Sep 19, 2010

Was Jesus Funny?

When we look at the picture of Jesus painted by the Gospels, we have an incomplete picture.  We don't know what he looked like - aside from being from the Middle East and having a beard.  Sure, we have artist renditions of Jesus - but we have no way of knowing if they are accurate.  (Actually, we can be pretty sure that they are NOT.)  Personally, I think that this was on purpose - so we would not worship an image of Jesus.  Rather, we should direct our allegiance to the true Christ.

Most of the time, I don't mind the lack of physical description of Jesus.  I have an active imagination and can generate a picture pretty easily in my mind.  I've done the same thing with regular books for decades.  But there is one big thing that is never described in the Gospel accounts that does bother me.  Why don't we ever see Jesus laugh?  We see Him cry (Luke 19, John 11:35).  We see Him angry (Matthew 21, John 2).  We see him compassionate, distressed, in authority.  We see him teaching, healing, healing, lecturing, walking on water, eating, having dinner.  But we never see him laughing.

This has actually been a difficult thing for me to understand over the years.  I like to laugh.  Sure, some people over the years have accused me of being negative or unemotional.  But that usually is when I am stressed or trying to get ready for a speaking event or something.  I really do like to laugh.  And I like to make people laugh.  When I am speaking at an event, it is a pretty sure bet that the attenders will be laughing at some point.  That is part of who I am.  And so I have really wrestled with why we never see Jesus laugh, smile, grin (despite what Monty Python sketches say), chuckle, or anything of the sort.  He never tells a joke.  He never laughs at a situation.

He is described as a Man of Sorrows.  We know that the lostness of the people around Him broke His heart.  He was about His Father's business.  And I guess that is where I have difficulties.  Did He not have the luxury to laugh?  Was it considered a frivolous activity that was beneath Him?  Does that mean that we shouldn't laugh and joke?  I know the Bible speaks critically inappropriate or coarse humor.  But we don't see a whole lot about laughter.  Sarah laughed at the promise of a baby in her old age - but that wasn't a positive action.  Proverbs is pretty derisive of those labelled "fools" or "jesters."  If Jesus didn't laugh, should we?  I mean, lots of people tell us we should ask What Would Jesus Do?  If we never see Jesus laughing, does that mean we shouldn't either?

This post is certainly not meant to be trivial or disrespectful, so I hope you don't think it is.  I really want to know, did Jesus laugh?  Was He funny?  And if He was, why was that character trait completely left out of everything we read about Him?  Was it because it would diminish His authority?  Would it undermine His Godliness?  I mean, I could see descriptions of His using the facilities as eroding His status.  But laughing?

We know that Jesus was fully man.  He was born.  We see Him as a boy at the temple.  Then we see Him as a fully grown man.  So, he is a person - a real man.  As human, laughter is natural.  From very early in life, babies smile and laugh.  That is one of the milestones for kids.  There's not many better things in life than watching a baby laughing.  Children laugh like crazy at all kinds of things.  You don't have to teach them that.  It is just a natural part of life.  If Jesus was fully human, then He had to laugh.  That is part of being human.

The problem I have is that He hung out with twelve guys every day for over three years.  Is it possible that those guys never laughed together?  They never busted out about some goofy story or something silly someone did?  These were guys.  And they weren't highfalutin learn-ed types either.  They were regular old guys - fishermen mostly.  I don't know many fishermen who didn't bust each other's chops on a regular basis.  That is pretty universal with guys.  They hang out and bust on each other and laugh a lot.

You mean to tell me that none of those guys ever cracked one off around the fire late at night?  No one ever stepped in donkey droppings?  Someone didn't trip over their robe and fall into the water?  Remember, these are twelve guys wandering around the countryside.  They ate fish.  There had to be some gastric instability going on.  Last weekend, we were discussing this at a youth retreat I was at.  One of the kids (a boy, of course) said, "One of the great things about being a guy is that from infancy until old age, a fart is always funny."  It's true.  Guys just laugh at that stuff.  (Remember, there are artificial fart machines out there and people buy them - probably all males.)  My three year old giggles when he toots.  I have so many stories from my past about groups of guys trying to gas each other out.  This never happened?  Personally, I believe it did.  And, I would like to think that Jesus participated in it.  He probably was really good at it.  So much so, that the other guys didn't want Him to play.  "No, don't ask Him to play.  Remember, even the winds obey Him.  It's not a fair contest."

In addition, children were drawn to Jesus.  He welcomed them.  I have three kids.  You know what kind of person they don't gravitate towards?  A gloomy unsmiling person.  Kids love happy people.  They like to be around adults who have a pleasant disposition, a smile on their face.  Would children have surrounded Jesus just because He was God?  Probably not.  There had to be something there.  And with all the talk of how we should be filled with joy, Jesus had to be joyful.  Right?  Joy is supposed to be something that flows through us - He couldn't have been different, could He?

Certainly, I am not trying to paint Jesus as a clown.  He brought some serious discussions into play.  You could definitely say that he was a downer at times - talking about His death, promising that people would hate His followers, saying you had to give up homes and families to follow Him.  Those were not cheery statements.  When He was knocking over tables, sweating blood, chewing out the Pharisees, He was not a jovial fellow.  It's just that few things really bring out your humanity more than humor.  The ability to laugh at yourself, laugh at and with other people, make people laugh.  Those are valuable human characteristics - or at least I have always thought so.

I guess part of what makes this issue so hard for me is that so many times when I am speaking, the people listening spend a lot of time laughing.  (And, no, it is NOT always AT me.)  I try very hard to allow God to flow through my words.  I aim to be flexible and receptive to His guidance as far as what I say.  I don't rely too heavily on outlines and frequently find myself using examples and stories completely on the fly.  I have always felt that when I am at my best, it is when I personally do the least and let God do the most.  If that is actually true, then it would follow that God uses the humor as well.  It puts people at ease, helps them to listen and engage, and it even assists in understanding what is being said by painting a picture.  I cannot be ultra-serious all the time when I am teaching and preaching.  I have tried.  I have aimed to better fit the mold of a traditional pastor, wearing gravitas and forcefully pounding points home.  But it never works.  It turns into something far different.

