Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Choose Your Battles: 6 Questions to Ask in a Ministry Conflict

Photo Credit: JWPhotowerks (CC)
Leadership in the church can be a series of uphill battles.

Why is it this way? Policies, politics, and preferences, which all have a common thread: people. Conflicts and disputes with people can take a lot of time and energy. Sometimes those battles feel completely unnecessary, causing ministry leaders to expend lots of sideways energy for a conflict that isn't worth fighting. Some battles are worth dying for; others didn't need to happen in the first place. It's these latter conflicts I hope to address here. Too many battles simply weren't worth fighting in the first place--they had to do with quirks, personal preferences, or simply weren't worth the time or energy.

Good ministry leaders know which battles to fight. I hesitate to use the word "battle" for its warlike connotations, but conflicts between people in the church can get downright ugly, especially if they're done poorly. Yet conflicts are an important part of relationship--we need iron to sharpen iron, to hone and refine and clarify.

Honest, humble, gracious conflict can ultimately be life-giving. But it won't be if we're fighting the wrong battles, expending lots of undue energy and time on issues that aren't really important or distract from the overall mission.

Here are 6 questions to ask yourself as a ministry leader in a current or potential conflict:

1. What are my values? Having core personal and professional values can offer a helpful framework for discerning whether a conflict is worth the time and energy. If a person's actions or words completely conflict with a core value, it may be a battle worth fighting. For instance, if one of your core values is growing small in community, and a ministry leader decides to dismantle all small group ministry programs, it's likely a conflict worth pursuing. One of my ministry values is creating environments of belonging. If a student or youth leader is mean-spirited or overly sarcastic in their tone and making others uncomfortable, it's not just a personality issue--it goes against a core value, and needs to be addressed directly. However, if a new non-Christian student is a bit unruly or distracting during a talk, the value of an environment of belonging allows me to give grace instead of calling that student out and potentially hurting the relationship.

2. What are my motives? Check your heart--why did this particular situation become a conflict for you? What is the history behind this relationship and conflict? What planks might be in your eye that need to be removed? Can you approach the situation with authenticity and self-awareness?

3. Who is affected by the ripples? Every conflict has ripples. These are the emotional and relational shockwaves that impact and influence other relationships. This is a question of systems thinking, viewing the conflict through the lens of overlapping relationships. Who are all the people affected by this conflict? How will having a conflict be beneficial or detrimental to these particular people, both in the short and long term? Knowing the relational impact will help you know the weightiness of the conflict at hand.

4. Am I throwing pearls to pigs? Jesus's statement in Matthew 7 is somewhat strange, but it's set in the context of judging others. I think Jesus is implying that some battles aren't worth fighting due to the other person's hard heartedness and inability to change their opinion about the issue. Of course, there isn't anyone beyond redemption or change. But if it's a battle that keeps getting fought over and over and over, it may be worth setting boundaries for yourself and not wasting time offering valuable input or advice to those who won't hear it.

5. What is my relational equity? If your relationship with this person(s) was a bank account, how much do you have invested? How much time and energy have you spent with this individual or group? What sort of relational withdrawal are you willing to make? If you choose to engage in a conflict where you don't have much equity invested, you may find yourself bankrupt and the relationship lost. You'll have to ask, is this relationship worth losing for me?

6. What is the Spirit guiding me to do? This is the ultimate question--what is God calling you to do in the situation? Regardless of personality, conflict styles, or personal preferences, God may be calling you to lovingly engage in a conflict, or to back off and give grace and patience.

May you engage in loving, gracious, truthful, life-giving conflict and know the battles you need to pursue!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Top 15 Youth Group Cliches

Check out this snarky and silly video from Blimey Cow on the top 15 youth group cliches (click here to watch if you can't see the embed below):

Love the awkward side hug, the "sloppy wet kiss vs. unforeseen kiss," and the cameo from Derek Webb as the angriest youth pastor ever. It's all a bit over-the-top, and kinda cringe-worthy in its accuracy.

What do you think? Which cliche stood out to you? What would you add to the list?

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

My Movie Rating Scale

Some of my personal all-time favorite films
How do you decide if a movie is "good" or not?

