Sunday, May 25, 2014

pastors and expectations [living life without expectations]

My sweet friend over at Kansas Bob suggested I write about this topic, and I hardy feel like an expert, since I am not a pastor. But I have seen the inner workings of a few churches and have seen the struggle pastors go through in leading a church. And the biggest of those struggles, most certainly, involves expectations.

I believe the most damaging expectation I’ve seen people have of their pastors, interestingly, also seems to be an umbrella for all other expectations and it’s this: that pastors are to be all things to all people.

[But that’s in the Bible, Stephanie! How can it be a damaging expectation?]

Simple: context. Paul wrote that in 1 Corinthians regarding his missionary work: to convert Jews. He was a Jew, raised in a Gentile culture. His purpose in life was to evangelize. Not pastor. He related to others so that some might be saved. Is this all that different from what it means to actually pastor a church, though? A good and fair question, and certainly as I’ve witnessed a lot of under and over functioning leaders in church, I’ve had to ask myself, “What is required?”

I’ve heard some say that a pastor is not a shepherd. Jesus is the ultimate shepherd of the church and the pastor is to be a sheepdog. I could not disagree with this more. This implies the pastor’s primary function is to just herd and guard the sheep. For a quick easy pop culture reference, think back to Babe, and how the sheep dogs just yelled [barked] to get the sheep to move and go. I don’t want a pastor to lead me that way and I certainly don’t see how the description of an elder in Titus and 1st Timothy support this theory.

But a shepherd? A shepherd tends. He feeds. He goes after the lost… he oversees. Oversees with love and care. Tending and feeding a flock is much different than simply herding and guarding.

Is he required to do this alone? No. That’s why there are staff members and ministry leaders in the church to help out. Because when a pastor tries to do it all himself, he turns into a superhero leader. The problem is exacerbated when we have superhero expectations of our pastor and think he should do it all.

Rarely would you hear a person use that term “hero” to describe their pastor, but if you listen to them talk about him, you’ll hear it. “That sermon was amazing. I don’t know how he does it!” “His family is so precious. They are doing such a good job of raising those kids! It's wonderful!”

And then there is the negative side of this superhero pedestal. “I can’t believe he hasn’t called me back yet. He’s my pastor!” “Did you hear about what he said about so and so?” or the “Did you hear what he did?” or the “I can’t believe he hangs out with________” followed closely by, “That isn’t appropriate for a pastor.”

This is tricky, because should pastors be held to a high standard? Yes. Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. (James 3:1)

But we often fail to quote the following verse (we tend to do that when it doesn’t help drive our point home): For we all stumble in many ways...

It’s hard for men to fail. Perhaps because in the garden, they not only failed God and themselves, but they also failed Eve. The everyday failures of life have to do with the expectations men have of themselves, their family has of them, and then you add this whole group of people that pay your salary? That is not easy to deal with, and because pastors often have a deep feeling personality type, it can become consuming for them.  The superhero mentality forms. When there is failure, they are judged harshly that I’ve seen pastors form a hard shell around themselves, compartmentalizing their lives so that their life looks good on the outside, no matter what is going on inside. (Yikes… Matthew 23:27, anyone?)

And as long as we as congregation members perpetuate the superhero expectation, pastors will continue to feel the pressure to become that superhero.

Going on vacation? Too bad. I need you to come back and do my grandmother’s funeral. 

We have deacons and associate pastors in our church? Doesn’t matter. I want the senior pastor to visit me in the hospital.

I’m going through a tough time, and my church friends are being really supportive, but after all that I’ve done for the church, shouldn’t the senior pastor reach out to me?

We expect our pastors to:

  •          Preach a killer sermon each week.
  •          Have a perfect family with well-behaved children.
  •         Have a wife that either runs the children’s ministry or plays piano in worship.
  •          Be available at the drop of a hat.
  •          Help us when we expect it. But in the ways we want, not in the ways that he deems best.

