Friday, March 29, 2013

Dinners with Football Players

Over the last two evenings I have enjoyed dinner with a number of our football players (American Football) who have completed their college playing careers. Ten of them had been training for the last twelve weeks to prepare for their “pro timing day” in hopes of attracting an offer from a professional team and another eight who are not pursuing that goal.

The ten who were training for pro day invited me to attend their final dinner together in the twelve week process of preparations. I was honored by their invitation as it was just the players, their strength and conditioning coach and me at the dinner. They had arranged for two meals a day from a local hotel’s chef during their weeks of preparation. Some were paying for the meals from their pockets and others had sports agents paying for it. Two or three of the ten had realistic shots at being offered contracts, but the remaining seven or eight were chasing their dream of playing professional football with singular focus.

I could sense their anxiety about next day’s tests of height, weight, reach, strength, agility, speed and explosiveness. They talked a lot and loudly as they tried to manage their nerves and load up on carbohydrates with lots of pasta. As the evening was wrapping up I was asked to pray for them. I assured them of their value to the program, the university, their coaching staff, to my wife and to me personally. I challenged them to take their best shot at tomorrow’s tests and to leave the results to the scouts. I then prayed for them to be at their best, to have favor with the scouts and with those who would analyze the statistics and those who would watch the videos and for them to be at peace with the results. As they left the room I either shook hands or hugged each one.

The following evening I met all eighteen of them for dinner at a lodge in a beautiful Southern Illinois State Park. The forest and rustic atmosphere coupled with the excellent food made for a tremendous evening. The Head Coach, my wife, a Saluki Football alumnus and I accompanied the players for the annual senior dinner. Some of our football alumni have endowed a fund for such dinners to occur each year with the senior players to acknowledge their investments in the program and for them to enjoy one more evening together. They didn’t seem to be aware of it, but this was probably the last time some of them will ever see the others. Some will graduate in May and move away, some have already graduated and are in graduate school, some are a bit adrift and we just hope they can finish at the university.

As the players gathered the natural topic of conversation was the results of the day’s pro timing. Some marveled at their teammates’ times, distances, repetitions of bench pressing 225 lbs. (one linebacker did 24 reps.) and more. Others were kidded for their less than stellar performances. They joked about how the pro scouts did things and teased each other about stumbles and clumsy comments made to excuse poor showings. Their anxiety from the night before the testing had now become anxiety about whether or not they’ll receive invitations to work out for individual clubs who have interest in them. They still talked too much and too loudly. Some things never change.

As we waited for dinner to arrive, our alumnus from the 1972 Saluki Football team told the story of one of his teammates and his passion for players and their continuing involvement in the program. He welcomed these players into the fraternity of former players and informed them of how difficult this first season of not playing will be for them. Much of the normal rhythm of life seems just a little off during the season when there are no practices, meetings, training sessions or games to be played. He understands the loss of identity that comes with the end of a career, even though he would not express it in those terms. The Head Coach made some comments of his own and then gave me the opportunity to speak to them as well.

As dinner was wrapping up, each of us, the alumnus, the Head Coach, my wife and I all went around the room speaking to each young man and thanking them for their investment in our program and in our lives.

Such ceremonies, even those as informal as this one, help players and those who lead them finish careers well and offer opportunities to speak into the lives of those we lead. They help the difficult transition from player to former player go more smoothly and with a sense of purpose and intention. Let’s be mindful of such critical moments in the lives of coaches and players. Let’s watch for the opportunities to speak into their lives and to share the love, grace and mercy of Christ Jesus with them. In such moments, they can hear us clearly and their hearts are open to our message. Take full advantage of such days to love extravagantly and to serve selflessly.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Misapplication of Scripture in Sports Ministry

After having delivered hundreds of pre-game chapel talks, having lived through over nineteen sports seasons as a sports chaplain, having heard and read many years of post-game remarks by ecstatic players and more recently, a few years of tweets and Facebook posts, I have endured the misapplication of many verses of scripture to sporting situations. More often than not a player or coach is claiming a promise he or she sees in the Bible and hears it as God’s absolute guarantee of victory. More often than not, that scripture has nothing to do with such matters. A few of the more egregious examples follow.

Jeremiah 29:11

“For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.”

The Lord certainly has plans for us, plans for welfare and not for calamity, to give us a future and a hope, but to infer that to mean that we will surely win today (welfare is more than winning), that we will not lose (a loss is not calamity), and that our future is surely the championship to which we aspire is pure folly. Let’s take inspiration from the scripture and trust the Lord with the application of His plans and our future. Let’s not force our ambitions into His kind intentions.

Ephesians 3:20-21

“Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.”

