My Oh My

Being a Mariners fan is really an intentional and annual exercise in masochism.  At least it was considered culturally cool to be a suffering (yet so insufferable) fans of the so-called lovable losers (Red Sox and Cubs).  But even those teams have won a World Series title in recent memory.  But being a Mariners fan is tough because we’re not really considered a baseball town, and so we lose out on the martyr points for being such.  It also doesn’t help our case that most of the sports fans in Seattle are, unlike the actual weather here, are fair weather fans.  It’s not insulting if it’s true.  Wait.  I guess it can still be offensive.  I’m sorry Seattle band wagon fans.  You do you.  Who cares if you don’t who Shigetoshi Hasegawa is?  At least you know that the garlic fries are bomb.co.kr.

It’s bad being a Mariners fan, but it’s worse when your natural disposition is to be opportunistically negative.  The 17 year playoff drought feels like a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Year after year, the numbers give me more than enough arrows in my quiver to make sense of the Mariner’s buffoonery.  Year after year, a different mantra is implemented to inorganically lull the fanbase into a sense of renewed hope.  “This is the year”, they tell us.  You know what this sounds like?  This sounds like the line of reasoning of a degenerate gambler who is convinced that they are due for the ball to finally land on black.  Don’t get it twisted; I do not revel in the demise of the Mariners.  But rather, I preemptively guard my heart so that rather being disappointed, I merely shrug my shoulders and say, “I told you so.”

First, let me give you a little context.  I have changed the way in how I evaluate baseball.  Not to sound like a seasoned scout or GM, but I have drank the Sabermetric Kool-Aid and now I can’t go back.  I cringe whenever people tell me how good a pitcher is based on their win-loss record.  I wince when people cite RBI’s as a metric for talent.  I judge, harshly, when people quote fielding percentage.  I immediately lump you in with people who believe the world is flat.  Ok, maybe that’s a bit harsh, but it’s pretty egregious.  (There’s a parallel here with me spending more time in Reformed circles and being more critical).  WAR, wOBA, BABIP, O-Swing%, UZR and all these other crazy acronyms have made me both love baseball more, but feel all the more sad about the Mariners.

The Sabermetric windfall has made me appreciate the game exponentially, but it also has fed into my cynicism and has give me evidence to support my feelings.  When it comes to Mariners baseball, I make Doubting Thomas look like Gullible Thomas.

And now the Mariners have the longest playoff drought in all of professional sports.  The drought can now watch a rated-R movie without an adult.  The last time the Mariners made the playoffs, I was figuring out cool book cover I wanted to use for my Freshman biology textbook.  And in hindsight, the 2001 team should have used a different hype song than “Who Let the Dogs Out?” by the Baha Men.  The song title sounds more like an exasperated mom than an anthem to rile up a hungry fan base.  Like, why couldn’t the Mariners use a Dr. Dre song, or even Sandstorm.  I would’ve even taken Blue by Eiffel 65.  Yeah I said it.  It has a stronger bass line.

Watching the Mariners my whole life has been kind of like watching a car wreck in slow motion, and repeating said exercise.  Following the Mariners is kind of like your parents trying to convince you that the SAT Prep book they got you is a great gift while all your other friends got a Nintendo 64.

Now that I have exorcised these toxic thoughts, I want to get to the point of this post: these 2018 Mariners have defied both the statistical projections and my own feelings of resignation.  On paper, this team should be mediocre.  And there is no worse place, in sports, than to be ok.  But the team continues to win.  Even then, I convince myself that this is all mirage, and that they’re being lucky.  Their run differential is unfavorable, and it tells a narrative that the Mariners shouldn’t be this good.  They are lucky.  Not good.  This is not sustainable.

But we are now in mid-June and even the most critical pundits cannot take away wins that we have now deposited into the bank.  The numbers might explain the anomaly but the downfall of numbers is that they are merely abstract constructs and not realized, visceral pockets of unadulterated joy.

And in the defiance of everyone’s expectations (and their computers), this strange but wonderful derivative of last year’s team has even changed the cold and rigid projections.  We are now at a 70% chance of making the playoffs.  This means that there is still a 30% chance of not making it, but as a long time sufferer, I am going to put down my proverbial blue tooth headset, and appreciate the present team.  I’ve been a victim of my over analysis for too long, and to be frank, I think I need to step out from the dusty basement, close my 18 tabs of stats, and just enjoy this team.  I believe.  Good vibes from here on out.

There’s probably a convenient and pithy Gospel parallel here, but that’s for another day.  The Mariners just swept the Angels and I’m gonna take what I can get.

Go M’s!

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First Reformed: not really a review

I’m not going to feign like I am the gatekeeper of fine cinema; I can admit that I love movies and I consume a healthy dose of it, but I am aware that I lack the acumen in the areas of film and I am less of a connoisseur and more of a mouth-breathing, acne-laden lover of the craft.  Moviepass has been one of the greatest things to happen in my life.  It’s a buffet of movies (except not really).

I knew going in that this would be one of those movies that was more profound than pleasurable.  Not that all movies are one or the other, but it’s rare that a movie can interweave those two in a wonderful, symbiotic way.  Most cases, a movie is either entertaining or thought-provoking.  If you are an avid fan of the Fast and the Furious franchise, or if your favorite actor is the Rock, or if you wear jeans with white stitching, or if your go-to energy drink is Venom, then this movie is most likely not for you.