No, really. Take a minute and think about it. What are the qualities of a “good” movie, versus a “bad” movie?  A good moral message? Well-made and aesthetically interesting? Depicts something true or beautiful? Personal taste for the genre? You just sorta liked it?

It's an important question to consider, as it brings to the surface our motives, paradigms, values, and practices when it comes to engaging with art and culture. Why do you like what you like?

Everyone needs to find a system and framework that works for them. This isn't just pragmatics; this is an exhortation to do the hard work of figuring out your own tastes and learning how to thoughtfully expand them. As someone who has built a reputation for my love of film and faith, I've recognized that I need to have a sort of public framework, a ratings system akin to the ones critics use in their reviews. 

Let's be honest: nowadays it's all about the numbers and ratings. In a world of Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, actually reading whole written reviews and reflections has (tragically) gone by the wayside for many people looking to critics for whether or not to see a film. I have never placed a numerical value or rating within my film reviews on my blog, but I do record them in my Film Journals. But seeing a number or some stars doesn't tell you much. So allow me to unpack the numbers, offering some clarity behind the system I use:

5-star Rating (100-point Rating) Personal / Aesthetic / Spiritual
5 (95-100) Favorite / Masterpiece / Divine Encounter
4.5 (88-94) Exceptional / Well-Crafted Work of Art / Enriching and Transformative
4 (78-87) Great / Exciting, Affecting, Memorable Achievement / Enlightening
3.5 (68-77) Very Good / Interesting Concept and Execution / Evoking
3 (58-67) Good / Interesting Concept or Execution / Eye-Opening
2.5 (48-57) Mixed Feelings / Flawed but Worthy / Moderately Insightful
2 (38-47) Disappointing / Mediocre and Uninteresting / Secular
1.5 (28-37) Regrettable / Notably Flawed and Frustrating / Guilt-inducing
1 (18-27) Enraging / Wholly Deficient / Shameful
0.5 (8-17) Failure / Offensive / Toxic
0 (0-7) Atrocity / Gouge My Eyes Out / Sinful
The first aspect is a 5-star rating scale. Some publications use only 4 stars--Christianity Today and Roger Ebert come to mind--but I've chosen the 5-star system for its easy parallel to IMDB, Netflix, and Letterboxd. If I've rated it 4 stars here, it has 4 stars on Netflix and an 8/10 on IMDB. (You can read more about the origin of the "stars" criteria and other ratings systems in this enlightening WSJ article.)

The second part is a 100-point scale. This is akin to a school grade, a more nuanced system for rating, as it can show the difference between two films given the same star rating. For instance, I gave both Class Enemy and Horse Money 4 stars, but I'd grade them as 83 and 78, respectively. Not much of a difference, but enough to show which film I liked better.

The third aspect is a breakdown of the personal, aesthetic, and spiritual dimensions of the film. Personal focuses on what the film was about, and whether or not I found it enjoyable or beneficial. Aesthetic focuses on how the film was made, its level of craftsmanship and artistic merit. Spiritual focuses on the truth of the film, its moral and spiritual themes and its transcendent nature.

In my Film Journals, I've highlighted the 4.5 and 5 star reviews in blue and red, respectively. I hope this allows for someone doing a quick scan of my journal to see the films which are personal favorites and films worth your time and energy to experience.

The difficulty lies in personal tastes and affections vs. critical appreciation. Is Pulp Fiction a masterpiece? In a historical and critical acclaim sense, yes. In my opinion, not really. I don't think its aesthetics outweigh its depraved subject matter and its Trying Really Hard To Be Cool tone. So, I'd give it 2 stars on my scale above. What about Ferris Bueller's Day Off? I gave it 5 stars in my journal, because it's a personal favorite and a film I frequently return to, particularly on sick days and when I'm feeling like I need a dose of the 1980s. But is it a film that would appear on a Top 100 Movies of All Time? Not likely.

Do my tastes change over time and repeated viewings? Of course. A recent example is The Giver, which dropped significantly from a 3.5 to a 2.5 after a second viewing and some time to ponder. Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love was a film I declared "too artsy" in high school, only to fully appreciate it ten years later as a married adult who had seen a few more films and could appreciate Anderson's vision. My #1 favorite film in high school was The Matrix, but while I still would rank that film on a personal favorites list, it wouldn't even break the Top 20.

