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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Why "All are Welcome" is Hurting the Church

I see it on nearly every church sign, every church mailing; on the inside fold of every bulletin:
All Are Welcome!

Worship at 9 a.m. Sunday, All Are Welcome!

Bible Study at 7 p.m. Wednesday, All Are Welcome!

Potluck Dinner at 5 p.m. Saturday, All Are Welcome!

Vacation Bible School 9 a.m. Monday - Friday, All Are Welcome!

As the Pastor of a Lutheran congregation outside Chicago, I find myself tagging it on - almost thoughtlessly - to our invitation cards and mailings as well.

It's almost an auto-signature for churches today: All Are Welcome!

And the impulse is a good one. For centuries the church has been exclusive rather than inclusive, despite Jesus' desire to the contrary. We have excluded women, black folks, immigrants, gays and lesbians, people with special needs, senior citizens, single folks, 20-somethings -- at times the church has been downright discriminatory.

I remember all-too-well the heartbreaking tale told to me by a friend of mine. A devoted Christian and professional musician, my friend was desperate to find a church where he could not only worship but perhaps join the choir and get involved with music ministry. He brought his friend, another professional musician, to check out area churches.

They found one they liked and were surprised when the minister asked them into his office. Ascertaining that they were both, indeed, gay - the minister said: "Well, you can attend. But just sit in the back row."

Thanks be to God - my friend didn't give up his search nor lose his faith. He has since found an affirming congregation and leads incredible music there.

But too many of us have these stories. The congregation that saw single folks as irrelevant. The congregation that scorned Spanish-speaking immigrants. The place that found people with special needs disruptive.

Fortunately, churches became aware of these problems and the way they contradicted the primary, freeing message of the Gospel: that all may be one in Christ Jesus, and that there is no longer Gentile or Jew, man or woman, black or white, slave or free, gay or straight, rich or poor ... (from Galatians 3:28).

As a needed corrective to become inclusive rather than exclusive, churches have hit upon a simple formula. It goes something like this: "Let's add ALL ARE WELCOME to everything we publish. Let's make WELCOME the center of what we do."

The plan worked. Now, in churches across America - that three-word slogan reigns supreme. More than Praise the Lord or He is Risen - All Are Welcome is No. 1 in "church-speak" today.

Here's what I think, though. The plan didn't work. Saying: All Are Welcome may reflect a genuine, well-meaning desire to reflect inclusivity. But in reality, this slogan seems to have lost its meaning. Here's why I've found it's hurting the church.

1) Too often, All aren't Welcome after all

If a church says: All are Welcome - it has to practice what it preaches. Too often, we don't. We say All Are Welcome, but we don't at all plan for anyone new actually coming. Our bulletins say: All Are Welcome, but we don't introduce ourselves to new folks. We stare at them uncomfortably when they sit in "our pew." We don't explain how to do communion or what it means to Pass the Peace. We stare at those who are different than us or simply new. We create hoops for outsiders to jump through without even realizing what we're doing: all stand at this time; everyone magically know where to find coffee after service; avoid passing the plate to the new person.

When we say All Are Welcome - but then act as if only insiders are really welcome, we're perpetuating the church's unfortunate reputation for hypocrisy.

2) All Are Welcome: Including Bullies

There is one sense in which the church is called to be exclusive rather than inclusive. Paul writes extensively about the importance of maintaining the Body of Christ, which refers to the Christian community - or the church - here on earth.

The writer of Ephesians calls early Christians to transformed lives: "you must no longer live as the Gentiles live ... they have lost all sensitivity and abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity ... you were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self ... to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness."

We're called to be transformed. To live in community, in humility, in kindness - and that our churches might reflect those same attributes of changed lives, which are only possible with the promise of life after death.

Churches then have a prerogative to embrace a unique community - one that is shaped by the Gospel message of Jesus and not the fear and competitiveness which is shaped by the ethic of the world.

Too often - All Are Welcome has meant that churches have scorned their Jesus-given imperative to maintain the body and to reprimand and lead to repentance all individuals in the community, including those who have let gossip and bitterness divide the body of Christ and hurt those in its midst.

