Lent and A New Beginning

Yesterday I began reading Richard Rohr’s Lenten devotional, Wondrous Encounters, and I can’t shake the prayer “prompt” at the end of day 1:

“God, give me the desire to desire what you want me to desire.”

On Ash Wednesday I was reminded of who we are:

1) Who we are as finite human beings created in the image of God – “remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” and 2) Who we are as new creatures in Christ – “repent and believe the Gospel.”

As I imposed ashes on the foreheads of students, small children, and adults last night I found myself compelled to look deeply, almost awkwardly deep, into people’s eyes as I said those words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the Gospel.” Here I was, a person who also needed to hear those words, given the privilege to call people to remember who they are, to turn from sin, and to believe in the Good News of the Kingdom of God – the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

In Rohr’s devotional, he says that Ash Wedensday is a new beginnings of sorts, and that as the ashes are traditionally created from the previous year’s Palm Sunday branches, we are to remember, “New beginnings invariable come from false things that are allowed to die.”

False hopes. False dreams. False desires.

False things that are allowed to die. Hopes, passions, dreams, and desires that are not from God, but stem from humanity’s bend toward sin – greed, power, envy, pride, lust, you name it. We are pulled by false desire, false hope, and false things that we need to let DIE in order that God might take his rightful place in our lives as Lord and King.

Ultimately, following Christ is about trust. Will we trust God with all we have and all we are? Will we trust God with our finances? Will we trust him with our relationships? Can we trust God with our desires - our hopes and dreams? Can we trust that God has desires for us – hopes, dreams, plans for us – that will actually allow us to live with joy and purpose?

So I will continue to pray,

“God, give me the desire to desire what you want me to desire.”

May this be a Holy Lent for you. May you press into the desires God has for you.


Alternative #3: Community

These posts are about achieving a balance in life between sports and everything else! Please see the first two posts about 1) Prioritizing VALUES and 2) Gaining PERSPECTIVE. In other words, all this is an attempt at seeking an alternative to the craziness that pervades our culture when it comes to sports.

Alternative #3: Value COMMUNITY over INDIVIDUAL achievement.

This one might seem weird, but I think if you’ll stay with me you’ll see my point. Team sports teach us a lot about how to work with others and how to be accountable to others. These are among the positives we need to emphasize. The individual accolades and starvation for attention in sports today saddens me. It’s a product of many things in our culture – the greatest of which I believe is a lack of positive role models - especially adults with perspective, values, and integrity. Last time I checked a dunk was only worth two points no matter how incredible it was or whether someone got “poster-ized” in the process. And a first down is just a first down. It's important, but no points are awarded. Yet receivers continue to jump up, do a dance, and point their hand helping the refs to do their job. Maybe I’m a budding curmudgeon, but this stuff drives me nuts. I’m looking for athletes my kids can look up to. I’m looking for athletes who do work, who dominate, but who do it humbly. They are out there, but they don’t get the press.

COMMUNITY, teamwork, and unity will always beat individuality. But community isn’t flashy, especially in America, the land of rugged individualism. But this bend toward individualism; win at all costs; cut corners to gain success; do whatever it takes to get your 15 minutes of fame attitude is beginning to unravel American culture and values.

Instead, it seems some of the values most highlighted today are greed, arrogance, and distrust. When it comes to my experience as an athlete, some of my greatest memories – the things I’ll cherish forever – are the TEAMS I played on. I can certainly remember some of my individual highlights, but I remember team accomplishments even better. I cherish the feeling of belonging to something that mattered. Sports have always been the great equalizer. Think of the movie Remember the Titans. Sports have the power to break barriers that society cannot. Sports have the power to bring people together. Sports have the power to build community, pride in one’s school, state, or even country. Sports can be so good when it’s about COMMUNITY and teamwork. When it’s about individuality, we lose perspective, and with that loss of perspective often comes a compromise of values.

How can we as coaches, athletes, and parents emphasize TEAM over individual effort in order to teach and show the value of community?


