From the Rev: What I Am Not
A man may be of value to another man, not because he wishes to be important, not because he possesses some inner wealth of soul, nor because of something he is, but because of what he is – not. His importance may consist in his poverty, in his hopes and fears, in his waiting and hurrying, in the direction of his whole being toward what lies beyond his horizon and beyond his power. The importance of being an apostle is negative rather than positive. In him a void becomes visible. And for this reason he is something to others: he is able to share grace with them, to focus their attention, and to establish them in waiting and in adoration.
– Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans
I have to confess that recently I have found myself in a bit of conundrum. I have long wrestled with my role as chaplain to a professional sports team. Sometimes, I ask, “Why me?” I have no collegiate athletic experience. I have no professional experience as an athlete or coach. My tenure as a youth soccer coach was short-lived and largely unsuccessful (just ask the parents of the U-11 team I coached). I don’t come from a major urban city center and I didn’t attend a Division-I college. I don’t dress cool or have that hipster look that would make me fit in around the locker room. So, why me? It’s a question I often ask God.
The other question that I have wrestled with from time to time is, “What should I be about?” or to put it another way, “What should my ministry, my service look like?” There is the temptation to somehow be like the upcoming leaders within the American evangelical church – they are strong leaders, millennials bent on bringing change, searching for authenticity and yet, developing cult-like followings with machines like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. It can be hard work for a chaplain in these days to minister in personal ways when there are larger-than-life figures who are very accessible through the various multi/mass media outlets.
While many in Christian service and ministry are curiously billing themselves and selling what they are; I believe that there is a beauty and simplicity into the chaplain who understands what they are not and, as Karl Barth (above) notes – the import of one’s life and ministry may be more in what is visibly missing from one’s life, rather than what a person possesses. Thus, today, I reflect on what I am not.
What I Am Not: An Athlete
I have reflected before on the role of the chaplain over and against the people that we serve. There are some in the Christian and sports ministry world that believe that the best kind of people to have in the locker room serving a team as chaplain is an athlete who has been there before. I will admit working in a professional sports environment does necessitate a certain level of locker room acumen and appropriateness – but sometimes a former athlete in and around other athletes, if they haven’t had good training will just be “another one of the boys” or forget the real reason that he/she is there – to serve. The temptation can be too great to want to “play” again or boast of one’s own tales of accomplishment. Maybe because I am not an athlete, it makes me more “normal” or at least “different” where every waking moment doesn’t have to be a conversation centered around sport. Do you think that might be appealing to those in professional sport who sleep, eat, live, and breathe sports?
What I Am Not: Wealthy
The truth is that I am a minister, a pastor – my vocational calling and choice might have some acknowledging, “Yep, he’s not in it for the money.” And, that is true. In some ways it feels like I am currently on the higher-end of the ministerial salary spectrum – working for a mega-church, I am blessed to earn a decent wage. But I don’t have aspirations of earning more and more income every year. Maybe because I am not wealthy, it makes me more content with what I have. Do you think that might be appealing to those in professional sports who are concerned about making as much money as they possibly can in the limited time-span of a career?
What I Am Not: Worldly
Well, this might be related to the fact that I am not wealthy or it might be more the Scottish side of me – but I have little concern for many of the things of this world. Sure, a nicer, newer car has its appeal and gleam. And I enjoy some of the newer, more spacious homes that my family and I sometimes get invited into. I might like to have a larger TV with a better choice of cable and satellite viewing. But, for me, the lure of “more” or “new” isn’t exactly a big-driver for me. I appreciate functionality and simplicity. I enjoy sometimes living on bare necessity. Maybe because I am not worldly and I don’t pursue earthly things, it makes me more spiritually and heavenly inclined. Do you think that might be appealing to those in professional sports who often accumulate more and more in search of significance and meaning?
What I Am Not: Performance Driven
Many of the athletes and coaches and executives that I work with in professional sport are enslaved to performance-oriented results. Some may say, “rightfully so – it would be that way in any business.” I am not saying that results aren’t important – they are a testament and affirmation to our work – to things like our ethic and our calling. However, there is often an unhealthy bent upon results and performance. So much so that it has even infiltrated how we “do church” here in the West. The emphasis can be summed in the mantra – bigger, better, faster, stronger – and the late, great Mars Hill mega-church is the latest victim to the Christian performance drive. Maybe because I am not performance driven it makes me more laid back in my approach and less demanding of the person behind the fragile veneer. Do you think that might be appealing to those in professional sports who are often aggressively pursued (from mainstream media and fans all the way to ownership and agents) to produce results and wins and success?
What I Am Not: Independent
No matter what glowing words an athlete might have to say about “team” or “teamwork” – to be a professional athlete takes a certain measure of confidence. Athletes often work very hard at developing the emotional and mental aptitude to handle the rigors of professional sports life. This often leads to a developing sense of independence or believe in one’s own strengths and abilities especially coupled with the isolating nature of pro sports. It is a challenging lesson for me to learn, but I am continually confronted with the fact that I cannot do this (life, etc.) on my own. I am ultimately dependent upon God and I am dependent upon others – whether to do this ministry or to parent my children or to rightly love my wife. Maybe because I am not independent and I don’t hide my vulnerability and dependence upon God and others there is something appealing to those in professional sports.
What I Am Not vs. What I Am
This is in no way an exhaustive list of what I am not and I feel that there is only a surface scratch in terms of my own reflection and understanding, but this is perhaps a helpful exercise for us to consider. How do people experience us? Are they more interest in what we are? or in what we are not? Are there places in your life where the void speaks more loudly than the thing that you might possess? I know that many people often comment on seeing the peaceful, steadiness in Christian brothers and sisters. Of course, what they are seeing is the lack of distress and anger and worry.
What I Am Not vs. What Jesus Is
The old, old words of John the Baptist come to mind (John 3:30):
He must increase, but I must decrease
The followers of the John the Baptist were concerned because Jesus’ popularity and ministry were growing in Israel at the cost of John’s ministry. His disciples were wondering what ought to be done with this ‘competitor’ but John rightly identified that Jesus needed to “increase.” John knew that he was not the Messiah, the Promised One of Israel. John knew that while he might be able to bring a message of repentance to the nation of Israel that there was one message that he could not deliver on – that was a message of salvation. Only Jesus could bring salvation.
As a chaplain, I must trust what I am not will always be more appropriately filled by what Jesus is. I cannot “save” people. I am not able to heal people’s wounds of the heart. I am not able to redeem or restore people’s losses or pain. Christ alone can do these things. Christ alone can fill the void. Christ alone can bring the un-understandable peace. We must continue to live in the place where we are okay with what we are not being a part of what is most important to the people we serve and to this world – for this is the space where God can show up most mightily.
Rev. Brad Kenney