Thursday, March 29, 2007

Ignoring the Celebrity Culture

If there's one key idea I try to comunicate regularly on this blog, it is this: we Christians should understand how we are being shaped by the culture, and should conform ourselves to Christ instead of the world's design.

That's it. So if you read this blog, you'll get a steady diet of that. I hope it contributes in some small way to your conformity to the Savior. Today, I'm hoping you're not conforming yourself to celebrity culture. This is a topic worthy of exploration, but I'm not going to do much of that today, save to tell you what I suspect you already know: the American self-conception is not shaped by grounded, mature, down-to-earth people with their heads in the right places and their hearts set on the right things. It is shaped by worldly, immature, narcissistic, self-serving people who crave attention, fame, and lust. It's that basic. So if you closely follow pop culture, if you ingest a steady diet of the culture's entertainment, teaching, and thought, you will not be able to prevent yourself from being shaped by ungodly forces. It is as much a matter of fact as is a mathematical equation.

In the context of age and body, this means that instead of guys will alter their bodies and devote far too much attention to their physiques. Instead of pursuing maturity, they'll worry about their hair, their biceps, and their clothes. Because the celebrity culture exalts youth, they'll make a sad but desperate attempt to appear young even as age defies them. It's pitiable to see a 30-year-old trying to look like he's 18. But many try in the current age. Girls will emulate Hollywood actresses and will spend all kinds of time and money on clothes, makeup, and the like to get ahead in the frenzied race to appear the youngest. The sad truth? Again, age does its work effectively. Like with guys, you can always tell a woman who's trying too hard, whose heart is pursuing attention instead of maturity. We Christians need to fight our tendency to try to look like celebrities. We should never just let our bodies go--we should take great care of them, in fact. But we should do so in a healthy, reasonable and balanced manner, taking care to avoid spending large amounts of time, money, and attention on such things. A few recommendations for us all: avoid the mirror on some occasions. Spend less time worrying over your outfit. Avoid buying that expensive facial creme. Avoid buying that expensive hair gel. Look to Christ for your satisfaction. Flee the world.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Making Peace With Aging

It's not easy for any of us to accept the aging process. Aging gracefully is not easy. It is an art. It must be entered into with care and thought, prayer and readiness.

I'm a young guy, relatively speaking, but I can still see clear signs of aging in myself. Though I know the theological response to the body's aging, I still sometimes struggle to believe that aging is not a terrible ordeal. One can easily grow anguished at the sight of bodily change. Our hair thins, our skin crinkles, our eyes worsen. With these effects come sadness. It is right that it be so. We are literally observing the physical death of our bodies. This is not a pretty sight, and it is not always easy to cope with.

But we Christians are not those who age without hope. We know that our bodies will be made new. So we do not fear the effects of aging. We do not dwell on them. And, I would suggest, we should not devote much time or money to fighting what is irreversible. If significant changes can be made--such as improved eyesight--that's a good thing. But a few wrinkles here, a bald spot there isn't sufficient to draw much attention from us. We should of course fight to keep our bodies fit and healthy. That is a stewardship issue. But wrinkles aren't. Gray hair is not. Ladies, don't worry about going gray. Don't fight it. And don't spend hundreds of dollars on "skin care." Some products may help, and that's fine, but you and I know things are way overblown on that issue. Far better to age gracefully, to make peace with aging, than to spin oneself into desperation over it and to lose much time and money. God does not judge us as society does. He loves us whether we wrinkle or not, whether we are bald or not. So too do our spouses and our families. Make a statement to society, then, as a Christian. Teach them that the aging process is not a horrible thing, that society is horribly appearance conscious, and that God gives years as a gift. Show them these lessons with dignity, and you will have won a precious victory over the tyranny of appearance-consciousness and narcissism.

Remember, aging is not a curse. It is a gift.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Embracing Aging

Some of the most beautiful poetry ever written is in the Bible. I came across this at work today from Job 9: our days "are passed away as the swift ships." Beautiful language. It would be well worth it to take a long time to read through particularly eloquent passages of the Bible. I think we undervalue such passages sometimes.

But that's a series for another week. This week, I want to talk about how Christians should react to the celebrity culture all around us. Today I'm looking at how we respond to aging, which in the present day is a form of premature death. There's almost nothing worse than aging to the average person, whose standard of beauty is an airbrushed, plastic-surgeried 22-year-old model. Our distaste for the body's natural process transcends mere embarassment and crosses over into shame. Yes, that's right. It's not too strong. Many of us are actually ashamed to age. Fittingly, of course, we're too ashamed to admit it.

