Thursday, January 31, 2013

On Joe Staley, writing scripts, and discerning gifts

San Francisco Offensive Tackle Joe Staley wasn't always an offensive tackle. He was one of the players who tried to avoid getting tackled, after he caught the ball. In high school he played wide receiver. 

But everything changed in college.

I started out as a skinny 200 pound wide receiver coming out of high school,” Staley said. “I was a sprinter and all of that stuff. I was really fast. I ran a 21 in the 200. Then I got fat. I went to college. Brian Kelly came in my sophomore year. Played tight end my freshman year in college. Brian Kelly came in and said ‘We do not use tight ends in our offense but we want to keep you on the field in some way. We are going to move you to tackle.’ I cried my eyes out. I am not afraid to admit it. Almost transferred but then stayed, gained weight, busted my butt and got drafted.

He was a first round draft pick and is now playing a prized position Left Tackle, in the Super Bowl. Not exactly how he would have "drawn it up," but I don't see him having any problems with the "script." Here are a few thoughts.

1.) Sometimes, or rather quite often, the scripts that are written for us by God are far different than the scripts we draw up for ourselves. But they are always better. Not better in a more lucrative, more high profile way (although they may be sometimes like this one), but better in a redemptive way. God will always make the script redemptive, and He will do it in at least two ways. First of all, He is redeeming you from the power of sin and using your situation in unique ways, which may not (I can't prove this part but I think its true) be the case in a different situation. But secondly, and sometimes this is actually easier to see, your script is redemptive for others. This perspective is more easily forgotten.

In II Cor 1:3-11, Paul explains that his affliction (not the way he would write his script if he had a say), opens the door for God's comfort, which can be experienced in all situations. But his afflictions and the comfort which follow has become part of Paul's script SO THAT others can be comforted. The script God writes for individuals is not only for individuals but FOR OTHERS. My depression, and back surgery at young age, were/are intended not only for my comfort and redemption/sanctification but for the comfort, redemption/sanctification of others.

I'm aware of individuals coming to faith simply because of the affliction/comfort of another. Affliction/comfort is evangelistic at times. Our scripts aren't over. We know the end. We just don't know the middle, but we know that God has our good-and the good of others through us-in mind more than Brian Kelly had Joe Staley's best interests in mind.

2.) Transition from the front to behind-the-scenes. No position in football is less glamorous then offensive lineman. They are usually fat, wear knee braces, and no one knows their names unless they give up a sack or get a penalty. No position is more glamorous then wide receiver. Running backs don't last that long. Receivers get more miles, and thus more publicity, and contract extensions. Yet few positions are more important than offensive lineman. They can make QB's and running backs look good. They can make wide receivers look good because they give them time to get open. 

Sometimes public spiritual gifts are more valued today, as they were in Corinth. Preaching is important, but without evangelists bringing folks, who would there be to preach? To go from a public ministry like leading a bible study to something more behind-the-scenes can be tough. I love this honesty.

I cried my eyes out. I am not afraid to admit it. Almost transferred but then stayed... 

It was hard. He cried. He almost left. I wish there were more "almost's" in churches today instead of the quick flight to somewhere else that "truly appreciates me and my gifts."

Now this transition may just be for a season. There may be new opportunities and gift development. Or it may be for a career (like Joe Staley). But remember behind-the-scenes-gifts are every bit as important.

3.) Gifts are best discovered and developed in community. It took someone else to recognize that Joe Staley wasn't going to be a productive wide receiver at the college level. It wasn't Joe. He wouldn't have made that choice. Spiritual gifts inventory tests can be quite helpful. But they are no substitute for asking someone, "Where do you see me best serving and being used?" Other people are fallible. But so are you and I. The more folks involved in discerning spiritual gifts, the less fallibility (as a general rule).

I've never been a fan of Brian Kelly. But I'm thankful, as I'm sure Joe is, that he loved Joe (or perhaps the success of his offense) enough to tell him the truth and get the most out of his gifting.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Complexity of Pilate, Lance Armstrong, and Humanity

This year I'm trying to follow Redeemer's New Testament bible reading plan. Not too long ago, I came across a very familiar passage where Pilate is depicted as reluctant to hand Jesus over to be crucified. This is the Pilate we have all come to know and love. This is the only Pilate most of us know. He seems somewhat sympathetic, at the least very hesitant to hand over the seemingly innocent Jesus.

But this is not the only Pilate "we" know in history. In fact the Pilate we know in history, was quite the opposite. He was ruthless. He killed numbers of people. In fact Jocephus even records that he was sent back to Rome because he too harshly suppressed a Samaritan uprising.  Now I don't know if its fair to put him in Herod the Great category (that dude killed plenty of family members), but he was not an "LOL" type of guy for sure.

