By Robert Cunningham on ©December 16th, 2018 @ 10:30pm
It was my first Christmas as lead pastor at Tates Creek Presbyterian Church. I was young, inexperienced, pretending like I knew what I was doing and somehow getting away with it. But there are pastoral moments that can’t be faked, and this was one of them.
A family in our congregation had lost their teenage son. I sat with them for what seemed like an eternity, vainly trying to make sense of a senseless tragedy. When it finally came time to leave, I’ll never forget the terrible irony from the radio when I turned on my car: “It’s the most wonderful time of the year! It’s the hap-happiest season of all!”
There is something strangely unsettling when suffering intrudes upon the holidays. We know we’re supposed to “be of good cheer,” but we just don’t have it in us. And everyone else’s happiness feels patronizing, perhaps even insulting.
But I want to suggest that Christmas, rightly understood, is precisely what the hurting desperately need. Not shallow Hallmark sentimentally, but Christmas in its rawest and most scandalous form—the birth of God.
Christians believe that Christmas is not the birth of the main character of history, but the birth of the actual author of history. God actually writes himself into his own story, and in this way, God can actually relate to his own story.
J.R.R. Tolkien speaks of storytelling as the art of secondary belief. Primary belief is our real experiences of the real story we inhabit. We know things because we experience things. Secondary belief is where storytelling comes in. The measure of a good novel or film is its ability to evoke secondary belief. We get caught up into the story in real experiential ways. We cry with the story’s tragedies, smile with the story’s joys, get chills with the story’s drama—we relate to the story as though we ourselves are in it even though we are not.
When we think of God relating to us, we typically think in terms of secondary belief. He certainly cares for us and is very moved by our story, but only in secondary ways as an outsider looking in. But Christmas is God transitioning from secondary to primary knowledge. He now knows our story because he’s now in our story.
And this familiarity is exactly what the suffering need.
We all know from personal experience that nothing comforts us in our pain more than others who have experienced the same. I call it the power of relatability. This is why support groups, for example, are so therapeutic. But conversely, nothing agitates pain more than those who can’t relate trying to comfort you with trite consolations. Of course we smile and politely thank them, but inside we’re screaming, “You have no idea what it’s like!”
Well, because of Christmas, God himself is now with us in our suffering as one who actually knows exactly what it’s like. I suppose you could say there is pain Jesus never had to experience. He never lost a child, for example. But something we are able to say about Jesus is that there is no degree of suffering he is unfamiliar with, for nobody has or ever will suffer more than Jesus. After all, let us never forget the reason he was born was so that he could die. And not just any death. The cruelest of deaths on a cross bearing the sin, shame, and condemnation we all deserve.
None but Jesus has endured a suffering like Calvary, and in this way, Jesus suffers alone. Nobody can say to Jesus, “I know what it’s like,” but Jesus can say to every single one of us, no matter the degree of pain, “I know what it’s like.” Simply put, Jesus is utterly alone in his suffering, so that nobody will ever have to be alone in theirs.
This is the consolation I’ve learned to share as a pastor. When I’m with the hurting, I don’t pretend to relate, because more often than not, I simply can’t. Instead I hold their hands, look them in the eyes, and offer words only Christmas lets me say: “I can’t imagine what this must be like, but God can.”
Perhaps this is what you need to hear this Christmas season? Perhaps your suffering finds you overwhelmed by cynical sneer not holiday cheer? Perhaps you are just going through the motions of the “hap-happiest season of all” with a hap-hapless indifference to all? I understand. Actually, I probably don’t. But God does. Whatever you may be going through, because of Christmas, God knows exactly what it’s like.
By Robert Cunningham on ©October 30th, 2018 @ 6:00pm
Dear Kentucky Football,
It’s me. Your jaded devotee. We both know how challenging it’s been for us. You, my cruel obsession full of empty promises. Me, your naïve enabler full of unfounded optimism.
For as long as I can remember, it’s always been the same.
Section 110, row 7, seat 12 of old-school Commonwealth Stadium. Sitting with my dad on your hard metal bleachers that were blazing hot at the beginning of the season and freezing cold at the end. There was the crazy fan a few rows in front refusing to sit down; the guy to my right with anger management issues; the gentlemen in front of me with his hidden flask of bourbon; the kind old couple next to me who always had to leave early. I remember them all. Our little community of misery persevering together through endless “that’s so KY football” moments.
You’d think I would give up by now, but we both know I can’t.
So here I am. And once again, I find my imaginations impossible to contain. Once again, I find my heart precariously exposed to the possibility of something special. I know I should know better. But I just can’t help myself.
Especially this year.
This time you seem different. No gimmicks. No flukes. Just lining up and beating teams, because you’re actually the better team. And so maybe this Saturday could be different. Maybe, just maybe, this one time you will do for me what you seem never able to do—exceed my expectations.
Listen, even my fanatical idealism has its limits. I’m not asking you to beat Alabama and win the SEC; I’m asking you to beat Georgia and win the East. One time in my lifetime I want to be in Atlanta. And for the first time in my lifetime, it’s right there in front of us. All I’m asking you to do is freaking take it.
None of the experts think it will happen, and Vegas says it shouldn’t happen. Yet I’m choosing to believe. I know I shouldn’t, but I’m going to let myself believe this dream can actually become a reality.
Georgia is amazing, but not without flaws. And their flaws just happen to be where you are strongest. Their offense is good, but their O-line isn’t. And to that I have two words: Josh Allen. Their defense is good, but they have, at times, struggled to stop the run. And to that I have two more words: Benny Snell.
