Some Musings on Faith, Flag, and Football (The Power of Symbols)

[This post is part of an ongoing series – you can access first post here.]

Several years ago we were fortunate enough to have a family from our church host an exchange student from Paris. I have many fond memories from her time with us, but there was one particular episode that I have never been able to forget. During one week in the summer, we attended a Christian camp and, as was the tradition each morning, the entire camp gathered around the flagpole and recited the pledge of the allegiance as the flag was raised. Our friend from France leaned over to me a

nd asked, “Why do you guys worship your flag?”

I’m sure my patriotic, Christian friends would be quick to dispel her confusion and assure her we do not worship the flag, but rather honor it and that for which it stands (isn’t that part of the pledge?) A few years ago, I ran across an essay by David Scotchmer entitled “Symbols Become Us: Toward a Missional Encounter with Our Culture through Symbolic Analysis.”[1] It helped inspire an article I wrote which appeared in the Restoration Quarterly journal back in 2010, and has helped me sift through the meaning and power of symbols. One of the early points that Scotchmer makes is, “One of the failures of the contemporary church is its inability to see its own captivity to the rules and norms of Western society.”[2] He focuses on the consumer-oriented approach many churches were having (and continue to have) in addressing spiritual needs, but his comment is just as revealing when applied to politically-infused debates like the one currently raging regarding the national anthem at sports venues.

As I’ve read articles and witnessed the responses by Christians to this entire discussion it is clear to me that for the vast majority of Christians offering their opinions, they are allowing the socio-political system of  the Unites States to frame their response. The responses tend to be binary: the athletes are using their platform to speak out against police brutality and social injustices rooted in racism OR the athletes are speaking out of turn and are providing an unnecessary distraction from actions/discussions that are more likely to provoke healthy dialogue and, hopefully, change. While the binary responses don’t fall definitively down party lines, the vast majority do.

To me, this whole discussion provides the perfect opportunity to talk about the power and place of symbols. Christians in the United States have an easy time pointing out the propagandizing emphasis in nations like China and North Korea, but remain mostly oblivious to the way in which it works in our own country. Go to nearly any toy story in our country and you’ll find plastic versions of fighter jets, tanks, and army men.

A few years ago while we were on spring break, my family went to the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, FL. I was appalled during our time there to see children playing on old, emptied bomb shells. It was like a playground.

One could wonder if the abundance of red, white, and blue in the US is visible from space. Consider our superheroes and cartoons: Captain America, Superman, and Wonder Woman – all dressed in red, white, and blue; Superman fighting for “truth, justice, and the American way.” Too easily do we dismiss these kinds of symbols as harmless and innocent. Make no mistake, the nation has a vested interest in indoctrinating its citizens to the power of its military and the righteousness of its cause. From a humanistic perspective, we can argue this away as a necessary evil of the nation-state, but as Christians called to a different citizenship – a different kingdom – we must be cautious to fall under their persuasive powers.

This brings us back to the vested interested the United States has in the patriotic hubbub that precedes most professional sporting events. Scotchmer states that “symbols embody the meaning of culture and serve as vehicles and repositories of meaning. Symbols express a worldview and join it to an ethos in ways that make it both meaningful and coherent.”[3] That’s why there is such unrest when someone challenges a nation’s symbols – they are calling into question the worldview and the presupposed meaning and order of the said culture.

Those who argue that the protesters have chosen a poor venue for their protest and/or should devote their time to (what they see as) civil discourse are assigning the symbol of the national anthem and the flag as a matter of core identity (which is often

wrapped up in the sport itself – think baseball as the national pastime and football as America’s game – these too function as symbols). Those who kneel or tweet #ikneel desire to bring attention to what they view as the insufficiency of the symbol. For some, the symbol doesn’t mean to them what it means to the other side, and for others, the symbol does mean that, but the manifestation of that symbol is sorely lacking.

Another quote from Scotchmer is helpful here, “Symbols provide powerful models of reality, as well as models for it, by giving meaning – that is, objective, conceptual form – to social and psychological reality both by shaping themselves to it and by shaping that reality to themselves. How people spend their time, money, and energy [in today’s world we might add how they spend their time on social media] reveals dramatically where their loyalties lie and which symbols they choose to preserve and promote.”[4] Which brings me to the point I want to make in this post.

