A Ray Lewis Redemption

I find Ray Lewis' persona, both on and off the field, to be oppressively distasteful. He seems boastful, showy, and hugely self-absorbed. Exhibit A is his presence on the field for the final snap of the Ravens victory against the Broncos (his final home game) to facilitate his signature "look at me" dance. The final snap was a Ravens offensive kneel-down; Lewis is a defensive player. Despite all of this, I'm almost disappointed that he's retiring after this season, because the consensus is that he'll be a "great" television announcer, which means I'll just be subjected to more of him after his retirement than I was before it.

Also, there's the fact that he lied to police in an attempt to impede a murder investigation, an investigation in which Lewis himself was implicated.

For many years, I used this information to justify my hatred of Lewis. Sure, some of that hatred comes from the fact that I'm a Steelers fan, and Lewis is one of our nemeses. Some of it comes from his self-aggrandizement. But a lot of it comes from my belief that he's a criminal, who got away with a plea-bargain. These feelings came to the surface again several years ago during the national discussion about whether or not Michael Vick (convicted of running a dog fighting operation) should be allowed to play in the NFL again. It angered me that Lewis, present and potentially complicit in the death of a human being, was never so much as suspended, while there was sentiment that Vick shouldn't ever be allowed to play again.

The truth about Ray Lewis is this: he made a bad mistake. Very, very bad. He's not unlike me. But I need him to be unlike me.

My ability to feel good about myself requires people to exist in the world who are worse than I am. Ray Lewis fills that role. In Nick Hornby's book How to be Good, his heroine (a doctor) is a better person than her husband. One day, though, her husband experiences a spiritual conversion, and becomes (for the purposes of the book) "good." All of a sudden, the wife's world and identity are thrown upside down. She has defined herself as being "better" than her husband...now that she isn't that, who is she?

If I can't say that I'm better than Ray Lewis, who am I? What value do I have?

Ray Lewis, by all accounts, has completely reformed his life since the incident in 2000. He is a devout Christian, a pillar of his community, and a mentor to many young men. His is a story of redemption, and such stories are what we, the redeemed, should be cheering. I may not be better than Ray Lewis, but that's not a bad thing. We share an incapacitating compulsion to selfishness and sin, and we share in a regenerating love of a Savior infinitely better than both of us.

Oh, and one more thing: I hope Ray Lewis and his Ravens get crushed on Sunday.

Spartacus and the Source of Peace

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about peace.  When we have church meetings or Bible studies, I always close our time by praying that we would be covered by God’s peace until we come together again.  At the end of the service each Sunday, we pray together and ask God to “send us now into the world in peace.”  Every time we say those words, though, I think, “How can we truly have peace when our worlds are so disturbed?”  I’m not just talking about global conflict and famine, either.  Our personal worlds are disturbed: our homes, our workplaces, our souls.  From where, then, can peace come?

Peace, I think, comes from hope.  The hope that this is not the way things were meant to be and that this is not the way they will be forever; that there is a time and place beyond this one where “God will wipe away every tear from our eyes” (Rev. 7:17).  In Psalm 121, the psalmist says that he lifts “up [his] eyes to the hills,” wondering, “From whence does my help come?”  Immediately, though, he answers his own question: “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”

The psalmist knows what we often forget: that help (and therefore peace) must come from another; from outside of us, and from a place up on the hill rather than down in the valley, where we reside.  The reason we often lack peace is that we believe it is up to us to shape our destinies.  Have you seen the trailer for the Starz show, “Spartacus: War of the Damned?”  The last lines are: “Whatever happens to my people, it happens because we choose for it.  We decide our fate.”  It’s no coincidence that the show is subtitled “War of the Damned.”  If whatever happens to us is due to our choices and we decide our own fate, then we are surely lost.  If all of that is true, then we are at war (with ourselves, with others, and with God), and we are damned.

If we turn our eyes upward, though, elevating them above the fray that fills our valley, and look up to the hills, we can see from whence our help comes.  It comes from God, who not only created heaven and earth, but who sent his son to wage a victorius war on death and damnation.  He is, as God the Father, the source of our peace.  As God the Spirit, he is the presence of that peace. As God the Son, he is our peace.

Running Diary: Heat at Lakers (1/17/13)


Barkley says, joining a growing throng, that the Heat are "too small" and "have got to make a move." This is, in the main, the same roster that, ahem, won the title last year. We'll see.

