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.

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Writing, Sports, Stephen King, and Donald Trump

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

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

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

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

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

The Stephen King Project2099-500x800

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

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

Sports and Christianity Conference

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.

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.

2014 – My year in reading

Böcker

A few years back I started writing down all the books I read each year because it was getting difficult to keep up with all of them.  I’d start to forget if I read a book, and if I did, when, and all that.  Plus, it has made it easy to go back and reflect on the best stuff I read over the past year.  I don’t read like most people.  The vast majority of what I read is a few years old.  Did you know if you wait a year or two, books are cheaper?  That’s the gist of my philosophy on reading.  So if I really want a new book, I’ll but it on Amazon, but, but mostly my books come by the whim of a Goodwill store of a Half Price bookstore.

A few notes on the genres in which I spent my time reading.  1 – I finished the bulk of my research for my dissertation, so there I read a whole lot of books on the sociological and theological connection of sports.  That’s becoming the sweet spot in my reading.  That’s where I like to spend my time.  2 – I decided last year that I was going to begin to read all of Stephen King’s novels in the order in which they were published.  As a rule, I don’t read a ton of fiction, but I have long enjoyed Stephen King’s books.  I find him to be a great story teller, and I often resonate with these stories.  Throughout the year, it provided a nice break from nonfiction.  3 – I’m hoping to diversify my reading more this year.  We’ll see what happens.

Best book I read in 2014

they played their hearts out

They Played Their Hearts Out is one of the best books I’ve ever read.  It’s a wonderfully told true story of the grassroots basketball machine in Southern California.  The author, George Dohrmann, was allowed behind-the-scenes access to a coach trying to break into a lucrative, grassroots, corporate-sponsored coaching career as well as about two dozen different players who Dohrmann followed from middle school through college (some of the biggest basketball schools in the country).  It is inspiring at times, disheartening at others, and really eye-opening throughout.  As I discovered in my research, AAU basketball isn’t really thrilled to have journalists probing around behind-the-scenes, and Dohrmann’s book provides an essential perspective.  He goes where few journalists have ever gone before and has provided a realistic insight into the very youth sports machine that my dissertation is critical of.  Kobe Bryant’s recent comments along with LeBron James‘ helped bring light to the same topic even more recently.  Anyone who wants to think seriously about youth sports should read this book.

Best Stephen King Book I read in 2014

the stand

At this point, I think I’ve read about 20 of Stephen King’s books. Next up this year is his work of non-fiction Danse Macabre.  As I said earlier, I’ve taken up Stephen King’s books, because he is one of the few authors of fiction I’ve especially resonated with.  And of all of his books I’ve read, this was probably the one I enjoyed the most (with the exception of the Dark Tower series).  I remember watching the mini-series that was based on the books back in the early 1990’s, and have been rewatching it on Netflix.  I enjoyed the show, but the book was absolutely brilliant.  I lost myself in it over the weeks that I read it.  I read the abridged version, and plan to read the longer version when I get to the point that it was released in perspective of the others.  This novel proves, once and for all, that Stephen King was post-apocalyptic before post-apocalyptic was cool.  While the subject has become a staple in literature, on television, and in the movies, The Stand remains as one of the best of the lot.

Book I Should Have Read Earlier than 2014

sex god

I like Rob Bell, but have never been part of his cult of personality that many others have been.  I read Velvet Elvis and enjoyed it, I read Jesus Wants to Save Christians and enjoyed it even more, I watched the NOOMA videos and thought some were brilliant, and others were weird, but it wasn’t until this past year that I finally got around to reading the copy of Sex God and wondered why I waited so long.  I read it as I was studying to teach a class on the controversial topic of homosexuality (you can check it out online here) and it really helped provide me a framework to teach the class.  I wish I was as creative as Rob, and I appreciate his out-of-the-box way of seeing things.  It’s a really nice book on sex.