But it's true. Think about yourself. How much do you worry about aging? If you're a woman, how much money do you spend to fight the effects of age? How much time? How much of your life is consumed with this concern? If you're a man, how concerned are you for your hairline? If we're honest, and we need to be, I think most of us can say that we are altogether too concerned with aging. We are embarassed by it, we are ashamed by it, and we devote a considerable portion of our short lives worrying over it. The worst reality, though, is that we're all scared and ashamed over something the Bible says is glorious. Isn't that crazy to think about? The Bible speaks of gray hair as a crown. We think of it as a curse. On the area of aging, and appearance in general, we Christians need to admit our failings in this area. We need to repent of anxiety and shame over the aging process that is constantly working itself out in us. And we need together to turn away from our ungodly mindset and to collectively witness to the world that we are the people who do not fight God's design for the body, but who, with wisdom and care, embrace it.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Personal Thoughts on a PhD

BC asked me in the comments section if I'm thinking about doing a PhD. The answer is yes. But I'm a weird sort of PhD-seeker. I don't want to be an academic first and foremost. I would love to be able to teach, but not on a full-time basis. My calling, I think, is to be a pastor, and I want to be a pastor of the type I've described thus far this week: an intellectual pastor, one who seeks to engage the thought and practices of the culture.

I can see great benefit to doing a PhD, and I'm currently thinking through where to aim in my prospect. For a wannabe pastor, a seminary education seems good, but a secular program may also be of use and benefit. Right now, my wife and I are doing a good deal of praying on this matter. Hopefully, in time, we'll find a good path to travel.

So if anyone out there has wisdom on the matter, feel free to share it. What have your PhD experiences, sacred or secular, been like? What would you counself a young man to aim for--a seminary program or a secular program? I'll be interested to read any answers that may come. Whether you write or not, I encourage you to join me in praying that God would call out a bunch of young men to rigorously train themselves not for the sake of man's applause, but the furtherance of the gospel in our age.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Dangers of a PhD

As I can see it, there are a few key dangers when it comes to pastors getting a PhD.

1) Big Head Syndrome. It seems quite possible that a pastor who does get a PhD could think himself better than those of his congregation who do not have PhDs. That would be a terrible thing, because it would mean that the pastor was despising his congregation. A pastor must always cultivate a heart of love for his people and must see himself as one of them and in no way better than them. So any pastor who sets out to get a PhD must decide from the start that he will be vigilant about fighting the pride of his heart. He must constantly remind himself that letters after his name signify intellectual training, not spiritual or social stature. The pastor with a PhD is not a super-Christian. He is just a man with a degree.

2) Detachment from the everyday. One reason Christians have sometimes derided educated people is the tendency of such people to be detached from everyday life. This is a potential pitfall for any intellectual, but it is particularly damning for a pastor. A pastor is by the nature of his work one who is in tune with the needs of his people, many of whom will not be intellectuals. He must show that he can speak to them and reach them on their level. He must avoid treating every sermon or teaching time as if it is a scholar's society meeting. He must constantly watch himself to make sure that, though he undertake rigorous intellectual work, he stays in close contact with his people, the sheep of his flock.

So there are a couple of dangers that pastors will need to watch out for. I'm sure that there are others one can think of, but these two certainly cover a good deal of the dangerous ground that pastors with PhDs must carefully avoid. We should also note that these two dangers will to some extent apply not only to pastors with PhDs, but to all Christians. We are not an elitist people, and we do not view one another as the world does, according to status conferred by degrees, heritage, or even talent.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

It's Good to Be Educated

The 20th century witnessed an evangelical backlash against traditional, or classical, education. In the face of growing secularism, Christians started a ton of Bible institutes and colleges to train their children. Their reaction is understandable. Much good has indeed come from such institutions (a genuine love for God, evangelistic passion, actional love for one's neighbor, etc), though one can also spot harmful effects as well. Perhaps the major weakness of the Bible institute model is its general lack of rigorous intellectual training. Essentially, many Christians ceded the cultural space to non-Christians in creating their own Christian subculture.

One of the hardest hit groups was the pastoral corps, who were often encouraged to gain only an education in the Bible, if even that. Many times, pastors began the work of ministry without any formal training and any intellectual engagement with the classical tradition--history, philosophy, the sciences, rhetoric, math, etc, languages. Over time, it actually became a bad thing to have received extensive education, as this signaled that one cared more for the academy for the church and more for accolades than for a ministry. The result? Pastors who preached the Bible but who failed to develop thoughtful responses to the culture and failed to develop bridges to it through intellectual and personal engagement. The Christian church was never meant to be a ghetto. It was meant to be a city on a hill. The loss of interest cut the church off from the culture at a time when major philosophical shifts necessitated the witness of the Christian mind.

