Friday, February 17, 2012

The Curious Case of Gary Carter

As a lifelong Atlanta Braves/Boston Red Sox fan, I have always felt that it was my sworn duty to despise Gary Carter.

Perhaps it was Carter's presence on perpetual Braves' rivals.  Maybe it was his participation in postponing the end of The Curse of the Bambino.  Possibly it was my ongoing sympathy for the plight of Bill Buckner.  More likely it was the attitude and bravado that Gary Carter displayed as a player.  Along with those other things I mentioned, of course.

Carter always came across as smug, cocky, arrogant on the field.  He just had an air that said, "I'm better than you and I know it."  The fact that his legacy was cemented as part of one of the greatest, luckiest and most arrogant cast of characters in recent baseball memory certainly didn't endear him to anyone.  Really, outside of Shea Stadium, who liked the '86 Mets?

Then Carter passed away last Thursday following a battle with cancer.  This certainly gave me no joy, but I did not mourn the loss any more than I would for anyone else who battles that horrendous plague.

That changed when I started to find out who Carter truly was.

The guy that seemed so smug on the diamond was actually a humble, Christ-centered individual who gave more than most of us knew until his untimely passing.  How arrogant could he be if he was willing to take on a coaching job at a small Division II school?  How cocky was he if the players at Palm Beach Atlantic University revered him as a coach and person, not just as a great ballplayer?

Carter's tale teaches us all a valued lesson about those that we choose to love or hate based on athletic accomplishments.  No player is purely the sum of what we see when we turn on the television on a Saturday afternoon.

Perhaps we need to learn more about a person before we decide if they are good or bad.  When choosing our heroes and our villains, it is critical that we look deeper than the flair or the flaws that we see in their game.

We all have character flaws.  Life is an effort to overcome those flaws, and most of us get the benefit of doing that without spotlights and cameras.  We cheer for jerks her are on our team--after all, they are our jerks--and point out the jerks on the opposite sideline.  That's fine during the game.

But when we identify greatness and choose our role models, we need to look deeper than the emblem on a helmet or the name on the front of the uniform.  Carter's perceived arrogance may have simply been confidence.  And it may have been the element that was needed to help his team win at any given time.

Beyond the field, Carter had character that I never realized until he was gone, because I never bothered to look.  ESPN's Tim Kurkjian shares that Carter almost never cursed on the field.  The players on those Mets teams viewed him as a "moral compass" for their lives.

Can you imagine how Doc Gooden, Darryl Strawberry and Lenny Dykstra might have acted without Carter's influence?

On a much larger scale, Carter's legacy teachers us a much more vital lesson.  The Bible says, "Judge not, or you too will be judged" (Matthew 7).  I am pretty sure that Jesus expects us not to vilify people without knowing who they really are, or to despise people because they are flawed.

I think it's safe to say that Christ would expect us to know a lot more about someone than their batting average before we lift them up as role models or degrade them as degenerates. And even if we do find them lacking, which we are bound to do, it's safe to say that Jesus would implore us not to hold them in contempt for all eternity.  That is, unless we are willing to suffer the same fate.

I hope that Gary Carter's example has reminded me of the lesson that Jesus had already taught.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Rather than Criticize, Why Not DO Something for Teachers?

In 2009, I entered into a doctoral program at Gardner-Webb University.  Let me rephrase:  I foolishly entered a doctoral program at Gardner-Webb University.

I often wish that I had never started this program, never forked over the kind of money in a vain effort to have "Dr" attached to my name.  I hate to pull a George Costanza, but it's not the program.  It's me (not that there's anything wrong with that).  I'm just not sure that it's really worth the time/money/effort that I have put into it.

At the same time, there is no question that I have learned a lot, about Christian education and education in general.  One thing I have learned (as if my wife the teacher had not already told me) is that teachers get a bum rap.  They receive nothing close to the respect that they deserve.