I wrote in the introduction to this series of articles, “As I’ve sifted through comments on social media and listened to countless opinions on talk shows and news

radio, more than the political divide in this country, this whole saga is revealing a great deal about the state of Christianity in the United States.” In my opinion, arguing about kneeling or not kneeling is a distraction from the bigger problem in Christianity in the United States. This has put on display just how infested the US church is with American patriotism. We may give lip service to the church’s presence in the rest of the world, but episodes like this reveal the true scope of the disease.

Contrary to the militaristic symbols of power and might regularly put on display by the US government, the Bible is rife with symbols of its own. The Bible declares that the eternal destiny of the world was brought about by the symbol of a lamb that looked as though it had been slaughtered. Rome is depicted through the Bible with its own symbols of power and might (dragons and beasts), but they are always undone by a meek and mild Savior.

Regardless of your opinion regarding why the kneeling protests are taking place, you should be able to at least acknowledge peaceful kneeling during a nation’s anthem is not an affront against our faith. Perhaps more than anything else, this needs to be said: Honoring a nation’s anthem is not the business of Christians. As aliens and strangers, that’s just not our battle, so those who are quick to argue against those who are protesting should be careful in considering what exactly it is they are calling for. We are often told about those “brave soldiers who have given their life for the stars and stripes and our respect is rooted in them” but as Christians we must be mindful of the thousands around the world who have been murdered by the bombs those brave soldiers dropped. And we must be careful in our justification of the United States as “better than the other nations” – it is a great nation, but it is still not our home! Tony Campolo famously said, “The United States may be the greatest Babylon in the history of the world – but it’s still Babylon!” The kingdom of God is bigger than this nation or any other, and so for us to align ourselves in support of any nation’s anthem puts us on pretty shaky ground theologically.

We are allowing ourselves to get sucked in and divided by arguments and discussions that just aren’t kingdom matters. Justice is – and if someone kneels for that reason, we should be pretty slow to cast judgment as Christians. If anything, the act of kneeling or protesting during a nation’s anthem could be one of the most Christian things a disciple can do! Truth be told, we need more of that, than less. At the same time, wouldn’t it be nice to see some of the same fervor wrought  by this issue applied to how communion is observed, the sacred assembly, and the reading of Scripture. Christians should be much more concerned with flippant attitudes during moments like these than getting wrapped up in defending the traditions of the national anthem at a sporting event.

I ended my article in Restoration Quarterly with the following anecdote from Robert Coles’ book: The Political Life of Children, and it seems to be a fitting way to conclude this article. He describes a twelve-year-old Hopi Indian boy who wrestled with his identity living amid a nation that was not his own.

The Indian boy will learn to bow to America’s power, even as his grandfather did: Horses are not Sky Hawks and Phantoms . . . [He] will only smile and shrug his shoulders when asked about presidents, congressmen, governors; they exist, he knows, but they belong to others, not him, though he has not the slightest doubt that the decisions those leaders make will affect him . . . They are they, we are we; their leaders are theirs, ours are ours; yet, of course, we are all part of some larger scheme of things – America.[5]

It’s about time for Christians in the United States to act like they are part of some larger scheme of things – the kingdom of God.

The next post will look at the challenging realities of living in the midst of a challenging and fallen world, particularly in matters like these.

                [1] David Scotchmer, “Symbols Become Us: Toward a Missional Encounter with Our Culture through Symbolic Analysis,” in The Church Between Gospel and Culture, 158-172, edited by George R. Hunsberger and Craig Van Gelder (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996.

                [2] Ibid., 159.

                [3] Ibid., 163.

                [4] Ibid., 165.

                [5] Robert Coles, The Political Life of Children (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986), 47-48.

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Some Musings of Faith, Flag, and Football (A History Lesson)

[This is the first post in the series, you can read the introduction here.]

The over-the-top militaristic parades put on by nations like North Korea and China broadcasted on their state-run television networks have always struck me as oddly NKOREA-SKOREA-MILITARY-ANNIVERSARYimpressive. You can’t help but be impressed by the thousands of soldiers lined up in perfect formations and surrounded by the heavy militaristic symbols of flags, tanks, and warplanes. The United States has its own pomp and circumstance surrounding Presidential Inaugurations and  Fourth of July celebrations, but even they tend to lack the military luster of the North Korean parades. There is, however, one venue in American society that does rival the militaristic and patriotic hype of these other counties – sports.