I'm thankful to be at a seminary where many young men want to rigorously educate themselves in order that they would be prepared to engage their world and build intellectual bridges to it. Pastors are to be the leaders of the Christian community on earth, and they ought not to lead it simply by a godly personal walk or excellent administration but by the exercise of a critical and thoughtful intellect. They ought to model for their people responsible engagement with the culture and show their people that we need not flee from the world or cower before it. Instead, we need to answer its questions, demonstrate the incredible coherence and beauty of the Christian worldview, and speak the gospel as the cure to its sin sickness and hellish fate. We need to turn away from a past that has mentally starved itself and raise up a generation of men full of passion for God and profundity of thought. It is no virtue to be smart, for sure. But neither is it a virtue to be foolish.

Monday, March 19, 2007

An Intellectual Pastorate

I'm writing this week about the benefits of an intellectually oriented pastoral corps. As I write, I want to do so with sensitivity and nuance. This could be a tricky issue, and I want to avoid a tone of condescension at all costs.

So with that in mind, let me say that one does not in any way need letters after one's name to be a gifted and godly pastor or leader. The mere possession of a degree by no means necessarily signifies that a man is an excellent thinker, a godly person, or an automatically able pastor. This is just not true. We all can think of pastors who had no worldly credentials to speak of but who were giants of the faith, men well worthy of emulation and quite able to confront the thinking of their times. An MDiv, a PhD, or any other degree thus cannot be said to be a mark of maturity of either thought or character.

With that idea firmly established, let me say that it will nonetheless be of great benefit to the church of God to have as its leaders men who have undergone rigorous theological training and extensive doctrinal inculcation. An MDiv will prove helpful toward this end, and, for those who can undertake it, a doctorate will especially hone one's intellectual powers. The process of crafting an original argument, researching that argument substantially to strengthen it, and then writing persuasively and forcefully while countering objections is eminently valuable. Again, this is not to say that one needs to do a PhD to be able to do these things. That is simply not true. What I am saying is that a PhD may well help a man in learning these valuable skills. The doctorate cannot help but rigorously challenge and shape the man who undertakes it. The benefits to this man will extend over more than just a period of a few years, but over the extent of his whole ministry.

How beneficial it would be to the church of God to have men who can, like the apostle Paul, counter the spirit and thought of their times, and offer sound and intellectually rigorous defenses of the faith. Not every man can do this, and not every man should try. But it is my belief that the church of God will indeed benefit from a pastoral corps who can meet the world's thought experts on their own terms and engage them in stimulating discussion. This same corps will also ready themselves to produce literature, for the process of a PhD necessarily involves rigorous attention to one's writing. And one cannot help but approach the text with a broadened and deepened outlook when one has focused one's intellectual energies on a certain topic and learned to ask questions of it and seek answers for it. This, not credentials, not worldly fame or acclaim, poses the best reason for a generation of young men to seek the intellectual rigor of the PhD. In the days to come, we'll continue to hone this argument, and look at its potential strengths and weaknesses in light of history and wisdom.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Changing the Inner-City

Some consumed readers have asked me for a booklist on the topic we're discussing, on how Christians might change the inner-city. Let me say that I do not know of any explicitly Christian books that approach this topic from the viewpoint I'm espousing. However, here are some noteworthy books that do address the topic of families and also may include information on the inner-city:

William Gairdner, The War Against the Family
Christopher Lasch, Haven in a Heartless World
David Blankenhorn, Fatherless America
Robert Griswold, Fatherhood in America
David Popenoe, Life Without Father

That's a start. To my knowledge, none of these authors are Christians, though they are all thoughtful, pro-family, and persuasive. Reading these books will of course open you up to a wider range of literature and manhood, fatherhood, and families that will only continue to expand your thought process and knowledge about the subject. This is what has happened to me, and I am now trying to apply what I've learned about manhood and fatherhood to a subject that has long concerned me, namely, the inner-city. Critical, thoughtful, and Christian books need to be written about this subject.

Ryan Hill asked some great questions yesterday on how best to minister across the unfortunate cultural divide between white middle-class and urban inner-city. He also mentioned how to conceive of para-church groups that seek to address the problem. There's nothing wrong with such programs, and much good can come from them, but I think it would be even better to have a number of Christians in a given church band together and try to strategize how they might influence the inner-city. Now, note carefully my words here. I'm not saying the church should take on this responsibility; I'm saying that the Christians of the church should take it on. This may seem an unimportant distinction, but it is very important. Unlike some, I hold to a very mere view of the church. The church is appointed by God to carry out the essential duties of worship and evangelism. I believe it will do these things best when it does not try to be a hospital, day-care center, fitness center, and whatever else you can think of. Theme park.

