Tuesday, January 27, 2009

100 - 0

You have heard the story by now. The girls basketball team from Dallas Covenant beat the team from Dallas Academy 100 to 0. Refusing to let up, and with spectators and an assistant coach reportedly "cheering wildly," Covenant continued to use a full court press and to shoot three-point goals relentlessly until the score hit triple digits. Only then did the coach call off the dogs.

The losing team, Dallas Academy, has 8 players. There are only 20 girls in the entire school, which specializes in teaching students with learning disabilities like dyslexia. DA has not won a game in four years.

The winning team is from The Covenant School, which describes itself as a "classical, Christ-centered, college preparatory" school. After the game, Covenant forfeited its victory over DA, calling the team's actions "shameful" and "an embarrassment." The team's coach posted on the internet his disagreement with the school's statement and forfeiture, and he was subsequently fired. The press release I saw indicated that the head of school did not give a reason for the firing. We can all speculate what role the "shameful" game plan played in the firing and what role his insubordination, displayed for the world to read on the web, played.

Since I live in the DFW area, I am hearing a disproportionate amount of sports talk about this situation, and I have read about it in our local papers. If you go to the Dallas Morning News' website and read through the comments, you will find a heated debate about the propriety of firing the coach.

I understand why there is such debate. There are plenty of folks outraged that a high school team would run up the score on a ridiculously non-competitive opponent. On the other hand, I understand the argument that the object is to win the game - I am as competitive as anybody else. I understand that the coach feels that it could have been worse and that "it just happened." I understand that DA's coach may have some responsiblity in not getting his team to be any better than it is.

But there is another whole level to this debate, one that sports radio and the newspaper webpage comments have largely ignored. It is this - Covenant is unapologetically a Christian school. The parents of the team's players met after the game and stated that their top two priorities for the team, above winning and above representing the school, were "to represent Christ with the highest respect" and not "to humiliate anyone ever."

This raises a timely question for those of us trying to live out our Christianity in the world. How, and when, should we be different? Taking all of the "object of the game is to win" and the "how can you run up the score" thoughts into account, should a Christian school approach this quandary differently than anybody else?

I don't think those of us who are Christians should play less hard than others. I think we should try hard to win. But I think there is a line that was crossed here. It may be hard to define, but 100-0 with a full court press and three-point shots is well over that line. We know it when we see it. My question is this - is the line at a different place for the Christian competitor than for other competitors?

I don't pretend that I would not have been upset if I had coached a team to an overwhelming victory, only to have my school forfeit and call my actions "shameful."

But did Covenant have a different line to beware of crossing than, say, the Hockaday School would have had?

A high school basketball game is, of course, a relatively insignificant example to pick to discuss a very important question. Jesus tells us that we are not "of the world," though we are without question placed in the world. Paul tells us to "come out from among them." Whether or not that means not beating another team 100 - 0, it must mean something.

My grandparents did not allow their children to do many things on Sunday because of a sincere attempt to honor the commandment about respecting the Sabbath. Many of their generation forbade drinking alcohol, dancing, playing cards, going to certain (if not all) movies, and using certain language. Today, we tend to laugh off such norms as hopelessly old-fashioned, and perhaps they are. But the motive behind them - to display a noticeable difference from "the world" - is scriptural.

Again, I am not saying there is an easy "Christian" answer to tell Covenant when it should have stopped shooting threes. I am only suggesting - gently, I hope - that perhaps the approach to that question is different for those of us who advertise that we are "Christ-centered."

Should we be different from "the world?" Are we?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Now What?

I was moved by so much during the inauguration of a man for whom I did not vote but for whom I wish the very best. In a world where race is not supposed to matter anymore, it clearly matters a lot, in ways that I - and probably a lot of people of my race - cannot truly understand. I noticed just how many public prayers surround this event - Rick Warren's prayer and Rev. Lowry's prayer and the prayer service on Wednesday. I was struck by how awestruck the mainstream media is by President Obama, and I wonder how long this fawning will continue.

So now what? "We the people" have done our part by voting, by participating in the process. So much of what happens now is in the hands of elected leaders that it may be tempting to say that there is nothing more for us "people" to do.

