Thursday, November 19, 2015

The National Football League Reflects the Addictions of Our Culture

Some of us have struggled with addictions in our life. Typically we think of addictions related to some substance abuse. The drug, though, isn’t the problem; it’s the symptom. The problem lies behind what we are using the drug to mask.

As much as substance abuse is a troubling issue in our society—I think the most troublesome addictions in our society are greed, violence, racism, sexism, and homophobia.

What’s strange about addictions is that the drug of choice is usually starts out innocent enough. Then it creeps up on us. It starts out as something recreational and then before we know it, what was so innocent now consumes us.

Let me give you an example. The National Football League was born in 1920 as a fledging entity that struggled to exist until games started appearing on national television. It wasn’t until the first Super Bowl in 1967 did the NFL really exploded as a reflection of our national psyche. Today, it seems that the NFL reflects the addictions our American culture.

First, the NFL reflects the greed that permeates American culture. The NFL reported last week that 106 million people, one third of the U.S. population, watch the NFL each week. The average NFL game lasts 3 hours and 12 minutes, of which the ball is in play only 11 minutes. During those three hours you are exposed to 100 commercials.

Of course, the NFL is a big business. In 2014, the NFL had revenues of $10 billion. Their stated goal is $25 billion dollars. That’s a lot of money to be spread between 32 teams.

Ah, you say, what about all the money the players make? There are 1,696 players in the NFL. The average salary is $1.9 million a year per player. The total payroll burden for the NFL players is $3.2 billion. That leaves about $7 billion for the owners to operate their businesses. All sounds cool, doesn’t it?

Except for one thing, 78% of NFL players are bankrupt or in financial distress within two years after their career is over. Surely with all that money, there must be a safety net? An NFL player can collect retirement at age 55. For each season they played the player collects $470/month. The average career of an NFL player is 3 years. That nets the player $1,400 a month in retirement.

Second, the NFL reflects the aggrandizement of violence in America. In last week’s NFL games, 2 players suffered neck injuries from legal hits that required surgery. In addition to the legal contact, 3 players were fined $20,000 for illegal hits to the head and 3 other players were fined nearly $10,000 for other types of illegal hits. The players continue to get bigger, stronger, and faster each year. No amount of rules or fines will control violent nature of an NFL game. The NFL is a violent game.

In the NFL, 30% of the players will suffer from long-term cognitive ailments and are 4 times at greater risk for Alzheimer’s than the average American. The average life span of an NFL player is 55 years. Oddly enough, the players can start taking retirement at age 55. So the average player never lives long enough to collect the meager retirement.
Third, the NFL reflects the ugly nature of racism that permeates our culture. 70% of NFL players are African-American. Yet, of the 32 teams, only 5 of the head coaches and 7 of the general managers are black. No owner of an NFL team is a person of color. In fact, of the 122 teams between the NFL, MLB, NBA, and the NHL there is only one majority owner of color. There is something really wrong with the color of that picture because it looks like racism.

Sexism? That’s easy. Here’s what an NFL game looks like: the men are in the middle of the field engaged in highly technical, very physical, and financially lucrative maneuvers; while the women are on the sidelines happily cheering them on dressed in very skimpy costumes. Ever wonder why there aren’t any women announcers in the booth?

Is there homophobia in the NFL? That’s even easier to point out than sexism. How many players in the NFL are openly gay? Zero. Does that mean there aren’t any gay men playing NFL football? No. Given that 4% of the male population is gay, there are probably sixty plus closeted men playing in the NFL. Yes, last year the NFL drafted the first openly gay man. But he was cut early in training camp. Yes, the NFL is homophobic.

The problem is not the game of football. The real problem is that the NFL reflects the addictions of our American society.

I’ve have wondered, though, how the league would look differently if Oprah owned a team and Condoleezza Rice was the commissioner. I’d start watching the NFL again if that happened.

I guess I could say that the good news is this: the NFL, like every other institution, including the church, will come to an end one day. That’s what Jesus was trying to explain to his disciples in the Gospel of Mark (13:1-8). As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” Every institution has a life cycle—the institution is born, matures, gets old, and then dies. History has proved that over and over again. Jesus was just pointing out the obvious.