This article in the LA Times is proof of that:,0,5547815.story

Accountability is good for all of us, and teachers need to be accountable.  But you can't have true accountability when the deck is "stacked" against you.  Teachers take on the weight of the world and the responsibility of parent/police officer/role model/disciplinarian/social worker/educator.  And yes, unfortunately, the "educator" part often comes last.  That's because they have to get through all the other mess just to make an attempt to teach something.

Some people want to base everything on these "impartial" evaluations and "unbiased" test scores.  We all know that there is no such thing.  We also need to take into account the intangibles that teachers face rather than glossing over them with a random number that says they did the job or they didn't.

Since this is a blog about Christianity and not about education, let me connect this issue to what we do as church.

There is a segment of Christianity that relishes criticism of public educators and public education.  One such believer happens to be sitting in the Governor's office in South Carolina, but let' leave that one alone for now.

How many of those Christians have ever done anything to help public education?  How many of them have volunteered to read to students or mentor a child in need?  Have we ever called the school to say, "How can we help?"  How many of us have volunteered our time in a classroom just so a teacher could take a bathroom break?  And believe me, with no money for assistants, bathroom breaks are often tough to get.

I see a very clear connection between education in the church and education in the school system.  Our work with children and young people does a little to lighten the load.  We can provide one more shoulder for a needy child to cry on, one more place to watch out for children who are neglected.  We can offer meals to those who are hungry (Common Ground Food Pantry; Backpack Ministry) so that maybe their stomachs are not growling when they go to class.

But I also suspect that we can do much more than that.  Perhaps we need to organize more volunteers or just encourage people to volunteer at the school, just as we encourage them to volunteer at church.  Both of our organizations are "centerpieces" of the community.  Why would we not work harder at working together?

Yes, we have to be a little careful about what we say and do when we partner with a public school.  But there are many ways to share Jesus without saying a word or quoting a Bible verse.  The demonstration of love and care speaks loudly without ever having to turn up the volume.

Teachers, staff, administrators and especially students need our help now more than ever.  Perhaps it's time for us as Christians to find a way to do that.  I'm betting that will make more of an impression than criticizing public schools and telling teachers that their value is only as high as a test score.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Why We Do What We Do

Text messages at 6:58 am are rarely good.  They usually mean that I have forgotten to do something, need to be somewhere, or deal with some unexpected (and perhaps tragic) event.

This morning, I got the most pleasant 6:58 am text message that I have ever received.  I'll let you read the original, then decipher it out of text-speak:

"Tom I just wittens to a frined and he said that he was goung to recoudment his life to jesus and i was like yessssssssss!"

Clear enough?  Let me share the edited version:

"Tom I just witnessed to a friend and he said that he was going to recommit his life to Jesus and I was like yessssss!"

I am not going to tell you who sent the message because I don't want to call them out or embarrass them. But I will tell you that it was from a student who is not a member of our church.  In fact, this student rides the bus every Wednesday night.  A few people might even refer to him as one of "those kids."

And I don't mind telling you:  This young man drives me up the wall.  He gives very little evidence that he's paying attention in Bible study, and I assumed that nothing even remotely sunk into his rather thick cranial region.  His mouth is the greatest evidence that I have of the potential to create the perpetual motion machine.  By the time he gets off the bus, my ears are ringing and begging for a period of extended rest.

Yet, this young man texted me at 6:58 am to share that he witnessed to someone, to share that he encouraged someone to change their life, to share that he had communicated the message of Christ out of concern for a friend.

And I thought that we were all wasting our breath.

How foolish and faithless I am to think that, just because this young man didn't respond to me, that the Holy Spirit was not moving in his life.  When we wonder why we are doing the ministry that we do, perhaps we all need to remember that it's not our ministry.  It belongs to a God that works well beyond the things that we can see or understand.

Doing the ministry that we do on Wednesday nights at Inman First Baptist is often a frustrating proposition.  Our lives would be much easier if we did not work with "those kids."  We rarely get the benefit of seeing how Christ is impacting the lives of students, here and now--and that sometimes leaves us wondering, "Why do we do this?"

