A Tease . . .

I just can’t seem to find within me the discipline and routine of regularly maintaining this blog. I am on the precipice of another concerted attempt, so we’ll see how that goes. Facebook tends to me where I type out thoughts much more frequently, and the need for prolonged and complex thoughts I typically save for sermons, but, alas, I still feel a desire for this outlet as well.

So . . . more is coming. One way or another I will be writing more – somewhere – as I begin, in earnest, in October to write my book. In conjunction with the work on the book, I am also beginning to look at creating a website that will be full of content related to youth ministry and theology as it pertains to sports. There is much work being done in that area and I am glad to be part. More coming soon . . .

I have a few more weeks of the football season left (as an Ohio high school football official), and then I hope to really turn my attention to these creative outlets. More than anything, today, I just wanted to put something down. This blog is just about screeched to a halt and it is time to lube the joints, oil the wheels, and get this baby rolling again.

I already do so much work in sermons and classes that I’d like to begin to post some of those materials as well. Upon my last web redesign I created an outlet for those kinds of things. We’ll see if I can get those things updated soon. It is a work in progress. Welcome back to this blog . . .

Book Review: The Art of Neighboring

I almost never purchase books when they first come out – mainly because I’m cheap, but also because I have so many other things on my shelf to read that I figure by the time I get around to actually reading a book I buy, I could have bought it cheaper anyway.

Such is the case with the 2012 book by Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon titled The Art of Neighboring.  I don’t remember when exactly I discovered this book, but I finally bought it last year (used on Amazon – I’m a total cheapskate) and finished it last week.  I’m not one for hyperbole, but I think I can actually say that this is the most valuable ministry book I’ve read for several years.  Nothing the authors say is particularly novel or earth-shattering, which is part of its brilliance.  Their entire message is rooted in the very simple and fundamental question: What if Jesus meant that we should love our actual neighbors?

The problem is, the authors point out in the beginning of the book, that hardly anyone seems to even know their neighbors.  They use the simple strategy of mapping out your house and the eight houses that are closest in proximity to your house, and ask the question how well do you know the people in those eight houses?  Do you even know their names?  Their families?  Their jobs?  Based on their experiences, the vast majority of people they’ve talked to can’t name their eight closes neighbors.  Most of their message can be summed up in the simple statement: Get to know your neighbors!

The whole idea for this “neighboring” movement was born  in Denver, Colorado where several local pastors were told by their mayor that most of the social ills of their community could be addressed if people simply learned to be good neighbors.  This realization prompted this group of pastors to work together and encourage their various churches to begin to intentionally get to know their neighbors.  The whole concept sounds so obvious that it seems a shame that such a book is necessary.  But it’s true. We’ve simply lost the ability to be good neighbors.

Our family has charted a similar path over the past 5 years to get know our neighbors, and we serve as a personal testimony for exactly the point this book sets out to make.  Too many Christians are too caught up in the bubbles of their church world that they often miss what is going on right under their noses.  I grew up in the country, so this whole neighborhood thing has taken me awhile to get used to.  I remember how strange it seemed to me when we bought our first house that my bedroom was less than 100 feet from my neighbor’s bedroom.  We slept less than 100 feet away from each other, but knew almost nothing about each other!

Pathak and Runyon make a compelling case for why we should get to know our neighbors (which is the easy part!), but then they provide plenty of firsthand examples of how rewarding and fulfilling it can be.  Additionally, they talk from their firsthand experiences of some of the challenges that opening your lives up to your neighbors brings.  The book is packed with practical pieces: group discussion questions, block party kits, and even more on their website.

The book moves from making the case that anyone and everyone can master the art of neighboring to some of the more pressing issues that come up once you begin the process.  I am glad that the very first thing they address in this section has to do with motivation.  Our motives in being a good neighbor can never be to convert people.  I hate it when someone calls me on the phone and is especially nice to me, only to find that their real motive is to sell me something.  It drives me crazy.  Christians are never called to be a good neighbor so that we can sneak the Gospel in there somewhere.  We are good neighbors because we are Christians.  And if we are Christians, eventually it’s going to come out, and eventually it’s going to make an impact.  But that is not our motivation.  Unfortunately, some of the rudest sales calls I’ve had at the church office has come from Christian companies trying to sell the church things – it’s almost like it’s in our blood.

