2014: More Cookies from the Cookie Jar…

When looking at the year 2014, I am often compelled to remember the shattering events that began and are ongoing which tempt us to recoil in fear and revulsion. Each one has roots in historically deep divisions: political, economic, racial, religious, and theological. We must mourn these events, but also commit ourselves to live differently in the way we address the roots. Conversely, there have been other events that, while not as important as the other events, allow us a short escape from the divisions and help us to unite. Frankly, they can be a needed self-medication of fun! I think this is a good thing, if we don’t become so absorbed with them that they become lead us to ignore the important issues of our world. I call these stories: Cookies. They are the Cookie Jar of life, and sports is one of the most enjoyable for me. My last post was about the Kansas City Royals’ ride to the playoffs and World Series. I will next write about the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Kansas City Chiefs:

Andy Reid physically looks like a guy you would normally see sitting on a couch WATCHING football on TV rather than COACHING professional athletes. That is part of his effectiveness. At least publicly, Reid is a low key, fairly mild-mannered guy that handles inane questions with a great wit, delivered in a dead-pan style and just a hint of sarcasm sprinkled it. I LOVE him, and his players seem to as well. Although he may not look it, he also has a keen offensive mind that can brilliantly formulate game plans, and effectively communicate with his players. I don’t suspect he is a coach that yells, but instead uses biting sarcasm that criticizes performance rather than character. I think he probably treats players, coaches, and administrators with respect and personal humility. He is confident, too, and seems to have a thick skin but also an open mind to criticism. Reid takes his personal responsibility seriously, and is willing to admit when he made a mistake, then work to correct it.

Reid calls the plays on game day. While many teams that run the West Coast style of offense use an array of passes to wide receivers and running backs, with a scattering of throws going to tight ends; Reid has needed to play to the talent on the team which is stronger and deeper at the tight end position. They also make great use of their best offensive weapon, running back Jamal Charles. The offense became especially effective during the middle of the season when they started to use three tight end sets. Although teams would eventually jam players closer to the line in order to stop the running of Charles, the emergence of TE Travis Kelce as a receiver allowed them to open up the offense from any pre-snap set for effective play-action passes.

Offense isn’t the only way in which the Chiefs have scored since Reid and his staff got to KC, though. Both Dave Taub, special teams coach, and Bob Sutton, defensive coordinator, have done a spectacular job of developing game plans and teaching techniques that have resulted in scoring touchdowns. So much so, that they have drawn the attention of owners, general managers, and coaches around the league. The success of not only Taub and Sutton, but all the coaching staff bely what I think must be Reid’s philosophy as a head coach: hire great assistants, allow them to coach, and keep them onboard as long as possible. Coach Reid shows both his confidence and humility in sharing the spotlight. This tells you that Reid appreciates the giftedness of his staff, values their contribution, and is humble in sharing the public praise of their accomplishments. Maybe this is why so many of his coaches stay with him instead of seeking promotions elsewhere.

Clark Hunt

It is hard to step out of the shadows of a legend. Especially when that legend was your father, and a pioneer in the origination and development of the AFL. Since Clark Hunt took over as owner due to the declining health and subsequent death of his father, Lamar Hunt; he has shown decisiveness in making assessments about the progress the Chiefs were making, and then taking action to facilitate further growth. Clark has been willing to fire general managers when he felt their effectiveness was or fading. He fired long-time general manager and president of football operations, Carl Peterson, whom his father hired, shortly after taking the reins of the team.  Hunt then restructured the front office, hired and eventually fired Scot Pioli as general manager when the succession of head coaches under his and Peterson’s watches were taking the team backward as a program. In these actions, Hunt showed the capability to risk on a young unproven person, and then go in a different direction when the experiment didn’t work.

When Clark Hunt first hired Andy Reid, I thought it was a great hire because of Reid’s perennial success in Philadelphia. What I didn’t know was of the criticism in Philadelphia that Reid had too much responsibility as both head coach and talent assessment and procurement. Hunt listened to the criticism, judged it to be valid, so he brought in John Dorsey to be general managers in charge of player personnel. The brilliance of the hire is two-fold: 1) Dorsey spent the majority of his career in Green Bay, where he and Reid worked together during the Packers successful 1990’s which was the Mike Holmgren program led on the field by Brett Favre. At the time, Dorsey was responsible for college scouting and Andy Reid worked as tight end/offensive line coach, and quarterback coach. 2) Hunt placed a distinct line of authority between player personnel-Dorsey’s job, and player performance-Reid’s job as coach. So… you have two guys that know each other well, have worked together successfully, and like each other. The way in which the collaborative relationship has worked so far, is a credit to Clark Hunt’s foresight.

Injuries:

While every team has injuries, the Chiefs lost two starters: Derrick Johnson, who was one of their captains, called the signals for the defense, and a formidable inside presence at linebacker. Johnson went to the Pro Bowl last year, but in the first game of the season he tore his Achilles tendon. The same injury happened in the same game to Mike DaVito, a veteran starter on defensive line. So at the beginning of the year, Bob Sutton was missing two defensive leaders from game 1 on. In week 2, Bob Sutton was hit with another injury to an important veteran leader when Eric Berry went down with a high ankle sprain which kept him out for the next five games….

So? This is football right? More to the point…this is the NFL, right? All teams have injuries. Next man up…Right?

Well…

Yes and no.

