Saturday, April 28, 2018

An Epic Review for an Epic Movie: Avengers Infinity War

Marvel Studios’ Avengers: Infinity War has been a movie 10 years in the making. From the release of Iron Man, comic book fans have been watching and waiting for the unveiling of the Marvel stable of heroes on the screen. As more individual heroes were announced, there was a mixed bag of emotions about getting more of those heroes on screen. The first Avengers movie was nearly perfect in mixing multiple stars and heroes into a fun and exciting story.

But more heroes have been added and the stories have gotten bigger. The first Avengers movie set long-time fans up for the newest movie. You can't tease Thanos and not expect there to be a HUGE story to contain that villain. Enter Avengers Infinity War.

The movie is based loosely on the original comic mega-event, Infinity Gauntlet. There are some other, ancillary events and stories that flow into and out of that mega-event. It is, however, the foundation for what we have on screen right now.

Infinity Gauntlet was an anchor point story. Thanos becomes a major figure. The Infinity Gems (or Soul Stones as they were called before the name change) become a Mcguffin to be used and abused from that point forward. And the concept of leading hero death becomes a concept to be played with for years to come. There had been "lesser" hero deaths prior to that series, but with Infinity Gauntlet, the door was opened to the idea that a major player in the Marvel franchise could be wiped out.

Infinity War has been laying stepping stones for us to approach this story. Thanos is introduced. Infinity Gems are toyed with and then revealed. Heroes are raised up and teams band together (and are torn asunder). Captain America: Civil War was the chance to see what Marvel Studios could do with a massive cast. They did a great job in that movie. With Infinity War, the cast is bigger. The story is grander. The stakes are universal.

This is a Marvel epic. There is no other term to define this movie. It carries weight. It isn't just the length of the movie, or the budget, or the cast list. This is a movie that will only receive its justice on the big screen. This movie is a stand alone piece (well, with its second part coming out next year) that sets the tone for all of the movies before and that will come after.

And it is my humble opinion that it is nearly perfect.

This movie took the concept of the Marvel mega-event and created a perfect representation for the movie screen. Marvel made the mega-event a staple of the comic book industry. It was a mechanism to sell toys with Secret Wars. It was such a huge success for comic book sales, though, that it began the tradition of introducing a single event that involved multiple issues, characters, and eventually titles. The age of the crossover was born in Marvel comics. Infinity War captures the pure essence of those events.

Each vignette of the separate stories represents a single issue of the main story. Consider it a crossover series. You have Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy Team-Up, Strange Tales of Iron Man and Doctor Strange, Team Captain America and (the remnants of) the Avengers. These are the individual stories. They are telling their own mini-narrative. They are then woven together tighter and tighter until they begin to bleed into one another. We are then left with a battle on two fronts composed of diverse non-team members now fighting together. That is pure Marvel story craft.

In the movie, it is pulled off perfectly. The dialogue is a little jammed at times. They don't have a lot of time to mesh teams together, so there is a need to expedite the conversations. That is handled with the flair that each of the characters has displayed in their own separate movies. We don't loose the character to force the story.

By the time we reach the climactic battles, we are not looking at a perfect team of heroes working together. We are looking at a perfect Marvel team of heroes because their imperfections and faults are on display as much as their powers. That leads to conflict among the ranks that raise the stakes. One of the faults of the DC television hero shows is forcing interpersonal conflict to build a false sense of drama. Infinity War puts its character conflicts into balance with the larger story. We are not forced to accept their inner struggles or rivalries as some trope to be checked off a list. We are drawn into that "awkward moment" to see how it will be resolved.

There were two individual hero stories that establish for us this need to see it resolved. Both involve deep emotional issues. We see the problem. We know the solution. But we have to watch as they sort their own story out. And neither of them do by the end of this movie. We didn't get the "happy ending" for either of these characters. Instead, we leave the movie with them in their own "awkward moment" unresolved.

I confess to be a story purist. I don't want someone playing around with the story I know, even if I may not love it. There are some things that are just sacred to me. Story is one of them. As I have mentioned already, Infinity War is built upon the story of Infinity Gauntlet. I don't feel that I am downplaying the importance of that original story. There have been some story tweaks that have been a little questionable.

Infinity War is the best Infinity/Soul Gem story written to date.