I have to believe that God values humor - I mean, He uses irony frequently, which can be funny.  The foolish shame the wise.  Our weakness makes us stronger.  The least end up first.  And He did create the platypus.  I just wish we could have seen Jesus laugh.  Maybe He is saving it for when He can really cut loose - when He is hosting the biggest dinner ever.  I think that is one of the coolest things to see - God laughing.  And I hope that when He sees me, He will say, "Well done, my good and faithful servant.  You really made me smile."  That would be the best.

Sep 18, 2010


Think about how your morning usually begins. If you are like most people, it starts with a audible assault. That is how my day begins. I am jolted out of a sweet tapestry of dreams about puppies, saving the world, and being yelled at by this annoying screeching noise machine. I'm not talking about Gabe. It's the stinking alarm clock. MEEHH! MEEHH!! MEEEHHH!! MEEEHHHH! I am not one of those people who needs to go through that twice. When I was in college I wanted to make sure I didn't sleep through classes. So I intentionally put my alarm clock on the other side of my cubicle/dorm/"room." I had to jump out of bed to turn it off. "Well, I'm up. I guess I'll get ready." I also solved this problem by taking no classes that started before noon.

My wife is different - she likes to sleep and savor it. So for her to get up, the alarm gets to go off on three separate occasions. At 6:15am. MEEHH! MEEHH!! MEEEHHH!! MEEEHHHH! I roll over and turn it off. Fifteen minutes later: MEEHH! MEEHH!! MEEEHHH!! MEEEHHHH! This time I turn it off and have to change the time of the first alarm to 6:45am. MEEHH! MEEHH!! MEEEHHH!! MEEEHHHH! It is just unpleasant. Usually after all of this racket, Gabe has woken up. And he is about as persistent as an alarm clock. "Daddy. Get up. Daddy get up. Daddy get up. Get the kids?"

So we traipse out into the living room and if it isn't time to "get the kids" up, we turn on Nick Jr. Our first waking moments are greeted by a jumping singing weird yellow monkey looking thing with a long bendy tail named Wubbzy. Well, that or a dumb blueberry with tendrils octopus voiced by Wonder Years boy named Oswald. "GOOD MORNING!!! WOW WOW WUBBZY, WUBBZY WUBBZY WUUUUBBZEEEE!"

Once it is time to get the older kids up, the house morphs into a carnival atmosphere.  There's spinning plates, running animals, flipping acrobats, and the ringmaster trying to keep it all under control.  "Sit down and eat your breakfast.  Stop throwing your cereal on the table.  Sit down!  Eat please.  Now go get dressed.  What are you doing?  Stop playing and get dressed.  Are you dressed?  Go change those shorts, they don't match.  STOP JUMPING!  Brush your teeth.  Hurry up in there, your brother needs to brush his teeth.  Get your shoes on.  STOP! THE! JUMPING!  Get your backpacks.  Let's go.  We're going to be late.  COME ON!"

From that point on, life is a mix of noises and activities.  Anyone with kids will tell you that it is a circus.  Even when Gabe is the only one there, it still is a wild place - because he's a wild guy.  There's videos and imaginative games and running around and fighting and pulling the cushions off the couch and crying and begging for juice or cheese sticks or fruit snacks.  It's funny, in a way.  I hate the circus in real life.  My kids ask all the time when we are going to go to the circus.  FSU has a circus.  (No rude comments.)  But my kids know I hate the circus.  Largely, it is due to my irrational loathing of clowns.  I'm not scared of them, I just don't like them.  So I have never been a circus fan.  But, I like our circus just fine.

This morning, I am speaking at a high school retreat for ICS - the school I worked at in Orlando before we moved.  It has been challenging and fun.  I've never been THE speaker for a retreat before.  There have been plenty of speaking opportunities and Defender Ministries events.  But this was a little different.  I have powerful memories of camp - and of the role that the camp pastor played.  So I didn't take this lightly.  I am worn out.  We still have one session left today.  And I hope that it ends up being a useful thing for everyone involved.

When I woke up this morning, my phone was dead.  That meant my alarm never went off.  I panicked - waiting for my phone to charge enough to put up the clock.  "WHAT TIME IS IT?!?!"  Finally I remembered I had a watch.  I actually had woken up early.  So I got ready and dressed and was ready thirty minutes early.  I went and sat out on the screen porch and just looked out at the lake.  What is this? Silence?  I don't know what that is like.  Even when I travel for Defender, I usually sleep with ESPN on.  So I usually awake to some sports highlight and "BOOYAH!"  I didn't know what to do with myself.

The sun is peaking through the trees and cabins.  The mist is still sitting on the lake, which I can see in the distance.  It is so quiet I can actually hear animals running around, racing up trees.  Birds are chirping in the distance.  "What is that a ninja?  It can't be a ninja - you never hear them coming."  I have my Travis Cottrell "Jesus Saves Live" album playing, because I never get to listen to my music at home.  It is just a bizarre feeling - and a calming one.  My nerves, the agitation, the weariness, the concern over getting back home.  All of that melted away.  It was good to just sit here in solitary confinement for a few minutes.

I have to run and eat breakfast - hoping there is something to fit into my diet plan.  Then there is electronic setup and preaching and talent show and the long drive home.  Then watching the kids while Heather works through the mountain of studying.  Then getting ready for church, planning for Gabe's birthday, writing curriculum.  Life will pick back up quickly.  But, I was thankful for thirty minutes to experience something that is far to foreign in our lives.

Peace and quiet.

