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.

 

Elite Sports Leagues and the Machine of Youth Travel Sports

There is a storm brewing on the horizon and I am doing all I can to prepare myself for it.  My son loves sports and has shown a true love for baseball in particular.  To this point, we have enjoyed our summers at the baseball fields in our local Westerville recreational league.  This summer should be especially fun as it proves to be the “peak” season for the local league with the league fielding more teams for the 8 – 10 year-old kid-pitch league than any of the other age groups.  However, the storms clouds have already begun to form as I see looming questions about the best way to navigate the future of our son’s youth sports experience.

The fact that my son is entering the most popular level of play in the local recreation league comes as no surprise.  Across the country, elite leagues and travel teams begin plucking kids out of local leagues by this age group (a trend that is becoming younger, not the other way around) and older recreation leagues are all but drying up for children interested in playing for fun (imagine that!)

This has not been foreign to me as my years in youth ministry have already familiarized me with the world of travel and elite sports.  I have seen families devote their summer vacations, countless thousands of dollars, and all of their free time to the development of their teenage athletes.  For some its the pursuit of college scholarships while for others it’s simply the obsession with being the best – but whatever the case, there is plenty of fuel to supply the burgeoning beast.  Even though I am a huge sports fan and am excited about my children playing sports, ever since I have been exposed to the world of travel and elite sports it has left a poor impression on me.  Particularly the way I’ve seen families obsess over these leagues to the detriment of their attention to their children’s faith development and spiritual formation has led me to believe this is a major crisis for the American church.

Until very recently, I had never heard any Christian who had been critical of sports – ever.  Sure, there may have been an occasional prude who complained about Wednesday night practice forcing athletes to miss Bible study at church, but when it came to Christians and their participation with sports – everyone I knew was “all in.”  Then I had a kid.  Then I started watching how sports consumed the lives of the teenagers I worked with.  Then I started asking their parents hard questions.  Then the you know what hit the fan.  Turns out, I had stumbled upon a sacred cow.  “Just wait until your kids are that age . . . ”

Well, they are getting close now, and I’ve decided to dedicate an entire dissertation to the subject because I have come to realize no one is talking about this.  The percentage of children in churches (particularly suburban mega churches) who are participating in elite and travel leagues is staggering (I have no statistical evidence of this – just the obvious eye test), and yet walk into a Christian book store or peruse the Christian ministry and youth ministry sections at Amazon and you’ll find no guides, no Bible studies, no suggestions for navigating an incredibly taxing time of life and an expensive and crucial developmental stage of life.  Almost all the treatments you’ll find there are limited to a subtle dose of the prosperity gospel.  Why is no one talking about this?  Why does it appear the church’s critique of sports is that it is pretty much neutral?

And all along the way, my son is getting older and closer to the age where travel baseball (and all other sports) becomes an presupposition.  As Tom Farrey acknowledges, “Travel teams are no longer an add-on to the youth sports landscape, like the post-season all-star teams of previous generations.  In many communities, after the age of 9 or 10, they effectively are youth sports.”   (From: Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions out of our Children p. 183)

I don’t have an answer to all of this.  I don’t think that the idea of travel leagues and elite youth sports organizations has to be bad . . . but I think the current manifestation of it is bad – really bad.  I believe it is harming the social fabric of small towns and larger communities and is helping contribute to the inactivity of children – statistics show that when children try out for teams and don’t make them, they are very likely to give up on the sport for good.  In any places, elite travel teams are the only option and if you don’t make them . . . there just aren’t many pick-up games happening in backyards anymore and . . . their extension cords just don’t reach quite that far.  Additionally, these leagues and teams are taking shape before children are even developmentally prepared for competition.  Winning national championships and attaining high state and national rankings are for parents, not children (inspiring this classic on the topic: Just Let the Kids Play.)

I plan to post a great deal on this topic in the coming months.  As we make difficult decisions about where our son plays and when and how often and the lot, I’ll be reading, studying, and researching this topic hoping to find insight and wisdom that can help us navigate these challenging areas of life.  What I hope doesn’t get lost in this is that my son have fun (my daughters too – but they’re still a few years away from the mouth of the machine).  I hope that Christians will begin to have more frank and honest discussions regarding their love affair with sports.  I’m a huge fan of sports and believe they play a crucial (and healthy) role in culture . . . but I am equally convinced that we often allow them to become these monsters that they have become and they take on a life of their own.

Book Review: Who is my Enemy?

We all have a tendency to consume media and interact with people who make us feel comfortable and conform to our current patterns of thinking.  Republicans watch Fox News and listen to Rush, Hannity, and Beck while Liberals watch MSNBC and listen to . . . well, no one since liberals don’t tend to do radio well.  We like to be pushed and challenged, to an extent, but we usually prefer that to happen in extremely sanitized ways.  We tend to write people off the moment they register on our “not-like-me radar.” Whether we admit it or not, our subconscious is on a constant quest to discern certain key words or phrases from those we are talking with or reading to know whether or not we should dismiss them or listen intently to them.  What kind of language do they use?  What key phrases do they refer to?  Who do they reference and quote?  We all have our circles of comfort.

