Just a Game?

There are occasions when football is more than just a game; times when it reminds us of our better selves. Visitors from Oregon took the time to write a letter to the News-Sentinel expressing their kind regards for the hospitality they received while visiting Knoxville for the Tennessee/Oregon game. They were particularly impressed when The Pride of the Southland turned to face the section of the stadium where most of the visiting Oregon fans were sitting played the Oregon fight song.

That impresses me as well. Every time that I am in the stadium, hearing Tennessee’s band play the visiting team’s fight is one of my favorite parts of the game day experience. When you think about how much “Rocky Top” means to Tennessee fans, you have to consider that other fans appreciate their fight song just as much.  There is nothing quite as comforting as hearing something familiar when you find yourself in a strange and new place. One could argue that the band is doing too good of a job at making guests feel welcome, but I don’t think so. I think their playing the visitor’s song is a kindness and courtesy that speaks well of the University and the State.

What is also interesting to note is what does not happen after the band plays the visitor’s fight song. The Tennessee fans remain Tennessee fans. No one takes off their orange and starts putting on the other team’s colors. The band definitely does not forget how to play “Rocky Top.”  In other words, it is possible to be kind and respectful to people who are different from us without ceasing to be whom we are. We do not sacrifice our loyalties by being thoughtful and courteous to those whose loyalties are different from ours.  In a world that seems excessively prone to the darkness of division and discord, a little thoughtfulness can be a great light.

Still another instance of football pointing us toward our better selves occurred when Ike Ditzenberger scored his first varsity touchdown. Ike is a seventeen year-old junior at Snohomish High School in Snohomish, Washington. What makes Ike different from his teammates and most every other high school football player in the country is that he has Down syndrome.  Every day at practice, on the last play of practice, Ike’s coach calls his play. The quarterback hands the ball to Ike and he runs it in for a touchdown.

Last week with ten seconds remaining in the game and Snohomish trailing Lake Stevens by a score of 35-0, Ike Ditzenberger entered the game to run his play. Run he did, fifty-one yards all the way to end zone. At the end of his run, he was very happy.

Yes, I know that the only reason he scored was everybody on the field wanted him to; and that if the opposing team had wanted to, they could have easily tackled him. But they did not. Because they did not, Ike was able to realize a life-long dream. Sure, his team lost; but they are not losers. People who help other people achieve long-held dreams are winners. People who create experiences of great joy in the lives of others are winners. People who share the bright lights of Friday night with one who some might think has no business being there are winners.

These two events could have taken place anywhere, and they could have involved most anyone. What makes them special to me is that they just seem to ooze Christ likeness. If Jesus was the drum major at the University of Tennessee, I can easily see Him playing the visiting team’s fight song. If He was a high school football coach, I would not be at all surprised to learn that He found a way to get a player with special challenges onto the field.  Christ came into the world to heal brokenness and to reconcile division. There are times when we are reminded that He is still at work doing just that. There are times when those reminders come from unexpected places, even football fields.

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What Good is Burning a Qur’an?

September 11, 2001 is one of those dates that will always be with us. The events of that day were such that many people remember where they were when they heard or saw the news.  More to the point, they remember what they felt when they saw the news. In the shock and horror of it all, feelings of fear, vulnerability, and grief mingled with anger and a desire to strike back at those who wrought such devastation and terror on our country.

Nine years later, the feelings are still mixed and mingled.  The means of coping with the tragedy and trying to live beyond it are varied. Susan Retik lost her husband in the 9/11 attacks. After the attacks, she turned her attention toward Afghanistan. Her thinking was that there were widows there like her and that there would likely be more. Looking for ways to improve their lives, she and Patti Quigley, who was also widowed by the 9/11 attacks, founded Beyond the 11th. Both of these women had given birth shortly after the attacks to children who would never know their fathers. Remarkably, they also brought into being an organization that exists to empower widows in Afghanistan who have been afflicted by war, terrorism, and oppression. It supports programs that enable widows to support themselves and their families without begging in the street or standing in a breadline. They turned their grief toward the very country where the attacks on their husbands were conceived, and sought to do something good for others.

This weekend Ms. Retik, a Jewish woman, will continue her efforts on behalf of Afghan widows by speaking at a mosque in Boston. She will invite that Muslim community to join her in bringing hope and stability to lives of women who have lost their husbands.