But it just can’t be our stars. Every player is going to have to show up on every play. Every fan is going to have to shout out on every play. And even then, we’re going to need some things to go our way. I’m a pastor. Of all people, I know how problematic it is to pray for things to go my way in a football game, but this week, this game, I just might have to.
Let’s be honest, win or lose this Saturday, we both know I’m not going anywhere. If I was going to leave, I would have done so a long time ago, because, quite frankly, you’re not easy to love. Me perpetually hoping. You frequently failing. And if you fail me again this weekend, I’ll do what I always do, which is get over it and come back next weekend. It is what it is. You’re my team, for better or worse.
But I, your fatigued yet faithful fan, am asking you to be different. One time. One game. Can things go differently for us?
I’ll be honest, you’ve trained me to be a cynic. But I’m choosing not to give in to cynicism. I’m choosing to believe you are going to reward your fanbase for years of long-suffering devotion.
You’re going to beat Georgia. You’re going to play in Atlanta. And you’re going to heal our many painful years together with this one win.
To call our world divided has become inadequate. We are utterly estranged, entrenched behind fortified walls of raging partisan spin.
Recently, local columnist Paul Prather wrote an uncharacteristically alarming piece suggesting that we may be past the point of no return with a new civil war perhaps looming on the horizon, not between north and south, but left and right.
The day after Prather’s column, The Wall Street Journal published an essay by Nebraska Senator Benn Sasse, where he likewise wondered if we have reached our breaking point. As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which recently became ground zero of our nation’s hatred, Sen. Sasse is uniquely qualified to speak on this issue. I’m a huge admirer of Sen. Sasse, and he has become my go-to example of a Christian politician and public intellectual.
Sasse’s essay (adapted from his newly released book Them: Why We Hate Each Other—and How to Heal) rightly points out that politics itself is neither the source nor savior of our political divide. Instead he points to the epidemic of loneliness. We are relational beings, which means isolation is unsustainable, and we will inevitably seek out community in some form or fashion.
But what happens when traditional communities built upon faith, family, and friendship suddenly collapse beneath the pressure of our secular technological age? We go searching for new tribes. And for a variety of reasons, politics has become our newest tribe. Politics is no longer something we do, it is now something we need. We have turned to political ideology to satisfy our fervent relational longings, such that our political party has now become the basis of community that we all desperately need, the thing we choose to fellowship around.
As a pastoral aside, this may be the greatest tragedy of modern American Christianity. Our faith convictions no longer transcend our political convictions. In other words, we find more commonality with those of the same political persuasion, regardless of their beliefs (or lack thereof) in God. Likewise, we alienate ourselves from those who share a common faith but disagree with our political persuasion, even viewing them as our enemies. Politics, not theology, tends to be the primary shared belief within congregations these days, which is very tragic.
I fear Sen. Sasse is correct. I fear communities that have historically held us together are disintegrating, and in their absence, we are turning to politics for community. Simply put, there is now no tribe greater than our political tribe.
With one exception.
There is one point where I find disagreement with the senator. He says, “Americans have always had political disagreements with their neighbors, but in the past, political differences could disappear when Friday night ballgames rolled around and the whole town turned out wearing the same colors and cheering for the same team. Today our towns are hollower, and we’re not on the same team anymore.”
I disagree. I believe the exception to our partisan divide is precisely the ballgame. Sports remains the one tribe that still transcends our political tribe.
The KSR phenomenon is a perfect example. How is it possible that Matt Jones, a very outspoken Democrat, has risen to become one of the most popular and influential figures in our deeply Republican Commonwealth? The power of sports. So united are we in our love for the #BBN, that we can even love a stinkin’ liberal like Matt!
Our world needs sports now more than ever. It may very well be America’s final respite from our angry estrangement. Let me be clear, sports fandom is not enough to sustain us, and I have written about that before on KSR. But it’s far better than the toxic vitriol of political tribalism, and right now, we just need something, anything, to bring some healing to our country.
This weekend, hallowed stadiums across our land will once again be filled, not with blue Democrats or red Republicans, but with one color of one team. We will gather, not to vilify one another, but to join one another in sacred traditions that span generations. Together we will chant and cheer, boo and curse, high-five and awkward-hug, and for a few brief hours of sobriety from FOXNEWS and MSNBC, we will forget just how much we hate each other.
There is a lot on the line this gorgeous fall Saturday in the Bluegrass. Bowl eligibility, holding on to first place in the East, and keeping hope alive of perhaps the greatest season in history. But there’s more at stake than even that. We will gather, not just in praise of our beloved wildcats, but in protest of our bitter divide. So let’s pack the stadium and get wild together.
Not just because our team needs it, but because our world needs it.
By Robert Cunningham on ©September 20th, 2018 @ 7:30pm
For my “KSR Voices” contribution this month, I want to briefly interrupt the football excitement and return to KY’s greatest athletic achievement from 2018: Justify’s Triple Crown victory. My wife Abby and I recently had the honor of meeting the champion, and it felt like one of those rare moments in life where I was standing in the presence of transcendent greatness. After all, in the storied history of thoroughbred racing, only 13 horses have been able to achieve Triple Crown status.
Now, losing money at Keeneland is the extent of my horse racing knowledge, so I’m not going to pretend to add anything to the countless articles written about Justify’s performance. Instead, what intrigued me was the origin of his name. As a pastor, when I hear the word “justify,” my ears perk up. Then when I listened to Justify’s owner, Kenny Troutt, as well as jockey, Mike Smith, both speak openly about their Christian faith in interviews, I suspected there had to be some Biblical significance to the name.