We expect them to be plumbers, electricians, custodians, singers, intellectuals, comedians, best-selling authors…

… relatable, down-to-earth, walking encyclopedias about the Bible, teachers, shepherds, administrators, hospice care workers, counselors…

Did I miss anything? I’m pretty sure I did.

We may say, “I know pastors are human beings.” But when the rubber meets the road and that pastor acts like a human being (and maybe even falls off his white horse) we struggle with it. When he doesn’t do what we want, all of a sudden he isn’t a good pastor.

Shouldn’t he know better? He’s a man of God. He’s a pastor.

This is sobering. It’s sobering because I’ve witnessed it, I’ve felt it and I’ve done it. That’s not okay. Change must start with me. I’m not done on this topic, I don’t think. It’s time for me to examine myself and we’ll see what the Holy Spirit says. Because change always starts with one.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

shame and expectations [living life without expectations]

Have you ever been at a crossroads with a friend? Where you are sensing that the friendship just isn’t good for you and that it’s time to set it down and leave it behind?

I’ve been in that place a few times. I think I may be approaching it right now. And as I sat down to write my next post on expectations, I saw that the next topic on my list was about shame. And because I’m me, I found a connection between the two.

The famous “vulnerability TED” BrenĂ© Brown did a second TED talk called “Listening to Shame” and when I first made the list of topics to write about on living life without expectations, I wrote, from her talk, “Vulnerability is not weakness. It’s courage.” I’m not entirely sure I know what I was thinking when I connected it to the idea of living life without expectations, but I do know that right now, in my own life, there is significant shame connected to the expectations I have with the aforementioned friend.

This shame looks embarrassing. I picture it living in the corner of some room in my heart, all shriveled up and pathetic. Hiding from that side of me that wants, more than ever, to grab a shotgun and blow it up. But it’s also in there smirking, knowing that I won’t have the courage to do that, because every time I walk into that room it HURTS with every fiber of my being.

I stand at this crossroad, and one road is labeled “this is probably bad for you” and the other road says ‘I really love them and want them in my life.” I am feeling shame. I am remembering the times I was vulnerable and honest with them. I am remembering the times they promised something and how they didn’t come through, and I feel stupid for believing them. I am remembering the expectations I had that caused me disappointment. And I. am. ashamed.

Shame focuses not on the behavior (like guilt) but focuses on the self. I feel shame because of this friend, which means that I am ashamed of who I am. Honestly, if I can parse this, I am ashamed of who I am with them. Yikes. That’s a whole other post.

I’ve allowed myself to be vulnerable with this friend and they let me down. I trusted them with some hard things, and the only return I get are a few text messages. (And a failure to acknowledge my birthday. I’m trying not to behave like a 12 year old here, but, alas, I am.)

I opened up myself to a person who I thought deserved it. And I am so very ashamed at just how wrong I was. Yes, I have expectations. I worry sometimes they are unfair to the other person. I’m also concerned that not having the rights ones are unfair to me.

“Vulnerability is our most accurate measure of courage.” This statement of hers blows me away, but then I remember what courage looks like. Today, we are so fearful of people really seeing us that I believe the gutsiest thing you can do is to let someone in. But when rejection comes, that shame grows. It may still hide in the corner, but it gets bigger. It stands up straighter, gets a little bolder, and before you know it, it’s looking you right in the eye and saying, “You are not enough.”

Get me my shotgun.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

some thoughts on Noah, God’s Not Dead and art [part 2]

Does God really need someone to defend his honor?

That is the question I’ve been asking myself since I watched God’s Not Dead. I’m still not sure I have the answer yet, because I know in my heart it is not a “yes or no” simple kind of answer. But that is the question the movie left me with, and partially because of the arrogance and presumption that God does need someone to defend him is stated in the film. Are we called to defend our faith? (Of course. The Bible tells me so.) But the thought that God needs anything from us causes a holy and righteous anger in me, because I believe in an omnipotent God. He doesn’t need a thing from me. But he does want something from me. It may be all semantics… but important ones, because wrong semantics can shift our view of God. And there are just so many dangers in this.

