Joy, Sadness, and Success in Vancouver

If you’re a regular reader then you know that in December my family and I packed up our lives, left our church community in Burnaby, BC, and emigrated to Scotland so that I could begin a PhD. It’s been a wild ride, and we’ve been busy! In May we were privileged to return to Vancouver for a wedding. It was a great experience, and it allowed me a special perspective from which to reflect back on my own ministry. I thought I’d share a few of those reflections with you today.

First, leaving a church is never easy. (Or, at least, it never should be easy!) You are leaving relationships, many of them deep, with people for whom you have prayed, laboured, and with whom you have suffered in ministry, people you have married, people whose parents and friends you have buried, and children whom you have dedicated. A minister gets slowly but deeply integrated into the life of a community—you can’t possibly leave without some discomfort!

However—and this was an enormous blessing that I in no way take for granted!—we were able to leave on great terms. From day one, the church knew that further studies were part of my life goals. What is more, God’s provision for our studies had been so evident, and the story of His provision so compelling, that it gave my people (and us with them!) a real sense of God’s call. This made the pain of leaving truly bittersweet—happiness about God’s self-evident work mingled with sadness over the loss of relationships.

What wasn’t so good is that, although we were on good moral and social terms with our church members, we left town badly. We had a firm deadline for when we were to leave Canada (mid-December), and we were leaving both without visas and without a place to live in Scotland. In the midst of that uncertainty, the overwhelming business of packing, saying goodbye, cleaning our house, selling our cars, preparing boxes for storage and shipping, and tying up all our other affairs left our heads spinning. Not only that, many of these things—such as the final packing of our storage facility, the selling of our cars, and the cleaning of our house—happened after we left and were done for us by our church members! Leaving was ugly, but in the midst of it our people were absolutely beautiful!

Originally, in planning our final days in Vancouver, my wife and I had slotted the last two days for eating at some of our favourite restaurants, visiting a few of our favourite locations, and saying goodbye to the various houses we’d lived in. Instead, a snowstorm on those last days (and our own insane busyness) made a mess of that plan. Three days before departure we slept for about four hours. Two days before we slept for about two hours. The day before we left we may have slept for about an hour on the floor of our nearly empty apartment. Rather than an easy departure in the early afternoon we left late at night, exhausted, drained, and almost completely miserable. (Did I mention that throughout this process my wife was in the early months of pregnancy?)

The only consolation, then, was the knowledge that in about six month’s we’d be back for a wedding, and in my mind I lodged the thought that maybe with that trip we could make up for the ugly departure we’d just been through.

Fast forward six months. We’ve moved to Scotland, found a place to live, and settled in to a new life in a new world. May has come, and it’s time to pack up our bags and head back to Canada. We’ve slated 13 days for the trip, have a list of restaurants to visit, people to see, baby clothes to collect, and a few things to buy. What I didn’t—and couldn’t—expect, were the things I would learn visiting my “home” community again, as a former minister. I want to talk for a moment about the following five.

1) I am humbled by the quality of people in our Vancouver life, and honoured to call them friends. The people in our church life—the friends we’d built up over the past 8.5 years—are some of the most amazing people I know. They housed us, and loaned us a car, and fed us, and loved on us and on our kids in an unremitting way for all 13 days we were there. For my part, each and every day I ate at least three meals a day with our church friends, and sometimes more than three. I came back to Scotland with my belly fatter but my heart full. Again and again as I sat with them (and ate!) I couldn’t help but think how much I appreciated each and every person I saw, how much I valued their lives, their faith, their stories, their children, and their parents. I was struck and humbled as well by the sheer excellence and quality each person. For so many of them, six months had passed, and yet it felt as if no time at all had transpired. For me, that only happens with my closest of friends, and yet I felt it with so many of my former members. It was a shock!

