Our Great Big American God

28 Jul, 2014

These days I don’t review as many books as I have in recent years. After reading 50+ books a year for a couple of years I found myself burnt out. I’d built up a good reputation in the publishing world and even moved into the top tier of the Amazon book reviewers. I had a constant stream of Christian books being delivered to my doorstep without me having to request them. One author even asked me to write a blurb for the front of her book, along with other well known ‘names.’ I was enthralled with myself. I read her book, wrote a few well-worded sentences, and sent it to her and her publisher. When my promised, published copy came in the mail my name, and statement, had been left out. I realized it hurt too much, and that this silly reviewing game was more about sales and popularity than it was about the message of the books.

I divorced myself from my marriage with these publishers and instead found a job where I actually earned money to review fiction and literature. While I wasn’t going to make a fortune or get famous, I still appreciated getting paid to read the latest Stephen King novel and interpret it for my Christian culture audience. The job lasted a couple of years until that website folded. Since then I have only reviewed items that really interested or inspired me- which sadly to say, hasn’t been many.

About a month ago I saw that author and blogger Matthew Paul Turner had a new book coming out. I’ve got to know MPT a bit through the years. It was actually his first, big release, “Churched” that started me reviewing Christian books. I had heard him interviewed on a podcast in 2008 and personally connected with his stories of growing up churched. I pre-ordered his book and when it arrived a few weeks later I stayed up late reading it all in one sitting. The review I wrote wasn’t all that spectacular (I compared the book to an Oreo cookie), but since I laughed through the book, and gave it to my kids so they could understand my churched upbringing, I thought I’d message MPT and find out what else out there was worth reading. He gave me some great connections and I was off and running.

In 2010 MPT followed up his collection of stories about growing up in the church with a follow up book about his time in college and in the Christian music industry. The book was titled “Hear No Evil” and my review is still listed as “The Most Helpful” on Amazon’s website (6 out of 7 readers of my review agree!). Both of these books offers insight into my generation’s maturity through Christianity, fundamentalism, and pop culture. Did I mention his books are funny?

americangodSo even though I’m in semi-retirement from the Christian book reviewing circles, upon my request MPT graciously sent me an electronic copy of his latest book, “Our Great Big American God.”

Good Heavens, I read this one again in the space of 24 hours!

Dear God, when did Matthew grow up?

Instead of the Christian, biographical stories of his own past (as he did in Churched and Hear No Evil) in his newest book Matthew Paul Turner refocuses his attention to the biography of God since the time he crossed the Atlantic to establish Himself in His new Promised Land. America was the land of opportunity and God needed a fresh start from His messy history in Europe.

We often hear broad, sweeping generalities from pontificating politicians and preachers pounding pulpits that the United States needs to return to the God of our forefathers and/or we need to return our nation back to God as it had been originally established. But upon honest reflection, do we really know what that means? The question Turner asks in his book is, “Who is the God of American Christianity?”

Turner has done his due diligence to research the journey of the American God starting from the Puritan perspective and the Calvinist influence of the early colonists. His chapter on Jonathan Edwards, who Turner believes is ‘one of the most misunderstood individuals in American history,’ is worth the purchase price of the book alone.

Turner then covers George Whitefield and the Great Awakening and some of the perceptions of our country’s Founding Fathers. While he doesn’t attempt to answer the question of whether or not the birth of America was divinely inspired, he does a good job of painting the historic worldview of that time and how it has affected us ever since.

Preachers, theologians and the laity don’t interpret God in a box, nor do they use just scripture. Their views of economics, poverty, social justice, war, slavery, civil rights, feminism, sexuality and politics color the way they see God, and the way they see God affects the way they approach economics, poverty, social justice, war, slavery, civil rights, feminism, sexuality and politics. Turners addresses these factors as his chapters take us through America’s movement away from a Calvinistic God, mostly because of the influence of Methodist ministers. Already the American religious culture redefined God to be something significantly significantly different than their one forefathers.

Is this the God we should return to? Turner reminds us (again with thought provoking research) that at this time of American history we were still a country that supported slavery, which was backed up by some of our most revered, Christian-American heroes. From their perspective they had the Bible on their side. Turner explains, “How a Christian views and understands that Bible will dictate not only his or her worldview but, more importantly, how they interact with the worldviews of other people.” And this really does become a crux in the matter of knowing who God is, as our history with Him has been to subject to our interpretation of scripture. Again, Turner – “Much of America’s big God isn’t about God at all; it’s about the Bible. For many Christians, the Bible is God – the Word in Flesh, translated into English, and printed on pretty paper.” And yet, as we read our own history we have to face how many times our interpretation of Scripture (and thus our interaction with God) has changed over, and over, and over again.

