Monday, February 24, 2014

Jesus Courtside

Our girls' basketball team just had a pretty brutal ending to the season.

After nailing their first playoff game, sloppy play caught up to our girls in the second. The star player fouled out by the third quarter; two others would follow. You could tell the moment they started playing panicky: their shots became wild, turning the ball over, losing discipline and making more fouls. A downward spiral.

By the fourth quarter, we were putting in eighth graders (this is a rural district, so not a deep roster) as we staggered to a 73-34 loss and the end of our tournament hopes.

As defeats go, this kind is the worst to take, especially for our senior playing her last high school game. There were a lot of tears on our bench. I wanted to run over there and comfort them, but exhausted athletes in the midst of loss are tough to console.

But that wasn't what bugged me the most. What really got to me was that the other teachers left the stands and went home before the fourth quarter even started.

I understand wanting to get an early start heading home (we could see the loss coming, and it was an hour's drive back to our community). But earlier on in the season, I'd walked out of a home game when our girls got behind in overtime, and they came back to win. I had to face those girls in my geometry class the next Monday. And today their bench was facing the stands where I sat, so if I left, they'd see me. I wasn't about to repeat the same mistake.

That evening, a lot of that sloppy play reared its head again, and a few folks in our crowd didn't handle it well. They booed and mocked the refs openly. I honestly don't know enough about basketball to tell whether the calls were legit, but others in the crowd sure didn't think so.

That night, one of the teachers said this: "I left because I didn't want to be seen as part of that crowd."

I was reminded of how a couple of teachers had made a point of skipping boys' games last season because of the way a couple of them played - really ugly technical fouls, unsportsmanlike conduct. And the teachers had told the students exactly why: "Right now I'm embarrassed to be associated with this school."

That night, as our girls' team started losing their nerve on the court and the teachers got up to leave, I stayed in my seat. I'd been hit with a thought that kept me riveted there until time ran out.

"I'm glad Jesus doesn't leave when I start sucking."

I've been out there on the court of life for thirty years, playing for God's team, and I don't have the stat line I wish I did. I've made some bad errors. I've screwed up all kinds of plays. I've had missed opportunities, meltdowns, fights with my teammates, you name it. (And don't think that God is "more pleased" with mine just because they're not the "big ones" of the Ten Commandments - that's not how it works.) So many points left on the court, so many plays I've taken off. I think I've done better in the last few years under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but I've had those moments that make people wonder, "This is the church?"

But Jesus has never left the arena.

"For the joy set before him he (Jesus) endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God." - Hebrews 12:2

Jesus wasn't worried about his image when he came to rescue us. He wasn't stopped by the humiliation of the flogging, the cross, or the ridiculous ways we would twist and ignore his teachings. He got right in there and took it on the chin for us. He was willing to be seen with us. In fact, he insists on it.

"Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters." - Hebrews 2:11

Wow - God makes us family.

Goodness knows that we, God's people, have tanked it over and over. But God isn't leaving. He has fiercely fought for our souls and our hearts. He has made a commitment to sticking it out until the fourth quarter, right up until time on the clock runs out. And in our sin and our errors, instead of walking out, he walks right up to us on the bench, comforts us, and encourages us for the next game. He will never leave, for he has already taken our shame away.

God is not embarrassed to root for you. He is not ashamed to call you his own, as long as you have called him your savior. You can never sin badly enough to drive him from the arena shaking his head, because Jesus has already paid for it.

So hold your head up and start prepping for the next game. He'll be there.

And if you keep playing your heart out for him, you're gonna start winning games.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Hope, the Seahawks, and the Son of God

Two weeks ago, the Seahawks won the Super Bowl.

The Seahawks. MY TEAM. It still hasn't quite sunk in. For two whole weeks, "whatever, the Seahawks won the Super Bowl" has been my answer for everything that goes wrong. It's surreal!

But if I'd predicted four years ago that the Seattle Seahawks would be winning the Super Bowl, even the most rabid fan would have cast me a skeptical look.

