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Transformation Tuesday: Don’t Call It a Comeback

September 3, 2013

I been here for years, rockin’ my peers and puttin’ suckas in fear!

I love writing.  I just don’t do it enough.  I need to get back into the discipline of writing on a more regular basis.  

So the blog is coming back.  New title.  New focus.  New discipline.  New energy.

I never really intended to go away.  I did need a break.  My life has been redefined, reshaped, and renovated in ways that kind of kept me away from the open journal I used to share with all of you.  

So what’s my plan?

I plan to have a theme for each weekday.  Each day may have more than one option, but having themes really helps me focus.  I thrive with structure, so the more structure I impose upon myself, the better. 

  • Monday will primarily be Music Monday or Movie Monday.  I hope to decimate the imaginary line between sacred and secular, finding God in unexpected places within popular culture.  
  • Tuesday will primarily be Transformation Tuesday or Transcendent Tuesday.  I’m looking to spend Tuesdays reflecting on stories of personal or congregational transformation, overcoming obstacles or difficulties, and setting and achieving goals.  
  • Wesley Wednesdays.  I’m a United Methodist.  Despite my affinity for Process and Open Theology as well as the Neo-Orthodox Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, I’m first and foremost a Wesleyan theologian.  I hope to spend Wednesdays reflecting on how Wesleyan theology is in conversation with the here and now. 
  • Theology Thursday is a time to reflect specifically on theology, and learning to interpret the world around me within a primarily theological framework.  
  • And just in time for the weekend, we’ll have the Friday Free-for-all!  Nothing is off-limits on Friday.  Except being mean.  Being mean is always off-limits.  
  • Weekends are optional.  I may have a fun Saturday reflection, or I may log in Sunday afternoon to reflect on that morning’s worship service.  And I may simply spend time with my family, letting the blog go.  

Occasionally, I may spend an entire blog post extolling the virtues of my lovely wife Tiffany.  Magnificent Mama Monday, Terrific Tiffany Tuesday/Thursday, or Wonderful Wife Wednesday may crop up from time to time.  I may also brag on the kids.  

And I might just find my way back onto the radar.  

My original blog, A Man Called Preach, used to be pretty popular and controversial.  I kicked the hornet’s nest during my ordination process, and I got ordained on schedule anyway.  I’m not sure whether the board resented me or admired my guts, or maybe both, but I got here.  

And my life changed.  Divorce.  Remarriage.  Learning how to be a dad under different life circumstances. Learning to be a stepdad. Changing parishes twice in less than a year.  Becoming a better preacher.  

And the blog took a backseat.  

Hang with me while I find my groove again. 

Just don’t call it a comeback.  Call it an I’m Still Here! 


Heartbroken Apostles

November 10, 2010

It seems almost too obvious to say it out loud, but it’s deeply and profoundly true: pastors are humans, too.  We have all the baggage, pain, hurt and brokenness inherent in the human condition.  We never talk about it.  We aren’t superhumans, invulnerable to grief and pain.  We weren’t given an extra dose of divine spark or a path to redemption any different from anyone else.  That brokenness is often the elephant in the sanctuary, though.  We all try to pretend it isn’t there while talking around it, under it, over it.  If we pretend it isn’t there, maybe it will just wander away and everything will be okay.

I’ve been on a self-imposed blog vacation because my personal life has taken a painful but not entirely unexpected turn.  After completing the ordination process in the United Methodist Church and becoming an Elder in Full Connection, my marriage completely fell apart.  In July my wife left and we were divorced in August.  I have avoided blogging about it to this point because I am self-aware enough to realize that I might approach the line between reflection upon my experiences and airing my dirty laundry inappropriately.  I respect my ex-wife, our children, and myself too much to air my grievances publicly, so I have remained silent.

I don’t want to be thought of as a statistic regarding the divorce rate among clergy.  I don’t want to be an anecdotal example of  “what the ordination process does to candidates.”  I don’t want to point fingers, place blame, or discuss why my marriage collapsed.  I just want to reflect on what happens when a pastor enters and works through the grief process.