Which is just one of the many issues I have with God’s Not Dead. Bad theology will always be something I desire to fight against, and mainstream Evangelical Christianity has a plethora of it. Spend 30 minutes listening to the lyrics on K-LOVE and you’ll get a solid dose right there.

I was warned about God’s Not Dead. From people whose opinion I trust and don’t trust; they are thinking Christians both conservative and liberal alike in their political and theological beliefs. Which I found fascinating. Since seeing the movie and expressing my opinions on it, I’ve been “beat up” for that opinion by those who loved the movie, which I guess isn’t too surprising. But I guess I also hoped to find places of grace and open dialogue where all opinions and thoughts could be expressed about film as art. I forget that not too many Christians see it like this. They defend a movie because it has the label of “Christian” and all the bad stuff is forgiven or glossed over for the sake of the message. Is this the end justifying the means? Of course it is. I grieve at the lost art of critical thinking, particularly in the baby boomer generation, when it comes to art that has the label of “Christian.” (This is not meant to stereotype, but it has certainly been the majority of my experience at this point in my life, and was certainly proved with the conversations I’ve had about God’s Not Dead.)

Which honestly brings me right back around to my question: does God need someone to defend his honor?

Unlike this movie, I do not think every non-Christian is evil. I was saddened by the significant amount of stereotyping in the script, which leads to fear-mongering in the very worst way. All vegans have a vengeful streak against hunters! All Muslim fathers beat their daughters! All atheists are set on humiliating a dissenting voice with intellectual bravado!   

Which comes to what I found most offensive about this movie. [Spoiler alert]

Tasked with proving God is not dead to his Philosophy 101 class and professor, Josh fights back with mainly creationism arguments (sigh) but also with rhetoric so basic it’s no wonder his professor laughed at him.  It is in this debate (in a scene just between him and the professor, without the class present) that Josh learns the reason why his professor demanded the class sign a paper saying “God’s Not Dead.”

(Sidenote: seriously, there is not a singular professor, tenured or not, that would EVER get away with such a blatant lack of civil liberties. Even in our post-Christian culture. Nor would the basis for any Philosophy 101 class be atheism. But we suspend belief in all movies for the sake of the story. I get that. But still. Ugh.)

Josh learns that when his professor was 12 years old, he prayed to God to heal his mother. His mother still died. My heart broke in that moment, because I know so many with similar stories. Is the way to convince them that God isn’t dead to debate them? Nope. I just don’t buy it. The biggest and most offensive thing about this movie is how Josh then proceeds, in the next class period, to humiliate his professor by using this information. Thankfully, Josh doesn’t tell the class the story.  But Josh does push and push his professor until he breaks. Where does “clothing ourselves with compassion, kindness and humility” [to paraphrase Colossians 3:12] come into play here?

Josh had a significant opportunity to engage with his professor on a human level, and talk to him about that nature and character of God. He instead chooses to bully and humiliate him, just as his professor did to so many others. This is not the only way to speak up for your faith, Christians. This is a mostly useless way of proclaiming gospel truth to the world, and is a poor example of what it means to be Christ in the world.

What I will affirm about the movie:

1.)    The message that God is not dead, of course, is a true and powerful one. Is the medium the message for people who see this? I hope not. God is very much alive and working in my life and in the world right now.
2.)    Perseverance under great pressure. Josh pressed on, even when his girlfriend, also a Christian, pushed him not to. He chose to stand up for what he believed even though it could cost him a good grade. He dug his heels in, studied, and learned how to defend his faith. That is always a good thing, no matter who you are. I simply question the attitude and method that proceeded.
3.)    The gospel message is clearly stated, as well as the very important truth that all people have worth. Hooray!

