Saturday, January 26, 2008

Catching Up

WOW! Has it really been September since I last posted to this blog? Shame on me. It's not that I haven't had things to write about, instead it has been finding the time to write.
So here are some 'catch-up' entries as well as a resolution to post more often in '08.

Sports, church, and God:
In November, thanks to a gift from some friends, Kim and I had the dubious pleasure of attending our very first regular season Titans game. This particular game began at noon which caused me the same conflict that I guess others who are churchgoers and football fans have--do I attend church or the game on Sunday? Admittedly there are many churchgoing folks who do not seem to feel these pangs of conscience and must be OK with simply missing church on home game Sundays. I tried to resolve my own dilemma by preaching our first worship service that day and enlisting a guest speaker for the second, enabling us to make it to the game near starting time. Unfortunately this move did not help absolve my guilty conscience.
More disheartening than even the poor play of the Titans offense was seeing up close and personal the huge amount of money that is generated by professional sports teams. Looking around at the number of companies who no doubt paid mega bucks to have their name posted or announced ("its another 'Amsouth' first down!" "the Titans make a 'Kroger' sack") as well as the face amount cost of our tickets, the exorbitant prices of concessions, parking costs ($14 to park and ride), etc. was staggering. I calculated that our 'free tickets' ended up costing us about $80. Kim and I agreed that it was more fun to watch the game at home, where there is never a line at the restroom!
I am a huge sports fan. I love to watch baseball, football, college basketball, and sometimes even hockey. Yet I wonder about our society, in which lots and lots of money is spent on our enjoyment of athletic contests (did I mention the number of people who were wearing Titans jerseys or other Titans apparel? It keeps adding up.) As a minister it has bothered me when sporting events from youth soccer to pro football keep people from attending church on Sunday. I find myself strangely conflicted about my own love of sports and wonder if I'm doing enough to keep it in check, especially when it conflicts with the exercise of my faith.
Recently I found out this is not a new problem for the church. One of Augustine's Advent sermons from the third century notes that the bishop and church father lamented the lack of attendance at worship because of the December gladiatorial games schedule! He speaks to the paltry crowd saying, "The rest of you must be in the amphitheater, looking more for entertainment than salvation" (Augustine, "Sermons to the People", p. 4). I feel his pain echoed across the centuries, but have no easy answers.
What I am seeking is a way to enjoy sports without sports becoming idolatrous in my life. Is there a way to be a sports fan and a follower of Christ? Or are they mutually exclusive?

Sports, church, and God pt. 2:
My daughter Hannah completely shocked us this year and went out for cheerleading...and made the squad. Which of course means that I have attended lots of high school basketball games in support of her this past few months.

(An aside: Merrol Hyde Magnet, where Hannah attends, is destined to become the Vanderbilt of Sumner county athletics, meaning that a high emphasis on academics doesn't necessarily go hand in hand with athletic prowess. A bonus is that Merrol Hyde does not have enough interested students to field a football team, making my life as a cheerleading parent relatively easy with only indoor basketball games to attend. It also keeps a lot of young men from having the devastating experience of losing nearly every football game they play. The private high school I attended went 0 and 11 in football when I was a freshman starter at defensive end. Trust me, losing every game might build character but it does nothing for your self esteem.)

Two observations from this experience:
First, I embarrass people at games (mainly those who are related to me) with my enthusiasm and passion, especially as it relates to poor calls by the referees. At one point in a very close game (remember, our teams don't win often!) I was so frustrated I stood up, took off my glasses, and loudly offered them to a ref who made (IMHO!) a terrible call.
Hey, I know that I can not justify my behavior on any grounds. High school referees are to be pitied--anyone who would take any money to be a referee is crazy. I used to ref youth soccer for 6 year olds and left the field one Saturday feeling much like the Clintons--imagining maniacal persecutors bent on my destruction around every corner. As Kim keeps reminding me, it is a high school basketball game and ONLY a high school basketball game. There are a lot more things in the world deserving of my passion and energy. A lesson in there somewhere, to be sure.

Second, is that not only my own conduct but the conduct of fans in general leaves much to be desired. Perhaps our shouting at referees for 'bad calls' reflects the frustrations of adult life, in which 'bad calls' are an everyday occurrence. Perhaps we are really frustrated at the fact that life overall is just not fair and shouting at referees makes us feel we are somehow working toward helping life become fair. What I am learning is that not everyone feels a need to act out this way.
One concrete example might be helpful. Usually when the opposing team is taking a foul shot, everyone in the bleachers rooting for the home team will scream, yell, taunt, stomp the bleachers, etc. in hope that the distraction will somehow keep the shooter from making the shot. This happens with regularity by the fans on both sides. However, at one game I noticed that the opposing fans were dead silent during foul shots--whether it was their team or ours that was shooting at the time.
It became so overwhelming to fans on our side that as the game went on, I noticed that the usual noise during opposing foul shots began to dampen a bit. Proof positive that a good example speaks louder (or in this case softer) than words?

What does this incident have to do with God? Well, the 'silent during foul shots' school was a Christian academy. Perhaps they were just following the instructions of Paul, believing that by doing good to an enemy team they were heaping coals of fire upon their heads (Romans 12:20). I choose to believe they were consciously exercising Christlike behavior through following the golden rule. Their silence was embarrassingly deafening. Maybe good sportsmanship, much like the good exercise of Jesus' command for us to love our neighbor as ourself, is not dead after all.

