The Curious Case of Mark Richt

My alma mater fired the second most successful coach in its history yesterday, ending an historic run in the history of University of Georgia athletics.

Sadly, it was the lack of significantly historic moments that led to the downfall of Coach Mark Richt. As I learned during lunch yesterday afternoon, the University has decided to move on from Coach Richt and look for someone else to lead one of the best programs in the SEC.

I come away conflicted. I was one of those who called for CMR’s tenure to end. I felt that this year exhibited definitively one of the greatest weaknesses of Coach’s tenure: that when the biggest moments for success came, UGA was often not only unprepared, it was woefully so. Alabama destroyed us. The Florida game was a Gator fan’s dream scenario. I don’t even want to talk about Tennessee.

But I also understand that Georgia is where we are today because of Mark Richt. His vision, his passion, his leadership — all of these things helped restore the glory, glory to ol’ Georgia. The fact that the failure to win a national championships (or more than two SEC championships) was cause for dismissal just tells you how much Richt did for our program. Georgia had been out of the conversation since the late 80s; Richt propelled us back into the spotlight.

In a way, CMR was a victim of his own success. His teams created a fanbase that was wildly divided between irrational fans who expected a championship every year and fans who were willing to accept the status quo because of Richt’s character — and, more specifically, because of his religious beliefs.

Like a lot of things these days, the polarization became a contest of egos, and in the big business world of college football, winning wins every single time. Character, as much as I hate to say it, is an additional feature to collegiate sports, kind of like leather seats in a new car.

The easy narrative to follow would be criticizing the win-at-all-costs mentality in college football. But that’s not the curious thing to me in this case.

The curious case of Mark Richt lies in the fact that there were thousands of fans happy to let him go on coaching simply because they believed he was a good man and a great Christian. I’ve heard from a lot of fans who didn’t care that CMR’s teams had tapered off on the field; they were prouder of his legacy of integrity and character values.

They were truthfully prouder of him being a vocal Christian in a high-profile job who was enjoying a high-level of success without “selling out” his beliefs. This to me is the more interesting angle to all of this, so much so I’m not even sure what to make of it or where I stand.

I felt like CMR’s teams were clearly not as well coached, well prepared, or well staffed as they should be after such a run of success. I’ve been around enough organizations to know that when the results don’t match the rhetoric, trouble is afoot. That doesn’t mean CMR isn’t a good man, or that he’s a subpar Christian, or even that he’s not a good football coach; it simply means that there were signs of problems within his world at Georgia and it was time to move on.

To me, that’s the bottom line. The culture at the University of Georgia was no longer conducive to Coach Richt. It was time for everyone to shake hands, part ways, and head to the next phase.

Every leader experiences times like that. Sometimes you can right the ship; other times, you have to step back and let someone else take the wheel. Change in leadership is never easy. But it is necessary, which is why I’m intrigued and saddened by the number of Christians who can’t see the need for it in this case. They would rather embrace mediocrity than go through change, all because CMR’s beliefs match theirs and he was able to use his platform to promote those beliefs.

Maybe there’s a happy ending. Maybe CMR goes on to follow in Vince Dooley’s hallowed footsteps by becoming the next Athletic Director, and continues building the legacy of Christian character and integrity so many fans appreciated.

If so, I hope folks continue to support him as much when he’s not in the spotlight as they did while he stood in its center. Mark Richt, by all accounts, seems to be one of the most genuine and authentic believers you’d ever hope to meet. Heck, even Nick Saban said as much.

I guess what I’m experiencing is buyer’s remorse — that feeling you get when you get what you wanted only to discover you’re not so certain it’s what you really wanted after all.


How to Be Thankful

I struggle with being thankful, which sucks because, as a Christian, thankfulness is supposed to be a crucial piece of my life. I am grateful for the good things in my life — Rachel, Ella, Jon, an awesome job, great friends, a fantastic church — but thankfulness extends beyond just what we enjoy. It also extends to those things we’d prefer to avoid.

Tough times. Sadness. Personal demons. An unjust world.

The easy answer is to simply not be thankful for the stuff that hurts; to just chalk it up to cosmic injustice, or the cold heart of a distant deity, or the blind pitiless indifference of a mechanistic universe. In fact, rather than being thankful, it’s easier to take the position of anger and indignation that such things exist.

Problem is, that kind of anger overwhelms you. It consumes your soul. Before long, it consumes your world.

We feel this on a regular basis. Our collective position these days is outrage followed by self-preservation followed by blame someone else followed by people deciding to move to Idaho and live out the end times in a shack with a nifty beard.

My Facebook feed alternates between “Praise Jesus and pass the turkey!” and “The world is going TO HELL IN AN F-16 LOADED WITH NU-CU-LAR WEAPONS!!!”

