An Encounter that Redefined my Concept of “Pastor”

I had just moved to Birmingham, Alabama to serve as a college pastor.  Suburbia tends to insulate us from the deep, historical pains of a city, so I asked Tracy Hipps to give me on orientation.  The social terrain between Birmingham’s white and black and rich and poor is more vast than in any city I have ever lived.  Tracy knew that terrain well, so I hopped out of my little beat-up truck one morning and loaded into his little beat-up truck for a “tour.”

I met a pastor at our first stop whose example reworked and expanded my concept of pastoral ministry.

I do not remember his name.  His house was in a rough section of town most folks I knew never dreamed of visiting (unless it was an disturbing dream).  I remember that he had a large dog in the back lot—man’s best friend… and would-be intruders’ worst enemy.  I especially remember the truck.  It looked like an old FedEx delivery van that had been stripped down and repainted in a nondescript dirty white.  It seemed to be begging for another coat.   When Tracy introduced us, he was firing up that truck and getting ready for his day.

Why would a pastor drive a hand-me down delivery van?  What was a pastor doing with this eyesore of a box-truck?

It was Monday.  That’s the day of the week when he drove to all the local grocery shops in his section of the hood and collected their expired items… and then delivered them to his hungry, impoverished church members.

(Jesus to Peter: “FEED MY SHEEP”—Jn 21:17)

I had just finished a two-year stint serving a small congregation in North Carolina.  There is a lot I did as a pastor not because I read it in some pastoral manual but simply because I had a flock to tend—their needs and circumstances gave shape to my idea of “pastor.”  Many were sick.  So I spent a lot of time at Durham Regional and Duke University Hospital.  Some died.  So I worked a lot with Clements  and Hall-Wynne Funeral Services.  We had signed up to clean Old NC 10, the road in front of our church building, so I spent some time picking up litter.  Along with preaching and teaching, I helped with a few practical things here and there.  I even dug a grave once for an urn—the family could not afford the funeral service’s fee so another parishioner and I went out to the cemetery with shovels.  The next day I preached during the Sunday morning service, sped off to the funeral home to preach at the memorial service, dashed home to change into rougher clothes, then met the family at the graveside, read Scripture, helped set the urn in the hole, and then shoveled the dirt back on top.  A Sunday-day’s work.

But I never scrounged around the city for food so my parishioners could eat for the week.

I fed my sheep, I think.  With Scripture and teaching and encouragement and exhortation, I fed them.  I broke the bread and served the wine (well… grape juice).  But this pastor I met that morning in Birmingham was bringing bread and juice to the hungry of his flock just so they could eat.

I preached on John 10 this morning at a small Baptist church in a nearby village.  Lying behind the Shepherd Discourse are God’s harsh critiques of the faithless shepherds of Israel in Ezekiel 34.  Those leaders did not feed the sheep.  They ate the sheep.  But the Good Shepherd, the great Shepherd-God-King Jesus, lays down his life for the sheep.  As the divine Shepherd, he does not just lead us to green pastures beside still waters (Ps 23), he actually gives us the food and drink of His own flesh and blood: “my flesh is true food , and my blood is true drink” (6:55).   Jesus, the Good Shepherd, does not feed on the flock like the faithless shepherds; he feeds the flock, and he does so with his own life.  The flesh and blood of His sacrificed life nourishes us and gives us life.

That’s a shepherd for you.

“Feed my sheep,” he later told Peter—and so the shepherding role of Jesus was and is extended to others.  To me.  Maybe to you.  Shepherding the people of God costs so much.  For both Jesus and Peter, it cost everything.

I am thankful for living examples of this sacrificial pastoring.  This guy who does not enter his pastorium next to a safe sanctuary on Mondays but climbs into an old delivery truck—that’s a shepherd I have much to learn from….

