Saturday, January 17, 2015

American Sniper

In an early scene from American Sniper, a young Chris Kyle receives some wisdom from his strict father: in this world, there are three kinds of people--wolves, sheep, and sheepdogs. He makes it very clear that there is no room for wolves or sheep in the Kyle family. Instead of humility or power, the primary value for the Kyles is one of protection. You defend your own. It's a value Chris will carry into adulthood as a Navy SEAL sniper in the Iraq war, defending his fellow military brethren through the estimated 160+ kills he inflicts upon the enemy.

American Sniper portrays Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) as a real-life version of G.I. Joe, "a real American hero." This heroism is due to his excellent sniper skills and seeming invincibility, earning him the title of "Legend" among the troops and a sort of celebrity status both with his peers and the Iraqi enemy. It's certainly a remarkable skill, as Chris is able to make difficult life-and-death decisions with a collected composure, breathing slowly and pulling the trigger with confidence. His first kills are a mother and son about to toss a grenade at a convoy, but this doesn't seem to bother him much. There are no scenes of haunted dreams or of emotional turmoil; Chris tucks any pain inside himself, only revealing it in a few brief (though cathartic) moments where tears well up in his eyes. He's a real cowboy, an American hero. And real cowboys don't cry.

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.

To ask questions about life and death, faith and God, morality and sin--those are irrelevant to the task at hand, which is to defend America and kill the enemy. For Chris, protecting his own is the prime objective, and it's the excuse he gives Taya when he's physically absent in Iraq and emotionally absent back home. He's protecting her, and that's that. When the mission is over, then he'll come home. So it's interesting in a final battle where Chris is escaping from incoming Iraqi troops, the three objects left behind in the dust are his helmet, his sniper rifle, and his Bible. What's to make of this image? Perhaps for Chris--and for many Americans--these objects are intertwined, vital weapons in the war before us which are deemed unnecessary when there isn't a conflict in need of our defense.

I don't want to critique American Sniper based on political leanings. To some degree, liberalism or conservatism don't matter. A well-made film deserves its awards and merits, and a poorly crafted film earns its appraisal. This is a mediocre war movie with strange editing choices, abrupt and jarring pacing, and a good-but-not-great performance from Bradley Cooper in the titular role. Secondary characters aren't given much to work with--Sienna Miller as Taya spends most of her scenes crying and complaining while Chris silently stares. When contemporary war films like Fury, The Hurt Locker, and Letters from Iwo Jima (a superior Clint Eastwood-directed war film) offer gut-wrenching portrayals of military life, brilliant performances and aesthetics, and manage to ask thoughtful spiritual questions about the nature of human depravity, I can't help but wonder why American Sniper is being so highly lauded, despite its flaws. Maybe we're unsure about who the real American heroes are these days. In a world filled with wolves and sheep, maybe we need a few more sheepdogs.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Mayward Oscars

The 2015 Oscar nominees have been announced, and as usual, it has people in distress. You can read the whole list of nominees here. The snubs and surprises, plenty of predictions, and lots of online chatter, all for an awards ceremony that doesn't necessarily highlight the actual *best* films and filmmakers of the past year (you can read my top 10 favorite films of 2014 here)

I have a love/hate relationship with Oscar. I recognize that the awards are akin to a high school student government race. You vote for your friends or the most popular people, the ones who have played their political cards right and charmed the crowds of voters. There are the usual guarantees--does Meryl Streep really deserve another nomination this year?--and the worthy films that were generally ignored despite their merits--The ImmigrantSelma and The LEGO Movie in particular. It's all a big elaborate display of religious idolatry; they even use golden statues! Yet, like so many, I still find myself drawn to the spectacle if only to see whether my personal favorites will be recognized for their achievements. And the hosts can be funny.

If I could created my own version of the Oscars, here are the winners of the Mayward Oscars (Note: there is some align with the Oscar nominees, but many films and categories here aren't included in the actual Academy Awards):

Best Picture: Selma

Best Director: Richard Linklater (Boyhood)

Best Actor: David Oyelowo (Selma)

Best Actress: Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night / The Immigrant)

Best Supporting Actor: J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)

Best Supporting Actress: Tilda Swinton (Snowpiercer / Only Lovers Left Alive)

Best Original Screenplay: Whiplash

Best Adapted Screenplay: Guardians of the Galaxy

Best Foreign Film: Two Days, One Night

Best Animated Film: The LEGO Movie

Best Documentary: The Overnighters

Best Superhero Film: X-Men: Days of Future Past

Best Film I Didn't Really Understand: Horse Money

Best Horror Film: The Babadook

Best Biblical Film: Noah

Best Christian Film: Selma

Best Coming-of-Age Film: Ida

Best Performance by Batman: The LEGO Movie

What were your favorite films of the past year? What were your Oscar snubs and surprises?

Friday, January 9, 2015

Movie Review: Selma

One day / when the glory comes / it will be ours / it will be ours
One day / when the war is won / we will be sure / we will be sure
Glory. Glory. Glory. Glory.

Selma is the gripping biography of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This is how biopics are best told--intimate, personal, affecting, a behind-the-scenes dirt-and-all look at an important icon in American history without pandering to hero-worship or scornful criticism. Rather than attempt a sweeping story of King's entire life, Selma focuses on a particular moment in his life: the fight for voting rights for the black community and the subsequent demonstration and march from Selma, Alabama to the capital of Montgomery. Selma devotes all its energy to the actions and characters within this short period of time, and its better for it. This choice in storytelling allows for a focused narrative and increased depth in the characters--we are given an "inch wide and mile deep" instead of a "mile wide and inch deep."