What I will challenge; all of what I mentioned above plus:

1.)    Too many story lines. Each character was entirely one dimensional. Not-great writing and some pretty bad acting. Some potential great moments completely lost because there were so many storylines.
2.)    THE BIBLE IS CALLED AN INSTRUCTION MANUEL. I just can’t deal with that.
3.)    When the Newsboys pray with one of the characters, one of them actual says, “God, save her tonight.” UGH. She was saved on the cross. Not because a prayer was said. Again, semantics. But important ones. Who is doing the saving? Us in our prayers or Jesus? Solus Christus.
4.)    The arrogance. Oh my goodness, the arrogance.

Let us (Christians) remember that just because art is “Christian” does not make it good art. We want it to be, and I completely understand that. Here is one of the greatest takeaways I had from Denis Haack’s Film and Theology class: we are not starting a conversation. We are joining an existing one.

We should not be so concerned with starting (and in this movie’s case, stopping) the conversation, but graciously joining the conversation that is already out there.  Let us not just defend, but engage.

Friday, May 09, 2014

some thoughts on Noah, God’s Not Dead and art [part 1]

When it comes to art in the Christian sub-culture, one of the greatest challenges is not being able to being willing to take off your critical thinking hat. When I teach The Gospel in the Movies classes, the most important “rule” I have is that film is art. It is not a moral guide for our lives or a truth to patterns our life after. This is true of art that has the label “Christian” too.

Before I delve into this topic, I think it’s important to point out that there should not be the labels of “sacred” and “secular.” I will use those terms for ease of communication to you in this post, but know that I believe all things are sacred, because all people were created in the image of God. That makes them sacred. When we put the label of “secular” on something, it automatically devalues it in the mind of a Christian. This is elitist and arrogant, but also disregarding God as the creator of the universe.

All art is viewed through a person’s own worldview grid, whether they understand what that is or not. And as a Christ-follower, that grid should not change because something has a distinctly Christian slant on it (i.e. God’s Not Dead). But it all too often does. We excuse poor writing, poor production value and poor acting because it is “Christian” and therefore, “sacred.”  We judge all “secular” art by a moral standard first, and often ignore the good qualities. I have a significant problem with this. This is why the 2nd rule in my classroom is that we affirm the art first and critique it second.

Noah is a visually interesting piece of art. However, a bit of a narrative mess artistically. Some sloppy writing and even sloppier dialogue… I felt like I was watching pieces of several stories get “band aided” together. Some friends have expressed that the story of Noah as written in the 4 chapters in Genesis would have made just as compelling a story. I disagree. The story would have fallen flat by the standards we currently have for epic Hollywood movies. (But I imagine we would have disregarded that because it is “Christian,” right?)

To make the story of Noah compelling and remain faithful to scripture would have required an emphasis on Noah and his relationship with God (I had no problem with Noah calling him Creator in the movie, after all, God himself doesn’t give his people his name until Exodus) and an emphasis on the covenant. While I would have LOVED to see how Aronofsky would have handled that angle as a director, there is not a single non-believer in Hollywood who would ever take that risk. A covenantal relationships between God and humans is a foreign concept in our individualist culture today.

There are two main places where I give affirmations for Noah:

1.)  The emphasis on our sin. Noah made it clear and the movie truly emphasized that what had gone wrong with the world was OUR fault. For once, God not portrayed as a homicidal manic and humans are not seen as innocent in the disaster.
2.)  I felt like I got an inside look of how an obviously very creative non-believer would interpret about the things left unsaid in scripture about the story. While the majority of them were completely crazy (Methusaleh and the berries? The barrenness of Shem’s wife? Noah’s birthright with the snakeskin? Huh?) I enjoyed seeing Aronofsky’s interpretation of certain elements: namely the Watchers, Noah’s drunkenness. While they may be off-base, I still find them interesting. And I wholeheartedly believe that movies give us insight into what non-Christians are thinking and feeling.

Obviously, lots of liberties were taken with the story and it was not what we Christians love to call “faithful to the text." But does that make the art of the film any less interesting? No. What is does is create concern that people who don’t know the story from the Bible taking the movie as truth. I don’t know that this is prevailing, but I do hope it drove people into the Word to find out what was actually recorded.