But as I searched, I found surprisingly little on the meaning of his name, which is unusual for famous thoroughbreds. For example, American Pharaoh’s Wikipedia page has an entire section on the origins of his name, but on Justify’s page, there is nothing. And so I decided to find out for myself.
Carrying on the rich tradition of Triple Crown winners not speaking with media, Justify was unwilling to talk. So I turned to the next best thing: Elliot Walden, President and CEO of WinStar Farms, which owns Justify. I know Elliot because his daughter attends our church’s school, Trinity Christian Academy (shameless plug that I know Elliot would endorse: If you are interested in an incredible private Christian education for your children, give us a call and schedule a tour). So, I reached out to him to talk less about the horse and more about the name, and my suspicions were confirmed.
WinStar Farms is unapologetically a Christian organization. What does it mean to be a Christian horse farm, one might ask? Walden says, “In everything WinStar does, we are guided by the Christian principles of humility, integrity, and love of neighbor. We seek to treat everyone with dignity, whether Christian or not, whether an employee, a vendor, or a client.” And then occasionally these Christian convictions also come out in the names of their horses.
Walden and his team name approximately 30 horses a year, and the guiding standard is a strong powerful name that they could imagine winning the Kentucky Derby. But they also look for opportunities to use Biblical themes. And so it was with Justify. They saw something special in this thoroughbred and wanted to give him a name that communicated something likewise special, and did they ever.
Matt Jones has two twitter accounts. His most popular [email protected], the go-to account for BBN news and commentary. His less followed account (still 54K) is @MattJonesRadio, the go-to account for his own opinions. In the strange world of twitter, that delineation works well, and youcan have one without the other. But in the real world, where personhood is not so easily segregated, Matt has to make a choice. Will he choose to compartmentalize his public voice andonly talk UK, or will he branch out into his personal opinion on different subjects? As anyone familiar with KSR knows, he has unashamedly chosen the latter. And as anyone familiar with KSR also knows, that choice comes with a bit of criticism.
Of the many phrases coined by KSR culture, “stick to sports” is probably the most well-known. To be fair, for most it’s less acritique and more a cliché, but there still remains a very vocal and at times angry “stick to sports” contingent. Since becoming the religious commentator for KSR (talk about failure to stick to sports), I have personally experienced a taste of what Matt receives and believe me, it can get ugly.
But I’m thankful Matt has decided not to stick to sports. In fact, it’s probably what I respect most about him. Not because I agree with all his opinions (Matt leans left, I lean right), but because I think it’s a gutsy leadership decision that in many ways protests what we have become as a society.
What’s really behind the “stick to sports” complaint? It seems to me those who agree with Matt’s opinions are actually OK with him expressing them, but it’s the ones who disagree that tend to cry “stick to sports.” And I’m willing to bet if he changed his opinions, those two camps would flip.
If Matt woke up tomorrow a die-hard, right-wing, Trump-lovin’conservative (i.e. hell hath frozen over), I wonder if some of his critics would suddenly be OK with his opinions? Conversely, I wonder if a whole new “stick to sports” tribe would materialize?
The point I’m trying to make is it’s less about people not wanting to hear opinions, and more about people not wanting to hear differing opinions. And that trend is symptomatic of a far greater problem that goes way beyond KSR.
Everyone knows we live in times of disagreement, but that’s nothing new. For as long as people have had opinions, people have had disagreements. What’s new is the fortification of our disagreements. Our deeply held beliefs are now guarded with a tribalism so fierce that to engage, consider, or even listen to opposing beliefs is somehow viewed as a form of compromise.
In trying to explain this great divide, it seems the most common answer is President Trump and his twitter account. But that’s giving him way too much credit. Our politicians do not create culture as much as they emulate it. That is to say, our president is the fruit, not the root, of what we have become.
The reason for our divide lies much deeper.
It began with the politicization of media as an institution. Progressives held a near monopoly on traditional mainstream news sources, which then led to the reactive emergence of conservative talk radio and cable news. Before long, it was nearly impossible to find a headline reported without an editorial spin. But then came the advent of online news, and the initialdivide has become an all-out chasm.
The information we now consume is almost exclusively digital and shaped by algorithms. These algorithms are a precise artificial intelligence able to deliver content (both real and fake) based solely upon our own personal worldview. What is fed to you online believes what you believe, loves what you love, hates what you hate, fears what you fear, and never, ever, disagrees with you. Simply put, it is now possible, dare I say probable, to exist within confines of your own personal echo chamber.
Unless you’re a Kentucky fan, that is.
In Kentucky of all places, a strange opposition to our polarization has emerged. Leveraging the one thing our state can all agree upon—obsession with UK Athletics—Matt Jones has risen to become arguably our most influential media voice. He has created the state’s most popular website, radio show, and quickly growing in popularity tv show. And although sports remain the foundational content of each, none are exempt from his proclivity to veer from sports.
Whether it’s a crisis with our state’s pension system or water supply, a commentary on a Supreme Court decision, or a biting critique of Governor Bevin or President Trump, Matt’s never been afraid to go there. And I think our state is better for it. You may disagree with him (chances are you do considering he’s a“stinkin’ liberal” in a conservative state), but I believe the confrontation of thoughtful disagreement is good for us all. The echo chamber feels nice, but in the end, proves destructive.