So many scenes from Selma are etched in my mind: the startling opening scene with four little girls in a church; the 84-year-old grandfather crying over the death of his grandson; the intimate kitchen conversations between Martin and Coretta, especially when she asks him if he truly loves her; the Edmund Pettus bridge leading out of Selma and the battles waged upon it; the heated argument between president Lyndon Johnson and Alabama governor George Wallace; the speeches King gives throughout the film, but especially in the finale. These scenes come together as a compelling and affecting narrative. Filmmaker Ava DuVernay uses just the right amount of sentimentality without becoming mawkish; the tone of the film is haunting, genuine, and inspiring, and its message feels weighty without being heavy-handed.

Oyelowo is simply extraordinary in his portrayal of the American icon. He wholly embodies the spirit of King, especially the speeches and preaching. There is a power behind his voice, and no wonder people were either passionate followers or outraged detractors. One couldn't hear King's words and remained unmoved or apathetic. My heart raced, my eyes wet with tears, and King/Oyelowo's pleas and exhortations washed over me like a baptism into a rolling stream of justice. And Selma doesn't even show the historic "I Have a Dream" speech or the compelling "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." It would be a challenge for an actor to take on a role like this, carrying the mantle of a man who dramatically changed the course of American history. Oyelowo's performance sits alongside Daniel Day-Lewis's portrayal of Abraham Lincoln or Ben Kingsley as Gandhi--exemplary acting honoring exemplary men. In Selma, he is both confident and humble, a leader of a movement but also an ordinary man who was in need of encouragement, as he had been fighting for civil rights for nearly a decade at this point. He's a human being, a husband struggling to maintain the health of his marriage, a father who misses his children, a friend, and a pastor driven by his obedience to Christ.

This latter point strikes me as significant--Selma is a "Christian" film in the best sense of that term. It doesn't edit out or avoid the impact of Jesus Christ on King's decisions. 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 calls for people who care about racial equality to come join them 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.

Selma is a powerful film, a haunting film, and an important film. It's a must-see for pastors in America as we look to examples like Dr. King to be our prophets and the voice for justice. This sounds painfully obvious, but it must be said: racism is still a significant problem in America, and the church has not always been at the forefront of standing for compassion and change. Selma reminds us that the church can be a healthy force of compassionate good, a promoter of human rights and social justice in our society. Striving for racial equality and freedom is often an uphill battle filled with casualties, but it's a battle worth dying for. Selma points us to the glory to come, a picture of hope in the darkness of racial tension and systemic injustice.

But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!
Amos 5:24

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

12 Things that Matter in Searching for a Church

Photo Credit: keeva999 (Creative Common)
I've moved from Washington to Oregon to Arizona to British Columbia, and I recently moved from Canada back to Washington. Every time I've moved,  I had a church where I was serving as a pastor. But in this latest move, it wasn't for a new pastoral role. I didn't have a job lined up.

I'm a pastor currently without a church. So, I have to find one.

It's important for me and my wife to find a church community sooner than later, both for our sake and for our kids. We want to be in community, to worship and follow Jesus with others, to build friendships and experience God's healing and grace through the church. But it's a new experience for us--we are free to pick whatever church we want! We are the visitors parking in the newcomer parking spot. We are the people who don't know how to check our kids in, who aren't sure where to sit, who haven't met people before.

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.

This church shopping thing feels a little bit like dating. It can be awkward and nervous for both parties, and you want to make a good impression and not be too judgmental, but you also want to be careful and not waste your time. As a pastor, I'm also learning a great deal about what I'd want to be aware of when leading a church in the future--I'm taking notes about what it feels like to be the newcomer and visitor!

As our family explores various churches in the Portland and Vancouver are, here are 12 things we think matter as we search for a great church.

1. The website. If your church website is confusing, annoying, or won't load, then you've lost me. If your church website is creative, simple, and clearly communicates information in an easy-to-navigate way, you have my attention. Out-of-date calendars, broken links, no "about us" page, no way to give financially online--these show signs of a lack of hospitality and an understanding of culture. A website is like the church's foyer for the millennial generation--it's a first impression, so make it count.

2. The signage. Great churches have clear signs. I'm new, so I don't know where to go. Where do I park? Where do I take my kids? Where should I sit? How can I find out more information? Who can I talk to about small groups or youth ministry or membership classes? Big, clear signs in aesthetically pleasing fonts are very helpful.

3. The language. Using clear inclusive language is so critical for new people. Explain terms, unpack basic ideas, and don't just using Christian-y language. Churches can quickly begin to use "insider" language for stuff, which is confusing (at best) and excluding (at worst). You say your church has "Life Groups." But my last church did too, and the church I visited last week had "missional communities." What's the difference? That sign next to that door says "Lambs' Club." What does that even mean? Is it for children? Adults? Sheepherders? Use simple, clear, gracious language.

4. Hospitality. The best greeters at the front door of a church building are those who are friendly and available without being clingy or creepy. No plastic smiles or awkwardness; just a simple "welcome here" and a proactive willingness to help those who seem a bit lost. In cold and flu season, I'm actually thankful for the greeters and congregant who don't offer a handshake. I'm also grateful for church buildings that have enough space to gather and have a conversation, moving beyond the small talk and really getting to know people better. Great coffee, clean bathrooms, and lack of clutter also makes a good impression. (The signage, website, and language are all evidence of good hospitality too!)

5. The worship. The language of the songs, the style of the music, the attitude and guidance of the pastor or worship leader, the quality of the sound, the response and participation of the church community. I won't go into too much detail here, as I hope the "worship wars" of the 1990s and 2000s are (mostly) over. Regardless of style or instruments, does the worship center on God and invite the community into giving Him glory? Does it allow for both joy and lament, excitement and contemplation, all without feeling like an emotional roller-coaster? Does worship promote justice and righteousness and a love of God and neighbor? Genuine worship is in spirit and in truth; it's more than just singing.

