Monday, August 31, 2015

Finally, Someone Got It Right.

For all but a very few years of my life, my father has been the head football coach of some team, and for the last 35, for Carson-Newman University where he's been pretty successful. There have been quite literally thousands of articles written about him. While that may seem cool, it's sometimes just not. I want you to know, I've learned a lot about the media. Let me just name two things: 1. Many stories don't get it right,
even the basic facts. 2. Most reporters have an agenda and a preconceived narrative they want to press on the story. The two are usually related.

My dad when I played at CN,
circa 1988. 
It must be nice to be an average person who hasn't experienced being the subject of so much media attention. It must be nice to pick up a newspaper or magazine and read the stories without wondering what the reporter got wrong, or what the agenda is, or how the subjects of the story and their families feel about how they were made to look. But I can't. I'm forever scarred. I'm sure I share these thoughts with any child of any well-known coach, politician, celebrity, or successful person. I have NO desire to be the subject of media attention, and desire to spare my own family from it.
There have been so many times I have been angered when I read the way my dad was wrongly portrayed: the uneducated coach, the clich├ęd Christian, the hypocrite, the simpleton who can't do anything else in the world but coach, or (perhaps worst of all) the win-at-all-costs self-promoter.
A youthful Ken Sparks
circa 1973 on CN's staff
as Offensive Coordinator.
I want to be fair. Perhaps reporters write with these narratives in mind because they've known coaches which are one or more of the above. I've certainly known coaches that belong in each of those categories. Maybe they've become so jaded that they've lost their hope that good people with selfless motives actually exist. Perhaps they've never really met someone who has truly been impacted by Christ. Or maybe they're blinded by their own narcissism and assume everyone else is as they are.

My opinion of journalists in general is also shaped by the fact that I graduated with a Bachelor's in Communication, and classes in media and journalism were a part of my studies. Glenn Cragwall, my broadcasting professor set the bar high for what media professionals should be all about, yet so many fellow students who ended up in some form of journalism failed to practice these principles, and became activists or ideologues disguised as journalists. What's more, I am a sports fan! In my lifetime, I've watched as ESPN and other media power-players corrupt sports from what I perceived as the one of the last apolitical and relatively honest pastimes into a platform for egotistical hero worship, unlimited commercialism, and tool for politically-correct culture formation. The liberal bias and political activism of sports journalists and networks is just sad.

So I am admittedly calloused.

Occasionally I've been called and interviewed by reporters for my thoughts about my dad. I'm always guarded with my comments. I try not to give a reporter too much "peripheral fluff" from which he can cobble together some pithy sentence I didn't really say to support his narrative, but I stay focused and repetitive on what I know to be true and what is hardly ever conveyed in stories about my dad: He coaches for one reason: to bring glory to God and to bring people to Christ. This usually means my comments don't make it into the story. That's ok with me.

I am happy to say there's an exception to reporters/stories that have jaded my perspective.

My dad hardly ever tells me whenever he wins some award or when a big article or story comes out about him in the sports media. In fact, I can't remember a specific time when he has. It is usually someone at church or a friend or someone on Facebook who says, "That's a great article about your dad," or "Did you see that story about your dad on TV?" or "Congrats to your dad on winning the [Greatest Most Winningest Hall of Fame Coach on the Planet Bla Bla] award." This can be a weekly occurrence. It happened yesterday at church. A friend who played college football and a little professionally told me about yet another story. But this one, he said, is different. He sent me the link.

It is different.

I owe the writer, Reid Forgrave of Fox Sports, credit for getting it right. In fact, I feel I owe him an apology. Not just because I pressed on him my own narrative of sports journalists, but because I was probably a little curt with him over the phone, especially at first. You see, about a month ago, Reid called me to interview me about my father and his status of being the winningest living NCAA football coach. I reluctantly took the call. I asked about his agenda and what narrative he was pursuing, while doing what I usually do. He patiently told me he understood, and that he was different. I loosened up a little, but then after hanging up, couldn't help but thinking, "I wonder if he was for real, or if he was just saying that to get more out of me."

Reid, I'm sorry. Your article is accurate. And even more, it is well-written. There need to be more sports journalists like you. Thank you for giving me hope.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

A Devotion in Psalm 119

We're doing something pretty cool at Providence: we're going to focus on Psalm 119 while we're learning about the Bible. Why? Psalm 119 is all about God's written word. It also happens to be the longest chapter in the Bible (Coincidence? Don't think so). It's divided up into 22 stanzas of 8 verses. Interestingly, it is an acrostic. In the Hebrew, each verse of a given stanza begins with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet. So verses 1-8 begin with Aleph (the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet), verses 9-16 with the letter Beth (the second letter), and this pattern continues for all 176 verses. Scholars believe this longest of the Psalms was taught to Jewish children so that they could learn the alphabet--and about the centrality and importance of God's word.
As a church, we're also devotionally meditating on this Psalm each morning. Several leaders of the church are contributing. Today (day 4) it's my turn.

