Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Top 10 Favorite Films of 2015


At Cinemayward.com, my new film review website, I posted my top 10 favorite films of 2015, as well as an ode to my wife, Katie, and her strength for our family in 2015:

Let’s face it: end-of-year list-making is a complex task. You have to go back and think of all the stories and images that have worked their way into your mind and heart, evaluating what has lingered. Some films made a strong first impression, but waned quickly. Others were initially met with hesitation or frustration, but proved to be more powerful than I imagined due to their ability to endure in my thoughts and bring up new ideas. These top 10 favorite films are the ones that made a lasting impression, that moved or challenged me, that communicated deep or weighty ideas and offered spiritual insights. (You can read my Top 5 Documentaries and #25-21 here, and my Top #20-11 here.)
If there was a common theme threading its way through my favorite films list, it might be the presence of strong, beautiful, heroic female characters. I wonder what’s drawn me to such a motif, or if the year of 2015 has simply been a banner year for females in films. Think about both the major blockbusters and the critically-acclaimed art films: The Force Awakens, Carol, Mad Max: Fury Road, Room, Brooklyn, Inside Out, The Assassin, Sicario, Ex Machina, Joy. They all feature strong female leads giving memorable performances as fully-realized characters. Plenty of films in 2015 passed the Bechdel Test with flying colors. Two-thousand and fifteen was The Year of the Female Lead Role.
Personally, the past year has been one of the most difficult, painful, and transformative years in my entire life. It’s also been a character-developing year for my beloved wife. She has been the strong and beautiful female presence in our story, the heroine who kept me and our children afloat in a season of distress and suffering. In the past year, our third child was born with a significant heart defect, one which led to open heart surgery a few months later. The months of doctor appointments were filled with waiting and wondering. Those hours in the hospital as we handed off our boy to the doctors so they could repair holes were the most painful moments we have yet experienced as a couple. When your child’s life is in question, when their safety and well-being are out of your hands, well…it’s difficult, to say the least. Add my personal struggle with healing from burnout and depression, as well as a few identity crises moments and vocational revelations, and I’ve been a mess. But Katie, my wife–she’s the one who carried us. I think of the moment in Mad Max: Fury Road where Max is taking aim with a rifle at a distant enemy and misses. Furiosa approaches and asks for the gun, which Max reluctantly but knowingly hands over to her. She uses his shoulder as a base to steady her aim, then makes the shot he couldn’t make. That’s been my marriage this year–we’ve struggled through this as a team, but she’s been the foundation while I play the supporting role. She’s made the shots I couldn’t make on my own.
So, consider this list an ode to my wife. She’s not invested much in films, but she’s certainly invested in me, in our children, and in our life together. We have a value as a family: live a great story. It’s a value that continues to prompt us to take the more difficult, risky, exciting path in life. I can’t think of anyone else I’d want to live out this story with. My wife has been the hero of our story in 2015. If there was a real-life award for Best Female in a Lead Role, my vote goes to her.
These are the films that moved me, captivated me, terrified me, challenged me, and inspired me. These are my top 10 favorite films from 2015
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Read the list here.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Top 10 Blog Posts from 2015




These are the ten most-read, most-shared blog posts I've written in 2015 on JoelMayward.com. Whether or not they're indicative of my best writing, they're the posts that resonated with the most people. My most-read film review was about Clint Eastwood's American Sniper, a film I didn't really enjoy, but apparently struck a chord with movie-goers. My #1 shared post had a brief "viral" moment via Facebook, sparking a bit of controversy as folks debated and defended the merits of faith-based films. 

Some of the most honest and best-written posts I've crafted haven't been read or shared as much, like this post about being a theological mutt, or this reflection on the risks of authenticity in ministry, or my critique of the funnel of youth ministry. It's always fascinating to see what connects with people and what doesn't. I'm simply grateful for this space to write and the people like you who continue to read. Thanks for reading over the past year! Enjoy this look in the rearview mirror:

10. About Elly.
"About Elly is a strikingly simple premise and story, but don't let its simplicity make you think this is an easy film to watch. Morally complex and devastating emotionally, About Elly at first feels like a Western romantic dramedy, until a pivotal moment reveals the underlying motivations and cultural values permeating the film. It may feel familiar at times, but this is still an Iranian film, through and through, and cultural context matters in a big way. This phenomenal film from Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi (A SeparationThe Past) only affirms that he is a formidable and impressive filmmaker, capable of making ordinary dramas turn into moral parables of emotional and intellectual weight. While the film debuted in 2009, it only made its theatrical release to the U.S. this year, and if it counts as a 2015 film, it's my favorite film of the year thus far."

9. 12 Things that Matter in Searching for a Church.
"What's the criteria for finding a church? How can you tell if a church is the right fit based on one or two visits? I'm realizing that finding a great church is like discerning compatibility within a romantic relationship--there needs to be an alignment of values and ethos, a sense of mutual benefit and joy, a movement in the same direction in life, and a healthy dose of the guidance and wisdom of the Holy Spirit. We need to be able to do this following Jesus thing together, as partners in the gospel."

8. My Upcoming Book: Jesus Goes to the Movies.
"Part One of the book offers a theological grid and framework for watching movies with wisdom and discernment. This section is the meat of the book, helping us to foster spiritual conversations with young people. There are chapters on a theology of culture, the history of the church and Hollywood, various worldviews presented in films, the history of youth culture, various theological approaches to movie-watching, and seeing Christ figures in films, as well as a practical chapter on how to incorporate movies into your ministry.

Part Two is a compilation of 50 films and spiritual discussion guides meant for small groups, families, or one-on-one conversations. The cool part: an ongoing supply of these discussion guides will be downloadable as new films are released. Imagine a new movie is coming out, and you'd like to take your small group to see it and talk about it. You download the super-inexpensive-yet-awesome guide, keep it on your phone or print it off, and use it to foster a spiritual discussion."


7. Unplanned Parenthood: On the Hopeful Choice for Life.
"The false dichotomy created by the labels of “pro-life’ and “pro-choice” seems unhelpful in the abortion debate. The pro-life folks are not anti-choice in every respect, nor do I imagine the pro-choice advocates being anti-life. In fact, I would consider myself “pro-choice” in the sense that I believe in human freedom and flourishing, and I have genuine hope regarding the human heart and its potential for making good choices in our world. While I recognize the brokenness and depravity human beings are capable of inflicting, I also have an optimism about people."

6. American Sniper.
"An Americanized Christianity is evident in American Sniper, particularly through Chris's good luck charm--a pew Bible he took from a church in his boyhood, which he keeps tucked beneath his body armor. This type of Christianity is a moralistic therapeutic deism, a God intended to make us feel good when we really need Him, but is mostly absent and unnecessary for our daily tasks. A fellow SEAL, Marc Lee, is a man of faith and a former seminary student who serves as an embodied conscience for Chris. Marc asks Chris about his Bible, if he ever opens it. He doesn't. Marc is clearly troubled about the direction of the Iraq war, wondering about its purpose and his involvement. Chris essentially shuts him down, asking "you're not going to get all soft on me, are you?" Marc wonders about Chris's obsession with his task, asking Chris if he may have a savior complex. But when Marc is killed in an ambush, his mother reads aloud a letter at his funeral sharing his doubts about the American military and the Iraqi conflict. Driving away from the funeral, Chris is unflinching. "That letter killed him," he tells Taya brusquely. Then, a tense silence."