Numerous scholars have treated the biblical accounts as inaccurate because of what we "know" about Pilate in the "real sources" (albeit few in number). Despite the fact that Jocephus has just as much of an agenda as the biblical writers, seeing as he was the quintessential "Benedict Arnold"-I know Jocephus came first so it should be the other way around-I don't think that there is any real contradiction. I personally, and obviously, place more weight in the God inspired scriptures, but I think both pictures of Pilate are probably equally as accurate.

Would a ruthless dictator go out of his way to wipe his hands of the death of an innocent man? Isn't this out of character?

The answer to the former is yes and the latter is no. Here are a few reasons why I think so. By the way, this type of thinking also comes into play when scholars try to discern which letters Paul actually wrote. 
1.) Motivation
Underneath every behavior is a heart motivation. We are not simply reflex creatures. So when anger overtakes a man because his kingdom (literally, though we could use it metaphorically since most of us aren't governors or prefects I presume) is threatened, he might respond in an over-the-top harsh manner. By the way, if a Roman governor is removed for harshness, that is really saying something. But consider what is important: his kingdom and protecting that kingdom. He could be fearful of losing His kingdom, and what is one way of saving it? Punish severely any uprising. In another instance, fear could prevent him from doing the just thing (releasing Jesus). Fear could make him want to pacify the crowd and prevent any uprising. He's afraid to do the right thing. Fear could also drive him to say, "This dude is innocent, and if it comes back to bite you in the butt, then remember my response!" 

The same fearful guy can be ruthless to many, and hesitant to order a single execution. Pilate is actually acting quite consistently with his heart idolatry (his literal kingdom) which leads to a heart motivation (fear), and then the concomitant actions (prevent uprising, crush uprising).
2.) Complexity
One thing we know about people from the bible is that they are incredibly complex. They are broken because of sin but redeemable and beautiful. This is true not only in general but also in specifics. David murdered people and committed adultery, yet wrote most of the Psalms. Abraham had faith and was bold enough to leave his hometown of Ur, and willing to sacrifice his only son, yet in one situation he also was too scared to admit his wife was actually his wife (He claimed it was his sister-not a prescription for a healthy marriage). He had both faith and fear. Radical faith and radical fear. 

One the thing we know about people from simply observing them is that they/we are incredibly complex. Humanity is flat out complex. Blaise Paschal called this the "greatness and wretchedness" principle and it is included in his apologetic work Pensees. Humans are capable of great good (obviously in relation to humanity not God) and also capable of great evil. Not in general, but specifically. The same people who do great things, do great harm. Preachers can bless their congregations but with their tongues chastise or neglect their families. Parents can sacrifice for their children, yet really only do so because of what their children will bring to them via sports, relationships, scholarships. Athletes can be charitable, caring about the good of humanity through cancer foundations, yet be completely self absorbed as well. 

In an interview with Dan Patrick, one sports writer astutely recognized this complexity in Lance Armstrong. When asked who is Lance really, the writer simply responded: both are true of him. He cares about others but at the same time is completely self-absorbed. In 2000 years, could anyone look at history and say, one depiction is clearly wrong?

We Christians can encourage people at one moment and say the meanest things the next. Humanity is complex because we are made in the image of God and yet fallen because of sin's curse. And that is completely observable!

That people question the scriptures' authenticity because "Bible Pilate" looks different than "Secular Pilate" is quite ironic. Christianity recognizes this complexity, offering an anthropology (theology of mankind), that is completely consistent with observable sociology. That is one of Pascal's arguments.

For a religion to be true it must have known our nature; it must have known its greatness and smallness, and the reason for both. What other religion but Christianity has known this? (433)

If people were simply monolithic creatures, thoroughly predictable, and without any sense of complexity, then these two accounts of Pilate are completely inconsistent. But because of what we know about biblical anthropology, which fits like a glove with what we can observe sociologically about mankind, we can affirm both depictions are accurate and consistent. We are complex.

People are incredibly complex. In the words of Eric Clapton, "Before you accuse me, take a look at yourself."

Monday, January 28, 2013

Oprah, Lance, and judgments

It has been well over a week since Oprah v. Lance. Not quite as big as Roe v. Wade, but big. I actually just saw snippets here and there on SportsCenter, since I, like most of the world, doesn't have or watch Oprah's network. And of course I heard sports talk hosts banter around some of the ideas, respond to what was said, as well as to what wasn't said.

In the end, here are some of my thoughts in a very unorganized/steam of consciousness sort of way.

What if Lance had responded this way?
Oprah, doesn't this sound like a judgment? Aren't you judging me? Isn't that what you are all about?

