Monthly Archives: November 2005


Cable controversy misses point

Man, I would not want to be a cable-TV exec these days.

Well, I mean, aside from the six-figure salary, massive national influence, and — oh yeah — free cable. Those things would be nice.

But in terms of the actual business end of things, being a cable operator isn’t the plum gig it used to be. Not only are you facing stiff competition with satellite TV, but now the FCC is reversing its position on a la carte programming.

A la carte programming, as you may know, has been trumpeted by consumer groups for years. It’s a very common-sense idea, when you get right down to it. Every time there is a decency scandal involving cable TV, industry lobbyists are quick to point out that parents can always have certain channels blocked if they find their programs to be offensive. But parental-advocacy groups tend to fire back with this — why should I have to pay for channels I don’t want?

Under Michael Powell’s reign as chairman in 2004, the FCC came to the conclusion that this would ultimately hurt subscribers in the long run, because changing the system would require a costly equipment and a system redesign that would drive subscription costs skyward.

But now, FCC chairman Kevin Martin is ready to turn the tide. And if I was a cable operator, I’d be getting a little nervous. Especially since my main competitor (satellite TV) is claiming it can make this whole a la carte thing work.

But the people who are most nervous are the smaller, niche-based cable stations, many of which are religious in nature. Which, according to the LA Times, can make for strange bedfellows. In this case, it’s TBN and other religious broadcasters opposing the proposed a la carte system.

It’s ironic, really, that TBN is finally ending up on the other end of a censorship debate. They’re guessing that the general populace wouldn’t, on its own, pay for religion programming — and they don’t want to be shut out of the marketplace. A good source (read: my gut) believes it’s probably the result of a deeply-honed defense mechanism designed to maintain viewership at any cost, even when the thing that is threatening viewership has a perceived benefit to citizens of organized religion. It’s almost like they’re saying, hey, stop doing things to help people spiritually — that’s what we’re for.

Of course, the key phrase is “perceived benefit,” because while a la carte programming is a boon for cost-conscious viewers like myself, it’s not exactly going to lead the masses into a spiritual revival. After all, trying to blame media channels for the poor morals that children internalize is a little bit like trying to blame the local sanitation department for the fact that your kids are eating dirt out of the gutter. If a child develops a habit eating dirt, then — yes, absolutely — that’s a problem. But the bigger issues are these: How did dirt end up on their plate? How is their sense of discernment so warped that they can’t tell the difference between a meal and a molehill?

Those are the types of questions parents need to be asking. You can’t get too angry at the industry for giving people what they want. What people need is to change what they want. And that’s the point that most people miss in this debate. For parents concerned about their children’s media habits, changing the TV programming options is just one step in the right direction.

There are many other steps that can be made, and they don’t take million-dollar lobbyists and carefully-worded press-releases. They take, love, discipline, and initiative.

Too bad those aren’t available on an a la carte basis.


Natural Selection: Do Jump!

I am, by no means, an expert — or even really an aficionado — of dance. As performing arts go, most of my exposure has been to music, and to a lesser extent, theater. As a matter of fact, the last time I had more than a passing interest in following dance as a performing art was in middle school. This interest was fueled, in part, by a friendship I forged with a lanky White guy named Aaron Wheeler-Kay, who ended up being one of my enduring homies over the years.

So it was with great pleasure that I watched him in a production of “Do Jump! For the Holidays” a few weeks back. For he and the other members of the Do Jump! dance troupe awakened something in me that I hadn’t felt since I saw a production of “Stomp” at the Lyric Opera House in downtown Chicago. It was a sense of wonder and admiration, mixed with… what’s the word I’m looking for…oh yes:


“Do Jump For the Holidays!” is, besides being a kinetic marvel and theatrical experience, a big, bubbly ball of fun. It’s full of dancers, contorting and flinging themselves around the stage, using all manner of props and costumes to create scenes of of alternating beauty, poignance, and gleeful silliness. Sitting there, taking it all in, I couldn’t help but be amazed.

And a little jealous.

Not because I ever wanted to be a dancer. I learned early on that the good Lord blessed me with many attributes, but physical grace and dexterity wasn’t part of the package.

No, I couldn’t help but be jealous of the dancers because it was evident just how much fun they were having with the whole thing. One cannot appreciate the full extent of just how grueling a workout they get from sitting in the seats, because it just looks like they’re having a ball out there, bending and swinging and jumping and floating and kicking and sliding and doing other -ings that I can’t think of.

And it’s not just in the troupe itself, but it’s also in Klezmocracy, the live klezmer band that accompanies them. The three-piece outfit provides a kaleidoscopic backdrop of rhythm and melody that transcends culture and ethnicity. They take the form of traditional klezmer, Jewish wedding dance music, and morph it bit by bit. A little bit of jazz, a little bit of funk, a little bit of polka, a little bit of this and that, and pretty soon you can’t really tell what’s going on except that people are moving around and having a lot of fun.

