What is Youth Ministry to do with Sports?

I am excited to be headed to Waco, TX later this week to take part in Baylor University’s Symposium on Faith and Culture which has chosen as its theme this year, “The Spirit of Sports.”  I look forward to spending time with a friend in Dallas and exploring many facets of the relationship between sports and the Church.  On Saturday morning I will be presenting a paper entitled, “Pastoral and Theological Implications of the Youth Sports Industrial Complex.”  This has proven to be a good exercise in trying to simplify the message I want to present to churches and youth ministries regarding their relationships to the world of youth sports.

Eventually, I will upload the entire paper under the “Stuff I’ve Written” tab, but in this post I will provide a brief overview of what I’ll be presenting.  My focus is on the local church, and it is especially relevant for those who work in youth ministry.  While young people are involved in a wide variety of extracurricular activities, it’s no secret that youth sports is by far the most popular.  And for most youth ministers, they prove to be the most challenging to work around.  Most youth ministers I’ve talked with seem to be at a loss of language in trying to articulate what exactly is at risk in their youth’s hyper-involvement in sports.  More often than not, they dismissively shrug their shoulders and complain that sports takes their teens away from youth group activities and church services and makes them feel like they are fighting a losing battle. 

After all, sports can promote healthy lifestyles and physical activity in a generation facing an obesity epidemic, reinforce qualities like team work and self discipline that serve as important life skills, and immerse children in positive social environments where they can grown and mature their interpersonal skills.  The benefits of youth sports are well documented, so for the Church to explore any shortcomings may seem like nothing more than a needless exploration of “too much of a good thing.”  In response to this, I believe that the Church as a whole, and youth ministry in particular, is in a dire need of a more robust theology to help address the many complex realities of youth sports.

Too often, the Church has attempted to wrestle with the many practical issues that sports presents: performance-enhancing drugs, injuries, cheating, etc. without first establishing a robust theological foundation from which to build.  This has left our message anemic, at best, or completely absent, at worst.  I want to propose three theological areas from which the Church can begin to build this more robust understanding of sports and, subsequently, begin to provide a more effective pastoral voice to the families of youth athletes.

1 – The Rhythm of Life                               

Simply complaining that kids are too busy to do anything with their youth group is a shallow argument from frustrated youth ministers.  While weekend out-of-town tournaments have made it impossible for many families to maintain a healthy connection with a local church family, the busyness of youth sports is about more than “being at church.”  The schedules of sports families are low hanging fruit in what frustrates most youth ministers.  We should be cautious, however, that our frustration over sports schedules isn’t simply a hidden jealousy that they’re cheating on us with their sports team.  Something more significant must be considered.

The words of Ecclesiastes rings a little differently in today’s sports-obsessed world than it did in Old Testament times: “There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1).   I don’t think he was talking about sports seasons!  More to the point here, the writer reinforces the beauty and need for balance in our lives.  Balance was built into the very fabric of Israel.  Work six days, then rest.  Work six years, then rest a year.  The rest was for the citizens, for the animals, and for the land.  Balance is built into the very fabric of creation itself.  That’s the problem with most youth sports today.  We talk about sacrifice, commitment, and all that.  But is that simply another way of excusing our imbalance?  More than questioning how often our sports families are attending a worship service any given Sunday, we should be asking the more dynamic question: What is dictating the rhythm of their family’s life?

2 – The Formation of Identity                          

Perhaps the crucial developmental aspect of adolescents is their identity formation.  The many environmental influences on a young man’s or young woman’s life begins to really show their impact as teenagers are answering that question, “Who am I?”  Sports has an interesting role in this whole process.  Many young people who excel in a particular sport find acceptance and popularity there that they cannot find anywhere else.  Just think about the life that the starting quarterback lives in high schools across the country.  Particularly in those situations, their sport becomes a very significant part of their identity formation.

This aspects of youth sports isn’t inherently bad, however often times the identity youth find in sports is the very identity they are intended to have in Christ.  In Galatians 3, Paul emphasizes the importance of finding our identity solely in Christ – beyond racial, sexual, and socioeconomic terms.  It seems silly to extend those core aspects of identity to sports – until you watch a college or professional sporting event.  The painted chests, dyed hair, and voracious chants are visual reminders of the identity-forming power of sports.  I believe it has become common place for many people to find their identity primarily in sports and allow that to dictate their participation in their faith.

3 – Theology of the Body

While I haven’t presented these three in any particular order, this may be the best starting point for moving forward in our ministries of sports.  Too many parachurch organizations and sports ministries have treated sports as a neutral entity and have seen it simply as an effective way to draw a crowd  so the Gospel can be shared.  Unfortunately, this reinforces a dualism that has long pervaded Christianity.  Although it may sound like metaphysical mumbo jumbo to say that the Platonic dualism has led to an unnecessarily negative view of the body, there are, in fact, significant, practical consequences.

When sports are viewed as simply a means to an end, we have a tendency to ignore the ethic and practice of the sport.  One example illustrates this well.  What is the Christian to do with competition?  Competition is at the heart of athletics (not to mention America itself) and yet serious theological reflection on competition is almost impossible to find.  As a result, we have a difficult time knowing how to teach our children to compete in a Christian fashion, because we’re not exactly sure ourselves.  By and large, I haven’t seen much difference between what Christians expect from sports than what anyone else expects.

I believe that the way forward begins with a better articulated theology of the body.  We  need to teach our children about the beauty in sports and have serious conversations about the challenges of reconciling the Sermon on the Mount and competitive arenas.

Much more needs to be said on these matters, but I believe that if we could just take as a beginning point, these three theological areas and dedicate some time we will be more prepared for the many challenges that lie ahead in the world of youth sports.  I hope to continue to refine this message and find ministers and youth ministers who have a passion for filling in this much-too-neglected area.