The reality is that it is not too difficult to judge Lance. The dude cheated, as probably most folks on the tour did, by the use of performance enhancing drugs. Then he consistently promoted the lie and sued numbers of people who questioned his "drugless" performances. He sued so many people, that he couldn't remember exactly who he sued. I've never sued anyone, and hopefully never will, but I'm pretty sure I might stop after losing track of my victims. Hopefully, but pride does come before the fall.....

And Lance doesn't do himself any favors by coming off as fairly-extremely unlikeable. 

People used to love Lance. He even had a powerful cameo in Dodgeball. But now I'm thinking he wouldn't be asked back for a potential sequel. People don't love Lance anymore. 

During Oprah's interview with Lance, it was clear that she was not simply gathering information, but gathering information with the intent of making a judgment. Now judgment looks differently for different people. Perhaps its verbal. Perhaps it appears as judgmental frown or look of disappointment. I think the statute of limitations had run out in regards to any perjury statement, so he's OK there. But Oprah clearly sat in a expressive posture of judgment: you did wrong Lance.

But why? What gives her the right to pass judgment? And if you still don't believe Oprah's interview was judgmental, then what about the millions of people angered by the "truth" that came out?

Oprah has always advocated being true to oneself. So if that is the ultimate ethical standard, can you blame someone for cheating? What if he is a cheater? What if he "has" to win?  How can that be considered wrong? No one can live consistently with the "don't judge me" religious conviction. At some point, we feel wronged when we are regularly lied to. We feel duped. And thus we say that person has done wrong. And we are right.

It is impossible to live consistently within that worldview. You can't just be true to yourself, because if you do, you will wrong other people. Tons of them.

I wish Lance would have turned the tables and asked her what right she has to condemn. I would have loved to see her response.

In the end, we don't like to be lied to. We don't like it when others cheat-but we hold on to hope that they aren't cheating. 

Oprah couldn't express why Lance was wrong, but it it is not because she doesn't believe it. In part.  Oprah and the legions of people angry with Lance, have suppressed the belief in God deep down (Romans 1:18-19). But that belief can only stay down so long. It comes up from time to time. And it manifests itself through righteous judgments: the simple conviction that certain things are just wrong. Not because cycling authorities say it's wrong. Not because the Supreme Court says it's wrong. Not because we feel that it's wrong. Simply because it is wrong. That comes only from God, and belief in God, whether or not people agree that is in fact from Him who forms their belief. He is directing and exposing their belief in Him.

The gospel frees us from the "all judgments are wrong" category (that no one really lives out), but it also frees us from becoming judgmental. Lance didn't sue me. If he did, I would probably be mad at him, and I would try to recoup that money. But for the most of us whom he didn't sue, we don't need to look down upon Lance. 

The Law brings us to our knees because we all fall short. Everyone. You, me, Lance, Barney-or at least the guy who plays Barney. The gospel, as Luther reminds us, reminds us that we are still sinners and at the same time, righteously declared Saints. How can a messed up sinner tell another messed up sinner he is in fact a hopelessly messed up sinner? How can a messed up sinner tell another messed up sinner the real problem is how far another has fallen short of his low standard, when it is God's standard which we all fall short?

The gospel avoids the pitfalls of a judging and tolerating/excusing that which is clearly wrong.

I've never been a Lance fan, just like I've never been a Micheal Jordan, or Tiger Woods fan. I tend to pull for losers. But there's plenty of room at the head table for more sinners like you me, Lance, and Barney. As a great hymn writer reminds us, "All the fitness he requires is that you feel your need of Him."

Monday, January 21, 2013

Downton Lessons: Will your community miss you or your church when you're gone?

Perhaps one of the most redemptive shows I've watched on TV, ever, is Downton Abbey. It seems every episode illustrates clearly or presents something which challenges/encourages me in my daily walk, or points me to Christ or my need of Him (as is more common in one of my other favorites Breaking Bad).

One of the sagas raised in Season 2 (and I'll do my best to not spoil anything if you do choose to watch but haven't yet), is the real possibility of being unable to keep Downton up and running. Some of the characters will clearly miss this more than massive house. And it is simply personal. They will have to downsize, which is the ultimate faux pas for such aristocrats. Though is probably just as much a stretch for suburbanites today. 

But others have greater concerns than just having to downsize: what will this mean for the community? Because Downton is so massive, it relies upon and employs numerous workers, who might not be able to find work elsewhere. The whole "servant" profession is on the way out Post WWI, as the British society progressively becomes more and more democratic. The Earl also wonders what will become of the community surrounding Downton if it were no longer to exist. He cares about his workers but also about the community, and recognizes that it will be a legitimate blow to both if Downton went away.

