Wednesday, September 19, 2018

A Lot About Baseball, A Little About Politics


The Atlanta Braves are five and a half games ahead of the Philadelphia Phillies in the battle for the National League Eastern Division pennant. Their magic number (the combination of Braves’ wins and Phillies’ losses that would give the Braves the championship) is seven.

The last time the Braves won their division was 2013. They’ve been in rebuilding mode since then. The conventional wisdom going into this season was that the team was at least another year away from being serious contenders. My expert opinion was that if everything went just right, the Braves might win close to half their games. The conventional wisdom was wrong. So was I.

Veteran players like Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis have had outstanding seasons. Youngsters like Ronald Acuña, Ozzie Albies, Dansby Swanson, and Johan Camargo have contributed greatly. By the way, if Acuña doesn’t win the National League’s Rookie of the Year award, they should do away with it. While I’m on the subject of awards, I’d say the same thing about the Manager of the Year award if Brian Snitker doesn’t win it.

It’s been a long time since the Braves played meaningful games in September. Whether they make the playoffs or not (oh how I hope they do), this has been the most fun of any season since that of the worst-to-first team of 1991. I’m grateful, as all Braves fans should be.

I’ve been a Braves fan since the franchise moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966. That season, my parents took me to Atlanta Stadium, which held ten times the population of my hometown of Barnesville, to see a game. The Braves won, and I was hooked. I’ve followed them closely ever since.

We who have followed the Atlanta Braves from the beginning know what it’s like to go through cycles of winning and losing. They were about a .500 team during their first three seasons (1966-68). Then in 1969, which was the first year of divisional play, they won the Western Division pennant but lost to the New York Mets three games to none in the playoffs. From 1970-81, they never finished within shouting distance of first place. They came out of nowhere to win the West in 1982, but lost the playoff series to the St. Louis Cardinals three games to none. After a decent season in 1983, they went into a tailspin that saw them finish in last place in four out of seven seasons, including 1990.

But in 1991, the Braves won the Western Division championship and defeated the Eastern Division champion Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League championship series. They went on to lose the World Series in a classic seven-game matchup with the Minnesota Twins. This kicked off an amazing string of fourteen consecutive division titles (they’ve been in the Eastern Division since the 1994 realignment), four National League championships, and, in 1995, the Atlanta Braves’ only World Series Championship.

It’s been a mixed bag since the division championship streak ended in 2005. They won their division in 2013 and made the playoffs as a wild card team in 2010 and 2012. The three seasons leading up to the present one were bad, with records of 67-95 (2015), 68-93 (2016), and 72-90 (2017).

That brings us to the current season, which has been surprisingly successful. A winning season following several losing ones always feels like it comes out of nowhere. In fact, the team’s management has been laying the groundwork for such success by developing and following a long-term plan. If all goes well, this Braves season will be the first in a series of successful ones.

We who have been watching and participating in American politics know that the country also goes through cycles of winning and losing. We’ve endured a couple of years of serious losing. I’m optimistic that the groundwork has been laid for a turn in 2018 and 2020 toward better leadership.  

So go Braves!

And go 2018 and 2020 candidates who will offer effective, principled, civil, compassionate, and decent leadership!

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Authenticity


Sometimes before a worship service in which I’m going to preach, I’ll tell the folks staffing the soundboard, “Try to make me sound better than I am.” We share a laugh. But I’m always suspicious that they’re thinking, “We would if we could!”

I don’t really mean it, though. I want my real voice to be heard. I furthermore want my real voice to reflect my real life.

In a recent RollingStone article, Eric Church was talking about losing the Country Music Association’s Entertainer of the Year award to Garth Brooks. He said he didn’t mind losing to Brooks. What he did mind, he said, was that Brooks lip-synched his performance on the awards show. The reason Brooks gave for doing so was that his voice was shot. But Church said that the Entertainer of the Year shouldn’t fake it. He said, “If I can’t sing, I won’t sing, or I’ll sing badly. But at least you’ll get what you get.”