Sep 15, 2010

True Honor

This past Saturday, we observed the ninth anniversary of the horrific events of September 11, 2001.  It is good that we have these patriotic days scattered throughout our calendar (Memorial Day, July 4, 9/11, Veteran's Day).  Because, honestly, if it wasn't for those day, we probably wouldn't give a second thought to all the soldiers out there daily fighting on our behalf.  I know that there is a great deal of argument over the rightness of the current military conflicts.  And this is hardly the place to engage in a battle over that - and I am hardly the person to begin that fight.  I am not a warmongering ultra-patriot that will defend every decision the USofA makes.  I am also not one of those people who appear to hate America so bad you wonder why they live here.

But I do think that as citizens of this country we have certain obligations.  We need to vote and be active in the political process.  We need to be educated and hold our government officials responsible for their actions and decisions.  We need to obey the laws - even if you think are moronic.  And we should show respect and gratitude for those people who have decided to put their lives in danger to defend others.  Realistically, none of us are immediate danger due to the situation in Iraq or Afghanistan.  But the concept of defending freedom is still at play.  And, perhaps, the service by these brave men and women of our military is even more admirable (and difficult) than in years past BECAUSE we are so unsure of the struggle they are fighting in.

When my dad fought in Korea, we had just come off a World War - where our freedoms were legitimately threatened.  America was at risk.  With that in mind, Korea was a legitimate threat as well.  We had seen what happened when the Nazis ran without control across Europe.  It was easy to see the Communists doing the same thing.  Volunteering under those circumstance was an easier choice - still not easy by any stretch of the imagination.  Now, though, these battles seem so far away.  The terrorist attacks of 9/11 showed us that the forces over there could hurt us.  But, I fear, we are starting to get complacent in our safety and security again.  That leads to forgetting the soldiers fighting.

A second major problem with our respect for soldiers is that we have this false version of a warrior projected through media and entertainment industries.  We have Jack Bauer, Jason Bourne, The Expendables, Batman.  There are these super-human monsters that can withstand vicious attacks and somehow dip into a reservoir of mega-strength to fight back.  I'm guilty of it too.  We've been watching Chuck on DVD this summer (along with Burn Notice).  In this world, spies get shot, stabbed, electrocuted, hit with tranquilizer darts and then hop up and keep fighting.  In one Chuck episode, a spy got shot with FOUR tranq darts before he was out.  In another one, a spy got shot in the back through a window with a shotgun and popped up a few hours later fighting.  He also ingested a deadly poison pill and woke up a few hours laters, got slammed between two massive metal sliding doors, and got beat up multiple times.  But he kept on fighting at every turn.  Another spy went through three severe beatings, got shot, and got shot.  But he never wavered - even at one point taking out nine guys to escape torture.

This is not realistic.  Last week, I was reading Gregg Easterbrook's excellent Tuesday Morning Quarterback article on ESPN.  In it, he bemoaned the number of hit man movies out there - probably eclipsing the actual number of hit men on Earth.  These people are able to kill without thinking and rarely get hurt.  Later on in his article, he had a letter from a med student in Pittsburgh who talked about this same trend.  He said people are frequently stunned at how painful bullets actually are.  They will be in horrible pain and telling their doctors, "This really really hurts.  I wasn't expecting that."  They see the heroes on tv get popped in the shoulder and shrug it off.  That is not realistic.  Bullets hurt.  They kill.  Our realization of that has been so numbed over the years, as we watched The Terminator have an entire clip of bullets pulled out of his back, that we don't even understand just what is war is truly like.

Then you read an article like this one on CNN.  (Yeah, I read CNN frequently.  It is the best formatted news site.  Sue me.)  This soldier, Salvatore Giunta, is the first living recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War.  There are only 3446 people who have been given this medal in the 234 years of our country.  In order to receive a Medal of Honor, you have to distinguish yourself in an extreme way in battle.  By reading those statistics, you see it is a very rare award.  Going through what led to past recipients receiving the award online, you see some truly amazing stories of bravery.  Here are some of those brief stories (from The Congressional Medal of Honor Society site:
  • In 2003, Sgt. 1st Class Paul R. Smith distinguished himself near Baghdad International Airport. With disregard for his own safety, Sgt. Smith manned an exposed mounted machine gun allowing for the safe withdrawal of numerous wounded soldiers and the death of as many 50 enemy soldiers. Sgt. Smith was mortally wounded at this time. 
  • In 1965, Captain Ed Freeman flew his unarmed helicopter to aid a trapped battalion.  They were pinned down and he faced heavy enemy fire on each trip.  Other aid, rescue, and medical evac helicopters refused to enter the area due to the intensity of the enemy fire.  Captain Freeman flew FOURTEEN separate missions into this zone - evacuating wounded men, providing ammo and supplies.  It is estimated he rescued thirty seriously wounded soldiers in his missions.
  • Lt. John Finn was stationed at Pearl Harbor during the 1941 attack.  He secured and manned a .50 caliber machine gun in an exposed part of the parking lot, which was continually being strafed by enemy machine gun fire.  He was wounded multiple times, but refused to leave his post.  His actions had a major impact on the enemy planes (hard to estimate how much - but obvious that it did).  Even after he was forced to seek medical aid, he returned to supply and assist returning US planes.  
So, not just your basic, run of the mill heroism.  These recipients went far above and beyond the call of duty.  What about Staff Sergeant Giunta?  In 2007, his unit was attacked by Taliban soldiers.  He, of course, says he was just doing his job - a normal soldier doing his job.  Normal soldiers doing their jobs don't receive the Medal of Honor.  In reality, he was extraordinary.  The unit was returning to base when the Taliban attacked with AK-47s, large machine guns, and rocket launchers.  Several of his fellow soldiers went down.  So he charged the Taliban, throwing grenades at them and shooting his weapon.  He retrieved one of his fellow soldiers and dragged him to safety.  Then he noticed one of the wounded was missing.  He raced over the hill where the Taliban had been staging their attack and saw his fellow soldier being dragged away by two of the enemy.  He pursued, even though he was now completely cut off from his unit.  He killed one of the enemy and wounded another.  Then he sat there in the war zone and began providing first aid to his friend, who had been shot six times, until he was evacuated.  (The friend later died from the wounds.)  During all of this, Giunta was hit twice himself - one hit his body armor, one destroyed the weapon strapped to his back.  Their quick action drove off the Taliban that day, and saved lives.