1st Quarter

8:45 The Heat are 4-6 from the field with the four makes from a combined distance of zero inches.  Two huge dunks by LeBron, two medium dunks by Wade.  That was fast...and impressive.  Heat, 8-2.

6:27 Dwight Howard must be on the way back to health; he's un-guardable, and getting every rebound.  Heat, 8-6.

3:34 The Lakers are definitely better than they've been.  These two teams are going hard.  The Heat have to go hard to compete with size, and the Lakers definitely have size.  Heat, 16-14.

3:17  LeBron has the last 4 Heat points, destroying first Dwight Howard and then Pau Gasol off the dribble. Ridiculous for either guy to be guarding LeBron.

1:02 Steve Kerr's analysis is making Reggie Miller seem like a mouth-breathing troglodyte. They're just not at all in the same league. 22-22 tie.

:30 LeBron takes Earl Clark off the dribble for a dunk...Kobe (the help defender) didn't even try. Par for the course.

:00 Both teams played hard, man, and both seem to be pretty good.  Heat, 26-22 (James and Wade have 22 between them).

2nd Quarter

11:11 Lakers lead in turnovers, 12-2. No wonder they're trailing. Heat, 30-22.

9:39 Howard and Gasol both on the floor, without Nash. It'll be interesting to see how their offense goes.  Um, Gasol for three?  So, not well.

8:10 When LeBron goes off the floor, the Heat just look lost. They run everything, literally, through him. He's the creator, facilitator, and finisher. I read someone once who said that even when LeBron spends a possession in the corner, the whole defense has to keep one eye on him, opening the floor for other action. When he's not there, the other team can relax and just play. Heat, 31-29.

6:55 Pau and Dwight are actually working pretty well together...but they can't finish at the rim. You've gotta expect that that'll change. Ah...here come LeBron, Nash, and Bryant. Kerr: "it feels like this game is out of hand; but it's right there." Heat 33-29.

6:19 Lakers playing "Jump" in the arena. Love, love, love. Heat 33-29.

4:23 Kerr makes a good point. The Lakers are able to stay close because the Heat have had to play Joel Anthony a bunch of minutes to combat the Lakers' size. He's a non-entity on offense and also takes a floor spot away from a shooter. 35-35 tie.

3:16 Mark Wahlberg is sitting RIGHT next to the Lakers bench. I mean, there's no room between his seat and the last bench seat. Kobe came off the court just now and sat next to Marky Mark. D'Antoni might accidentally put him in the game. Heat 39-35.

2:50 Um...Jack Nicholson's got the game ball, though. Take that, Funky Bunch. Heat, 41-37.

1:03 Dwight Howard is a brutal match-up for the Heat. He's getting every rebound in his sphere of influence, which is basically the whole lane. Lakers, 43-41.

:00 The half ends with each team running an iconic play. The Lakers run a terrifying Nash/Howard pick-and-roll, with Howard rolling down the middle of the lane for the easy lay-up. Every Western Conference playoff team just broke out into a cold sweat. The Heat came down, ran a pick-and-roll for Wade, who shed both defenders and drove the lane before dropping off for a huge LeBron dunk. A really well-played first half...this one's gonna be close. Lakers, 45-44.

3rd Quarter

12:00 The Lakers have as many turnovers as field goals. on the other hand, the Heat are 2-19 from outside the paint. Yeesh. Still 45-44.

9:17 Both teams a little lethargic to start the third, but Wade just made a nice cut for the and-1. Heat, 50-49.

8:45 Wade and James have long-lob ESP. They find each other for half-court-or-longer alley-oops ridiculously often. Heat, 52-49.

6:18 Kobe has been almost a complete non-factor. He's 2-12 from the floor. It makes me think of something I read today, where J.A. Adande said that the reason that LeBron/Jordan comparisons were so premature is that LeBron has to at least equal Jordan's "ring count" before that conversation can even happen. I don't understand this thesis. Robert Horry isn't a better player than Jordan, even though he's got more rings. "Oh," you might say, "Horry was never the key player on any of those championship teams." Okay, well, Bill Russell isn't thought of as greater than Michael Jordan, and he has far more championships. Kobe's been around longer than LeBron, and will likely finish with more rings, but LeBron's better, both now and in sum. I don't know what "greatness" means...I guess you can define that however you want.  I know what "better" means, and LeBron is a better basketball player now than Kobe has ever been. Heat, 62-55.

