Wednesday, July 27, 2016

MJ Speaks... Now What?

This week Michael Jordan broke issued a statement on the recent violence and tension between police and the African-American community. Additionally, he donated $1 million to each of two organizations attempting to improve relations between law enforcement and black communities. Because it's MJ his statement made headlines on ESPN and other news agencies. You can read it HERE.

In my opinion Jordan said pretty much nothing. I heard Carmelo Anthony describe Jordan's statement as "brilliant", and perhaps it was encouraging to have such a prominent African-American speak up on the subject. The statement issued by Jordan was fairly short. It identified that the nation has a problem and expressed regret for that problem before announcing his donations. The following statement was about as profound as Jordan got,
We need to find solutions that ensure people of color receive fair and equal treatment AND that police officers – who put their lives on the line every day to protect us all – are respected and supported.
While I'm confident those organizations appreciate the donations they received, Jordan's statement does little more than say, "Thanks for the work you guys are doing to stand up against violence and injustice." But let's not pretend that this statement changes anything. Incarceration rates will not change tomorrow because MJ issued a statement. If Jordan really wants to initiate change he will need to engage many other community leaders in the conversation and raise considerably more funds for training, education and lobbying efforts. Perhaps he'll do these things.

It's easy to point fingers at others.

Sports talk radio (and blogging) encourages members of the public with zero training and professional experience to criticize and second guess professional athletes, coaches and general managers with years of experience.

The MJ statement reminds us that words are cheap. We all have potential influence in our families, workplaces, communities, and churches. If all we do is talk and criticize, then we've become part of the problems. To translate potential influence into actual influence we must roll up our sleeves and get involved.

The incarnation of Jesus, God becoming flesh, provides the ultimate example of not settling for words when action was possible. (Philippians 2:5-8) God could have relied upon His commandments, the numerous laws He'd given Israel. He could have said that the messages of the prophets communicated His will sufficiently. Instead, Jesus left the throne of heaven to be born in a manger. When words weren't enough, he acted to make a difference for us.

Before criticising MJ, or anyone, ask yourself, "What am I actively involved in beyond my direct responsibilities?" "What am I doing to make the world a better place?Be like Jesus, not Mike.

Monday, October 19, 2015

A Cubs Fan: Suffering, Waiting, and Hoping

Today's post is written by guest blogger Rex Butts. You can follow his [usually non-sports related]\ blog at

It was 1984. I was only eleven years old. That’s when I became a Cubs fan… a long suffering Cubs fan.

Of course, I had no idea of the disappointment I was in for. I didn’t understand that the Cubs had not been to the World Series since 1945 and not won that championship since 1908. I knew nothing about the curse of the billygoat. I didn’t know that the Cubs missed the playoffs in 1969 after giving up a 10 game division lead over the “Amazing” Mets by losing 17 of their last 25 games. But I would learn in time… in 1989.
                          In 1998.
                                           Again in 2003.
                                                                       And again in 2007 and 2008.

Now it’s 2015 and the Cubs are once again in the playoffs. They’ve already beat the Pirates in a one game face-off, followed by beating their arch rivals, the Cardinals, in the Division series. According to some sources, the Cubs are actually the favorites to win the World Series this year.

Can they?

Of course, they can, if can out pitch their opponents, get clutch hitting, and play excellent defense. But my history as a die-hard Cubs fan has me waiting for another black cat, another Steve Bartman, or just some colossal error resulting in another year of getting this close only to be disappointed again… only left to “wait til’ next year” once again.

This suffering, waiting, and hoping as a Cubs fan may be metaphorical of the Christian life that suffers.

As a young adult I lost my father, first child, and then my younger brother in the span of ten years. Death is part of my narrative. For others, it might be chronic illness, a failing marriage, an addiction of some sort, or a plethora of other troubles that bring disappointment, grief, and pain. Faith in Christ believes that one day the suffering will be no more but until that day, we continue waiting with disappointment.

It’s been twelve years since my son Kenny died but just a week ago I was reminded of the disappointment, grief, and pain as I read the story of another family whose baby died. Someone else is struggling again with depression, or relapsing as an alcoholic, or has had their cancer return.

            More disappointment, more grief, and more pain! 

