Monday, February 21, 2011

Taking Up for the UFC

The brutality of the sport cannot be denied.

Competitors of all ages have been swept up in its violence. In recent years, some of the youngest athletes in the sport have been severely injured and even killed because of traumatic blows to the head and chest. Unfortunately things aren’t any better at the professional level where drunken fans have started fights with athletes and many of those athletes are so hopped up on Performance Enhancing Drugs that virtually every accomplishment in the sport sits under a cloud of suspicion.

But enough about baseball, this blog is about Mixed Martial Arts.

I’ve been a fan of MMA, more specifically the UFC, since the mid 90s. Since that time, the UFC has become one of the fastest growing sports organizations in the world. It has also found itself in the crosshairs of many groups. Some Christians have added it to their naughty list right along side electric guitars, Mickey Mouse and blue jeans.

As a Christian pastor, who happens to be a huge fan of the UFC, I’ve become very familiar with the shots being lobbed at the sport from my brothers in the faith.

“It’s too violent.”

I’ve never understood this one. Sure, it would make sense if guys who regularly watch The Sound of Music while finding accessories for the next days outfit were the ones making the argument but this is rarely the case. Instead, it’s guys who are quick to voice outrage at a UFC event on a Saturday night only to rush home from church to watch football games all day Sunday.

I love football. In fact, I can’t even decide whether or not I like it or MMA more. I go back and forth because both sports are great. My intention is not to add another sport to the ban list but simply to show the inconsistencies of some. Many have voiced outrage towards a sport where the goal is to break another man’s leg. This is no more true of MMA than it is in the NFL. Sure, there are rogue athletes (and fans) that are out for blood but, as anyone who is familiar with either sport will tell you, athletes that are fueled by blind rage usually aren’t too successful for a long period of time. The best fighters in the UFC aren’t trying to kill or even injure their opponent. Winning means being smart, not being angry.

If you ever find yourself in an MMA fight and your arm does happen to get broken, your problem is pride, not violence. When a fighter finds himself with his arm wrapped around his leg and his elbow touching his ear, all he has to do is tap his hand and the fight is over. It is in this regard that MMA promotes humility and punishes pride perhaps more than any other sport.

“I don’t need to smash some guys head in to prove my manhood.”

Good. Join the club. No one does. The UFC isn’t about proving that you’re a man but the fact remains that men like head to head competition. It’s why you see us standing around the parking lot before church on Sunday mornings talking sports and actually playing sports on Sunday afternoons. Playing and even being good at sports does not make you a man. Sports history is littered with the names of men who were giants on the field of play but toddlers off of it. Guys love competition. Most of the time it’s silly but it’s still what we do.

I’ve never seen a commercial where the UFC has tried to get me to buy a Pay Per View by saying that it would make me a real man. I have on the other hand enjoyed watching the UFC with guys who I would consider real men. I can’t speak for the character of most of the athletes in the UFC or any other sport for that matter but by watching the UFC with other men, I’ve come to know their character.

Guys like Shane and Jacob that probably don’t care too much about the UFC but would join a group of us every month to figure out who to cheer for. These guys aren’t real men because they watched the UFC a few times. They’re real men because they boldly serve their Lord while loving and providing for their families and because they know that it’s important to be around other real men. For them, the UFC was not the fulfillment of some strong lust for blood. It was an opportunity to get together with friends and watch some of the best athletes in the world. I’m a better man for their company.

Matt and Jamie, Joe, Joey and Brandon joined me for the last UFC Pay Per View at my neighbor’s house. These are real men who are trying to live out the gospel as they deal with things like a slow economy and their kids having major surgery. These are men who serve as examples to the church that I pastor that the gospel isn’t primarily about finding something to be against. They are men who are growing in their belief (along with their pastor) that they need the gospel every day because they aren’t good enough to please God but Jesus is.

Just before the co-main event started that night at my neighbor’s house there was a crash outside. We went out to inspect and found two young girls pulled over and cursing the fresh ding in their bumper. A few feet away the source of the ding was still alive, kicking in my neighbor’s front yard. It was a beautiful deer that apparently wasn’t quick enough that night. The two girls in the car were fine but were busy cursing at somebody on the other end of their cell phones. Chris Rock would have told them to calm down with the language.

So I asked myself, “What exactly does one do with a slowly dying deer in the front yard at 11:45 at night”.

The blast from a handgun gave me my answer.

Watching the UFC does not make you a man.

But watching the UFC while killing a deer makes you the man.

I can’t wait until the next Pay Per View.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Ministry Porn

The deception is powerful. It sucks you into a world where what is real is of no consequence and what is imagined is of ultimate power and pleasure. Why bother with the hardships of the real thing when the fantasy can be as easy and rewarding as you want it to be? Your reality is mundane but your fantasy is where all the action is. And that’s the great deception. When you take the bait and believe in the fantasy, nothing is real for you anymore. In a painful twist of irony, your pursuit of more joy and fulfillment that led you away from reality into a world of fantasy has failed you.