If a Jewish woman and a Muslim community are coming together to act in such Christ-like ways, how then are the Christians acting?  You have probably already heard about Pastor Terry Jones and his Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Florida. These folks will mark the 9th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks by hosting “International Burn a Koran Day.”  This event, rather than moving beyond the pain and fear of 9/11, is designed to renew the pain and inflict it on others. This so-called pastor and those that follow him are anathema to Muslims, an embarrassment to Americans, and a shame to the cause of Christ.  Beyond the Jones’ proverbial “15 minutes of fame,” nothing good can come of this event, and much that is bad very well could result.

The good news is that most Christians and Americans understand that this act is a contradiction of the best values of the Christian faith and our American heritage. To underscore this point, persons of all faiths in Gainesville have been invited to Trinity United Methodist Church for a “Gathering of Peace, Understanding and Hope.”  Dan Johnson, Trinity’s Senior Pastor writes:

We call upon the news media to give this as much attention (or more) than the attention they have given to the disturbing actions planned by the Dove World Outreach Center, so that around the globe, all people will know that the Gainesville community, made up of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and more, can be both deeply committed to their respective faiths and at the same time, live in harmony and peace with one another.  We dare to believe and hope that this disturbing action by a very small and misguided group might become the catalyst for one community, Gainesville, to model a way of living in harmony, mutual respect and peace.  The God I know is in the habit of taking “what was intended for evil and turning it into good (Genesis 50:20), and I believe God will do it again.

If people of different faiths can come together in Gainesville to foster understanding and peace and hope, perhaps we could do it in Knoxville as well. Perhaps good can prevail over evil and love over hate.

Touching Lives

If you have been to the University of Tennessee Medical Center lately, you may have seen a life-size picture of one our church members.  The Medical Center is using the photo of Jami Ward to promote the Medical Center’s Guardian Angel program.  It has been in use for some time now.

I saw it again this week. I guess I was finally over the excitement of seeing someone I know on display in such a prominent way, because I read the caption for the first time. The caption said, “Who’s touched your life today?”  What a powerful question next to the face of someone who works in an intensive care unit for infants.  Every day Jami touches the lives of families as she cares for what is most precious to them.

As I let the caption rest in my mind, I saw another face from our church family.  It was not Jami’s this time, but that of young girl who I met for the first time when she was a patient in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Years later, her smile now regularly brightens our hallways at church.  I thought of that little girl’s family and their amazing love for her; love so strong and so deep that it gave life to her not by chance, but by choice.  Touching lives indeed.

The kind of love that Jesus talked about, demonstrated with his actions and that ultimately carried him to the cross, is love like that.  It is rooted in real time and touches human beings in noticeable ways. Yet, it is not confined to the moment in which it is demonstrated or to the person or persons toward which it is directed. The love of Christ has a carryover effect. When we are loved by Christ, or loved with Christ’s love by one of his followers, a residue of grace lingers in our lives.

To be loved is the most basic of human needs.  When we experience it, we do not soon forget.  If at times we live as though we have forgotten the moments we felt loved, still the experience of it remains.  In it we felt acceptance.  This is different than the validation we sometimes receive for doing the things we do. No, to be loved with the love of Christ is a gift. We may long for it, yet it is not offered to us because we merit it, but because there is something in the nature of it that compels those who have experienced it to share it.  Our lives are transformed by such love.

As I think about Jami’s picture and the caption over it, I can easily imagine a number of other faces in our church that would fit appropriately under it.  Faces that bear the names of people who are the answer to the question, “Who touched your life today?”  Whether it is a formal role as teacher or caregiver, or in less formal ways as friend or neighbor, sharing the love of Christ in even a seemingly insignificant way can touch a person’s life in such a way that he or she is transformed by it, marked by it, so much so, that later in that person’s life, he or she is compelled in big ways and small ways to share that same love.

Touching lives is what we do as followers of Christ. Someone, perhaps several people, touched our lives with the love of Christ; and having been touched with such love, we are compelled by that love to touch the lives of others.