Alternative #2: Perspective

This is the second post on a series seeking alternatives to the uber-busy, sports crazed world in which we live. I encourage you to read the previous posts to get a bigger picture of what I'm trying to communicate here:

Get some PERSPECTIVE – High school sports are high school sports. Today a student told me it seems like you only have 4 years to be an athlete and you have the rest of your life to do other things. It was a “seize the moment” comment that at first glance seems so true. I’m reminded of one of my favorite movies, the Goonies, where Mikey says, “Down here, this is our time!” High school sports can feel that way; it can feel like everything that matters is RIGHT now, and you only have so long to live the dream. Let’s get some perspective. And for the adults out there, WE as a community need to help our young people gain perspective. High school is high school – it’s not the rest of your life! Praise God for that! If we all had to continue living the legacy of our high school personas, life would be pretty miserable. Well, at least for most of us! When parents, coaches, and students begin to over-idealize and dramatize the high school sports experience, we lose perspective. You all know the guy who can’t stop talking about the good old days in 1999 when the Millard West Wildcats won the American Legion Nebraska State baseball championship. Oh wait. That’s me! I can easily morph into that guy. And I’m not saying it’s all that bad. But I’m working on gaining perspective. It saddens me to hear students and parents talking about high school sports as if they’re the greatest years a young person could ever hope for. After high school, it’s all down hill from there. No way! That's a lie. And it's not fair to put that on kids.

A second comment on perspective, and this one might be harder to swallow. Not every kid is a superstar. Not every kid can, will, or even wants to play beyond high school. According to College Sports Scholarships.com, the percentage of high school football players, for example, who go on to play in the NCAA is 5.7%. From there, the percentage who go on to play professionally is 1.8%. Those aren’t encouraging numbers. Let’s get some PERSPECTIVE. Let's allow high school sports to be an experience that builds character and integrity, where students learn how to be teammates, how to be accountable to others, and how to think about someone other than themselves.


Is there an Alternative?

In my previous post, I said,

…for many Christian athletes the sacrifice of time in church, reading the Bible, or praying are things most of us are more than willing to risk. Dare I say it, we are usually happy to sacrifice these things for sports? It’s just part of being an athlete. Or is it? Does it have to be this way? Should it be this way? Is there an alternative?

What is the alternative? Is it possible to get back to “the basics” of athletic competition; to get back to building character, commitment, physical fitness, and leadership, among other things?

Here are my suggestions, and remember, I’m just some guy with some suggestions! I’ll reveal them over the next week.

1) Prioritize your VALUES

What do you truly value in life? Sports? Faith? Family? I remember the days when coaches would say things like, “There are 3 things in life that are above sports: Faith, Family, and School.” But how many of those coaches really meant it? How many of those coaches would have been cool with athletes skipping practice, or heaven forbid a game, for faith, family, and school? I'll admit the examples are few, but I was fortunate enough to have coaches who supported my decisions to attend church retreats and camps, even during my high school years. I honestly only asked to be excused a couple times over my many years as an athlete for fear of playing time being revoked or other punishments, but I was lucky in these moments to have coaches who shared my values. However, my first-hand experience as a coach, athlete, and pastor has shown me that these men were exceptions to the norm.

It makes me wonder, are those days gone? Are the days gone when coaches, players, and families knew where life’s real VALUE was found? I have to wonder when I hear about high school students whose parents are angry over playing time while their son/daughter's grades are slipping. I have to wonder when I’ve seen parents asking coaches and school administrators to turn a blind eye to “extra-curricular” activities so that the star athlete can play. I have to wonder when gifted college athletes are used to make big money for schools, yet cannot access any of this money themselves without breaking the rules. I have to wonder when sports related scandals erupt year after year. Can we admit we have misplaced our values?

What really matters in life? Am I doing things with my life that truly make a difference? This is something we don't ask ourselves often enough.

As a parent, I hope the way I live shows my children that there are things worth putting time, energy, and effort into, and there are things that seem important but will soon fade.