/end of pleasantries

I had been looking forward to watching First Reformed for quite some time.  The premise was what really piqued my interest; it was an intentional yet intimate peek into the psyche and glacial evolution of one Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke).  It’s almost incredible that someone with four Oscar nominations can be underrated, but he is.  Even though he was incredible in Training Day, Dead Poets’ Society (which is almost 30 years old), and Before Sunrise/Before Sunset/Before Midnight (the most underrated romantic movies), he is simply transcendent in his role.

As a man of the cloth myself, I was not only intrigued by the portrayal of the pastorate (and to be privy to all its potential internal torment that comes with the job), I was excited to see Paul Schrader work his magic.  Having a Calvinist background, I felt that this movie, both in story and aesthetic, was the proverbial sweet spot for Schrader.

On a smaller scale, I have become a huge Amanda Seyfried fan.  She has come a long way from her All My Children and Mean Girls days.  She has some serious acting chops.

But again, this is not a cinematic review; there are plenty out there.  Rather, I want to use this as a canvas to work out some things related to ministry and theology that the movie allowed certain deep-seeded, well, seeds to come into full bloom.  I’ll even format in an enumerated list.  You’re welcome.

1.  “Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind at the same time.”

Part of me wishes that I wrote this post as soon as I watched it because I would have a better recollection of my own thoughts and of the movie itself, but I have a condition called laziness.  I’m recovering, but it’s touch and go.

In the early parts of the film, Toller, at Mary’s (Seyfried) behest, counsels her husband.  Michael, who is a non-violent environmental zealot, struggles with the idea that he is bringing a child into a doomed planet.  He emotionally poses the question (paraphrased), how can one knowingly bring in a child that is going to be a barren wasteland?  How could one, in good conscience, bring someone into a burning house?

At face value, Michael is concerned with the deteriorating environment and it’s inevitable and irreversible plummet into an unlivable condition, but it points to a deeper and more common struggle: the lack of hope.

Pastorally, this is something that is hard to conjure up for people.  When I would struggle with my own “dark night of the soul”, the last thing I wanted to hear was “oh cheer up, buddy boy!  Christ is for you!  He died for you!  Have hope!”  It’s not that I did not believe in these truths.  It wasn’t that I did not comprehend it.  I know that flossing is beneficial with my mind, yet why do I avoid it like I avoid eye-contact?  It was that generic pill that was pastorally dispensed to me and everyone else, as if hope was a switch that I just had to spiritually turn on.

The whole movie deals with this juggling act of hope and despair.  The near two hour movie is seemingly an inner soliloquy, trying to resolve this tension.  But therein lies the rub: there really isn’t a neat and tidy resolution (to both the movie and this concept).  Hope is only as uplifting as when it is contrasted to the flagrant pangs of despair.

Over the years, I have made it a point to give up this notion that every single counseling session had to end with a pleasant resolution.  I am trying to be ok with leaving a meeting in dissonance.  I think that’s my way of trying to relinquish this savior complex but also having a macro view of each person’s unique story.  The ironic thing is, now that I’m sitting on this side of the table, I want to dispense the one-size-fits-all, John 3:16 truisms and expect it to grow into this strong oak tree of faith, but I’m realizing that part of my responsibility is to sit in the tricky tension, as one who also is in constant tension.

2.  Can God forgive us?  

This is a reoccurring question that is first asked to the theological expert, Toller, but then is deeply contemplative and ambivalent to the question.  Throughout the movie, you can see the precipitous decrescendo of his theological convictions.  When Toller was first asked, he sharply responds, “how can I know the mind of God?”  I’m not sure if that’s the most pastoral response, but if anything, is indicative of maybe his own spiritual wellbeing and a telltale sign of things to come.

When you’re in it, like really in it, the question that haunts me isn’t so much can God forgive us, but rather, will God forgive us.  The core issue of my doubt, that can sometimes seep into my theological tank, is not God’s ability, but God’s sympathy.  Both are equally offensive, but in a perverted way, doubting God’s sympathy almost seems more superficially pious because it’s my way of acting as a flagellant.  Not to spoil the movie, but I think that Toller is attempting to figure out the answer to that question; and through his own reflections, his own doubt leads to a more spirited efforts to make up for his transgressions.

3. “These kids, they want certainty. You know, they don’t think, follow. They fall prey to extremism. It’s a world without hope.”

The title of the movie is also the name of the historic church in which Rev. Toller ministers.  Having experienced the death of his son and the divorce of his wife, he is offered the position by Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer), the senior pastor at the overseeing megachurch (aptly named Abundant Life Church).

There’s a scene where Toller is answering a question about suffering and its correlation to one’s faith, and he says that the way of Jesus is not always the safest nor the smoothest journey; he proceeds to even say that the American way is not always the Jesus way.  And this triggers a young man to a point of white rage, and he accuses Toller of being unpatriotic and crazy.  This is, yet again, Schrader, touching on the interplay between hope and hopelessness, but I find it almost prophetic, being a casualty of my own extremism.  For me, ministry success needs have a certain aesthetic.  Don’t get me wrong; there are certain theological truths that are clearly black and white.  But when I’m in the grind of ministry, I feel like I have to give myself grace to find the victories in the grey.  Not only that, Jeffers refers to a thoughtless obedience as a byproduct of such automatic and fatalist philosophy.  As much as I want copious note taking, verbal affirmations, and even an intermittent “amen” or “preach, preacha!”, I don’t want lemmings; I would rather have people cultivate and harness the ability to think critically, pushback (graciously), and take ownership of the things they believe.  How much stronger, then, would one’s own theological convictions be?