When I read that story, it just made me think about how I would have responded in that situation.  The truth is, I never would have been in that situation.  I have never even considered military service.  I don't disrespect the military.  Quite the opposite.  I love the military and respect those who serve.  Perhaps the reason I never thought about joining was because I knew I couldn't do it justice.  I am amazed at those who serve and sacrifice.  I never want to become numb to the risk they face.  I don't want some goofy spy show to make me believe their efforts were not amazing.  There may have been a part of you that, when you read the account of Giunta's heroism, was not amazed.  I know at first that was my response.  "He saved a guy and another guy - shot some people."  But I was comparing it to an unrealistic scene where Chuck Norris takes out an entire squadron.  In real life, people don't go charging into the enemy, flinging grenades.  They don't race off alone over a hill into an entrenched location.  They don't run and man a machine gun and angrily fire away at fighter planes and soldiers.  They don't fly helicopters time and again into heavily defended jungles.  If that happened every day, there would be more than 3,446 Medal of Honor recipients.

I hope that we can take a moment and think about that.  Think about what these guys and girls are going through on a daily basis.  And it is more than just the battles.  They are far from home, missing out on time with their families, missing out on the things we take for granted.  And it is all for people they don't know and will never meet.  At least for today, don't take them for granted or view their sacrifice through the filter of Hollywood.  If you know a soldier or their family, thank them.  Give a small donation to the USO.  Volunteer at your local VA Hospital.  Or just spend a few minutes praying for them.  They deserve that level of honor.

Sep 11, 2010

When Being First Doesn't Pay

It is not easy to be the first child.  Sure, there are some benefits to it.  Like if you are royalty, being the first born means that you are first in line to the throne.  You can call family meetings.  And you are usually bigger, so you can enforce your will with force if necessary.  So, there . . . you have that going for you.  But, there are two very big problems when you are the first born.  And those two problems are your mom and your dad.

Think about it.  New parents have no clue what they are about to get into.  They may think they do.  They may read and research and watch other people's kids.  But there is just nothing that can truly prepare you for your own children.  When you are babysitting or serving as a nanny, you go home at some point.  Things like doctor bills and schooling and future plans are not your responsibility.  Reading a book will serve you well if your child is a two dimensional sketch on a page.  But when your child is a real life boy, the book doesn't do you a lot of good - unless you use it to throw at the child to stop them from knocking over a lamp.  As a first time parent, you are in completely new territory every single day.

When they are babies, they are small and helpless.  Every day there is the fear that something is going to happen to them.  When they cry for some bizarre unexplained reason in the middle of the night, you jump up and worry.  "OH MY GOSH!!! WHAT IS HAPPENING?!? ARE THEY GOING TO DIE!?!?!?"   We learn it was nothing - and we know better the next time. We have to deal with the feedings and changings and putting to sleep.  And each time, it is a new effort - something you are unprepared for.  Basically, a new parent is winging it.  I don't know what to do in each situation.  I am just doing my best and hoping it is right.

The kid starts to grow and explore.  They begin to crawl and pull up.  They stick things into their mouth - like deodorant, vitamins, money.  "OH MY GOSH!!! WHAT IS HAPPENING?!? ARE THEY GOING TO DIE!?!?!?"  They survive and everything is just fine. We know better the next time. Then they start to walk and talk and interact with their world. And they fall and bang their heads and split their chins on the bathroom counter. "OH MY GOSH!!! WHAT IS HAPPENING?!? ARE THEY GOING TO DIE!?!?!?" But the doctor glues their face back together and they are fine. And we know better the next time.

Next the child continues to sprout like a weed. Now they are in preschool and potty training. They have to interact with other children - learning to share toys, play nice, and not keep touching the one girl's really curly hair. They get in trouble at school. Other kids want to have them come over to play or spend the night or introduce them to new shows and movies that you weren't ready for your kids to see. Now your child is acting like an insane robot and you don't know why. "OH MY GOSH!!! WHAT IS HAPPENING?!? ARE THEY GOING TO DIE!?!?!?" So you make them take a break from the character and know better the next time.

Your boy now is in older elementary. He has his own passions and desires. He develops his own quirks. And he is not your clone - even though you desperately tried for that. So all the weird noises and crazy games and uncontrolled insanity is completely foreign to you. Maybe something happened to this child at some point that you were not aware of. Maybe they have fallen off the monkey bars and banged their head. Or they have been learning subversive messages in their Sponge Bob cartoons. Or they could be part of a massive international conspiracy where children are trained to bring a country to its knees through annoying parents. "OH MY GOSH!!! WHAT IS HAPPENING?!? THEY ARE GOING TO DIE . . . IF THEY . . . DON'T . . . SHUT . . . UP!!!" But it is just a phase and you know better the next time.

As parents. we always know better the next time. With the next kid, we understand not to stress out so bad about weaning and potty training and socialization. Things happen in their time. We become more relaxed and less panicky. We used to carry twenty pacifiers with us everywhere we go to switch out the second one touches something filthy. Now, we carry one and just wipe it off on our jeans. Or, better yet, we forego pacifiers altogether, knowing they are just a big waste of money and the kid is more content to gnaw on a four hundred dollar cell phone instead. When they fall, our first response is not to call 911 before we assess the situation. We scan the room and look for missing body parts. Finding everything still attached, our new goal is just to stem the flow of blood and make the crying stop.

