Tuesday, October 21, 2014

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

No, I'm not talking about Christmas, even though Christmas decorations are up in most every store already. I'm talking about the most exciting time for a sports fan: the World Series for baseball, mid-season for the NFL and college football, early season for the NHL, and just another week before the NBA kicks off. It's a wonderful time to be a sports fan.

My favorite things about spectator sports are the distractions they provide, the lessons they teach, and the ways they pull us together.

Sometimes we all need a good distraction. Life in this world gets really heavy at times. When the daily news, along with our own personal and professional struggles weigh us down, sports gives us that moment to rest our minds, drink a brew or two, recharge and laugh with friends.

Sports also teach great life lessons like when I'm tempted to give up because times are hard. That's when I see an offensive or defensive line getting mauled, a baseball team getting shut out at the plate, a hockey team's fourth line getting trapped on the ice with the other team's first line, or an NBA team trying to beat a suffocating defense. These situations remind me to simplify things, keep chugging away, and don't stop believing.

But the thing I love most about sports is how they tie boyhood and manhood together. When you boil down each of these sports, they're all about hitting a ball or a puck, or carrying a ball, while others try to get it from you or knock you down. How great is that? Think about it. A football play isn't over until the guy carrying the ball gets knocked down to the ground, steps out of bounds, or crosses the goal line. That is so cool, especially in the mud and snow! That's what takes me back to my boyhood. I can still remember the "Ice Bowl" between the Packers and the Cowboys on a frigid Lambeau Field on New Year's Eve 1967. Talk about a test of grit and mettle!

At the same time, they are grown-up sports because of all the strategy, cunning and, when necessary, deceit. Brilliant coaches come up with disguised blitz packages; pulling guards and punt return misdirections; bunts and pick-off throws; breakaways and one-timers; picks and block outs.

Does that make sports the most important part of life? Of course not. In the big scheme of things it doesn't matter if my team wins the World Series, the NFL championship, the NBA title, or the Stanley Cup this season, because next year we'll start 0-0 and have to do it all over again. Meanwhile, there will still be problems and struggles in my family, community, and at work. But that brief hour or three helps me regain my focus, getting rejuvenated to put my shoulder to the load and press on.

Actually, everything I've written about sports above applies to my time with God too, everything that is, except the part about God not being the most important part of life. Every encounter I have with God -- whether at worship, Bible class, devotions, personal Bible reading, or prayer time -- is God pulling me out of the daily grind and reminding me of greater things that await at the end of the road. He reminds me that this life and all its accompanying problems won't last forever. A day will come when Jesus Christ will call us to a new, different and better life. When that happens all those problems dragging us down today will be gone forever.

Now that's something to cheer about!

I'll always love this time of year in sports, but I love my time with God even more.

What's your favorite time of the year? Go here to tell us what you think: click here!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Silenced by Stories

Brittany Maynard plans to die November 1. Her story is sad and devastating. She is 29 years old, newly married, with absolutely no hope for the future. An inoperable tumor is growing out of control in her brain. So she has moved to Oregon where she can take medicines to die with dignity rather than dragging her family and herself through the devastation of the slow, painful death doctors predict.

I think Brittany is making a huge mistake. I think she should lean on God's greater wisdom and His loving will rather than her own understanding. But that probably sounds presumptuous of me since I don't share her diagnosis. I can even hear someone saying, "You have no right to speak about something you've never faced."

How can I speak to someone else's story that I don't share? One way is to look at the stories of Christians who face the same problems. For instance, Maggie Karner shares Brittany Maynard's bitter diagnosis of stage-four gliobastoma multiforme brain tumor. But Maggie has a radically different outlook:

"Death sucks. And while this leads many to attempt to calm their fears by grasping for personal control over the situation, as a Christian with a Savior who loves me dearly and who has redeemed me from a dying world, I have a higher calling. God wants me to be comfortable in my dependence on Him and others, to live with Him in peace and comfort no matter what comes my way. As for my cancer journey, circumstances out of my control are not the worst thing that can happen to me. The worst thing would be losing faith, refusing to trust in God's purpose in my life and trying to grab that control myself."

You can read a piece Maggie wrote about her circumstances by clicking here.