5. 8 Questions to Ask Before Leaving a Ministry.
"If you choose to enter full-time ministry as your vocation, you'll eventually have to face this question: should I stay or should I go?

It could be due to all sorts of factors--a new job offer, a family crisis, lack of chemistry in the current ministry, serious conflicts with boss or co-workers, or it just feels like "it's time."

How do you know when to leave a ministry position and when to stick it through? Do you need to move on to something else, or should you remain faithful where you are? It can be difficult to discern what you need to do and what questions to ask."


4. New: A Mayward Life Update.
"So much has happened in my life and with our family over the past few months, it's hard to even keep up with it all. The emotional ups and downs of recent days have been significant, and I am trying to keep up with Jesus as we follow him into new territory. I am discovering that the horizon looks different than it did a year ago. Things have changed.

All things are new.

Fresh. Different. Recent. Revived.

With so much newness, I want to give you a glimpse into what God has been up to in our lives, some snapshots of the new."



3. 12 Great Films About Christianity.
"Thankfully, there are films that do live up to the moniker of "Christian movie" in that they exhibit the truth and beauty of Christ. These films wonderfully communicate the nature of what it means to be a Christian, the theology of Christian spirituality, and the ups and downs of true discipleship, all in a well-crafted cinematic experience. If someone was investigating or exploring Christianity, and they wanted to watch a movie about the Christian faith, these are some of the films I'd watch with them. Or, if a disciple of Jesus wanted to watch an artistic portrayal of the faith as a source of encouragement and inspiration in their pursuit of Christ, these films would certainly fit the bill."

2. 8 Cliche Youth Ministry Phrases.
"This is all tongue-in-cheek, of course, because I love (or love on) the youth ministry tribe. As you smirk and giggle at the above phrases, remember this: our language matters. We need to have self-awareness about the words we speak and the tone we use when sharing about matters of faith, love, and Jesus. We have to be mindful of using insider language that could be easily misunderstood or even harmful to relationships with young people. When we speak youth ministry-ese, let's be alert to how our words shape our actions and relationships."

1. The "Faith" of Faith-Based Films: On Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in Christian Movies.
"In true Christianity, there is room for difference and grace. I am not saying that we cannot have differing opinions on films, or that the subculture of evangelical Christianity cannot have its own art and stories to celebrate. This is not the cynical rant of someone who believes Christians incapable of making good art, but as someone who believes we can--and should--make art that resonates with the truth and beauty found in Christ. I am concerned as a pastor and a film critic because it's not just that these films aren't that good, it's that they seem to advocate for a less-than-true form of Christianity. And audiences are buying it, both literally and spiritually."

--


Thanks for reading! You can continue to read my musings on life, youth ministry, theology, and culture here at JoelMayward.com Check out more of my film-related writing at Cinemayward.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Top 12 Favorite Albums of 2015



In 2015, I purchased fewer albums than in previous years, but still listened to a significant amount of music thanks to various streaming services and this new revolution called The Internet. There is more music available than ever before, which makes it more difficult to sift through the abundance of mediocrity, yet also means certain musical treasures, when discovered, are deeply cherished. The list is indicative of my eclectic taste, featuring hip-hop, pop remakes, indie grunge, electronic/dance, alt-rock, and plenty in between. These aren't necessarily recommendations for every listener; these are simply the songs and artist who captivated my ears, mind, and heart over the past season of new life.

The follow dozen albums served as my soundtrack for 2015:

12. Ryan Adams - 1989

11. Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp a Butterfly

10. Laura Marling - Short Movie

9. Passion Pit - Kindred

8. Wilco - Star Wars

7. Josh Garrels - Home

6. Jamie xx - In Colour

5. Bear Carver - In the Dogwoods

4. Sleater-Kinney - No Cities to Love

3. Chvrches - Every Open Eye

2. Torres - Sprinter

1. Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell

What was your soundtrack for 2015? Share your recommended albums in the comments.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

2015: A Year in Review


2015.

The year we moved from Canada back to Portland.

The year I began full-time seminary at George Fox.

The year my son was born.

The year that same son had open heart surgery.

The year I met my birth mother.

The year I published my third book, Jesus Goes to the Movies.

The year I launched my film review website, Cinemayward.com.

The year I healed from burnout, a year of death and resurrection, a year of new life.

Perhaps that's the theme of 2015: new life. A new heart. A new paradigm. Renewed faith and hope and love. New direction and purpose and vision. All things new.

It may be too early to tell, but I imagine I'll look back on 2015 as a year of incredible significance, a sort of historical BC/AD moment where everything changed. It's hard to articulate how different I am now from one year ago. Everything is new.

New. I suppose that tiny three-letter word will have to do.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Cinemayward.com is Here



In case you haven't checked it out already, my new website devoted to my film writings is here: Cinemayward.com.

The tagline: "Reviews, essays, resources, and musings on film and spirituality."

I started writing about films in 2007 at my personal blog mostly as a personal outlet for processing the variety of films I was viewing. Since then, I’ve written hundreds of reviews, culminating in my book about film and theology called Jesus Goes to the Movies: The Youth Ministry Film Guide (The Youth Cartel, 2015). I’ve written about film and spirituality for Christ and Pop Culture, Reel World Theology, Reel Thinking, 1More Film Blog, and Youth Worker Journal. And now, I have an online home for everything movie-related.

I hope that Cinemayward.com can be a unique film review website, one written from a pastoral and Christian perspective, yet is for any reader interested in the deeper truths and spiritual ideas found in movies. I hope to point to new filmic treasures you may not have heard of yet, as well as dig into the ideas found in popular blockbusters. I hope to write quality film criticism, not just my own opinions or a list of reasons why you should/shouldn't see a film. Finally, I hope to challenge and inspire movie-goers--especially Christians--to think critically, wisely, and joyfully about the art they consume.

I'll be importing my previous film reviews from JoelMayward.com to Cinemayward, and all my new film-related content will be at the new site. I'll still write here about my life, youth ministry, theology, culture, leadership, and anything else that comes to mind. Check out the Reviews page to see new reviews on Spectre, The Martian, Spotlight, and more. I'll be posting Essays and links to articles at other film websites, as well as recommendations for movies you can be streaming

You can also check out the Cinemayward store, which has a new downloadable resource from The Youth Cartel called CINE. Like the popular VIVA series from The Youth Cartel, CINE is a downloadable curriculum for using with your youth group or small group, featuring four film discussion guides around a central theme. This first CINE is "Christmas Movies" and it's free. Repeat: FREE. Merry Christmas. Go download it. For free.

Thanks to my friend Adam McLane and his Internet skills for helping create the Cinemayward website! If you want an awesome website, check out what Adam does.