And from there Turner takes us to the birth of evangelicalism, fundamentalism, and the marriage of religion with marketing and presentation. We get to see D.L Moody and Billy Sunday at their best, and at their worst.

He also addresses the impact that dispensationalism view of scripture made on our culture by Darby and Scofield. Even though this theology is so relatively new, the concept and resulting focus on the End Times, and the creation of the Rapture is in some American circules presented as having been as old as Noah himself. A good portion of my friends still view God, the world, the nightly news, and the happenings in the mid-east through the Scofield footnotes found in an authorized King James Bible.

America’s God didn’t stop on our shores, instead once He established Himself here He decided He wanted to take the American version of Himself to other countries. Our missionaries have often taken more than just Jesus to foreign fields. Often our clothing, culture and politics have been almost as widely preached. Turner takes us back to observe this history and these decisions.

UncleSam06And before closing the book the author addresses the history and practices of the Moral Majority, the role of organized religion and a God who is consumed with American politics. He also gives an overview of the journey of Billy Graham (some of which was very new to me), including his split from some of his fundamentalist friends. He also includes the significance of the Pentecostal influence, which I found particularly interesting because of my own church history, and how it led to ‘health and wealth’ interpretations of the Gospel, and of God.

 

For those who enjoy Turner’s writing style they will be happy to know that Turner is still Turner. He hasn’t got over his personal frustration with Calvinism (but if you were chosen to survive it, how can you blame him?). His writing is fresh and makes this book about an interesting topic a very easy and enjoyable read. He also provides plenty of footnotes so those who would like to jump into the research themselves have a good place to start.

Turner leaves us with a couple of important questions, “Dear God, who are you in the context of America? Are we a Christian nation, and if so, what kind/brand of Christian nation is it?” And though we may have thought these answers were obvious with our rendering of a Great Big American God, the reading of the book may leave us as better and more honest Americans than before – even if God isn’t wearing our great grandfather’s Uncle Sam outfit.

More than ever it looks like the American Jesus needs a new public relations team.

“Our Great Big American God” is released on August 19th and is available now for pre-ordering. 

To Tattoo, or Not to Tattoo

03 Jul, 2014

I don’t have any tattoos. The biggest reason is that I hate pain – especially my own. I almost got a tattoo when I was in Scotland, but it would have required a lot of scotch, and since I was leading a missions group at the time it seemed wise not to imbibe. Instead I took the group to the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, which had nothing to do with body art, but was a festival of military bagpipe bands.

WANHG-ODThe other time I considered getting a tattoo was when I was staying in a mountain tribe in the Philippines. Some of the older ladies still didn’t wear shirts in the village but instead decorated their chest and arms with tattoos. These tribal tattoos are spectacular, yet the means to get these designs is using a bamboo stick to hammer ink into the skin using a sharp thorns that have been dipped in charcoal. It is so painful that it can take months to get a design finished. I wasn’t going to be in the village that long, it didn’t seem all that sanitary, and like I said, I don’t like pain. This hasn’t stopped me from being interested in viewing other people’s tattoos, and especially since I like hearing people’s stories, I don’t hesitate to ask people about their body art.

_DSC1214wLast month I connected with a woman who loves tattoos and has covered her body with them. When I told her about the Raw Beauty ME project she was interested in participating and sharing her story. Taking her portraits was a great experience. Instead of posing, Aliki just started sharing the stories of the various images on her body. As she talked, I’d snap the shutter. We were both very happy with the results. While I will wait to share the details of her story, part of what she experienced has been judgment from others regarding getting tattoos, even by those close to her. Honestly, after meeting her and hearing her story, I don’t understand.

Then again, after last week’s news, I do.

During a segment of The 700 Club, Televangelist Pat Robertson answered a question from a viewer about whether or not it was okay to get a tattoo if the art was of Jesus. “It doesn’t make it okay because it’s religious, believe me,” Robertson responded. “I mean, it could be a tattoo of some hoochie-cooch girl. It doesn’t really make any difference.”