Ultimately Downton, at least in his mind, and perhaps a few others, exists not for itself alone but as a blessing for others. In Genesis 12:1-3, Abraham is blessed SO THAT he would be a blessing to others. Now this blessing clearly points to Jesus, who is the fulfillment of that blessing. But Jesus commands his disciples to live out this passage by bringing the gospel and its ultimate, as well as its concomitant blessings, to the entire world (Matt 28:19-20, Acts 1:8). As a church, we are blessed, not as an end in and of ourselves, but as a blessing to whatever community we find ourselves in. 

One of the most helpful diagnostic question I've heard when thinking about the existence of a local church is, "Will the community miss you if someday your church did not exist?" Clearly the answer for Downton is yes, because that is a major concern for the Earl. 

Would this be the same case for your church? This isn't a question primarily for pastors, but for members. If your church were taken away, its lamp-stand snuffed out, would your community miss it? Would your community, not simply your members/attenders miss it or at least be sad to see it go? Would it miss your love in word and in deed? The answer to this question will indicate, at least in part, your community impact. And since the church isn't a building, but the people of God, this question is more properly directed to its members than its pastors. There are simply more of them and therefore more community impact. Let me put the question like this: would people in your community miss your love to them? If you had no worshiping community, and therefore no base where you could rest, rest, worship, and be trained and sent out into the world, would people care? Can your community say, "I don't believe what they believe, and they annoy me with their truth claims, but they do love me and my family?"

Would this be the same for you as a neighbor? God puts people into neighborhoods, the exact time and places for where they should live in those neighborhoods, apartment complexes, condos, shelters, etc..SO THAT, people could seek and hear the gospel (Acts 17:26-27). Will they find people ready to share the gospel and their lives as well? Will people be sad if you move? If the answer is, no, or "I'm not sure," then your house is seen simply as an asset (or liability if you purchased in FL during the housing bubble), but not as a blessing to be used to bless others.

In Christ, we have the freedom to ask these questions and feel convicted of their answers. Because our performance doesn't put a smile upon the Father's face-Jesus did that-we can be open and honest about failures and successes. Our failures don't remove the smile and our successes don't maintain it. Jesus work assures us of both.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Brief take on Bad Religion: Take away paradox and you'll become unorthdox

It took me a good long while to finally make it through Russ Douthat's Bad Religion. But that was only because I read the book in small segments, at night, and in between football games, Parenthood, and Downton Abbey. I'm glad I read it and I'm glad I read it so slowly. One probably shouldn't read anything in the religio-sociological category too quickly. At least not someone with a mind like mine.

Bad Religion chronicles America's descent into various heresies. Douthat argues the problem is not that we have become a nation of apostates, abandoning all sense of religions conviction, but in essence that we have become a nation of heretics (of course the latter you can get from his title). Many have reviewed the book, and they are much smarter, more well read, and probably better than me in a number of areas, so I'll just let their reviews stand.

Instead I'll briefly offer you my "take" (as opposed to a review); I obviously listen to too much sportstalk. Better than simple positive self-talk as Douthat highlights in his chapter "The God-Within." What I found most helpful and devotional as I read this well written book was his premise that most heresies have one major starting point and commonality. He writes:

The great Christian heresies vary wildly in their theological substance, but almost all have in common a desire to resolve Christianity's contradictions, untie its knotty paradoxes, and produce a clearer and more coherent faith. Heretics are often stereotyped as wild mystics, but they're just as likely to be problems solvers and logic choppers, well-intentioned seekers after a more reasonable version of Christian faith than orthodoxy supplies. They tend to see themselves, not irrationally, as rescuers rather than enemies of Christianity-saving the faith from self-contradiction and cultural irrelevance.

After this insightful introduction (this does sound like a review now....) Douthat sketches out how Christianity struggled and thrived in the American Post WWII era, in both its good and bad forms. Beginning with our unique religious history, Christian movements and counter-movements, he lays the foundation and common philosophies which inspired the specific heresies of our present day. 

Among them he discusses, the "Lost Gospels" and their effects (as well as their proponents' underlying presuppositions), the health-and-wealth prosperity "gospel," the "God Within," and the Nationalistic heresy. All chapters are thoroughly researched, gracious, and come from an Orthdox Christian position. Douthat after all, is an orthodox Catholic but clearly sees God's Spirit at work in traditions and camps far different than his own. That is, unless they cross over into heresy by seeking to flatten the orthodox paradoxes.