Yes:

The three players were replace on the field and their influence could still be felt as they came in for treatment and for rehab. And…the defense picked up where it left off last year. Justin Houston still created havoc for offensive linemen and quarterbacks. Houston finished the year as the new vocal leader in the locker room, and broke Derrick Thomas’ single season record for sacks as Houston roled up 21 and one-half sacks, which is one-half sack less than the league record. Tomba Hali still played relentlessly, and Sutton and his defensive assistants created schemes that moved each player around to give the opponent’s offensive line even more trouble. Berry was replaced in the defensive backfield. The replacements played well, too, as the defense ended the year second in both net passing yards allowed and total points allowed per game. They also were fourth in YAC (yards after catch) for the season. (You can see the breakdown of how the defense compared to the league here: http://www.kcchiefs.com/news/article-2/Chiefs-Final-Defensive-NFL-Rankings/c43eee7d-569c-430d-a1da-92150c77bbc0 ) Obviously, the statistics compiled for these rankings included five games in which Berry started and contributed strongly in leadership and performance. But suffice it to say that the entire defensive backfield stepped up in a huge way after their leaders got hurt. Yet…

No:

Derrick Johnson and Eric Berry have been through the ringer in Kansas City. They both were part of the team that experienced one of their own, starting linebacker Jevon Belcher, kill his girlfriend, and then go to the Chiefs practice facility where he shot himself to death in front of their former head coach and general manager. This incident alone was enough to mark these men as leaders that have experienced great tragedy, yet hold together the team as best they could. You don’t replace those kinds of leaders, and the lessons they learned through such unspeakable human crisis. Johnson was the unofficial media spokesman for the defense. His experience as a three-time Pro Bowler and All-Pro in 2011 was missed as well as adding to his 981 total tackles which are just 18 shy of the team record held by Gary Spani. Johnson is particularly strong against the run, and the defense had difficulty with strong rushing teams this year.

But Berry….Berry had become the spirit of the defense. And it would eventually be determined that he had Hodgkins lymphoma. The most comprehensive information I have found on both the process of discovering that Berry has cancer, as well as how his teammates and coaches respect him was written by ESPN reporter Ashley Fox: http://espn.go.com/nfl/story/_/page/hotread141224/kansas-city-chiefs-eric-berry-battles-cancer-strong-support . Another article that shows the impact of Berry in the community is here: http://www.kansascity.com/sports/spt-columns-blogs/sam-mellinger/article4178140.html .

Adversity… Everyone battles with adversity at some point in their life. In fact, it could be said that the fire of adversity, and how it is responded to, will tell the end of the story in the middle of the book. But not all stories, or books, are straight forward, nor are the presumed endings the actual endings. Although sports certainly belong in the Cookie Jar for fans, for the participants, sports have the capability to form character, and an approach to life that is transforming. There are always people that fail to understand the synergism that sometimes occurs within an athletic team, even members of the team itself. Every so often, a group of people come together in pursuit of a common goal, or a surface, perceived common goal which changes into something else. Something deeper, and richer, and humbling:

Shared adversity.

“There are lots of things in the world, but I’m not sure that comradeship is not the best of them all—to know that you can do something big for another chap.”[i]

Sir Earnest Shackleton

Famed Antarctic explorer and noted successful failure.

Shackleton is probably now most noted for a failed attempt to cross the continent of Antarctica. He is famous because in an expedition which was plagued by tragedy, he showed remarkable leadership qualities that allowed his team to survive despite repeated opportunities not to. Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell, in their book, Shackleton’s Way, tell the story in a way that shows how a group of people can share adversity in such a way that is life changing for all involved. Shackleton’s words above express the joy of effort spent on behalf of another. Another historic leader expresses the same passion of self-sacrifice and shared adversity:

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”[ii]

Jesus Christ

Justin Houston knows about shared adversity, too. When Eric Berry was diagnosed with cancer, the Chiefs lost their vocal leader. His absence left a void, and the team needed someone to fill in, if just until Berry returns. Houston has been the teams most dominant player this year, and he decided to step into the role…just until Berry puts on his number 29 jersey again. Houston’s role on the field is to rush the quarterback with abandon, and he has done that better this year than anyone in the NFL. Every time Justin Houston lined up in a passing down, I think his main thought is not about hitting the quarterback, but about the sack dance he will do after exploding off the ground following the play.

For those of you who don’t know what a sack dance is, I will explain. Every defensive player has prepared a celebration…a choreography of movement…to be done after tackling the quarterback. Each sack dance means something. It is symbolic and specific for each particular player. It is meant to set him apart from other players, to be seen on national TV, and hopefully on Sportscenter. Houston is no exception. But his sack dance isn’t about gaining personal notoriety; it is rather to express shared adversity with his comrade and teammate: Eric Berry. As Houston jumps off the ground, he immediately faces the direction of a camera and pulls up his jersey, so the white t-shirt underneath can be seen. On the t-shirt is the number 29 drawn with magic marker. Houston thumps the number twice, and then presses his hands together in the traditional symbol of prayer. By doing so, Houston is saying to Berry…

You are not alone, Eric…

You are not forgotten, Eric…

I am praying for you, Eric…

God and I are with you in this fight!

I think this was the reason he finished the season by recording 4 and a half sacks in his last game. Every down, he must have thought…”I gotta tell Eric. I gotta SHOW Eric. And the only way is through this huge offensive tackle… No problem.”

Jamal Charles is the most effective Chiefs’ player on the offensive side of the ball. Before the season began, Charles and the Chiefs were involved in working on a contract extension. He was already under contract, but both he and the Chiefs agreed that his compensation did not equal his value to the team, nor reward him for his excellent performance in the past. It was taking some time to work out the details, and the media publically wondered if Charles would hold out of training camp until the new contract was signed, even though he still was under contract with the team. Eventually, the day to report to training camp came, and the media recorded the players as they lugged their suitcases up to the dorms of the college campus where the Chiefs hold training camp. As the morning dragged on, there was no announcement of Charles’ contract being finished, and the question in all of Kansas City was… “Is Jamal Charles going to report to camp?” The day wore on, and the time to report was closing in, yet Charles had yet to report. Finally, about 30 minutes after the designated time for all veterans to report, the announcement was made that the contract was signed, and Charles arrived at camp. A hasty press conference was assembled, and Charles walked calmly in as it was getting organized. There was a lot of good natured banter going on between Charles and the media when one reporter asked:

Reporter: “Did you hold out for 30 minutes?”

Charles: “No, my car ran out of gas on the highway, so I had to walk.”

Reporter: “Wouldn’t anybody give YOU a ride?”

Charles: “No. I had a hoodie on….”

