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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                [2] Ibid., 159.

                [3] Ibid., 163.

                [4] Ibid., 165.

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

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

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

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

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

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

sox2009-07-1918201

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

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

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

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

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

[Click here for Next Post in Series]

Some Musings on Flag, Faith, and Football

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

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

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

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

[See the first post in the series here.]

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.

Sports and Ministry 51xremj98jl-_sx322_bo1204203200_

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.

Sportslebron-james-thumbs-up-miami

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

 

 

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.

Home: A Sermon

My summer schedule makes it nearly impossible for me to post regularly on my blog.  Whenever I do have a few moments to sit and plan and write, I always feel the urge to sit down and let my writing pour out.  Unfortunately, I have too many other responsibilities to make that possible.  I had just a moment – not long enough to post anything new, but thought I would share one of my sermons.  We are in the midst of a study of the movies and last week I preached from the Wizard of Oz.  Our theme for the summer movie series is entitled, “Our Deepest Longings,” and in it I am considering how movies prick our hearts at their deepest level.  All of our other studies are of more recently released movies, but months ago when I conceived this series, I had a real tug on my heart to preach this message from The Wizard of Oz.  It spoke a lot to me, and I hope you can find something moving it in as well.  Our sermons our posted online, but unfortunately, I haven’t had time to upload them in the past few weeks.  I hope to catch up soon.

We leave in just over two weeks for New York City and my final doctoral class – then things will begin to settle in for the fall rush.  Until then, here’s some musings on Home.

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 Longing for Home

Sunday, July 7, 2013

            When it comes to remembering my dreams, I’m a total failure.  I have heard from psychologists much smarter than me, that I have to dream, otherwise I would go crazy, so either I am insane (which would explain a few things) or, apparently, I am having dreams every single night, but I almost never remember them.  And when I do remember them – I get excited.  I wake up and tell Mary Beth – I remember my dream!  And as I begin to recount it to her . . . it’s really hard to remember the details, and slowly my words trail off – it’s like I was dreaming on an Etch a Sketch.  I realize that even when I “remember” my dreams . . . I don’t remember them very well.          

            Even those of you who do remember your dreams very well, for the most part, by the next day or week, you don’t remember anything about it.  You’ve completely forgotten the dream.  You’ve had other dreams to replace that one.  No doubt there are probably exceptions, and a few of you right now may be thinking of a dream you had years ago or a journal of strange dreams you keep  – but for the most part, dreams come to us like a Snap Chat message – it’s here for a few seconds – and then gone. 

            At the risk of entering the dangerous waters of psycho-analysis, most people realize that dreams somehow channel our deepest longings.  That they matter.  When we dream, it is the opportunity for our subconscious to let us know what it’s been thinking.  Most of us probably stay busy enough that we may not even realize that we’ve been thinking about certain things in our deepest places, but they often come out in our dreams.  Dreams are important, and interpreting dreams is an important part of psychiatry. 

            Our dreams are very much tied up in the movies.  Our movies appeal to our subconscious and, as has been my premise throughout the past few weeks, movies speak to us at that deep level – they reveal our deepest longings.  And so we’ve talked about our destiny and about redemption.  Today we take a break from the more recently produced movies, and go back to one of the best known classic movies, The Wizard of Oz. 

            Dreams, of course, figure greatly into The Wizard of Oz.  The audience is taken on this hour and a half journey, only to find out in the end, “You were there, and you were there,” and we had all been brought into Dorothy’s dream.  But just as our dreams tell us something, Dorothy’s dream tells her something and – I believe – tell us something. 

            We dream, typically, to see the world the way that we want to see the world.  N. T. Wright uses this realization to help argue for the existence of God.  Why is it that we all have this longing in us for things to be the way they are supposed to be?  Why do we know injustice when we see it?  Why do children scream, “That’s not fair!” when they have yet to learn what is fair and what is not?  How do they just know? 

                        How does it happen that, on the one hand, we all share not just a sense that thereis such a thing as justice, but   a passion for it, a deep longing that things should be put to rights, a sense of our out-of-jointness that goes on nagging and gnawingand sometimes screaming at us – and yet, on the other hand, after millennia of human struggle and searching and love and longing and hatred and hope andfussing and philosophizing, we still can’t seem to get much closer to it than peopledid in the most ancient societies we can discover?[1] 

            There is this longing of discontent that exists in the deepest recesses of every human being.  Even on our best days, even in our happiest moments, there is this feeling of fleeting – that those feelings are gone as quickly as they arrived.  This desire for things to be better, for people not to hurt other people, for beauty to be complete, for our needs to be fully met, for loved ones to be returned to life, for pain to cease . . . and on and such a list goes. 

