#metoo and the Bible

Our theme at Alum Creek for 2018 is “This is Us.” At the end of 2017, we gathered hundreds of pictures of the people who make up our church and through the website Picture Mosaics, we created this image of our stained glass windows. We had a large 3′ x 4′ canvas printed that we will display throughout the year as a vivid reminder of who we are.

I love the symbolism of all of these pictures bleeding into the larger image that represents our church (the stained glass hangs in the center of our sanctuary as a focal point). We are all part of something bigger than ourselves, and this image illustrates our small role in a larger picture. In conjunction with this theme, every Sunday in 2018 our sermon focuses on a different character from the Bible: 52 different individuals highlighting the mosaic of people who make up the story of Scripture. It was difficult to narrow the studies down to only 52, but I did my best to select a group of diverse men and women from the Old and New Testaments who help highlight many diverse voices that are a part of Gods’ kingdom. With such a diverse cloud of witnesses, it is easy to find ourselves voices that are sympathetic to our own.

As I was compiling our list of studies for 2018 at the end of last year, the number of women outing male predators, offenders, and criminals had grown from a steady trickle to an outright avalanche. Accusations rained down on some of the most powerful and successful men in Hollywood and Washington sparking a movement that coalesced under the hashtag “metoo” and more recently “time’sup.” From Weinstein to Spacey and from Keillor to Franken, accusations have ranged from the inappropriate and uncomfortable to the violent, manipulative, and outright criminal.

The Bible has more stories than we’d like to admit that victimize (the Levite’s concubine in Judges 19), ignore (Bathsheba), and undermine (1 Timothy 2:11-15) the voice and standing of women. Any honest study of the people in the Bible must confront these difficult stories.

At the end of the 2017, I settled on the 52 different people we would study and matched each of the 52 names with a Sunday. It just so happens (call it the Holy Spirit; call it coincidence), our character study yesterday was Tamar. There are actually two different Tamars in the Bible, and they both are the victims of sexual crimes. As I prepared for yesterday’s sermon with Larry Nassar’s trial unfolding as a background soundtrack, I’m not sure that I’ve ever had a more timely topic. I attempted to weave the stories of the two Tamars with those of Larry Nassar and Andy Savage (a Memphis, megachurch pastor who recently was forced to deal with a skeleton from his closet.) It was not an easy message to try and orchestrate and it’s not as if a bow can be tied on a neatly wrapped up conclusion. Instead, I tried to live in the tension and get out of the way and listen to the victims that are so often ignored. The manuscript is below if you are interested in reading it.

Tamar and Tamar

January 28, 2018 (preached at Alum Creek Church)

As the idea for this year’s theme came to me back at the end of last year, I spent several days compiling a list of the characters that we would study this year in our sermons. One of the things that really drew me to this overview was that our stories would come right out of the Bible and we would cover all kinds of topics. “This is us” is the glue that holds this year together, and, like those of us in this room, God’s kingdom is a diversity of people with all with kinds of stories to tell. I came up with about 100 different people we could study, and many of them would have similar stories to tell, so as I weeded down the number to 52, I tried to provide the most diverse group of characters I could.

As we go through the year there will be a few mini-themes – for instance, during Lent we’ll consider several different people who have a story to tell from the Passion of the Christ, and we’ll study Esther on Mother’s Day and Jacob on Father’s Day, but generally speaking there was a lot of randomness as to when each particular person fell.

As sexual misconduct, abuse, and even violence against women was beginning to make major news as national figures like Bill Cosby, Matt Lauer, and Harvey Weinstein, the #metoo movement or trend began to take shape and it felt like something we should talk about. As a matter of fact, there were many stories of women in the Bible who could say #metoo. Their voices are crucial to the Bible’s story and it just so happened that one of those stories fell today. I had no idea, when I determined the dates of these studies that this week would be the week of Larry Nassar’s trial and sentencing. This couldn’t be a more timely message from the Bible, but I have to warn you, it won’t be pleasant.