What Jesus and our new PB Michael Curry are calling us to do is give up our addictions and get on board with the Jesus Movement. To follow Jesus’s teaching: Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are those who mourn…Blessed are the meek…Blessed are the merciful…Blessed are the pure in heart…Blessed are the peacemakers…Jesus said to Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus came to show us that real power is in powerlessness. Jesus came to show us that love heals fear.

I know it might be really weird not to watch the NFL this weekend. But being a follower of Jesus will affect what you eat, what you buy, how you treat other people, what you watch, and how you vote. Amen.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Arizona Episcopal Clergy and Theological Conversations

There are at least three things I have learned in my brief time as Canon Theologian. First, for the most part, the clergy in our diocese are very eager to talk about God, to do theology. Second, they are looking for ways to engage the congregations they serve in a theological conversation. Third, the theology of the clergy in our diocese spans the theological spectrum, from traditional orthodoxy to Richard Rohr like higher consciousness to something even more ambiguous. My hunch is that we could say the same about the laity in their breadth of theology and their desire to have meaningful conversations about God.

In August, the clergy of our diocese gathered for a theological conversation in response to Richard Rohr’s Immortal Diamond.

The conversation was held in three locations.

7 attended at Saint Luke’s, Prescott
13 attended at Trinity Cathedral, Phoenix
21 attended at Grace-St. Paul’s, Tucson.

As a follow-up to those conversations, a survey was sent to every clergy person seeking feedback about the gathering. I also asked some questions about what future theological conversations would pique their interest.

54 responded
21 of those responded did not attend one of the Rohr gatherings
23 did attend one of the Rohr gatherings.

In response to the question about the value of the gathering:

20 clergy said the gathering was “Worth my time.”
2 clergy said it “Somewhat worth my time.”
1 clergy person said it was “Not worth my time.”

When asking those who did not attend, why they didn’t, the majority said they had a schedule conflict or were too busy working. A few said they simply weren’t interested.

In response to the question, “How do we make future gatherings better,” the dominant suggestion was to break the larger gathering into smaller groups of three or four people—allowing opportunity for more folks to engage in the conversation.

In regard to suggestions for future topics, the response was evenly divided between the three suggested topics, “Various Atonement Theologies,” “Theology of Alternative Liturgies,” and “Theology of Various Leadership Models.” However, there were twenty-eight (28) divergent suggestions for other topical considerations including, inviting clergy and the laity into doing theology together, progressive theology, social justice theology, sacramental theology, apocalyptic theology, life cycle and spirituality, role of clergy as chief versus shaman, and a few Anglican specific questions.

When thinking about book discussions here are the top six in rank order:

1. The Fourth Gospel, John Shelby Spong (20 votes)
2. Reading the Bible from the Margins, Miguel De La Torre (18)
3. The Wisdom Jesus, Cynthia Bourgeault (17)
4. Mary Magdalene, Cynthia Bourgeault (16)
5. The Gospel of Thomas, Lynn Baumen’s (14)
6. The Red Book, Carl Jung (12)

Thirty other books were suggested including PB Michael Curry’s Crazy Christians three times (the only book listed more than once). Some authors listed more than once were Walter Bruggemann and Dallas Willard. The book titles included Jesus, God, Paul, social justice, and eschatology, to mention just a few.

As to when to have the next conversation, after Epiphany had the most respondents.

One thing I heard from the survey itself was that there is a clear interest in offering a venue for theological conversations with and among the laity. I’m going to plan an event for the laity after Epiphany to follow up on the Richard Rohr conversation. I’ll use a similar location format. I am hoping that some of my colleagues from the three regions will be willing to serve on a panel. I’ll moderate and we’ll have a thirty-minute dialogue followed by thirty-minutes of Q&A. Then divide those who attend into small groups for more intimate conversations. Followed then by thirty minutes of comments and more Q&A. This might be adventurous, but I’d like to give it try. Val Webb wrote in her recent book, Testing Tradition and Liberating Theology: Finding Your Own Voice, “Theology cannot be shaped only through the experiences and in the minds of a few theologians talking together in academic halls, but through the experiences and reflections of the majority of the people of God, the laity.” (Thank you Dn. Tom Lindell for sharing this book with me.)

