Friday, January 18, 2019

Serving in Chaos and Confusion

There are plenty of days in our service of sportspeople that seem sort of chaotic and we’re often confused about what the Lord could possibly be doing. Our service is not usually tidy, with countless moving parts, lots of factors outside our control or even our notice, and many people of less than noble or godly character. It’s easy to feel like we’re caught in a vortex of chaos and confusion. The writer of Psalm 73 had encountered this and wrote eloquently about the situation. Thankfully, he didn’t stay in chaos and confusion. 

In the first part of the psalm, the writer postulates what he believes to be true and the forces that war against that supposition. 

Surely God is good to Israel,
To those who are pure in heart!
2 But as for me, my feet came close to stumbling,
My steps had almost slipped.
3 For I was envious of the arrogant
As I saw the prosperity of the wicked. 

As we serve in the sporting community, we’d like to believe that the Lord honors and rewards those who compete fairly, within the rules of sport, and ethically. However, it often seems like those who cheat the most win the most often. It appears that they will never get caught or pay the penalty for their malfeasance. Our steps could slip along the way of following Jesus, and we could stumble from the way. 

The writer then goes into a rant of the seemingly endless ways that the wicked and arrogant get by with God defying behavior. 

For there are no pains in their death,
And their body is fat.
5 They are not in trouble as other men,
Nor are they plagued like mankind.
6 Therefore pride is their necklace;
The garment of violence covers them.
7 Their eye bulges from fatness;
The imaginations of their heart run riot.
8 They mock and wickedly speak of oppression;
They speak from on high.
9 They have set their mouth against the heavens,
And their tongue parades through the earth. 

10 Therefore his people return to this place,
And waters of abundance are drunk by them.
11 They say, “How does God know?
And is there knowledge with the Most High?”
12 Behold, these are the wicked;
And always at ease, they have increased in wealth. 

The embittered writer pours out his heart’s frustrations with the apparent lack of justice and the perceived over-tolerance of the holy God of Israel. How many times have we enumerated the offenses of the players, coaches, teams, or clubs that repeatedly bend the rules or even more overtly, act unethically and abusively with no consequences. As we do, we join the psalmist in his frustration. 

The psalmist then turns inward and his self-pity is exposed as he laments God’s inaction and his plight of being in a catch 22. 

Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
And washed my hands in innocence;
14 For I have been stricken all day long
And chastened every morning. 

15 If I had said, “I will speak thus,”
Behold, I would have betrayed the generation of Your children.
16 When I pondered to understand this,
It was troublesome in my sight.

The writer’s faithfulness to God and His law seems to have been rewarded with emptiness, punishment, and troublesome frustration. I know you have felt this. I have, often. Thankfully, the psalm is not complete. 

The whole psalm pivots on verse 17. In a single moment, the writer’s attention is shifted from his self-pity to the wisdom of God. 

Until I came into the sanctuary of God;
Then I perceived their end. 

Suddenly, powerfully, immediately the psalmist’s vision is cleared and his perception is righted by the presence of God in His sanctuary. Think about it, what would he see in the sanctuary? Every element of worship in the sanctuary, the temple, shouts of the nature of God, including His righteousness, faithfulness, yes and His justice. Then, the writer perceives the end of the wicked, the arrogant, and the presently proud. When do you enter the sanctuary of God and have your vision cleared? Where do you encounter the presence of Christ and find your perception of truth changed? 

In the next section the psalmist concisely outlines what he perceives the arrival of God’s judgment to be. 

Surely You set them in slippery places;
You cast them down to destruction.
19 How they are destroyed in a moment!
They are utterly swept away by sudden terrors!
20 Like a dream when one awakes,
O Lord, when aroused, You will despise their form. 

Can we, like the writer of this psalm, see beyond the most obvious circumstances surrounding those we serve and perceive the natural consequences of the foolish behavior of the arrogant, abusive, and the proud? If we are faithful to be in the Lord’s sanctuary, in the perception altering presence of Christ, we will. 