As a Pastor, I hope my life and ministry points people to something beyond me, beyond themselves, and beyond RIGHT NOW that takes precedent over all other things of life.

As a human being, I hope my values as a person created in the image of God remind me that what truly matters is loving the God who created me and the people He created with my whole life. I want my life to reflect these values, but I know that if I'm not careful, I am too easily persuaded by quick success and immediate entertainment.

What about you? What do you VALUE? Don’t tell me. Show me. Show me in how you spend your time and your money. Do you value faith, family, education? Do you value sports? What do you value? What are your current priorities?


Sports and Faith

[I encourage you to read the previous post and comments if you haven’t already.]

In December 2009, I had the privilege of travelling to Russia along with the Senior Pastor of our church. We travelled with a Russian pastor named Andre – the Bishop of over 50 churches in the Urals. Andre has quite a story and is an incredible leader, pastor, and man of faith. On one occasion he preached in our church, and some of my high school guys called him a “beast.” He’s intense and he moves people to action. The story and reflection that follows took place during my trip.

We are sitting in a cozy, Soviet era apartment belonging to a Russian pastor named Sergei. The conversation between Bishop Andre and Sergei is getting heated, or so it seems. To be honest, it’s sometimes hard for me to tell when Russian-speaking people are worked up or just having a conversation. But it is clear to me an intense discussion is happening, and I am eager to eavesdrop.

I turn to our interpreter and ask, “What are they talking about?” “Something about sports,” she responds nonchalantly.

“Really?!” I am excited. “Well, what are they saying?”

“Apparently Andre’s daughter is a gifted athlete and has been invited to play for a special team of sorts.”

Now I’m hooked. Now I need to know the specifics. Why is this conversation so intense, shouldn’t this be good news, something to be joyful about? “Why are they arguing?,” I ask.

“Well, Andre isn’t so sure he wants her to play, and Sergei thinks she should play; that it would be a great opportunity for her to share her faith and life as a Christian. But…Andre’s not convinced this is a good thing. He thinks it would be a distraction.”

Then Andre says something that I’ll never forget. I’ll never forget it because my immediate reaction to Andre’s statement reveals a lot about my own values in relation to sports and faith. I did not express an opinion or say anything out loud, but I can vividly remember the instinctual – too instinctual – reaction I had in the living room of that Russian apartment.

I know you're asking, “Well, what did he say?"

Andre looks at Sergei and says with a straight face. No, a seriously intense face, “If she plays on this team, it will only mean less time reading the Bible, less time at church, and less time praying.” He is not messing around. He is dead serious.

How did I react? At my core, deep within me, I want to laugh, and I almost laugh out loud. Yes, I almost LOL. In the moment, his argument seems almost ridiculous. I think he’s surely joking, or at least exaggerating his case. But he is not. This is no joke. He is for real. And I'm the one who begins to feel ridiculous. Not because anyone knows what I'm thinking, but because I know what he says is true.

At some point in every athlete’s life, and in the life of every family who has kids in sports, decisions must be made. Will we go to church or to the soccer game? Will we pay for baseball camp or for church camp? Will we encourage our sons and daughters to spend time in prayer and in God’s Word with the same tenacity with which we encourage them to practice a sport and show commitment to the team? Nearly ever day decisions are made, and most of them are made too easily. I'm not judging. I've been there. I've made these decisions. I've found it much easier to hope for grace from the church than from a coach.

So Chad McDaniel, Associate Pastor of Student Ministries, feels like laughing. My first instinct is to laugh because for many Christian athletes the sacrifice of time in church, reading the Bible, or praying are things most of us are more than willing to risk. Dare I say it, we are usually happy to sacrifice these things for sports? It’s just part of being an athlete. Or is it? Does it have to be this way? Should it be this way? Is there an alternative?

I’m going to stop here. I have further thoughts on this, but want to hear your reactions. If you were sitting in that Russian apartment, what would you have done? What emotions are bubbling up within you even now?

I’m eager to hear your responses…