Author Archives: Justin Gentry

Justin Gentry ~ A Fiction of Hope

“One of the biggest roles of science fiction is to prepare people to accept the future without pain and to encourage a flexibility of mind.” – Arthur C. Clarke 

This month Star Trek: The Next Generation turns 30. (I know, this fact made me feel old too.) I can still remember as a kid watching Star Trek with my dad. I had no idea it was nerdy; it was just something we did. Much has changed in the last 30 years but science fiction of all kinds has been a constant thread in my life. 

Science fiction is good for us. It gets us thinking creatively about the future and what could be. Star Trek specifically has influenced real life in fascinating ways: anyone who has opened a flip phone or experienced a needleless injection has Gene Roddenberry to thank. 

Star Trek’s influence doesn’t stop with gadgets, either. The original Star Trek aired in 1966 with a multiracial and multiethnic cast. It was the first television show to feature a multiracial kiss.  One of the main characters was portrayed by a Japanese American man who, at the age of five, was caught up in the Japanese internment during World War II. The USS Enterprise also featured a Russian on the bridge – right at the start of the Cold War. 

Star Trek was bleeding edge social commentary at the time. It imagined a day where humanity made peace and came together for the common good. It might seem campy or cheesy now, but at its heart these stories are sincere. 

I believe being optimistic and sincere is godly work.  

There is, of course, the gibbering tentacle monster in the room. In the last few decades, popular tastes have shifted from the optimism of Star Trek and its relatives to the pessimism of the dystopia and the post-apocalypse. In these worlds, humanity has failed some great challenge and as a result, we have a scorched earth, a totalitarian regime, or zombies – sometimes all three. 

Right now, dystopias are a box office smash. While the new Star Trek movies struggle to make their money back, movies like The Hunger Games and shows like The Walking Dead are incredibly popular. The new Star Trek show isn’t even on broadcast television – it’s available only on CBS’ paid membership website. 

Somewhere along the line, the future went from fascinating to fearful. Audiences more readily buy a future where humanity is broken and messed up. Our future is no longer bright. In these stories, we cannot reach the stars. 

Recently at a conference, science fiction writer Neal Stephenson discussed an essay he has written entitled, “Innovation Starvation.” In it, he laments that the world we live in was built on an infrastructure made in the 50s and 60s. We don’t dream big anymore 

Stephenson was confronted by a university professor who essentially said we stopped getting the big stuff done because writers like Stephenson stopped telling us we could. Creatives, artists, and dreamers were the ones slacking off.  

Stephenson took this to heart and created Project Hieroglyph, a group whose purpose is to create science fiction that will spur innovation in science and technology. 

So how can we look at this from a Christian perspective? 

We certainly have our own pessimistic speculative fiction. We have an entire cottage industry that celebrates a persecution complex and predicts a violent end to the world. In this, we are no different than the larger culture. We are so drawn to pessimism because pessimism at the end of the day is easier. It is easier to look down than it is to look up. 

Yet Christ calls us to be something different in the world, and I think it starts with how we feed our imaginations.  

What we dream of has power. When we only imagine fears about tomorrow, tomorrow looks like something to be afraid of. Many of us don’t fear the future for any rational reason: we fear the future because we have been told that it is scary.  

What if it doesn’t have to be? 

As we approach 2019, the year when the original Blade Runner is set, I hope we realize that the world is not as bleak as we feared it would be. It has its problems – we still don’t have our flying cars – but there is still so much good – so much grace – in the world.  

What do you believe about the arch of human history? Some Christians believe that the world is inevitably getting worse. Essentially, they believe that scarcity is our future. Ultimately, we won’t figure out our problems and we will fall so badly that God himself will have to save us again. 

Other Christians believe that we have some agency in this. They believe that we have the God-given power, and therefore the responsibility, to make this world better, to bear the grace of God into it. Essentially, they believe that God has already saved us and that a more whole world can be made from the tragedies all around us.     