Classic line…

A GREAT line…

Charles broke the slight silence with, “Naw…I just walked.” And then he smiled.

When he made the statement, his eyes got serious, even though he had a slight smile on his face. The line and his facial features while delivering it spoke volumes to a particular audience: African-American males. The hoodie became a symbol of the tragedy of the deaths of so many black men, during the Zimmerman trial following the shooting death by the hand of Zimmerman of Trayvon Martin. Trayvon’s death preceded the events in Ferguson, Missouri surrounding the shooting death of a young black man by a white police officer, as well as several other highly publicized deaths of other black males. Jamal Charles’ message by the use of that line, spoke to the crisis of African-American men dying by violent means. In effect, Charles was saying to black men everywhere:

“I am one of you! Neither my fame nor my money matter… I am one of you!

I run out of gas, too.

They won’t pick ME up either.

They think I am dangerous.”

It was a subtle, effective message that Jamal Charles is about shared adversity not only with his professional teammates, but also with his community.

I gotta love that guy…

[i] Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell; Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer, Penguin Books, New York, NY; 2002; Pg.215.

[ii] John 15:13

2014: The Cookie Jar…

At the end of each year, nostalgia seems to run rampant.  News organizations, magazines, newspapers, blogs… All these publish their lists of best and worst. The terrific, the tragic, the memorable, the melancholy… It all gets laid out to be mulled over and mummified for posterity.

I will try my hand at it.

Here are a few thoughts about the Cookie Jar moments of 2014:

THE KANSAS CITY ROYALS!

Since I moved to Florida three years ago, I have had to keep up with my favorite baseball team through the internet. While this lacked the immediacy of listening on 810 WHB to the games and all the related discussion of the minutiae of every managerial decision, player move, and hang-nail injury; it did allow me to see the season from a larger perspective.

For me, the theme of the 2014 Kansas City Royals was:

They Just. Keep. Playing!

Optimism:

As a team, these guys showed an audacious tendency to keep grinding even when things looked bleak. They kept an optimistic attitude, with the belief that someone would come through right when they needed to. And they were right! It didn’t need to be a huge thing, but all the little things compounded to be big things. There seemed to be a level of expectancy in the dugout that, even when an opportunity was missed and a guy didn’t get the job done, somebody else would have his back and pick him up. It worked! Especially in the playoffs. Although they ended up just 90 feet short of scoring the tying run and forcing extra innings in game 7, which was disappointing, the attitude of the organization…top to bottom…is that these group of guys have graduated to a new level of expectancy which will propel them to the playoffs again.

When you look at winning sports teams, regardless of the sport, you find a core of individuals…leaders…that have an optimistic belief that they can and will win. Usually this begins with a head coach, in football, or a manager, in baseball; but you need these kinds of players, too. A handful of player-leaders that are optimistic in the way they work when the spotlight isn’t on, whether it is watching film, studying scouting reports, in the weight room, or in team meetings; pull the other members of the team along. Sometimes that also means confronting individual teammates that aren’t buying in to the concept.

Several years ago when I was a youth pastor in Delaware, I invited a former professional football player to speak at a fifth-quarter youth event after the high school football game. Since I was also an assistant coach with the team, he also spoke to the players before the game, and he told a story about when he was a rookie on the New York Giants when they won the Super Bowl under Bill Parcels. The player…sorry…I forget his name… was leading the league in kick-off returns heading into the Super Bowl, but was being replaced by another player in the game plan leading up to the final game. When he found out during a meeting early in the week that he wouldn’t be starting, he got up and walked out of the meeting in disgust. A veteran player noticed him leave, followed him into the hallway, and confronted him about his leaving the meeting. After patiently hearing what the rookie had to say about the unfairness of the coaching decision, the veteran got into his face and said:

“Listen kid, I have been in this game for a long time, and I have never won a championship! You are NOT going to ruin my chance. You are better than this! You play football because of love. Love of the game and love for your teammates. Love isn’t selfish, so get back in that meeting!”

Love is the definition of optimism. You could tell that the 2014 Royals loved each other and loved the game by the way they stayed together and kept playing to the final out.

Playful:

Salvador Perez is a big, little kid. If you haven’t seen it yet, go to his Instagram account: instagram.com/salvadorp13/

Salvie was relentless in taking videos of Larenzo Cain, Royals’ center-fielder. But Cain isn’t the only player splashed on Salvie’s page. His cell phone records the players being themselves. You see the playfulness of the team in unguarded moments. Like when he catches a player singing and/or dancing to the music in the locker room. You can hear Perez whisper to the video’s audience as he documents the player and the performance. Once they know they have been caught, the players turn red, and often chase after Perez in feigned anger. So much fun to watch! You can tell they enjoy each other.

Then there are Ned Yost’s press conferences. Yost frequently uses humor to explain either the decision making process, or to answer a pointed question which seems tailored to get either a pointed reply, or for the reporter to be the straight-man to Yost’s comic. When asked if he felt any pressure preceding Game 7 of the World Series, Yost responded: “Pressure? I don’t think there is any pressure…Isn’t this a fun series? This is why you play the game.” He went on to describe the amazing play of his own players, as well as the excellent performances of the San Francisco Giants players. Yost had been on teams before that had reached the series, as a position coach, so he had a little perspective of just how precious the moments were. His aim as manager was to win, yet he wanted his players to enjoy the experience. It seems to me, that good performance and enjoying the magnitude of the event are related. Joy walks arm in arm with performing to the best of one’s ability, because you love what you are doing. Yost’s attitude and those of the players connect playfulness with another important quality:

Humble Confidence:

Two players that especially exhibited this quality were Alex Gordon and Billy Butler. These were the players that had lived through the bad years of Royals baseball. They had been there when the Royals were habitually penciled in at the bottom of the division…during Spring Training! Gordon learned humility by being the first player drafted as a third baseman in college for the University of Nebraska. Gordon spent his early years with Royals by being moved back and forth between third base and the outfield. Although known as a potentially great hitter, he struggled at the plate to fulfill the potential. Through the years of struggle, Gordon has become a 4-time Gold Glove recipient in left field. He also has become an above-average hitter, with power to all fields. Gordon’s humility and confidence were formed in the fire of struggle.