If you plan to be at the National Conference on Youth Ministries in Denver next January, I’ve got a ten minute talk to share some more thoughts in this area!


Praying for an Error

We’ve all heard those stories of famous athletes who became a public goat following a highly public sports gaffe.  One of the most heinous examples was that of Colombian soccer player Andes Escobar who, during a 1994 World Cup match against the United States accidentally scored in his own goal and was murdered two weeks after returning to Colombia.  While the Escobar incident is notoriously one of the most extreme examples, there have been countless examples of fans threatening to harm or even kill athletes for their shortcomings in big sports moments.

No one represents the fallen athlete in American sports as much as former Major League Baseball player, Bill Buckner.  Buckner had a highly successful major league career that lasted over 20 years.  He collected over 2,700 hits and even won a batting title in 1980 while playing for the Chicago Cubs.  Buckner, however, is best known for missing a routine ground ball in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series at Fenway Park while a member of the Boston Red Sox.

Like many of these big time sports goats, Buckner was sent death threats and this one error came to define his career – quite unfortunate when you consider how good of a career he truly had.

It would seem as though the majority of spectators and fans of sports  are stable enough to resist sending death threats to athletes or harming those who make mistakes (though attending some youth sports games can make a person begin to wonder).  These extreme cases, however, do reveal a troubling characteristic with which most sports fans are forced to wrestle. Team sports has a tendency to dehumanize its participants.  Athletes wear uniforms of the same color in order to set themselves apart from the other team who wear a different uniform.  Spectators in the stands wear their teams’ colors.  We feel camaraderie with our team.  And many of the sociological traits that are present in the concept of mob mentality permeate sports venues.  We feel a hyper connectivity with fellow fans.  So we high five strangers after our team scores a touchdown.  We scream and yell for our team to succeed.  And we root against the other team.

And there happens to be a fine line between cheering for our team and rooting against the other team.  You see this happen when a player gets injured.  I will assume the humanity in all fans – that there is a pang of empathy for any injured player and an authentic hope that he or she is OK, but if we are completely honest, doesn’t the empathy seem to come a little more quickly when it’s one of “our” players?  In this split-second pause, we are confronted by the major challenges that sports presents us.

All the time I hear aggressive parents encouraging their children to play harder and stronger and faster and . . . there is the slightest feeling that they want to take that other team – or player – “down.”  Taking them down is part of the game!  If we can’t all win – someone has to lose.  And we’d just all assume it would be “them ” lose instead of us.   And, ever so subtlety, we feel ourselves hoping, not just that we win, but that they lose.  Just watch a parent when their child is playing a team with a player who is significantly better than all the other players.  They can easily find themselves rooting for that player’s failure as much as their own child’s success.  It’s the same feeling we get when we are playing a game when we know that it is impossible to win.  Those are difficult emotions to process.

Which is one of the reasons why sports is so great.  It offers us a relatively safe environment to experience these feelings of aggression and inadequacy.  It offers us a playground to try out feelings and emotions that are every bit as relevant to the workplace and the real world as they are to the sports contest itself.

Throughout all of our experiences in sports – whether we are playing them or watching them – we must remember to humanize the event.  While we are watching our children playing a game, it is not another team they are playing against, it is another group of boys and girls with different personalities, gifts, challenges, and experiences.  Maybe that player is a jerk because his family life is in shambles.  Maybe that coach is over-the-top because she struggles mightily with her self image.  Maybe that parent is so boisterous because he and his wife are going through a divorce.  Maybe that official made a bad call because he got fired the day before and his mind isn’t completely in the game.

It seems like a simple enough task, but our passion for sports makes remembering the humanity of the players more challenging than it seems like it would be.  When our rival team hires a new coach, we don’t wonder about his family life or his off-the-field demeanor.  We just don’t like him and hope he is unsuccessful.  When a player from the other team takes a cheap shot on our child or one of their teammates, we don’t wonder how she does in school or whether she is loved at home – we just hope our daughter will get her back somehow.

Sports are at their best when we humanize them – when we remember that sports are created for all of us to enjoy.  Sports journalism illustrates how this works when they give the back story to players we watch on television.  They serve as a reminder of the humanity of the players.  They remind us that there is more to life than sports, and while we all know that, in the heat of the moment, it can be hard to keep that in mind.

It’s kind of like when my children see one of their teachers outside of the school.  They have a difficult time processing the fact that their teachers have any life at all outside of the school building.  Most elementary school children have trouble imaging their teachers ever leave the school building.  Everyone always gets a good laugh out of this when we meet them outside of school.  It seems to me, this is the same thing that happens in sports.  The sports figures are there for our enjoyment and our pleasure and it is easy for us to forget that they leave the field, arenas, and gyms too.  They have other lives besides what we see.  Remembering this fact will help us keep sports in their proper place.

Our Story of Attending a Taping of SNL

I have been blogging off and on for over ten years.  I’ve written routinely at times, while taking several months between posts at others.  Hopefully you’ve taken notice of the fact that, over the past few weeks, I’ve set out to recommit to blogging.  Having my school work behind me, I have a bit more time to commit to writing a little more frequently.  I am spending a good deal reflecting on sports and theology work I did in my dissertation, but I like to add variety to my posts as well.

Throughout my years of blogging, the one blogpost that has garnered the most traffic is one I posted nearly five years ago.  I had surprised Mary Beth with an anniversary trip to New York City with one of the goals of watching Saturday Night Live – well, live.  Having spent a good deal of time in preparation trying to figure out how to get into the show, I came to realize that there weren’t many resources out there other than a random blogger here or there who shared their experience.  With that in mind, I decided to become one more random blogger sharing my experience.  Below is an edited version of my blogpost from a few years ago that has had over 5,000 views that describes one of the most unique evenings in our lives.

