Category Archives: Competition

To Kill A Mockingbird…50 years later

Here in Alabama, To Kill a Mockingbird is one of our great treasures.  You can still go to Monroeville, Alabama and see a live re-enactment of the story every year by the local citizenry.  You start out in the yard, then move inside the courthouse, and it is eerily reminiscent of the movie because Hollywood built a replica of it for the film.  When I went with friends a few years back, I felt a flash of shame and pain when the n-word was uttered while African American locals up in the balcony were in our presence.  I was embarrassed.  So we’ve made some progress, I guess.  As a child in North Carolina the word was uttered around me thoughtlessly, as a part of an unquestioned culture of resentment and vulnerable entitlement. Read the rest of this entry

Jeremy Lin’s Magic Week and Why I Like Him

Jeremy Lin and the Knicks finally lost a game.  Look for some of the “Linsanity” to fade.  Expect a second wave of rumLination to follow, as the bandwagon backs over the kid from Harvard.  I don’t even watch the NBA anymore, and

Superman downed by New Orleans' Kryptonite unis

basketball was my sport.  I don’t know what it was, but after Jordan, Magic and Larry and their supporting casts went away, it sometimes seemed like the NBA turned into the athletic version of the Kardashians.  LeBron is still hated for leaving Cleveland.  Truth is, if the NBA game has changed a lot in recent years, so have games in general.

We can recite the litany of why’s: 

  • Win no matter what.
  • It’s about the money, the mansions, the bling and the babes, no matter what you say.
  • Agents.
  • Shame has lost its identity in our world—no publicity is the only shameful state.
  • Tradition, love of the game, team: why do they sound “quaint”?
  • If you want an indicator, consider that staying for your junior year in college is considered “noble”.  Since when did education become a liability and being rich a necessity?

Maybe that’s why “March madness,” the NCAA’s annual “survival of the fittest” is so much more attractive to me than the NBA.  I was a high school basketball player.  I wasn’t great, just okay.  Co-captain of my high school team as a senior and all that.  But years after I graduated, I kept playing—intermural in college, even playing with the high school kids as a pastor until my joints wore out.  All because there was something FUN about the physical test of shooting, dribbling, passing, playing.  Most of all, trying to win together.

I like Jeremy Lin.  Nothing to do with being “Asian” (why do we always go there?), Harvard-educated (okay, he can get a job when he retires), third-string sub who makes good, but just because he reminds me of a time in my life when I’d rather shoot hoops in forty degree weather than play guitar—and that was saying something.

There are still plenty of great NBA players and people who are about winning.  Shaq, Tim Duncan, last year’s Mavs and the largely unheralded bench guys who lay it on the line. But fame and fortune have crowded “team” into a tie for third at best.  Watching an NBA game just ain’t Lakers-Celtics in the 80s.  Where are you, Bill Russell, Magic, Larry?  And maybe today’s games just reflect us in general.

So I like Jeremy Lin.  Nothing to do with Asia, Harvard or world peace.  Linsation is just about doing your best.  Call it excelLINce—character, quality, and love of the game.  He’s an amateur (from the Latin word for “love,” thus one who does something purely for the love of it) in a game long ruined by money.   Ultimately, if the human soul is to survive, there has to be something in us that we do for the sheer pleasure and value of doing it and the joy of watching.

Hey, kid, pick yourself up.  You’re gonna lose now and then.  Get ‘em tomorrow.

The author as Northmont Thunderbolt, ca. 1971. At least uniforms HAVE improved

Whitney Houston and the Biggest Devil

Whitney Houston made your heart soar with that magnificent voice.  You kept hoping for her—so lovely, so achingly vulnerable, so fragile.  “Come on back, girl,” you hoped.   In the end, she didn’t.  There will be moralizing—drugs, bad choices, all the rest.  But such times are wrong for moral lessons.  There is a time to criticize, and a time to refrain from criticizing.  A time to learn a lesson, and a time to let the dead alone and mourn.