This morning I am going to try to get a lot said in our time together. As I set out to really tackle this story this week, my passion and conviction grew stronger and stronger. I began with an appreciation that we had stumbled upon a relevant topic and figured many of you would be interested in listening, but I ended with a broken heart and a conviction that this message is long overdue in our church.

One of the challenges that we face in this day and age, and it seems to get more difficult as the years pass, is we have a tendency to allow the world of the media, politics, academia, and social media to determine the rules and language of our discussions. If we are honest, many of us – maybe all of us – have allowed the media and our social media circles to provide the framework by which we think through and discuss important matters. We start with the news, our favorite talk show personality, a trendy hash tag, some article we saw on Facebook, or other media outlet, then sprinkle on a Bible verse or some quasi-Christian perspective to try and justify our voice on controversial matters.

I believe that God calls us to something much more radical than that. Jesus wasn’t calling his people to separate their “personal spiritual lives” from their lives of activism and action. A faith in Jesus Christ is one that mandates an awareness and calls our voice to social concerns. How do we address trendy and timely social matters without getting sucked into the debates, the pandering, and the fickleness of it all? I believe it is through knowing the story! When we immerse ourselves fully in the biblical text, it’s amazing how relevant that we will find it to be! And we are going to see that from two stories in the Bible this morning.

Today we study the story of Tamar, but the first thing that you need to know is that there are two Tamars in the Bible and each of them have a #metoo story to tell. We are going to hear from them both this morning.

We are going to talk about the second Tamar first – just to confuse you! – she was the daughter of David and her story is told in 2 Samuel 13. The scene is set for us right out of the gate, and we can all paint the picture clearly with our mind’s eye. This is a story that is familiar to us all – it’s one that has been told way too often.

Tamar was Absalom’s sister and she was beautiful, and their brother Amnon was smitten with her. There is some ambiguity here as to whether Amnon was Tamar’s half-brother or full brother (the way the text is written, they are most often seen as half-siblings), but that gets us away from the story. Amnon was obsessed with Tamar. She was so beautiful he couldn’t think of anything else. The text says that “he was so obsessed with her he became ill.”

I want to make this very clear as we set out to study this story, Amnon is a predator. It may be his sister, but as I read the story, notice how eerily familiar the story sounds.

2 Samuel 13:1-20

At several points in this story, we see the work of a predator.

First, there was the manipulation by Amnon to make his friend feel sorry for him. “What’s your problem?” he asks. Predators, somehow, have a tendency to make themselves out to be the victims of their own poor choices. He was just hung up on this young women’s beauty? Really? There even seems to be an inherent belief here where Amnon is showing that “he can’t help himself.” How often do we hear that from predators?

Amnon displays the manipulation of language that is common in predators. He tells Jonadab that he’s in love with “Absalom’s sister” – distancing himself from her. However, when she is in his presence, he tries to appeal to her care and concern by referring to her simply as “sister.”

He invokes pity and plays off the good intentions of his sister. She has genuine concern for him, and he uses that against her. He goes through this long process of creating the perfect setting by which to take advantage of her, sending everyone out of his room and being left one-on-one with the object of his obsession.

Tamar protests. At least marry her – she pleads. There’s disagreement about whether this would have been a legitimate option anyway since they were related, but David had been known to bend the law, so who knows? She’s trying to come up with any kind of excuse or alternative she can because she is threatened and she sees where this is going. But it turns out he wasn’t sick at all, and he jumped at her and overpowered her and raped her. And then he casts her aside. For as much as he loved her, now he hated her even more. Maybe it was a guilty conscience, but mostly it was the selfish disappointment of finally taking what he wanted. While Tamar . . . we’re told that she lives as a desolate woman.

What an unsettling story. Everything about it makes me feel dirty and want to think happy thoughts to try and rid my mind from it.