A few times over the past two or three years, I had looked at what it would take to get into a taping of SNL.  I looked and looked and didn’t really find out a whole lot.  It seemed that SNL tickets were available to the public through a lottery system that runs only in the month of August.  (Mary Beth and I have entered the lottery every year since I wrote this, and have never heard a peep from them).  See the details here.  I also caught small tidbits here and there about a standby line.  We never had the money for a NYC trip, so I didn’t look into it too seriously.

Then, in 2010, I decided I was going to surprise my wife with an anniversary trip.  We had celebrated our 10 year anniversary in 2009, and didn’t have the money to go anywhere, so I thought a year later we could make up for it.  Our anniversary is December 18 and when I looked at possible places to go and saw that December 18 was a Saturday, I thought that would be about the time for the taping of SNL’s Christmas show.  When I saw that it was, I began trying to figure out how we could be there.  Obviously, there was no way to guarantee that we could actually get tickets to the show, so I put the plans together for a four night trip to New York and left Saturday wide open so we could at least give it a try.

In the months leading up to our trip, I scoured the Internet for stories of people who had actually gotten SNL tickets.  I didn’t find very many, which is why I decided to blog about it here – hopefully help out some other interested folks!  I did find a few people who had tried and blogged about their experience – some had tried and failed, others had succeeded, and all their stories were very similar.

On the day of a live show, NBC hands out standby tickets for that night’s show.  You can choose to attend either the live show at 11:30 or the dress rehearsal at 8:00.  The catch is, though, that people begin lining up for tickets on Friday morning – 24 hours before they hand out tickets (even earlier depending on who the host and musical guests are).  From all the situations I read about online, it looked like your best bet to actually get in the show was when the weather was bad, the host wasn’t a huge draw, and you got in line early enough.

The trip was a complete surprise to my wife who didn’t find out where we were going (or that we were going anywhere) until we had gotten to the airport.  On the plane, I shared with her all the plans that I had made.  I had gotten us tickets to a Broadway show, had saved up some extra money to go Christmas shopping on 5th Ave. and that I wanted us to try to get tickets to watch SNL.  However, I wanted to be sure that she knew that standing in line for tickets would probably cost us an entire day of our trip and there was obviously no guarantee that we’d even get in, so if she didn’t want to take that chance, I would understand – there are plenty of other fun things we could find to do in New York.  She decided that it was too good of a chance to pass up, so she was in.

Here’s how things went down . . .

We got to our hotel around 7:00 Friday night.  We had decided we’d go check out the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center and peek in at the studio to see if anyone was already in line.  It was after 10:00 by the time we finally made it over to the studio to find about 25 people already standing in line for the stand-by tickets.  That was a little disheartening because we had already decided we weren’t going to wait in line that long.  It was freezing outside, so everyone was bundled up with everything from sleeping bags to air mattresses to tents . . . incredible.  They told us that the first person in line, arrived at 7:00 am on Friday morning! [The picture below is from online – not ours.  It was a lot colder than this!]

We had already decided that we were up for waiting in line, but we were not going to wait there all night.  We went and hung out some more in Manhattan, went back to our rooms to get a few hours of sleep, and set the alarm for 3:00 am.  From my research, it seemed as though if we were in line by 3:00 or 3:30, we’d be in good shape.

We set two alarms – and both failed to go off!  Somehow, I woke up just before 4:00, and we got our things together as quickly as possible and booked it to the line.  We stayed only a few blocks away, so we got there pretty quickly.  It wasn’t long after 4:00 when we got in line – we were willing to wait three hours in the freezing cold for our shot!  I had just learned last week that the host was Jeff Bridges and the musical guest was Eminem.  Bridges probably wouldn’t be a huge draw for people – but Eminem would be.  We’d have to wait and see.

As we waited in line, it wasn’t long before we just had to know how many people were in front of us.  My wife and I both counted (and the person in front of us counted) and we all came up with about 75.  I had learned that 30 or 40 was a sure bet . . . this was going to be close.

The time passed quickly at first.  The three kids in front of us were from Staten Island and they were there to see Eminem.  I’m pretty sure they had never seen SNL – they wanted to know when they were going to show it on TV.  Um . . . The woman behind us kept us entertained – she was from Georgia and had been in the city for a few months. She had tried to do the SNL thing another time and had failed – she had tried the dress rehearsal and had a number in the 60’s (I think).  Another couple came shortly after who had tried before and failed – they had been in the 80’s.  These weren’t exactly great omens.

By 5:30, time seemed to be passing by more slowly.  The cold was really setting in.  People were getting tired.  We had read the scrolling news stories on NBC’s building 1,000 times, so now we just waited.  My wife went and got us some hot chocolate which helped kill some time.  We learned alot about the lady behind us.  She learned alot about us.  Everyone was pretty friendly and were enjoying the conversation to help the time pass.

About 6:30, things really started to happen.  This was the first time we had seen anyone from NBC.  They walked along the line and instructed everyone to get their tents put away and their sleeping bags wrapped up and bring the line closer together.  The line had grown slowly when we first got in (maybe a person every 15 minutes or so), but by 6:00 it was growing pretty long.  There was definitely more people behind us than in front of us.

At about 6:45 someone from NBC came out and began giving instructions.  We’re still not sure what happened, but apparently there was some people holding spots in front of us, and the guy from NBC really laid into someone.  In any case, though, the line did balloon in front of us a bit, and when all the numbers were handed out it appeared that there were 100 people in front of us – 20 more than we had counted – so, something fishy happened.

Promptly at 7:00 (maybe  even a little before) the line began moving as they handed out tickets for both shows.  We had talked before which one we were going to try, and we decided that if we were going to try – we might as well go for the live one.  When it was our turn, the three in front of us chose the live show, and we had the option for numbers 59 and 60 for the live show, or somewhere in the 40’s for the rehearsal.  Hopefully we wouldn’t regret those 20 extra people.