I'm admittedly prone to giving slightly higher reviews than many critics. Most of the films I watch will have a rating between 2.5 and 4, and rarely does a 2 or below end up in my journal. Perhaps this is because I've honed my tastes and judgments to a point where I can tell if I'll appreciate or enjoy a film before I see it. I don't have the time or energy to waste two hours on something that will get less than a 50 on a 100-point scale. Most of those films in my journal were surprises or risks I took. In my Film Journals, I couldn't find a single 0.5 rating, though there were a few 0-star reviews (Sharknado and Birdemic).

Keep in mind: just because I gave a film 4 or 5 stars doesn't mean you should see it or will enjoy it. Similarly, just because I gave a film a low rating doesn't mean I think you're a moron if you happened to like that film. There's value in finding and reading film critics who will make you think and challenge your paradigm, and I appreciate writers who will cause me to rethink my reactions to a film by offering a different perspective. I hope to encourage those who read my reviews to be wise and discerning, open to what a film offers while also using caution in determining whether or not to see that film. For example, I gave 12 Years a Slave a 5-star rating. While it is a powerful film on all levels, it's certainly not a film I'd want to revisit in the near future, and I would caution viewers who may just click the film on Netflix without realizing the violent and disturbing content it contains. I also really appreciated and enjoyed the film Noah, and gave it 4 stars, but I recognize that many viewers disagree with my perspective (you can read my review of Noah here).

I hope this helps you, the reader and film-lover, as I continue to watch, review, and reflect upon films of all varieties. Thanks for taking the time to read and share my film reviews, and I look forward to sharing more of them in the season to come!

Monday, October 13, 2014

VIFF: Winter Sleep; Leviathan; Class Enemy

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.

Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan). The winner of the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, Winter Sleep is an intimate familial drama centered around one man's relationship with his wife, his sister, and the small community where he holds significant influence. This man, Aydin, is a former actor who runs a small hotel in the mountainous region of Anatolia in Turkey. The community is quite literally in the hills--homes and rooms are carved into the rocks like ancient cave dwellings, yet Aydin's hotel is equipped with modern comforts. It was strange to see the anachronism of Aydin typing away at his Apple Macbook inside his rocky grotto of a study that looks like something out of Middle Earth.

Winter Sleep centers on the dynamics of separations--class, family, and marriage. Aydin is a wealthy man in his tiny community, and his indifference to the lower class and their plights are met with his amusement. A young boy throws a rock at Aydin's jeep, causing an awkward confrontation between the boy's father and Aydin's steward. The boy and his family rent a home from Aydin, and the rent has been due for months, causing an underlying tension based on finances and class divisions. While Aydin is typing out op-ed articles on his Macbook on how to make society a better place, this family wallows in the mud of his property. There's a disconnect here; Aydin spouts his ideals about spirituality, charitable giving in his writings, yet he rarely seems to practice what he preaches. Aydin is also at odds with his sister, Necla, a recently divorced woman whose strong opinions are often in conflict with Aydin. They have long dialogues about religion, marriage, and their own personalities, typically ending with some type of argument. Necla has a penchant for pushing buttons, even with Aydin's wife, her only companion in the hotel.

The most complex relationship in Winter Sleep is the marriage between Aydin and his young wife Nihal, a beautiful and intelligent woman with her own sense of philanthropic ideals. Those ideals differ from her husband, and while he seems to want to support her, she keeps him at a distance, annoyed with his interference in her life. There has been an underlying tension building over years between this couple, a sense of bitterness from Nihal for being trapped in the cold, hard environment Aydin has fashioned in the Turkish hills. There is a parallel here between Nihal and the wild horse Aydin procures and keeps in a stable for the sake of his hotel patrons. Aydin controls and keeps things the way he wants them, seemingly oblivious to others' desires or aspirations. His idea of freedom and philanthropy doesn't match with Nihal's, who goes so far as to invite him to leave his own home while she conducts meetings to help the schools of their village. It might even be appropriate to call Winter Sleep a "marriage movie," as the relationship between Aydin and Nihal is of primary importance to the whole.

