The Least of These…

I know that come the end of the season, most of you will be sick of me talking about football.    The same sense of frustration that you all must feel when I talk about running, will in all probability be focused on my passion of football.   This time of year, football picks up four or five slots on my all time important things listing, and sits there until the first weekend of February.  You will see me, most Sundays, sitting on my couch between the hours of 1pm and 4pm.

Usually when I talk about football, I find myself waist high in statistics.   By the end of the season, yards rushing, or after the catch, third down conversions, and quarterback ratings become a second language for me. I search these things out as if they are the answer to life, the universe and everything.   The passion level builds with each passing week, and by December I am going full speed.  

If you know me, you know better than to ask me my thoughts about Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, or anything Patriot related, especially if you have plans for the afternoon.  You want to get me fired up, ask me about the New York Jets.

There is certainly something about football that latches on to me in late July and refuses to let go.    Maybe it’s all the sermon fodder that can be found in the stories of football.   Maybe it’s watching something that by definition gets better and better with more practice and precision, and wishing that life was like that.    Maybe it’s the countless metaphors that can be found on the football field, like teamwork, persistence, or leadership.

At the same time, I do realize that there is a great deal that is wrong with football.    Better yet, maybe it’s better said that football reveals a great deal of what is wrong with you and I.   Pickup any newspaper and you will see story of the drunk driving athlete, the animal abuser now football hero, or the gridiron superstar who beats his wife senseless.   As in the case of most sports, it’s hard to hide from its ugly side.

I don’t think it gets uglier than the story of Kenny McKinley.  Then again, maybe ugly isn’t the best word.   Maybe the word is sad.   It doesn’t get sadder than the story of Kenny McKinley.  On September 20th, 2010, McKinley committed suicide in his apartment.

Kenny was born when I was in my junior year of high school.   He was a high school standout, and everyone knew who he was in the small Georgian town he called home.  He went to the University of South Carolina and struggled to find a starting spot on the team.   Once there, he blew away everybody’s expectations.   He broke SEC records for receptions (fourth all time), total receiving yards (sixth all time) and tied for sixth in all time receiving touchdowns.

Kenny was all about football.   In 2009, he entered the NFL draft, and was chosen in the fifth round by the Denver Broncos.   His family and friends remember him as walking on air for weeks.   Since he was a little boy, football was his dream.   It was a way out of the poverty of his family.   It was how he defined himself.   It was football that made Kenny McKinley, Kenny McKinley.

In 2009 he played 8 games, and tore his ACL, and was put on the injured reserve, which in effect, ended his season.  Yet something inside of him decided that he wouldn’t give up.   He wanted to play, and he was willing to work hard to get back on the field.

All off season he worked and was back into football shape at the start of the preseason.    He played some in the first preseason game, and was okay with his performance.   He was firing for a special teams slot on the team, which meant he would play only in certain situations, like kick or punt returns.    He figured if he could excel in that slot, his role would be expanded.    

The next game, during the first few plays of the game, his knee erupted in pain as he was sprinting down the field.    The ACL tore again.    The next day he was put on the injured reserve for the second time.  With his injury, McKinley was no longer on the path towards developing into that superstar.   Instead, McKinley was one of the small, nameless players among the crop of 1,600 football players who play professionally for game or a season or two, and end up in obscurity.     Let’s not forget, for every Tom Brady or Brett Favre, there are 32 players whose names will never be known.  The sad truth is coming back from one ACL tear is hard, two is unheard of.    Kenny’s career was almost assuredly over.

It was after watching a football game on television, that he ended his life with a gunshot to head.     This young, 23 year old man, who was slated to be paid almost $400k this year, regardless of whether he played or not was gone.   This young man and father of a young boy ended it all there.

Sadly, these stories are a dime a dozen.   I could tell you about a boyhood friend who shot himself at 17, when his girlfriend broke up with him.    I could tell you about my college friend who was so broken that the only way he could make it through the day was with a bottle of Vodka, and died last year from cirrhosis of the liver.   I could tell you about a friend who fell into a world of alcohol and drug abuse, who decided to throw himself off a building not far from his house. The stories are all too common, and in the end, each one of us has them.

In the shadow of the suicide of a man who had everything, or those that have a full and incredible life ahead of them, it’s hard to make sense of their choice.   Despite the fact that we all have stories, the stories are not enough.   Somewhere along the way, we need to ask why?    Why do so many people in our society choose the unthinkable?

Consider this:  the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that 84 People in the US take their own lives each day, 68 males, 16 females.    We tend to believe that this is solely an issue for teenage boys, but the largest occurrence by age is for those over the age of 65.   In this country there is a suicide every 17minutes.    Another 1,000 people try and fail each day.    That’s an attempt almost once every minute and a half. 