But in the middle of this is Jesus. He’s been kicking my butt lately. You know, in a kind way. I’m reading through the Gospels again because I want to understand how he lived above the fray. And the truth is, he didn’t live above it. He lived in the thick of it, right in the middle where the ugly stuff happens. And his anger, while real and impressive, was reserved for only those things he found offensive to his deepest sensibilities.

Otherwise, Jesus took life as it came and kept things cool.

I read this the other day, and it gave me pause:

“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.”

Contentedness, I think, is the heart of thanksgiving. You have to appreciate what you have in order to be thankful for it. I’m not a content person; I have dreams I want to chase, things I want to do, and so I spend a lot of time looking ahead at what could be while being disappointed that it isn’t realized right now. I also have things that I want out of my life — character flaws, insecurities, fears and the like. I spend as much time focusing on those (if not more).

Yet here’s Jesus, telling me to be content with who I am.

That’s hard.

I would wager that nothing Jesus taught is as hard for the modern American Christian than being content with who he or she is. In fact, I’m not even going to generalize this; I’m going to just be straight up honest: as an American Christian, this is one of my greatest struggles. I’ve grown up believing I had a manifest destiny to be more, to be better. I find it difficult to simply be me, whether I’m at home alone or in a room full of strangers. Who I am has always been less of the focus than what I do or how I perform.

And therein lies the restlessness, the discontent.

To be thankful, I must be content. To be content, I must trust in the intrinsic value I have, not because of what I do, but because of who I am. And, as a Christian, to whom I belong.

To be thankful, I must find rest in the truth that God loves me and walks with me, both towards my dreams and away from the things I need to leave behind. I must be content that God is at work in my life and, in his mercy, finds that to be enough.

For that, I am honestly, truly thankful.

Jesus Said “Grow Up”

I may write more about this later, when I feel I can do it successfully without preaching at any particular group of people. For right now, let me just say this:

If you dislike the idea of religiosity, a rules-based life that pits holy haves against heathen have-nots, then you’d probably like Jesus. A lot. I’m not saying that he didn’t have a standard for living–he did, and it was the most ethically challenging you’ll ever come across–but he didn’t have a lot of patience for people who wanted to turn ethical living into a pissing contest.

Jesus basically said that kind of religion was immature. Here’s how he put it in Matthew 5 (The Message translation):

38-42 “Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.

43-47 “You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.

48 “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

I love verse 48–“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up.”

Becoming a mature person, a complete person, is our goal. I believe the Scripture teaches that true completion is only found in Christ; this means we cannot realize our full potential just by living a moral and decent life. Without Jesus, there are aspects of our character left untapped and undeveloped.

Likewise it means we cannot be our full selves if we claim Jesus but don’t live according to his ethic. In other words, we can’t say we love Jesus but hate poor people. Or disregard the suffering of others. Or neglect to not only pray for our enemies, but respond to their slights with kindness and hope.

Why should we do this if we follow Jesus?

Because “God gives his best…to everyone, regardless: the good and the bad, the nice and nasty.”

“Grow up,” Jesus said. That’s what we’re all aiming for. That’s the goal of being human. To be the best person we can be. To do it, we all need a little help.

Sometimes, the most grown up thing we can do is ask for it.

Refugees, Romans, and Trusting God

Now that we’ve thankfully moved past the Starbucks Christmas cup debacle, the American Church is facing a new and actually pressing crisis: the Syrian refugees.

Without getting into the politics of it all, the question I keep seeing hashed out is simple. Should America accept Syrian refugees?

My answer (and this is my opinion) is that America should accept Syrian refugees through the same process and channels as always used. After all, we’re the home of the huddled masses, yearning to be free. Security is a built-in concern these days, so let’s trust the system to work.

But for many, it’s the follow up question that gets complicated — how should American Christians answer the question about refugees?

I would start by pointing to Romans 13 (quoting The Message translation):

1-3 Be a good citizen. All governments are under God. Insofar as there is peace and order, it’s God’s order. So live responsibly as a citizen. If you’re irresponsible to the state, then you’re irresponsible with God, and God will hold you responsible. Duly constituted authorities are only a threat if you’re trying to get by with something. Decent citizens should have nothing to fear.

3-5 Do you want to be on good terms with the government? Be a responsible citizen and you’ll get on just fine, the government working to your advantage. But if you’re breaking the rules right and left, watch out. The police aren’t there just to be admired in their uniforms. God also has an interest in keeping order, and he uses them to do it. That’s why you must live responsibly—not just to avoid punishment but also because it’s the right way to live.

