Saturday, May 25, 2013

On Earth as in Heaven

I remember the iconic picture on the news and in the newspaper 20 years ago. St. Kilda's Nicky Winmar raising his guernsey in defiance after enduring an afternoon of racial abuse from the fans outside the fence. In 1993 it set off shock waves around the country. The profile of the "aboriginal issue" instantly grew on the public's consciousness, not only in terms of national political policies, but in respect of individuals examining our own actions for racism. (Click HERE for a good short reflection on this event.) The fact that there's still much work ahead is demonstrated in the abuse Adam Goodes received during a match this weekend from a 13 year old girl. (Read his reaction HERE.)

This might seem strange to many people today, but I graduated high school the year before and I don't remember ever having a conversation about racism and the hurt it causes. There may have been other events that also placed racism on the public consciousness, but for young white males who admired Winmar as a superbly skilled football player, this image made an impact.

In the USA Jackie Robinson is honoured as the first black player in Major League Baseball in 1947. Just as the AFL now has an indigenous round each year, MLB also celebrates Jackie Robinson Day annually.

Sports have always had a close connection to race relations. Sometimes sports leagues, players and fans have disgraced themselves, but sports have also made some important improvements in race relations. Sometimes these improvements have come through official actions and at other times by unofficial events.

For many, Tiger Woods has become the face of a new generation with a bi-racial heritage and a drive to allow his talent to transcend racial issues. Although not the first black golfer on the PGA Tour, Tiger is certainly the most well-known and today the only African-American playing on the Tour. This past week Sergio Garcia found himself in hot water after making a "joke" about Tiger and fried chicken. Again demonstrating the work still to be done. This interesting article contained this description of Tiger,
It's not Tiger's way to bring attention to any aspect of his racial heritage. His aim is to transcend race through excellence as a professional golfer. He reaches for a higher plateau that is post-racial in a way that not even President Barack Obama could ever attain as a self-identified African-American.
One of the cruel ironies of Tiger's hope for racial transcendence in a sport played predominantly by whites is that he has been both a symbol of racial harmony and a polarizing force along racial lines.
Apart from the statements made on the field, sports provide a unifying rallying cry for people from all backgrounds. Whether listening to a radio in the poorest hovel, or sipping wine in a corporate box, people connect by supporting the same team.

When I worked as a college minister in Melbourne we had a large group of international students attending our church. I encouraged them to pick a football team, any team, and even if they weren't interested at all, keep track of the team's season from a distance. This would help them fit in with the local people they met and serve as a great conversation filler. Everyone has a favourite team. Even if your team is different to mine, at least an interest in the sport provides a commonality.

So if sports can unify fans across racial, educational and financial divides. And if sports can make strong statements opposing racism that impact society as a whole. The church has a lot of work to do to match the camaraderie of sports teams.
  • How do we welcome people different from ourselves? 
  • Are our friends mostly like us, or do they reflect our community? 
  • Shouldn't the church be ahead of the local sports team, which basically are businesses, in acting as instruments of Godly social change?
Even today, many church growth consultants promote the idea that homogenous churches will grow more quickly than integrated, diverse congregations. I know churches that insist that they need to be racially black, or white or Chinese, or Latino to help them serve that particular ethnic community.

These might be valid reasonings. Even if they are, they shouldn't apply to as many churches as they do. According to a 1999 survey (cited in One Body, One Spirit, George Yancey), only 8% of all US churches are multiracial. (I suspect this would be much higher in urban & suburban Australia, but I haven't found any data.)

In Matthew 6:10 Jesus prays, "May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." What's God's will for race relations and the church? Let's answer that by looking at heaven. Revelation 7:9 describes "a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language standing before the throne an in front of the lamb" praising God. Wouldn't it be wonderful if that described our churches, "on earth as it is in heaven"?

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Celebrate Good Times

You don't have to know a lot about basketball to recognise that the following season statistics are particularly unimpressive:
  • Games Played: 3
  • Average Minutes Per Game: 1.3
  • Field Goals Attempted: 2
  • Field Goals Made: 1
  • Total Career NBA Points: 2
  • Assists: 0
  • Steals: 0
  • Blocks: 0
  • Turnovers: 1
But those statistics don't tell the whole story... or even the beginning of the story. The statistics belong to Chris Wright who played for the Dallas Mavericks for 10 days in March 2013 as they auditioned point guards to replace their injured backup. Wright was a college star at Georgetown and this year made one of the D-League All-Star teams.