The stanza (Psalm 110:25-32):

25 My soul clings to the dust;
    give me life according to your word!
26 When I told of my ways, you answered me;
    teach me your statutes!
27 Make me understand the way of your precepts,
    and I will meditate on your wondrous works.
28 My soul melts away for sorrow;
    strengthen me according to your word!
29 Put false ways far from me
    and graciously teach me your law!
30 I have chosen the way of faithfulness;
    I set your rules before me.
31 I cling to your testimonies, O Lord;
    let me not be put to shame!
32 I will run in the way of your commandments
    when you enlarge my heart!


Today’s stanza in Psalm 119 has a different tone than what we’ve seen thus far. You can hear it from the very the beginning (v.25):

My soul clings to the dust;
    give me life according to your word!

If it sounds to you like someone who is desperate, you’re right. Verse 28 continues the theme:

My soul melts away for sorrow;
    strengthen me according to your word!

The writer is obviously experiencing some sort of hardship or period of deep sadness or grief. 

Have you been there? 

It worries me that in some Christian circles, going through a period of difficulty or sorrow can be looked down upon, as if a truly spiritual person should never experience trouble. If that’s the case, I’m not very spiritual. There are times when I can get discouraged. I totally know what the psalmist means by his soul clinging to the dust or melting away! That’s how it feels! Am I weak spiritually if I sometimes feel this way? Does that make me a failure?


That’s something I love about the Bible. There are so many examples of real people who have real struggles. There are lots of people struggling through different types of pain, frustration, and melancholy. Some of these are among the greatest saints in the hall of faith!

In fact, Jesus wasn’t always smiling. He had times of human sadness. He wept. In Isaiah 53:3 it says of him:

He was despised and rejected by men; 
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; 
and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, 
and we esteemed him not.

It is not a sin to be sorrowful, neither is it a sign of spiritual immaturity. The telling thing is HOW we respond to these very human emotions. That’s the beautiful thing demonstrated for us in Psalm 119. The writer finds his comfort in God’s word, and pleads with God to deepen his knowledge of it.

26…teach me your statutes!
27…I will meditate on your wondrous works.
28…strengthen me according to your word!
29…graciously teach me your law!
31I cling to your testimonies, O Lord;
    let me not be put to shame!
32I will run in the way of your commandments…

Wow. There’s my lesson. 

When I feel down, when my world isn’t making any sense, or when I’m falling apart—it should drive me toward God’s word.

Because that’s where God is.

[This is where I had to end the devotional that was sent out to the church due to length. But God was not done teaching me from this stanza in Psalm 119. There was more.]

The last verse is curious at first glance (v.32):

I will run in the way of your commandments
    when you enlarge my heart!

I was with a close friend last night discussing this Psalm. He's going through a very hard time in his life right now. Those words, "when you enlarge my heart" stood out to him, and we discussed it. Interesting thought, really. It seems to read that after God enlarges the psalmist's heart, that's when he will be obedient. But it's more than that. The Hebrew use of "heart" is a little different than the English (or Greek, for that matter) usage commonly referring to passion or love. It is more often a metaphor for one's core being, one's character. So instead of a "I love you with all my heart" kind-of-meaning, it has a "a man after God's own heart" connotation—an enlargement of character, an improvement in one's core being.

I think the psalmist is recognizing a very important truth. 

When trials come and we respond to them by running to God by finding answers and comfort in his word, our character is enlarged and our core being is improved. In other words, we grow significantly in spiritual maturity. This, in turn, causes us to "run" (as opposed to walking) "in the way" (the road, the trail, the path) of God's "commandments" (God's will for us). 

My youngest child is about to get her driver's license. As with all my kids, learning to drive was an adventure! When she turned 15 and got her learner's permit, we began in abandoned parking lots and worked our way up to busier and more challenging driving experiences. She started, as everyone does, going very slowly and swerving all over the place while both hands gripped the wheel with white knuckles, over-correcting her route by lunging back and forth. But when she grew in experience and through failure, her confidence grew. Staying on the correct path became second nature. She was able to do this through persistence and with the guidance of her father, who offered words of experience and advice (and sometimes screams of panic—but that doesn't fit my analogy!). This is life. Trials make us better as we walk through them with God and his word. It enables us to run with confidence—in obedience.

James says,

2Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. ...12Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. 

So the next time you have a bad day, don’t push away from God. Pray that you will draw close to find help and healing in his arms. You will find him where he speaks—in his word. And pray that he will grow your character as a result. 