6. The preaching. Authenticity, clarity, a sense of preparation, winsome, humor, and a focus on the Scriptures and the Gospel are all good signs of healthy preaching. Preachers come in all shapes and sizes, with various styles and postures. What matters most is that they're able to keep me intellectually and emotionally engaged, making me examine my own life in light of the Gospel, inviting me to wrestle with the biblical text, and it all stems from a genuine pastoral heart. Here are 5 questions I ask before I preach; I ask the same ones after each sermon I hear.

7. Theology. I'll be honest--a church's theological position is usually not what I'm evaluating on my first visit. But if my own particular theological convictions don't find enough alignment with the pastors and leadership of the church, there may be a lack of compatibility. And that's okay. My theology is a work in progress. But I don't want to center myself and my family in a church community where we'll be continually bumping up against each other, as our theology informs our practices.

8. Potential friendship. I'm asking myself, could I be friends with these people? Are there people in this church community who are kindred spirits? I'm realizing more and more that a healthy church has people in it I would never choose to hang out with apart from our common love of Jesus. If my church has people in it who are all like me, there's something wrong. Even in the midst of diversity, are there friends and mentors for myself, my wife, and my children? It's hard to tell in one visit, as friendships are built on time and trust and shared experiences. But there is a mysterious chemistry and camaraderie that can occur very quickly between people, especially those God brings together for particular seasons.

9. Potential ministry opportunities. I'm in a season of vocational discernment, exploring what God has for me next as a pastor. I want to find a church where my family and I can serve in tangible ways that go beyond just helping run a program. Discipleship, serving the city, local and global justice initiatives--we want to give ourselves and use our gifts for the sake of others. I'm sure we could find a place to serve no matter where we end up, but there are some churches with more emphasis on serving and ministry than others.

10. Location. Even if the church is awesome, I'm probably not willing to drive more than 20 minutes to get there. Beyond 20 minutes, I'm unable to invite our neighbors to the church without it feeling like a hassle or inconvenience. We greatly value loving the city and neighborhood where God has planted us, so finding a church home nearby is vital. Those potential friendships will mature better in proximity, not if we're driving 45 minutes to hang out with new friends or join a small group.

11. My children. If my kids love the children's ministry and are stoked about following Jesus and being part of His church, I am willing to put aside my own desires and preferences for their benefit. Similarly, if everything about a church is awesome, but their children's ministry is confusing, has untrained staff, causes me or my wife anxiety, or my kids just can't stand it, we probably won't stay around very long. Churches with great systems and a fun culture in their children's ministry are very attractive for young families like ours. It makes a difference when a church has childcare for events and invites kids into the main service as a blessing and not an inconvenience.

12. The Gospel. If I can go through an entire service and not hear the good news about who Jesus is, what He's done for us on the cross, and the beautiful story of redemption, then it's not the church for me. I'm of the opinion that we need to preach Jesus in every sermon. One of my ministry values is the Gospel is everything. It all comes back to Jesus. If it doesn't, then it's not the church for me.

I'm in the process of church shopping, but I don't want to adopt a posture of consumerism. I want to be guided by the Holy Spirit, listening for his voice as we visit and evaluate and pray and visit again.

What would you add to the list? Share your own stories of church visits in the comments!

Monday, January 5, 2015

Movie Review: Whiplash

In high school, I once played the drums for a school pep assembly. We did The Who's "Baba O'Riley" and featured two of our teachers--one on vocals and one on a fiddle for the epic finale. During that finale, I did my best to channel Pete Moon's frenetic drumming style, slamming my sticks into toms and cymbals with such fervor that I didn't notice I had split open my knuckles on the metal rim of the floor tom. By the end of the song, my drums and I were covered in blood and sweat and glory. My 1960s green sparkle Ludwig drum kit still has some of the spatter.

Needless to say, I love drumming. I also love movies. Whiplash is a great film featuring drumming, but it's about so much more: discipline, passion, creativity, pedagogy, and the sacrifice of one's humanity for one's artistic endeavors.

Damien Chazelle's frenetic film opens with a long, slow shot of Andrew (Miles Teller) as he practices his rudiments. Slowly building in tempo, he pounds the sticks on the snare drum while the camera moves forward at a steady pace, keeping rhythm with the drumming. Steadily, Andrew picks up the tempo, sticks hitting the head with quicker rhythm, muscles taut with fervor. The drum roll builds and builds into a frenzy, only to be interrupted by the presence of Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) the renowned instructor at the elite New York music school where Andrew attends. Fletcher sizes up Andrew, asks him to play, then quickly disappears, leaving Andrew disappointed in his wake.

Without going too far into spoiler territory, I will say that the finale of Whiplash offers a powerful parallel moment between the two men as Andrew once again slows his drum roll to a near halt, only to pick up the tempo once more. This time, Fletcher is not going to walk out on Andrew. The stakes are much higher and the location isn't a practice room--it's a concert hall. The end of Whiplash is one of the more exhilarating moments I've had at the movies, with heart-pounding performances filled with rhythm and clash that rise to a riveting and cathartic climax. It's the best jazz and drumming movie of the year--yes, even better than Birdman--and it landed at #6 on my favorite films of 2014.

Andrew does find his place in Fletcher's jazz band, but it's not without consequence and difficulty. Fletcher pushes his students hard. Wit his slim black attire, muscular arms, and fiery demeanor, he is not a man you want to annoy. Andrew only wants to impress Fletcher, to show him that he is truly The Best Drummer. Citing Buddy Rich as his influence, he is willing to sacrifice everything--romance, friendship, even his own physical well-being--for the sake of the music. It's this sort of absolute devotion to the craft that draws these two men together. The mentor has found a willing apprentice, one who is just as merciless at his core.