Winter Sleep is a mixture of long, elaborate conversations with scatterings of beautiful scenes of the Turkish countryside. There were a few moments where I felt the three hour running time, but those were have been due to my semi-cramped seating in the theatre and not the mesmerizing character study portrayed on the screen. It's a subtle film, full of complexity and intriguing characters that never feel stilted; they feel wholly human, beautiful and flawed, navigating a winter season together-yet-apart in the crags of the steppe.

Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev). When I told my father that I was seeing a Russian film based on the book of Job, he told me, "oh, that sounds depressing and sad." He was right. Leviathan is a bleak and cynical indictment of the major social systems in Russian culture. From politics to religion to marriage to parenting to friendship, every form of system is dismantled and critiqued, revealing the hypocritical and ugly sides of all parties, leaving no one unscathed.

The film centers on a conflict between Nikolai and the mayor of the small town on the edge of the Barents Sea in northern Russia. A mechanic by trade, Nikolai lives in the ramshackle home with his second wife, Lilya, and his teenage son, Romka. The mayor wants to evict Nikolai and take the land, but Nikolai has some outside help--an old army buddy, Dmitri, has come into town from Moscow with some compelling evidence to change the mayor's mind. Yet what begins as a simple land dispute and legal battle begins a spiral of circumstances leading to violence, infidelity, and the splintering of relationships.

I went into the film expecting more overt spiritual themes, as the film had been described as a modern retelling of Job. Yet apart from the titular beast described in Job chapter 41 cited by the village priest in an argument with Nikolai, I would never have thought of Job. Job is described as a righteous man, and the injustice done to him was never due to his own behavior or lack of faithfulness to God. Nikolai is an impulsive and passionate man, prone to outbursts and heavy drinking. He never addresses God, apart from a drunken prayer asking why these terrible things are happening to him. In fact, none of the characters are truly righteous from a holy or pure standpoint. God is strikingly absent from Leviathan; the religious elite are either corrupt or unable to offer empathy or support to Nikolai and his family in their time of need. Where the book of Job ends with God arriving in his sovereign power and gracious compassion, God never speaks here, and the film is certainly a tragedy. Perhaps better biblical parallels would be Ecclesiastes or Lamentations, books which mine the depths of grief and existential crisis. Leviathan is well-crafted, beautifully shot, ambitious, and quietly compelling, but its despair was too overwhelming for this viewer to find it worth revisiting.

Class Enemy (Rok Bicek). When the favorite teacher of a classroom of high school seniors goes on maternity leave, their new harsh substitute teacher, Robert, quickly finds himself antagonized and the focus of a a growing rebellion. Rigid and authoritative, Robert singles out students and shames them, particularly a sensitive and quiet girl named Sabine. When Sabine goes home and commits suicide after a harsh conversation with Robert, the rest of the grieving class place the blame on the teacher.

What makes Class Enemy so fascinating and why it works so well is its ability to navigate the realms of the morally grey with apparent ease. Even the color palette is stark, using natural grey lighting from Slovenia to give a pale and monotone look to the film. At first, I felt sympathetic to the students and their desire for justice; Robert felt like a monster of a teacher, aloof and cruel in his methods, and the students lashing out was reasonable. Yet as the mob mentality began to grow and the students became more vocal and belligerent, it was difficult to find a true protagonist, and I found myself wishing the students would give up on their tirade. As the rebellion escalates, the entire situation feels both exaggerated and authentic; I could see a similar situation playing out in a local high school, particularly surrounding a suicide. Even Sabine is difficult to pin down; her own best friend doesn't know her particularly well, and she's portrayed both as saintly and selfish.

I almost wish Class Enemy played out more like 12 Angry Men or similar morally complex films, staging the entire story within the classroom itself, creating a claustrophobic tension. The strongest filmic parallel--perhaps Class Enemy's brighter twin--is Monsiur Lazhar, a wonderful Canadian film about a substitute teacher who helps a class of children process their grief together after the suicide of a beloved teacher. Both films address suicide, grief, and the impact of a teacher on a classroom. Yet while I found Monsiur Lazhar to be the more hopeful and affecting film, Class Enemy certainly made me think more, especially about what I would do in a similar situation. As a youth pastor and a cinephile, Class Enemy is right in my wheelhouse--a tense, relentless morality tale which kept me on my intellectual and philosophical toes for its entirety.