That oldest kid, though, just gets the big shaft. Every single phase they go into is brand new for the parent. We are never prepared. It seems like we are just hanging on, hoping to survive the newest annoying and challenging life change - the arguing, the sassiness, the pigheadedness, the taking their life into their hands on a frequent basis. It just isn't fair for the poor kid. They are just growing up and being a kid and we are freaking out. "OH MY GOSH!!! WHAT IS HAPPENING?!? ARE THEY GOING TO DIE!?!?!?" Then we take a breath and know better the next time.

Tomorrow is my Josiah's ninth birthday. The poor boy has had to put up with nine years of his father's ineptitude, over-reaction, and hasty (and usually poor) decision making. He has put up with it, and honestly been the best oldest child I could ever have imagined. He is absolutely incredible. The little guy is brilliant, imaginative, talented, silly, and very loving. And he has been extremely patient with me learning how to be a dad. I am glad that he is the first born. He challenges us. He raises the bar and pushes us to be the best we can. Laziness is not an option or we will get run over. I honestly have no idea what he is going to do next - and I have no idea what to do when he does it. I do know that I'll survive and know better the next time. And I"m glad I get to learn these lessons with him.

Sep 7, 2010

What's a Title Worth?

What's your favorite team? Get that team in your head - the one that you are really passionate about. Now, let's assume that, as a fan, you were presented the following scenario. "If your team can guarantee it will win the title next year. BUT, to do so, they will have to suck for AT LEAST the next ten years." Would you do it? Is the joy of the title worth the decade of frustration that will be following? I know Bill Simmons has kind of examined this before on his ESPN site. He argues that if your team wins a title, you are not allowed to complain about anything they do for the next five years. Normally, I think that Simmons is pretty on target with his take on sports. But I disagree with this proposition.

The Florida Marlins have two World Series titles. They were won ten years apart. And in both cases, the team did the same thing. They built a good team through drafts, farm system, trades. Then, the loaded up the team for one year. They snuck into the playoffs as the Wild Card and then raced through the playoffs - winning the World Series. Then, they dismantled the team and were absolutely horrible for several years. Then, due to that, they were able to cheaply restock during that time and repeat the process. It is actually pretty good business for the team. They pay through the nose for salaries for a couple years, get the most they can out of young talent, and then dump everybody before they have to re-sign anyone to more than a rookie deal.

So, as a Marlins fan (are there any of those?) would you be okay with this? Every ten years, you will win a title. But for seven of those other nine years, you will have a losing record. In today's sports economic system, it is pretty obvious that it is impossible to compete every single year and keep a roster intact. The superstars want big pay days, which means that you can't keep the other surrounding players - the unrecognized, but vital, parts of the team. To keep the quarterback, running back, top receiver, a couple defensive stars the team has to sacrifice offensive linemen and tight ends and safety. Next thing you know, the team is going 10-6 and losing in the first round every year. (Eagles, I'm looking in your direction.) Eventually something has to change - so the team gets blown up. As a fan, would you rather be like the Eagles of the NFL - competitive just about every year, going to the playoffs, never winning the big game? Or would you rather be like the Marlins - rarely competitive, winning record three years out of ten, title every ten years, no continuity?

I thought about all of this when I thought about the Tampa Bay Bucs. When I lived in Tampa and really started cheering for the Bucs, the team had a personality. It took after its coach, Tony Dungy. The players seemed nice. They had fun together. They worked hard, played tough, and were always competitive. They turned a loser franchise around and made it a contender. And the fans responded. At one point, they had 40,000 people on a waiting list for season tickets.  But, they were not quite getting over that hump. It was frustrating to the fans - and apparently extremely frustrating to ownership. So they made the decision that has changed that franchise forever. They fired Rich McKay and Tony Dungy and brought in Bruce Allen and Jon Gruden. The very next year the Bucs won the Super Bowl. It looked like they made the right choice. Except....

In retrospect, we can see what we should have known at the time. Gruden won with Dungy's team, except with a couple of tweaks. He was this legendary quarterbacks coach, but ended up getting minimal help from Brad Johnson. They rode Monte Kiffin and the defense to the title. And they probably would have at least gotten to the Super Bowl with Dungy. The team wasn't that much better under Gruden. It went 12-4. If you broke the season into quarters, they were 3-1 in each one. They just hit it right. And the biggest advantage Gruden brought to the team was the fact the Bucs played the Radiers in the Super Bowl. He was able to completely undermine the Raiders since he built their team. That was where the move proved its worth - if they had played another AFC team, Gruden would have been irrelevant to the season.

Dungy went to the Colts and did the same thing as with the Bucs. Very consistent, very competitive, never winning the big one. But, eventually, he did win. And he would have won eventually with the Bucs. They may have even won more than one title - once the first one was in the basket. Instead, the Bucs now had a new approach to football. And Allen/Gruden couldn't stand the constant accusations being levied at them that they had just won with Dungy's team. So they began a systematic rebuilding of the team in their images. How'd that work out?
  • 2002 - Record 12-4 - won Super Bowl
  • 2003 - Record 7-9 - no playoffs
  • 2004 - Record 5-11 - no playoffs
  • 2005 - Record 11-5 - lost in wild card game
  • 2006 - Record 4-12 - no playoffs
  • 2007 - Record 9-7 - lost in wild card game (Gruden/Allen re-signed through 2011)
  • 2008 - Record 9-7 - no playoffs after Bucs lost last four games
  • Gruden/Allen fired
Their record was 57-55. If you remove the carryover year from Dungy, they went 45-51. The team won three division titles in the shaky NFC South. The first was the Super Bowl year. The other two, the team quickly exited the playoffs. So, would you say the experiment was a success? The team won a Super Bowl, so you could argue that it was. But, now the team is a complete wreck. Last year, they were terrible under their new head coach, Raheem Morris - who was still in high school when Brett Favre started in the NFL. And this year doesn't look any better. Neither does next year. The team itself has completely lost its mojo. That huge waiting list is gone.  Now the Bucs are one of the dozen teams that will be forced into home blackouts by the NFL due to poor ticket sales.  They really don't have anyone on the roster that even inspires a level of excitement for the future. They don't have a franchise quarterback. Their receiving corps looks to be the worst in the NFL. Their two premiere players are Cadillac Williams - who appears to be named after the 1980s Caddys that broke down a lot - and Ronde Barber. While Ronde has been a rock for this team, he is winding down his career. And he's older than the head coach.