However, my line of thinking does not exempt Christians from doing all kinds of meaningful activities and deeds. I think that individual Christians within a church should thus band together under the oversight of an elder and come up with a strategy by which to lead their fellow members in reaching out to the inner-city. They may well want to develop a curriculum that they would lead boys and girls through, and also a curriculum for their parents to try and teach them a biblically informed doctrine of the family. But the church members would not simply hold a three-month program, hand out a bunch of certificates, and then step back, beaming at all the good they had accomplished. No, they would realize that the work of ministry is expensive and demanding, and thus commit themselves to staying involved with these young people and developing further curriculum and activities by which to engage them. Whole families from the church could then be involved in the program. With some careful thought, this thing could really fly. Christians really could make a difference. Racial divides might heal. Communities might heal. Boys and girls would learn the biblical way of gender and living. Most importantly, the gospel would be at the center of all this, and be taught to kids in a loving context.

If you're interested in this idea, I would encourage you to pray about it, and talk to an elder in your church about perhaps starting something up. Don't wait on me to start something up, though I may try at some point to write a curriculum and book about this. Start thinking now in your church about how to do this. I hope to join you in this work. Let's pray that many more will do the same, and that light will come to a darkened place, the American inner-city.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Changing the Inner City

Churches and individual Christians cannot singlehandedly turn around the inner-city. But we can hugely help by realizing that the central problem facing the inner-city is not economic, it is not material, is not education-oriented, but it is familial. I will repeat to be clear: the central problem of the American inner-city is the breakdown of the family.

The central reason for this breakdown is the failure of many inner-city men to assume their God-given role as family heads. The inner-city finds itself locked in a vicious cycle in which young men are abandoned by their fathers, raised by their mothers, and then grow up to do the same thing to their progeny. What a horrible cycle, and how awful are its effects. Whole cities lie in waste as a result.

Which leaves the church to help. We know where the problem begins, and we know the solution: build strong families by teaching young men and young women the proper roles of men and women. If churches would reach out to inner-city youth and explicitly and purposefully disciple them to become God-fearing husbands and wives, the tide would slowly, incrementally, but meaningfully turn. This work will be messy and difficult. It will involve hardship and personal sacrifice. It will at times be frustrating and heartbreaking. But God will honor it. He will honor the efforts of His people to be salt and light in places of death and darkness.

So what do we do then? Churches and the Christians who belong to churches should brainstorm ways to connect with inner-city youth. Men should seek out young urban men whom they could regularly meet with and disciple. Women should do the same. When possible, children who are not from a stable home should be invited into a godly, happy, healthy home to witness the power and beauty of a biblical family. Christian parents should seek to connect with lost parents and befriend them. Churches should develop a curriculum for young men and young women by which they would learn biblical sex roles in all they entail for the different sexes. Then, the church should seek to take in young people and nurture them, not for number's sake, not for publicity, but to save the lost and to, over time, with much work, begin to heal a broken community.

Tomorrow: a reading list.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Changing the Inner City Through Families

Many of us know that the inner cities are troubled. We do not lack for attention to this reality, and the problem has drawn many suggested answers. Some believe that building sustainable economic structures is the way out. Others put their hope in programs that address various aspects of the inner-city situation: Big Brothers/Sisters and that sort of thing. Some think that education is the way out. Others emphasize the role of the government in aiding the weak and weary. Clearly, we are not lacking in suggested solutions to the problem.

But I think that all of these solutions fail to get at the heart of the problem. The foundation of society--of the world, really--is the family. The family is the institution from which all else proceeds. There is no one in the world who is born outside of the context of the family. Our father and mother constitute the primary shapers of our world. Their beliefs will impact ours. Their presence or absence determine whether we grow up as loved children or lonely children. The physical environment they create stamps itself on us for a lifetime. The family is the basic unit of society. When the family is strong, society is primed to be strong. When the family is weak, society readies itself for weakness.

The fundamental problem of the inner-city is that young men fail to see themselves as men. Young men are the cornerstone of the family. When they abandon their God-given role as leaders, husbands, and fathers, then all else crumbles with them. Though women do not make the first move, they will eventually rebel from their God-given role, thus completing the process of disintegration. But know this--the men lead the way for a society. Men were created to lead, provide, and protect. In far too many cities, men fail to lead, provide only for their own desires, and prey upon women rather than protecting them. As a result, the inner-city crumbles, and the broader society declines as well.

It's interesting to trace the history of this problem. Surely, slavery contributed to this woeful situation as it took away from black men their rightful role, but interestingly, the inner-city family (predominantly black in the twentieth century, though that is changing) was relatively stable until the 60s. Births out of wedlock were relatively low, coming in around 22%. The 60s, however, fomented rebellion, and nowhere was that rebellion more destructive than in the inner city. Several decades later, the out-of-wedlock birthrate had skyrocketed to around 60%. The current situation is dire. As Christians, many of us white and middle-class, what can we do to assist our countrymen and strengthen our society? We'll look at my simple proposal tomorrow.