To be honest, I had to look up what a ‘hoochie-choochie” girl is. Wikipedia tells me that it was a “sexually provocative belly dance that originated in 1876 and became wildly popular during the Chicago’s World Fair in 1893.” All this does is reaffirms to me that not only is Robertson old fashioned, he is also really, really old.

Robertson continues to muddy the waters, “Tattooing is heathen practice. It is not a Christian practice, to mar the body that [God] gave you. And you see people that have gone crazy on this, and their bodies are just filled with these things. It is a heathen practice, and it is prohibited in the Old Testament. So that fact that it’s Jesus doesn’t make a bit of difference.”

Yep, another Old Testament law that is taken out of its cultural and historical setting and imposed on people today for the sake of biblical literalism. I think maybe Pat forgets that Jesus’ own, ressurected body has some significant markings and holes. I think he also conveniently forgets the Old Testament verses about ear piercings being a way to mark slaves (yet he doesn’t speak out against them). Heck, he even forgets the NEW TESTAMENT rule that women shouldn’t wear jewelry – yet I can Google photos of Pat’s own wife wearing gold earrings.

If I had my druthers, St. Peter would have a tattoo shop outside of the pearly gates, specifically set up for Pat Robertson’s arrival. He would have to get Galatians 5:1 tattooed on his forehead and on the back of his hand so that he and everyone else that came into contact with him and his brand of religion would be reminded, “Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you.” That sounds like Heaven to me.

P.S. There are some really horrible ‘Jesus’ tattoos out there. I wish Pat would just take a stand against bad, religious art.

I Guess You’d Say I Have a Boob Job

20 Jun, 2014

thermograpyAs I’ve been documenting stories of breast cancer and body image I have heard many different realities when it comes to breasts.

I have friends with one breast, with no breasts, with reconstructed breasts, with enhanced breasts, with reduced breasts. I have friends with no nipples, with big nipples, with tattooed nipples, and with pierced nipples. I have friends whose husbands’ breast cup sizes are larger than theirs. I have friends whose natural breasts seem to defy the law of gravity. I have friends whose breasts aren’t perfectly symmetrical and have one breast larger than the other. I have friends whose breasts cause them physical pain because they are so heavy. I have male friends who have lost a breast to cancer.

I have friends who clutch at their neckline when they bend over because they don’t want anyone peering down their cleavage. I have other friends who would walk around topless if it wasn’t for public nudity laws. I know some men get breast reduction surgery because of the shame they feel. I have some friends who want to have surgery to change their breasts or another part of their body that causes them emotional pain, but don’t do it because of the pressure of what others will think. I’ve had some women almost shaking when they took off their shirts for portraits and I’ve had others want to know why I am facing the other way when they take off their blouse thinking I’m a prude.

I have friends who have chosen to breastfeed their babies and those who haven’t. I have friends who are ashamed at how their body has aged and/or changed with pregnancies. I have others that have come into a new sense of freedom and expression with their bodies since having children.

I’ve made friends with doctors who amputate breasts off a woman’s because of cancer, and I’ve made friends with doctors who put the most natural representation of breasts back on a woman’s chest.

I have friends who don’t know how to think of a woman’s body, even if it is their own, other than sexually. I have both male and female friends who are drawn to pornography to an extent that it has damaged their relationships. I also have friends who make a living by dancing with little or no clothes on.

I have friends who are models that love getting their kit off to take some fine-art photography. I have worked with other models who emphasize in their portfolios that they won’t do nudity.

I have taken photos of many different breasts, in many different stages of life and health. I have had breast photos sent to me from women who wanted me to have their images in order to share them with others when their story is relevant.

Later this year, I’ll be doing a series of blog posts about breasts. I’ll cover several different aspects of breast life, breast health, and breast surgeries. We will talk about non-sexual images of breasts and their value in culture and social media. We will cover our culture’s over-sexualization of breasts and what that has cost society. We will also discuss what role religious ideologies affect how women (and men) think about their (and their neighbor’s) bodies.

The purpose of all of this is to share stories that will help build understanding. And the purpose of that is to neutralize the paralyzing force of shame that affects so many.

If you have a story that you think would add to the discussion, if you’ve had some sort of surgery, want one, or decided not to – if you have been processing some of these issues in regards to your own body, I would love to hear from you! Maybe you are still in the middle of your figuring these things out and it would help to actually verbalize it out loud. Please send me a message if you would like to set up a time to have coffee and discuss your journey. If you don’t live near me we can use the phone, skype or you can write it out for me. Your participation can be anonymous, of course.