Our tickets looked like this (it’s amazing how quickly technology changes –  with our five-year-later phones, we would have had much better pictures – in hindsight we didn’t use our phones much).  We went back to our hotel and tried to get a couple hours more sleep to prepare us for, what we hoped would be a long day.  11:30 was a long ways away.  Per the ticket, we arrived back at Rockefeller Center at 10:45 and held our breath.  We had to walk past the line of people who had actual tickets – fortunately, it didn’t look like many.  I had read the studio holds around 300 people and only counted about 100 in that line, so we were cautiously optimistic.  At about 11:10, they took those with tickets through the metal detectors and up to the studio and moved those of us with standby tickets to where the other line had been.  They explained that we would have to go through the metal detectors before going to the studio and not to get too excited because if we made it that far it didn’t mean we’d get in.

They took the first 30 in front of us (we were lined up according to our numbers) and brought them through.  They repeated that we weren’t guaranteed a seat until we were actually sitting in it.  A few minutes later we heard the first group cheer which made us think that they had all gotten in.  They came back about five minutes later and took another 15 getting us pretty close to the front.  We heard another cheer, and things were getting pretty exciting now.

What happened in the fifteen minutes leading up to the live broadcast became a complete blur.  Another five minutes and they took about seven or eight.  Now we were only five or six back.  They came back and got another five or six leaving just three in front of us.  By now it was after 11:20 and the show was going to start in less than fifteen minutes – and we still didn’t know if we’d make it is or not.  They told us they wait until the very last minute to fill the final seats in case someone with an actual ticket comes.  Our hearts were all racing as it was quite a rush.  The NBC pages kept telling us – “It’s not over yet, we’re not done yet,” keeping our hopes alive.

Next they came back for two – but the group in front of us had three so I thought they were going to let us go ahead of them.  Instead, the couple ditched their third wheel.  Now, there was only one in front of us!  We started thinking,  “Are we going to get this close for nothing?”  Another minute and the page came back for two more!  Two!?  Only one of us could go.  I told my wife she had to go.  If only one of us got in, that’d be better than none.

They rushed her through the metal detector as she pleaded her case for me to get in all the way to the studio.  I heard her yell at them, “It’s our anniversary!”  They radioed up to see if they had just one more spot for me.   .

Another minute went by and they came to get me – just me – and hurried me through the metal detectors and up the elevators.  They put us on different elevators – keeping the drama alive, I guess.  When we reached the studio level, they took our ticket and then told us to run.  “Seriously,” the page said, “you guys need to run down to the studio to your seats”.  Ran we did, all the way into the studio where another page took us to our seats – two of the famous yellow seats in the front row nearly front and center.  It was incredible.  What a rush!  We sat down, kissed each other, had about two minutes to look around, and then it started.  It came down to the absolute wire.

[We weren’t allowed to take pictures (I actually did take a picture with my phone but they made me delete it), but this picture is pretty close to where we were sitting – right in the front.]

I glanced back and saw two more people come in behind me – we had made it by that much.  If we had slept in about fifteen more minutes we wouldn’t have gotten in. We talked with a guy who had gone to the dress rehearsal and he said that only about 20 people got in, which, if accurate, means the lady behind us would not have gotten in – and we wouldn’t have either if we had chosen the dress rehearsal!

In any case, we sat there and got to watch Keenan Thompson usher in, “Live, from New York, it’s Saturday night!”

If you are interested here is The Atlantic’s coverage of the episode.  The highlights for us were probably Jeff Bridges singing with Cookie Monster during the monologue, the Akon digital short “We Just Had Sex,” and the cold open, just because of the thrill of seeing it live.

I prefaced all this by saying that we’re huge SNL fans, so I’m jaded in saying this, but it truly was one of the neatest experiences I’ve ever had.  We’ve done other TV show tapings, but nothing was as unique and rewarding as this.  It’s hard to imagine that we’ll ever get to do it again, but if we happen to be in NYC during a taping, it might be hard to keep us away!  If anyone else stumbles across here with an experience, feel free to share.  I would love to help others have the experience that we had.

Why So Serious?

I believe that one of the true privileges that comes with being a pastor is having the opportunity to officiate wedding ceremonies.  It was a special day when I officiated my sister’s wedding, and it has been an honor to take part in several others over the years.  This past Saturday I performed the wedding for a bride whose family has been a friend of our family for as long as I can remember.

Although the weather was a bit dreary, the bride looked beautiful, the music was moving, and the atmosphere was jovial.  It was a wedding!  As I came to the close of the ceremony, proudly declaring, “You may now kiss the bride,” something funny happened.  There was this great exuberance among the crowd in attendance – an actual buzz was in the air.  You could feel their joy and excitement (and that wasn’t the surprising part as this was a wedding), but they all just sat there quietly watching.  For the split second while the bride and groom stood with their lips locked, I could just tell that everyone wanted to make some gesture of joy – some outburst of excitement beyond their smiling faces.  But they felt hindered.  They were at church.  This was a religious ceremony.  You have to look nice, act nice, and be quiet until you leave.  That seems to be the general feeling that people have.

To be fair, I think most people have been to boring weddings.  Lots of standing and sitting and kneeling and preaching.  No one can doubt the seriousness of the moment as you can cut the tension with a knife while at the same time, most guests struggle just to stay awake.  For a lot of couples the actual wedding ceremony stands as the necessary evil and functions as a kind of pregame ritual before the real party (the reception) begins.  If I had more time, I have a feeling that there’s a lot we can learn about the way we view God and our spirituality by the sharp contrast we have created between the serious, religious wedding ceremony and the often alcohol-infused, (way more fun!) post wedding celebration.
I’ve made it a point to have people laugh as much as possible during the wedding ceremonies I perform.  At least I try.  This is supposed to be the happiest day of the lives of this couple – why are so many wedding ceremonies so serious?  I can’t help but think of the Joker’s words from The Dark Knight, “Why so serious?” as a way to respond to the many hyper-serious wedding ceremonies.