Book that I Keep Coming Back to from 2014

changing the gameIf sports ain’t your thing, sorry to bore you with these contributions from last year, but as I said, that’s where my head’s been the past couple of years.  John O’Sullivan has provided the youth sports industry in America with a resource that I hope more and more people will take a look at.  In all my research in this area, I didn’t find any resources quite like this.  He’s recognized many of the shortcomings in today’s youth sports industry and is setting out to address them.  If you want to see a synopsis and have a few minutes (about 10) his TED Talk is excellent and summarizes what his book is all about.  If you are a coach or have children involved in youth sports, this is the one book I would suggest above all the others.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VXw0XGOVQvw

Book that Most Surprised Me in 2014

unlikely discipleI had kind of a low expectation for The Unlikely Disciple.  I didn’t expect to hate it, I just kind of expected it to be a typical caricature of either the Left or the Right political worlds by the other.  It certainly was that (a Liberals insider-tale of the tight-knit conservative world of Liberty University).  However, I thought Kevin Roose was able to somehow avoid extremes in his honest memoir, and provide a heart-warmingly honestly picture of a world that he was incredibly unfamiliar with.  Essentially, the uber-liberal Roose, brought up in an extremely (and admittedly) Ohio home and, at the time, current student at Brown University, decided to embark on a year-long undercover experience at “America’s Holiest University” – Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.  The book takes quite a few surprising turns, and Roose proves to be gentle and honest about where he was wrong about the people who became his friends, and at the same time, holding steady to his beliefs.  I was surprised to find myself coming back to the book so often after I had finished it.

Funniest Book I read in 2014

yes pleaseMy wife and I have read many books together through the years, but it’s taken a bit of a hiatus through my dissertation process.  It was nice to be able to enjoy reading Amy Poehler’s new book over the Christmas break.  Reading her book as a pastor, I had the following observations (of which I shared with my church yesterday): 1 – We should laugh more.  Christians, as a rule, take themselves way too seriously.  Mary Beth and I have long enjoyed watching SNL (the book we’ve begun for the new year is Live From New York and chronicles the history of the show.  Poehler’s book is, as expected, hilarious.  When I think about faith and God and the way that it is often expressed in church, I just wonder, why don’t people laugh more?   2 – Amy’s situation in comedy (along with many other women on SNL) is eerily similar to women in churches.  Amy tells of often being the only women in the room full of men.  Most comedies have exclusively male writing crews.  For all my Christian brothas and sistas . . . doesn’t that sound a bit familiar?  Amy Poehler along with Tina Fey, Maya Rudolf, and many others who have gone before them – represent a new era of strong female leaders in comedy.  I wonder how they would fare in church?  3 – Speaking of Christianity, Amy never mentions Jesus or churches, but she does, quite noticeably, quote quite a few Hindu and Buddhist platitudes.  I find it interesting to see how many celebrities opt for Eastern religion over Christianity.  When someone is in search of inner peace and meditation and stillness, the last thing they think of is the noise of mega churches or the shallowness of many preachers.  We should take note.

I don’t know if anyone cares too much, but it’s nice for me to spend a few minutes and reflect on some of the good books I came across.  A few other honorable mentions were, from my dissertation field (sports and religion): Michael Novak’s beautiful The Joy of Sports (if you are a Christian, and you love sports, you really should read this), Young Athletes, Couch Potatoes, and Helicopter Parents (I dropped a buck to get this one, but it was worth it – a whole lot of youth parents need to read this one), and Lincoln Harvey’s A Brief Theology of Sport.(if you’re interested in the topic, but wish I’d stop giving references, this is a good, short one that is worth the read).

A a few non-sports and theology related: I have finally read the first two books of the Harry Potter series, with my daughter, and think that J. K. Rowling is brilliant, absolutely brilliant; Stephen King’s The Dead Zone is a fantastic book and not talked about enough – incredible how many original stories he’s been able to write, ‘Salem’s Lot was great too, and, just to prove that I don’t blindly read Stephen King, I was a little disappointed with his newest book Revival.  With a former pastor as a main character, the book advertises following his journey through doubt, but I thought that faith ended up playing much more of a background for the plot than actually carrying it along.  I thought he could do a lot more with that, and  I thought his earlier book published this year, Mr. Mercedes, was much more fun and original.   I had high hopes of Revival, and thought that it was just OK.  Might have been better as an novella or even a short story.

The very first book I read last year was Pastrix, by Nadia Bolz-Weber, and many people have said a great deal of nice things about it which I would concur.  It’s been a year, so I’m a little foggy on it, but I will say, her kindred spirit may just find herself at home for the new blog I am working to roll out here before too long.  Anyway, I’m ready for another year of reading.

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.

Homosexuality: Does a Pastor have to have an Answer?