Progressive Field Indians Opening Day  My family has attended every Cleveland Indians Opening Day game for over a decade. Patriotism tends to be on steroids for these games. There’s always a flag so large it nearly covers the entire field, red, white, and blue balloons are released, fireworks are shot off, and the military provides a deafening flyover by their war machines. The climax of the pregame pomp is when a local celebrity comes out to sing the national anthem. For those of us who have grown blue-angels-flyoverup in the United States over the last 50 years, this is our reality in sports. It is difficult for us to know where patriotism ends and sports begins. The poster child for the prominent connection between “The Star Spangled Banner” and sports is Whitney Houston’s rendition from the Super Bowl in 1991 (her version of the anthem has been a Top 20 hit twice – after that Super Bowl and again after September 11, 2001). It may be difficult for us to imagine a sporting event without the anthem, but how many people know the actual origin of the practice?

Luke Cyphers and Ethan Trex describe the pivotal role that the national anthem played in the 1918 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox (fourteen years before the anthem was officially adopted by the United States government). You can read the interesting article in full here, but I’ll provide a short synopsis. In a game that was moved across town from the Cubs home field (Weegham Park) to Comiskey Field to accommodate an expected large crowd (Comiskey had double the capacity of Weegham Park) only 19,000 people showed up. Unfortunately, the day before Game One the Chicago Federal Building was bombed, killing four and injuring 30. This added to an already-dismal atmosphere across the country as the nation was already entrenched in World War I. Needless to say, interest in the World Series was an immediate casualty.

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On the diamond, Babe Ruth pitched the Red Sox to a 1-0 shutout win over the Cubs in front of a crowd that the Tribune described as “perhaps the quietest on record.” The exception was when the military band played “The Star Spangled Banner.” The scene was described the following day in the New York Times leading, not with a description of the game itself, but the patriotic outbursts during the seventh inning: “First the song was taken up by a few, then others joined, and when the final notes came, a great volume of melody rolled across the field. It was at the very end that the onlookers exploded into thunderous applause and rent the air with a cheer that marked the highest point of the day’s enthusiasm.” The spectacle caught on and each night the Cubs ramped up the pageantry, only to be outdone when the Series moved to Boston. At Fenway Park, the anthem was moved from the seventh inning to before the game. As Cyphers and Tex conclude: “Other major league teams noticed the popular reaction to “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 1918, and over the next decade it became standard for World Series and holiday games. In subsequent years, through subsequent wars, it grew into the daily institution we know today.”

Today, it seems unusual to watch a sporting event at any level (with the exception of local, neighborhood recreation leagues) without the preemptive playing of the national anthem. It has become a practice so widely entrenched in sporting culture in the United States that any deviance from it is worthy of headline news. For example, when the small Mennonite college in Indiana, Goshen College, considered breaking from its pacifist-inspired tradition of not playing the anthem, it was covered by the New York Times.[1]

Considering the fact that Major League Baseball maintained its color barrier until Jackie Robinson played in his first game 28 years later in 1946, it is safe to say this practice originated almost exclusively under the auspices of White America’s sports experience. We should not be surprised then, to learn that the playing of the national anthem has often provided a platform for protests by African Americans. Tommie Smith and John Carlos provided what, historically, has been the most prominent racially-motivated protest during the anthem when they raised their closed, gloved fist during a medals ceremony in the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico. Smith and Carlos provided a most dramatic image of protest (they were, by the way, subsequently kicked off the team and sent back to the United States), but there have been many others as highlighted in an article in Monday’s New York Times.