Statistics: William Gairdner, The War Against the Family

Monday, March 12, 2007

A Strategy for Changing the Inner-City

I've always enjoyed the city, and I've long had a burden for the inner-city. Surrounded by promise and plenty, the American inner-city is often a den for struggle, pain, and iniquity, a place most Americans avoid not only physically, but mentally. For many of us, it's better to not even think of the troubles facing the inner-city. Then we have no sense of responsibility for it, and can go safely and pleasantly about our lives.

Now, I am not one to mock middle-class America. That is a dangerous and vengeful mistake, and it has been perpetrated many times over, and not simply by liberals. Sometimes Christians--who mean well but execute poorly--aim blistering criticism at brothers and sisters who have committed no sin but that of being economically stable, a condition that these people worked very hard to achieve and that has not prevented them from sacrificial giving and generous living. I do not want to be in the camp of those who attack people with money. That's an intellectually immature way of thinking. However, I do think that no group in a fallen world is above scrutiny and criticism. In addition, in a fallen world, good often comes through criticism and analysis, as we are shaken out of comfort and mobilized for action, often in ways we didn't know existed. So that is my aim as we think through this matter of inner-city change: not to mock, but to suggest; not to attack, but to analyze, and hopefully arrive at a helpful conclusion.

The issue I want to examine this week is this: the inner-city is a very troubled place in America (and worldwide). Many inner-cities seem locked in perpetual spirals of degeneration, with periods of economic growth or spiritual resurgence being soundly checked by tides of violence and economic difficulty. Many who desire a better life seem ill-equipped to reach this goal; the American education system throws its arms open (particularly to inner-city minorities), but few youths lack the family structure necessary to ensure that they weather the trials necessary to reach that end. Popular media, which is readily accessible, does little to help, portraying inner-city life as a glamorized darkness. Nihilism and naturalism play to a beat in the inner-city, and few are found who can correct or challenge this vision. After all, for many, this vision is realistic.

There are those who care, of course, and there are churches that seek to help, and government agencies that try to do the same. There are many who work sacrificially to reverse the sad trends of the inner-city. But though much good is done, I would suggest a course of strategy that is not innovativee or noteworthy but is surely bound to revolutionize communities: the recovery of the classic family structure, where a man commits to a woman in marriage and raises children with her. This week, we'll talk about this idea, which I'm sure others have suggested and some have tried, but which, in my opinion, few seem to see as the key to inner-city revitalization. It will be my argument that nothing--not money, not programs, not initiatives--will change the inner-city like the revitalization of the family. Stick with me, and see if this idea holds some hope, some light, for a darkened place.

Friday, March 09, 2007

One Man's Love for Basketball: Lessons

I've learned a bunch from reflecting on my lifelong passion for basketball.

If the Lord gives my wife and me children, I will work hard to counteract the culture's trend to worship sports and the celebrities created by sports. I had long thought that I would train any boys I had to be basketball players. Though I'm sure I will play the game with them, I now have no intentions of holding up basketball as an end in itself. It would be great to pass along an appreciation for sports as a recreation, a pastime, but I have no desire for any sons I have to think that basketball or any other sport is important and fundamentally meaningful in itself. There is good in competition, and there can be meaningful interaction and that sort of thing, but as an activity, sport at its essence is play. It is not serious. It is not "real," in a sense. It is a bunch of people playing a game. I hope that my children will understand this.

Even now, as a husband and a family leader, I want to make sure that I put sports in their proper place. They are entertainment. As such, they should not interfere with my family's everyday life. Husbands, ask yourself these questions that I've thought about to evaluate our interest in sports:

  • Does your love of sports keep you from caring for your wife?
  • Does your love of sports keep you from caring for your children?
  • Does your love of sports keep you from meaningful involvement in your church?
  • Does your love of sports lead you to abuse your body? Do you stay up way too late to watch your favorite team?
  • Does your love of sports lead you to be irresponsible at work? Do sports keep you from working?
  • Does your love of sports consume your conversations? Does it prevent you from meaningful fellowship with Christians?
  • Does your love of sports lead you to mood swings?
  • Lastly, are you addicted to sports? Ask yourself that question honestly.

Single men should consider these questions, too, and answer these:

  • Do sports keep me from maturing? Do they keep me from taking economic responsibility for myself?
  • Do sports keep me from wanting to be married and being mature?
  • Do sports keep me from meaningful service to my church?
  • Do sports dominate my thoughts and prevent me from forming meaningful relationships with people?
  • Am I addicted to sports?