I believe we can model good will. To my conservative friends, let me say that the campaign is over. Stop the emails. Quit the sass. There is no good to come from that now. To my liberal friends, let me say that the parties are over. The Bushes have gone home. The time for reveling at the expense of fellow Americans is past. Find the things we can celebrate together.

I believe we can model service. This is not a public service announcement asking you to paint a house or serve in a soup line, but it is my recognition that the public rhetoric now is that America is a place of help and hope. That cannot come from Washington. If the rhetoric is to become belief, it must start with us, with our relationships with each other and with our actions towards one another.

I believe we can model prayer. In November, I railed in a blog against those who prayed for a certain outcome for the election, whichever side they took. Now I stand with those who pray for our leaders, for wisdom and direction and health. That is Biblical.

I believe we can model cooperation. As long as we snipe at one another, those who represent us will have no reason not to do the same.

I am sure this sounds very preachy or Pollyanna or both. Sorry.

If this inauguration of this president really represents something, then it is up to us to grab it and model it and make it happen.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Shack

I first heard about The Shack last May, when my friend Bryan mentioned this book he was reading in which God was a "big black woman". I heard a few others mention it, and I finally picked it up and read it.

I was profoundly moved.

Let me say at the outset that I understand much of the criticism. This book uses language, metaphors, symbols, and ideas that are not at all what is taught in many churches today. Proof-texting this book and reading it literally can lead one to decide it is, as it has been called, "dangerous". I certainly understand why fundamentalists, Reformed Calvinists, and others would eschew it. I don't pretend to tell these friends that they are wrong.

But I was profoundly moved.

Yes, I am troubled with some things in the book. I do not think that evil is simply the absence of good just as darkness is the absence of light - I believe that evil exists forcefully in the world. I believe that the book makes a mistake by underemphasizing the importance of worship - although the entire book is so focused on our personal relationship with God and Christ that it of course encompasses worship without emphasizing it by name. I believe that there is a lot of good in the church and in organized religion, and the book certainly seems to be taking some unnecessary shots there.

I also believe that many of the critics misunderstand the book, but I understand why. The book is NOT universalist, at least as I read it, but it uses language that scares the fundamentalists when it says that some of Christ's followers started out as Buddhists or Mormons. But in response to the universalist mantra that "all roads lead to God", it definitely says that "most roads don't lead anywhere", and there can be no question, if one reads the book fairly, that its message is that salvation comes only through Christ.

The book's discussion of "rules" has led many to conclude that it is anti-Biblical. I don't think so at all. I think the author is trying to talk about the relative purpose and place of "rules" in our religious thinking. His treatment of the Ten Commandments is too brief, and I am sure that there are some who decide that he has discarded them. I think that is not what he is doing, but by giving them short shrift, he has left himself open to that criticism.

But the reason I am defending the book and encouraging others to read it is that it contains such profound statements of faith that resonate with me. Whether you agree with the author's ultimate point or not, surely we agree that some of these statements attributed to God in the novel are worth contemplation:

-- "Many folks try to grasp some sense of who I am by taking the best version of themselves, projecting that to the nth degree, factoring in all the goodness they can perceive, which often isn't much, and than call that 'God'. And while it may seem like a noble effort, the truth is that it falls pitifully short of who I really am. I'm not merely the best version of you that you can think of. I am far more than that, above and beyond all that you can ask or think."

-- "The real underlying flaw in your life ... is that you don't think that I am good. If you knew I was good and that everything - the means, the ends, and all the processes of individual lives - is all covered by my goodness, then while you might not always understand what I am doing, you would trust me. But you don't.... Trust is the fruit of relationship in which you know you are loved."

-- After the Holy Spirit tells Mack (the protagonist) to touch a plant that may be poisonous, Mack takes the twig and asks, "If you had not told me thas was safe to touch, would it have poisoned me?" God replies, "Of course. But if I direct you to touch, that is different. For any created being, autonomy is lunacy. Freedom involves trust and obedience inside a relationship of love. So, if you are not hearing my voice, it would be wise to take the time to understand the nature of the plant."

