NASCAR and the Disappointment of Victory

My older boys are crazy about NASCAR. It all started years ago with Will’s love of cars. Most of his first little cars were Matchbox or tiny replicas of various makes and models, but a few were official NASCAR cars, painted with the numbers, sponsors, and driver signatures. These official cars quickly became his favorites; he didn’t even want to play with the others. A seed had been planted, and then when Will and Nate were four and two we took them to the Pixar movie CARS, then later that same month we moved to Florida, where every third vehicle is decked out with NASCAR paraphernalia. It was the perfect storm and NASCAR fever was already burning in their little hearts. But their fan hood was cinched forever when we made the pilgrimage to the mecca of racing: The Daytona International Speedway. It was only an hour from our home, and we thought the boys would enjoy the museum, seeing the real life cars, and a ride on the track (it was in a tram, not a stock car). Well, they enjoyed it alright! They ate it up with the fervor of teenage girls at a boy band concert. By the time the tour ended at the checkered flag stage, they were both seriously hooked. We walked away wondering if the pilgrimage was such a good idea after all.

After that visit to the Speedway and when Nate was still just three years old, he chose to root for Matt Kenseth. Each member of the family has a different driver. Daddy follows the Army car, currently driven by Ryan Newman. I cheer for Jeff Gordon, Will for Tony Stewart, and Sam was given Martin Truex by his brothers while he was still in the womb. The boys have even assigned drivers to extended family. For example Mimi has been assigned Denny Hamlin, Gramma has Junior, Cousin Caitlin, Jimmy Johnson, Aunt Laurie, Carl Edwards, and the list goes on. I could not have guessed even four years ago that I would become a fount of knowledge about NASCAR–I mean I would be a strong contender on a NASCAR gameshow. But if there were a competition for five-year-olds I have no doubt that Nate would win. He is the Rain Man of NASCAR!
But there are a couple of things I find very endearing about the sport. Each race has an invocation which almost always reverently calls upon the name of Jesus for protection. The prayer usually seeks safety not just for the race and its drivers, but for our troops. And before the most famous words in racing (which surely I do not need to tell you), something akin to F-18s race over the stadium inspiring a surge of patriotism. In our postmodern world where nothing is sacred, the simplicity of NASCAR is refreshing. After all, some things are simple. God loves each of us. He sent his Son to save us. The United States of America is a great country, and we are blessed to live here. So I love NASCAR in part because my boys love it, but I also think it’s cool to see biblical truth play out in everyday life. The Bible says that “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise,” and I see a glimmer of that in NASCAR. Some of the fans may well deserve their simpleton stereotype but in some ways they “get it” more than the most educated and sophisticated elites.
But back to Matt Kenseth and his biggest fan. Last season, he didn’t win a single race, but 2009 appears to be his year; he took the checkered flag at Daytona, and then this past week he won again! But Nate has been acting a little strange about it. He is either totally overwhelmed by Kenseth’s two for two start, or more likely, having his driver win isn’t all that.
And life is like that, isn’t it? Sometimes we want something really badly, but getting it isn’t everything we thought it would be. Sometimes we feel let down — obtaining and achieving do not satisfy us completely. We need more. Really there is only one thing in the universe that will never disappoint us, because there is only one thing that is perfect. And it’s not a thing. It is a Person. It’s God. Knowing Him will never, ever disappoint us. In fact, our most fantastical expectations of Him and His glory fall hopelessly, even comically short. Our fallen little minds — be they stimulated by fast cars or drawn only to finer arts — can fathom neither His Glory nor the depth of His Love, and for that we should all give praise.

Modern Manners

My husband was raised with a much greater emphasis on manners than I was. I don’t remember ever saying “yes, ma’am” or “no, sir” growing up. My dad was a Lt. Colonel in the Air Force but somehow he didn’t stress formal manners at home. We lived in southeastern Michigan where it seemed no one observed formalities of any kind–I certainly wasn’t the only one neglecting to use ma’am and sir.