The authors are also quick to speak to the Pollyanna tendency that can come from our attempts at being a good neighbor.  Once we become more intentional in our relationships  with our neighbors, it is inevitable that conflict and challenges will arise. Pathak and Runyon share firsthand stories that help reinforce the need for boundaries and the distinction between being all things to all people and being everything to everybody.

I don’t know that I’ve done a very good job of summarizing the book itself, but would encourage you to pick it up and read it yourself.  I share in their sentiment that if churches would begin to preach this message and equip and encourage their people to root their ministry in their own particular neighborhoods, we would, indeed, change the world.  If you are looking for a ministry book to encourage you, challenge you, and give you a new way to approach your local ministry, I believe you will be hard-pressed to find a better one than The Art of Neighboring.  In some ways I wish I would have read it sooner, but better later (and cheaper!) than never.  Read this book if you are looking for a practical and meaningful way you can put your faith into action and be led on an incredible journey.

The Church is the Doppelganger of Christ

We’ve all had those moments when we see someone in a crowd and smile, wave, or approach them to talk with them . . . and then realize it wasn’t who we thought it was but someone who just looked like who we thought it was.  It  can be quite embarrassing.

As a longtime fan of SNL, one of the most amazing aspects of the show is how they’ve been able to find amazing impressionists throughout their tenure.  From Dana Carvey doing Ross Perot and George H.W. Bush to Will Ferrell’s famed W., and countless others, the SNL has showcased some of America’s best impressions – none more famous than Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin.  When an impression is that good, it’s easy to mistake the impressionist for the real person.  Being a celebrity doppelganger leads to interesting interactions.

Throughout March, the Alum Creek Church has been reading through the Gospel of Matthew together and I was taken up with the notion of doppelgangers last week.  As I read through Matthew last week, I was struck by the fact that Christians are called to be Christ’s doppelgangers.  We are supposed to look like Jesus in our lives.  I read a book a few years ago that said we are supposed to be “little Jesuses” walking around carrying on his ministry.  I think I like the image of being his doppelgangers better.

Impressionists come in all shapes and sizes which is probably nowhere on display better than in Elvis impersonators.  You see fat Elvises, skinny Elvises, old Elvises, and everything in between.  Throw a sequin suit on with some slicked back, black hair – add some sweet lamb chops and sunglasses, and everyone knows who you are trying to be.  Some, obviously, our more realistic than others.

As I read through Matthew that imagery really stuck with me.  That’s what we are supposed to be.  Not some cheap, tacky Elvis impersonator, but a real, authentic doppelganger who, if seen from a distance at an airport, would easily be confused for the real thing.  The problem is, too many churches are putting cheap and tacky replicas on display.  Too many churches mistaken the smoke and mirrors of Sunday worship services for authentic Jesus communities.  The problem with that is that Matthew is completely absent of any tacky impersonation.

Jesus oozes humility.  He spends his time with people no one else wants to.  He disrupts the religious establishment.  He gives up his power.  He instructs his followers to put their weapons down.  If we start doing that . . . maybe people will start treating us like they treated him.  If that starts happening, then we can begin to ask ourselves whether we really want to be like him or not.

Writing, Sports, Stephen King, and Donald Trump

I am envious of bloggers and writers who are able to maintain a consistent online presence.  Noticing that my last blogpost was more than four months ago, consistency is not the  name of my game.  When it comes to writing, the idea of writing is a lot more romantic and attractive than the actual writing itself.  It was about a year ago that I completed the longest writing project in my lifetime – a 200-page, double-spaced ode to sports and youth ministry.  As I clicked the final “submission” button for that project, somewhere a fleeting thought of optimism passed through the neurons of my cerebral cortex elating, “Now I will have the time and energy to blog and write more often about the things that I really want to write about.”

