Monday, March 08, 2004

St. Vince?

Vince Lombardi. St Vince?

Yes, he was a football coach. He is the most famous professional football coach of all time. The Super Bowl trophy is named the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Under his control, the Green Bay Packers dominated the NFL in the ‘60’s. Because of their many NFL championships, and winning the first two Super Bowls, Green Bay is nicknamed “Title Town.” His players and the fans loved him. They still do.

Lombardi’s most famous saying was;

“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

Lombardi taught regarding winning, sacrifice, victory, struggle, and more. I even had a quote from him on my wall as a teenager. He believed in hard work, community, and commitment to a team, integrity, and honesty. Many of these principles are foundational to having a healthy, fulfilling life. Lombardi spoke of all these ideas, but his view on winning is his most famous and enduring message.

I think we may have taken a wrong turn here. Has America honored his statement about winning as the critical, valuable, intrinsic truth in its value core? Do we value winning above all else. Do we see the balance in how Lombardi lived and related to his teams? As a nation we have high-jacked his view of winning to fuel our obsession. We simply ignore second place. Have you noticed? Even though the Olympics have medals for three athletes, we only care about Gold. Everything but winning is losing. Whether Lombardi’s phrase galvanized us on the reality of our national desire to win, or if it simply described what was pre-existent already in our hearts, I don’t know. But it seems to me that Lombardi has become the patron saint of the USA in last half of the 20th Century and beyond. St. Vince.

I began to think about Lombardi as I walked my dog, Fred, around the local High School football field. What are we teaching to our teens? How much do we fuel an unhealthy obsession on winning, being better than others? While sports have many positive attributes and benefits for the student athlete, there are also many students who feel ostracized and “not enough” because of insipid competition among students. And then the most interesting thought entered my mind. How does the “winning” view of life “square” with what Jesus said and did? You know the answer. It’s the opposite. You know, “the first shall be last “ and all.

Jesus was last. In fact he didn’t talk about winning at all. He was a failure. He wasn’t even second. Or third. Did Jesus have drive, commitment, and excellence? Uh, not really. Obviously our attitude toward success, competition is significant, so in churches around the country we ignore it, or worse try to baptize Lombardi-isms. In other words, we may have allowed the church goers to believe that an unchecked attitude toward winning and the Gospel can co-exist. Or by ignoring it, have we allowed an unhealthy focus on winning to continue to grow in faith communities that are based on mutual service, and love for the unsuccessful?
What are the primary issues here? How can we continue to function well in a society that honors success above all-else, and still think accurately and critically? And in even greater importance, how will we live knowing we have profound decisions to make? Here are the issues as I see them:

• In every way we judge success, Jesus was a failure. He was a homeless, unemployed, drifter, living off the generosity of others (we call that a beggar), and murdered as a terrorist. How do we integrate the truth of the life of Jesus and a competitive society?
• He neither modeled, nor encouraged economic success, our primary measure.
• He functioned outside established channels, didn’t have access to resources others assumed. He didn’t chafe at the lack of resources he constantly experienced. We seem to assume that resources always follow spiritually correct living. And the Jewish community he lived in believed that implicitly.
• He didn’t expect gain from his behavior. Like having a leading religious leader aligned with an opponents party notice him and add him to his staff. Strangely, he had no concern for using his skills to acquire resources. This is to say, he wasn’t entrepreneurial. He wasn’t trying to grow anything, especially his influence or social capital. It kinda feels weird to even write that.
• He was kind to things I use, or ignore. The land, plants, animals, homeless, lost, orphans, slaves, the blind, lame etc.
• Winning requires having a score. Jesus never kept score.
• Winning requires a prize. And a group of people who want the prize. And a prize that is worth struggle and sacrifice. In my world the prize always represents a blend of money, power and fame. The Super Bowl trophy for instance. Think of what being a Super Bowl winner means to the financial lives of a player, or coach, or owner.
• Winning requires having losers. Jesus only played in games with no losers. Even if I lose everything I gain the whole world. Everyone wins when they associate with Jesus.
• Winning loves competition. Competition creates comparison and better than/less than. Since humans were his creation, Jesus could never value one person over another. We do constantly. And we teach our children to do the same.

So back to St. Vince.

If I remember correctly, Mike Yaconelli said once in a rant on the YS site, “how can someone with a basic understanding of the New Testament participate in sanctioned athletics?” Essentially asking the question:

“Why train high-schoolers who are just beginning to understand the power of the Gospel to buy into America’s unhealthy focus on competition?”

Can Lombardi and Jesus be at odds? Ememies? Does that mean that most of our Corporate experience based on the winning athletic "team" violates the direction of the spirit in my life? And in the world? Maybe? Not?

Do we actually want to train our next generation that winning isn't everything. Do we believe that? Or that it isn't neccesarily even a good thing?

How can we tell America's churches that winning and succeeding are neither valuable nor important to a Christian? What would we do instead? How do we pay for the building?

Do my kids know the kingdom impact of “We Won!?” That somebody lost.

Maybe it just makes them good Americans if they don’t.