If this had been a comic book mega event, it would be one of the legendary stories. This would have fallen into line with Secret Wars, Crisis (in the DC verse), or any other mega event story line. This would have been a series that would have been referred back to for its impact. As a movie script, though, it loses its impact on the comic book universe. That is its greatest weakness.
There is a little crossover between screen and page right now. The impact that movies have on the books is undeniable. But this will not be seen as one of the great comic book stories. This will only be the movie that told a different story than what is known. Because it was based on the established Infinity Gauntlet story, it doesn't have enough leg to stand on its own. It will only be able to be compared to the original. That is sad because it far outshines the source material.
There is so much dead weight and dross in the original story. It gets tiring to read. I remember reading it when it originally came out. I was ready for the next book before I finished the newest one, just so the story would get somewhere. Infinity War loses a lot of that original dead weight. It streamlines the story telling. It brings the characters to the center of what is happening. It displays them prominently. I didn't want this movie to end. And I am cranky that I have to wait for next year to get the next one.

And because this movie is not a complete story, we have to wait to see the end. That is exciting, but also worrisome. This movie was done excellently. The chemistry and movement of the plot was carried off so that I cared about what was being told, not shown. I want to see how character stories are resolved. I want to see how they incorporate and adapt the ending of the Infinity Gauntlet story line. I want to see how they deal with characters that are dead and gone, and actors who are supposed to be gone after the next movie. But I am also afraid that they will lose the energy. I am worried that they will sell out the stories they have set up to get to a "grander" resolution. I am concerned that the need to tell one story will outweigh the need to tell all of the stories.

I don't catalog favorite movies anymore where Marvel and Disney movies are concerned. They all get logged together. Any Marvel movie will be in the category of favorites. But Infinity War stands out among the best Marvel movie made. And it stands out as Marvel's first epic film.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

God Said No, But the Church Said Go

God said no and the church said go.
Numbers 14

God unleashes a curse upon the Israelite’s because they allowed the fear of the 10 spies to influence them into turning back to Egypt. They gave up the land of promise for the hope of slavery. They selected a captain of the host to lead them back across the wilderness, around the sea, and into the welcoming arms of the ruler of Egypt. God doesn’t want them to get the chance. But Moses intercedes and God’s curse is moderated to prohibition. Only the spies who sparked fear will pay with their lives. The rest of those who were filled with fear and rejection will never see the land of promise.

The people respond with weeping and suffering, right? No. They grab their swords and spears and make way for the border. They will take the land by force. Wasn’t that what God intended? A holy war was to be proclaimed against these heathen and pagan inhabitants. God would make war, through the Israelite people. Victory was their promise. And God’s promise is certain. They had God on their side and would be triumphant in their war to purge the land.

The American Church has responded to the curse of God in this age in a very similar way. They have joined in battle against the inhabitants of the land to claim what they believe is the God-given promise. This land is our land. One nation under God. And that god is our God. All will have to recognize that one sovereign authority. In God we trust and believe that we are the righteous victors in whatever battle is placed before us. The Culture War. The Morality War. The Political War. The Christmas War. The War with Gays.

The American Church has turned its eye to the borders and seeks to unseat the inhabitants from what they believe is their ordained place of promise. The American Church is the seat of authority. It is the heart of morality. Culture and Politics have been co-opted and corrupted by liberal pagan influences. They don’t understand morality. They are heathens. They don’t have authority because only God and the Bible are the authority. As long as you read the Bible the same way the American Church does and worship God in the same spirit.

The American Church has picked up the swords of biblical inerrancy to claim that nothing in the Bible is wrong and that it is just as true today as it has always been. But ignore those things that don’t apply to us. They have picked up the spears of righteous indignant judmentalism to proclaim what is godly living and behavior. But don’t try to push the blunt end of the spear back at our own failings and unrighteousness. There is only one true judge, and the American Church gets to be the only proxy voice of what is good and what is evil.

The great mistake of the Israelite’s is that they forgot to take God with them into battle. Moses (the word of God), Aaron (the priest of God), Joshua (the war leader of God), and the Ark (the presence of God) all remained in camp. The mob moved against the inhabitants of the land of Canaan. And were repelled because of the power and authority of God was not theirs to draw upon.