That AM text message gives us the answer.  It's the things that happen that we don't see, the places where the Holy Spirit sinks into the hearts of students in spite of us (and them).  We do what we do because God makes great things happen when we open our hearts for Him to work.

Here's the thing:  There are no "our kids" and "those kids."  They are all God's kids, which by definition makes them all "our kids."  It doesn't matter that these youngsters may never join the church, serve on a committee or give a dime in the offering plate.  But because we have chosen to treat them as children of Christ, they are learning and growing and spreading that message to others.  And who knows how many times they do that without sending us a text message?

Keep your hearts open to all of "our kids" on Wednesday night.  And when it all seems too frustrating, remember to keep doing what God has called you to do.  Just let Him worry about the final results.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

All I Need to Know I Learned in a Coffee Shop

I have to admit it:  I like Starbucks.  Not because it's the best coffee, but because it's the most readily available high-end coffee place.  No matter where you are, you can find one.  It's the "WalMart" of the coffee industry; however, you sometimes have to take what you can get.

But, if I have the opportunity, I look around for more "community-oriented" coffee place.  I'm a big fan of Coffee Underground in Greenville, SC and Gigi's in Inman.  Just before Christmas, I discovered The Coffee Bar in downtown Spartanburg (Main Street, right across from the Herald-Journal and next to Hub City Book Shop).  Oh, and if you're interested, Cakehead Bake Shop is right inside as well.

I love finding little, home-grown, out of the way places to write, read, or--on a rare occasion--think.  No offense to the corporate bully or my other small-market favorites, but I'm pretty anonymous at The Coffee Bar.  It's fairly quiet and I have yet to run into anyone I know; therefore, it's the perfect place to work!

A couple of days before our family's annual holiday road trip to Pittsburgh, I was sitting at a table, drinking some hardcore caffeine concoction and trying to finish up my pre-holiday work.  I wasn't getting much accomplished because I kept getting drawn in by the conversations happening around me.

People were talking about all kinds of things (obviously), but religion and relationships seemed to be the dominant topic.  A member of the Unitarian church was talking about why he loved his church and why it appealed to him.  A young lady was discussing how her mistakes were costing her friendships, and she did not know what to do to make amends and change her life.  Another group was discussing things that they loved about Christ, but frustrated them about Christianity.

I was fascinated.  I even got drawn into one of the conversations for a while, before retreating back to my headphones and my work (naturally I got nothing else accomplished).  As I sat there, I began to wonder what was so fascinating about the conversation in the coffee shop.

Then it hit me.  None of those conversations would ever occur inside the walls of a typical Baptist church.

Why is it that the one place where we should feel safe enough to be open, honest, sincere, and vulnerable is the last place where we are any of those things?  Why do people feel more at ease over lattes than they do in a place where we hope they sense the presence of God?

Quite simply, coffee shops create safe space for conversation and exploration.  Churches do not.  Coffee shops have small couches, circled chairs and small tables.  Churches have columns and rows.  Over coffee, you talk.  At church, you hear "lessons" and take just enough time for hand-shaking and small talk before you are ordered back to whatever comes next in the bulletin.

If there is one thing that students need, it's a place where they can feel safe.  And not just safe from the world, but safe to say what's really on their heart and mind.  Without honesty and sincerity, there is little hope for revelation and change.  Students need the chance to get beyond the Children's Illustrated Bible and get into the real questions and curiosities that are weighing on their minds.

If you want to know why students abandon the church in college, here it is:  They leave a place where thinking is forbidden (the church) and enter a space where it is demanded (college/real world).

Perhaps it's time that we got further from the confinement of rows and columns, and got out into the world where we can engage in listening and conversation.  Even better, perhaps we need to create the safe space that we need for that to happen within the Body of Christ.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Christians and the Persecution Complex

So, is Tim Tebow persecuted?

Some Christians and the pundits who cater to them say yes.  People like this ( say that critics are “picking on” Tim Tebow because of his faith.  They are criticizing him not because he’s a bad quarterback, but because he’s an outspoken advocate of Christ.

