The Heat of Competition

It hurts worse to lose than it feels good to win.
Joe Garagiola, baseball broadcaster.

I don’t recall the teams involved but I remember what the announcer, Joe Garagiola, said when the TV camera switched from the World Series winners in wild celebration to the losing team in stunned grief. His sympathetic words (quoted above) struck me as profoundly true. Decades later, it occurs to me that it does not have to be true.

I wasted a lot of youthful passion hating to lose. No, it’s worse than that. Even if my team won, I would stew painfully over a missed lay-up or a dropped ball. I once broke my hand hitting a wall after blowing a lay-up. Instead of just enjoying occasional ping pong games in the student center as a college freshman, I focused on rising to the top of a list I carried in my head of the top-rated players in school. I wore a genuine smile most everywhere and was mild-mannered, except on a field of competition.

The Merits of Competition:

Competition can lead to higher levels of excellence in art, business, education, entertainment, politics, sports and more. A vibrant economy flourishes with competition. It keeps prices down and performance up in a free market. Competition for customers can foster greater service priorities and a richer “may I help you” spirit in a mutually constructive sales context.

The value of teamwork can be learned in various arenas of competition. Teammates compete for certain positions in sports. In an orchestra, members compete for the “first chair.” Workers compete for promotions. Organizations thrive as they blend healthy competition with cooperation. Those who sustain losses can learn essential lessons about adjusting to find other ways to contribute to the group’s goals. The golden rule applies here. Because I would not want a competitor to lie down and let me get a position or chair, I can engage in fair competition in earnest. However, when they do win, I must celebrate the result and adapt my ambitions to a higher mission.

The Pitfalls of Competition:

A competitive spirit can harm a marriage, cripple a church, mar a friendship and eat up your peace of mind. Add pride and it can be a stench in God’s nostrils. The minute a competitive spirit takes on a “win at any cost” nature, it becomes poison to all parties. When the qualities of love, honesty, integrity and good will are compromised for competitive gain, evil grows. When people cheat to win, they lose in the wider arena of life. So do their victims.

In a socialist economy, instead of competing with each other on equal ground, people compete to be perceived by a central board as worthy of entitlements, benefits and rewards. Competition continues but it loses its power to foster excellence.

Many of the “one another” passages in the Bible serve to challenge our competitive spirit. Paul wrote; “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4). To illustrate this spirit, Paul pointed to the mind of Christ as our example.

Selfish ambition is a dangerous drug. However, the well-known danger of drugs has a flip side. When used carefully and prudently, the right drug in the right measure, can lead to healing. Wisdom and discipline are crucial for competition to be healthy.

A Class Act:

John Wooden, the most successful coach in NCAA basketball history, cared more about character development and love than winning games. He wanted players who put the good of the team before personal interest. He told them, “The main ingredient of stardom is the rest of the team.”

John Wooden (1910 – 2010)

Because scoreboards cannot measure character or integrity, Wooden set his aim higher than the scoreboard. In his book, They Call Me Coach (2003), Wooden defined success as “a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you are capable.” He added: “I have always tried to make it clear that basketball is not the ultimate. It is of small importance in comparison to the total life we live. There is only one kind of a life that truly wins, and that is the one that places faith in the hands of the Savior.”

Lessons Learned:

A narrow perspective gave me a sharp focus on rating lists and a short fuse over missed lay-ups. A larger perspective began to grow as I placed faith in the hands of the Savior: Jesus Christ. No one can look at His life and death and come away advocating a life of selfish ambition or winning at any cost. His sacrifice on the cross (followed by his resurrection) paid my sin-debt and defined love in much bigger proportions than personal interest. Real love looks far beyond ourselves to the good of others. This message put to practice is what makes a church a lighthouse in a lost an lonely world. I think it was my late friend M. Norvell Young who said, “There is no competition between lighthouses.”

Fuller Caves

    “Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.” ~ The Apostle Paul (Romans 1:32, NIV).