I was very encouraged by the number of clergy who would take the time out their very busy schedules to attend the first theological conversation. I was also pleased with the number of clergy who responded to the survey with excellent feedback and outstanding suggestions. One resounding comment I received from the three locations was to please continue having these events in the north, central, and south. I will heed that wise counsel.

Here is my plan for the next two clergy conversations in 2016. The first will be after Epiphany but before the next Presbyter’s Retreat. The dates will be announced shortly. We’ll be using three books from the clergy response. With the option of reading a book not listed. At the gathering we’ll divide into four small groups to discuss the book of your choice. Then the four groups will report back to the larger group for comments and Q&A.

Jesus is the theme of the three books.
1. The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, John Shelby Spong
2. The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind—a New Perspective on Christ and His Message, Cynthia Bourgeault
3. Crazy Christians: A Call to Follow Jesus, Michael Curry
4. If none of these books about Jesus interest you, bring one that does to the gathering and you can join the fourth small group and share your book about the theme of Jesus.

The second clergy theological gathering in 2016 will happen after the Presbyter’s Retreat, April 5-7. That round of clergy gatherings will be a conversation regarding the retreat presenter’s topic and book.

Again, thank you for your participation and response. My prayers are that these opportunities will be meaningful and supportive of your life and work.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

The Long Arc of the Coach/Athlete Relationship: Until Death do We Part?

2015 Baylor Symposium on Faith and Culture
The Spirit of Sports
Presenters – Marlene Bjornsrud and Gil Stafford

Topic – “The Long Arc of the Coach/Athlete Relationship: Until Death Do We Part?”

I had been retired several years from my coaching career. Late one night, I was awakened by a text from a former athlete who played on a team I coached thirty years ago. The person was in a panic. Their life was a mess. Desperate, they had turned to me for counsel. When I phoned, I found myself feeling like we were trapped in a black and white photo taken when we were both in another dimension of life. The former athlete wanted me to still be that spiritual guide who existed years ago. But my understanding of faith and life were in a much different place now. The question is, had I built a relationship that would sustain thirty years of change?

The coach/athlete relationship has many possible facets, among them, teacher, mentor, advisor, and spiritual guide. Like all human relationships, the coach and the athlete build a bond developed across the arc of several phases—getting acquainted, growth through sharing a common interest, building trust by surviving defeat, creating a safe environment in order to get beyond the personality masks, imagining the possibility of a sustained relationship.
As intercollegiate athletics rapidly changes into a revenue-based, winner-take-all pressure cooker, is it possible for a coach and athlete to develop a relationship based on authenticity, reciprocity, and evolving spirituality?

Some would say that the business of college sport has diminished its purpose as an integral part of educating the whole person. Coaches are evaluated on the basis of the competitive performance of 18-22 year olds and the revenue stream, or lack thereof, derived from their sport. Recruiting demands a focus on finding the next class of athletes rather than being present to those currently on the team.

What does this mean to a coach who is a person of faith? Is it possible for a coach to seek success and significance simultaneously?

The coach/athlete relationship has two unique factors that shade the color of their experience—the intensity of competition and the expected predetermined length of the relationship. Bjornsrud and Stafford’s presentation will explore the facet of the coach as spiritual guide during the competitive phase of the relationship, one that can be sustained years after competition.

Spiritual relationships between the guide and the mentee are often reliant upon concepts found within commonly held values concerning faith and religion. How can coaches create spiritual relationships that are not confined within the language and theology of one specific faith tradition?

This session will explore three elements essential for the creation of sustainable spiritual relationships between coaches and athletes:

1. RECIPROCITY: Developing a team culture based on mutuality and responsibility for coaches and athletes alike empowers the athlete to accept the outcomes of their behavior in all relationships and establishes trust between the coach and the athletes. Relationships exist as a two-way street.