Many people seem to assume the playing of the national anthem before sporting events is some kind of official legislative decree by the United State government when it is instead a longstanding, albeit it unofficial, tradition. In sports, which demand conformity (conformity to team rules, team uniforms, and the rules of the game), the playing of the national anthem provides a unique opportunity for athletes to make contrarian statements. This most recent iteration of protest was prompted by Colin Kaepernick during last NFL preseason. (Read the response of his fellow protestor Eric Reid here.) What seems to be often overlooked is that Kaepernick and Reid (as well as many others) have been motivated to conduct their protest because of their Christian faith. In the next post, I’ll examine the significance of symbols and the way that empires utilize symbols to indoctrinate and control their people. The national anthem is a prominent symbol, along with flags and war machines, and the United States government has a vested interest its propagandizing power. All of this should be  more unsettling to Christians than we often realize.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/25/us/25goshen.html

[Click here for Next Post in Series]

Some Musings on Flag, Faith, and Football

In the midst of an escalating international conflict with North Korea, the continuing political posturing regarding the future of health care in the United States, the aftermath of multiple devastating hurricanes, and a church shooting in Nashville, TN, Monday’s news headlines largely ignored all of that and instead are dominated by professional sports. During my commute to work this morning, yesterday’s NFL protests during the national anthem and comments made by President Trump dominated the talk on political radio as well as sports radio.

The media cacophony prompted by this weekend’s events initially dissuaded me from wanting to add to the obnoxious and relentless voices offering unsolicited opinions. As I listened to the radio on my way to the office this morning, however, I realized how uniquely positioned I am to offer my own opinion on this particular subject. My academic background, research interests, professional career, and experience as a high school football official all come to a nexus in this most recent national debate. My forthcoming book, Elite? A Christian Manifesto on Youth Sports in the United States analyzes sports from a socio-theological perspective that is often applied to the realm of politics. [I presented a paper at the Christian Scholar’s Conference at Lipscomb University back in 2013 that provides a synopsis if you are interested (“A Theological Inquiry into Sports’ Function in Culture.”)] As a Christian minister, I profess my allegiance to the kingdom of God and have renounced allegiance to all other kingdoms. For over a decade, I have spent Friday nights in the fall wearing white and black stripes to officiate high school football games. A few weeks ago, our game for this week was moved to Thursday so it could be televised. The contest is between two Columbus City schools comprised of mostly African American students and I’ve already begun wondering how this all might affect that game.

As I’ve sifted through comments on social media and listened to countless opinions on talk shows and news radio, more than the political divide in this country, this whole saga is revealing a great deal about the state of Christianity in the United States. When controversies arise within politics, sports, or religion they touch on people’s most fervent passions and tend to elicit the most zealous of response, so to address an event that simultaneously touches on all three of these subjects makes this an ideological landmine. There are so many different layers to peel back and dissect, yet the Facebook age has preconditioned us to wanting to make our points through zingers communicated via witty memes, snarky gifs, and 140 character insights.

The breadth of issues related to this incident has prompted me to write a long response in which I will attempt to address, what I believe are some of the most important aspects. Because of its length, I have decided to make this into a two or three-part series and I will publish a new part each day beginning tomorrow morning. In this essay, I want to address what I see as some of the most important and pressing matters when it comes to the protest of kneeling during the national anthem before a football game or sporting event regarding racial injustices in the United States.

[See the first post in the series here.]

2016

For the 38th time in my life, I have witnessed one year giving way to another. As I find myself quickly approaching the time of life that is most often described as mid-life, I have come to appreciate the rhythmic nature of life. This past New Year’s Eve I must have asked Mary Beth four or five times, “Has it really been an entire year since we did this last time?” We are not the first to experience this speeding up of time that growing older perpetuates.

The calendar has turned, the time for reminiscing past, and wide open spaces await. Before marching too quickly ahead, however, I wish to ruminate for just a moment on some of the fonder moments of the previous year. 365 days ago (366 days to be exact – wasn’t last year a leap year?) I stood at the base of the Rocky Mountains for the first time, and hiked among the majestic Garden of the Gods.  In March we walked the grounds of The Hermitage in Nashville and were able to appreciate one of the best maintained Presidential homes in the United States. In the summer, we took our family on an unforgettable tour of the Northeast with stops at Niagara Falls, Cooperstown,  NY, and the eventual destination of what has become one of my favorite places in the world – Acadia National Park in Maine. Our kids loved camping under the stars, hiking the rugged ocean shoreline, and eating our lunch from the rocks atop Cadillac Mountain. On the way home, we stopped to explore New York City for one day, and our children were able to experience the extremes of our world: sleeping in a tent one night to riding on the subway the next.