The story of Whitney Houston makes me think how hard it is to care for one’s own soul when there are so many other agendas vying for us.

Diane Sawyer recounted on the news last evening about that famous interview in 2002, when there was so much speculation about how thin she was and wondering about her condition.

Sawyer:   If you had to name the devil for you, the biggest devil among them?

Houston:   That would be me. It’s my deciding, it’s my heart, it’s what I want. And what I don’t want. Nobody makes me

Whitney in happier days

do anything I don’t want to do. It’s my decision. So the biggest devil is me. I’m either my best friend or my worst enemy. And that’s how I have to deal with it.

I respect her right to assess her own life.  But to take it a little deeper, I would add that it is important to understand what it means to genuinely accept the responsibility to care for oneself. If that sounds easy to do, it is not.  We are stewards of our lives.  A friend of mine told me of a seminary teacher colleague who used to say, “The first spiritual law is this: God loves you, and everyone has a plan for your life.”

Whitney said on the interview played on the news that the most terrible sound in the world is the sound of 10,000 disappointed fans.  That in my opinion is the demonic temptation of being an entertainer or for anyone who works with people on a large scale.  Preachers know: one or two venomous critics can cancel 100 who are blessed by us—if we give them that power.

But why would we?  And then there is that restlessness in oneself.  I asked an ambitious classmate of mine, who was never satisfied that the current church he was in was not a “good fit” for him,  “How many people will it take to tell you how wonderful you are before you can be happy?”  That’s the question you have to answer before you can do this work. That was three churches ago for him.  Hope he finally found the grass above the septic tank.

A pastor friend put it this way wants:  “I’m not bothered by what the critics said nearly so much I am bothered that I let it bother me.”   THAT is the place where the devil does his best work.

Rest in peace, Whitney.  Sing with the angels, and fear the critics no more.  In heaven, every judgment heals and purges, and there are no more tears or pain, for the former things have passed away.

Gene Bartow’s Biggest Win

Gene Bartow doing what he loved--coaching

How do you measure a life?  Gene Bartow is a legend now, having passed long ago from active coaching to the place where no one else can reach you—retired success.  But since he passed away, Birmingham, Memphis and the college basketball world have been filled with remembering.  He is a college basketball Hall of Fame coach who coached 1000 games in his career.  He finished with a 647-353 record over 34-seasons.  He [i]was a success at Memphis State, leading the Tigers to a remarkable championship game appearance in 1973, where they lost to UCLA and John Wooden.  He was national coach of the year that year.   In all, his teams appeared in the NCAA tournament 14 times.[ii]

He is too often only remembered in the national press for one thing– for a time when he was successful but it wasn’t enough.  He was chosen to succeed the legendary John Wooden at UCLA, the greatest coach of all time, who had a reign of ten titles in twelve seasons, the tenth in his retiring year, and seven in a row during that time.

So in 1975 Gene Bartow came to UCLA to replace the legendary Wooden when he retired.  He stayed only two turbulent years.  He was 52-9 record and took them to the NCAA tournament both years and was in the Final Four one of those.  But it wasn’t good enough.  The Washington Post quotes one of his players, Marques Johnson from that team.  “He was a

John Wooden and Gene Bartow

sensitive person,” Johnson said in an interview. “He was used to being totally embraced as a coach and a person, and he was just not ready for the kind of vitriol thrown at him when he took Coach Wooden’s place. He never came to grips with it, and it bothered him more than anything.  After two years, he was gaunt and pale, and he refused to read the Los Angeles newspapers or listen to the radio because there was so much negativity. But he was a wonderful human being, a super nice guy and a great coach.”[iii]

As a coach, Gene Bartow touched the edge of the big prize twice, but never won it all.  He left the dream job that became a nightmare.  He decided instead to come to Birmingham, Alabama and help build an athletic program and basketball team for a then-fledgling university at UAB.  He did reach great success, including seven NCAA tournament appearances.  But he never won the “big dance,” as they say.