Finally, I have already been to a breast biopsy, bra fittings, reconstruction fills, radiation of the chest wall, and the insertion of drains into breast tissue. I am scheduled to attend a the final stage of a reconstruction surgery this fall. I would like to experience going to mammogram, if any one of my friends would like to squeeze me into their appointment.

Thanks for reading. Thanks for considering sharing your stories with me. And stay tuned!

This image above is from a special kind of photography called breast-thermography. They put the woman in a climate controlled room and then take digital images that capture breast temperature. What they are looking for is symmetry of heated areas between the two breasts. If they find a hotspot, or an irregular area, they will keep monitoring that area in the future as cancer tends to grow in heated tissue. While breast thermography is not a replacement for mammograms, it provides a different, non-invasive way to measure breast health.

Birthright for a Bowl of Porridge

19 Jun, 2014

central_wA church building is just a church building until you sell the one I grew up in. I don’t worship it as a temple, it is merely a museum for my childhood memories. It is the location I where I sang my first solo in a kids’ program. It encapsulates the pool where I was baptized as a teenager. It is the place I graduated from high school; the stage where I was married; the ministry where I first worked after graduating from college; the church where I dedicated my firstborn child.

Unfortunately there is no option for adding the building to the local historical society. It has been sold and more than likely the buildings will be razed and the property become another car lot. So much of this land, of this heritage, had already been sold off through the years. I guess this final portion was inevitable.

But what was hardest for me today was reading the glowing letter about how selling the property benefited the congregation.

“Wait till you hear the best part. The way we will be operating from this day forward will be as a debt free ministry. You see, the sale of the old campus will pay off any debt that we have and at the same time provide us seed money for our new beginning as a free and clear ministry. The words borrow, debt, mortgage, and bridge loan will never apply to us again… Exciting times of debt free ministry are about to become a reality for our wonderful church family.”

I get it, the campus was sold, and the current congregation gets to pay off the debts and erase years of what some have considered mismanagement. But this bankruptcy wasn’t just financial. The disappointment, and the deserved bereavement for the thousands who invested years of their life and their love at this place should be acknowledged. But to do so would mean humbling. To do so would mean having empathy for those who left instead of the decades long practice of writing them off.

A debt free ministry? Not by a long shot.

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Yes, All Women

27 May, 2014

I really like Twitter. It provides the Everyday Joe an opportunity to share news, to provide commentary, and with the help of the right hash-tags, gives them the opportunity to be heard.

I used to use Twitter more often for my own voice, but once my storytelling projects picked up the pace, time for interaction in the Twitterverse substantially decreased. However, I still use is as my main source of hearing breaking news from different sources, and people, from around the world.

For instance, if news breaks in my hometown of Boise, my phone alerts me with that Twitter feed. If significant news happens in the US, my phone vibrates almost immediately. If something happens on a global scale, because of Twitter, I am one of the first to know.

Twitter also connects friends. And with a select few, when they post something on Twitter, I am alerted. This weekend my phone vibrated off the hook.

The first message I saw from her said,

Because when you leave an abuser the only question anyone asks is “Did he hit you” as if he is entitled to everything but. #YesAllWomen

Whoa. I know her story, but I’m not used to seeing her be so public with it.

She wasn’t done.

Because when my estranged husband put a GPS unit on my car to stalk me, cops wouldn’t help me because car had a joint title #YesAllWomen

Because even when I was 8 months pregnant I was sexually harassed in public by a man who wanted to “ride you till you pop”#YesAllWomen

Because of the look the manager and asst. manager gave each other when they hired me for my first job #Iknowwhatthatwas #YesAllWomen

Because I look under my car for someone hiding under it waiting to slash my ankles and hold my key in my fist just in case #YesAllWomen

And that wasn’t all of them.

I sent her a text and asked for the background. She told me that due to the videos that the killer in Santa Barbara, California had left before he went on a killing spree last week that people were rising up in response to his misogynistic views.

I logged on to Twitter. What I experienced was amazing. As I read through the tweets with the hashtag #YesAllWomen I heard the voices and stories of our daughters, our sisters, our wives and our female friends. It was sobering. It is different than my experience as a male in our society. Soberingly different.

Here are a few.