Christians who suffer wait with anticipation for the day when it will be no more. It’s called hope! The difference here is Jesus Christ.

In 1 Corinthians 15 the apostle Paul reminds us that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the firstfruits of the resurrection of the dead. In other words, the future is known in the resurrected Jesus Christ because his resurrection is the promise of hope that his followers share in his victory. Thus Paul appropriately says, But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 15:57, NIV).

So while I remain a suffering Cubs fan, waiting and hoping but never sure, by faith in Christ I know that one day the wait will be over!

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Next Man Up

Each summer NFL teams start training camp with 90 players on their roster. In 2015, the magic date for reducing that roster to 75 was 1 September.

On Thursday, 3 September, each team plays its final preseason game. Then on 5 September all clubs must reduce their active roster to 53 players.

It sounds so matter of fact, "reduce the roster". In reality many of those players cut will never play in an NFL game as their dreams of professional football evaporate. At the other end of the spectrum, veteran players hoping to get another year or two out of their aging body also find themselves confronting disappointment and frustration as they look for work or wait for other players to get injured throughout the year.

The harsh reality of player movement has hit home this week in western New York as fan favourite, Fred Jackson, was cut by the Buffalo Bills.

Jackson was with the Bills for 10 years. He was active in the community. He stands third on the list of Bills running backs for rushing attempts and rushing yards. He's also fifth among Bills receivers for number of receptions.

The Bills running back depth chart now includes one star, (LeSean McCoy) and three guys with 1,900 career rushing yards combined.

Despite their inexperience and lack of results to this point in their careers, these three running backs are expected to fill the gap left by Fred Jackson. If McCoy is ever injured, the team will depend on one or two of these guys to step up and perform as the starting running back.

Time will tell if the Bills made the right decision.

People leave churches for all sorts of reasons. Not all of them are negative. It can be as simple as a job relocation or a move closer to family members. When these people leave their absence often creates a void in the ministries of the church.

How do churches replace these people and maintain continuity in the church's ministry? Like football the answer is simply, "Next man/woman up."

When the audio visual guy leaves, we can't complain that the young replacement doesn't move the slides as quickly or adjust the mic levels as precisely. We need to give the new volunteer time to learn and grow into the role. We need to be thankful for their willingness to take on the role.

We also all need to develop awareness that a person or family leaving creates a void. It's easy to stand around and lament the departures, but the church never revolves around one person or family. It revolves around God.

Perhaps the next time someone leaves, that will be our cue to increase our involvement and be the Next Man Up exercising our gifts for the building up of the body. Or maybe it will be the cue for us to invest in another member to train and encourage them to fill that roll. However you respond, don't be part of the lamenting crowd. Be the Next Man Up.
There should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.      1 Corinthians 12:25-27

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

A Second Opinion

In recent days a video from the 2014 NFL Rookie Symposium has surfaced showing Cris Carter advise rookies to "nominate a fall guy in their crew" in order to protect their "brand".

This is terrible advice. First, it's illegal. Second, it teaches young players that they don't have to be responsible for the outcomes of their actions. Third, it encourages NFL rookies to find ways around the law, rather than respecting the law.  Fourth, did I mention it's illegal, and if they got caught they'd be in even bigger trouble?!

As soon as it became public, both Carter's current employer, ESPN, and the NFL distanced themselves from his comments. Carter quickly made a public apology for his words, which you can watch HERE.

I understand why Carter and Sapp were asked to speak at this symposium. They've both faced struggles in life. They've both wrestled with drugs and alcohol. The league saw them as having a positive, redemptive, "learn from our mistakes", story to tell. By the accounts of those who've watched the whole presentation, it was generally excellent, except for the "fall guy" advice.

As I thought through all this information I realised that for some of the rookies in the room that day, this symposium may provide them with some of the most honest talk they'll hear for years. Many of them are millionaires and they'll be surrounded by a "crew" who will want to agree with and please their star player because that's how they can stay on the gravy train. That's why Carter's advice is so tragic. Instead of hearing the message the positive message about the importance of staying out of trouble, some of them will only remember the advice to "get a fall guy".