What I like about Lee Camp is that he tends to bring all of us to places of discomfort – probably one of the reasons a lot of people don’t bother with him.  Camp teaches at my alma mater, Lipscomb University, and is really one of their brightest and most audacious professors.   Having studied under John Howard Yoder at Notre Dame, Camp is on a lifelong quest to embody the pacifist, non-violent principles articulated by his academic mentor.  He says as much in his first book, Mere Discipleship.  There, he brings to life issues that are most often left to academic ramblings.  There, he teases out the practical implications of a Yoderan social politick in the life of the Christian.

Camp’s latest effort, Who is My Enemy?, is really a case study in following Jesus’ way of loving your enemy.  He begins by sharing his experience of delivering a lecture at a seminar on conflict resolution at Lipscomb University which addressed the relationship between Christians and Muslims.  Some of Camp’s comments, rightly or wrongly interepreted, set off a firestorm directed at Camp accusing him of everything from ignorance to cowardice.  This experience drove Camp to learn more about Islam and wrestle with Christians’ relationship with Islam (and Muslims, specifically).  The result is a jarring and, often, center-shaking work that all Christians should read – whether they think they’ll ever speak with a Muslim or not.

There is so much good in this book that I want to offer a few posts in which to share my reflections.  For full disclosure, I’m a big fan of Lee Camp and believe that he provides a very important voice among Christians, even though many people would be extremely troubled by his teaching (more on this later).  As a fellow Church of Christ-ite, he also represents my particular background underneath the Christian umbrella well.  While there certainly will be those who question Camp’s philosophy and some of his conclusions, it is difficult to ignore someone who actively pursues those who are different to humbly and peacefully engage in dialogue and share Christian love.  That may be what gives Camp’s words such power – a strong mixture of humility and Christian audacity.

Here’s a (not-too) brief first reflection . . .

One of the most compelling aspects of Camp’s book for me was rooted in an earlier work by William Cavanaugh in The Myth of Religious Violence.  We have all been taught that religions are insatiably violent by nature – at least in dealing with those who think differently than they do.  Their constant warring is largely to blame for many of our world’s problems.  In the West we are taught that Western civilization has solved the riddle to these problems: make religion a private concern.  That’s what has created our great nation of freedom.  The Muslim states, so we are told, have never figured that part out.

The question Cavanaugh raises in this pointed critique of what many take as “common sense,” is what constitutes religion?  How do we so easily assume that Islam is all tied up in the war-making rhetoric and actions of nations like Iran and Iraq, but Western nations like ours are freed of any religious integration?  Cavanaugh’s theory here is that “religion” was a creation of modern Western civilization.  Throughout history, there was no separation from religion and the rest of life.  Although we’ve tried with all of our might, it’s awfully hard to claim that the Bible makes any such claims.  Thus, the more we have attempted to make Christianity a “private religion” in our evolved Western state, the more we have neutered the Gospel as it was given to the first Christians.  The earliest persecuted Christians didn’t seem to think they had been converted to some kind of private personal piety, how could this have become the “common sense” articulation of the Gospel today?

Camp summarizes Cavanugh and makes the following point: “the ‘myth of religious violence’ posits that the violence of religion is unacceptable, but the violence of the secular state is either ignored or seen as legitimate.  The violence of religion is always necessarily irrational, but the violence of the state is seen as necessary for peacemaking.  Once this assumption is swallowed, the violence of the state is justified, overlooked, ignored, or even celebrated by Western Christians, all while believing that the solution is for Islam to become more Western.”  (113)  The end result is that the church has often become nothing more than what Camp calls a “lapdog for the state” and “chaplain for America.”

I know this is a bit jumbled (and long), I’ll try to engage in a little more succinct matter late this week.  I’ll end with this parable in which Camp further makes this point:

“A king went out to conquer, amassing great wealth and power.  There came to him a people who asserted that some other was king, whom they called ‘Lord of Lords.’  The king replied: you may freely worship this one you call, ‘lord,’ you may freely build your buildings and write your books and seek your converts to this one you call, lord,’ while I am your public king.  I shall make the laws, and you shall obey them.  I shall tell you what enemies to kill, and you shall kill them.  I shall give you a marketplace, and you shall seek to maximize your profits and keep all your profits, even at the expense of the poor, or the widow, or the stranger, and thence you shall pay taxes with which we shall wage war against all who threaten your freedom to worship your personal ‘lord.’