But another event, the dramatic run to the edge of a championship with the Memphis Tigers in 1973, may have been his real greatest moment.  “I don’t think this community ever had better race relations than when Gene coached at Memphis,” a friend said.  “He had the way of bringing everybody together to support his team and the entire university.”[iv]  It hadn’t been long since the painful memory of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Times were tense in the entire country.  Then the city of Memphis was unified for a time around the glorious run of a Cinderella team that almost did it.

They lost, as I mentioned, in the championship game, to the juggernaut UCLA, coached by Wooden and led by future

One game short, 1973

NBA stars Bill Walton and Keith Wilkes.  So his highest career points were two Final Fours, a lot of tournaments, being the sacrificial lamb at UCLA, and then to rebuilding himself as well as building UAB in Birmingham.

So how do you measure a life?  While we’re measuring, it might also be worth mentioning that he ended his life with the nickname, “Clean Gene,” a moniker few carry in college sports these days of rogue fans, agents and corruption, for the way he ran things.  He gave a race-divided city in Memphis something else to rally around and focus on in a painful historical moment.  He started a great program in the city where we live that has had some really great moments.  He battled stomach cancer to the very end with humor and grace.

I think it is fitting that Gene Bartow passed from this earth in the time in which one weekend carried the UAB-Memphis game and will be followed next weekend by Martin Luther King day.  I’d say, all in all, he did the right things.  The rest is just wins and losses.

It always matters how you play the game.  John Wooden and Gene Bartow would agree, and maybe now they get to talk about it.  All the rest is just wins and losses and what other people think.   Rest in Peace, Coach.  You went out on top.

Life Coaching with Napoleon–Dynamite, that is.

Napoleon Dynamite.  It’s been seven years and I still laugh at this movie.  I have it on DVR so I can speed through to favorite moments.  A friend and I were laughing as we sent quotes back and forth this week.

  • Napoleon Dynamite: Do the chickens have large talons?
  • Farmer: Do they have what?
  • Napoleon Dynamite: Large talons.
  • Farmer: I don’t understand a word you just said.

from Moviefone blogsite

His dialogue is so painfully true to life.  I knew kids just like him, and he talks like them.  The humor is not cruel, slapstick, humiliation or vulgarity–it’s recognition and insight into irony.  You feel the pain and wince because you’ve been there as one of the characters in that movie.

  • Napoleon Dynamite: Stay home and eat all the freakin’ chips, Kip.
  • Kip: Napoleon, don’t be jealous that I’ve been chatting online with babes all day. Besides, we both know that I’m training to be a cage fighter.
  • Napoleon Dynamite: Since when, Kip? You have the worst reflexes of all time.
  • Napoleon Dynamite:  Well, nobody’s going to go out with me!
  • Pedro:  Have you asked anybody yet?
  • Napoleon Dynamite:  No, but who would? I don’t even have any good skills.
  • Pedro:  What do you mean?
  • Napoleon Dynamite:  You know, like nunchuku skills, bow hunting skills, computer hacking skills… Girls only want boyfriends who have great skills.

It’s the little details–Don the Jock, mocking and threatening but never actually doing anything but sneering and shaking his head; the bully who kicks Napoleon’s pants to mash his “tots” when he refuses to share them; the kids in the bus screaming when Lyle shoots a cow without thinking about who’s watching; the town rich girl who always wins everything because she was entitled from the get-go and the faceless mass of kids who never have a chance.  Then the principal—lecturing Pedro for his “cruelty” for mocking his opponent with a piñata and later leering at the Happy Hands dancers do their skit bare-footed at the assembly.  I could go on.

Napoleon grabs onto a new kid from Mexico in the desperate hope for a friend who might stick by him.    I winced.  I was that kid.  I spent most of my life as an outsider, since I moved throughout childhood.  I attended seven different school systems in five states before I graduated high school due to my father’s job.  I get “not belonging.”  I had to fit in and figure out a world others created, often obliviously, before I arrived.