4. Grace

This movie is more “Christian”, to me, then say something like God’s Not Dead.  Or God’s Not Dead 2.  Or God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness, set to come out later this year.  They really take the phrase “if at first you don’t succeed” to an insufferable level.  I feel the same way about Christian music.  I feel more spiritual when I listen to jazz then I do, say, Toby Mac.  But that’s neither here nor there.

First Reformed is far from a perfect film and is more uncomfortable than it is entertaining.  The grace aspects that pop up are hardly conspicuous and are only truly seen in hindsight after digesting what I had just watched.

Even though I have divulged quite a bit of the movie here, and not to give away even more of it (I feel like I’m offering the remaining two bites my sandwich), there are definite streams of grace that is beautifully yet subtly weaved throughout.  For instance, there are moments where Toller is tormented by his own theological thoughts, or he is consumed by this newfound conviction to be a caretaker for God’s creation, but there are moments in which those thoughts are silenced and he is present.  Those moments also happen to coincide with Mary’s presence, and I’m not sure what she is supposed to be a metaphor for, but I, too, have moments when I am in desperate need for intervention and a respite to quiet the never ending machinations of my mind.

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First Reformed was such a profound experience because it was a good but imperfect reflection of the things that I struggle with.  For example, how do I, as a minister of the Gospel, deal with my propensity to, not even look at the glass half empty, but complain that the glass is filled with water and not cold brew, brewed with beans from Ethiopia?  I don’t know.  The movie almost felt like a transcendental experience.  I mean, I’m not going to suddenly go on a retreat of solitude next to a lake, and start my own bean farm, but I was strangely encouraged.  Scratch that.  I am encouraged.  I am encouraged that even in my complicated and seemingly endless state of tension, plagued by my occasional doubts of God’s amazing grace in the form of his forgiveness, suffering from an all-or-nothing philosophy of ministry, and a struggle to allow my suffering to blot out the ability to see God’s grace, that it doesn’t change the fact that God’s grace is existent and that it is enough.

I’ll end with this gratuitous quotes (mainly because it’s so beautifully written) from one of my favorite film critics, Justin Chang of the LA Times:

First Reformed thus becomes a bitterly corrosive portrait of the conscientious Christian as environmental warrior-revolutionary, in which a lonely man of God is not just disillusioned but radicalized against the institution that called him forth…The ending, with its stark commingling of horror and grace, refutes that fear without banishing it entirely. Early on in the movie, Toller says, “Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind at the same time.” And so it is with First Reformed, which is finally fulfilled rather than torn apart by its contradictions. It is a cinephile’s delight and a believer’s conundrum, an austere American art film with a bracing B-movie soul, and a story in which the cruelest of cosmic punchlines may finally be no different from the most beautiful accession of grace.

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I am Christian Laettner

I must first preface things by preemptively apologizing for yet another pithy sports analogy.  They say a good writer knows his/her audience, but my readership is not so much an audience as it is a faithful few who graciously drop in a few sympathy coins in my withering paper cup that is my psyche.  That is, for those keeping score at home, my strange way of saying thanks.

Secondly, like many analogies, there are several places in which it falls short.  So poke holes, as you please, but I’ve already beat you to the punch of telling you that it is not a perfect comparison.  Boom shakka lakka.

Consider this your warning.  Now on to the good stuff.

I guess there’s no better time to tell you that God has been good to me.  That is true on many levels.  First, there is no better time because every moment is a great time to proclaim God’s goodness.  But through the lens of my self-infatuation, God is only good when my circumstances are favorable.  I’m still working through that.  I want an objective view of God’s blessings.  I’ll let you know when I’ve mastered that discipline.

But specifically, God has been good by providing me a great opportunity to do ministry in San Francisco.  I’m a bit apprehensive, but I’m also excited.  Excitement does not frequent this wounded heart of mine.  I don’t want to say that I’m jaded from my past experiences, but I can feel my heart vacillate between Gospel-centered realism and a sinful unbelief.  And so it is quite a statement when I say that I am excited for this next venture.

Even in my short time getting to know the other pastors, I am most excited to be around such a gifted group of men who have been relatively demonstrative in their excitement to have me on board.  On a side note, it’s weird what small affirmations can do to your heart when you’ve been without it for a prolonged time and have been resigned to a thankless, “audience of one” type of ministry.  And then it dawned on me: I’ve made it; I’ve made the Dream Team.

Before 1992, the Olympics had banned professional athletes to participate in the games.  But in that year, they finally allowed NBA players to play for their country.  Thus, the Dream Team was assembled.  To this day, it is recognized as the most talented basketball team that had been assembled.  Every member (except one) are members of the Basketball Hall of Fame due to their NBA careers.  When you have players of the ilk of Jordan, Magic, Bird, that is like having a retreat with guest speakers such as Spurgeon and Llyod-Jones and having Matt Chandler as a back up just in case.  And now I have alienated everyone.