As a minister, you get used to hearing people ask you what you believe about all kinds of different issues.  This occurs from people within your church as well as people outside your church – from Christians as well as non-Christians.  Occasionally, I’ll even receive Facebook messages from high school friends and old acquaintances asking my opinion about certain matters – anything from doctrine to politics to current events to interior design – ok, that hasn’t happened, but just about everything else has!  Most ministers become adept at navigating their responses to delicate and controversial issues in order to convey their true feelings while also respecting a diversity of thought and opinion.  Some, like Patrick Mead, even offer an ongoing “ask the preacher” kind of format in his blog. No doubt, we all have our sacred cows and find it difficult to answer both honestly and succinctly to certain matters (just ask me about militarism), but by and large, this is something that comes with the territory and the title.  We are teachers.  Those who preach come from a long line of prophets and Christian leaders.  Our voices aren’t more important than anyone else’s – I firmly believe that – but our voices are often heard by more than others.  Even those of us who preach at small churches like mine carry some degree of influence.  Thus, people are genuinely interested in what we have to say.

Generally, I truly appreciate these inquiries and am humbled that anyone cares about my opinion.  I try to be a constant student, love learning, and make every effort to be as prepared for any question or discussion that may come my way.  The older I get and the more I study and learn – the more inadequate I feel and the more difficulty I have in offering short answers to just about any question.  I find I hate yes/no questions more than ever.  And the more I change my mind about things, the less certain I become about many of the beliefs I currently hold.

And so, inevitably, I find myself asked in different ways, under differing circumstances, and by a broad diversity of people what I believe about homosexuality and correspondingly what I believe the Bible teaches about homosexuality.  I have some pretty controversial perspectives on politics and nationalism (along with a few other things :-)) but I have become more afraid of tackling this topic than any other . . . by far.

If you are like me, you have a short attention span when it comes to reading blog posts and so, if you are truly like me, you probably won’t read this entire thing, because . . . if you’re like me, you can’t write shortly or succinctly about this one, but I’ll do what I can to offer what is at the heart of my struggle here.

In response to one of the most recent inquiries into my beliefs about homosexuality and Christianity and the Bible, I hemmed and hawed and finally said, “I don’t know.”  It wasn’t a cop-out and I wasn’t trying to avoid the discussion.  Honestly, I’ve been studying and thinking about this issue pretty seriously since 1998 when I was first exposed to teenagers who were wrestling with this issue.  I was pretty confused back then, and I find it discouraging that 15 years later, I’m still really confused and unsure.

And now everyone wants to know what I think – well, not everyone, but three or four people.  As of late, it’s become an explosive topic to discuss – even more than in the past.  I’m disappointed that more high profile pastors and Christian leaders aren’t having honest public discussion about the topic.  I’m disappointed, but I’m not surprised. I’m sure they’re scared to death to open this can of worms.  Sure, the boisterous voices on either the far right and far left of the issue are quick to throw out their zingers and offer their messages of condemnation or salvation, but just look at how many are really quiet.  My tradition is, admittedly, an interesting one, but we have our fair share of public figures, and I haven’t heard many of them address this topic head on.  Thank you for being an exception Sally Gary!

This post is already long, so let me get to the heart of things here.  You want to know my opinion about this matter?  I don’t know.  Honestly.  I don’t know what I believe about it.  I feel caught between a rock and a hard place in coming to terms with a theological articulation that I am comfortable with.  I’ll offer a point or two below to highlight why I don’t know, but first I want to ask the question, “Is it so bad that I don’t know?”  Haven’t we moved beyond the era where pastors and other teachers and leaders have to be “answer men/women”?  Haven’t we been wrong on enough matters to keep us from speaking too definitively on just about anything?  I know this scares the hell out of some people, but just look at the track record of the church.  We’ve been wrong . . . really, really wrong, on some crucial matters in the past.  Southern churches on slavery and later on civil rights, German Lutherans and their dual kingdom theology allowing them to turn the other way at Hitler’s rise to power . . . torture and execution of heretics . . . need I go on?

Even the Bible gets it wrong.  If you’ve never squirmed your way through some of the Old Testament passages that kicked the women out of the camp because they were on their period or that would offer a rapist the woman’s hand in marriage for a fee or read the book of Joshua and considered the countless women and children that were murdered at the hands of God’s people, you have skipped over the icky parts.  Maybe I’m overstating it to say that “the Bible gets it wrong” . . . but my point is that it’s not like this sacred book that we all point to for guidance and truth can just be picked up preached without some unpacking.