I am actually grateful for these experiences.  Any capacity I have for empathy and compassion owes a lot to this experience in my life.  While America is throwing trillions around I think we ought to move everybody in the country at least once, some of us to a foreign country, for at least a year so we can grow up a little and have some informed opinions.  The lack of imagination, openness to others and real knowledge of what it means to be “dislocated” probably has a little to do with our trivial politics and fear-based anxieties about the rest of the world.  Once you’ve been the powerless, unimportant and an outsider, you never see life the same again.

I tell young couples pondering marriage that friendship is one of the most underestimated predictors of marital success.  As I approach 38 years with the same woman, I credit some of it to a sense of humor and the fact that we like each other.  Once when she dramatically said, “Sometimes I just want to RUN AWAY, I asked, “Can I go with you.”

My version of, “I caught you a delicious bass.”

The Penn State Scandal: Joe Paterno, Duty and Veteran’s Day

So who isn’t depressed about the whole situation at Penn State?  An icon’s image trashed, a scandal seems to get bigger

every day, and the story of the events themselves alleged against Jerry Sandusky is stomach-turning.  Anyone who has ever dealt with sexual abuse in any way knows how dangerous and emotionally perilous the whole situation can be.

The first abuse victim I ever knew about was a young woman who came to me more than twenty-five years ago.  I helped her leave her home with an abusive father who had molested her and took her to a shelter and reported the matter to rape crisis.  The laws were murkier and less helpful in those days.  After the father threatened to kill me, I called and reported the entire situation to the Sheriff’s department, where I was told that all I could do is swear out a restraining order.  “What will that do?” I asked.  “Well, if he kills you, we can arrest him for violating the order.”  So…I told my deacons to keep their shotguns at the door and come if I called since I didn’t have one.

Things have changed for the better.  But this has revealed just how we may not have come as far as we thought.  There are so many enormous questions—about out of control emphasis on college athletics, the corrupting power of money at universities, the conspiracy of silence in institutions devoted to higher ideals.  In short, not all that different from the implications of clergy abuse scandals.

There are questions about power and priority and value at stake here.  College athletics and its money and power on campuses of “higher learning” is a piece of this equation, too.  When a footbal coach and program bring $100 million per year to a college, danger of compromise is everywhere.  Taylor Branch prophetically has written about this entire sad mess in his book The Cartel: Inside the Rise and Imminent Fall of the NCAA  This moment is but a window on our collective soul, and not merely in our worship of collegiate athletics in a way that is out of control.

Coach Paterno

There is something larger I want to think about—beyond the sad image of Joe Paterno’s legacy, the disappointment with a university that had a great reputation, even the cases themselves.  It is this—what about our higher obligation to care for our young?  Preachers will rail about one more evidence of a culture that does not respect life, but I think of it a little differently.  In our addiction to pleasure, the momentary and money, we have sacrificed all notions of loyal obligation.

Oddly, today I was surfing news programs and listened for a while to “Morning Joe,’ which I enjoy.  The Penn State story got a lot of play and discussion, but it was followed by a Veteran’s Day conversation with Jack Jacobs.  According to the PBS “Stories of Valor” website, which did a story on Medal of Honor winners,

Colonel Jack Jacobs, who entered military service through Rutgers ROTC, earned the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism on the battlefields of Vietnam. He also holds three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.

Jacobs was an adviser to a Vietnamese infantry battalion when it came under a devastating fire that disabled the commander. Although bleeding from severe head wounds, then-First Lieutenant Jacobs took command, withdrew the unit to safety, and returned again and again under intense fire to rescue the wounded and perform life-saving first aid. He saved the lives of a U.S. adviser and 13 allied soldiers.