Interviewing Blue Like Jazz Actor, Matt Godfrey (part 2)

This is the last half of my interview with Matt who plays “Yuri” in Blue Like Jazz..  Click here for part 1.  Let me just say… his responses to my questions are really, really good.  These are thought-provoking insights from someone edging his way into what is for many of us an exciting but alien realm: the film industry.

Feel free to post Matt any questions you may have.  This guy is my good friend—he is extremely accessible and eager to chat about this sort of stuff!

Enjoy…

As a Christian in the film industry, how would you determine what you will or will not do on screen (explicit language, acted violence, scenes with explicit sexuality, etc)?

This is probably the question I get asked most often and it’s one of the most difficult ones to answer, only because it’s on a case by case basis. There’s obviously a separation in the characters that I play and in my personal life. I would play a killer but I’m not a killer. So you can’t rule out playing a role that in your personal life you morally object to. I’m all about telling stories, whether they’re for pure entertainment or whether they explore issues that society needs to address. If I just played good, morally upright characters I’d be severely limited in my storytelling. What I choose to do or not do is directly related to the story the script is telling – is this a story I want to tell also, is it well done, it is something I’m passionate about? If it turns out that yes, this script is something I’m behind, the story is compelling, then I’ll start to look at the actual content. Violence is a pretty easy one for me. Let’s say my character stabs someone with a knife in the film. I never actually stab someone. That was fake. It may look real on screen, but as long as the stabbing serves the story that I want to tell, as long as it makes the story more honest, then great, that’s something I’ll do. Sexuality is much harder. There is no set on earth where the director would give you a real gun and tell you to shoot the other actor. But let’s say you’re playing a sex scene and my character gropes the other actress. Well, that’s real groping. I’m really grabbing skin, I’m really kissing skin. That gets much more difficult. It may serve the story, it may be non-gratuitous, but there are certain things I’m just not comfortable with. I’m completely fine with telling a story that involves sex – it is a real and important part of life – but because I want to protect myself, my wife, and our relationship, we’ve set up a rule that helps. My wife and I always say that if we didn’t do it before we were married, I’m not going to do it with another girl on screen. That leaves room for me to tell the stories that I want to tell, but it also sets a boundary to keep our relationship safe. But like I said before, this is all on a script-by-script basis. I could be faced with the same sex scene in two different scripts and I might choose to do one and not the other. It depends on the story and if it’s something I want to be associated with.

 

How do you and Ellen handle marriage when you are portraying someone totally different in your acting career (which might include being in love with someone else!)?

The main thing is for me to make sure that Ellen is totally involved in what I’m doing. She may not be on set with me, but I want her to read the script, to know what scenes I’m shooting that day, for her to be involved. I have a friend who’s also a married actor, and I’ve learned a lot from him about how he keeps his relationship with his wife strong. It’s easy to become a quick family on set because you spend so much time with one another working towards a common goal. If my wife wasn’t completely up to date with what we shot that day, what I was fearful of going in to work that day, etc. it would be too easy to come home and be too exhausted to explain anything to her. My dream of having a career as an actor is equally as much her dream, so she’s involved. There also has to be a level of reassurance there. If I’m playing a serial killer, that’s not something that hard to separate from who I really am. If I’m playing some normal guy who falls in love with a girl, that’s harder. If my wife was an actress and she was on set all day with other guy pretending she loved him, I’d want some assurance when she got home. So I do the same.

 

I am curious about the medium and message of various art forms. What does a film do to a story that first appeared in a book—how does this newer media form of the movie affect the meaning or content of the original piece?