But the one concession that the Dream Team had to make was to include one amateur player, and thus Christian Laettner was invited (over Shaq, which makes this comparison even more relevant).  It’s one thing to be a great college player, but to run scrimmages and play in games with living legends must have been such a surreal and out-of-body experience for this wide-eyed 21-year-old.  Can you imagine the types of emotions that rushed through his entire body?

Most people will associate Laettner for being one of the greatest college players ever.  Cemented by the documentary “I Hate Christian Laettner”, some will consider him the dirtiest player of all time.  However, I will always associate Laettner with his immortal place on the greatest assembled team of all time.  You cannot take that away from him.  To my surprise, he actually had some playing time in the Olympics, but methinks he got the garbage time because the US team was up by so many points (they beat Angola 116-48).

So when people ask me how I feel about my move down to San Francisco, I say that I feel like I’m Christian Laettner playing on the Dream Team.  There’s a 90% chance that the reference will be lost on them and a 95% chance that the conversation trails off into your run of the mill small talk.  When I shared this epiphany to my staff, it was greeted with both an appreciation for the nostalgic 90’s basketball reference and an uproar of laughter.  My appreciation for their appreciation for 90’s basketball gives me more joy than I’d like to admit.  They laugh, though, not because the comparison is funny, but because of the hilarious notion that they would be considered the spiritual Jordans, Magics, and Birds of today.  And it is with that sense of humility that makes me even more floored, humbled, and motivated to be a part of a team moving forward.  I may never be considered one of the greats, but when I’m older and grayer, and when I retrospectively look at this time, fondly, I want to look back and say I might not have done much, but I was a part of something great.  I will always forgo individual accolades for collective success.  I’m Christian Laettner, and I’m more than fine with that title.

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My Future Just Passed

I just came back from a much needed respite that came in the form of a pastors’ retreat.  It was refreshing to hear some honest testimonies of seasoned veterans and it was a great reminder to constantly be in fellowship with other burdened ministers of the Gospel.  The one thing that was a bit challenging was the social aspect.  Old friends coming together, passionately embracing each other, and I’m suddenly taken back to the fake texting days of my youth.  Don’t get me wrong, the retreat was great.  If I were to give it a grade, I’d give it a unflinching 94%.

I did, by God’s grace, have a few meaningful conversations.  More than anything, I think all three of us were feeling the overwhelming deluge of social anxiety, and we just galvanized over the fact.  Surprised, or rather refreshed by each other’s candor, we were able to cover various topics including our story thus far.  What was striking, in retrospect, was the drastic difference in tenor and even tense.  The two brothers, both in their twenties (one of them at a ripe age of 22), spoke of their future plans and the wonderful things they want to accomplish.  They spoke , brimming with an untainted and almost naive confidence, about what they want to accomplish in the future.  There was an instilled sense of unrealized potential that they were eager to get into, something like a new bag of chips (or Takis, if that’s your jam).  And here I am, speaking mostly in present and past tense, already allowing the air of my few years of ministry stale away what my twenties.  It was in that moment in which I realized that the once young version of myself, having graduated seminary at 26, that my untapped potential and ambitious dreams for God had now become my inescapable and banal reality.

It’s a harrowing pill to swallow.  I felt like a top prospect (self-proclaimed, obviously) who was now battling to stay on the 25-man roster.  They say that a pastor’s prime is in their 40’s, but that was a far cry from how I felt.  It didn’t help that on the last night of the retreat, they broke up the groups by age brackets (20’s, 30’s, and 40’s) and prayed for each group.  I was already feeling more existential than usual, but to have miss the cut by a year was a simple reminder that my future has passed.  I joked with my other staff members that I longed to be a part of the 20’s group because of the nature of the prayers.  The tenor of those prayers were both futuristic and hopeful.  And the tenor of the prayers for the older guys revolved around words like consistency and faithfulness.  I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel like faithfulness is like the ultimate euphemism when describing a pastor.  It’s the equivalent of “good personality” or better yet, “interesting”.  It feels like a participation ribbon.

But I think there is grace in peeling back the veil of romanticized ministry.  I think there is something oddly wonderful in being liberated from my own self-imposed shackles of ambition and goal markers.  “My Future Just Passed” is not just a provocative click bait (all 25 clicks that I usually get), but it is a title of one of my favorite Chet Baker songs.  Chet Baker is probably my favorite artists of all time, and the album “She Was Too Good to Me” is my favorite album of his.  What makes the song so powerful, similar to “This is America”, is not so much the musicality of it, but the message and story behind it.  Chet Baker was this promising, up-and-coming trumpeter, having received rave reviews for his virtuoso trumpet playing.  Some called him the next Miles Davis.  He was Eminem before Eminem.  But due to some run ins with drug dealers, he lost his two front teeth.  Now, if you know anything about brass instruments, trying to play without your two front teeth is impossible because you are pressing against the center of your lips, and without any stopper there, it would simply be too hard.

Several years later, he had to relearn how to play an instrument that came so easy.  He had to rebuild his reputation as a lover of jazz.  All this while still battling his addicting to heroine.  And thus was born my favorite album of his.  The song “My Future Just Passed” refers to his realization of the ephemeral nature of his romantic relationships, especially his most recent wife Jane, but I think the essence of the song is applicable to me.