As the guests on the show talked about Veterans Day, Jacobs told a story about what motivates Medal of Honor winners

Medal of Honor winner Jack Jacobs

to be so modest.  They nearly always say, “I just did my job.”  The military drills into their soldiers that duty to one another and to their service is the highest necessity for survival and success.  Jacobs said that they know that absolute commitment to their duty is what all of their lives depend on.  He told of one soldier who was severly wounded in a battle.  A seargeant went through a hail of bullets to rescue the man, who later died.  The sergeant himself was badly wounded, but he said the young man looked up when he came and said, “I knew you would come for me.”

At the heart of military duty, it seems to me, is a profound loyalty to ones fellow soldiers.  It is that trust in each other on which lives depend.  Jacobs has written a book on these things and extended this virtue to civilian life.  Do we not need this same sense that life itself depends on our loyalty to one another and to duty and dependability?

If Not Now, When?

Duty is not always glamorous.  It never operates from the pleasure principle, fame, rewards or immediate gratification.  Perhaps that is why it has ebbed from view in our current world.  It’s all about the money, too often, for us.  Being true to ourselves, each other and our obligations has been cast aside.  We regularly break contracts, covenants and loyalty for some more urgent unhappiness.  We reap bitterly from this harvest.

Sex abuse is failure of the most basic of duties—to protect the most vulnerable.  Not only their lives, but our own and our collective life absolutely depend on it.  So do all our institutions, our financial life, and everything in this world that is worthwhile.  Without confidence that we will come for one another, we are utterly lost.

Bobby Horton, a musician buddy, is a Civil War buff and a musical expert on that era.  He contributed to many of Ken Burn’s series, including the “Civil War.”  His favorite quotation is from Robert E. Lee, who even in a lost and wrong cause, was a man admired by both sides.  He said, “Duty is the most sublime word in our language. Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more. You should never wish to do less.”  This may be our greatest need on Veterans Day,  not the recovery of duty for our soldiers, but for the rest of us.  Without doing our duty, can we long survive?

 

10 Qualities of a pERFECTionits

deadline coming...

1.  Perfectionists cannot stand it when something is not completed.  For example, when a person…

2.  There is a rigidity about things always having to be a certain way or else they become very upset.  Things cannot be out of order, altered from their usual place, etc.

4.  If you’re going to do your best, you can’t always worry about pleasing everyone else (“You know you shouldn’t be writing this blog.  I told you to major in something else in college.  You’re an idiot.  Nobody cares what you think.)  Pay no attention to that voice in my head…

3.  Practice makes prefect.  Practifect makes perfice.  Aw, you know what I mean.

5.  If you are a Christian, be happy all the time and when you are mad, talk more piously.

6.  Almost perfect is never good enough.  Perfection is so hard to reach, you often don’t try.  This is so frustrating that I’m not going to list the last four.  It’s too overwhelming.

I forgot the other four.

In an article by Elizabeth Scott at About.com, I came across this statement.

High achievers tend to be pulled toward their goals by a desire to achieve them, and are happy with any steps made in the right direction. Perfectionists, on the other hand, tend to be pushed toward their goals by a fear of not reaching them, and see anything less than a perfectly met goal as a failure.

That rings true.  Sometimes our goals are so lofty with a song, recording, preparing a presentation, aspiring to a project, or writing, that we are immobilized.   My friend, the late John Claypool, used to say that there’s a difference between wanting to do something and wanting to BE somebody.  The first group accomplishes a lot.  The second group tends to make themselves and everyone around them miserable.  It’s all about “how you look.”  Faggetaboutit!

In this culture so shaped by the visual dimension of life, are we so oriented to expectations that come from without us that we cannot find the “push” from within?

So, here is my advice to perfectionists.  Lose yourself in the task once in a while.  Don’t worry too much about how to sign your autographs just yet.  Just write good songs.  Sing your best.  All that obsession with fame, stuff, adoration and making a million is too much about being PUSHED.  Let yourself be pulled by something that offers so much joy you just HAVE to find it!

note to self

Accept the process and enjoy the ride.  The journey of healing will not be automatic and instant.  Taking something in, getting somewhere, growing, all involve time, faith, hope and love.

