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Solo: A Ministry Story
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Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” – Han Solo,Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.


soloThis weekend, I went into a screening of the new Han Solo biopic, the latest installment in Disney’s, well, “Disney-fication” of the Star Wars sagawith few expectations. After the big-enough-to-drive-a-Death-Star-through plot holes of The Last Jedi (Bombs in space! Running out of gas! Don’t tell one of your key leaders the battle plan!), I didn’t have a lot of new hope for this one, even though Han Solo (or, perhaps more accurately, his ship the Millenium Falcon) are my favorite characters in the franchise.


Bear in mind that I have been a Star Wars fanboy ever since the original debuted in 1977. I was 13 and I remember sitting in the old Penn Theater in Butler, PA, with its sticky floors and stale popcorn for my first experience of this story and universe. When that Star Destroyers first crossed the screen during the opening sequence, I remember that there was an audible gasp from the audience. It was something we had never seen before. I was completely hooked and in those days before VCRs, I saw it seven times in the theater.


Now in my mid-50s, I’m still a fan, even after some of the rougher and goofier evolutions of the story like the disastrous prequels (the only Star Wars movies I waited to watch on DVD). So I took my son Rob, whom I indoctrinated early in Star Wars lore and who was home for the Memorial Day weekend, and we headed to the theater because that’s what Star Wars fans do when a new movie comes out. We dutifully hand George Lucas/Disney our money and hope that we are entertained and given a movie that’s true to our memories and the great story being told.


Solo: A Star Wars Story delivered on that account for me, despite the kvetching of critics and a kiss-of-death 70% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The story of Han’s origins, his partnership with Chewbacca, and his acquisition of the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy was a fun romp, a great heist movie, and, surprisingly, also a lesson for a pastor on renewal leave.


One of the criticisms of the movie is that Alden Ehrenreich’s portrayal of the young Han Solo doesn’t seem to jive with Harrison Ford’s iconic character whom we met in a bar on “the wretched hive of scum and villainy” that was Tatooine in earth year 1977. Critics and fans alike apparently expected the young Han and the older Han to be exactly the same person (which makes sense, since Hollywood isn’t exactly known for promoting maturity). But the father-and-son writing team of Lawrence and Jon Kasdan, along with now 60-something director Ron Howard, understood that real people, and the best movie characters, change with age. The best part of The Last Jedi was the older Luke Skywalker’s transition from eager hero to jaded old master, and Solo captures a similar evolution, introducing us to a younger, more ambitious, and more earnest smuggler in contrast to the cynical older space pirate of the original movie. Age has a tendency to do that to us, making us a little more pessimistic—the definition of a pessimist being “an optimist with experience.”


solo skeptic 768x432The young Han falls head-over-heels in love, dreams of being a pilot, rises above his circumstances, and relies on bravado more than brains (as most of us do in our 20s). The older Han is wary, shoots first, snaps at young Luke’s expressions of bravado, and prefers a reliable blaster to “hokey religions and ancient weapons.” He’s been from one side of the galaxy to the other and seen a lot of strange stuff, but has never seen anything to make him believe that there’s one all-powerful force controlling everything, including his destiny. Indeed, as my son Rob pointed out, Han is the one character in the saga that doesn’t seem to have a destiny to fulfill—he’s not the chosen one, like Luke, or carrying the weight of the rebellion’s hopes, like Leia. He’s a survivor, familiar with being on the run, used to being double-crossed and betrayed, and bound to self-reliance. When his ersatz mentor Tobias Beckett tells him to trust no one but himself, the young Han doesn’t seem to get it until he learns from experience. The Han Solo we meet in A New Hope still has echoes of his younger self, but he’s also more prone to caution. The new movie gets at this in a subtle way by putting a twist on one of the oft-used phrases in the franchise. The young Solo in the pilot’s seat of the Millenium Falcon says cheerily, “I’ve got a good feeling about this.” The old Han, facing another yet another scenario fraught with danger, is more apt to repeat his signature line, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this!”


I was reflecting on this over the weekend (one of the great benefits of renewal leave—time to wax philosophically after watching a movie!) and it occurred to me that this evolution of character is endemic to all of us, especially those of us in ministry. We begin with big dreams, ambitions, and plans. That call to ministry is exhilarating; an invitation to a great adventure where there will be churches to pilot, great things to be done, and a great name to be made for oneself. We trust that everything will move in a linear direction, ever upward, and that God desires nothing but our success (which we tend to ambitiously define as larger churches, bigger salaries, and a bestselling book). When I meet young seminary students or clergy fresh from the academy, I can see in their eyes what was once in mine—they’ve got a good feeling about this.