I don’t mean to demean the artistic quality of this show, because it’s just as much of an artistic achievement as it is an entertaining diversion. But art is meant to be appreciated, not just by critics and artsy people, but by average folk. And by that standard, it was a rousing sucess.

So if you’re looking for something to do that’s beyond your average holiday fare, go check it out.

Do Jump! For the Holidays runs at the Echo Theater until December 23. For more information, call 503-231-1232 or visit the website.


Natural Selection: Kirk Franklin

Kirk Franklin
Gospocentric/Fo Yo Soul Entertainment

To be excellent at something, you can’t just be good in one area. You must completely master all facets of the craft. A great basketball player isn’t just a good shooter, he or she must be able to handle the ball and distribute the ball well. Excellent surgeons shouldn’t just be proficient with their scalpel, they also need to be able to communicate well with people and help them deal with the tensions or fears that may accompany a necessary surgical procedure.

For a work of contemporary gospel music to be excellent, it must achieve excellence in the three ways that correspond to the three words that define the genre — it must be contemporary, it must represent the gospel of Jesus Christ, and it must be musical. Kirk Franklin’s latest release, entitled Hero, is excellent. As a matter of fact, I was surprised — no, shocked — by how good it is. Being the biggest name in gospel music carries an unique burden of high expectations. And as much as I liked the highlight tracks from his previous release, The Rebirth of Kirk Franklin, I didn’t think it was a complete album. But this one… this one nails it.

First off, yes… it is contemporary. Which doesn’t just mean trendy, by the way. It’s contemporary in that the lyrical cadence and emotional subject matter can connect on a deep level with people of this time and era. These songs deal with stuff that real people are going through. Divorce. Self-esteem problems. Substance abuse. Hero captures the gestalt of what it means to be a follower of Christ in the fallen world that we inhabit.

And Kirk Franklin’s Hero is definitely gospel music. Not just in its style, but in its content. And that doesn’t mean it’s churchy. Far from it. Unlike a lot of contemporary gospel artists that always recycle the same well-worn clichés that have come to typify the genre, Kirk Franklin dug deep to find the language of his soul, the words that resonate with a generation of those like him. Aptly titled, this release is about humanity’s need for a hero, and the way in which God continues to step in and fill that void. As the title track says, Jesus comes in and saves the day.

And finally, it is extremely musical. It touches on many different elements indicative of the black music experience that gospel music draws upon, while staying firmly grounded in a contemporary musical framework. Kirk continues in the postmodern musical tradition of reinterpreting music of the past, judiciously sampling and interpolating works by Patrice Rushen, Earth Wind and Fire, Randy Crawford and Deniece Williams. The tracks make implicit nods to the past while still standing up well on their own.

So if you’re like me and you don’t like to ride the marketing hype machine that pushes the latest product from every prominent artist without equivocation or evaluation… then trust me. This one’ s got the goods. It is the model of contemporary gospel music — honest enough to make you reflect on your own life, broad enough in musical scope to please purists and groove fiends, and most importantly, it bears relevant testimony on the ability of God to be a 21st-century hero.

What else do you need? It’s worth shelling out for, and it’s worth listening to. Check it out.


Gospel singer moonlights as exercise instructor

[DISCLAIMER: the following story is intentionally satirical in nature, and should no way be construed as an attack on any particular person or ministry.]

* * *

DETROIT, MI – Maurice Patterson never intended to become a leading face of the billion-dollar fitness industry. He was just trying to stir up some passion in his people.

Leading worship in a small nondenominational East Lansing church, Patterson was getting desperate.

The organists’ power chords weren’t working, and neither had any of his previous selections. Faced with a sparsely-attended congregation whose enthusiasm was flagging by the second, Maurice Patterson stepped out in faith, hoping against hope that the flock would follow his lead.

“Touch your neighbor and ask ‘em, ‘Are you ready to praise the Lord, or what?!’”

As the members of the fleeting congregation began to crack themselves up with such a witty remark, Patterson sensed hope. His moment of levity had started to break the ice, but he knew that wisecracks alone wouldn’t get the job done. These people need some movement, he thought.

So as the band cranked out the opening riff of the next tune, Patterson continued.

“Okay now, high-five the people on either side of you, and tell ’em ‘It’s time to get our praise on!'”

As the high-fiving commenced, the crowd began to energize itself.

Maurice was getting pumped. So as the band continued to jam in the background, Patterson capitalized on the momentum by barking out an impressive barrage of commands, not stopping to think or catch breath.

