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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                [2] Ibid., 159.

                [3] Ibid., 163.

                [4] Ibid., 165.

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

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Book Review: The Art of Neighboring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

Parents of Children in (or about to be in) Sports Should Read This!

Just a note: I’ve updated a few of the pages on my blog and uploaded a few academic papers as well as a few old sermons.  I would like to pass along anything I create that I think might be helpful – that’s why I haven’t posted much – figuring not much would be helpful 🙂  Maybe you’ll find something of use there.  I did post a series of sermons I preached back in 2010 that you may find helpful if you find yourself in a Church of Christ that is wrestling through some of the theological and hermeneutical challenges that are a bit unique to us.  See what you think.

Game on

As I’ve begun this trek through youth sports and have been searching for the role of the church in helping equip our members for how to navigate these waters, few things have opened my eyes as wide as this book by Tom Farrey, published in 2008 (and then republished in 2009).

In writing his book, Farrey follows the development of children beginning with the first chapter (age 1) through the final chapter (age 14) discussing different parents’ obsession with making their children into sports icons.  He takes the reader to a sperm bank in Southern California where he quotes a doctor there as saying, “I’d say somewhere between 40% and two-thirds of the infertile couples look to prioritize athletic traits” . . . “In fact, after ethnicity . . . attributes such as height and body shape are most frequently requested” (p. 43).  He goes to a sports arena in Concord, Massachusetts to discuss with the parents of a set of seven-year-old twin girls who already are thinking ivy league, D-1 scholarships, and who already shell out over $10,000 per twin, per year, for hockey.  He takes the reader to Europe and compares the (much more effective) approach the French have towards their youth soccer programs which begins later in childhood and are much less rote and machine-esque  in comparison to the American counterpart.  From AAU to the NCAA, from soccer to basketball to girl’s hockey .  .  . even fencing is not out of Farrey’s aim.

Such a comprehensive volume is difficult to summarize in a brief blog overview, but I’ll do my best.  Farrey essentially sees a system of youth sports in the United States that has become extremely broken as it increasingly marginalizes the poor who cannot afford to be part of the system, contributes to the lack of inactivity and obesity in the country as travel and elite leagues stymie opportunities that use to exist in local recreation leagues, creates false dreams of NCAA scholarships (reinforcing what Michael Novak said more than 30 years ago – that sports has effectively become the opiate of the masses), and is detrimental to the country’s performance in international competition (he argues that not only does the current system do great harm to our country’s children – it’s actually not the best program for promoting athletes who compete at the highest levels – he offers Australia as a better example of success – check out their medal count in recent Olympics).

youth-sports

There is a great deal in Farrey’s work that will take some time for me to digest.  I am amazed at the irony of his book being published by ESPN who he points to (carefully, but certainly) as helping contribute to these problems.

Farrey is not writing from a Christian point of view, per say, but a great deal of what he points out should resonate with Christians looking for their children to participate in sports.  If sports, indeed, is a spiritual power, we should be asking ourselves, “In what ways can my children participate and contribute to the created good, intent of sports” rather than shrug our shoulders as if to say, “Well, if you can’t beat them, join them!”

Any parent who is wrestling for the best way their child might participate in youth sports would do well to read Farrey – and read it before you child is faced with the many opportunities that will come his or her way for participation in sports.  Be proactive, instead of sitting back and being marketed to.  Know what is best for your family.  Know what you are and aren’t willing to do.  Know how much travel you are willing to participate.  Know how much money you are willing to spend.  And keep your dreams realistic.  Don’t think about plans for your child to develop into a D1 athlete – think instead about how they can enjoy their childhood, and allowing sports to impact his or her life alongside other worthy endeavors.

When it comes to dreams of D-1 scholarships and opportunities at the “next level” I find it instructive to consider Farrey’s words as a reminder to stay grounded:

NCAA_Clearinghouse_Registration“I’ll keep it to one sentence.  If you’re gifted, really gifted, and lucky (right team, right coaches, right scheme, no wrecked knees) and play by the unwritten but uncompromising rules of the NCAA establishment – devote 360 days a year to your team and don’t make a habit of questioning the fairness of a system that uses your ability to perform in order to make hundreds of millions of dollars while you are on campus – then you might end up like Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith, with a hunk of wood and metal in your left hand and a strirring national feature story (set to soft jazz) that memorializes your childhood descent into a Cleveland foster home and emergence as a student-athlete-celebrity, and how that Heisman Trophy you just won is going to motivate other kids to rise up from the ghetto in a similar manner, thereby helping to recycle the myth – critical to existing public policy – that big-time, commercialized college sports like D1 football and basketball are a viable route to a better life, when in fact there’s no real evidence to suggest that collectively the poor have been lifted by all that sport-centric dreaming and, besides, the Heisman isn’t what kids in the ghetto dream about anyway because chunks of metal and wood don’t put dinner on the family table and sometimes don’t even guarantee an NFL career, even if you so far have beaten the odds.”  (p. 146 – 147)

Let’s get realistic about our children’s involvement in sports – our communities will be better for it.