2) I succeeded in ministry, but I could never have realized it until I left. On paper and in public I set myself to operate a ministry based on friendship. I didn’t want relationships which were based solely on my office or the power of the pastorate (although I wasn’t shy to utilize that power as appropriate and necessary). Instead, I wanted to highlight the fact that we shared a common faith, a common lord, and that my purpose as pastor was to strengthen their personal relationships with the King in such a way that it would never depend on the pastor. While I was active in ministry, I couldn’t really gauge my success. I was too busy, and had too many relationships to maintain, and not enough time to invest the way I would like in each person. Ironically, it was only leaving the ministry that could reveal its success—so, to return, and then to receive the love of so many people who are friends left me gobsmacked. But this led to a third lesson:

3) The fact that I was too busy to enjoy these friendships is a HUGE problem. On one late afternoon and early evening our kids had a play-date with church friends. I ended up sitting on a couch, casually reading a book, while my wife and the other mom visited. Later, we ate together, walked to the park, and enjoyed a quiet evening in beautiful Vancouver. It struck me in that moment, “Why didn’t we do this before?” Immediately I knew the answer. I would have been too busy. I would have been at my office, or at a meeting, or speaking at an event, or working on some other project, or handling an emergency, or resting in exhaustion from the execution of some combination of each of the above tasks. I would have sent my wife and kids on their own to the play-date and would never have made it to the house of the very friends whose everyday faith would have restored me. It is a deeply ironic situation. I can only conclude, in the future, that if I am in full-time ministry again I must create those spaces simply to be with people. They may be as important to my ministering soul as are times of devotion and rest. They are rest.

4) Preaching again was an experience in discernment. One joy was to preach again after the six month hiatus of moving-to-Scotland. I got to tell the story of our adventures, travels, and things I’d learned so far in Scotland. I got to encourage my members to take risks, to step out in faith by following Jesus. But while I stood in front of their welcoming faces a few key things ran through my head. One was a sense, again, that no time had passed. Preaching remains one of the things I am called and equipped to do, and there was an easy comfort to stepping back into that space. At the same time, as sometimes happens at these moments, there was no hint of nostalgia—no inner sense of, “I could come back and do this again…” In its place was a clear sense of, “Your time here is done.” For what it’s worth, preaching again showed me that I’m supposed to be in Scotland, and supposed to be pursuing this PhD right now. There was a satisfying comfort in that moment of discernment.

5) I’m seriously considering a book about Second Generation Ministry. My 8.5 years in full-time ministry with Vietnamese and Chinese churches has taught me enormously. In the process, I’ve had to reflect (creatively!) on the dynamics that make my churches operate—cultural, structural, interpersonal, and so forth. In the process I’ve tried to share these insights with my members, whether in the big public spaces of preaching or in private conversations. The result is a notebook with quite a few jottings about these issues. Not being Asian myself, I’ve hesitated to write such a book—I don’t want to present myself as another non-Asian telling Asians how to run their lives as Asians. But maybe, just maybe, as a friend who cares deeply for my many friends who happen to be Asian, I can write something that will articulate things going on in their lives, as well as encourage, bless, and enrich their faith.

Of course, such projects might be slightly delayed by the 80,000 word thesis I’m supposed to be writing for the University of St Andrews. Between that, and dinner with my children as often as possible, we’ll see how my spare time shapes up!

Journalism and the Scriptures: Ground Rules

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An interesting read, but not for everyone.

An interesting read, but not for everyone.

Jake Adelstein is an aspiring Jewish-American journalist who surprisingly won a position as a reporter at a Japanese news agency. In his story, Tokyo Vice (Pantheon: New York, 2009), he retells his experiences as a young reporter learning the ropes of journalism in a foreign country, of mastering a difficult language, to his eventual work on the Vice squad, and ending with his efforts to expose Yakuza (Japanese mafia) crimes in human trafficking. His story is fascinating, gritty, and at times gruesome in its descriptions of human behaviour. (NB: Adelstein’s book is not for the faint of heart, and I would cautiously recommend it—with reservations—to others, like me, who enjoy crime stories, journalism, and are sometime Japanophiles.)