As we survey the battlefronts that the American Church is fighting along, we see them losing ground. The power to influence their communities has weakened. Their power to sustain a moral example and witness is diminished. The authority to speak on behalf of God has resulted in an increasing number of Americans claiming to be atheist. Their authority to act on behalf of Jesus Christ has produced a general feeling that he is just another mythological creature; like a unicorn in a toga. But still they fight their battles

They don’t see the wounded piling up in their own congregations. They don’t see the broken people right outside their doors longing for someone to bandage them up, or even heal them as the mythological Jesus did. They don’t notice homes that are wrecked, schools that are shot up, neighbors being evicted, the hungry cry for food or the homeless longing for a shelter. They just see it as the fault of culture. Too much sex and violence in media. Not enough personal responsibility to get and keep a job to provide for themselves and their family. They just don’t come to church because if they had enough God in their life, God would fix their problems.

Well, God did do something to fix their problems. God said go and the church said no.

Now, the American Church wants to fight the evil that is growing in their world. They want to put gays back in the closets or cast those demons out of them because the God of the American Church needs them to be straightened out before they can worship. They want to put Mexicans and Middle Easterners and Asians back in their homelands because this is a land given to the American Church and those kinds (Catholics, Muslims, and Buddhists) don’t know how to live good lives and love their neighbors like we do. They want to arm teachers to kill those bad students to protect the good students, without killing anyone else in the process. They want to see Hollywood made pure and D.C. made godly. They want the power and authority they once heard was promised to them so they can make this nation a Great Christian Nation once again.

Only God said no but the American Church said. “Go.”

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

God Said Go, And the Church Said No

When God says go and the church said no
Numbers 13

Moses receives a message from God. “Send out spies to recon the land I am giving you.” Moses calls 12 men from each tribe and sends them into Canaan to gauge the power and strength of those who live there. After 40 days, the spies return and report on their findings. It is a land flowing with milk and honey. The fruit is plentiful and abundant. But the inhabitants are strong and well defended. The only voice that stands opposed is Caleb, the representative of Judah.

The people are now filled with hesitation. They have wandered from Egypt, through the sea, to the Mt. Sinai, and now to the borders of the land promised. But they look back and consider where they have come from better than what lies before. The enemy is greater. The land can’t be that good. What seems to be the better choice is returning to slavery.

God has told them to “Go”. They were told to go from there houses in Goshen. They were told to go through the dry passage between the walls of the sea. They were told to go to Mt. Sinai to meet God. They were told to move toward the land promised. Go gave them the Go-ahead. Whatever stood before them could not counter God’s permission and God’s directive: Go!

The Church has been told to go. Nothing has ever overruled the commission that Jesus Christ gave the disciples of the early church. Go into all the world. Go and teach my words. Go and witness to me. Go and baptize in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Jesus says “Go” and the Church was born.

But going requires a willingness to go. It is no exaggeration to claim that the American Church experience of the last 100 years has been one of “come”. Come and hear the music. Come and hear the preacher. Come and join the fellowship. Come and find a family atmosphere. The American Church stopped going beyond its walls and began to call out to the community, “Come and find us.”

God’s response to the Israelite people was to heap curses upon them. The generation that left Egypt would never see the land promised to them. Their children would walk into the land and receive the promise that had been their parents and grandparents. And the voices of fear, the spies who said the people didn’t have a chance, would disappear then and there.

This part is the hard part to hear.

What if those curses are still active?

The American Church has been looking at its declining numbers. It is seeing most of its churches growing old with little influence of younger generations. We are watching those churches of older folks close with increasing numbers every year. God’s curse is coming upon us. The statistic demise of the American Church is a consequence of a “come and find us” mentality. God said to go out into the world, the community, and declare the good news of the Kingdom of God present among the citizens. That was not a message to drop leaflets with the address of the church and the times of worship or the vacation Bible school or the Christmas program with the kiddies. The message was one of “how can we help you live into a better, more abundant, life.”

The American Church is dying off because it sits in fear of the inhabitants of the land. It worries that they will be persecuted. It is filled with anxiety that there is no hope for this “sinful” generation that gets worse year by year. It has become convinced that culture has turned against Christianity and has rejected them. It has judged that culture has nothing holy within and deserves to lead itself to its own ruin.