In many ways it’s the story of Larry Nassar. Some sick person with a twisted view of sex and a selfish drive to use his situation to take whatever he wants and prey upon the vulnerable and well-intentioned. And just like Larry Nassar was protected at different levels by the institutions he served, Tamar receives no justice. The text goes on to say that when King David heard about what happened he was very angry . . . but we get no sense that he did anything about it. As a matter of fact . . . as the story unfolds in 2 Samuel, their brother Absalom takes revenge into his own hands and kills Amnon. Perhaps what may be the most shocking of all parts of the story, we are told that David mourned many days for his son Amnon. And while we may not expect him to rejoice over the death of his son, we are left with that lingering thought, “What about Tamar?”  David was angry about the rape, but did he ever mourn for Tamar? The absence of such a sentiment speaks volumes. No further mention is made of her and we are left with the impression that she never gets over it – living in desolation – like so many victims kicked to the side of the curb and forgotten.

The other story of the other Tamar is told in Genesis 38. The circumstances surrounding that story are different, but the same. I’ll do my best to summarize this story without reading through it entirely. The story is really the story of Judah and his three sons: Er, Onan, and Sheilah and the plot revolves around the ancient practice of levirate marriage. If a husband dies before providing an heir to help care for his wife, the husband’s brother would (in a way) inherit the widow and would be responsible for providing an heir. It’s an ancient practice that is a tradition in many parts of the world, and was practiced at this time (as hard as it might be for us to wrap our heads around it).

We are told that the eldest brother, Er, married Tamar, but he did evil in the eyes of the Lord and was put to death. Thus, Onan is left to provide an heir for Tamar, but (in one of the more sexually explicit passages in the Bible) he had sex with her but released his semen on the ground, so as not to get her pregnant. He was subsequently put to death because that was evil in the sight of the Lord. (We could spend a whole lot of time trying to figure out all of this since it seems so strange to us, but we’re not going to take the time to unpack that story now).

By this point, Judah is heartbroken because he has lost his two oldest sons and only his youngest is left and he’s worried about losing him too. Therefore, Judah sends Tamar away until Sheilah is older, and he tells her they will send for her when his son is older. From the beginning of that story, we hold out very little hope that Judah actually has the intention of ever giving Sheilah to Tamar and he doesn’t.

Years later, Tamar gets word that Judah is coming to the town she has been staying, pretends to be a prostitute, and solicits Judah. Judah accepts, and as payment he promises to send her a young goat from his flock. He allowed her to keep his staff and his seal at collateral. When the goat was sent back for payment, the prostitute was nowhere to be found, and so the matter was forgotten (apparently, Judah thought he got a free night with a prostitute).

Tamar becomes pregnant and word gets around after a few months when she can no longer hide it. Judah . . . of all people . . . Judah is outraged and suggests she be put to death as an adulterer. Tamar wisely uses the staff and seal to prove that it was Judah who had had sex with her. The end of the story is one of the more dramatic in the Bible:

Genesis 38: 24-26

 

To fully understand this story, you have to consider the context. It is told directly before the story about Potiphar’s wife and Joseph. There is an intentional stark contrast between the actions of two of Israel’s sons – Joseph and Judah. But just as with the other Tamar story, we see again the trappings of what the whole #metoo movement is bringing to light.

If we see Larry Nassar in Amnon, I wonder if we don’t equally see Andy Savage in Judah. If you aren’t familiar with the story of Andy Savage, it broke during the first week of the year. Savage is the teaching pastor at a mega-church in Memphis, TN. During a service on January 7, he read a statement when he confessed a “sexual incident” that happened when he was the youth pastor for a church in Texas. As he was driving a 17 year old teenager home from church, he drove past her house, into a secluded wooded spot, groped her breasts, and made her perform oral sex on him. Then he told her to never tell anyone – that she needed to take it to her grave.[1]

Much like Amnon, Savage knows the manipulative power of words, and as he read his statement used many slight variations to minimize his assault.[2] He was “in college” (although he was in college, he was 23 – she was 17); “over 20 years ago” – it was 20 years almost to the day; it was a “sexual incident” – he never mentions oral sex or that he groped her breasts; he says he “resigned from ministry” – though the congregation threw him a going away party; he says he “accepted full responsibility for his actions” – though it does not appear he nor the congregation ever reported the incident to police for the crime that it was. This story highlights breakdowns in responsibility and accountability. He went on to work as a pastor of young adults at a church in Memphis and you wonder if it was ever told to them.