Simmons' portrayal of the ruthless music instructor is at once a drill sergeant, a father, a mentor, and a monster. He's the best kind of villain, the sort that whole-heartedly believes that they are doing the right thing while causing all kinds of destruction. He's not a bad guy; he just wants others to be their very best, and he'll do whatever it takes to get them there. He believes people are not motivated by niceties or pats on the back, but by brutal honesty and discipline. In a key conversation, Fletcher gives his thesis to Andrew: 
"There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'good job.'"
In some ways, I have to agree with Fletcher. There is something admirable about a life marked by honesty and discipline. Fletcher is nothing if not a man of principle, and he sticks to them, depraved as they might be. By sticking with his principles as a teacher, he puts his philosophy into practice, and is clearly successful in gaining excellence in his band. I know that I'm a better man for having learned particular disciplines as a drummer, but also as a husband, a father, and a pastor. If we ignore blatant flaws for the sake of propriety or "being nice," we may actually cause more harm to others than good. Fletcher calls it how he sees it, even if he's horrendous in how he goes about it. I suppose I would rather be considered "mean and loving" than nice and duplicitous.

Yet alongside discipline and honesty, there must be room for the rhythm of grace. It's only by grace that we find ourselves truly whole as human beings. There will always be missed notes, off tempos, and forgotten music charts in our messy lives. To dismiss grace is to dismiss what makes us human. Both Fletcher and Andrew miss this key characteristic--grace--and in doing so, they sacrifice their humanity on the altar of artistry, not realizing that they are their best creative selves when they are their human selves. We were meant to be creative, bearing the image of the Creator. Our creativity might cost us in blood, sweat, and tears, but it should never drive us to lose our souls. When we bring grace and discipline into a steady cadence, we can be our full selves, alive to the creativity waiting to be unleashed.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Three Ways to Live a Great Story in 2015

Photo Credit: Jeremy Piehler (Creative Commons)

I don't do New Year's resolutions. They are typically framed as short-term goals set to impossible standards, and they usually don't last past January. Sometimes, the goals we set are somewhat out of our control.

  • Your resolution of "going to the gym" might not work out if you lose your job, or have to have surgery, or move across the country, or can't find an accountability partner.
  • Your resolution of "eat healthier" may be difficult if you develop food allergies, move to a place with unfamiliar grocery stores, experience a season of clinical depression, or simply lack the personal discipline to resist that bowl of ice cream.
  • Your goal of "reading the entire Bible in a year" is likely doable, but made much more difficult with active toddlers or new babies or graduate school or increased work responsibilities or a death in the family.

Instead of making resolutions, choose to live a better story in 2015.

One of my personal values is to live a great story:
Live my story as part of God’s Story. Develop my character. Choose difficult paths intentionally; take the harder-but-better path. Seek obstacles to overcome. Reject any activity or practice that won’t lead to a better story. Look at each season as a chapter in a greater story God is telling in and through me.
What would it look like to live a great story in 2015? Here are three key components:

1. You have to want something. This isn’t about being selfish or conceited. This is about having passion, purpose, direction, and clarity about what is truly important. If you don’t want anything–or if what you want is superficial or temporary–then you won’t live a good story. Wanting a new iPod or a better fantasy football team isn’t a good story. Wanting a lifelong Godly marriage or children who love and respect you is much better. Frame your desires in terms of being over doing, i.e. "I want to be a patient person" rather than "I want to read 10 books this year." Prayerfully discern what you really want; more importantly, figure out what God really wants for you. It turns out that when we want what God wants, our stories take on a far richer and more eternal significance.

2. You need a conflict. It’s not enough to just want something. We need motivation to get us moving. Author Donald Miller calls this an inciting incident. Characters don’t want to change, so an incident–a tornado approaches, a family member dies, aliens invade, etc.–must force them to react in order to solve the conflict. It requires action, movement, and is motivated by that initial desire, i.e. what you want. If you want a great marriage, it will require sacrifices and conflicts in order to make the dream a reality. If you want to be a patient person, you'll have to make disciplined choices about how you spend your time. What are the hard paths in front of you? What are the difficult decisions that need to be made? What are your fears and obstacles? Take heart. Have courage. Go for it.

3. You need time. The best stories are epics. Look at some of the greatest novels that have ever been written: Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, A Farewell to Arms, The Lord of the Rings, etc. They are ridiculously long, detailed, and complex. Think about great movies: Gone With the Wind, The Godfather, Lawrence of Arabia, Schindler’s List, etc. None of these could ever have been adequately told in under 90 minutes. Great stories require significant quality time to be truly epic tales. Characters need a significant span to grow and mature and change. You won’t become the hero of the story in a 30-second montage. Be patient, give yourself time, and make goals that will require discipline and endurance in order to achieve them. This next year of 2015 is just a small chapter in a much larger story. View your life through a long-term lens.

It's a new year. The sun is coming up over the horizon. Let's live a great story in 2015.

Sidenote: After years of delay, I finally set up my personal domain of Thus, the title of "The Mayward Blog" is now simply "Joel Mayward." Let me know via email if there are any bugs or glitches with the site.

*Some of this content originally posted here.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Favorite Movies of 2014: The Top 10

If end-of-the-year lists are a personal statement of the past year, these top 10 favorite films of 2014 may offer insight into my own journey. This countdown of films (you can read about #20-11 here) is a sort of filmic chronicle of my own experiences of the last 365 days, a year with plenty of emotional ups and downs, twists and turns, trials and joys, beauty and depravity. This was the year where I turned 30attended an international film festivalexperienced burnoutmoved from Canada, and sought to be more present with God and my family. It's certainly been an interesting and transformative chapter in my life.

Also, I have yet to see some critically acclaimed films that may be added to this best-of list in the near future. Films like SelmaMr. Turner, The Imitation Game, A Most Violent Year, Life Itself, and Calvary could all be strong additions as soon as I get the opportunity to see them. There are other great films that I wasn't sure were considered 2013 or 2014 films--Like Father, Like Son and Ernest and Celestine have appeared on a few critics' 2014 lists, despite being released last year, and I loved them both. Let's face it: end-of-year list-making is a complex task.