I'm reminded of the wisdom the writer of Proverbs demonstrates thousands of years ago when he recommends accumulating a variety of advisers. I would like to think that the players who heard Carter's advice had someone else they could bounce it off before they put it into practice: someone wise, someone objective, someone unafraid to speak even the unpopular truth.
Without wise guidance, a nation falls;
    but victory is certain when there are plenty of wise counselors.
  Proverbs 11:14
Do you have a wise counselor in your life? 
Do you have plenty of wise counselors? 
Are you equipped to serve as a wise counselor for a young person in your life?

Thursday, August 20, 2015

First Round Grace

I heard a conversation on the radio this week about a young quarterback. The commentators explained how football players drafted in the first round will be given every opportunity to fail. They are seldom (never) cut from the team at the end of the preseason competition.

In contrast, NFL clubs will sign young, undrafted, players to temporary contracts to get them through training camp. Throughout the preseason NFL teams must gradually cut their squad from 90 players to 75, and then finally to 53 players on the teams roster at the start of the regular season. If you're doing the math, that means that 40% of the players present on the opening day of training camp won't play in the NFL that year.
For most undrafted free agents, the opportunity with their first NFL teams will come to an end before the regular season begins. To continue the opportunity into the regular season and onto a potential path to stardom, an undrafted free agent must prove his worth during training camp. ~

I had the opportunity this week to attend the Buffalo Bills training camp. I mostly watched the Bills wide receivers. Buffalo has a pretty settled group of wide receivers. They have:
  1. Sammy Watkins (Buffalo's #1 draft pick in 2014 & 2015)
  2. Robert Woods (Buffalo's #2 draft pick in 2013)
  3. Percy Harvin (signed from the Jets this year)
  4. Chris Hogan (played every game in 2013 & 2014)
No other Bills wide receiver in 2014 even had 10 receptions for the year. This means that the seven other receivers in training camp are probably competing to maybe be the fourth WR on the team More likely, they're hoping to be the fifth or sixth WR on the team knowing that the sixth WR usually doesn't even dress for games. The sixth guy is just there in case of an injury to someone.

Seven players. Two roster spots.

Every play they make at training camp will be scrutinised. Every time a defender stops them. Every time they drop a ball. Every time they run to the wrong place on the field. That might be the time that the coaches decide this rookie's professional football career will never get started. Every play is vital.

NFL rosters are made up largely of players who the team has made a significant investment in, either in guaranteed money or in a draft pick. Undrafted free agents, on the other hand, have minimal commitment from the teams they sign with, so they must prove they are better than their competition to have a shot at making the 53-man rosters. ~

At the other extreme the Bills have EJ Manuel on their team. Manuel was the team's #1 draft pick in 2013 and the sixteenth pick overall. Through his first 15 games Manuel has a passer rating of 78.5. That's not very good.

What are EJ Manuel's problems? This summary from his ESPN profile gives some perspective:
What did Manuel do to get himself benched in favor of Kyle Orton last year? If we had to pick one factor, it would be deep-ball accuracy. He completed only 28 percent of his throws that traveled 20 air yards or more (35th out of 42 QBs with at least 15 attempts). Manuel has a tendency to duck his head when a pass rush gets in his face, and his throwing mechanics suffer.
Despite these shortcomings EJ is now entering his third year and the team is hoping that he will improve and this will be the year that he lives up to the potential they saw in him on that draft day in 2013. The team has shown him patience. They've invested the time and energy of numerous coaches into his development. They've used early picks in the draft to gain wide receivers who they hope will help Manuel out. And this year they'll pay him like a starting quarterback to be the third string quarterback, hoping against hope that he'll suddenly get it all together and become a superstar.

Grace. Patience. Forgiveness. Time to Grow.

Manuel gets plenty of these.  Wide receivers 3 through 7? They'd better hope they graduated college or they'll be flipping burgers when the NFL season kicks off.

The good news for you is that when God looks at you, he sees a first round draft pick. It doesn't matter how you see yourself. It doesn't matter how others view you. God sees someone precious.

Because you're his first round draft pick, God gives you grace, patience, forgiveness, and time to grow.

In Luke 15 Jesus tells the story of a shepherd who leaves his flock of 99 sheep to go back and find one that wandered away. He describes God's love for each person. The team bus won't wait for the #7 WR, but the QB drafted in the first round? The coach would probably drive to his house personally to make sure he was okay. So God views us as his first round draft pick, and treats us accordingly.