Waiting to Cry

“These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 7:14-17)

These words were written to a struggling group of people. They were a small group relatively speaking.  Their size does not diminish their faith. Neither does it gain them any standing with their neighbors. They are different from everyone else. They are not like the Jews. Rome has learned to deal with the Jews. These Christians are different. They are pushed to the fringes of society and deprive at times of making a living. They are like persons of Hispanic descent living in Arizona. But rather than producing a document to show they are legal residents, they are invited to worship the emperor Domitian. When they refuse –their lives are in peril.

John writes to them to not provide an escape, but to give them hope. John writing from exile on the isle of Patmos understands as well as anyone that following Christ does provide for way around the harsh, brutal hatred unleashed by the powerful on those who are different from them.  John writes to give courage and encouragement to Christians who are living through a time of great tribulation.

No more hunger and no more thirst are words of amazing comfort to a group of people who have been enduring a place in society where their capacity to provide for themselves and their families is limited by those had the power to gainfully employee them. What do you do to provide food, clothing, and shelter? You get a job. You earn your keep. What if no one will give you a job because you are a follower of Christ?  You go hungry. You watch your family go hungry. It is a terrible kind of suffering.

John says, they will hunger no more, and thirst no more.

You can be certain that if there is work, it is the work that no one else is willing to do. It is the work done in the worse conditions. Under blazing Sun and Scorching heat. But if that is the only work that you can get, you take it gladly.

John says, the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat

In the midst of such living—stress, strain, fear, worry—doubts and uncertainty must have arisen from time to time. The tension between keeping the faith and surviving may at times have become unbearable. What to do? Would not life be easier if we just looked, acted, spoke, worshipped like everyone else? What to do?

John says the Lamb at the center of the throne will be the shepherd. The lamb of God who died for you, will be your Shepherd. In your uncertainty, let the lamb be your shepherd. In your doubt, let he lamb be your shepherd. He is the one that will show you the way through this time of tribulation. He is the one who will show you the way to God.  He will guide you to the water of life. Water is life. Then and now, we cannot live without.

John’s vision touches his readers in places where they have very real hurts and constant anxieties. He creates an image for them of a time where there is no more hunger, no more thirst, no more scorching sun. He writes of a shepherd who was a lamb who will lead them to the water of life.

And then he adds and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. What must that look to a people in the middle of live a trying life? To people with so many reason to shed tears? To a mother struggling to care for her children? To a father seeking to provide for and protect his family? To men, women, boys, girls, families seeking to faithful to what they know of God while they suffer intense persecution?

What does it look like to you? The idea of the God who took on flesh, dwelt among us and died for us reaching down to wipe away your tears, what does that look like to you? What tears would God be wiping away? How did they get there?

Perhaps more than any other aspect of this scene, this notion of tears being wiped away grabs us. Because we have tears, we cry, we weep. Maybe not today, maybe not right now but we have done so and we will again.  John knows that about the people that he is writing to just as we know it about each other. We do not escape from our trials or our tribulations. For that, John gives us an image of our tears being wiped away by God.

No more tears. In a world that so often has so many reasons to cry, to sob, to weep, how outlandish is it to speak of time when God will wipe those tears away once and for all. In a world crowded with people just waiting to cry is possible that there will come a time when no more tears will be shed?

I am leaning on the fence next to the track waiting for my son’s event.  I am not alone, other spectators are behind me in the stands, some have found a place along the fence, others are moving from one place to another. There is much activity and excitement. The day is absolutely gorgeous.

In the midst of all that activity, I notice that someone is standing beside me. He speaks, “I am not supposed to be here.” “No?” “I am not supposed to be within three hundred yards of this place.”   I want to say “Hey, sorry man, but I am off the clock.” “I am not here working, I am here watching.” I don’t say that. I don’t say that because there is something in his voice when he speaks. He is not just speaking, he is exhaling words. He is speaking because he cannot keep from speaking. He is hurting. I can tell by the sound of his voice. He is about to cry.

So, I listen. They are separated. His wife made allegations. There is a restraining order. She could not make it to the track meet. His daughter called him and asked him to come. That is why he is here, even though he is not supposed to be here, not supposed to be within three hundred yards of her.  He does not cry out loud, but I can see the tears in eyes.