But that isn’t what God said to the Israelite's. God said, “I have given you this land.” God has said to the disciples, “Go and make more disciples.” God has said to the American Church, “Go!” and the American Church has said, “No.”

Friday, April 06, 2018

Is the United Methodist Itinerant System Broken?

This is my opinion and reflection on something that I made a commitment to. In May of 2002, I stood before the Bishop of the Oklahoma Annual Conference and the gathered members and family. In that particular worship service, I made a vow to uphold the itinerant system. As part of our polity and discipline, I understood that being an Elder in the United Methodist Church meant I would make myself available to the system of providing pastoral leadership and support to local churches. That came with the understanding that I would move throughout my career at the call of the Bishop through the District Superintendent. It also meant that my life and choice were somewhat limited to the desires of others.

16 years later (my 20th year of ministry), I am reflecting upon my current position within that system I vowed to uphold. It has been a bumpy ride from a personal point of view. I have had circumstances that were directly related to my appointments that have changed my feelings and opinion about the itinerant system.

When I began, the itinerant system was something that I supported without question. I put my life, and that of my family, in the hands of District Superintendents that I felt had my and the churches best interests at heart. I believed in the system and trusted that the “will of God” worked through the decisions that led to appointments.

20 years has changed a lot of that.

Now I feel that the system of how appointments are made has more of humanity about it than the will of God. I have been comforted/consoled by friends and colleagues that I should trust God to make the best of the appointments where I am sent. My opinion of the itinerant system is that it is broken and my feelings are not all positive about its impact on my life as a pastor.

Here, I wish to express my viewpoint on where I see it is broken. This will not be fair. I have a limited, small point of view. I can only develop my viewpoint from the narrow window of my experience. This is not the experience of everyone in the United Methodist Church. It is not the experience of every pastor under appointment. My comments are not directed at all District Superintendents or Bishops. And I do not name any clergy by name, but only highlight examples of MY narrow experience.

First, the biggest issue I have encountered is that the needs and gifts and experience of a clergy person, or the needs of their family, don’t really amount to much in the math of determining where an appointment will take someone. The needs I have expressed at times over my career, the passions that I have had for ministry, the gifts that I have displayed, or the personality that drives me were, in my opinion, never really regarded. If they were taken into account, they were taken into account as only the bare necessity of function.

I have expressed a disconnect with rural settings that began in my teenage years, yet my appointments have led me to 15 years of rural setting. My ability to teach has never put me into a setting where that could be highlighted or used for anything beyond teaching a Sunday School class, small Bible study, or youth group. My involvement in campus ministry as the beginning of my call and the emphasis I placed on it in my seminary studies resulted in 1 year of campus ministry.

My family has also experienced a serious lack of acknowledgment in appointment. When I requested a move to be near Lisa’s family, the outcome was that we were moved almost as far away from her family as we could be in Oklahoma. When her dad died in the first year after that move, it rattled us. When her mom died that next year, it shook us badly. I began to question how 3 District Superintendents could not hear the need in my request to be closer to Lisa’s family. Those events brought back the betrayal and hurt from the experience of being moved in the first place. I lost all of the progress I had made on moving past what I felt was having our needs ignored.

As I look back on my time of ministry, there have been 5 times when my requests for what I felt were reasonable consideration in an appointment were disregarded with no explanation for why it couldn’t realized. There have been 3 of those times when the exact opposite of what I requested became my appointment. In one of those, I was told an outright lie regarding the request (more on that instance in a bit). In all, those 5 times represent all but once when I expressed a need or desire for a ministry. In every other case, I stated that I would make myself available to whatever appointment was given to me. Or to re-frame the point I’m making, in 21 years of serving as a pastor, 6 times I asked to be considered for a particular type of appointment. In 21 years of serving as a pastor, I received the thing I asked to be considered for 1 time. That request: to allow my family to remain so my oldest son could graduate. So the one time I received what I asked for it was a request to make no change whatsoever.

My next biggest issue comes from being in a position where the people who are directly responsible for determining my gifts, skills, talents, and resources have never been a position to personally evaluate me in those areas. Our appointments are, ideally, supposed to take the gifts and skills and experience of a pastor into consideration to match to the needs of the a local congregation/appointment. The person who, ideally, is supposed to have that knowledge is the District Superintendent. In 21 years of ministry I have been under the supervision of 10 District Superintendents. Of those 10, only 2 have taken an extra amount of effort to get to know me outside of the annual consultation. And it is in those annual consultations where I expressed my desires and interests in appointments.