There goes the girl I dreamed all through school about,
There goes the girl I’ll now be a fool about
Ring down the curtain, I’m certain at present
My future just passed.
Don’t even know if she has been spoken for.
If she is tied, the ties must be broken, for
Life can’t be that way, to wake me then break me
My future just passed.
Stars in the blue, tho’ you’re at a distance
You can at least do this,
Sometimes a boy encounters resistance
Help me to win this miss.
Here are my arms, may she find illusion there.
Look in my heart, there is no confusion there
Now that I’m loving, I’m living at last,
My future just passed

The song beings with two verses of this realization.  It sounds resigned and regretful.  It sounds youthful and foolishly aspiring.  But the last verse, although it ends with the same refrain, offers up a bit more redemption.  Yes, my future has passed, but perhaps that is not the future I need nor want.  There’s a levity to his conclusion.  Some critics say that the most haunting and beautiful music that Baker had produced was after this incident.  I certainly agree.  Yet on paper, it could be argued that he fell short of where his initial trajectory had projected him to go.

And I guess that’s where I’m at now.  And I’m ok with that.  I’m not exactly enthralled by the idea that most of my 30’s will consist in the confines of a character-refining crucible and that the economy of such pruning involves the ministry grind.  But that’s why it’s a beautiful struggle, I suppose.  My 20’s are over, and as I enter into the fray that is my 30’s, maybe my ideals and ministry goals aren’t what they used to be, I think that as long as I stay faithful to what is asked of me (with the requisite discernment), to show up, and do it alongside some brothers who will love on me, then I think that’s a future I’m ok with.  Maybe my ideas of my future were constructs of my own sinful desires, and a future that is forged by the infinitely wise God (who, let’s be honest, shows such wisdom in a quite creative/unorthodox ways), then I’m ok with that.  My future just passed and I’m here to be faithful in the present.

DMX speaks to me

I grew up thinking that a life of piety involved a complete immersion of all things “Christian”.  This was more of an external theological pedagogy as opposed to an innate and intuitive theological foundation.  So you can almost imagine the perpetual tension I was at.  This was especially tragic because the Christian versions of everything was a precipitously poorer derivative of whatever it was meant to emulate.  People hate on Nickelback, but DC Talk and Third Day do not age well.  I love Delirious but it has now transitioned into the dreaded “guilty pleasure” territory.  That’s a lie actually; Delirious is so obscure that they don’t even register as something worthy of derision.

For the most of my formative days as a youth, I was a closeted hip-hop head.  (Christian hip-hop is on a different level of laughable emulation.  Lecrae: great believer, terrible rapper.  Don’t @ me because I don’t have Twitter).  DMX was great because he had the gift of gab but also the gift of hype.  He provided the soundtrack for my ever-seldom workouts and my rage drives.  But he would interweave some Christian elements that would scratch the Christian itch.

I’m in a season of life where discernment is always a fuzzy area where we confuse “God’s Will” with what youngins refer to as “the feels”.  And so I’ve been listening to a lot of DMX lately, specifically one of his more famous tracks titled “Lord Give Me a Sign”.  Here is a running (pithy) commentary on his profound pertinence in this unique time of my life:

Before the song begins, DMX (or Earl Simmons which does not sound as intimidating as DMX), thought it to quote some scripture.  I am always a fan of quoting the Bible (in context).

Yeah, uh
In the name of Jesus
(That’s right)
No weapon formed against me shall prosper
(Preach)
And every tongue that shall rise against me in judgment thou shalt condemn
(Preach)
(Lord give me a sign)
For this is the heritage of the servants of the Lord
(Preach)
And their righteousness is of me, said the Lord
(Preach)
Amen

First off, it seems as if DMX is using the New King James Version (with slight alterations).  I don’t know if he did his own translation or exegetical legwork, but I can respect that.  But my question is, I wonder if he read Isaiah 53 prior to quoting Isaiah 54:17.  It’s as if DMX was going through some difficult times, and isolated a passage to assuage his own difficult situation.  I don’t know.  And it’s weird that he himself is affirming his own self-quote with intermittent smatterings of “preach” and “amen”.  I wish I had my own sampling pad of my own recordings of “preach preacha!” when I feel especially led on certain insights.  Can you image the extra level of blessings that I would heap on the congregation?

Lord give me a sign!
I really need to talk to you Lord
Since the last time we talked the work has been hard
Now I know you haven’t left me
But I feel like I’m alone
I’m a big boy now but I’m still not grown
And I’m still going through it
Pain and the hurt
Soaking up trouble like rain in the dirt

Isn’t that the resounding cry of our hearts?  Sometimes the issue with my walk with God is less about my heart to obey and more about my malfunctioning discernment radar.

Also, I can respect DMX’s candor; he is aware of the need for conversation but confesses that it’s been a minute.

I am far from being the judge on what’s cool or not, but I don’t think referring to yourself as a big boy garners you any street cred.  But I guess if you’re oozing of so much street cred that you can afford to call yourself a big boy.

Only I can stop the rain
With just the mention of my saviors name
In the name of Jesus!
Devil I rebuke you for what I go through
And trying make me do what I used to
But all that stops right here
As long as the Lords in my life I will have no fear

I kind of cringe when I hear rhetoric that uses the name of Jesus as a passcode to do miraculous deeds.  With that said, I can respect that he is aware of his past life and is actively and presently trying to wage war on that.  And he is aware that it by God’s grace in which all of this can be realized.  I see you X!

