Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Trading Places

The National Hockey League trading deadline was very busy for goalie Jaroslav Halak. Players who are traded move from one team to another. In Halak's case, he was moved twice: once from the St. Louis Blues to the Buffalo Sabres, then, less than a week later, from the Sabres to the Washington Capitals.

Someone who thought about these trades in terms of their impact on Halak would have contemplated an emotional swing. Halak was moved from the Blues, a playoff team with a very good chance to contend for the Stanley Cup. It must have been disappointing to go to the Sabres, a team that was one of the bottom feeders in the 2013-2014 season. Disappointment would then have given way to a better hope, when Halak was traded to the Capitals, a team that has struggled this season to find its identity but might be poised to make a run after shoring up its goaltending.

Someone who thought about these trades in terms of their impact on the teams involved would have thought very differently about these trades. Each team orchestrated a trade in an effort to improve itself and better their chances for the future. The Blues believed that they needed to upgrade their goaltending in order to win, so they went after the one goalie (Ryan Miller, acquired from the Sabres) whom they believed would improve the team. 

The Sabres, in return, were focused on rebuilding their team and wanted to move an asset (Miller) at the right time, when they could extract the most for him from another team. In return for this trade, the Sabres received Halak, a forward, and a prospect. But they weren't finished. To continue upgrading the team for the future, the Sabres flipped Halak less a week later, without him even playing a game for them. They traded him to the Capitals in exchange for another goaltender and a young defenseman.

For the Capitals, acquiring Halak was meant to be the last piece of a puzzle designed to push them into a playoff run.

One player, three teams. Each team moved or received the same player in an effort to upgrade and improve their team. Halak's story is perhaps the most interesting of all the trade stories that happened at this year's trading deadline. There were many moving pieces as teams worked hard to improve before making that final rush to the playoffs. And yet, of all the teams involved in trades, including the three that were involved with Halak, there is only one team that can win the Stanely Cup at the end of the playoffs. The rest will fail to reach this goal.

At the end of the season, despite all the work, all the effort, all the maneuvering and all the attempts to improve, almost every team will fail to win the prize.

The letter to the Romans is a fascinating letter. In this letter, Paul writes to a church that is a blend of Jewish and Gentile believers. There is tension within this group. There is jealousy. There is competition. The Jewish believers thought the Gentiles were depraved johnny-come-latelys who had all the opportunity to know God but arrived late to the party. They were too corrupt to observe the law properly. Yet, the same Jewish believers, Paul said, were unnable to keep the law themselves, showing themselves to be corrupt when they judged others for not observing.

Both groups proved the rule Paul established: All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Despite our own efforts to improve, to play by the rules, to observe the law, we find ourselves in the same position. God's glory is in front of us, but we are all sinners. We are enemies of God (Romans 3:23; 5:8, 10). We try to improve, we try to get better, but ultimately, like hockey teams maneuvering in the last hours of the trading deadline, only to come up short in the playoffs, we still fail.

Our attempts to improve our standing before God are futile. We are made right with God not because we earned it, played the hardest, or made the best move. We are made right with God through the gospel. We are justified by faith. As Paul wrote, "God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (5:8). Later, he added, "while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son" (5:10).

God showed his love for us through the death of Jesus. We were reconciled to him by the death of Jesus. Our efforts to improve our lives before God are futile apart from his love that has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (5:5). 

God's gospel saves us and teaches us about God's love for us apart from our own ability to earn it. God loves us and saves us. Let us stand firm in that.

Jeremy Hoover is the minister at the Otisville Church of Christ in Otisville, Michigan. His website is at www.jeremyhoover.com. He is an avid sports fan who enjoys biographies about athletes and books by coaches. His favorite sports are hockey, where he roots for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and football, where he pulls for the New England Patriots.

Friday, March 21, 2014

It's Lonely at the Top

As a Colts fan, the big football news this week is the arrest of the Colts owner, Jim Irsay, for driving while impaired. It seems his impairment was due to improper use of prescription pain medication. The police also found other pain pills in his car without prescriptions. He now faces four drug related felony charges.

As expected Irsay checked himself into a rehab facility following his release. Hopefully this represents genuine effort on his part to address his problems and not simply to curry favour with the judge before his next court date next week.

Irsay's arrest really puts the NFL under the spotlight. Over the last few years players have complained regularly about commissioner Rodger Goodell's harsh treatment of player indiscretions both on and off the field. Now, how will the commissioner treat one of his employers?