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Mary Beth and I were incredibly blessed with the opportunity to spend two weeks at the end of the summer in Ireland, England, and France. It was our second trip to Europe, but this trip was even better as we got to spend the entire time with friends. I’m sure that Mary Beth will never forget spending her birthday in an Irish pub as the entire pub sang happy birthday to her. We hiked along the rocky coast near Howth. We walked the largest sand dune in Europe. We ate fresh oysters from the bay at Archechon after we swam. We watched a Parisian rugby game. We got to enjoy playing with our favorite French couples’ little girl. The memories will last a lifetime.

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When we returned to the States, we didn’t even have time to catch our breath as school had begun and the slow pace of our two-week break was overcome by the hyperdrive of sports schedules, work, and the responsibilities of home. Just as things began toward a tolerable pace, my favorite baseball team had an incredible run into the World Series. I went to four World Series games in 2016. Even as I write that I am having trouble believing that it really happened. The Series was all that sports is supposed to be – unspeakably fun and joyful but overwhelmingly heartbreaking.

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Of course there were so many parts of 2016 I left out. Seems like we had a baseball game, soccer practice, a dress rehearsal, or a softball game every night of the year. There were youth group trips and church camps, sermons preached, Bible classes taught, articles written, family events attended – it’s all rather overwhelming just how much is accomplished in 366 days. And in this world of capturing every picture, sound and video clip – every moment – how do we even have time to look back and revel in what was? Even now, I have not seen most of the pictures we took throughout our travels last year.

I read books in 2016. Clementine and I finally finished reading the Harry Potter series. What a testament to one woman’s creativity. I have kept on plodding through the works of Stephen King. He is helping me think more about the way I write. Mostly I envy his incredible vocabulary, vivid ability to tell stories, and uncanny way of inviting the reader into his world. If I could steal one person’s ability for myself . . .

I spent the better part of the first half of the year reading It for the first time – it ended up being timely as the crazy clown epidemic invaded the East at the end of 2016, and with the upcoming movie, I couldn’t be more exciting. King is at his best when he has time to develop a group of characters as he does in The Stand and It. Those two stories are head and shoulders his best (though I’ve many more to read!) 2017 will begin with my moving on to Needful Things – long one of my favorite novels. I have yet to read one of his stories that I just hate.

I read more fiction than nonfiction in 2016 – maybe for the first time in my life. That is largely because I read with my kids – Harry Potter, Clementine, and I go back quite a ways, but Cecilia jumped into the party with the Baudelaire children and Lemony Snicket – proving also to be timely with Netflix’s upcoming series. But not only the kids, I’m learning how much better I preach when I have been captivated by a story. Preachers are, after all, storytellers, so how better to learn to preach than to read stories?

I watched television and movies as well. As far as horror movies go, the Stitches movie on Netflix is right up my alley. Weird, gory, and hilarious. I remember squeezing that one in at some point and enjoyed it. Mary Beth and I spent our anniversary watching the new movie Manchester by the Sea. I have not watched a movie that was more raw and emotional than that one. It has one of the most gut-wrenching scenes in any movie embodying sorrow, pain, and desperation than maybe any I’ve ever seen. Really, really memorable. We got caught up on House of Cards over the break – still a very engaging drama about politics.

It is freeing to just write again. In the summer of 2016, I signed a contract with Wipf and Stock Publishers to turn my dissertation into a book under their Cascade Books imprint. I was just hitting my writing rhythm as the holidays picked up. As this year begins, I will be focused intently the first six months on completing this book project. I am excited for the opportunity, I believe passionately about my subject, and I hope it will continue to open doors for more people to talk about the all-important subject of sports and faith.

I hope to have the manuscript completed by June 1, and expect that the book will be published sometime in 2018. I will to move to the marketing side of things once the manuscript is complete, and that, hopefully, is going to include providing a lot more attention and effort to this blog.

As I continue writing I will need breaks from the book, and plan to use this blog in the coming months as a sounding board for some of what I’m working on in the book, but also to get far afield from the topic and give my mind a rest. I will plan to post more on the book in the next few days, as this entry has become a rather lengthy entry to start 2017.

 

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.

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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.

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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!