That is the world in which we live. There are all kinds of people out there just waiting to cry. So when John talks about God wiping away our tears we perk up. We know tears. We know the pain, the hurt, the disappointment from which they spring.  A time and place when God will wipe them away once and for all no more tears seems rather delightful, rather joyous. A time and a place that we would like to get to. The resurrection makes such a time and such place a real hope.

A Prostate Prayer

Not so many years ago I turned forty.  The whole thing was more or less anticlimactic. There were not many noticeable changes in my life, at least not many that I noticed.  One change that I did reluctantly make was to find a doctor so that I could have one to see for regular checkups and such.

I made this change reluctantly for two reasons.  First, I hate needles.  I always have. While I was well aware of advances in medical technology, I suspected that on some occasions needles would still be used.  I was right; they are.

My second reason for being reluctant was the pattern that I had observed among the members of the churches that I served — that being that once people start going to the doctor they always seem to need to go back to the doctor, or to go to another doctor and then go back to the first doctor, so that it seems that there is always a visit to the doctor looming in their future.  Turns out I was right again.

I have several friends, and more acquaintances, that have completed degrees in ministry and theology.  Discussing theology with them is something that I enjoy. My newest and best friend is Dr. Chris Ramsey.  His degree is not in theology.  His degree is in urology.  He is a great guy, though our conversations are not nearly as interesting or enjoyable as those that I have with other friends.  Yet he has pastoral sense about him.  I felt his gentleness and his concern when he told me that my prostate is cancerous.  He is thoughtful as well.  Yesterday he promised to see me regularly until he retires.  You see what I mean?  That was exactly why I was reluctant to go the doctor in the first place.  Once you start, they always find a reason for you to come back for another visit.

So now I am thankful.  I am thankful that there is something that can be done.  In fact, I have options.  I have to make a choice about which treatment I want.  How different that is from being in a situation where there are no options, no treatment, nothing that can be done.

I am thankful for all the people I have known who have faced disease, sickness and surgery and live to tell the tale.  I am especially grateful for those men that I know who have had prostate cancer and continue to live life to its fullest.  There have been many occasions in my life when I sought to give comfort to those who were facing medical challenges.  Little did I realize that they were teaching me and preparing me to face my own challenges.

I am thankful for Patti, Josh and Will for who they are to me and what they mean to me. While my condition is a long way from being life threatening, nonetheless it does give me pause to consider those people who are most important to me.  In a similar way, I think of others in my family who mean much to me.  Likewise, I am blessed with dear friends who freely share their love with me and lift prayers for me.

I am also thankful for church people.  Even before I told you about my condition, I was already drawing strength from you.  You are a gift.  You bring the presence of Christ to whomever you meet, even me.  Thank you.

I am also a little scared.  I still do not like needles, nor am I sure how I feel about a robot being turned loose inside of me.  If I knew more, I would most likely be more afraid.  But I do know that God is with me and that God will never leave me nor forsake me.  Thank you again for your thoughts and prayers.

Hate Converted

In reading the ninth chapter of the book of Acts, I am struck by the words in verse one that describe Saul’s (soon to be, but not yet Paul) demeanor.  He is “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.  Before his encounter with Christ, he is a man driven by his hatred of what he perceives as a threat to himself and his heritage.  Those who are following the way of Christ are deviating from accepted ways of knowing and relating to God.  Saul is consumed with eradicating this blasphemous deviation.  Coercion, persecution, even murder, he is ready and willing to do whatever it takes to force his vision of life, God, and acceptable human interaction on those who sense that God is doing a new thing in Jesus Christ.

Saul is “still” making threats of violence and harm.  The way he feels at the beginning of the ninth chapter of the book of Acts is not new.  He has been feeling this way for some time. Watching Stephen be stoned to death for his faith in Christ, Saul was feeling this way.  Going from house to house to imprison those who believed, Saul was feeling this way.  He feels this way still, “breathing threats and murder,” as the story of his conversion begins.

Breathing is what keeps us alive.  If we are not breathing, we are not living.  We are dead.  Saul is breathing murderous threats.  Living on hatred, his breathing is obsessed with doing away with those who are following the way of Christ by any means necessary. The diabolical air of hatred keeps him alive.  He is no longer living to experience the joy and peace of God in his life, but he is living against the life-giving encounter with God that those whom he persecutes have experienced.  They breathe hope, joy, and love, but hatred is his oxygen.

