Bo Pelini, Self-Deception, and the Gospel

In a closed-door meeting just a few days after he was fired as head coach at Nebraska, Bo Pelini addressed the Husker players. On Thursday the Omaha World Herald released an audio recording of that meeting. (Warning: the audio on this link contains extreme profanity.) Pelini spoke with the team for about 30 minutes and insulted Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst several times. Pelini did not speak well of the university, the administration, or the leadership culture in the athletic department.

If you know anything about Nebraska football and Bo Pelini (and I don’t expect readers of this blog to know anything), you quickly realized that this audio only confirms the exact reason why Pelini was fired: he had an arrogant, unprofessional, disrespectful, and vulgar disposition.

A member of our church (a Texas A&M fan) said to me before Pelini was fired, “He’s a jerk. Your fans are so nice. You don’t need a guy like that.” Yes, Pelini lost some big games by a lot of points. Coaches can’t do that and live to tell about it. But more than that, Pelini does not reflect the type of person an institution of higher education wants to employ, even a football coach.

This brings up an important point. Pelini was known not only for drama on the sidelines, but for crafting a dramatic (and well-rehearsed, it seemed) “us-against-the-world” plot-line throughout his tenure. This post-firing speech, no doubt taken to heart by so many impressionable student-athletes in that room (and for good reason: they loved their coach), was simply the narrative’s denouement. To change the metaphor, it was the Mt. Everest of the Bo Pelini experiment at the University of Nebraska. Mountain top experiences are usually good things. But this final climb to the summit had all the ice and frost bite and anger and heartache of Everest without any of the glory.

But this was about more than a frustrated former employee. It was about more than a coach who blows a gasket every now and then and has a bit of vitriol for his ex-boss. It was about more than approaching sports and coaching with an “us-against-the-world” attitude (which is a bad way to approach sports and coaching but that’s another post).

This was about the “exceeding sinfulness of sin,” as the Puritans used to say. Sin is horrific in its power to deceive the one it devours. Sin is blinding and the more one is entrenched in sin, the harder it is to see that you are actually blind. Pelini had opportunity in front of his players to say, once and for all, he screwed up. That he had not lived up to his own values of class, professionalism, accepting personal responsibility, and so on. That he had not treated people—superiors, referees, players, and others—with honor, dignity, and respect. But he did not. He blamed others. He defended himself. He exaggerated his virtues. He exaggerated the faults of his foes. He did whatever he could to protect and justify himself. Pelini couldn’t see what, it appears, everyone around him had been seeing for years both on and off the field.

Pelini provides us with an extreme case study of how easily and powerfully we can be deceived. We miss the point if we read or hear this and say, “I can’t understand how he didn’t see this! He got what was coming to him.” Instead, this case study should teach us. It should expose our own self-deceptiveness and tendencies to self-protect and self-justify. What would an audio recording of your thoughts sound like? You might not have as many expletives as Pelini, but no doubt there are voracious and dastardly self-defense strategies and tactics being developed and implemented every hour. No doubt you are deceiving yourself and loading up ammo ready to aim and fire on whoever will challenge you in order to justify yourself and dish out judgment and condemnation. Your spouse. Your child. Your boss. Your neighbor. Your small group leader. Your sibling. Your therapist. Be thankful you don’t have a platform like Pelini and a hundred college students with smart phones inside your head.

The only answer—and this is not a trite answer—is the gospel. Through God’s grace in the gospel, I see myself for who I really am. The layers of sin’s deception start to peel back. I realize that my biggest problems are inside of me, not outside of me. The gospel tells me I am more flawed and broken than I ever dared believe. How do I know this? The gospel tells me that God’s own Son, Jesus, died for me. He died for me not as an example but as a substitionary sacrifice. I would have no hope without his death. He died in my place because I deserved to die. I—you—deserved to die because I—we—assaulted God by trying to be God. You see, when we deceive ourselves into believing that our problems are outside of us and not inside of us, and that others are to blame and we are justified in our thoughts, words, and actions, we play the role of God and judge. One of the prime hallmarks of sin is that it deceives us to believe we are our own god.

The gospel shows us that we cannot be our own god and we’re doomed if we try. The gospel shows us that it is not “us-against-the-world” but rather “God-against-the-world.” In our attempts to justify ourselves, we have rebelled against God and find ourselves at odds with him.

But there is also good news in this gospel: we are more loved and accepted than we ever dared hope. The gospel reveals that God is not only against the world, but that he loves the world and he sent his only Son into the world to die for us. Jesus was willing to die and he died because we deserved it. On the cross, Jesus bears the entire punishment we deserve for our self-deception—our playing God. And he also provides the perfection you and I—and Bo Pelini—need for true and lasting justification. Jesus gives us all his beauty and goodness and obedience in return for all our ugliness and badness and disobedience. Astonishing.