Church’s point was that singers should give the audience what they have. They should be authentic. And if they aren’t at one hundred percent, then so be it. That’s what’s real, and you should give them what’s real.

I remember watching a SaturdayNight Live episode in 1978 (this was back when I was young and could stay up that late). I was excited because the Rolling Stones were going to perform. They opened with “Beast of Burden,” which was (and still is) a favorite of mine. The band played very well. Mick Jagger’s voice was shot. He croaked through it. It wasn’t good. But it was cool. It was real. It was authentic.

About ten years ago, Rolling Stone produced a list of the top one hundred singers of all time. Aretha Franklin (who died on August 16) was #1. Most of the others are generally acknowledged to be great singers. Here’s the rest of the top ten, omitting #7: Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke, John Lennon, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder, and James Brown.

If I asked you to guess who #7 is, chances are you wouldn’t say Bob Dylan. But he is. We might wonder how in the world Dylan got listed along with those other marvelous singers. Let me quote what Bono (singer for the band U2) said in the article:

When Sam Cooke played Dylan for the young Bobby Womack, Womack said he didn’t understand it. Cooke explained that from now on, it’s not going to be about how pretty the voice is. It’s going to be about believing that the voice is telling the truth.

It’s all about authenticity. That’s what we need from our singers, our preachers, and our politicians. It’s what we need from each other.

Monday, September 3, 2018

In Praise of Old Southern Seminary


In some ways, what I want to say here doesn’t matter. What’s done is done. The past is the past and the present is the present. We can’t go back to the way things used to be, and we shouldn’t want to. Put succinctly, it is what it is.
But it also was what it was. And that’s what I want to talk about.
I have two degrees from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS). I earned a Master of Divinity degree (a professional ministerial degree, similar to a lawyer’s law degree or a doctor’s medical degree) in 1982 and a Doctor of Philosophy degree (Old Testament major, New Testament minor) in 1986. Those degrees in hand, I’ve spent the last three decades as a pastor, a preacher, a professor, and now, an editor. 

Those of you who are Baptists of my generation and earlier don’t need me to rehearse what happened to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) or to its seminaries, including Southern. For those of you who aren’t, I’ll just say that in 1979, right wing elements of the convention undertook a long game to gain control of the convention. By 1990, the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC was complete. During the intervening decade, the convention’s six seminaries in general, and its flagship seminary SBTS in particular, were repeatedly attacked. You are no doubt aware of how Donald Trump talks about the press as the enemy of the people. That’s how the people who orchestrated and led the takeover of the SBC talked about the seminaries. And they were as wrong about the seminaries as Trump is about the press. The seminaries fell with the convention. Those of us who attended them back in the day received a different kind of education than current students do. That’s why, when I tell someone that I graduated from Southern Seminary, I always specify that it was the pre-1990 version. 

This is all ancient history. It’s on my mind because I just read some things that some of my contemporaries recently said about their experience at SBTS. They spoke as if their experience at Southern Seminary was something they had to survive and overcome. I’m in no position to comment on their experience. We all brought our own lives to Louisville, and we all heard what we heard with our own ears, processed it with our own minds, and filtered it through our own experiences. 

I just want to testify that my experience at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary was excellent. It was not just less negative than these contemporaries of mine say it was for them. It was the opposite of negative and hurtful: it was positive and helpful. One of the reasons is that I had already figured out before arriving at SBTS that a person, and especially a preacher and teacher, could (and should) simultaneously possess a deep faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, a profound devotion to the Bible, and a critical (meaning a carefully analytical) approach to the biblical text. I had learned that as a seventeen-year-old freshman at Mercer University in an Introduction to the Old Testament class taught by Dr. Howard Giddens.