As a pastor, a father, a husband, a writer, an immigrant, a musician, and a man wrestling with his own sense of vocation and identity, these are the films that moved me, captivated me, terrified me, challenged me, and inspired me. These are my top 10 favorite films from 2014:

10. The Babadook (Jennifer Kent). Any parent of a young child can relate--sleepless nights and parental struggles can feel downright horrific. Terrifying and touching, The Babadook is a chilling depiction of single parenthood and dealing with personal grief. The performances from Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman as the mother and son are affecting, and filmmaker Jennifer Kent focuses on the story and unsettling suspense through image and sound instead of gore or jump scares. The horror genre is done best when it personifies and examines our real-life struggles and fears, forcing us to confront that which we would rather avoid. Those fears may not leave us alone, but with time we can manage the anxious terrors hidden in the dark basement of our soul.

9. Noah (Darren Aronofsky). Noah is the filmic mashup between a Narnia-esque fantasy, a Shakespearean family drama, and a gritty biblical morality tale, all rolled into an epic cinematic experience. This is not your Sunday-school Noah, with happy flannel-graph animals gathered on a boat beneath a rainbow. Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky depicts Noah (Russell Crowe) as a tortured soul, a man striving to remain faithful to the Creator and care for his family while embracing the difficult task of being a key figure in the destruction of humanity. While Noah has some flaws, it’s certainly a *fantastic* film, in both senses of that word: “extraordinarily good” and “imaginative.” For those who are hesitant about Noah–particularly those who claim it isn’t “biblical” enough–I would invite them to watch again with open minds and hearts, seeking the truth and beauty in the flood of this tale. Noah reminds us that we are broken and beautiful, bearing both the weight of our sin and the image of God in our souls. (my review)

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

7. Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan). A familial drama centered around one hotel owner's relationships with his wife, his sister, his community, and himself, Winter Sleep is both intimate and epic in scope. The story addresses the themes of separation, loss, justice, and spirituality, all set in the misty hills of Anatolia in Turkey. And what a location! Like something out of another world, the hotel is embedded in the hills, a Middle Earth-like home in the rock, filmed in lush auburn tones. 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. (my VIFF review)

6. Whiplash (Damien Chazelle). A horror film of sorts, Whiplash is the frenetic drama centered on the conflict between two men who sacrifice their humanity for their creative musical endeavors. J.K. Simmons' portrayal of a ruthless music instructor is at once a drill sergeant, a father, and a monster. Miles Teller gives his own excellent performance as the young jazz drummer willing to do whatever it takes to be the greatest. The film steadily picks up the tempo into a riveting and cathartic climax. As a drummer, this was my favorite drumming movie of the year (better than Birdman), and a heart-racing thrill ride of creative mastery. Drumming = blood, sweat, and tears.

5. Boyhood (Richard Linklater). Boyhood is like a series of scenes that flash before one's eyes in the moments immediately prior to death, one's whole life in an immediate glance. Episodic and often with little context, each moment plays out with both ordinariness and profundity. Watching Boyhood is like opening up a stranger's family photo albums and glancing through all the pictures, trying to make sense of the person's life in the images. This can be a beautiful and a boring exercise, and Boyhood is frequently both. Richard Linklater's 12-year experiment in storytelling is a remarkable success, and while I can't jump on the "this is a flawless film and the best one of 2014!" bandwagon, Boyhood is certainly an entertaining meditation on time, memory, and the adolescent experience. (my review)

4. The LEGO Movie (Phil Lord and Chris Miller). Everything is awesome about this film. The imagination and world-building in The LEGO Movie are par none; the humor is the most laugh-inducing I've had in a year; and the surprises in storyline, character cameos, and direction the film takes are all delightful. While the story seems like a typical "good Rebels versus evil Empire" tale, the final act takes the film to a new level of creativity and depth. The LEGO Movie wonderfully explores the spiritual nature of creativity and our relationship with the Creator. It encourages a posture of moderation and discernment, where the abundant life is experienced by neither "following the rules" or "just doing what feels right." The LEGO Movie instead offers a Third Way, a path between polarization and politics, a road that is far more difficult to navigate but offers copious rewards when embraced with wisdom and discernment. (my review)

3. Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski). The first thing you'll notice about Ida is the beauty. Shot in gorgeous black and white and structured in 4:3, every moment is like out of a painting. The story follows an innocent young nun, Anna, on the verge of taking her vows. She goes on a quest with her secular aunt, Wanda, to discover the secrets of her past and the dark history of both her origins and the Polish nation. A coming-of-age journey with a young woman wrestling with identity, spirituality, and her own ontology. Every person has a name, every person has a story, and every person undergoes a crisis of faith in their own way.

2. The Immigrant (James Gray). The first Marion Cotillard film on this list, The Immigrant is a strikingly honest film. Though characters are duplicitous and behave with mixed motives and questionable morals, they are nonetheless themselves, wholly authentic and raw, in a story that feels like it could only be birthed out of reality. Perhaps the best word for the film's essence is confession. The entire narrative rings true, from opening to close, and the final scene is entirely satisfying with a beautiful closing shot that could be framed in an art gallery. It is an immigrant story, people far away from their country of origin trying to establish a new home and the painful struggles therein. (my review)

1. Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne). Like a modern-day parable, Two Days, One Night is a simple story embodying profound moral and spiritual themes. The film focuses entirely on Sandra (Marion Cotillard) and her struggle over a single weekend to keep her job. It's a portrayal of remarkable empathy and pain, and Cotillard has never been better (even in The Immigrant). If you have ever fought for something or someone; if you've ever wondered about your own value and worth; if you have ever experienced rejection or criticism or depression; if you have ever been in an uphill battle, struggling alone against the powers and authorities; if you have ever wanted someone to stand up for you to be your advocate and friend, then Sandra's plight will be an experience of empathy and catharsis for you. (my VIFF review)

Favorite Documentary of 2014:

The Overnighters (Jesse Moss). This documentary about an oil boom in small-town North Dakota and the Lutheran pastor who tries to rally his community around the incoming workers should be required viewing for every pastor. I haven't seen many films address the weightiness or strain of pastoral work like this one. Masterful storytelling, and offers a unique 21st century picture of the American dream. Following in the ways of Christ is a complex endeavor, both in personal and systemic ways.