But there is an even bigger issue that Brittany Maynard is working towards. She firmly refuses to call what she is planning to do "suicide." She wants us to think of it as "death with dignity" instead. She wants to use her story to reposition the way we think about death at one's own hand.

That's my problem with such powerful, personal stories. They are so compelling, so tragic, and heart-rending that they become larger than life. They make the victim seem the absolute authority instead of God. The stories make us lose perspective and objectivity. They keep us from stepping back and seeing the big picture in life -- from seeing our Creator's view of this life.

Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems to me the idea of living and dying on our own terms is an illusion. I had no say on who my mother and father would be, or how they would raise me. I had no control of where we lived, or whether I would grow up rich, poor or middle class. I couldn't control my height or my talents -- only what I did with them. I can't control the weather, or the economy, or the success of my favorite sports team. Why should I expect to be able to control my death?

Even if I had such control, would I really know what to do? If I was trying to wrap my head around the devastating diagnosis Brittany and Maggie and their families are trying to grasp, could I think straight and make the right decision? I'd be experiencing incredible emotional turmoil on the inside, and dealing with the high drama swirling outside of me. Do I really think I would have the insight, the wisdom, and the perspective to see things clearly and make the right decision?

On October 15, 1946, Hermann Goering's world was crashing down around him. The Nazi war criminal was sentenced to death in the post-war Nuremburg trials. Instead of facing the hangman's noose, Goering chose to die on his own terms. He killed himself by biting down on a cyanide capsule he had hidden somewhere in his clothing or on his person.

Contrast Goering to a criminal two thousand years before. Instead of a quick death by hanging from a rope, this criminal faced a slow, agonizing death by hanging on a cross. Perhaps, given the opportunity, he too would have killed himself before the soldiers dragged him out of his cell, but he had no such choice. Instead, he was hung next to Jesus.

Despite the indignity and the horrendous suffering he endured -- I'm tempted to say because of it -- that criminal heard Jesus' words of forgiveness. He took a long, hard look inside, confessed his sin, and pleaded with Jesus, "Remember me when You come into Your Kingdom." And he received the assurance from Jesus Himself, "Today, you will be with Me in paradise" (see Luke 23:42-43).

When I hear Brittany talk about her diagnosis, her story is powerful and convincing. She makes a compelling argument that perhaps we should stop calling it "suicide" and call it "death with dignity" instead. But why should I give Brittany more authority than God Himself? In the Bible the Lord forbids killing -- whether it is ending someone else's life or our own. That might sound cold, outdated, narrow-minded, even hate-filled. But we need to stop and remember who is speaking here. It is our Creator who knows us better than we know ourselves. It is the God who holds all time in His hands, who knows our greatest needs and how to satisfy them. It is the God who loves us enough to send His Son as our Savior.

People tell us powerful stories, but the Bible tells us the greatest, most compelling story of all: the selfless love of God's Son, Jesus Christ, who gave Himself to the indignity of flogging, crucifixion, death and a borrowed grave to guarantee that all of us who believe in Him will inherit a glorious, eternal life in heaven.

How do these strong, personal, compelling stories affect you? Go here to tell us what you think: click here!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

On Becoming a Man

Back in August, my son applied for college -- last week he was accepted. So after he finishes his senior year at high school, this time next year he'll be taking his next step to becoming a man.

That got me thinking ... when did I go from being a boy to a man? Was there a specific moment in time, a rite of passage? Or was it more of a continuum where I gradually left my childhood behind and embraced manhood?

For me it was more of a continuum. It started as a 12-year-old standing in front of the church at confirmation to claim the Christian faith as my own. Next, came my first driver's license, then my first job, then a high school diploma. Each step along the way I made another transition into manhood, but still I never quite felt I was entirely there.

College acceptance came after that, with my confidence growing as the list of completed classes grew larger. Finally, I walked across the stage to receive my diploma. But that didn't make me feel like a man because I was still living at home.

For me, the mental shift took graduating from seminary and moving out of state to take my first call as a pastor. Finally, I had cut the cord to my parents and paid my own bills from my own paycheck. Finally, I felt like a man.