This paragraph was worth the price of the book. In response to scholars attempting to nail down a monolithic picture of Jesus, Douthat writes:

But for all the superficial diversity of these portraits, their intellectual method and their theological conclusions, they are remarkably similar. The method is almost always heresy's either/or, rejecting any attempt to resolve contradictions or honor paradoxes in favor of a ruthless narrowing designed to make the character of Jesus more consistent, even if this achievement comes  at the expense of the tensions that make him fascinating. Either Jesus was divine or he was human. Either he was compassionate toward sinners or he preached a rigorous sexual morality. Either he preached in parables or he engaged in longer theological discourses. Either "all apocalyptic elements should be expunged from the Christian agenda," as Funk puts it, or else Jesus should be understood exclusively as an end times prophet.

Jesus is much more robust than any one particular picture. In other words He is too robust to say, "He is only like this." He just won't fit on any canvas we create. Any image we draw in our mind is just too inadequate-wonder why we aren't supposed to create images of Him? So if any one political party, person, group, can say my Jesus is only like this (masculine/tough, gentle/gracious, pro-Republican/Democrat agenda, pro-family/anti-family), graciously critique them. They've rejected the beautiful, wonderful, and often paradoxical picture of our Conquering King/Slain Lamb Savior in whom we alone can boast. In his place they have instead erected an understandable, reasonable, preferable, tame idol. Next stop is heresy.

Try to flatten the paradoxes and you'll be on soon on your way to unorthodoxy. Celebrate the tension and you'll soon find yourself before the throne of grace, filled with awe, wonder, and joy.


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Why I think so many people like Downton Abbey

There is no doubt that Downton Abbey is quite a popular show in America. After several folks recommended it to me, I finally caved. I hadn't watched any Masterpiece Classic stuff at the time. I since have watched and enjoyed several mini-series like North and South (which features a very feisty Mr. Bates) along with Wuthering Heights. But at the time, the premise of an aristocratic family pre/post WWI didn't seem to strike a nerve, or even tendon for that matter. I didn't care. Until my wife and I watched, and were immediately hooked. Gut hooked.

But we only comprised a small portion-you do the math, (seriously I don't feel like it)-of the viewers.

The Season 3 premiere of the World War I-era British costume epic on PBS on Sunday drew 7.9 million total viewers, its highest total yet, according to Nielsen. That figure is four times PBS' typical nightly average and nearly twice the 4.2 million who showed up for the Season 2 premiere last January.

The question is why? For a show on PBS to draw these kinds of ratings, we have to stop and ask this question. If we are to live lovingly and responsibly within our culture, and probably among neighbors who appreciate this show, we need to ask this question. For any show to garner such viewership, there is usually a reason for its success. Now for shows like Baywatch, or other shows which profit from showing gals in bathing suits, the answer lies very much on the surface. For other shows like Parenthood, the answer is fairly easy: many people still value the traditional marriage and nuclear/extended family unit. But for a show to take us to another century, to another continent, to a life like none of really know, and leave many wanting more, we have to dig much deeper.

So why is Downton Abbey popular and growing in popularity? Is it because people empathize with the characters (and we do)? Yes, but why is there such affinity for these lads and chaps? And even with crazy neurotic and often manipulative lasses?

Nicolaus Mills, writing a piece for takes a stab at offering a suitable explanation.

The earl of Grantham, played with enormous subtlety by Hugh Bonneville, doesn't look like a democrat or speak like a democrat. When crossed, he even displays an imperious temper. But appearances are deceiving when it comes to Lord Grantham's character. The earl treats those who work for him with a compassion that goes well beyond noblesse oblige. He regards the World War I deaths of those who once worked on his estate as a family tragedy.

I wouldn't disagree with Mills, but would rather expound a bit upon his explication. The earl's compassion is extraordinary and exemplary, a challenge for all Americans who find themselves in the role of an employer. Yet it is also in some ways still limited by his stratified societal worldview. It is more than compassion, and it is more than the Earl of Grantham.

Why I appreciate Downton so much, and I think what may draw people to it, is the character redemption. It's the opposite of Breaking Bad. Some people do change. And people want to change. And people want to see people changing, becoming "better," or at least more compassionate people.

At Downton, that is what exactly what we see. For the most part we see people moving from selfishness to selflessness. We see a movement from envy to rejoicing at the fortunes of others. We see remorse over past actions. We see class segregation begin to slowly fade away in some cases. We see people changing for the better as the seasons progress.

Under the roof of Downton Abbey, we begin to see the normally slow process of sanctification (I'm of course now using Christian terminology) unfold over the course of an hour, just as we hope to see in those who take refuge in the grace found and preached under the "roof" of Christ's church.

People like to see people changing. People like to see that people can change. We see these things happening in most of the characters (some go back and forth) and that's why I think it is so popular. At least that is one reason why I'm drawn to enjoy and empathize with almost all of the characters.