Because we should be teaching boys and men NOT to rape, not girls and women how to avoid rape. Blame rapists, not victims. #YesAllWomen

Women are taught to arm themselves against men. Men are taught that she’s just playing “hard to get”. #yesallwomen

Because “Text me and let me know you got home safe” is standard, necessary and normal. #YesAllWomen

As a tween I took a self defense class, learned that yelling “fire” was more effective than yelling “rape.” #YesAllWomen

because the cops told me my stalker would have to actually break 1 of my bones or kill me before they could really do anything #yesallwomen

Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them – Magaret Atwood #yesallwomen

When women survive domestic violence, people ask, “Why stay? Why didn’t you leave?” rather than, “Why did the abuser abuse?”#YesAllWomen

Because every single woman you know has been sexually harassed. Every single one. #YesAllWomen

Though #notallmen do it, all women are harassed, groped, cat-called,insulted, followed,threatened. Every woman you know. #yesallwomen.

He shamed her into getting a boob job and then afterwards told her how much they disgusted him. #YesAllWomen

#YesAllWomen isn’t about pointing out “all the faults in men,” it’s about women sharing their lived experience. #notallmen get that.

If, as a man, you’re offended by #YesAllWomen, you might have bigger problems than a hashtag.

Just a few. Of thousands, and thousands, and thousands of messages…

I so hope for a different world for my daughters. I so hope for different kind of respect and treatment for women from my sons.

I really like Twitter. It provides the Everyday Mary an opportunity to share their reality. But oh how I hope their reality changes, for #YesAllWomen

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A Veteran Named Lew

23 May, 2014

matiI spent all morning at a coffee shop with a photographer named Mati. We met at the 2014 Boise Squared Photography contest. She found me on the pedestrian bridge over the Boise River right after I had finished my first Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep portrait session. I was in desperate need to process my feelings with another person. I needed a good cry. Mati, even though at the time still a stranger, just hugged me and listened.

Today was my chance to hear her story – to hear how she moved from being a designer to an iPhoneographer. It all happened because of her neighbor next door, Lew.

Lew was a retired Veteran – he spent his whole life in the military serving our nation. He married a woman that he didn’t really like. When asked why he shrugged and said, “Because, that is what you did in those days.” When she died he simply boxed up her belongings and put them in his basement. He was, from then on, alone.

Mati didn’t really like Lew. He made sexist comments that frustrated her. One day she was watering her lawn when he made one of those statements over the fence. She turned the hose on him and gave him a good drenching. It could have started a neighborhood war, instead it melted Lew’s heart and he laughed. He found a new respect for Mati.

One day Lew asked Mati a tough question, “When it comes time, will you pull the plug for me?” Mati agreed to be the family that Lew didn’t have. The reality is, she plugged in.

A week later Lew fell and broke his shoulder. Mati took him to the Veteran’s hospital for care. The doctor asked if he needed anything else while he was being treated. Though Lew said, “No,” Mati asked the doctor to look in his mouth. The doctor took only moments to give the diagnosis of what all of the Lew’s hand-rolled cigarettes had left. Lew had cancer.

Over the next year Mati and her husband Johnny cared for Lew. They went through surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, recoveries, and finally hospice. Mati kept her promise to Lew and when he died she was holding his hand.

It has been three years but the tears are still so visible when Mati shares her story. The book that she created of the photos of Lew’s last year is touching, loving and haunting. It includes the backstory on the photos, sometimes with just a single word. It was that journey that moved her into the role of a soulful photojournalist with a minimalistic approach.

Lew left his house for Mati and Johnny. It was more of a project than an asset. They donated his belongings to a cancer charity and then gutted the home. They rebuilt it and now use it to provide an inexpensive place to stay for people who come to down for medical procedures.

They call it, “Lew’s Place.”
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Click here to see more of Mati’s photos of Lew.

 

The Birthday Surprise

13 May, 2014

Imagine, if you will, a photo of woman surrounded by three boys.  She is looking at a man a few feet away who is holding a gift bag. She is smiling at him. He is smiling at one of the boys. Two of the boys are looking at the youngest one, who appears surprised. You don’t know what their relationship is together, nor the reason for the photo. What you do know is that there is a story there, and even the hint of the story makes you smile.

The photo could have a title – The Birthday Surprise – which gives you a little more of a clue to the celebration, yet still you don’t know what is in the gift bag. You don’t know who it is from. You don’t even know who is having the birthday. It is a great, candid moment, frozen in time, yet without any background the smile stays on your face and never makes it to your heart, where this story belongs.

