Monthly Archives: March 2013

From the Mat: Speaking on Behalf of the Marginalized

Well, I really want you to read….and perhaps my title got you doing that. Now before you close this window and curse my name for even considering athletes and sports are “marginalized,” hear me out. As a future pastor, part of my job is to give voice to that what’s marginalized in our world. While there’s much out there to draw attention to, I wonder if drawing your attention to the sport of wrestling, and what happened this past weekend is important, because I think it highlights something that’s good about sports and humanity, and something that’s disturbing about our world and what it values.

Those who follow this blog know my passion for wrestling, but I realistic to know it has relatively small, but faithful, following. It’s a marginalized sport, at best. To prove my point, how many of you knew that the NCAA Division I National Tournament was happening this weekend, and that history was made, the kind that transcends the sport? This past weekend, a wrestling from Cornell University, Kyle Dake, won his 4th NCAA National Title. And that’s noteworthy for a couple reasons:

– In the history of college wrestling (Division I) Dake became only the 3rd wrestler to achieve this accomplishment. He finished with a career record of 139-4, having not lost over the last 2 + years.

– Dake accomplished this at 4 different weight classes (141, 149, 157, 165). To put that in perspective, that would be like an all-pro safety or cornerback in football choosing to be a defensive lineman, and becoming an all-pro at that position. It would be like one of the best point guards in basketball becoming a center and becoming the best center in all of basketball. Or a featherweight boxer moving up to light heavyweight and winning the belt. That just doesn’t happen.

– Dake attends Cornell University – an Ivy League school. That means he never took a redshirt year to develop physically and athletically, and he had to have the grades to get in and stay in. Ivy League schools don’t drop their standards for athletes in any sport….and Dake maintains over a 3.0 GPA in sociology. That might seem like an “easy” major to you, but I guarentee taking sociology at Cornell is just a “bit” more rigorous than taking it at State University X.

– By the way, to achieve this, Dake had to beat David Taylor, who is no pushover himself: He was the defending National Champion at the weight last year, and was the Hodge Trophy winner – the Heisman Trophy winner of college wrestling. By the way, Taylor maintains over a 3.5 GPA at a state school – Penn State University. But, Penn State isn’t your typical state school….while it’s not an Ivy League school, PSU is widely known as a academically challenging school, and doesn’t cater to its athletes.

In short, Dake achieved history by making the choice to move up a weight class to take on and beat a wrestler who was considered the best in all of college wrestling. He chose to take the hard route – to take a shot at achieving something great, rather than choosing an easier path and staying at the previous weight class. And, this was so out of the ordinary, ESPN actually found it notable enough to give it 1 minute of airtime. (Thanks ESPN….note my sarcasm)

So why am I bringing this up? Simply, it’s just a great story. But also, it’s important for me to bring up because Dake’s accomplishments, how he achieved them, and who they’ve formed him to be contradict everything our culture and society holds up as “the right way.” This has nothing to do with liberal or conservative values…..I think it has to do with how we view and value ourselves and each other as human beings. Because by pushing stories, lives, and people like Kyle Dake’s to the margins, we’re essentially saying:

– Hard work & discipline don’t matter.
– Success is dependant on how well one can market themselves, often portraying something they’re not.
– Political correctedness is more important than honesty.
– Confidence and humility cannot coexist simultaneously.
– Fairness is defined as everyone having the same success or ending with the same result.
– Risk is something to be completely avoided, especially when it comes to our own security, reputation.

Despite the fact wrestling is facing extinction on the Olympic level, I wonder if we’re losing something even greater as the human race. Sports like wrestling have the ability to be the “great equalizer.” No matter who you are, how you’re physically built, where you come from ethnically, culturally, or socio-economically, you can excel. Respect is earned because of just that – it is earned. It’s not an entitlement or right. Our culture seems to think that latter is true though….and that to me flies directly in the face of the worth of humanity, especially in God’s eyes. In the name of entertainment,fairness, money, and political correctedness we’ve de-humanized ourselves, building a less resilient and unforgiving society that places ungodly demands on people.

So I raise up the events of this weekend, and the culture that’s created by this tiny, marginalized sport. Wrestlers everywhere, I think the best thing we can do is spread this message about our sport – grow the numbers who share in it. And from the persepctive of faith, I think in many ways it witnesses to a God who’s worried less about how religously holy we can be, but rather is concerned with our ability to simply be human – human beings living as God intended them to be.

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A Word to My Fellow Seminary Students

For those of you not in tune with the world of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN, there has been a lot going on. It goes well beyond a simple “time of transition” – the financial realities of our economy and decision-making of the institution have led to a major deficit in the operating budget. And the writing on the wall is now coming to bear – cuts need to be made. And they’re tough cuts, cuts that involve and affect the real lives of real people. Needless to say, it’s a frustrating, sad, and painful time for all at the Seminary.

Yesterday, I listened to two of my professors at Luther express their saddness and difficulty in leading through this. And, I was able to touch base briefly with our Interim Seminary President, Rick Foss. Lots of weary faces. From listening, it’s a difficult situation, and a very complex one. And, one that as hard as it is to say, is simply going to happen in the life of a long-standing institution like Luther Seminary. In fact, such “wake up” calls are common in any instutition – General Mills went through it, and even my Augsburg College wrestling program is going through it.

And it’s in light of this fact that I’m honestly confused and troubled by the responses of a small, but loud, group at Seminary. It’s made up of students. This voice, out of their empathy for those affected, and their frustration and anger (all valid feelings, by the way) have taken the voice of “the reformer,” the role of the prophet, and even gone as far as to publish “9.5 theses” in the spirit of our founder, Martin Luther.

One, I’m thankful that in their feelings, they’re asking to be listened to and are expressing their feelings and views. But in reading these “theses” and other general comments, again, I’m confused and troubled. I’m confused because I’m not sure what they’re trying to accomplish, and am not sure why they think they are entitled to make such demands (yes, if you’re honest, they’re demands) on the leaders of Luther Seminary. I’m troubled because in this time, right now, what faculty, staff, and decision-makers at Luther Seminary need from students is to be STUDENTS, not “reforming, prophetic voices.”

Let me change the address now to my fellow students: I get why you think and feel the way you do, I do. I’m just as sad and am shaking my head at the situation as well. But what our Seminary leaders, staff, and faculty need right now is for us to set those feelings and thoughts aside and focus on being students, on progressing towards graduation and preparing ourselves for service and work in the Church. What our Seminary community, and really, the Church needs from us right now is to be faithful in the role and task God has set before us, and not fall into a “victim” mentality over all that’s happening around us right now. The gospel we’ve committed our lives to calls us to live as people of hope and faith in the midst of suffering, conflict, and difficulty, not as people of fear and anger who try to eliminate such things through control and demands.

I’m not saying that the decisions made or those that made them shouldn’t be held accountable. But here’s the thing: I’d be willing to bet that those decisions and those that made them weren’t done in malice, recklessly, or without regard for others. And I’m willing to bet that the decisions being made forward and those making them are doing them with the best of intent, and caring for people the best they can – they are being as faithful as they can, while saying “God have mercy” with each decision. And so for me, because I don’t know and understand all the complexities and details of what Luther Seminary faces, and because it simply isn’t my role right now to enmesh myself in that, the best thing I can do right now is respond likewise in faith – faith that Luther Seminary will be ok in the end, and faith in decision-makers and leaders who are serving as faithfully as they can in the roles God has entrusted them to.

I heard one student remark that the reason most students don’t push back is out of fear; they’re afraid. I think for those of you who know me well, I’m definitely not someone who holds back what I say or do! My point is that pushing back as the “reforming, prophetic” voice demanding justice and accountability….it simply doesn’t line up with my commitments to the gospel and the faith. Like I said, such a response is both confusing and troubling for me.

Students, let us adopt our role as learners and future leaders by living into that fully – and thus giving our faculty, staff, and administration at Luther Seminary hope – hope that we students they serve are people of great courage and faith, not victims and people with a need to control. Let us focus and do well in our studying and preparation for public ministry and leadership in the Church, so that faculty, staff, and administration may know their work, their ministry, is not in vain….so that they may be inspired to continue to focus on the larger mission of God’s work in witnessing to the gospel as the larger community of the Church – the Body of Christ.

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Wisdom From the Mat: Endings, Failures, & Making Sense of It

This past weekend, we completed our season at the NCAA Division III National Tournament in Cedar Rapids, IA. It was a different feeling for our team this year – while sending 8 qualifiers, 2nd most of any team, we placed a distant 10th, watching Wartburg College run away with the team title, and for the first time in over two decades, we were not in the hunt for a top 4 finish, much less a title. Two impressive streaked ended: 24 consecutive years of at least 5 All-Americans and top 4 finishes at the National Tournament.

We did come away with 3 All-Americans though, one of them repeating as a National Champion in his weight class. And honestly, this team worked as hard as any other Augsburg team, and considering the adversity this team faced, a 10th place finish was a good result. Yet, this highlights one of the realities of the sport of wrestling: At the end, the National Tournament, when it’s all said and done, only 10 people and 1 team leave the arena satisfied. Maybe that’s harsh to think about, and a little extreme – but in this sport, no one trains to lose. No wrestler, no matter where they think their ability lies, goes in with the mindset that they’ll lose. They wrestle to win – every match, every tournament. The champions who are crowned in each of the 10 weight classes go home satisfied, one team crowned the champion has their work rewarded, their dreams realized. Everyone else goes home…unsatisfied, unsettled.

And while many don’t admit it publically, those feelings are hard to push aside. Even to this day, it’s hard for me to watch the National Tournament. It’s hard to watch people achieve All-American status and wrestle in the finals. It’s hard because I’m one of the “everyone else” of wrestling. At every level, I’ve never walked away the champion – for reasons both within and outside of my control. Injuries, lack of focus and commitment, someone simply was better than me….but still, unsatisfied, regretful.

And now as a coach, I watch my wrestlers go through that – both over this weekend and many years before that. The truth is that for most wrestlers, things end with a loss – both their seasons and their careers. It’s even harder to watch in my own athletes, as they go through the same feelings as I do – regret, dissatisfaction, disappointment. An opportunity wasted; a goal not attained. I’ve learned to sit there with them in silence, because to tell you the truth, there’s nothing to be said in that moment. Just like I had to, they have to face that reality on their own terms.

Now here’s the fact: life will move on for my wrestlers. It has for so many I’ve coached, and it has for me. They’ll start eating regular food again; no more early morning workouts and weighins, no more battling through fatigue and injuries, no more mental and emotional grind. But at some point, there will be a moment in which they’ll still have to come to terms with their wrestling career and its ending. What does it mean you spent the last 15 or more years of your life doing this one thing, and the ending is one of failure and falling short of your goalsw?

There are lots of cliches and typical words of wisdom I can pass on, but I’ve come to tell my athletes this after their seasons and careers end: Just remember, tomorrow will come, you’ll still be alive, and you’ll still be the same person tomorrow as you are today.” I think three things come out of that statement:

Your life is a gift. No explanation needed here….treat your life as such. Don’t waste it; live it fully and with integrity and character.

Results don’t define you. Experience does. Experience builds character. And in the end, it is your strength of character – your ability to be courageous under adversity, be comfortable and honest with others (vulnerability), and live life in faith and trust rather than control and fear, is what matters. The experience of wrestling has shaped and formed you to live in all these ways well beyond the mat. And that’s a good thing.

You are not normal or typical. You’re a wrestler for life. This is a loose tie but one most wrestlers come to after making sense of things. As I’ve entered society, a world full of “normal” people, I’ve learned that wrestling has shaped me in a way that makes me not normal; atypical. Discipline. Hard work. Honesty (sometimes too honest – is that a thing?). Ok with adversity & conflict. Don’t take things too seriously. Intense. Not obsessed with things out of your control. Able to fully invest and commit to things and relationships deserving of that investment/ commitment. There’s more to add to the list, I’m sure, but I think you get the point. People will be uncomfortable with you, and they will always view you as a bit outside the box. That feeling will suck at times, but the truth of the matter is that being a wrestler is a good thing. I think the world needs more wrestlers, or perhaps, wrestling-minded people. I think the world would be a better place if we were more direct and less politically correct in how we live. It’s the gift that athletes bring as they enter society. It’s why athletics – pure sports, not sports entertainment like what our professional sports culture is based on – are still important today.

This is all a lot……things it’s taken me years to realize. But, I encourage all athletes, as you hang up the shoes, walk off the mat for the final time, take time to face those nagging questions. Take time to make sense of things. Always remember though, tomorrow will come, you’ll be alive, and you’ll still be the same person as you were the day before. And that’s a good thing.

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Sex, Social Media, & the Church

I came across a very interesting (and I have to admit, disturbing for me) article in USA Today yesterday. You can check it out here.

It’s interesting on a couple levels. One, she’s not proposing something that is widely a reality of pornography – exploitation and objectification. The founder, Cindy Gallop, is creating a site that contains voluntary, natural, and healthy sexual expressions between two people in relationship to each other. Gallop states, “There’s “a complete absence in society of an open, healthy, honest, truthful conversation around sex in the real world.” And I think I would agree with her on this one. Most of our talk contains unrealistic notions of sexual intimacy and expression, and the other end ranges on strict taboo. And unfortunately, the Church often falls in the latter category.

But here’s where the disturbing part comes in: Gallop states, “What I decided to do was to take every dynamic out there that exists in social media currently and apply this to the one area that no other social media network or platform has ever gone or will ever get to go which is sex. I want to socialize sex. I want to make ‘real world sex’ socially acceptable and therefore just as socially shareable as anything else we currently share on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram.”

She wants to socialize sex.

Make it just as socially shareable as what we’d put on a Facebook page, a Twitter feed, or an Instagram photo.

I could go into why this is distrubing to me (and why it should be for you perhaps), but that’s not the route I want to go here. I think what should be emphasized is that there are trajectories in our social culture that are out there, realities about the world we live in, that we as the Church and people who lead in it cannot ignore. We need to find a way to open up good dialogue, speak from within the Tradition about what this all means for the life God creates, redeems and sustains, and come up with faithful, thoughtful responses to how to move forward.

Here’s the point: like a lot of things in our lives and world today, other voices are beating us to the punch. And people, especially young people, will likely adopt the message they hear first and more frequently. If we are late to the conversation, because we’re either,

too scared,
too uninformed,
too indifferent,
too lazy,

we’ll come off as reactionary, one-sided, and irrelevant. On the other side, we don’t need to overanalyze every little aspect about a particular social issue, which is what my mainline, Protestant, intellectual tradition usually does. Working through the meaning and implication of people posting pictures of kittens on their Facebook walls isn’t fruitful; neither is another reflection on the effects of a Twitter-driven society.

But when certain boundaries of intimacy, identity, and created-ness are blurred (or even crossed) – then we need to respond. Because like everything, there’s a cost and a benefit to it – and I think, it can be a matter of life and death – which is what the gospel message is totally about.

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From the Mat: Opportunities…..

It’s a big week: The NCAA Division III Wrestling Championships are this weekend, Friday and Saturday.

And for us in the Augsburg College wrestling program, it’s the biggest stage, with lots of expectations. Since 1995, only Wartburg College or Augsburg have won the National Title. The NY Times did an article on the rivalry last year – you can check it out here.

It’s been a trying year for us though: there has been a lot of adversity – losing a returning All-American and a National Qualifier to injuries, struggles through the year of not performing up to “Augsburg standards” at big tournaments, seeing ourselves ranked as low as 20th in the nation this year, and having a generally younger and inexperienced squad. The pressure has been tough on the athletes and the coaching staff, and we’ve had to adjust our mentality and approach to things mid-season, trying to take a team that wasn’t very battle-tested and prepare them for the end of the year’s ultimate tests: The Regional Qualifying Tournament and this week’s National Tournament.

There’s a lot of uncertainty in all that work; going into our Regional Qualifier two weekends ago, we weren’t sure how it would turn out. A poor result, even an average one, would probably mean the end of a few pretty amazing streaks: 24 straight years of top 4 team finishes & at leaset 5 All-Americans. So the pressure was on. But the athletes responded, and put in an effort over and above expectations: 8 National Qualifiers, all 10 placing in the top 4 of the tournament. In that last round, we had the opportunity to send all 10 to the National Tournament.

And now, here we sit, on the eve of the National Tournament, the biggest stage. 8 National Qualifers, 2nd most of any team in the nation, in a position to again place in the top 4, gain 5 or more All-Americans, and even a shot at the National Title. Yet, the final rankings last week put us at #9 in the nation – there are those out there that well, see this team and think what’s realistic is a top 10 finish. We only have one returning All-American (A national champ last year) and two returning national qualfiers. 3 of them weren’t even in the starting lineup last year. So their predictions do have a dose of reality to them – perhaps it’s really an indicator of what this team’s capable of.

I guess our guys could get caught up in results – what people think we’re capable of, the expecations of a program’s tradition like ours, even their own expectations or reality of what they’re capable of. But I think what our whole team has learned this season, and is focused on this weekend, is embracing the opportunity that’s before them.

They embrace opportunity, both in honesty of what’s facing them – adversity, capability, challenge – and in the possibility, belief, and importance of embracing it. They might fail; but, they might turn in what could be the most impressive effort by an Augsburg team, considering the expectations and capabilities placed on them going into this weekend. But, they know this – embracing the opportunity is the most important thing, because that says something about them – what they trust in, what they value, who they are. Courage comes to mind; so does integrity; so does faith. They embrace the opportunity, because of the result that may come out of it, of course, but more so, because it is worth their time and effort, and it is expression of who they are.

10 individuals and 1 team will be crowned champions this weekend. In other words, the rest of the competing individuals and teams will go home disappointed on some level. But the thing is, no one remembers those results, even the competitors, after time. What they remember is that they had the strength of character and faith to embrace opportunities when they came, because that’s really what life is about. I tell the guys all the time: “The whole point is, you can look at yourself, and know you had the courage to step on that line, shake hands, and go after it when the whistle blows, not even knowing what will come out of it. Because that’s really what matters…it’s what people will remember about you, and what you’ll remember about yourself.”

The lesson of embracing opportunity this weekend on a wrestling mat is one that’ll extend into their lives: and that is strength of character, who they are; and faith, the courage to live into that is really what life is about. When they take meaningful jobs, become husbands and fathers, they’ll embrace those as opportunities that will bring a lot of fulfillment and joy into their lives, while being honest about the challenges of living into those roles. In the end, that is fundamentally what faith is about, embracing opportunity – entering into life deeply and honestly, even though the end result isn’t assured or known.

Such faith, in the midst of embracing opportunity – I believe that is the place we encounter God.

It’s gonna be a great week, and along with the athletes, the other coaches, we’re excited to embrace this opportunity coming up this weekend.

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