Here's what you can do:
1. Check out Cinemayward.com and add it to your preferred RSS feed reader.
3. Follow Cinemayward on Twitter: @cinemayward
4. Watch movies, then discuss them with me in any of those places (website, FB, Twitter). I'd love to hear what you think.

Thanks for reading, sharing, liking, and commenting on my film reviews over the past eight years. Let's keep the film and spirituality conversation going.

Monday, November 23, 2015

A Theological Mutt


I am a theological mutt.

I'm a doctrinal mixed-breed, a unique mashup of diverse orthodoxy and orthopraxy. I rarely find churches or theological systems where I completely fit.

I'm too conservative for the liberal and mainline denominations. I self-identify as evangelical, believe in the truth and authority of Scripture as God's inspired Word, have a strong push for personal evangelism and the salvation of the lost, still believe the locally-gathered Jesus-following church is God's primary method for saving and healing the world, lean towards historic premillenialism in my eschatology, and still think there's a real heaven and a real hell. I even once voted for George W. Bush.

I'm too progressive for the evangelicals and fundamentalists. I don't use or condone the term "inerrancy" in describing the Bible (because it doesn't describe itself this way, and the word's historical roots are politically charged and intentionally divisive), I don't use a wholly "literal" hermeneutic in my exegesis of Scripture, I believe women have an equal seat at table in both the church and family, I'm strongly leaning towards annihilationism regarding the doctrine of hell, and I believe social justice, serving the poor, and radical discipleship is essential to the gospel and ways of Jesus. I even once voted for Barack Obama.

I grew up in the Baptist church, attended a Catholic high school, went to a non-denominational evangelical Bible college (Multnomah University), pastored at Baptist, Evangelical Free, and Mennonite Brethren churches, briefly attended a Canadian non-denominational theological graduate school (Regent College), and now I'm a full-time student at a Wesleyan/Quaker seminary (George Fox Evangelical Seminary). I'm presently in an interim ministry role with a Presbyterian church, though I'm also very involved with the Christian & Missionary Alliance church we attend.

My favorite theologians and pastoral writers are Anglican (N.T. Wright), Lutheran (Dietrich Bonhoeffer), Catholic (Henri Nouwen, G.K. Chesterton, Thomas Merton), Presbyterian (Eugene Peterson, Tim Keller), Methodist/Anabaptist (Stanley Hauerwas), Quaker (Richard Foster), Baptist (Dallas Willard), and Jewish (Martin Buber). I have wonderful friends in just about any denominational camp you can imagine--Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, Pentecostal, Mennonite, Nazarene, Episcopal, Free Methodist, non-denominational megachurch, etc.

Perhaps I'm a moderate. Maybe I'm just confused or unsettled about certain doctrinal issues. Or maybe the kingdom of God is vast enough for a sense of personal nuance, a unity blooming from diversity.

One of my theology professors made a passing comment about the variety of doctrinal beliefs and the multiplication of denominations over church history. It may look and feel disjointed and splintered, and we may long for The One True Denomination to unite them all. Yet we don't see this sort of uniformity within the Bible itself. From the beginning of Israel's origins, there were twelve tribes, not one (really, there were thirteen, but who's counting?). There were twelve apostles chosen by Jesus, as well as the variety of other disciples who followed in his footsteps--women and men, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, young and old, conservative and liberal. There are four Gospel accounts of the life of Christ, each with their unique flavor, perspective, emphases, and tone (and they often appear to contradict each other!). In the few images we have of the future kingdom of God, we see cultural and ethnic diversity retained.

We also see people progressing and changing in their personal beliefs. For example, look at the life of Peter and his transformation from an ordinary fisherman into the rock of the church. His own beliefs about the relationship between Jews and Gentiles is challenged in the book of Acts, and later re-challenged by Paul in Galatians. To be a follower of Jesus is to live in a dynamic, ever-transforming reality, as opposed to static "this is how it is" rigidity. This doesn't mean one has zero actual convictions or wallows in postmodern whateverism. It simply means a mutt's leash is anchored to Christ, not a denominational perspective or theological system or a church's statement of faith.

I am learning to love and embrace my muttness. If you're a fellow theological mutt, fear not: you are not alone in the wide world of Christian beliefs. I recognize it's risky to even post something like this, as it could be misunderstood--Joel, you don't use the word "inerrancy"? Are you even still a Christian?--or somehow used against me. But I think there are more mutts out there, and I want y'all to know that it's okay to be in process and to not quite fit. I genuinely respect and appreciate the variety of tribes within the kingdom of God, and find I have a fuller relationship with Jesus when I can hold my theological beliefs with open hands, learning to embrace the tension within orthodoxy. I find I can navigate within the world of conservatives and liberals both with comfortability and a bit of the prophetic (i.e. I can help others see the value in the other side.) My anchor is in Christ rather than a particular system, and there is much to be learned when one chooses to listen beyond a theological echo chamber. Perhaps in an ever-polarizing purebred world of politics and religion, we need a few more mixed-breeds to shake things up.

Photo Credit: Bad Apple Photography (Creative Commons)

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

On Racism, Youth Ministry, and Cultural Intelligence


I was recently at a high school weekend retreat, spending the weekend at a beautiful camp in eastern Oregon with a variety of other churches from around the Pacific northwest. At a climactic moment in the evening session, a youth pastor introduced a group of teens performing a drama illustrating the gospel. The group of teens piled onto the stage, all dressed in black apart from the singular figure of a young man in a white shirt. The group performed the Lifehouse "Everything" skit, a pantomime drama set to music where the figure of Jesus (the young man in white) protects and saves a young woman who has been attacked by an increasingly-violent onslaught of diabolical figures.

The young man portraying Jesus was Caucasian, as was the teen girl in the central role. What drew my attention and alarm were the supporting characters, the black figures on the side. They were not only dressed in dark clothes; at least three of the eight teens were minorities, black and Asian. When I watched the YouTube video of the "Everything" skit, I noticed the same thing: the man portraying Jesus was white, the young woman was white, and most of the devilish figures were minorities.

I wondered how the black, Asian, and Latino teens were feeling watching the drama unfold before them. If I was new to Christianity and watching this skit, I might think that the gospel message involved a white Jesus saving me from the sinful clutches of people with brown skin. Y'know, Jesus will rescue you from the hell of ever having to date a black man or hang out with an Asian girl. Is this the best way to communicate the gospel to young people?

--

When I was a youth pastor in the suburbs of British Columbia, I spent a significant amount of time on the campus of one of the largest high schools in the Vancouver area. I would walk the halls during lunch time, saying hi to the teens in my youth group and making new relational connections through the community youth workers who were devoted to serving the campus. The school was a vast maze of hallways, with scores of young people lining the passages in social clusters, eating their lunch and filling the air with laughter and chatter.

The greater Vancouver area is a multi-cultural mosaic. Many of the cities have a larger primarily Asian or Indian population than white/Caucasian, and the Hispanic population is rapidly increasing. As I walked around the high school hallways, I noticed the plethora of cultures and languages represented. Yet our large suburban youth group remained primarily white. (We did have one Asian adult volunteer and a high schooler from Honduras, both who were often mistaken as Mexican.) I wondered what a multicultural church would truly look like, and if our church demographic was in alignment with our surrounding neighborhood and culture. How does the church embrace and embody its surrounding racial diversity?