Note: Many of these films on this list contain content (language, violence, nudity, sex) that requires viewers to approach with wisdom, caution, and discernment. Know your own boundaries, and make the wise choice when approaching any film.

What were your favorite films of 2014? Share them in the comments! Check out my Favorite Films of 2014 list on Letterboxd.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Favorite Movies of 2014: 20-11

The past year has been filled with lots of good, great, and really great films. Yet I've only given one 5-star rating to a film from 2014. Perhaps I've become more selective and critical with my tastes, because it wasn't a bad year for movies, and I've been impressed with the diversity and quality of films. By my count, I've seen about 50 films that could be included in this favorites list. In the next two blog posts, I'll highlight my top 20 (er, 23), starting with #20-11.

Sam Adams wrote that end-of-year lists are a sort of personal statement, highlighting critics A.O. Scott and Drew McWeeny's lists and personal reflections on the past year. I suppose my list is a personal statement of sorts, a series of filmic highlights from the past 365 days, a year where I turned 30, attended an international film festivalexperienced burnout, moved from Canada, and sought to be more present with God and my family. As a pastor, a father, a husband, a writer, an immigrant, a musician, and a man wrestling with his own sense of vocation and identity, these are the films that moved me, captivated me, terrified me, challenged me, and inspired me. Included are gripping documentaries, beautiful animated films, sweeping dramas, intimate character studies, and thrilling blockbusters.

Here are my favorite films of 2014, #20-11:

20. Locke (Steven Knight). One man, one car, one eventful night. Tom Hardy's performance as a man making a series of frantic phone calls is solid as concrete. A gripping morality tale about the nature of choices, consequences, and living based on resolve and principle, Locke forces us to examine the decisions we make, and the second (and third, and fourth) decisions that follow. It's one of the best One Man in an Impossible Situation performances I've seen yet, up there with Robert Redford in All is Lost. Best supporting performance goes to the car dashboard.

19. Horse Money (Pedro Costa). Hallucinatory, foreboding, haunting, and enigmatic, Horse Money is an exercise in endurance and disciplined film-viewing. Essentially, Horse Money is a series of dream-like scenes and dialogues, culminating in a long internal "conversation" between the central character, Ventura, and a living toy soldier in an elevator, told in voiceover and with multiple personalities. Sound strange? It was. But I can't shake the feeling that I was seeing something brilliant. (my VIFF review)

18. 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. Leviathan is well-crafted, beautifully shot, ambitious, and quietly compelling, but its despair was too overwhelming for this viewer to find it worth revisiting any time soon. (my VIFF review)

17. Fury (David Ayer). Neither anti-war nor pro-war, Fury is a film exploring the effects of war on the human spirit, both how war arises from and fosters human depravity. A bleak and brutal film, Fury is also one of the more compelling portrayals of a Christian character. While I initially found the whole exercise quite depressing, this is one film that has stuck with me and grown in my estimation over time, particularly Brad Pitt's performance and the spiritual questions this film raises. (my review)

16. Gone Girl (David Fincher); Force Majeure (Ruben Ostland). A two-way tie, as these films have strikingly similar qualities: darkly comic explorations of marriage, the evisceration of the male ego and gender tropes, the impact of media/technology on a relationship, and the hidden interior selves we cover with artificial masks. Both were surprisingly funny and devastatingly insightful in a cynical sort of way. Force Majeure is the more uplifting film of the pair, while Gone Girl is quite dark and disturbing. Not exactly "date movie" material, unless you want to have a long conversation with your significant other about the nature of relationships and human depravity.

15. Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier). A taut minimalistic thriller, Blue Ruin is best experienced with as little knowledge as possible of the plot or outcome. Filmmaker Jeremy Saulnier does an excellent job of telling a compelling revenge story in an intriguing way through very little exposition and plenty of quiet suspense. The violence is quick and gruesome, the story is familiar yet unpredictable, and the whole exercise lingers in one's mind for days afterwards. "The one with the gun gets to tell the truth."

14. X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer); Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn); Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves). Mutants, monkeys, and Marvel. This is a three-way tie for the Summer Blockbuster With An Uber-Long Name. Each film features a war between factions, with the central protagonists caught in the middle. Dawn was the most cynical, X-Men was the most hopeful, and Guardians was the most fun.

13. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata). Visuals, story, music, themes--this is a beautiful film on every level. The animation looks akin to a watercolor painting, perfectly embodying the simple emotions and wonder of the story. Based on a Japanese folk tale, the story is about a princess appearing in a bamboo grove and adopted by a kindly country couple. A coming-of-age film of sorts, this was one of my favorite movie-going experiences of 2014, as I had three teenage Studio Ghibli fans as my film-watching companions.

12. Class Enemy (Rok Bicek). As a youth pastor and a cinephile, Class Enemy is right in my wheelhouse--a tense, relentless morality tale set in a high school classroom which kept me on my intellectual and philosophical toes for its entirety. It's Slovenian film about a rigid substitute teacher and the escalating rebellion of his high school class in the wake of a classmate's suicide. 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. Neither the teacher, the class, the parents, or the deceased student are the clear antagonist or protagonist--each elicits both sympathy and denouncement from the audience. (my VIFF review)

11. Begin Again (John Carney). The follow-up film from the maker of Once, Begin Again is a musical, a romantic-comedy, and a delightful examination of the creative musical process. Every character in this film is charming and fun, and everyone involved seems to be having a great time making music and exploring New York together. Perhaps it was because I watched this with my wife at our anniversary, but the whole experience was joyful, and I found myself humming along with a smile on my face. This also confirmed something for me: Keira Knightly is one of my favorite actresses.

