insight and beauty, but by the third act of Boyhood, I was beginning to become fidgety from the tedium, hoping for a moment of catharsis that never fully came. I suppose real life is like that. Our personal narratives are a series of events, some more influential and transformative than others, yet simply a series of interconnected moments linked in time. Mason stares into the sky. Mason moves across the country. Mason gets a haircut. Mason walks and talks with a girl. Mason goes camping with his father. Mason talks in the car with his mother. These are everyday moments, but they are also unique scenes in a person's story. The conversations, the unsolicited advice, the dramatic scenes--they are all moments etched in a person's memory, and I can imagine that Boyhood is like a glimpse into the memory banks of an elderly Mason reflecting upon his past, much like The Tree of Life is a mediation on the memory of a Texas summer from the perspective of Sean Penn's character. As Mason's mother reflects upon her son as he leaves for college, "I thought I'd have more time." We all do. Let's make the most of the time we're given today, being fully present and open and thankful for the time we have.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Youth Ministry Soapbox: Stop Trying to Build Your Platform

Photo Credit: psgreen01 (Creative Commons)
*Rant Alert*

I keep seeing folks in the youth ministry tribe spending loads of time promoting and building their platforms

Whether it's guest blog posts on a big-name youth ministry blog, creating a blog and website to offer brand spankin' new services and advice for youth ministry folks, becoming youth ministry consultants or coaches or speakers (instead of pastors or full-time youth workers), writing and selling self-published books and/or e-books...the amount of social media platforms in the youth ministry world feels like it's exploded.

With the increase of technology and a globalized world, more and more voices are being added to the cacophony of the Internet. With so many voices on so many platforms, all vying for position and followers and clickbacks and links, it feels akin to having thousands of individuals standing on their elevated towers with bullhorns and fireworks, trying to draw attention to their idea/service/product/self.

Here is my contention:

Everyone can build a platform. Not everyone should.

We are a tribe that is both often at the forefront of new technology and cultural advances; we're the early adopters, the innovators, the entrepreneurs, the risk-takers. We are also a tribe that often feels like our voices aren't heard in our own contexts--the elder board/senior pastor/parent/student didn't care to listen to our wisdom or idea.

Do you see how these two characteristics could lead to a pandemic of platform-building in the youth ministry world?

Yes, I am questioning your motives. I am also questioning mine. I've seen the log jammed in my own eye, the mixed motives of my own heart when it comes to social media. I know the brief euphoric rush of getting a few hundred "likes" or "clicks" or "favorites" for a blog post. As an author, I know the tension of wanting to promote my books because I genuinely believe in their message and content, but also not wanting to become a salesman. I recognize the irony of sharing this post on Facebook and Twitter in the hopes that it exhorts and stirs up some conversation. Yet any platform I have in the youth ministry tribe is simply God's grace; it's a gift that I want to steward well, to be a voice of encouragement and wisdom and hope for our tribe. This soapbox moment is simply meant to question our focus in youth ministry and draw us to what matters most: making disciples of the emerging generation.

Are we striving to please God or people? Are we called to be a shepherd and teacher and discipler of young people, or social media mavens? Do we spend as much time in prayer for the people we disciple as much as we spend writing and honing a blog post or tweet? Will God be more pleased about our impressive Google analytics stats and strong Twitter following, or our quiet faithfulness to our vocational calling and His leading?

Is Jesus calling me to be a better social media specialist or a better pastor?

This rant is not meant to be discouraging or demoralizing. The individual voices and stories of the youth ministry tribe ARE valuable, and worth sharing. Many of the best wisdom and ideas will likely go unnoticed by the crowds. That's okay; Jesus warned us about things like that. This is why I love movements like Open, a localized gathering of youth ministry voices with less platform-building and more kingdom-building. It's why I love youth ministry network gatherings (find your local network here) where local youth workers can share ideas, share life, and pray for each other as peers around the table.

I'm not asking you to shut down your blog or close your Twitter account. I'm just wondering about our hearts, individually and as a collective. I'm hoping Jesus can heal them of any motive of self-promotion and an unhealthy obsession to be noticed. Shut off the technology, sit in the silence, listen for God's quiet voice stirring in your soul. Where is your heart today?

*End of Rant*

What did this post spark in you? Share in the comments.