Thursday, February 23, 2006



One of the more compelling American stories this Winter Olympics has been in men’s speed-skating, as two world-record-holding participants, Chad Hedrick and Shani Davis, have sought gold medals in their respective and over-lapping events. Alas, what could have been a glorious experience for athletes and viewers has turned into… well, Shaq-Kobe II. I mean, can we have some graciousness please?

Here’s the situation: Davis is a lone wolf type, he goes his own way, makes his own rules, doesn’t have many friends in the U.S. Speed skating organization, grants few interviews, etc. But the guy is the first African-American world-record-holder in speed skating history, who grew up in a tough area of Chicago and persevered to success. What a great story.

Hedrick is the All-American Texan type, intense, friendly, highly competitive, accessible to the media. What started it all is Davis’s decision to skip the opening ceremony and then the team pursuit competition, in which the U.S. subsequently did not medal, and in which Davis’ excellence might have propelled them to gold. This seemed insensitive because two of the four skaters (the third was Hedrick) were competing in only that race and saw any medal chance disappear when Davis opted out.

Well the media, working the relationship triangle to beautiful destruction, pursued the controversy like little Screwtapes, eliciting a heated series of exchanges between Davis and Hedrick such that last night’s marquis event, the 1500 meters, which featured Davis and Hedrick vying for the gold, was won instead by a superb Italian racer, Enrico Fabris, with Davis winning the silver and Hedrick the bronze. One could say that their little feud made them unaware of, and vulnerable to, Fabris. In the press conference afterwards neither spoke to or looked at the other. It was, ahem, awkward.

Hedrick seems to be the “good guy” in all this, but wait! Sitting next to Hedrick but speaking to the reporters, Davis said “It would have been nice… if after the 1,000 meter race he could have been a good teammate and shook my hand, just like I shook his hand – no, hugged him – after he won the 5,000 meters.” One gracious gesture might have averted all this.

Frankly, I’d like someone to spank ‘em both and put ‘em in a time-out.

Imagine how this could have been different (and since I’m writing this mid-week, maybe it will have a happy ending by the time the Olympics close). Davis could have said, “I know my teammates were disappointed I chose not to do the team pursuit. I truly wish them the best and want our whole team to do well. But I know what I need to do to prepare for my maximum performance and that is to train alone and focus on my events.” And Hedrick could have replied, “I don’t agree with his decision but I respect Shani as an athlete and I wish him the best. He’s an outstanding competitor.” OR SOMETHING LIKE THAT. And then shut up.

My point is that a little graciousness goes a LONG way. It can change the whole tone of a relationship. As the old saying goes, “If you don’t have something good to say about someone, don’t say anything at all.”

Husbands and wives, listen for a second: Are you gracious to one another? Do you say things like “please” and “thank you” and “I appreciate that” and “would you mind if” and “I’m sorry for” and “here, you hold the remote” (that last one is huge). Cards and chocolates once a year on Valentines Day are great, but these kinds of words are the DAILY cards and chocolates of a relationship.

Call them “winning words.” No athleticism necessary.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Everything Is Under Control

This particular news item has been overshadowed by the Muslim “cartoon protests,” the vice president’s hunting accident, and the Winter Olympics, but a couple of weeks ago there was a ferry sinking (caused by a fire in the vehicle parking bay) off the Saudi Arabian coast that took the lives of hundreds of men, women and children. One newspaper account in particular caught my attention (“Ferry disaster tales fuel anger”; Miriam Fam, AP, 2/4/06).

It seems that many more peoples’ lives could have been saved if the crew and passengers had taken purposeful action once the fire started on board. But the message the crew members repeatedly gave to the passengers was, “Everything is under control.” One Egyptian passenger, speaking from a hospital bed afterwards, recalled that some crew members even discouraged passengers from putting on life jackets “so as not to cause the women and children to panic.”

This is the line in the news article that struck me: “The accounts of delay and denial have enraged those who lost friends and relatives when the ship sank…”

Delay and denial. The stars and stripes of fear and failure. The alpha and omega of malaise and misery. The heads and tails of stagnation and sorrow.

How often we see this! The young couple keeps spending more than they earn, insisting on a lifestyle build on credit card debt, auto payments, and a stiff mortgage, digging themselves deeper and deeper. But neither will address it. If they don’t talk about it then maybe it doesn’t exist! (Denial). Shouldn’t they change their habits? Maybe next year. (Delay). La di da.

How often we see this! The married couple whose relationship is slowly growing stale and lifeless, like a tire with a slow leak. But there’s so much going on: jobs, kids, church (!), finances. Let’s just pretend we don’t see the warning signs (Denial). I’ll wait until he/she addresses it (Delay).

How often we see this! His blood pressure and weight is way too high. He’s read the warnings in the health articles. His doctor has mentioned it. But hey, it could be a lot worse, right? (Denial). Maybe I’ll start exercising and eating right some day (Delay).

“Survivors said that throughout the ordeal, the crew had one message: ‘Everything is under control.’ But it wasn’t. When the end came, the ship sank in minutes, said Abdul Hakim. He and others were swept off the deck and into the water as if skidding down a giant slide.” (Miriam Fam, AP).

I remember seeing a sign in a chiropractor’s office when I was living in Connecticut and trying to treat a shoulder injury. The sign said something like this: The Six Most Dangerous Words: Maybe… It…Will…Just…Go…Away.

