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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Sunday Sermon: A Prophetic Voice

There is a lot of noise in society today. There is a lot of talking in our world today. 

Just turn on the cable news networks and this becomes apparent. There is a lot of noise in our world today. Our news presentations feature a steady stream of people constantly talking at each other. This talking is presented to us as debates, when we know that it is far from it. 

What we are given is a form of loud talking that is often more about selling a point than entering into a discussion. Those who spend a lot of time talking on television often are simply wanting to defeat their opponent, give out a few talking points, and get retweeted or posted instantly. The process makes it hard to understand what is being discussed and difficult to discern the truth in the topic.  Continue reading

Is There a Limit to Our Sports Obsession

Former Oakland Raiders’ owner Al Davis coined a phrase that has become familiar to all, regardless if you spend your evenings watching whatever game is on ESPN.

He said, “Just win, baby!”

Just win.

Many of us have ascribed to this philosophy when it comes to our favorite teams, whether it be the professional or collegiate ranks. (For the purposes of this column we will focus primarily on college athletics.) We want the thrill of victory and will accept almost anything to be victorious when the game is over.

Sports is about winning and there is nothing wrong with wanting our teams to win. It is part of what makes sports fun and enjoyable. I have often told my wife that if West Virginia University ever wins a national championship in anything besides rifle that it would be one of the happiest days of my life. She got a brief taste of this excitement in 2010 when West Virginia advanced to the Final Four and I immediately ran out of the house screaming for joy. Continue reading

Loving the Weeds

Before entering ministry, I had the great joy and privilege of being a journalist. For 11 years starting in high school when I was a part-time stringer for the local paper I covered everything a young reporter could cover. I saw the inner workings of the legislative process, the fast-paced nature of NASCAR on a race weekend, the joy of a high school athlete who just won a state title, and the pain caused by the most obscure crimes.

Though I no longer cover a beat with my reporter’s notebook in hand I often find myself reflective of that time in my life. One of the things I have recognized about this time in my life was that it was season of preparation for this life in pastoral ministry. Not only did it give me the tools to communicate and express our mutual hope in Jesus Christ, but it also gave me the tools to look at our communities and world and to see what we often do not see at first glance. Continue reading

Must I Love Pitt Fans: What Does Jesus Ask of Sports Fans in the Stands?

The story is a part of West Virginia University lore. It involves the legendary play-by-play announcer Jack Fleming, the University of Pittsburgh, and his mother.

According to legend, Fleming’s mother taught him very early in life the emotion he should express regarding the Panthers. While watching from their house, which was located near Old Mountaineer Field, Fleming’s mother pointed to the practicing Panthers and told him, “That’s Pitt. You hate Pitt now. You hate Pitt tomorrow. You hate Pitt until the day you die. After that, you will hate Pitt for eternity.”

Thousands of fans have taken on Fleming’s mother’s words and made them their own. Many West Virginia fans have a deep dislike, even hatred, for that school “up north.” To be sure, the feeling is quite mutual from Pitt fans.

As a native West Virginian, an alum of West Virginia University, and a fan of that great institution, I have been taught to hate all things Pitt. My dislike for the school is so much that I remember, as a student, being frustrated when a class field trip was scheduled to go to Pitt for a seminar.

West Virginia and Pitt are rivals, even though they no longer play one another due to conference realignment. Rivalries are important to sports and add to the competitive flavor of the games. What would baseball be without the Yankees-Red Sox, Cardinals-Reds, or Giants-Dodgers? What would football be without the Packers-Vikings, Redskins-Cowboys, or Patriots-Colts? We look forward to the rivalry game and love it when our team comes out on top.

However, as a Christian there is something uncomfortable about the way we participate in these rivalries. We truly hate our sporting rivals. Is this holy? Is it really acceptable for me to dislike someone simply because they cheer for another team? Does God look past my attitude in the stands because it is “all in good fun?”

There are two passages that, I believe, are key in helping us to answer these questions. In Matthew 22:39, Jesus says we are to “love our neighbor as yourself.” Love, a concern for others, is to be central to how we interact with others. The concept of neighbor, here, is not limited to those who live near us. Everyone is our neighbor because we were all made in the image of God. When we carry this image to the arena it reminds us that the person who is supporting our rival is our neighbor and we are called to extend Christ’s love to them.