            The Wizard of Oz is a movie about such a place.  A place where the scarecrow gets a brain, the tin man gets a heart, and the lion gets courage.  A place where the wicked witch is defeated and the road ahead is an easy-to-follow yellow-brick-road.  But even such a place does not fulfill Dorothy’s deepest longings.  She just wants to go home. 

            Home is more than a house or a hometown.  As the old folk saying goes, “Home is where the heart is.”  The ironic thing about “home” is that you can’t ever really go home, can you?  Home is this elusive idea of things being set just right, just the way you want them to be, just the way you remember them – but, home seems to always be just out of reach. 

            You go to your childhood home just to be reminded of how few things there are to do there.  You go to your high school’s homecoming just to be reminded of how different things are now.  You go to your home – your house now – just to be reminded of all the household chores that are waiting for you.  In all of our quests, we are reminded that this is not home. 

             When we close our eyes, when we tap our heels together three times and recite, “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home,” what is home?  Is it where you grew up?  Is it your childhood house?  Your grandparents house?  With your grandparents who have passed away?  With your parents who are gone?  A child who has passed away?  In the hospital room at the birth of your first child?  Your wedding day?  What is it your longing for?  Where do you want to go back to?  Into the arms of your mother who took care of all of your needs when you were a baby? To a previous time in your marriage when you didn’t fight so much?

            We have this longing inside of us – we understand where Dorothy is coming from – but we also realize that Kansas isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.  Home is more a feeling and a deep longing than it is a reality in and of itself.  How  many times have we felt like we just needed some time at home – maybe back home with your parents or in your old town, or wherever, and you get there – and you just can’t quite find what you’re looking for. 

            It’s because this world is not our home.  Listen to Jesus’ words to his disciples in John 14 as he is preparing to be taken away and crucified, listen if he doesn’t seem to be speaking to this very notion of home. 

            Read John 14: 1 – 14.

            In our discussion of longing for home, we get at one of the most fundamental and important theological teachings in the Bible: the already and not yet dichotomy of God’s kingdom.  On the one hand, this world is our home.  We pay its taxes, drive on its roads, listen and help create its music, watch its movies and television shows, inhabit its environment, love its people, work towards change and the betterment of all who live here, etc. etc.  Clearly, this wonderful and beautiful creation is from God and we are here to love and enjoy it. 

            And at the same time, we have this innate realization that it is not complete.  This world is not my home.  Jesus was going to prepare a place for his disciples.  If we push this text too far, we may think that there is an escape route and that all will be destroyed and God’s kingdom has nothing to do with this place.  However, if we push too far the other way, we fail to realize the utter brokenness of this place.  And how we long for another place. 

            Our deepest longings for home will never be satisfied by high school homecomings or family reunions.  Home is bigger than that – deeper than that.  Genesis explains that man was created in the image and likeness of God.  We will never truly be home, until we are with him. 

            Read 1 Thessalonians 4: 13 – 18.

            This is one of the most unique passages in the New Testament.  It’s one of the few places that talks in detail about Jesus’s second coming.  It’s this picture of Jesus coming to take us home. I don’t understand how it will happen, exactly.  I don’t know all the ins and outs of the end of time, but this passage is a clear statement that, while there will be some continuity between this world and the next – there also will be some changes.

            With all the many things that our lives grow full of, it can be easy to take our eyes off of this ultimate goal.  We can be distracted from understanding of what home truly is.  Home is such a powerful emotion – we listen to songs about it, we watch movies about it, we schedule events to try and promote it . . . but we must always be reminded of what exactly home is.  Home is where our hearts are.  And hopefully our hearts are with Jesus. 

            [Play Carrie Underwood’s video to the song “Temporary Home” to close.]


                [1]  N. T. Wright.  Simply Christian.  6.