These are the ways of ministry porn. Instead of an image on a screen or in a magazine the fantasy world of ministry porn involves leading the biggest church in town, baptizing more people than anybody else and being asked to speak at some conference. Ministry porn is the denial of the reality in which God has placed you and replacing it with the fantasy of being a little more influential, powerful, popular and gifted. The deception is that achieving these things will give you fulfillment and perhaps even make God like you more.

I’m addicted to ministry porn.

I grew up in the church hearing about pastors going to the grocery store to buy milk who ended up sharing the gospel with the checkout lady, her manager and the CEO of the store. They all got saved.

On a side note, when I go to the store to buy milk I use self-checkout and it always breaks. User error. No one ever gets saved.

I know pastors that are having a hard time keeping up with God’s numerical blessings on their church. What started as 10 people meeting in somebody’s basement three years ago has become a very large, God-honoring church that is making an impact in the community and around the world.

I listened to great pastors who seem to never strike out on Sunday mornings. Every sermon podcast is a homerun and the tens of thousands of other people downloading those sermons seem to feel the same way.

If I’m completely honest with myself, that’s where I want to be. If only I had the kind of personality that could leave a lasting impact on people after just a few minutes in the grocery store. If only I was a better leader that knew how to draw larger crowds. If only I was a more talented and gifted expositor and speaker. And so goes the plunge into fantasyland.

Maybe I should convince myself that smaller is better and criticize every church that’s bigger and every leader that’s more gifted. Better yet, maybe I could just do nothing, call it a lack of selfish ambition and act like slow or no results are signs of holiness. But to do these things is to deny God’s unique blessing on each person, church and ministry as he chooses. It is replacing one fantasy world for another.

Instead, the answer for me has been to rely on God’s grace to jerk me back into reality. Here’s how it’s happened.

Of all the human beings on the planet today, the man that I look up to the most is Turk Holt. Turk was my youth pastor before I was even a youth. He taught me how to have personal daily devotions, he taught me how to develop a sermon and by example he is still showing me what it looks like to love Jesus and your family.

Turk is real. That’s not to say that the big name Christian leaders are not real. It’s just to say that I tend to idealize their situations. Because I don’t know them, I never think about the fact that they too have to pay bills, deal with disgruntled church members and manage a busy schedule. I just think about how cool it would be to have their position and influence.

Turk is real because I know him. I know what it was like to drive around in his Ford Taurus that smelled like Cool Ranch Doritos. I know that through his severe back pains, he still loves Jesus and his family. I know that he never came up in any conversations in my seminary classes and he doesn’t speak at a whole lot of conferences. But Turk loves Jesus and he loves Jesus’ church and seeing that helps bring me back to reality.

And so I’m left with a few questions to ask myself. What if, like Turk, I never get published? What if, like Turk, I never speak at a huge conference? What if the church I pastor never sets any record for baptisms? What if the lady at the store rejects my gospel presentation and tells me that I’m no longer allowed to use the self-checkout machine? What if I simply love and lead my wife and kids, pastor Jesus’ church and never hear the world or even the church tell me “Good job, Jay”?

Thanks for the example, Turk. In word and in deed you have shown me that praise and approval of other people doesn’t really matter a whole lot. You have shown me that it’s quite all right to be forgotten (or maybe never even known) by this world and to one day leave it and hear the only affirmation that really matters.

“His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’” Matthew 25:23

Monday, February 7, 2011

Pride and Prayer

I am a proud man.

I don’t mean that in a good way. Sometimes we say things like, “he was a proud man” or “she carries herself with a lot of pride” as a way of complimenting someone for taking care of themselves well. I’m not that kind of a proud man. I frequently walk around with spaghetti stains on my white shirt or a long stream of toilet paper stuck to the bottom of my shoe. I’m not that kind of a proud man.

No, I’m a proud man in the old-fashioned arrogant jerk sense of the term. And because I’m not a pro athlete or rock star, I think I have the most dangerous form of pride.

Here’s what I mean. When a third string running back scores a touchdown with 45 seconds left in a game where his team is getting beaten by 9 touchdowns and then starts break dancing in the end zone, his pride is painfully obvious. Because I have no skills that place me on national television I am able to keep my pride to myself. My pride is just as obnoxious but it’s just not as public. This is very dangerous.

Because the whole word sees the pride of that running back on full display, it’s likely that somebody on his team pulls him aside and tells him that he looks like an idiot. He may even hear people calling in on sports talk radio to make fun of him. That sort of public pride can be easily corrected.

In my pride, instead of actually scoring the touchdown, I dream about scoring the touchdown (or preaching the great sermon or having the conversation center more on me). Because it’s in my dreams I don’t have to settle for third string and I don’t have to be called out for being obnoxious because, after all, nobody knows. To make matters even worse, I can mask my pride with false humility and have the best of both worlds.

But pride, no matter how secretive or well disguised, always finds a way to come to a head. For me, it was my prayer life.

In Matthew 6, Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray. He exposes the phony prayers of many of the religious leaders and then gives an example of what a legit prayer looks like. We call it the Lord’s Prayer. For most of my life, my secret pride has left me praying something that looks nothing like the Lord’s Prayer and more like Jay’s Prayer.

