Friday, January 28, 2011

Ministry in Moments of Crisis - Big Losses

This is another installment in a series on Ministry in Moments of Crisis. This week we’ll consider the crisis of Big Losses. Not a crisis you say? Evidently you’ve never lost a game to your most fierce rival. It seems you have never been upset by an opponent who was by all appearances vastly inferior. You must have never lost a game at the end of a long string of wins. If you don’t feel the sting and crushing pain of loss, you must have never played in a post-season game with hopes of being league or national champions. To those who lose big games, it is certainly a crisis with all the emotions of death.

I remember the pain of a loss after a winning streak of ten straight at the end of a college football (American football) season. Our hopes of a perfect season and our expectations of striding into the post-season and onto a national championship were dashed in the final moments of a closely contested game. I remember the deathly quiet in the locker room and the solemn tone on the flight home.

Just this week I saw the residual pain of our basketball team having lost to a team in our league who had yet to win a conference game. We helped them break their streak and continued our descent into mediocrity. It was a short-term crisis simply because we had to practice the next day.

No matter the circumstance, big losses feel just like crises of greater gravity. The emotions are the same, even if the consequences are lesser. For us who serve the people of sport, our attitude and focus should be the same as it is in injury, illness or death. To empathize, to offer consolation and to lend perspective are all appropriate actions. To attempt to diminish the gravity of the situation by saying such phrases as, “It’s only a game,” will only result in alienation from the people and in our ministry being marginalized. To say, “Just get over it,” to those whose hearts were just crushed by a disappointing loss is similar to making such a trite comment to a grieving widow. Foolish at best and hard-hearted at worst.

If we can maintain a Christ-honoring perspective on life and sport, we can be of immeasurable value to the sportspeople we serve. We can help them see crises, big and small, in the light of God’s sovereignty and to trust Him in all circumstances. (I’m writing to myself in many of these lines as I feel the losses of my teams much more deeply than the victories. The pain of defeat lasts much longer than the thrills of winning.) Let’s stay in touch with our Lord and thus share His transforming grace in moments of crisis, like losing to ___________________ (insert the name of your team’s rival).

Friday, January 21, 2011

Ministry in Moments of Crisis - Death

Death is terribly final. It crushes those who love the one who is dying and robs them of precious communication with the one they love. Back in November I was holding my mother-in-law’s hand as she labored for her final breaths. I felt her pulse ebb from regular and strong, to irregular, to faint and then to finally cease altogether. I watched as the finality of her passing brought on still another stage of grief for her husband, children, grandchildren and friends.

We who serve people in the world of sport are equally subject to Death and its crushing effects as anyone else. Most of the people with whom we work, however are often of the mind that they are bulletproof and never give a conscious thought to the inevitability of death and dying. In university settings we work with young people 17-22 years of age who feel like they’re invincible. Death seems even more remote than responsibility or the consequences of sin. Many are suddenly confronted with Death’s wicked cheap shots when a coach, teammate, parent or a sibling dies in a car crash, after suffering a heart attack, as the victim of violence or even due to suicide. Each brings its own special, rancid smell of pain and loss.

Just two days before my family’s loss this fall, our Head Baseball Coach died. He had battled a rare form of cancer for several years, but that horrible disease doesn’t play fair and it ultimately overtook him. To quote George Bernard Shaw, “Death is the ultimate statistic. One out of one dies.” I was privileged to spend some time with Coach Cal’s widow the day he died and to also break the news to his team in the locker room. Thirty young, strong, fit and seemingly death-proof men were suddenly thrust into the crucible of Death and its equally brutal twin, Grief. The coaching staff was overcome with emotion and felt ill equipped to handle the situation. I was glad to contribute to the process of grieving and healing for the team and the staff.

As we serve sportspeople, we may occasionally be called upon to assist in these matters. We would do well to prepare through reading the Scriptures and taking note of how our Lord handled grief, death and mourning. We would do well to read other books and journals for tips for helping people understand their feelings and the process they will encounter due to the loss of their friend, teammate or family member.

May I challenge you to walk confidently into these moments of grief? Let’s carry the same attitude as our Lord as we make our way to funeral wakes, to graveside services and to private meetings with grieving families. Let’s love as extravagantly as Jesus did at Lazarus’ grave and let’s carry hope and faith into often despair filled rooms.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Ministry in Moments of Crisis - Injury

Today begins a series of notes regarding ministry in moments of crisis. Each week we’ll discuss some of these moments and how they bring with them opportunities for life-changing ministry. Today – Injury. CAUTION – Your own heart will be at risk for pain.

There is probably no lonelier place on the planet than the sideline of a field, court, pitch or mat when one has become injured. The game, match or contest continues and the injured is taken to the sideline to deal with his or her pain, blood, unconsciousness, etc… The competition continues and the injured person is left in its dust.

Suddenly one is watching someone else play his or her position. He or she feels alienated and terribly alone and these feelings are piled upon the pain or shock brought on by the injury. In many sports, especially the more violent ones where injury is frequent and even likely, one’s teammates will look at anything to avoid seeing the injured player and dealing with the possibility that they could easily be the next one on the physio’s table. This results in even more feelings of alienation.