I don’t know which side will ultimately be proven right. I do know which side I choose to be on. I know which one I am called to.  

I want to spend my life imagining a better world for myself, my children, and the future of our species. I think regardless of how this ends, that is the sacred work Jesus is drawing us into. 

Whatever happens, I look into the future wide-eyed and eager to see what unfolds. Will you join me? 


Justin Gentry ~ To a God as Close as Your Breath: A Brief Primer on Meditation

Then Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the people of Israel and I tell them, ‘The God of your fathers sent me to you’; and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ What do I tell them?”  

God said to Moses, “I-AM-WHO-I-AM. Tell the People of Israel, ‘I-AM sent me to you.’”  Exodus 3:13-15 (The Message) 

Have you ever tried to imagine what it would be like to encounter God? Not the general presence you might get occasionally in prayer, or while experiencing great art, but a genuine face-on-the-floor encounter with the Divine. I have often thought about this and even desired it at times. I picture about what I might ask or do – and in none of these do I ask God what God wants to be called.  

On the surface, it seems like a silly question. I already know who God is…right? For much of my life my unspoken assumption was that if I did ask God what God’s name is, the response would be something like, “My name is God. Who I am is God. Now let me tell you about the wonderful plan I have for your life.” 

But in the Bible we see a story about a God who isn’t quite so simple. 

The story begins with a man named Moses herding sheep. He is just doing his thing, watching livestock eat. They weren’t even his sheep; they belong to his father-in-law. It is a pretty ordinary scene for the Ancient Near East. 

In the distance, Moses sees a burning bush. This in and of itself is not that out of the ordinary. Fires happen all the time. However, this bush does not stop burning and Moses goes to investigate. When he arrives the bush that burns-yet-does-not-burn speaks to him. 

I don’t think anything prepares you for something like this. When Moses hears the fire speak he covers his face because he is afraid to look at God. He is caught up in the sacred craziness of the moment. He is completely caught by surprise. 

During his encounter Moses asks a rather simple question. He asks God/the bush that burns-but does-not-burn for his name. And God responds in a rather curious way. God says, “My name is YHWH.”  

Thanks, YHWH, that’s really helpful. 

In English this word is usually translated “I am who I am” because YHWH is similar to the Hebrew verb “to be.” God’s response to this simple question is, “I am a bit like the present tense of the verb ‘to be’.”  

Confused yet? Rabbi Lawrence Kushner explains it like this: 

The letters of the name of God in Hebrew… are frequently pronounced Yahweh. But in truth they are inutterable…This word {YHWH} is the sound of breathing.

The holiest name in the world, the Name of Creator, is the sound of your own breathing. That these letters are unpronounceable is no accident. Just as it is no accident that they are also the root letters of the Hebrew verb ‘to be’… God’s name is the name of Being itself. 

I find it interesting that God does not choose a Hebrew, Greek, Latin or English name. God doesn’t even choose a masculine or feminine name. God chooses a name that is as personal and universal as the next breath you breathe. The Siddur (a Jewish prayer-book) says this: “The breathing of all life praises your Name.” God is the source of all our breath; God is Breath Itself.  

Breathe that in for a second or two. 


I think we all go through seasons where we have trouble naming God. God is such a huge concept that complete accuracy is a problematic goal. It doesn’t help that names like Lord, Master, Father, and even Savior have been used by the careless to damage or dominate others. Sometimes I get anxious about how I approach God wondering if I am doing it right or if he (or she or…it?) even cares. 

Many of us have trouble breathing, too. We breathe shallowly and from the chest instead of deeply from the diaphragm. We have shame tied to our bellies so we suck them in depriving our bodies of much needed oxygen. We allow our anxiety to keep our breaths small, insignificant, and malnourished.  

I wonder if these two realities are connected? 

What if slowing down and paying attention to our breath is spiritual work? I have found that a routine practice of meditation is one of the best ways to reconnect me with God. Meditation is simple and, like your breath, it is always available to you. For me it is a type of prayer that I can always move into, even when I am conflicted about prayer.  

