Archive for April, 2015

“’Unique Humility’–In the NBA???”

We often perceive top-tier professional athletes as overpaid, over-adored hyper-inflated egos. But during the broadcast of Game 3 in the LA Clippers-San Antonio Spurs playoff series, commentator Jeff Van Gundy began preaching about the “unique humility of the San Antonio Spurs”. The commentary that followed opened a window through which deeper truth could enter. That’s a function of preaching, especially in a secular context. If you aren’t a fan, bear with me a moment. Maybe you’ll see the surprising Light I saw shining where I hadn’t looked before. Maybe you’ll sense the fresh Spirit-breeze blowing from a welcome but unexpected direction!

The San Antonio Spurs are the National Basketball Association’s defending champions. They’ve become a sports dynasty. Late in 1996 Coach Greg Popovich took over a team that had won only 3 of its first 18 games. That injury-riddled team finished 20-62 and failed to make the playoffs.  The Spurs have made the playoffs every season since and won 5 NBA championships. In February 2015, Popovich became only the second NBA coach ever to win 1000 games with the same team. The Spurs’ opponents, the LA Clippers, are a strong young team. Under coach Doc Rivers they finished one game ahead of San Antonio in the regular season. Clippers faithful think/hope/pray their team might be at the start of a run like the Spurs have enjoyed for eighteen years.

The Spurs and Clippers began their best-of-seven-games series last Monday night in LA. LA won 107-92. San Antonio was clearly outplayed. They played again in LA Wednesday night. San Antonio led by five points at halftime. The score was tied at the end of regulation play. San Antonio won in overtime 111-107. Friday night the series moved to San Antonio for two games. The Spurs led 46-38 at halftime, by 21 points after three quarters, and eventually won 100-73. Night-and-day difference from that first-game defeat in LA.

In a very one-sided game broadcasters scramble to find something besides the game itself to hold our attention (and theirs!). Late in the third quarter Van Gundy realized the game had reached that point. He commented that folks would say the Spurs’ experience was asserting itself. That’s true as far as it goes, he said. But the key is not the amount of experience. It’s the way players use and learn from experience. Van Gundy said the Spurs display a “unique humility”. If something’s not working, it gets changed. If a player’s not performing, he’ll be coached through it. If a coach (including Popovich) lets the team down, they’ll own up and make a change. The Spurs have minimal ego investment in personal success and absolute commitment to maximizing the contribution of every member of the organization and focusing all available resources on the ultimate goal of becoming the best possible basketball team. According to Van Gundy,  San Antonio’s “unique humility” had helped them move beyond that Game 1 defeat to a hard-fought victory in Game 2 and a one-sided victory in Game 3.

Can you see the Light (John 8:12 ) yet? Can you feel the Breeze (Acts 2:1-11)? Can you hear God speak softly (1 Kings 19)over the roar of the crowd? Yes, history matters—because whoever doesn’t learn from it is doomed to repeat it. So the point isn’t merely our two thousand years of  Christian tradition. (That number’s too small, incidentally. It omits more than a thousand years of heritage we share with our Jewish and Muslim neighbors.) The point isn’t our years and even centuries of history as a congregation or a denomination. It’s the difference we’ve made. It’s the mid-course corrections that have kept us vitally connected to our changing world. The point isn’t my 40+ years of experience as a local church pastor. It’s the constant adjustments and learning along the way. The world in which I began in 1968 looked very little like the world of 2011 in which I retired from active service.

As I listened to Van Gundy talk about the Spurs’ “unique humility”, I thought: Popular Christianity loves to tell stories of “growth”, “success”, “happiness”, and “vitality”. But I hear far fewer stories of the “unique humility” of followers of Jesus. Here are a few:

  • Dr. Kent Brantly and nurse Nancy Writebol are just two of hundreds, perhaps thousands whose “unique humility” kept last year’s Ebola disaster in Africa from becoming far worse than it was.
  • The recent renewed interest in this country’s Civil Rights movement highlighted many people’s “unique humility” as followers of Jesus. We know only a fraction of these people’s names. That’s how “unique humility” wants it.
  • In the late 1970’s-‘80’s, a gifted theologian named Dr. Henri Nouwen taught at both Yale and Harvard Divinity Schools. Then he moved to Toronto, Canada, to spend the last ten years of his life as pastor to L’Arche. In this unique residential community, …people with and without disabilities…share their lives in communities of faith and friendship. Community members are transformed through relationships of mutuality, respect, and companionship as they live, work, pray, and play together.”
  • In the early and middle-20th century, Dr. Albert Schweitzer focused his skills as a physician, world-class organist, and world-class New Testament scholar on improving the lives of some of the poorest people on the planet through the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Lambarene, French Equatorial Africa (now Gabon).

The renewal of the church doesn’t lie in the right music, the right organizational paradigm, the right beliefs, the right way of interpreting the Bible, or any other “magic bullet” fix that’s sold more books than it’s changed lives. Renewal (resurrection!) lies in a resurgence of “unique humility” in the individual and collective life of followers of Jesus. “Unique humility” means “It’s not about me” is our starting point for every plan, every prayer, every event–everything . “Unique humility”affirms the church exists more for its neighborhood than its members. It exists for those who hear and see Jesus more clearly through different language, music, and ways of praying and sharing than my friends and I prefer. “Unique humility” is “church people” embracing the most unlikely folks as brothers and sisters in Christ. “Unique humility” looks like Jesus’ followers embodying his definition of true greatness: “Whoever wants to become great must become a servant.” (Mark 10:43 MSG) 

Have you seen the “unique humility” of followers of Jesus alive where you live? How about sharing  some of those stories in your comments?