“And the people replied: We will gladly do as you say, O king.  Indeed, we shall obey your laws.  And we shall seek great profit and keep all for ourselves.  And we will kill your enemies, for you, O king, have allowed us to pray to our houses of worship, in the privacy of our closets.  Even more,  O king, because you have allowed us to worship thus, we will denounce all those who do not exalt you, and we will proclaim that you have granted us the right to worship, and we shall profess that any who do not obey your laws or maximize profit or kill your enemies are no servants of the private Lord of Lords.  We will hang your standard in our halls of worship, we will honor those who fight your wrars, and we will celebrate those who heedlessly maximize profit.  Oh, grand us such liberty as this, O King!

The king was pleased, and his new subjects served him well and were happy and satisfied.  (115-116)

 

 

 

 

Would Jesus Say the Pledge of Allegiance?

I’ll go ahead and say it – I’m biased.  So are you.  I wish I could just set aside my bias and look at things from a purely absolute kind of way – that’s just not possible.  So . . . admitting my bias up front, I make this statement: I just cannot picture in my mind Jesus Christ himself – the Son of God and our Savior – standing up with crowds in the community, placing his hand over his heart, looking upward toward the stars and stripes and reciting the following words (remember, the Son of God . . . saying these words? . . . )

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

I’ve had this conversation with countless people.  Hardly any agree with my position, and few understand where I’m coming from.  I just don’t think Jesus would have been able to get past the first two major clauses.  Can you see a red letter edition of the Bible with the words, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands”?  Jesus’ allegiance was clearly not to Rome . . . or even to Israel.  He didn’t come as a zealot to fight the government by force, but he just as clearly did not come acquiescing his politick through syncretistic approaches.

I suppose the argument comes that perhaps America is a “less bad” nation than Rome so we have an exemption.  That if Jesus were American born and had been part of a government “by the people, for the people” that that would have changed everything.  And that is something we just can’t know for sure.  I have my bias there, and you have yours.  My chief aim of concern is whether or not Jesus wants us offering our allegiance to anyone, anywhere.  To an extent this can call into question our allegiances to sports teams, universities, regions of the country, products we buy, etc.

Pretty much everyone I have had this conversation with believes they can offer their pledge to the government but it’s just not as central/important/meaningful as their pledge to God.  I see where they are coming from . . . I just can’t get there myself.  As I’ve often stated, there is much to be thankful for in this country, and certainly God has blessed it.  Maybe he’s blessed it because there were some God-fearing members among the Founders.  He’s also blessed it in spite of a great deal of misgivings and atrocities.

It’s certainly un-American, but not un-Christian to remind people today that this nation was founded on the pursuit of freedom and liberty and all of those oft-quoted important qualities – but it was also built on the annihilation of entire nations of American Indians and on the backs of enslaved blacks.  And how tired people grow of hearing this reality . . . but how can a Christian ever ignore it and act as if it was just collateral damage in some great Christian plan?  How can the Christian believe that the God of all people inspired this wonderful nation’s creation to come at the obliteration of entire cultures of people?  How are we to interpret this history as Christians?  Is this simply collateral damage?  Is this simply the “cost of freedom”?

I don’t have a sufficient answer here.  You can quickly turn to the Old Testament and illustrate to me how God often poured out his wrath on his people through the military conquest from foreign nations.  You can show me the atrocities that were done at God’s request.  I don’t understand those texts.  I suppose here I am left to vacillate.  I can appreciate the other perspective here.  However, the God that Christ showed me in the New Testament highlights that my role is not in condoning or participating in such fallen powers.  I will let God do what God is going to do, and stay faithful to my calling as a citizen of the kingdom.  At this point I am left with two options – either the God of the Old Testament was not the God of the New Testament (the Marcionite heresy), or Jesus was furthering the revelation of the Old Testament – again, don’t understand it, but I certainly can’t picture Jesus obliterating men, women, and children in the conquest of Canaan.

Last night as I flipped through the television channels in a few moments of “down time” I came across the fiery and well known preacher John Hagee.  He was in the midst of retelling the story of George Washington from Valley Forge noting how incredibly evident it was that God was with him.  He interchanged biblical texts and early American documents with such ease it was difficult to know which was which.  He received a roaring applause of approval at his calls that “It took sacrifice and commitment to fight off tyranny then, and it will take the same to fight off the tyranny in Washington today!”  The co-opting of the kingdom of God could scarcely be plainer.

As Christians, it is our belief that God is in control of history.  Our belief in Scripture assures us that God will redeem and renew this world – with or without our help.  It is time for Christians to make that their rallying cry during election time.  Let the apocalyptic message of Revelation pervade our politics instead of the constant call for “moral values” or “winning America back” or whatever other token phrase may arise.

It’s my least favorite time of the year – election time – where the idolatry of American Christians is as prevalent as ever.  We are called to be the colony of Christ-followers living out a subversive faith with no political allegiance – not morally-equipped powerbrokers ready to take back the government for God . . . my understanding of sovereignty says it’s already his . . .