Billy Butler has been known for his bat rather than his fielding. Butler spent much of his career as a sub-par first baseman, with a consistent bat and decent power numbers. When Eric Hosmer, an excellent fielder at first base, was called up from the minors and installed at first, Butler had to learn how to be a designated hitter. Butler was honest about his preference to play in the field, rather then being relegated to DH, and his hitting seemed to suffer without the regular activity of playing in the field. But he kept working, and adapted. Butler’s numbers fell off in 2014, but he continued to hit intelligently and contribute in the clutch. He seemed to especially be elated when he got a hit late in the game, when he knew he would be replaced by either the mercurial Terrance Gore, or Jerrod Dyson. Both players are base stealing phenoms, and place tremendous pressure on the other team. Butler isn’t known for his speed, and yet was so inspired by the exploits of Dyson and Gore, that he stole second on his own in a playoff game. That is humble confidence.

Gratitude:

A tip of the cap… this is the symbol of these Royals. I’m not sure when it began, but throughout the playoffs, Royals’ pitchers would tip their cap to a defensive play that got them out of a jam. Sometimes it came after a pitch that was a mistake and the opposing team’s hitter made solid contact. Other times, the pitch was good, but the hitter was better and the ball flew through the air looking for a hole in the defense upon which to fall. However, a flash of Royal blue would suddenly appear, and the ball would fall harmlessly into a well-worn mit. Damage dodged… Upon replay, it was fun to watch the pitcher’s response. The smack of the bat, and the head on the mound would snap around, with eyes wide in apprehension. Only to get larger in hope that his teammate, streaking towards the ball in flight would get there before it either hit the ground or escaped over the wall. Once the play was made, you saw the mouth open in a scream of “YES!”, the fist raised in triumph, and then the baseball signal of gratitude: the tip of the hat. In the field, the defensive player, with a look of confidence in his eyes, might smile slightly, and return the salute.

This public gesture became a point of connection for the team, I think. They knew they could count on each other to not only perform, but to lift each other up through their effort and selfless play. It also became a point of connection for the fans. As the regular season ran down, and it became apparent the Royals would fall short of the division title, the fans continued to flash signs which said: “We Believe!” They packed Kaufman stadium supplying boundless energy and noise, off which the players fed. The players realized how hungry the city was for a winning baseball team, and they played with a hunger of their own, which matched that of the fans. The two, fans and team, were a sort of larger team, too. And after every game, won or lost, hundreds of fans stayed around, hoping to further communicate their gratitude for this magical group of men. Eventually, players, manager, and coaches, would trudge up the stairs from the locker room, wave to the cheering fans, tip their hats, and clap their hands for the fans, in appreciation for their support and patience.

It happened in the community, too…

  • Eric Hosmer and a few of his teammates, went to a bar after a game one evening, and bought the entire house a drink to say “Thank you” for their support.
  • After the American Championship win, several Royals players went to The Power and Light District in downtown KC, where the games were being telecast on a giant screen, watched by hundreds of fans. They each took the mike and voiced their gratitude for the support of these fans, which either couldn’t get a ticket because they were sold out, or couldn’t afford a ticket.
  • The Kansas City Chiefs organization took out ads and posted on their website congratulations as well as encouragement to keep the streak going.
  • Royals players even showed up at a Chiefs home game at Arrowhead stadium which is right across the parking lot from Kaufman, dressed in red and gold Chiefs jerseys. The national media picked up on it, and interviewed James Shields with his teammates gathered around him.
  • A fan in Nebraska emailed several Royals’ team staff and players, explaining how badly he wanted to attend a playoff game, but he couldn’t afford the tickets. A role player responded to the fan’s request, by giving him two free tickets.
  • A South Korean fan watched the regular season games on the internet and became part of a growing Royals Twitter community. He took his vacation in August to attend a weekend series in Kansas City. The media in KC followed him around, and became tour guides in the city. The story became a city and internet sensation, so when the Royals made the playoffs, Royals fans everywhere asked Sung Woo Lee if he would be able to attend one of the playoff games, and he responded “Only if my bosses will let me off work…” So the Royals interceded with his company, paid for him to fly to KC, and gave him a ticket to the game. On Lee’s original trip, Billy Butler invited him for barbecue at local Zarda barbecue. (I prefer Gates, myself!)

During the playoff run, there was an understanding that something special was happening. A new storybook was being opened. With each pitch, a feeling of anticipation grew within the team, the city, the nation, and even the world. It quickly became a feel-good sensation, with even players and managers from other teams enjoying the run.

Gratitude changes people…

Hustle:

During the Royals heyday of the 1970’s and 1980’s, one of the hallmarks of their winning formula was hustle. George Brett, Hal McCrae, Willie Wilson, Frank White, even Bo Jackson played with an aggressive style that put the opposing team on notice that the Royals were unwilling to offer a gimme on any play. They slid hard into second base trying to break up a double play, they hustled to first base on a routine grounder, they rounded first base quickly and often stretched a single into a double, or a double into a triple. They stole bases, their pitchers threw high and inside. When an opposing team came to Kansas City, they knew they were in for a fight.

While these Royals don’t have the same blue-collar, street fighter demeanor of those Royals; they certainly have the same aggressiveness on the field and in the base paths. Gordon crashing into walls to make a catch, Cain flying above the fence to pull a potential home run back into the park, Moustakas diving into the stands after a foul ball, Hosmer diving to tag first base to get the out, or Perez firing the ball to first or third while still kneeling behind the plate to pick off an inattentive runner.

Then there is the aggressive base running by Gore, Dyson, Escobar, or any of the speedier players. Being aggressive on the base paths puts pressure on the pitcher, catcher, and the rest of the defense. The opposing team knows it must be perfect, and this knowledge in itself often creates defensive mistakes. The Royals were superb when on base. Even the softest hit ball could produce a run. A wild pitch might even score a guy from second!