As both a follower and scholar of Jesus, I am continually amazed by the disruptive nature of his ministry. (By the way, it should go without saying, but I’ll say it. I am NOT comparing Matt Jones to Jesus Christ. I know them both, and Matt, like all of us, ‘aint no Jesus). If you view Jesus as an anemic appeaser, then you are sorely mistaken. He had an amazing ability to confront everyone precisely how they needed to be confronted.Conservative or liberal, religious or irreligious, rich or poor, none were exempt from the disruptive witness of Jesus. He was an expert at taking a deeply ingrained worldview and turning it upside down. Sometimes people responded well, sometimes people didn’t, but always they left confronted.
Why did he do this? Because Jesus isn’t just disruptive, he is love. In fact, his disruption is his love. We don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t have all the answers. We don’t see our own blind spots. We cannot discern the errors of our own ways. And most devastatingly, we are blind to our own sins. Your echo chamber can’t show you that, but Jesus can. So he loves us enough to mess with us.
I think all good leadership requires this same kind of bold love. As a pastor, it would be very easy for me to simply tell my congregation what they want to hear, to reverberate back the echoes of their own tribalism. But I love them too much to do so. It makes my life exceedingly more difficult to challenge our church, but love is worth that inconvenience.
I personally know this is also how Matt views the platform he has been given. His life would be a lot easier if he would just stick to sports. But he cares too much to do so, and I’m thankful for it. He may make our state uncomfortable, but I think he makes our state better. That’s been my personal experience, at least. As a UK fan I enjoy @kysportsradio. But as a conservative I need @mattjonesradio.
As Christians around the world gather to celebrate our most sacred day of the year, it is important to remember what is easily forgotten about Easter: It actually happened. Easter is not an inspirational fable of optimism and hope; Easter is an event. A historical event where a dead man came back to life never to taste death again. Or so we claim. But I hope we also have the humility and intellectual honesty to admit how ridiculous that claim sounds to our modern world.
It is very easy for Christians to take for granted our little bubble of belief, where a miracle like the resurrection is actually plausible, but what the Christian subculture takes for granted, the greater culture takes as nonsense. This is why I think the story of Thomas from John chapter 20 is so compelling in our day and age. He is referred to as “Doubting Thomas,” but I think a more fitting title would be “21st Century Enlightened Western Secular Culture Thomas,” because in his story, we get to witness the prevailing worldview of our time on display.
When Thomas is told by his friends that they have seen the risen Jesus, this is his response: “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” Notice how belief is contingent upon empirical evidence. He will “never believe” unless he sees and touches, unless with his own physical senses he encounters irrefutable evidence. It actually sounds like a quote from the modern secular atheists, not one of the disciples.
Richard Dawkins: “Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence.”
Lawrence Kraus: “Our conclusions must be based on empirical knowledge, a truly open mind means forcing our imaginations to conform to the evidence.”
Christopher Hichens: “That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”
The Disciple Thomas: “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”
Thomas, much like our secular age, is demanding evidence in order to believe, which is why his story warrants unique consideration in our day. To do so, I believe his statement deserves both a critique and an affirmation.
During the rise of Hitler’s Third Reich, a Jewish philosopher and political theorist named Hannah Arendt fled Germany for the United States. Following the war, she covered the trial of one of the holocaust’s main orchestrators, Adolf Eichmann. What she encountered in Eichmann was even more horrifying than she had expected. Eichmann was no monster. The one who organized genocide was just a normal guy like you and me, and the only thing scarier than a monster is the realization that we all have the potential to become the monster. This discovery is what led Arendt to coin the chilling but truthful phrase: The banality of evil.
This past week, KSR, of all places, spent some time exploring the banality of evil. The conversation surrounded the Netflix special The Push. Its premise is simple but controversial: Can British sociologist/mentalist Darren Brown orchestrate an elaborate situation, performed by dozens of actors, to convince a normal unsuspecting person to commit murder? The audience follows a subject named Chris, as social pressure leads to one ethical compromise after another until he is so entangled in a web of deceit that the unthinkable becomes plausible. It seems the only way out is for Chris to ‘push’ someone (an actor that Chris does not know is strapped to a safety harness) off a roof.
Thankfully, Chris decides against it, but the viewer’s relief is quickly disrupted by the revelation that three others who went through the same experiment actually did it. Much of the debate on KSR regarded the show’s authenticity, but either way, the one thing history has taught is that the premise of The Push is hauntingly authentic.
There is a word that conservatives love to deny and progressives love to use, but both seem to misunderstand: Systemic. It’s become a buzzword these days, but what does it actually mean? Simply put, it’s the idea that we all inhabit a world that, in some ways, functions like The Push. Every culture is subject to powerful and elaborate structures that socially condition members of culture to think and behave a certain way. Therefore, it’s not as simple as good people making good choices and bad people making bad choices. The bad choices people make are borne out of a system that leads people ‘to push,’ so to speak.
Now if you are a conservative, then chances are you probably dismiss all systemic talk as liberal nonsense that only excuses individual responsibility. But I would argue that conservatives also believe in systemic ills. For example, what is meant by the axiom ‘fake news?’ The claim is that mainstream media is driven by a liberal agenda that determines both the news that is shared and the way it is shared. In other words, America’s mainstream news is ‘systemically’ shaped by progressive ideology. And the same can also be said about America’s public education and entertainment. So, for instance, if you ask a conservative how an issue like transgenderism goes from wholly implausible to aggressively normalized in the span of one generation, you will typically receive a systemic answer only without systemic verbiage—liberal media, education, entertainment, and so forth.