--

A friend from Uganda told me a story about how a group of Americans on a short-term mission trip handed out color gospel bracelets to the children in his village. The bracelets are an evangelism tool commonly used in evangelical circles in order to cross cultural boundaries in order to share the gospel.

The black bead stands for sin, the red bead represents Christ's blood, the white bead is forgiveness and salvation, the blue bead is baptism, the green is growth in Christ, and the yellow is the golden roads of Heaven. My Ugandan friend told me that the Africans accepted the bracelets from the Americans with propriety, though they weren't really that interested in having a cheap bracelet with such few colors.

After the Americans left, the Ugandans talked about how the Americans said black represented sin and death, and how white represented salvation. Black is sinful and wrong; white is Christlike and holy. They wondered aloud about the Christian gospel message. Where was any good news in this?
--

This past summer, I took a month-long job teaching English literature to incoming Latino freshman at a high school in Gresham, OR. (Read more about that experience here.) The program was aimed primarily at helping Latino students grow academically and mature in their understanding of Latino culture and heritage. One of my students had moved from Mexico only a few weeks prior to the course and was adjusting to life in a new country. Another student, a charismatic Cuban young man, was still learning to speak English; he read the Y.A. novel I assigned in a Spanish translation.

The students were very willing to share their stories, opinions, and experiences with me, especially around the subject of race in America. They had all sorts of perspectives on Donald Trump's campaign, El Chapo's prison escape, immigration policies, fighting Russian gangs, growing up as a Latino in Portland, and soccer players they liked (they loved soccer). They'd often shift into speaking Spanish around me, unaware of my ability to understand much of what they were saying. They talked about their school experiences with teachers who treated them differently than other races, and seemed more comfortable in this environment where they could be fully themselves. They were the majority; I was the minority. A few students shared about their relatives who were undocumented immigrants. I wondered how many of the teens before me worried about deportation, racial profiling, or systemic racism. What would good news look like for Latino teens in east Portland?

--

I once read a helpful book called Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church, by Soong-Chan Rah, a professor in the Chicago area. Rah describes the need for cultural intelligence as vital for the church's gospel presence in our ever-diversifying culture, where white folks will be the minority in America by 2050. Cultural intelligence is the capacity to understand, empathize, and work with people across a variety of cultures. It is fostering a cultural awareness, noticing the differences between people and cultures, and recognizing one's own biases and racial missteps.

I imagine the youth pastor who introduced the Lifehouse skit wouldn't consider himself a racist, but the drama on the stage showed a lack of cultural intelligence when it placed minorities in those positions. What would it look like if a black or Asian or Latino or Middle Eastern teenager was in the role of Jesus next time? How might that better communicate the gospel to others?

I imagine the Americans sharing beaded bracelets in Uganda weren't intending to offend or send a message of racial superiority or remind Ugandans of Western colonialism. But, they did. Good intentions don't always equal loving actions. How can we teach young people to be on mission with cultural awareness and a sense of humility?

I imagine the few Asian, black, and Hispanic teenagers that dot the populations of mostly-white suburban youth groups across North America are very self-aware of their race, and quietly do their best to fit in with the rest of the group. I also imagine many of the mostly-white youth workers and teens in these contexts are unaware of any racial issues. This is the nature of racial privilege--it means we don't even have to be aware of or worry about racial tension or cultural intelligence, because we're the majority ethnicity in the room. What would it look like if youth workers were on the front lines of the racial divides and actively pursuing creating the multi-cultural kingdom environments we see in places like Isaiah 60 and Revelation 22?

I'm asking myself: How can I be aware and sensitive of my own whiteness as I disciple a diverse population of young people in the name of Jesus?

In youth ministry and the American evangelical church, we need to be aware of unintentional cultural messages we may be sending which are antithetical to the gospel we hope to communicate, lest we dilute the good news of Jesus with bad news of racial and cultural ignorance.

Photo Credit: Frerieke (Creative Commons)

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

New: A Mayward Life Update


So much has happened in my life and with our family over the past few months, it's hard to even keep up with it all. The emotional ups and downs of recent days have been significant, and I am trying to keep up with Jesus as we follow him into new territory. I am discovering that the horizon looks different than it did a year ago. Things have changed.

All things are new.

Fresh. Different. Recent. Revived.

With so much newness, I want to give you a glimpse into what God has been up to in our lives, some snapshots of the new.

A New School: I've been a full-time student at George Fox Evangelical Seminary since this past January, and it's been deeply enriching, challenging, and life-giving to be in such a diverse Christian learning community. I anticipate graduating with my Master of Arts in Theological Studies in 2017, then go on to pursue a PhD in the realm of theology and religious studies. (More on that PhD stuff later).

A New Book: My third book, Jesus Goes to the Movies: The Youth Ministry Film Guide, released this past August. Releasing a book feels akin to giving birth, in a less-messy sort of way. It is giving life and independence to a creative initiative, the final result of so many months of dreaming, writing, editing, re-writing, freaking out, and finally sending it into the world. A culmination of the past decade of youth ministry and movie-watching, the book is an accessible practical theological of film and its many connections with the minds and hearts of young people. If you like movies or are involved in youth ministry, this book is for you.

A New Ministry Role: Starting this next week, I will be the interim High School Director at Lake Grove Presbyterian Church in Lake Oswego. After a 4-week speaking series with their high school group in May, I now find myself in the place of shepherding and guiding the high school teens through a season of transition this school year as their former high school director (a great, long-time friend) moved into a new role at a new church. I look forward to being back in a youth ministry role, pacing alongside teens in their journey with Christ and guiding them into the ways of the kingdom of God. The role is a temporary one. While I am still incredibly passionate about youth ministry, there is a new vocational direction I'm headed...

A New Vocation and Church Plant: After nearly two years of prayer, wrestling, conversation, questions, research, dreaming, and more prayer, I am taking steps towards church planting. We want to plant a church in the heart of inner Southeast Portland, embedding gospel roots in the deep reaches of the Sellwood, Moreland, and Woodstock neighborhoods. When folks ask me "why?" my answer feels almost childlike in its simplicity: "Because people in SE Portland don't know Jesus yet." While there has been a significant growth of gospel-centered churches in the greater Portland area over the past decade, these particular SE neighborhoods remain largely untouched by localized church communities. I think Jesus wants us to join him in those neighborhoods in being and sharing good news. Portland has changed so much since we left it 8 years ago to move to Arizona. Keeping with my theme, it's a whole new city. But my love for this city--and this region of the city in SE--has only grown over those 8 years, and I am eager to see how God will work in and through a new church community embodying his gospel in SE Portland. (I'll share more on church planting in future posts. Keep our family and the church plant in your prayers, as we have only just begun the journey.)

