11 July 2013

Cliches are so Cliche

The other night Christy and I watched Gangster Squad, which was so disappointing. I mean, look at this cast: Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Josh Brolin, and the always lovable Jon Polito... and so many others! The cast was great (well, Sean Penn was really over the top playing Mickey Cohen) and the film looks stunning-- spectacular work by cinematographer Dion Beebe. Its over-violent in several places-- gratuitously so. It's biggest weakness was in the direction and writing. I mean, I have seen a ton of gangster movies-- one of my favorite genres-- but this one is filled with cliches that ruin it.

Example #1: One of the main sets is one of those typical '40s era night clubs where everyone would dress in their finest and there would be a live singer or comedian-- dinner and a show in the same place. The movie comes back to this same place over and over-- then one of the performers is a Carmen Miranda wannabe-- fruit on the head included of course. Really?

Example #2: Near the end of the film there is a shootout in a hotel lobby. It's set at Christmas time and there is a giant tree with ornaments and lights, and a table filled with decorative presents. With all the shooting back and forth, the thing explodes. Really. I know trees are flammable, but an explosion? And some of the bad guys walk down enormously wide stairs-- good guys at the bottom-- a la The Untouchables at the train station. I swear I expected a baby carriage to roll down in the middle of the gunfight.

It's one thing to honor the great LA post-WWII movie tradition-- starts and ends with Chinatown in my opinion, but LA Confidential is also great. It's another thing to exploit our love of the genre with retreaded ideas and plots. I am sure those guys jumped at the chance to wear a fedora and wingtips-- who wouldn't-- and Emma Stone looks every bit the LA glamour of the era. Must have been fun for all of them in wardrobe. But let's have more substance next time. Put this front of the camera talent in the hands of better behind the camera talent and we'll have something to build on.

Just this morning on Twitter I saw this note from Uberfacts: the ideas for the great Pixar films A Bugs Life, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, and Wall-E came out of a single lunch meeting. I've always had tremendous respect for the team at Pixar-- storytelling, creativity, animation skills, and especially, vision. Think about that lunch meeting that must have happened in the mid '90s. Those movies came out in 1998, 2001, 2003, and 2008. The fully realized vision took probably 15 years to cultivate. And every one of those movies is excellent.

Skill. Passion. Resources. Time.

I don't know anything about Gangster Squad's timeline, but I wonder if the studio rushed it-- sort of threw it together to take advantage of the rising stars of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. The studio would probably argue the movie was a success-- out of nearly 88,000 votes on imdb.com rated it a 6.8 out of 10, which is high-- I might go 6.0. the Tomatometer rating of 32% is pretty rotten, but it did make nearly $50 million at the box office. Not sure how successful a formula that translates to.

Then I started thinking about churches. How much of what we offer (sermons, curriculum (ugh), worship services, etc.) is really a cliche? Everyone loves familiarity because it creates warm feelings of home. But each church is different. Each parish is different. Each Sunday ought to be different. Let's be thoughtful and deliberate in our approach. Let's slowly, carefully, mold vision to make sure the end product is its absolute best-- meaning it brings God glory and brings others closer to Christ. That could be a building, a sermon series, a Sunday school curriculum. Let's be at our best. We are gifted and skilled-- called to great work. I am fortunate to be part of a team here at Custer Road that puts together incredible stuff, and as I have walked through the hallways getting to know folk the last couple of weeks I am so thankful for these partners in ministry.

Jesus told a couple of parables about kingdom building, one of which is probably more familiar than the other: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and planted in a garden. It grew and developed into a tree and the birds in the sky nested in its branches" (that's the familiar one-- Luke 13:18-19). But check this out: "[It's] also like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through the whole" (Luke 13:20-21). The first parable is about humble beginnings and simplicity; the second one is about extravagance and multiplication. The woman tried to hide the yeast in a ton of dough-- but it still did its work-- producing enough to feed an enormous amount of people! May it be so with your ministry, wherever you find yourself: lay or clergy, staff or volunteer, rushed or patient. May God's vision for your ministry-- our common ministry-- grow into such a unique, cliche-less bounty that more and more folk are fed with the Bread of Heaven!

02 July 2013

The Youth Will Set You Free

20 years.

It's incredible to think about, but it's been twenty years since God came in to my life in a surprising, life changing way: through youth ministry. The summer of 1993 started out with lots of excitement: I graduated with a degree in History from Sam Houston State in Huntsville. I then began the tedious work of applying to school districts. Without any contacts anywhere, I randomly applied in places like Tyler, Dallas, San Antonio, and, of course, Austin. May rolled into June. One day Mom came into the living room, where I was planted on the couch. You know, next to the phone I was certain would ring at any time. "Penny's been calling for volunteers for the youth ministry at church," she said. "Get up and go help her out." So I did. I walked into Penny Buckert's office and offered to help. I started showing up at UMYF meetings on Sunday nights. Later in the summer I found myself a camp counselor at Lakeview camp for a week, and an adult helper on their mission trip, UM ARMY. While we were at camp I remember a chapel service where someone had a telephone on the altar. The phone would ring, and God would speak to whoever answered. I felt called to youth ministry in that moment. I reached out to another youth director in the service, who hugged me, and whispered in my ear, "Hear the call." Upon returning to Bay City I sought out youth director positions in and around the Houston area and somehow, miraculously, ended up taking the position at Missouri City UMC, the job Penny had vacated to come to Bay City. I was single, making about $15,000 a year, had my first solo apartment, and loving every minute!

After a year on the job, I accepted a position at Lake Olympia Middle School. I held that position for about six months. The kids were great, but it was the wrong vocation for me. I had attended a Walk to Emmaus and felt called to ordained ministry. Later that summer, after two fantastic years, I left Missouri City, moved to Dallas to attend Perkins, graduated in 1999, was ordained an Elder in 2001, and the story goes on from there.

20 years. How many people have I met, shared tears of sorrow and joy with, baptized babies and adults, sermons preached, and everything else pastors are privileged to do? What would my life look like if one of those school districts had called me off of Mom and Dad's couch? What if I had refused Mom's "invitation" to help with the youth (no chance of that!)? What if Penny had not said yes to my offer (never knew a youth director to decline help from ANYONE, much less someone who was 22!)?

So I have officially been at Custer Road for two days, but I was also here unofficially here last week for Vacation Bible School. It was an amazing experience last week-- just walking through the halls and seeing youth in the church. It had literally been two years since I had seen a youth in church. Since my beginnings in ministry twenty years ago I have always had a heart for young people: confirmation classes, lock-ins, whatever. Maybe it is just because Twitter did not exist before, but this summer I have noticed many youth and young adults expressing a call to ministry-- some here at Custer Road-- and I hope to play some sort of mentoring/encouraging role in their journey. I've even been pastor a while ago to a couple of the CCYM (Conference Council on Youth Ministry) youth who are feeling called to ministry (Samantha McCulley and Maddie Chumley). Youth ministry is a real joy and I am proud to say I have experienced it on every level: as a youth, a young adult volunteer, as a director, as a pastor, and now as a parent. In advance, I'd like to thank Custer Road for the impact it will have on James starting later this summer. Maybe the youth ministry will lead him along a similar path as mine??

Wherever you are, whatever you are doing-- or waiting to do-- know that God is calling you to someplace new. Maybe someplace unexpected and surprising. Maybe the first step to realizing this new call on your life is getting off the couch. Or accepting an invitation you may not have heard until now. I encourage you to step out in faith, say yes to God, follow Jesus on the way of discipleship. 20 years from now you may look upon this summer with much gratitude, joy, and thanksgiving.