I don’t think changing media forms necessarily has to do anything to the meaning or content of the original, but it certainly can and sometimes does. I’m just trying to think of adaptations I’ve seen recently where I’ve both read the book and seen the film. For instance, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is obviously an expose on sexual violence towards women in Sweden. The book and film are both disturbing, and each in different ways. Fincher’s version of the film couldn’t show everything the book described, but it was maybe even more horrifying seeing what little Fincher did show. In that way I think the film aided the book’s message. I thought it was the same with The Hunger Games. The books are a pretty clear political critique and commentary on the effects of war on children. There’s this amazing shot in the film of citizens in District 11 getting blasted with water hoses, and it immediately brought up images of civil rights riots in Birmingham, AL in the 1960s. That’s something a book couldn’t do. As a society we have certain images burned into our brains, and I think it was a smart move as a filmmaker for Gary Ross to use that water hose image to drive home Suzanne Collins’ themes of political unrest and government oppression. It took no words and a shot that only lasted 1 or 2 seconds, but it had the effect of pages and pages of writing. I guess what I’m saying is that a well thought out adaptation of a story from one media form to another should only heighten or aid the original in a way the first media form couldn’t. I wish I could think of an example right now of an adaptation completely turning the original on its head, but it turns out I’m not that smart.

 

I recommend staying connected with Matt.  He is on Twitter, and here are his website and IMDB site.

 

Interviewing ‘Blue Like Jazz’ Actor, Matt Godfrey

I took a blogging-break during a trip to the States.  I am resuming with a different sort of post.  My wife and I are good friends with Ellen and Matt Godfrey, and Matt plays a role in the film adaptation of Blue Like Jazz.  I have yet to see the movie, but Matt has been gracious to let me interview him.  Readers of Hopeful Realism will know that vocation and media are themes that pique my interest.  Matt offers helpful reflections on both from inside a unique industry.  Here is part 1 of my two-part interview with him….

 

How did you get your role in BLJ?

My wife Ellen and I are long-time Don Miller fans, and back in 2008 she read on a blog that he was working on turning Blue Like Jazz into a movie. The book had a real impact on both of us, so I knew I had to do whatever I could to be involved. There were basically no details about the film available back then except that Steve Taylor was directing it. I finally came across the email address of Ben Pearson, the cinematographer for Steve’s previous film. I had no idea if he was involved in BLJ, but I emailed him my picture and resume and basically just laid all my cards on the table. I told him I was a huge fan of the book and I really wanted to be involved in the film. He responded and told me he’d forward my information on to Steve, and honestly I thought that was where it would stop. But a day or so later Steve called me and invited me to Nashville to audition. That simply never happens in the entertainment industry. Ben and Steve are a rare breed, and I’m hugely grateful to them for their openness and their talent. I got to Ben’s house in Nashville and read for several different parts in the film but nothing seemed to be a great fit. A lot of directors would have just ended it there, but Steve kept thinking of other roles for me. He called me up one day and asked if I could do a Russian accent, to which I quickly said yes. Then I promptly found an accent coach and learned how to do one. I went back to Nashville and auditioned again for the role of Yuri, which turned out to fit like a glove.

 

Matt Godfrey ("Yuri" in the film)

You have appeared in a few of other works, none of which could be labeled “Christian.”  Is BLJ a “Christian” movie?  Are “Christian” and “non-Christian” suitable labels for movies and other art forms?   

I think BLJ is as much a “Christian” movie as Vera Farmiga’s Higher Ground or Tree of Life. It’s a movie that deals openly with issues of faith and American Christianity, but it doesn’t have an agenda to push on you. I think applying a label to a piece of art – like calling something a “Christian” movie – does the art a great disservice. Contemporary Christianity has created such a closed-off subculture that we feel we need to make films that cater to the church, rather than just telling honest, compelling stories. I find films or poems or novels that sacrifice honest storytelling to push an agenda offensive – whether I agree with the agenda or not. Every artist has a point of view that will of course be communicated in the piece of art, but reducing a movie to a talking point or a take-away nugget just isn’t great art.

 

How do you understand your vocation as a Christian plying his craft within an industry often criticized by the church? 