You have to know the Seahawks of the last few years to understand how it feels. I'm no fairweather fan. I complimented a guy for his Seahawks jersey the other day and heard someone else mutter "bandwagoner". I turned straight to the guy with a big smile and said "Hey dude...I stuck it out through 2009." I've earned my status as a faithful fan, trust me.

For the uninitiated now going "Ohh great, he's about to start talking football", I'll keep it simple. By the end of the 2008 season, the Seahawks were in bad shape. They'd finished with a 4-12 record, the league's fourth worst team. This was a relatively young team, a baby of the seventies and not one of the classic teams from the baby boom era, and one that had suffered many years of indignity and loss (aka the nineties). Our only Super Bowl appearance in 2005 - well, just ask any fan about that one. For the Seattle faithful, defeat and artful cynicism were a way of life.

"As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and your sins." (Ephesians 2:1)

But optimistic fans looked at the previous five seasons, all of which saw Seattle reaching the playoffs and even the Super Bowl, and hoped that 2008 was just an aberration. An off year. They blamed it on the spate of injuries (there were quite a few) and a coach who was retiring. They believed that with a couple good strong players from the draft, and a good performance from the new coach - who had been groomed under the same administration that got us to the Super Bowl - we could regain our playoff form.

Football fans. We're a hopeless gaggle of blind hope.

2009 was an even greater disaster. Despite finishing with five wins instead of four, the Seahawks were awful. It was apparent that our problems ran deeper than injuries. That team that almost won it all in 2005 had simply gotten old. The quarterback needed replacing. The star linebacker we'd drafted didn't last two years with the team. The defense turned out to be worse than we'd thought, exposed by a tougher schedule. So much for reclaiming glory.

"With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last." (Mark 15:37)

It was bad. The team was left with a mix of over-the-hill veterans and mediocre rookies. It was all a shambles, without direction and with an inscrutable future. Years of rebuilding appeared to be in order, and judging from the Cleveland Browns and their perpetual state of rebuilding, that's no ray of hope.

If there was a championship ahead any time soon, Seattle fans at the end of 2009 couldn't see it.

"And when all the crowd that came to see the crucifixion saw what had happened, they went home in deep sorrow." (Luke 23:48 NLT)

But then a new coach and GM got a hold of the team, and things started happening. We fans didn't understand at first. Roster moves started happening at a lightning pace. Fan favorites and roster bright spots were traded. Criticism started up immediately. I was among them. I didn't see how cutting our few standout players would help. Oddly enough, they didn't seem to care. They just kept working, doing their thing.

And within three years, the team was utterly transformed. New quarterback, legendary defense, a reputation for physicality and winning the toughest games. In just a few short seasons, far sooner than anyone expected, the Seahawks went from the bottom of the barrel to the top of the heap. We won the Super Bowl. We DOMINATED the Super Bowl. Despite all the pop stars and movie actors who said we they wouldn't.

" are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said." (Matthew 28:5-6)

Now we're the envy of the league. Our defense (the "Legion of Boom") is spoken of in the same breath as the legendary NFL defenses of the seventies. Other teams are starting to mimic our drafting strategy. Our roster cuts land starting jobs elsewhere. Not only did we win the big game, we're on top of the league in almost every conceivable category. It's dizzying.

"When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins...he took it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities (of evil), he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross." (Colossians 2:13-15)


Okay, so the Seahawks really aren't that big a matter. I know some of us almost make football a religion, but honestly, who knows if the Seahawks will even repeat. Their coaches are not God and Peyton Manning is not an authority of evil. It's a metaphor, and a loose one at that.

But if you've seen the bewildered delight of a Seahawks fan lately, you might be able to understand the joy of a Christian. Or at least a tenth of it. Maybe.

You see, in the same way that the Seahawks made a startling turnaround in almost no time at all (in NFL terms), God pulled a 180 in the story of the world. No one quite knows how. The method was completely unexpected for everyone standing there watching the crucifixion. But it worked. Where darkness had reigned, now there was light. Where sin had obscured God from mankind, there was now freedom and reconciliation. Where it looked for three days like Jesus Christ would be killed and thwarted from his goal, he would instead defy death in both himself and in us.