Early on in Adelstein’s career, an older, wiser, Japanese journalist pulled Adelstein aside and gave him an earful of advice—eight rules, in fact—on how to be a reporter. These rules come to form the basics of Adelstein’s journalistic ethics, but I was impacted, reading them, on how strikingly they correlated to the minister and his use of the Scriptures. The ethics of sources and writing, in other words, are very nearly the same as those of a preacher and the Word of God. Permit me, then, to quote Adelstein’s eight rules for you now. As you read, I expect that you will begin to immediately recognize the connections between a reporter’s sources and the Christian Scriptures. Still, at the end of the passage I’ll return to each of the eight rules and make the connections explicit.

The older Japanese journalist said the following:

“There are eight rules of being a good reporter, Jake.

“One. Don’t ever burn your sources. If you can’t protect your sources, no one will trust you. All scoops are based on the understanding that you will protect the person who gave you the information. That’s the alpha and omega of reporting. Your source is your friend, your lover, your wife, and your soul. Betray your source, and you betray yourself. If you don’t protect your source, you’re not a journalist. You’re not even a man.”

“Two. Finish a story as soon as possible. The life of news is short. Miss the chance, and the story is dead or the scoop is gone.

“Three. Never believe anyone. People lie, police lie, even your fellow reporters lie. Assume that you are being lied to and proceed with caution.

“Four. Take any information you can get. People are good and bad. Information is not. Information is what it is, and it doesn’t matter who gives it to you or where you steal it. The quality, the truth of the information, is what’s important.

“Five. Remember and persist. Stories that people forget come back to haunt them. What may seem like an insignificant case can later turn into a major story. Keep paying attention to the unfolding investigation, and see where it goes. Don’t let the constant flow of news let you forget about the unfinished news.

“Six. Triangulate your stories, especially if they aren’t an official announcement from the authorities. If you can verify information from three different sources, odds are good that the information is good.

“Seven. Write everything in a reverse pyramid. Editors cut from the bottom up. The important stuff goes on top, the trivial details go to the bottom. If you want your story to make it to the final edition, make it easy to cut.

“Eight. Never put your personal opinions into a story; let someone else do it for you. That’s why experts and commentators exist. Objectivity is a subjective thing.” (Tokyo Vice, 26)

#1 Don’t ever burn your sources. The minister’s first responsibility is to the Scriptures and the faithful treatment of them. “Your source,” says Adelstein’s advisor, “is your friend, your lover, your wife, and your soul. Betray your source, and you betray yourself. If you don’t protect your source, you’re not a journalist. You’re not even a man.” Betray the Scriptures, and I have betrayed myself. Betray the Scriptures, and I am no longer a minister. I’m not even a man. Furthermore, “If you can’t protect your sources, no one will trust you.” If my ministry is based on the casual reading of Scripture, of mercenary exegesis, and convenient interpretation, then in time my people will learn to take my words as casually as I have taken my authority. I breed distrust, and breeding distrust I create un-faith. Betray the bible, and I betray the people I am called to serve. I must never, ever, ever, ever, treat the Scriptures contemptuously. They are my source, my life in ministry.

Respond to the tragedy while it is fresh--seize the opportunity to talk about people's souls!

Respond to the tragedy while it is fresh–seize the opportunity to talk about people’s souls!

#2 Finish a story as soon as possible. Sometimes ministry is about responding to situations, sometimes it is about planning for the long term. When those issues arise which burden the hearts of my congregation particularly—a natural disaster, a shooting, the death of a member, or some other tragedy—then I must teach from it quickly while the burden is present. I cannot sit and wait on issues while the issues go away. People’s souls need answers while their needs are strong—it is my job to answer those needs in a timely fashion. Therefore I must not wait on a scriptural story, or perhaps I will miss the opportunity for someone’s salvation.

#3 Never believe anyone. Above all, never trust yourself. A healthy doubt must accompany all personal theologizing. The scriptures are true, but I am deceptive and false, and I (and all others with me) will always squirm and worm our way out of the hard obedience. Measure all things against the Scriptures as our sole canon of Truth. Doubt everything else, especially yourself, appropriately.

Sometimes you find truth in the most unexpected of places!

Sometimes you find preachable truth in the most unexpected of places!