:36.4 Championship defense by the Heat, bewilderment by the Lakers, brilliance by LeBron, "Are you kidding me?" by Reggie Miller. Heat, 73-65.

4th Quarter

11:41 Ray Allen just broke the world by airballing a three. I don't know what's real anymore. Heat, 73-67.

8:43 Kobe just can't stop shooting. He did make an entry pass in to Howard, but he used his telekinetic powers to make Howard miss and have the rebound tapped out to him. He's made the last two, though, so may be getting hot. Heat, 78-74.

8:17 Huge lineup for Lakers (Gasol and Howard), tiny lineup for the Heat (LeBron, Bosh). Can the Lakers take advantage? Or will the Heat's speed be the tipping point? 78-78 tie.

7:02 Kobe's hot. 81-81 tie.

6:27 Kobe's hot. Lakers, 83-81.

Taken 2 is really the Blu-Ray I've got to see to believe? Really? What will I believe once I see it?

4:34 HUGE three from Ray Allen. Heat, 86-83.

3:00 Let the Hack-a-Howard begin! Dwight goes 1 of 2. Heat, 90-87.

1:51 LeBron went to guard Kobe after Kobe hit a big three to tie the game. Forced him to pass, then found Wade for an easy two. Sequence ends with another episode of Hack-a-Dwight. Heat, 92-90.

:49 LeBron with two assists and a bucket to give the Heat a tiny bit of room to breathe. He'd better be on Kobe when this time-out is over. Heat, 96-90.

:49 LeBron's on Kobe. Heat, 96-90.

:15 Kobe missed the three. This one's over. Heat, 96-90.

:00 "I am the standard," said LeBron James, without saying a word. Heat, 99-90.

Lance Armstrong Redeems...Lance Armstrong?

As I write this (Wednesday, January 16), Oprah Winfrey has confirmed that, in an exclusive interview taped on Monday to air on Thursday, Lance Armstrong has admitted to the use of performance enhancing drugs. At this point, this is a total snore. With the baseball writers' recent decision to not vote a single player into the Hall of Fame (some simply for the possession of bacne), PED accusations and confessions are like Beanie Babies: when everyone's got one, no one cares.

The Wall Street Journal (online) has a piece in the January 15 issue called "Behind Lance Armstrong's Decision to Talk" which attributes a quote to the athlete, and a response by a bureaucrat, that is decidedly not a snore. In a meeting with Travis Tygart, the head of the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), Armstrong pointed to himself and said,"You don't hold the keys to my redemption. There's one person who holds the keys to my redemption, and that's me." We've covered this human desire before (most specifically HERE), but the fascinating thing about this quote isn't the brazenness; it's the common nature of the refrain.

Everyone thinks that their redemption is up to them. Except, maybe, for Travis Tygart. Upon hearing Armstrong's claim, Tygart allegedly responded, "That's b-[expletive]." Now Tygart seems to have simply been calling bull-waste on Armstrong's allusion to redemption in any form, claiming that the cyclist would do and say anything to be allowed to race again. But his initial reaction is accurate. The idea that we hold the keys to our own redemption is total b-[expletive].

That Armstrong might believe that baring his soul (or, at least, the contents of his medicine cabinet) to Oprah would lead to his redemption is, at worst, cynical in the extreme and at best, evidence of a woefully weak definition of redemption.

When Christians talk about redemption, we don't refer to a return to a prior state of good standing.  Some do, actually, but such thinking, as Gerhard Forde points out in his seminal On Being a Theologian of the Cross, hinges on the un-Biblical notion of a "Fall."   We imagine that we were once at a certain place in our relationship with God, we messed that up, and Jesus gives us the ability to get back. That is, according to Forde, "a tightly woven theology of glory [a theology that "uses" Jesus and the cross to "get" us something, rather than one that sees Jesus and the cross as the end of us, and our resurrection]." The truth is so much better. In our redemption (in real redemption) we are saved to a state higher than we ever had before: we are regarded as one with Christ, as God's own son.

If that is the gift, then we cannot hold the keys.  And thank goodness, too, because when another (a saving Christ) holds them, our gift is immeasurably more valuable.

Love Makes a Body Warm

Here's the trailer for Warm Bodies, which will be released to theaters on February 1:

First of all, Nicholas Hoult has sure gotten taller since he killed a duck with a loaf of bread in About a Boy. Second of all, love will bring you back to life.