Fuller Theological Seminary, where I earned my Master of Divinity degree in 1979, has officially sanctioned a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) student group on campus. They are the first evangelical seminary to sanction and support an LGBT group, but they won’t be the last.

Fuller was founded to prepare future church leaders for ministry. Today, it prepares them for moral compromise, in the name of “leadership.” Under the sanction of the seminary, this new LGBT student group hosts meals where students can discuss how homosexuality and Christianity intersect. They present film festivals highlighting homosexuality, including such films as Milk, Pariah, and Seventh Gay Adventist.

The new group’s co-presidents identify as “gay Christians,” an identity that Fuller embraces as a category for official group status. Co-president Chelsea McInturff said, “I identify as same-sex attracted.” Notice she did not say she “struggles” with it. Another co-president, Nick Palacios, promotes what he calls “faith, gender identity, and sexual orientation reconciliation.” Not transformation, but “reconciliation”– which amounts to conciliation with sin. He sounds fully unrepentant. While he sees no reason to change, he seems to be filled with aspirations to change the attitudes and perspectives of others, moving them away from repentance and closer to pride in something God’s word affirms is sin.

For faithful Christians, the main issue is not homosexuality or any alternative sexual inclination. Also, love for sinners stands as a mandate for all Christians. At issue here is repentance, without which there remains no authenticity in any claim to Christianity.

As a student from 1976 to 1979, I was stretched, empowered and inspired at Fuller Seminary. My devotion to God and His word grew in leaps and bounds. Today, I am profoundly grateful to a school that no longer exists. What exists today under the same name is a popular and prestigious seminary that embraces the prevailing culture and its values with increasing vigor. Fuller Seminary currently employs a professor of “Christian spirituality,” Tony Jones, who publicly supports homosexual marriage and fully ordained gay ministers. Lots of rhetoric about the gospel can still be heard at Fuller, but culture is king, not Jesus. Fuller has absorbed itself into the world’s mold while retaining its elaborate “Christian” costume as an institution.

At Fuller, I was taught the importance of understanding culture and how to speak to it. I am grateful. Today, the call to understand is being smothered by the plea to identify with culture. To sanction a student group based on open unrepentant identification with homosexuality is to defy the power of the gospel and spurn the Holy Spirit who is a sinner’s only hope for regeneration and transformation.

Authentic repentance is incompatible with an ongoing proud identification with one’s temptation and/or sin. After surrendering your life to Jesus and claiming full forgiveness, continuing to define yourself by your sin or your inclinations to sin defies the “new creation” principle in 2 Corinthians 5:17. It is the polar opposite of repenting because it retains the pride and eliminates the turning of the heart. Affirming such identification in students is the polar opposite of Christian leadership.

The New Testament word for repentance in Greek is “metanoia,” (change of mind or frame of reference), not “metamorphosis” (change of forms). You don’t just change the form or the behavior and leave the inside as it was. Your entire orientation turns around with repentance. ‘Metanoia’ does not separate our internal spiritual mindset from our external behavior or lifestyle. Rather, it integrates them as we turn all of our selves (inside and out) to God. This can be a difficult ongoing struggle and the struggle is NOT a sin. But those who identify with their sin as if it is fixed and take pride in it refuse to struggle. That refusal is the sin and it is fatal if retained.

Homosexuality (the mindset and the behavior) is a sin that can be forgiven through the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. An honest recognition of the sin is where forgiveness and change begins. True repentance won’t allow our sinful culture to define our terms of understanding, our self-definition or our behavior. It breaks my heart to see my old seminary intentionally cave in to sin.

SAM HOUSTON (1793 – 1863)
“The Raven”

At the Battle of Horseshoe Bend during the War of 1812, a young Sam Houston (all 6’3” of him) charged through withering fire into hand-to-hand combat, sustaining a near-mortal wound. He and others tried repeatedly to wrench a long arrow out of his thigh until a final attempt succeeded leaving him in a pool of his own blood. When General Jackson called for another assault, the severely injured and badly limping Houston roused himself with musket in hand to lead a second charge. He took two musket balls and hit the ground with a triple wound. Andrew Jackson was duly impressed.

