What Does a Horse Race Teach Us About Ourselves

Growing up in West Virginia, if you asked me to name one thing about Kentucky, I would have quickly shouted out the words “home of the Kentucky Derby.” I can still remember the sounds of Jim McKay welcoming viewers of ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” to the Derby each first Saturday of May. For me, it was Sunday Silence in 1989 that got me hooked on the race.

When I moved to Kentucky in 2007, the first thing that stood out to me was that there was more to the horse racing industry than just Louisville and Churchill Downs. There was Keeneland in Lexington, which fills the area of Versailles Road each spring and fall with race fans. There was the all-day coverage in the Louisville and Lexington television markets that focused on the undercard to the Derby, which only recently has NBC started to broadcast.

You cannot get more entrenched in the culture and customs of Kentucky than with horse racing and the Kentucky Derby.

Which is probably why many of us were shocked at the outcome of Saturday’s race. On a sloppy track that looked more like the infield of Woodstock than a credible racing surface, Maximum Security burst through a crowded field to seemingly win the 149th Kentucky Derby. Chaos and controversy soon dominated the conversation after two jockeys filed an objection to the outcome – essentially calling foul on Maximum Security – for interference.

Stewards immediately looked into the objection and, 20-plus minutes later, ruled that Maximum Security had, in fact, interfered with War of Will. This led to Maximum Security being disqualified, becoming the first presumptive derby winner to be disqualified and only the second to cross the line first and not to be declared the official winner. The first came in 1968 when Dancer’s Image apparent win was thrown out after a drug test found illegal drugs in the horse’s system, which gave the win to Forward Pass.

Because Maximum Security’s disqualification, and subsequent win by Country House, came in the social media era, it became the latest hot topic to discuss. Within minutes, “horse racing” experts from across the nation posted comments – some filled with anger and vitriol – of what they believed was right or not right about the actions, disqualification, and win by Country House. This has continued this week as Country House’s camp has announced the horse will not run in the Preakness next week.

For the sake of transparency, I did post on social media some sarcastic comments during the review and aftermath. The comments amounted to a bad dad joke that in professional wrestling a champion cannot lose their title by way of disqualification. Trust me, I know a bad joke when I see it, and I have a hard time running away from them,

I wonder, though, what does all of this say about us? Maximum Security’s disqualification is just the latest in a long example of a modern thirst to want to speak without knowledge, to jump to conclusions without context, to yell and scream without listening. It is a systematic issue that is destroying our ability to understand and appreciate the complexities of life, or even to hear from opposing view points or to wait for things to play out. We believe we have to speak and be quick about it. We even believe we have to speak with anger.

This isn’t just happening in society. I’m seeing this play out across the church today as we wrestle with the important issues facing us in our work of making disciples of Jesus Christ. We reflect the means of communication we see from society in our conversations about the future of the church, whether the United Methodist Church should break up, or even what it means to do ministry together. We respond in anger more than we listen to one another.

In doing so, I wonder if we are missing out on two important verses of reflection from James. In James 1:19, James writes that we “must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.” These are words that we ignore in our desire to have a quick and impassioned response. If we need more clarification on what James means, he writes later that the tongue “is a small thing that makes grand speeches. But a tiny spark can set a great forest on fire. And the tongue is a flame of fire.” (James 2:5b-6a, NLT) Our words can do as much damage to society and one another as they can to lift up and inspire.

What limits our ability to stop, listen, and slow the anger is that we get caught up in the ground swell of anger and conversation, which creates within us a desire to speak. Social media is just one avenue where this takes place. We see this at the tables of McDonald’s, our conversations around the kitchen table, and in discussions among friends. Our desire to be seen as knowledgeable and quick with a response is not because of social media, but part of our own vanity in wanting to be seen and heard.

Our society is filled with people who believe they have to have something to say, even if we do not know anything about the subject we are talking about. This tendency is destroying our ability to hear from one another and to listen to disagreeing voices. Until we take it upon ourselves to slow down, refrain from always speaking, and listen to one another, we will continue to see the decaying of a society that is quick to speak and equally quick to get angry.