Monday, January 14, 2013

When you don't get to be a line-leader, remember Jesus Paid it All

This Sunday my 4 year old came back into "big church" from children's church (which occurs during the sermon for 4yr-1st graders) with a huge smile on his face. He gave me a big hug and was a bit on the cuddly side. This seemed strange for a number of reasons: 1) He wasn't sick 2.) He wasn't tired 3.) I wasn't Mommy. But I took the hug and cuddle combo as we sang the last song in worship. What an ending.

Of course I soon realized one reason he was so happy: he was the "line leader." Just last week, he wasn't the line leader and everything was different. I had come to retrieve him to sing Jesus Paid it All, but the poor little guy was crying too much that he couldn't bring himself to sing one of his favorite (or at least most 4 yr old singable choruses) church songs. 

The reason? He wasn't the line leader and wanted to be with the deepest fibers of his young soul. 

So we talked about the episode on the way home as a family. While driving through the potholed and hilly West Virginia road I've come to know-but not love-my wife asked him why he was so upset about not being the "line leader." 

I can't remember his response but for some reason I don't think it was all that accurate. He's as competitive as Tim Tebow and loves to lead. We know that much. I'm pretty sure it sounded nothing like this,"I like being in front, because that's the best and most important place to be. And if you are in front, you're the winner." Or in other words, his inner Ricky Bobby came out: "If you ain't first, your last." That was the reason.

Amy responded beautifully, much more gospel-centered than I would have. Jesus said the first shall be last and that we need to serve people. That's probably what I might have said. But Amy sought to expose the issue behind the outward behavior. Jesus' commands need to be affirmed and applied, and I would have been correct (Jesus is always "right"), but the law has to first drive us to Christ before it can become a guide for life. In other words, we need to first see what Jesus has done for us before we tell others (kids, friends, etc...) before we tell people what Jesus wants them to do.

My wife applied the gospel to the situation. "You wanted to be first because you think you're only important if you're first. But Jesus already showed you how important you are by dying for your sins. You don't need to be the line leader every time. You are important."

The great irony and sadness is that he wasn't able to sing the very song that affirmed this truth. Jesus Paid it All. There is nothing left for you do. How important are you? Pretty darn important. You don't need a place in line, big paycheck, station in life to prove that.

After he seemed to say something like, "OK," in less than a second he said something to the effect of "What time does the game start today?" 

He probably didn't get it that day. And he probably won't tomorrow. But if he only hears this day and day out for the next 14 years, then he'll think, feel, live in a unique gospel-ish sort of way. That's why its so important for us to hear this truth reinforced in sermons week in and week out. We may be tired, daydream, lose our place, get bored, but if we hear the gospel applied like this every Sunday, for years, we will gradually think, feel, live in gospel-ish sort of way as well. 

I need examples for how to apply the gospel to parenting. My wife gave me this one, so I'm passing it on to you. But this is more than just "good" parenting, it is simply living out the gospel and applying it to your sin and situation.

If you are a Christian parent, friend, or simply a Christian, remember to apply what Jesus has done first before you tell yourself or another to simply do. WDJD before WWJD. I'm pretty sure that's what Jesus would do.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Victor Cruz and entering into suffering

While listening to the Dan Patrick show the other day I heard a more-than-heartwarming story where N.Y. Giants Wide Receiver Victor Cruz visited families and children in Newtown Connecticut. Apparently one of the victims, Jack Pinto, was a very big Victor Cruz fan, so much so that he was buried in a number 80 Giants jersey. Somehow word got out this child loved Cruz and so Victor felt this was a good place to start.

Here are some of my thoughts on the story and interview:

Cruz entered into instead of avoiding suffering

After one of my grandfathers died (and I honestly can't remember which one), my parents called one of his surviving relatives (I can't remember the relation either) to inform him about the funeral. But one thing that I will never forget was his response: "I don't do funerals, they are just too depressing." To declare that "busch-league" would be the understatement of the year, akin to saying Notre Dame simply lost in the BCS final; it was a massacre. To ignore suffering and death is inhuman, but to intentionally avoid and refuse to death and suffering is truly counter-Christian. 

Cruz mentioned that he came to do the best he could to try to bring a little distraction. He didn't intend to come with words but to come and be a presence.

Jack Pinto was among 20 children who lost their lives Friday in Newtown. Several elementary school-age children played touch football in the front yard of his family's home on Tuesday. Many wore Giants jerseys or Newtown football or wrestling shirts as they laughed, smiled and hugged.

About 45 minutes later, Cruz left the home in an SUV and an escort of five police cruisers, sirens blaring. He later tweeted that he has "much love to the entire Pinto family. Great people with huge hearts."

Presence more important than your words

In the interview Cruz told Patrick that he spent time specifically with the Pinto family, so that his stay was about 2 hours. That time included speechlessness and hugging sobbing parents. How hard is that? To be around such sadness and not be able to fix it? Words can't fix, but a simple presence reminds folks that we know that, even as we wish it weren't so.