This sense of manhood was heightened the day I got married; it was awakened again two years later when I looked down into the wondering eyes of my newborn son. I felt more a man after each one of those joy-filled events than I had before.

There were other poignant moments in my life that stand out too. I think burying my father and then, years later, my mother, were two more big steps in becoming my own man.

Now I'm in my mid-50s, standing firmly on what I hope will be a slow, gradual slide toward old age and all the problems that come along with an aging body. I can't help but think of senior men I visited 20 years ago in the parish. These were guys who told me with sadness how they felt like half the man they used to be -- and all because they couldn't manage the routine physical things they use to do like mowing the lawn, doing odd jobs around the house, or tossing a football around.

It makes me wonder: will there ever come a time when I'll truly feel like a man?

The answer to that may well be "not in this life." But, that being said, I am confident of one thing: while full manhood may elude me in this world, by the grace of God I'll know it completely in the next.

When did you feel like you arrived as a man? Go here to tell us what you think: click here!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

What's the End-Goal of Parental Discipline?

Now that the emotional furor surrounding Adrian Peterson's discipline style has settled down a bit, I thought I'd take another look at parental discipline. I think we get bogged down in methods, and we forget to step back and consider the long-term purpose of our parental discipline. Isn't the end-goal of all our discipline to send our young men and women off into the world equipped to discipline themselves, to control their own dangerous and destructive desires?

Parental discipline is vital for our children -- unless we are to doom them to learning everything the hard way. We've had plenty of time and experience to gain perspective. We know the heartbreak of losing that first love, the desire to instantly buy all the stuff it took our parents 20 years to acquire, the tremendous pressure to conform to our peers who seemed so sure of themselves but were blinded by their own inexperience and lack of perspective.

We can be sympathetic to our children because we remember, often quite vividly, the lessons we learned the hard way after refusing to listen to our parents. We also can remember the stubborn streaks and the rebellion that made us butt heads with our folks, especially as we struggled through that rough transition from childhood to adulthood.

With all that perspective, we now turn to discipline. Each child is different. Some are more sensitive than others. Some learn fast while others are headstrong and stubborn. Since each child is different and every situation unique, it's important to remember all the different tools you have in your parenting tool box. Sure, you have corporal punishment, but there's no need to use a hammer if a screwdriver will work. Then again, maybe some sandpaper is all you need. There's always time-tested grounding, withholding of privileges, etc. Please feel free to add your own favorites in the comments below.

Again, remember your end goal. You want to emerge from your child's adolescence with an intact relationship. You don't get there by being their friend and not their parent. But that certainly doesn't mean you can't have good, frank discussions. When you share your own adolescent experiences with them -- your failures as well as your successes -- you help them recognize consequences and dangers they may not clearly see in the passion of the moment.

It is also important to give your children a voice in setting house rules and punishments. Sitting together and establishing these rules will give you some insight into how they think, and give them the invaluable experience of working through things they encounter at school, at work, on the Internet, or in the community.

And we shouldn't exempt ourselves from those rules as parents either. When our actions don't match our words, the old adage rings true: "Actions speak louder than words." When we consistently live by the same rules we insist on our kids following, our words take on more meaning, more authority.

And one last thought about seeing the end goal of parental discipline: we all want our children to enjoy successful lives on earth. But far more important is their eternal destiny. Above all else, show your child what it is to live as God's child. Make worship and Bible class a priority for you as well as them. Statistics show that a father's involvement (or lack thereof) in worship influences the worship attendance of their children even more than mom's. Jesus said it well in Mark 8:36. "What does it profit (your child) to gain the whole world and forfeit his/her soul?"

Your comments on the Men's NetWork blog are always welcome. Go here to tell us what you think: Click here!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A Little Perspective, Please

I was planning to write about a sideline incident at the Rams/Cowboys game last Sunday. It seemed like a good reminder of pulling together in tough situations rather than letting adversity drive us apart. But I just came back from an informational meeting and somehow an NFL sideline issue doesn't seem quite so important anymore.