“Let the Little Children Come to Me” . . . in the Nursery

We had a really strange experience this past Sunday morning at our church.  Our congregation is small (100 folks or so), and with the flu going around and folks traveling, etc. our crowd was especially small this week.  A young couple walked in with two small children – looked like they could have been twins – maybe two years old.  A few of our members chatted with them briefly before the service and then one of our elders introduced me to the husband.  “He was asking about the nursery,” I was told.  As we have such a small church, and so many of our families have little children, we find it difficult – well, impossible – to provide a staffed nursery for parents.  Some of our parents will take their children out of the service if their child is particularly fussy or restless, but for the most part, we try to incorporate our children into our services and generally welcome the distraction of them crying out or running around.  It can be a little hectic and often is distracting . . . but so is life.  But it’s not just because “we can’t staff the nursery,” that we don’t have one.  It’s actually pretty intentional on our behalf.

Well, in regards to the young couple, it was a little difficult for them to understand and so they slowly and quietly left – before our services ever started!  I was astounded.  They never gave it a chance.  They, like many other people who visit our congregation’s Sunday services, they were looking for an hour-long service when they can focus on God and energize themselves without the distraction of their children.  And I get it.  We’ve got three kids of our own, and I remember the challenge of the years between when they became mobile and when they could sit down quietly and be entertained.   I know how difficult that was, particularly for my wife – and nothing I am about to say is said without that very legitimate concern and realization.

There’s nothing wrong with a church offering a nursery during their services – I need to affirm that as well.  However, there is something very pure, authentic, and important about our worship gatherings being truly family-oriented.  There is something to be said for having a time for age-appropriate messages and expressions, but that can never come to dominate our structure – as if that is the rule instead of the exception.  The idea that we need to “sanitize” our services of all distractions is disingenuous to what life really is.  We fall into the temptation of making them smoothly packaged with the outcome predetermined – a far cry from the realities of life.  I know that it can be difficult for older folks to “drown the noise out.”  I understand it can make it challenging for those without children to empathize.  We should be cautious and thoughtful about affirming that to those people often.  However, again, I wonder if that should be the exception instead of the rule (that is always making concession for those people). At the same time, it is an opportunity for us to be humbled.

In my not-so-humble opinion, I think alot of this discussion revolves around the pastor’s ego.  We don’t want an entire week’s work (ie. sermon) to be “wasted” when the most poignant moment is drowned out by a screaming child.  I have been there.  I have done that.  And . . . now . . . it honestly just makes me smile.  I’ve learned not to take myself too seriously.  I think that’s what more church folks  need to do.  Most people could probably affirm the fact that a baby’s coo or a little child’s outburst is just as God-honoring and glorifying as my exposition on Ecclesiastes.  Postmodernism has knocked us off our pedestal, and we need to continue to let it due so.  Our worship gatherings should be collections of numerous worship experiences throughout the congregation.  It’s not dictated and directed by the leaders up front.  I look at it as if we are hoping to help create an atmosphere (with the guidance and participation of the Holy Spirit) where people can connect to God.  I hope that happens through the sermon, sometimes, through our worship in song, and our other public experiences.  However, I think more often, and more powerfully, those experiences are happening through side conversations, shows of affection, spontaneous prayers, a cup of coffee, and even (GASP!) unruly or disruptive children.

My wife probably had the best perspective on this event from Sunday.  A couple from our church recently adopted a baby – after waiting for several years and going through the ringer as nearly everyone who goes through the adoption process undergoes.  We prayed with them for years that this day would come.  And in my wife’s great wisdom she points out, “How can we go through those many years of praying and longing, and then finally celebrating alongside them . . . and then expect them to spend most of their time together with us . . .  out in the nursery?  That little baby is as much a part of our church and a part of each and every service as the oldest members among us.”

This is where we come to terms with being an intentional and missional church that doesn’t do things because they are “more palatable” or “attractive” to outsiders, but instead, are driven by our theology to make decisions that are holistic, God-focused, and . . . often times . . . more difficult.  Ironically, in our sermon on Sunday, we spent some time talking about not making your family your idol . . .