For this issue of homosexuality, there’s a lot at stake, and I understand that’s why it’s so explosive.  All wrapped up in this matter are the issues of politics, the sacredness/sacrament of marriage, equality, rights, biblical interpretation (hermeneutics), your view of Scripture, your view of the state, love, parenting, creation, the nature of God, the nature of humanity, science, genetics, and probably a thousand others I’ve overlooked.

And I don’t know what to do with it all.  Theologically and hermeneutically, I struggle to make homosexuality “fit.”  There’s a lot at stake in order for me to make it “fit,” and slowly around me some of those troubles are beginning to fall away.  However, for good or for ill, I remain reluctant to make that jump.   Experientially, I struggle to make the prohibition of homosexuality “fit.”  Friends, companions, and conversation partners I have had in the past and currently have help me struggle through their created nature.  Why would they have feelings like this?  Why would God make them like this?  What does it mean?  It is like other struggles (alcoholism, etc.) but it’s not the same.  Not by a long stretch.  And so . . . what to do?

I have a good friend who is transgendered and, whether she knows it or not, is helping me think through this as well.  When I say alot is at stake, this comes front and center in the matter of gender identity.  The first question we ask upon a child’s birth is, “Is it a boy or a girl?”  It’s the fundamental black and white question in our society.  But what about when it’s not black and white?  What about when we understand gender as more than anatomical?  When that question becomes complicated, that seems to make the point that everything is complicated.

There are so many related issues under the rubric of homosexuality and I am far from prepared to delve into even a few of them.  For now, I am prepared to let you know that I don’t know.  Many, maybe even most, will look at that as being “soft.”  A cop out.  Wimping out.  Maybe it is.  Maybe I am.  I do believe that most of what I am hearing and reading about regarding the matter of homosexuality from professed Christians isn’t helping anyone.  It’s often vitriol, judgmental, and condescending.  I know that all of it isn’t and that we are becoming more adept at public discourse regarding the issue, but we have a long ways to go.

I also know that there are many Christians who are struggling through this matter.  I know many of them are not in churches that allow them to share openly and honestly the struggles that comes with these feelings and, perhaps, being in these relationships.  I know that I don’t understand what they are going through.  I want to empathize, and try as much as I can, but I don’t understand their struggles.  I am full of my own struggles and know the temptation of pornography, short skirts, and tight shirts.  I know the power of libido and confess my own shortcomings in taking captive those thoughts to Christ.  And I know that I am not in a position of being your judge, and hope that these people can find friends and companions that will help them navigate these challenging waters.  I hope to provide some additional posts in the coming weeks into some of my struggles through this issue, but as for now, I just wanted to say to all those who want to know what I think about homosexuality: “I don’t know.”

Welcome to Holy Week: The Super Bowl as Religious Festival

One of the most intriguing aspects of the study of religion and sport is to watch the games evolve from sacred origins to a more secular place today.  Allen Guttman summarizes this evolution well: “We do not run in order that the earth be more fertile.  We till the earth, or work in our factories and offices, so that we can have time to play,”  (From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sports – p. 26)  Of course, that is not to say that the sacred is completely absent in today’s games, and that is never more clearly on display than the week of the Super Bowl.  A little over a decade ago, Jospeh L. Price penned a brief essay entitled, “The Super Bowl as Religious Festival.”  Though he doesn’t describe the comparison in great detail, his observation is keen.

In his book The Holy Trinity of American Sports, Craig Forney explores the elements of America’s civil religion in our three most popular sports: football, basketball, and baseball which he believes, “form a trinity of ‘major sports’ working together each year in portrayal of the national worldview” (16).  Forney, among others, point out that the ebbing and flowing of American culture is largely dictated by its sports.  Rather than January ushering in the start of a new year, baseball’s spring training, and college basketball’s March Madness provide a more accurate occasion for a new year.  Coinciding with the renewing of nature in spring, these spring sports capture the imagination of the American public and catapult us forward into a new season.  As sports continues its burgeoning throughout the cultural landscape, at both subtle and overt levels, sports dictates the framework within which much of culture operates – whether one is a sports fan or not.