We could ask the same thing in stoic worship gatherings – why so serious?  (A few months ago I suggested that ministers need to stop taking themselves so seriously.)  Now, granted, there are certainly times that demand respect and reverence, but some churches have been stuck on respect and reverence for a couple hundred years.  We need a good dose of Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord, always, I will say it again, ‘Rejoice!'”

In a world that is so driven by fear and uncertainty, we can be a breath of fresh air by embracing a life of joy.  It seems so natural for a crowd of family and friends to burst into spontaneous applause at the wedding of their beloved friend and family member.  The people at this particular wedding just needed someone to give them permission.  They needed someone to assure them that the prejudice they have of the church being a stoic, lifeless place is ill-conceived and that the church actually has much to celebrate.  As I noted the crowd’s pent-up exuberance, I told them, “You can clap!” and a huge outburst ensued.  Cheers and shouts joined with the applause to make for a genuine scene of joy.

Indeed, there is much to fret and much in our world is not going well.  All of this reminds me of one of my favorite scenes from Saturday Night Live.  It was the cold open for the first live show following the attacks on September 11, 2001.  Mayor Rudy Giuliani stood alongside several firemen and police officers while making a genuine and heartfelt statement regarding all that had happened in the previous weeks.  Paul Simon preformed the song, “The Boxer,” and all of us who watched this live can remember the seriousness of the moment.  Then, in one of the show’s finest moments, SNL creator Lorne Michaels joined Giuliani and the officers on stage. Giuliani tells the audience how important it is to have New York City’s institutions back up and running and acknowledges Saturday Night Live as one of their best institutions.  Lorne Michaels follows up his statement with a question: “Can we be funny?”

It was a great question because it had a tinge of humor, but it was a real question that everyone was asking.  Not so much, “Can we be funny?” (because, as hard as some of us may try we will never be funny), but the real question he was asking on behalf of those of us watching was, “Can we laugh?”  There were a lot of heavy things going on.  Our media sources were flooding our eyes with death and destruction and it was hard to keep our eyes dry.  Would we ever be ever to laugh again?

And the writers of the show came through as Giuiliani offers the perfect response, “Why start now?”  A joke.  Permission to laugh.  The entire country was pent up with uncertainty just like that church building was Saturday watching the bride and groom kiss.  In the midst of our worries and concerns, we have weddings (and shows like Saturday Night Live) to remind us all is not lost and all is not wicked.  One of the chief reasons the church exists, I believe, is to tell the world – you can laugh!  There is reason to hope!  So the next time you are at a wedding, remember, you have been given permission to laugh.

Rivalry and the Perpetuation of The Other

It was January 11, 1987.  I was seven and a half years old.  It was Cleveland, Ohio.  And it was the first time that Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway slowly and painfully ripped out the hearts of Cleveland Browns fans everywhere.  It became known as “The Drive. ” [All Browns fans close your eyes, others can watch this link.] While playoff aspirations have been a distant memory for the Cleveland Browns over the past two decades, during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s the Browns had incredibly talented and wildly successful football teams, though the Super Bowl would remain elusive.

I live in Columbus and love the Ohio State Buckeyes, but I think my first love will always be the Cleveland Browns.  They have been so bad for so long that I wish it wasn’t true, but the beginning of every football season reminds me of my first love.  I attended several Browns games during this era, and the images of old Cleveland Municipal Stadium remain ensconced among my greatest memories.  It was during this era of heartbreak that I actually attended a regular season game against the Elway-led Broncos.  The success of the future Hall of Fame quarterback wasn’t respected or appreciated among Browns fans during those years – to say the least.  Instead I remember jeers raining down from the stadium making fun of anything and everything the inebriated crowd could mumble out together.  One of the first cheers I ever remember hearing at a professional football game was “Elway’s a faggot.”  As  a kid, I joined right in the jeering and cheering against this arch rival.

In sports, there’s a fine line between cheering for a team or player, and cheering against another team or player.  It maybe a reality that we Cleveland fans can appreciate more than most people.  The Indians and Browns last won world championships long before I was born, so there’s been plenty of time to root against other teams and their successes.  And what Cleveland fan didn’t root against South Beach LeBron?  It’s part of the fun, really.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find at least some delight in the recent faltering of Michigan’s football program.  After all, they are our rival!  My son has a sign in his room that says, “My favorite two teams are Ohio State, and whoever is playing Michigan!”  My two favorite teams have been doing pretty good lately!

I’ve been thinking a lot about rivalry lately.  There has been no better case study for what rivalry does to a person than Ohio State’s recent hiring of Urban Meyer.  Now, Urban Meyer is an Ohio guy – something that people in the South seem to forget.  He was born in Toledo, grew up in the Lake town of Ashtabula, attended the University of Cincinnati, and had his first head football coaching position at Bowling Green State.  His rise to prominence in college football was profuse, immediately finding success at every school he has coached for.  However, it was at the University of Florida where he achieved the highest level of success, winning two national championships.

The culmination of the 2006 football season found Meyer’s Gators taking on the Ohio State Buckeyes.  I remember watching and listening to Urban Meyer in the weeks leading up to the game.  I remember thinking how much of a pompous ass he was.  I remember how much I didn’t care for his demeanor and his cut-throat mentality (he has a reputation for running up the score on lesser opponents).  Compared to the buttoned-up, senatorial, humble ethos of Ohio State’s coach Jim Tressel, Urban Meyer was an arrogant prick.  And that arrogant prick helped kick my team’s behind in one of the more lopsided national championships you will ever see.  Which made me hate him all the more.