Monday, October 6, 2014

VIFF: Two Days, One Night; Listen Up Philip

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.

Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes). I'll admit up front--I am a huge fan of the Dardennes brothers and their films. Like modern-day parables, the Dardennes films are simple stories embodying profound moral and spiritual themes. Two Days, One Night follows this structure, focusing on Sandra (Marion Cotillard) and her struggle to keep her job. Her employer offers her co-workers a vote--they can choose to keep Sandra as part of their team, or opt to get a 1000 Euro bonus. After Sandra and a friend get the boss to cast a re-vote, Sandra has a weekend to convince her colleagues to give up their financial bonus so she can keep her job.

It's a moral situation in the vein of sociologist Lawrence Kohlberg--what would you choose to do, and why? It's a simple situation, yet there are so many factors and motives to consider. Initially, the vast majority of employees (understandably) take the bonus. It's only when Sandra begins showing up on their doorsteps and looking them in the eye where the choice becomes more difficult. Her message is the same--she feels the vote was unfairly influenced by their frightening foreman and she wants them to reconsider. Many ask the question, "who else has said they would vote for her?" Some change their minds; others don't. The emotional response to Sandra ranges from anger to pity to indifference to deep empathy. In each case, Sandra's brief interaction forces a moral choice, a knee-jerk reaction and a revelation of values and principles.

This is more than just a film about moral choices, though that's central to the narrative. Sandra was not at work for a season due to struggling with depression, a personal battle where she has only recently begun to find victory. To walk up to her colleagues and look them in the eye, asking for their charity and grace only to experience a stream of rejection--this requires enormous emotional strength and fortitude, something Sandra doesn't believe she has. Supported by her husband, who drives her to these confrontations both literally and emotionally, Sandra must rely on an inner determination to keep both her job and her sanity in the face of such an emotionally-draining circumstances. If you've ever been in a situation where every decision feels like an uphill battle, where all conversations feel like closed doors and no one seems to take your side or understand your position, Sandra's plight will be familiar. She wanders about town, bright in her pink tank tops and sorrowful in her blue eyes, looking for someone who will stand up for her and choose to forgo financial gain for her sake.

Two Days, One Night is the most accessible and mainstream of the Dardennes films. Typically filmed with unfamiliar actors--apart from a few Dardennes regulars, like Olivier Gourmet and Morgan Marinne--the inclusion of Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard and the overt three-act narrative arc allows audiences unfamiliar with the Dardennes style to begin their journey with these remarkable filmmakers. Yet this isn't a lesser Dardennes film at all; its simple beauty and strong performances are quietly marvelous. I was moved to tears by the final cathartic scene, and this is the strongest film I've seen both at VIFF and in 2014.

Listen Up Philip (Alex Ross Perry) Writer Philip Lewis Friedman is at once irritated, neurotic, arrogant, and insecure. He vacillates between viewing himself as above everyone and the victim of everyone. As he awaits the publication of his second novel, he finds himself increasingly at odds with those around him--his publishers, his girlfriend Ashley, even the whole city of New York. When novelist Ike Zimmerman invites Philip to use his cottage in the country for rest of mind and to focus on his work, Philip takes him up on the offer. A strange mentorship begins between Ike and Philip as two strikingly conceited individuals are drawn into each other's orbits, mutual sycophants and adversaries, clinging to the energy of the other.

Listen Up Philip is a comedy in the vein of Woody Allen--witty, cynical, highbrow, heavy on the dialogue and exposition, filled with neurotic and well-educated characters wandering aimlessly with New York as their backdrop. It had a bit too much voiceover narration for my taste--many scenes are simply the characters walking through New York while the narrator explains their feelings and motives, blatantly resorting to telling, not showing--and Philip isn't a particularly likable protagonist. Yet I laughed enough and found myself nodding along as Philip struggles with defining what success looks like for him as his idol in Ike is found to be an empty false god. The whole cast is admirable, particularly Jason Schwartzman as Philip and Elisabeth Moss as his photographer girlfriend, Ashley. Filmed with intimate closeups and a homemade begrimed quality, Listen Up Philip was an amusing diversion in an otherwise weighty film festival lineup at VIFF.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

VIFF Reviews: REEL Youth Film Festival; Horse Money; Maps to the Stars

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.