Friends, sometimes it does but most of the time it doesn’t. It needs to be addressed. It needs to be faced. And listen closely: There is great FREEDOM in facing it, in finally naming the problem and taking the first step(s) to address it. The truth will indeed set you free (John 8:32). Isn’t it significant that the first of the Twelve Steps is acknowledging you have a problem? The second and third are acknowledging there is a God who cares and invoking his strength in addressing the problem. The fourth is conducting a “searching and fearless moral inventory.” This is called FACING THE FACTS. It is so powerful.

So, how are things on your ship?

Wednesday, February 08, 2006


So I’m sure you’ve heard about the riots taking place in much of the Muslim world over a Danish newspaper’s publication of twelve editorial cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad in caricature. Many Muslims consider any visual depiction of Mohammed to be a sacred violation; in addition , of course, they also don't appreciate the satire.

In the ensuing maelstrom of Muslim protests and Danish freedom-of-speech rebuttals, twenty other countries’ newspapers printed the cartoons in a show of freedom-of-the-press solidarity, which in turn elicited calls from the foreign ministers of seventeen Islamic countries to demand that the Danish government punish those responsible for the cartoons. Later, mobs of Muslim protesters set fire to the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Syria and the Danish consulate in Beirut. Demonstrations and protests continue.


I don't normally comment on “political” issues in this space but this one has a religious component so please extend me the latitude.

Scott MacLeod of Time magazine makes a valid point when he notes that protest over the cartoons has become a “channel for outrage over Iraq and a political weapon for Muslim regimes seeking support against the West.” Yes, this episode is being used by cunning leaders as a tool to foment more hatred against the “Judeo-Christian West.” Fine, but one cannot help but feel a sense of incredulity at the double-standard.

As Dennis Prager puts it (, 2/7/06), “When Muslim governments and religious spokesmen attack the West for its insensitivity to Muslims and its anti-Muslim prejudice, one has entered the Twilight Zone. Because nowhere in the world is there anywhere near the religious bigotry and sheer hatred of other religions that exists in the Muslim world.”

My sense is that with this newest conflict (conflagration?) we have crossed a line of sorts. The huge reservoir of tolerance among “westerners” is wearing thin. As Tim Rutten, a left-of-center columnist for the L.A. Times, writes: “It’s no longer possible to overlook the culture of intolerance, hatred and xenophobia that permeates the Islamic world” (L.A. Times, 2/4/06)

Am I wrong for longing to see one demonstration by Muslims to protest foreigners taken hostage and beheaded in the name of Allah?

Am I wrong for wondering where the protests have been over the million non-Arab and non-Muslim men, women and children who have been slaughtered by the Islamic regime in Sudan?

As Prager puts it, “Which casts Islam in a worse light – political cartoons depicting Muhammad, or Muslims who murder innocents around the world in the name of Allah and Islam?”

Listen. I’m sure there are millions of honorable, devout, compassionate Muslims around the world who abhor violence in the name of Allah.

I’d sure like to hear from some of them.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006


I wrote last week about two different ways to approach the mission of the local church: is it to meet peoples’ needs, or is it to intensify their spiritual hunger and help them seek God? (I choose the latter).

This relates to a shift that has taken place in American culture which I’m sure you’ve heard much mention of so I won’t beat it to death, but I’m talking about the shift from modernism to postmodernism. Consider a comment made by one community church pastor whose congregation heretofore had practiced a “seeker-sensitive” philosophy of ministry: “People aren’t coming as much to be convinced of the relevance of Christianity as they are coming with a hunger for God.”

The seeker-sensitive model (I’m generalizing here) is predicated on unchurched people investigating the claims of the Christian faith and needing a safe place (re: the church) to ask questions. Thus, a seeker sensitive church often endeavors to “lower the barriers” by dispensing with overtly religious symbols and terminology in order to better “connect” the seeker to the message of Christianity from his/her vantage point. To be sure, many of these churches have been phenomenally fruitful in reaching unreligious people and, just as certainly, they have served to challenge all American congregations to be more aware of the barriers people face when they finally come to church, i.e., the local church is often far more standoffish than it thinks.

But the good pastor’s comment speaks volumes. People aren’t coming with questions, they’re coming with hunger. They don’t want to hear talk about God; they want to experience God. They are stressed by finances, by their commute, by their jobs, by the frenetic pace which technology (emails, cell phones, internet) has coerced them into feeling they need to maintain.

The seeker-sensitive philosophy tries to meet people where they are and gently teach the Kingdom of God to them in terms they understand. It says implicitly (I’m still generalizing), “There are far more points of connection between the Christian life and your life than you realize.” But now we are past that. Increasingly people don’t want points of connection but of disconnection. They are looking for an alternative world, a radical break from the empty treadmill of work/consumption/recreation they have been duped into believing is the good life. They don’t want a dissertation on the Kingdom of God, they want to sample Kingdom living. They want to participate in the Lord’s Supper, read scripture, serve the poor, learn how to forgive like Jesus, sacrifice for something meaningful, be a part of something eternal. They’re not convinced they’ll find it in the organized church but they will give it a try.

The Psalmist (Ps 63) begins his devotions by acknowledging his hunger: “O God you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints for you as in a dry and weary land.” He aches for God, and his yearning is rewarded. “My soul is satisfied with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips…” He aches for God, not the church, but he needs the church to help him fill his ache. “So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.”

Lord, let it be so.