He rose again to offer us life. It's the sweetest 'W' I've ever experienced.

To those I'm welcoming here who used to follow my Seahawks blog (what a waste of time, guys), I want to say this in the instant I have your attention:

Jesus Christ is the Son of God. He is my Savior, my redeemer, and the friend of anyone who will welcome him. He is a healer, a rescuer, a teacher, an advocate, a comforter, a counselor, and a guide. He mends broken lives. He brings justice to the oppressed. He has concern for the poor. He is a companion to the rejected. And he offers hope - the only hope possible - for all mankind.

And if you have never seen him in this way - well, coming from one who has known him, he is better than you think. I can testify to that. I invite you to follow along on this blog as I do my best to relay who he really is. I'll even challenge you to suspend some of the things you might have heard about him secondhand from the world, or about the Bible that tells us of him. All I ask is that we be courteous and open-minded here. I'm convinced you won't regret it.

For those of you who do know Jesus, live it up! We have the victory. We have reason to celebrate.

And although the Seahawks may or may not repeat next year, you know Jesus has an even greater victory on the way. No fluke championships here.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

For You, but Not for Me?

My Bible study friends and I were sitting down and doing a spiritual gifts survey last Thursday. It involved a self-grading (and long) series of questions that asked us to answer on a scale of 1 ("almost never true") to 5 ("almost always true") for how well a statement applied to us.

An example: "1. When I hear evangelistic messages, I pray for people who don't know Christ", with that question and several others intended to evaluate whether you might possess the gift of evangelism. In case you're wondering, I put down a 4 here.

So we were running through the list of questions, occasionally dropping wry comments about how we were not good at certain gifts. Don't ask me to administrate anything; I jotted down a 1 every time I saw the word "organize". We had a great and encouraging time - "oh, yeah, it makes sense that you might have that gift!" "Wow, my results sure changed from the last time I took this."

But as I progressed through the list, I felt ambushed by the Holy Spirit on something that the survey might or might not have intended to point out. I read these questions in quick succession:
9. "For me, it's easy to trust God for the impossible."

10. "I frequently find myself encouraging the troubled, comforting the distressed, and reassuring the wavering."
For question ten, I put down a five. But for the one for before it, after thinking long and honestly for about a minute, I put down a three.

On the next page, it happened again:
41. "I commit difficulties obstacles to God in prayer and am not anxious about His answering those prayers."

57. "I regularly attempt to motivate others to believe God in difficult or impossible situations."
For question fifty-seven, I again put down a five without needing to think. But question forty-one, this time I could only manage a two.

When it's other people's faith we're talking about, it's a slam dunk. I find it so easy to believe in God's goodness, his power, and his ability to come through - as long as it's in others' lives and the challenges they're facing there. I could go on all day about how God is the perfect object of faith for them. I've got awesome confidence in that.

But when I find myself asking whether I believe the same things for my own life? Pretty shaky. I'm lucky to get a three.

Sure enough, when I reached the self-grading end of the survey, the spiritual gift of exhortation - encouraging others' faith and spirit - was tied for my highest. But on faith, which I interpreted as God carrying out his promises in my own life? I'm sad to say that with the exception of administration, I scored second lowest on faith.

What an eye-opener.

And I know I'm not alone in this. Why is it always simpler to believe in God's presence and faithfulness towards others than for our own? It's a condition that can so easily sneak into our consciousness.

I could just say "Well, I need to cultivate that spiritual gift more" and that's probably true. It's only a survey. And it's easier to believe the truth when you don't have as much at stake, as is the case when you're trying to help your friends. Can't see the forest for the trees and all that.

But I can't ignore the truth of those particular contrasting questions. Maybe it's also because I know my story. I've seen a lot of moments where, for whatever reason, I have failed or fallen short or lost out. I know of a lot more such moments in my life than in others', whose story I've seen only a glimpse. We know our landscape of faith, countless little moments, better than anyone else could.