Sharing the sadness

On his drive home he left with a burden that was originally not his own. Now he carried it. He couldn't simply turn that heaviness on and off.  Now, in some small way it was his. Sadness can stick to you like a b.o. when you enter into the sadness of others, but that is never a good reason to refuse to enter into the sadness of others. Cruz models well the command found in Galatians 6:1, "To carry each others burdens and in this way, fulfill the law of Christ." Burdens slow you down, and they make you sadder for carrying them. But Jesus says to carry them, so something makes me think He'll take care of us in that process.

More than family 

As I watch shows like Parenthood, I see family members making sacrifices all over the place. Whether it be watching kids, picking up the slack at work because another member has cancer or allowing a mother who has fallen on hard times to move in for a season. Why do you do this? The mantra is "It is family, and this is what we do with family." But what about when its not family? We don't have any aphorism, or motto for that. 

Cruz entered into the sadness of those outside his family. He didn't have to. He could have ignored this scenario, since they weren't really a "priority." It involved going out of his way. That's another reason why I found this story so compelling, heart-warming, and challenging.


Cruz is know for his salsa touchdown dance, but I will know him more for his modeling.  He mentioned faith in God, and that it would be hard to let his one year old daughter out of his sight. But that he would have to do so one day. I don't know what kind of grasp Cruz has of the gospel; I couldn't tell from the short interview, and I missed the first part. But in looking at his example of entering into suffering, suffering that could easily have been avoided, I wouldn't hesitate to say that he certainly models a gospel response I would hope all Christians (including myself) have with their neighbors.

For the Christian, Jesus entered into our suffering, by suffering himself, for us, who are responsible for the suffering here on Earth. He didn't just come and lament with us, he suffered because of us, and on our behalf, to redeem us and purchase us out of hopeless suffering. Now we suffer but we do so with the hope, power, and joy, of a suffering servant (for-the time), but now ruling and conquering King. He himself is our motivation. 

Yet we should never neglect the power of seeing the gospel modeled before us. Just as seeing people temporarily get pleasure out of doing things they shouldn't do can tempt us to follow, so can the reverse be true. Seeing other folks entering into suffering can "tempt" us to follow their godly examples.

I know that Cruz wanted to honor Jack Pinto by winning that next game against the Ravens (they lost), but as is usual, what athletes do off the field has much more impact than them winning games or playing well.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Beautifully "Boring" Testimonies

I had the privilege yesterday of baptizing a young gal aged 7 yrs old. After my 4 year old witnessed this sacrament, he thought it appropriate to lead my 2 year old into the bath tub and baptize him. No word yet (happened while at youth group) on whether the preferred mode was sprinkling or immersion, though I'm hoping for the former (in the interest of safety just as much as in theology).

So you could say I, or rather we, have baptism on the brain. The next potential baptism might be a baptism based upon profession of faith, as opposed to the covenant baptism (based upon the profession of parent's faith) yesterday.

She, like many, cannot point to a point in time when she was converted. The unwritten rule, or at least assumption, while I was in college was, "If you can't tell me when you became a Christian, there's a good chance you aren't one." Sadly this is probably the case in much of evangelicalism, and is probably an over-reaction to the mainline denomination's lack of concern with being "born-again."

The first time I really encountered anything other than this type of thinking was in seminary. My professor of evangelism named Steve Childers, who has led numbers of people to faith, and now runs G.C.A. (Global Church Advancement-a church planting/revitalization ministry) told me a simple prayer he had for his children: "I pray that they never know a day when they don't remember trusting in Jesus to save them." That sounded strange. Didn't this guy get it?

But the more I studied, the more this seemed like a pretty darn good little prayer. First of all, the child will never be able to answer the question of why he/she is a Christian with a convenient date he/she prayed a prayer. Instead, he/she can only say, "I can't tell you when it was that Jesus saved me, but my whole confidence is in the fact He did." He/she can't base the why of his/her salvation upon any sort of prayer or immediately concomitant drastic life change, but only upon the grace of God in Christ.
It is fine and dandy to have a date where you clearly remember being born again, but for the covenant child, that is not often the case. At least it shouldn't be. And it is not simply for the baptized child because whether or not the child has the sign/seal upon him/her, he/she is still a covenant child.

I enjoyed reading such a testimony from this gal. It wasn't drastic. It wasn't crazy. It wasn't long. In some ways it was boring, but it was also beautiful. She didn't wrestle alligators by day and deal meth at night. She couldn't remember when God saved her, but she was certain that He did. She recognized she was a sinner and needed the grace offered to her freely in the gospel. 