On the other hand, progressives have no problem acknowledging systemic power, but they tend to overestimate its power. That is to say, people are viewed as helpless victims of systemic injustice, and therefore culpability lies with the system, not the individuals making poor choices within the system. The true villain is not the participant that pushes, but rather Darren Brown and his team who orchestrated an oppressive social scenario that led to it. Without the system, they would never have done it, so it’s the system’s fault, not the individual. But this line of thinking is deeply problematic, not just ethically, but also practically.
I had Wednesday morning set aside to write my monthly column for KSR, but I was at a loss for a topic. On Tuesday I tweeted out a request for ideas and got a lot of good suggestions, but none of them resonated. So I woke up Wednesday with a few hours to write, but nothing to say. Then with one breaking headline, I am now overwhelmed with too much to say.
Billy Graham has died.
Where do I even begin? Of course I could talk about his impact as the greatest evangelist the Church has known, arguably since the Apostle Paul himself; perhaps a piece on his above-reproach character as a needed rebuke to the scandal-plagued lives of public religious leaders in our days; or his willingness to serve as a spiritual advisor to both Democrat and Republican presidents as a refreshing example to our deeply polarized and partisan culture. These and many other ideas came to mind, but none seemed fitting. In the coming days, years, and even centuries, historians and biographers much more qualified than I will be writing on those matters.
Instead, I want to write what I believe, with all my heart, he would ask me to write. The best way to honor this great man is to once more share what he devoted his life to sharing. And the best way for you to honor one of the greatest figures of American culture is to at least spend a few minutes considering what he had to say. Agree or disagree with Billy Graham, I think we can all agree his life’s work is worth consideration.
I won’t say it as well as he said it, but thankfully its truth is true, whether expressed in the eloquent and powerful words of Billy Graham or from the clumsy stammering lips of the rest of us. In hundreds of different ways, throughout thousands of different places, to millions of different people, Billy Graham had only one thing to say: Gospel.
Have you ever wondered what it is that Christians actually believe? At the core of our faith is this word gospel, which means “good news.” Religions are full of good advice—systems to follow, tenants to adhere to, rules to keep. But in contrast, Christianity is good news. Not something that we are to do, but something that has been done.
But this good news begins with bad news: We are all sinners. In our day, the concept of sin is at best trivialized and at worst despised, but on the deepest levels, we all know it to be true. Our guilt and shame bear witness to the reality that none of us is as we ought to be. This is because we were created by a just God who has just expectations for the world in the same way you have just expectations for the world.
Not only do you believe in this thing called justice, you demand it. From the deepest forms of injustice to the smallest acts like cutting in line, everyone expects that everyone else behave rightly. And yet that same expectation we have of others simultaneously indicts us. I cannot demand justice while also asking to be the one exception to justice. Instead, I must play by the same rules. If I want there to be such a thing as right and wrong (and who doesn’t?), then I must I ask whether I myself do what is right and not do what is wrong. And friends, I do not. Again and again, I fail to do what I demand of you.
But the reality of justice gets only worse, because God is not interested in whether I adhere to my own standard of justice. God wants to know how I measure up to his standard. And if I can’t even live up to my own standard, then how shall I stand before perfect justice? The answer is I cannot stand. When people say, “Only God can judge me,” I don’t think they realize how awful that news is. Indeed, only God can judge us, but God judges based upon his standard of justice, not ours. And God’s standard far exceeds my standard, for it is nothing short of perfection. Therefore, none of us has any hope of ever escaping the justice of God.
Perhaps you’re wondering at this point how this could ever be called “good news.” Well, there is more to the story. God is not only just; God is love. In the same way God’s justice far exceeds our standards of justice, God’s love far exceeds our standards of love. Indeed, God is the perfect standard of love. And so it would seem that the justice and love of God are irreconcilably at odds. He must judge perfectly, and yet he loves perfectly those he must judge.
Every revival that Billy Graham ever preached confronted his hearers in some way with that tension, and every revival that Billy Graham ever preached ended with Jesus as the answer to that tension. Jesus Christ—specifically the cross of Jesus Christ—is the answer to the justice/love dilemma of God. Here I’ll quote Graham directly, “God proved his love on the cross. When Christ hung, and bled, and died, it was God saying to the world, ‘I love you.’” But how is the death of Jesus the love of God? Because the death of Jesus wasn’t just his death, it was my death.
Jesus took upon himself all my sin and carried it to Calvary to receive the judgment day it deserves. On the cross, Jesus received the justice that I deserve, endured the punishment that I have earned, and died the death I should have died, so that now the justice of God is satisfied and the love of God is all that remains forevermore.
That is the good news Billy Graham shared with hundreds of millions of people. And today, that is the good news Billy Graham died trusting. The messenger finally inheriting the good news of his message. I’ll let him have the final word: “Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”
This is the first time our culture will celebrate MLK Day following the release of the JFK files. Why is that significant? The much-anticipated release was frustratingly incomplete on Kennedy but explosive in unexpected ways, including the secret life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
King’s repeated infidelity has been public knowledge for a long time, but the Kennedy files allege details that are as shameful as they are shocking. I will not slander King by sharing the specifics, but suffice it to say, it paints a very sordid picture of his private life. It is unclear whether the report is verified information, but regardless of the extent of its truth, it was painful to read for those like me who share a great admiration for King.
And so this MLK Day, in particular, we are left wondering what to do with our deeply flawed hero and his life’s work. Or perhaps King is no hero to you? Perhaps his sexual indiscretions have long been your means of discrediting his life and work and these newest allegations only validate your contempt? Whether one chooses to lament or leverage King’s sins, the question is the same: Is the beauty of King’s dream negated by the ugliness of King’s secrets?