Royals’ pitchers were at their best when they were pitching aggressively. The starters knew they could go hard for 6 innings, and then turn it over to the “Lights Out Three” as I like to call them: Herrera, Davis, and Holland.

Finally…

Probably my favorite Royals’ story of 2014 happened after the Series was over. Royals’ young starting phenom pitcher, Yordano Ventura was driving through a small bedroom community of Kansas City when he saw a softball complex with the lights on. Pulling into the parking lot, Ventura got out of his car and walked over to a field where a co-ed softball game was being played. Ventura walked up to the fence and said, “Can I play?” The players and small crowd that had gathered to watch the game, crowded around the 23 year-old, smiling young man and the game was put on hold temporarily. After brief conversations filled with “thank you’s” and “way to go’s”, the game was resumed….with Yordano Ventura, World Series star…

…in Centerfield…

Put him in, Coach!

Liturgy for A Political Divide…

I just returned from the Face 2 Face component of my online seminary program at George Fox Evangelical Seminary in Portland, Oregon. Part of the program entails travelling to the seminary campus in Portland, for a more traditional classroom setting. This occurs each semester, and allows us to come together with the members of our cohort, meet the professor and online coordinator, and other members of the seminary community. Face 2 Face is always the highlight of each semester. The document below, was written for a class I am taking: Christian Ministry for Reconciliation. The class is about the process of reconciliation; whether it be in a marriage, racial divides, societal issues, gender issues, or whatever division needing reconciliation. The document below was drafted by myself and two classmates for an assignment which required us to draft a liturgy for a public worship service. My group had to choose the issue needing reconciliation, and then create the liturgy. Our group chose the issue of reconciliation between political parties after a national election. My group was compiled of three men. Two of us came from denominational traditions which had little experience designing liturgy, and one member from a tradition which frequently does use liturgy. Derek, designed the liturgy, while John wrote the statement from the winning party, and I wrote the statement from the losing party. While I didn’t vote for the candidate which lost the recent presidential election, I found it quite helpful to have to put myself in the place of the opposing side. In fact, I think it very helpful in working towards political unity, at least a functional unity with a commitment to choose active engagement with the other side in order to come to practical consensus leading to effective governance, in order to be forced to consider the other side’s position and “place”. In other words, to put myself in the shoes of the other guy/gal. Actually, in the reconciliation of a marriage, one of the important parts in the process is to understand how our choices, actions, and beliefs affect the other person. 

We could see this being used in a Washington Prayer Breakfast, or similar worship service attended by members of both parties:

( I should note that the “enemy” which is part of the scripture passage in Lamentations, is not the other political party! The “Enemy” is rather the Enemy of our souls, who thrives on dissension and divided communities.)

Opening Scripture

Matthew 5:24 ESV

Leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

Call and Response

LEADER: Lord, we come together, but we stand divided

RESPONSE: This is why we weep and our eyes overflow with tears.
we find no comfort and no one restores our spirit.
Our nation is destitute because the enemy has prevailed.
(Lam. 1:16)

 

LEADER: Lord, our hearts share the interest of our people, but we have failed to deliver them their hope

RESPONSE: This is why we weep and our eyes overflow with tears.
we find no comfort and no one restores our spirit.
Our nation is destitute because the enemy has prevailed.
(Lam. 1:16)

LEADER: Lord, we have not become all things to all people, willing to see both sides of every issue as equal and relevant.

RESPONSE: This is why we weep and our eyes overflow with tears.
we find no comfort and no one restores our spirit.
Our nation is destitute because the enemy has prevailed.
(Lam. 1:16)

 

ALL: Reconcile us, we pray.

 

 

 

The Confession of the elected Party

With sincere humility we confess that the outcome of this election in no way confers moral or divine superiority to our party. We recognize that no one group or party can represent every issue, or understand the needs and concerns of every person. In light of this we commit to the following:

1)      To walk in humility, honesty, integrity and respect for every person regardless of their stance on any particular issue or affiliation with any particular party

2)      To seek the good of all people and groups regardless of their race, gender, age, culture, or personal conviction.

3)      When the inevitable change of power comes about, to seek the good of the nation as a whole and work with those duly elected in a spirit of peace and reconciliation

 

Confession of the defeated Party

We acknowledge the recent political election has resulted in our electoral loss.

We acknowledge that our country is currently divided along disparate lines.

We acknowledge the need for greater statesmanship and a commitment to governance.

We realize the necessity of listening to each other and refrain from the temptation to believe political power will ultimately answer all the issues we face as a country.

We realize the need to live in respect for each other, and hold our views and interests in humility.

We realize our country is in tumultuous change, and in need of compassion, and justice for all.

We commit ourselves to courageously voice our principles and to listen to those which disagree with us.

We commit ourselves to maintain an open mind, and open heart to those with differing opinions.

We commit ourselves to stay engaged in ongoing conversations and to work to unity in addressing the issues our country faces.

ALL:

May the Lord give us strength; may the Lord bless us with peace.  Amen

Psalms 29:11

Of Dreams, Death, Resurrection, and the Tower of Babel…

A few weeks ago, I again watched the movie “Meet Joe Black.” The central character, or central human character, is Bill, an uber-wealthy man about to celebrate his sixty-fifth birthday. However, Bill has been experiencing intermittent chest pains, and begins to hear an audible, whispered voice saying, “Yes…” Despite all his wealth, intelligence, and good will from the people who love him; Bill comes face to face with the inevitability of his own death:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ae-mN5aD8Qg&feature=plcp

Death becomes a person: Joe Black. The rest of the movie shows a man trying to deal with death walking beside him in his everyday life. At first, it is really awkward, introducing this new “friend” to work associates and family. As part of the deal Bill makes with death which will buy him more time with his family, Bill must allow Joe to go with him everywhere. Essentially, Joe calls the shots! Bill knows if he doesn’t play the game right, he is done. However, eventually, death begins to pay particularly close attention to Bill’s beloved daughter, and Bill stands up in protection of her. Throughout the movie, you see Bill having such normal reactions to the death that walks beside him.