These same people are the ones who argue that there is a “War on Christmas.”  The Christmas season is under attack because it includes the name “Christ.”  That’s why they say “Happy Holidays” at Best Buy, and why they call it a “Holiday Tree” in Rhode Island.

Let’s deal with the Tebow-mania issue first.  If Tim Tebow is persecuted, I’m a ballerina (and those of you that know me are now throwing up a little in your mouth at that imagery). 

Tim Tebow was the 25th pick in the NFL draft.  He has the top-selling jersey in the most popular pro sports league in the United States.  He is the starting quarterback of the Denver Broncos, makes millions of dollars, and has more fans than perhaps any QB in NFL history.

If that’s persecution, then you can persecute me all day long.  And twice on Sunday. (Pun intended).

As for Christmas, when did Wal-Mart or Best Buy or any other retailer claim to be “Christian?”  For that matter, when did any state claim that?  Government officials and retailers are interested in one thing:  Self-preservation.  Both will do or say whatever it takes to remain at the top of the food chain.  If that means saying “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas” or “Pleasant Rosh Hashannah,” they’ll do it.

But some Christians rant and rave and rail against both.  They complain that Christianity is under attack, that there is a “War on Christmas,” that their faith is being pushed to the side.  These believers even post pictures on Facebook to prove their point:

I have two words for Christians who think this way.

Stop it. 

Don’t stop it some day or in a few minutes.  Just stop it.  Now.

Get over your "persecution complex" and stop trying to become an underdog for attention.  It's not true, it's not Biblical, and it's a horrible witness to everyone around you.

The idea that Christians in the United States are being “persecuted” is absurd, even laughable.  Just because people make fun of Tebow’s faith (which they do) or say something other than “Merry Christmas” hardly makes us persecuted.

To say that we are persecuted is an insult to religious people around the world who risk life and limb for what they believe.  Our “persecution” is more of an inconvenience, perhaps an annoyance.  Christians in China who smuggle Bibles into the country are persecuted, and they risk real suffering for following their conscience.

Tell some missionary in Africa or the Middle East that Christianity is under attack, and I imagine that would give you a far different picture of what that actually means.

Keep in mind that Tebow isn’t crying about any of this; in fact, he has even affirm some of his critics.  But his “followers” won’t hear it.   The fact that Tebow went 6-22 for 60 yards and two turnovers in his last game couldn’t be the reason that sports pundits are critical of him.  It MUST be that they just hate Christians! 

Perhaps commentators are just tired of Christians playing the persectution card.  Perhaps people are weary of Christians creating the persona of an underdog when they’ve been front-runners since 325 A.D.   Perhaps Christians would do much better to stop belly-aching about their lost entitlement and simply exercise the freedoms that they have.

That’s a much better witness than creating a straw man that is easily knocked down…such as a war on Christmas or a Tim Tebow pity-party.   Christians would bring a lot more honor to the name of Christ by actually following Him instead of whining about everything that doesn’t just go our way.

In other words, we should quit pouting for “poor” Tim Tebow and learn from his example. 

Monday, December 26, 2011

Ideas Are Easy--Making them Happen Is Hard

Out of the grumblings of a Grinch, an idea was born.

A couple of years ago, my much more attractive and infinitely more intelligent wife was having one of those days that most of us occasionally have at Christmas.  We were getting ready for church, and she was just feeling "Grinchy" that day.  The money we waste, the outfits we wear, the barrage of Christmas music starting around Halloween...

Then, out of this, came some complaints about Advent.  No, Tracy wasn't complaining about Advent itself or the celebration of it in general.  Specifically, she complained about the candles.  Yes, the candles!  Why do we use those goofy purple and pink things?  What's the point of that?  Why can't we do something different?

Clearly, her heart, for that one day, was two sizes too small.

It's a good thing for us that God, through the power of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, can take our worst and turn it into something good.

From that day on, Tracy and I have worked on some new ideas for Advent.  No, this is not the Christian version of Festivus.  Nothing in our idea involves an aluminum pole or the Airing of Grievances.  And it's not that anything is particularly wrong with the current advent celebrations.

