Friday, January 27, 2012

Highly Committed, but Irreligious

While preparing for a pre-game meal and chapel talk one day, an assistant women’s basketball coach commented to me, “You’re not like most of the religious people I’ve known.” I smiled and replied, “Good. I don’t intend to be religious. I would prefer to be highly committed to Christ, but rather irreligious.” She said, “That’s interesting.” My reflexive comment to my friend was true and heart-felt and I’m still happy with it.

I’d like to explore the difference between being “religious” and being “highly committed to Christ.” Religious people carry the external trappings of Christianity as their defining marks. Highly committed Christians carry their commitment to Jesus internally as their defining characteristic and allow that commitment to find external expression in numerous, often less religious ways. Some examples of each may help us see the difference.

Religious people speak with each other in clichés and the King James language they learn at church. Highly committed believers in Jesus are free to speak in the language of the subculture in which they are serving Him; in our case, that is the language of sport. Religious people would rather sit in judgment over people whose lifestyles don’t fit their standards. Highly committed Christian men and women demonstrate love and commitment to those they serve without respect to their lifestyles, wise or foolish. Their grasp of their own wickedness of heart and the weakness of their own flesh keeps judgmental attitudes at bay.

I don’t shun the sinful or cluck my tongue at foolish speech. I don’t Tebow because it’s trendy nor do I repeat or retweet every syllable uttered by John Piper (insert the name of any other celebrity preacher) as if it were holy writ. I don’t pretend that attending my local church is the answer to everyone’s social ills and that if they simply walk through the door all their problems will be solved. I don’t counsel new believers in Jesus to shun their former circle of friends and teammates in order to adopt a more suitable set of friends who won’t pollute their lives with wickedness. I don’t wear WWJD bracelets and I haven’t burned my secular music recordings (Gasp!). I don’t go to trendy “Christian films” which are simply gospel tracts on celluloid. I’m bored with the passionless music poured out by contemporary Christian music stations and I’m repulsed by Southern Gospel music. I prefer reading Seth Godin and Malcom Gladwell to Max Lucado and Joel Osteen.

This distaste for “religious” things and preference for “heartfelt commitment” often leads to my being misunderstood by others in the Church. I’m fine with that. I rather enjoy the questions asked of me about such things; the question asked by the assistant basketball coach being emblematic of such questions and the conversations which normally follow. Please take the risk of being misunderstood and questioned about your lack of religiousness in favor of a genuine, passionate expression of your love for the Lord Jesus. It’s worth it and we’re much less boring people with whom to interact.

Friday, January 20, 2012

What can we learn from a tattoo?

What can we learn from a tattoo? What is to be learned from the ink below a person’s skin? Tattoos are seldom either profound works of literature or wondrous works of art. They do however give us a glimpse at the heart which is expressing itself through his or her skin.

The world of sport is rife with tattooed men and women. From the high profile sportspeople like David Beckham to the most obscure high school student-athlete with a hunger to honor a fallen teammate, tattoos are very prevalent in this culture. Many who follow Christ are quick to make judgments about tattoos and their propriety for other followers of Jesus. It is not my intention to make judgments either way, but to consider what a person is telling us from his or her choice of tattoo and the possibility that well worded questions about them can open a pathway to heart-felt discussions about the real matters of life.

In this season’s Team Building sessions with USA university men’s basketball and American football teams, I have used these sentences for discussion among the players in small groups and then with the team at large. “If you have a tattoo, tell us about it. (What does it represent? When did you get it?) Do you have any regrets about having it now?” The responses to these thoughts were varied and remarkable. One player said, “I do not have any tattoos. It would displease my parents and I will not do anything to disrespect my parents.” I was stunned. Another player, with over 20 tattoos, said, “My left arm is dedicated to my mother. My right arm is dedicated to my grade school classmate who died when we were eleven years old. My chest and back speak of things which are important to me.” More than I expected said that they had no tattoos and not a single one would say he regretted having it, a strong contrast to many men of my generation who wish the US Marine Corps bulldog on their shoulders or the US Navy anchors on their forearms were no longer there. This lack of regret may simply be a function of age.

Just among athletes I have seen tattoos on feet, ankles, shins, calves, thighs, lower backs, upper backs, torsos, upper chests, shoulders, biceps, forearms, whole sleeves of tattoos, on fingers, on necks and even under one’s hair. My daughter-in-law, a track athlete, has the word, “Strength” on the top of her foot. A friend who was a USA high jumper in the 1996 Olympics has the Olympic rings above his ankle. Without exception, there is a reason for what is written or drawn. The bearer of the tattoo is expressing his heart through the ink. Their hearts are sometimes foolish, sometimes they were received in the fog of an alcohol or drug induced mind, but in all cases the tattoo means something.

Getting to the something, discerning the meaning and the athlete’s heart is what I am asking you to consider. Starting the discussion is often as simple as asking a question like the one listed earlier. I have asked that question in formal settings like Team Building sessions, while standing beside a basketball court while players drank water, while standing on the sideline at football practice and while sitting together over coffee. In every case, I hear layers of answers. There is usually the surface level “public answer” which satisfies most people, but I am looking for something more. There has to be something deeper here to justify the pain, time and cash invested in the ink below one’s skin. Asking follow up questions which enable one to share a story about the acquisition of the tattoo, the circumstances surrounding it and the significance of the word or the symbol can help us hear their hearts and can open a path to speak to their hearts most directly. Be careful, you may not want to hear some of what you’re told.

