Friday, February 25, 2011

Ministry in Moments of Crisis - Community Tragedy

This is another installment in a series on Ministry in Moments of Crisis. This week we’ll consider the crisis of Community Tragedy. When a community is shaken by tragedy it stamps the moment on their individual and collective memories, awakens many souls to their mortality and creates a momentarily open door for effective ministry.

One need only mention, Marshall Football and September 11, 2001, and memories come flooding to our consciousness related to tragedy. Some of us can remember plane crashes, like Marshall University’s Football team in 1970, involving Wichita State University Football also in 1970 and the University of Evansville Basketball in 1977. Those instances spread grief all across the region as well as among the communities from where each of their players had come to the universities.

In the last few years you may recall shootings on campuses like the one at Virginia Tech University and later at Northern Illinois University. I am familiar with sport chaplains and coaches at those schools and recall our conversations which were filled with grief and horror.

We all probably remember the circumstances peculiar to where we were on the morning of September 11 of 2001. I recall the shock, bewilderment and even a sense of denial that this could really be happening. Those feelings were soon replaced by a resolve to seek the Lord’s best for people in the midst of this terrible tragedy. I recall many conversations with players and coaches as we all tried to make sense of the incident. Many had no room in their worldview for evil, but had to rethink their positions. Many felt totally abandoned by God. Many others felt like God had let them and the USA down. The opportunity came simply because they were thinking about God at all.

Rather than having simple, trite answers to all these complex issues, I worked to keep the conversations going and to point them to the Holy Scriptures for insight and comfort. In any sort of community tragedy, we are obviously ill-equipped to solve all the problems. We can, however, point them to an omnipotent, gracious, loving Savior for exactly what they need to live through this day and to get to the next one. If we coldly offer stock answers in the midst of community tragedy, it’s like putting Band-Aids on a cancerous tumor. Such ministry is neither effective nor compassionate.

When community tragedy visits our world, let’s be the ones who run toward the smoke and fire like the first responders on 9/11. Let’s carry the life giving truth of Christ Jesus into the chaos, open wounds of emotion and even despair. Our presence will enlighten the path to hope and our words will sooth weary souls.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Which Culture is Holier?

Culture – “The behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group.” (

Over the millennia there has been a constant shift in each culture’s behaviors and beliefs within particular social groups, ethnic groups and age groups. These shifts continue and it seems that the shifts are even accelerating.

Most of us would consider ourselves to be culturally sensitive and endeavor to not give offense to others related to matters of culture. We honorably try to fit in with the local culture when we travel abroad and even try to adapt to the subcultures in various parts of our homelands.

Some of us find this rather easy, while others do it with difficulty or even while grumbling. Still others simply refuse to acknowledge cultures outside their own and even communicate that their culture is certainly superior to all others. Sadly, many of us in Christ’s Church are in the latter two groups and not among those in the first.

In some quarters of the USA, there are people whose nationalistic attitudes lead them to wrap the Stars and Stripes around the cross and thereby make their own brand of Christianity staunchly North American. I am sure such myopia occurs elsewhere across the globe, but I’m a little more sensitive to the pain I experience when “Amuricans” take offense to the thought that we’re not living in the Promised Land. While this grieves me and illustrates my point, it is not the primary issue for this article.

I find it similarly grievous for those of us who live and work in the culture of sport to act as if it is somehow profane, debased and unworthy of the presence of Christ. Many of us who serve the people of sport as sport chaplains, character coaches, sports mentors, officials, players, coaches and support staff seem to think that the Lord Jesus is only comfortable with the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of Church culture. We regularly communicate that Church culture is superior to Sport culture by how we speak, by what we read, by what we celebrate, by what we discourage, by the people and behaviors we honor and how we respond to the people we serve.

Most of us would not stand for such elevation of one culture over another if it was Southern culture vs. New England culture. (Okay, that’s exactly how some of us think.) If someone put down Hispanic culture and asserted that British culture was superior, we’d challenge the thought as xenophobic. If we argued that Hip Hop culture was antithetical to God’s purposes and that the only music worthy of Christian ears was 18th century hymns, we’d be called bigots.

How is the elevation of modern Church culture over Sport culture any different? Is banging on a guitar or a keyboard at a church service a holier activity than bouncing a basketball in a gymnasium? Is teaching a Bible study on Wednesday night in a classroom more honoring to God than having a heart-felt discussion with a teammate after Wednesday afternoon’s practice? Is one more influential while speaking in popular Christian clichés with fifty like-minded people in a quiet auditorium than he is when emotionally encouraging a hundred of his teammates in the changing room after a gut-wrenching loss? Is the presence of the Living Christ more powerful when experienced by the frozen chosen in their pews or when a dynamic disciple of Jesus demonstrates the grace of God to her fallen colleague in the coach’s office? I hope the answers are obvious.