What makes Wright's story noteworthy is not his basketball journey, but his personal journey. After missing out in the NBA draft Wright found a job playing in the Turkish professional basketball league. One day at training his foot suddenly gave out! Some time later the Turkish doctors diagnosed him with Multiple Sclerosis.

After returning to the US for treatment Wright decided to continue his basketball dream. He found an opportunity playing with the Maine Redclaws. This ESPN story gives more details of Wright's journey, but the fact that he's playing basketball at any level is remarkable! Yet alone that he had the opportunity to play for an NBA team. Look at this description of the symptoms of MS:
Common symptoms of MS include fatigue, numbness, loss of balance, poor coordination, blurred vision and problems with memory and focus, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, which estimates that more than 2.1 million people are affected by the disease. In severe cases, MS can cause paralysis. Wright originally was told by Turkish doctors that his basketball career was finished.
Wright made it to the NBA against all odds.No one knows if his NBA career will continue or if that's as good as it gets. 3 games. 4 minutes. 2 points. An inspiring set of numbers.

I was prompted to write this post not because of Wrights struggle with MS but when I noticed a short sentence in this article:
He got his first NBA bucket on a driving layup with 9.4 seconds left.
After the buzzer, Darren Collison grabbed the ball and passed it to Wright, making sure the rookie would have a keepsake.
“I’ll give it to my mom so I don’t lose it,” Wright said, “and just get back in the gym tomorrow.”
That one score turned out to be his only score but I love that Darren Collison made the effort to give Wright the game ball. I am a big believer that we need to celebrate even the small accomplishments in life. We live in a competitive and glamorous world that consistently tells us that we're not good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, organized enough.... So it's important that we celebrate the things we do well. It's important to remind ourselves, our spouses, our children, our church members that they have gifts, abilities, and most of all that we're all valuable to God.

Don't wait for a major achievement in someone's life to recognise them. Praise people every chance you get. They'll feel better and they'll treat you better.

It's not that these celebrations mean we stop trying. I love Wright's response in the quote above. "I'll get back in the gym tomorrow." Celebrate successes, but then keep moving. The two must coexist.

1 Corinthians 12:26 is a favorite verse of mine. It describes the church as a body. If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance. (The Message) In my experience most churches share the hurt very well. Any time you ask for prayer requests there's no shortage of needs. Most Christians though seem to struggle with part two. We don't enter into each others' exuberance very often. We don't rejoice together as much as we could.

Maybe we don't want to show off. Perhaps we don't want to make those who are hurting feel worse. We might just be private people. But we don't communicate the good news of God in our lives when we're not rejoicing! In fact, one could get the impression that Christians rarely flourish or receive blessings from God if the church prayer list was all we had to go on.

We shouldn't be stingy about handing out basketballs when someone scores a basket. Don't wait for their career to be over.

Coincidentally, I was reminded just yesterday that Richard Foster in his book Celebration of Discipline lists "Celebration" as a spiritual discipline. God wants His people to celebrate! In Hebrews 13:15 we're told "Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise."

As a closing thought here's a summary from a study guide to Foster's book,
The Psalmist exclaimed, "Our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy" (Ps. 126:2a). And St. Augustine echoed Scriptures words with the declaration, "A Christian should be an alleluia from head to foot." Celebration is a happy characteristic of those who walk cheerfully over the earth in the power of the Lord. [emphasis added]
As children of God we have plenty to celebrate.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Pro Athletes Have Fears Too

What spiritual truths would you like to pass on to your favorite sports team? What needs do they have that only God can fill?

It's easy to view professional athletes as guys (and girls) who "have it all". Where would you begin? Would you sit down with Shaq or a giant football player and just tell him he's a sinner?

In this short but interesting interview the chaplain to the 2013 Superbowl winning Baltimore Ravens describes how pro athletes have their own sets of fears. Yes, they make more money than most of us, but their career is so short (about 6-7 years) that there's fear they won't earn enough to support their family long-term. Every year teams draft more players, which also means every year someone's career ends.

Some careers, like Ray Lewis', end in fairytale glory. The majority end with little fanfare. Players get too old, too expensive, or just replaced by a more talented player at their position. Then there's always the injury risk to strike fear in the heart of any player. There's not only the time lost while recovering, but the fear the body will never recover its previous strength and abilities.