So how do we meditate? 

Find some silence: This likely will be the most difficult part but it is important to minimize distractions. Close your door and turn your phone off. A clear indicator of how much you need to be meditating is how difficult this step is for you. (It’s ok, I hated this part too.) 

Get in a comfortable position: I prefer cross-legged on the floor because it feels more meditative, but that is just me. If you have back or knee issues sitting in a chair is fine. Just find a position that allows you to sit upright and not slouch. You can even lay on you back but I would avoid the bed. This isn’t nap time.  

Focus on your Breath: Think about the gift from God that is your breath. Observe it entering your nose, moving through your throat, and then into your lungs. Feel the sensations of it coming and going out of your body; nourishing your tissues without fail. Just enjoy the sensation for ten or so breath cycles.  

Use a Mantra (Optional): A mantra is just a word or phrase you repeat to aid in concentration.  Some people prefer this to just focusing on the breath. Some ideas might include: 

“You are always with me; Everything I have is yours.” 

“He must become greater; I must become less.” 

“God is my provider; I have everything I need.” 

Or you can focus on a word like Love, Joy, or Peace. 

Observe what happens: Here is the trick. You don’t try to make things happen. You sit in the space you have made and allow the breath to do its work. When your mind inevitably wanders just simply guide it back to the breath. Don’t judge yourself harshly for getting distracted. Just stick with it.   

I would begin with a five minute interval. After you get comfortable with that time feel free to increase it as needed. 

Meditation is a treasured practice in Christian history but it is also a much-needed spiritual practice in my life. It gets me back to what is most essential, the Breath of God and my connection to it. It increases my ability to see and interact with the burning bushes that are all around me. When I am stressed or anxious it calms me.  

At first it seemed like a silly thing to focus on breathing and sit in silence. How does that produce anything? Now I see that breath is a gift from YHWH – and it is enough. 

Do you have a regular practice of meditation? How has it strengthened your connection to God? 

Justin Gentry ~ Finding Myself in the Poetry of Mary Oliver

For Jesus doesn’t change—yesterday, today, tomorrow, he’s always totally himself.

Hebrews 13:8, The Message

For as long as I can remember I have loved words. I read short novels at a young age and have always been comfortable expressing myself in front of people. I am an odd combination of bookish yet outgoing. It is the power of words that fascinates me. This combination of symbols on a page, or a screen in this case, can move you to feel any number of emotions, take you to any place in the past, or to worlds that have yet to exist. Words are lightning in a bottle.

This fascination may be why I was drawn to the pastoral vocation. Whether in a sermon, blog post or conversation, as a pastor I am required to use my words to create new worlds for people to walk into. It is an art and a delight when it works well.

Lately my interest has turned to reading poetry. I think I am drawn so much to poetry these days because over and above anything else poets are themselves. They speak from a raw, sometimes scandalous place that many of us don’t have access to. As a pastor it can be very hard to be yourself, yet it is essential if you want to have anything of value to communicate.41t2mzwj8pl-_sx297_bo1204203200_

Over the years there are dozens of poems that have shaped my inner life, but today I want to share two from self-titled “praise poet” Mary Oliver. I love that it feels like she has lived what she has written about. When she writes about forgiveness or venturing out into the unknown, you get the sense that she writes from experience. As I use my words to bring more of Jesus’ Kingdom into the world I don’t want it to seem like I am faking it for effect. I want to have lived to tell the tale I am telling you too.

I invite you to read both poems and sit with them for a bit before moving to my commentary. Maybe they have something to teach you that I have not yet thought of.

“The Uses of Sorrow”

(In my sleep I dreamed this poem)


Someone I loved once gave me

a box full of darkness.


It took me years to understand

that this, too, was a gift.


