Saturday, May 26, 2018

Community and Purpose

For the last several days I have been in Vilnius, Lithuania and Moscow, Russia in support of our teammates of FCA Ukraine. While here in Moscow, I had a great talk with a young man who is pursuing ministry in ice hockey. He was an elite level young player and then a professional until age twenty. As we discussed what he misses most about playing with a hockey team he said, “My teammates. In the summers, when we would go to a summer camp to train and compete, I would come home after the camp and cry in my room. My mother would ask what was wrong with me and I would reply that I miss my teammates.”

For this young ice hockey player, his team and teammates provided community and purpose for his life. After he was passed over for further advancement in professional hockey, he was suddenly thrust into the real world of work and this world provided neither community nor purpose. He was adrift. He descended into a life of alcohol and drug abuse, crime, and eventually homelessness. In the midst of this downward spiral he connected with people in the world of crime. They also welcomed him, without condition, and gave him a community and purpose for living, nefarious as it was.

While homeless, a man approached him on the street offering a way out of his plight through relationship with Jesus. At first he said no. When the same man offered again, he asked what he had to offer. The man gave him the phone number of a rehab clinic that could offer him food, clothing, and shelter. When he made the call he was amazed that they would receive him without condition. This new set of friends offered him community and a purpose for life. He went through rehab, staying and working there for four years.

Now well integrated into his local church, married to a delightful young lady (a former professional volleyball player, now a coach), he and his wife began to dream and to pray about ministry in sport. He said, “How many ushers does a church need? Surely there is a way to serve God outside the church walls.” They were both looking for a way to share community and purpose for life with sportspeople. One day he received a call from a man named, John McIntosh. John has a long history of serving the ice hockey community. John said, “I hear you are a pretty good hockey player, and I hear you are a believer. Can we get together?” They met and that launched their journey toward ministry in sport. They are just beginning, but they already understand the hearts, minds, and lifestyles of elite level sportspeople.

We, as sport chaplains, must be increasingly aware of the loss experienced by sportspeople when they leave the organized, regimented, community of their sport. Whether due to retirement, injury, failure, or simply being released from their contracts, sportspeople experience the same loss of community and purpose as did this ice hockey player. We must find ways to bridge that gap. We must find ways to provide community. We must explore ways to help them find purpose for their lives. Please join me in this most important venture.

Friday, May 11, 2018

The Christian Sportsperson’s Identity

In recent years more and more Christian competitors, coaches, and sports chaplains have become uneasy about the degree to which they have become identified by their most recent performances. They find their emotions, relationships, and even their sense of personal worth to be tracking with their win/loss records, their most recent times, distances, heights, and other measurements of personal performance. While knowing this can’t be right, most have no other way to grasp their worth, their value, and their identity as a person.

The culture in general and the sports industry in particular are happy to give an identity to sportspeople. This is usually in an effort to market, to lionize, or to degrade a person for their own purposes. If that’s not enough, those in sports media are more than happy to reduce a sportsperson’s life to a cliché, a meme, or a sound bite on their evening broadcast, blog, or talk radio show.

We who work in Christian sports ministry will often tritely say, “Your identity should be in Christ,” and walk away as if that instantly solves the whole issue. I wish it were that easy. I’ve been wrestling for years with how to express a better way for the Christian sportsperson to understand and to embrace his or her identity in Christ Jesus. Please consider the following seven points and I pray the scriptures, each directly addressing identity, inform your heart, your mind, and penetrate to the depths of your soul.

1.   I am not identified by slavery to my flesh. I do not need to obey its every urge or bow to its appetites. Galatians 2:20 speaks to this matter – “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and delivered Himself up for me.” I am crucified with Christ, my flesh is as good as dead. I need not heed its screams of desire. I still live, by faith in Christ, but I am still alive. My life in Christ is energized by the same power that raised Jesus from the dead. That’s power. That’s infinitely more powerful than any urge or appetite resident in my body. I am crucified with Christ and I now live by faith in Him.

2.   I am not defined by my performance, good or bad, personal record or disqualification, league championship or relegation. Ephesians 2:10 holds a transforming truth for our lives in sport – “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” I am God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works. Even more, He prepared works before my appearance that I may walk in them. My identity and my performance on the court, the track, the pitch, the ice, the field, in the pool, or the gym now spring from who I am, not what I do. I am God’s workmanship. He has done the work, now I just stroll in the works He has prepared for me.
3.   I am defined by neither my brand nor my tribe, not by the logo on my gear or the club for which I compete, not by the club’s ownership nor even my nationality. My true identity is stated clearly in I Corinthians 4:1-2 – “Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God. In this case, moreover, it is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy.” Due to my relationship with Jesus, this text says that I am now Christ’s servant, thus He determines my value. I am His. Further it says I am a steward of the mysteries of God. This is a privileged position given through relationship, not merit. The Creator of the universe has called me to serve Him and to be a trustworthy caretaker of the mysteries of His kingdom. That’s who I am.

4.   I am not an outcast, a loner, a free agent, out on waivers, or between teams. I have been chosen for an elite team. We read about our place on this team at I Corinthians 3:9 – “For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.” I am now God’s fellow worker, a part of God’s field, a part of God’s building. I do not stand alone or isolated. I am not disconnected or cast off, I am part of God’s team, His field, His building. I am in community with all those who love Christ Jesus. I am an integral part of what God is establishing in this world.