Just yesterday a college softball player posted this on her facebook page, “kinda interested in getting a tattoo!?” Despite the spelling, capitalization, grammar and punctuation errors in her message, which I ignored, I replied, “Seldom does such fleeting interest result in a decision one is happy with 10 years later.” Other comments on her post included, “I will go with you!” “All the cool kids are doing it.” “what happens when youre old and saggy? bye bye tattoooooo :(“ “That's why you get one down your side that says ‘faith’ so when youre old and saggy it folds over perfectly and says ‘fat’.” “sleep on it... for like .... a year. LOL” Such is the advice given by teammates, godmothers, friends and sport chaplains; some funny, some insightful and some emblematic of the short-term thinking which results in the proliferation of tattoo shops around the world.

For our purposes as men and women who serve the people of sport, let’s forgo making judgments and concentrate on using these graphic expressions of hearts to engage those same hearts in conversations characterized by love, redemption and the grace of the Lord Jesus.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Toughest Girl on the Planet

Have you had to endure some pain to compete in your sport? How much and how often did it hurt? How would you handle daily, intense pain and would you endure it for four solid years? I watched the toughest girl on the planet do just that as she played her heart out.

Wendy Goodman (Bauersachs) was a basketball player at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale from 2001 through 2005 and she played through pain every day, all day. She has a hereditary condition which makes her bones brittle and subject to stress fractures. It also is quite painful. Running up and down a basketball floor only adds to the stress and pounds the joints with every stride.

Early in her days at SIU the training staff tried everything they could think of to treat the condition and minimize the pain. They tried special shoes, socks, treatments and more. Finally the doctor told her the choice was to play with pain or don’t play at all. She decided to play and became a leader for her team throughout her career.

In her condition, the pain was a constant presence. It didn’t simply visit her when on the floor, it was there as she walked to class as she sat on the team bus traveling home with ice bags strapped to her shins and every night as she would try to sleep.

Wendy, along with her roommate and best friend, Danette Jones (Wolfe), were inspirational leaders for the Basketball Salukis. Her sacrificial love for the game of basketball, for her teammates and for her Lord won the hearts of many. Not long after graduation, that loving heart attracted Tim Bauersachs and they are now blissfully married with a daughter and another baby on the way. The toughest girl on the planet is now a mommy and a pastor’s wife.

Wendy’s example of love, sacrifice and toughness is a constant challenge to me and to all who witnessed her playing career. She helps us each to play our hearts out.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Wrong Questions / Wrong Answers

For the last fifty years or more Christian sportspeople have gained more and more visibility in their communities, in the media and in the general culture. Sometimes that has been good, other times not so good. Some Christ-following coaches and players have represented their faith and their Lord very well and others have become emblematic of words like “hypocrite.” The growth of sports media in the last thirty years has only amplified the issues on both sides through the growth of sports television, sports talk radio and web sites which are each 100% dedicated to dissemination of information and opinion on sport related matters.

The incessant drive to fill the 24 hour per day news and opinion cycle pushes the media to dig, to prod, to push and to provoke sportspeople in their search of a story. They seek a story. They’ll do whatever is necessary to get it, even if they have to invent the story so as to get a reaction from the coach or athlete, then that becomes the story. Sadly, even the Christian media are not immune from this pressure.

I have several friends in both secular and Christian media services; radio, television and print. I respect them, but maintain a healthy distance from the glare of the spotlights, microphones and digital recorders. From my perspective, the relationship between the media and sportspeople is a matter of asking the wrong questions and giving the wrong answers. If one is to properly understand and to respectfully relate to sportspeople, the media members must ask better questions and be satisfied with better answers.

The compartmentalization of our general culture leads sports reporters to ask questions of coaches and athletes either exclusively about the elements of the sport; technique, strategy, performance, wins and losses, etc. or they will ask about the propriety of a Christian player’s practice of his beliefs on game day. The latter sort of question seems to be intended as provocation of an emotional or argumentative response from the Christian man or woman. These are the wrong questions. Better questions about matters of faith would approach the player or coach from a more integrated point of view, asking about matters like these. “When you pray on game day, what do you ask God to do?” “How do you pray for your teammates?” “I saw you kneeling in prayer on the sideline, do you think God wants you to win and the other team to lose?” Asking competitors about the elements of the sport is altogether proper and healthy. Asking them about matters of their faith is also proper and healthy if done with wisdom and respect.

This same lack of integrity exists in many of the hearts and minds of sportspeople. They often give the wrong answers. Some answer either sort of question – sport or faith – with simple clichés. “We’re just trying to get better.” “We’re taking them one at a time.” “I’m just trying to contribute to the ball club.” “Praise Jesus, I got that ball and the Lord just took over.” “I told the Lord if we won today, I’d be in church tomorrow.” The responses remind us more of a scene from “Bull Durham” with Kevin Costner and Tim Robbins than wise, respectful responses to a reporter’s questions. Christian athletes and coaches often answer questions in ways that betray the compartmentalization of their hearts and minds, while others will try to force “Christian cliché” answers upon the reporters. When the reporter asks, “What was your pre-snap read on the mike linebacker when it was third down and thirteen on your thirty yard line with three minutes to play in the fourth quarter?” the answer is not, “Jesus is Lord.” That’s simply disrespectful to the reporter and all those listening simply think, “Huh?” Christian sportspeople must relate to reporters with same wisdom and respect they expect from the media.

Sports media people – please ask better questions. Ask questions which respect the Christian athlete’s genuine love for sport and for God without assuming those two passions are in conflict. Please don’t just seek a story for the sake of a story.

Sportspeople – please give better answers. Answer reporters’ questions directly and respectfully. Don’t twist a question about technical matters of sport into an opportunity to tell your testimony. Don’t dodge questions about matters of faith by tossing clichés, tired analogies, or by simply giving, “No comment.”