Note: Many of these films on this list contain content (language, violence, nudity, sex) that requires viewers to approach with wisdom, caution, and discernment.

Wednesday: my top 10 favorite films from 2014.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

2014 Ecumenical Jury

About a month ago, film critic Kenneth Morefield announced the creation of the Ecumenical Jury Awards:
The Ecumenical Jury is made up of film critics and cinephiles who wish to recognize and celebrate films that use the medium to explore themes of religion, faith, or spirituality. We particularly seek to enlarge or expand the perception of what is meant by either labeling a film a “Christian” film or suggesting that it should be of interest to Christian audiences. The jury seeks to recognize quality films (regardless of genre) that have challenged, moved, enlightened, or entertained us and to draw the attention of Christian audiences to films it thinks have the potential to do the same for them.
It was humbling and exciting to find myself on a jury with some of the best Christian film critics writing today, all who have taught me to think deeply about the connections between films, truth, and beauty. There were over 60 films nominated for the final top 10, which is one of the most interesting end-of-year film lists I've seen, and the one that most closely corresponds with my personal top 10 list (which I'll publish in the week leading up to 2015). The list is so diverse--foreign films, blockbusters, dramas, comedies, horror, and one excellent documentary. For a list of films addressing faith, religion, and spirituality, you won't find any typical "Christian" films here. I would use discretion and discernment in choosing some of these films, but I think the best films engage that sort of critical thinking, i.e. discretion and discernment. The honorable mentions list is also excellent and diverse, a "top 20" of sorts. (I included the 2014 Cannes winner, Winter Sleep, as my honorable mention vote.)

I wrote a short blurb for Noah, which was voted as #9 on the final list:
Noah is the filmic mashup between a Narnia-esque fantasy, a Shakespearean family drama, and a gritty biblical morality tale, all rolled into an epic cinematic experience. This is not your Sunday-school Noah, with happy flannel-graph animals gathered on a boat beneath a rainbow. Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky depicts Noah (Russell Crowe) as a tortured soul, a man striving to remain faithful to the Creator and care for his family while embracing the difficult task of being a key figure in the destruction of humanity. While Noah has some flaws, it’s certainly a *fantastic* film, in both senses of that word: “extraordinarily good” and “imaginative.” For those who are hesitant about Noah–particularly those who claim it isn’t “biblical” enough–I would invite them to watch again with open minds and hearts, seeking the truth and beauty in the flood of this tale. Noah reminds us that we are broken and beautiful, bearing both the weight of our sin and the image of God in our souls.
Check out the 2014 Ecumenical Jury Awards here. Which film on the list is your favorite? Which one should have been included?

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Love Requires Presence

I had the opportunity to preach at North Langley Community Church this past Sunday, which was a unique privilege--this sermon happened one week before my final Sunday at NLCC, allowing me the opportunity to offer a sort of "final words" sermon. So, I talked a lot about Jesus. I shared on John 1:14 and the love of God demonstrated in the incarnation.

You can check out the whole sermon in the video below (my apologies, the audio can be a bit fuzzy at times):

Message 2014 12 14 Joel Mayward from North Langley Community Church on Vimeo.

Love requires presence.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

On Leaving Canada

Photo Credit: sea turtle (Creative Commons)
About two years ago, I wrote a post sharing the news: I am moving to Canada.

One year ago, I wrote about our first year in Canada, the ups and downs, and how much we had learned.

Now, just after our two-year anniversary of moving to Canada, we are preparing to leave.

My final Sunday at North Langley Community Church is December 21, and if all goes according to plan, we will be leaving the nation of Canada the following morning. We will be moving to Vancouver, WA and live with Katie's mom for a season as we figure out what God has for us next. I am viewing the next six months as a sort of sabbatical, a period of rest and recuperation in order to get back into full-time ministry with a renewed spirit.

I recently shared that I am in burnout. The burnout plays a significant role in our motivation for leaving Canada, though it's not the only reason. The only way I can put it is that we felt "released" by God from our calling to this location and ministry. Try as I might, I couldn't shake the thought or feeling; God was telling us we needed to go. I totally understand this sounds like some spiritual trump card, a sort of "God made me do it" excuse. Nevertheless, it is true. Katie and I discerned a similar release when we left our home in Arizona over two years ago, and prayerfully recognized this new calling from God a few months ago, leaving a lingering and clear command in our minds--be ready to leave Canada soon. I suppose the best place to be in life is in obedience to the Spirit, and it doesn't make much sense to linger when He is guiding you in a direction.

Leaving our home in Canada is bittersweet. We have made beloved friends, and I deeply love and care for the teens and families at NLCC. The decision to leave was not easy or fun, and my greatest difficulty in leaving is the inability to adequately comfort the students I love because I'm the one who caused the grief they're experiencing. The teens have been gracious and understanding, but I know it's still hard for them, as it's hard for me. This is one of those paradoxes in ministry: on one hand, Jesus is the one who transforms people and saves them from sin, and He will continue to work in the lives of youth at NLCC without me. In this sense, I am not essential for God to do His redemptive work. On the other hand, I believe Jesus has uniquely created me (and you!) in His image, and I am created for a purpose only I can do, for relationships and conversations and moments where God intends to transform lives through me as a conduit for His grace and love. In this sense, I am absolutely essential for God to work in this time and place. My story has a unique impact here in Canada, and Canada has certainly left its impact in my life.