But then, soon after getting that ordination certificate, reality sets in. Ministry is hard. Like the young Han, you signed up to be a pilot but you soon find yourself in the infantry. Instead of soaring to heights of fame and glory, you’re having to grind out a sermon every week, make those 2:00am hospital calls, endure endless meetings, and realize that people don’t much care about all that Greek you learned in seminary. You will pour your life and energy into helping people, a few of whom of will ultimately turn their back on you. You will lie awake at night worried about the finances, the attendance figures, and the conflict that gnaws at you. It’s death by a thousand cuts or, as theologian Stanley Hauerwas put it most accurately, “it’s like being nibbled to death by ducks.” We began with ambitions and expectations, but then we get kicked in the teeth and begin to feel we’re nothing but Bantha fodder. It’s little wonder that the burnout rate is so high. One seminary professor I talked to said that 60% of his students won’t make it to retirement in full-time ministry. Those who do make it that long often do so only by checking out, avoiding any conflict, trusting no one, and most tellingly, losing their faith. They become jaded old pirates who are just trying to survive, getting whatever they can from a congregation, with no destiny to fulfill. They’ve been from one end of the annual conference to the other and seen a lot of strange stuff, but there’s nothing to make them believe that there’s one all-powerful God in charge of everything. They’ve got a bad feeling about this.


But somewhere along the line, if we’re paying attention to ourselves and especially to the leading of the Holy Spirit (the only real Force in the universe), there comes an opportunity to be transformed. Oh, you’ll never go back to being the young swashbuckling pastor, but you will gain a renewed sense of purpose. The older Han experienced it when he finally picked up the enthusiasm of young Luke, who reminds him a bit of himself at that age. He becomes a kind of mentor, and it transforms him from a self-focused old pirate into a respected leader, where all of his best qualities can shine. He discovers a cause, and even though life won’t be easy for him (and he will go back to smuggling, as in The Force Awakens) the call never really leaves him. He mentors a couple of new young acolytes and sparks a new movement. Even though he meets an ignominious end, betrayed and murdered by his own son, Han’s final act is to give his life in hopes of changing the course of someone else’s.


Ultimately, that’s the secret to longevity in ministry, too. It’s about discovering the second act, learning from your experience, investing in people instead of yourself, being a mentor, redefining success in terms of people influenced rather than bodies counted, lifting up a new generation, and recognizing that one’s destiny is bound up in a cause much larger than oneself. It’s being an apostle Paul to a young Timothy, taking your experience—both the good and bad—and enabling the cause of the Gospel to move forward with a new generation. It’s about rediscovering your “first love” as John encouraged the the leaders of the church at Ephesus to do in Revelation 2:4. The passion we had as youth might be seasoned with experience, heartache, and all the strange stuff we’ve seen, but it is passion that can continue to make a difference because it is fueled by the Spirit and invested in the lives of others.


Veteran pastor and professor Gordon MacDonald once gave a lecture that I attended where he said that one doesn’t really become a pastor until one reaches his or her 50s. If you last that long, he said, you will have accumulated enough wisdom to know what you don’t know, enough humility to know that your ministry isn’t really yours in the first place, and enough scars to reveal to others both the power and challenge of following Jesus over the long haul. I think he’s right about that. Another pastoral Obi-Wan, Eugene Peterson, puts it like this: “The only way the Christian life is brought to maturity is through intimacy, renunciation, and personal deepening. And the pastor is in a key position to nurture such maturity.” (The Pastor: A Memoir, p. 157). Nurturing that maturity begins with recognizing how far you’ve come and how far you still need to go.


I like that Han Solo’s character evolves and we get a peak back at his past. We all need to do that for ourselves sometimes, too, revisiting our origin stories so that we might better chart the course for the future with God’s help. I’m grateful for all the lessons I’ve learned in ministry, for the people who have nurtured me, for the wisdom of my mentors, and even for the scars I carry. They make me appreciate the past and look forward to a new future with a great church. I realize that whatever God has for me in this next phase of ministry, the goal is to keep maturing and passing on what I’ve learned.


Yeah, I’ve got a good feeling about this!

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