“Lemme see you raise your hands up, and wave ’em all around!”

“Step back and stomp on the devil’s head!”

“Lean down, touch your toes, and thank the Lord for His goodness!”

“Now come on and jump!”

“Get in the Spirit and work it for Jesus!

By this point, Maurice was on a roll — the only thing left to do was just go with it. He led the praise team through a 30-minute medley of exuberant music peppered with what would later become his trademark style: short, staccato calls of exhortation with commands of movement. By the time he was done, not only was the presence of God thick in the sanctuary — but everyone involved had worked up a good sweat.

An outpouring of support for Patterson’s newfound style led to more high-energy worship. Soon, the traditional church couture of designer suits and fancy hats gave way to warm-ups, sweat-suits and headbands. What had started as a desperate ploy to garner support became the catalyst in a revolutionary modern gospel movement known as kinetic worship.

Patterson, 33, is now the head pastor of Praise Jump International, a megachurch in suburban Detroit. PJI is unique, in that they eschew the typical church format for what they say is a more streamlined approach.

“The feedback we were getting was that the whole sermon-after-the-music thing was getting in the way of people truly experiencing the high-energy worship vibe they’re after,” said Patterson in a phone interview.

“So our board got together to meet about it, and we decided ahhh… we don’t need it. So it got axed.”

Shortening their services to 45 minutes (two 20-minute sets and five minutes for an altar-call) made it easier to accommodate the busy lives of people in their target demographic, according to Chico Alfonso, Patterson’s personal assistant and trainer. As a result, they’ve expanded to five services on Sundays, four on Saturdays, and three on Tuesdays through Thursdays. One of the weekday services includes a 6:30am service for those who choose to worship before their workday starts.

“One of the things we’re most excited about,” beams Alfonso, “Is the rollout of our new satellite services.” In an effort to reach nonworshipers outside their immediate geographical region, PJI has secured a number of smaller, strategic venues for worship services in a variety of time slots and locales. Some meet simultaneously and participate by receiving a live satellite feed of PJI services, while others take advantage by showing consecutive installments of the award-winning Praise Jump!™ series of exercise DVDs.

To bolster a sense of connectedness and participation, PJI is in the process of recruiting and training mainstream fitness professionals to become their new satellite kinetic worship leaders.

“Obviously, nobody can do it like Mo does it,” Alfonso admits. “But with the new staff we’re adding every week, more people are gettin’ their praise on every day.”

One such staffer is Rebecca Dean, who leads a Praise Jump! service at the local YMCA. “People are asking me now, ‘What’s it like working for a church?’ And I have to say, I like it.” Dean has a phys-ed degree from the University of Michigan, and she’s held down a variety of fitness-related jobs before becoming a kinetic worship leader for PJI. “I thought people might not be as responsive to me, since I don’t hold their Christian beliefs, but they’ve been very welcoming to me. I think it’s because I’m a pretty spiritual person – after all, I used to be a yoga instructor.”

Johan and Karla Nodanova have been steady attendees of the Sunday service at Praise Jump International’s main suburban campus for well over a year. “At first, it was pretty strange for us,” says Johan. “It wasn’t like anything we were used to, and I guess it took us awhile to adjust.”

“Amen to that,” says Karla, as she sips on a fruity energy drink.

“Coming to this church really took us out of our comfort zone. But now, with Mo Patterson leading the way every week, it’s great. He really gets us movin’ in the right direction and feelin’ good. Besides, our last church used to have service in a gym, so I guess this is just the next logical step.”

As the throngs of people pack the foam-matted auditorium of Praise Jump International, Maurice Patterson is in rare form. Leading from the center stage, he continues to shout instructions to the believers.

“Get on your knees before the Lord!”

“Get on your face before the Lord!”

“Now squat before the Lord, and feel His presence burn…”

As with any pop culture phenomenon, Praise Jump International has its share of detractors.

Harcourt Bainbridge, author of I Don’t Feel Like Touching My Neighbor, takes issue with Patterson’s brand of Christian spirituality.

“I’m sure he means well,” says Bainbridge, “but I go to church to connect with God, not to jump around in some funky mosh pit.” Bainbridge also contends that his problems with PJI are not only spiritual, but practical as well.

“I love God’s people just like anybody else, but would it be that much trouble to install a couple air fresheners in there?”

When confronted with these issues, Patterson readily admits that there are still kinks in the system, wrinkles that need to be ironed out. Even so, the people keep turning out in droves. On this night, with this crowd, it’s all in the movement.

As Maurice Patterson shows millions of people how it’s done, a generation is moving in a new direction.

