Sermon: The First Step is the Only Step


David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Nathan replied, “The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die." (2 Samuel 12:13)

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The Low-Hanging Fruit of the ESPN "Body" Issue


Around these parts, sometimes we have to go looking for law/gospel illustrations in the nooks and crannies of the popular world. Sometimes, though, they come and browbeat us. Such is the case with the annual ESPN "Body" issue, on newsstands now. A "celebration of the athletic form," the Body Issue is supposed to be, I think, an equal-opportunity (and more obviously sports-oriented) answer to the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. Oh, and there aren't any swimsuits. Birthday suits only, in this one.

Interestingly (perhaps) is the fact that it's not really the athletes bodies themselves that are the law to me. I hope that our female readers are as able to dismiss Kate Upton's proportions as I am to dismiss Rob Gronkowski's. The Body Issue, though, is even a level more nefarious than the Swimsuit Edition, in my opinion. In its desire to do more than simply objectify its models, the issue focuses on what it takes to "create and maintain" those bodies. At first blush, this is a nice touch, clarifying the fact that while God's gift certainly contributes to a glorious physique, it takes a lot of work to maintain the gift. But then, as you digest the articles surrounding the photos, a new law (ht Derek Webb) emerges.


While I don't beat myself up (too much) about not having the body of Gronkowski or Jose Bautista, I feel really badly about not even having the remotest desire to work as hard as they do...or at all. Indeed, if my body is the temple of the Holy Spirit (and again, I'm content for my temple to be St. Olaf the Slightly Bloated rather than St. Adonis the Sculpted), then my temple has cobwebs in the corners, a crumbling foundation, and Brazil-style trash blowing around it.  It is, you might say, um...neglected.

Physical attractiveness is one of the most universally-felt laws in the world. We all too often feel inferior (and therefore judged) for our looks. ESPN has taken it one step further and made us feel judged for our efforts, too. The Good News is that we are as justified in the face of our failure of effort as we are for the insufficiency of the end result.

The Confession and the Purpose of the Pulpit


I've been an ardent John Grisham fan for a long time. I even argued, relatively vehemently, that Grisham counted as "literature" with a sort-of snob in college. Grisham's recent books have been less excellent, though, than his early ones, often focusing on personal stories rather than legal intrigue and thriller pacing. One of his latest, The Confession, tells the story of Keith Schroeder, a Lutheran minister who attempts to get a wrongly convicted man off of death row through the confession of a dying man, the real killer. The morality of capital punishment plays a large role in the novel, and Grisham leaves no doubt as to where he stands. The relevant passage, near the end of the novel:
As a minister, he steadfastly refused to mix politics and religion. In the pulpit, he had stayed away from issues such as gay rights, abortion, and war, preferring instead to teach what Jesus taught -- love your neighbor, help the less fortunate, forgive others because you have been forgiven, and follow God's laws. 
However, after witnessing the execution, Keith was a different person, or at least a different preacher. Suddenly, confronting social injustice was far more important than making his flock feel good each Sunday. He would begin hitting the issues, always from the Christian perspective and never from the politician's, and if it rankled folks, too bad. He was tired of playing it safe. 
"Would Jesus witness an execution without trying to stop it?" he asked. "Would Jesus approve of law that allow us to kill those who have killed?" The answer to both was no, and for a full hour, in the longest sermon of his career, Keith explained why not.
Now. Put aside for a moment that Keith's previous preaching seems pretty terrible in its own right. "Love your neighbor, help the less fortunate, forgive others because you have been forgiven, and follow God's laws?" Ugh. How about some Gospel, please? Keith seems to have moved only from killing his people with unfollow-able laws to killing them with lofty morality. Let's look at the key line in the passage: "Suddenly, confronting social injustice was far more important than making his flock feel good each Sunday."

Excuse me? Isn't THE GOOD NEWS (note the inclusion of the word "good") supposed to be the thing that is proclaimed each Sunday? Shouldn't that make the flock feel good? At least for a moment? And the idea that Keith's law-based preaching used to make his flock feel good is laughable. Didn't Paul tell the Corinthian church that he "resolved to know nothing" among them "except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:2)? And what a smug dismissal of comforting preaching: that we silly little people who just want to feel good are somehow missing out on real Christianity, which ought to make us feel rankled...no thanks.