This story reeks of the deception and dysfunction of these two biblical accounts. As someone who has been in personal and one-on-one situations with girls my entire ministry, when I read this story it made my stomach wrench. This was too close to home. And the Nassar case has reminded us of just how powerful these positions of power can be.

This is a difficult sermon to wrap up. I don’t know how these stories hit you. You could be a man who needs to repent of the way you treat or think about women. You could be a man who has skeletons in your closet that need to be dealt with. You may be a woman who hears these stories and knows the hurt they bring more intimately than you’ve ever told anyone. You may be a woman who hasn’t had such heinous acts done to you, but you know what it’s like to feel uncomfortable and objectified.

There are lessons here for us all, and I just don’t have time to give any of them justice, so I will leave you with these.

1 – You are the loved and cherished child of God. No one can take that away from you.

2 – You have been created with dignity and filled with meaning, regardless of your gender.

3 – God desires harmony and mutual respect between all people – and calls his people to be examples.

Mostly, I just wanted to get out of the way this morning. I am far from perfect, but this is a topic that (and I am grateful to say) has not landed close to home. I empathize as much as I can, but it is impossible to fully comprehend. Towards that end, I can think of no better way to end than with the words of the very first woman who spoke out against Larry Nassar’s sexual assaults. She was the first one who bring accusations forth paving the way for over 100 others, and she was also the final victim to read a prepared statement at the trial. Her words are a perfect closing to this morning. Her name is Rachael Denhollander. The boldness and conviction it must have taken to stand face to face with this man, and to utter these words of truth and grace are beyond my ability to understand. This is what the Gospel looks like. [You can view the entirety of her remarks here. We played the excerpt below which comes around the 27:08-29:02]

In our early hearings. you brought your Bible into the courtroom and you have spoken of praying for forgiveness. And so it is on that basis that I appeal to you. If you have read the Bible you carry, you know the definition of sacrificial love portrayed is of God himself loving so sacrificially that he gave up everything to pay a penalty for the sin he did not commit. By his grace, I, too, choose to love this way.

You spoke of praying for forgiveness. But Larry, if you have read the Bible you carry, you know forgiveness does not come from doing good things, as if good deeds can erase what you have done. It comes from repentance which requires facing and acknowledging the truth about what you have done in all of its utter depravity and horror without mitigation, without excuse, without acting as if good deeds can erase what you have seen this courtroom today.

If the Bible you carry says it is better for a stone to be thrown around your neck and you throw into a lake than for you to make even one child stumble. And you have damaged hundreds.

The Bible you speak carries a final judgment where all of God’s wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.

I pray you experience the soul crushing weight of guilt so you may someday experience true repentance and true forgiveness from God, which you need far more than forgiveness from me — though I extend that to you as well.

[1] Her story originally appeared here: http://thewartburgwatch.com/2018/01/05/i-thought-he-was-taking-me-for-ice-cream-one-womans-metoo-story-of-molestation-by-her-former-youth-pastor-andy-savage/

[2] Full service was broadcast here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wyKdluNR95I

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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.

Praying for an Error

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Story of Attending a Taping of SNL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s how things went down . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why So Serious?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rivalry and the Perpetuation of The Other

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My favorite sign from last year made by Harvard students

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sports Were Made for Mankind, not Mankind for Sports

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Touchless Toilets, Redemption, and The Problem with the Church

Lately, I’ve been having a lot of conversations about what’s wrong with the church.  Being a full-time vocational minister, I suppose it’s not that unusual as there has long been a nagging spirit of discontent and discouragement rampant among that crowd – just check out the pastor’s resource pages on Amazon.  As of late, however, these conversations have undergone a noticeable change in tone.  We haven’t been spouting off about our congregation’s discontent regarding a new worship practice or how one faction in the church has offended another.   These things still come up, don’t get me wrong, but there has been a noticeable shift in the conversations I’ve been having and a lot of the material I’ve been reading.  I’ve talked with pastors from a diverse theological background and the problems seem consistent from one group to another.