The other key passage comes from the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus commands his followers to show expressions of love to our enemies. When we think of this passage we often relate it to those who do us physical harm or seek to harm us. Loving our enemies goes beyond just that. It also is extended to the person sitting next to us who has the audacity to root for the “wrong team.”

When we combine these passages, we get the sense that expressing the love of Christ doesn’t stop at the ballpark’s parking lot. It extends into the stadium, into the bleacher seats, and into our conversations with opposing fans.

As followers of Christ, we are called to love our sporting rivals in the same way Christ loves us. This means we are called to rise above the pettiness and vile nature of much of our dialogue with rival fans and see them who they truly are: People who root for a different team. Instead of treating our sporting rival with disrespect, we are called to offer them the same expressions of friendship, grace, and community that we would offer anyone else.

Much of our missional dialogue, today, speaks of how we should share expressions of love in areas where living like Christ is not the norm. Seldom do we see anyone express a desire to love our rival as Christ has loved us primarily. This is because we can be blinded by the thought of “it’s just a game.” That mindset allows us to let our guard down to the point that we express the very vile and inappropriate actions towards others that Jesus warns us about.

So, yes, as a follower of Christ I am called to love the Pitt Panthers and their fans. It doesn’t mean I have to like Pitt. It doesn’t mean I have to cheer for them. I still hope that they lose every game. What I must do is to share the same care and concern for others that Christ has called me to do, and treat all people, including the Pitt fan, as myself.

The Lance Armstrong in All of Us

Lance Armstrong is the epitome of a head scratcher.

On one hand, you have a disgraced global ambassador for the sport of cycling. Armstrong built his career around the image of being the one clean racer in a sport filled with cheaters. That house of cards has crumbled in recently, especially with Armstrong being stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and his admission, yesterday, that he used performance enhancing drugs. Armstrong also aggressively pursued anyone, from competitors to employees and friends, who tried to expose the light on his drug usage.

Then there is the other side of Armstrong. The side we want to celebrate. It is the side of a cancer survivor who created the Livestrong Foundation, which has raised millions in cancer research. It is the story of a man who is an inspirational figure for thousands who live each day with cancer, either personally or through a loved one.

Armstrong is not the first celebrity or athlete to have a complex story. Ty Cobb was a great hitter, but a man of questionable ethics. Tiger Woods will go down as one of the greatest golfers of all time, but his life and career crumbled when he admitted to multiple affairs. Mike Tyson was a great boxer, but his personal life made you forget his skills in the ring.

Armstrong might be the most complex of them all. A man identified with cancer research and perseverance in times of difficult is also a man identified as a cheater and someone who was willing to destroy others to save himself. For all the good Armstrong has done there is an equal amount of wrong decisions that make us question his character.

So, who is Lance Armstrong?

That is the question we are all asking today. We do not have to wait for the Oprah Winfrey interview to be televised to come up with an answer. Lance Armstrong is just like us. He is a person capable of doing tremendous good and tremendous evil.

This makes him a great ethical study. When faced with moral decisions, do the means (our acts) justify the ends?

Don’t get me wrong, I find what Armstrong did a sin and wrong. It is sinful the way Armstrong abused others and lied to people to protect his image. But, I believe we have more in common with Armstrong than what we might believe or want to admit.

We are not just identified to him as fans or admirers, but as people who must make moral decisions in our jobs and at home. Each day we find ourselves wrestling with our actions and the end results wondering if we made the right choices. While we may never know the pressure of competing in a sport where cheating is rampant, we each know the daily pressures of our jobs and what is expected of us. So, the question becomes posed as much to us as it is being posed to Armstrong.

When we do things that are morally wrong but our acts lead to results we can all support, are we justified in making the decision that we did?

It is a question that gets to the heart of what it means to live out our callings as followers of Christ. Our lives are to be a reflection of the character and love of our Lord. This doesn’t mean we are perfect everyday, but that we are striving toward reflecting the life of Christ in our lives each day.

Our desire to live for Christ calls us to reflect on our actions and the choices we make. The decisions we make may not always be the morally correct one, even if it leads a result that is honorable. I cannot steal from my neighbor, for instance, to feed and clothe a hungry person. I cannot lie to my boss even if it means that I get a promotion that would offer financial stability for my family.