2. AUTHENTICITY: Building an environment that encourages athletes and coaches to bring their whole self to the team - their interests outside the sport, their family circumstances, sexuality, faith differences, and whatever else distinguishes them as an authentic human beings – builds a relationship platform that extends beyond the field of play.

3. EVOLVING SPIRITUALITY: Cultivating an atmosphere of curiosity about life allows coaches to be vulnerable enough to admit they do not have the answers to life’s “Big” questions. While athletes may need answers and guidelines during the first half of life, learning how to ask questions will sustain them in the second half of life. Coaches must model an evolving and individuated curiosity about the journey called life. This will foster the trust that grows sustainable relationships.

Postscript: At this presentation, Marlene Bjornsud presented the basis of thought as stated above. She told a personal story of a long term coach/athlete relationship, particularly in an athlete's time of need. She went on to say that she and I do believe that the coach/athlete is, indeed, a lifetime endeavor.

For my part of the presentation, I told two stories that have not had happy endings. In both stories, I shared the pain and risk of reciprocity. In both cases, I share my own part and failure in the complex and troubled lives both athletes have suffered after leaving the game of baseball. Coaching is a very messy endeavor with few easy answers.

Gil Stafford is an Episcopal priest and the Canon Theologian for the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona. He spent twenty-four years at Grand Canyon University. He was the head baseball coach for twenty years winning three NAIA National Championships. He was also the school’s Director of Athletics. In 2000, Stafford became the president of GCU, serving for four years. He was the only standing president to simultaneously be an NCAA Division I coach.

Marlene Bjornsrud is the Executive Director of the Alliance of Women Coaches. She coached collegiate tennis at Grand Canyon, winning the first NAIA National Championship for women. At GCU she also served as an athletic administrator. Later, she was an athletic administrator at Santa Clara University. Followed by being the first general manager of the San Jose CyberRays of the professional Women’s United Soccer Association.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Mystery, Knowledge, and Sacred Magic

This weekend we celebrate Dia de Muertos, All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day. These four events often merge into one. And I think they embody the Mystery, Knowledge, and Sacred Magic of the roots of our Anglican heritage. Yes, Saint Peter’s is an Episcopal Church. But, the Episcopal Church’s roots are deep in the Anglican tradition. Which comes out of Roman Catholicism. And, of course, we are part of the tradition of the Hebrews. Which means we have adopted practices and beliefs from other traditions including Egyptian, Zoroastrian, as well as Roman and Celtic pagans. The Anglican tradition is truly the gold made from the alchemist’s crucible.

Let me offer two stories as a metaphor of the concepts of mystery, knowledge and sacred magic.

This past summer I was walking the Wicklow Way. It was late in the day. Hot for Ireland. There were too many blisters, bad ankles, and sore knees in our group. Up and down. Heavy legs. Burning lungs. Weary back. My soul was sore. Then I saw a small wisp of cloud drifting towards me. No bigger than my Mini Cooper—barely a few feet off the ground. No one else seemed to see the cloud or paid any attention. Their heads were down. The cloud settled in my path. I was enveloped is this cool yet warm fog. I was suspended in the thin space. Time stopped. My heart was pounding. I sucked deep at what I felt was the Holy that surrounded me. And then I was standing alone. The tears burst from the dark inner space of my heart. I was awake. Yet I was walking in a dream.

The second story happened before I went to Ireland. I had cataract and lens replacement surgery. I had to be awake for the surgery. The doctor numbed my eye. Then he put this device on my eyelid that prevented my eye from closing. I was forced to stare into the light shining in my eye. The cataract removal only took a few seconds. That part was painless, almost unnoticeable. Then the doctor removed the lens from my eye. The world became a blur of white light. I realized at that moment that if the doctor didn’t insert the latex lens, all I would see for the rest of my life was that blurry white light. That caused me a bit of anxiety to say the least. But, all was well. The doctor put in a new lens and I can see wonderfully.

You’re probably thinking those two stories are totally unrelated. In sense, that’s correct. But the two stories do help explain the Anglican way of seeing the world.

