Monday, February 28, 2011

Another Season in the Books

Ten years ago our church family decided to build a Family Life Center (which is church code for gym). We didn’t build it so we could pamper ourselves. We built it because we wanted to bring Upward Basketball to our city. And we just finished up our tenth season this past weekend.

It’s a big deal. Upward Basketball is a program for children designed to give them a quality basketball experience while opening doors for sharing the gospel. Coaches share a devotion with their team at every practice. During halftime of every game, someone shares a testimony or a brief talk about Jesus with the kids’ families who’ve come to watch the games. And at the end of the season we have a big celebration in which we get to share the gospel with the children and their families. Upward allows us to share the love of Christ with hundreds of people every week for about seven weeks. So Upward is an open door for the gospel.

But it’s also an open door for the kids who might not find a place in any other league in town. We have some good players every year—kids who would be stars in anybody’s league—but we also have a number of kids, some even with disabilities that we find a place for and a coach for and a team for. We had a nearly blind kid for a few seasons. We’ve had kids with autism and seizure-risks and even some brain damage. We get to love on them and their families, and they get to play as much as anybody else. Then, in the post-game meeting they get a star to put on their shirt for something they did in the game to help their team.

It’s a lot of fun. For the first few seasons I coached a team. And while I love to play basketball, I’m not much of a coach. Except for one 5th and 6th grade girls team, my teams never were much good. We don’t keep an official score in Upward for the younger kids, but most coaches keep score anyway. And the score of most of my games was Other Team: Too Much – My Team: Not Enough. But we always had a good time.

One of my favorite teams was a group of 1st and 2nd grade boys. I had twins on that team who were absolutely clueless about basketball and were there not because they wanted to be but because their dad was making them play. I remember giving the team a pep talk before a game, trying to get the boys ready and focused. One of the twins raised his hand. “Yes,” I thought to myself, “he’s finally getting into it.” And he asked, “Will it be dark when we get through?” (It was 8:00 in the morning.) “Focus,” I said. And about that time his brother raised his hand with a question: “Do your legs sweat in those pants?” Well, needless to say, we weren’t focused. At one practice I was really trying to get those boys to pay attention and to give some effort so I bent down to look them right in the eye and make my point. No sooner did I straighten up then one of the boys started waving his hand in front of his nose signaling that I must have had some serious bad breath going on. Upward is a lot fun.

In the last few seasons, I traded in my coach’s hat for a referee’s whistle. We get a little cat-calling from parents and coaches who don’t like what we call or what we don’t call, but we don’t get much of that in Upward. And when I ref, I get a front row seat to see some really neat stuff happen on the court—which brings me to my highlight for the 2011 season. It happened Friday night with the 5th-7th grade boys. There’s a kid named Ty on one of the teams. He’s a fifth-grader and a little feller—the smallest kid on the court. He’s played Upward for the last few seasons, but he’s got some issues that keep him from really grasping this whole basketball thing. But he loves to play. He’s a joy to watch. And nobody has a better time on a Friday night than Ty.

In between periods on Friday, his coach told us refs that they were going to try to get Ty a shot at the goal. The kid rarely got the ball all season long, but we really try to see that every kid gets to make a basket before the season is over, and his coach wanted Ty to score. They’d tried before and it had yet to happen. This was the last game so it was now or never. His tall teammate, a good player, worked hard to get Ty the ball in a position close to the goal where Ty could shoot it. His defender backed off of him to give him a chance. Ty’s so small he can’t get it to that 10-foot goal goal by shooting the ball from his shoulders or his head. So he had to do a granny shot—a two-handed, underhand toss up at the basket. He got about three shots close in. He hit the rim a couple of times. And with every try the crowd would hold their breath and then groan at the miss. Time was running out. Somehow Ty ended up with the ball outside the three-point line (which is around 20 feet from the goal). People were yelling, “Shoot!!” but he was too far from the goal to even get it close, right? Wrong. The kid pulled that ball down between his legs, threw his whole body into the shot, let her fly, and … swish! A little string music. Nothing but net. And a three-pointer no less—one of only four that I remember being made all season long. You should have heard the crowd—family and friends of both teams rising to their feet to cheer. And you should have seen Ty running and jumping down the court with both arms raised in triumph, kids giving him high-fives. For a fleeting moment, time stood still, and Ty was “the man.” In the words of ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale, it was “Awesome, baby!!” And I wouldn’t be surprised if Ty remembers that moment for the rest of his life.