The answer, unequivocally, is no.
There is a logical fallacy endlessly perpetuated in this age of polarized outrage known as ad hominem. An ad hominem seeks to discredit an argument by pointing out the character flaws of the one making the argument. But the reason ad hominem is a fallacy is because truth is truth, regardless of the wrongs of the one speaking truth. The most deplorable person could deliver “I Have a Dream” and the words would ring true nonetheless. So whatever King did wrong does not negate the legacy of what King did right, for the truth of justice will always transcend the transgressions of justice’s champion.
But there is more to the story when it comes to King. Granted his failures do not disprove his public work, but what about his Christian faith? Despite our culture’s attempt to rewrite his legacy into a nonreligious social justice movement, King was, first and foremost, a follower of Jesus Christ. He was a pastor not a politician, a theologian not a theorist, a man whose convictions emerged from the teachings of Scripture and whose activism was simply the application of Scripture. So perhaps the rule of ad hominem guards the truth of King’s revolution, but what about King’s religion?
This is a very important question for Christians in our day to answer. Increasingly, the claims of Christianity are being dismissed due to the embarrassing behavior of those who call themselves Christians. The “Christians are hypocrites” objection burns hotter than ever, and speaking candidly, we Christians are providing plenty of fuel for the fire. But do the failures of Christians actually discredit the message of Christianity? Ironically, they only prove the message.
Jesus came, not to reward the righteous, but to forgive the sinful. Therefore, our failures viewed through that purpose are in no way a threat to Jesus, instead they are the very reason for Jesus and his paradoxical religion we call the gospel.
If Jesus came to establish a conventional religion, then yes, the failures of his followers are a threat to his religion. This is because conventional religions are essentially systems of moral improvement that reward faithfulness, thus the system must be judged on its effectiveness to do just that. That is, the success of religion is based on the religious success of its adherents.
But what if you have a religion where the central tenant is not to teach you how to succeed as your own savior but to diagnose you as a failure in need of a savior? In that religious construct our failures aren’t the threat; they’re the point. And religious hypocrisy is not sinful weakness but self-righteous strength.
One of the unique characteristics of the Bible is how uncomfortably honest it is with the flaws of its main characters. At times it appears itself to be a top-secret file with sordid details exposing the failures of its heroes. But this is because they are not the heroes of the Bible. They are there to make known in the most authentic way the need for the true hero–Jesus Christ, the faithful Savior of faithless people.
I’ll be completely honest. If history has taught us anything, it’s that we Christians cannot commend ourselves. We can only commend our Savior. All we have is Jesus and the hope that his faithfulness is stronger than our failures, that his grace is greater than our sins. And I believe King would be the first to admit that. In fact, I’ll let him do just that. In the same year he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, he said these lesser known words: “The Christian faith is the affirmation that man cannot save himself…Bound by the chains of his own sin and finiteness, man needs a Savior.”
Martin Luther King was a deeply flawed person who needed a Savior. So am I. And may I humbly suggest that so are you? But if what King said is true then our need is not a threat to the Christian faith. It is, in fact, the very point of the Christian faith.
By Robert Cunningham on ©December 22nd, 2017 @ 6:00pm
From the very beginning, KSR has been upfront and honest with their intentions to deliver UK news in the most ridiculous manner possible. And I think it’s safe to say they’ve succeeded. When it comes to ridiculous, no one does it better than KSR. What they do and how they do things should never work, but that is exactly why I think it works so well. They have separated themselves from the crowd of conventional media by embracing the unconventional. Ridiculousness, as it turns out, is actually quite compelling.
In the coming days, many of us are going to celebrate something utterly ridiculous. Granted, it’s such a common cultural practice that the ridiculousness has been normalized, but let me remind you exactly what Christmas is claiming. Almighty God became a lowly infant. When it comes to religious claims, you don’t get more ridiculous than that.
When we speak of God we are not speaking of the greatest being in all of existence. In fact, God does not even exist like we exist. Instead, He stands outside existence as the Creator of existence. There is a big difference between the greatest character in a story and the author of the story itself, and by definition, God is the latter. He does not inhabit our reality; He authors our reality. So if you want to understand the relationship between God and humanity, then imagine the relationship between Shakespeare and Hamlet.
Now, bearing in mind that immeasurable divide, behold the ridiculousness of Christmas: The Author writes himself into his own story. God as a newborn baby, helplessly dependent within a world of his own creation–that’s a religious claim as scandalous as it is unique. And yet the absurdity is its beauty.
This unconventional belief becomes the foundation of a likewise unconventional belief system. Religions may appear on the surface to be very different, but in reality they are all different takes on the same concept. There is a system to follow, tenets to keep, commands to obey, philosophy to embrace, etc. And doing these things will get you to an ultimate goal, whether that be a god, heaven, nirvana, or even the new secular spirituality of finding your inner self. It’s all the same idea of self improvement and advancement expressed in so many different ways.
But then the myriad of conventional religious claims is interrupted by the unconventional cry of a newborn in Bethlehem. Here we discover something different. Ridiculously different. Yet glorious in its ridiculousness. Not a way for us to find God, but the news that God has found us; not a religion for us to achieve salvation, but the news that a Savior has been born; not the means of obtaining joy; but the news of joy to the world. Indeed, Christmas has forever disrupted religion by subverting religion. It’s no longer what we do for God, but instead what God has done for us.