When Houston was born in Virginia on March 2, 1793, George Washington was beginning his second term and the US population was 4 million–mostly farmers. After Sam’s father died in1806, his mother and nine children re-settled on the Tennessee frontier. As a boy, Sam rarely darkened the door of a school house but he ravenously read classics like The Iliad, Pilgrim’s Progress, Robinson Caruso and the Bible. He dreamed of heroic and exciting deeds and was soon prone to long absences from the family farm. One time, he disappeared into the forest and was found living with a Cherokee Indian tribe. The chief took a liking to Sam, adopted him and named him ‘Ka lanu’ (‘The Raven’). He learned to hunt, fish and speak their language fluently. After three years he came back to Maryville to work as a clerk and then, despite his lack of schooling, a school master to pay off debts. Then, at age 20, he joined the U.S. Army. Upon his departure, his mother told him, “While the door of my cabin is open to brave men, it is eternally shut to cowards.” The rest is history.

After his exploits in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, Houston was promoted to a lieutenant and sent to New York for surgical care. His next post was to General Jackson’s staff at the Hermitage near Nashville. Houston survived his wounds to live a colorful, controversial and accomplished life as an Indian agent, trader, district attorney, major general, congressman, Governor of Tennessee, signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence, commander-in-chief of its rebel army, Governor of Texas (elected with four-fifths of the vote), two-time President of the Republic of Texas, and, after Texas was admitted into the Union in 1845, a U.S. senator for thirteen years. In 1859, he was elected Governor of Texas again, becoming the only person elected to serve as governor of two U.S. states by popular vote. Still, his greatest triumph was at the Battle of San Jacinto, April 21, 1836, when General Houston surprised the Mexican forces led by Santa Ana during a “siesta” to win a decisive victory in less than 18 minutes. Two horses were shot out from under the General and his ankle was shattered by a bullet, but Texas had her independence.

Spittin’ image of my maternal grandfather—Karl Houston Ertel!
In 1829, Houston’s first marriage dissolved for reason’s unexplained. We know their age gap was large and she was repulsed by his war injury. This led to his resignation as Governor of Tennessee in 1829 at the peak of his early career. His quick rise was met with a hard fall. Black moods and bouts with binge drinking recurred. He called himself “a ruined man.” He soon re-joined his adoptive Cherokee family. Eventually, after his mother died, he emerged from his funk and took a trip to Washington, D.C. as a delegate for the Cherokees. A street fight with a congressman led to a notorious trial in 1832 in which he was defended by none other than Francis Scott Key. It became a huge “media event.” In the end, Houston rose to his own defense with a rousing speech that evoked a standing ovation from the galleries. A split vote still found him guilty of assault. A mild reprimand and a $500 fine was issued, which President Jackson eventually pardoned. From that point on, Sam turned his face toward Texas.

Houston championed individual liberty with a passion. He once preached, “When tyrants ask you to yield one jot of your liberty, and you consent thereto, it is the first link forged in the chain that will eventually hold you in bondage.” He was a brash self-promoter with plenty of enemies. A short list of famous Americans who bitterly opposed him includes John C Calhoun, John Quincy Adams, Martin van Buren and Jefferson Davis. The support of Andrew Jackson was often enough to counter the opposition and keep him coming back. True to form, he rose up the ranks quickly in Texas too.

Houston, a dual citizen of the USA and the Cherokee nation, frequently fought for the rights of Indians, often standing alone. As early as 1836, although he owned slaves himself, he partially ended the slave trade in Texas. As early as 1848, his warnings of a looming civil war showed more prescience than any statesman in his day. When war came in 1861, Governor Houston opposed the secession of Texas from the Union and was removed from office for this unpopular stand.