The pulpit is for the proclamation of the Gospel, the Good News that Jesus Christ came to save sinners, even those who witness executions without stopping them and those who make laws that allow us to kill those who have killed. The pulpit is not for confronting social injustice...there are other places for that. We hear the Gospel...the true, unadulterated Gospel...so rarely in the world. We hear about how we ought to act and what we ought to think all the time.  Let's save Sunday morning for Good News.

Death by Slow-Pitch Judgmentalism


So I’m finally old enough to play in a men’s softball league. I’ve been looking forward to this for years!  I’m a proud member of a Denville 32-and-over men’s softball team…and I couldn't be happier. You should know, first of all, that this is not a “beer league.” The guys do gather on a hill overlooking the field and enjoy a beverage after the game, but there’s no drinking during play, and the games are pretty serious. As someone who can’t play Memory with my four-year-old without wanting to win, it’s perfect.

I’ve joined a team that’s been in existence for many years, so I’m “the new guy.” This means I get razzed
and that I bat near the end of the line-up. The guys are pretty great, though, and they don’t give me a very hard time. Of course, one of the things that they DO give me a hard time about is my job. As soon as it came out that I was a minister, that was all anyone could talk about. They’ve taken to calling me “Saint Nick.” Most of all, though, they feel like they’ve got to apologize for every curse word or off-color comment.

See, I represent the law and judgment to them. Try as I might to explain that I’m just a normal person and that I’ve heard it all before (and then some), these guys have trouble seeing me as “one of the guys.” It’s like they
imagine that I’m wearing my collar while we play! Someone will drop a ball, curse, and then turn to me and
apologize.


The thing is, though, that it’s not really me. It’s the church. Not YOUR church, THE church. People out in the world see the church as a judgmental institution, not as a gracious one. This is our problem…it’s a major reason people don’t come. Of course, the problem is that the church (and Christians in general) come across as ONLY judgmental. "Christianity" itself is seen as a set of behaviors (or avoided behaviors, like cussing) and one's ability to adhere to those behaviors (or avoid them) constitutes one's acceptability as a Christian. Hence my avalanche of apologies.

But judgment, of course, is just the opening salvo in our theological shock-and-awe campaign. We're shocked to find that we're sinners, but awed by the depth of love in the forgiveness offered; indeed, not simple forgiveness, but substitution! Like a Fourth of July fireworks show (San Diego 2012 excepted), the finale always dwarfs the opening. Love overshadows judgment.

I can never have a real relationship with my teammates so long as they keep apologizing to me when they swear. They see me (at least) as a judgmental surrogate, if not a judgment machine in my own right. Judgment kills love, and relationships. To be whole, we must remember the central tenet of true Christianity: love always trumps judgment, the Gospel always trumps the law, and forgiveness is always better than criticism. We’re sinners, and we’re forgiven.

Book Review: 11/22/63 by Stephen King


For being such a huge commercial success, I don't think that Stephen King is that great a writer. Of course, that's not uncommon (I'm looking at you, James Patterson).  What King excels at is storytelling, not the particular turn of phrase. 11/22/63, though, largely overcomes its occasionally ham-handed prose to tell a heck of a yarn.

Jake Epping is a high school teacher in suburban Maine who stumbles upon a portal into the past, specifically to to a summer afternoon in 1958.  Each time he goes back is a complete reset of all previous trips, and, though he takes a couple of side trips along the way, his main mission is to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating JFK.  This obviously involves, if you can subtract, waiting around for more than five years in the past.  As I said, though, King is a master storyteller, and he finds plenty for his hero to do.

The book earns demerits for the leaden writing (King mentions that the past is "obdurate" and doesn't want to be changed approximately 1,789 times) and sub-plot recycling (the past also "harmonizes" with itself: 2,342 times), not to mention the crippling problem of never really explaining why Epping feels so compelled to save Kennedy in the first place.  It overcomes these obstacles, though, by excelling at prompting the reader to keep turning pages (and it had better; the novel comes in a lean 849 of them!).