If true, this is history’s greatest news, but deep down we doubt that it could possibly be true. Which brings us to KSR’s other favorite slogan: facts are optional. This all makes for a great story, endearing hope, and sentimental holiday, but we can’t be expected to actually believe this.
Why not? If you believe in God and consider yourself a religious person, then is this really beyond comprehension? I would actually argue that the unbelievable nature of Christmas is what makes it so believable. A glorious story of the Author writing himself into the story to be the hero of the story by saving the characters of the story–that’s not something any person would ever come up with, which is precisely the point. When you explore, not just the birth, but the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, it all sure seems like God’s story to me.
Now if you don’t believe in God and are skeptical of religion, then you’ve got a ridiculousness of cosmic proportions on your hands–the fact that we exist at all. Granted, Christmas claims the virgin birth of Jesus, but is that any more outlandish than the virgin birth of the universe? Without a Creator, we are asked to believe that nothing acted upon nothing so that out of nothing came something that, as it turns out, is outright extraordinary. Now who’s being ridiculous?
Two thousand years ago this world was surprised by the ridiculous. Our Creator joined the creation, our Author entered the story, our God became man, and religion would never be the same. No longer is it us getting to God. Instead, God has come to us. That’s almost as ridiculous as it is glorious.
By Robert Cunningham on ©November 30th, 2017 @ 2:00pm
I was humbled and encouraged by the response to my first KSR contribution, and it seems the overwhelming majority of KSR readership is excited for Matt’s vision to expand beyond the realm of sports through KSR Voices. But the always kind and charitable world of internet comment sections revealed that some people are, shall we say, a bit resistant. Alas, the ‘stick to sports’ contingency has something new to protest–KSR is talking religion!
But I would argue KSR has been talking religion from the beginning. In fact, I believe KSR is the most popular religious website in our state. Why? Because UK Athletics is the most popular religion in our state.
Have you ever stopped to ask why we care so much? Why do teenage athletes have the ability to lead us into heights of happiness or depths of despair? It’s just a game, for crying out loud. But it’s not just a game. There is much more going on beneath the surface of BBN’s legendary fandom–something fundamental to what it means to be human.
You may not see yourself as a religious person, but you are. In fact, to be human is to be religious. We all have longings of the soul that cannot be suppressed or dismissed, but instead must be expressed through religious devotion. Simply put, we have an undeniable impulse to worship something, and for many in our state, that something is UK sports.
So what are these worshipful longings that make us religious? There are many, but like a good preacher I’ll give three: glory, community, and identity. Generations of Kentuckians have looked to UK as the answer to these three longings, but I will argue that our beloved Wildcats, as great as they are, will never be able to satisfy them.
All of us are made to behold and admire glory. It’s why we hike mountains, attend concerts, and visit museums. And it’s why Kentuckians make their pilgrimage to Rupp Arena, the Mecca of Kentucky basketball glory.
But how glorious is this glory? Suppose I could give you courtside seats for the upcoming Louisville game. You would literally think you had died and gone to heaven. But just how sustainable is this heaven? Suppose you came back the next day to do it all over again. And the next day, and the next day, and the next day–I don’t think it would be long until you got bored with UK glory. Truth be told, basketball is glorious, but it is an exhaustible glory that will always leave us wanting in the end.
We are also made for community. And the way we find community is by fellowshipping with others around a common love. In our state, the most popular love is UK sports, and without a doubt, this has produced the basis for an impressive community. Everywhere I go, I meet someone from the BBN and immediately find commonality.
But just how deep is this community? Cal likes to call us a family. While I appreciate the sentiment, I’m not sure he fully means it. If so, I look forward to some of his inheritance someday. Players say they love the fans, but again, I’m not sure they fully mean that. I’ve seen them out before and surprisingly not one time have they asked me for an autograph or selfie. Of course I’m only joking to make a point. I know Cal and the players are not disingenuous in their appreciation for the fans, and I know the BBN is an amazing community. But it’s just not the depth of community that we all want and need.
Finally, all of us are made to identify with greatness. This is why we wear KY gear and speak of the team with first-person pronouns (“we” won). We identify ourselves with the team such that when they are great, it’s as if we are great. And, no doubt, UK basketball is an impressive identity–the most wins of all time, the highest winning percentage of all time, 8 national championships, more SEC championships than the rest of the league combined, and on and on our greatness goes.
Yet along with the victories, we must identify with the defeats too. Gillispie’s teams had the same name across their chest as Cal’s teams. In fact, even with all our greatness, KY has only ended a season with a victory 8 times. Think about that. Since the first season in 1903, our representative has left us defeated all but 8 times. Truth be told, UK affords us moments of greatness, but more often than not, our identity fails us.
So when you consider these deeper desires like glory, community, and identity, it becomes clear that the CATS are an amazing pastime, but a pretty terrible religion. It’s certainly not UK’s fault. It’s our fault for worshiping UK. Sports are wonderful and worthy of love and enjoyment, just not ultimate love and enjoyment.
But this only begs the question of whether there is anything worthy of ultimate love and enjoyment. Is there anything that we can safely entrust our deepest longing to and find them satisfied? I believe there is.
Sports are like every good joy in life, a foretaste of something much greater. And the greater is God. The Bible doesn’t just claim that we are made by God; it claims we are made for God, meaning the Creator of our souls is also the answer to our souls.
Consider the three longings we have been discussing: In God we discover an inexhaustible glory that for all eternity will never cease to excite and delight; a community so deep and intimate that we are brothers and sisters with God as a Father who knows us by name and gives us the riches of His eternal inheritance; an identity that is eternally victorious through the death and resurrection of Jesus, our unfailing savior. Simply put, there isn’t a desire you have that doesn’t find its ultimate answer in God.