In the US depression is an epidemic level.   Depression disorders affect close to 19 million people in the US alone.   In children the rate is an astonishing and mind blowing 24%.   30% of this country’s women are depressed.   In total 15% of Americans with depression kill themselves.  Saddest yet, is the fact that 80% of those who are depressed are not getting treatment, and 55% of the general population believe that depression is a sign of weakness.

In the face of this bleakness what do we do?    We need to realize that there is a brokenness that is rampant in our culture that goes beyond the dizzying statistics of mental illness or depression.    We need to realize that this epidemic speaks volumes about who we are as a nation, as a culture, and as a people.

We are a people who chase after joy, and will do anything in our power to share in it, when we see it.   We plan baby and wedding showers, we sing at birthdays, and we cheer at everyone of our neighbor’s successes.   In each new born, engagement or work promotion of our neighbor, we borrow a bit of their promise and hope.   We are reminded that potential success and joy are waiting right around the corner for us too.

Yet when the joy fades, and turns to sadness, pain or grief, the same reminder comes barreling right at us, just as fast.   When we hear of the cancer of a friend we wonder if we are next.   When we hear of the next guy getting laid off, we wonder if our jobs are secure.   When tragedy strikes too close to home our worlds shake.   Too often our response is an all too human one; we run.  We are incredibly eager to share the joy, but all too often hide at the pain.

In the end, when we hide the hurting relegated to the dark shadows.   Let me assure you, those shadows are indeed dark.    We can close our eyes and see and feel and experience the pain and loneliness.    We can picture the moment, because we have been there all too frequently ourselves.

We have been in the darkened bedroom, with the curtains drawn over the windows.   We have been there with tears flowing, feeling helpless and alone.   We have been there when we squeeze the pillow tightly over our head in a feeble attempt to drown out the thoughts, voices, pain and regret.   We have been there and glanced at the telephone on the bed side table, and not known who to call.    We have been there alongside those who have made those most horrendous of choices.

Each of us has been alone and hurting at some point in our life.   Each of us has thought we were too broken, too dumb, too fat, too skinny, too unlovable, or too angry to be worth it.   Each of us has had times in our lives when we think about the bad decisions and mistakes and wonder why we did it.     Each of us has had times when we wish fate dealt us a better hand.   

I ask each of you, how many in the 40-60-70-80 years of your lives, have had a moment of painful regret, fear, or sadness.   How many of you have had a moment when you felt alone?  

We have all been there, and this should be a reminder that those moments weren’t moments of weakness or moments of failure.    These were moments of our humanity.    Those were the moments that made you who you are today.     In those moments you spend with the pillow over your head in a dark room, you have two choices;  the first is to allow that loneliness to breed and multiply or second; realize that you are not alone in that moment.

In the end, when I think about the fact that I share these moments with you, I also feel something else.    I feel grateful.    I feel grateful because of the promise that is continually pushed through the church.    I feel grateful that because we share in the reality of Jesus and his teaching, we are compelled, if not commanded, to look around at our neighbors and stand beside them.   Our faith demands in the most concise terms, that we are to serve Jesus by allowing others to lean on us, when they cannot stand on their own.   That is the call of our faith, and the most basic premise of His house.

Allow me for just a moment to offer up a contemporary revision of this scripture….Jesus said to those gathered:  ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat.   I was hungry and you told me to fend for myself.     I was hungry and you walked on by.   I was hungry for God, and for hope, and you kept your mouth closed.   I was hungry for answers and a way out, and you said nothing.

For I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink.    I was thirsty and you didn’t care.   I was searching for answers, and turned to anything I could find, but you did not care.    I was thirsty for another way, and found alcohol and drugs…you turned your head.   You said it was a shame, but you kept quiet

I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.  I was alone, hurting, without hope and you did nothing.   You saw me in pain, and you hid.     You knew the struggle, and you saw it as weakness.   You saw my hand in the air, and you said I got what I deserved.   You looked at me and you saw an addict, a drug fiend, a bum, a pervert, or a punk…and you built fences and fought to keep me out or kick me out.  

You knew I was in that room, with the shades drawn, and tears streaming down my face, and you did nothing.

Hearing these words from Jesus,…they will stare in disbelief and confusion.    They will stare straight at Jesus, and say:  “When?  When did we do all this to you?”

He will reply,….whatever you didn’t do for these,  you didn’t do for me.

It is my prayer that we never, ever become these people.    The thought that I might be turning my head without realizing it, scares me senseless.   We talked frequently at Asbury Church about “radically compassion”, and we have used words like inclusiveness, love, welcome, and nurture.         Radical Compassion is what Jesus was talking about, and not what we should want to be, but rather what we need, we are called, and expected to be.

For More information on Kenny McKinley, please visit this site.

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