Smart

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Smart Image

Each week for one hour I mentor a second grade student as part of our church’s Kids Hope USA program.  Let’s call him Jay (not his real name).  Jay is very challenging.  He is not motivated to learn, struggles academically, has behavior problems, and doesn’t get much support at home.

This past Tuesday as he was being his usual petulant self about the work he had been assigned for our time to together I said to him, “You’re smart!  I know you can do this work.”  His response was startling.  “No one ever told me that before; that I’m smart.”  Think about that for a moment.  NO ONE, NOT ONE SINGLE PERSON in Jay’s nine years on this earth, had told him that he was smart.  No wonder he had no interest in doing his school work.  He assumed he would fail because the messages he has been receiving throughout his life have pretty much guaranteed that he would.  Maybe that explains the response I got once when I asked him what he wants to be when he grows up.  “I don’t know, I’ll probably live on the street.”  What kid says that?!  You can bet your bottom dollar that from now on every time I see Jay I’m going to remind him that he is smart, that he can succeed if he sets his mind to it, and that he has value.

I wonder how many people (kids and adults) travel through life not hearing the things they need to hear from the people who matter most.  How many never hear the words “I love you.” Or, “Great job!” Or, “I’m proud of you!” Or, “You are important to me.” Or, “You can be anything you want to be.”  Or, “Thank you!”  Or, “Keep going, you’ll get there.”  Or, “I forgive you.”  Or, “You are special.”  I’m afraid the number may be disturbingly high.

Each one of us has an opportunity each and every day to lift someone up.  The thing is, we don’t know what kind of impact we may have on another person simply by sharing a word of encouragement.  It may be the very first time someone has heard it.  Our words have power and, in and of themselves, can be powerFUL.  That is, they can impact a person’s life far beyond what we might see at the moment.

What might happen if we made a habit of encouraging at least one person every day?  It could be a child, a co-worker, a friend, a parent or grandparent.  It could even be someone we don’t know like the cashier at the grocery store, the mail carrier, the restaurant server, the janitor, the cafeteria worker, and the list goes on.  What if we assumed that the person standing in front of us at any given moment has never heard a word of hope or love or mercy or acceptance?  And what if we took it upon ourselves to change that?

Maybe we could make the world a better place, or at least smarter.

A Better System

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I was standing in the check out line with a single frozen pizza. In front of me was an older couple with a few items in their cart: some fresh vegetables, a few cans of soup, a package of hamburger meat, and a case of beer. Nothing unusual except that the man paid for the case of beer, and the woman for everything else. So I said to the woman, “You make him pay for his own beer?” She looked me straight in the eye and replied, “If I don’t drink it, I don’t buy it. He drinks it so he can pay for it.” I started laughing and looked over at the older gentleman who said with a sly smile, “She cooks dinner. It’s a good arrangement.” Indeed, I thought to myself.  Everyone has a system, and this one apparently works quite well.

But every once in awhile, a system needs to be challenged because it no longer serves its intended purpose. Or it has become so corrupt that it benefits only those who are responsible for overseeing it.

For Christians, this is the holiest week of the year, and not just because we mark the death and resurrection of Jesus. But also because we observe how Jesus attempted to dismantle an entire social system, and replace it with something dramatically and unabashedly new. We remember how his teachings about love and grace and acceptance blew apart a religious infrastructure based on judgment and fear. We watch as Jesus upends the tables of the money changers in the temple and tells them to get the hell out of his Father’s house. Later, he gathers together his followers and, in the midst of a final meal takes a towel and a basin of water and washes their feet, an example of what it means to serve and love others that flies in the face of a system predicated upon power and influence. And then he subjects himself to a criminal’s death, nailed to a cross because he loved us so radically and completely that he was willing to stand against political and religious systems infiltrated by what had become a complete disregard for the value of human life.

This is not to be overlooked when considering the potential impact of the events of Holy Week on our contemporary world. We should be giving serious thought to what Jesus might be saying to a culture still firmly rooted in systems that thrive on driving wedges between the rich and poor, set on building walls rather than bridges, closing its doors to those seeking refuge, and wielding military might to remind the world who’s the boss.

For those of us who follow Jesus and profess his teachings, we should be reminded that we, too, are called to speak out against systems that Jesus himself would find deplorable. You know, the ones that drop chemical weapons on children. The ones that send suicide bombers into Coptic churches. The ones that launch nuclear missile tests. The ones that keep refugees out. The ones that don’t allow girls to attend school or women to drive a car. The ones that propose boosting their military budgets at the cost of clean air and water. The ones that perpetually create fear of “the other.” The ones that lie and betray the public trust. The ones that _____________. Feel free to add your own example.

Jesus has a simple, yet profound system. It is based on loving God with our whole heart, mind, soul and strength, and loving our neighbor as ourselves. This week we see that displayed in full view at the cross of Calvary. I hope we all take the time to reflect on what that could mean for our lives, and for the communities in which we live.