The psalmist turns his attention inward again and vulnerably describes the former nature of his soul. 

When my heart was embittered
And I was pierced within,
22 Then I was senseless and ignorant;
I was like a beast before You.
23 Nevertheless I am continually with You;
You have taken hold of my right hand.
24 With Your counsel You will guide me,
And afterward receive me to glory. 

Who among us has not found our hearts embittered and pierced, our minds senseless and ignorant, our souls beastly? Frustration and a lack of perspective can easily sully our hearts until we find the Lord has taken us by the hand, giving us counsel and guidance. 

In the final section of the psalm, the writer turns his attention upward, offering a prayer of consecration. 

Whom have I in heaven but You?
And besides You, I desire nothing on earth.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
27 For, behold, those who are far from You will perish;
You have destroyed all those who are unfaithful to You.
28 But as for me, the nearness of God is my good;
I have made the Lord God my refuge,
That I may tell of all Your works. 

Once restored in perception, in heart, in soul, in mind, the psalmist recognizes his absolute dependence upon God and His provision. His vision restored, his verse 1 suppositions affirmed, he commits again to the God who sustains him, offers him refuge, and fills his mouth with praise. May we be similarly restored as we have our hearts and souls restored by the Lord’s unfailing love and immutable justice. 

We will undoubtedly encounter seasons of frustration, injustice, pain, and even despairing thoughts. Let’s be quick to return to the Lord’s sanctuary, get into His presence, listen to His counsel, receive His Spirit’s consolation, and we will also find our hearts, souls, minds, perception, and vision restored to Christ-honoring clarity. Such clarity will enable us to serve with extravagant love and selfless service, in spite of the swirling chaos and confusion.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Serving in Leanness of Soul

Occasionally along our pilgrimage of service in sport we find ourselves with very lean souls. Whether due to losing streaks, a rash of injuries, personal failures, fundraising difficulties, strained relationships, or other factors, our souls are dried up and our spirits are numb. The writer of Psalm 130 knew this season of life and wrote about it. It is included in the psalms of ascent to be recited during pilgrimage to Jerusalem for festivals.

Out of the depths I have cried to You, O Lord.
2 Lord, hear my voice!
Let Your ears be attentive
To the voice of my supplications.
In this opening stanza the writer directly expresses his heart, “Out of the depths I have cried to you, O LORD.” He feels as if he’s crying out from a bottomless pit of grief and appeals for the Lord to simply hear him.

3 If You, Lord, should mark iniquities,
O Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with You,
That You may be feared.
The writer knows he is unworthy of the Lord’s attention, but appeals to His unfailing love for forgiveness and the privilege of being heard. The Lord’s holiness and forgiveness both inspire a reverential attitude in those who love Him.

5 I wait for the Lord, my soul does wait,
And in His word do I hope.
6 My soul waits for the Lord
More than the watchmen for the morning;
Indeed, more than the watchmen for the morning.
The psalmist moves immediately to what we in the 21st century find to be the most difficult part of our lives in Christ, waiting. Notice how he waits. His soul waits, that is all of his being. In His word he hopes, as he waits. His soul waits for the Lord, not for a sign or a message, but for the Lord. As watchmen in the final hours before dawn wait for sunrise, so does the psalmist’s soul wait. This hopeful waiting with expectation is giving emphasis by repetition. 

7 O Israel, hope in the Lord;
For with the Lord there is lovingkindness,
And with Him is abundant redemption.
And He will redeem Israel
From all his iniquities.
In this last stanza the psalmist turns his introspective heart outward toward his brothers, and he calls them to hope. Hope is found in the Lord’s lovingkindness and abundant redemption. He is confident that the Lord has not abandoned them, that he will restore their freedom and will forgive their shortcomings.