All Are Welcome in some church bodies has meant that pedophile and abusive priests and pastors have been allowed to shuttle from one congregation to another, without being reprimanded and called to task for their actions against the Gospel and against the Body of Christ.

All Are Welcome in some churches has meant that for decades a small cadre of bullies has been allowed to dictate the tone and timbre of the congregation. These bullies will create a closed society of insiders vs outsiders, and they will run out any Pastor or church leader who attempts to refocus and reopen the church to the freedom of the Gospel. All Are Welcome has meant instead of following God's leadership through prayer and discernment, oligarchies have formed around individual church leaders, who prefer tight holds on power to openness and growth.

Because All Are Welcome, Pastors and lay leaders are afraid to confront these church bullies or to reprimand them for the damage they've done to the church body. But in this case, welcoming these bullies who would hold the church hostage means that really no outsiders are actually welcome at all.

Maintaining an inclusive church means having a clear understanding of standards for the community. Of course forgiveness and mercy are paramount within the body of Christ. However, forgiveness and new life hinge on real repentance and desire for change.

3) All Are Welcome: And No One's Needs are Met

In modern churches' desire to be inclusive to all, many have become poor imitations of Wal-Mart or Target: attempting to appeal to all people at the lowest common denominator.

The truth is though - no church is grand enough to be the right church for every single person. Churches are encouraged to seek their particular place in the broader body, or community, of Christ. The body of Christ does not need 400 million self-sustaining organs but instead needs 400 million uniquely placed organs that meet particular needs: feet, hands, and eyes are all needed - though none functions on its own, the body needs them all. Churches, like Christians, are encouraged to discern their spiritual gifts and how these gifts might serve the needs of the community.

A church located near a large population of Spanish-speakers might be well-served by hosting a service in Spanish, with music and traditions appropriate to the surrounding community, and led by those from the community.

A church located in an area with a high percentage of German and Scandinavian retirees might be well-served by holding a traditional and liturgical Lutheran service, with hymns and an organ.

A church located near a large population of young professionals and working families might be well-served by creating a preschool or day-care center.

But the church in the neighborhood with lots of retirees probably isn't best-served by creating a preschool.

Nor is the church in the neighborhood with young professionals best-served by holding lots of activities during the day, or lots of activities without available child care.

Churches - like individuals - are called to know themselves: their strengths and weaknesses, and discern a clear and specific mission to where Jesus is calling them to act and witness in their individual neighborhoods. Yes, compromise to serve a variety of populations will be needed, but too often All Are Welcome has caused churches to become unsuccessful generalists, attempting to please everyone and pleasing no one in the process.

Churches have become afraid of bold action or commitment based on particular mission to one group of people. And there is a sense in many churches that the only group they should seek out for membership is young families - neglecting in the process college students, single adults, retirees, widows and widowers, etc. Many times churches actually do have in mind a particular subset of people with whom they'd like repopulate their congregation. Many times this particular subset looks an awful lot like the current membership of the church, albeit 20-30 years ago. Often, though, neighborhoods and needs have changed. And a vital ministry: perhaps to immigrant workers, to retired folks, to single adults - is forgotten in light of chasing the ever-elusive "young families."

To have a particular mission and goal does not mean neglecting All Aren't Welcome, but it does mean doing the hard work of discernment, prayer, fasting, spiritual discipline -- making tough choices -- to attempt to see the path where God is leading the Church.

Saying All Are Welcome is easy. What's difficult is 
1) really being inclusive and making churches friendly and navigable by all sorts of people, confronting hidden biases and prejudices

2) Confronting bullies in churches and calling brothers and sisters out in repentance, so that power is put back into the hands of God and called and elected leaders in the church

3) Discerning God's particular mission for your community and developing a specific plan to carry out that mission, even if it means neglecting the needs of other groups

In the church - and at the wedding feast of God's coming kingdom - all really are welcome. But for too long churches have paid lip service to saying: All Are Welcome without doing the hard work of inclusivity, accountability and discernment. For the American church to really begin to resemble that welcoming wedding feast that Jesus tells about in Matthew 22, we've got some hard work to do. "For many are called, but few are chosen." (Matthew 22:14) And of course, many we invite will never come.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Hey Millennials, don't quit - take a break and re-commit

If you're a Baby Boomer reading this article, you might be thinking: Why is she telling millennials not to quit their jobs? Most of them don't even have jobs. One of them is sleeping on my couch at this very moment.