Words can tell what a picture leaves out.

* * *

Imagine, if you will, a story about this family. There are supposed to be four children, not three. The one missing is a little girl who often has purple hair. There is a dad, a step dad and an adult step brother, also not shown in this image.

The little girl shares a birthday with the youngest boy – they are twins. The following day will be their 11th birthday. She is no longer here to celebrate. She died of cancer a few, short months ago. This birthday, and all the subsequent ones, will have added emotions for the remaining twin and his family.

The man holding the gift bag isn’t family by blood or marriage. Somehow, though, he has come alongside the little girl during her sickness and supplied an amazing amount of resources to her and her family. She hosted a Christmas party in early December where she got to go on a shopping spree and buy presents for her whole family. This man, and his charitable organization, paid the bill allowing this little girl and over four hundred guests to have an incredible Christmas experience.

When the little girl breathed her last the man and his friends didn’t stop giving. Funeral expenses can be crippling, but they made sure the family didn’t have that burden on them as they were just struggling to breathe.

You could imagine that Ryan, for that is the man’s name, would move on to resource another family in medical need. Yet at the next, big function for Boise’s Got Faith, Ryan introduced Chaz, for that is the twin’s name, along with his family to all of the supporters.

Ryan wasn’t done taking care of Lula, for that is the little girl’s name. Lula wanted her brother to have a good celebration on their shared birthday and wanted to give him something special. Chaz loves baseball, so through Ryan and company, Lula got him season passes to the minor league baseball team near his home. He also will throw out the first pitch at a couple of times this upcoming season.

Now you know The Birthday Surprise.

Yet without the image below, your moistened eyes wouldn’t get to take in the surprise of Chaz’s hands flying to his face, the solid support of his two brothers, the delight of his mom, and the embodiment of Lula’s spirit on Ryan’s face and in the gift held in his hand.

And that is why we take pictures. And that is why we tell stories. Together they share life.

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Click here to donate to Boise’s Got Faith. All proceeds go straight into the lives of children battling cancer.

Why Superman Pastors can’t Save the Church

27 Apr, 2014

This post is about pastoral ministry. I know this is a trigger-filled topic for some, and that by just addressing it I am stirring things up. My motivation is that there would be more dialog and processing, as it could bring more understanding, freedom and even healthier church atmospheres. The observations I share are from my experience, my education, my study, and my heart.

We have a habit in our churches of calling our topmost leaders “Pastors.” We expect these people, usually men, to be visionary (having direction from God), to be good at leading and directing people, to be effective communicators to crowds of people, to be learned (preferably degreed) in theology, and to be miracle-working counselors. Also depending upon the size of the church they might also be required to serve as fund raisers, bookkeepers, administrators and janitors. Oh yes, and they also need to be pastoral.

We have created a Superman role that we expect these people to fulfill when it is nothing more than a comic book fantasy. Sometimes we even make them wear capes (robes) to show how set-apart they are compared to the rest of us.

Here is what what can happen when too many of these expectations are on one person.

  • The people who tend to get to the top of the church hierarchy may be called Pastor but this doesn’t mean they are actually very pastoral. They may be the best person for leading their congregation in in providing direction, but when it comes to the expectations of providing pastoral care, they will fall short of what many people need/expect from them.
  • The people who truly are pastoral, and get the title of Pastor, can be burdened with so many of these other leadership expectations that they get too overwhelmed to do what they are naturally/spiritually gifted at. Some of the most pastoral people I have ever met are those who would never qualify for the title because they are too busy taking care of people to build a church.

I think this job confusion is why so many ministers find themselves out of ministry. It is also why so many people have issues with their pastors.

It doesn’t help that in the denominational echelons they categorize and prioritize these ministers and their skill sets. We create lists of those who can lead thousands, those that can handle hundreds, and those that are shuffled off to smaller congregations because they have proven they can only gather sixty to seventy souls under their mantle, if that.

* * *

Let me digress with a personal story…

I remember the night that I drove home from my first assignment as a youth pastor. I was telling God how I would quickly get into the local high school and create some exciting events so that we could build up the youth group with more bodies. I felt ashamed that the role I had taken on had only a dozen jr high names in the ministry. His answer stunned me.

I had twelve.”

Those three words forever changed the way I would view ministry and discipleship. I can’t say building a church ever became my priority… and it showed.