Take Roger Olson’s blog post from earlier this week, “A Shocking Conclusion about American Christianity” – a reflection on Christian Smith’s Therapeutic Moralistic Deism detailed in his book Soul Searching.  The article is well worth your time as he helps succinctly articulate some of the conversations I have been having with so many other ministers.  At the end of the day, we are struggling with the depth of faith of our church members.  We can talk all day and all night about this worship practice or that leadership trend and dress it up in the latest, faddish church-ese, but at the heart of the matter is whether or not our members have had a life-changing encounter with the Gospel.  Olson makes the following provocative statement which helped sum up my reflections from over a decade of full-time ministry:

“I am afraid that it is becoming increasingly harder to find the gospel in America. It is either wrapped so tightly in the flag as to be virtually invisible or relegated to a footnote to messages about “success in living,” being nice and including everyone.”

The more I’ve reflected on this statement throughout the week, the more I’ve been looking in the mirror.  It reflects, too well, I’m afraid, my church; and if I’m honest with myself, my own faith.  We are all wrapped up in our Amercan suburban culture of comfort, success, and felt needs.  I know the hearts of our people is to do good, but I’m beginning to wonder if we have become confused about what exactly “good” is. I sometimes think that we have convinced ourselves that if we round up our grocery bill at Kroger to feed the hungry we are living out our faith calling.  But I want to be a part of something.  It doesn’t have to be big and it doesn’t have to be flashy, but I want it to matter.  It’s a feeling I should have being part of the church, but, at least lately, I haven’t had that feeling.

I’m struggling so much to find the Gospel in America today that, I even turned on the local Christian radio station today on the way to the office seeking inspiration and encouragement for the day.  I hardly ever turn on Christian radio anymore having grown tired of the whole “safe for the whole family” schtick, but I still do find the occasional CCM song to be inspiring and, even once in awhile, prophetic.  I prayed to myself in my old truck that such a song would be played this morning on the way to the office, and my prayer was granted as the song, “Children of God” by Third Day began to play.

The song begins with the powerful lyrics, “Praise to the Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ our God and our King to Him will we sing” and Mac Powell’s voice belts the chorus, “Children of God, sing your song and rejoice For the love he has given us all; Children of God, by the blood of His Son We have been redeemed and we have been called, children of God.”  All powerful Gospel reminders that encouraged me to start the day today.

Then, as the song comes to a close, a chorus of children sing the following melodic refrain: “We are the saints, we are the children, we’ve been redeemed, we’ve been forgiven; We are the sons and daughters of our God.”  Say what you want about Third Day, about the shortcomings and sins of the contemporary Christian music industry, and all of that . . but these are powerful lyrics to hear piercing through my speakers over the open airwaves.  No doubt in many parts of the world if this was happening I would have a better appreciation for it.  So would the radio personalities . . . I hope.

After this song came through and had given me encouragement and kind of refocused my attention for the day, and in my spiritual revelry, I forgot to change the station as the DJ’s started talking.  The morning show broke immediately to a bit talking about the latest invention to hit the marketplace: Kohler’s new touchless toilets.  Now, my wife and I saw a commercial for these toilets earlier this week and it was a quick conversation starter.  I didn’t pay much attention to what the DJs said because I was in spiritual whiplash over what had just happened.

I had been singing the lines over and over again in my mind, “We are the saints, we are the children, we’ve been redeemed, we’ve been forgiven,” and with no segue or acknowledgement to these eternally significant assertions – these radio heads begin talking about toilets.  Toilets.  And it dawned on me that this experience and the struggles of our churches go hand in hand.