It was difficult meeting with my Pastor-Parish Relations Committee.  I met with my District Superintendent, and at her suggestion, prepared a written statement about the fact that I was getting divorced.  I presented my letter to them, and anticipated with dread how the fallout would affect my ministry in the local church.  Everyone was shocked.  My spouse and I had done a good job hiding our problems from everyone, including ourselves.  Waves of shock hit the PPR.  Grown men wiped tears from their cheeks.  The DS assured them that the Conference would do everything possible to support both the churches and me during this process.   She asked for grace from the churches in supporting me through my grief.  As the meeting ended, I was surrounded by people who have been both incredibly supportive and deeply critical of me, and their sincerest prayers for my healing and well-being.  I returned to the parsonage and cried.

The written statement I issued was then copied and mailed to the rest of the households in the congregation.  By Sunday, nearly everyone had received the letter.  I never announced my divorce from the pulpit.  The elephant entered the sanctuary, planted himself between the pulpit and the pews, and he was angry.  He stomped, snorted and trumpeted to make his presence known.  I was faced with the seemingly impossible preacher’s task of proclaiming hope while feeling utterly hopeless.  My sermons reflected my personal pain even as I tried desperately to prevent it.  I fought back tears most Sundays, occasionally with some success.  Even when I didn’t cry, my hangdog expression was obvious.  One parishioner commented to me one Sunday, “your message was great, but you just look so sad.”  Every sermon had not-so-subtle subtext: “Pray for me.  I need your support right now.  Please don’t leave me in this place alone.”

I was sad.  I ended up in the Emergency Room one Saturday.  I hadn’t been eating, and my stomach rebelled against me.  I had chest pain and thought I was going to die.  I received mixed messages from the congregation.  One fellow showed up at my house with microwave dinners for my freezer and words of encouragement.  Another parishioner called and said harshly, “you’re going to have to find some way to pull it together.”  Others said, “you have vacation time coming, why don’t you take some?”  And my mind was too preoccupied to process it all.

Then came financial troubles.  I had to find a way of paying the bills on my income alone, which was difficult because my wife made over twice what I do.  I had to ask family for help.  I started cutting expenses, begging for grace, and learning to budget more strictly.  I had a tire blowout 150 miles from home when I really couldn’t afford it.  I learned to pray that nothing else would break down or go wrong.

I started seeing a counselor.  I joined a very private invitation-only online support group.  I met with the Bishop’s office and a representative from the Board of Ordained Ministries for a “Divorce Review.”  I rebuilt a circle of close friends.  I learned quickly who my friends were, and weren’t.  I kept company with denial, anger and despair.  I slept on my couch with the TV on every night.  I forced myself to eat.  I avoided my clergy friends because I just didn’t want to talk about it.

Grief is a funny thing with a life of its own.  I started turning around, and I’m not sure why.  My online friends provided a great roadmap for what my process would be like, and they really supported and encouraged me all the way.  Having great support through the grief was like making the trip with a GPS: I traveled the road more confidently and swiftly because I trusted my guides, and I knew immediately if I was headed down the wrong path.  My sermons have moved from “With God’s help, we’ll get through this,” to “Trust God, our best days are ahead of us.”   I lived out John Wesley’s admonition to “preach faith until you have it, then preach it all the more.”   Anger and despair gave way to quiet acceptance and vocal hope.

Grief never leaves you like it found you.  When my grandfather died, it left me a harder, more cynical person.  This process has softened me.  I’ll shed a tear when I try to sing a sad song.  I’m a more patient and deeply compassionate person than I was before.  I really believe I am emotionally healthier than I’ve been in years as a result of grieving well.  I have newfound determination and purpose in my vocation as a pastor.

I’ve learned firsthand that my brokenness and humanity are not just part of who I am as a person, but also part of who I am as a pastor.  It’s difficult for churches when the pastor’s brokenness comes to the surface.  It’s hard for a pastor to be so profoundly broken.  But it’s essential for God’s people to know that God has always been in the business of redeeming, not preventing, suffering.  God has always been in the business of making art out of broken lives.  We aren’t called to be perfect, or to pretend that we are.  We are called to remember that our brokenness gives us an opportunity for God’s grace and healing to be revealed to us and in us.

God Wasn’t In the Vuvuzela!

June 25, 2010

A podcast sermon from Wayne City United Methodist Church, 6/20/2010.

Text: 1 Kings 19:1-15


The Ordination of the Omelet King

June 5, 2010

My youngest son calls me the Omelet King.  I am good.  Real good.  I have made more than my fair share of omelets in my day.  My student job at Southern Illinois University was manning the breakfast grill at the Marketplace restaurant in the Student Center.  Omelets were big sellers, and I cooked ’em up.  I had regular customers who told me that they only ordered omelets if I was cooking that day, because they thought I made ’em better than the other guy.  Now my kids love it when I make omelets.