Fast forward almost 20 years later when I was fired from a full time ministry role. I was told that I was only effectively pastoring 50 and they needed me to be doing it for 500. They were right to let me go. What they wanted me to create I didn’t have the skill set for. My heart would always pull me in different directions – more pastoral, less executive. Even so, the firing still made me feel like a failure. Then when I was told they would help me find a job in a small church in our denomination… well, then I knew I was finished.

While my freedom from the pressure of a church role has been healing for me, it has taken me a long time to process my identity away from that title. In the past when I took personality profiles like Myers-Briggs and the DISC test I always answered the questions based on what I thought was expected of me in that role. But on the outside of that job I just stare at the options and wonder which is most and least like me. Am I an extrovert or an introvert? Am I a direct leader or a consensus builder? Did I learn to perform based on the external requirements of the job or was my gifting allowed to define the work I’d take on? The whole thing has been rather depressing – and I was treated for that too.

I bring up this topic because I continue to experience that there are so many church leaders whose lives continue to have more anxiety than peace. Many times this comes out of unrealistic expectations created from man-made roles instead of God-given gifts.

Success in ministry is usually measured just like any other business – numbers. And the majority of the time we hire and fire our pastors based on job descriptions, not based on what really is valuable about them.

* * *

Imagine this…

What if our teachers were free to be in the classroom and teach without getting bogged down in administration? What if pastors were free to care for people without having to come up with a sermon each Sunday? What if visionaries were free to dream and didn’t have to be slowed down by fund raising? What if administrators could organize without being expected to also do hospital visitations? What if more people in the congregation, who actually have the gift, would be given the opportunity to preach? What if the church actually operated as a whole and there was no honor differential between clergy and laity, men and women, slave and free?

…and the Church could live as One.

Permission to use cartoon by David Hayward, www.nakedpastor.com

Setting Something Straight

24 Apr, 2014

The first time I met Pastor Ken Wilson he gave me a bit of a rebuke.

I was the Webmaster for The Association of Vineyard Churches. Besides being on staff at my local Vineyard Church I had the opportunity with three other friends to build and maintain the website for our denomination’s national office.

We had created a page for books written by Vineyard pastors. I had listed a book titled, Empowered Evangelicals, but I had only listed Rich Nathan as the author. To me, Rich was a god, and I never noticed that someone elses name was on the cover. Ken suggested that I take another look. Sure enough his name was there too. Either he had co-authored it with Rich. Or maybe Rich co-authored it with Ken. This may appear to be the same thing, but usually the name with more marketing clout get’s the more credit and the bigger font. My own approach to the book proves the point.

I apologized and told him I’d correct the error. Having lost credit for some of my own work over the years in ministry I empathized with what he could be feeling.

KenWilsonMaybe today I get to finally right that slight.

I read an article on Religion Dispatch about an evangelical pastor who wrote a letter to his congregation about embracing the LBGT crowd. The author’s name is Ken Wilson. Both parts of his name are pretty common. This couldn’t be the same Ken Wilson I know, could it?

It is.

Ken wrote a book. A book that no other Vineyard pastor has dared to write: A Letter to My Congregation: An evangelical pastor’s path to embracing people who are gay, lesbian and transgender in the company of Jesus.

Does this mean that the Vineyard has made a pro-friendly-gay stance? Unfortunately no. In the interview Ken says,

“Within Vineyard, our new leadership team has made it clear this is not an acceptable position, so I’m not expecting to be embraced warmly by mainstream evangelicalism on this. Evangelicalism has bought into what I think is the demonic reality that somehow this is the defining moral issue of our time and is the litmus test for orthodoxy. Given that, I believe there will be a lot of out-of-hand dismissal of the book.”

He is probably right, but I can hope, can’t I?

You might not be able to find the book on the Vineyard USA website, but hey Ken, you can find it posted here on mine.

Read Ken’s article here.

You can purchase his book here.

Fifty Nude Women – a discussion I think is worth having

15 Apr, 2014

photocollageI belong to a men’s discussion group. We meet about nine times a year to discuss various issues that range from politics and governing, to religion, humanity, masculinity, and popular culture. The men are highly intelligent and caring individuals. Some of them are the most giving individuals that I’ve personally experienced. I’ve known a few of them for a lifetime and others I’ve come to appreciate over the past couple of years. We don’t always agree, and sometimes the conversations are quite spirited, but there is a measure of respect for each other that I value. I am glad that I belong.