Please understand that I was not prepared to hear what I heard Dr. Giddens say. The beloved church and pastor of my childhood knew nothing of critical approaches to the Bible, so I didn’t either. So when Dr. Giddens told us about how the Pentateuch developed over an extended period of time, which meant that Moses didn’t write it (or at least not much of it), I was a tad confused. When I told my father what Dr. Giddens had said, he gave me one of the greatest gifts he ever gave me (and he gave me many). Before I tell that part of the story, let me say that my father, while a very smart man, had only a high school education and was a lifelong textile mill worker. What he knew about the Bible, he had learned on his own. When I told him that Dr. Giddens had said that Moses didn’t write everything in the Pentateuch, his eyes glimmered as he said, “You know, I’ve always wondered how Moses managed to write about his own death.”

And the light came on that has never gone out. My high school-educated, textile mill-working father loved the Lord and the Bible as much as anyone I’d ever known. Now he was setting me free to take seriously what Dr. Giddens and other scholars, who loved the Lord and the Bible as much as he did, and who knew a lot more about Scripture than he did, said.

That was the mindset with which I entered Southern Seminary. What I found there were teachers who gave their lives in service to the Lord. What I found there were professors who had a burning interest in understanding what the Bible actually says and means. Yes, they used the best that current scholarship had to offer, but that was part of the wonder of it all. My experience was that they used such methods in service to the Lord, to Scripture, and to the church. I am and always will be grateful for how they shared their faith and knowledge with me and inspired me to engage in a lifelong pursuit of a growing, honest, Christ-centered, biblically-guided life and ministry.

As I said earlier, maybe none of this matters now. But when you read or hear preachers say bad things about their experience at the old (pre-1990) Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, I want you to remember that I always have said, still say, and always will say good things about mine.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Faces and Heels


I used to watch professional wrestling.

There, I said it, and I feel better.

Most of my viewing occurred way back before pro wrestling became the huge entertainment business it is now and before its scripted nature was publicly acknowledged. We’re talking the late 1960s, when I was ten or eleven years old.

I’d watch wrestling on channel 11 out of Atlanta on Saturday nights at 11:30. But the really entertaining telecast was on Columbus’s channel 3 at 4:00 p.m. on Saturdays. Jim Carlisle was the announcer. Promoter Fred Ward joined him on air. Ward always sent a special greeting to “all our shut-ins” hoping they’d “be up and at ‘em real real soon!”

Live wrestling took place every Friday night at the Atlanta Civic Auditorium. I’d beg my father to take me, but he never would. Then, miracle of miracles, around 1970 they started having wrestling on Saturday nights at the Sports Palace, which was on the Barnesville side of Griffin. My father agreed to take me one time. He sat there and laughed through the entire card, so I decided he was an unsuitable companion with whom to watch wrestling.

Luckily, my Uncle Dock Knight (he wasn’t really my uncle; his wife was a cousin to my mother, and I was raised to call them Uncle Dock and Aunt Bernice) and his son, the legendary Rudy Knight, regularly attended the matches, so I’d occasionally hitch a ride with them.

Those were the days of grapplers such as Joe Scarpa, Paul DeMarco, the Assassins, Ray Gunkel and Buddy Fuller, El Mongol, Buddy Colt, Bobby Shane, and the Professional Doug Gilbert, most of whom I saw in Griffin.

In pro wrestling, as in cowboy movies, you have your good guys and your bad guys. Good guys are known as “faces” and bad guys as “heels.” Occasionally there would be a “heel turn” in which a good guy would become a bad guy, or a “face turn” in which a bad guy would become a good guy.

These turns offered an interesting lesson in crowd psychology. Even as a child, I was amazed at how easily and quickly a crowd could switch from hating someone to loving them, or vice-versa. It didn’t seem logical to me, even as I went along with it, to cease booing and start cheering someone just because he switched sides.

The wrestlers were just following the script. So were we. We just didn’t know it.

We should beware letting that happen in other, much more important areas of life. 

Take politics, for example. Maybe the same mentality that lets wrestling fans believe that—a long history that proves otherwise notwithstanding—a heel is really a face and is therefore someone they can and should support, also enables a large group of Americans to believe that someone who has never shown any sign of being on their side now is.