See, these are the kind of biases us millennials have to put up with all the time: I'm 29 in case you were wondering.

Like any other generation in history, millennials are diverse: from wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg to your neighbor's son who has to be reminded to rinse off his dinner dishes at age 25.

This week, attending a church conference about Making Room for Millennials, I heard that 91 percent of millennials plan to change jobs in less than three years - the implication being, of course, if they can't even stick with a job - how do we expect them to stick with our churches?

Attending a church conference about millennials as a millennial pastor was sort of like inviting a teenager to a conference about why teenagers don't listen to their parents. When I heard the statistic about job changing I looked over at my friend, Matt. We smiled.

The stat was nothing new. For years we'd heard the Pastor Protocol: three years in a first call.

There was no logic or data to it, of course. Some pastors stay 33 years and others nine months. The gift of call and fit and the wiles of the Holy Spirit don't always obey guidelines. Yet the mythical number stuck in our heads, and as we found ourselves wondering how to make room for commitment to a church by a generation who has resisted the church and resisted commitment - and as we saw in ourselves that same resistance to status quo church and commitment to a church, I wondered what Jesus might have to say in the midst of it all.

He didn't answer me right away, but the question stuck with me the next day as I listened to a seasoned pastor - an expert in transition of pastoral leadership - tell a room full of Baby Boomer and Millennial preachers that he was convinced his church didn't really trust him until about year 7 or 8 -- that the process of leadership and change was a slow, diligent one.

We'd heard it said before, but we also came into congregations full of anxiety - our own and theirs. Budgets that had been bleeding red for decades and members who were dying. Buildings in states of disrepair. A whole generation of our peers who needed to come to church now or - or else ...

The church was dying - the Church is Dying! We'd heard it in seminary and in sermons - in the newspaper and on TV. We didn't have eight years - we didn't have one year. We could feel their anxiety as we came in and we could feel our own, too, heaped on our backs with tens of thousands of student loans and the prospect of no health insurance.

Two days of conferences - data - inspiration - excitement - anxiety. A millennial pastor at the age of 29 who bucked the trends and even got married and had a baby and bought a house - you'd think I'd feel content but instead I felt that same old restless itch that has become characteristic of my generation.

Why do millennials have trouble settling down? Quitting jobs? Waiting to get married? Committing to a church?

                We sense limitless opportunity.

                Growing up as the Internet grew with us gave us a sense of unlimited possibilities. We wanted to see the Great Wall of China? Click on Google Earth! Want to apply to Duke, Harvard, and Princeton in 35 minutes? Use the online Common Application. Meet a friend in Stockholm? Book a flight to Timbuktu? Find the answer to just about any question you have?

                 As we've graduated high school and college and entered the working world, we still have that sense of limitless opportunity - even in a climate of sometimes-scarce job prospects. There's the Peace Corps or Teach for America: just apply online. My husband, a mechanical engineer, gets several messages from recruiters every single day. As most millennials know, our sense of opportunity doesn't equal real job prospects. Most of the recruiters who contact my husband give him leads for jobs that don't at all fit his experience or education. But the Internet gives us a sense that we could always be doing something else. We've seen the Wide World - and we sense that we could grasp it, if only we make the right choices of the seemingly limitless opportunities before us.

             Nobody gets promoted or raises anymore.

              When's the last time you heard of a millennial friend or relative getting a raise or a promotion in their current job, excluding a new degree or new job? Almost never, right? Employers rarely give raises anymore, outside perhaps a standard cost-of-living adjustment. If we want a new opportunity, we're told we need a new degree or certification. Most often - we have to switch jobs. Job hopping is often the only way for us to move ahead. I know friends who are waiting a backlog of managers or supervisors who (might) retire in 5-10 years. The choice is clear: wait out a long retirement or force their hand by getting a different job. This is by no means only true in the secular world. Pastors have been hearing for decades about the wave of Baby Boomer retirement that will open up calls in churches across the country. Mostly, we're still waiting.