In the year’s following Meyer’s championships at Florida (they won again in 2008), he had some serious health concerns that eventually led to his resignation at the end of 2010.  I can honestly say that I’ve  never wished ill on anyone, including my rivals, but I can say without reservation that I wasn’t heartbroken to see him leave Florida and football altogether.

Then came a scandal at Ohio State.  Then came Jim Tressel’s resignation.  Then came probation.  Then came the rumors of Urban Meyer accepting the head coaching job at Ohio State.  One year after resigning from Florida.  Wait.  What?

There’s a lot of different sides to this complex story, but the thing I want to focus on for a minute is the strange situation it put us in as Ohio State fans.  Everyone I knew thought he was the perfect person for the job.  There wasn’t a better candidate.  But, man, once you’ve rooted against someone, it’s hard to just forget that and move on.  I still thought he was a pompous ass.

It’s interesting how quickly, my feelings about him began to thaw.  You know, he looks pretty good in scarlet and gray.  Now he was talking to the people of Ohio.  Now . . . you know what? . . . he wasn’t too bad of a guy after all.  Still intense.  Still kind of cocky.  But don’t you want that for your coach?  Then the magical season that was 2014, and the Buckeyes won the first ever college football playoff, and the entire state of Ohio has forgotten all about Jim Tressel.  Well, not forgotten, more like forgiven.

While this is the extreme case, every sports fan knows this feeling.  It happens all the time in baseball.  In the middle of the season, teams out of contention trade their good players to teams in contention, and the next thing you know,  a player you cheered so hard against, is wearing your team’s colors.  It’s heretical to even think about it, but if the Browns had been led by John Elway instead of Bernie Kosar, maybe the Browns have all the success that the Broncos would come to have.  It’s just impossible to picture him in their colors.

I’ve come to realize that sports displays a microcosm of life when it comes to identity.  We identify with our team.  We wear their colors, familiarize ourselves with their traditions, and we feel a part of them.  As a matter of fact, it isn’t them – it’s us.  While watching from the inactivity of our couch, we stand and shout, “We won!”

What helps us forge our identity is knowing that we are not them.  Rivalry can betray humanity.  For the jeering fans in the 1980’s and 1990’s in Cleveland, John Elway wasn’t a person.  He was a quarterback.  He was a Bronco.  He was a football player.  But he wasn’t human.  He wasn’t a husband or a father or a son and didn’t have a soul.  When Urban Meyer was pacing the sidelines in Gainesville, FL I saw no humanity in him.  I just saw someone who was better than me and my team and who made my skin crawl.

Over the next six years, Urban Meyer will make on average $6.5 million each year.  Celebrity Net Worth reports that John Elway’s net worth is over $145 million.  In the world of high profile sports, I think most people would be able to put up with the mean-spirited fans and mudslinging rivals.  I’m not saying it excuses it; I’m just saying that no one is feeling bad for these millionaires.

However, this reality isn’t limited to the highest levels of sports.  It was early on in my son’s baseball career when I realized how conflicted I would be when it comes to his success.  If the bases are loaded and there are two outs and the game is tied and my son is up to bat, what is the right outcome to hope for?  Do I hope he throws a ball and my son draws the winning RBI?  Do I pray for a meat ball right  down the middle that I know my son can smash?  How do I root him on, without wishing ill on the other team or player?   Could it be that the other team needs a win more than our team at the grandest scheme of life?  Could it be that the kid in that illustration would be much more greatly blessed with a strike out than my son would be with a walk off hit?

It’s when the discussions of rivalry hit the local level with youth sports that I think we really begin to get into the heavy conversations.  My next blogpost will begin to deal with the challenge of balancing rooting for your child’s success while not rooting against the success of others.

Trash Talk, The Cultivation of Identity, and the Kingdom of God

One of the staples of college football Saturdays for over 25 years has been the television show College Gameday on ESPN.  College football fans across the country begin each Saturday morning with ESPN’s table-setting program that helps introduce the narratives underlying the match ups each week.  The banter bounces from heartfelt, off-the-field, journalistic stories that highlight athletes who have overcome family issues, health obstacles, and poverty to on-the-field match ups that often fuel regional debates about which conference is better, who’s the best player in the country, and whose schedule is more challenging.

Each week the show travels to a different college town that’s hosting that week’s “big” game.  The hometown students and fans come out by the thousands to listen to the pundits banter back and forth and to try to get their two seconds on television.  The success of the show can directly be attributed to the unique atmosphere and social cohesion that college football provides.  The television show piggybacks on the passion of the fans and the traditions unique to each school giving free publicity to a different school each week.

My favorite sign from last year made by Harvard students

Throughout the years, the easiest way for students in the crowd to get on the camera has been to create catchy, funny, and edgy signs which they hold up in the background.  In recent years ESPN has even capitalized on this whimsical tradition by having the public vote for their favorites.  (You can see the weekly winners of last year here.)  Mixing together the passion of college students with their sophomoric, hormonal inclinations, it is not surprising to find a large number of inappropriate signs being held aloft each Saturday.  My guess is that they’re always in the market for camera men and women with quick eyes and quick hands to pan away from the most offensive.

This past Saturday, Gameday was in Tuscaloosa for the big Alabama-Ole Miss football game, and two signs in particular have created quite a stir.  The first sign calls Ole Miss girls “easy,” and the second pokes fun at Ohio State’s head coach Urban Meyer and his health concerns from a few years ago. 

ESPN took flack for the first sign before GameDay was even over, and Urban Meyer’s wife and daughter tweeted GameDay taking exception to the implications of the other sign (which GameDay had tweeted a picture of saying it was the most Retweeted (and Appropriate) sign from Saturday’s broadcast).