When you find yourself serving with a rather lean soul, please follow the psalmist’s pattern:
·        Cry out to the Lord, appeal to his attentive ears.
·        Acknowledge your brokenness and the Lord’s abundant mercy.
·        Wait. Wait for the Lord. Wait with an expectant soul.

·        Turn your attention to those around you to encourage.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Serving in Fullness of Spirit

Sometimes we serve in fullness of spirit. Everything and everyone we touch turns to championships, MVP trophies, renewed contracts, and dynamic ministry opportunities. David, the psalm-writing-king of Israel, expresses such thoughts in Psalm 23. I hope my view of the psalm through a sports chaplain’s lens gives you a chuckle or inspires a knowing nod of approval, because you have experienced the same.

The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside quiet waters.

As surely as the psalmist exulted in the Lord’s guidance, provision, and pleasantness, we share the same experience. His looks like shepherding, green grass, and cool, clean water. Ours looks like new team gear, access to the locker room, a sideline pass, and regular meetings with players and coaches.

He restores my soul;
He guides me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.

Even when we tire, we sense the Lord’s favor as He restores our inmost beings. We can hear Him directing the paths of our feet into fruitful relationships, to wise friends and colleagues, and to new opportunities to represent Him.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

When we serve in fullness of spirit it seems nothing can touch us. It seems like we could walk through hell-fire in a gasoline suit and we wouldn’t even smell of smoke. We fear nothing and no one because our hearts are full of Jesus-courage. We feel like the Lord Himself is striding along with us through the offices, locker rooms, stadiums, and training facilities with His rod and staff prepared for protective action. There is nowhere too tough or too scary for those who wear the Lord’s anointing.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You have anointed my head with oil;
My cup overflows.

Those who serve in fullness of spirit have a perpetual feast. Even better, we have the seat of honor, and all the haters are relegated to spectator status. We’re seated at the table, the Lord’s presence is dripping from us, and our cup of refreshment is always brimming over onto our fingers. Delicious!

Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

As we revel in the Lord’s presence, full of His Spirit, rich with loving relationships and vibrant experiences, we can’t even recall the lean, painful, and despairing days of our past. Goodness and lovingkindness seem to be chasing me throughout the day, though I’m happy to let them catch me. We feel the glorious weight of eternity in the here and now. Dwelling in His presence, today and forever, is our life’s new normal.

I pray you experience days, weeks, months, even years like David describes in Psalm 23.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Serving in Weakness and Flesh

As much as we would like to deny it. As much as we may protest that it’s not true. As much as we might posture that we never do so, we must confess that we often find ourselves serving in weakness and mostly in our flesh. We are incurably human, though indwelt and empowered by the Spirit of Christ Jesus. We who are honest certainly find ourselves occasionally expressing our hearts as David, the psalmist king, did in Psalms 32 and 51.

Both of these psalms have, as their backdrop, the ugly episode of David’s lethargy, lust, adultery, deception, and conspiracy to murder. These psalms are his expressions of grief, remorse, confession, and repentance. They are reflective of our hearts on many occasions.

Though the backstory is the same, David begins these psalms differently. In Psalm 32 he speaks objectively, but in 51 he speaks in first person, begging for mercy.

Psalm 32
How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven,
Whose sin is covered!
How blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity,
And in whose spirit there is no deceit!

Psalm 51
Be gracious to me, O God, according to Your lovingkindness;
According to the greatness of Your compassion blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity
And cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
And my sin is ever before me.

I would imagine the writing of Psalm 32 preceded the writing of Psalm 51. I generally have a more objective view of sin at first, then feel the weight of it much more personally, later. Perhaps you experience the same thing as David and I.

In Psalm 32, David’s objectivity is soon erased and he describes the effects, physical and emotional, of his sinful silence and broken relationship with the Lord. In Psalm 51, he focuses even more tightly on his guilt and God’s righteous judgment of his personal sin. In both psalms, the remedy for this brokenness is confession.