-- Some critics have accused the book of allowing us to throw out Biblical ideas of right and wrong in some sort of postmodern free-for-all of subjective "good". I think that is an unfair attack on a book that has God saying the opposite: "You must give up your right to decide what is good and evil on your own terms. That is a hard pill to swallow; choosing to only live in me. To do that you must know me enough to trust me and learn to rest in my inherent goodness."

-- "Evil is the chaos of this age that you brought to me, but it will not have the final say. Now it touches everyone that I love, those who follow me and those who don't. If I take away the consequences of people's choices, I destroy the possibility of love. Love that is forced is no love at all."

-- And perhaps the best: "Creation and history are all about Jesus. He is the very center of our purpose and in him we are now fully human, so our purpose and your destiny are forever linked. You might say that we have put all our eggs in the one human basket.... There has never been a question that what I wanted from the beginning, I will get.... Through his death and resurrection, I am now fully reconciled to the world.... The whole world, Mack. All I am telling you is that reconciliation is a two way street, and I have done my part, totally, completely, finally. It is not the nature of love to force a relationship, but it is the nature of love to open the way."

These are Biblically sound points. We tend to poo-poo the very simple message that God loves us, probably because we in the church have heard it so long that we can tell ourselves that it is too elementary to be a focus. This book suggests, and I agree, that much of our faith problem stems from our lack of belief that God really loves us. If nothing else, this book tackles our faith problem head-on, and I congratulate it. This is no postmodern "emerging church" attack on the basics of our doctrine - this is a Christ-centered call to personal relationship with God.

Yes, this story (and it is, in fact, a story, not scripture or even an essay) may not line up with my understanding of Jesus' divine powers while he walked on earth, but I cannot help but recommend a work in which God says, "I don't just want a piece of you and a piece of your life. Even if you were able, which you are not, to give me the biggest piece, that is not what I want. I want all of you and all of every part of you and your day.... I don't want to be first among a list of values; I want to be at the center of everything."

I daresay that there are few people whose testimony I hear and decide that 100% of their spiritual interpretations are correct. That does not make me discard their testimony, and it should not make me decide that God cannot speak to me through them.

I have not processed all that this book says. In coming days, God may show me other things in it that are wrong, or even "dangerous". But I do not think I will conclude that it was a bad idea to read it.

God spoke to me as I read. I closed the book and felt spiritually spent and full at the same time. It was a mediative workout for me. That leads me to say that it is worthwhile.

Read the book. You don't have to agree with all of it, or most of it. You don't have to like the characterizations of the persons of the Trinity. You may find much of it too related to postmodern ideas or to astral projection or to universalism to mean much to you. But I don't think so. I think you can read it as a whole and find an understanding of God's love, a meaningful examination of the reality of tragedy and yet our ability to live through it, a valuable discussion of the importance of forgiveness, and a creative attempt to get us to think about our ability to have conversation with God.

In the book, the Holy Spirit is called Sarayu. God is called Papa. If those names bother you, you won't like the book. But if you can get over that kind of creativity, you will work your way to the end, where the author tells us: "And one day, when all is revealed, every one of us will bow our knee and confess in the power of Sarayu that Jesus is the Lord of all Creation, to the glory of Papa."

I can't argue with that.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Most Important Thing I Learned from Debate

I was a debater in high school, a debater in college, and a debate coach and judge after college. I don't know any other extracurricular activity that teaches students more about more.

Debate teaches substantive material. I debated topics like space exploration, national educational reform, First Amendment case law, hazardous waste responsibility, U.S. arms sales, consumer product safety, and foreign trade policy. I had to learn about all these topics as well as implications flowing from them, ranging from policy issues like government spending and federalism and military strategy to the philosophies and deontological constructs of John Stuart Mill and John Rawls and Thomas Malthus.

Debate also, as you would expect, teaches public speaking skills. I do not contend that the uninitiated wants to listen to a debate per se - the speed of the speeches and the technical jargon used in the "game" of debate will confuse most first timers. But the skills learned - clarity, explanation, confidence, organization - are transferable to many other public speaking opportunities that audiences will enjoy hearing.

More important, to me, than either of these first two benefits is that debate teaches how to think on one's feet. The number of unexpected twists and turns in any given debate round are multiple, and the debater who best understands and reacts to the unforeseen will win.