“The Lord is calling is to move forward in our worship, so let’s go. Come on now, everybody take a couple steps forward. Okay, now the Lord says let’s take a step back. Okay, now the Lord says move to the right… okay now, move to the left… hey!! – I didn’t say ‘The Lord Says!’”


Real ministers don’t do this

This may be shocking news to some, but — come to find out — there’s an actual reason why people have negative misconceptions about the church and people who call themselves ministers.

Self-described minister Derrick Mosley was convicted a few days ago of attempting to extort money from New York Yankees slugger Gary Sheffield and his wife, gospel singer DeLeon Richards-Sheffield. Apparently he claimed to have in his possesion a tape of Mrs. Richard-Sheffield in an indiscretionary escapade with R. Kelly, a man infamous for his indiscretions.

Now there are only a few details that any of us really need to understand in order to get the gist of what happened here.

First, it had been rumored for years that DeLeon Richards and R. Kelly, both originally from Chicago, had known each other back in the day. That rumor gained more validity when Sheffield released a statement last November when the allegations were first raised. In his statement, he supported his wife, though he did acknowledge that, prior to their marriage, she had engaged in “a long-term relationship over ten years ago with a well-known singer.”

Second, according to the AP story, Mosley had contacted Sheffield’s business agent first, seeking $20,000 in exchange for his destroying the embarrassing tape and offering counseling for Mrs. Richards. Mosley’s defense attorney would later claim that he only wanted DeLeon to atone for her sins, and that there was no actual threat of him releasing the tape. And third, according to the Chicago Sun Times story, after agents raided his home he admitted that he wasn’t even sure if the woman on the tape in his posession was Richards-Sheffield or not.

The official report says the jury took three hours to deliberate, which on a judicial scale, is akin to a commercial break on Judge Judy. I mean, really. Cases in traffic court can take longer than that. So clearly this man has done something really wrong, and will serve time because of it. But that’s not what bothers me so much. What bothers me is the fact that this man calls himself a minister.

In my mind, there’s a difference between ministers and activists. Activists push to make things happen. Ministers push to make good things happen.

I know that’s a blanket generalization, but just go with me for a second. The way I see it, activists try to promote causes that they believe in, and maybe some people believe in that cause, and maybe others don’t. But ministers, well… they’re supposed to minister. I mean, even if you’re an atheist and you don’t believe in God, are you really going to oppose the actions of most ministers? Not really, because generally ministers are about praying for people, teaching people the Bible, counseling marriages, etc. Generally speaking, in my mind, ministers are about helping people. I mean, that’s what the word “minister” means.

But the general populace is starting to get another picture of ministers, a picture that gets painted in greater and greater detail every time a story like this unfolds. For many, the image of a minister is a self-serving, judgmental, gluttonous charlatan that preys on the weak-minded, down-and-out members of society. This brand of minister has failed to take on the basic Hippocratic principle that compels, when confronted with malaise, “to help, or at least to do no harm.”

This is part of the reason why stories like this one by John W. Fountain in the Detroit News exist, because the church is being viewed more and more often as an institution that not only fails to help, but fails to at least do no harm.

Now there may be a miniscule grain of truth to the idea that Derrick Mosley might have, at least initially anyway, had a good motive for bringing the issue up. I know that ministers today have a uniquely challenging set of factors to deal with, particularly those who minister in cities. And I don’t like to point out a problem without at least attempting to offer a potential solution. So for the rare possibility that someone out there reading this may be in a similar position in the future, here are some things you should (and shouldn’t) do, if you find out that someone famous in your field of influence may be knee-deep in something moral or illegal:

1. Make sure this is something that deserves your attention.

This may mean undertaking a certain level of due diligence to ensure that these claims are not just idle gossip or a smear campaign from a rival. Fans of Clay Aiken, bitter from his having lost his season’s “American Idol” contest to Ruben Studdard, could start a series of rumors claiming Studdard to be a child molester if they really wanted to. With these matters, you must consider the source.

If the source seems credible, then that’s just the beginning. Let’s say, for the sake of hypothesis, that you believe DeLeon Richards really did have a series of sexual encounters with R. Kelly before she married Gary Sheffield. Do the Sheffields’ go to your church? Have they consented to submit to your spiritual authority? If the answer to either of those questions is “no,” well then like the Lone Ranger, your work here is done. What’s happened has happened, and that’s between them and God until He sees fit to allow you to be included in the process.

2. Follow the Biblical standard for confrontation.

If you’ve read Matthew 18:15-17 then you should know how this goes. (And for God’s sake, if you consider yourself a minister and you haven’t read this yet… stop reading right now, and go read the whole chapter.) If someone has sinned against you, go talk to them about it. If they won’t listen to you, then bring another few people with you, so there can be witnesses. If they still ain’t feelin’ you, then bring it up before the church. And if they still persist after that, then cast ’em out.