A New Heart: Our son, Alister, was diagnosed with a serious heart condition only a few weeks after he was born. It's news no parent wants to receive, and when we heard his heart was failing, I was grieved. We endured for a few months as he grew bigger and stronger, watching his heart closely to see what might happen. About a month ago, he had heart surgery; the doctors opened up his chest and, simply put, fixed his heart. We have noticed the difference in his energy and demeanor already. We have a reinvigorated, energetic, delightful little boy with the cutest expressions and the scar on his chest as a permanent reminder of his ordeal. We are also deeply overwhelmed and grateful for the love and prayers sent our way during this difficult season. We've been so encouraged by emails, text messages, Facebook comments, and the prayerful presence of friends and family.

A New Hope: Not Star Wars Episode IV. Even better. Our son has a new heart, yet I think my heart has also been made new. In the fall of 2014, one year ago, I was at the lowest point in a season of burnout, unsure if there was anything good on the horizon of my life. Through the past year, I've been in a process of healing and resurrection, and now better understand and love myself and the God who created me. The horizon is brimming with hope, and I eagerly anticipate the future with a renewed sense of calling and passion.

I recall sitting in the office of a seminary professor this past year, asking him if there was any hope beyond the burnout. He said this, "You need to know, Joel, there is hope; but it will require death…the death of your pride, the death of your plans. It will require the death of your current concept of Jesus; but there is resurrection, so there is hope! The new, resurrected you will be more whole and more real. Jesus is not done with you yet."

Jesus is not done with me yet. He's not done with you either. He once said, "I am making all things new." I think he meant it.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

12 Great Films About Christianity

There is a film genre commonly known as the "Christian movie," or faith-based film. It's a genre both beloved by its followers and ridiculed by its critics, known for its heavy-handed messages, saccharine sentimentality, mediocre production value, and troubling theology. I explored the theology behind Christian films in this essay.

Thankfully, there are films that do live up to the moniker of "Christian movie" in that they exhibit the truth and beauty of Christ. These films wonderfully communicate the nature of what it means to be a Christian, the theology of Christian spirituality, and the ups and downs of true discipleship, all in a well-crafted cinematic experience. If someone was investigating or exploring Christianity, and they wanted to watch a movie about the Christian faith, these are some of the films I'd watch with them. Or, if a disciple of Jesus wanted to watch an artistic portrayal of the faith as a source of encouragement and inspiration in their pursuit of Christ, these films would certainly fit the bill. (For an exploration of great films exploring spirituality, check out the Arts and Faith Top 100 Spiritually Significant Films list.)

Here are twelve great films about Christianity. These would not fall under the specific genre of "Christian movies," but certainly embody and explore Christian spirituality, theology, history, and practice. Some are made by Christian filmmakers; others are not. Some are overt in their approach to Christian values; others are more subtle or mysterious in nature. Yet every film reveals the nature of Christianity in its own unique way, as well as being remarkable and well-crafted. Listed in alphabetical order:


A Man for All Seasons (1966, Zinnemann). What is a man to do when one's vocation and personal convictions collide? It's a timely question in light of recent political upheavals and outcry about the nature of marriage, abortion, immigration, health care, and other social justice issues in our nation and world. Frank Zinnemann's excellent adaptation of the play by Robert Bolt examines this question through the story of Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield), a devout Catholic and man of integrity who refused to support the divorce of King Henry VIII, ultimately costing him his career and his life. The Best Picture-winning film features a smart, thrilling script and a phenomenal performance from Scofield as a man wrestling with his conscience and duty.


Babette's Feast (1987, Axel)Two devout religious sisters living in an isolated village in 19th century Denmark take in a French refugee, Babette, as their new housekeeper. When Babette unexpectedly wins the French lottery, she does something for the village they never expected--she throws them a huge banquet with lavish ingredients and exemplary dishes. The sisters and villagers, who live strictly religious lives in an attempt to overcome their own hypocrisy and temptations, ultimately succumb to the radical grace embodied by Babette. Babette's Feast invites viewers to see the remarkable grace of God that goes beyond any religious moralism or duty.


Chariots of Fire (1981, Hudson). A film about friendship, courage, and faith, Chariots of Fire focuses on two British athletes in the 1924 Olympics, one a Jew and the other a devout Christian. Recognized for its synth soundtrack by Vangelis, Chariots explores the meaning of vocation and personal conviction as runner Eric Liddell struggles to reconcile being an athlete with his Christian beliefs, summarized in this quote: "I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure."


The Decalogue (1989, Kieslowski). A ten-part series of films originally made for Polish television, Kieslowski's magnum opus is loosely inspired by the Ten Commandments set in a modern-day perspective. Each one-hour episode explores the spiritual and moral dilemma of characters living in or around a particular neighborhood in Warsaw, Poland. Stark and melancholy, The Decalogue invites viewers to wrestle with their own ethical worldview in light of the characters' actions and choices. Roger Ebert listed The Decalogue as one of his all-time favorite films, and it's certainly worth exploring.


Of Gods and Men (2011, Beauvois)Quiet, solemn, and contemplative, my viewing of this film offered one of the more profound spiritual experiences I've had in recent history. Based on a true story about the kidnapping and execution of eight Trappist monks in Algeria, the film focuses less on the abduction and far more on the spiritual lives of these men. In the midst of Islamic unrest and the rising violence of terrorist groups, these French monks chose to stay in their monastery in a tiny Algerian village. They could have fled the country. They could have had military protection. But they didn't. They stayed. This film wants to explore why, and finds its answer in the Gospel(My review)


The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964, Pasolini). Jesus was an unexpected, unconventional Savior, and Pasolini's entire endeavor defies common Christian expectations. An atheist, a Marxist, and openly gay, Pasolini also directed the revolting erotic horror film Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, a film banned in numerous countries. He seems like the least likely person to create an artistic and honoring portrayal of the life of Christ. Yet his reverence for the person of Jesus shines through in every scene. Shot in black-and-white and spoken in Italian, it forces the modern viewer to drop any preconceived Western notions of Jesus and rethink one's own conception of the Christ. (My review)


Into Great Silence (2005, Groning). A three-hour documentary about Carthusian monks silently praying requires serious discipline and intentionality to endure. But that's exactly the point. These monks are so enraptured with God, so in tune with His presence, so eager to hear from Him and recognize His voice, that they live in complete silence for much of their lives. The intimate, delicate film is nearly silent itself, using only natural lighting and no soundtrack in order to document the rhythm of life for these monks. The beautiful surprise: these monks are not boring or dull or dreary, but are joyful and light-hearted men, transformed by their experiences with Christ. This is a true and beautiful Christian movie about prayer.


The Miracle Maker (2000, Hayes, Sokolov). A British claymation movie about the life of Christ, The Miracle Maker is delightful, entertaining, and inspirational in its approach. Jesus (voice by Ralph Fiennes) is both approachable and powerful, embodying the nature of the human and divine in a manner rarely found in on-screen Christs. A composite of the four Gospel accounts, Miracle Maker is probably my personal favorite when it comes to Jesus films due to its accessibility and depth, making it a fantastic filmic introduction to the life of Christ for all ages.