Missio Dei

Fresh off our trip to Europe, I still feel like I’m racing to get caught up on everything.  We spent just over a week in England and then a week in France.  We had such a great time and took tons of pictures.  If I ever have time, I will be sharing them.

What brought us to Europe in the first place, was my doctoral class “Encountering New Ways of being Church.”  The class is taught by John and Olive Drane, and also had substantial contributions by Ian and Gail Adams.  The class was as study in the experimental ministry by the Anglican and Methodist churches in England known as Fresh Expressions.   In addition to the Dranes and Adams, we were also given the opportunity to interact with Jonny Baker, Andrew Roberts, and we attended a gathering of Stillpoint, a Fresh Expressions gathering at a pub in Oxford  (I think it was Stillpoint 🙂  Obviously, I’ve got quite a lot to reflect on, and it will be awhile for me to process the wonderful experiences of the past couple of weeks.  I thought I’d begin by sharing where I’ve been an what I have been up to the past few weeks, and share what I think is the overarching theme that’s held these experiences together for me.

Over the past two years or so, the most significant development to my theology has come through my introduction to the term “missio dei.”  In reality, it’s an idea I’ve been flirting with for better than a decade – ever since I read Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, but it has become more enfleshed as I’ve read more specifically about missio dei.

Theologically, a grant shift has been taking place over the past two decades as practitioners have humbled themselves in realizing that God’s presence and mission is in place before they arrive in a particular context.  It seems almost obvious now, but in reality, this is a fairly recent development (with ancient roots, not doubt).  For many years, Christians were trained to think that they needed to “bring Christ to the nations.”  While this perspective serves as a great motivator, it also places a great amount of pressure on each Christian – after all, if we are to bring Christ to the nations – if we don’t go, we truncate the mission of God to those people.

In moving from a “we have something you need” mentality to a “you are experiencing something common to us that we are attempting to better understand – can we join you?” is a significant shift in perspective.  It is more humble.  It is more contextual.  It is more honest.  And . . . in the end . . . it’s actually easier!

This leads us to ask the question, “What is God doing in this neighborhood and how can we be a part of it?” instead of “What do we need to do to show these people to Jesus?”  In reality, God is already working in their lives.  He is already present in their neighborhoods.  The church is not the full realization of the kingdom.  While the church may be absent in a particular community, God’s kingdom, his larger reality in the world, is alive and at work.  Biblically, this is exactly what happens in Acts 17 while Paul is in Athens.  He looks around at what God has already been doing in that community.

This perspective is a driving force for the Fresh Expressions experiment (for lack of a better word) in the UK.  I appreciated the perspectives I was exposed to, and, although it required a good deal of translation for my context (the most pressing questions for me revolve around the denominational support that Fresh Expressions relies on relating to issues of sustainability), their impulse and devotion was encouraging.  There seem to be alot of people talking about these kinds of things, but few churches (especially in the United States) actually incorporating them into actual practices).  I certainly came away with many more questions than answers, but am determined to be an active part of God’s missio dei rather than some bystander serving only to commentate on what others are doing.

Halloween in West Hollywood . . . A Theological Perspective

It’s been a slow process getting folks together for the Church of Christ project.  I’ve got some folks that are preparing some thoughts, so we’ll get back to those again in coming weeks.  I put this together for a cultural immersion experience paper I had to do for Fuller and thought it was worth sharing here.

When I learned that I would be in Los Angeles on Halloween night, in planning for my trip West, I began searching for Halloween experiences that were uniquely Southern Californian (and also cheap!)  I quickly came across the annual celebration that takes place on Santa Monica Blvd. right in the heart of West Hollywood.  Several websites I visited stated that the Halloween party in West Hollywood is the largest Halloween street party in the world.  Admittedly, I did not know much about West Hollywood or the celebration itself, but with organizers expecting a half million people and admission was free, so I figured it was a pretty worthwhile trip.

Following class on Monday, October 31, I got in my car and drove towards West Hollywood on Santa Monica Blvd. until I reached the point where they closed the roads for the celebration.  The closer I got to the party, the denser traffic became.  Because the area of the celebration is a commercial area surrounded by houses, there were no garages or large lots so it took some time to find a parking spot.  I eventually parked at a meter (I was unsure of exactly where I was going, but as I saw more people walking, I assumed I was getting close enough to park and walk), got out of my car, and began following the crowds.