He denies…

He bargains…

He fights…

and finally… He not only is resigned to the ongoing presence of death, he seems to even embrace it. Bill begins to see his life differently while death walks beside him, and tries to make things right with the people, dreams, and legacy to which he had given his life. He spent his life building something, and began to see how quickly it could be taken away. And yet…

Bill’s experience of walking with death by his side, brings him to the place of gratitude for all of his life:

I am reminded of Jesus’ words of invitation to “…take up your cross daily and follow me.”

Our tendency as a species seems to be to build towers that we believe will take us to God. The tower can be experience, money, power, pleasure, morality, or even… or maybe especially… theological/religious ones. We begin to build, and even invite others to build with us, but eventually, we each become so focused, so obsessed, in a glassy-eyed, tunnel-vision dream-like state; upon only our piece of the tower. We stop listening to each other. We become deaf to the call of community, due to the clarion call of our personal obsession.

…and the tower goes unfinished…

It is God’s grace to send the whisper of death into our deafness. We must learn to embrace death in order for Resurrection to supplant it. For there is no resurrection without death…

Death of our dreams…

Death of our expectations…

Death of our obsessive need to be right…

Death of our illusion of control…

But the cross is the gateway to new life! What we thought we wanted is replaced with something better, richer, deeper, eternal. The way to embrace our death, and to receive new life, is the way of Trust in the God of the Resurrection. Trust changes the grief of death to the gratitude for a life without end, from which  love is the by-product.

Courageous love…

Servant love…

Encouraging love…

Listening love…

Embracing love…

Tenacious love…

Sustaining love…

Patient love…

Healing love…

Giving love…

Forgiving love…

Christ’s love…

The Passing of an Era…

In the past several years, I have made it a habit to find a second place to spend several hours a week. A second place is somewhere other than where I live. I used to choose a coffee shop primarily, but since moving to Florida, I found a bar/restaurant as my hang-out. There are different reasons why I might like one spot over another:

 

Design/decor…

 

Proximity to my home…

 

Quality of the product they sell…

 

Attitude of staff towards those who want to hang out…

 

Usually, however, the spot I choose has more to do with the staff, and people who also hang out there.  I have found it enjoyable to kibbitz with staff, and to find conversations which serendipitously happen. I am often amazed at the stories of people that I learn just by being a fixture in a place. Friendships happen, and life is shared. I love the process until the process ends, because a place closes. That is what has happened to my most recent second place.

I don’t remember the first time I stepped into The Sloppy Pelican, but I remember that every time I went in, the staff was friendly and seemed to get along with each other. That is a key to a great second place: the people who work there enjoy each other. I love a group of employees who have a great work ethic, and a playful attitude with each other and customers. I will definitely miss my friends at The Pelican. I came to know and care for them.

I knew some of their stories…

I knew the spouses or boyfriends of them…

I knew if their relationships were healthy or dysfunctional…

I knew of their second jobs…

I knew of their kids…

I knew a little of their dreams and how they spent their free time…

I prayed with them…

I pray for them…

We came to love each other… all over a beer or two.

I also got to know some of the musicians who came to share their talents there. I even came to know a few of their fans and wives and children and fathers and friends and business associates, and became friends with them as well.

It was quite lovely…

Actually, it wasn’t that different from being in church, as far as the social aspects were concerned. I was frequently surprised how often conversations turned to God, or faith, or past experiences in church. The conversations scattered between positive experiences with the above, or hurtful ones.

Honestly….

… I kinda felt like Jesus…

…with Zacchias…

…or Matthew…

…or Mary Magdalene…

I only hope I did Him justice. I know I didn’t do it perfectly by any means, but often I realized the presence of God’s Spirit speaking eloquently through me. Not something I would expect, nor was raised to expect, when my tongue was slightly thick after a beer… or two. Love seems to seep into places we least expect it to be…

… all over a beer or two…

But the affect wasn’t one sided. These folks’ lives spoke to me, as well. I marvel at the hard work of Alejandro, removing trash, lugging food, cleaning the floor, replenishing the liquor cabinet, and doing just whatever needed to be done; then working a day job mowing lawns Monday through Friday. He always has a smile and warm greeting: a GREAT attitude. One evening, Alex told me of his 4-year-old daughter and her fresh diagnosis of leukemia. His day-job gives him benefits, so her medical care is covered by insurance, yet he continued to work at Sloppy for extra money. Actually, he didn’t receive an hourly wage there. He worked only for a share of the tips given by customers. His life gave me a different perspective on the importance of giving a tip after a meal.

I was amazed in the way the staff dealt with customers, and their savvy in knowing when someone was being deliberately unkind and/or belligerent, or just allowing the alcohol speak, with no mean intention. They also had each other’s back, while continuing to do the job.

I pray each of my friends will be guided by the kindness of God towards ever-greater health and loves. Hopefully, our paths will cross again…

More Thoughts on the Story of Cain and Abel…

God’s statements about Cain’s action towards his brother:

Gen. 4:10- “…your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!”

Gen. 4:11- “And now you are cursed from the ground.”

Gen. 4:12- “When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you it’s

strength.”

Gen. 4:12- “…you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”

Thoughts:

-Our violent actions towards others cut us off from Eden’s strength and richness. We trade God’s provision and personal protection for Want and Fear. Our attitude changes from receiving gratefully with intentions of mutuality to taking with selfishness and exclusion. We walk away from Eden and settle in Nod to build self-made empires which war with Edenic principles.

Cain’s response:

Gen. 4:13- “My punishment is greater than I can bear!”

Gen. 4:14- “Today you have driven me away from the soil…”

Gen. 4:14- “…and I shall be hidden from your face.”

Gen. 4:14- “I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth…”

Gen. 4:14- “…and anyone who meets me may kill me.”