Strive for reality, not perfection. A friend of mine was struggling with some people whose behavior disappointed him in his church.  He expressed his disappointment and I replied, “You have to learn to lower your expectations.”  He asked, “How do you do it?”  I answered, “From reading the Bible.”    Have you ever noticed what a sorry lot of people are in the Bible–Jesus being the exception, of course?  If you want to feel good, read a Bible story.  But it ought to encourage you.  God works with the available material.

Try on a new self-assessment based on reality, not what you have experienced, come to mistakenly believe, or adapted to as a reaction to life.  Work on those voices inside your head.  Turn off the editor when you want to be creative.  Let it flow.  You’ll be surprised what comes forth when you aren’t worried about what someone will say about it.

Finally, lie down and sleep when you run out of ideas.  You’d be amazed what the acceptance of our limits can do to unleash creative power.  Turn the world back over to God every night.  It’s liable to still be there when you open your eyes in the morning.

Labels

Q. How many bluegrass musicians does it take to screw in a lightbulb?..:

A. Three. One to screw it in, and two to complain that Bill Monroe never did it that way.

I take Bluegrass Unlimited, and by far the most interesting part is the “letters to the editor.” Bluegrass fans are unusually obsessive about their music. I have pondered this, and perhaps it is in part because it is the living memory of a time and a way of life that is passing away, and in part because when we find something and love it we want to hold onto it forever

I am a Baptist minister, and reading those letters made me happier about the craziness of institutional religion. I told my staff, “Hey, there are fundamentalists and liberals everywhere. Month after month, the argument rages: “What is REAL bluegrass music and what isn’t?” Well, I think, “Who cares?” Obviously the purists.

I write songs, and sometimes when people say, “What kind of songs do you write?” I have to scratch my head and say, “I dunno.  Mine, I guess.”  Some are country, some are folk, some are whatever.  But once you record them and start fooling with them, and listen, you even wind up turning them into something else.  You just want to see where they will go.

I ran across this not long ago when I stumbled across (Okay, I was straying from what I was supposed to be doing) a Wikipedia article about pop classical entertainer Andre Rieu, who plays those  happy concerts on PBS that apparently purists in classical music call “Schlagermusic.”   One critic said this, according to Wikipedia:  “Boyd assesses the low points of the concert as the “Three Tenors-style” rendition of “Nessun dorma” which he finds was an “abomination”, while saying the concert’s highlights included “a sugar-shock sweet rendition” of “O mio babbino caro” as well as Strauss’s Emperor Waltz and Blue Danube, Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntary and the Boléro.”

My response to this is to recall one of my favorite conversations in the movie “Napoleon Dynamite,” when Napolean goes to work at a chicken farm for a local farmer to earn some money.  He is hired to go into the chicken houses and is worried about getting hurt and asks,

Napoleon Dynamite: Do the chickens have large talons?

Farmer: Do they have what?

Napoleon Dynamite: Large talons.

Farmer: I don’t understand a word you just said.


I have the same reaction.  I enjoy the classics, but don’t know enough to get indignant.  Sometimes we all need to stand down about our tastes.   There are legitimate arguments about good, better, and best, but it isn’t all that hard for one’s own ego to slip in unannounced.  That said, snobbery is not limited to elitists.  Plenty of snobs in low places who sneer at anything they don’t understand.

Music, like authentic religion, is LIVING and dynamic. So let there be experiments and fusions. Labels are something for catalogs and libraries, but not for creative work. Music is nothing more or less than trying to get to that place where we say, “Wow, I love the way that sounds!” And something in the heart is stirred. There’s a place for honoring tradition and a place for breaking it all to pieces. And the world is big enough for all of it. If you don’t like it, don’t buy it and don’t worry about it…