Tuesday, August 12, 2014

5 Lessons for Pastors (and Others) from Dead Poets Society...Besides Carpe Diem

I was blessed to come of age among romantics, dreamers, artists. My closest friends in my teen and young adult years were deep thinkers and lovers of beauty. We asked big questions, dreamed big dreams, and looked at the universe as a grand home in which we were free to sprawl and traipse with muddy shoes. But we were also awkward, self-conscious, and searching. When the movie Dead Poets Society came out, we found in it something of an autobiography.

Here was a group of boys entering manhood, seeking comfort in their own skin while clothed in ill-fitting family armor. In Robin Williams’s John Keating they found a teacher, mentor, and friend who gave them permission to embrace and unleash the life-passion pounding in their young hearts. Mr. Keating didn’t place pressure on them to be themselves; he simply offered them encouragement to find themselves.

Dead Poets Society was, providentially for me and my mates, released only days after high school graduation. In my mind it set a course. I was going to be a composer, a poet, a professional romantic. I grew and aged and moved from being one of the schoolboys toward the role of the teacher—or at least some combination of the two. Then I became a pastor.

But I never forgot John Keating. I’ve continued to be inspired by this character, both as he was written and as Robin Williams played him. I hope that, at least in some ways, I am a pastor in the way that Keating was a teacher. I try to seize the day, I’m a lover of words, and when I preach I even sometimes tell the congregation to “huddle up!” But there are deeper lessons. In that spirit and in honor of the beautiful lifework of Robin Williams, I offer a few of the ways this plays out.

1. Pastor with Passion
Mr. Keating teaches from the heart. He speaks and listens intently. He teaches purposefully. He whistles the 1812 Overture. He stands on his desk and sounds his barbaric Yawp!...and encourages others to do so. Nothing is half-hearted.

The authority of the King and his kingdom mission are not to be undertaken lightly. What fuels our passion? What saps our passion? Feed the former and starve the latter.

2. Know What You’re About
In a private conversation with Neil, it is discovered that Keating has a significant other who is in London. Frustrated in his own struggle for identity, Neil says, “You can go anywhere. You can do anything. How can you stand being here?” Mr. Keating replies, “Because I love teaching. I don’t want to be anywhere else.”

We must guard against double-mindedness and distraction, against giving our hearts to others who are more than willing to tell us what we’re about, and against a culture that is eager for us to be disappointed with ourselves and to buy their greener pastures.

3. Be Original
Examples of Mr. Keating’s “be original” message and methods abound. A key example of both is in the courtyard scene, in which Keating takes the boys out of the classroom (which is typical and also illustrates the point) and encourages them to take a stroll in the courtyard. Soon, some are in line, marching in step, as others stand by and clap in rhythm. They all conform to each other and to some indefinable pressure to be “right.”

Each of us is a God-made original, with our own ways of being a human and a pastor. We do well to find and follow our own unique manor in living our call and plying our craft.

4. Work Broadly
Keating leads the boys onto the athletic field. Each is given a line of verse to recite boldly (see #1) as they kick a ball, all to the accompaniment of a record playing exalting music. Sport, verse, music…comradeship. Another time, Keating reminds them that, ”… medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

Pastoring is broad—teaching, counseling, scholarship, preaching, management, social justice, monasticism, and on and on. It reaches across the ages and sprawls into eternity. And Jesus’ kingdom mission reaches even more broadly. How blessed we are to engage, equip, and empower God’s many-splendored people as they bring God’s kingdom into their own disciplines and setting.

5. Stand for Truth
I can’t watch the end of Dead Poets Society without being stirred to tears. Who can?! As Todd finally emerges from his fear and “quiet desperation” to take a stand (literally) on behalf of his disgraced, scape-goated mentor, and as others follow his example, Mr. Keating smiles in satisfaction that the lessons he has tried to convey to them have indeed taken hold.