I will know no pain from the light to the dark
I will show no shame spit it right from the heart
Cause it is right from the start
But you held me down
And ain’t nothing they can tell me now
Lord give me a sign!

I don’t know if DMX is intentionally being ironic, but in this song of wanting a sign, he retrospectively looks at his life and recognizes God’s been holding him down since the start.  If you couple that with a shameless and honest sharing of his own life, I would say that those are pretty conspicuous signs on God’s part.  But then again, nothing helps you forget past blessings quite like present tribulations (that are more often a result of our own disobedience than real trials).

Let me know what’s on your mind
Let me know what I’m gone find
It is all the time
Show me how to teach the mind
Show me how to reach the blind
Lord give me a sign!
Show me what I gots to do
To bring me closer to you
Cause I’m gonna go through
Whatever you want me to
Just let me know what to do
Lord give me a sign!

The hook, the thesis of what DMX is trying to get at, is a noble prayer.  It’s missional, it’s devotional, and it’s something that I’ve been desiring in my life: clarity on the economy of my obedience.   My only qualm with it, and I’m nitpicking here, is the overly aggressive and demand-like phrase.  Couldn’t he have been more diplomatic?  Something to to effect of “Dear Lord, perchance, could you reveal the path in which you desire for me to walk?”  Then again, when your in it, it’s pretty hard to remain calm.

Please show me something
I’m tired of talking to him
Knowing he fronting
Crying bout life ain’t nothin’
But you either be the one mad cause you trapped, or the one huntin’
Trapped in your own mind waiting on the Lord
Or hunting with the word that cuts like a sword
The spoken word is stronger than the strongest man
Carries the whole world like the strongest hand

I don’t know who DMX is referring to.  Is he referring to his past self?  Some friend?  Either way I can relate to the spectrum of one who is really in the thick of things.  The crippling inner torment of over analysis or the going on the offensive with a new wave of conviction.  I like the allusion to Bible being the sword too.  DMX is definitely more profound that I give him credit for.

Through the trials and tribulations you never let us down
Jesus!
I know your here with us now
Jesus!
I know your still wit us now
Keep it real with us now
I wanna feel show me how, please!
Let me take your hand, guide me
I’ll walk slow but stay right beside me
Devil’s tryna find me
Hide me, hold up I take that back
Protect me and give me the strength to fight back!
(Lord give me a sign!)

Isn’t it a shame that we really only appreciate God’s blessings and provisions in hindsight?  I wonder how God feels about that.

Life or death
Live or die
I will never live a lie
I’m going there cause I try
I wont quit until I die
I’m gone make it wrong or right
Make it through the darkest night
When the morning comes you’ll see
All I have is God in me
(Lord give me a sign!)

I don’t know what “there” refers to, but my guess is heaven.  If he is, is he promoting a works-based righteousness?  I don’t know.  But in light of his deep struggle, he redeems the entire song with the very answer to his demand: that God is in him.  I think that’s the hope in our wading in the tension that we call the Christian life.  That we will have intermittent realizations of these wonderful truths as we process and even put labels on the things we are seemingly engulfing us as we struggle to juggle even the mundane things in our life.

I don’t know if this was simply an artistic choice, but I find it fitting that even in light of the wonderful uncovering of DMX’s newfound conviction, that he still ends with “Lord Give Me a Sign!”  I mean it gives some sort of musical symmetry, but isn’t that a glimpse into our spirituality?  We won’t get blessed unless God threads the proverbial needle to fit the precise dimensions of what we need, and God, in his far superior wisdom (and creativity), blesses and we still demand for signs.

But then again, maybe this song is better left unspoken for and more profitable for a weight lifting session.

Overthinking

I don’t know if it’s my pride talking, but I kind of like overthinking.  I know.  It makes a situation harder than it needs to be, adds on anxiety, hastens the fuse of my aggravation, makes me appear pretentious, it’s haughty, and…wait, why do I like it again?  I guess I like the feeling of having a more sophisticated and erudite take on all things life.  Don’t associate me with other philistines and their simpleton’s desire for the drab.  (I’m just kidding, for those that don’t have a built-in sarcasm radar on your Google Chrome.) 

I was texting with a friend last night during the final moments of the Oscar’s.  I’ve always appreciated his take on film, mainly he’s affirmed most of my opinions on film, which is a selfish reason to like anyone’s opinion, but I’ve said it and now let’s move on.  But I appreciate his opinion more now that he graduated from film school and is aiming to work in the “biz”, as they say.  But as we were texting, I realized one stark difference in his take on movies since our undergraduate days: he was definitely more critical.  And I don’t think he was critical in the worst sense.  Like, he isn’t the berating P.E. coach that rips into you when you don’t run a 5-minute mile.  He’s critical as a result of being a recipient of good pedagogy of all things film.   I don’t blame him.  He, now, has a much more elevated lens in which he defines a “good movie”.  He has so many more filters in which he distills a movie.  He has to evaluate the authenticity and credibility of the characters and the dialogue.  He has to observe the quality of the cohesion and plot development.  The tuning fork that is now embedded in his mental checklist is so fine tuned that it almost takes on a curmudgeon-esque tone.  And I think that’s great.  For him to appreciate movies on a higher plane is something that I don’t think I can ever exist in.  