Thoughts:

-Cain’s thoughts about punishment show immaturity regarding the responsibility and consequences of his own actions. Violence sows the seeds of its own punishment. Living by the sword and exerting power is self-defeating. Humans and the earth have long memories. Cain speaks as a child punished by a greater, adult power rather than as an adult who realizes with horror the sad viciousness of their own behavior, and the isolation of their own hatred. Power isolates; it doesn’t bring the healing coalescence of forgiveness and repentance. Cain’s statements about his “punishment” being “greater than I can bear” points to the need for a “second Abel” who’s death and resurrection frees us from the dysfunctional society brought about by a reliance upon power as a means of interacting with each other. The words, life, and death of Christ absorbs the power of violence, and reinstates Edenic principles which embrace death while inviting us into daily life unencumbered by fear while bracing into the Garden-life given us by God.

-“Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain’s unanswered question continues to reverberate in our experience. While there is a sense in which we are our brother’s/sister’s keeper, there is also a dissonant chord in life and throughout the scripture which weds communal connection with personal responsibility. The economic structures of Levitical law maintain this dissonance. Although it is still possible for one to sell themself into bondage, there is also a Kinsman Redeemer who arrives to buy the family homestead back into the fold of the larger community. By so doing, generational poverty is averted, and the gifts of God are redeemed.

-While Cain’s violent action towards his brother is allowed, he is saved from the vengeance of those unknown persons living in lands through which he might wander. God places a “mark” on Cain, which distinguishes him in his wanderings as one forgiven and protected. By so doing, God redeems his life, yet doesn’t restrict his freedom. God’s daring work of grace invites Cain back into relationship with God, but also into the community. Cain’s mark hints that, although Cain is in exile, God goes with him into exile.

-Is violence always a physical act? Is there a difference between power and control?

Celibacy…

Celibacy sucks…

While that probably isn’t a surprise for someone in a relationship in which the sex is good, or at least not terrible, and the amount of sex at least approaches the frequency they want; for someone single and not sexually active, the phrase probably doesn’t need to be said. It is their reality. I realize some people have chosen celibacy as a holy calling, however for others, celibacy has been… thrust…. (sorry)…. upon them by a divorce, or a relationship dying. I guess there are many reasons why a person would choose not to be sexually active, but my time of celibacy has led me to look at sexuality in a larger sense. I have come to realize that my sexuality, and the manner in which I express it, is a much larger issue than whether I get to enjoy the intimacy of a sensual encounter with a woman. I have begun to understand how the masculine and feminine are inextricably intertwined in my own personality. I confess that I probably have more questions now about what it means to be male or female than ever before. Now, obviously, I’m not in need of an anatomy lesson. That isn’t my point; and my body tells me about the physical desire for a woman whenever one walks by in a bikini… just being honest. This is especially so after spending most of my life in the Midwest. I’m not used to seeing so much skin! I often feel self-conscious, as if I just inadvertently stepped into a women’s dressing room by mistake.

“Oops…. Sorry… I thought this was unisex, but that lingerie shows off your curves REALLY well!”

However, my brush with the power of sexuality in a physical sense leaves me questioning how we as a culture have treated it. Not just in a physical sense, but in a deeper, emotional and spiritual sense. What are the social/cultural cues regarding what roles men or women are supposed to fill? There seem to be mixed messages.

On the one hand, our culture seems to value a woman for how she looks. A woman should be beautiful. There are also parameters the culture mandates, as to what beautiful even means, as it regards to women. The media portrays how beauty is defined, especially as to size and shape. I suppose women feel objectified by this definition of beauty, and they should, for that is exactly what the image portrays. And yet… what is especially devious about this message is that few women are genetically predisposed to this size and shape. Whole arrays of businesses have risen to help women become this “goddess” of large-breasts-small-waist-cellulite-free-thighs-wrikle-free-skin-perfect-hair-white-straight-teeth-and-shapely-strong-butt-set-on-tan-legs. Living by the beach, I see women in constant movement in search of this self-perception. Women running, and riding bikes, and lifting weights, and laying out to get a tan, and whatever else will turn them into what they THINK men want. Or… at least I think that is why they do it. As if their identity is based on how their appearance approaches the media-induced portrait of what a woman SHOULD look like. I suppose if one were to ask them why they are going to such lengths… how they push their body to become this image… they might say they are pursuing health. I hope so. It just seems so easy for such a pursuit to plunge over the line into obsession.

There are also women, who seem to mock this “goddess” form. They wear clothing that exposes their apparent opposition to the form. They seem to be comfortable with their bodies, and their choice to bare it all is a big middle finger directed at public opinion to the contrary.

Then, there is another cultural voice that says women should pursue intelligence and achievement either instead of, or alongside physical beauty. Movies and television portray women that can not only out think a man, but also out work him. The message here seems to be one of independence, and even opposition to masculinity, or at least to the stereotype of a man created by our culture. It is as if men will be threatened by a smart, creative, gifted woman; and thereby become defensive, so a woman must always be on the offense against any perceived slight from a man. Obviously, a man WILL try to put down such a woman, right?

Then, there is the continuing battle between women who want to be a full-time mother/wife, and women who want to have a career, or women who want both.

Women can be especially harsh critics of not only each other, but of themselves as well.

The culture isn’t any kinder to men, in my view. Men are valued for the amount of money they either have or manage. Although I have noticed a slight shift towards valuing men also by their bodies, the message is pretty plain: Money equals attraction. Honestly, the journey to prosperity is getting harder for men, too. There are fewer jobs in this country for which it is advantageous to be physically male, and especially so for well-paying jobs. Jobs which utilize traditional male roles, are less available. The public, cultural perception still is that men have fewer obstacles in their career path than do women, and with the exception of child-bearing, I have come to believe this assumption is false. It seems there is a cultural war on masculinity. It feels like women and children are afraid of you sometimes. I heard Helen Fisher, (author of Why Him, Why Her) speaking about relationships on TED talks the other day. She said that she was asked if men were more inclined to adulterous affairs, and she responded that they were not. The questioner then asked if men weren’t more genetically inclined, and she responded sarcastically, “Who do you think they are having affairs with?”