What does this do in my life? It frees me from having to protect and justify myself. Why? Because in God’s eyes, I’m justified. There’s no more need to defend myself. The Creator loves and accepts me! Now, I’m free to admit my faults because the are ultimately not a threat to me anymore. God has forgiven me and is in the process of changing me and will one day bring final deliverance. Now, I’m also free to cry out with the psalmist, “Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults” (Ps. 19:12). I can admit I don’t know myself as well as I should. There are hidden sins in me that want to stay covered. In fact, I’m partly blind to some of my worst sins. That’s how sin works. But as the gospel takes deeper root in my life, these “hidden faults” become more evident. As the gospel goes deeper and I actively seek out areas of self-deception in order to put them to death, self-deception begins to wane. Slowly, but surely, by God’s grace, it wanes.

This 30-minute audio recording is about Bo Pelini, sure. But it’s also about you and me. It’s about self-deception. It’s about the gospel. Let this final, tragic episode in Pelini’s time at Nebraska help you see that sin is exceedingly sinful because it inclines us to self-deception. Even more, let it help you see that the gospel is exceedingly good because it opens our eyes to who we really are, who Jesus really is, and what he has done to provide us true, lasting justification.

A Simple Way to Pray

I’ve been writing a bit lately on prayer (see here and here), with more to come. In between posts I wanted to provide you with a resource for your prayer life. It is a short booklet by Martin Luther called A Simple Way to Prayer. You may already be familiar with it, and even if you are it’s worth another read.

In this booklet, Luther helps Peter Beskendorf, his barber, understand how to pray. One might be inclined to think that Luther, a theological giant in church history, would complicate prayer, making it difficult for non-theological giants like us. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Luther was an academic, yes; but he was primarily a pastor. Luther wanted the church to recover the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers—the truth that believers had access to God through Christ, and therefore, all believers could learn to pray.

So this booklet is not an doctrinal treatise on prayer. It’s a how-to manual. It’s a field guide. And it comes from a man who prayed—fervently and often. A Simple Way to Pray focuses on meditating on Scripture and turning those meditations into conversation with God. He comments on praying the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Creed.

So sit and learn how to pray from Martin Luther. Here’s a few ways to get the book:

I’d go with the free option if I were you (the paperback book is 64 pages, so the price per page is pretty steep). Free help for your prayer life from Martin Luther. How you can pass that up?

The Psalms: A Vocabulary for Faith

This is a follow up post to “Pastoral Ministry and the Practice of Prayer.”

I have two daughters. Bailey is nearing three and a half years old. Hope just turned 18 months. Bailey speaks quite well. She has, as a matter of fact, since she was about 18-20 months old. I remember once during a check-up around that time that the pediatrician asked Carly, my wife, if Bailey has “between 5-10 words” (or something close to that) in her vocabulary. Carly nearly laughed. Bailey could probably say about five dozen words. “Oh yes,” Carly replied. “She definitely can.”

Hope, on the other hand, has second-child speaking syndrome. Her big sister often speaks to her and for her. So, she grunts, whines, points, or cries. She tells us she’s done with dinner by throwing her plate or food particles on the floor. She can say about 5-10 words, but not particularly well. She does not have a large vocabulary and, because of that, it is difficult for her to express and articulate her desires or feelings, likes and dislikes with words. We know she will mature and eventually learn our language. But it will require her to continue to be immersed in everyday vocabulary, led primarily by our speaking so that she hears, understands, and contextualizes our words in order that she, eventually, speak words of her own.

When it comes to the Christian life—the life of faith in the God of Scripture—I wonder how many of us live like an 18-month old second-child who has no vocabulary. If we are going to walk with and relate to and experience God, if we are going to know what he is like and how he acts and therefore properly respond to him, if we are going to express to him our desires and feelings, likes and dislikes, complaints and praises, confessions and thanksgivings, then we need a vocabulary of faith.

Enter the Psalms.

The Psalms provide us a vocabulary of faith—a basic and advanced grammar, if you will. In the the Psalms we encounter a new language that few of us have ever tried to learn and if we do learn it, even in part, it beautifully devastates and renews us at the same time. This book is the inspired prayer book of ancient Israel and it exposes us to the entire spectrum of human emotion and experience. And it is here we must turn if we are going to learn how to pray.