This might be a good time to remind ourselves that a political narrative can be, like a professional wrestling one, fiction.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

The Last Blockbuster

I was a professor at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee in the 1990s. We had a university-wide faculty meeting just before the beginning of each new school year. The president of the university would address us.

One year—it was probably 1994 or 1995—he said something like this: “Blockbuster Video is one of the great success stories of our time. And it will be gone in ten years.” He said this would happen because people would get their movies by other means, such as through delivery to their computers. I don’t remember him using the word “streaming,” but that’s what he was talking about.

It took longer than he said it would, but he was right. In 1994, Blockbuster had about 4,500 stores in the United States. As of this writing, only one Blockbuster store remains. It’s in Bend, Oregon, and I suspect that if you want to see it, you’d better get out there as soon as possible. I hear Bend is a nice place to visit.

What happened? Lots of things. Netflix’s movies by mail happened. So did Redbox’s movies by kiosk. And most recently, movies by streaming services like Netflix and Amazon. In short, change happened. It wasn’t that long ago that it was hard to imagine a world without Blockbuster. We’re now living in it.

It’s not that watching movies at home has gone away. It’s just that methods of providing them for home viewing have evolved, and the evolution has left video stores in the graveyard of historical footnotes. It’s survival of the most convenient.

But they still make movies, don’t they? Hollywood keeps churning them out, and people keep going to theaters to see them. There’s still nothing like seeing a good film on a big screen. So the fact that we’re down to the last Blockbuster doesn’t mean that we’re down to the last movie.

Methods of home movie delivery come and go. But they still make movies and show them in theaters.

There are different ways of doing church too. Some of them have stood the test of time, and the jury is still out on some. But all churches still worship the same God, follow the same Jesus, and read the same Bible that they have for almost two millennia. We may struggle over meanings, quibble over details, and argue over methods, but we all keep going back to the same sources.

There are different ways of being American too. Different groups, movements, and individuals have different perspectives, approaches, and priorities that lead them to emphasize some ways other than or more than others. But we read the same Constitution we’ve been reading for well over two centuries now. We may struggle over meanings, quibble over details, and argue over methods, but we all keep going back to the same source.

Video stores offered a very helpful way of bringing movies into our homes, but that way has now become extinct because better ways have been developed. Maybe we sometimes develop better ways of practicing faith or of exercising citizenship.

But we keep going back to the movies. We keep going back to the Lord and to the Bible. We keep going back to the Constitution.

As we continue moving forward, we need to keep looking back.

As we go where we need to go, we need to remember where we come from.


Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Star-Spangled Banner


As the sun arose on September 14, 1814, a man on a ship several miles away from Fort McHenry, which guarded the Baltimore harbor, saw that the American flag still waved over it after many hours of British bombardment. Inspired by the sight, that man, whose name was Francis Scott Key, wrote the first verse of a poem that he later expanded to four verses. And thus was born what we know as “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

You can see the flag that flew over Fort McHenry if you visit the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History in Washington D.C. It’s not as large as those humongous banners flying over car dealerships, but it’s still a big flag. If you go visit the flag, or if you look at a picture of it online, you’ll notice a couple of things about it.

For one thing, it has fifteen stars and fifteen stripes, as it had since 1795, not long after the fourteenth and fifteenth states—Vermont and Kentucky—were added to the Union. The nation has changed a lot since then, as has the American flag, which now has fifty stars for the fifty states and thirteen stripes for the thirteen original states.

For another thing, the flag that inspired “The Star-Spangled Banner” is damaged. Some of the damage occurred in battle, some from handling over the years, and some from people cutting pieces off as souvenirs. The first two kinds of damage are understandable, but not the last. It’s a shame that people damaged the flag out of selfish motives.

When we sing our national anthem, let’s give some thought to the fact that the song originally referred to a damaged flag. Let’s also think about how the pristine flags that fly over our government buildings, stadiums, and homes represent a damaged nation. That is always the case, no matter who is in the White House, in Congress, or on judicial benches.