Simple but still beautiful. I like hearing about a Professor of Lesbian studies come to faith, get married to a pastor and have a family. But I like hearing "boring" testimonies as well. 

Every night I pray for my boys the same prayer I heard in seminary, that "these two boys would never know a day where they don't know the saving love of Christ." They don't need to pray a special magic prayer but simply repent and rest upon the saving work of Jesus. 

However God decides to use this prayer is up to Him. I don't get a vote but I do get a prayer and covenant promises to go with it. In the end, I'll take any testimony my kids share that points to Jesus. Drastic or "boring," now or later. It's always best to leave it to the author, founder, and perfecter of children's faith. 

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Penn State, the NCAA, and the covenantal nature of college sports

Been a long time away from the blog, and figured it's probably high time to get back into it. You may have witnessed the unlikelihood of Northern Illinois play in a BCS game they didn't deserve to be in and lose to FSU. Or you may have witnessed Louisville play in a BCS game they didn't deserve to be in and win. But perhaps the college football story, in my opinion of course (we have yet to come to a bi-partisan agreement on a measurement of strangeness), occurred when the governor of Pensylvannia decided to sue the NCAA.

Now I like this lad's gumption in going after the untouchable NCAA. Those jokers have more power than the Federal government. You can lie to the government, allegedly like Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, and get away with it. "You" is of course, them, and the situation is purely hypothetical-not of you being them, but of them lying, since their lies weren't proved. But regardless "mis-remembering Roger Clemens and "bashful" Barry Bonds fought the law, but the law did not win. 

The NCAA does not lose when it comes to alleged liars. Recently Texas guard Myck Kabongo's suspension was reduced to 23 gamesAccording to yahoo sports:

In this case, the penalty was made more severe because Kabongo provided inaccurate information to NCAA investigators when he was interviewed, sources with ties to Texas' basketball program said. 

So you get why this is such a big deal. The NCAA wins. Period.

While it appears this is more politcially driven than justice driven, his sentiments, or at least those of many go something like this,"The kids are getting penalized for stuff they didn't do." Very true. 

But college sports are somewhat covenantal. Now no recruiter will ever tell you that. Honestly no one will. I've never heard anyone call it like that before, but I think it is. Kind of. The individual who commits the crime is never the only one who is punished. The school always is. The whole team is, and sometimes long after that person is gone. Sandusky will be in jail for the rest of his life, but his former team Penn St inherits that guilt and punishment even though they didn't not actually commit ignore/cover-up those crimes. Sandusky, and you could argue Paterno, sinned and broke the law. And as a result, because of the teams' connection to them, they are guilty and liable to the consquences and punishment of such sin. They broke the law as a representative of the rest of the team and school. Therefore, the guilty individuals will never be the only one's punished. The NCAA never works that way. They don't think in terms of guilt individually but, in a somewhat covenantal way.

In Romans 5, Paul reminds us that in Adam, we all sinned. Adam is our "federal head" or covenantal representative. God made a covenant with him, as a representative of all mankind. If Adam had chosen wisely, we would have inherited the benefits of his wise choice. But, like that crazy German dude in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, he chose, "poorly." As a result, we are declared sinners and subject to the punishment and consequences of sin. 

Just like with Penn State, we normally think of this as unfair. We didn't do it. We didn't start the fire, right Billy Joel? I shouldn't be punished because I wasn't there. Something someone else did acting as my representative shouldn't count against my record. 

But then again, think about it. Was there something someone else did acting as my federal representative roughly from 4-6 BC 30 AD or so? Yep. Then he gets the cross because of my actions? If I can't be punished because of Adam's sin and my connection to him (we've also personally sinned a bunch since then by the way if you're keeping score at home), then how can I accept the record of a new Federal or covenantal head, Jesus, the New and Better Adam?

Can't have one without the other. If I take Christ's record, I have to accept my responsibility in Adam. I can live with that, because it technically isn't so fair to receive a perfect record without me doing anything but repenting and resting on the finished work of Christ.

That's good news for Christians. But I have nothing to offer Penn State fans. There has been some sort of covenantal punishment on behalf of a covental head, but there is no Redeemer to step in. There is no new and better Jerry and Joe Pa, who could offer a perfect righteous record in place of those who weren't there during those dark days. There only redeemer is time.

Given the track record of the NCAA, I wouldn't put much faith in a governor who thinks-quite after the fact mind you-that the sanctions put upon the school were too harsh even though the school accepted them. Fortunately for Penn State, those sanctions will eventually run out. And after they pay with missed bowl games and recruits and coaches, they will one day live to play another bowl game. That's where are two stories depart. Time will eventually redeem Penn State, but only someone who entered into time can redeem mankind.