6-7 That’s also why you pay taxes—so that an orderly way of life can be maintained. Fulfill your obligations as a citizen. Pay your taxes, pay your bills, respect your leaders.

The second sentence is the one that seems pertinent to me. “All governments are under God” is a significant statement; too often, we act as if government is out of God’s control, when the truth is much uglier: government is out of our control. And that’s what scares many American Christians.

Because we live in a democratic republic, it’s easy to understand how we get things mixed up. We vote for our government officials, so that means we have a say in who represents us and what values they bring to the table. We expect our vote to carry a certain weight with our representatives because without it they couldn’t hold office. As a result, we feel like the government is ours to control. Lobbyists feel otherwise.

Here’s the Apostle Paul, however, setting us straight. Government is not ours to control. It’s God’s. End of story. Paul spends seven verses explaining just how God uses the government to His purposes, and how Christians should trust God to work.

And Paul was writing under the rule of Rome. When they crucified Christians. And used them for bloodsport in massive arena games. And blamed them for the downfall of the world.

Yet we get pissy over coffee cups. But whatevs.

The heart of the issue is one of faith and trust. Some people don’t trust the government. Given the history of American politics, that’s not unreasonable. Some people don’t trust individual politicians. That makes sense too. Some people don’t even trust the system by which we elect our government — again, I understand.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t trust God.

Because that’s what this boils down to. Plenty of American Christians don’t trust the God they worship. Having grown accustomed to the ease of living afforded by our country, we cannot fathom that God would ever test that ease. That’s right – I’m throwing myself in the mix. I struggle with the Syrian question because I know in my heart taking care of the poor and oppressed is a Scriptural command from God.

In my head, however, there’s a filibuster going on about national security, vetting processes, and the fact that I don’t want a potential terrorist moving into any of the rental properties in my neighborhood. (Because suburban Atlanta is a hot target these days.)

I think a lot of us are feeling this way and we’re pointing towards politics as the source and expression of the tension when it’s really a spiritual battle.

And it comes down to the question of do you trust God or not?

I don’t want anyone to harm my country. I don’t want helpless people to suffer at the hands of evil ideologues. There’s a paradox at work, and that just so happens to be the place where God shines brightest.

So, I’m going to trust God, who put my government in place, to use that government to His will and purpose. I’m going to trust God that if we let Syrian refugees in, it’s for His will and purpose.

I’m going to trust God, because, in the end, there’s no one else worth trusting.

The Christian Ombudsman

An ombudsman is usually someone hired to be an impartial observer of an organization’s practices and to bring to light certain situations that require special attention, either positive or negative. In other words, an ombudsman is someone who watches an organization and says, “This is good, keep doing it” or “This wasn’t so good, here’s a correction.”

We live in a world of factions; forget the mainstream media’s portrayal of things and look to the news feeds of your own friends and family–you’ll see that many people run to one extreme or the other in order to find security. As a result, people share distorted (at best) or untrue (at worst) portraits of those who disagree with their positions.

As a Christian, I find that most of the people I know struggle with sharing who Jesus really is. In fact, most of the people I know don’t actually share Jesus–they share political opinions disguised in religious rhetoric. I’ve wasted plenty of time in the past trying to attack people on both sides of the aisle for their statements and ended up with nothing but heartache (and in many cases, heartburn). So the goal of this blog isn’t to hatchet either Christian polemic.

Instead, this blog will look at things through the lens of Jesus and the rest of Scripture. I won’t pretend that some posts will seem to lean toward one political direction or another; it’s practically a given since we’ve made that language an intractable part of our daily discourse. But my focus will be on what Jesus said and did, or what his followers said and did, in contrast with what many believers are saying and doing today. And my goal isn’t to convince Christians to change their positions–though, if that happens, all the groovier–but instead to help those who find themselves weary of the religious rigmarole altogether. I will share thoughts on faith and Jesus as a safe zone for those who don’t have a faith of their own.

As a result, I’m open to questions from the curious. I’d love to speak to those issues you find mystifying, troubling, or flat-out disturbing. Sometimes I’ll share my thoughts, other times I’ll share the thoughts of others. The goal will always be to stir your thinking and answer your questions with gentleness and respect.

What I’m not open to are attacks from the dissenting, or bullying from those who find their security stems from having everyone agree. You have the rest of the Internet for that.

So that’s the goal. Honest answers from a practitioner of the faith, which is what the Bible says we’re supposed to do anyway (1 Peter 3:15-16). I’ll figure out a way to create a form that allows questions to be submitted, and if I get one, I’ll answer it the best I can. If I get none, then I’ll just start with what’s top of mind.

I’m looking forward to blogging on a regular basis again, and for having a purpose that keeps me inspired. Hope you’ll come along for the ride.