The first story of my walk on the Wicklow Way describes a mystical experience. I didn’t cause the experience. Ii simply happened. I was in the right place at the right time to encounter the mystical. I’m sure everyone here has had a mystical experience of some kind. You beheld a splendid sunset and you were brought to tears. You held your newborn baby for the first time. Your soul soared to new heights. You heard a song that reminded you of some beautiful experience from the past. Mystical experiences are not reserved only for people like Saint John the Divine, or Saint Teresa, or Saint Peter. We are all a part of the communion of saints. We’re all saints and most of us have had a mystical experiences.

The second story I told about having the lens in my eye removed and then seeing a bright light. The lens was removed. I saw a bright, all encompassing white light. The experience caused me some anxiety. But, the experience was not mystical. The experience was the result of twenty-first century medical technology that fortunately had a happy ending.

One of the beauties of the Anglican Church is that you don’t have to check your brain at the door. We use knowledge to help us understand the world in which we live, the scriptures we read, and our own lives. The universe was created by a Big Bang thirteen billion years ago. Dinosaurs walked the earth. Humanoids have lived on the earth for over a million years. You don’t have to deny that stuff when you enter an Anglican Church. In fact, you really need to bring your brain into this church. You’re going to be asked to think about heady stuff all the time. No one’s going to tell you what to believe or think in this church. You are responsible for what you believe. That’s what Saint Paul meant when he wrote to the church in Philippi, that you are responsible to “Work out your own salvation.”

A major component of having knowledge is to help us understand the mysteries we experience as well as those found in our scripture. We’ve heard a reading from The Revelation to John (21:1-6). Unfortunately, the visions of Saint John the Divine have been co-opted by the bad theology of Rapture and the subsequent Left Behind series. Rapture theology is escapism and eliminates any Christian responsibility for doing the work of God. The theology of The Revelation of John is not that all Christians are going to escape the complexities here on Earth—it’s actually the opposite. The mystical Revelation was given to the seven churches in Asia, and to us, as a map of our work. Saint John the Divine says, “See, the home of God is among mortals.” In other words, God’s home is here with us. Christian’s are to spread God’s peace and love on earth as it is in heaven. Our work is to be God’s love for others.

Much of our Eucharistic liturgy, the work of the people, is lifted right out of The Revelation of John. The Revelation is our work and our mystical vision. We are saints who participate in the dailyness of God’s mystical vision for us. Our two sacraments, Baptism and Eucharist, are clearly part of God’s mystical vision for our Church.

And that’s where the magic comes in. The definition of magic is that someone preforms an act to change someone’s mind. Everyday, artists, musicians, and poets change our minds about the mundane—they are doing magic. In the church, the congregation participates in the sacred magic. Together, the priest, the people, and the Spirit offer simple bread and wine so that those elements of nature will become for us the very Presence of the Body and Blood of Christ. Don’t confuse what I just said with Roman Catholic theology, which teaches that the priest alone, by word and action, calls upon the Spirit to turn the bread and wine in to the flesh and blood of Jesus. Anglican priests do not celebrate private Eucharist—Holy Communion in the Trinitarian act of the priest, the people, and the Spirit. The same sacred magic happens at Baptism. Together, the priest, the people, and the Spirit engage in the sacred magic of blessing the water, which through the mystery of the Spirit will infuse the baptized with the very mystical Presence of Christ.

Mystery is the action of the Undivided Trinity. We, the Church, are responsible to bring our knowledge and to participate in the sacred magic in order to bring “Thy Kingdom Come on earth, as it is in Heaven.” Such work is evolutionary.

The main reason I come to church is to understand the ever-evolving meaning of life. That meaning, the purpose of life, is to become an integrated person. Mystery without knowledge is dualism. Mystery without sacred magic eliminates our responsibility in a relationship with God. Mystery and magic without knowledge is a dangerous cult. We need the mystery, the knowledge, and the sacred magic in order to become integrated human beings. As well, we need the mystery, knowledge, and sacred magic to become an integrated evolving church. If coming to church and what I believe doesn’t change what I eat, what I buy, and how I vote, and how I treat other people, then it’s all a waste of my time. It’s weird that way. And it changes everything.