             My husband, the engineer - you know, that recession-proof field - got his first significant raise and promotion last year. He got it because he had been made a similar offer at another firm, so his company matched it to keep him. But even stories of raises and promotions like that are rare among millennials.

             Social Media doesn't allow us to take a break, so we become frenetic.

             Here is I think one of the biggest unknown reasons for millennials' struggle to commit: to work, to relationships, to religion. Committing means stopping: being where you are in the moment even if sometimes it hurts. In a narcissistic world of constantly publicizing our lives - see: selfie culture - we're afraid of being left behind when we commit. We won't have anything new to share.

              I'm almost 30 now, so I can almost sort of see outside myself and realize what I'm doing - instead of the blind flight from one passion to the next that sometimes overtook my 20s - and I can see in myself when that restless itch comes over me, and I know it's partly from Facebook.

             Sometimes, fellow millennials and millennial pastors - your first job or your first call is not particularly photogenic all the time. Sometimes what you're doing is not selfie-worthy or performance-worthy but sometimes it's worthy nonetheless.

           Being together - making a commitment to trust one another and listening in the quiet is perhaps not worthy of a status update. I would not tweet to my followers: I've decided to keep doing what I'm doing! But maybe sometimes we should, to show each other that it's OK to decide to stay: to commit, to a job, to a relationship, to a church - even if it's not perfect.

                 It's OK to take breaks, too. There are seasons of change and activity and seasons of patience and preparation. Ecclesiastes 3 says that for everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die; a time to kill and a time to heal; a time for war and a time for peace. A time to go and a time to stay. Sometimes what we need is not a major life change: an application to Teach for America; raising chickens; brewing beer - sometimes what we need is not to Go but to Stop.

 Jesus knew that breaks - perhaps not worthy of a sermon soundbite or placed on a Bible bumper sticker - were nonetheless essential to his ministry. He had to retreat or he could not continue his mission, and he knew his mission and he was committed to it. We millennials are so devoted, so focused on determining our mission that sometimes when it finds us we have trouble committing to it because we don't know how to take breaks. We're finally there: the mission is upon us - and we don't know how to stop searching.

Jesus often bids me forward but today I feel him telling me, telling you, to stop.

He keeps pointing me to this verse and I read it anew today as I seek my own stopping place of refuge: "... for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls," (Matthew 11:29b).

 Jesus, as Augustine once suspected, is the only complete source of respite in our world - for only a man and a God who would die and rise again is complete and humble and awe-inspiring enough to eclipse all our worry and our death-defying pursuit of the seemingly endless opportunities. And so us millennials desperately need churches, where we can commit and are nourished and become a deep and true part of the fabric of the community, by stopping and staying and even taking breaks. Our drive and desire is needed in corporations and congregations across the country: not just as a flash in the pan year-long employee or occasional joiner for Christmas Eve services - but as an integral, long-term, committed part of the culture. We're tempted to leave but it is in staying - in learning to take breaks and then recommit even more strongly - that we will most permanently change the world, and the Church, for the future Jesus has prepared for us.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Function of Sadness and a Jesus who Weeps

Two years ago, almost to the day, my son Jacob was born.

He came into the world with his fists clenched and his mouth open wide, bellowing louder than seemed possible for a 7-pound, 11-ounce newborn baby.

Lying down in the hospital, I remember at that instant what immense relief I felt when I heard his cries. Until I heard those cries I had never quite allowed myself to believe that all was OK. Those were the happiest cries I'd ever heard.

Of course that didn't last long.

Like most parents, I would from that instant go on to a lifetime of attempting to ensure that Jacob never had anything to cry about again. Happy children - not smart, not wealthy, not athletic, not beautiful - but happy children, are the Holy Grail.

Be happy, be happy, be happy! the world screams. Buy these yoga pants and say Namaste. Juice. Drive this car. Take antidepressants. Smile! And when you do, make sure your wrinkles are smooth and your teeth are white.