Like other professions, and like the young lives in Dead Poets Society, the pastor is haunted by the dark temptations of conformity, of waywardness and alienation, of going through the motions or doing whatever it takes to “succeed.” Too many of us have left behind the Truth of Jesus for a misguided and misleading message that big, rich, and famous are God-blessed, while small, poor, and anonymous are God-forsaken.

O Captain! my Captain!
We attend conferences and graph the metrics of J. Evans Pritchard, PhD., while Jesus is urging us onto our desks. Pastor with passion. Know what you’re about. Be original. Work broadly. Stand for truth. Find the barbaric yawp in your soul and let it out—not just once but always. Look to Jesus, that resurrected “sweaty-toothed madman,” as he charges ahead, and follow him into the thick of it, into the thick of life itself. “O Captain! my Captain!”

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Millennials, Mainline, and Methodists: The Cure for What Ails Us

I’m tired. I’m tired of the posts and ads and quick fixes. I’m tired of the head-scratching and magic bullet appeals for how to “reach” millennials. I’m tired of marketing tricks and demographic reports that promise to hold the key to attracting customers. In conversations about the problems with the church, with mainline decline, with the “nones,” etc., in our culture today, I hear recommendations for everything from increasing parking to Instagram to inclusivism, and many sure-fire fixes in between. What I hear woefully little of is the need to make disciples…real disciples.

Churches and leaders feel the need to add descriptors to the word disciples: dynamic disciples, fully-committed disciples, faithful disciples, disciple-making disciples, and on and on. This need for qualifiers indicates to me that we have a weak and desperately underdeveloped understanding of what a disciple even is.  And, thus, we don’t see the value and necessity for disciple-making as the cure for what ails us. 

Read the rest at SalvationLife.com...

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Deep Art of Easter

The summer movie season is already upon us. I heard a movie critic say Hollywood is starting summer earlier in order to prolong the huge box office profits. What this largely looks like is loud, big-budget superhero and sci-fi blockbusters. Captain America and Spiderman are already out, and more Avengers, X-Men, and Transformers will be visiting soon. Interspersed among these will be the quieter, some would say deeper films.

A key difference between the blockbusters and the deeper films is whether or not they stay with us. So called “high art” typically has us wrestling with its meaning long after our initial exposure to it. These are the movies that get to us, that we’re still wrestling with the next day or next week or for the rest of our lives. On the contrary, lower or pop art is typically good for a couple hours of blow-em-up escapism and then we’re done with it.

Mark’s telling of Jesus’ resurrection is art of the highest order. More than this, the resurrection itself is of such complexity and beauty and power that we spend the rest of eternity working out what it means for our lives and for the world. We think the resurrection gives us answers. But it really leaves us with more questions.

Read the rest at SalvationLife...

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Make Someone Happy...Yeah, Good Luck With That

Make someone happy
Make just one someone happy
And you’ll be happy too

Despite Jimmy Durante’s classic words, we can’t really “make someone happy.” That’s too much pressure to put on anyone. We might do or say things that result in someone else’s passing moments of happiness, and vice versa. But for many, this is much bigger. We fall into the romantic notion that if we “make just one someone happy,” then we’ll “be happy too.” It makes for a nice song about investing ourselves in a significant other. But the reality is a trap we too easily fall into.

I can’t be responsible for the happiness of my wife or child, my neighbors or friends or coworkers, and certainly not (as a pastor) an entire congregation. Their happiness is up to them. And I mustn't depend on them for my happiness. Selfish as it seems, I need to be concerned with my own happiness and let them be concerned with theirs. The lyrics might more truly say, “Make yourself happy, and others might be happy too…maybe.” Not such a good song I guess, but more accurate.

Now this is a slippery slope. The truth is, until my happiness includes loving others redemptively, putting their good first even at my own personal cost, then much of it is a wash. Selfish happiness is no real or lasting happiness. But putting others first and making them happy are two very different propositions.