The Men's NetWork's parent organization, Lutheran Hour Ministries, has many international ministry centers. Yesterday, (Monday) the director of our Lebanon ministry center gave a report on the plight of Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Before the war, Lebanon had a population of 4.4 million. Then between 2012 and 2014 about 1 million Syrian refugees crossed the Lebanese border to flee atrocities by Bashar al-Assad's Syrian government. With this year's sudden rise of the even more brutal Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL), another 400,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq have crossed the border into Lebanon. Adding 1.4 million refugees to a country of 4.4 million has been overwhelming for Lebanon.

Sunday night I watched a 60 Minutes report on ISIS that kicked off the new season. It spoke of a village of Christians where men were separated from the women and children; the men were trucked off to a nearby mass grave, lined up, and shot with multiple weapons. The interview included two wounded brothers who crawled out of that grave when a plane flew overhead and scared off the Islamic State soldiers.

This morning we saw a slide of a house in Mosul, Iraq. In the middle of the night ISIS had painted the Arabic letter "nun" (its shape is essentially a rounded "u" with a dot over its center) on the wall. It's equivalent to our letter "n" and stands for Nazarene, referring to Jesus -- of Nazareth. It notified the Christians inside they had 48 hours to make a choice: convert to ISIS' oppressive brand of Islam, pay an exorbitant war tax on each individual in the house, or face barbaric execution for the men and enslavement for the women. Defying this choice, most Christians flee. A few days later a second announcement was spray painted on that wall: "Property of the Islamic State."

I couldn't help thinking of the victims of Nazi Germany in World War II. The Star of David was painted on the homes of Jews, and their possessions confiscated by the government. Stories circulated about terrible atrocities and genocide, but they were unbelievable -- even when reports spread from Soviet soldiers coming across places like Auschwitz, as they drove through Poland toward Germany. How many memorials have we built so the world will never see another holocaust like that one? God give wisdom to the leaders of our nation and the world, and guide their considerations!

Of course, Christians aren't the only people fleeing ISIS. Refugees include anyone who is not willing to join the Islamic State such as Shi'a and Sunni Muslims, and other ethnic minorities. Now more than a million refugees are living in tent cities scattered across Lebanon. Hundreds of thousands of children are living without adequate food, hygiene, education or the prospect of a future.

If there is a bright light, it is the brave staff of our Lebanon ministry center. They are going into those camps, sitting down with these displaced families, learning their stories, and addressing individual needs that organizations like the UN and the International Red Cross are unable to meet (medication, diapers, baby formula, etc.). And most importantly, our ministry center personnel are sharing the victorious love of Jesus Christ with people who are homeless, hurting, and in desperate need.

This week I was going to write about a sideline incident in the NFL, but in the big scheme of things it's just that: a sideline incident. I'd encourage you to keep up with the Lebanon story by going to its blog. Click here to read!

Please keep the victims, those who help them, and the entire Middle East in your prayers. If you'd like to learn how you can help fund our Lebanon ministry center's individual care for families, you can do that here.

Reach out to victims of ISIS persecution in Syria and Iraq: Click here!

Your comments on the Men's NetWork blog are always welcome. To tell us what you think, click here!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

It Was Never Our Intention

Urban Outfitters had a great idea: sell college sweatshirts from the '70s in a sun-faded vintage collection. But it didn't work out so well when it came to the Kent State University sweatshirt.

Had Kent State chosen blue or green as its school color it wouldn't have been a big deal. But Kent State chose red. When you take a dark red sweatshirt and fade it down, there are spots of dark red that remain -- and oddly -- they look a lot like blood stains. The vintage collection also wants to build in the wear and tear of 45 years, so they added holes that look -- again, strangely -- like bullet holes.

It was eerily reminiscent of the Kent State massacre in 1970 when four unarmed students were shot and killed by the Ohio National Guard in a Vietnam War protest. You can only imagine the PR disaster that resulted. Urban Outfitters immediately removed the sweatshirt from its website.

Was it an honest mistake, or was the company intentionally pushing the envelope to increase sales? Urban Outfitters wrote, "It was never our intention to allude to the tragic events that took place at Kent State in 1970 and we are extremely saddened that this item was perceived as such." Click here to see the sweatshirt!