[Side Note on Barber. Did you know that there are less than 20 players who have recorded over 500 tackles and 20 sacks for their career? I was kind of surprised to hear that. Barber reached that level in 2005. At that point there were only nine players. I found one other one who reached that last year. Some of the others include Seth Joyner, Ray Lewis, Wilbur Marshall, Brian Dawkins, Rodney Harrison, and LeRoy Butler. Most of them are linebackers. A few are safeties. Barber is the only cornerback. So far, he has 1156 tackles and 25 sacks. But he also has 37 interceptions. There are only about a dozen players with 20 sacks and 20 interceptions in their career. I'm not sure what all that means, but Barber has been one heck of a player.]

So, back to the original question... Is one title worth years of ineptitude? I don't know. It is hard for me to answer that because I'm not a great sports fan. I haven't been loyal to one team for my whole life. And the teams I rooted for in my early years (Cowboys, Georgia Bulldogs, Yankees) all won titles. So I don't know what it feels like for a tortured sports fan like a Browns fan or Eagles fan or Lions fan. Would it be worth it for them? I know that the Red Sox 86 year title drought has been nauseatingly documented. And the fans there have all said that the 2006 title was worth it. Even those fans, though, once they got a taste of victory got greedy. They aren't satisfied with losing any more. I can't imagine that Boston fans would tolerate ten years of ineptitude without complaining.

I don't let my life get too wrapped up in sports. I love sports. But I find it hard to root for a corporation. Honestly, I root harder for Apple than I do for any of my professional teams. I have changed allegiances over the years. The teams I used to root for I slowly drifted away from. I didn't like they way they ran their franchise, honestly. I rooted for the Cowboys for years, until I couldn't take Jerry Jones any more. I was tired of them before they ended their string of Super Bowls in the 90s. The Yankees got tossed aside a few years back after the Mitchell Report linked 26 players to steroid use. I figured that was just a culture of cheating at that point. I aligned with the Bucs for a while, when I was living in Tampa and for a few years after that. But eventually the Glazer/Gruden/Allen combo pushed me away. So I am not the best person to ask. I respond to a team's personality and not just their players or the team itself.

Now I root for the Jaguars because I get to go to their games once in a while - and my in-laws live in Jacksonville. It is easy to follow that team, and they seem like a good organization. I started rooting for the Tampa Bay Rays - partly because they are an underdog, partly because of the team personality, partly because them winning sticks it to the Yankees AND Red Sox. The Magic got my allegiance due to location (I've lived in or near Orlando since 1992 - for the most part) and the way the team is run - I like the owner and the personnel. And the Nashville Predators fit into those same molds. Plus I love rooting for underdogs and teams with good personalities. You would have sworn I was a Saints fan last year with how much I cheered for them during the season.

I guess the closest I come to being a rabid sports fan is with my college team - UCF. They are the team I follow the closest and feel strong emotional attachment to. That is because I went to that school. My wife went to that school. We lived near that school for years. I had lots to do with students, faculty, alumni of that school. So it isn't just rooting for a random jersey and logo at that point. So, would a title for UCF be worth it? That is a tough question. Their team has been so frustrating to follow for so many years. They never live up to their talent. Sure, they have won conference titles. They have been to bowl games. But they never really seem to get it all together. They are always too impressed with their opponents. They have an abysmal record against schools from the "power conferences." This has cost them numerous games they should have won. And I've also had to watch as cross-state rival USF started a football program, grew that program, beat ranked teams, got ranked as high as #2 in the BCS poll, and beat our butts four years in a row.

In college, once you win that title - it never goes away. (Well, unless you are USC or play for John Calipari or Bob Huggins.) The constant turnover of players due to graduation means that teams are used to the ebb and flow of success. Even the biggest teams have gone through dry spells when they had bad recruiting or a coaching change. So going through a stretch of suckitude after a title wouldn't be that horrible, I guess. And think about the joy that would come from being able to rub that title as a non-BCS team into all the big guys' faces. I can't imagine the way the first non-BCS team will feel when it finally breaks up the monopoly. (Boise State, TCU - this is your year. Let's find out!) And if you were the team that lost to that non-BCS team? Man, they would be owned forever. "Way to go Ohio State. I understand losing to Florida. But TCU? Seriously?!?" I mean, look at the crap Michigan has taken for getting offed by Appalachian State a couple of years ago.

I guess it would be worth it - being able to gloat over FSU and Miami and UF. Especially UF. Plus, imagine what one title would be worth to a school. That would give them legitimacy when it came to conference affiliation, television money, merchandise, recruiting, scheduling. Plus, even if a college stinks for a decade after a title, they still have some sway. Look at Washington, Georgia Tech, Auburn, and BYU. They still have extra status due to those titles - even though several of those schools have never come close to that level of success again.