Bad Behavior

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In last Monday’s SEC women’s softball matchup between national powerhouses Florida and Auburn, Tigers pitcher Haley Fagan refused to congratulate Gators coaches while walking through the traditional post-game hand shake line. When she got to Florida head coach Tim Walton he tapped her on the shoulder and Fagan pushed back. Words were exchanged. Then more words; heated words. In the video it looks like Walton denies touching Fagan. As the line came to its natural conclusion Fagan then began jawing at Florida players, and had to be restrained by her teammates. Strangely enough, Auburn coach Clint Myers is just standing around and doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to intervene. When Fagan finally tried to explain the situation to Myers, video revealed that she apparently lied about how the altercation started. Lies everywhere! For the sake of context it’s worth mentioning that there is bad blood between the Fagan family and Tim Walton. Haley’s two older sisters once played for Walton at Florida, but were released along with one other player in 2012 for “an altercation.”

http://www.espn.com/espnw/sports/article/19019560/tim-walton-florida-gators-haley-fagan-auburn-tigers-get-postgame-tussle?addata=espn:frontpage

While there is plenty of blame to go around, and I have absolutely nothing to support this claim, I would bet we could trace this whole incident back to Haley Fagan’s dad. I don’t know the circumstances surrounding his daughters’ release from the Florida program, but I’ll go out on a limb to say there was probably a lot of disparaging conversation about Tim Walton at the Fagan family dinner table about how his girls were mistreated by the big, bad coach. How they were by far the best players on the team and how the Gators would surely become SEC bottom feeders without them. (That didn’t happen. Florida won back to back national championships in 2014 and 2015.) How they will be better off playing for someone else who will appreciate their talents (in spite of their behavior). And how, at some point, we’ll show Tim Walton that you don’t mess around with the Fagan family.

Which finally happened on Monday night. By not shaking hands with the Florida coaching staff Haley Fagan showed what she learned from her sisters’ experience with the Gators. Namely, that sportsmanship doesn’t matter when it comes to someone you think has wronged you. That lessons about maturity (or immaturity in this case) are taught primarily in the home. That when you’ve done something wrong, why be honest when lying about it to your boss/coach/supervisor/etc. might get you off the hook? That your credibility depends upon your actions under public scrutiny. That holding on to your hatred eventually gets you in trouble and can damage your reputation.

There has always been a lot of talk about how athletics at any level, but perhaps most of all at the collegiate level prepares one for life in the real world because it teaches important lessons like how to get along with people during disagreements, how to work together and support one another during challenging times, the value of respecting those in authority, and how to accept defeat and be gracious in winning.

Maybe what is at least equally important is what happens if those lessons aren’t learned and one engages in the kind of behavior that Haley Fagan did last Monday. It will be interesting to see what, if any, punishments are meted out by the SEC, the NCAA, and especially Fagan’s own coach, Clint Myers.  Let’s hope there’s something, because if not, Haley Fagan will have learned one more lesson. That bad behavior doesn’t matter.

Unfortunately, we already see too many examples of that in our society. We don’t need to see it played out on our nation’s college athletic fields too.

Loyalty

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Keith Drambot is the men’s head basketball coach at the University of Akron. Before returning to his hometown and alma mater in 2004 he was the head coach at Tiffin, Ashland, and Central Michigan. His overall record at these four institutions is an eye-popping 412-208. Throughout his career at Akron he has had several offers to move on to bigger programs, most recently the University of South Florida, all coming with larger salaries and greater national exposure. Yet he has chosen every time to remain at Akron, eschewing opportunities to showcase his coaching talents. One might reasonably ask why? The answer is simple yet unusual in this day and age: loyalty.

After being blackballed at Central Michigan for allegedly making a racist comment (which led to his firing) Drambot was hired by St. Vincent-St. Mary High School where a young man by the name of Lebron James just happened to be on the squad. As we all know, Mr. James learned a lesson or two about loyalty when he chose to take his talents to South Beach before returning to his hometown to lead the Cavaliers to its first NBA championship. Apparently, both Lebron James and Keith Drambot understand the notion that when someone is willing to give you a second chance, especially in your hometown, you say thank you by staying put and giving back to the community, which they have certainly done.

Drambot’s latest decision to stay at Akron made me think of my father. He was a “Ford man,” as was my grandfather. Neither would ever think of driving anything else. Back then that’s just how it was. As time passed that sense of loyalty became a bit broader and shifted to American made cars. I remember my father saying he would never own one of those “cheap Japanese pieces of junk.” He’s probably spinning in his grave over the long line of Toyotas and Hondas I’ve parked in my garage over time.

I guess people are still loyal to all kinds of things, from sports teams to grocery stores, clothing brands to barber shops, political parties to musicians, tool brands to television shows, coffee to computers. But where I see a sense of loyalty waning at an alarming rate is in our churches. In a recent conversation with a pastoral colleague we lamented the idea that churches have become consumer commodities like toothpaste or the latest pharmaceutical promising to relieve your digestive problems. That is, people seek out churches with one primary question on their minds: “what can you do for me?” If a church happens to change in some way and it is perceived to no longer meet one’s needs then folks simply move on to another one that does. Regardless of how much time and energy one may have invested, or how many friends one has made, or how much church feels like a family, when something happens that one doesn’t agree with it seems a rather easy decision to head to some other congregation that is better equipped to provide what is wanted. The grass is always greener somewhere else. Until, of course, one arrives and realizes the new church is not all it’s cracked up to be because every congregation has its own unique set of challenges.

From my point of view this trend needs to stop. It’s hurting our churches. Pastors are often pressured into making decisions based not on what might be a faithful, long-term vision for congregational life, but instead on whether or not Mr. Jones or Ms. Smith will pick up their marbles and go elsewhere, taking their offering contributions with them. Rather than focusing much needed energy on evangelism and outreach, or social justice and service, we create a revolving door with neighboring churches, shifting our members from one faith community to another. At some point don’t we have to get back to understanding ourselves as a family (no matter the size of one’s congregation), all of whose members are seeking to follow Jesus, who support one another in all circumstances, who put their personal desires aside for the betterment of the whole, and stick together no matter what?

If we can be hard-core-until-the-day-we-die fans of our local sports teams, or life-long devotees of our favorite musicians, then can’t we be proud members of whatever church we currently call home and make a commitment to be there doing our best to support its ministry because our allegiance to Jesus is deeper and stronger than anything else in our lives? For the sake of the gospel, I hope so.