“Keep a low profile and fly under the radar, at least until you’re ordained.”  That was the advice of a good friend and personal mentor.  He repeated it to me over and over.  It was good advice.

I have been known to ignore good advice before.  And without doubt, I will again.

I started this blog as sort of a shared personal journal to document my journey through the ordination process and beyond.  Somehow I failed to keep a low profile and fly under the radar.  I developed a solid readership.  By blog has caught the attention of laypersons, Bishops, other bloggers and the Conference office.  All the while I’ve been very transparent about my frustrations and emotions.  My emotionalism and transparency, as some have pointed out, are gifts that can be incredibly helpful in building relationships but can also put me in a vulnerable place.

So I had to face a harsh reality.  I was a vulnerable man who was not under the radar.  Not even close.

My honesty made me vulnerable.  I have hit the “publish” button and literally quivered and shaken.  I have voiced reasonable doubts about my ordain-ability given the depth of critique I’ve leveled at the Board of Ordained Ministry.  Readers have shared in my process of moving from angry criticism to constructive ideas.

And last night Bishop Gregory V. Palmer placed his hands on my head as I knelt before the body of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference and said “Lord, pour upon Robert William Deuel the Holy Spirit for the office and work of an elder, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  Then he presented me with a Bible, an ordination certificate, and placed a red stole around my neck.

And I wept.

And then, in partnership with all my friends (and over these past three years we became very close friends) who were ordained as well, I served Holy Communion.  Undoubtedly I served some of those who voted to deny my appeal to waive the CPE requirement.  I no doubt served some who have taken my critiques personally.  I almost certainly served some who have labeled me a troublemaker, a boat rocker, a thorn in the flesh.  I know that I served some who regarded my critiques as brave.  And all of them welcomed me heartily as a brother in the order and a brother in Christ.

I received grace in a mighty way.  And I am grateful beyond words.

I know it’s a cliché but I learned the hard way a lesson I should have known from the start: “If you’re gonna make an omelet, you’ve got to break a few eggs.”  Tonight I’m not sure if I have caused a bunch of trouble or if I have proposed good solutions, or perhaps a little of both.  I do know that this blog has made me more of a high-profile person than I had ever intended, and it has allowed me to become part of a conversation that I previously would have not been invited to.

I’ve made an Ordination omelet.  I have worked out my own ordination with tremendous fear and trembling.  All that I have done has brought me to this place.

No regrets.

I Love the United Methodist Church

April 23, 2010

I know that I can come across as cynical and bitter at times, and as I’ve pointed out before my cynicism comes from being a romantic whose heart has been broken.  To characterize my personality accurately and honestly I must make a few confessions:

  1. I am deeply optimistic and prone to getting my hopes up.
  2. I tend to see the best in people, and offer up the benefit of the doubt.
  3. I realize that my more confessional blog posts put me in a vulnerable place.  Yet I hang on tightly to the passages that say “by his wounds we are healed,” and “my power is made perfect in weakness.”  So if I am truly called to re-present Christ, then I call upon us all to share our vulnerabilities together.  Healing is not made manifest in denial of our weaknesses, but in sharing them.
  4. I am a hope-filled romantic.

I have used this blog to share my heartbreak, my grievances and my passions.  I have been deeply and vocally critical of the bureaucracies within our denomination and their seeming detachment from the realities of ministry on the ground.  And in doing so one might come to the conclusion that I don’t really like the United Methodist Church.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  The grievances I’ve aired here are a lover’s quarrel with the church with whom I am in a covenant relationship.

I love the United Methodist Church.

The United Methodist Church gave my mom a church home when she was searching.  The United Methodist Church sent me to church camp as a teenager, and I was led to Christ there.  My United Methodist pastors (Niles Stone, Steve Palmer, Tom Richards, Harold “Red” Andricks, Bruce Owens, Larry Gilbert, Victor Long) showed me different aspects of God’s passionate love.  John Wesley’s Arminian understanding of the prevenient, justifying and sanctifying natures of grace is, to my reading, exactly right.  The United Methodist Hymnal taught me songs that have changed my life. United Methodist congregations have loved me, taught me, nurtured my gifts and graces, encouraged me, and supported me in my convoluted path toward ordained ministry.