God is on Ray Lewis’s Side: Or, Why Athletes Should Stop Quoting Scripture

The fall 0f 1996 was one of the most disappointing seasons in my life as a sports fan.  My grandpa has instilled in me an avid desire to cheer for the Cleveland Browns.  Grandpa is a true Browns fan.  We have been to several Browns games in person – in Cleveland, and even ventured to a few road games in Detroit and Indianapolis.  Grandpa has every copy of the official team newspaper and several of the media guides.  His house (and my bedroom) were littered with brown and orange memorabilia.  Some of my fondest memories involve going to Grandpa’s house after church for the 1:00 kick off.  We watched them win a lot of games . . . and lose a lot of close games . . . “The Fumble,” The Drive,” they still make me depressed.  We also swore a lot at those bastards from Pittsburgh (back then we beat them a lot more than they beat us – as hard as it is for my son to believe).

I was a senior in high school in the fall of 1996.  It could have been the greatest year for me as a football fan.  But as I look back at that fall, I don’t remember watching many NFL games at all.  I remember watching the playoffs and not caring who won – at all.

The fall of 1996 is when the owner of the Cleveland Browns, Art Modell, moved the Browns to Baltimore and they became what is now the Ravens.   ( The whole drama has an entire writeup on Wikipeida)  Yeah, that Ravens team.  The one that just won their second Super Bowl since moving.  The one who is run by one of my favorite players of all time – Ozzie Newsome, who chose to stay there instead of return to Cleveland.  The Browns did come back to Cleveland in 1999 and retained their colors, their records, their heritage . . . but it hasn’t been the same since. .  They’ve been woeful.  It occurred to me this season just how long it has been since they were good.  They’ve been to the playoffs once since returning in 1999.  And lost.  To the Steelers.  Bastards.

This is really a long way of explaining why I hate the Ravens.  I thought I had gotten over the whole thing, and then I was watching the game Sunday and realized that I was hoping for them to die . . . OK, not really, but I really didn’t want them to win.  I realized how real those feeling still are.  And then . . . the worst thing that could have happened, happened.  They won, but what I’m talking about is worse than that.  It has to do with Ray Lewis

In case you missed this parody of Ray Lewis on Saturday Night Live last weekend, it’s pretty funny – see here.

Now, he wasn’t raptured to heaven after the game as the skit mocks, but he was full of Scripture.  I heard him interviewed after the game on television, and then again on the radio and both times he was quick to give God the credit for his victory.  His first homily still rings in my ears, “Man . . . . I tell you . . . if God is for you, who can be against you?  That’s what this is all about?”

That is not what I needed to hear.  My heart was already heavy after they Ravens win . . . but now, Mr. Lewis informs me that it was God’s destiny????  That God was on the Ravens side????  That means, as I have long wondered, God hates Cleveland.  We had Bill Belichick before Bill Belichick was cool (and he sucked).  Bizarre injuries.  Unbelievable plays – they once lost a game because one of their players took their helmet off.    You just can’t make this stuff up!

While this idea does resonate with a lot of people’s feelings regarding Gods involvement in the games, it doesn’t do much for my theology.  Athletes have seldom been shy about preaching the word.  Whether it’s Tim Tebow’s eye black, the antics of Dion Sanders, or the classic end zone prayers – Dion Sanders once assured us that “Sports and religion go together like peanut butter and jelly.”  However, it is my perspective that these athletes may be the best of the best in the athletic world . . . but they don’t usually make good preachers.  This is very subject is critically analyzed by Tom Krattenmaker in his great book Onward Christian Athletes.  Are the 49ers, not to mention the other 30 teams, supposed to understand that God wanted them to lose?  That there is a plan in their losing?  To take Ray Lewis’s comment in it’s implication – absolutely.

The problem with all of this, of course, is that the Scriptures from which these athletes regularly quote more often times than not, celebrate the “losers.”  The entire New Testament proclaims Jesus came to the less fortunate and the downtrodden . . . so to think that somehow these same Scriptures, at the same time, proclaim God’s providence for their games and that God takes interest in who wins?  The Scriptures are written in the context of people preparing to die for their faith and be physically tested and challenged in their faith.  In quoting from Romans, Ray Lewis shows himself to be lacking in his exegetical skills.  Instead, like so many athletes, the turn to the Scriptures to reaffirm a broader civic religion at play in their games – a religion where good sportsmanship, playing by the rules, and being a good teammate are tantamount to God’s ultimate purpose in life.  While these are all noble qualities, they do not represent the essence of the Christian Gospel.  The “sacrifice” that the Bible talks about has nothing to do with preparing for a game.  God being “for us” has nothing to do with promoting the outcome of a game.  By using these holy words to affirm his victory, Ray Lewis has reduced the Bible to a self-help guide, a trite collection of feel-good aphorisms that show up in the bargain bin at Barnes and Noble a month after it comes out.