Notice that there is a clear progression. It doesn’t start with making things public. It starts with being direct and talking to that person, mano y mano. Also notice that this refers to sin in the present tense. If you’re talking about some offense that happened years and years ago, check to see if the person has repented. If they have, then forgive and move on. Only when there has been no repentance and the sin is still persisting are we given license to confront in this manner. Nowhere in Matthew 18 are the instructions, “extort your brother out of $20,000 so his sin can be kept a secret.”

3. If you must confront, make sure it’s done in love.

Biblical confrontation is done not for personal gain or a sense of superiority, but out of love for the person that has gone astray. If you’re in a position where you need to rebuke someone of status, make sure that your motive is to uplift and not to tear down. The goal of a rebuke is restoration, not humiliation.

And this is where the actions of Derrick Mosley, if they’ve been reported accurately, make me the most nauseous. Let’s say my man Gary Sheffield decides to give Mosley the money, and DeLeon proceeds with the “counseling.” What is it going to solve to keep things hidden? How is it going to help them with their marriage? I give major propers to Sheffield for being up front about the whole thing, because when the story first broke a year ago, he came forward with a statement: I love my wife, it happened, let’s move on. Fear causes people to keep their skeletons locked up in the closet, but true love wants to deal with issues out in the open.

Those are the things that separate actual ministers from those who try to play the role. ‘Cause them cats is called players. Let’s not get those two mixed up anymore, okay?

I’m G*Natural; thanks for mixin’ it up with me.


just what I need: more words

What do I want for Christmas?

A new refrigerator poetry set.

Well, okay, not exactly for Christmas. If you’re actually going out of your way to buy me a Christmas present, then you can probably do better than refrigerator poetry. Call me cheap, but I’d rather get something else if you’re buying.

But if you happen to have an extra one lying around, like, for example, as a give-away that you got from some company at a national-whatever convention, then I want one. I saw someone with refrigerator poetry lined up along the top of their office cubicle at work today, and I thought that was pretty cool. I could have a lot of fun with that kind of thing.

But I’m never going to go out and buy one of those things.

I mean, lets lets face it — if you’re anything like me, you’re never actually going to pay for a refrigerator poetry set. Shoot… the novelty wore off like 8 years ago. They can still be a fun little diversion, but the key is to collect a whole bunch of free giveaways from different places, in order to have enough words to really be able to say something.

Because, say, you buy a Starbucks refrigerator poetry set — then you’re stuck with 137 words like “cocoa” “lustrous,” “percolate,” and “bittersweet.” Not particularly helpful if you want to create anything other than ad copy for coffee ads. As a matter of fact, that’s probably where they would be most useful. Instead of distributing them to the general public, Starbucks should just give sets to their ad execs — it’ll save ’em time in the boardroom:

“Whaddya got, Johnson?”
“Well sir, how about… ‘Aroma Mix Loves So Strong’?”

“No, I’m pretty sure that was a Celine Dion single at some point. But keep trying. Here, I pilfered this set from the Quizno’s rep. Maybe you can make it edgy.”

Yeah, so my idealized refrigerator poetry set would consist of my favorite brands of things. See now that would be fun. I’d maybe get a Jones’ Soda brand set (with words like, “fizzy” “explosive” and maybe, if I was lucky, a few Don-King-esque ones like “tangeristic” or “frutangumous”) and then follow that up with a Homestar Runner set (“e-eemail,” “store,” “lazors” and “Trogdor the Burninator”), then round it out with a set from ESPN (“shoots,” “scores,” “en fuego,” and “booyah” would all come in handy).

I’d love to make poetry with a set like that.

Of course, the very idea of refrigerator poetry might be offensive to actual, published poets. People who slave over their words for hours on end might not appreciate having their livelihood reduced to a wordy game of connect-the-dots on somebody’s Frigidaire.

“So, what is it that you do?”

“Well, I’m a poet. I use words to paint pictures.”

“Really? That’s wonderful… my daughter loves to do that when I’m making macaroni-and-cheese.”

Yeah, I’m guessing that buying your local poet laureate a refrigerator poetry set isn’t necessarily going to set their muse on fire. Unless, of course, someone makes a bestselling book of poetry that way — then all bets are off. Then you’ll see out-of-work poets flooding their local Targets and Wal-Marts, trying to get boxes and boxes of those things. Isn’t that how it always works? Somebody succeeds at something, and then everybody else flocks in to try their hand at it.

Kinda like blogging, really. Too bad I wasn’t first.


The rules shall set you free

We got a lot of minds in bondage, so it’s time we set ’em free

Don’t believe in somethin’ ’cause you saw it on TV

What good is the body without control of the brain?

Those are the rules of the game.

