September 22, 2013
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,
To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father.
In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God. This you learned from Epaphras, our beloved fellow-servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf, and he has made known to us your love in the Spirit.
You know, it’s no secret to anyone who knows me, even a little bit, that I like sports. And it makes sense that I would like sports because I was a fairly good athlete growing up, and I played a lot of sports. I even played some sports at a fairly high level.
I played soccer for a long time, till it was apparent that all those people who had good left feet were much better than me. I was a pretty good hockey player, at least for the Pittsburgh area. I was an all-star in ninth, tenth, and eleventh grade (I quite during my senior year—I got sick of all the fighting. The sport I excelled in was lacrosse. I was an all-star for two years in high school, and went on to play on a national championship team that was perennially one of the best teams in college lacrosse.
I do have to admit, though, that despite love of sports, I’ve developed a problem with sports. The problem is that in our modern culture sports has become so dominant, and this hurts us at times individually and as a culture. I believe that in comparison to generations past, our culture isn’t as spiritually mature as it had been. And one main reason is that we spend too much time with sports. The irony is that in many ways we are a much more mature culture. We are certainly more mature technologically, socially, and in a few other ways. But spiritually, in terms of recognizing that there’s more to life than technology, entertainment, and stimulation, we are less mature.
Look at what we immerse our lives in, especially as men. There are now nine channels devoted to just sports on local cable, and the weekends multiply the number of sporting events we can watch on TV. sevenfold. I heard a comment several years ago, which was that most men spend hours and hours each week preparing themselves by reading, watching, and studying info and stats for the upcoming Sunday football game. What if they just took a small portion of that time and devoted it to praying, reading the Bible, or growing spiritually? What if we prepared ourselves for church the way we prepare ourselves for football? In ages past, before there was ESPN or Root Sports, men and women did prepare for worship the way we might prepare for football today. Too much sports diminishes us spiritually.
In many ways, sport has become a dominant metaphor for our culture. For example, how often do we see life in terms of winners and losers? Certainly that is our dominant political metaphor. No matter what is done, it’s always expressed in terms of which party won and which one lost? Did the president win or lose? Did the speaker of the House or the Senate win or lose? In a diplomatic effort, did we win or lose? This is such simplistic way of looking at life, but it’s what our obsession with sports does to us.
Still, with all of that said, there are some things I’ve learned from sports that have had tremendous significance in my life. Among the most significant lesson from sports I’ve learned is that on the best teams, players find joy in each other’s accomplishments. On bad teams, the players seem to care mostly about themselves—how often are they getting the ball or the puck, what their stats are, whether the team and fans praise them enough? On good teams, players don’t care as much about their personal stats. In fact, many recognize that for the team to be good, maybe their stats will suffer as they do more to help others rather than themselves. And on the best teams, the players take actual joy in the accomplishments of others. In fact, when you hear them interviewed, they often are quick to praise what a teammate did: “Did you what so-and-so did? It was amazing?”
I first noticed this when listening to an interview with Terry Bradshaw, the quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers four Super Bowl teams. He was asked how he made the leap from being a struggling quarterback to one who threw amazing passes to win games. He said that the change came when he began to take joy in throwing the ball and watching his two pro bowl wide receivers, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, make fantastic leaping and diving catches. He began to see himself as the vehicle that allowed Swann and Stallworth to excel. And it made Bradshaw better in the process.
I’ve seen similar attitudes on the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Stanley Cup teams, and the team in general. And I saw it on the championship team I played on.
This dynamic isn’t only present in great sports teams. You see the same dynamic in the best plays, films, orchestras, bands, and especially in jazz. For example, listen to interviews of those in the best plays. The actors often will talk more about the joy they have received in acting opposite a certain actor or actress. They get excited in talking about the privilege of seeing these others act night in and night out.
The converse of this principle is apparent on bad teams, in bad plays, in bad bands, bad companies, and bad politics. In these cases, people find joy mainly in their own accomplishments, while criticizing the accomplishments of others.
Paul gives us an example this morning of what it means to have the spiritual maturity to take joy in others in his introduction of his letter to the Colossians. He says, “In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven.” As Paul does in a number of his letters, he is full of praise for these people. Paul sees what’s right in them, not what’s wrong. And I believe that the most spirituality mature people always focus on what’s right in others, in the world, in situations, and in life, rather than on what’s wrong. I also believe that looking for what’s right in life is what makes life worth living, and when we surround ourselves with people who also see what’s right in life, it makes life amazing.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret. I’ve been asked many times why I’ve stayed at Calvin Presbyterian Church for so long. It doesn’t happen as often now, but I have been asked many times by new members if I plan to leave anytime soon. I suppose it’s because new members don’t want to commit to Calvin Church if I’m on the verge of leaving. My answer is that I can’t foretell what God may have in store for me, and if I felt called to move onto somewhere else, I would, but that I also have no plans to leave.