This usually begins with the player or coach imagining his or her highest ambition or most lofty achievement and then appropriating Christ Jesus’ infinite power to its fulfillment. Surely the Lord wants us to achieve “far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think…” right? His power is at work within us, right? It’s only for His “glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen” right? Actually this verse is in the context of the marvelous power Jesus exerts in the Church to blend Jews and Gentiles into one Church which demonstrates His grace and wisdom. Let’s not try to foolishly appropriate the Lord’s dynamic and holy grace toward our fleshly ambitions.

Isaiah 54:17

“No weapon that is formed against you will prosper;

And every tongue that accuses you in judgment you will condemn.

This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord,

And their vindication is from Me,” declares the Lord.”

Many of us will recognize the first line of this scripture from its prominent, raspy and passionate use during the games leading up to the Super Bowl of American Football earlier in 2013. Simply reading the remainder of this verse informs the reader that this is much bigger than sport. While the one who spoke these verses may find all of this to be intensely personal, he was accused and was eventually vindicated by the court, he is not wise in his use of this verse related to his team’s victories.

Much of sport rhetoric borrows from the vernacular of war and battle. It’s often effective as a motivational tool, but is more often the catalyst for belligerent and foolish behavior. The implication is that our opponent’s strategy is a weapon and surely the Lord won’t allow their “weapon formed against you to prosper.” This thought fails on several fronts, the most glaring being the presumption that the Lord Jesus would take sides in a sporting competition. Why would God favor your team in this day’s game over your opponent? Does your team love God more? How do you know? Do they have more Christians, more holy Christians, more devoted readers of the Bible or did they spend more time in prayer today? How exactly is the Lord supposed to take sides? The whole, presumptuous thought is folly and is the fruit of poorly trained study method and self-centered application of the holy writ.

Philippians 4:13

“I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”

This may be the king of them all. One can see “Philippians 4:13” scribbled on shoes, wrist bands, eye black or elsewhere on sports gear on any given game day most anywhere in the world. Players will infer that this scripture means that they and their team can take on the best team in the nation and prevail. Our team which enters the game at 0 and 22 will surely overcome our rivals who come in at 22 and 0. Of course we can, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” This winless team may in fact beat their previously undefeated rival, but it will not be because this verse is true.

The scripture is true, but it is set in the context of Paul’s assurance to his friends in Philippi that he could handle any situation, having plenty, being in want, in comfort or in painful trials. A more appropriate application of this to sport would be to encourage our teammates that we can trust Christ’s power to carry us along through losing streaks as well as through winning streaks. He strengthens us to handle pain and injury as well as to handle success and adulation. “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” Pleasant things or painful things, sorrow or laughter, ease or difficulty; Christ’s strength enables us for all situations.

It is not my aim to simply rant about the misapplication of the Bible in sports chapel talks. Our purpose here is to challenge each of us to wisely interpret and apply the scripture to the lives of those we serve so that they see its relevance to their lives, hear the voice of God in their hearts and respond to Him in faith. If we fail to do this in a way that is faithful to the Author’s intent, they hear a voice that is not the Lord Jesus and they respond in presumption, superstition or selfish ambition, none of which are even remotely related to genuine faith. Let’s be wise in our use of the Bible and allow Psalm 119:130 to be accomplished in our ministries – “The unfolding of Your words gives light; It gives understanding to the simple.”

Friday, March 15, 2013

Benefits of long-term service

From time to time I have written about the benefits of having served in the same setting for a number of years. Last November I completed my nineteenth season with a college football team (American Football). Over those years I have done constant evaluation and analysis of my ministry strategies, methods, attitudes and more. I occasionally second guess myself regarding how strongly I call for commitment, whether I call too strongly and risk being manipulative or whether I am too soft in my approach and risk having no effect.

When I receive feedback from former players, sometimes from as many as fifteen years ago, it causes me to think I’m on the right track. I received the facebook message below from one such former player, now a husband and father. I hope that his comments will encourage you in the work you do, with or without immediate results. His note assures us that our work is never without impact.


I never took the time to thank you while I was in college. You planted seeds that I didn't even know I needed. As a kid we went to church. In college, the only church I got came from FCA. in college I never took the time to live my life like I should as an authentic CHRISTIAN. As an adult, with kids of my own, my walk has changed for the better. God and church are the center of our family.

The last month we have been planning a retreat for middle and high school students. I have had to do some major reflecting back on my walk. I get to share my walk and my story with 150 students on March 2nd. While doing this I realized how important your messages were in keeping my life from completely straying from God.

Thank you for what you do for these kids and what you did for me. What you do matters. It may not sink in until 15 years later, but the message doesn't get lost. Please tell Sharon I said hello and again thank you.