Easter–Right Before Our Eyes!

Recently we learned of the sudden illness and death of a good friend. She was the organist in the church I served immediately before retirement. Her husband is also a good friend. Marti’s death was the third significant loss for that congregation in a relatively short period. First was the announcement of the pastor’s imminent reassignment (after four years) to another church; the second was the not-unexpected death of a long-time church member whose daughter is also a long-time active member.

I emailed Pastor Jen to encourage her as she made her way through this difficult period, and to let her know my wife and I would attend the memorial service that would be held the afternoon of Palm Sunday.  “It’s a good thing Easter’s coming,” I commented, “because we really need it.”

Dianna and I arrived home early last week to find Spring enthusiastically springing forth in our yard. From a distance we saw our huge Palo Verde tree gloriously shouting “YELLOW!” . When we got closer, we saw that the green-leafed Oleanders had turned pink and white. These signs of new life proclaimed “…the Word of Life…right before our eyes…” (1 John 1:2 MSG)PART_1428255890142_20150405_101636

Early Easter morning our dog Rufus  woke me for his daily walk. Along the way I wondered how our neighbors would spend the day. A  few houses had more cars than normal, likely a sign of company. But we didn’t meet any of the humans or dogs we usually see. Had those humans overruled their dogs? Gone to a Sunrise service? Stayed home to fix Easter brunch? Traveled to be with family? Like that first Easter, it was a very quiet morning.

As Rufus and I turned toward home (and the rising sun), I found myself reflecting on people who really need Easter this year.  I thought of those whose burden of grief included multiple losses–our friends in that congregation; others whom we knew in other places; countless others whose names I don’t know—but God does, thank God! I thought of victims of disaster and violence whose stories fill the headlines—for a little while.  I thought also of others who are footnotes that go mostly unread and unnoticed.

I thought also of people already at work that early Easter morning. Las Vegas’ 24/7/365 culture encourages both locals and tourists to believe we should be able to eat, shop, gamble, be entertained, pampered, transported, whateverwhenever. The good news is that people are working, especially as economic recovery continues. But much of this work is in demanding, draining, dead-end jobs. Many of those jobs come with long hours and (for two-earner households) conflicting schedules that play havoc with family life, sleep, and any semblance of normality. But it’s the best they can do. If they complain, they’ll be gone and the next interchangeable human part will take their place.

“It’s a good thing Easter’s coming, because we really need it.” Our hyper-connected world keeps us (over)-informed of our brokenness—broken people, broken lives, broken minds, bodies and spirits; broken rules, relationships, systems, and covenants; broken communities that don’t know where healing begins; a broken planetary ecosystem that may already be terminal. If Easter’s coming to all these broken places, let it come soon!

Which brings up the role you and I play in redeeming our world. Now that Easter’s come, HOW DOES THE WORLD WITHIN OUR REACH KNOW? If we’ve truly been raised up to a new way of living (as our pastors told us yesterday), CAN ANYONE TELL THE DIFFERENCE? If we’re “Easter People” and “Every Morning Is Easter Morning“ as the song says, HOW IS THAT REVOLUTIONARY NEWNESS OVERFLOWING OUR OWN LIVES TO TRANSFORM THE WORLD WITHIN OUR REACH? How does the Good News of the death of Death (1 Corinthians 15:50-58 MSG) become as in-your-face inescapably real as our Palo Verde tree brilliantly proclaiming “…the Word of Life…”?

The Good News of Easter in your life and mine might look like:

  • Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers…” (Matthew 5:9) Instead of the polarized yelling-past-each-other that has become the norm, let us learn and model a different style of political and religious conversation. Let us honor the other, with whom we disagree so intensely, as a child of God and thus our brother or sister. Let us listen more deeply and speak less divisively.
  • The earliest church got in trouble with the Roman government because it took such good care of “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40, 45). Let us offer the same revolutionary care to those in our own communities who are “hungry…thirsty…homeless…shivering…sick..in prison”. (Matthew 25:35-36 MSG)
  • The earliest Christians soon found themselves breaking well-established boundaries as the Good News of Jesus spread from Jewish society to the Gentile world. (Cf. Acts 10:1-11:18)Let us identify and lovingly but firmly break unjust (unholy) boundaries in our world that separate people from God and each other.
  • Early Christians understood idolatry with laser clarity. (An idol is whatever takes first place in your life; anything or anyone you award that absolute first priority that belongs only to God.)The Father of Jesus Christ is the only true and living God. All other gods were/are inferior and completely powerless. New believers coming out of various pagan backgrounds were taught clearly that they had to choose between the one God of Christian faith and the impotent idols of their former life. When Roman emperors began asserting claims of divinity and demanding the loyalty oath “Caesar is Lord!” followers of Jesus responded “Jesus is Lord!” The two statements are mutually exclusive. That profession of faith cost countless Christians their lives. Let us be laser-clear about the rampant idolatry, celebrity worship, and consumerism in our culture. (Sounds like fuel for a future post!)

Palo Verde yellow is our 2-year-old granddaughter’s favorite color—at least this week. What if we made Palo Verde/ “…Word of Life…” yellow our favorite color. Let it call us to live bright, colorful new lives. Our neighbors who need Easter so badly just may begin to discover along with us “the Word of Life…right before our eyes.”


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