In one of Stephen King’s books he talks about how often people approach him and say, “Man, I would love to write a novel, but I just don’t have the time.”  King’s response is, “If you are a writer – you write.”  I think about that statement often.  As I have grown older, I have found an increasing joy in writing.  I’ve come to enjoy the challenge of artistically crafting sentences: searching for the right nuance of adjectives, wracking my brains for just the right verb, diving deeper for most meaningful word, typing and deleting, typing and deleting, typing and deleting.  I’ve come to appreciate something almost therapeutic about writing.  And yet, much like those throes of people who approach Stephen King, I just can’t seem to find enough time to write.  I just might not be a writer.

While irons never seem to leave the fire and familial responsibilities compete with pastoral ones, sitting quietly in front of a keyboard, typing out the thoughts and feelings pouring through my mind at any given moment just never seems to make its way to the top of the leader board on that day’s to do list.  Nevertheless, in the 60 days that have already passed in 2016, I have felt an overwhelming tug to make the time to write.  It’s almost as though I need writing to help work through and process the infinite number of feelings and emotions that are taking place each and every moment.  Reading and writing are important times to pause amid the busyness of the day.  Even now, I am compelled to tell myself to listen.  So, maybe this is another installment with the next coming four more months from now, but my soul needs decompressed, and in order to do that, I first need to purge.  So, forgive me while I purge through a litany of disconnected and unrelated topics and subjects that have been racing through my mind lately.  If you read them, thank you, and I hope you find some value in them – but the real value in this exercise is in my purging more than in your consuming.

Sports and Ministry 51xremj98jl-_sx322_bo1204203200_

Thoughts on youth sports and theology continues to take up a rather large portion of my time.  I recently read and reviewed the forthcoming book, Overplayed, by David King and Margot Starbuck.  The book comes out next week and reiterates a lot of the stuff I have been saying over the past couple of years.  My review is for the Englewood Review of Books and will probably be available next week.  I don’t want to rewrite the review here, so I’ll just link it when it is available.  In short, Overplayed would make for a great book for church youth groups or small groups of parents whose children are involved in youth sports.  Parents will find it both encouraging and challenging on several levels.  It is easy to read and easily utilized as a small group discussion book.

I continue to be amazed at how often I am having conversations with parents about the challenges that youth sports presents their families.  The Metzes are about the feel the full effect of having active children as our girls have decided to branch out from the confines of the dance studio this spring and summer with soccer and softball teams.  I continue to learn, discuss, and explore as we go!

The Stephen King Project2099-500x800

Awhile back I created a tab on the blog for The Stephen King Project.  If you’ve clicked on it, you’ve discovered that it is incredibly empty.  Nothing there.  I have a good idea, good intentions, but just haven’t been able to put it all together.  Back in 2014, I set out to read all of Stephen King’s books chronologically beginning with Carrie.  Some I had read before, so I am re-reading them when I come to them, but most of them I am working through for the first time.  Obviously (now two years later), I am working slowly through them, but my admiration and appreciation for King continues to grow.  Hopefully, this week I will be finishing up his longest novel (and maybe my favorite? we’ll have to see how it ends): It.

Few authors have been as popular as King and his early works are especially well known because of the incredible number that were turned into movies.  His stories tend to be gory, gruesome, and he is easily the best known author in the horror genre, but what can be easily overlooked is the complexity and (often) beauty in his writing.  Additionally, there are clear Christian theological undertones that inform many of his stories and I hope that one day The Stephen King Project will include a theological review of each of his stories.  It is a particularly compelling example of King’s use of Christian metaphor and imagery.  In a lot of ways It is an extended (if gruesome) parable of Jesus’ teaching, “Let the little children come to me.”  This project falls quite low on the list, but I’d like to at least type out some quick thoughts as I finish each of the novels while the story in fresh in my mind.  Stay tuned for my take on It.