This is a short post because I mainly wanted to share that interview. But I do think that Christians are often intimidated by people who appear to "have it all". We'd rather support missionaries to Africa than Europe because the needs are more obvious, and the people seem more receptive. The truth is that the needs in both places are equally severe. Everyone needs Jesus.

Sometimes we're intimidated by middle-class suburbia or wealthy suburbia, but the people behind the big gates have relationships that fall apart, family battling depression and addictions, and even financial insecurities. It's just that these people are usually better at hiding their needs. The Christian's mission is to help people see their need for Jesus and that Jesus meets their needs.

John 1:4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all people.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Jason Collins is Gay in the NBA... and I'm not Angry!

29 April, 2013 is now a watershed date in US professional sports. It's the date that Jason Collins, an NBA player, wrote this article in Sports Illustrated informing the world that he is gay. It's certainly the biggest sports news of the moment because he's the first male professional athlete to acknowledge his homosexuality while still playing in the league.

I do respect Collins as a courageous person. His article was very articulate and short on propaganda. I've been around various sports clubs enough to know that the culture is not filled with sensitive new age guys. Sports value strength, toughness and in some ways have the goal of determining who's the alpha male. Effeminate behaviour is generally regarded as weakness and mocked. Bullying is commonplace within organized sports. So Collins is taking a risk.

As a Christian my understanding of Scripture is that homosexual relationships are sinful. (I previously blogged about homosexuality HERE and included a list of other resources and perspectives at the end of that article.) But I recognise that that simple statement belies the numerous complexities that any discussion of homosexuality must address.

It disappoints me whenever I see sin normalized, accepted and defended in our society. It's impossible for me to list all the articles on the various sports websites and newspapers praising Collins for coming out of the closet. (Also a friend has addressed this subject HERE.) Collins even received a phone call from the President of the US!

I'm disappointed, but I'm not angry. I'm certainly not angry at Collins. In American and Western society today gay men and women publicly live and work in every walk of life. I don't have to endorse or promote their sexual choices, but I believe that Christians do need to accept this reality. We live in a society where homosexuality is a socially acceptable lifestyle. Collins himself wrote in the initial SI article that he was grateful he was doing this in 2013, not 2003. Times have changed.

Gay women have been part of their professional sports landscape for years. In tennis Martina Navratilova came out of the closet in 1981. Regarding women's golf, this article in the UK paper The Observer states that "over its 50-year history, the LPGA has always been associated with gay women, far more than any other sport."And just a couple of weeks ago, Brittney Griner, the Baylor college star and #1 draft pick in this years WNBA draft publicly announced she was gay. It barely raised an eyebrow.

So why would I get angry at Collins?
  • Because he finds himself attracted to men?
  • Because he made his feelings public?
  • Because he plays in the NBA?
  • Because only female athletes can be gay?
  • Because there should be a rule that gay men can't play professional sports?
 I can't criticise Collins for any of those things.

Because I believe homosexual relationships are sinful it disappoints and frustrates me that the revelation of a sin is greeted with so much celebration. On the one hand I am glad that he has not been rejected as a person. (Even his former fiancee spoke out in support of him.) On the other hand I regret that many will see his acceptance as endorsement.

It's not as though the endorsement of sexual sins in the NBA is anything new. For years Christians have followed and admired the careers of numerous players who boast of their sexual exploits. In 2010 Winston Bennett claimed to have had sex with 90 women a month. In his 1991 book Wilt Chamberlain claimed to have had sex with 20,000 different women! Magic Johnson is another NBA star open about his promiscuous lifestyle and the HIV he contracted as a result. Andrei Kirilenko's wife even gave him approval to have one fling on the road per year!

So I'm not going to get angry at Jason Collins. I continue to watch the NBA. I admire these guys as athletes with incredible basketball skills. But I don't look to them as role models in life. The Bible has numerous lists of sins that include sexual immorality, fornication, and adultery.

The fact that a new sin has now been publicly added to the NBA list is sad, but I have enough struggles in my own life that I long ago ran out of energy needed to get angry at other people's sins. I strongly believe that Christians need to warn each other and our youth about the dangers and allure of sin. We need to present a clear message regarding holiness and our relationship with God. We need to communicate clearly that sin has consequences. We need to emphasise that God defines marriage as a covenant between men and women.

We also need to share the message that Jesus called Christians to love our neighbours even while we call them away from sin: theft, violence, sexual immorality, etc. If our emotions at learning of a sin prevent us from sharing God's love with the sinner then we first need to examine our own heart and relationship with God.