“All of this was done in good, clean fun!” I’m sure the creators of these signs would argue.  How many times has that statement been used as an excuse for some kind of misunderstanding?  After all – it’s just sports, right?  I know as well as anyone – we’ve all got our own sense of humor.  Some things one person finds hilarious, another finds offensive.  I often find a great deal of humor in these signs as creative college students try to outwit one another, and there’s always a fine line one walks between being edgy and being offensive.

As is usually the case, however, there is something deeper going on here that I felt was worth a few blogposts.  In this first post, I want to focus on sports and rivalry at the highest levels, then I will look at what rooting against teams and people can do to our identity, and finally shift gears and talk about the implications that this has in youth sports.

Rivalry is one of the great things about sports.  Few would argue that sports would be better without Ohio State versus Michigan.  Army versus Navy.  Harvard versus Yale.  Duke versus North Carolina.  Cowboys versus Redskins.  Yankees versus Red Sox.  Celtics versus Lakers.  Steelers versus Browns.  (Sorry if I missed yours!)  These rivalries take on a life of their own.  They are all bigger than the game themselves.  Professional sports leagues try to create rivalries with newer teams to help deepen the narrative for fans.  We have bulletin boards where we can talk trash to other fans.  We make cartoons.  We make jokes.  We have the Dead Schembechlers.  (They epitomize rivalry – check them out).  We create College Gameday signs.

One of the things that rivalries do is help remind us of who we aren’t, and by default help further deepen our own identity.  If alma maters and marching bands and stadium-wide cheers are intended to remind us of who we are, rivalries help articulate who we aren’t.   I live in Columbus, OH so the rivalry I am most familiar with is Ohio State and Michigan.  Woody Hayes famously went for two in a blowout game and when asked why he did it he said, “Because I couldn’t go for three.”  Urban Meyer recently made a student to 20 push ups in class for wearing blue.  When Brady Hoke was hired as Michigan’s coach he would only refer to Ohio State as Ohio. During Michigan-week in Columbus, a local store will let you trade in a blue article of clothing (which they donate to charity) for a “Beat Michigan” tee shirt.  All of this serves to build the community.  To remind us that we are Buckeyes – and Michigan still sucks!  But . . . as the signs from this past weekend remind us, the drive to define ourselves against someone else is often problematic.

In the next blogpost, I want to consider the hiring of head football coach Urban Meyer by the Ohio State University and discuss how it illustrates the way identity formation works within the community of sports fans.  How can fans of Ohio State so deftly embrace the same Urban Meyer who coached the University of Florida when they defeated (no destroyed!) Ohio State in the national championship several years ago?  How has our impression of him changed?  How do we see him differently?  And, correspondingly, how has the impressions of Florida fans changed?  Are these perspectives rooted in reality or is something else going on? I think there are answers in these questions and others that help point out the challenges and quandaries that rivalries and rooting against other teams and players creates for Christians.

Sports Were Made for Mankind, not Mankind for Sports

Photo Credit: Crisis Magazine: http://www.crisismagazine.com/2015/god-sundays

A couple of weeks ago, I had a Monday evening that looked like this: I dropped my son off for football practice at 6:00, then drove half way across town for my weekly football officials meeting at 7:00, then drove all the way back across town to have a meeting with a couple of other dads at 8:30 where we talked about the possibility of putting together a new baseball team next summer for our sons.

Just today, I was sent video from our Friday night game last week to review and find mechanics to work on for our game tomorrow night.  I am part of a pick ’em college football pool that some friends at church and I have done for several years, and I had to get my picks in before tonight’s game.  I have a middle school game to officiate at 5:30 so I’m going to try and get a run in before that, my daughters have dance classes all night so my wife will be shuttling them back and forth, my son has football practice again tonight, so we’ll need a friend to help run him back and forth to it, and, when I finally get home, I’ll probably try to catch a few minutes of the Michigan – Utah college football game .  Luckily the Indians are off , so I can resume my attention to their post-season push tomorrow night.

When I was doing research for my dissertation, I came across a reporter who said something to the effect that keeping busy sports schedules has become a kind of success gauge for suburban parents.   A busy sports schedule has become a kind of insinuated mark of accomplishment.  The busier your kids are in their sports, the better athletes they must be.  Living, working, and ministering in the suburbs, I overhear countless parents lamenting their children’s busy sports schedules.  About how they never have dinner together anymore.  About how they drive hours on the weekends  and live out of hotels several times a year.   About how expensive the team has become.  About how much money they spend on equipment.  About how competitive the other teams are.

And, almost with exception, they all sound trapped.  Oftentimes I’ll hear the caveats, “But what are you going to do?”  or “That’s the cost of being blessed with an athletic son or daughter;”  or “That’s just how sports are nowadays;”  and my favorite, “Just wait until your kids are older.”

Well, my kids are getting older, and I’ve taken sports on as a kind of special cause towards which I intend to dedicate a great deal of time and energy as my wife and I seek the best direction for their sports and academic upbringing.  I don’t have a lot of answers – but I can look around the landscape of youth sports and identify a great many problems.  My hope is that we can begin to address some of these problems in the lives of our children and work towards better practices in the future.

As I began to study sports and the relationship that we have with sports, I was drawn to a particular story from the New Testament involving Jesus and his disciples.  At the end of Mark 2, Jesus and his disciples are out picking up heads of grain in the fields (the Old Testament has a provision that farmers leave the grains that fall onto the ground during harvest for poorer citizens to come and pick up and eat.)  In that regard, Jesus and his disciples were doing nothing wrong.  However, the fact that it was the Sabbath was cause for concern among the religious leaders.  “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” (Mark 2: 24)

The disciples were picking up the grains because they were hungry. Jesus had them running a pretty busy schedule the other six days of the week.  Here, they paused to eat some of the grain in the fields.  The Pharisees, however, had a pretty established code of ethics for keeping the Sabbath commandment, however.  Remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy was a big deal – one of the Ten Commandments!  And so they outlined what would be considered work, and what wasn’t.  Going through the fields and picking up leftover grain definitely was work, in their books.