On a happy note, Houston’s third marriage was the charm. In 1840, he married Margaret Lea of Alabama, a minister’s daughter. She persuaded Sam to stop drinking and join the Baptist church. They had eight children. When Sam died of pneumonia in 1863, his last words were “Margaret! Margaret! Texas! Texas!” She noted his death in the family Bible and described him as “Gen. Sam Houston, the beloved and affectionate Husband, father, devoted patriot, the fearless soldier—the meek and lowly Christian.” That last line may not ring fitting to his early enemies but Margaret got the last word.

Four years after Sam’s passing, Margaret volunteered during a yellow fever epidemic to nurse the sick and dying. The fever that took many of her friends also got her. She died while living out her evangelical faith.

POSTSCRIPT: /strong>Since childhood I have been told that I am a descendant of Sam Houston. My maternal grandfather’s middle name was “Houston.” Claiming the Founding Father of Texas as my “great, great, great . . . Uncle Sam” always gets me some respect from my Texan friends.

PRIMARY SOURCE: Sam Houston: A Biography of the Father of Texas, by John Hoyt Williams (Simon & Schuster, 1993).

Why Young People Leave the Church

When I see an article about millennials, generation Xers or young people in general leaving the church, I prepare myself for another round of ‘bash-the-bride’ As a lifelong church-lover, I brace myself for harsh judgment. The criticisms I read, offered under the pretense of caring about the condition of Jesus’ church (his bride), are usually stereotypes that our secular culture stamps on the church.

I detest stereotyping certain races, as if the race is responsible for trends in presumed laziness, violence, shiftlessness, sex obsession, taste for watermelons or whatever. Such bigotry is inexcusable and offensive. But when it comes to the church, people inside and out seem to feel free to accuse her with rank stereotypes about presumed intolerance, lack of compassion, obsession with politics (usually politics the critic does not like), rigidity, obsession with sex, disregard for the poor, hostility to gays, lesbians bisexuals or transgendered persons, irrelevance, hatred for women, disdain for science, and impatience with anyone asking honest questions.

Why the double standard for stereotyping? I think the stereotypes listed above are as evil when applied to Christians as other mean-spirited stereotypes are when applied to races. I know and love the church far too well to let such selected stereotypes besmirch her unfairly.

Sadly, I have seen some of these flaws featured in a few Christians and churches, but I see them all far more outside the church than inside. Besides, the flaws listed above could be found in churches (and in society) decades ago when the church, by and large, was flourishing and young people were staying.

Blogger Rachel Held Evens is a harsh critic of evangelical Christians. She recently wrote an article titled, “Why millennials are leaving the church.” In it she wrote, “We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.” This unwarranted judgment is as extreme as it is disrespectful. Millennials are not that blind nor are evangelicals that phony. Presuming that Jesus is not to be found among evangelical Christians is not friendly fire.

Another article I read recently blamed Sunday School for driving young people away. It selectively summed up the typical Sunday School message as a “lie” and claimed that using Bible heroes to encourage kids to be good is too big a “burden” and contrary to the gospel. I wonder, is the need for Christians to beat each other up and knock each other’s efforts down so acute that we have to stretch this far to do it?

Truth told, the reasons people of any age leave the church vary widely. No article can do full justice to this rising concern. In this article, I am simply trying to discourage knee-jerk church-bashing presumptions. As our culture becomes increasingly intolerant of biblical Christianity, a certain popular approval comes with criticizing the church. The truer we are to Jesus, the less we fit worldly paradigms and values. This drives some people (young or old) away who are highly influenced by a secular culture that traffics in cheap stereotypes to discredit Christians and the church. The good news is that some of these wanderers eventually come back. The secular culture loses its glitter and they finally see beyond the stereotypes.

Christian churches call for strong commitments, first to Jesus and also to each other, to the community and even to the world. Maybe some young believers (not to mention the old) just don’t like commitment. Of course this is not true of all because I know many young people who have chosen to remain in Jesus’ church, fully committed. They love her enough to stay.