— “Rules of the Game,” 4th Avenue Jones

You shall know the rules, and the rules shall set you free.

Okay, I’m fudging a little on that quote, but stay with me anyway. Sometimes the rules do set us free. All of us have, from time to time, been in a position to benefit from a superior knowledge of the rules that define the situations we find ourselves in.

Don’t believe me? Think about that the next time you get a parking or speeding ticket. I know plenty of people who make it a standard practice to contest any and all tickets levied against them by local law enforcement. If the officer fails to show up, there’s a good chance your violation will get thrown out and you won’t have to pay. Those are the rules. And sometimes all it takes is being ready, in the right place, at the right time, to take advantage of the right opportunity – and bam – suddenly you’re sittin’ pretty.

If you’re Steve Martin’s character in “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” then an overbooked commercial flight is a nightmare. But if you were like I was during my college years, then every time you get ready to board the return flight of a round-trip plane ticket, you got to the gate early and hoped the flight was overbooked. Because at the time, many airlines had the standing policy of offering a free night’s stay in a local hotel to ticketed passengers who volunteered to give up their seats. Now that I’m almost out of my twenties and I travel more often, a free night’s stay in a hotel wouldn’t be that big a deal to me. But back then… shoot. A free night’s stay in somewhere nicer than my dorm room? Sign a brotha up.

Strike Three… ?

I bring all this up to set the stage to tell you about one of the most remarkable stories ever to occur in the history of sports. Unless you go out of your way to avoid casual sports conversation, there’s a good chance you’ve already heard about this, but unless you know the whole story, you might not fully understand its significance. In Game 2 of the 2005 American League Championship series between the Chicago White Sox and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (yes, that really is their name), the game was tied at 1 in the bottom of the ninth. There were two outs, no men on base, and White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski was at the plate, facing an 0-2 count from Angels pitcher Kelvim Escobar. The pitcher delivered a nasty splitter, and A.J. swung mightily – and missed. Exhaling in disappointment, A.J. turned began his walk back toward the dugout, when – ZOIP! – he was hit with a brilliant epiphany.

Major league baseball rule# 6.0.5 states that if the batter swings and misses a third strike, and the pitch that he was swinging for hits the dirt, the batter isn’t out until the catcher either tags him or throws him out at first. And Angels catcher Josh Paul never tagged him out. So Pierzynski decided, on the off chance that his third strike actually did end up in the dirt, he would just go for it. As the rest of the Angels were running toward the dugout, A.J. took off and sprinted to first base. After conferring with each other, the umpires ruled him safe at first – and the home crowd roared in approval.

Thrilled to have another chance to win the game, the White Sox took advantage. Pablo Ozuna stole second base on the very next pitch, and then Smokin’ Joe Crede hit an RBI double to bring Ozuna home.

Ballgame. Sox win, 2-1.

History will look back fondly on this White Sox team. Not only did they manage to wring out a victory with such a bizarre turn of events, they went on to sweep both the Angels and the Houston Astros to claim their first World Series title in 88 years. In the final four games of their series with L.A/Anaheim, White Sox starting pitchers Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland, Freddy Garcia and Jose Contreras set a record by pitching four consecutive complete games. This squad and the 1999 New York Yankees are the only teams ever to go through a three-round postseason with only one loss. With such an impressive run through the playoffs, it’s hard to remember how easily it could have gone the other way.

In Game 1 of that same ALCS, the Angels were supposed to be the tired ones. After having played five exhausting games against the Yankees, they had to fly to Chicago the next day to play the well-rested White Sox… and they beat those well-rested White Sox like they stole something. Outhit them, outhustled them, outfielded them, just flat-out outplayed them. So the tied score in Game 2 reached closer and closer to the end, Sox fans were starting to get nervous. Their team was being outplayed again, and they did NOT want to have to go into Anaheim in an 0-2 series hole.

Yet, when everything was at its bleakest, somehow the freak Pierzynski strike-three-that-wasn’t gave the Sox new life, and they managed to capitalize. Cynics and Angelenos (who, lets face it, are usually one-and-the-same) were incensed, claiming another Chicago fix was in the works. Considering Mayor Daley is a huge White Sox fan, well… they had a point. But the fact of the matter is Pierzynski knew the rules of the game, and his team was able to benefit from that knowledge. If that particular rule wasn’t there, then there wouldn’t be any controversy.

Which begs the question – why is the rule there, anyway?

Rules… What’s Up With That?

Any discussion of rules will inevitably get back to those types of questions. When the rules or laws of a particular situation dictate the occurrence of significant phenomena, then it makes people wonder about how those rules or laws ever came to be.