REEL Youth Film Festival. Featuring a few dozen films from filmmakers under the age of 20 from all across the globe, the REEL Youth Film Festival was fascinating, particularly as someone who has a passion for both films and the emerging generation. Documentaries, animation, public service announcements, and short stories were included, ranging from filmmakers as local as New Westminster and as faraway as India, Iran, and Sierra Leone.

Despite the global diversity, the style and themes from youth filmmakers were surprisingly consistent. There was a *lot* of narration and voiceover, indicating a youthful desire to express unspoken internal feelings and musings. Key subjects included identity questions, sexuality and romance, anxiety and depression, and bullying. This latter theme was so prevalent it almost became monotonous--bullying and social pressures were often the overt focus in the films. There were at least two "unplug" films exhorting the viewer to take a break from technology and screens. Underlying many of the social issues was a theme of justice, i.e. doing the right thing. Whether it was taking care of the environment or standing up to bullies, these teen filmmakers expressed a desire to see moral balance and fairness in the world.

Passionate, diverse, eager, creative, and at times a bit confusing and too overtly clever, these adolescent films and filmmakers showed great potential. Ranging from the hilarious to the depressing, the affecting and the obnoxious, the festival was directly in a youth worker and cinephile's sweet spot.

Horse Money (Pedro Costas). This is the most challenging film I've witnessed at VIFF, and perhaps one of the more provoking films I've ever seen. Hallucinatory, foreboding, haunting, and enigmatic, Horse Money is an exercise in endurance and disciplined film-viewing. Focusing on Ventura, a key character in Costas' previous films (none of which I'd seen before), Horse Money is like a living nightmare as Ventura wanders the dark hallways of a hospital/asylum/purgatory, colliding with ghosts of the past. The film defies classification, and I wasn't sure by the end whether it was brilliant or a bore...or both. Essentially, the film is a series of dream-like scenes and dialogues, culminating in a long internal "conversation" between Ventura and a living toy soldier in an elevator, told in voiceover and with multiple personalities. Costas is less focused on telling a direct story and more on eliciting feelings through images, flashes of memory and moments and emotions. There are some striking images and moments, particularly a scene where Ventura is wandering the darkened streets of his Portuguese neighborhood in his underwear, followed by a tank and armed soldiers. If you're interested in challenging yourself through a hallucinatory journey into darkness, Horse Money is your film and Pedro Costas is your filmmaker.

Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg). A satire about the gruesome and dismal side of glitzy Hollywood stars, Maps to the Stars is a film about selfish, greedy people doing self-destructive, greedy things to each other. Perversely funny, it revels a bit too much in its denouncement of Hollywood culture, containing zero likable characters and leaving the viewer with a lingering sense of despair. Now, a film can be darkly comic and have no truly likable characters and still be a worthy film--some of Lars Von Trier's films come to mind--but Maps to the Stars is an exercise in deliberate depravity. There's a solid ensemble cast here--Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Robert Pattison--and Moore stands out in her portrayal of a neurotic, washed up actress (she won Best Actress at Cannes). She's a plastic person, someone who smiles for the cameras and acting acquaintances, yet rejoices at the death of a child or the pain of others. Haunted by the past--this is another film where ghosts appear in hallucinatory moments--Moore and company are all in a downward spiral into insanity, culminating in their own destruction. For all its comedic bite, Maps to the Stars felt like reading a bitter letter sent to an ex-lover, a despairing and harsh look at a self-centered Hollywood subculture. More nuanced and thought-provoking films have been made about the delirious madness of Hollywood, particular Sunset Boulevard or Mulholland Drive. And if you're anticipating Cronenberg's signature violence, it's here, brief but graphic. I generally appreciate Cronenberg (A History of Violence and Eastern Promises are both remarkable), but this was my least favorite film of VIFF thus far.

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 (VIFF, Sept 2014)
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.