Ordet (1955, Dreyer). Dreyer's films are parables of faith, and Ordet is exceptional in its exploration of Christian theology and the pragmatics of faith. Ordet tells the tale of Morten Borgen, a wealthy farmer with three son at varying levels of faith. One is an agnostic, rejecting the strict religious upbringing of his family. The second has gone bonkers from too much theological study--particularly in reading Kierkegaard, which feels like a theology joke from Dreyer--and now wanders around claiming to be Jesus. The youngest has remained faithful, but has disappointed his father by falling in love with a young woman whose family's Christian faith doesn't adhere to Borgen's rigid beliefs. Each man's faith is tested and transformed, leading to an affecting climactic ending. Beautifully shot and with a compelling script, Ordet explores the depths of the Christian faith with pathos, nuance, and grace.


The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928, Dreyer). This phenomenal, haunting silent film focuses on the martyrdom of Joan of Arc at the hands of the French religious elite. Often celebrated as one of the best acting performances of all time, Maria Falconetti as Joan the mystical saint is depicted in stark close-ups, her eyes and facial expressions conveying the myriad of emotions she experiences over the course of her trial. The parallels between Joan and Christ are striking, and Joan embodies what it means to be a martyr: a witness for Christ. Following Christ means taking up one's cross, and The Passion of Joan of Arc reveals this aspect of discipleship in all its agony and glory.


Selma (2014, DuVernay). The excellent biopic about Martin Luther King Jr, Selma portrays Christianity in the best possible light, offering a real-life example of people who are compelled by obedience to Christ to stand for justice and work diligently to love our neighbor, regardless of location or race. When King (David Oyelowo) calls for people who care about racial equality to come join him in Selma for the march, clergy of all types flock to the staging grounds, ready to walk alongside King and Christ for the movement of justice. Near the final act of the film, a worried security officer is worried that he cannot protect King if he chooses to walk into the Alabama capital. "Aren't you worried about your own safety?" he inquires. King's response is remarkable: turning aside and shot from over his shoulder as he looks through a dusty window, he replies, "I am not different than anyone else. But I must be obedient to God." His life is a compelling picture of vocational fidelity and commitment to doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.  (My review)


The Tree of Life (2011, Malick). An expansive, ambitious film that is both transcendent and intimate, much like the incarnate God embodied in Christ. Opening with a quote from the book of Job, the thesis of the film is clear: this is an exploration of the ways of nature and grace, the harsh realities of our world and the beautiful moments of love. The Tree of Life focuses on the memories and experiences of a family in Texas--the three boys, their mother and father--through episodic images, dreamlike and ethereal. Their story is set in contrast with the creation of the universe and the end of the present age, resulting in a resurrection and the new heavens and earth. Haunting voiceovers--prayers?--provide spiritual narration over the images, and the entire film is a symphonic hymn to the good Creator. I think I can admit this by now: The Tree of Life is my all-time favorite film, an imaginative, wondrous, divine cinematic experience.

What films would you add to the list? Share you favorite films about Christianity in the comments.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The "Faith" of Faith-Based Films: On Moralistic Therapeutic Deism in Christian Movies

Image from War Room (Affirm Films/Provident Films)
In light of the recent box office success of War Room, the Kendrick brothers' (Fireproof, Facing the Giants) latest faith-based film, I have a question I've been pondering. The vast majority of film critics, both Christian and non-Christian alike, have been quite negative about War Room; it currently sits at 36% on Rotten Tomatoes, and this critique in Christianity Today is one of the more positive reviews I've read...and it's not very positive at all. War Room's heavy-handed script, underlying misogyny, and unhealthy view of abusive marriages (just stay with your terrible husband and don't talk openly and honestly about your problems; simply hide in a closet and pray that he throws up while trying to cheat on you!) are all problematic, but particularly troubling is its theology. War Room portrays a Christianity of merit and moralism, i.e. if I pray hard enough, then God will bless me with good things. It's what I've called the "candy dispenser God." I put in the prayer, and he gives me the blessing, all in accordance to my quotient of faithfulness.

The thing is, when this faulty theology is confronted or when Christian film critics and pastors offer a thoughtful critique of the film, the response often seems to be, "Well, you're wrong. The movie made me feel great, and I feel encouraged, even convicted to pray more. And who are you to speak judgmentally and negatively about other Christians and what God is trying to do through their work? God inspired me and changed my life through this movie. How dare you question that?"

Well, I dare question it. I think it's dangerous when we stop the questioning regarding our faith and our art. (It's equally dangerous when we only question and never come to any solid conclusions or ground our feet in good theology and relationship with the Creator). More importantly, it raises a larger question, one about the relationship between personal experience and sound theology:

If someone believes an experience to be good, and it inspires them to genuinely follow God more, does that make it true?

If I come to a personal conclusion that is ultimately good--at least in my eyes--does it really matter how I got there? Why criticize the process if the end result is beneficial? Perhaps the ends justify the means.

I've admittedly done this in reading the Bible. I've read passages and discerned God speaking to me through the words on the page, despite my knowledge that proper exegesis of the passage would not bring about the personal conclusions I was contemplating. Yet this personalized reading of Scripture still prompted me to be more faithful in my apprenticeship with Jesus and pursuit of his kingdom. Surely that's a good thing. So when someone believes their prayer life is improved after watching this film, who am I to judge?

Another example: if I feel inspired to evangelize by texting all of my friends "God's Not Dead"--a tactic openly encouraged in the final moments of last year's faith-based hit of the same name--and someone actually chooses to believe Jesus through this (obscure, confusing, intrusive, ineffective) method, isn't that something worth celebrating? Who cares how it happens, as long as it happens?

What if I'm feeling good about a film precisely because it is designed to manipulate my emotions? What if the belief system a film promotes is almost, but not quite, Christianity? What if my own personal faith is less like the Christianity inspired by Jesus and more like an American subculture inspired by American values and marketing tactics?

I am concerned films like God's Not Dead and War Room are inspiring folks to pursue a Christianity that doesn't correspond to the same values of Jesus. The more of these Christian films I watch and review, the less I see the spiritual life described in the Bible. Instead of a true Christianity, I'm convinced many of these films promote a Christian flavored Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD), a particularly American version of Christianity, whose tenets are summarized as such:
  1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself. Experiencing significant pain, suffering, or sadness is likely due to a distance from God and not behaving as faithfully as one should.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life except when God is needed to resolve a problem. He will intervene when called upon by good people in prayer.
  5. Good people--those who believe in God--go to heaven when they die.
According to the National Study of Youth and Religion, MTD is the most common religious/spiritual belief amongst American teenagers and young adults, and likely reflects the same beliefs of their parents. This "almost Christian" belief system is ubiquitous in the American church; as a pastor, I have seen and experienced its effects for the past decade.

These are faith-based films all right. But what faith are they promoting?