That’s my basketball highlight for Upward 2011. But there are always other highlights of a different nature: kids encouraged and loved whether they are star athletes or whether they trip over the free throw line; families blessed by the way their kids are treated; people mustering up the faith and courage to get out of their shell and share a testimony about Jesus at halftime of a game; and some folks—kids and adults—discovering the life that only Jesus can offer. That’s what Upward is all about. That’s why we built the gym … uh, I mean Family Life Center. And that’s why so many dedicated volunteers pray, coach, ref, work possession arrows, serve concessions, set up, clean up, and organize that whole wonderful thing.

Not long after Ty made his big play, the father of a player on the other team said to me, “God made that shot.” And he’s right: God did make that shot. But it’s not the only shot God made this season in Upward. And most of them had nothing to do with a ball and a rim and a net.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Of Presidents and Pastors: Harry Truman and Leadership

One of my favorite biographies of all time is David McCullough’s Truman: the life story of President Harry S. Truman. I read that shortly after it was released, in part, because I’ve always enjoyed history and biographies and presidential stuff. I had a special interest in Truman because at the time I was living in the Kansas City area. Truman lived most of his life in that area—Independence, Missouri, in particular. I’ve visited his library a couple of times. I’ve seen his house near downtown Independence. I was very familiar with many of the places Truman once walked and campaigned and worked. It was a great read.

But I have to admit one of the things that struck me most in my reading was the way that being a president and being a pastor share some of the same burdens. I’m not saying that being a pastor is as difficult as being the president. I don’t have to worry about terrorism, nuclear proliferation, the economy, and trying to get stuff done with a group of people, half of whom, want to see me run out of office at the next election. (Well, maybe that last one does apply to pastors from time to time.) Pastoral work is not as difficult, the burdens not as heavy, the consequences of my decisions and actions not usually so far reaching. Still, reading Truman showed me there are some similarities. Let me highlight four.

Here’s the first. In November, 1947, Harry Truman wrote his sister and told her that no man in his right mind would ever wish to be President if he knew what it entailed. What he wrote about the presidency often rings true with the pastorate. Listen to what he wrote her: "Aside from the impossible administrative burden, he has to take all sorts of abuse from liars and demagogues … The people can never understand why the President does not use his supposedly great power to make 'em behave. Well, all the President is, is a glorified public relations man who spends his time flattering, kissing, and kicking people to get them to do what they are supposed to do anyway." Sometimes the pastorate feels like that. While the church at its best shows herself to be the bride and the body of Christ, she can also be a royal pain in the rump. Someone once said that being in the church is sometimes like being in Noah's Ark: “If it weren't for the storm without, we could never stand the smell within.” And yet that is the outpost to which pastors are called—the church in all its beauty and mystery, its ugliness and pettiness, its divine and human elements. And sometimes pastors feel like no man in his right mind would ever wish to be the pastor of a local church if he knew what it entailed. That’s the first similarity.

Here’s the second. Harry Truman earned the nickname “Give ‘em hell” Harry. When asked why people called him that, Truman said, “I never gave anybody hell. I just told them the truth, and they thought it was hell.” Sounds like a lot of preaching a pastor has to do. It’s a pastor’s task to speak the truth whether people like it or not, whether it’s popular or not, whether it’s gets him a raise in his salary or a boot out the door. So that’s the second similarity.

Here's a third. In writing to Harry Truman about the Kennedy White House, Dean Acheson penned these words about their preoccupation with image: “This is a terrible weakness.  It makes one look at oneself instead of at the problem.  How will I look fielding this hot line drive to short stop?  This is a good way to miss the ball altogether.”  Pastors who are so overly concerned about what others think of them that they try to project an image rather than be true to who they truly are can stand this reminder: be yourself and focus on issues rather than appearances.

Now here’s the fourth. One of the issues that fell into Truman’s presidential lap was the random, senseless violence and blatantly unfair treatment against blacks. In trying to deal with the issue Truman was fighting strong opposition from the South, and even fighting his own prejudices. But he came to this conclusion, as written to one of his critics: "I can't approve of such goings on and I shall never approve of it, as long as I am here … I am going to try to remedy it and if that ends up in my failure to be reelected, that failure will be in a good cause." It’s been unusual in any age of politics for a politician to put principle ahead of popularity. We pastors could learn to do the same thing. Of course, like presidents, pastors are wise to pick their fights. If a pastor’s going to die trying to take a hill, it better be a hill worth dying on. But that element of courage is as important in pastoral work as it is in a president’s work. And the underlying integrity of such courage seems to be crucial to a pastor’s overall character.

So there you have it. There are other similarities, like Truman’s “The Buck Stops Here” placard on his desk; his wife’s distaste for, discomfort in, and dislike for being a president’s wife; following a popular president who had just been elected to his fourth term and then died in office; and Truman’s refusal to believe he was ever anything other than a common man. Those things also speak to the pastoral life. But I’ll save those things for another day.