The publicly posted times stated the hours of the carnival were from 6:00 pm until 11:00 pm.  Having left immediately after class, I arrived on the scene as things were just getting started.  The closer I walked back to Santa Monica Blvd. from my meter, the more people in costumes I saw.  The celebration is, after all, a costume party.  Darkness was just beginning to fall on the strip, and vendors were in abundance.  I got to Santa Monica Blvd. where the road had been closed, and I walked from one end of the strip to the other just observing a culture that was so vastly different from mine.

I would later find out that nearly half of the residents of West Hollywood are gay or bisexual males,[1] although I came to that conclusion on my own fairly quickly through my people watching of the evening.  Throughout the strip there were food vendors and other vendors typical of an outdoor carnival.  Although I was not planning to spend much money – mainly just people watch – I did need to eat dinner, so I chose a hamburger place that claimed via a large banner hanging outside, “Almost Every Day People Tell Us We Have the Best Burgers in Town” (Hamburger Haven).  I decided to award them my patronage for nothing else other than the cleverness of the sign and crammed into a hot restaurant packed with people in costumes awaiting our burgers.  While we were waiting in line, this older gentleman was kind enough to allow me to take his picture.

            Throughout the street festival there were stages set up where costumed participants could show off their costumes to the crowd.  I stopped for several minutes to watch the different costumes parade across the stage where one flamboyantly gay man was emceeing.  He welcomed to the stage men in drag, women in leather and lace in addition to children and families.  He invited each person to talk about how they made their costume and several admitted that they had spent several months working on them.  It is easy for me to focus my attention in this paper on the more unusual sights of the strip where the large gay male population used the event to express themselves in provocative women’s clothing (or no clothes at all, like the large, overweight man laying in the middle of the road did) or women who expressed themselves equally in sexually provocative costumes as all of these individuals certainly made a memorable impression on me.  I would be remiss not to mention the most memorable costume of the evening – a giant penis whose austerity of appearance was matched only by the water that squirted out of the top of the costume raining down on the crowd.

Certainly Halloween night in West Hollywood has an overt hedonistic shadow cast over the evening, and there was a time in my life when I probably would have been unable to see beyond that.  But on this evening, there were two things that stood out to me from this experience beyond the exploited attention that some were trying so hard to receive.

First of all, while I did not feel out of place for not wearing a costume, I do remember being impressed by the large percentage of people who were participating in wearing costumes.  Yes, there was a large gay male population that chose to wear their best dresses that night and a few women wearing little more than lingerie, but there were also children and more traditional families present wearing the more traditional children’s costumes of cartoon characters.  There were gay couples and there were straight couples.  There were groups of teenagers, and there were families with little children.  There were groups of friends hanging out together, and there were more than a few older couples – almost all in costumes.

Second of all, the night was filled with laughter and fun.  It was a fun night – even though I was there alone and didn’t really talk with anyone.  There was a noticeable lack of mean-spirited people and naysayers.  The diverse crowd described above had gathered to have a good time together – and all were welcome.  This quality was especially endearing to me.  As I headed back to the campus of Fuller Seminary, I reflected on the experience I had just had.  I realized that I had just taken part in what the people of West Hollywood would consider to be their religious or spiritual festival.  My mind was taken back to the Old Testament and the pilgrimages taken during the seasons of feasts and festivals.  Surely the environment must have been similar to the one that I had just had in West Hollywood.  Then I considered the last time that I had “fun” at a worship festival or feast.   I am not trying to be unnecessarily cynical, but the reality is that most of the church gatherings that I am a part of are just not as fun as the West Hollywood Halloween party was.

It is easy to focus on what is wrong with an event like this and it seems as though Christians are predisposed to such negative criticisms, but in reality, I came to realize that there was a lot right about this event.  My wife didn’t arrive in Los Angeles until Wednesday, but if she had been able to be there with me, we would have had a fantastic time together there and I believe it would have been one of the highlights of our trip.  It seems to me that we are always undergoing a balancing act between celebration and reverence.  Far too often the church has chosen to focus on reverence to the neglect of celebration.  This cultural immersion experience has reminded me of the importance of teaching Christians how to celebrate and not take themselves too seriously – and especially has helped me to remember not to take myself too seriously.  Thank you West Hollywood.

Book Review: On the Verge

A special thanks to Zondervan for the free copy of On the Verge by Alan Hirsch and Dave Ferguson.  Incidentally, this is also required reading for my D. Min class this fall at Fuller with Alan Hirsch, so I am able to kill two proverbial birds with one stone.