Whether or not buying a title would be worth it obviously depends on who you ask.  The owners and players would probably argue that, yes, it was worth it.  A franchise is more valuable with hardware - they can get more allowances from their home city, higher merchandise sales, more lucrative seat licenses.  So the title is worth it to an owner.  To players, their careers are often defined by their ability or inability to win the big game.  Think about guys like Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Dan Marino, or Dale Murphy.  Their careers cannot be mentioned without the deadly "but they never won a title" attached.  And then there are players whose careers are inflated in importance due to titles (Joe Namath, looking in your general direction).  Plus, you can sucker some dumb team into giving you tons of money if you were a part of a championship team (Larry Brown).  Plus, there isn't a lot of loyalty in sports.  You get your money while you can - on both sides of the labor argument.  Championships equal money.

To the fan, the question is harder.  A rabid, die hard, lunatic fan who lives and dies by the team's success would argue that the title is worth it.  A long suffering fan of a team that is perennially sorry (Browns, Cubs, Lions, Nationals, Clippers) would probably say it is worth it - to get the monkey off their back.  But I would wager they would regret that later.  The title would feel great.  But then to go BACK to the putrid levels of yesteryear - that would be horrible.  Think about Rams fans.  They were the worst team in the NFL - voted worst of the decade.  They had watched the move from L.A. to St Louis.  There was only on Super Bowl appearance where they had backed into the playoffs at 9-7, knocked off the Cowboys, beat the Bucs in the worst NFC Championship game ever, and lost to the juggernaut Steelers in their own backyard (the LA Coliseum).  Then - a miracle.  Kurt Warner, Dick Vermeil, Marshall Faulk, Ike Bruce and the Greatest Show on Turf arrives.  They win a Super Bowl, lose in another.  They are a powerhouse offense for a few years.  Then it all collapses and they are back to the first pick in the draft and yearly ineptitude.  How do those fans feel?  Do they say, "At least we have 2000 and 2002?"  Or do they know how bad it can be, know how good it can be, and realize just how bad it stinks to go back?  Does the winning make the losing worse?  (This could also be applied in an even better way to the Tampa Bay Lightning - league doormats, random title, back to league doormats.  But they don't have any fans.  And no one watches hockey.  So no one cares.)

As a person who has followed the Bucs, I can't stand to see how far they have fallen.  I know that it is possible for Tampa to handle a top tier team.  The city weathered some of the worst teams the NFL ever threw out there.  They love their team - and the responded well to it.  They built it a new gorgeous stadium.  They bought new merchandise when the team changed its look.  And now they are expected to continue to support the team when it has no direction, no prospects, and no apparent drive to do anything about it.  When I went to the U2 concert last October at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, I looked up at the giant banners of their players hanging from the concourses.  In years past, they were adorned by Ronde Barber, Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, Mike Alstott, Warrick Dunn.  You felt pride in seeing those players on a fifty foot poster.  "That's MY team.  Look at that!"  But this time there were banners with Byron Leftwich and Kellen Winslow II and Aqib Talib.  That is just sad.  And in that moment, I can confidently say it was NOT worth it.

Sep 3, 2010

It's Baaaa-aaack

I have never been the perfect picture of health.  In addition to my huge bulk (which I'm doing my best to shed - read all about it HERE!), I have pretty cruddy joints.  And I'm a big huge klutz.  This has caused many injuries over the years.  Right before I started fifth grade, I was running through the house to get to the tv room so I could watch National Geographic Explorer.  (So, my nerdiness should not be a surprise at this point.)  I tripped on the floor, hurting my toe very badly.  It swelled up something awful and I had trouble walking by the next morning.  (This led to the horrifying image of my dad trying to carry me and nearly dropping me down the stairs.)  My parents took me to the Emergency Room and they went through the normal rigamarole.  I told them I was running through the house and tripped.  We assumed the toe was broken.  The waiting room, the forms, the nurse.  Same story multiple times.  XRay tech - same thing.  Finally the doctor came in.

  • DOCTOR: "What happened?" 
  • ME: "I was running through the house and tripped.  I think I broke my toe."
  • DOCTOR: "I'm a little confused..."
  • ME: "About what?  I was running, I tripped, my toe is broken."
  • DOCTOR: "No, I get that.  How did you break your heel?"
  • ME: "Uh, what?!?"
  • DOCTOR: "Yeah - your heel is broken.  See on the XRay?  There is a break across the heel."
  • ME: "I got nothing."
We never did figure that out.  I started fifth grade at my new school with a cast.  This then led to my next set of injuries.  My arches were so bad and my ankles so weak - made worse by the cast - that I started spraining my ankles on a regular basis.  I would be walking along, heading over the gifted classes in the annex.  Next thing I know, my ankle would twist under me and WHAM - on the ground.  

In sixth grade, I was in P.E. and we were playing soccer.  Some kid kicked at the ball and missed it.  But his cleat clad shoe found dead aim right into my knee.  He hit the leg bone, right below the kneecap.  The doctor thought it was broken, but then said it was just a bone bruise.  That year I also got tripped playing basketball and fell.  I had a tooth that grew weird out of the front of my gum instead of the normal tooth spot - almost like a fang.  When I fell, that tooth jammed into my lip and shredded it.  It also knocked the tooth off kilter, which led me to cut my mouth repeatedly.  Finally they had to take the tooth out.  As if that wasn't enough, I hurt myself again in P.E. during track and field week.  I was practicing the high jump - something that shockingly I was good at.  One jump I fell weird and landed on my hand, hyperextending all my fingers.  

In seventh grade, while playing soccer with my sister in the back yard, I had one of my worst injuries.  I was thrashing her like she was North Korea.  Trying to be nice, she pointed out to me that there was a big hole in the yard.  Being a punk, I didn't listen.  I even mocked her.  I knew the hole was there - after all I was the one who had to pick up the dog poop.  I knew every inch of that yard.  So when she said it, I came running up with the ball, planning to be funny.  I said, "What hole?  This one?"  I planned on stepping in it, and when she watched me I would kick the ball with the other foot and score - again.  Instead my knee hyperextended and I tore my meniscus.  This led to my first knee surgery - arthroscopy at the age of 12.  