I’ve certainly have had my opportunities. I’ve been pursued in the past by many of large Presbyterian churches in the Pittsburgh area, and also a fair number of churches across the country, from New York City to Minneapolis to Texas to Los Angeles. And I’ve turned them all down. The question many outside of here have asked me is “Why do you stay in Zelienople when you could go somewhere else more prestigious, where you could make a bigger name for yourself.” My answer has always been the same: “I stay because those places wouldn’t be Calvin Church.”
There’s something special about this place that you don’t find in most other churches. There’s an openness to God, to creativity, to caring about each other that is in short supply in so many places. I see so much what is right here.
I don’t have to look far to find what’s right. I can start with the staff of Calvin Church. I LOVE working and ministering with everyone here. I think we’re more than just co-workers. For the most part we’re friends. But there’s more to it. I deeply appreciate what is right about everyone on staff here. It’s easy to look and complain about what’s wrong. And I’m sure we could all sit around and criticize. It is much harder to find other places where there is so much that is right. Just because a church is big and prestigious doesn’t mean that there’s a lot that’s “right” going on there.
Look around Calvin Church and see what’s right. For instance, I love listening to Connie Frierson’s sermons and children’s sermons. She and I had a conversation the other day about her sermons. I mentioned to her that I know that associate pastors always wonder what senior pastors are thinking, and wonder if their sermon and other things measure up. I told her that that’s not the way I listen to her. I actually listen to what she says so that I can gain insight into life. I’m not listening for what’s wrong. I’m paying attention to what she has to say about life and how we can live it better. And I’m often quick to quote things she has said in both her sermons and children’s sermons.
I also feel tremendously blessed to be part of this music program. It’s not just Bruce Smith, our music director, although he’s a big part of it. I love to hear Bruce play. I love to hear Toni Schlemmer, our associate music director, sing. I love to hear DeWayne Segafredo, our keyboardist, play. And what really amazes me is that DeWayne will often come to worship after having gone to bed at 3 or 4 a.m. the night before because of his business, which is supplying lighting and sound for local bands all around the Western Pennsylvania area. Four minutes before a service he and Bruce will choose what to play, and it’s amazing to watch them play seamlessly together. Often Toni has to adapt to both of them because they don’t tell her ahead of time what they are playing, so she plugs in and sings wonderful solos. We’ve added Derek Stoltenberg on percussions this summer, and what he has added to our worship music has been incredible. He did something, as an example, a few weeks ago when supporting a jazz piece that Bruce was playing that was tremendous. He had been playing on his cajóne (the wooden box that he plays), and then started to clap his hands, his thighs, and his chest in a way that was so cool. He adds sounds that we don’t expect, and I find joy in all of this.
I also find joy in all the others who work here, and do things that no one notices. Secretaries and treasurers are always lightning rods for criticism in a congregation, but in Michelle Shepler and Karen Frank we are blessed to have two people who do so much behind the scenes at such a high quality, that it leaves only small things to criticize. That’s the mark of good support staff—that they get criticized for dumb, small things because they do the important things so well. I also really appreciate our sound and visual people during worship—Scott Caputy and Tom Reiber. They do so much that you don’t really see or hear that it makes all the rest of us look good.
It’s for all these reasons that I stay here, but there’s also one more—You. This church’s members are exceptional. I think that the main reason we’ve grown so consistently as a church is all of you. We have a reputation as being a church that cares for people no matter who you are, and you can’t gain that reputation without earning it. There are a lot of bigger churches, a lot of bigger name churches, and a lot of better-known churches, but there aren’t any better churches. And you are the reason behind that.
The simple answer for why I stay is that I see what’s right in this place. I feel a lot like Paul did about the Colossians—I love the accomplishments of others, and I take joy in seeing others do things so well, whether it’s our staff or our members. I’ve also discovered that many times pastors don’t feel this way. I have a friend who was a music director for a church in Illinois. After she was there for a year, and after resurrecting a declining music program, the pastor took her aside and said, “You know, you need to tone down your anthems and music a bit. They’re making me look bad because of their quality. The reality is that people are here to hear my sermons. You’re diminishing my sermons by being too energetic and passionate.” This is an attitude that too many have in church and life. They don’t take joy in others’ accomplishments, but feel threatened.
Ultimately, I believe that to be a mature Christian means to see what’s best in each other, and especially to share in the joy that we can bring to each other. The question to reflect on is this: what do you see around you that is terribly right?