Monday, August 24, 2015

Providence Church and The Bible

Our church began 22 years ago because Knoxville needed a church that was committed to the Bible AND committed to engaging the culture. That was it! That’s what Lance Robinson and I discussed in the early 90s while we were attending Seminary in Wake Forest, NC. In fact, our friendship began a few years earlier because we attended a college with religion professors who taught that the Bible had errors. This was shocking to us! Struggling against the indoctrination of these professors caused us to search out the truth regarding the Bible's claims. Was it really reliable? We both came to the conclusion that it was. Thankfully, seminary was a different kind of experience. We had professors who had a high regard for the Scriptures. Lance graduated before I did and had the courage to risk everything to start a church with that two-fold dream (I, on the other hand, briefly pastored two established churches before taking the risk). It's important to understand that Providence began before church planting was cool! Lance was able to gather together a small group committed to the idea and a support church, and through a providential series of events (pun intended), the church had to launch out on its own, really before it was ready. Three years in, when the church was a little larger (about 25 adults) I came (not the best career move) because of that original vision. I wanted to be a part of a church committed to the Bible AND engaging the culture to make disciples of people who are not yet Christians. I believed a church like that could change the world. I still do.
A young Lance & Chad
circa 1999. 

After a sluggish start, Providence shifted strategy to do both better. We all-but-abandoned the popular “topical” or “felt needs” style teaching to go verse-by-verse through whole books of the Bible. We also stopped advertising on Christian radio and made other changes (dropped denominational affiliation, changed music, dress, language, etc.) in order to form the culture of the church to truly reach those who had never been in church. This is harder than you might think! Churched people are generally better givers and aren't as messy! This, too, was a risk. There were times when we had to say "goodbye" to people who wanted us to cater to the churched. 

You may be asking, "Aren't there a lot of churches that do both of these things (high regard for the Bible AND engage the culture to reach unbelievers)?" Unfortunately, not as many as you might think. There is always a strong gravitational pull to move toward one or the other. There are many churches (at least, in Knoxville) that are strong on Scripture. Most struggle to have a culture-engaging culture. There are also those who are culturally engaging. But many of these tend to compromise regarding doctrine and strong Bible teaching. There are some besides us who do both, of course. But not enough! And there were even fewer then!
By insisting on both and making these adjustments early on (and because of God's grace), we grew, and through a providential set of circumstances (yes, pun), when we moved into our current building in 2002, we suddenly grew from 180 to 500 people. This was alarming! We were worried that we were becoming a "the place to be" kind of church where people came for perhaps the wrong reasons. So the elders spent about 6 months to determine our Core Values. As we prayed and discussed, the conviction that the Bible is our absolute authority was most obviously our primary value. All our doctrines come from the Bible, our mission, our discipleship process, our teaching strategy, and the rest of our values spring from this. There was an elder that disagreed, who ended up leaving Providence. This was difficult, but looking back it was a formative test of our commitment to God's Word. We presented these Core Values to the congregation, which unanimously approved them.

In 2010 the Elders carefully considered and revised our statement of belief on the Bible. The church voted unanimously on this: The Bible, comprised of the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments, is God’s very Word to us. It was written by human authors under the divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It is the supreme source of truth and authority for Christian beliefs and living. Because it is inspired by God, it is inerrant in the original writings and is the infallible truth in all matters it touches. The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.

There’s a lot there. And it’s going to take us 7 weeks to unpack it and more!

Getting the Facts Right about the Bible

We just started a series entitled, "REVEALED: The Book of God." Everything we believe about God, life (our origins, how we live, and where we are going), how to do church, and everything else comes from the Bible. How do we know it is from God? Who actually wrote it? Who decided what books made the cut? How do we know more (or less) shouldn't be included? Which translation is best? And how do I know how the way I understand it is the right interpretation? We will delve into all these questions and more!

So in the series where we’re talking about a book that claims to be true, it is especially important that what I say about it is true. 
In the message yesterday, I said (among many other facts about the Bible's uniqueness among all other human written documents), “The first book every printed on the printing press was the Bible. Gutenberg, who invented the printing press, first printed the Latin Vulgate—the Latin translation of the Bible.” I’ve heard this little factoid all my adult life, and I confirmed this information from several sources, including Evidence that Demands a Verdict by Josh McDowell (Thomas Nelson, 1992, vol. 1, p.18).
It was brought to my attention this morning that this is not correct! According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the “Gutenberg Bible [is] the first complete book extant in the West and the earliest printed from movable type“ (Article: Gutenberg Bible). Apparently, an earlier form of the printing press was invented in China. 
Again from the Encyclopedia Britannica, “Although movable type, as well as paper, first appeared in China, it was in Europe that printing first became mechanized. The earliest mention of a printing press is in a lawsuit in Strasbourg in 1439 revealing construction of a press for Johannes Gutenberg and his associates.” (Article: Printing Press).
So, as a correction, let me say: 
“The Bible was the first major book printed on a mechanized, movable type press.” 
Thanks to those who brought this to my attention! 

What's much more important is that since the Bible was printed, it has remained the most printed, widely circulated, and translated book in human history. Even more: no book has had a greater influence on the world. And I pray that this influence will increase. 

That's why we're taking a few weeks and instead of STUDYING the Bible, we're going to study ABOUT the Bible.