I don’t know much about Truman’s religious faith. I do know he was thought to be a Baptist, and he did attend First Baptist Church in Independence now and then (it was only a block from his home). Apparently, his language could be a little salty. But if you don’t think a pastor’s language can be a little salty too, you’ve never played golf with one. Still, whether Truman was a committed Christian or not I’ve learned a lot from him. So on this President’s Day, I’m thankful for all our presidents. But today I’m thankful most of all for President Harry S. Truman who taught me how to be a better pastor.

Monday, February 14, 2011

You Have St. Valentine to Thank for This

Happy Valentine’s Day! Did you know that this day has its roots in the legend of an early Christian leader? In fact, two Valentines are mentioned in the early martyrologies as having feast days in their honor on February 14. One was a Roman priest and the other a bishop of Interamna. Both appear to have been buried along the Flaminian Way, so it’s quite possible, as many speculate, that these two were the same man.

According to tradition, Valentine ministered during the reign of Emperor Claudius II in the third century. He was imprisoned, beaten, and beheaded on February 14, c. 270. As a friend of mine posted on Facebook today, they don’t tell you that on the Valentine cards. And why would they? What’s more romantic: a red heart on a card or a bloody head in a basket?

So, with all that blood and gore, how did Valentine get associated with a day of love and romance? According to the legend, Valentine undercut an edict of Emperor Claudius. The emperor wanted to recruit more soldiers for his army, so he tried to weaken family ties by forbidding marriage. But Valentine ignored the order and secretly married couples in the underground church. Once the government got wind of these activities, Valentine was arrested and tossed in the slammer. This part of the tradition is probably true.

The next part sounds a little fishy to me. Apparently, while in jail Valentine became friends with the jailer’s daughter, and being bored out of his mind as he languished in a dank dungeon, he amused himself by cutting shapes in paper and writing notes to her. His last note arrived on the morning of his death and ended with the words, “Your Valentine.” (It’s a nice story, but it just doesn’t ring true to me. There's wasn't an Office Depot on every corner, you know, and I don't think Roman guards would be supplying sharp objects to their prisoners.)

Anyway, by 496, February 14 was named in Valentine’s honor. Christianity was now a “legal” religion in the empire and many pagan festivals were baptized and christianized. Valentine’s Day christianized the pagan festival of Lupercalia, which was a celebration of love and fertility in which young men put the names of girls in a box, drew them out, and celebrated lovemaking. Valentine’s Day sort of cleaned that up and encouraged more innocent expressions of affection like notes and gifts.

So there you have it. That's the rest of the story concerning Valentine’s Day—that annual celebration of romantic love. I think it’s safe to say that women like Valentine’s Day a lot more than men do. Women tend to be a little better at romantic expressions than men are. And some men are just plain pathetic when it comes to this kind of thing. I’ve even known guys who broke up with their girlfriends before Valentine’s Day so they wouldn’t have to make a fuss and spend a lot of money on the big day, only to try to hook back up with them a week or two later. Real smooth, guys.

And as if that’s not bad enough, I know husbands who, day in and day out, don't treat their wives much better than that. But since breaking up a marriage is much more complicated than breaking up a courtship, husbands are kind of stuck. And if a husband doesn’t do something for his wife on Valentine’s Day, well, what’s that saying, “Hell hath no fury like a woman’s scorn”? So at the very least, Valentine’s Day serves as motivation for the lazy, inattentive husband to do something nice for his wife: buy her a card, send her some flowers, give her a gift, wine and dine her for a change. I guess it’s a good thing to have a day to motivate a husband to express his love for his wife. And I suppose most wives would say it’s better than nothing. But it seems to me that if it takes a day on a calendar to make a husband act like he loves his wife, then that marriage is adrift in ways a Hallmark valentine, a dozen roses, and a candlelight dinner won’t fix.

(Sources for this post: Dictionary of Christian Biography, Michael Walsh, ed., and On This Day in Christian History by Robert Morgan.)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

On Snow

I’ve got a few friends from up north who like to blog. In light of all the snow that’s been dumped on those poor Yankees this winter, they’ve all felt compelled to write a blog about snow. I’ve enjoyed their blogs. They comment on how pretty it all is. They write of childhood experiences in the snow, of warm memories of sledding and skating and building snowmen with their family and friends. They quote Bible verses, they write philosophically of how God may just use this snow to slow us down a bit and remind us that we’re not in control, and that if it does that, the snow can be spiritually liberating. They all acknowledge that the white stuff gets tiring for sure, but the larger lessons to be learned from the inconvenience of snow are worth the trouble that comes with it. Noble stuff.