This is Christian resurrection theology of the first order. Love, we might say, is the opposite of Judgment.  Note John Malkovich's role in the preview: pure judge. Judgier than Judy. In Romans 8:3, Paul makes a profound statement about the relationship between love, judgment, and zombies: "For what the law (judgment) was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh (zombies), God did by sending his own Son (love)."

Zombie movies, especially those of George A. Romero, are often a statement about group-think, or the consumer culture. They are even, in at least one case, a statement about human nature. They are rarely, however, a statement about the power of love. In his zombie state, Hoult is a lost cause. Nothing can save him. The best he can say for himself is that he's "conflicted about eating anything with a heartbeat." At the beginning of the preview he proclaims himself dead. Not nearly dead, not deathly ill, not even "undead." He's dead. He is beyond saving (judgment).

Ah, but for love.

Love (God's son) accomplishes what the law (judgment) could not: bring life out of death. Start a stilled heart. Warm a cold body. And after Christ's work is done, God cries out like the prodigal's father: My son "was dead and is alive again; he was lost and now is found" (Luke 15:32).

The Problem with Perfection

On April 12, 2012, Philip Humber (who had never pitched through a full eight innings of a major league outing) pitched a perfect game. That is, he retired 27 batters in a row, three up and three down, every inning for nine innings. No walks, no hits. Only eighteen other men in the 108-year history of Major League Baseball have accomplished the feat. In November of that same year, the White Sox cut him, making him available to any team in the league. What happened?

In an interview with Sports Illustrated's Albert Chen (December 31, 2012), Humber tried to explain it. Check out how the article is subtitled: "For one magical April afternoon, Philip Humber was flawless. But that random smile from the pitching gods came with a heavy burden: the pressure to live up to a standard no one can meet." Unfortunately, though whichever editor wrote that subtitle is ultimately correct, we use examples like Humber's to delude ourselves. "But he did throw a perfect game," we say. "Perfection is possible." Our desire to be perfect is so strong that we willfully ignore the headline's larger point: that true perfection in only achieved by throwing a perfect game again. And again. And again.

The ladder of perfection has no top rung. There is no platform upon which we can finally rest. Whether our goal is to be a good father, a good Christian, or a good pitcher, each exemplary act carries with it the expectation (the requirement) of another. And another. "Being like Christ" is not like throwing a perfect game. Living up to the Sermon on the Mount is not like throwing a perfect game. Being a caring husband is not like throwing a perfect game. They are like throwing perfect games every day of your life...while never being proud of the fact that you're throwing perfect games! Remember, don't let your left hand know what your right hand is doing (Matt 6:3). A perfect game in the game of life is impossible, but is required nonetheless (Matt 5:48). So we buckle down.

Every time Humber took the mound, he tried to be the pitcher he was in Seattle-but competence seemed unattainable, much less perfection. In his next start, he allowed nine runs in five innings. Two outings later he was bombed for eight runs in 2 1/3 innings. Every time he fell short of the new standard he set for himself, he pushed himself harder. He began spending more time than ever in the video room. He played with every imaginable grip for his pitches. He threw extra bullpen sessions. He ran more, lifted more. He asked teammates how they dealt with their struggles. He couldn't understand why he couldn't recapture the magic. "I just feel lost," Humber said to [pitching coach Don] Cooper at one point. "I don't know what I'm doing out there."
The quest for glory, the chasing of perfection, killed Humber's season. He never regained the form that mowed down all those Seattle Mariners, and the White Sox eventually gave up on him. In order to move on, Humber had to give up:
Is this the end? The beginning? Philip Humber doesn't know what will come next in his baseball story. This he knows: He's done chasing perfection. He's done trying to be the pitcher with the magical fastball and the unhittable slider. He knows he's a 30-year-old pitcher with a fading heater and a curveball that doesn't bite like it once did, and he accepts that. He also thinks that he's a wiser pitcher who can still win games for a major league team. "Next time I throw a perfect game," he likes to joke, "I'll know how to handle it better."
Philip Humber came to grips with his limitations...the truth about himself. He's been signed by his hometown Houston Astros for next season and seems to know that, in order to be a good pitcher, he has to let perfection go. Let's remind ourselves daily, hourly, and by the minute, that we can let perfection go, because it is a mantle that Christ has taken up for us.