But at what point is overthinking criticisms a detriment to ourselves?  When does the analysis end and enjoyment take over?  This friend of mine was visibly (or as visible one can be in a text message) upset over La La Land’s near win of best picture.  He was so elated that the movie didn’t win.  The kind of relief he expressed is the kind of relief you get when your professor allows you to use a note card for your final.  And I almost felt stupid for peeping, “I liked it.”  I felt like so bad I also had to follow up by texting, “don’t kill me”.  And I realized that although this dear brother of mine has gained many tools to become a writer in the film industry (I am writing it like this because it’s going to happen), it seems that it is also put him in a stratosphere where it is increasingly harder to simply just enjoy a movie without any qualifications.  And that’s a tough place to be.  

This is not a critique, however, of my friend.  I am actually thankful for his microscopic and meticulous take on film.  It challenges my own ignorant opinions and helps me grow.  At the same time, I want to also watch “Dumb and Dumber”.  Can I like “Dumb and Dumber” and still have a high palate for film?  I don’t know.  

bcf
Here’s me, trying to analyze a praise song.

I realize seminary did the same thing to me.  I don’t blame seminary, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that as I become more learned in theology, I’ve also become much more critical about things of the church.  Ask my wife.  I am a walking, talking asterisk.  I am an overthinking theologian who always has to have an addendum to a statement.  I used to love Hillsong worship songs.  Now I have to dissect it like a frog and break it down to see if it is theologically sound.  I used to love retreats and alter calls.  Now I treat it like a fat kid treats kale.  I used to love WWJD paraphernalia and bible covers, but I’d never be caught dead in them.  I used to read the The Message.  Now I’m ESV or bust.  

I hate what I’ve become.  How do I silence this ticking mechanism that is obsessive over all things?  The worst part of it is (and a real reflection of my own sin), is that it’s really hard for me to get blessed from some sermons.  Rather than receiving the words of life, I find myself making a checklist to see if it’s preached in context, or if he is preaching from the text at all (or using it as a jumping off point for his own opinions).  Did the preacher give a solid application for me to take home?  It’s bad.  And I’m a recovering sinner who’s trying to find my way back.  I want to be that young kid who was so enamored with the Gospel, that the Gospel is truly all that I wanted.  I miss the days in which I would be so blessed by Francis Chan’s Crazy Love.  I miss being so easily moved by God’s love.  Would I even like Blue Like Jazz, if I read it today in my current state?  I’d probably called Donald Miller a crazy person because of his view of the church and he’s not “reformed enough” (although I wouldn’t because I still love him).  In a not forced example, the most elevated form of sushi, one would argue, is just the fish itself.  If the fish is good enough, it is not necessary to serve it with tempura flakes and spicy mayo.  But I’ve become to guy who orders the Super Saiyan Seattle Roll with extra tobiko and then thrice fried.  Where have I gone wrong? 

There’s a lot of parallels between the chefs and pastors.  Every time I watch a culinary show, it sometimes leads me to a rabbit hole of reflection on my own journey as a pastor.  I recently binged a show called Ugly Delicious.  I am a huge fan of David Chang and I think he’s a genius.  I really appreciated the main thrust of the show, in which he challenges the precocious culinary world that good food also has to be pristine in its presentation.  (On a side note, it’s really weird to see an old youth group friend married to him and on the show).  

In the first episode, the talks about pizza and David talks to Mark Iacono, who is, in his own right, a pizza making legend.  But David brings up the idea of Domino’s Pizza, Mark almost writhes in disgust.  He not only denounces such a poor excuse of a pizza, but says that other pizzas such as ones with salads and other ingredients are flatbread and not pizza.  Here I am, watching the episode (whilst in the season of Lent in which is self-imposed cruelty), and thinking, “I like Domino’s”.  David, as the mastermind behind the show, champions the cause for the franchise, even calling it good for what it is.  As a James Beard award winner and considered one of the more important chefs in the world, genuinely likes Domino’s pizza.  

I want to be in that place where I can simultaneously push the envelope of my own learning and appreciation of the sophisticated, but be humble enough (especially in this Lenten season), to appreciate the most basic, simple and trite sayings.  What a shame it would be if the most familiar phrases or lyrics no longer touched the cockles of my heart?  

This is something that I have been eschewing for so long, but I am reminded of the first Sunday school song I learned as a child.  Let it be enough.  

Jesus loves me this I know
For the Bible tells me so
Little ones to him belong
They are weak but he is strong
Yes Jesus loves me
Oh, yes Jesus loves me
Yes Jesus loves me for the Bible tells me so

 

 

 

Perspective pt. II

It’s been a few months since I was let go.  It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve been coping.  I’ve been coping in the form of copious amounts of carbs, but coping nonetheless.  A strawberry Pop Tart can be the kindest of companions.  A buttery, flaky croissant is more coveted then a massage.  But writing is a forsaken therapy too.

One source of solace has come from some providential fellowship with some other PCA pastors in the area.  Even though I am not ordained in the PCA, I was invited to participate by a dear brother who was responsible for guiding me to go to Covenant Seminary many years ago.   And by participate, I really mean act as a wallflower and absorb the precious pearls of wisdom coming from pastors who have done ministry longer than I have lived.  With that, however, comes with a sense of insecurity too; while these guys are quoting the most obscure books and pontificating on the nuances of theological truths that I am still wrestling with, I am sitting there, feeling like I don’t belong.  On one hand I’m grateful that I’m invited to absorb things, but I almost feel like one of those kids who get to play a game of HORSE with an NBA player–it’s quite an honor but I know cannot compete.  I know this is an all-too-familiar scathing voice but the feelings of inadequacies definitely surface.  But that’s not the point.