I will miss British Columbia. I will miss seeing the sun pierce through the fog surrounding the banks of the Fraser River to illuminate the trees and mountains all around. I will miss seeing movies being filmed in my neighborhood and taking the SkyTrain to see films in Vancouver on one of their many theaters. I will miss the locale of Walnut Grove and Fort Langley, the latter being such a quaint and quirky little town (albeit one that has vastly increased in busyness and popularity in the two years of living here). I will not miss border crossings, but I will miss the charming city of Bellingham. More than anything, I will miss particular friendly faces and the beautiful souls behind them.

While I'm pained to leave people I love, I am still looking forward to the next season. I hope this chapter will be filled with rest, discernment, healing, and prayerful dependence on God. I'm eager to pursue graduate studies, as I enjoy and am challenged by theological studies. I was recently accepted to George Fox Evangelical Seminary to pursue an MA in Theological Studies, a similar program to what I wanted to study at Regent in Vancouver. Some have asked me why I'd be going to grad school when I'm in burnout, assuming schooling would be a hindrance or drain on me. But I view education--or particular aspects of theological study and learning--as a life-giving activity; one of my personal values is to be a lifelong learner. (I know. I'm weird. Consider me a nerd.) While we leave friends behind in BC, we also will be reunited with family and friends in the Portland area, living nearer our family than we ever have as a married couple. So while the move will be stressful and difficult, we also anticipate new friendships and community, deeper connections with our family, and a greater reliance upon the Lord.

Here's how you can be praying for us as we move:

-Pray for our kids. Katie is due with our third child (a boy!) the first week of March, so we want to get moved to Vancouver, WA and figure out the medical/hospital situation. The end of Katie's last two pregnancies had difficulties, so we need continued prayer for health and protection of our third kiddo. We also need prayer for our other kids--Copeland and Eloise are so excited to live with their grandma and move into a house with a yard, but we know it's going to be stressful for them in ways they likely can't describe, so we are praying for peace and endurance and joy for them.

-Pray for NLCC. The students and families at NLCC have been shaken by transition, and while I'm absolutely certain of God's presence and goodness in the midst of the grief, it's still a difficult and painful season. Pray for the next youth pastors at NLCC, whoever they might be, and pray for the current volunteers and youth ministry team.

-Pray for my spiritual and emotional health. I've felt such a profound sense of relief and hope since sharing about my situation and making the decision to move. I know it seems kinda crazy, but I've already seen how much more present I've been with my wife and kids, and I know Katie has seen a difference too. There's still a lot of emotional work to do within me, but burnout hasn't defeated me, and that's something worth celebrating. I'll be looking into seeing a counselor for a season, and hopefully will be able to work through some of my present burnout symptoms.

-Pray that God would provide the right job/role for me at the right time. As we move, I don't have a ministry job lined up. I'm quite sure that a full-time church ministry role is not what I need at this time. I'd love to do some itinerant speaking and teaching for churches and schools and youth workers, and I'd also love to find ways to write more (Contact me here if you'd like me to speak or write for you!). These are life-giving activities for me; I'm rarely drained by teaching, preaching, or writing, especially if it's for equipping and encouraging church leaders and the emerging generation. If nothing else, I'll just get a job at Starbucks; it's a right of passage for the millennial generation, right? But I hope to be back in full-time ministry before the end of 2015. Pray that God would guide us to a gracious and Jesus-following church community in the Portland area where we can find community and rest.

Monday, December 15, 2014

My Favorite Albums of 2014

I have an eclectic taste in music. If it's good or interesting or notable, I'll give it a listen, especially if it has a solid drum performance. In 2014, some of my favorite musicians came out with unexpected albums (U2, Damien Rice, Copeland), a few just seem to get better with each album (Spoon, Audrey Assad), and I discovered new favorites (Joe Henry, The War on Drugs, Warpaint).

Here was my soundtrack from the past year:

10. Katie Herzig - Walk Through Walls. Herzig makes excellent, singable, memorable pop albums filled with heart and depth.

9. Warpaint - Warpaint. I love how this album is produced and mixed. And the drums. The drums!

8. U2 - Songs of Innocence. "Free album" doesn't always mean it's good. But this is. Some of the best music they've produced in a decade.

7. Tycho - Awake. Instrumental electronic percussive background noise. This is my writing music. It gets the creativity flowing.

6. John Mark McMillan - Borderlands. If Bon Iver and The National made a worship album together, it might sound a bit like this.

5. Damien Rice - My Favourite Faded Fantasy. After an eight or nine year hiatus, here's a new collection of sad Irish love songs.

4. Joe Henry - Invisible Hours. A folk masterpiece about the beauty of fidelity and love. I'm now obligated to find and listen to everything else Mr. Henry has ever done.

3. Copeland - Ixora. Beautiful and heart-wrenching music from a band I thought wasn't going to hear from again. This is one of those bands I both loved in college that, for some reason, stands the test of time. Also, I named my son after them. So there's that.

2. The War on Drugs - Lost in the Dream. This is the top album on so many end-of-year lists. I can understand why. A multifaceted rock epic that comes at you in waves of guitars and drums and echoes and memories.

1. Spoon - They Want My Soul. Straightforward American rock infused with wit and soul. An album that managed to make me both laugh and cry this past year. This was the go-to album for the many road trips our family made between BC and the United States. Well, it was my go-to album, period.

Honorable Mentions (the top 20, in alphabetical order)
The Antlers - Familiars
Audrey Assad - Death, Be Not Proud EP
Coldplay - Ghost Stories
Divisionary - Ages and Ages
Future Islands - Singles
Hurray for the Riff Raff - Small Town Heroes
Sleeping at Last - Christmas Collection 2014
Switchfoot - Fading West
Thom Yorke - Tomorrow's Modern Boxes
William Fitzsimmons - Lions

What was your soundtrack of 2014? Share your favorite music from the past year in the comments.