I have expressed that I enjoyed campus ministry and working with college age students. I have expressed being considered for a multicultural setting. I expressed a desire to serve in a less conservative appointment. I feel drawn to fringe cultures. I would like to try to serve in a non-traditional setting. I am moderate and mission minded with classic Wesleyan beliefs and influenced by modern social justice viewpoints. But those desires and interests were taken with the grain of salt they were worth. I have served in mostly near super conservative traditional settings with little college or multicultural connection in churches who took pride in being “not very Methodist” and interested in chaplain or maintenance roles of the pastor.

And part of the problem is that District Superintendents do not know the churches under their supervision, either. There is little time for those in the role of “pastor to the pastors” to learn who they are as individuals. There is an impossible task of knowing the churches whom those pastors serve. As we continue to find ways to move into a future with declining resources, the number of districts is at the top of the list of cost cutting measures. That means fewer District Superintendents to shepherd more pastors and more churches in their service area.

It is nearly impossible to know every church in a district. It is impossible to know what their needs, gifts, history, and ministry setting is. It is impossible to know what their ministry potential could be. The role of the District Superintendent in this capacity is so overwhelming that it is ridiculous to assume that they can be effective in fulfilling the task. Yet that is exactly what the expectation is.

That brings me to the third frustration I see: little accountability for District Superintendents for errors in matching pastors and churches. Whether it is a failure to hear the pastors needs, gifts, and skills or it is the lack of understanding of a church’s needs or ministry potential, if a “bad” appointment is made, it is not the fault of the District Superintendent or the Cabinet. The fault of the a failed appointment rests in the pastor not being available enough or the church being more destructive. Or it just wasn’t a good “fit”. But if pastors and churches were known at a deeper level than what is on a very biased evaluation form, those types of “fits” wouldn’t happen as often. There is no accountability to change the approach. There is no accountability to fix the system when it fails.

In my own “greatest failure” of the system, I approached 3 District Superintendents about my expressed need to be closer to Lisa’s family. At no time, that I am aware of, was that need made known in the Cabinet conversation. When we moved to the opposite end of the state, whose fault was it? Regardless of the outcome of my ministry in that appointment, the need that was expressed (and that was what it was expressed as) was ignored by my own District Superintendent and two others with whom I expressed that need. Those two were appointed to areas closer to where we needed to be. It would have been in their service area that I could have been appointed to meet that need. Whose fault does it rest upon that the need of my family was not met?

I can say that not one of those District Superintendents ever apologized. Not one ever acknowledged that nothing could have been done. Not one recognized the pain of my family when Lisa’s parents died. But I have been counseled to keep my opinions about the system on the down low. I can express my hurt, but making those hurts public would not be a good thing. Well, if we don’t make things like this public, how can we improve the system? How do we make change if we just accept the failures and the errors to continue with out accountability?

Perhaps the frustration I have struggled with the most is that I have been lied to by District Superintendents. In asking to be considered for a campus ministry position, I had a District Superintendent tell me a bold face lie. How did I know it was a lie? Because I knew campus ministries that were opening when I expressed an interest in being considered for the position. And my District Superintendent told me with a straight face that there were no campus ministry positions coming open that appointment year. I had a District Superintendent tell me that if I didn’t accept the appointment that I was being offered, that there were no other appointments available except for appointments at a lower salary level.

In an Annual Conference of 400+ churches, there were no other appointments other than the one I was being offered or something that should be served by a local pastor or student pastor. There are around 100 moves every year toward moving season. Not all of them are at Annual Conference. But somewhere in the vast wisdom of the system, it has become easier to lie to a pastor about an appointment that isn’t available than it is to be honest and express what is really in the way of that appointment. This has led to a theory and frustration.

The theory I have developed is that there is a caste system within the itinerancy. The caste system that is in place has various levels. It is easy for a pastor to move within their caste, if there is an available church. It is somewhat easy for a pastor to move down in caste, but the higher one is in caste, that downward movement is scalable. The higher one is, the less significant the move down. The lower one is, the lower the caste you can be moved into. It is very difficult to move up in caste. Breaking into a caste requires some significant presence or associations.