Because of Irsay's wealth there's a tendency to say that he's not a criminal, he's a competent person struggling with an addiction. This should be treated as a health issue, not a legal one. But a player caught in the same situation would likely face suspension in addition to mandatory treatment.

The legal system faces the same scrutiny. Again the perception exists that a rich white man with expensive lawyers will find a way to avoid jail, while a poor black man in the same situation would almost certainly spend several years behind bars.

Time will reveal how this plays out.

When it comes to justice God has a lot to say. In our summary of the last few centuries of Judean/Samarian history we often just say, "They turned away from God and worshiped idols so God allowed the Assyrians & Babylonians to destroy them and take them into captivity." In actual fact, not only did they turn from God religiously, but God sent prophets criticising a whole slew of social ills that arose as they left Him.

Amos 5 follows the form of a trial against the nation of Israel with God acting as the prosecutor. The charges are laid out in verses 7, 10 and 12. Verse 12 contains this summary,
For I know how many are your offenses
    and how great your sins.
There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes
    and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.
Then Amos gives this advice,
Seek good, not evil,    that you may live.
Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you,    just as you say he is.
Hate evil, love good;    maintain justice in the courts.
Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy    on the remnant of Joseph. 
I don't know how the Jim Irsay situation will play out. I'll be surprised if he does any prison time. I wouldn't really hold it against him if he doesn't, I presume he play the system fairly, just with greater resources.

But Irsay's circumstances remind us that we need to make justice part of our life values. We need not to throw away the key for someone because they're either super rich, or super poor. God expects that his people pay as much attention to ensure that the poor and underprivileged received justice as we do the rich and famous.

Amos 5 ends with a famous description of  God's dream for his people in verse 24,

"Here's what I want: Let justice thunder down like a waterfall;
let righteousness flow like a mighty river that never runs dry."
The Voice

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Free Agents

I love the headline I read this morning on a local news website. "Byrd signs with Saints; Bills resign Carpenter". Here's what it really says, "The top free agent safety left the Bills, BUT Buffalo keeps its kicker." WOOT  When life is dark we hang on to the smallest glimmers of hope.

Yesterday at 4pm the NFL Free Agency period began. It's the time of the year when players without a contract can sign with other teams. For good players it represents a large payday as teams compete for their services. For some players it represents the end of their career. They don't hold a press conference and announce their retirement. They don't get to tour the stadiums and receive applause for a career well played. For many players their careers just fade away as no one offers them a new contract.

When a great player leaves the fans left behind sometimes turn on him. They remember shortcomings and amplify them. "There was that game when he...." "I never really liked him. He was overrated anyway."

Other fans recognise the allure of the large wads of cash being thrown at him. They admit that they'd probably leave too for all that money. It hurts, but it's understandable.

But sometimes it's not about the cash. Sometimes a player just decides he needs a "change of scenery". It will be better for both of us he says. Sometimes he suggests, "You're a loser, and I want to play with a winner." And that hurts.

It hurts because the player is looking for a shortcut: to win on the back of work others have already done. It hurts because he views his current team as having no value. He's given up on them. He regards them as incompetent at best and inherently beyond help at worst. It hurts because others are left behind and he doesn't seem to care about them anymore. It hurts because he's saying that anywhere else is better than here. It hurts because it seems personal.

And often it is.

I have a couple of friends in the middle of filing for divorce right now. It hurts.

In sports we understand how the system works. Players come. Players go. Sometimes the team releases the player. Sometimes injury forces the player to retire. Sometimes the player ditches the team. We know how rare it is for a player to spend his whole career with one team.

In life and marriage we expect greater permanence. We expect people to honour their word. We expect people to stay. In an era of tremendous transience, we still expect marriage to mean something. But when marriage vows have no more meaning than a football contract... it hurts.

It hurts because a person is looking for a shortcut: unwilling to do the work it takes to succeed. It hurts because someone views their current spouse as having no value. He's given up on her. She regards him as incompetent at best and inherently beyond help at worst. It hurts because children are left behind and it doesn't seem to matter anymore. It hurts because divorce says that anywhere else is better than here. It hurts because it is personal. It hurts.

I'm not at all suggesting that the pain a football fan feels from a player leaving is comparable to the pain felt when a marriage disintegrates. Rather, I'm sharing how the conversations around this year's NFL free agency  prompt me to remember and pray for my friends. The concepts are similar even if the emotions are worlds apart.

When life is dark we hang on to the smallest glimmers of hope. It's my prayer that in all of my friends' lives they will see God as one of those glimmers. It's easy to place God in the darkness. It's easy to blame him for the way life has collapsed. But where they are now is not a place God ever intended for them.