Commercials filled with sulking faces are replaced in an instant, with a cold beer and a juicy hamburger; whitewater rafting and ballroom dancing - and a flash to people smiling and slapping each other on the back.

Tears are hidden. It is a shame to be sad.

We shun the sadness among us because we know its side effects. Depression, isolation, addiction, suicide, obesity, anorexia. Yet sadness itself does not cause depression, isolation, addiction, suicide, obesity, anorexia -- rather it is our inability to healthfully deal with and go through and share sadness that makes our modern society so susceptible to these silent killers.

I have been deeply sad in my life, and at times I have slipped into situational depression. 

I have felt the weight of sadness. The death of a family member. The end of a relationship. The loss of a job. A major health scare. Betrayal. Fear.

In these moments I have felt not only sadness but shame for my tears. It is embarrassing to be sad. 

So in the shame and isolation our sadness grows and blossoms. It slows down our movements to a crawl, inching out of bed, listening to that same song on repeat, eating nothing all day and then an entire bag of chips at night.

Sadness has been put into the closet. And in this closet of fear and isolation: depression, addiction, suicide, obesity, anorexia, self-doubt -- they grow to become insurmountable and life seems impossible.

It wasn't always this way. For Jesus, sadness was a necessary part of life and even of salvation. People were sad together, and out of that shared sadness - new life began, even out of death.

In Mark, chapter 5, Jesus is summoned to the bedside of Jairus' daughter, who has died. When he comes to Jairus' home, he sees "a commotion of people weeping and wailing loudly."

In John, chapter 11, Jesus goes to visit Mary and Martha after the death of their brother, Lazarus. Many friends and neighbors had already come to their home before Jesus to mourn with Mary and Martha. They even followed Mary to the tomb, to accompany her as she wept. As they walked on, they were weeping with her. Jesus was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. Soon, he began to weep.

Mary's friends didn't surround her and say: Don't cry, Mary. Be happy! Everything happens for a reason! 

Jesus' mother didn't follow him, begging: "Don't cry! I want you to be happy."

Despite his status as Savior of the world and God Incarnate, for most of his life Jesus was not a particularly happy man. He had moments of joy: in the temple as a young boy; in his friendships; on his baptism day in the Jordan River as his Father blessed him.

But the Bible never says Jesus was happy. It never says Jesus smiled, even. No, instead we are granted a portrait of a God who weeps.

On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus wept so hard his tears became tears of blood. He was in great anguish as he prayed alone. Then an angel came to give him strength, and Jesus went to go and wake his friends.

Somehow, the Bible seems to say, we are not meant to hide our tears - but in crying together, in reaching out and sharing our tears, sadness finds its function.

Sadness creates empathy and real relationship. It is through the pain and sadness of betrayal and death on the Cross that God is forever changed in relationship to human beings. In Jesus God experiences the depth of human sadness, and as a result God understands forever how we feel, how death feels - and God decides by God's plan to forever save the world from death by the gift of eternal life.

If I have never felt sadness I can never share in full relationship with my brother or my sister who is sad. But when we have known sadness together, we are confident we can defeat it together. Through the presence of my brother or sister in the midst of my sadness, I can see beyond the closet doors of sadness into the future of a redeemed life in a world touched by the presence of Jesus.

As a ninth grader I read Brave New World, about a utopian society where no one feels pain, anxiety or sadness - and a savage named John who chooses to feel and die rather than live in a superficial world of "happiness."

At the time John was my hero and there was no question what I'd choose. "I claim the right to be unhappy!" I shouted with the tragic hero.

As a 29-year-old wife, mother, and pastor - sometimes the artificial ease of soma sounds somewhat more appealing. Life's burdens are too heavy to carry alone. But rather than squeezing our eyes tight and trying to pretend our burdens don't exist, perhaps we're meant to share the load.

When I cry, Jesus does not say: "Don't cry. Please be happy."

He says: "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls."

Thursday, October 2, 2014

These Royals Make You Believe in God

Big Game James sat on the bench in the dugout. He hadn't taken his glove off yet because he was trying to pretend it wasn't real - that manager Ned Yost hadn't taken him out of the game at the biggest moment of his life, winning 3-2 against the Oakland Athletics in the first postseason appearance for the Kansas City Royals since Color TV was a coup in motel rooms, and phones were attached to cords.