In my previous post, I talked about perspective (specifically the lack thereof).  I struggle with perspective similar to how I struggle with uni.  I want to love uni and I feel like to qualify as a true foodie I have to broadcast my love for uni, but I just struggle to love it like I love a steak.  Usually the meetings consist of very intellectual and socially conscious discussions, but the most recent meeting took on a different tenor.  We had a local pastor, Andrew, come and speak on perspective, essentially.  If you have time, I encourage you to watch/listen to his testimony here.  It will help you put things into perspective.

To give a little background, Andrew was called to church plant, which is a trying endeavor.  As he was embarking on this call, he found himself constantly tired.  He thought that it was the stress of planting a church, but his condition continued to get worse.  At the behest of his wife, he begrudgingly decided to go to the hospital to have the doctor look at what he initially thought was the flu.  But on February 23 2016, the CT scan revealed that Andrew had stage IV lung cancer.  Four days later, the doctors gave him a 3 month prognosis.  More than a year later, here he was sitting among us, talking about how good God has been to Andrew.  And I’m sitting there, simply aghast at my own pettiness, complaining about things that now seem trivial.

His story isn’t unique.  Many people have been affected by cancer and it is one of things that has carries with it, a crippling and ominous feeling.  But what was so powerful was the unwavering stench of faith in his testimony.  There were times in his testimony, where he would refer to his death, as if it were imminent.  He had already bought the coffin, which I can assume would be the most eerie purchase anyone can make.  He is figuring out the right words to tell his daughter.  It was strange.  But here is, praising God and giving thanks, and imploring everyone else to do ministry with that heart.

Another aspect about his testimony that pierced my own callous heart was his current ministry–to his family.  I can’t speak for other pastors, but I would feel completely lost and useless if I weren’t doing ministry.  Part of that comes from the self-entitlement I got when I graduated seminary (which I am trying rid of).  But part of it also comes from how I define myself: I find worth in preaching and other ministry related duties.  Andrew spoke on that, and for awhile, he felt completely useless and out of sorts.  But God graciously shifted his focus where his ministry was now to his family, even making repairs on the scars that exist from his overexertion in church work beforehand.  And he says that it has been the sweetest ministry he has experienced thus far.  I had to repent upon hearing Andrew’s testimony about the mistakes he has made regarding his family.  Even in my relatively short time of being a pastor, I find the temptation to choose ministry over family enticing.  Suffer and sacrifice for the church, as my parents’ generation would say.

A final note regarding my reflections on the work that God has been doing in the life of Andrew: in a sick and twisted way, I was overcome with a momentary envy of Andrew’s cancer.  It’s not so much that I wanted the disease itself, though; rather, I want the profound and the slew of lessons he has learned, and the intimacy and depth in his relationship with God.  In the past few years, I feel stymied by my own overthinking and over complicating ministry.  I find myself addicted to embellishing on a simple yet beautiful truth of Christ resurrected, mainly as a way to shield and overcompensate for my insecurities.  In that moment, I wanted to have what Andrew had.  How messed up is that?  Swift is the perversion of my heart.

Andrew boldly stated that he wouldn’t change anything.  Could I have that same courage?  Probably not.  And in the few hours with a bunch of men, mouths agape, Andrew is both asking the question, “is the Gospel enough?” and in light of his condition, unapologetically affirming it.   He’s lived it.  He’s living it.  As I ask my question that, I want to say “yes, the Gospel is enough”.  I am preaching on John 4 this Sunday, and how providential.

Andrew shared that he has been reading through a book called Farewell to His Friends and Church by Adolphe Monod.  He was a French Protestant preacher in the 19th Century, and like Andrew, was diagnosed with a terminal disease.  In his last days, he would preach sermons to his friends, and thankfully, they had transcribed his last words.  I want to quote him, sans commentary, that nicely wraps up everything that I wanted to convey: I am to take ownership, but I am not the owner.

If we act in this spirit (I say it with deep reverence), our vocation is God’s affair
rather than our own—it is His work, and not ours; and the activity, the individual
exertion that God always requires of us, consists only in following where He leads,
in a spirit of faithful and childlike obedience. In that we shall find perfect peace.
God cannot mislead us. We are often tormented with the thought, that we do not do
enough, or that we do amiss, or that we do not do the work which God appointed
for us.

During the first weeks that followed the declaration of the doctors (that my disease
was beyond their skill), I recollect how much I was troubled by the idea that my
work was not done. By the grace of God I am now delivered from these thoughts,
because I understand that is not my work, but God’s; and I acknowledge that, by the
sufferings and the afflictions He has sent me, and by the hope of eternal life that
will follow, the Lord teaches me to exercise a new ministry, probably a more
important one than what I had purposed, and at all events more sure, because it
comes more directly from the hand of God, who mercifully constrains me to walk
in this path for His service and glory. It is in such cases that we can say, like Jesus
Christ before He suffered death, “I have finished the work thou gavest me to do.”
And why could he say that? Because He sought only to do the work of God, and
God withdrew Him, as a ripe fruit is gathered, when His mission was accomplished.

To God be the glory.