If you are like me, you will find your answers to some of these questions disturbing. You will find that you have allowed the culture to develop in you far more interest and to devote far more attention to sport than it deserves. If you are like me, you will find not simply isolated sins--"I watched that game for two hours and didn't do my homework"--but whole patterns of living that reflect an addiction, or at least an unhealthy devotion, to sports. If you are like me, you will end up a bit disgusted with yourself, but hopefully, men like us will realize that grace exists to help us in all our weaknesses and sins. And make no mistake about it--the overvaluing of sport by many of us is no less than sinful. Some participation in sports is good and healthy, and I intend to do so for the rest of my life. However, where we should be dedicated to our families, churches, employers, and country, we are dedicated to our favorite athletic celebrities. Where we should devote ourselves to meaningful work, we are dedicated to games. Where we should shape our culture, and lead it away from slavish devotion to athletics, we are ourselves shaped by it, living with minimal difference from the world in this area.

It may sound trite to say this, but it's not: may God help the men of His church to put sport in its proper perspective, to cease sinning through the exercise of sinful appetites, and to enjoy and prize that which is truly meaningful.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

One Man's Love for Basketball: Now, Distance

When I arrived at college, my whole high school basketball experience had been one long frustration. I swore to myself that I would everyone in my past wrong by making the team at my college. I did the team's weight training program, played "fall ball" with the players, and got to know some of them. When it came time for tryouts, however, nothing went right. Well, that's not quite true. On the third day of the three-day sessions, I torched a starter in a drill. I hit several shots in his face. He was getting quite upset; this wasn't supposed to happen. Then I landed wrong on my ankle, and couldn't play any longer. The next day, the coach called me into his office. He was nice but direct, telling me he liked my hustle but that he was cutting me. I thanked him and left the office. I cried all the way back to my dorm, and for a while afterward.

I resolved to try out again at Bowdoin but I never did. It never seemed like it was meant to be. I couldn't shake my past struggles with confidence, and no doors opened for me. Looking back, I can see that God had something different for me. And I'm glad He did. I was never going to make the NBA, so I was setting myself up to play for thousands of hours without any tangible benefit. I aspired to be a college athlete, and wanted to define myself as such, but achieving that goal would only have made things harder for me later in life. I would have struggled more than I did to give basketball up, to realize that it is a game, and to not define myself by my performance on a court. The whole thing seems a bit silly now, a bit misguided, and that's because it was. The Lord never opened a door for me with basketball, and I'm glad He didn't. Those are hard words to say, even now, but they're true. It was for the best.

I still love to play the game. No, more than that. I still love the game, period. But I now can realize that it is just that--a game. It's not life, it's not death, and in fact, it's not even close. It's a diversion, an amusement, a pastime, a way to get exercise and have some fun, but it's not more than that. It's just a game. It's fine to play it and have fun and edify others and be teammates and sweat some pounds but it doesn't transcend anything. There is beauty in basketball, as in all sports, but it's a limited beauty, because the activity itself is not transcendent, is not fundamentally meaningful. It's taken me a long time to realize this, and live by it, but I know now that it's true. So I can enjoy basketball as a diversion, an occasional means of entertainment, and a somewhat regular means of exercise, but I will always keep it that. It's a matter of stewardship, of living wisely, and of devoting the little life I have on this earth to things that really matter--to God, my wife, my family, my church, my friends, my work.

That is not to say, though, that there aren't moments when it all comes rushing back--all the hope and expectation and thrill of playing well and satisfaction of working hard---and I can close my eyes and see me leading a fast-paced offense to victory. Yes, there are moments. But then I push those moments away, and get back to real life, and what really matters. My detachment from the game thus encompasses my prior attachment to the game. As I move away, I can sense the beauty, taste a little of the pain, and move on, the distance from basketball a necessary decision but still, at times, a difficult one.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

One Man's Love for Basketball: Then, Basketball

I don't know exactly when I made the switch to basketball. The 90s, the formative years of my adolescence, witnessed the explosion of basketball, however, so it makes some sense that a sports-loving kid enjoyed it. Basketball was and is a huge part of the youth culture. It was far more exciting than baseball and less complicated to play, and I easily made the switch when I was young. My family didn't have a hoop or a tarred driveway, so I walked across the street to Mrs. Roney's house and dribbled on her driveway. She didn't mind. She enjoyed having a little guy around, even if I did eventually start "shooting" the ball onto her roof. What can I say? I was desperate to shoot.

I worked so hard on dribbling with my left hand in that little driveway that I have always been a far superior dribbler with my left than my right. I would recreate games and invent games and, predictably, be the hero. Then the game moved. My family tarred our driveway and--cue orchestral music--we got a basketball hoop. It was incredible. I had my very own court. My mind was blown.