Last month, after an extremely well led and facilitated discussion about the value of/problem with religion’s role in politics, I was asked to present my photography projects at our next gathering. I stuttered and stammered when asked, but said yes, probably out of pressure. Yet as I drove home I realized I didn’t want to have a discussion about the projects I am doing with Breast Cancer Patients/Survivors and (mostly) women about their Body Image stories.

My reluctance confused me. I never hesitate to share about this work, how I got into it, and why I think it is important. After some processing with my wife Jamie, I figured out why I felt some hesitation – I don’t care what these guys think.

Sounds callous, right? Let me explain. The group is a men’s discussion group. This means that we are free to share opinions and challenge the thinking of the guy next to them. And the reality is, I really don’t care what any of these men in our group thinks about what I am doing with my life in regards to these projects.

Sounds pretentious, right? Let me explain. It is the women in these projects that I’ve chosen to be open and accountable to. It is their input that guides this work. So if a Cancer Survivor tells me that her ‘before’ portraits, or her after-surgery reality portraits have been beneficial and healing for her and her family, why would I let anyone else’s negative opinion of this work matter?

Is it starting to make sense? I am not doing these projects for the outsiders, I am doing them for the participants. That is why each person, in either project, gets to call the shots when it comes to who sees/reads their stories. It may be enough for them to have an open discussion with me. It may be enough for them to have an facilitated discussion by me with them and their family. It may be enough for them to reveal themselves for portraits, even if they are the only ones who end up seeing them. It may be enough for them to share their stories in one venue, like an art show, but decline to share them on another, like a website or book. And for some it may be the most freeing and helpful for them to share their story without reservation so that others can benefit by more education and understanding.

This is why I felt so conflicted thinking of tossing these projects around a men’s group for their opinions – it isn’t their lives that are being impacted. Respectfully, as to the projects, I really don’t care what they think…

Even if the night turned into a personal intervention because they all thought I was off my rocker, I would still default to the opinions of my wife and the women that I am working with. This point isn’t open to debate.

In a phone call with the men’s group facilitator I explained my hesitation. Graciously he acknowledged my position and told me there were no rules against me making a presentation instead of facilitating a discussion. That gave me the freedom that I needed. Immediately I relaxed. Now I am excited to share with them about what I am involved with. I’ve always kept both projects in the light and I’m not afraid to share what we are doing and why.

And then I started getting creative. I do want to dialog with these guys. I do want to hear about their thought processes and experiences when it comes to this kind of work (outside of devaluing my interaction with the women in my projects and their families), but how do I facilitate that kind of discussion?

And then I had an idea. I want to show them a video of nude women.

Sounds crazy, right? Let me explain. I own a copy of an amazing project shot a few years ago in New York City of fifty women who came together to illustrate what women’s bodies really look like. They range in ages of 21-95 years old. None of them have been Photoshopped. There are big girls, and small girls, and women in-between. They have wrinkles, creases, scars, stretch marks and captivating smiles. Greatest of all is their acceptance of their bodies. It is so freakingly, amazingly beautiful! I never cease to laugh and cry when I watch these 10 minutes of freedom. I’ve shown it to several friends. I’ve used it as a tool with the women in my projects. I just never thought I’d be showing it to a men’s discussion group.

I contacted the leader again via email. I told him my idea. I shared that I understand that most, if not all of the guys in our group come from a conservative background, whether it be political or religious, and I recognize that it would be a stretch for some of them to even consider seeing a woman sans her clothes, other than their wives.

Yet my experience has been that many of my friend’s wives would love their husbands to see a video like this as opposed to being tempted to pick up a girlie magazine. Videos like Fifty Nude Women serve as anti-porn agents as they personalize the women on the screen instead of using them for someone else’s sexual gratification. Honestly, there is nothing sexual about the video; it is just full of beautiful humanity.

I am going to give the men the option that night, after I’ve shared about my two projects, to stay to watch the video or leave if it isn’t within their boundaries to watch it. I will value their discretion as well as the potential discussion that will come. I think it will humble us. I think it will challenge our fears. I think it will bring freedom if we let it. I look forward to that kind of discussion.

And if I’m the only one left in the room when the video starts, I will laugh at the tender, connecting moments, and cry again as I again realize that my heart has fallen in love with fifty nude women.

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