I love that we are a connectional church.  Through church bodies like UMCOR and the United Methodist Women we can do things far greater than any single church can alone.  I love that we are a “Big Tent” denomination where liberals, conservatives and centrists can disagree – sometimes deeply – yet eat of the same bread, drink of the same cup, and love and pray for one another.  I love that I can be in a covenant group with other United Methodist pastors and feel less like a Lone Ranger in ministry.  I love that some of our congregations are almost Episcopalian while others are almost Baptist.  I love that the United Methodist Church takes missions of mercy and healing seriously, and that when disaster hits we often have the reputation for being the first to arrive and the last to leave.  I love the Walk to Emmaus and I have seen lives change there.  I love Abingdon Press, the Upper Room, Cokesbury, The United Methodist Hymnal, The Faith We Sing, and the wealth of materials available to clergy and laity through Cokesbury.

I love that the Residence in Ministry program has given me lifelong friends throughout our Conference, and I am proud to kneel beside them this June as the Bishop lays hands upon us.  Each one of them, and the group as a whole, gives me hope for the future of the church.  And I would not know them as I do in any other denomination.

My strongest experiences of God have happened in and through ministries of the United Methodist Church.

I love the United Methodist Church.  May the UMC continue to be on board with what God is doing in the world, and may God bless the UMC.

Secular Hymnody

April 21, 2010

While at Eden Theological Seminary’s Spring Convocation I got a real backlog of ideas for this blog (but a shortage of time for other reasons). While I was a student I got a reputation for finding sacred songs in unlikely places, and for singing them in chapel.

There’s enough process theologian in me that I wince at the notion of separating sacred and secular – I truly believe that God is imminent as well as transcendent, and is in and through all things.  (I feel the same way about natural vs. supernatural, which is another blog post altogether).   But for the purposes of this discussion let’s call it Secular Hymnody – songs of faith found on albums not targeted at specifically Christian audiences.

Anyway, a good pal suggested that I put together a list of secular hymns and post it as an iMix.  I’d really like to do just that, but I would like to have some suggestions from you as well.  If you’ve picked up a CD and found a song of faith or prayer, please let me know in the comments.

Here are some of my favorites off the top of my head:

  1. Power of the Gospel – Ben Harper
  2. Nothing But The Water (Parts 1 & 2) – Grace Potter & the Nocturnals
  3. Someday – Los Lobos
  4. Heaven – Los Lonely Boys
  5. Jesus Was an Only Son – Bruce Springsteen
  6. That Was Me – Todd Snider (a Matthew 25 song in disguise!)
  7. Somebody’s Comin’ – Todd Snider
  8. In The Lord’s Arms – Ben Harper
  9. Jesus on the Mainline – Ry Cooder
  10. God Was In The Water – Bonnie Raitt
  11. Lord Protect My Child – Susan Tedeschi (Bob Dylan)
  12. Judas ‘Scariot Blues – The Band of Heathens
  13. Mercy Now – Mary Gauthier

I plan on updating this grooveshark playlist periodically as the songs become available.

Check ’em out by clicking here!

Ordination Reboot for the 21st Century

March 16, 2010

It’s no secret among my readers that I have been vocally critical of both the process of ordination in the United Methodist Church and of those who oppose challenges to the status quo.  I have been greeted with both suspicion and applause, support and critique, and kudos for my bravery both publicly and privately.  But my intention in being critical is not to tear anyone or anything down.  Rather, I want to help construct ways of approaching the ordination process that will  benefit both the candidates and the church.  I hope I’ve made that clear.

In particular I’ve been critical of the Residence in Ministry program, and there seems to be a uniform dissatisfaction with it in various conferences by both those who run it and those who are required to participate.  The folks put in charge of the program scramble for exercises and activities for the candidates.  Candidates complain that those days away from their pastoral duties are a waste of precious time and resources.  The whole thing is supposed to be designed to help candidates continue in a discernment process for understanding, nurturing and developing gifts and graces for the ordained ministry and to prepare for their big day with the Board.