#4 Take any information you can get. One of the professors at my university famously said, “All Truth is God’s Truth.” He was right. If it is true, it is God’s, regardless of the human source. Therefore draw from any source you can—the sciences, humanities, pop culture, history, literature, or even books about crime in Japan—in order to facilitate the Truth of your message. Take from any source you like, only ensure that it is the Truth when you take it. Read theologians you agree with, and those you disagree with, and always be on the lookout for avenues and resources to communicate the Truth.

#5 Remember and persist. What are the long-term patterns in your ministry? What topics come up again and again? While you’re being faithful to address the temporary (albeit important) needs of your community, do you have a finger on the pulse of their longer-term needs? An issue that seems unimportant may be a harbinger of deeper concerns. One case of infidelity may signal many more! One sermon preached on a particular parable may come to be the focus of your entire ministry! Are you paying attention to those trends?

#6 Triangulate your stories. Back up what you say. Find theologians and authors who agree with your interpretation. Find a group of other ministers, also committed to the gospel, who will check and balance your teaching. Make sure you have people around you who have both the courage and the permission to say, “You’re wrong.” And make sure you have the courage to say, “You’re right.” Furthermore, don’t repeat stories if you aren’t sure they’re true. Many ministers have polluted the Truth of their message by repeating fabricated or convenient sermon illustrations. Is what you speak the Truth? Make sure before you speak.

#7 Write everything in a reverse pyramid. Write your sermons with your hearers in mind. Pay attention to their ability to hear you. Focus on take-aways and memorable moments. Make sure that, along the landscape of your sermon, the main points truly rise like peaks above the surface.

#8 Never put your personal opinions into a story. Present the Truth, and allow your people to draw their own conclusions. Present the gospel, and allow the Holy Spirit to cause the change. Speak the Scriptures, and allow the Spirit to convict people of sin. Seek, as much as is in your power, to eschew your own opinion and present the Truth of Jesus Christ. But don’t forget a dose of rule #3, and present the Truth with healthy doubt about your self. There is no minister so good that he will not be corrected, no minister so truthful that he will not fall short of the Truth in some way. This is a grace from God, because it means that we always have space for Him to move and fill our fallen sermons. Nevertheless, seek Christ first, present him above all, and leave your opinion somewhere else.

There you have it. Advice from an older, hardened Japanese reporter that applies to how ministers of the Gospel ought to handle the Scriptures (proving, again, that all Truth is God’s Truth). They are simple rules, but they provide a profound framework that shapes the ministry of the Word. May God grant that all His ministers be faithful to the Scriptures they are entrusted to teach.

 

Marshall Frady’s Martin Luther King Jr.: A Life

Portraiture, as an art form, seeks to encapsulate the character, rather than merely the likeness, of the subject in question. For some subjects this is more difficult than others—in some cases the public charisma of the individual hangs like a cloud between the artist and the subject. In other cases, the subject shiftingly squirms in the chair. Such a subject, on both counts, is Martin Luther King Jr., but Marshall Frady presses through these difficulties in his admirable 2005 biography of King, succeeding in painting a difficult, compelling, literary portrait of one of the best recognized figures of the 20th century.

King’s likeness is difficult to capture for both of the above reasons. In the first place, King has been elevated to the level of a cultural icon; he has been sanctified by culture, and now the clouds of devotional incense that mark his sanctification obscure the original man. Nothing, after all, serves to cover a man’s faults quite like his becoming a hero. Consequentially, his iconic face has been largely ripped from its historical moorings. As a cultural symbol King’s face now represents ‘hope’ in much the same fashion that Che Guevara’s represents ‘freedom’—both faces divorced from the men who lived behind them; both figures elevated to supra-human stature; both figures become masks that movements wear to ascribe to themselves meaning and significance, the original personalities remaining only in silhouette. Such stature, and the hopes and dreams that are attached to the man, cast an obscuring veil between him and his memory.