Athletes should stop quoting Scripture.  At least in the trite way that has become so common place across today’s athletic landscape.  If an athlete were to ever come to terms with the true radical nature of Scripture, and shared the words of the Bible in the midst of the modern-day spectacle that is the Super Bowl, we can be assured that people would have taken notice of that . . . and probably not taken the words too well.

“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 . . .

Lance Armstrong as a Product of our Obsession with Winning

I am in the process of writing a dissertation on the power of sports.  A timely topic considering that each season seems to bring a new story from sports that easily transcends the fun and playfulness that sports is intended to be.  When I first started researching for this project, the NCAA was finalizing their investigation into Penn State University and inflicting harsh penalties on a state sponsored institution that was involved in an unfathomable scandal that involved child rape and molestation.  All along this time, there have been countless stories from Major League Baseball regarding players who used steroids and other performance enhancing drugs.  There has been a major labor dispute in the National Hockey League which finally has been resolved, following a major work stoppage and costing millions of dollars in lost revenues for local businesses.  And these are just a few of the major national headlines . . . there have been many others that haven’t garnered the national attention.

Sports, as I am in the process of arguing, is a spiritual power.  It casts a shadow of power over all facets of life.  Sports are beautiful, life-giving, healthy, fun, and created by God.  But what have they become?  Lance Armstrong and his PED scandal is the stuff of soap operas – the kinds they can’t show on network television.  Dan Wetzel’s article has a really insightful perspective of the whole situation here.  In it, he goes on to state: “Armstrong isn’t necessarily a bad guy for doping. He is a bad guy for the way he used his immense power, fame and fortune to attempt to ruin anyone who dared to speak the truth to his avalanche of lies.”

Sports creates quite a dilemma when it comes to ethics.  It’s OK to fake like you are going to hand the ball off to a player, and then actually pass, or even more overtly, have you ever watched a team that’s really  good at running the triple option?  Deception is at the heart of most sports.  Deception, though, must be kept within the boundaries of play.  It’s not OK to slip a player off the slideline just before the snap and then throw him the ball – this is against the written rules of football (illegal participation foul for those officials out there – of if you’re feeling generous, 5 yards substitution penalty before the snap).  There are those unwritten rules of the game like not stealing the signs from the catcher from second base and kicking the ball out of bounds in soccer when a  player is injured . . . but how does all this fit into the larger ethical framework of the world?

MLB was apparently dirty for more than 20 years.  Players doping, injecting, and bulking up without any media scrutiny at all.  Watching home run chases and records falling, spectators fully suspended their disbelief – we were living in the age of incredible athletic marvels!  Truly God had blessed us to live in that time.   Cycling, it appears, followed the same course of action.  We love to see athletes at the highest levels.  After all, “Records are made to be broken,” we say.  But are there records that will never be broken – can’t be?  Without some kind of artificial help?  And is that artificial help always wrong?  Is it always unethical?

Those questions require more time and space than I intend to offer here, but I will say that Lance Armstrong represents a great case study for this tension.  Without his cheating, his philanthropy would have never come to fruition.  No yellow bands.  No cancer support network (at least not Live Strong).  And it catches all of us in quite a conundrum.  What are we to make of it?  If we can’t at least acknowledge our part in helping create the monster himself, I’m afraid we’ll never come to terms with the truth.  Lance Armstrong represents what we have done to sports . . . we have elevated it from the purpose it was created to serve – fun, pleasure, enjoyment, leisure, and have made it into a monster that dwarfs its powerful head into economics, medicine, politics, education, and everywhere in between.  Lance Armstrong deserves his share of negative attention, punishment, and the lot.  But he is not the only one to indict here.  Those of us who are insistent upon creating gods out of athletes.  Those of us who will enjoy the athletic events . . . and then ask questions later.  Maybe if we paid more attention to those who came in last place instead of obsessing over those who finish first we could solve some of our own problems.