There are untold numbers of us who live in sport culture and even prefer it to most other cultures in our world. We prefer the cricket ground to the abbey. We feel closer to Christ among the hand ball team than with the hand bell choir. We experience Jesus’ grace more often in a raucous stadium than in a placid sanctuary. I believe that in the Christian Sport community there are even more who would like to, but they feel torn between living comfortably in sport culture and feeling safer with their Christian brothers and sisters while behaving in ways consistent with Church culture. Sadly, I think most of us have been conditioned to simply import Church culture into the world of sport. The problem with this is that those outside the Church don’t understand its culture and our message is lost in this foreign tongue.

I have often watched the meetings of sports ministry leaders from across the planet and wondered, “Why are we singing worship choruses from thirty years ago?” My usual internal answer is that we don’t know what else to do to fill up some of the time. Maybe we feel like the Lord needs us to sing a little before we talk about Him. Maybe I’m just out of step and more than a little peculiar. If so, I’m fine with that. If we’re just afraid to break out of our cultural box, I’ll probably be the one to ask some hard questions. I find it all puzzling and chalk it up to our hesitance to think more deeply about these matters.

When gathered with other sports ministry leaders to discuss our lives in Christ, strategies and methods for sharing His love with people in sport, I’d rather watch a highlight film from the World Cup of football or the Super Bowl, a clip from “Chariots of Fire,” or any sporting event which displays the passion and excellence which makes my heart, soul and spirit race than to endure another medley of tired choruses. I sense more of the Lord’s passionate heart at the ball park, on the pitch or on the court than in anyone’s church service. Simply said, singing songs is not culturally superior to competing in sport – each can be offered to God as worship as we offer our bodies as living sacrifices. (Romans 12:1-2)

Some of our colleagues make knee jerk reactions to the elevation of sport to parallel levels of more widely accepted cultural expressions of worship, e.g. music, drama, oratory, poetry or even dance. Why are we so scared of sport as a mode of worship? Is it a matter of a lack of Biblical models? Such thinking has some Christian denominations forgoing the use of instruments for worship, gas powered or electric powered machines for work and other distinctions which we understand to be purely cultural. Following this logic would lead us to toss out the guitars, video projectors, hymnals, air conditioning, automobiles, computers and so on.

If you’re not challenged or maybe even offended by now, I’ve either been to gentle or you’re not really paying attention. We must examine our practices as those who love Christ Jesus in the culture of sport. It is our sacred duty and privilege to be agents of God’s transforming power within this culture. We carry the aroma of Christ into the locker rooms, the offices, the arenas, stadiums, courses and tracks, thereby impacting lives simply by our presence. Our characteristic beliefs and practices shape and revolutionize the culture of sport in so far as we allow Him to be expressed in our lives in ways that are clearly understood by those we serve. I challenge you to love God with all your heart and to love those around you as you are fully engaged in the culture of sport.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Ministry in Moments of Crisis - Serious Illness

This is another installment in a series on Ministry in Moments of Crisis. This week we’ll consider the crisis of Serious Illness. Through my almost 17 years in this role words like cancer, leukemia, lupus, diabetes and more have sent shock waves through teams, families and the souls of men and women. Suddenly the rules of life have changed for the players and coaches and a life threatening disease is the number one opponent for everyone. Thoughts of rivalries, practice plans, schemes and recruiting are immediately “back burner” items.

One such instance was in 2005 when our head football coach, Jerry Kill encountered grave illness, cancer and surgery beginning in an incident on the field during a painful, homecoming loss to Illinois State University. Below is an excerpt from my journal from that season.

The whole game was overshadowed by an event in the last 30 seconds of the game. Coach Kill collapsed to the turf and suffered a series of three grand maul seizures as I and others rushed to his side and tried to keep him from hurting himself or others. The ambulance on the scene was on our sideline within a minute and he was quickly taken to the Memorial Hospital emergency room.

After he was in the ambulance and the clock had run out, Coach Denver Johnson of Illinois State called all his players up to mid-field where our team met them on one knee. As Coach Johnson was watching the scene develop I asked him if he would like me to pray and he consented. We each took another’s hand and I prayed for Coach Kill’s safety, his recovery and freedom from long-term effects from this incident. After the moment of prayer we congratulated our opponents for their excellent play and retired to our locker room.

Once inside, Coach Tracy Claeys did a tremendous job of comforting our players about Coach Kill’s condition and directed them to stay in touch with their position coaches for updates. We all took a knee again, held the hands of the men near us and prayed the Lords’ Prayer together as is our custom.

We exited the locker room to a subdued crowd of fans, friends and family outside. Sharon had already left for the emergency room and I soon followed. When I arrived, Coach was already in an observation room and I was allowed access because the ER doctor wanted to know how the incident occurred. I told her the story with all the detail that I could. As the evening progressed Coach had a series of equally severe seizures in the hospital. The hospital staff continued to increase his medication in order to stop them, but they continued to happen and caused Rebecca and all of us great concern. Pastor Allen Speer and I were there throughout the evening, praying for Coach Kill and doing all we could to comfort the family, coaching staff and university personnel gathered to lend support.