In recent years I’ve read most of Hirsch’s books (The Shaping of Things to Come, The Forgotten Ways, and, earlier this year, Untamed).  It’s his work in these volumes that has led me to enroll in the class coming up this November in Pasadena.  Hirsch brings a missiologist’s perspective to ministerial leadership.  He and David Frost’s book, The Shaping of Things to Come, is one of the more influential books I’ve read in the past five years.  My knock on Hirsch has always been that he too broadly dismissed the established church.  They say as much in The Shaping of Things to Come – the only hope is for newly established communities.

With On the Verge, his tone towards the established church (with the help of Dave Ferguson) seems to be softening.  One of the chief metaphors in the book is of blue ocean and red ocean.  The blue ocean is innovation and new directions; the red ocean is the competitive place fighting over the status quo.  Established churches are working in the red ocean (connecting to 40% of people) but the blue ocean is opportunity and has more possibilities (60% of people).  The 60/40 observation is one that I feel helps correct their over-dismissal of the established church in previous works.  Hirsch hasn’t sold out on his vision: he still believes in change, innovation, and the missional impulse (the bulk of his work in this book reflects the foundation laid in The Forgotten Ways).

Per his style, Hirsch’s portion of the book is flooded with charts, graphs, and diagrams.  Almost to a fault, Hirsch’s conceptual discourse can seem far removed from practical ministry.  However, in On the Verge, they’ve tried to balance that with Dave Ferguson’s writing, as he emphasizes Hirsch’s theory with on-the-job practical examples and stories from his ministry and the ministry of others.

Overall, the book is another helpful contribution to the missional church discussion, as it adds to the discussion by seeing relevance for the already established church while at the same time goading the church toward innovation (largely structured around the concept of building a movement).  My only critique of the book is that sometimes it seems overly diagrammed.  I still have a bias against a do this, do this, and do this to get this formula, and while I believe the authors would go to great lengths to deny this as their intent (they even verbally do so in the book in places) it still comes across that way at times.

I remain convinced that Alan Hirsch is doing important things within Western Christianity and his voice is an important one to behold.  The addition of Dave Ferguson’s voice in this particular book was a good complement and makes the book a helpful resource for ministry staffs and seminary students.

Desperately Needed: A Theology of Sports

I recently finished reading Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports to help me begin preparation for the final project of my Theology and Pop Culture class.  As I’ve grown older, I’ve taken a more critical look at the place sports has played in my life.  Undoubtedly, there are countless assets sports has provided in my development (I think of friendship with teammates, learning team work and working together, work ethic and discipline, and holistic health just off the top of my head), but in reality, sports has remained one of the largest unexamined parts of my life, speaking theologically.  I’ve treated it almost as if it is somehow morally “neutral.”  I think, by and large, that is the way most Christians see it – neutral or morally ambiguous.  Christians are called by groups like Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the YMCA, and others to work hard and play fair.  But is that all there is?

Shirl Hoffman’s book sets out to treat sports seriously through the lenses of theology.   It makes for an usual hybrid read, full of fascinating anecdotes from the sports world mixed with theologically academic concepts.  Hoffman’s work largely breaks new ground in the area of sports and theology.  He states regularly through the book that this is an area Christians must begin to treat with more theological rigor.  In his treatment of the history of Christians and sports, Hoffman traces the initial reluctance to all things sports, into an eventual blind acceptance of them which is, arguably, at an all time high as seen by “faith nights” at professional sporting events, professional athlete testimonies, regular religious imagery in sports . . . and on and on.

In the coming weeks, I’m going to be putting together a series of videos and accompanying material that will hopefully help churches begin to reflect on both the positive aspects of sports as well as the potential negative side affects of sports.  We must begin to subject athletics to the same theological rigor that we would all other aspects of our lives.  Below is a list of the kinds of questions I seldom if ever hear Christians wrestle with that I believe we must start:

– Is competition inherently good, evil, or benign?

– What is the place of the opponent in athletic contests?

– Would Jesus let you win a one-on-one basketball game?  Or would he be any good?

– Is it sacrilegious to pray for the outcome of sporting events?  Does God care about the outcome?

– Is God really a Yankees and Cowboys fans?  Surely he would root for the Indians!

– Is it a healthy thing for Christians to admire “successful” athletes?  Why is it the only stories that get told are those who have won championships or have overcome great adversity (ie. “stories of inspiration”)?  How do we reconcile this with the biblical witness?

Hopefully, I can put something together that will help address these types of questions and move our conversation of sports forward.