I don't know where God was in those times, but I know how the enemy wants to spin it. "You can't trust him. He's not going to come through, just like last time." It seems so much more real and immediate when it's my life on the line.

Thanks to a spiritual gift survey last Thursday, I'm reminded yet again of this lie in my life.
"He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?" - Romans 8:32
If it applies to others, it applies in equal measure to me. All the enthusiasm that you hold for God's power in the lives of those around you? That's for you as well. Jesus died and was resurrected to give you the same life he gave others, the same status as favored children in his kingdom that he gave to others. It's a fact.

Imagine if we could have the same confidence for ourselves that we have for others.

Thank you, Jesus, for your love and your faithfulness. Help me with my unbelief. I long to have the same confidence in you for my own life that I have for others. Calm my troubled waters. Give me your peace. I confess and accept your life, your resurrection, and your riches for me. In Jesus' name, amen.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

A Captive Audience

I recently had an after-school tutoring arrangement with an older gentleman. He's going back to school at a local community college, and once a week he would drop by my classroom to refresh algebra skills he hasn't used since high school.

He's a very willing and engaged student. After our first meeting, I was struck by a thought: that was the best class I've had since I became a high school teacher!

Well, of course. No offense to my own awesome students, but this guy was eager to learn. He wanted to understand, had invested money in a course he had to pass. He was willing to put in the hard work of paying attention, focusing, practicing, note-taking, and learning from mistakes. He knew how to focus. He just gets it.

That made him so EASY to teach. What teacher doesn't dream of a captive audience? We progressed quickly through the material, and my thoughts rolled through my mind elegantly and simply, letting me make relevant connections, getting me fired up. It reminded me of how good I can be in a classroom when I'm not stopping to refocus somebody every thirty seconds. (This might be true of your own teachers, too.)

I remember turning to God afterwards and telling him honestly, "I wish more of my students were like that."

I was caught off guard by what God said in return:

"So do I."

He didn't say it with annoyance or judgment - more like gentle humor. But I felt busted.

I'm enrolled in God's school of life and righteousness. My enrollment fee has been paid for by Christ, and I've put my own time and reputation into living as a Christian. People are watching to see how I live, and souls are on the line.

Am I a willing, determined student?

There's a science to being a good scholar. Many of us perform it daily without thinking. Honoring the financial deposit that we've made (or that someone else made on our behalf) is a lifestyle. We come to class. We listen to the teacher. We take notes, ask questions, do the assigned reading. We study and prepare for tests, work with classmates, examine and challenge our beliefs. We rearrange our life outside school to assist our studies and eliminate distractions. And if we don't get it at first, we go to the instructor and ask more questions, spend extra time with him.

Do I take this kind of initiative with God? Not often enough. Sometimes I'm just that slacker sitting in the back row, playing Angry Birds and thinking I can turn everything in at the last minute.

Here's the thing - when it comes to God's school, we're ALL behind. Theologically speaking, there is no curve - just one global remedial class. Our flesh and the enemy are set against us. The world mocks. And life itself is hard. None of us can afford to dally around here. We all have to be taking notes, doing the reading, spending time with the instructor. He is the best qualified to renew our minds. No self-teaching here.

A bad grade in this class doesn't mean going to hell, of course. Our destiny is secure. But it could mean that our fruits in this life get stunted. Our witness can suffer; others won't see Christ in us effectively. I don't want to squander any of God's investment.

Our own joy and peace is at risk, too. God is so much more than just an instructor, a title that can sound distant and detached. He is our Father, our Rescuer, and our very Life. But it's not just going to come on a silver platter, anymore than good grades in math class will. The enemy opposes. Our own flesh tries to trip us up, keep us ignorant, distract us.
"The thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy; I come that they may have life, and have it to the full." - John 10:10
The offer is there. God is willing and eager to teach.

I want to be a good spiritual student. Take initiative, listen, work, learn, shut out distractions, be the kind of student that every teacher longs to have in his classroom. I owe my savior nothing less. And I have everything to gain.