Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Slice of Life

Mathieu Boya was practicing his golf swing in a pasture adjacent to Africa’s Benin Air Base in 1991 when things took a dramatic turn (Benin, next to Nigeria, is a country about the size of Pennsylvania). He hit what he later called “a glorious slice,” an errant shot which I have heard afflicts golfers from time to time but with which I have no personal experience, strictly speaking, since my slices have never been referred to in any sense as “glorious.” At any rate his ball hit a seagull flying overhead. The winged interloper dropped from the sky like a Shaquille O’Neal free throw. Clunk. Problem is it dropped into the open cockpit of a trainer jet whose pilot was taxiing into position for take-off; the feathery fiend then regained consciousness and began flapping its wings frantically in the pilot’s face. The young warrior, in reference to whom the appellation “Top Gun” most certainly never has been used, subsequently lost control of his craft and plowed into four shiny Mirage jets. The five jets, now all demolished, represented the ENTIRE air force of Benin. One golf swing, a wounded bird, a flustered pilot, five ruined jets, and a country’s national defense crippled.

Is golf a great game or what?

Boya was jailed immediately for “hooliganism,” which is not such a big deal; I’ve been called much worse while hacking my way around the links. But the problem is his country demanded that he pay $40 million to replace the five jets. At the time, Boya made $275 a year. No word on whether they offered him the 145,000 year installment plan.

This little episode reminds me of an important gift in life, the gift of perspective. Aside from its comedic elements, when I read this story I immediately thought, “My definition of a bad day has just been considerably altered.” I mean, a $100 traffic ticket? No problem! A totaled car? Piece of cake! A slice out of bounds on every hole of the round? Hey, it’s just a game!

On a more serious note, we talked about the gift of perspective recently in relation to the “continuum of resistance” we can anticipate as followers of Jesus. The gift of perspective helps us to understand that the few inconveniences and occasional hardships we experience in order to practice our faith and be the church pale in comparison to what many people experience as the cost of discipleship. My $100 inconvenience seems burdensome to me until I hear about someone else’s $40 million persecution, as it were. I’m not saying there is no place for feeling hard-pressed or wearied by circumstances, or even for acknowledging something as a crisis. To fail to do so would be to assume a Stoic philosophy that is not consistent with following Jesus, who, after all, wept at his friend’s death. What perspective often does, though, is help us to be “afflicted but not crushed.” (II Cor. 4).

So swing away, friends. And do not fret over the occasional slice. It could be much worse. You could be forced to golf in a pasture. – Matt Soper

Thursday, May 19, 2005


Ep-i-dem-ic: adj. 1: affecting or tending to affect a disproportionately large number of individuals within a population, community, or region at the same time; 2 a: excessively prevalent; b: contagious.

In his book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell notes that human behavior often mimics the dynamics of an epidemic, wherein what is a fairly static phenomenon suddenly spikes upward when it hits a “tipping point.”

Pornography is not a new human behavior but its tipping point was the Internet. In the last ten or fifteen years the interest in, use of, and addiction to pornography has reached epidemic proportions among men (and to a lesser degree, women) who have private and confidential access through websites. Christian men are equally susceptible and a staggering percentage of them acknowledge either addiction to or a discouraging or destructive interest in pornography.

At one men’s spiritual retreat I participated in seven years ago it became clear that the whole weekend was driving towards a night of confession and repentance by men of their participation in pornography. When I asked the leaders about that at the end of the retreat they acknowledged that their experience with Christian men had led them to conclude that hosting a weekend men’s spiritual growth retreat that didn’t deal with pornography was like hosting a baseball game without fielding a team (that’s my analogy, but you get the picture).

Recently I heard an inspiring interview with two Christian men who felt led of God to devote their ministry efforts to providing hope, help and healing to Christian men and women in bondage to pornography. Their strategy was unusual: Along with their wives, they undertook to get to know and witness to the pornographic industry by going to conventions, trade shows, etc. and talking to the people in the industry. They found that even some in the industry acknowledge its destructiveness but feel helpless to extricate themselves.

Their ministry is called xxxchurch.com and it offers education and help, including Pure Online, a “thirty days to purity” online workshop. The two founders are young and hip and they pull no punches. There is a “postmodern” feel to this ministry and I say that in the most positive sense. These guys are out to make a difference and my hat is off to them. I encourage you to go to their website (which they call “the #1 Christian porn site”; see what I mean about them being edgy?!), sign up for the free newsletter, avail yourself of some of their resources, and listen to the interview that I heard [“Pastors and Porn”] which narrates how they began this effort and what their journey into the fetid underbelly of the pornographic industry has been like.

You will notice the absence of my characteristic and much lampooned humor in this essay. I wish I could think of a cheeky angle to this issue but I can’t. This is a serious problem and it deserves serious attention.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Runaway Weddings

The “Runaway Bride” news story out of Atlanta is well known now so I’ll only recap it briefly: Jennifer Wilbanks is a 32-year old woman who ran away a few days before her wedding and later called police from a distant state saying she had been abducted. After several days in which her family and law enforcement frantically searched for her and assumed the worst, she was found and returned, contrite, to her hometown. Subsequent speculation centered on the “cold-feet theory,” though Wilbanks indicated later in a statement that her reasons went much deeper than just pre-wedding anxiety about her 600-person, 14 bridesmaids wedding ceremony.