I’m passionate about telling stories. So was Jesus. You can point to countless times in the Gospels where Jesus gathers a bunch of people around and essentially says, “Listen to this story. It’s true.” When God created the world He spoke it into being. We’re made in God’s image, and God is creative by nature. I think God is pleased with great storytelling, and some of the most spiritually impacting moments in my life have happened through art – listening to a certain song or watching a certain film. I think I’m also called to carry Christ out into the world – and the entertainment industry just seems like a natural fit to me. I understand it, I’m fueled by it’s energy, and I love it. We’re also called to love the city where we live and to pray for it. Los Angeles offers such an amazing opportunity to do that. I love being on set and just making relationships with people. Loving people. Showing them that I’m a professional, that I work hard and that I care about my work. I don’t throw my beliefs in people’s faces, but I bet that on 80% of the sets I’ve worked on people have walked up to me and started spiritual conversations without being prompted. Once you’ve worked with someone so closely for several weeks you’ve gained their respect and their friendship. That’s a great place for those conversations to start.

 

You got to work with Miller.  From your perspective, how did he wrestle with the shift from book author to screenwriter?

I don’t know how well I can answer this question without putting words in Don’s mouth. I can say though that it was such an honor for me to get to know him and to work with him. At one point while Ellen and I were in Portland for the premiere of the film, we went with Don to his office. It was pretty surreal to be sitting there where Don works. And from the perspective of a reader of his work, he transitioned from book author to screenwriter like he was born to do it. I remember reading a draft of the script back in 2008 and immediately thinking, “I have to be involved with this movie!”

 

What have been the greatest temptations and joys for you personally in seeing this film come to the screen? 

Since this is my first widely released film it brought up a whole new set of temptations and joys I’d never experienced before. The whole process has been a joy. From working on set with actors I respect, to doing Q&As with excited audiences screening the film, to traveling up to Portland for the premiere. Honestly, it’s just been really fun. What a blessing. It’s exacerbated some temptations I’ve always had, namely putting your identity and self-worth in your work. It’s hard sometimes to read a negative review and not feel downtrodden. Ellen always has to remind me that my identity is an adopted son of God, and my self-worth comes from the fact that Jesus loved me so much He died for me – and a critic taking a crap on your work could never change that. Still I’m learning how to do that. And I think step one is to stop reading reviews. If you get a good one you feel your ego start to expand, and if you read a bad one you’re suddenly having a bad day. That’s not a good place to live in.

When a Dead Man Interrupts your Cynical Conversation (from Lk 24)

[The meditation below is adapted from the last chapter of my book, Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint]

 

Holy Week is not necessarily a “happy week.”  The truth is, many of us are disillusioned.  Prayers tossed skyward have been met with no reply.  Our eyes have scanned the horizon for an immaterial rescue.  Celebrating with the church calendar can be an embittering exercise for those disenchanted with the church or with its Lord.

Such disillusionment is actually quite fitting for Holy Week.  On Good Friday, we recall those hours when the Lord of the church tossed his own unacknowledged prayers skyward and found the same horizons empty of deliverance.  Sharp disappointment is embedded within the Gospel passion narratives.  It is perhaps most personalized in St. Luke’s account of a conversation along the Emmaus road.

The Evangelist does not tell us why they are heading there… just how they are heading there.  Demoralized and deflated, the two disciples are trudging along a rocky road leading away from Jerusalem.

Away from Jerusalem.

Away from the noise of mobs demanding blood.  Away from the sight of cruciform posts with dangling bodies.  This may well be the most cynical conversation in the New Testament.

“What are you two talking about?”

An interruption.  The traveler had been edging closer to them as they walked.  These travelers are in no mood for an eavesdropper.  “They stood still, looing sad” (Lk 24:17).  One of the disciples, Cleopas, decides to speak.  It is not a very chatty response: “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know what has happened?”

“Fill me in.”

They tell the man about Jesus of Nazareth.  He had been an impressive fellow, doing and saying stuff like no one else.  Died not more than three days ago.  “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”

We had hoped.