I also played basketball indoors on a little mini hoop. This was the subject of much consternation when my dearly loved grandmother Dustin would visit with my grandfather. She never could understand why I so loved that game, and she hated the "thump, thump" of my little orange ball. Can't say I blame her. My grandfather understood. He was the first in the family to put up a hoop especially for me. He and Grammy Dustin lived outside of Boston in Lincoln, MA, just 20 minutes from the city. He and Grammy got the Globe, which had all kinds of info on the Celtics, the team I loved. I would pore over the stats when in Lincoln and then, heart pounding, race outside to enact all kinds of heroics on the court, my very own Boston Garden. At night, I'd watch the Celtics. I loved my grandparents, and I loved that court. I still miss it.

Adolescence was also the time for basketball camps, and to basketball camps I went. We didn't have AAU then like kids do now, so that lots of kids play for months outside of the regular bball season. So we went to basketball camp. I went to Raider Camp and Clipper Cage Camp at UMM and the Pine Tree Clinic at Colby College (rival of my alma mater and current home to my cousin, Esther). Basketball camp was quite an experience, and I was usually intimidated. I never played very well. I remember getting beat in a drill and having my coach yell at me--"OWEN!" in front of a whole group of players. I was frustrated and yelled back, "WHAT?" I didn't get much playing time that week. I learned some things at camp, but the experience as a whole was strange, impersonal, and intimidating, though exhilarating.

Basketball and I were an odd pair. I was tiny back then, and tiny little white guys weren't looked upon very positively. But I started at my junior high (and probably averaged two points a game) and worked extremely hard on my game. Basketball was something of an obsession for me. When I got to high school, I had high hopes, but made the dreaded freshman team as a freshman and then was the last cut for the varsity team my sophomore year. My junior year, I sat the bench for the first half of the season and then earned significant minutes after playing good defense on a few players. My senior year, my role was clear: play good defense, avoid mistakes, and shoot little. Basically, I was the hustle guy. But I was frustrated with this role; in fact, I was frustrated with my whole career. Though I earned praise from some folks, I was never allowed to do much. Miss a shot, make a turnover, and I'd be yelled at, or yanked from the game. My parents--who were incredibly supportive and kind, coming to nearly every single event of my scholastic career--endured many tear-filled nights on my part. I wanted only to be a basketball player, but nothing seemed to go right, and noone I played for seemed to grasp that I could lead a team and that I was a skilled player. That is, until the last part of my senior year.

I can still remember the night things changed. It was in practice, interestingly. I had had a terrible go of things in recent games and had less than half a season to go in my high school career. Something snapped in me then. I decided to shoot and keep shooting no matter what anyone said or did. After all, it was almost time to graduate. So I did. I made five shots in a row. My teammates were stunned. The next night, I was player of the game. The rest of the season went well, and I ended things on a good note, hitting a few threes in our playoff game in the fabled Bangor Auditorium. In Maine, high school basketball is huge, and the tournament is king, so that was a thrill.

Basketball had a hold over me. I lived and died with the game. It gave me moments of great joy, but it was a tough mistress, always doling out its share of frustration and heartbreak. Beauty and pain, all controlled by the bounce of a ball, the flick of a wrist.

Monday, March 05, 2007

One Man's Love for Basketball: First, Baseball

It's about time for a series of essays. I want to write on a topic that has long been close to my heart: basketball. Those who know me well know that I've long loved this game. Over the next few days, I want to try and write a few meaningful thoughts on my love affair with roundball, which begins with my love for baseball. What one finds in such an exercise is that the story ends up not so much as a recounting of an affection for a sport, but of a retelling, from an angle, of one's life.

Growing up in coastal Maine, I initially loved baseball. Before I knew the value of particular baseball cards, I collected them and tried to get an entire team's worth of cards. I can still remember trading cards with my next-door neighbor, Michael. Michael persuaded me to trade some good cards for some Angel cards. For some reason, I was into the Angels. My interest cost me dearly. I can still remember gradually discovering that I was being taken advantage of. It was probably the first time I realized that such an experience existed.

I loved baseball and memorized countless statistics. I'm not sure why, but young boys love memorizing sports statistics. In retrospect, it doesn't make much sense, but the relatively low long-term value of the practice didn't occur to me then. I remember asking for Bill James' book of baseball facts and stats and, once I had gotten it, poring over it time and time again. When my parents, my sister and me traveled on long car trips to our grandparent's homes, I looked forward to the opportunity to spend hours reading and memorizing and thinking about baseball. Though I had never seen a big-league game, baseball had touched something in my soul.