Saul’s threats are anything but idle.  He is actively engaging in the task of ridding the world of followers of the way of Christ.  Before he leaves for Damascus, he secures letters of introduction so that the leaders there will know that his activities are endorsed by higher authorities.  He is meticulous as well as hateful.

Then he is confronted by Christ.  Saul’s world, his life, even the air he breathes is changed forever.  He is converted.  He becomes a missionary, a planter of churches, and a teacher of the way of Jesus.  He becomes exactly what he formerly hated with such passion, obsession and energy.

All that Paul had done out of hatred did not keep conversion from happening in his life. All the good that Paul did was possible because of his conversion.   To realize the power of conversion is startling.  Can a life really be changed that dramatically, that completely?  The testimony of the life of Paul is that the answer is yes.  There is comfort in knowing that a life that once breathed hatred is capable of inhaling grace and exhaling hope.

The mistake that we as followers of Christ sometimes make when we read this dramatic conversion story is that we think that conversion is an event that is confined to a particular place in time.  Saul was converted on the road to Damascus.  Where were you converted?  While it is true that conversion has a beginning point, conversion is not merely an encounter in a particular place and time.  It is a state of being.  Each day is a new day for us to inhale the love and grace of Jesus, and to be converted even more to ways of Christ.

Jesus, Justice and Loud Rocks

The crowd is loud and excited.  Their enthusiasm grows as they catch a glimpse of a man riding a borrowed horse.  Some of them have seen him do the unbelievable.  Most all of them have heard the stories.  He heals the sick, gives sight to the blind, raises the dead, feeds the hungry and proclaims good news to the poor.  He looks at women not as objects, but as human beings created in the image of God.  His idea of being a neighbor is not limited by race, religion, social status or politics.  He invites everyone to the table and eats with anyone no matter how scandalous his or her past might be.

For those who have eyes to see, He is the Messiah, the Christ.  For those who cannot see Him, cannot see Him in the face of a hungry child, a thirsty man, a sick girl, a boy in need of clothes, or an imprisoned woman, He is nothing more than a trouble maker, a problem in need of a solution.

Today, this crowd sees.  Given what they see, the whole multitude praises God with great joy.  Never in their entire lives have the hopes of these people been so close to becoming reality.  No longer able to restrain themselves, their hopes and dreams pour out. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Some who are in the crowd, but not of the crowd, tell the man of the borrowed horse to quiet the crowd.  Their words have become dangerous, even treasonous.  Everyone knows that there can be no king but Caesar.  All the shouting could very well displease the Roman occupiers.  The results of such displeasure would not be welcomed by those who had made their peace with the powers and principalities of this world.  So they tell Him to shut the crowd up.  They do not understand that if the crowd is quiet, then the stones will start shouting.

In just a few days, the shouts of another crowd will fill the air.  A crowd that may well include some of the same people from the crowd that wanted Jesus to be king will shout, this time, for His death.  They will call for a cross instead of a throne and treat Him as a criminal instead of a king.

Looking back at those two crowds, one wonders how the public attitude about Jesus changed so quickly.  From the perspective of one who seeks to follow Christ, one wonders how the second crowd could have been so wrong about Jesus.  What happened in those few days to turn the opinion of so many against him?  Granted, political and religious leaders had already made up their minds about Jesus, but the people still seemed to look at Him with hope.

As tragic as Good Friday is, it is not the end.  Easter will come.  Resurrection will happen.  Unfortunately, that is not enough to convince most that Jesus is the Christ.  So through the years, Jesus continues to be not so much crucified as remade. He is remade into a more palatable figure, one who tends to agree with our way of thinking more than to challenge it.  He is fashioned as a Messiah who saves those that deserve to be saved and who condemns those that the crowd has already condemned.  He is worshiped as the Christ who bears the unmistakable image of the interpreters, editors, preachers and politicians who have, through the centuries, softened His hard sayings and radical demands.

What is to be done?  Is Jesus, riding on a borrowed horse, to be our king, or would we prefer to exchange him for someone more to our liking?  Which crowd will be our crowd?

Serious questions to ponder while we wait for Easter.  Even still, the stones are shouting,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”