We’ve become numb to the Gospel.  We hear its life-changing words that have cost so many people their lives, that have changed lives and literally moved mountains, and we shrug our shoulders and go on with life as usual.  The words of that song have been a matter of life and death to so many martyrs throughout the world.   Yet we hear the Gospel preached and are more concerned with whether or not we liked the songs that we sang.  We read about a Savior who washed feet but bitch and moan about the slightest inconveniences to our lives.  The Bible proclaims the gathering of his people sacred and holy, but we have too many other things to do.  We hear children singing about being saints and children of God, and are moved to mindlessly talk about toilets.

So, in a way, I throw my hands up.  After Peter preached on Pentecost, Acts says that the people’s hearts were pricked.  I want to be a part of something that has pricked the hearts of people.  Where people are inspired by their calling from God and seek out his guidance for their lives.  This is not a sky-is-falling reflection, but, like Olson, the church is living in troubling times.  So often that is said reflecting on the surrounding culture, but the truth of the matter is that it’s troubling times for the American church herself as we have lost our way and we just keep doing whatever it is we have been doing.

 

Jason Collins and the You Know What Hitting the Fan

Unless you have lived in some kind of media-sheltered cave this week, even if you aren’t the least bit interested in sports, you have heard about the “coming out party” for NBA player Jason Collins.  His big front page “coming out of the closet” article in Sports Illustrated hit news stands this week and it has been news worthy for all kinds of media outlets ever since.  The opening words of the article, “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center.  I’m black.  And I’m gay,” sound the gong of new ground having been broken by homosexuals – Collins is the first openly gay athlete in any of the major American team sports leagues.  The major American sports leagues have been one of the last unploughed cultural frontiers in the drive toward cultural acceptance for homosexuals.  With the publication of Collins’s article, all hell has broken loose on that front.

At the risk of adding more noise to the cacophony this story has created, it does hit at the heart of where my study and thinking have been consumed over the past several months.  Over the winter, I talked with a well known blog about contributing articles at the intersection of sports and theology.  We were unable to put together a working relationship as I could not provide a definitive answer to my “stance” on homosexuality that they approved of.  Somewhere, those guys are breathing a sigh of relief after this article broke!  Next month I’m presenting a paper at the Christian Scholar’s Conference in Nashville, TN entitled “The Power of Sports: A Theological Inquiry into Sports as Exousia.”  In it, I argue that sports is best understood as a spiritual Power – the same rubric under which we would place politics, economics, technology, militarism, etc.  The furor created by the Sports Illustrated article illustrates the powerful and prominent position of sports in our culture.

Additionally, the Collins story has broken just one week after I authored the candid and provocative piece, “Does a Pastor Have to Have an Answer about Homosexuality?”  Ever since my first experience in ministry with teenagers, I have realized that this was the one issue that the church was not ready for . . . and I could hear the footsteps of culture alerting that we had better get ready.  The fight for the rights of homosexuals and their cultural acceptance has gone on unrelentingly for better than a decade now (though the real fight has been waging since the 1960’s.).  Collins acknowledges the recent burgeoning influence of acceptance in his article and how it has paved the way for him to go public, “I’m glad I’m coming out in 2013 rather than 2003. The climate has shifted; public opinion has shifted.”

There is so much to say about this, and there is no shortage of opinions around the world wide web and from television’s talking heads, but I am interested in mentioning a few ways as to how I believe Jason Collins’s story impacts the church as we attempt to catch up in our reflections on homosexuality.