Twenty-nine long, aching years - and now the Ace was on the bench, watching rookie Yordano Ventura, in just his second career relief appearance, give up a 3-run homer to A's designated hitter Brandon Moss. Two more runs would score before the disastrous inning was over, and James Shields just kept staring at his hand, wondering how the dream had died so easily and without him in it.

He had led this team all year: 14 wins and a 3.21 ERA that made Kansas City a contender in a league that long ago had written off the Royals as rejects.

Wal-Mart executive David Glass brought a "save money" philosophy to Royals baseball, but the Royals weren't "living better." Kansas City hadn't had a winning season in a decade when they finally burst out in 2013, rallying despite Glass, a paltry payroll, and second-tier status in a league where cash is king.

Cash was king, and as the Dodgers and the Yankees and the Red Sox and the Tigers shelled out tens of millions for marquee free agents, the Royals kept building their farm system and rushing players to the big leagues too soon, watching prospect after prospect either bust or leave for greener pastures when they finally matured.

Royals. The name itself became a mockery, the crowns at the K overlooking a shadowy downtown with no mass transit system and few skyscrapers, a Midwestern cow town with a newly built arena where no NBA team would come to play.

They got their name not from royalty but from a Kansas City livestock show that started in 1899. Royals, rising from manure and hay and cud. Somehow it was fitting.

Baseball fans around the country didn't even know what state the Royals played in, or where Kansas City was.

"Oh I like Kansas," said many a well-meaning American, hearing of a pending trip to Kansas City, Missouri.

As playoff hopes started to become real again in 2014, behind an impenetrable bullpen, the Ace Shields, and clever, improbable baserunning - the Royals took on a new anthem, a new slogan. The song, written by New Zealand teenager Lorde, was inspired by Lorde's viewing of a photo of George Brett. The lyrics could have been more optimistic, but again somehow they fit a team full of heart that was winning against all odds:

I'm not proud of my address ... in a torn-up town ... no postcard envy
And we'll never be royals ...

We'll never be Royals. The song blared over the sound system at the K and even though they were the Royals somehow it made sense because they never would be Royals, like the Yankees or Dodgers. They didn't have the cash, the clout, the history, the famous fans and luxury boxes for the stars. 

They had barbecue: brisket smoked in basements on 18th and Vine, cooking skills honed by African Americans who took the trials of slavery and segregation and gave America barbecue, jazz, and a rich soul. Kansas City has a barbecue soul within, a tangy sweet flavor that's better cooked slow, hidden beneath two innocent-looking pieces of cheap white bread, served by a surly line cook: Can I help you? Hey, can I help you!?

We'll never be royals.
We crave a different kind of buzz.

It was a different kind of buzz all right, when a boneheaded call by Yost decided to attempt a double steal with lightning steed Billy Butler playing Pickle in the Middle with a man on third in the American League Wild Card game.

Butler flubbed the play, first baseman Eric Hosmer got tagged out at home to end the inning, and as Oakland scored its runs in pristine fashion, with two home runs by Moss and textbook hitting and baserunning, the Royals scrapped hits, bunts, wild pitches, and base stealing together like a homecoming dress made of duct tape worn by a homecoming queen who took her tractor to the school dance.

Royals catcher Salvador Perez was ugliest of all, chasing pitches in the dirt, a foot outside, contorting his bat in the air like an old man trying to swat a fly. Royals legend George Brett had tried to get Perez to take a pitch every once in awhile, but he was like an overeager puppy - so sweet was his desire that even in a Major League game that was all about business, you couldn't help but love his heart even as Perez struck out twice in the Wild Card game, leaving three men on base.

Then it was the bottom of the 12th and by the grace of Hosmer the game was tied, somehow, magically - with bunting and stealing and wishing on a prayer - the Royals had come back and the fans could taste the win on their barbecue-stained fingers. 