In this genre of film, most or all of the Christians turn out happy, healthy, and smiling by the film's conclusion. The non-believers often are killed, jailed, or otherwise come to a painful end. This narrative structure aligns with Moralistic Therapeutic Deism's soteriology--good people are blessed and happy, while non-believing bad people experience suffering. The audience response, "It made me feel good!" certainly rings with MTD's belief system. Of course it makes you feel good! That's what God is meant to do for us. And you know something is true and beautiful if it's always positive and uplifting.

Not only do these films make you feel good, they give you clear, practical instruction on how you are to behave in response to the film, a behavioral practice that is guaranteed to make your life happier and better. For War Room, it's "make a plan to pray more." For God's Not Dead, it's "text everyone about God now." These behavioral prompts are like the application points to a sermon, given a simplicity and an immediacy that makes for an easy discipleship. Having one's lifestyle and practices be changed by a film isn't wrong or bad--my own life has been significantly transformed by a few key moments in film--but faith-based films are more overt and didactic in their approach, and directly connect audience's response with their Christian faithfulness, i.e. good Christians will do what this film says. It's the filmic form of those Facebook memes prompting you to share a photo or Bible verse with all your friends, where the implications are clear: if you don't share, then you're not being true to Jesus.

I imagine the recent box office success of War Room will be celebrated as a victory for God's kingdom, because in the paradigm of MTD, any sort of financial gain would obviously be considered a good thing and a clear answer to prayer. God rewards and blesses those who are faithful and obedient, right? MTD is also a very individualistic endeavor; there is nothing in its central tenets about the need for community or accountability. My faith is my faith, and who are you to question how I think and feel about God? This corresponds to my original question above about personal experience; it doesn't much matter if it's the true God as found in Jesus, as long as I'm a good person and happy and don't bother anyone else. After all, being a Christian is best summarized as being nice in the name of Jesus, right?

At best, the filmmakers are ignorant of their filmic campaign for a false gospel of MTD, likely because they too have succumb to its pervasiveness in our culture. At worst, the filmmakers are keen marketers and moneymakers who have discovered an evangelical subculture all too willing to throw their money towards these well-marketed echo chambers that will keep MTD alive and well in the American church. 

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is almost Christian, just enough that many of us may not even recognize the difference in ourselves. The response of "I liked it, so stop critiquing it" may be an indicator that our faith is placed in something less than the death-and-resurrection power found in Jesus and the reign of his kingdom values in our world. Jesus doesn't invite us to be nice so that everything works out to make us happy. He bids us to come and die, to live a life of sacrificial love, compassion, justice, and mercy. Prayer is not meant to fix all my problems or get me things I want; it is intended as a means of holistic transformation in the relational context of conversation and presence with the Divine. Evangelism cannot be summed up in a text message or an invitation to a poorly-made movie; sharing the good news requires my whole life, demonstrating the radical love and grace of Jesus for my neighbor as genuinely good news. Critiques of my beliefs and opinions and character are not bad or divisive; they are necessary aspects of Christian community as we spur one another on toward love and good deeds.

In true Christianity, there is room for difference and grace. I am not saying that we cannot have differing opinions on films, or that the subculture of evangelical Christianity cannot have its own art and stories to celebrate. This is not the cynical rant of someone who believes Christians incapable of making good art, but as someone who believes we can--and should--make art that resonates with the truth and beauty found in Christ. I am concerned as a pastor and a film critic because it's not just that these films aren't that good, it's that they seem to advocate for a less-than-true form of Christianity. And audiences are buying it, both literally and spiritually. I'd rather see viewers seek out Paul Harrill's Something, Anything or Joshua Overbay's As It Is in Heaven, two recent films that are far more challenging to watch than most faith-based films, but have greater spiritual dividends. When it comes to faith-based films, let's be cautious about the underlying faith these films ultimately promote. It's almost Christian. When it comes to finding meaning, purpose, and reality, "almost" may not be enough.


Update: The film As It is in Heaven I recommend in the final paragraph is Joshua Overbay's 2014 film available on Hulu Plus or Amazon Prime; it is about a pseudo-Christian doomsday cult. It is *NOT* this 2004 Swedish film currently streaming on Netflix with the exact same name. The link I provided above will take you directly to Overbay's film on Hulu. Please approach any film-watching experience with wisdom, discernment, caution, and grace.

If you'd like a resource for growing as a wise and discerning movie watcher, check out my book, Jesus Goes to the Movies.

Friday, September 4, 2015

8 Questions to Ask Before Leaving a Ministry


I recently left a ministry role at a church. It wasn't an easy or simple decision to make, but it's also not the first time I've stepped away from a ministry. In volunteer and paid ministry roles, I've served at five different churches, meaning I've had to leave a church on five occasions. Each time has been incredibly difficult and emotionally taxing, but each time has also led to new relationships, opportunities, and lessons God had in store. Over the last decade, I've also had numerous ministry friends go through transitions into new roles, usually in locations and positions they probably next expected. Sometimes it was a healthy move; other times it proved to be a painful decision.

If you choose to enter full-time ministry as your vocation, you'll eventually have to face this question: should I stay or should I go?

It could be due to all sorts of factors--a new job offer, a family crisis, lack of chemistry in the current ministry, serious conflicts with boss or co-workers, or it just feels like "it's time."

How do you know when to leave a ministry position and when to stick it through? Do you need to move on to something else, or should you remain faithful where you are? It can be difficult to discern what you need to do and what questions to ask.

Here are 8 questions to ask yourself before deciding whether or not to leave a ministry position:

1. How is your relationship with Christ? Are you sure you're hearing him, or just your own inclinations and desires? What have your recent prayer conversations with God been like? What passages of Scripture has he been guiding you to read and contemplate? Is there any underlying sin in your life that requires confession and repentance? Are you in tune with the Holy Spirit?

2. What are your motives? Fear? Frustration? Financial burdens? Desire for greener pastures? A new vocational direction? To be closer to family or friends? Has something drastic or painful happened recently? Being honest and clear about your motives--all of them, good, bad, and ugly--will help in the discernment process.

3. Have you been led somewhere new? Has God pointed you in a different direction, opened up a new role or church, or given you a vision for the next season? Are you headed in a clear direction, or is there just a sense that you need to stop what you're presently doing?

4. Have you been released from where you are? Has God given you a sense of peace when it comes to leaving your current ministry? Or is there a lingering sense that you need to stay there, even when it's difficult or counterintuitive?

5. How well is your fit? Are your values and the church's/other leaders/elders values and mission in alignment? If they're not, even every so slightly, you'll find yourselves headed in different directions and drifting from each other, creating long-term frustration. What needs to change in your own habits, desires, and passions in order to find alignment?

6. What is God telling your trusted community? Your spouse, your mentors, your faithful Christ-following friends who know you best--what do they think of your decision? If they bring up a number of red flags or concerns, those are worth paying attention to. Especially listen to your spouse--you should be making this decision together, and only with whole-hearted unity. I highly recommend the clearness committee, a Quaker discernment process for making big decisions.