But it is interesting now to see my little boys learn good manners from their Daddy. Will, who is seven, has the responsibility of taking out the trash. A couple of weeks ago Daddy left for work one morning and then called home to remind Will to take out the trash. I was in the shower, and the boys were playing in the basement. So when I came downstairs to make breakfast I played the message on the machine. In response to hearing his Daddy’s reminder, Will immediately started marching towards the garage while calling out “Yes, Sir!” It cracked me up to hear him say “yes, sir” to the answering machine, but also made me wonder whether we’re being a little rigid. But Daddy said, “no, ma’am we’re not.” I’m kidding, that’s not what he said.
Sam also has impeccable manners for a one-year-old. He almost always says “thank you” when you hand him something, and is very cooperative about saying please as well. He says “may I please be excused?” when he is finished eating, and he’ll just keep saying it, up to three hundred times with increasing volume and frustration until he is excused and removed from his high chair. But what is funniest about him is riding in the car. A couple of months back just Sam and I were in the car. Someone nearby honked their horn (not even at us), and Sam took his sippy cup out of his mouth to call out, “Sorry!” A mile or two later it happened again. I was initially perplexed and then it hit me. I’m afraid it is not unheard of for me to be doing something (opening something for the boys, reaching for a toy, or applying mascara for example) whereby I benefit from a little honk of a reminder that the light is now green. I invariably say, “sorry,” when I get one of these reminders. So now when we ride around town, every honk, no matter how distant gets a “SORRY!” from Sam.
Sam has also picked up on the ever-important “thank you” wave. When you live in DC there are traffic situations encountered daily where the only way in is when some kind and generous soul lets you go in front to them. But sometimes Sam gets stuck on this maneuver, thanking and waving to every driver on the road.
But Sam’s amusing antics aside, I really do think we could all benefit from a reformation of modern manners. I try very hard to instill in my boys the importance of listening, and of remembering and using people’s names (I think people who claim to be bad with names really just aren’t trying, because I used to be terrible with names until I decided to be good with names). I want my boys to look adults in the eye and answer them, to be engaging and polite in all situations. I believe manners show respect, not in an empty, formulaic sense, but in a “you are made in the image of God and worthy of respect” sense.
Simply put, we honor God by honoring one another, and when you come down to it, it’s really just the golden rule. I appreciate when someone remembers my name, looks me in the eye, and speaks to me with gentleness and respect.
What’s more is that the Creator of the universe knows my name and yours, and He is always whispering to us with gentleness and love. I bet if we listen this week to that still small voice we’ll get better manners thrown in.

The National Prayer Breakfast: 10 Highlights

Last week I had the privilege of attending the National Prayer Breakfast, which of course is a lot more than just a breakfast. There are so many highlights that I’d like to share that I’m going to list my top ten; otherwise this post would take up too much of my time and yours.