Essentially, what God’s followers managed to do, was to take something that was created for their benefit (Sabbath) – something that would ensure they wouldn’t be overworked, and wouldn’t overwork the land – something that would make sure they took time to enjoy life, and they turned it into something that was oppressive and yet another burden.  They spent all their time of rest, worried about whether or not they were resting the “right” way.  In one of Jesus’ more pointed rebukes he states: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2: 27).

I haven’t been able to shake the connection of this teaching of Jesus’ to our practice of sports in the world today.  I wonder if Jesus wouldn’t say the same thing about sports.  Sports were created for our enjoyment – for our leisure.  They were intended to bring families together – now, they rob most families of their family time.  They were intended to help maintain healthy bodies, and while there is an obesity epidemic that largely needs positive practices of sports – at the same time, there is a growing lists of ailments and overuse injuries witnessed in younger and younger athletes.  They were intended to foster a spirit of camaraderie and unity – now, they often ostensibly support teamwork and team spirit, but often fuse with a competitive dog-eat-dog spirit that sows further dissension.

There’s no quick fix or easy answer for wrestling with the intricately, complex world of youth sports.  However, I think a first step in the right direction is to remember Jesus’ words regarding the Sabbath.  Every parent and young athlete alike should ask themselves the question, “Does my participation in this system still allow for me and/or my child to fulfill the goals of leisure and enjoyment sports should help embody?”  “Do I feel stuck and enslaved to a sport, a team, a coach, or a league?”  Admittedly, there is a fine line between committing to compete at a high level, and selling ourselves to the sport itself.  My fear is that few of us are genuinely wrestling with these issues at all and would do well to seriously ask ourselves these two questions.

A New Beginning

If you are following this blog (I know there’s a couple of you out there) . .  .

I wanted to introduce you to another site which I have started.  As I near completion of my studies, I’ll have a bit more time to write there (and here) and I look forward to working through some stuff that I have long neglected.  This site will remain active and I hope to devote some more time to the things I have traditionally worked on here, but my sports and religion stuff has a new home.  So . . . if you have a few minutes, check it out:  https://sportsandreligion.wordpress.com

The Unkingdom of God: A Book Review

unkingdomOnce in awhile I review a book for Mike Morrell and Speakeasy.  I haven’t reviewed one in awhile, but when Mark Van Steenwyk’s book came available, it looked like something I’d like to dig into.  The Unkingdom of God is, essentially, a reflection of the practice of Christian anarchy shared through Van Steenwyk’s experience as a practitioner as a Mennonite pastor in Minnesota.

Unfortunately, I was not captivated by Van Steenwyk’s prose and skimmed through some portions I found to be somewhat repetitive even though I enjoyed the general thrust of The Unkingdom.  Throughout the book, I found myself unsettled by some of the author’s claims, though I usually realized that I was more put off by the fact that these are things I need to hear more than any issue I had with his message in particular.

A few years ago I went to a lecture by Irish, post-modern philosopher (and consummate critic of Western evangelicalism), Peter Rollins, and I distinctly remember him acknowledging his place at the periphery of the church.  He said something to the effect of, “I stand at the edge of the church beckoning her onward, beyond her complacency and inspiring her imagination.  I don’t expect everyone to stand alongside me.”  I’m sure he even acknowledged that it isn’t a safe place to be.  In the same way, at the Streaming Conference at Rochester College, back in October, the prolific blogger Richard Beck mentioned how he had really resonated with Rollins’ work on doubt and uncertainty.  However, once he began working with a prison ministry, he began to lose his resonance with Rollins.

I  say all of that, because I think Van Steenwyk’s work is similar (though not in content), to Rollins.  Van Steenwyk stands at the edges of the church and beckons the entire church to consider the implications of its complicity with the powers of the world.  In the tradition of the Israelite prophets, he asks the church, “Can’t you see who you’ve become?  Don’t you see what’s become of the mission of God?”  Interweaving his personal story of calling and transformation, Van Steenwyk does salvage conversations of Christian anarchism from the world of esoterism where so much of that conversation often remains, and asks the all-important question, “What if we actually tried that?”

He’s kind of like one of those annoying friends who just won’t let something go.  The kind of friend you need to keep you honest, and make you reflect – even when you don’t want to.  As David Fitch says in the Introduction, I don’t always agree with him, and even in my own anti-institutional leanings, I can still see an upside and the contributions of systems more than Van Steenwyk ever acknowledges.  In emphasizing their fallen nature, the author seems to forget that, as Walter Wink himself emphasizes, the powers and principalities are inherently good.  However, like that annoying friend who just won’t let it go without a concession, throughout his book, Van Steenwyk continued to nag me relentlessly to acknowledge the  injustices I so often ignore.  He emphatically calls the reader to a radical notion of community that we long for deep down, but see unable to allow ourselves to try.

While I haven’t read extensively in the area of Christian anarchy, what I have read often is so far removed from actual practice that it often leaves the reader inspired, but with no practical suggestions to turn toward in order to begin.  Mark Van Steenwyk does succeed in that, I believe – in remaining stringently practical throughout.  I found myself, throughout his book, reflecting on my current practices of “being a Christian” and he pushes me forward to break down more barriers, to overcome more insecurities, and, ultimately, to trust in God.  I think this book is a great offering for someone who maybe completely new to this radical notion of the kingdom, and who needs a kindred spirit to empower them to ask challenging questions.  For others who are better read in Wink, Stringfellow, and Yoder, this may be better set aside in favor of some other options.