Go Big This New Year

So it’s time for resolutions again. Each year, we make commitments to ourselves (and others, and even, perhaps, to God) to be better than we were last year. Perhaps we want to finally lose that pesky fifteen pounds. Or fifty. Or we want to be more faithful in our Bible-reading and in our prayer lives. We want to finally put aside that besetting sin that’s been plaguing us. A new year seems a good time for a fresh start.

I’ve never made resolutions, but for years, it was only because I knew I had no hope of actually keeping them. In fact, hasn’t joking about breaking your resolutions become more of a habit than the resolution-making itself? Recently, my problem with resolutions has become more theological in nature. I envision St. Paul waking up on January 1, noticing all his Facebook friends’ resolutions, and posting something along the lines of Galatians 3:

“O foolish [people]! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?  Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?  Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so many things in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?”

We Christians have been given an eternal answer for the gulf that exists between the “us” that we are and the “us” that we ought to be: “All sinned…and are justified freely as a gift by the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:23-24). But the way we talk about resolutions often sounds like an attempt to, as Paul put it in Galatians 3, “finish in the flesh.” “The righteousness of God has been revealed apart from the law,” says Romans 3:21, and yet we take New Years as our chance to make a new law, the law of the resolution.

So my answer used to be: Don’t make resolutions. You’d be foolish to live under a law, knowing how the law works, and knowing that it necessarily results in death (cf. Rom 7:11). This year, though, I’ve got a new idea: make your resolutions harder.

The problem with your resolutions isn’t that they’re too hard for you to keep (though they usually are). The problem is that you think you’ve got a chance. So you rely on yourself, work up your will, exert all your effort, and give it your best shot. We think, perhaps, that we can shrink, by our striving, that gulf between the “us” we are and the “us” we ought to be and, just maybe, one day get across.

When John the Baptist is continually questioned about his standing with regard to Jesus, he finally says that Jesus “must become greater, and I must become less” (John 3:30). In other words, we should increase our need for Christ, rather than work to decrease it. Our resolutions should look less like a register of achievable goals and more like the demands of Matthew 5:17-48: a terrifying list of requirements that force us to our knees. We should know, looking at that gulf between our selves, that, should we attempt to jump it, we would surely be dashed to pieces on the rocks below.

We attempt to tell ourselves that a happy new year is one in which we get closer to other side of that divide, if not finally reach it. A truly happy New Year, though, is one in which we come face to face with our need for a savior and hear the Good News proclaimed: not only has our savior come, but he has done his work, and brought us out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, and out of death into life.

Happy New Year: 20 Predictions from the World of Sports

1) Carmelo Anthony will finish third in NBA MVP voting, causing him to reconsider the pencil thin, John Waters mustache look.

2) Tim Tebow will hit the public speaker circuit full-time...and be awesome at it, of course.

3) The NHL will pull the Keyser Soze trick and convince the world that it never existed.

4) The Los Angeles Dodgers will finish second in the National League West and lose in the wild card round of the playoffs, despite having spent the gross national product of Chile on player salaries this off-season.

5) Metta World Peace will elbow someone in the head.

6) Jeremy Lin and James Harden will have a public falling out, with Lin taking the high road. In response, Harden will pull the kind of point guard he really wants to play with out of his beard.

7) Mumford and Sons will play halftime of the Super Bowl, but will have a wardrobe malfunction.

8) Tony Romo will continue to be Tony Romo. Pain and suffering will continue to exist in the world.

9) Norris Cole and Iman Schumpert will tussle over the "Kid" role in House Party 4, which will be shot, but never released.

10) Joey Chestnut will develop a horrific disease, surprising no one. Kobayashi will not, surprising no one. 

11) Tom Brady and Peyton Manning will meet in the AFC playoffs. One of them will win; they'll both be civil.

12) Danica Patrick will not win an auto race, but appear in dozens of ads.

13) Dale Earnhardt, Jr. will not win an auto race, but appear in dozens of ads.

14) Jimmie Johnson will win dozens of auto races, but appear in no ads.

15) No Cleveland team will win a championship, in anything.

16) Ray Lewis will lose his voice, permanently. There will be much rejoicing.

17) Metta World Peace will elbow someone else in the head.

18) Between them, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Andy Murray will win every Grand Slam tournament. Because of course they will.

19) Someone you've never heard of will win the World Series of Poker. He'll be a pre-teen, covered in acne, and wearing sunglasses. He'll be able to buy you.

20) Michael Phelps will only enter pools via diving board. Rowdy Gaines will be excited.

Lots to look forward to in 2013!
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