I know words seem empty to them. I know the church can't bring their loved one back. I also know that the church will still be there for them when no one else will sign them to a contract. When no one else wants us, God longs for us. I know words can't turn darkness to daylight, but maybe they can provide a glimmer...

Psalm 88 is a lament that contains a cry of desperation and no simple solution. It's devoid of hope as the writer describes their darkness. EXCEPT the psalm is written to God. Even in the deepest hurt where words of goodness sound shallow and empty, God is present. Sharing our hearts with God when we don't understand our life circumstances is often the greatest step of faith we can take.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014


The month of March represents an in-between time on the sports calendar. 

In the US both NFL and college football have finished. College basketball is preparing for March Madness which will be followed by the NBA playoffs starting April 19. The NHL is also approaching the pointy end of the season with their playoffs commencing in mid-April and their trading deadline arriving today.

In the meantime... Baseball spring training has begun. In a nice segue the first pitch of the new season will take place in Sydney, Australia on March 22.

In other Australian news the Aussies have just completed a clean sweep of England and South Africa in this summer's Test matches. As the cricket winds up the preseason of Aussie Rules Football is already completed and the season proper kicks off in just over a week. Not to mention soccer and rugby...

March features the merging of the seasons: sports and weather. While it becomes a crazy time of playoffs and season launches, there's also a lull for a moment at the beginning of the month. Although anticipation builds during the first couple of weeks, the end of football in January and February provides a time to catch one's breath. It gives us a chance to catch up on chores and to return to Sunday naps.

As I contemplate the change of seasons and trade my Colts jersey and my bright gold Australian shirt for my Carlton guernsey and Cardinals tees I'm reminded that God built seasons into our lives.

As much of the christian world observes a season of Lent, I wonder what season we have built into our life that point us to God? I've just been through a busy couple of months where I've had to work on my day off more often than not. I'm looking forward to a season of quiet where I can return to spending time with my family.

In sports, sometimes as fans we forget that each sport has an off season as we switch rapidly from one to the other. While Christians shouldn't ever turn our faith off, we need to give ourselves an "off season" from time to time that enables us to refresh our faith and re-energise our service to God. In Bible terms we call this "Sabbath".  (I've also written HERE on the topic of Sabbath.)

Does your life have an off season?  What's it look like? Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

1 For everything that happens in life—there is a season, a right time for everything under heaven:
    A time to be born, a time to die;
        a time to plant, a time to collect the harvest;
    A time to kill, a time to heal;
        a time to tear down, a time to build up;
    A time to cry, a time to laugh;
        a time to mourn, a time to dance;
    A time to scatter stones, a time to pile them up;
        a time for a warm embrace, a time for keeping your distance;
    A time to search, a time to give up as lost;
        a time to keep, a time to throw out;
    A time to tear apart, a time to bind together;
        a time to be quiet, a time to speak up;
    A time to love, a time to hate;
        a time to go to war, a time to make peace.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

Saturday, March 1, 2014

The N-Word

This week I stumbled across this video produced by ESPN show, Outside the Lines. The NFL has raised the possibility of introducing an on-field penalty (15 yards) for players heard using racial slurs, including the N-word. The proposal faces several difficulties, the least of which is determining an appropriate football penalty for a non-football violation.

The biggest issue is that while the vast majority of the population finds the N-word extremely offensive, within younger African-American culture the word is frequently used almost affectionately. It is interesting in the video below to see the disparate views between black and white Americans and also between younger and older African-Americans.  (This article provides a good overview of the issues.)

Why am I sharing this video? Because I believe conversations like this are a necessity to break down barriers between individuals and ethnic groups in our society. It's too easy to bury our heads in the sand and let other people sort it out.


This is only one segment of a longer show they committed to the topic. I encourage you to look around their site for associated videos.

There are several lessons Christians and churches can learn from conversations like this:
  1. The meanings of words are fluid. What implications does this have for Bible translations?
  2. Culture changes rapidly. Dictionary.com describes the N-word as "now probably the most offensive word in English" yet for some people and cultural groups the word is a term of endearment or brotherhood. 
  3. The question that jumps off the screen at me is, "Why can ESPN and the NFL have this conversation, while churches have nothing to say?" How dangerous would it be for a church or group of churches to have assembled this forum? How much backlash and criticism would they have received...from their own members? 

Please leave respectful comments below.

Read a previous post on this issue HERE.