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Can I Go Home Again?

The last time I lived in West Virginia, officially, was in 2003.

Gov. Bob Wise was in the midst of a controversy surrounding an affair that would derail his administration. Many from the state, my age and younger, were leaving to fight the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many, as well, were leaving the state believing they could never find what they were looking for at home.

I was one of them. In 2003, I was a regional writer for The Clarksburg Exponent-Telegram. I was miserable and I thought it was because of my salary, my displeasure with the news side of the journalism world after being a sports writer, or even not being near the lights of a big city. It would take time to realize what was making me unhappy was my own personal life.

In search of happiness, and greener pastures, I took a flyer on a job in another town, in another state, but believing it would solve all my problems. I moved from one newsroom to another by picking up my notepad and moving to The Shelby Star in Shelby, N.C.

That was the summer of 2003. When I left, I swore I would never return to West Virginia other than to visit family and to watch my beloved Mountaineers.

For 16 years, though, I did just that. I stayed away other than family visits, funerals, and the occasional West Virginia game (though, I haven’t been to Mountaineer Field since the UConn game in 2007). Even though my address was different, I have long recognized that I never really left. I have always kept at least one foot in the Mountain State. I can name off state issues in West Virginia quicker than I can those facing Kentucky. I can get more frustrated with the lack of progress in Beckley, W.Va., than I do Paducah.

It has always been home. In a few weeks, I will be returning home. I’m going back to the Mountain State with a sense of excitement. I’m going home, also, with a deeper appreciation for the home state that came as a result of leaving for a period of time. This is the place I want to be with my family.

That doesn’t stop me, though, from having doubts about whether I can serve God well in West Virginia. No pastor is without their fair share of doubts or concerns about whether they are effective in the task God has called them to undertake. These doubts have escalated as I prepare to say goodbye to one congregation and begin to start with another.

A lot of my doubts and fear center around this phrase of Scripture: “no prophet is accepted in their own hometown.” (Luke 4:24) While Huntington is not my hometown, anyone from West Virginia will tell you the entire state is home.

A recent clip from Steve Harvey’s talk show is a perfect example of this. The clip is from a segment on his talk show where he interacts with two people on the street. They are from Beckley, W.Va. Immediately upon hearing this, Harvey reacts like anyone else from West Virginia when they see the Flying WV or green and white of Marshall University outside of the state. He begins to smile and beam with an excitement before shouting, “Beckley, West Virginia, baby! Let’s keep it alive! I like that!” Harvey is a native of West Virginia having been born near Welch, which is approximately 75 minutes from Beckley.

It doesn’t matter. The entire state is your hometown. For the record, I have been known to share the same sense of excitement when I see someone wearing the Flying WV outside of West Virginia. This includes running into people from West Virginia while on a recent trip to the Holy Land.

All that being said, it is hard to be a prophet in your own hometown. Jesus experienced this in Nazareth. There he shared about his messianic purpose to welcome God’s reign to all people. It was not well-received by the community that quickly turned to thinking of Jesus in terms of his connection to the town and not the words he said. Not too long afterwards, the same people who knew Jesus throughout his early life were attempting to get rid of him.

While no pastor is Jesus, there are still the same concerns of being able to speak effectively and prophetically into places where we are deeply familiar. Can a prophet in their hometown truly speak on the injustices that exist? Can a prophet in their hometown express God’s pain at the struggles the people live into? Can a prophet truly point the people of their hometown towards a better way in God’s holy love?

These are things I am wrestling with as the boxes begin to accumulate all around me. They are not, however, questions that will prevent me from leading as God calls me to lead or speak when I believe it is necessary. As we learn with the story of Thomas (John 20:19-29), opportunities to grow in God’s love and our calling to share the love of God with all people come as we push forward through our doubts and questions.

We recognize them. We express them. We embrace them. But, too, we allow them to be spaces where God’s grace works in and us and through us to point us to a deeper sense of God’s love.

A work that is well needed, now, as I prepare to do something I never thought I would do again … go home.