As I reflect on the process, I’ve come to several conclusions:

  1. Those meetings did precious little to prepare me for the written work that we are all required to submit to the Board.
  2. Those meetings did precious little to prepare me for my interview with the Board.
  3. Some of us found ourselves re-reading books we had already used in seminary.
  4. Feedback from candidates was received with a gracious ear, shared frustration and understanding yet little changed as a result.
  5. Members of the Board are often as frustrated and confounded by the process as the candidates, usually for the same reasons.
  6. While only the General Conference of the UMC has the authority to make sweeping changes to the process, individual boards have a degree of flexibility in how that process is approached and executed.

So here are my preliminary thoughts:

  1. Written work: While we turn in a short ton of stuff at the end of the process, the volume of written work is not enough to judge one’s preparation for ministry in the long-term.  Those pages are just not enough to document a candidate’s growth during the process.  Therefore I believe that candidates for ordained ministry should be required to start a blog.  It can be a private blog viewable only by members of the Board and whomever the candidate chooses to read it.  The board can give directives for content and volume: (e.g. read and review a theology book that you suspect will largely affirm your beliefs; read and review a book that you suspect will largely challenge your beliefs; discuss what salvation means – what are we saved from and why?; read a book of the Bible and discuss some implications for contemporary application of its teachings; post at least one sermon exegesis per month; read and review a book on clergy ethics, etc.)  In my opinion this gives the board and the candidates to develop meaningful discourse in the context of relationships.  Our theologies can be challenged or affirmed in real time.  This is in no way a substitute for the written work that gets turned in at the end, but it can be targeted at helping candidates develop their thoughts over time and create a pool of resources that can be drawn from at crunch time.
  2. Interviews: Just as people have different learning styles and thinking patterns, we also have different communication skills.  Some people can speak extemporaneously with great ease and others must process questions more slowly and formulate responses deliberately.  Interviews are tough for folks in the latter group.  BOM interviews don’t have to be high-stress pressure chambers.  I believe it would be quite helpful for candidates to participate in mock/practice  interviews during their RIM sessions.  We Voc Rehab people understand the value of practicing job interviews and developing interview skills, and United Methodist pastors don’t really get to practice job interviews before the big day.
  3. Bad Candidates: There are Elders in the United Methodist Church who, frankly, aren’t very United Methodist.  I think the Board needs to know that before we go ordaining them.  We have Elders in this Conference who won’t baptize babies.  Others do not support the ordination of women.  Others either don’t understand or don’t support connectional giving (paying apportionments).  The only real way to find these things out is by having some kind of relationship with them.  One can easily sidestep those issues in the written work required for ordination, and it may not come up in the interview.  Conversations about these topics, blog posts, etc. can bring about a deeper understanding of one’s fit for the UMC.
  4. Preaching: I felt a tremendous amount of pressure to get it right for my ordination sermon.  As a result it was good but not representative of my style.  My sermon ended up being  a performance for the Board rather than a sermon for the congregation.  I think that occasional sermon manuscripts or transcripts posted to the blog or, ideally, an online audio or video site (Google Video, Dailymotion, Vimeo, etc.) might give the board a more representative view of a candidate’s relationship with the congregation.   (Sidenote: we had to turn ours in on DVD this year.  Setting an inexpensive Flip camera on a tripod then transferring it to disc with Windows DVD Maker yielded GREAT results).
  5. Relationships. The best part of Residence in Ministry was building relationships with other candidates, and the best times were had outside of structured activities.  Let the candidates play.  Let ’em choose to have dinner in self-chosen groups.  Let ’em have some down time to play Scrabble or Settlers of Catan.  Unstructured time is okay as long as it is used to build relationships between colleagues.  You can’t really force it but you can provide conditions in which relationships can develop.  It really is going to feel great in June to be ordained next to this group of fine people who have become my friends.  And they became my friends over dinner, appetizers and beverages, board games and private gripe sessions.  (Don’t turn it into a youth group.  Let us have some fun together on our own.)
  6. Lively Discussion: RIM ought to be a safe environment where we can discuss what we really believe and struggle with.
  7. Fill in the Gaps: I don’t know about you, but there’s a lot of stuff I have to do that nobody taught me how to do.  Like Charge Conference, Annual Statistical Tables, maintaining membership rolls, and stuff like that.  New Pastors’ Orientation didn’t cover it.  It sure didn’t happen in seminary.  RIM is a great opportunity to help pastors get those questions asked so we know we’re doing it right.
  8. Choice. Please give the candidates a forum in which we can bring our own ideas for how the time should be structured.  Most of us know what our strengths and deficits are (I’m growing weary of the phrase “growing edges.”)  Believe it or not, we want to be good pastors and we have some idea how you can help us become better at it than we are.