But there is something more basic than any of those things, and it is that something that came home to me again today. Debate reinforces - if it does not teach for the first time - that there are at least two reasonable sides to virtually every topic. One does not spend long in competitive debate and retain the idea that there are many absolutes that face us in daily life. Note: I do not at all mean that there are not certain moral, religious, and scientific absolutes - there clearly are - but I do mean to say that quantitatively the number of absolutes is relatively few compared to the number of subjects with which we deal - personally, professionally, ethically, politically - on a daily basis.

I had lunch today with one of the ministers from my church. Our purpose was to discuss a question on which we disagree. We both value discussion, and rather than simply disagreeing, we both wanted to know the reasons behind the other's position and to see what common ground we have.

Neither of us convinced the other. While my natural instincts are disappointed that I did not "win her over" with my charm and rhetoric, my debate sense tells me that what was accomplished was greater understanding - by both of us - about both sides of the matter. The truth is that we agree on most things, including many aspects of this particular concern. Our point of departure is narrow - in this case an honest disagreement in interpreting certain scripture verses - but our underlying doctrinal and ethical beliefs are virtually identical.

It is instructive to discuss. That is not news to any of you, but it is worth remembering. When we find someone whom we respect who disagrees with us about some particular issue or another, it is worthwhile to build on that respect and discover where the disagreement really lies. Maybe the key is that "whom we respect" part - maybe we need to remind ourselves that people on the other side of topics are still worthy of respect.

Just because I voted for one candidate and you voted for another does not mean that we are categorically opposed - there may be, and probably are, simply a few distinct questions on which our interpretations differ.

Today's political, religious, cultural, and economic discourse seems to be polluted by underlying suspicions of motive. We hear certain positions espoused by another - positions with which we genuinely disagree - and tend to ascribe to that other person a world view that embodies far more than the particular matter of debate. (Assumptions are largely out of place in these kinds of discussions. I like Peter Paul & Mary, Simon & Garfunkel, and The Mamas & the Papas, but if you assume from that something about my politics, you might well be wrong.) Just because, for example, someone disagrees with me on some aspect of American foreign policy does not mean that that person and I disagree on underlying principles on which America is based. Just because you and I have a radical disagreement on whether a certain action is sin does not necessarily mean that we differ on the importance of scripture or the necessity for repentance. Just because we may disagree on whether "Abbey Road" or "Revolver" is a better album than "Born in the USA" or "Born to Run" does not mean that we don't agree on whether the Beatles are generally better than Springsteen or whether solo acts are better than quartets. (I would draw examples from rock music from the last quarter century if I actually knew any!)

As is becoming usual with my blogs, I am not plowing new ground here. I am not, I expect, saying anything profound. That there are two sides to most important questions is hardly earthshaking.

But it is worth remembering. If we can lessen a little of the suspicion of the underlying world views that may or may not give rise to the specific concern up for consideration, we might get along a little better.

And where there are honest disagreements in world view, departures in basic philosophy, and disputes over the absolutes, we must address those where appropriate. But let's not trivialize the real fundamental arguments by finding phantom ones in every specific disagreement. Let's not demonize the opposition every single time there is a dispute. Let's not assume that saying X means one's entire belief system is founded on any particular "ism". Let's not declare that those who disagree with us are unreasonable because they take a position different from ours.

Of course, some people's argumentation makes it clear that they have not thought things through. Some positions - even sincerely held ones - are not respectable (although the people espousing those beliefs are certainly worthy of respect) because they have been reached only because of fad or personal agenda or happenstance. Such an unsupportable differing opinion is equivalent to what the rhetoric scholars call a "straw man," something easily dispensed with. That is not what I am discussing here - I am talking about the positions staked out after thought, prayer, research, debate, education, experience, and honest-to-goodness conviction. Let's disagree honestly and isolate our disagreement without attributing a parade of horribles to the other.

We do not diminish the sincerity of our belief, the potential correctness of our position, or our own standing when we admit that the other side has a reasonable (albeit wrong in our opinion) position. In fact, as I learned from debate, it is often only when we see the strength of the opposing position that we best are able to debate it.

I enjoyed my lunch. I am glad for people who can disagree with me, discuss the question on the table, and still respect me. I am especially glad when they can still be my friend.