On one such occasion I was watching a football practice when #43 made a tackle and then a teammate collided with him, striking him on the crown of his helmet. His spine was compressed and he suffered the latest in a long line of “stingers.” Imagine the pain and shock which your arm feels when you hit your elbow’s “funny bone.” Now imagine that sensation across your whole body. Such were this player’s stingers and this day’s was no different.

We accompanied him to the emergency room unsure as to whether or not he would walk out. After CT scans and many other tests, a few hours of desperate prayer and a few jokes to lighten the mood, my friend left the hospital sore, but walking. The stressful, intense, terribly uncomfortable moments of face to face communication and heart to heart communion deepened our friendship and our common trust in God’s grace and mercy.

Ministry in moments of crisis like injury take place in locations like these: on the sideline at practice, in the training room, in the ER, at the surgery center – in the waiting room with parents, children and spouses or in the hospital room with the one awaiting or recovering from surgery, and occasionally in the coach’s office during the dreaded conversation regarding the end of one’s playing career. Each place is one of terrible dread for the injured, but it can be one where he or she experiences the presence and peace of God when we carry Christ’s Spirit in with us.

In these moments I always feel inadequate. I always wonder if I have the right thing to say. I never have “magic words” which can make everything okay. I never think I have done all that can be done. I always have to trust God to be sufficient while I am totally insufficient.

I pray that you run to, rather than avoid these situations. These are the moments when the people of sport need us most desperately. You and I may be the most thoroughly equipped to handle such crises as we condition our hearts by the example of Jesus, the Apostles and the prophets throughout the Scripture. Let’s commit ourselves to boldly serve those whom injury has alienated from their sport, their teammates and the singular source of satisfaction many of them know – the field of competition.

Friday, January 7, 2011

College Football / College Basketball Cultures

Today we’ll contrast the culture of American Football with that of College Basketball in the USA. I am aware that our experience here may be significantly different from yours, but I think much of this is true beyond our university.
Football culture is highly organized and very regimented whereas basketball is much more fluid. Football practices are broken down into five minute periods with a script of situations, plays and drills and the schedule is closely followed. A countdown clock is visible to everyone and a loud horn punctuates each period’s end. Basketball practices also have structure, but it is less obvious to observers and players. The coaches generally have a practice plan, but they may start five minutes late if watching video or lifting weights ran long. Pre-game meals may start fifteen minutes later than scheduled simply because the shoot around took longer than expected. A much more fluid approach to time as over against football culture.
Football is very complicated simply because of the number of people involved. At our level of football there are twelve coaches on the staff, plus a half dozen equipment managers, plus another half dozen athletic trainers (physios), plus three or four people who videotape virtually every moment of practices, plus around one hundred players. With that many people it’s very complex and therefore highly structured. Otherwise chaos would reign. Basketball on the other hand is much more malleable. Most coaching staffs are made up of about six coaches or fewer, plus some student assistants / equipment managers, plus one athletic trainer, plus one video person, plus 13-15 players. A much smaller group of people requiring much less structure and focus on time management. This leads to a much looser feel to practices and pre-game preparations.
Football has a very distinct rhythm to its season, whereas basketball is much more erratic. One can count on the same cadence to a college football season, year after year. It will begin in August with pre-season practices, culminating in a scrimmage (game situation practice) to wrap up the pre-season preparations. A regular season of 11-12 games, once per week, usually on Saturday afternoons or evenings and then hopefully playoff games or a post-season bowl game. Every week has a very familiar rhythm and it hums along like clockwork. Basketball is much different. It begins with pre-season workouts for individuals and conditioning, then finally they can practice as a team and then they have a couple of exhibition games to tune up. Those are followed by around a dozen non-conference games and then they play almost exclusively teams from their conference, usually twice each. Many conferences then follow the regular season with a conference tournament which sends its champion to post-season tournaments. The irregular thing about basketball is that a team may play once, twice or even three times in a week. If they’re in a tournament, it may mean three or four games in as many days. During semester final exams, they may have as many as 10 or 11 days with no games at all. The irregularity of the games and the demands of travel lead to sometimes practicing at 6:00 am, sometimes at 3:00 pm and other times at noon prior to boarding the bus for a twelve hour trip.
Football is a very welcoming environment for sport chaplains and basketball requires a little more commitment and flexibility from them. Because of the nature of football – a large group of people in a highly structured environment – it works very well for things like team chapels. Basketball’s fluid culture, flexibility of schedule, smaller and more nimble group size lead to it being more difficult. Before the season even starts I usually know the times, locations and durations of every pre-game chapel for the football team. With basketball, all of those factors could change two or three times within a week. The contrast between football and basketball cultures leads to some frustration for some team chaplains and sometimes leads them to walk away from serving basketball.
We who serve either or both of these sports must learn to understand, respect and adjust to each one. We must fit into the culture where we’re serving at the moment. Please don’t expect basketball players to act like football players and worse, don’t expect basketball coaches to fit the football coach’s template for organization and structure. If we can find a way to live in their worlds, to speak their language and to breathe in rhythm with them, they will trust us, hear us and will experience the Lord’s presence with us.