That intangible quality became practical when I entered my Little League years. That's ages 9-12 for those who don't know. I loved Little League. I was one tiny Little Leaguer. My father coached my Little League team, earning my undying favor. We were the Redwings, and we won zero games our first year. Our next year, we won one game (over the other expansion team). Our third year, I don't remember how we did, but I made the Junior All-Star team. I played second-base. My senior year, I made the All-Star team. I played second base on that too. Though I was an unspectacular baseball player, one of the athletic highlights of my life occurred in the All-Star season. You who are reading this probably don't know how big Little League All-Stars used to be in my hometown. Both of the local papers devoted much coverage to it, and tons of folks came out to the games. I grew up in a small town, and there wasn't much going on. So when All-Star season hit, it was big news. People lined the little field, people of all ages, buying cheap candy, young kids dashing around, parents straining to see their child perform.

In one of our games, we were playing a tough team--Hampden, I think--and the batter rocketed a line drive off our pitcher's ankle. I scooped it up, touched second base, and threw to first. My first and only unassisted double play. It made the headline in the local paper. I can still hear the roar of the crowd and feel the pound on the back that my coach gave me. Even as I write this, my spine tingles. Moments like that stick with you.

Baseball was a fickle friend, though. I recall seeing my best friend get hit in the eye with a 60 mile an hour fastball. That may not sound bad, but he was a nine-year-old, and it was from 46 feet (or thereabouts). It was horrifying. It scarred him, and me, for the rest of our careers. I never was a hugely confident hitter, and I think seeing him lying on the ground, screaming, had a profound impact on me. After all, I was the next kid to hit. My legs trembled so hard I'm surprised I could stand up. That was athletics--like so much of life, beauty mixed with pain.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Raising Cain and a Brief Reflection on Fathers

I've been reading Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson's Raising Cain recently. The book was written in 2000 by these child psychologists, one of whom, Kindlon, is a faculty member at Harvard. As I read the stories and insights these two men share throughout the book, I noted a few things.

First, the spurious character of much psychological thought. Psychology is a strange blend of physiology, sociology, and common sense reflection. I think it certainly gets some things right and helps some who are otherwise trapped in various conditions. I also confess that I possess little understanding of where, with certain conditions, suffering ends and sin begins. With those things said, I do think alot of what passes as expert psychology is often mere speculation informed by a secularist worldview.

Second, the insights many psychologists possess. This may seem contradictory given the first point, but it's not. In spending great amounts of time with patients, psychologists often pick up insights about human behavior. These insights often seem not to come through psychological theory but through common sense combined with an observational eye. Kindlon and Thompson wrote Raising Cain to talk about troubled boys, and they continually challenge me with their evident care and concern for the boys they treat. They are an element so lacking in the world: caring, involved dads. The world, I would say, contains far more good mothers than good dads. We have a drastic shortage of strong, kind, concerned fathers. It's always encouraging to read of men who are.

As a man who had a strong, caring, concerned father, I realize how blessed I truly was by the God who gave him to me. I think about his example often, and also on how I hope to emulate it someday. This weekend, if you're a guy, give a few moments to thinking about how you can be a stronger, more caring, more concerned father. If and when you have boys, you'll not only have positioned yourself to be a better father, you will be molding one yourself.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Qualities of Good Literature

As I write this brief blog, please know that I do not in any way fancy myself a literature expert, and for good reason. I aspire to be a professional historian, but I cannot claim any great understanding of literature. I do, however, know what I enjoy, and so I offer these thoughts as just that: my thoughts.

Good Christian literature will tell a good story. Too often, Christian authors over-spiritualize and over-allegorize their stories. They think that in order to be faithful to God in their writing, every character, place, and conversation has to harken back to something biblical. This is just not so. There is nothing that would lead us to think this in the Bible. Instead, Christian authors should focus on making a really interesting story, with compelling characters, an absorbing plot, and elegant prose that brings the first two characteristics to life. Lewis and Tolkien achieve all three of these goals in Lord of the Rings and Narnia. Their books are books of great imagination and beauty, such that people of all dispositions and backgrounds can appreciate them. Christian authors should emulate these men in their writing. Again, literature is not good simply if it's Christian. It's good, well, if it's good.

Which leads us to my second thought: good Christian literature connects the reader with the Christian worldview. Christian literature will hopefully be good literature in and of itself, but it is not simply seeking to be good. It is distinctly Christian. It should be written out of Christian principles and speak, whether strongly or softly, to Christian truth. If done well, it will point people to consider greater and higher things, as realities are expressed in words and stories that carry the transcendent within them. This is essential to the work of writing good Christian literature. It will never be done agnostically or unspiritually. It will always be written out of a heart that is captive to God and seeking to express the beauty of that captivity. This will not result in one type of literature with one type of plot. It will express itself in many ways through diverse characters and plotlines and angles and subtleties. In the end, though, good Christian literature will transport the reader from the everyday and unspiritual and will, through imagination, introduce truth to a mind otherwise closed off from it.