This brings to mind the whole matter of giving and taking offense. Growing up in the 1960s I was taught to hold a door open for a lady, but by the 1980s I was told that was offensive and chauvinistic. I got my degree in elementary education in the late 1980s and was warned about putting my hand on a child's shoulder or giving a hug. To do so was fine for a female teacher, but not a male teacher. People's perceptions were changing, and they became increasingly suspicious of a man that would want to be a teacher of young children.

Over the years the lines have only become more blurry. If we want to avoid being bombarded by criticism -- especially online -- we have to walk a narrow tightrope of people's perceptions.

The reason for this is we can't read each other's minds. Therefore, we have to guess at the hidden motives of the heart as they are demonstrated in the words, deeds and attitudes of those with whom we interact. And they have to do the same with us.

That's why we can do and say things with the best of intentions, yet be attacked by someone who took offense at our words or actions. Jesus was quite familiar with that.

But there is only One who perfectly knows what was in the heart of the folks at Urban Outfitters ... and what is in your heart and mine. Our God alone completely perceives our intentions, our thoughts, and desires. Of course, that's a scary thought when we realize our sin lies bare before His eyes. But that is why He sent His Son Jesus to pay for our sins of thought, desire, word and deed.

As we move forward in His forgiveness, we have to remember the message of the cross is offensive in and of itself. We don't need to add to it by our careless words or behavior. Just like Jesus in His earthly life, we strive to be as loving, pure and winsome as possible (see Matthew 5:48; 18:6-9; 1 Corinthians 8). But knowing the power of sin and temptation, we know we will be misperceived just as Jesus was. Just keep one thing in mind: in the end, the only perception that really matters is His.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

When the Other Shoe Drops

Last February, video was released showing Baltimore Raven Ray Rice dragging his unconscious fiancée from a casino elevator. The NFL saw the tape and suspended Rice for the first two games of the 2014 NFL season.

Now the other shoe has dropped.

Early Monday morning TMZ released security video footage from inside that elevator. All that morning "Ray Rice" was trending number one on Twitter. Most tweets were calling for the Ravens to release Rice. Others wondered why everyone was so shocked by the violence on the video; there must have been a reason she was unconscious when he dragged her out from behind the closed doors of the elevator.

But seeing the deed on video somehow made it more damning. Staring down that video evidence the Ravens had no choice but to release Rice Monday afternoon; the NFL commissioner had no choice but to suspend him indefinitely; every other NFL team considers him radioactive; and now Rice faces the very distinct possibility he has played his last NFL football game a month before he took his fiancée to that casino.

But what if you stood in Rice's place? Each of us has done shameful things "behind closed doors." How would you feel if your darkest deeds were somehow secretly recorded and then shown to the whole world? Makes me real glad I'm not a celebrity.

The trouble is there actually is Someone who knows every dark, shameful thing I've ever done or said, even behind closed doors. What's more, His record doesn't just include the things I've done and said; it shows the very thoughts, desires and attitudes that were lying behind those deeds and sayings. I may shudder to think of the world's shock and outrage if it could look into my heart and mind, but what about standing face to face with my Creator and God and facing His wrath and rage?

We can bury our head in the sand and convince ourselves there is no Creator and Judge. We can deceive ourselves into thinking we are here by chance or the coincidences of evolution. It's easy to bury our deep, dark secrets and convince ourselves they will never see the light of day. Maybe that's what Ray Rice thought: two games' suspension and it would all be over. But that tape was still out there, and no wishful thinking could make it go away -- just like God's knowledge of our sins.

That's the toughest part of confession: to stand before our God in honesty, our sins exposed, our hands stained with blood. But the incredible thing is God's answer. It isn't shock and outrage. It isn't God calling for our heads. That's because 2,000 years ago Jesus took Ray Rice's place, your place, and my place, and suffered God's wrath on the cross -- for us. Now God's answer is forgiveness, peace, restoration.

Ray Rice is paying a huge price for what he did in that elevator, and that penalty may well follow him throughout his earthly life. But Jesus Christ paid the greater price for him. The risen Lord offers him forgiveness and the certainty that our Heavenly Father will never reject him or cut him loose, but receive him into an eternal home far more glorious than anything the NFL could ever offer.

That offer stands for you and me as well.