This, by the way, is one of the central questions posed within the Intelligent Design debate. It wasn’t that a bunch of lesser-known scientists with inferiority complexes sat up one morning and figured out a way to strike back at all those godless infidels in their local state university science department. I mean, come on. There are certainly a lot of backward Christians out there, but we’re not all that far gone. On the contrary, many scientists have told us that their observations about the world around us suggests that there are natural laws, laws that generally describe the way things tend to be in the observable domain we call earth. The main driving force behind the intelligent design movement to ask the question of why — why are these natural laws in place the way that they are? Is there anyone out there responsible?

In the case of the Sox/Angels third strike rule, I’m not really sure. Maybe it’s there so that if a pitcher’s slider is falling so hard that it hits the dirt, the batter still has a chance to make something happen. Maybe it was a little wild-card, monkey wrench thrown in there to liven things up and prevent pitching from being too dominant. I don’t know. But I know that people will remember it, just like people still remember the NFL’s “tuck rule” that helped the New England Patriots beat the Oakland Raiders in 2002.

And it amazes me that people will scrutinize these rules so closely. I don’t mean league officials or team personnel – it’s their job to scrutinize rules inside and out. No, I’m talking about players and fans, people who are frustrated with the outcome of the game and choose to lash out at the rule, instead of being upset at the poor play the rule illuminated. It’s always amazing to me when that happens. I remember one year, after the Los Angeles Lakers had beaten the Sacramento Kings in the playoffs (again), there were many who complained about the slanted officiating. Even noted consumer watchdog Ralph Nader got into the act, calling on the leaguer commissioner to look into the matter and ensure fairness. But no matter how terrible the officiating may have been, it was still the Kings who couldn’t put the ball in the basket when it counted most. Even diehard Kings fans have to admit that.

Rules… They Ain’t All That

Which is why, in my opinion, the rules are important – but they’re not everything.

The rules of basketball, for example, are pretty simple overall. Don’t run with the ball without bouncing it. Put the ball in the opposing team’s hoop more times than they put it in yours. On the face of things, these are very simple rules. Yet the best basketball players in the world are never defined solely by their ability to know the rules. When you’re a professional, knowing the rules is a given. It’s what you do with that knowledge, how you choose to respond to those rules that makes you distinctive or not.

For example, NBA players like Bill Laimbeer and Vlade Divac were all known for their uncanny ability to exploit the rules in their favor. Laimbeer was a very physical player, and he would often incite the wrath of opposing players with his rough style of play. But he would do covertly enough that, if his opposing player was a hothead, the referees would only see his opponent fouling him and not the other way around. This, of course, would infuriate his opponents and delight his teammates. On a good night, Laimbeer could get one of the opposing team members ejected for retaliating in violence. Divac, on the other hand, took the nonviolent approach. His defensive specialty was known as flopping. When he was guarding a player who had the ball, and his guy would make a move toward the basket, Divac would fall over — in order to make it look like the opponent charged into him. If he was successful, his team would be awarded the ball, and if the opposition had just scored a basket, it would be taken away. In both cases, Divac and Laimbeer would rarely try to blatantly violate the rules of basketball. But they knew enough about how the rules were written and enforced to do any little thing they could do in order to gain an advantage over their foes.

It’s How You Play the Game

If that sounds dirty or underhanded, well… for some people, it’s a way of life. Many attorneys, for example, are paid to do the same thing in the legal arena. Some corporate attorneys get paid six-or-seven-figure salaries to find loopholes in the tax code so that companies can pay as little in taxes as they possibly can.

This is why legality does not necessarily translate to morality. If you follow the rules – ie., the law – then, generally speaking, you’re probably doing the right thing. But that’s not an absolute truth. Sometimes, especially in the area of law, bad people do bad things to good people, and the laws can’t prevent them from doing so. The people who make the laws – legislators – do their best to try to anticipate people’s needs by drafting more and more laws to protect people. But those laws can only go so far. They can’t change people’s minds.

So most of us follow the rules most of the time, but usually only grudgingly so. We don’t necessarily like the rules as much as we like what abiding by the rules can help to ensure. I mean, look at this new NBA dress code policy. (If you haven’t heard about it, the new business-casual dress code is the league’s response to a perceived “image problem,” which is a nice euphemism for “too many wealthy White people are alienated by hip-hop culture.”) NBA players have been commenting freely in the press, saying it’s ridiculous, and one player even called it racist. Being currently employed in a corporate environment, yet still being young, Black, and talented, I can definitely see this one both ways. It’s somewhat hypocritical for the league to use hip-hop culture in it’s marketing strategy, but then later crack down on that same style and culture because it makes a few of the suits nervous. At the same time, though, the NBA is a business before it’s anything else. David Stern has a right to protect the brand of his constituents by requiring the players to dress up when they’re conducting league business. So players will whine and moan at first, but at the end of the day they’ll be trying to get paid like anybody else. So if making that happen means goodbye Rocawear, hello Ralph Lauren – so be it.