  1. The breakfast was opened with the Lord’s Prayer in Cherokee, and those humbling words of submission have never sounded more beautiful.
  2. The sincerity of Tony Blair’s faith paired with his polished British wit made him a VERY hard act to follow. Read his address here.
  3. Every week many Democrats and Republicans in the Senate and House put aside their political differences and pray together on Wednesday and Thursday mornings, respectively. It is not reported in the news. It is not meant to be public. But if you have the opportunity to hear the faithful members talk about how much these weekly prayer breakfasts mean to them, you cannot help but be encouraged. I loved seeing Democratic and Republican members interact and talk about their prayer breakfasts. They may not agree on everything, but they love each other as brothers and sisters. John 13:35 says that disciples of Jesus will be known by their love for one another. Some members of Congress are living this out better than many church communities.
  4. If you ever, ever have the opportunity to hear Casting Crowns live, seize it. Listen to a sample of their music here.
  5. There were something like 4000 people in attendance for the event, representing all fifty states and over 170 countries. I thought it was pretty cool to sit in the same room with the President of the United States and the First Lady, but even cooler to think, that in a sense, the world was gathered for prayer and breakfast.
  6. The National Prayer Breakfast has been a tradition since Eisenhower was President, which makes last week’s event the 57th of its kind. The President of the United States has attended each year, but I would guess never to a warmer reception than President Obama received Thursday.
  7. The National Prayer Breakfast is not a Christian event, but it is a Jesus Fest. Jesus was proclaimed over and over at all of the meals and events. I heard people from Fiji to Finland to Egypt to Pittsburgh praise the name of Jesus and His message.
  8. On Wednesday afternoon I was down at the Washington Hilton and had some time to kill before dinner, and since my life is divinely orchestrated, I happened upon a little gathering for Prison Fellowship Ministries. I heard Chuck Colson speak about prisoners in Sudan embracing the gospel message. I heard about the growth of Prison Fellowship in the Middle East, and about PFM’s Centurions Program, a distance learning, in-depth program which aims to help believers authentically live out biblical truth. Learn more about PFM by clicking here.
  9. William P. Young, author of The Shack, was also at the Prayer Breakfast. I heard him speak about how the first million copies of The Shack were mailed out through his buddy’s garage, and how he spent less than three hundred dollars on marketing. He also touched on some of the criticisms of his book. I have a hard time relating to people who can become enraged over a work of fiction. It’s not that I believe that Mr. Young nailed every single detail, it’s that I don’t think it matters. If people are spurred to think, to talk, to wrestle with some of the very deep theological principles that are addressed in The Shack, then what is the problem? But I love talking about it; and blogged about it last summer. (Click here to read it).
  10. On Thursday night the event ended. After dinner, speakers, and more Casting Crowns, the Kendrick brothers gave away hundreds of copies of their DVD Fireproof and their book The Love Dare. And then one of the brothers closed in prayer. He asked everyone who was willing and able to kneel, and two thousand people got down on their knees.
May the list above spur you and I to thank God for all of our blessings, and to regularly ask God for wisdom for ourselves and for our leaders.

The Last Taboo

It used to be that people didn’t talk openly about sex or how much money people make or how much a woman weighs, but now sex is a primary topic of conversation, and many people’s salary and measurements can be found online or even in line at the grocery store. Since I did some last-minute Super Bowl shopping yesterday, I stood at the checkout counter long enough to learn that Jessica Simpson’s weight gain is the most important thing going on in the world.

But even though sex, money, and weight gain are now acceptable topics of conversation, there is at least one last taboo. A couple of months back, I heard Dr. Forrest Church interviewed on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show. Dr. Church, a minister in the Unitarian Universalist All Souls church in New York City, has terminal cancer. He believes the last taboo is death, and in his effort to eradicate cultural reluctance to talking about death, he published a book entitled Love & Death. But I disagree with Dr. Church on most issues, including this one, because really it is not death that is taboo. Think of the cultural fascination over the deaths of Heath Ledger or Anna Nicole Smith. Think of Randy Pausch and his The Last Lecture, or the critically acclaimed bestseller by Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

People are willing to talk, read and think about death — at least somebody else’s. So it is not death itself that is the last taboo, it’s what happens next. And that is very taboo indeed. Try bringing up even the idea of a real hell in secular conversations and you’re likely to be unfriended (and not just on Facebook).
Talk of heaven is only slightly more permissible. Having lost numerous family members, I’ve observed that many people are alright with saying nebulous things like “he’s in a better place,” but they avoid using the term heaven.
But neither heaven nor hell is taboo in the Bible. Both are described as real places, where real people go. And they go there forever.
When the Nazi guards came to execute Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he told them with confidence: “For you it is an end, for me a beginning.”
I hope and pray that, like Bonhoeffer, you know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. I hope and pray that even though much of our culture scoffs at the Bible’s simple explanation of salvation, that you realize that a God of love wouldn’t want it to be complicated. I hope at the very least this post has you thinking about things eternal and maybe has you contemplating Pascal’s Wager.
And for those who do know Christ, I pray that you and I will be bold this week in addressing this last taboo. May we be prepared to give an answer for the hope that we have, and may we always do so with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15-16).