Finally after midnight, the seizures had stopped and he had regained consciousness enough to talk with the doctors. He had a couple of CT scans done, but there was no apparent damage. Around 2:30 in the morning he was transferred to the Intensive Care department. Sharon and I accompanied Rebecca and the coach through the transfer and into his room.

The good news is that Coach Kill is doing well physically and after a strong run at SIU, he took the head coaching job at Northern Illinois University for the 2008-2010 seasons. After three strong seasons there the University of Minnesota offered him their head coaching job and he recently accepted it. He endured the cancer, surgery and has come out the other side stronger.

These moments of crisis, the emergency room visits, the nights of sleeping on hospital room floors, the prayers prior to surgery with the coach and his family were the defining moments of my ministry with him and they are the reason for our continuing ministry with the coach and his team even though they’re now hundreds of miles away.

A second instance which illustrates the importance of such moments to our ministries is Coach Lance Irvin’s battle with leukemia. As I was watching for ways to serve men’s basketball here at SIU, I became aware that Associate Head Coach Irvin was in Barnes Jewish Hospital in St. Louis, MO. I decided to make the two and a half hour drive to the hospital to visit with him. I found the coach in his room as he was in day 15 of what became 40 days in the hospital receiving treatment and recovering from it. I visited him twice during those days and we had tremendous times of conversation and prayer. I carried resources like books and magazines to read and to encourage his heart for the battle.

The trust won and the relationship developed were surely a part of the newly open doors to work with Coach Irvin’s team in the fall and winter. Being available and present in the moment of crisis gave me entrance for ministry with the coach, the other coaches and the players. I would encourage and even challenge you to walk confidently into hospital rooms and other places where we may encounter Serious Illness. It is more an opportunity to be embraced than an opponent to be avoided.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Ministry in Moments of Crisis - Being Fired

This is another installment in a series on Ministry in Moments of Crisis. This week we’ll consider the crisis of Being Fired. It’s rather common in USA sport, and I’m sure around the globe, to hear of a coach of a team or a manager of a club being fired by the university or ownership of the club. Most of the coaches I know do their best to be philosophical about the situation and to says that it’s a part of the business. They act like that takes the sting out of the process, but I know there is more going on than what they will easily acknowledge.

Having experienced the loss of a job, I know bitterly the feelings of failure, separation and even shame which accompany the unwilling termination of one’s employment. Even when the coach shows the strong face and confident posture, in his heart there is a terribly personal loss which is felt deeply. In public, she may look fine, but in her quieter moments she’s devastated.

It’s much the same for the player who is cut from a team because of roster limits, for the team management professional who hears, “We need to go in another direction,” and for the aging player whose salary and contract restrictions make him a more costly asset than the young, first year player.

In all these cases, the source of the pain is the grief of separation. Being fired is like a couple being divorced. The relationship is severed, it’s often accompanied by emotional confrontation, accusations and raised voices. People on all sides of the broken relationship begin to take sides and to place blame on one or both parties. Eventually the open wounds heal over, but there are often unresolved and acrimonious attitudes left to fester under the skin. It’s an ugly process and full of pain.

As I write, my mind is full of memories, mostly painful ones. I recall sitting over coffee with a coach who was about to negotiate her resignation so she wouldn’t be fired. I remember desperately trying to contact a coach who was fired and then avoided anyone associated with his former program, even those of us who loved him. He’s still avoiding us. I can still hear the silence on the other end of a phone call when I called a recently fired Offensive Coordinator for a high profile college football team a few hundred miles from my home. All I could think to do was to offer my love and to pray for them over the phone. I was thrilled months later when I saw him and he said that his family had kept my phone message for months and would periodically bring the whole family into the kitchen to listen to the “Roger call” as I prayed for them and their future.

The brutal truth is that most of us in sport find our worth in our performance and to be fired is the ultimate indictment of our worth to the team. It’s as if the club is saying, “You are not worthy of being associated with us. You’re no good. Go away.” It cuts deeply into the fabric of our self-worth and gnaws at the soul.

As we serve the people of sport, we have surely encountered this in the past or we will certainly do so in the future. It is no less painful for us, if we care deeply for the people we serve. Our natural tendency will be to take offense for the coach (if we are strongly attached) or to run away from him (so as to not be tainted by the firing) or possibly even to be among those who pile on with the discontented fans (“I wonder what took so long? He was terrible.”). We would be wise to do none of the above. Just like when my friends get divorced, I simply refuse to take sides and seek to love everyone involved. Those separated by the firing are not just the coach and her team, but everyone on the coaching staff, the support staff including physios, equipment managers, office personnel, media and more. We must pursue our relationships with all of the above in extravagant love and understanding.