Those are just what I could come up with off the top of my head.  I know I have frustrations with the way things are.  I know that I can be a boat-rocker and a thorn in the flesh.  But I have always believed that the moment you are satisfied with the status quo is the moment you’re in real trouble.

An Inglourious Problem

February 22, 2010

I’ll begin this reflection with a confession: I’m a Quentin Tarantino fan. I’m biased. As a lover of language I deeply appreciate the attention Tarantino pays to dialogue and narrative flow, especially when the narrative does not follow a traditional arc. And with Tarantino, it doesn’t. Roger Ebert made a convincing argument that Pulp Fiction is ultimately the tale of Jules Winnfield’s (the Samuel L. Jackson character) redemption, and the other storylines told in their strangely interwoven way serve that ultimate end. I also love Pulp Fiction precisely because it is Tarantino’s most overtly theological film. With his gross misquote of Ezekiel, Jules verbalizes every Christian’s dilemma: “I’m trying, Ringo. I’m trying real hard to be the Shepherd.”

This week there has been a lot of buzz around the entertainment industry that Tarantino’s latest film, Inglourious Basterds, may actually win the Best Picture Oscar. I hope it does. I loved the movie. I found it disturbing, unsettling, hilarious, and (best of all) different from any film I’d seen in a long time. Christoph Waltz gives a surefire Oscar-winning performance as Hans “The Jew Hunter” Landa whose job is to find and execute Jews in hiding, one of the most terrifying cat-and-mouse characters ever. Landa is a brilliant but terrifying man, a self-serving anti-Semite, a high-ranking Nazi officer, and a man whose intellect and charm are matched only by his narcissism and sociopathy. Brad Pitt plays Aldo Raine, the brutal leader of a small band of Jewish-American soldiers who ambush, scalp, torture, brand, and kill Nazis. Mélanie Laurent plays Shoshanna Dreyfus, a Jewish girl who escapes the clutches of Landa and goes about hiding in plain sight in the city.

And true to form, Tarantino frames this fanciful reimagining of World War II as a revenge fantasy. Tarantino loves revenge fantasies, but he doesn’t like them pure. Kill Bill was one long revenge fantasy told across two movies, but it was also a transformation/redemption story. The Bride is three distinct women: the assassin, a woman scorned and bent on revenge, and finally a loving mother who seeks to put her old life behind her. Tarantino made it clear in the DVD special features interviews when he said (paraphrased), “If the Bride is the same person at the end of the story as she was at the beginning, there would be no point.” The redemption stories of Jackie Brown and Jules Winnfield are also messy. But even messy, gritty redemption is not the genius of Basterds.

No, the genius is that Quentin Tarantino’s unique perspective on filmmaking allows him to do something very, very difficult. Inglourious Basterds is ultimately a meditation on evil, but a meditation that is free of moralizing or easy answers. You find yourself rooting for terrorists to win. The Basterds walk into a crowded movie theater with bombs strapped to their legs and you find yourself hoping they will succeed in blowing the theater up! But Tarantino does not fall into the trap of trying to make a political statement, or club you over the head with some heavy-handed moral. He doesn’t try to make us feel guilty for rooting for terrorists, nor does he tell us that terrorist tactics make us as bad as the others we identify as bad guys. Nope, he just lets it sit there. If we ask those questions, we ask them of ourselves later on in the parking lot of the theater or sometime later. Tarantino doesn’t have an ideology to promote or a political axe to grind. He’s just a storyteller using devices to move the story along. Are the Nazis evil? Without question. Are the Basterds’ tactics evil? Yes. Is Landa evil? Yes, and in its purest form! Even Shoshanna is no match for the temptation of revenge when the opportunity arises.

As soteriology was the fundamental question of Reformation theology (“How do I know that I’m saved?”), theology in the 21st Century revolves around maintaining credibility in a world shaped by Enlightenment and Post-Modern philosophy and around questions of theodicy (understanding God in light of incredible evil, including that perpetrated ostensibly in the name of God). While Basterds does not have an overt theological agenda, it does provide a profound reflection on the nature of both personal and systemic/corporate evil, temptation, self-preservation, and retributive justice.