Where I challenge the movie:

1.)  I wholeheartedly believe in caring for the environment and the church has, historically, viewed the good stewardship and care for this earth has a “liberal” issue, and to some that translates as “unbiblical.” (I will not open that can of worms right now.) Noah’s regard for the land was honorable and right, but so was Tubal-Cain’s monologue about us being given dominion. The movie chose one side as right and the other as wrong, when in fact they are both right. We CAN and SHOULD have dominion over the animals and the earth while simultaneously caring for it well.
2.)  The complete disregard for the covenantal aspect of the story is the biggest missed opportunity in a film I’ve ever seen. I am far more bothered by this than other criticisms I have of the movie.

In general, I’ve been disappointed with how people have responded to the film, particularly those who are critical from a “it’s not faithful” standpoint. The story of Noah is fantastical and dark. For goodness sake, it’s about genocide! The fact that people use it to decorate the nurseries of their children disturbs me a little.

The story of Noah is one of many in scripture that reminds us of God’s wrath and his compassion. Which I think might be one of the most significant problems with the movie narratively: Noah is the hero of the story, not God.

That said, I had far more negative feelings about God’s Not Dead than I did of Noah. But that’s another post for another time.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

unconditional love and unhealthy expectations [living life without expectations]

I went to visit a friend a back in March and told him about how I was writing on expectations, inspired by two friends of mine – two friends who live their lives without expectations, so they are never disappointed.

He was all for it. Not the writing. The living life without expectations.

So when I was working on my post from last week I texted him, asking him for a fuller explanation as to why he believes in living life this way. His response was that it was about caring for others… that not expecting anything from anyone was equivalent to unconditional love.

I would be curious to know if people who live their life without expectations would agree with him, but regardless, I am concerned at what he meant by love. Because I was pretty sure that what my friend meant wasn’t really love, but acceptance. And our culture is moving towards this meaning, too.

If we saw someone in our life taking a wrong path, it would be unconditional acceptance to let them go down that path. It would be unconditional love to confront them on their behavior and walk alongside them as they turn away from what harms them. The unconditional part comes in when it’s time to walk alongside them, in the good and bad.

God loves us unconditionally, but does not leave us where we are. He will not accept us living our lives in sin (though his love for us is not conditional on our behavior, of course.) I am all for unconditional love, but if someone isn’t treating me right, I don’t believe in unconditional acceptance of that behavior.  God has given me enough respect for myself to make sure of that. If someone tells me there are going to do something, I expect them to follow through. It’s not unreasonable for me to do so. If there is someone in my life I see as a friend, but only taking and not giving, this isn’t a healthy relationship. I expect to be treated similar to how other friends treat me – with kindness, love and respect. I work to treat them the same way. This is not unreasonable. This is not unfair. This is love – working with one another to become the best version of ourselves.

I don’t know that too many people would disagree with what I’m saying about friendship. But when the rubber meets the road and it comes down to the details of living this out with the people in our lives, often the biggest obstacle in our expectations of others are the unhealthy ones.

That’s where this gets tricky.

The Stoics believe that we are to live free from passion, unmoved by joy or grief, and submit without complaint to unavoidable necessity. The emotionally detached person lives life at a distance, scorning others for not having control over their emotions, and living a life with no ups or downs, not feeling passionate about anything. Sounds like what many are looking for in order to avoid disappointment (i.e. hurt.)

If you swing the pendulum to the other side, you get co-dependency – clingy and unrealistic relationship dynamics. Where jealousy overtakes a single interaction, insecurity reigns in your heart, and no one can do anything that will satisfy you.

This comes down to a very basic human interaction: give and take.

Invitations will only be extended for so long before one’s rejection of them puts a stop to the invitations. Sharing part of yourself with another without reciprocity is being in a one-sided relationship. If you are always the one taking, that person will eventually run out of resources. If you are always the one giving, you will eventually exhaust your own capacity to give and tap out.