But why not change up the colors a little?  Why not use some different names for the candles?  Why not "freshen" our perspective on the coming of Christ?

The problem is that ideas come easy.  Following through on them is a little more difficult.

Over the last two years, I've mentioned our original idea several times.  Tracy always rolls her eyes and says, "Yeah, right!"  But I'm not letting this one go.  This is something that will be good spiritually for us, and hopefully for others.  It may take us years, but I want to finish with a fresh look at the Advent season.  (Ironically, it's usually Tracy who is pushing ME, so we are in unchartered territory right now).

We made a little progress this year, but still have a long way to go.

As it stands, we have the candles of patience, obedience, and reconciliation to go along with the candle of the outcast and the Christ candle.  The colors are light green, yellow/gold, light blue, and purple.  The Christ candle is white, but it is shorter than the other candles.  This represents that Christ lowered Himself to our level in order to offer us God's grace and truth.

That's what we have so far.  We are still working on it, and hope to have the project completed by next Christmas.  Do you have any thoughts or ideas to add to the project?  Leave us a message and let us know what you think!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Why Theology Matters

There is a terrific little pizza/wings place in downtown Greer that I love to frequent (Wild Aces if you want to check it out).  This is amazing, since I spent most of my young life avoiding downtown Greer, or what was left of it, at all costs.  But the Greer "Renaissance" is worth a look if you haven't seen it, as it is a smaller, more easily accessible and genteel version of Greenville.

Most of the people at the restaurant know me, and know that I am a minister.  I stopped by to pick up some food for the fam last week, and had to sit around waiting for my order to be completed.  In the span of about 30 minutes, I encountered three employees who were very happy to engage in conversation.

The first was a cook who was taking a break, and ask me what I thought about the TULIP principle.  You can find an explanation of that principle at this blog--a pretty decent summary.  We were trying to figure out the acronym and what it really means for all of us who are believers in Jesus Christ.

The next guy started up a discussion about the "True Love Waits" concept and why it didn't/doesn't work.  (For the record, I took a lot of flak 20 years ago for telling people that it wouldn't work).  We discussed people who had signed "The Pledge" and engaged in every imaginable sexual activity other than intercourse.  Kind of defeats the purpose, doesn't it?

Before I finally got my food, I talked with a former "PK" like myself (that's "Preacher's Kid" if you missed it).  We talked about the difficulties of growing up in that world, and how hard it is at times to realize that you are a Christian who disagrees with some of your Christian upbringing.

This is all within thirty minutes of ordering a few pizzas and a plate of garlic parmesan wings.

It's amazing.  I walk into a restaurant to order some carry-out, and I end up having three deep and meaningful theological conversations.  I go to church on Sunday morning, and the deepest conversation involves the scores from Clemson and Carolina games.  (Or, for a few of us, Furman and Wofford games).

In one form or another, I've served in the ministry for 23 years.  In all of that time, I am fascinated by the fact that some of my deepest theological conversations occur far outside the walls of the church.  In the church, we tend to think that we have it all figured out.  We have the keys to the kingdom, the theological answers that people need but have yet to find.  And when you have all the answers, there really is not a lot of need for discussion.

Outside of the church is a far different story.  It's amazing the conversations that get started when you are willing to admit to people that you are a minister.  People will suddenly open up with all kinds of questions, problems, and ideas that they would never share with anyone else.  But inside the church walls, people cover their true identity and hide their questions/doubts like they are a part of Al Capone's vault.

This is why our study of scripture and theology matter.

It is something of a sad statement that we are not more open within the Body of Christ that is the church. But even still, we have to keep our thoughts and theology sharp, because plenty of people out there are willing to ask questions.  The challenge for us is to be open and honest and willing to take on those challenges when they come.

Contrary to what we often hear in Christian circles, the world is not completely hostile to Christ.  They are simply hostile to a Christianity that is uninformed and unwilling to answer questions.