Are we evil for taking sides? Is evil an effective weapon against evil? Do righteous ends ever justify evil means? Tarantino never urges us toward an answer. We just get to witness it and think for ourselves.


Sidenote: as a minister of the Christian faith, it is my firm belief that nonviolence is the preferred response to violence, that mercy triumphs over revenge, and that grace is better than retribution. While I don’t endorse themes of revenge, I do think we in the narrative-telling business can learn a thing or two from a master like QT.

Wherein the Troublemaker is Recommended for Ordination

February 10, 2010

I suppose I’ve been pegged as a troublemaker.  A boat-rocker.  Against the advice of wiser minds and leveler heads I tend to speak my mind.  WYSIWYG.  I will be accused of acting without thinking far more often than thinking without acting.

I suppose I could rationalize and glamorize that by naming it “claiming my prophetic voice,” or some such.  Others may use Tolkien’s classic line, “his mouth works faster than his brain.”  As usual, the truth is probably a little bit of both and mostly somewhere in between.  I’m not afraid to speak my mind, and sometimes I fail to consider the consequences of doing so.  Other times I carefully consider the consequences and speak my mind anyway; damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.

Knowing this about myself created a great deal of anxiety for me this week.  Monday afternoon was my interview with a team from the Board of Ordained Ministry to determine whether I am stole-worthy.  I came face to face with a reality that I myself created:  I was seeking the approval of a board that I have criticized publicly.  I was terrified.  (Okay, that was slightly hyperbolic.  I was really, really nervous.  I expected my earlier blog posts to blow up in my face.  I expected a call to repentance.  I didn’t fear for my life – I was simply justifiably concerned that I might be continued rather than approved, solely on the basis of my public critique).  Instead the interview went very, very well.  I wasn’t asked anything that threw me too far off balance.  My written work received far more compliment than critique*.  The subject of my public grousing about CPE never even came up. When all was said and done I was told that I am being recommended to the board for ordination as an Elder in Full Connection in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference of the United Methodist Church.

And as I reflect on that development, I have come to one interesting conclusion:  I want to join the Board of Ordained Ministry.

I know, I know.  Some of you might be thinking that I want to join the board because I have an axe to grind.  Truth is I’m past that.  I don’t resent having to do CPE.  Sure it was expensive in terms of time and treasure.  Sure it was more of a refresher course than the new educational experience it is designed to be.  I felt like a big league hitter taking batting practice.  But I don’t resent it.  I’m not angry about it.  I do still rationally and reasonably believe that I could have used a different educational experience in its place and that I would be a better pastor by formally addressing other growing edges.  I still believe that the board might do better to address the gifts, graces, growing edges and deficits of individual candidates than to run us through a standardized mill.  But that’s not why I want to be on the board.  I don’t believe grinding that axe would make anything sharper.

No, I want to be part of the board for one reason alone: I want to work in the Residence in Ministry program.  I was very critical of the Residence in Ministry program while I was in it.  I dreaded every session.  I often left the meetings processing anger and frustration during my drive home.  It felt like we were given assignments that were designed just to give us something to do rather than something to do that addresses our written and oral work in the ordination process.

But I don’t want to work for Residence in Ministry because I have an axe to grind, either.  To paraphrase Bishop Willimon, “either your conference is serious about having young clergy or it isn’t.”  And I’m serious about young clergy.  As I entered the process I could have been considered young clergy but as I complete it calling me young (at 41) is a stretch.  (In our conference 41 is quite young in relative terms, but seriously – if your definition of “young clergy” is early 40s there’s a problem somewhere).  I don’t want to stand on the sidelines whining and moaning about how bad the process is or what I think needs to be done.  I want to work within the program specifically because I stand right at the borderline between young and experienced clergy.  I’m old enough to understand and carefully consider the concerns of the older generations of the church, but young enough to relate well with younger clergy and to help them in a discernment and preparation process.

Too many exercises we did in Residence in Ministry felt like a rehash of seminary or CPE processes.  We debated about whether that was because the designers really miss seminary and CPE and want to relive the experience, or because they couldn’t think of anything else to do.  I want to design exercises for Residence in Ministry because I am excited to see a younger generation of leaders in the United Methodist Church and I want to see them succeed.  I want young clergy to come out of the RIM process feeling confident and well-prepared for turning in their written work and facing their interviews.  I want to see young clergy address their personal growing edges, nurturing their strongest gifts, and energized to engage in effective, exciting ministry.