King is at his best writing short stories (find The Running Man and burn your VHS copy of the movie) and most of his novels are anything but.  11/22/63 could stand to be 300 pages shorter (which is really saying something!), but is an entertaining read nonetheless.

11/22/63: 3.5 stars out of 5

Sermon: You're Weak, Just Like You Need to Be


Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." (2 Corinthians 12:7-9)

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Reports of Roger Federer's Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated


One may well wonder why we're live blogging the Federer/Djokovic semifinal, rather than waiting for the Wimbledon final.  Well, it all comes back to Federer, as so many things do. It’s crazy to hear Federer talked about as the underdog…though he’s never lost in a Wimbledon semi-final.  In Djokovic’s fourth-round match (against Viktor Troiki, a fellow Serb), a fan implored Troiki to test Djokovic’s backhand, prompting Troiki to offer the fan his racket.  Let’s see if Federer takes the fan’s advice.  The consensus is that this is probably Federer’s last good chance to win a major, grass being his best surface and Nadal having already lost; if he can get past Djokovic today, he’ll likely win.  I love watching these guys warm up…they’re so accurate.  They hit it to each other in certain places to that they can work on certain shots…seemingly without communication.  Here we go.

First set

Nothing evokes “scorched earth” like the baselines in the later rounds of Wimbledon.  It must change play so much to have your footing so tenuous (on grass early, on dirt late) in different ways throughout the tournament.  After three games, we’re 2-1 Federer on serve, no one being challenged too much.  It’s also crazy to hear Federer talked about in terms of his recent back issues.  He’s played for so long with that effortless grace that the cognitive dissonance of him being injured is overpowering.  It’s like LeBron cramping up and needing to be carried off the court in Game 4 of the Finals.  “Wait, what?  LeBron is human?”  I have the same feeling about Federer.

The match has officially begun: Federer breaks Djokovic to go up 4-2.  Djokovic seems uncomfortable; he’s hitting a lot of balls long and into the net.  Federer consolidates: 5-2.  After two easy service games, Federer wins the first set, 6-3.  He looks much better at this point than Djokovic, but one has the impression that Novak just needs to get his feet under him to make this a real match…not a good first set for him.

Second set (Federer 1-0)

Djokovic breaks Federer easily to go up 2-0 in the second.  Federer dumped a couple of balls into the net and hasn’t been in either game so far.  Novak holds at love and leads 3-0.  Federer has won only a single point so far in this set.  Funny, the announcers aren’t talking about how Djokovic isn’t moving very well.  Actually, I don’t see much change in his game, except that his first serves are going in more often and his groundstroke angles are getting sharper.  Good point by Patrick McEnroe: Djokovic is picking up Federer’s ball better, especially on the serve…in other words, he doesn’t have to be moving as well because his anticipation is improving.

I’ve been using the same racket (only restringing it when I break one) for years; Federer and Djolovic will probably use 7-8 between them today.  Chris Fowler just made John McEnroe admit that he’s never been invited to sit in the royal box.  You’ve made a powerful enemy today, Chris…a powerful enemy.

Well.  That was a bravura service performance from Djokovic.  He lost only three points on his serve for the whole set, winning 6-3 on the strength of that break in the second game.  All even, a set apiece.

Third set (1-1)

Federer wins the first service game, 1-0.  They just showed a graphic stating that Federer only has 5 unforced errors to Djokovic’s 8.  Watching the match, you’d never think that was the case.  They must be really generous about what constitutes a Federer “forced” error.  Djokovic giving him the stink-eye must count as forcing the ball into the net that Federer has seemed to love so much.

Big point here. If Federer can break, he can feel good about his chances.  Before the match, Patrick McEnroe was shoveling dirt on the grave of his career if Djokovic wins this match.  But Fed pushes a forehand wide, and we’re at deuce.  After a couple more points, Djokovic finishes out the hold.  It feels like Federer is just holding on now.  We’re still even, but Federer’s shots have to be much better than Novak’s to win.