Let me say that I am sympathetic to a prospective bride or groom backing out or postponing at the last minute. My sister did this three days before her wedding and it was the right thing. She had doubts about the long-term compatibility between her and her fiancé. He was and is a good man, but she had enough uncertainty to postpone and indeed they eventually split up and are now happily married to other people. Should she have come to this decision earlier? Yes, in a perfect world. But the decision spared them both long-term unhappiness.

And let me say also that I am not unsympathetic to big weddings. I understand that in many respects it is an occasion for the bride and groom’s parents to celebrate the joyous occasion with many circles of friends and my feeling is that if you have the money, let ‘er rip (Of course, if you don’t have the money but feel you have to provide a lavish wedding for appearances sake, that’s another issue).

But when the fanciness of the wedding practically precludes the option of delaying or canceling the wedding, I think it is detrimental.

Here is what I have observed as a minister. The larger and more extravagant the planned wedding, the more the couple is fixated on the ceremony and not on preparing for marriage. In the best cases, they are indeed prepared for marriage and there is no detrimental effect. But in many cases they miss out on the crucial time for examining and talking about their relationship and preparing for THE MARRIED LIFE (as opposed to preparing for a 40-minute ceremony and a 3-hour celebration).

One psychiatrist who has counseled people about marital concerns observes that “weddings are terrible stresses on people. They really try people’s relationships, especially when they’re one of those big productions” (“Marriage Counselors: Wilbanks’ actions extreme but understandable”; AP, 4/30/05).

If I could give couples one piece of advice it would be to get premarital counseling before they get engaged. This helps them to honestly assess their relationship and address potential problems absent the stress of an approaching wedding. It gives them a way to say “we’re not ready” without the social ramifications of postponing or delaying the wedding. And if they’re ready? Great. They can then get engaged and plan the wedding with confidence and excitement (Angela and I did this and it helped her to confirm what a great catch she had).

In all seriousness, weddings are important but they’re not the main thing. The main thing is marriage. Isn’t it?

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Chasing the Monsters Away

In a heart-rending scene in the movie Saving Private Ryan, a young medic lies mortally wounded following an intense fire fight. As his fellow soldiers cradle him in their arms, administering dose after dose of morphine, knowing there is nothing they can do for him except lessen the pain, he utters his final words: “Momma. I don’t wanna die. Momma, Momma...”

When I was going through summer training in the Marine Corps during college the drill instructors ridiculed us about everything: our religion, our college, our hometown, our hobbies, our habits, our appearance. Nothing was off limits except … our mothers.

Bob Greene, in an ode to his mother entitled “The Woman in the Photograph,” reflects on the power and depth of the role: “I once knew a homicide detective in Chicago, a man who saw the absolute grisliest, meanest parts of humanity every day. You would expect a man like that to be tough beyond redemption, but I always sensed a soft center to him; a part of him that didn’t jibe with his job. One day I sat down with him and asked him about it, and he told me that no matter where he went in his life, part of him remained a small boy – and that inside the small boy there was the memory of his mother. He told me, “Even when I was in the service, when I’d be out on a pass at four in the morning, I could hear my mother’s voice saying, ‘Joe, get home,’ and I’d go back to the barracks.”

Greene acknowledges, “I know exactly what he meant. I am not the best person in the world; there are things about me that I would change if I could, and that I would not particularly respect if I found them in other people. But I know this: whenever I am doing something I sense might be wrong, I can check myself out by asking myself whether I would be ashamed if my mother knew about it.”

It’s hard not to fall into platitudes when speaking about motherhood. And it has become a delicate subject these days because it is so often linked to politically explosive issues women and families face regarding work and childcare choices. But through it all the terms “mother” and “motherhood” retain their intrinsic nobility.

A final memory from Greene: “My mother tells me, and I vaguely remember, that as a small child I thought there were monsters in my closet. Before I could sleep, I would need for her to make the monsters leave my room. So every night she would say the words – she remembers them even now – “Ruley and duck and goose and wolf, car, airplane, hoo-hoo, and the one who burps – get out of here!” And I would sleep.

“I cringe a little, typing that. But it seems that only by recounting the specific can I say what I mean: that in many ways there is nothing that affects a man so strongly as those childhood years spent with his mother; and that I doubt that children have changed so much by now that they are less needful of what their mothers can give them. For most of our lives it is our own responsibility to chase the monsters away; for a few brief years at the beginning, our mothers are there to do it for us.” (Cheeseburgers: The Best of Bob Greene, 1985).

Abraham Lincoln once said, “No one is poor who has had a godly mother.” So simple. So true. So easy to take for granted. May God bless our mothers to fulfill their noble role, and may God bless us as we honor them. On Mother’s Day, and every day.

– Matt Soper (first printed 5/13/01)