But the second reason why King’s likeness is difficult to capture is because the man himself, without any help from history or the culture that followed him, wore obscuring masks of his own making throughout his life. King’s public image was of a minister of the gospel, a moral figurehead, a family man, and a brilliant thinker and rhetorician. But King’s private life was vastly different—we discover, through Frady, concerns about King’s ministerial call; was it genuine, or merely inherited from his father? We discover that he drank and swore in private, committed serial infidelity, and even plagiarized portions of his dissertation. This duality in King’s life is so severe that one comes to feel that even his famed and exalted rhetoric was itself a veil obscuring the man. In the end, we discover that King’s public face was a projection of what he wanted us to see, an edited persona for public consumption. And these twin factors—King’s elevated status and his own self-editing—make the innerworkings of King’s heart almost inscrutable.

Nevertheless, Frady navigates these difficulties with skill, and succeeds in giving us a picture of a man who was both great and terrible; who led a nation through a time of crisis, and whose private life was a shambles. And yet the most rewarding outcome, perhaps, from reading Frady’s account was the manner in which the arc of King’s life becomes instructive, as a negative example, for any life of leadership, and especially of leadership in the Church. From that life I want to make the two following observations.

1) As a minister, your life is rhetoric. The simple principle here is that if your character does not accord with the content of your message, then your message is invalidated. One does not lead by position alone, but chiefly by example. King, while he was living, was mostly able to hide his indiscretions and infidelities, and yet discovery of these things would have meant the discrediting not, primarily, of King, but rather of the Civil Rights Movement itself. As a leader, King’s life was rhetoric. And so the discovery that the great preacher drank and swore in private, that he slept around and liked to talk about it with his inner circle, that discovery revealed would have been deadly to the man’s image and his goals, not to mention the people he represented. As it stood, King lived in genuine fear of these discoveries—FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (out of pure malice, I should add) spied upon and threatened both King and his family with the information he had gathered. The result for King was added fear—not only did he have enemies who hated him for his work in the Civil Rights Movement, but he needed also to fear the enemy of the double-life that he had created himself. This fear, sadly, was not enough to motivate King to change his ways.

The tensions and stresses of life as a minister/leader are manifold, and one of the key ways to manage these stresses is to commit oneself to a life that is harmonious—consonant between outer and inner personae. Such a life is not subject to the consequent fear of self, and as a result is better able to manage the stresses of the work of ministry.

2) Power does not create, but rather magnifies, temptation. This is also a simple, but often overlooked principle. You cannot wait until you are in a position of power to deal with the temptations in your life, because the position will only magnify your preexistent temptations. James 1:13-15 says that no one should lay temptation at the feet of God, but rather recognize that it is our own evil desire within us that is enflamed and leads us toward death. Temptations, then, are like fault lines in the human soul—they are there, and when the stresses increase we discover that we are tempted along those deeply embedded fractures in our personalities. The stress fractures are small enough when we are not leading, but become great rifts as we are drawn into the pressure of public life.

King was subject to the trebly intense pressures of leadership, public expectations, and the figurehead-ism that accompanied the civil rights movement. Additionally, he was under the added pressure of his own hidden life. It is also clear that King mismanaged the elation of success—the powerful, drug-like euphoria that accompanies public successes and adulation. Hence, as the pressure in King’s life increased, his recourse to sinful activities also increased, such that on the night before his assassination, after a successful evening meeting, he embarked on what Frady calls “a final, all-night release into carnal carousal,” directing the energy of success into sleeping with two, and possibly a third, of his mistresses consecutively until dawn (203).

There is an urge to lay these temptations, and King’s submission to them, at the feet of the pressures he was under, and yet no one is to blame for how King acted other than King. He himself had managed his inner life poorly. He himself had surrounded himself with people who accommodated, rather than challenged, his private choices. And the lesson for ministers and leaders today remains the same: if you do not learn to manage the small temptations, you will certainly be unable to manage them when the pressure of being a public figure mounts. And furthermore, if you do not establish channels of accountability in your life, no one will help to keep you accountable.

King’s life leaves us with a troubling rumination—is the so-called ‘great life’ that flashes on our television screens of real lasting value when the actual man, the private individual, is so inwardly tortured and personally destructive? There may never be a satisfactory answer, and yet, as it stands, King’s life is like the buoy that alerts a sailor to a hidden reef, a flashing light to the danger that lies below the surface of ministry, and especially of ministry with power.