What makes sports so powerful, I am in the process of arguing, is that it is so intertwined with other powerful realities: politics, economics, and culture to name but three.  The National Anthem serves as an invocation, as well as a military fly-over, and often a recorded message from the President.  The astronomical price of advertising during the Super Bowl is common knowledge and accentuates the economic power that sports have come to embody.  While sports have an obvious universal appeal, each culture has its own games and national imperialism often has sport as a key element (think of the prominent way that Americans emphasize (and proselytize baseball, basketball, and American football around the world), but have been slow to accept hockey (from Canada), and soccer, rugby, and cricket (from Europe)).

All of this comes together in the spectacle of the Super Bowl.  Football is a fall sport, but its championships are played in the winter.  College’s champion was crowed a few weeks ago, and now all eyes have turned to the American crown jewel of sports: the NFL, and it’s crowing moment – the Super Bowl.  To the extent that sports is America’s civil religion, the Super Bowl represents its most important religious festival.  There are regularly serious petitions set out to make the Monday after the Super Bowl a national holiday.  It is the culmination of a year’s worth of sporting events, set to restart itself with the basketball season, and just-around-the-corner MLB spring training.

If the Super Bowl is the chief religious festival in the United States, that makes today the start of Holy Week (and in true America style – our Holy Week actually last two weeks – with the additional week off between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl).  There will be non-stop talk about the game, the teams, the half time show, the commercials, past Super Bowls, past Super Bowl MVPs, the current state of football, and any other obscure, quasi-related topics they can find.  And the game will be played, after the seven hour pregame show, crowning a new champion who will be “going to Disney World” .  .  . and then . . . the whole year will start over again.

Stating that the Super Bowl is a religious festival is neither to affirm that as a positive cultural trait, or to chastise it as all too secular.  It’s simply an observation of our culture.  This weekend, our nation will be littered with Super Bowl parties, tailgate parties (all inside, in this part of the country!), fun and game.  It’s the one time of the year that, even if you don’t care the slightest for sports, come next Monday, if you don’t know what happened the day before, people will look at you like you’re Amish.  In any regard, I have no interest in the teams that are playing this year (other than the fact that as a Browns fan, I never root for the Ravens), but I will watch all the same.  I will enjoy a fun evening with people from my church, as well as friends from our neighborhood.  It seems to me to be the perfect night for America to truly embody the ethos of the New Testament ideal of koinonia . . . it’s just disappointing that it takes a sporting event to draw us together like this.

In any case, it’s almost baseball season!  This is our year!  Go Tribe!

 

Winding Down 2012

2012 is nearing an end, and just like every “end of the year” in our culture – it is a busy time.  For some reason we’ve managed to stuff Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve all into the same five or six weeks that we have end-of-the-year wrap up, year-end reviews, new year planning, calendar buying and scheduling, and, most importantly, “best of the year” music and movie countdowns.

2012 has been an especially lively time for our family.  Our children are growing older (quickly!), ministry is an never-ending endeavor, I have intensified my studies as I near the end of my DMin program, and pursued a few new endeavors this year.  As I continue to tie up the loose ends of this year: my classes at OVU are coming to an end next week, football officiating ended a month and a half ago, I have a book review to post later this week, I will be turning my intention towards my dissertation.  I hope to hammer out my thesis in the next few months, and will be convening a session at the 2013 Scholar’s Conference at Lipscomb University next summer in connection with my research on sports and theology.  I am excited to have friends and colleagues Steven Bonner and Shawn Duncan also presenting papers, and we have recently learned that well-known scholar Shaun Casey will be hosting our session.  Additionally, Joshua Fleer, PhD candidate at Florida State will be offering response to our papers.

I continue to grow excited in regards to the potential this project has for the future.  Most of the material I have found in my research make statements as to the general lack of attention the topic of sports has received by critical theology.  Additionally, I am amazed at the lack of critical attention the topic receives in youth ministry and men’s ministry circles.  I hope to make important contributions in these areas in the future.  I am excited to have Craig Detwieler on board as content reader to this project and look forward to his comments and suggestions.

Needless to say, there is plenty of work to be done.  I hope to use the blog as a haven for some of my research ventures throughout the dissertation and would enjoy comments and suggestions as this project continues to grow legs.  Essentially, I am going to be working in the realm of the New Testament use of the language of “powers” and “principalities” and applying to the “spirit of sport” in our culture.  Theologically, I’m relying heavily on the work of Walter Wink, JH Yoder, and the like to discuss the implications of these social structures in our world and hope to illustrate that what God has created to serve us, we have become slaves to.  Hopefully, this can help foster a discussion for the proper participation and consumption of sports.