The Hope of the Franchise was up to bat with Christian Colon on first. Alex Gordon was born for this moment, in this stadium. He grew up a Royals fan in nearby Lincoln, Neb., and was the second-overall pick in the 2005 MLB draft. If the Royals were going to have a Welcome to the Big Boys Club moment, if they were about to be inaugurated into the ranks of the MLB's finest, this was it. 

If they were the Yankees or the Dodgers, and their star was up to bat, he would've homered. The crowd would've erupted and the team would win games how you're supposed to win games, with money and solid fundamentals.

Gordon popped out. The crowd at the K sighed, and somewhere across the Missouri-Kansas border, a group of young teenagers tipped over a sleeping cow. 

Anyway this wasn't Big Boys Club baseball, it was Royals baseball. They have to make you think they're going to lose before they win in the most impossible way imaginable.

An overly eager Perez came to the plate. The count was 2-2 and Perez had already swung three times. Conventional wisdom said Jason Hammel would throw another nasty slider and Perez would reach for it, stupidly, then head back to the dugout, head down.

But this was Royals baseball, where even a misguided manager and a team searching for a slugger would find a way to win in October. It was almost October, and a 2-2 count to the one player Royals fans hadn't been able to count on all night at the plate.

The camera cut over to the bench and there he was, the Ace who'd been de-aced too soon. Big Game James was smiling. 

We're bigger than we ever dreamed
And I'm in love with being queen

The slider came. Low and 84 mph, fast enough to earn you a ticket driving through the Grandview Triangle from Overland Park to Lee's Summit; slow enough to catch Perez's anxious bat.

It ripped down the third-base line, right where it had to go to score Colon; and George Brett, in his box, was smiling, too. He'd never given up, on this team, on this town, and for a moment: they were Royals, in their own way.

***

People say that professional sports fuel what is worst in us. Our greed, our impatience, our willingness to ruin our bodies for the sake of fame. Our glorification of the worst human impulses, our blindness to the crimes these athletes sometimes commit.

Many a minister laments the confirmation student absent again for basketball practice or baseball practice; the Sunday School student whose hockey practice always comes before Sunday worship; the church member who watches their ESPN Gamecast during the sermon.

It's been said that Baseball, or Football, is America's religion and because of that we've lost our footing.

Maybe that's true when the Yankees win the pennant, or the Patriots take the Super Bowl.

But when the Royals win the Wild Card and play in October for the first time in 29 years, Jesus smiles back at George Brett and James Shields.

Jesus won like the Royals win. He rose like the Royals rise, when everything seems impossible and people don't even know what state you're from or what the Bible even says anyway.

Jesus was King like the Royals are King. He was a small-market franchise, loved by a small but devoted group of followers who took a risk on a long shot because We Believe.

Being a fan of the Royals is different than being a fan of the Yankees or the Dodgers. Most of the time it's worse. You lose and lose and lose again and players never want to stay. 

Being a follower of Jesus is different than being a follower of consumerism or fame. Most of the time it's worse. You're compelled to give your money away, you have to forgive people even when they do terrible things, and even though you follow the Savior of the world, you and your loved ones still die.

Sometimes, though, and ultimately, being a fan of the Royals is better. On Sept. 30, 2014; being a Royals fan was better. They won with heart, with tenacity; when they were down they were really down but when they were up they brought their city up with them, and this flyover cow town was filled with immense pride. All of a sudden people were saying We and hugging and thinking that maybe just maybe there was a God and good really could win in the end.

Sometimes, though, and ultimately, being a follower of Jesus is better. He won with truth, with love; when he was down he was really down and he died on the Cross and for three days the dream died with him. And then he rose again and when he rose he brought his world up with him, and this broken-down world was filled with immense pride and faith and hope and love. All of a sudden people were saying Grace and hugging and thinking that maybe just maybe He really was God and good really could win in the end.

Maybe sports are America's religion right now. And maybe sometimes Jesus takes on sports and uses America's religion to remind us that We Believe - the sixth inning and ill-advised Ned Yost and the Cross and ill-advised human beings are not the end. Most of us, especially those of us in those states the news forgot, will never be royals like the song says. But Jesus says in the end we will all be a Royal Priesthood. 

And in the meantime, he'll give us his Royals to remind us We Believe.