This continued through the years.  And my siblings were more than happy to help with it.  I ripped the cartilage in my nose on my brother's chest playing basketball.  He slammed an iron pipe onto my toe, severing the nerves, trying to set up a tennis net.  I got a piece of tar paper in my eye when a basketball hit one of the window awnings.  That time it scratched my retina.  In tenth grade, I was pretending to be Michael Jordan in the bathroom after my shower.  I was flying in for a massive windmill dunk when my hand hit the broken lamp over the mirror.  It flayed my hand.  The skin flipped back and I could actually see my vein.  Another E.R. trip.  A year later, I blew my knee out again playing racquetball on a public park court that had been recently whitewashed.  I went one way and my leg went the other.  That gave me my second knee surgery in 11th grade.  In college, I sprained my ankle so badly that I had to go to the E.R.  Even the doctor was surprised it wasn't broken.  I was on crutches for two weeks for that one.  

Getting married and having kids didn't help either.  I was climbing on a bookcase to get something in the garage.  The bookcase didn't hold me and I fell right through.  The screws ripped slices into my ankle and side.  Two days later I fell in a parking lot and shredded my legs.  At a church I worked at, I fell down a wet set of stairs.  I sprained my left ankle and right knee.  They put me on crutches for that.  I honestly didn't know which leg to use - they both were so bad.  My ankles have become so bad that I can sprain and dislocate them sitting on the floor - if I wanted to.  (I don't want to, but it just happens.)  

I also had a bizarre condition that manifested itself in college.  I had Keinbach's disease in my left wrist.  I was having unbelievable pain and weakness in that arm.  No one knew what it was - thinking it was carpal tunnel or bad tendinitis.  (Although I do have carpal tunnel - that wasn't it.)  A hand specialist realized I had Keinbach's - which is where the radius bone in an arm is too long.  It puts too much torque and pressure on the wrist bones. The end result is that blood supply is cut off to the middle wrist bone, killing it.  If you saw an XRay of my wrist, you would see a bright white triangle where that bone is.  The doctor had to perform surgery - cutting my arm bone and removing a slice of bone and then putting in a metal plate.  This relieved the pressure and the pain.  Six months in a cast during my sophomore year of college with that.  [I'm not even addressing my issues with Nutrasweet that wrecked havoc in middle school or my allergies.  Just injuries.]

With all of that, it is little wonder that I have tons of aches and pains.  About nine years ago, the pain was random and getting pretty bad.  It made no sense.  One day, I would barely be able to move my fingers.  The next week, my fingers were fine and my knee would be so stiff I could barely walk.  It was a stressful time for us.  I was working at Rhodes Furniture, we had just had Josiah, and 9/11 had just happened.  That only seemed to make things worse.  Carrying Josiah around a lot devastated my body.  I went to a doctor and he resorted to the easy shot.  "It's cause you need to lose weight."  Whaaaa?  I can understand the excess weight causing ankle and knee pain - even back pain.  But wrist?  Fingers?  Was the constant lifting of a fork causing me too much stress?

I just lived with it for years.  We moved to Orlando and the pain would ebb and flow.  A new baby usually amplified it - since there was more carrying of the child, their carseat, their bags.  And there was less sleep - which also seemed to hurt things.  Finally I went to another doctor who did a blood test.  He said that he suspected I had rheumatoid arthritis and sent me to a rheumatologist.  At the first appointment, this guy told me he was confident that was it.  There were like ten indicators of RA - and I had eight of them.  That included the blood test, the nodes in my elbows, the random and moving pains.  He was kind of a jerk, though, and tried to put me on level three drugs without ever explaining anything to me.  We switched doctors and I was had an appointment with the new guy.  That was during the weird hurricane season where Orlando got smacked three times in six weeks.  I missed the appointment because half the city didn't have power.  But, the bizarre thing was that the RA kind of just disappeared.    This was six years ago.

I would still have pains here and there.  And if I keep a joint locked in a position or if I use it too much in a repetitive manner, it will hurt a lot for a few days.  But the agony was gone.  There was some flare up with Gabe's birth - and again when we moved here.  Nothing came close to the stuff I fought before, though.  Recently, however, things have started to get bad again.  Injuries don't heal fast - or at all.  I hurt my thumb about a month ago (I fell onto it and bent it weird).  It still hurts now.  My back is hurting all the time.  Some mornings I'll be like the Tin Man - trying to get my ankles, knees, elbows, and hands to start working right.  And, the other day I found one of those dreaded nodes in my elbow.  

I'm obviously not very excited about this.  RA is NOT the same thing as normal arthritis.  Arthritis is isolated into a specific joint - especially one with a previous injury.  So, I have been starting to get arthritis in some of the places that I hurt in the past - the worst being my middle left finger, where the joint swells up like crazy.  RA is actually a chronic inflammatory condition that affects your whole body - muscles, joints, everything.  And the treatment is aggressive and lasts for a lifetime.  It is also one of those conditions where the medicine can seem worse than the disease.  Many of the meds severely weaken your immune system - making you susceptible to infection.  There also can be toxic effects.  Really pleasant stuff.

I have an appointment in two weeks up at the FSU med center to start the evaluation process.  I usually avoid the doctor like the plague - although if I had the plague I would be glad to see the doctor.  First I need a physical and blood tests - to see where my numbers even are.  I haven't had them checked in seven years.  Then it will be time to discuss where I am and how to treat it.  I'm not excited about this.  My family keeps pushing me to try to get this worked on.  And Heather studied RA yesterday in class, which clinched it.  She saw how bad things can get and flat out told me, "You are going to the doctor."  (Stupid med school.)  But she did land me an appointment with one of her professors - so it shouldn't be too bad.  We'll see.  It's pretty bad when you long for the days of being able to tell a doctor "I tripped and broke my toe."