Some damage to the nation is inevitable, given the imperfections of the humanity that comprise its citizenry and its leadership. Damaging actions are especially egregious, though, when they are carried out from self-serving motives. Our leaders should always strive to do what is best for all Americans rather than for one segment or for themselves. Leaders will always lead imperfectly, but they should at least lead with the interests of the entire nation uppermost in their minds.

Let’s also remember that the damaged flag that flew over Fort McHenry inspired Francis Scott Key to celebrate it in verse because it persevered and survived. Our democracy—indeed, our very nation—will also survive and persevere if we will commit ourselves to continually working to help it more fully live up to its ideals.

To love our country is to want it to be the best nation it can be. “My country, right or wrong,” people say, and indeed it is. When it is right, we should celebrate and try to make it even more right. When it is wrong—and sometimes it is—we should work to make it right.

“America the Beautiful” is another of our cherished songs. Every time we sing it, I reflect a lot on this line: “America! America! God mend thine ev’ry flaw.” That’s a good prayer. We should stay alert to how God would have us contribute to the mending process. What can we do to help make America better?

We deal with the fact that Americans have differing visions of what it means for America to be America, much less that it means for America to be damaged, to be whole, to be right, or to be wrong. But we need to find ways to work together to move toward ever greater equality and justice.

We sing about a damaged American flag. We love a damaged American nation. We need to build on what’s right and to correct what’s wrong. We need to keep moving toward “liberty and justice for all.”

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Let's Stick to the Point


Latin terms name the two basic choices we have when discussing, debating, or arguing with someone.

We can use ad hominem arguments. Ad hominem literally means “to the man” (we would say “to the person”). Someone using an ad hominem argument attacks the other person rather than discuss the issue. 

Our other option is to use ad rem arguments. Ad rem literally means “to the point.” Someone using an ad rem argument focuses on discussing the issue at hand rather than on attacking the other person.

It seems to me that people too often use ad hominem arguments rather than ad rem ones. We are quick to attack each other rather than talk about the issues. We see this tendency especially when people discuss political, social, or religious issues.

I suspect it’s always been that way, but social media seems to bring this tendency out in extreme ways. I’ve seen many of my Facebook friends and fellow tweeters use derogatory terms to attack those with whom they disagree. They sometimes direct their insults at individuals, but they usually target groups, particularly in generalized, stereotyped, or caricatured forms.

Such attacks aren’t helpful for many reasons, but I’ll name just two. First, they reflect false and careless thinking. All Democrats are not the same in their attitudes, perspectives, and positions. Neither are all Republicans, conservatives, or liberals. Every group has its subgroups, and every group is made up of individuals.

A second reason that attacking people rather than addressing issues is unhelpful is that it makes it very difficult to come together to solve problems.

Some of us like to engage in a form of ad hominem argumentation that I’ll call “name and blame.” Political leaders often use this approach. They’ll say something like, “It started under the last administration” or “It’s the other party’s fault.” Normal people say the same kinds of things: “Why didn’t you complain about this when your party was in control?” “Well, after all, Warren G. Harding did it first.”

Such statements aren’t helpful even when they’re true. Rehashing who did what way back when doesn’t get us anywhere here and now, and here is where we are and now is when we are.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t look back at all. We should, because understanding how we got here can help us figure out what we need to do now that we’ve arrived. For example, we can’t arrive at valid solutions to our immigration situation if we don’t recall how countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras got into the state they’re in, come to grips with the role we played in it, and make a strong commitment to work with them to help them become places where their citizens can be safe and secure.

But it does no good to blame those who came before. And it certainly does no good to blame those who voted for and supported those who came before.

We will be much better off if we’ll stick to ad rem arguments. We need to deal with the issues at hand in positive and constructive ways. This is difficult because different people have such different starting points. As for me, I make no apology for wanting always to begin with love, grace, compassion, and mercy. I realize this will never be a perfect world and we who live in it will always have mixed motives and limited perspectives.

But we need to come together to work on identifying the root causes of our problems, developing real solutions, and working to make things better.

I cling to the hope that we will.