I guess I could write a similar blog on snow. Like my Yankee friends, I have lots of great childhood memories of snow as well. But the sledding and snow football days of childhood have been replaced by shoveling and by taking my life in my hands driving on treacherous roads that wouldn’t recognize a snow plow if they saw one. Maybe I’ll quote a Bible verse here: “When I was a child I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man I put away childish things” (1 Cor. 13:11). So, all that said, here’s my blog on snow:

I hate it. I’m sick of it. I want it to go away. The end.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Now That's What I Call an Offering!

On four Sundays in January I preached a series of sermons entitled Money Matters. We talked about God’s ownership of all things, the wisdom of living within our means, the importance of the tithe, and God’s promise to meet a giver’s needs. Though I preach on money issues once or twice a year, I haven’t attempted a series on money in eight years. And let’s face it: the church already has a bad enough rep in the world for being just one more money-grubbing organization. So I didn’t know what to expect. Would attendance hold up or would folks decide to miss church for that overdue visit to grandma or take that winter vacation to some warmer climate (where nobody is talking about money)? Well, much to my delight, attendance was excellent. And the sermons stirred conversations among people everywhere from Sunday School classes to gatherings of friends in other venues, not to mention record interest in our spring sessions of Financial Peace University. God was obviously up to something.

And I’m glad He was. Over thirty years of experience have taught me that when Christ takes lordship over our finances, He begins to take more and more ground in our hearts. Financial obedience nurtures a deeper dependence on and trust in God; it deepens gratitude; it reshuffles one’s priorities; it strikes a blow against the materialistic-consumer spirit that so dominates American culture and our own hearts; and it moves us from being takers to becoming givers. Giving God and His kingdom priority in your finances can be one of the most spiritually liberating things you ever do.

Anyway, we finished the series on January 30, but as a conclusion and a challenge to apply these truths to our lives, we declared Sunday, February 6, as Prove-the-Tithe Day. Well, our folks proved the tithe, all right. Our normal first Sunday offering is usually in the neighborhood of $50,000, but yesterday our people gave over $81,000. Somebody was proving the tithe—several somebodies. And while it was a praise-stirring, gratifying thing to see this offering, that’s not the best thing I experienced about Prove-the-Tithe Day.

That experience occurred between our first worship service and Sunday School. I went down to the preschool area to retrieve a protein bar I asked my wife to bring for me (since I forgot to bring it myself). In the hallway, I crossed paths with Chris and Misty, a young couple in our church family who have a couple of kids, Kennedy and Bo. Kennedy is six-years-old, and Chris showed me her offering envelope. Chris often helps take up the offering in the worship, so Kennedy is pretty well acquainted with offering envelopes, and she had filled out her own for this Sunday. It was really something. It’s an envelope identical to the one in the picture above. The one in the picture is blank, but Kennedy’s was not. In the “budget offering” box she wrote her name, “Kennedy.” In the other giving boxes, she wrote, “daddy” and “mommy.” In the name and address lines she put: “I love Jesus” and “I love God.”

That really struck a chord with me. And my first thought was, “Kennedy gets it. She really gets it.” Offerings are not so much the heart of the matter as they are a matter of the heart. And Kennedy’s heart was in the right place. She had no money to give (she’s only six); yet she gave something far better and something more fundamental. She offered herself. If God doesn’t own our hearts, then are financial gifts are little more than dues to be paid or some sort of spiritual taxation. When God owns our hearts, our financial gifts become a pleasing sacrifice to Him. The best and first offering we make is ourselves: “Lord, here I am. Lord, I give myself to you. Lord, I’m yours.” It sounds sort of like Paul’s word to the Romans, “I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies to God as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.” I remember reading about the offering time in a worship service at another church. A young man in the congregation, new to Christ and the church, knew nothing about such things and had no money in his pockets at the time. So when the offering plate passed by him, he did a most unusual thing: he set it on the floor and stepped right into it. Like Kennedy, that young man intuitively grasped the deeper dimensions of our tithes and offerings to God: "My offering is me." Because when God has me, he has my time, my talents, my treasure—He has it all.

When Kennedy put her pencil to her offering envelope, I doubt she understood the theological import of what she did. I'm not sure one of our money-counters would have known what to do with that envelope either, except maybe to smile and consider it kind of a cute, childlike thing to do. But God saw the import of it, and so did I. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the envelopes our money-counters tallied up on our Prove-the-Tithe Day were marked with four-figure gifts—good and needed gifts to be sure. But this I know: no gift on Sunday was any more precious to God than Kennedy’s gift of herself.

I guess it's not just from the mouths of babes we can learn a thing or two; we can learn a little something from their pencils too.