First of all, this is simply another episode highlighting just how pervasive the homosexual orientation is.  Collins says that he’s 34, black, and gay – but he’s also huge (7 feet tall), articulate, funny, masculine, well educated (he went to Stanford), from a Christian home (he doesn’t state that he is a Christian in the article, but does say, “My parents instilled Christian values in me. They taught Sunday school, and I enjoyed lending a hand. I take the teachings of Jesus seriously, particularly the ones that touch on tolerance and understanding,”), and, rather incredibly, has an identical twin brother who was unaware of his sexual orientation until last summer when his brother told him.  If nothing else, hopefully, Jason Collins can help us finally cast aside the preconceived notions that remain of homosexuals as only effeminate males and masculine females.  Clearly, one of the messages the church has to learn from Jason Collins is that our churches are comprised of men and women who have a homosexual orientation – they look like everyone else.

Secondly, as Collins states in the article, times are changing.  He says that he couldn’t have done this ten years ago, I think back to the climate in athletics when I was in high school twenty years ago (OK, not quite 20, but close enough!) . . . and to think that there would have been an openly gay player in the NBA – it would not have been believable (and it would not have been well received).  Christian alarmist will bemoan the changing culture and note how the culture is at war with the church and that we must hold true to the timeless teachings of the Bible.  I understand this concern.  I understand the great fear that comes from change.  However, as times change, our study of the Bible changes.  Maybe God’s Word does never change, but as we ask new questions of it, we may face new answers.  I am in the process of reading the book, God’s Gay Agenda, by the openly lesbian pastor, Sandra Turnbull, which I plan to review sometime next week here.  She’s got me thinking about things I’ve never thought about, even though they’ve been in the Bible the whole time I’ve been reading it and earning degrees studying it.  How often have we studied eunuchs in the ancient world?  What do they have to do with homosexuals?  I don’t know . . . I just know that I have spent a lot of time in theology classes and exegesis classes – and we’ve never touched on this one.  New times are forcing new questions upon us, and those new questions are bringing us to new places in the Scriptures.  People who are attracted to the same sex are beckoning the church toward a better understanding of them.  No matter what beliefs you may hold on the matter, can’t we at least agree that, unless you are attracted to the same sex to some degree, there is part of them we just don’t understand?

Finally, this discussion is important (maybe even crucial), but we must keep it in perspective.  Throughout the article, Collins makes the point that (almost defensively) he’s the same guy that everyone knew.  I love the “Three Degrees of Jason Collins” metaphor that he uses – Collins has had a long career in the NBA and has played for several different teams, so no one is separated from him by more than three degrees.  Now, everyone in the NBA is connected to someone who is openly gay.  And he’s been gay all along.  He has a great sense of humor (I love the message he sends to Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal in the article – “Note to Shaq: My flopping has nothing to do with being gay.”  Being gay is part of Jason Collins, it is not his entirety.  One of the important things that church’s must realize in moving forward in this discussion is that sexuality has a place, but must never be at the center of our discussions.  From the way Christians often speak, you’d think that our sexuality was our identity.  Every gay person I’ve ever known has wanted what Jason Collins wants – “Know that I’m gay, but know that it doesn’t define who I am, no more than your heterosexuality defines you.”

That, I am afraid, may be our biggest obstacle.  One of my professors from Fuller, Dr. John Drane, who lives in Scotland, shared an article on Facebook last week about gender and sexuality and noted, “There’s a lot to like about this, but I still can’t get my head around why the main things Christians seem to obsess about nowadays are all about sex of one sort or another. What’s happened that we never hear much about that other three letter word, GOD – except, of course, when God is brought in to back up opinions on the aforementioned obsession with sex.”  Really, really well said.

So . . . if it hadn’t already hit the fan, it certainly has now.  What next, church?  How do we navigate this challenging way forward?  How can we have open conversations where we are free to disagree and diverge in our opinions, and yet still promote an openness that is immersed in grace?  How can we create atmospheres where homosexuals can feel free to talk openly about their struggles and challenges and not feel judged?  How do we address topis of sexuality, but not let them so consume us that we allow our conversations about God to go neglected? And, when push comes to shove, and the rubber meets the road, how do our churches minister to and alongside homosexuals?  Where is their place in our congregation?  We don’t have to have the answers to all of these questions, but we sure the hell better be ready to ask them.