Homecoming attendant:
A pleasant surprise was to learn that our daughter Hannah was elected as freshman attendant to the homecoming court. It was both disconcerting and somehow also pleasing to witness her beauty that night, all decked out in a long evening dress and escorted by a nice young man. See for yourself:

Needless to say, Mom and Dad are very proud of her inner beauty as much as her outer beauty as she continues to grow up to become a fine young woman.

Science, God, and the Bible:
My ever inquisitive eleven year old son Noah continues to push the boundaries of my thinking with his constant questions. Recently, the budding scientist (oops, robotic engineer, he wants to be a robotics engineer) has been noting that there seem to be some inconsistencies between the biblical account of creation in Genesis and the scientific account of creation which seems to him to make more logical sense. Thankfully my friend and co-pastor Pat Smith recently passed along a copy of Rob Bell's video "Everything is Spiritual". Noah and I watched part of it one night while the girls were at an away basketball game.
Rob strikes me as a post-modern and pre-modern teacher with a terrific gift of making ancient biblical wisdom accessible to people of our time. You can read more about the DVD and order it here. I was fortunate to see Rob teach this material live in Nashville. While I am no physicist I happen to know an extremely intelligent physics teacher, the one and only Luke Diamond who teaches physics at Pope John Paul II high school. His comment after seeing this material presented live was that he could use some of Rob's material for an introductory physics course! Very interesting stuff.
In addition my fellow explorer of theological topics and blogger JD Dittes writes about similar ideas in a related post which you can find here. Some amazing work is being done in relating two subjects (science and theology) that typically when mixed together cause purists from either side to get antsy. Rob and JD show us no such cause for alarm is necessary and we are thankful for their insights.

Reflections on Making a Difference:
Each and every New Year's Day for the past several years has found me spending some time reflecting over the year gone by and the new one ahead. I remind myself of all the things I have to be thankful for and ponder what needs to be changed, dropped, or added to my own life in order for me to have a greater impact. I was literally stopped in my tracks in the midst of this as I came across this article by Ryan Norbauer titled "Death and Underachievement." Reading the post caused some serious back and forth thought about what God might really want from me in the year 2008. Does God need me to make an 'impact' or would God rather me become closer to him by following Jesus more closely as a disciple? A lot of the gospel, upon my reflection of late, seems much less about self actualization and much more about self denial. Maybe I have been too caught up in the sin of overestimating my own importance-- and perhaps the greatest impact I could have on the world in 2008 would be to look back on the year and gladly realize I was further along the path of discipleship than when the year began.

Added to this thought was a post I read but has since been lost (originally written for computer programmers but applicable for clergy and others) on how productivity decreases as the amount of hours worked over 40 increases, with a significant decline in productivity seen in all the hours worked above 50 in a week. Many clergy, of which I am no exception, often will work excessive hours to the neglect of their marriage, their family, and their personal well being. Some of this is no doubt related to our unhealthy need to be needed and the incredible rush that comes from always being available for people in crisis. I have learned by experience that this hyper-availability only multiplies the sense some people have (often not discouraged by clergy) that we somehow are the only people who could ever, ever give them the pastoral care
they need. God suddenly gets shifted out of the entire picture, causing pastor-idolatry of the worst kind. Not to mention that the Fourth Commandment gets conveniently ignored while clergy burn themselves out trying to meet unreasonable expectations, whether their own or their congregation's. Yikes.
This was certainly not what I expected to mull over during my reflections on the past and coming year, but seems to be a subject God keeps placing before me. More to come later.

Nothing But Nets:
Feeling called by God during Advent to call our church away from the cultural Christmas celebration and toward a Christ celebration, we joined the Advent Challenge which encouraged us all to spend less, worship more, give more, and love all. As a part of the challenge, we encouraged our church members to give $10 this season to Nothing But Nets (more here), a charity sponsored by the UM church. Their goal is to place treated mosquito nets in the hands of people at risk of mosquito borne malaria in hopes of minimizing the disease. I am so proud (in a humble way, ha) of our church at Rehoboth, which ended up donating over $1550 to the campaign, over and above my wildest expectations. Some of my family and friends responded to the call and donated as well for which I am thankful!
Unfortunately my own family's attempt at spending less didn't work out very well. But we did agree to give away, dollar for dollar, the amount we spent on each other for Christmas. It was a blast for us to decide where and who that money was given to, and it sure made Christmas seem less about what we got and a lot more about sharing the gift of Christ to the world.

Move to the Top of Your Reading List:
An absolute must read is The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs. I have been slowly reading this book since before Christmas and think it should be required reading for all Christians, especially those of us passionate about the Bible and evangelism. Jacobs, basically a non-practicing Jew, attempts to obey the commands of the Bible literally for one full year. The book clearly and often humorously illustrates our naivete when well meaning Christians imagine that if we just follow the Bible everything will be OK. Jacobs reminds us that it's not so easy to put the biblical commands into practice, as he mulls over how to keep the commands against gossip, as one example. While the author of course finds out that it is much tougher to live out the commands of the Bible than it might seem, 'living biblically' has some value for us all. We are reminded that keeping biblical commandments might bring for us, as it does for Jacobs, some unexpected peace and joy. Buy this book, or borrow it, or get it from the library. My hunch is that it will astound you to be reminded of the many places in scripture we as Christians conveniently ignore (rather than truly struggle with, as the author does) as well as the delightful blessings that come from following commands such as the keeping of Sabbath. Read it soon!