5.   I am not an asset, a liability, a tool, an acquisition, or any other inanimate, dead thing. Romans 12:1 dispels these pernicious notions – “I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is our spiritual service of worship.” I am not a dead sacrifice, lacking will and animation. Rather, I am a living sacrifice with full capacity to make choices, to love freely, and to worship God. I am free to present my body as a living, holy, and acceptable sacrifice. This is my true and reasonable act of worship. I am one who worships the living God through the presentation of my body as a living sacrifice in sport.

6.   I am not an isolated, forlorn, outcast from society. I Corinthians 12:27 reveals our present standing in the world – “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it.” I am a member of Christ’s body. I have a distinct role and a unique function. I am indispensable in value. I am absolutely integral to the function of Christ Jesus’ body in this world. I am a member of Christ Jesus’ body.

7.   I am not defined by my past. Weak or strong, austere or privileged, rich or poor, wise or foolish, stellar or mundane, my identity is not in my past. Colossians 1:27 frees us from the past and its bondage  – “to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” The marvelous, mysterious truth is that Christ in me is the hope of glory. The powerful hope that makes life worth living, gives us significance, and marks our true identity is the daily presence of Christ Jesus’ Spirit in our mortal souls. Christ in me is the hope of glory. That is who I am.

I hope that these powerful statements of identity, directly from the Holy Scripture, are used by the Spirit to transform your life, to free you from performance based identity, and to liberate your athletic soul to compete freely. Rest in the assurance that you are complete in Christ, without regard to today’s performance, your team’s place in the standings, or any other temporal standard of measure.

Friday, May 4, 2018

What does Sports Chaplaincy Look Like?

What does Sports Chaplaincy look like?
Sports Chaplaincy looks like sunny afternoons at football practices in the heat of August. It looks like quivering lips at the funeral visitation for a coach too soon taken from his team. It looks like the bright lights of a stadium on a fall evening. It looks like the dim lights of a locker room after a disappointing loss. In short, Sports Chaplaincy looks like opportunity. We see the hearts of men and women, boys and girls, in the glaring lights of sports arenas and in the shadows of injury, disappointment, and grief. Each of these moments looks like an opportunity to speak the life of Christ Jesus into their searching souls.

What does Sports Chaplaincy sound like?
Sports Chaplaincy sounds like loud sports arenas; their blaring music, shouting crowds, chanting fans, and bellowing announcers. It sounds like the banter between teammates in a locker room before practice. It sounds like the hushed voices and the beeps of a heat monitor in an emergency room. It sounds like the squeaks on a basketball floor during a scrimmage. It sounds like the crack of bats and pops of balls into gloves at batting practice. It sounds like sobs and sniffles while in the grieving line of mourners at a funeral wake. More simply said, Sports Chaplaincy sounds like peace. In each and all of these sounds, we experience the peace of Christ. Amid the chaos of game day and the flood of emotions in crisis, Christ Jesus carries us by His Spirit in unusual peace and assurance of His presence and provision. Sports Chaplaincy sounds like peace.

What does Sports Chaplaincy taste like?
Sports Chaplaincy tastes like pregame pasta. It tastes like sweat on your upper lip while standing at a midsummer batting practice. It tastes like a cup of coffee with the coach as you discuss the painful options for the career changes that are suddenly at hand. It tastes like the glorious post-game pizza, chicken, or sandwiches on the long bus ride home following an important road victory. It tastes like Gatorade on the sideline as you gulp down some Ibuprofen to ease the pain in the chaplain’s aging joints. More than anything, it tastes like love. To be with the people the sports chaplain loves tastes like love, anywhere and anytime.

What does Sports Chaplaincy smell like?
I know what you’re thinking, but hang on. Sports Chaplaincy smells like the barbecue smoke wafting into the stadium from the tailgate area outside. It smells like menthol from ointment rubbed on sore muscles in a training room. It smells like hot dogs and popcorn at a ballpark. Yes, it smells of the pungent aroma in a sweaty men’s locker room. Mostly it smells like competition. These olfactory stimulations prompt my heart to compete, my pulse to race, and my mind to pursue victory. I love these smells! They are as sacred as incense.

What does Sports Chaplaincy feel like?
Sports Chaplaincy feels like pain in one’s joints. It feels like breathless exhilaration after a thrilling victory. It feels like bitter grief after a disappointing loss. It feels like the rush of pride when a player breaks through a performance barrier. It feels like death when a coach is exposed for cheating. It feels like joy when relationships are restored. It feels like discomfort when riding a bus through the night after a rainy road loss to a rival. It feels like life. All of life’s kaleidoscope of emotions are distilled into the sporting experience for the competitors, the coaches, the support staff, and even the sport chaplain. Sports Chaplaincy feels like life. Isn’t it wonderful?

Sports Chaplaincy, when experienced with an open heart, an inquisitive mind, with fully engaged emotions, and an active body is rich with sensory perception. Go ahead, jump in with both feet. Plunge into the depths of sports chaplaincy. See its marvels. Hear its sonic flood of music and voice. Fill your mouth with its delicious tastes. Breathe in its every aroma. Feel its joy, pain, exhilaration, and grief. It’s worth the risk and the reward will capture your soul. Our Lord walks with us through each and all these experiences. He sanctifies them with His presence and consecrates them in our hearts.