Can we all agree to be done with Flo, the Progressive Insurance girl?  Man, I’m tired of those ads…she’s lasted longer than the Taco Bell chihuahua at this point.  She’s longer-running than Cheers.

We’re on serve, 3-2 Federer.  Federer has another break chance here…and Chris Fowler says, again, that it “came from nowhere.”  What does that mean?  It didn’t come from nowhere…Federer won points; Djokovic lost them.  Every break opportunity in the match has, according to Fowler, come from nowhere.  Why not every point?  “That backhand to go up 30-15 came from nowhere!”  After the rally of the match…deuce.  Djokovic has started grunting with effort, while Federer is silent, majestic.  Another break point, and Federer has yet to sweat.  And…another deuce, number 4.  This game seems to be a big one to both players…and Djokovic escapes with it, 3-3.

Two easy holds, 4-4.  Federer continues to try to go bigger, deeper, and wider on his shots, feeling that Djokovic has the advantage on longer rallies, and it leads to errors, wide and deep…and it’s led to a break opportunity for Djokovic.  Three big serves by Federer, though, give him the game.  5-4.

A BMW is advertising a warning seat-pulse when there’s a danger you might not see.  I’d never make the connection between a vibrating posterior and stepping on the brake.  Neither, I suspect, would you.

And now, Federer has a double break point for the set.  Maybe Fowler’s right…this does feel sudden.  One saved.  Federer wins the point, the set, and shows discernible human emotion, with a fist-pump and a shout.

Fourth set (Federer 2-1)

Federer opens the fourth set serving, which is a distinct advantage; he’ll be playing from in front.  And, out of nowhere (ht Chris Fowler), Federer is up 0-40 on Djokovic’s serve, up 1-0 in the fourth set.  Does it mean anything that, as I write this, I consistently type “Christ Fowler?”  Maybe I should go a little easy on the guy.  And Federer pulls it out, breaking Djokovic’s first service game.  Remember Djokovic’s wonderful serving in the second set?  Neither does he.  2-0 Federer.

With a not-all-that-easy hold, Federer consolidates the break, and takes an apparently commanding 3-0 lead.  I say “apparently” because it’s still just the one break, but it’s got to be demoralizing for Djokovic to look up at the scoreboard and see himself trailing 3-0.  Fowler made another good point though, that Djokovic is “dangerous when he’s wounded.”  He’s more willing to go for (and make) ridiculous shots, turning that demoralization right back on his opponent.

It’s deuce on Djokovic’s serve, 0-3.  If he’s loses here, he’s done.  He’ll be broken, literally (in the tennis sense) and figuratively (in the Ivan Drago sense).  But he holds it together, now down 3-1.  Federer comes right back, though, holding at love to go up 4-1 and Djokovic is starting to look a little bug-eyed.  I don’t know what that means, psychologically, but it sure looks weird.  Losing the first two points on his serve, Djokovic is beginning to shake his head, shrug, and slump a little bit.  Now it’s 0-40, and this match is juuuuuust about over.  Well…that’s four straight points from Djokovic, and I’m regretting writing that last sentence.  His advantage now…but quickly, a ridiculous forehand by Federer to bring it back to deuce.  Finally, Djokovic holds to bring it to 4-2 Federer.

Federer holds at love in the seventh game of the set to go up 5-2.  It seems like it’s just a matter of time now.  Even if Djokovic can hold, which he’s been struggling mightily to do, Federer’s serve has been untouchable.  Hard to believe Djokovic can win three games in a row.

And there you have it.  After another difficult hold, Djokovic gave Federer a little bit of trouble, but ended up dumping a forehand return into the net to give Federer the match, entry into his eighth Wimbledon final (he’s won seven), and a match against a first-time Wimbledon finalist (either Andy Murray or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga).

One can’t help but feel however, that this match against the number one player in the world, Djokovic, was the one to watch, especially with Federer's almost nonchalant disposal of native son and crowd favorite Andy Murray (who, by the way, played excellently).  It does seem, at least on grass, that reports of Federer’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Oh, and he's number one in the world again.