The frustration comes from not knowing where the lines of the castes are. I thought originally that there were three castes: the noticed, the notorious, and the supply. The noticed were pastors and churches who were in high profile positions. They were recognized and known broadly. The notorious were pastors or churches that were known to cause problems. The supply were the pastors who don’t draw attention or recognition and churches who just maintain themselves.

I think the castes may be more defined. I think there may be regional castes. I think there may be political castes. There may age-based castes. And there are “fruitfulness” castes – whoever fits into the current definition of fruitful as determined by the Bishop and authorities guiding the Annual Conference.

I consider myself a supply caste. I haven’t drawn attention to myself. I haven’t served churches that go beyond maintaining their local presence. I seem to be considered a rural caste pastor (due to the types of appointments that I have served). I am a non-entity in political castes because I have been seen as “the other” by both political extremes. And, if there is an age-based caste, I am in the Generation X group. I am too young to be part of the current powers-that-be and too old to be of vital age.

The caste that does not seem to be present is experience. Years of service and experience don’t seem to have any weight in determining where you rest in the system. I could retire soon. I could find another career and fill my days of life with another field of interest. And honestly, I don’t feel like my years of experience will be missed.

I am coming to the end of my frustrations. I have one left that seems to be a recurring beast of burden. It has to do with where I mentioned the leveraging of an appointment. It seems that there are some pastors who can refuse an appointment with no negative consequence. I’ll be honest. If it weren’t for my family, I would accept an entry level appointment. The reduction of pay wouldn’t bother me. And if we were in a better place financially, Lisa wouldn’t have a problem with it, either. I would be willing to serve an entry level appointment because it seems that my experience and current age would be a gift to an appointment that is used to breaking someone in or getting someone on their way out. I would take an entry level appointment just to refuse being leveraged into accepting “the only appointment available”. I would take an entry level appointment with 20+ years of experience just to tell the system, “You are broken.”

But some pastors can say, “No” to an appointment and be offered another chance at something that is “right” for them. There isn’t a negative consequence if they refuse to take it. It used to be a threat that if you refused an appointment, they would send you to the Panhandle or somewhere just as bad. I can tell you that the Panhandle has great churches filled with godly people. They care for their pastors and love the willingness of pastors to serve them in the love of Christ. Yet, it is challenging to get a pastor to serve in the Panhandle. It is challenging to get a pastor to accept an appointment in the “far reaches” of the state of Oklahoma. And if someone says, “No”, what will they do?

Yet the threats are still present. The leveraging of appointments is still a practice. The idea that there will be a negative consequence seems to be idle bluster. Well, I have served the Panhandle. For 10 years, I have been faithful to my appointment. I served in good times. I served in bad times personally, professionally, and congregationally. I have tried to love the people and they have tried to love me. It hasn’t always been easy for us to get along. It has always been rewarding for me to be in that appointment. And for 15 years, I have served the “far reaches”. I have been in Northwest Oklahoma longer than anywhere else in my lifetime. There are only a few regions I would like to serve in this state. But I am glad I am in Northwest Oklahoma.

This may seem like a manifesto leading to a resignation. It is, in fact, the very opposite. This is a manifesto declaring that in spite of all of these frustrations, I am remaining. I get cross with the system. I get envious of younger pastors getting bigger or more prestigious appointments than me. I let my pride get the better of me sometimes and wonder, “When is it my turn?” But God has not released me from the United Methodist Church. More importantly, God has not released me from the vow I made to the UMC.

24 years ago, I made another vow. Lisa and I stood before God and a gathering of family and friends to make a vow to stay with one another. There have been some difficult times. There have been times both of us have wanted to quit, give up, find a better way of moving forward. But we take that commitment to our vows seriously. I take my vow to the United Methodist Church and Oklahoma Annual Conference very seriously. It seems that the system has betrayed me at times. I have let it down at times. But I am not giving up on my vow and God has not released me from it. I am here to stay for some time. When God may let me know that I am free, well it may never come. It may happen should something occur in the union of the UMC. But until that day, I am appointed under the authority of the Bishop, submitted to the supervision of a District Superintendent, and sent to serve the church of Jesus Christ under the banner of the United Methodist Church.