“I might add something,” the disciple volunteered, “something odd.  Some women we know were making wild claims just before we left town, claims about seeing angels and not being able to find his body.  Not sure what that’s all about.”

Missing corpse? Yeah, whatever. We had hoped.

“Where are you two headed?”

“Emmaus.”

“Mind if I join you?”

This new conversation partner changes the tone.  For someone who has not been following the news in Jerusalem, he has much to say.  The mourning disciples realize they do not want to bid him farewell.  They are thankful for his interruption.  He sticks around for supper. Then they see him. They see him.

We hope.  Faintly, at times.  But we hope.

The disillusionment of that first Holy Week was met with the abrupt explosion of Resurrection.  To prepare for Easter, let’s be ready to have our cynical conversations interrupted by a man once dead.  And if a dead man imposes himself on our disillusioned dialogue, you know something is happening.  When the Messiah vacates his tomb, something is stirring.  Something new and wild.  Something against the establishment.  Death’s establishment.  At the voice of the resurrected Lord, the cosmic superstructure of evil detects a virus in the system.  A wrench has been tossed into sin’s machinery.  The foundations start to pop with fissures.  It’s time to plug up the leak, to contain the fire, to reseal any open tombs.  Time for chaos to panic.  Time for Satan to go berserk.  Resurrection is God shaking his clenched fist in death’s face.  Resurrection is God whispering death threats in death’s ears.

The open tomb of Jesus is a hole in the system that cannot be patched, defying the persistence of all that makes us cynical.  The re-creating King has climbed up out of his grave.  Keep an eye on that horizon.  He is out there, loose, at large, roaming free—and returning at dawn.

Seasoned in Ministry… or Rotten? Maturing vs. Decaying

I used to cut firewood every Autumn with my Dad.  We would drive the tractor into the woods bordering the fields of my grandparents’ farm.  He would cut the trees and I would split them and load them onto the old makeshift wagon my grandfather had built from plywood and an old axle.  Once we got our loads up to the house and finished all the splitting, the firewood ended up in the barn for months before it ended up in the fireplace.

The wood had to season.  Those freshly cut oak and hickory logs would only smoke and smolder in the fireplace with all that moisture locked in their grains.  Left in the barn over time, though, the pores and fibers would loosen with the gradual release of stored water.  A good fire in the hearth takes seasons to develop.

“Seasoned”—this is a term we sometimes apply to people who have persisted over time in their vocation, to those who have endured the ups and downs, the dry and wet, the hot and cold.  Consistent exposure to the elements over time… that’s what we mean by seasoned.

The seasoned minister has endured the business meetings, the hospital visits, the beautiful weddings, the somber funerals.  Laboring over the texts throughout the church calendar, maintaining fellowship in the face of potential schism, fielding complaints both legitimate and illegitimate—seasoned.

But such exposure can also leave us rotten.

In my attempts to season my own firewood, I have made the mistake of storing those freshly cut logs in the wrong place and in the wrong way.  At the touch of cold in the Fall breeze, I have grabbed logs to bring into the house and found them wet with mushrooms and rank with rot.  No roaring fire.

While writing Faith Without Illusions, I discovered that fellow ministers were often on my heart while thinking about disillusionment and cynicism in the church.  Continual exposure to the ecclesial elements can leave us sour and rotten.  But that exposure can also leave us seasoned; that is, strengthened by the course of experience and time.

It is okay for a minister to be weathered.  There is surely no way a faithful minister can withstand the demands and frustrations (and joys!) of his or her vocation without some degree of scarring.  But those demands and frustrations can poison us so gradually that our slow decay is barely perceptible.

So… are you decaying or maturing?

 

Admittedly, all metaphors have their weaknesses.  I think this one is useful, but I would love to hear your thoughts:

Any counsel on how we can come out of the pastoral vocation as “seasoned” as opposed to “rotten”? 

What conditions induce decay in ministry?  What conditions promote a healthy maturation?