While Jesus prayed that his Father’s will be done, I was content to pray for my will to be done. In fact, I have heard some go so far as to say that praying for God’s will to be done is a lack of faith. Scripture has taught me that failure to pray for God’s will to be done is a lack of Christ-like humility (Luke 22:42).

My pride has kept me from praying for God to supply the needs of my family. Praying for God to supply things like food and other daily essentials is for the health and wealth crowd, right? Scripture is teaching me that failure to ask for these things is a sign that I’m probably putting more trust in my ability to earn a living than I am in my Master (James 1:1-8; Matthew 7:7-11).

But the one that really stings is when Jesus prays, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13). There have been far too many days in my life that I have gotten out of bed and left my house without even once thinking to ask God for his protection over my soul. This is a result of my foolish pride that is much more ugly and much more dangerous than a ridiculous touchdown dance. Scripture is teaching me that I need God’s protection.

Scripture tells me of an Enemy who wishes me harm and a Savior who fights on my behalf (Luke 22:31-32; James 4:7).

Scripture tells me of a world that cares nothing for my personal holiness (James 4:4) and a world of accountability where God’s people can find help in their pursuit of him (Hebrews 10:23-25; 1 Thessalonians 4:18; 5:11).

And scripture tells me of my own flesh that works against me (Romans 7:13-23) and of the One who has set me free by the piercing of his flesh (Romans 7:24-25).

When I encounter the God of the Bible, it’s hard for me to walk away remaining in my prideful neglect of sincere prayer. In prayer, I get to talk to a Father who hears me because of who I am in Christ Jesus (James 5:16). In prayer I know that the very one who died in my place is also praying with me on my behalf (Romans 8:34). In prayer, I’m reminded that I don’t know what I’m doing when I pray but the Spirit does and he helps me in my weakness (Romans 8:26).

After all I’ve learned about prayer, I’m still a proud man (with a stained shirt and toilet paper on my shoe). But God, in his grace, is using prayer and scripture to make me more like his Son and find deliverance from the evil that is my secret pride.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Crushed - Forever

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on the human face – forever.” George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

Wow! Thanks for the input George. Could you please pass the Prozac?

As crazy as Orwell’s statement sounds, I often feel myself leaning in the same direction. Unless your head is buried in the sand or you’re the type that always wears rainbow suspenders with buttons on them and dots your i’s with smiley faces you probably have moments when you feel this way too.

A quick scan of the news makes it look like the boot is stamping harder and harder on the human face.

Egypt and Tunisia are in chaos because of their governments.

Before these two nations, it was Greece.

After current flare-ups die down, another country will find itself hosting the latest round of mandatory curfews, looting and even bloodshed.

I remember driving with my Romanian friend George to visit The People’s Palace after spending a week in his country. While talking to George on the way I learned that the people of Romania weren’t too fired up about The People’s Palace. While American tourists/missionaries like myself saw grand rooms with golden walls, George and his countrymen saw money that could have been better spent preventing massive flood damage that recently destroyed many mud brick homes not too far from the sprawling palace. While we saw the world’s second largest building, George saw a structure that was built at the expense of the lives of friends, family and countrymen – men who took the job only to randomly disappear or turn up dead.

George knew first hand about the impression of the tyrannical boot on the human face.

So did the pastor I met in Uganda.

He was thrown in jail and threatened with execution after four kids in his village repented and believed in the gospel only to die in a freak drowning accident a short time later. He felt the boot’s impression when his wife and children were hunted down and his home faced certain destruction. But he knew that this impression was not forever.

Upon further review, I find Orwell’s view to be wrong on two accounts.

First, it isn’t bleak enough. If every leader in the world suddenly picked up a copy of the Bill of Rights and changed the way they governed, there would still be a boot pressing on our heads. That’s because our problem isn’t a political one – it’s spiritual. As evil as Idi Amin and Nicolae Ceausescu were, they are no match for our real enemy, the god of this world who has “blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4).

Also, Orwell’s assessment neglects the promise of scripture about another foot stomping down on a head. We see this promise made in the Garden of Eden, perhaps mankind’s darkest hour and worst defeat at the hands of a brutal dictator. God tells Satan, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15).

Instead of a future of some dictator’s tyrannical boot gradually stomping more and more of our heads, believers look forward to a more hope-filled stomping. Part of this promise has already come to pass when Jesus died on the cross and Paul writes that “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Colossians 2:15). The finale comes from a vision John has of the future where “the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Revelation 20:10).

So even if all the world’s leaders got their act together and removed their collective boots from the face of humanity I’d still sit with a faithful wife who is wondering how to care for her ailing husband and I’d still mourn with a friend who tells me about a young teenage friend who died after suffering for six months from a terrible disease.

And that’s why my ultimate hope is in the gospel instead of politics. Politics gives empty slogans while the gospel offers real hope and change. The kind where our loving and compassionate King will “wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

Thank God that the heel of Jesus Christ will one day finally crush the head of Satan – forever.