There are lots of things that seminary and “new pastors’ orientation” don’t teach you about being an effective United Methodist pastor, and RIM should be there to fill in that gap. I am convinced that some good candidates are continued on the basis that they did not fully understand the assignments given them or didn’t understand what is expected of their written work.  RIM should make the assignments and expectations clear.  I want to be a part of the RIM process because I genuinely believe I can help.

I will gladly remain a troublemaker and a boat-rocker for the sake of the Reign of God and for the benefit of the United Methodist Church.

*Our guidelines for written work stated that “All materials submitted must meet graduate level standards of correct spelling, punctuation, grammar, and clarity of thought.”  However my work was critiqued as being “too academic,” even though I intentionally weaved personal narrative and academic insights throughout.  My answer to that critique was, “I was told over and over that this is an academic assignment, so I won’t apologize for turning in academic work.”

I Am George Harrison

January 18, 2010

Okay, maybe not.  I’m a generation younger, a USAmerican, and nowhere near as famous or as talented.

But I relate to George in ways that bear articulating.  I am a deeply spiritual person.  My seminary classmates used to scoff when I mentioned this, but I have a very deep sense of piety.  Not “piousness,” or holier-than-thou-ness, but genuine reverence for God and God’s creation.  That, of course, is balanced by my frequently irreverent sense of humor and snark.  I try to allow myself to be irreverent but not blasphemous, aloof but respectful, and mostly silly but loving.   Like Life of Brian.

I haven’t been crazy about some of the Beatles covers you can hear at The Beatles Complete on Ukulele.  (If you want to hear the wonderful combination of Beatles music and ukulele you’re better off checking out The Beatles Uke by former Cars keyboardist Greg Hawkes or WS64’s YouTube channel.)  But some of their essays are spot on (and sometimes they fall into the old “John was a genius, Paul is a weenie” trap that really grinds my gears, but I digress.)  Their most recent post gives this succinct psychoanalysis of George Harrison:

George Harrison was smart enough to know that money and fame is a chimera, that materialism is a dead end. Well, life itself is a dead end.

Is that all there is? Que sera sera?

Sic transit gloria mundi.So passes the glory of the world. All things must pass.

George craved meaning, which is a rough go when you are a natural born cynic.

But inside the armor of every isolated cynic is a jilted lover of truth. He tried all the world had to offer and kept on looking.

I love that next-to-last line.  “But inside the armor of every isolated cynic is a jilted lover of truth.”  That is a slightly more articulate version of something I’ve been saying about myself for a while, “a cynic is really a heartbroken romantic.”  I’m not so much a pessimist as an optimist with a broken heart.  I’m an idealist whose high hopes have been crushed by the corruption and apathy of the world.  I can be a real Reinhold Niebuhr, proclaiming that our responsibility is to do our best even though our best probably sucks.

I wish I could be a Paul McCartney who can sing “Good Day, Sunshine” without a hint of irony, a Bob Marley who can chant “Every thing’s gonna be alright” over and over and mean it.  I have undying admiration for their ability to do just that.  And I’m glad that I’m not a John Lennon, whose entire understanding of the world changes with every emotional whim.

Nope, I’m a George.  I can sing “Give me love, give me love, give me peace on earth,” so long as it’s tempered with “give me hope, help me cope with this heavy load.”  I can see the optimistic vision of the future; what a theologian might describe as God’s eschatological vision of  the world redeemed and transformed; but I cannot deny the heavy weight of the world as it is.  I can sing praises to My Sweet Lord, but not without warning you to “beware of sadness – it can hit you, it can hurt you, make you sore and what is more – it is not what you are here for!”

And like George I recognize that nothing can sweep away my cynicism like an old Hoagy Carmichael song played sweetly on the ukulele.

So what does it mean to be a heartbroken romantic, a jilted lover of truth when you are a preacher and a pastor for a living?  Well, you sing love songs to the truth that you love.  You uphold the romantic vision.  You sing it with passion.  And you embrace the reality that we just ain’t there yet.  The darkness does surround us.  There really are people standing ’round who’ll screw us in the ground.  And our bridges between the darkness of the present world and the transformed eschatologically redeemed world are grounded and manifest in spirituality and action.

Maybe a George isn’t a bad thing for a pastor to be.