Tim Keller, in his new book Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, comments,

There is no situation or emotion a human being can experience that is not reflected somewhere in the Psalms. Immersing ourselves in the Psalms and turning them into prayers teaches our hearts the “grammar” of prayer and gives us the most formative instruction in how to pray in accord with God’s character and will (Prayer, 255).

The Psalms draw us in and give us suitable words to praise God, thank God, complain to God, and repent of sins. They teach theology, yes, but more than that, they make theology real and felt. The Psalms give us an experiential dimension to our faith in order to keep us from cold-hearted intellectualism. In other words, the Psalms show what a real relationship with God is like. That’s what I want. Do you want that, too?

In the next few posts on prayer, I’ll talk about the depth of the psalms as a prayer book and also how I’m learning to use the psalms in prayer.

How have the Psalms shaped your prayer life? If they have not, what’s stopping you from learning a new language?

Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming

This beautiful “Christmas” hymn is based on a prophecy in Isaiah 11:1-2 that Jesus will be from the root—the family line—of Jesse, King David’s father. The title is “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” and it was written in 15th century Germany and was translated to English by Theodore Baker in 1894.

Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as men of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.

Isaiah ’twas foretold it, the Rose I have in mind;
With Mary we behold it, the virgin mother kind.
To show God’s love aright, she bore to men a Savior,
When half spent was the night.

The shepherds heard the story proclaimed by angels bright,
How Christ, the Lord of glory was born on earth this night.
To Bethlehem they sped and in the manger found Him,
As angel heralds said.

This Flower, whose fragrance tender with sweetness fills the air,
Dispels with glorious splendor the darkness everywhere;
True Man, yet very God, from sin and death He saves us,
And lightens every load.

O Savior, Child of Mary, who felt our human woe,
O Savior, King of glory, who dost our weakness know;
Bring us at length we pray, to the bright courts of Heaven,
And to the endless day!

The Need for Christmas Light

This past Sunday was the beginning of Advent, the season in the church calendar that leads up to Christmas day. Advent (from the Latin word adventus meaning “arrival” or “coming”) is a time of anticipation. But it’s not anticipating for gifts or parties or egg nog. It’s a season of longing for hope—true hope in the midst of a dark world. Advent is an invitation to face our works of darkness and see the light of Jesus our Redeemer.

Whether you are a Christian or not, whether you observe Advent or not, you long for light. Deep down, you know there is darkness within. You have a sense of shame, inadequacy, and incompleteness. You know this–whether you consciously realize it or admit it—because you run to things for light, for hope. You run to money, success, sex, power, control, friendships, acclaim, morality, technology, alcohol, food, exercise or a thousand other things. All of those things are good things. But when they become ultimate things–things you look to for light and hope, they will only leave you in the darkness.

Do you want hope? Do you want light—this Christmas and beyond? There’s no amount of money or gifts or fame or sex or romance that can take away the darkness in you and all around you. You need something beyond created things. You need something outside of yourself. You need an Advent—an arrival of something, Someone, who will bring hope beyond your wildest dreams.

God’s answer for this longing—your longing—is his Son, the light-giving Redeemer, Jesus of Nazareth. In the words of Linus, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” God did not provide a circumstance or event or a system or information. He provided a Person who did not simply give light, but is light. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

You get a picture of this longing for the hope–the light–of Christmas in the Coldplay song “Christmas Lights.” It’s not a song about Jesus, of course. But it exposes the darkness that lives in us: “Got all kinds of poison in, of poison in my blood.” It illustrates the inherent desire in human beings for hope, for light: “I am up here holding on to all those chandeliers of hope.” It lays us bare, and reveals that the pursuit of hope in anything but Jesus—in this case a romantic relationship—will always leave us unsatisfied: “And like some drunken Elvis singing, I go singing out of tune, singing how I’ve always loved you, darling, and I always will.” It beckons us look to Christmas for what it is, a day of light and hope: “Oh Christmas lights light up the street, light up the fireworks in me, may all your troubles soon be gone, those Christmas lights keep shining on.”

When Jesus came, he came to give hope and light to all who trust in him and turn from trusting in themselves and other things. He will come back again in brilliant light and glory and on that day, all our troubles will be gone. It’s during this time of Advent we are reminded that we, like Israel, live in a time of anticipation. We don’t wait for our Redeemer’s first coming. We wait—long, yearn, groan—for his second coming. Coldplay’s “Christmas Lights” is a longing for something deeper than a reconciled romance with Christmas “lights” as the object of faith. Whether Chris Martin realizes it or would admit it, It’s a desperate cry for reconciliation with the Redeemer, who is the Light of Christmas.

Here’s the music video of “Christmas Lights”: