What the Browns don’t understand

Cleveland Browns wide receiver Jarvis Landry taunted an opposing player after scoring a touchdown Sunday, then wouldn’t apologize for it. Nor did his head coach expect him to.

Therein lies the problem with this underachieving team.

As an outsider to the Cleveland area (we moved here almost six years ago from out of state), I find it fascinating – and sometimes hilarious – to see how fans react to the local professional sports teams. I learned very quickly that a synonym for Cleveland is “Browns Town.”

No kidding.

Never mind that the Browns haven’t won an NFL championship since 1964, before the Super Bowl era began. Most of those years across the past half-century, the team hasn’t even been competitive. And 20 years ago, the then-owner moved the team to Baltimore. Many passionate Browns fans still haven’t forgotten that. (Cleveland got an expansion franchise three years later.)

Never mind that there are two other major professional sports teams in Cleveland, both of which actually are (or were) pretty good.

No, this is Browns Town. Clevelanders would rather freeze their fingers off at First Energy Stadium on the shores of Lake Erie than battle mayflies for a week during the summer heat at Progressive Field. The Q, or Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse or whatever they call it these days, has no such outside limitations. Doesn’t matter.

Team sports

Anybody remember who the three Indians starting pitchers were who began the season in the minor leagues, but all played pivotal roles in the baseball team’s push to the postseason (which fell just short)? Didn’t think so. Zack Plesac, Adam Plutko and Aaron Civale provide a bright future for the Indians.

No superstar resumes there, just quality athletes who did their jobs very well.

The Cavaliers basketball team reached the NBA finals four consecutive years, winning one title, all with LeBron James as the cornerstone. When he left before last season, the team fell apart. But the Cavs gave this city the sports championship it was starving for.

I think the Browns are trying to re-create the Cavs’ success using the Cavs’ formula. I’m not a fan.

Basketball, football and baseball are team sports. In basketball sometimes you can get away with stacking a team full of superstars – or, in the Cavs case, one really big superstar – and challenge for the title.

Strong leadership

Tim Duncan, Gregg Popovich

But which NBA team has had the most success over the past 20 years? The San Antonio Spurs have won five championships in that time frame – 1999, 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2014. They had the same coach for all five: Gregg Popovich.

What’s up with “Pop?” Alone among coaches in the ego-driven NBA, Popovich actually runs his team. He demands that the players fit into his system, not the other way around. Even superstars like David Robinson, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker – current or future Hall of Famers, all – bought into Popovich’s system. They thrived as individuals, and flourished as teams.

As an alum of Michigan State University, I enjoy following the Spartan basketball program. Coach Tom Izzo – the head coach for 25 years, and an assistant to Jud Heathcote before that – has reached the NCAA Tournament Final Four eight times in those 25 years, more than any other coach.

What’s Izzo’s secret? He doesn’t recruit the five-star one-and-done players that Kentucky and Duke sign. He goes after the next level of players – excellent athletes, perhaps a little under the radar, then keeps them three or four years and develops them. His teams, most years, are veteran teams with a mix of freshmen and sophomores.

He pushes them hard, in practices and during games. He’s not berating them; he’s pushing them to become better players. And better young men.

Tom Izzo, Cassius Winston

They know that. Which is why they submit to his authority.

Izzo knows when to be soft, as well. Over the weekend, the brother of his star player, Cassius Winston, was hit by a train and killed. About 24 hours later, the team played a game.

“I guess if I was to be honest, I expected him not to play, but everyone grieves a different way, and we left it 100 percent up to Cassius,” Izzo said. “His brothers are the world to him. I’ve never seen a kid over my years that was as close with his brothers. Zachary grew up around the team so much. He grew close to all the guys.”

Winston played, and played well in an easy non-conference victory.

Winston is a senior, beginning his fourth season under Izzo’s tutelage. In his first three seasons, he averaged 6.7, 12.6 and 18.8 points per game. That’s the Izzo way. Keep improving, keep getting better, become a leader.

Izzo’s passion for basketball is well-documented. He screams at referees during games. He screams at his own players during timeouts.

Channel the passion

But unlike Jarvis Landry of the Browns, Izzo’s passion is not about himself. He’s challenging his players to reach their full potential, to go beyond what they think they are even capable of. For their own good. For the good of the team.

That is what the Cleveland Browns do not understand.

What is the culture of the Browns? How does an organization develop a winning attitude?

Browns Football

Owner Jimmy Haslam has to decide this, then hire and draft employees who will buy into his system. Head Coach Freddie Kitchens doesn’t know what the culture is. Jarvis Landry is allowed to run the team, basically, and set his own culture.

Landry needs to grow up. He is part of a team, and it does not revolve around him.

Passion is a good thing. I’m not suggesting he muzzle his passion.

However, he must channel that passion into positive plays. Taunting an opponent, which cost his team an extra point (it could have cost his team the game), is unacceptable. Landry must fuel that passion between the white lines, while the clock is ticking. Catching passes. Blocking for his teammates. Doing whatever else his coaches ask him to do to help the team win.

My wife and I raised three boys. They could have gotten into all kinds of mischief. But we didn’t let them get destructive. We didn’t crush their spirits; we re-focused them in positive directions.

Sports offers a great outlet for male aggression. But it has to be done correctly. You’re not helping your team if all you do is cause penalties and do things to get ejected from games. Channel that energy. Work with your own talent. Get better at what you do. Make yourself better, and make your team better.

A winning plan

The Cleveland Browns will never come close to winning a Super Bowl until they understand this. Fans can scream and offer advice til they are blue in the face, but none of it matters, really.

Cut the noise. Focus on what’s important.

Develop the individual. For the good of the team.

If the individual won’t play that game, keep him off the roster, no matter how much talent he has. Find players who will.

Just ask Gregg Popovich or Tom Izzo. Both are winners, for a reason.

A litmus test for evangelicals that shouldn’t be

Honduran migrants cross the U.S. border wall to San Diego from Tijuana, Mexico, on Dec. 16, 2018, before turning themselves in to U.S. border patrol agents, standing at the top. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

 

President Trump, along with Republican and Democratic U.S. representatives, have forgotten that immigrants, legal and especially illegal, are human beings. They have turned the immigration issue into a political football.

They threaten a partial U.S. shutdown later this week over whether to pay for Trump’s border wall with Mexico (which, by the way, during his presidential campaign Trump promised that Mexico would pay for). Trump wants $5 billion for it. Democrats are offering $1.6 billion for border security.

Those numbers are peanuts compared with the trillion-plus-dollar budget that Congress oversees.

The stalemate has nothing to do with dollars and budgets.

It’s all about the politics.

Worse, for many Americans, it’s become a litmus test of evangelical Christianity. Many outspoken proponents of the border wall are evangelicals who support Trump’s for-the-most-part conservative social agenda.

https://www.vox.com/2018/10/26/17989084/christopher-maloney-in-god-we-trump-evangelicals-trump

Many staunch opponents are “social justice” Democrats who see the immigrants’ “caravan” in Mexico, heading for the U.S. border, as displaced Latin Americans fleeing poverty and, especially, violence in their home countries.

https://www.wsj.com/articles/fleeing-poverty-and-violence-central-american-women-explain-why-they-join-caravans-1543947664

I am an evangelical Christian who supports the Democrats on this issue.

Why?

Because Jesus would.

The kingdom of God has feet

Jesus’ primary mission on Earth was to introduce us to the “kingdom of God.” He offered us a personal, one-on-one relationship with his Father. In the Old Testament, God came and went, offering support to specific individuals for specific events or short periods of time. In the Gospels, Jesus said God would come and remain with us at all times, not come and go as he did previously.

To do that, Jesus did not require us to get our act together spiritually or socially before we could let God into our hearts full-time. No. God met – and still meets – us right where we are.

In other words, Jesus Christ was – and still is – the “social justice” God as well as the “evangelical” God.

Very few Christians understand this, even though the message is obvious throughout the New Testament.

Jesus called several fishermen as his first disciples (Matthew 4:18-22). Not exactly upperclassmen. He also hand-picked a hated tax collector (Luke 5:27-28), who left a lucrative job to follow a charismatic leader and his band of nomads. His other disciples were not exactly household names or community leaders when Jesus called them (Mark 3:13-19).

Jesus the social activist

Once he had his chosen twelve, Jesus did some surprising things. He visited Samaria, which no self-respecting Jew would have done, and talked with a woman who had been married five times (John 4:1-42). He acknowledged her past but didn’t condemn her for it.

Same with a woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). And a mentally disturbed caveman (Mark 5:1-20). And an inquisitive political leader who met him at night because he didn’t want to be noticed (John 3:1-21).

He healed numerous disabled people, including several who were blind and others who had physical deformities (read the gospel of Luke, for example).

All of these folks were outcasts. Yet Jesus met them right where they were, healing them and encouraging them to “go and sin no more.” (John 8:11)

Jesus the leader

Jesus also interacted with the religious and political leaders of his day, who were the Pharisees, Herodians and Sadducees (Mark 12:13-40). Those religious leaders also were the local political leaders, serving the oppressive Roman government in return for keeping the peace in their communities.

They tweaked Jewish laws and customs to keep themselves in Rome’s good graces, picking and choosing Scriptures to fit their agendas.

To put it mildly, Jesus didn’t like that. He called them blind guides and hypocrites (Matthew 23:13-36).

Jesus didn’t attack the Pharisees and Sadducees on a political level, but on a spiritual level. On politics, he said: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:17)

On Palm Sunday, the crowd thought they were hailing a political king who was entering Jerusalem to overthrow the hated Roman government (Matthew 21:8-11). When Jesus didn’t do that, they deserted him – and crucified Him.

What does all this have to do with immigration?

Jesus the servant

For people outside the church, Jesus was compassionate and gave them the benefit of the doubt every time. For people inside the church, Jesus spoke harshly for their judgment and hard-hearted attitudes, because they knew the Scriptures and should have known better how to treat people (including Jesus Christ himself).

If Jesus walked across the United States in the flesh today, he would give us the same message. We still haven’t learned it.

Immigrants need us. They are fleeing for their lives, often with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

In contrast, many Americans are richer than we think we are. Globally, if your wealth (assets minus debts) is in the $100,000 to $1 million range, you are among the 7.3 percent of the world’s population that has about 40 percent of the world’s wealth. If your wealth equals only $3,210, you are wealthier than half of the people across this planet.

https://www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-richest-people-in-the-world-20160121-story.html

Our response

What are we afraid of? That we might lose political influence?

Blacks, Hispanics and other minority groups already are gaining influence in this country. So are women. Are we truly worried about immigrants who have nothing materially, but who just might have the gifts, talents and work ethic we need to make this country run?

Is there not room for all?

I recently attended a conference in Chicago on urban ministry. One speaker pointed out that white Americans will not get involved in any project or event unless they lead it. That means whites will not allow any minority individuals to lead whatever they are involved in.

Whoa. That’s an eye-opener.

Are we afraid that a minority person might actually have leadership skills? As white people, are we not willing to submit ourselves to a black, Latino and/or female supervisor or other type of leader?

In the words of a decades-old slogan, what would Jesus do?

Jesus’ response

Jesus hand-picked a group of outcasts and under-the-radar people to train as the leaders of his future church. (If you read the book of Acts, there are women and couples who are leaders in the early church, as well as the more well-known Paul, Peter and James.)

No one is an outcast in Jesus’ eyes. Not disabled people. Not mentally disturbed people. Certainly not immigrants.

In a dispute between outcasts and church leaders, Jesus sided with the outcasts every time.

The “unchurched” often understood Jesus better than the church folks did. They certainly connected with him in a more real way.

We forget this at our own peril.

Re-thinking church in an inner city

I’ve never been involved in a church plant before. There’s plenty of hope and excitement, but we don’t even know all the challenges we will face.

Our multi-campus church is planning to open a new campus in Lorain, Ohio, a self-described “international city” of about 63,000 people on the shores of Lake Erie about 30 miles west of Cleveland. As of 2016, whites comprised 51.7 percent of the city’s population, Hispanics 29.1 percent, blacks 14.5 percent and “two or more races” 3.1 percent.

http://www.city-data.com/city/Lorain-Ohio.html

I’m interested in this because my wife and I raised our three sons at an inner-city church in Saginaw, Michigan, with similar demographics to Lorain. Now that they are grown and on their own, I have more time to devote to this.

To learn more about planting a multi-ethnic church, the Lorain campus pastor and I attended a three-day conference on the topic in Chicago. It was eye-opening.

As a former newspaper guy, I took lots of notes. Here is a summary from the plenary speakers and workshop leaders I heard:

Church and society

If we want to be a multi-ethnic church, then the dominant culture cannot be more than 80 percent of the church. Research shows that if visitors see at least 20 percent of people in their ethnic group attending, then they feel like “members” and not “visitors.”  We should be strategic about seeking 20 percent of an ethnic group if we truly want to be multi-ethnic.

For some people, society does not work – economically, medically, socially, religiously, etc. These people do not trust any institutions. Church plants will take a long time for these people to trust. They may reject institutionalism, even if they hunger for God. To reach them, we might need to change the way we do church – why 11 a.m. services? Why does communion happen weekly or monthly? Etc. These are not wrong, but they are not in the Bible. What’s Biblical, and what’s cultural?

The new national divide is achiever vs. non-achiever. Achievers value the individual; non-achievers value the society. Most non-whites (as well as whites) are achievers. Achievers are mainstream; non-achievers live in the sub-culture.

Doing church

One speaker said white pastors are excellent at “three-point sermons with seven sub-points.” That’s fine, but that’s not how black preachers preach. If we want to reach black people, this might become an issue. Another example: Hispanics will show up late, then they will stay late. That’s their culture. We might need to re-think the way we do church.

moody4

The traditional church model: Meet Jesus, attend church, connect/serve/give, go into the world. This isn’t working; it’s too shallow.

The new model: Meet Jesus, attend church, deep change, go into the world.

How to accomplish deep change? We need to meet emotional, social, intellectual, physical and spiritual needs – all of them.  Which means all of those needs in my life, as a leader, must be met as well, or I will not be an effective leader. The Mary-Martha struggle: When are we focused on our actions at the expense of spending time with Jesus?

This is not a quick fix. It’s hard. It takes time.

Most people in our cities aren’t thinking about repentance, but about where their next meal is coming from. We must disciple them to conversion. We must offer Bible nuggets that people can relate to. “There’s a guy in the Bible who understands what you are going through …” (This means we have to know the Bible well, of course.)

Value in all cultures

Whites frequently will not get involved in a church (or any other organization) unless they lead it. Several speakers made this point. Whites often don’t leave room for other ethnic groups to lead – or if they do, they must follow the examples of whites. We often do this unconsciously.

There is no assimilating into one true culture in heaven. All cultures are good. Faith brings out the best in all of them. Every culture has stories to tell.

How much of church planting is led by whiteness? Most of it. It’s a strange mix of benevolence and oppression. This has become the only story. How do we liberate from whiteness (or any dominant culture)? According to the Bible, we die to it. We are not to assimilate, but to create a new story.

Jesus’ blood is the new story, for all cultures. His death and resurrection is the great equalizer for all of us. Jesus didn’t ask us to become Him. Instead, He became one of us.

Those of us in the dominant culture often forget that we have a culture. Everybody speaks with an accent except me, for example.

Marginalization happens when people are minimized in different ways. Marginalization often leads to oppression, which is defined as sin plus power.

Jesus went to the margins. He was surrounded by sinners and tax collectors and prostitutes and women and children. All of us need to go there, too.

Jesus gave us a table, and all the chairs around it are on the same level. No high chairs and low chairs. Everybody drinks from the same cup, and we share germs. All ethnic groups are equal before God.

History is not over

Blacks’ history is slavery. No other immigrant group can say that. We heard first-person testimonies from several ethnic minorities who have experienced racism in their lifetimes. My wife has a co-worker whose boyfriend is black. He recently was talking with several friends in the parking lot of the apartment complex in Lorain where he lives. Another resident of the apartment complex called the cops on him. His crime? Being black and talking with his friends. It happens still today, even in Lorain.

As white people, we cannot deny that these things happened, and are still happening. If we want to reach this population for Christ, we need to meet them where they are.

Perceptions

lasalle street

Another cultural difference: Whites often see themselves as a collection of individuals. Blacks see themselves as a community. This is crucial to understanding how we communicate differently.

For example, a white police officer in Houston recently killed a black man in his own apartment. Blacks wanted the world to feel his suffering and pain. They wanted pastors to talk about that the following Sunday. Our reaction as whites? We want more facts. Give us the details of what happened before we react.

This is huge. We must understand this difference.

Critique the culture

Cities – with density and proximity – amplify the opposition to the gospel.

There is little social pressure anymore to attend church. There are four basic religious beliefs, but some Americans don’t even have these:

  1. There is a god.
  2. There is moral truth.
  3. There is sin.
  4. There is an afterlife.

How do we evangelize in this setting?

We must critique the culture. The standards our culture offers don’t work. If your career is your primary motivator in life, what happens when – not if, but when – you lose it? If it’s to be a good person, you’ll never be good enough (maybe you haven’t committed adultery, but have you lusted? This is Jesus’ standard.) If it’s freedom, you aren’t, and you know it. If you live for money, you’ll never have enough. If you seek beauty, you’ll never feel beautiful. And on and on.

But if you serve Jesus, you’ll get forgiveness when you fail.

There are no merit-based scholarships in heaven. Only grace.

Also, there is no defense against:

  1. Prayers of the saints.
  2. Love of the saints.
  3. Wise application of the word of God to your concerns.

Am I good enough?

I am not good enough.

“The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.”

I am the least in my family.

“I will be with you.”

This is the story of Gideon, starting in Judges 6.

It also is my story.

If I choose to believe it.

An angel of the Lord called Gideon into battle. Instead, he found excuses. He hid. He wanted the angel to choose someone else, I’m sure.

Satan has told me this same lie for years, and I believed it. I’m not good enough. No one cares what I think. No one is listening, so why barge in?

Send someone else, God.

My thoughts don’t matter.

No one has ever actually told me that.

Why do I believe it’s true, then?

Because very few people try to draw me out, to seek my thoughts on an issue. It’s easy to remain unnoticed.

Sometimes, I don’t have anything to say. (I pick my battles, far fewer than many people do.)

Other times, I’ve thought about speaking up. Occasionally, I actually do.

But that’s why I write. It’s easier for me to share my thoughts with a keyboard than verbally.

My thoughts frequently are off the wall anyway. They would make you uncomfortable. I’m sure of it.

Iron sharpens iron, they say. But iron is hard. It hurts if someone gets hit with it.

So, like Gideon, I make excuses.

But sometimes, God speaks to me too, as He did to Gideon.

No more excuses, Gideon. I’ve got a plan for you.

Go do it.

“I will be with you.” (Judges 6:16)

Does God have a plan for me?

He does.

God talked with me over the weekend, several times. I attended a men’s retreat with about 40 men from our church.

Actually, it wasn’t a retreat. Our leader called it an “advance.” Men don’t retreat. We move forward.

We advance.

Like Gideon did, despite his low self-esteem.

At one point during the weekend, I watched a Canada goose for 40 minutes. The goose swam peacefully on a small lake for awhile, then came ashore to find some breakfast.

Until one of our men walked past. As he approached, the goose sensed danger and retreated to the safety of the water. When the man continued on and the perceived danger was removed, the goose returned to the shore in search of breakfast.

This happened three times, as three men passed by, one by one.

Men are not supposed to retreat like this goose did. If we perceive danger, we are to face it.

Perhaps the danger is real. Perhaps not.

None of these men had any intention of harming the goose. In fact, all of them ignored it. Didn’t even notice what the goose was doing.

The goose didn’t understand that. It perceived danger, and removed itself.

We are men. God gave us minds and hearts to make sense of the world around us.

We are to live in the moment, not retreat from it.

We are to engage. We just might learn something. Or solve a problem.

Perhaps I might get hurt.

Or, possibly, a man and the goose might help each other. Companionship. Assistance finding breakfast, for example.

How do we know unless we engage?

At another point during the “advance,” God told me I need to change my heart towards two people in particular. A specific challenge.

With one person, I’m not good enough. I misunderstand and I’m misunderstood, because I don’t share my thoughts and feelings nearly enough.

I need to engage much more than I have done.

With the other person – who has developmental disabilities than make him unable to understand life the way I do – I need patience and love. He is an adult physically but not mentally. I should not expect him to respond as an adult should.

It’s hard to treat an adult with respect when he acts like a child. He is a child in an adult’s body.

Patience.

Getting angry hasn’t solved anything yet. Frustration doesn’t work either.

Patience.

One of our “advance” speakers challenged us to say yes to God, even when He asks us to do impossible things. And God will ask us to do impossible things because we are men, and we are given opportunities to glorify God – because we are worth that much to Him.

We are good enough, our speaker said. We are capable of so much more than we give ourselves credit for.

Despite our failures in the past.

This is the God we worship.

“I will be with you.”

On Saturday afternoon, seven of us men descended a couple of hundred steps (I didn’t count them, I’m guessing here) to the top of a beautiful waterfall that emptied into a gorge. We saw some flat rocks in the gorge that we could stand on, so we bushwhacked down the hill to reach them.

No steps or path there. It had rained the day before, so the leaf-covered hill was damp and a little muddy.

And steep.

And slippery.

We descended anyway.

Once the first couple of guys started down the hill, the rest of us followed.

The waterfall was beautiful from down there. We hung out for a little while, enjoying nature’s beauty.

Eventually, we had to climb up. We joked about calling for a helicopter to rescue us, but that was a joke.

Grab a tree branch here and hope it holds my weight. Pull myself up. There’s a big root over there; I grabbed that next. My shoes got muddy and I got a scratch or two, but I made it up to the stairs.

All seven of us did.

It took us a minute to catch our breaths.

On my own, there’s no way I would have trekked that hill. Such a thought never would have crossed my mind. When the steps and the path ended, well, that’s where I stop.

See what men can do when we work together? Encourage each other? Push each other, even?

I’m not good enough.

Oh, yes I am.

Now that the “advance” is over, I need to live the rest of my life that way.

Those men won’t be with me day by day, but the living God is.

“I will be with you.”

I need to say yes to God.

Today. Moment by moment.

Let the adventure begin.