Sports and Christianity Conference

Just today I set up a Go Fund Me account to help pay for me to attend the Inaugural Global Congress on Sports and Christianity event at York St. John University in York, England.  I anticipate sharing two papers at the event: “The American Youth Sports Industrial Complex, the Betrayal of Local Community, and its Impact on Local Congregations” and “The Priests of the Games: A Call for More Christian Referees.”  World class theologians will be there giving keynote presentations: Stanley Hauerwas and Tony Campolo, as well as the author of one of the most significant books to be written on sports and Christianity in the last 100 years Michael Novak.  I hate to ask for help in paying for the trip, but my education budget is tapped out for awhile.  I am excited about the possibility and hope to go be a part.  Incidentally, if you’d like to help, here’s the link to my page:
A Brief Word on Politics

I think I am suffering the effects of a political hangover.  I mean, here we are in the most unusual and interesting political election in any of our lifetimes, and I just find myself rather disinterested.  That’s probably overstating the case a bit, but I do feel rather unemotionally involved.  That’s not to say I’m not frustrated with the cantankerous fighting between politicians and the seemingly lowering of standards by which politics are handled.  That’s  not to say that I remain incredibly disappointed in Christian leaders voicing their support for Donald Trump.  Thankfully, there are many others doing that.  The problem is, none of the other candidates are any better.  And I don’t say that in any kind of dismissive, upset toddler kind of way.  I mean we will constantly be disappointed and upset if we continue to place our faith and trust in the powers of this world.  There is a reason my belief in pacifism has grown in recent years instead of weakened.  The rancor of politics affords people the opportunity to make themselves feel like they are fulfilling some drastically important political responsibility and the weight of the world lies on their vote while not actually contributing to any project or efforts that actually enact change.

I’m not saying politics don’t matter or that elected officials don’t matter.  I know plenty of Christians who vote their consciences (many voting for opposite candidates), and I can respect that.  However, it is more difficult to respect those who treat their vote as their most powerful weapon or voice.  As Christians, we wield a power so much stronger than that.  We don’t need to go around rubbing that in people’s faces, but can’t we find the internal confidence and reassurance to not have to play by the same rules as everyone else?  No matter what person is elected – Hillary, Bernie – or even Trump . . . we’re going to be OK.  I think deep down, most Christians believe that, I’m just disappointed that I don’t hear more people saying that – actually leading with that.


While I am purging.  I have this sinking feeling, as a Cleveland sports fan, that it’s happening again.  The Browns are in complete disarray and things may be looking optimistic for the Indians (it’s just so hard to win it all in baseball), but with LeBron’s decision to come back to Cleveland, it appeared all but certain that the Cavs would be the harbinger of sports championships for the city so desperately longing for one.  They were so close last year, and they’ve tweaked here and there to try and take that final step . . . and then it just so happens (in true Cleveland fashion) that something we’ve never seen before is beginning to take place.  What Golden State is doing with Steph Curry at the helm is leaving the sports media speechless (and that’s saying something).  There’s still quite some time to go, but you have to be crazy not to at least question whether or not the Cavs can climb that mountain.  I’m no the-sky-is-falling pessimist, but I am beginning to have that feeling of “here we go again” as the Warriors are playing at such a ridiculously high level.  My respect for LeBron is immense since his selfless return to Cleveland (how could it be seen as anything else), but the curse of Cleveland seems to be working in an altogether different way than it ever has before.  (If you’ve read It, it’s kind of eerie to see the parallel here as the clown manifested itself in so many different ways through its history in Maine – the same thing can be said of the curse in Cleveland.)  The sky is definitely not falling and the Cavs are definitely one of the best teams in the NBA . . . but those teams in the West . . . they certainly give us Cavs fans plenty to be worried about.  Let’s just hope I’m wrong.

That’s enough purging for today.  Hopefully, that purging will help me to move towards some more well thought-out ideas in the coming days and weeks.  Some of the things I hope to be posting about soon . . .

  • My (not so successful) experience with Lent this year
  • Our journey through the books of the Bible (Acts, Exodus, and Matthew so far)
  • Parenting in this age of technology (I am teaching a class in a couple of months about faith and technology with a special attention to parenting)
  • Politics – I’m sure I’ll get back in the ring to discuss them
  • Neighboring
  • Maybe an article or two specific for my Christian tradition (the Churches of Christ)
  • Woodworking – I’ve got a couple of projects at home waiting for me to dig into this spring – I want to try and document more of these things here on the blog



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.