Rules Can’t Change the Heart

Rules are rules, and we’ll only obey them if we think we’ll get something worthwhile out of it.

This is why I fudged on the quote in the very beginning, and those of you who know the Bible were probably squirming around wondering what I was thinking. What Jesus really said was, “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” But he wasn’t talking about a set of rules, he was talking about Himself. He referred to himself as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. But so often people equate knowing the rules with knowing the truth, and the results can be devastating.

The rules say that all people are created equal and that no one should be subject to abuse or harassment simply because of the color of their skin. But the truth is that prejudice and ignorance lie dormant of even the most well-meaning souls, and bad things can happen if we don’t deal with it ahead of time.

The rules say that if a woman tells a man she does not want to have sex, he must comply with her words, period. But the truth is, words are only one part of the way we communicate, which is why mothers and fathers don’t want their daughters going out wearing tight skirts and low-cut blouses.

The rules say that if you work hard and put some money away in a retirement fund, that money should be there when you’re ready to retire. But the truth is, sometimes the market crashes. Sometimes white collar crimes of embezzlement and insider trading end up costing stockholders their life savings.

In other words, you can’t always trust in following the rules if you want everything to come out okay.

Rules for Christians

Many times, when my high school friends found out I was a Christian, they would ask me all sorts of questions about what I could and couldn’t do. And most of my answers had little to do with Christian orthodoxy and more to do with which stuff would get me in trouble with my parents. What they were trying to find out was, what did the rules allow me to do? Sometimes the rules were more restrictive than my friends would have thought, and other times they were more flexible than they expected. But generally speaking, they learned to equate my faith in God with an extensive set of shoulds and should-nots.

So I found it to be rather shocking when I got into college and I found other Christians who didn’t have the same rules as I had growing up. Where I had rules like “thou shalt not drink beer or smoke cigarettes,” they had rules like, “thou shalt not vote Democrat or watch R-rated movies.” After awhile, all the artificial righteousness we were gleaning from all of our rules was starting to look a little silly. I mean, how are we Christians supposed to hold each other accountable to the rules when we don’t even agree on what all the rules are, anyway?

It wasn’t until much later in my faith journey that I made a rather shocking realization:

God Doesn’t Care About the Rules

In the grand scheme of things, God doesn’t really care whether or not we follow the rules.

At least, not the way we care about it. He cares about people following rules in the same way that state troopers care about the speed limit – which is to say, only as it relates to people’s lives. State troopers aren’t inherently nosy, meddlesome folk. They wouldn’t give a rat-tail comb about the speed limit if it didn’t help save lives. Ideally, what motivates our fine state troopers is the desire to keep people safe on the highway. The rules about traffic are just an objective marker to measure the overall safety of our driving environment.

And it’s the same way with God. He doesn’t care about the rules, He cares about us. He didn’t give us these rules about how we need to live because He was bored and needed someone or something to play with. He gave us some rules as a way for us to identify the things that might make life go sour. He gave us the rules because He wants us to experience the life He’s had in mind for us – a life rich with love, joy, and excitement. He wants us to have life to the fullest.

But he knows that some things could get in the way of that. So he gave us the rules to help us see the things that might come in between us and Him. He knows, for example, that jealousy and envy tends to causes unnecessary strife and an unhealthy sense of competition. So He said, “Guess what… the situation I gave you? Be satisfied with that. Don’t go around trying to have what everybody else has. Just enjoy what I gave you.” And He knows that the whole sleeping-around-so-you-won’t-be-lonely thing actually makes you more lonely (not less), so He says, “You know what? Just be married to one person.” And so on, and so forth.

This is why the Apostle Paul, as He reflected on trying to live according to the rules, said this:

For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:3-4, NASB)

What Paul knew was that many believers would be tempted to go the way of the Pharisees, finding their accomplishment not in loving God but in feeling smug from superior knowledge. Like Agents in The Matrix, they existed solely within a system that was built on rules, and because of that, they could never be as righteous as Christ was. So Jesus, by living as God embodied in man, set out to give us a fuller picture of God by making things simpler. He basically broke all the rules down to be two simple rules – love God, and love your neighbor like yourself.

So if you’re struggling because you feel like you don’t know all the rules, then relax. You don’t need to.

Not because the rules aren’t important. They are. But what’s more important is to know the Ruler. If you do, you’ll realize that having a real, satisfying relationship with the Creator of the universe is a lot more mind-blowing and satisfying than memorizing a book of regulations.

In short, it rules.

I’m G*Natural, and thanks for mixin’ it up with me.