Psalm 32
When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away
Through my groaning all day long.
For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me;
My vitality was drained away as with the fever heat of summer. Selah.
I acknowledged my sin to You,
And my iniquity I did not hide;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord”;
And You forgave the guilt of my sin. 

Psalm 51
Against You, You only, I have sinned
And done what is evil in Your sight,
So that You are justified when You speak
And blameless when You judge.

After 52 years of following Christ Jesus, I have a terribly sensitive conscience. I find my spirit convicted by sin, overt and secret, very often. I am much quicker to confess and slower to rationalize today than I was even ten years ago. I embrace my personal weakness and repent of my fleshly rebellion more readily now. Is this your experience?

As the psalms progress, the psalmist makes an appeal to his readers, followed by an expression of trust in God; he also asks the Lord to clean his heart, to renew his spirit, to not banish or abandon him, to restore his soul’s joy, and to sustain his spirit.

Psalm 32
Therefore, let everyone who is godly pray to You in a time when You may be found;
Surely in a flood of great waters they will not reach him.
You are my hiding place; You preserve me from trouble;
You surround me with songs of deliverance.

Psalm 51
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And renew a steadfast spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from Your presence
And do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of Your salvation
And sustain me with a willing spirit.

Even in our weakness, in our error, in our rebellious flesh, we can hear the Lord’s voice calling us to a restored relationship. Let’s pray to him in a time when He may be found. Let’s ask Him to create clean hearts in us, to renew our spirits with steadfastness, to restore our joy, to sustain our spirits with willingness. In so doing, we will find Him to be our hiding place, our preservation from trouble, and we’ll find ourselves surrounded by a symphony of deliverance songs.

As we serve the men and women, the boys and girls of sport, let’s pay attention to our soul’s condition. If we are serving in the weakness of our flesh, let’s turn to the Lord, confess, repent, and trust Him to restore us in mercy and grace. Rather than rationalizing and appealing to pop psychology, let’s pour out our hearts, as did the psalmist, and trust Him to embrace us as His dearly loved children. For such we are.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Serving in Loneliness and Isolation

It’s pretty common for our colleagues serving in the role sports chaplains or character coaches to confess their feelings of loneliness and isolation. While surrounded by coaches, competitors, and support staff, we can still feel the numbing effect of loneliness. We are often geographically isolated from our colleagues and friends in ministry. At other times we’re rather distant from other ministry leaders by virtue of our peculiarly narrow niche of service. Who else is serving the sporting community? We’re out here by ourselves and it takes an emotional toll, even on tough guys.

The psalmist, David, powerfully expressed his sense of loneliness and isolation, even abandonment in Psalm 22.
My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?
Far from my deliverance are the words of my groaning.
O my God, I cry by day, but You do not answer;

And by night, but I have no rest.
We, on this side of the crucifixion, associate this psalm’s first line with the Lord Jesus as He quoted it from the cross. The psalm perfectly expressed His own emotions of abandonment, loneliness, and isolation. Whether due to broken relationships, a coach’s firing, players being traded, our service being terminated, or any other factors, many of us groan with loneliness, find no answers to our prayers, and find no rest for our isolated souls.

The psalmist’s heart rebounded, as ours generally do as we remember the Lord’s faithfulness to us and to those who preceded us in the faith.
Yet You are holy,
O You who are enthroned upon the praises of Israel.
In You our fathers trusted;

They trusted and You delivered them.
To You they cried out and were delivered;
In You they trusted and were not disappointed.
Both we and the psalmist remind ourselves of the Lord’s trustworthiness, His flawless track record toward those who trust Him.

The psalmist goes on to list countless expressions of his unworthiness, his pain, and loneliness. His attention turns on a dime at verse 19.
But You, O Lord, be not far off;
O You my help, hasten to my assistance.
20 Deliver my soul from the sword,

My only life from the power of the dog.
21 Save me from the lion’s mouth;
From the horns of the wild oxen You answer me.
The complaints turn to prayers of petition for the Lord to be near, to hurry to his aid, to deliver him from violence, and from life consuming enemies.