7. What is the healthiest choice for your self, your family, and your long-term vocational goals (in that order)? Maybe the ministry position seems like a great fit with good pay and lots of opportunities, but your children hate the church. Maybe your spouse has found great friends in the community, but your soul is being drained by the ministry role you're in. Maybe you and your family love the neighborhood, but you'll never fulfill the ministry call God has given you in that position or community. My friend Brian Berry wrote this in his excellent book, As For Me and My Crazy House:
  • The best gift you can give your marriage is a healthy self.
  • The best gift you can give your family is a healthy marriage.
  • The best gift you can give your community and ministry is a healthy family.
Care for your own soul so that you can serve faithfully for the long haul. Even if you're single or don't have children, the above still applies--love others well out of a healthy self.
8. What was the last clear direction God gave you? When I was discerning whether or not to step away from my position in my last church, I made two lists. The first was a list of the things God was clearly guiding me to do--and when I say "clearly" I mean, I can't shake this thought and feeling, others keep affirming this direction, my readings in Scripture seem to point this way, and I feel like I would be acting in disobedience to *not* act accordingly. Clarity doesn't always mean absolute surety or absence of doubt, but it does mean that there's a strong sense of God's will in the matter. This first list is typically quite short; for me, it was only three brief sentences. The second list includes all your dreams, hopes, options, and intuitions about what God might be up to (emphasis on might). This list was much longer--about 15-20 items--but they were all just prayerful hunches and conjecture. I had to go back to the first, clearer list: what was God prompting me to do, and was I willing to obey?

More than anything, Jesus's prayer in Gethsemane applies here: "Not my will but Yours be done." Find alignment with God's desires and relinquish your own plans to His good, pleasing, and perfect will. The decision to leave a ministry is always a struggle, but it's also an opportunity to draw nearer to the heart of Christ.

Which question resonated with you the most? What questions would you add to the list?

Monday, August 31, 2015

Do Not Worry About Your Life


Do not worry about your life.

Easier said than done, Jesus.

I think "do not worry" is the most difficult command in Scripture to follow.

I found myself half-sitting on an uncomfortably stiff mattress underneath the stark glow of the fluorescent lights of the ER. This unexpected visit was prompted by the sudden dizziness and numbness accompanying a lingering chest pain I'd been experiencing over the weekend. If you Google the signs of a heart attack--an exercise almost certain to cause personal alarm--my symptoms fit the description well enough. Except I'm 30 years old with zero history of heart anything. After hours of tests and waiting, the doctors told me what I wanted to hear: your heart is fine. A clean bill of health. Maybe some acid reflux? Take a Pepcid.

Then a nurse asked a question: Have you been stressed lately? Are you sleeping okay?

Yes. No.

I suppose in some ways I'm not as stressed as I was 9 months ago in the midst of burnout. I've experienced a significant amount of healing and joy, and a renewed sense of where God is leading our family. But this season hasn't been without its stressors. Most recently, our 5-month-old son was diagnosed with congenital heart disease soon after his birth, and this past weekend had open heart surgery to patch the holes and scrape out the extra tissue buildup in his tiny heart. He is recovering well, but the six hours during his surgery, filled with pacing and prayers and tears, were some of the most difficult and stressful of my entire life. My boy's heart was stopped and hooked up to a machine to keep him alive while skilled surgeons cut and stitched inside his chest cavity. My own chest has carried this lingering hurt--empathy pains?--and my two oldest children are under my care as my resilient and confident wife beautifully cares for our recovering son.

So, yes. I have been stressed. I have not been sleeping well. What parent of three kids, ages 6 and 3 and 5 months, is getting adequate sleep?

I am stressed. But in this stress I am learning to pray.

--

I was reading Kenneth Morefield's analysis and critique of the faith-based film industry in light of the recent release of War Room, the latest movie from the Kendricks (Facing the Giants, Fireproof). The film's thesis seems to be this: "prayer is good." Which is true. But it doesn't account for the methodology and motives behind the prayers. Much of the prayer in the film seems to be directly addressed to Satan (!) as a spiritual combative tactic, and prayer does appear to fix all the character's problems (which are minor flirtations or temptations and a somewhat strained marriage). As Morefield observes, the wife's practice of prayer for her husband "...sees him not so much as a man emboldened and encouraged through prayer but as the prize given to Elizabeth when she pulls the prayer lever." She prays in her special prayer room--a luxury most Christians, myself included, cannot afford--and gets exactly what she wants. There seems to be little suffering or waiting involved, and any sort of prolonged agonizing can be easily reduced to a montage.

I contrast this sort of prayer--self-preserving, individualistic, moralistic, easy--with the vast number of people who have been praying for our son and our family during this surgery and recovery. The prayers are genuine, communal, petitionary, and hopeful. I have been overwhelmed by the amount of people who are praying for us all over the world, and the genuine gift of social media in moments such as these. These are life-and-death prayers practiced as the community of believers comes around a family as spiritual support. This is proactive waiting, listening for God's voice in the midst of the stress, clinging to the reminder of His kingdom reality in the midst of our personal suffering. It's praying with gumption and gusto, with tears and trembling, with deep groans and sighs and wonder. There is no "war room" here because all of creation resonates with God's good presence, and I know He listens while I cry in the car or wander the hospital halls or attempt to calm my daughter during our bedtime routine or as I sip coffee in the stillness of the grey mornings.

Perhaps all prayer isn't created equally. Perhaps there are better, healthier, more life-giving and genuine ways to pray.

--

When Jesus says, "do not worry," I have to imagine his tone.

If he is commanding me with a gruff and angry "Suck it up! Be a man!" with tinges of disgust, then this is not very helpful to my situation. I don't think Jesus tells us "don't worry" in the manner of a bullying drill sergeant, trying to get us to toughen up and push down any pain or fear. This is shaming, but it often can be how we imagine God's heart towards us, always disappointed that we didn't trust Him more.

Neither is Jesus's tone a cheery, saccharine, everything-is-awesome buoyancy. This isn't the false optimism and plastic smile of that one lady--you know the one--in the church lobby on a Sunday morning. This is not high-fives and hugs Jesus, pretending that our genuine worries are better off ignored, covered up by a mask of optimism.

I hear Christ's exhortation with the tone of humble confidence. He knows we stress and worry and suffer. He experienced the same in the garden of Gethsemane and on his way to the cross. But his command of "do not worry" is likely in the same tone as "not my will, but yours be done." An act of surrender, a hopeful obedience, a determination to trust.

Do not worry. I don't think it's by mistake that these words closely follow Jesus's teachings on prayer, to pray that the kingdom would come and God's will would be done, that our daily bread would be provided as we forgive and are forgiven. I am learning that stress and worry may not completely disappear on this side of heaven, but there is genuine hope and peace to be found in the prayers of the saints.

The prayer I have been clinging to in this season of stress and hospital visits and sleepless nights is one I think every parent will find comforting. To be calmed and quieted like a child with its mother is an image that brings hope and joy in the midst of stress. To be content, to be humble, to be hopeful in the Lord--this is my prayer in moments of stress. Psalm 131, a prayer of ascents:

My heart is not proud, Lord,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.
But I have calmed and quieted myself,
I am like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child I am content.
Israel, put your hope in the Lord
both now and forevermore.