This very short poem, almost a quote really, sums up my work as a pastor. I am tasked with peering into the darkness in myself and somehow by the grace of God finding a redemptive perspective to it. For years I thought of my work as helping others do this, but I have learned that I must be the one to go first. If I cannot do this with my greatest tragedies, how can I lead others to do the same?

into-the-darkness-1I love that Mary Oliver doesn’t minimize the darkness or throw up her hands and say it is God’s plan too early. People who haven’t dealt with their pain tend to do this. She lets it stay darkness but transforms her relationship to it from victim to victor. It is in this act that we become more than conquerors.

If someone has given you a “box full of darkness” I am truly sorry. It is a painful, terrible thing to deal with. I cannot offer a quick fix, but if you sit with it and learn what it has to teach you, things will get better in time. This process often comes at night when we aren’t looking for it; when we have stopped hoping for it. You realize that the thing you thought would destroy you forever has made you into a better person.  That is good news indeed.


“The Journey”

One day you finally knew

what you had to do, and began,

though the voices around you

kept shouting

their bad advice-

though the whole house

began to tremble

and you felt the old tug

at your ankles.

“Mend my life!”

each voice cried.

But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,

though the wind pried

with its stiff fingers

at the very foundations,

though their melancholy

was terrible.

It was already late

enough, and a wild night,

and the road full of fallen

branches and stones.

But little by little,

as you left their voices behind,

the stars began to burn

through the sheets of clouds,

and there was a new voice

which you slowly

recognized as your own,

that kept you company

as you strode deeper and deeper

into the world,

determined to do

the only thing you could do–

determined to save

the only life you could save.

I read this poem about once a week. Over the last year it has spoken to me in a way the Scriptures haven’t, which can happen when your business is the Bible. The dry, professional nature the Scriptures can take on when you have studied them for years used to bother me. I would wonder what was wrong with me. I realize now that sometimes God delights in speaking through poets and prophets.

Back to the poem, I find that as a pastor it is easy to get caught up in someone else’s drama. Each person’s need is so great that I forget God has a unique part for me to play too. Mary Oliver reminds me that the voice I am called to listen to isn’t speaking to someone else. It is speaking to me and me alone. It is for me and me alone.

That could sound incredibly selfish, but most good advice does. Yes, I am called to save many lives, but at the end of the day I can really only know if one is actually saved. I am responsible for shepherding and cultivating this one wild life that I have been given.

In Christian circles we talk a lot about selling our souls. We can sell them to success, money, or even the devil. We rarely talk about selling our souls to people. When those voices cry out to you, “mend my life!” what deeper voices are they drowning out?

This poem builds on a theme in Mary Oliver’s poetry that I have seen in my life – that of sudden revelation. One day you just know what you have to do. It is never the right time. It always feels too late. There are always other obligations to tie up or make right. Yet there is still this thing you know you have to do. Maybe it is a relationship that needs mended or broken off, a new career path that is unknown or uncertain, a new vision that you know will meet resistance. All you know is that there is something you must do.

All I can say is begin. Start. Go. That deep down voice is there for a reason. It is the place where we meet God. Don’t be afraid of it.

This is what I love about Mary Oliver’s poetry. It encourages me to follow my inner voice. This has always been the Jesus tradition. Where does God speak to Elijah? A still small voice. Where does the Spirit of God reside? In the hearts of people. Where does Jesus encourage us to pray? Not in front of others but in a lonely, quiet closet. In the quiet moments God speaks suddenly and inconveniently, telling us exactly where we need to go.

There is a line in Hebrews that Eugene Peterson translates so well. It says this about Jesus, “For Jesus doesn’t change—yesterday, today, tomorrow, he’s always totally himself.” That is a kind of confidence that I only have when I am in touch with my deepest self, the one hidden in God. When I can operate from that space I am dynamite, on fire, full of grace and truth. My words change lives.  I lose it when I put on the mask, when I hide from that voice, and mend everyone else’s pain but my own. I become just another codependent minister, of some use but ultimately forgettable.

So where are you? Have you lost your inner voice? Have you managed others’ pain at the expense of your own healing? How can poetry, art, or quiet get you back to the place where you can always be totally yourself?