Each day we are faced with moral questions about what it means to follow in Christ’s footsteps and live in this world. To be honest, we are not always going to make the right choices. I include myself in that. However, our hope is that we live each day with the desire to live for Christ, to make the right choices, and to be obedient to God’s desires and love for us.

Do We Take Sports Too Seriously?

I’m a sports fan.

For anyone who knows me this isn’t much of a shocking statement to start a column. I make no secrets about my loyalties to West Virginia University, the St. Louis Cardinals, the San Francisco 49ers, the Carolina Hurricanes, and a random collection of athletes from multiple disciplines of athletic competitions. I’ve been around sports almost my entire life, either as a fan, a participant, or a writer.

What I enjoy most about sports is the competition of determining the better team on a given day. I would say the thrill of victory, but in my playing days … I didn’t get to experience that one too often. (I’m the spitting image of a benchwarmer if there ever was one.) To be honest, sports isn’t just about what we see on the fields of play. It is also about the commodore that exists between friends and fans in celebrating their teams accomplishments and, of course, reminding Cubs fans that they have already been eliminated from World Series competition.

There is a lot to love and enjoy about sports.

However, I wonder if sometimes we, myself included, take our passion for sports too far. Sometimes it seems that our enjoyment of athletic competition is almost a worship experience where the quality of our day (or life) is determined by what happens on the field. Indeed, sometimes it seems that sports, especially in North America, is the god we chose to worship and obey.

We treat our coaches and players like saviors who will redeem our lives through athletic success. Every fan base has their sacred coaches and players. Those individuals who are talked about with reverence and awe for their accomplishments. While there is certainly nothing wrong with respecting and admiring the contributions of an important player or coach, sometimes our response to these individuals borders on making them an idol and treating them as if they have redeemed our existence. They made our lives better because they came to our team or won a big game. I think about here in Kentucky and John Calipari who is treated as almost like a savior among some in the Kentucky fan base since arriving in 2009. I also think about other individuals such as Nick Saban or Bear Bryant at Alabama and Oliver Luck at West Virginia who are also treated as saviors among their fan bases. We make these individuals our gods who can do no wrong in our eyes (as long as they remain with our team, of course).

But, we also worship our teams by allowing their wins and losses to determine how we will live. This is because we become completely identified by our teams and their successes. The team becomes engrained in our personalities. Instead of sports being a hobby or a release from the world, sports becomes an unhealthy passion where everything is determined by how a certain team plays. Take for instance the Alabama fan who believers their life is now improved because the Crimson Tide has won another national championship or the Florida fan who cannot get over his team’s performance in the Sugar Bowl. Of course, this isn’t the only way we identify with sports. We also identity so much with our teams that we treat the opposing fan base as the enemy and someone not to be treated with respect. Sometimes we take a joke too far and denounce anyone who would dare root for the rival team. Think about Harvey Updyke, an Alabama fan, who allowed his worship of Alabama to allow him to allegedly destroy a landmark on Auburn’s campus. Every fan base has individuals who are too committed to a team and their performance.

When sports becomes our god or starts to take on godlike qualities in our lives, we, especially followers of Christ, need to take a step back and reflect on why it is that we enjoy sports and what they mean to us.

One of the big things that we need to remember is that it is just a game. It does not determine my life if West Virginia loses to Syracuse in the Pinstripe Bowl. I can be unhappy that the team lost and even frustrated the defense failed to show up, but I have to be willing to recognize that it is just a game. It cannot determine how I will live or interact with others. I must be willing to, in a way, leave what happens on the field so that it doesn’t affect how I live and interact with others.

To do that, however, we all have to be willing to put sports into perspective. We have to remember that following sports is a hobby and cannot determine everything about us. Sure, enjoy sports and everything about them, but we have to be willing to draw a line between what is acceptable and what is dangerous to our faith, especially as Christians. The moment that sports feels like worship and becomes too engrained into who we are then we have a problem that needs to be addressed.

Sports are fun and enjoyable. It is a great way to relax and step away from the stresses of the world. However, we must be careful how we view sports, especially if we begin to worship our teams as they are our god.