The Kentucky Wildcats are one of the greatest joys in my life and the life of countless others, but they were never meant to be our religion. So let’s cheer for them, not worship them. Let’s allow our fandom to stir our religious longings for the only one who can truly meet the demands of our longings, the God for whom we were made.
Oh, and to the other fan bases out there, it looks like these freshmen are starting to put it together. Sorry to say, but I think it’s going to be another year of our religion embarrassing your religion. Go CATS.
Note from Matt: Over the years here at KSR, we have attempted to become the #1 website for UK sports coverage on the internet. I think we have succeeded in that goal and as such, have been able to create a platform unique in the state of Kentucky. In order to continue our growth, I have decided to begin the KSR Voices section, a series of posts written by some of the many voices in Kentucky outside of the world of sports that will touch on issues of importance in the state. Our goal is to give a platform to those doing interesting and important work and to make their voices heard on a broader scale. These will include topics as diverse as current affairs, science, business, politics, the arts and whatever else may be occurring in the state. Some will be for you, and some may not, but the goal is to allow the great diversity in this state to be heard on things beyond our shared love for UK sports. Our first contributor is my friend Robert Cunningham, who will be writing for us once a month.
Just when you thought KSR couldn’t get any more ridiculous, they go and invite a preacher to write. Matt Jones has already introduced me and the concept behind my contribution, but for those who do not know, I’m Robert Cunningham, the senior pastor of Tates Creek Presbyterian Church in Lexington. I’m also a regular contributor to the Herald Leader, offering what I hope is a thoughtful Christian perspective to the community I love and serve. And now I have agreed to do the same for KSR on a monthly basis.
It should probably be stated from the outset that I do not come to you as an outsider to BBN insanity. Born and raised in Lexington with season tickets to both basketball and football games, I cried as a kid when Laettner hit the shot (still hurts), broke furniture as an adult when Wisconsin ruined our undefeated season (still really hurts), have suffered through countless “that’s so Kentucky football” moments (actually pretty much numb by this point), and yes, I am a daily visitor to KSR (OK, multiple times a day)
But Matt knew none of that when he approached me with the idea of contributing. He was looking to expand the scope of KSR to include the opinions of leaders in the Bluegrass, and I am humbled by his invitation to be one of those voices.
So what to speak on as my first topic? There is, of course, the obvious and easy option to write a hot take on the hot mess that is UofL athletics. But I’m going to resist that temptation. Not only because there are enough of those being written, but also because I truly do feel sad for the Louisville fan base, not to mention for the consequences this will have on the commonwealth as a whole.
Instead, I want to talk about someone who is a welcome reprieve from the scandal fatigue in our state. The disgraceful leadership at UofL has only highlighted the exceptional leadership at UK, and I was struck by that contrast a few weeks ago. While the kingdom of Tom Jurich was beginning its implosion, I was eighty miles east on the field of Kroger Stadium with Mitch Barnhart, there to do what he does after every home game. Win or lose, beneath the lights and empty stands, long after the fans have gone home, UK’s Athletic Director holds hands with family and friends to conclude the evening in prayer.
Prayer is very important to Mitch Barnhart. So important that he has organized a group of people who are committed to partner with him in 40 days of prayer for UK athletics. Not necessarily for wins, but for the coaches, student athletes, and the overall culture of the athletic program. This commitment to prayer is very fitting for a man who goes about his job with an unassuming humility nearly impossible to find in the vicious world of SEC athletics.
But don’t let the humility fool you. He is as competitive and passionate as any other AD in the country, and the results are there to prove it. Last year UK finished 10th in the Directors Cup, an amazing accomplishment for a university lacking an ideal weather climate and significant recruiting base. There is no doubt he is successful.
Arguably the most successful AD in the history of UK. But the one thing Mitch Barnhart does not do is allow his commitment to success to devour his commitment to excellence.
And oh how rare that is in our day of modern leadership.
There was a time when we actually cared about the character of our leaders. How things were done mattered as much as what was done. But alas, character has died the death of our instant gratification, bottom line, results-obsessed culture. Rick Pitino and Tom Jurich survived multiple scandals for one and only one reason–they produced. And in our day, nothing survives controversy more than production.
But within the Christian worldview, from which Mitch Barnhart derives his leadership convictions, the ends do not justify the means. In fact, the ends are secondary to the means, because God is far more interested in the integrity of our lives than the production of our lives.
This ethical construct finds its origins in Jesus himself. There is nothing special about Mitch Barnhart, and he would be the first to tell you that. But there is something special about the Jesus Mitch Barnhart follows. Jesus certainly accomplished great things, most notably the forgiveness and salvation of people like me who fall miserably short of this ethical standard. But it’s not just what Jesus did that makes him so compelling. It’s how he did things.
His love for the poor and marginalized, his zeal for justice and mercy, his refusal of riches and popularity, his courage and compassion, his purity and integrity–we could go on and on extoling the virtues of this man. Jesus wasn’t just successful. Jesus was and is good. And out of the goodness of Jesus a new ethic is born where the ends actually exist in subordination to the means.
I know it’s tempting for UK fans to delight in the downfall of our rival. But I encourage us instead to use this as an occasion to thank Mitch Barnhart. Even more so, let us learn from Mitch Barnhart, who ultimately is learning from Jesus.
What you do matters. But how you do things matters more.