As the psalm concludes from verse 30, the psalmist has raised his sights to a more joyous and vigorous future.
Posterity will serve Him;
It will be told of the Lord to the coming generation.
31 They will come and will declare His righteousness

To a people who will be born, that He has performed it.
David’s former loneliness seems to be put away by a clearer picture of the Lord’s faithfulness, not only in the past, but projected into the coming generations of God’s people.

I find that many of us experience a similar pattern when we encounter loneliness and isolation. We start in abject despair and often a little self-pity. We retreat to our Bibles, our private hours of prayer, to worship, to contemplation, and we soon recall the Lord’s faithfulness. Even when we fully embrace our weakness and the pains of our situation, we soon find our complaints turn to supplication. Our hearts shift into prayer and our minds look to a brighter future. We renew our engagement with our friends, colleagues, and those we serve. Soon our souls are refreshed and our vision for the future is restored.

I pray that Psalm 22, usually recalled in moments of loneliness and isolation, encourages your heart with reminders of God’s faithfulness - past, present, and future.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Serving in Failure and Losing

There are days, often weeks, occasionally months, and even seasons when we are serving a team experiencing failure and loses a lot. Losing streaks and losing seasons are terribly painful and frustrating, even for the team chaplain or character coach. To not empathize with their situation keeps us at a distance and diminishes the relationships we intend to build. Even as we maintain perspective and communicate hope and support, we will surely experience the club’s failure and feel the pain of loss.

The psalmist expressed his heart, crushed by failure and loss, but with perspective buoyed by hope in Psalm 46.

God is our refuge and strength,
A very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change

And though the mountains slip into the heart of the sea;
Though its waters roar and foam,
Though the mountains quake at its swelling pride. Selah.

The psalmist will trust in God even when the two greatest symbols of constancy and power would be shaken. The mountains and the sea could each be in turmoil, but God would continue to be his very present help in trouble.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
The holy dwelling places of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her, she will not be moved;

God will help her when morning dawns.
The nations made an uproar, the kingdoms tottered;
He raised His voice, the earth melted.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
The God of Jacob is our stronghold. Selah.

In this second stanza the psalmist considers the volatile nature of international relations, the security of his home city, and the Lord’s faithful power. When the nations make an uproar and totter kingdoms, the Lord simply raises His voice and the earth melts. He finds safety and security in his Lord.

Come, behold the works of the Lord,
Who has wrought desolations in the earth.
He makes wars to cease to the end of the earth;

He breaks the bow and cuts the spear in two;
He burns the chariots with fire.
10 “Cease striving and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”
11 The Lord of hosts is with us;
The God of Jacob is our stronghold. Selah.

In stanza three the psalmist pulls back the focus and looks broadly at the scope of the Lord’s works across the world. He sees His hand in desolations, in the cessation of wars, and in the destruction of armies. He hears the Lord’s voice of comfort and assurance that He is in charge. He will be lifted up in the sight of all nations. The Lord is with us. He is our stronghold.

This psalm speaks to our hearts in the midst of failure and losing. It speaks comfort, it speaks trust, it speaks faith. Though the strength of our team is compromised, God is with us. Though we experience the volatility of sports culture and hear the noise of rivals’ voices, The Lord is our source of safety and security. Let’s join the psalmist in pulling back our focus to see the Lord’s work in our team, in our sport, in our relationships. He speaks these words to us and to those we serve, “Cease striving and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”
We can trust Him in every circumstance.

p.s. One of my favorite authors, Eugene Peterson, died last week. I love his translations of the psalms in The Message. Here is a link to a You Tube video featuring Bono from U2 and Eugene Peterson as they discuss how the Psalms have shaped their lives in Christ.