(Name withheld)

Friday, March 8, 2013

Journal Entry - End of a Season

The following paragraphs are an entry from my Saluki Football Journal from late last season.  This one details many of the issues, situations and emotions that accompany the end of a season.  I hope there is some value to you in this narrative.

Saturday November 17 – During last week’s bye I made it to three early morning practices and had good conversations with coaches and players in addition to members of the support staff.  I talked with Lee Land (athletic trainer / physio) as well as with Dalton Morgan (player) about his illness and its odd lack of clear diagnosis.  As the week progressed Dalton and I traded numerous text messages about daily tests, results and his attitude toward all this.  The good news is that it’s not cancer, but we still don’t know exactly what is making him ill.

On Monday afternoon, November 12, I was at practice for a while and had a sense that our attitudes were good and we were ready to practice well and to finish strongly.  As the final game of the season approached, I was in Orlando, Florida for some meetings with other sports ministry leaders from around the world.  I flew back to St. Louis on Friday mid-day, drove to Olney, IL to do a talk at the Tigers’ Football banquet.  After a two hour drive, I got home at 10:30 pm that night.

On this final game day of the season I awoke early and made some final preparations for today’s game.  I had already prepared most of my talk and had invited Mike McElroy, the catalyst for today’s Salukis Blackout Cancer game, to be my guest at chapel.  After making a quick trip to my office I went to the Arena to set up for chapel.  Mike arrived soon thereafter and the coaches and players followed.  

My talk today started with some introductory comments about the significance of this day to many in Saluki Football.  It’s the two year anniversary of Sharon’s (my wife) mother’s death, the Salukis Blackout Cancer events, the final game for our seniors’ careers and more.  I then asked Mike McElroy to pray to open the meeting and then I delivered my talk based on this quote from Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury in the 16th century, “What the heart loves, the will chooses and the mind justifies.”  After my talk I asked everyone to rise, to take the hands of those at their tables and to join me in saying the Lord’s Prayer.  Our pre-game meal followed and then I went to the stadium to wait and to reflect on this day’s significance.

I had some good talks with senior players, Joe Okon in particular, on the field below a cloudless, sunny sky.  Joe said that the dinners that Sharon and I hosted in the spring and summer where we talked about team leadership made a real difference for him and other team leaders.  As pre-game continued I spoke with Western Illinois’ Head Coach, Mark Hendrickson, about his team, their injuries and about the AFCA Convention to come in Nashville, TN in January.

As we returned to the field just moments before the opening kickoff, we had the usual pre-game handshake with the Leathernecks and then I returned to our sideline and prayed, probably for the last time, with Kayon Swanson.  The game started well and we dominated in nearly every phase, but the offense was rather lethargic.  We led 14-0 at half-time and Coach Lennon strongly challenged the offense to pick up their intensity.  The second half was better and we eventually won 35-0 after having blocked another punt and recording five more sacks on defense.

After the game I sought out Coach Hendrickson, wished him well regarding recruiting and then we made our way to the southwest corner of the stadium to join the crowd in singing, “Go Southern Go.”  We returned to the locker room, which was oddly quiet and waited for Coach Lennon to join us.  He made his way to the center of the room, called the seniors to join him and then expressed his heart toward them.   This was his first recruiting class at SIU and they are certainly special to him.  These 17 were surrounded by their teammates as Coach Lennon expressed his love for them and how proud he was to have been their coach.  We then took a knee for the last time as a team and prayed the Lord’s Prayer.

Hugs, tears and expressions of affection were then exchanged widely among coaches and players and I was pleased to be among them.  I sought out most of the seniors to say thank you and to say, “I’m proud of you.”  I then sought out Brian Presume who was wearing my father’s name on his back as part of the Salukis Blackout Cancer promotion.  Sharon bid on and won this jersey.  He and I found Sharon outside, shot some photos and then I took the jersey to Sharon as I prepared to go to Pinckneyville High School to deliver a talk at their Panthers Basketball Tip Off Dinner.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Informative Videos

Last week I wrote about a couple of video interviews of Dr. Ben Houltberg, Assistant Professor of Counseling at Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW). They had been referred to me by our colleague and friend, Dr. Ashley Null. There are now three new videos available in this series.


1) What is the purpose of Athletics for a Christian?  

2) How does a performance based identity affect an athlete’s performance?  

I have found these videos to be insightful and informative for my service of men and women in sport. They also have value to sportspeople themselves as Dr. Houltberg effectively uncovers some of the factors which affect their lives in sport. These three are shorter in length than the previous two, but are similarly impactful. I highly recommend them to you.