In a marriage, the message to men is that they are to provide financially, yet also be more involved with the care of children, and daily tasks in the home. Actually, I agree with the former and with the latter if the wife works outside the home. However, doing those things will most likely mean that his earning potential will lessen because making more income usually means more time in some form or another. This is a lose/lose position for a man to be in. If he invests more time at work, in one or two, or three jobs; he isn’t a good husband/father. If he spends more time at home with the kids and wife, he isn’t a good provider.

There are social scientists/biologists who will say that these two ways of valuing the sexes are steeped in evolution.  A woman’s body was very important to be able to bear multiple children, so the species had a better opportunity to flourish, they will tell you. A man that could provide more of what the family needed also gave the species a better survival quotient. While that makes pretty good sense in a primal setting, it seems simplistic to me. I don’t think this view looks at our sexuality deeply enough. We are each more than animals competing for a limited amount of food, and the best partners to pass on our unique genetic code. There is a quality to physical intimacy that shares in spiritual transcendence. Making love has a divine quality attached to it. We celebrate the joy of loving another person with the totality of who we are. Removing our clothing and being naked with another person is a practice of shared vulnerability that is powerful. It can be affirming. Just taking your clothes off in front of someone else is a risk of humiliation. That is especially true as we age.

And yet…

The longer I am celibate. The more I feel the power of my sexual drive. It can be scary, too. It isn’t that I’m afraid that I will tackle some woman in a bikini and physically molest her on the beach. It is that I might fall to the physical/emotional pull to sex in some non-relational form. I honestly have no strong desire to get into porn. Although I understand why it is tempting, I also see the down side: the emotional isolation after the physical release. What I like and want in sex, is the connection between two people… Love. And that is where I would especially like to begin talking about Deep Sex.

A disclaimer to start… There is no way I can honestly say that if I were to have the opportunity for a sexual encounter with a woman to whom I was attracted physically and mentally, that I would be able to decline. Maybe this is why I haven’t had the opportunity… Maybe God is protecting me, and the other person from the complications of uncommitted sex. I have had opportunities in the past, yet with each one, I found a compelling reason not to pursue it. (I still get this little shiver remembering the Glen Close character in the movie Fatal Attraction…)  Ultimately, I decided to treat myself, and the other person I might add, with greater respect than falling into bed with someone I didn’t really know.

This does NOT mean it is easy… Far from it! It is very lonely, honestly.

In my seminary classes, we have studied how the church has handled sexuality in the past. More specifically, we have read of the tendency to view sex as dangerous to spiritual growth. Many of the spiritual mothers and fathers even went so far as to go into the desert in order to seek God. It is especially hard for me not to understand this approach as unbiblical. To me, it is a denial of the “goodness” of God’s design of community, and is an escape from the difficulty of living out one’s faith in the midst of dissonance. Eventually, other people followed the original seekers of solitude. So, community FOLLOWED them into the desert. Community forces us outside ourselves. Why is there a need to forgive, unless there is one who acts in a manner which conflicts with our intentions? We learn to both give and receive forgiveness by interacting with other people. I realize there are scriptural examples of holy hermits. Jesus’ human cousin, John, lived in the desert in a Spartan existence. The prophets of scripture also spent time outside the community, for long periods of time, in order to hear God’s message more clearly. Even Jesus went into the wilderness for a period of time for those reasons, as well as to do spiritual battle with the Adversary. However, John, Jesus, and the prophets returned to the community in order to live out the message they received in the wilderness.

I have found that it can be easier to live alone, even though it is lonely, than to risk the pain and messiness that is part of living in community with others. However, I am learning to see loneliness as an invitation to step outside myself. I am invited to release my fear of being rejected and misunderstood. Love is assertive. It is active. It does not wait, unless waiting is an act of patience rather than fear. Love is also willing to be misunderstood, then stays around to talk through the issue. Celibacy can be an act of love, but it also can be one of fear… unwilling to get dirty in the messiness that is brought by love. It can be a way to hide from risking the discomfort of intimacy.

So, how does one know the difference between celibacy as an act of love, and celibacy as an act of fear?

Can one person’s journey into celibacy help inform others around them about the nature and depth of their own intimate relationships?

Can one living without physical sex with another person accept and be accepted by the community of faith?

Can we be sexual beings outside of intimate, physical, genital contact with another person?

How can the church teach sexual ethics, within a culture so sensually driven in a manner that works in our everyday lives?

I want to believe that my journey into celibacy is an invitation from God into a deeper love affair with God. I want to believe it is an invitation into a fuller life within which I will find a fuller expression of my sexuality in ways that are generative in different forms, and that I will find varied ways to be co-creative with God. I want to believe that I am still a value to the greater community in which I live and can find a freedom to give of myself in a fuller spectrum than I previously believed possible. I want to believe these things, and intellectually, I do. Yet I also find myself struggling with my sexual body.

Rob Bell, in his book Sex God, says that humanity seems to err in regard to sexuality in one of two directions. We either see ourselves as angels, which are sexless beings solely created for service to God; or as animals which are destined to live by the power of their innate drives; sex being one of them. Bell points out, however, that we instead are created in the image of God. We are neither angels nor animals, but more profound beings: Children of God. We are created to manage Eden… the garden within which we have been placed, both in time and space. A part of that management responsibility is the management of our Self. That is the rub. I find it so easy to become obsessed with a self-created end to my own celibacy. In so doing, I lose focus on allowing the tension of living alone yet in community to bring out new depths of who God has created me to be. I want to be a sexy man, even though I am not getting laid!

I believe the phrase: sexy man, could be used to describe Jesus, especially because he treated women with deep respect. They responded to him with love, that was at times sensual, yet not physically, genitally intimate. Jesus’ love was redemptive. Even women who used their bodies to service the desires of men, found in Jesus a man who looked through the veil of their bodies into the depths of their soul; and they were changed radically due to the encounter. Jesus loved them without the expectations of a physical quid pro quo.

That is Deep Sex…