Control vs. Chaos? NCAA Recruiting, Texting, and Freedom


In his "Point After" column in the June 25 issue of Sports Illustrated, Phil Taylor (who is usually, and unfortunately, cut from the Rick Reilly cloth) wrote a short piece called "Thumb Wrestling for Recruits."  The subject is the intricacies of NCAA recruiting rules, and the changes thereto.  Until this year, college coaches were severely limited in their ability to contact recruits ("a phone call from once a month to twice a week, depending on the recruit's year in school").  Beginning a few weeks ago, all restrictions were lifted. Here's what Taylor writes:

I was prepared to hate the idea of a texting free-for-all. What would prevent college coaches, never models of restraint, from keeping every blue-chipper's phone on perma-vibrate? Despite the prohibition against sending even a single text, the Baylor men's and women's programs were nailed for sending more than 700 of them during a 29-month span, and former coach Kelvin Sampson was punished by the NCAA in 2006 and '08 for making hundreds of impermissible calls to recruits while at Oklahoma and Indiana. Some coaches obviously couldn't keep themselves from harassing prospects even when the reins were tight, so why turn them loose entirely?

This can't help but remind me of those classic Christian fears about the supposedly "antinomian" theology of grace. In other words, shouldn't we Christians be afraid that if people are told that no sin they commit can put them beyond the reach of Christ's saving work--even (gasp!) after they've become a Christian--won't they just start doing whatever they want?  Won't they go crazy?  Won't they take advantage of this allegedly "cheap" grace?

Taylor again:

Players seemed to expect the worst, as well, and braced themselves last week. Jabari Parker, a 6'9" forward from Chicago's Simeon Career Academy who's widely considered the No. 1 recruit from the class of 2013 (SI, May 21), reportedly changed his cellphone number in advance. Keith Frazier, a 6'5" guard from Kimball High in Dallas, told USA Today that he would "take it one holler at a time." But the onslaught hasn't occurred, at least not yet. Austin Nichols, a 6' 8" forward from Memphis, tweeted that he received about 40 texts in the first 24 hours, a manageable number for a teen. Jahlil Okafor, a 6'10" junior-to-be from Chicago, didn't receive many texts over the first weekend because he's given only his father Chuck's cell number to most recruiters. "I got more Happy Father's Day messages than I ever have before," said the older Okafor, "but that's about it."


Amazing! Freedom has not created license, or chaos. Freedom seems to have created a positive culture of real relationship. "We had previously regulated ourselves away from relationship-building with these young people, unintentionally allowing third parties greater access than our coaches," says Missouri athletic director Mike Alden. The same is true in Christianity. "Regulation" (i.e. the Law) incites rebellion and produces chaos. On the other hand, a true understanding of the depth of Christ's sacrifice (i.e. that it's sure as heck not "cheap") almost never creates license. It almost always creates the very thing that "regulation" (i.e. the Law) wanted but didn't have the power to deliver: freedom and life.

The Rundown: Aaron Sorkin


In the aftermath of his mostly disastrously-reviewed new show The Newsroom, I thought a Rundown of Aaron Sorkin's work was a good place to go.  You know, bring a little levity to the conversation.

A Few Good Men (1992)
Wow.  What a start.  "Deep down, in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall...you need me on that wall."  Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson's stand-off, and the parade of future Hollywood celebs on the witness stand (Noah Wylie, Christopher Guest, Cuba Gooding, Jr.) make this one a must-see.  Demi Moore, Kevins Pollack and Bacon, and Keifer Sutherland round out an outstanding cast, and Rob Reiner submits his tightest directorial effort.  If you haven't seen this yet...I almost don't know what to say.  Watch it tonight.