It comes down to obedience, faithfulness. If our decisions and motives and actions are held up as responsible for other people’s happiness, as is so often the case, then it’s all a fickle mess, because we are all just people subject to moods and mixed motives. And the corollary is true as well – moods and whims are also responsible for unhappiness. If others’ happiness depends on me, and mine on them, then we’re all in trouble. People are flaky.

Come to think of it, so am I. So even if I live just to make myself happy, I’m still after a wildly moving target. Happiness has to be realigned with faithfulness. We have to learn the subtle but abiding joy of living faithfully, following Jesus and participating in the life of the Triune God. Then my happiness is God’s happiness – a fixed, eternal target. This is the still center of eternal life and true happiness…and you’ll be happy too.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Going All In

An odd thing about Jesus is that, every time he seems to be faced with temptation to give up on the Father’s plan that has him dying for the world’s sins, Jesus then overcomes the temptation with extra resolve. We’ve seen this throughout Lent. Right at the beginning of his ministry, he goes into the wilderness for the sole purpose of subjecting himself to temptation by no less than Satan himself. He comes out toughened and confirmed and ready for work. 

Later, when Jesus begins to share with his disciples that he is going to have to die, Peter tempts Jesus by telling him that this isn’t the Father’s will. This really gets to Jesus, and Jesus responds by rebuking Peter (and Satan, who seems to be behind it all). Then, for good measure, Jesus says, “In fact, not only do I have to die, but anyone who wants to walk with me has to take up their cross and get in line!” Resolve! 

Where will this resolve take Jesus...and us? Read the rest at SalvationLife.com...

Thursday, April 3, 2014

...Having Made Disciples

Dorothy Parker articulated the sentiment of many writers when she said, “I hate writing; I love having written.” This is probably the case for practitioners of many disciplines, loving the end result if not so much the process. The problem, however, is when that perspective keeps us from ever really beginning. This, tragically, is the case for far too many. They live with the idea of having done something, but never gain enough self-discipline, know-how, creativity, or whatever, to ever get to the finished product and, thus, fuel the next.

I think this is the case for many church leaders and Christians when it comes to making other disciples. They love the idea of Jesus’ Great Commission (Mt. 28:16-20), but lack the discipline, know-how, creativity, or whatever, to actually engage in intentional disciple-making. It’s a cliché to point to consumerism as the culprit, but it seems there is something of a consumerist current underlying this lack of perpetuating disciple-makers.

Consuming Discipleship

Most folks who are really hungry to learn about life as a disciple just move from study to study, program to program, even mission project to mission project—all good things—without ever getting to the “go and do likewise” phase. (By which I mean go and gather a new group of people and lead them in study and mission, but also in starting their own group, etc., etc.)

One typically unspoken aspect of this consumerism is the leaders’ desire always to have these hungry people under their leadership. If we teach them to leave our teaching and to go and lead others, will we ever get another good group of eager students or team members? We want our “favorites” there for our next study or project. Who wouldn’t!

But the other, more obvious, side is that we just leave out the instruction and facilitation for the next, crucial step—gathering and leading a new team, for the sake of releasing most of them eventually to gather and lead and release, etc.  We go from Point A (get disciples together) to Point B (teach/lead them) and then back to Point A, almost always with the same group. We never get to Point C (teach them to teach and lead) and Point D (release them to their own Point A and facilitate as needed).

Two things seem especially needful here: 1) Cultivate a culture, not just of discipleship, but of disciple-making. It could also be stated that we just need a more accurate definition of discipleship that includes perpetuation. And, 2) Instruction for Points C and D. This order is likely reversed, so that as disciples go through studies and projects and also instruction for gathering and leading others, as well as the blessing and support of their leadership, then the culture (#1) gets created.

In the end, whether someone actually likes the process of making another disciple, or they just like the end result (though there never really is an end) of having made another disciple-making disciple, they never have to settle for merely liking the idea of making disciples. Their life, their church, and their little corner of the world begins to become a library, with one living book after another that they are helping to write.