As God's children, He gives us every opportunity to fail.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Friendly Fire

Did you see these headlines? NY Jets quarterback, Geno Smith, will miss half a season after a teammate hit him in the face, breaking his jaw.

All the trades.

All the millions of dollars invested in players.

All the preseason training and scheming.

All the hopes of thousands of fans.

Possibly, all undone over a $600 debt, because of a backup linebacker with a bad temper and a tendency for violent solutions.

The Jets just can't seem to get out of their own way to put a winning team and season together. It's fascinating how some teams seem to consistently attract so much negative behaviour. Maybe it's the owner. Maybe it's the management. But even with coach and player churn they seldom manage to produce winners.

Somehow they've developed a culture of losing and they can't lose its stench.

Also circulating my way this week was an article by Joe McKeever titled, "59 things not to say to a preacher". Since I'm a preacher I have a vested interest in this article and agreed with many items on the list.

But it's not just for preachers. Churches have as many possibilities to implode from Friendly Fire as football teams do. We're just more likely to use our tongues than our fists.

Gossip... slander... criticism... accusations... negativity... doubt... skepticism

Some church cultures breed these attitudes and behaviours rather than eliminating them. The destructive power of a strong word is no less than the force of the fist that impacted Geno Smith's jaw.

Like the Jets, these churches many never figure out why they don't grow. They may never understand why newcomers don't stay. They may never grasp why their young people leave.

They've developed a toxic culture and they don't notice the stench.

Of the many Scriptural antidotes for these churches I'll share two:

Brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.  Philippians 4:8
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.  Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.  James 3:9-10, 13
 What type of church culture do you contribute to the most?

Monday, August 10, 2015

Learning from Sackcloth and Ashes

In 1896 Utah became the United States' 45th state. The modern Olympics launch in Athens. Dow Jones begins an index of 12 industrial stocks. Henry Ford takes his 1st Ford through streets of Detroit. The 1st movie theater in US opens, charging 10 cents for admission. A large power plant at Niagara Falls begins operation and the City of Buffalo receives it's first power from the fall over a 25 mile transmission line

And the Australian cricket team on a tour of England is bowled out in just 113 balls.

No Australian cricket team was dismissed as quickly for for almost 120 years... until 6 August, 2015. On this day the Aussies kissed the Ashes good-bye as they edged their way to infamy in just 111 balls. (You can watch a video of the disaster HERE.)  Australia's 60 runs is their lowest innings total against England in 79 years.

The world's smallest trophy.

Was it really just a few months ago that Australia won the limited overs World Cup? Was it that same tournament that England only won 2 matches and didn't make the quarter finals? YES. It's all recorded right HERE.

Australia's woes bring to mind two comparisons with life as a Christian. (You may have more.)

1. Succession Planning: This Australian squad to tour England included nine players in their 30's. Many of them are now contemplating retirement. The selectors played it safe and chose players based on accomplished track records, but this gave the squad an unusually high average age.

Churches also have to take risks with their young members. Titus 2:3-4 describes older women teaching younger women. This principle surely applies to men also. There's a risk that we'll think of this teaching in terms of passing on knowledge. Churches generally do a good job of transferring knowledge. Teaching also requires allowing people to fail. Established members in churches must create an environment that allows younger Christians to fail as they learn what it means to live out their faith. If expected standard is perfection before long there won't be a younger generation.

It feels safer for the long-term members to maintain control, because that's what's familiar to them. But sooner or later new faces need to take over and the key question becomes, "have they been adequately equipped?"

2. Build Up: It's easy to mock and criticise our teams and the players when the fail. Perhaps we rationalise that we'll come back to support them later, we're just expressing out current frustration. We've all been through this and I know I've laughed as my own teams are ridiculed.

In the church (and life) we can't treat people this way. It's the young Christian who's sinned publicly who most needs to know that repentance leads to forgiveness. It's the person struggling with their faith who most needs friends to sit down and listen to them, not laugh at them. In moments of crisis people need compassion. The church would be a cruel a place if mocked and discarded people as quickly as we do the players on our favourite teams.

Do you know someone around you who's struggling with faith or life? What can you do this week to lift them up and let them know they're not alone?