Again working with Rob Reiner, Sorkin lets his politics out of the bag a little further with this one.  Michael Douglas' liberal Chief Executive (who's a widower) falls in love with a lobbyist (Annette Bening) and an evil Republican Senator (played with mustache-twirling irony by Richard Dreyfuss) tries to oust him because of it. Martin Sheen plays the President's top advisor and gets the chance to practice all the walking and talking he'll have to do when he graduates to the big job on The West Wing.  The best thing about The American President is Michael J. Fox as a strategist...because Michael J. Fox is always great.


Sports Night (1998-2000)
A dramedy about the inner workings of a SportsCenter-like television show, Sports Night lasted only 45 episodes, but is now revered as one of the greatest television shows that didn't really "make it."  Where Sports Night fell apart, though, was its acting.  Starring Josh Charles, Peter Krause, and Felicity Huffman (who is best known as part of Hollywood power couple Filliam H. Muffman), there wasn't a powerhouse in the bunch.  Sorkin is at his best writing for real actors who really know how to deliver dialogue.  Sports Night failed where our next entry didn't.  I dare you to watch this without cringing.


The West Wing (1999-2006)
Again, it's all about the actors.  For this one, Sorkin hired Martin Sheen (who, to me, is the worst of the bunch on this otherwise well-cast show), Allison Janney, John Spencer, and Bradley Whitford to carry the load, buoyed by a host of supporting players.  In West Wing vs. Sports Night math, Allison Janney > Felicity Huffman, John Spencer > Peter Krause, and Bradley Whitford > Josh Charles.  Therefore, The West Wing >>> Sports Night.  The second in his "Behind the Scenes of ______" quadrilogy, The West Wing was his jackpot, and made him an unassailable name in the annals of Hollywood screenwriting.


Lasting only 22 episodes, Studio 60 was Sorkin's expenditure of all his built-up goodwill and entertainment capital.  A ponderous, preachy, un-funny look behind the scenes of a sketch comedy show, Sorkin's mistake this time wasn't the cast.  Matthew Perry should have been plenty capable of carrying the show, and many Sorkin regulars made appearances.  The problem here is Sorkin's own bravado.  He wrote the comedy bits himself...and they were terrible.  He portrayed hungry stand-ups and comedy writers as slick celebrities, signing autographs after the show.  Sorkin's writing was still enjoyably Sorkin, and I liked much of Studio 60 more than the trifling 30 Rock, but the terminally bland comedy on what was supposed to be a funny show proved to be too much for critics and audiences to overcome.


An overlooked gem, Charlie Wilson's War should be sought out for Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance, if nothing else.  Starring Hoffman, alongside Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, the movie, ably directed by Mike Nichols, more than makes up for in panache what it lacks in discernable story arc.  The arc starts nicely enough, but is brought to swift conclusion with a short scene and a coda card.  A pleasantly brisk 102 minutes, Charlie Wilson's War is the unsung hero in Aaron Sorkin's filmography, if only because it seems to be the only entry that isn't sung!


"How do you make a movie about Facebook?" was the prevailing line of thought in 2009 when The Social Network was filming.  No one was wondering that walking out of the theater, though...the answer was obvious: hire Aaron Sorkin.  Working again with an accomplished director (this time, David Fincher), Sorkin tells the tale of Mark Zuckerberg's travails surrounding the birth of the most popular (un-researched and non-porn) website of all time.  Also, Fincher cut together one of the greatest previews ever.


Moneyball (2011)
And there it was again..."How do you turn Moneyball into a movie?"  There's no real story in Michael Lewis' literary masterpiece about Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane's (Brad Pitt) efforts to field a competitive team with one of Major League Baseball's lowest payrolls.  Sorkin turns all of that into a sort-of Bad New Bears-style tale of ragamuffins who...well, they don't win the big game, but they did win 20 games in a row.  Jonah Hill plays Peter Brandt, a composite of several real people who taught Beane about sabermetrics, the kind of advanced statistical analysis that allowed Beane to find real value in affordable players.  And so again, "Hire Aaron Sorkin" was the correct answer to "How do you make a movie out of that?"  Perhaps Peter Berg should have hired him to write the script for Battleship.


The Newsroom (2012)
Well, we'll see.  With all of the above said, it should be good, right? The show's on HBO, so beware...there's one schword in the trailer:

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