Green Bay Packers 2014 Season: Outlook.

As training camp approaches for the Green Bay Packers it seems an appropriate time to examine the strengths that make the team a contender to play in Glendale, Arizona next February for their fifth Lombardi trophy. Also, let’s briefly consider potential barriers to earning a record fourteenth World Championship. Finally, I’ll take a stab at predicting the likely win total for the season as well as offering a floor and ceiling in win totals. As always, feel free to comment and offer your predictions as well.

Any serious analysis of the Packers’ hopes for the season begins with quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Entering his seventh season as the starter, Rodgers has achieved the status of an elite signal caller and is widely viewed as among the top three quarterbacks. His combination of arm strength, shiftiness in the pocket, and ability to throw receivers open are unparalleled in the league. His presence alone ensures the Packers will field a competitive team for every game and almost certainly produce a winning season.

The emergence of Eddie Lacy last year provides the jab to Rodgers’ right hook that gives the Packers a lethal one-two punch on offense. Teams must now pick their poison and decide who represents the biggest threat they must defend. Defensive coordinators can no longer play two-deep schemes that leave only seven men in the box because Lacy will make them pay, and pay dearly. A full season of Rodgers throwing darts all over the field and Lacy running roughshod over defensive backs offers an electric offensive combination that should excite Packer fans.

The offensive line improved last year in pass protection and in opening holes for Lacy. That trend should continue as left tackle Bakhtiari has bulked up in the offseason and now possesses a full year of experience. Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang represent one of the premier pair of guards in the league with Sitton punishing defenders on the left side at an All-Pro level and Lang performing on the right side at a solid, though not yet elite, level. Bryan Bulaga returns to right tackle after missing last season with a knee injury and likely improves that position over the serviceable Don Barclay.

To defend in a league that emphasizes the pass and against a schedule that includes quarterbacks Brady, Brees, Cutler, Wilson, and Stafford, the Packers need strong play from their cornerbacks. Fortunately, that represents the primary strength of this defensive unit. Sam Shields demonstrated enough talent to earn a sizeable contract in the offseason and should operate as the shut-down corner for the Packers this year. Tramon Williams returned to his 2010 form in the second half of last season and expects to replicate that for a full year this season. With ball-hawk Casey Hayward manning the slot, Capers has the talent to keep opposing signal callers in check.

So what potential landmines lie under the surface that might prevent this Packer team from hoisting the Lombardy Trophy in Arizona?

Injuries represent the unknown most likely to jeopardize the Packers season. Untimely injuries to one or two elite players or half a dozen starters could send the team home for the playoffs. It is critical that core players remain healthy for the season if the team hopes to fulfill its objectives in the post-season.

Also, there are several positions that have not yet had a starter identified including center, tight-end, and the safety spot opposite Morgan Burnett. While it appears a solid starter for each role exists on the Packers roster, that expectation must be fulfilled when the pads come on and the game whistle blows. If Coach McCarthy’s staff can plug those openings with players who perform at even an average level this year, then the team will be well positioned for sustainable success. If not, opposing teams may exploit those weaknesses, which risks unraveling the Packers’ season.

Next, the defense needs to get its anger on. The past couple years this team has lacked an aggressive, mean approach to business. The talent appears to exist but something gets lost in the man-to-man confrontations in the trenches. That trend cannot continue if this team hopes to play in the forty-ninth Super Bowl. Fortunately, defensive tackle Mike Daniels recognizes this and has already begun establishing expectations for his teammates and demanding that as a unit they play angry. If he succeeds in getting the defensive unit to adopt that mentality game-in and game-out, then the season becomes promising on that side of the ball.

Finally, the team needs to avoid any regression from core players – as happened with Morgan Burnett last year – and two or three young players need to take their performance to the next level as Mike Daniels and Jarrett Boykin did last year. If no one emerges from training camp with amplified skills from last year, then the chance to go deep in the playoffs lessens.

Now it is time to make a prediction that I will have to stand by for the next six months. I believe the Packers likely will finish with eleven or twelve wins and have a ceiling of fourteen and a floor of ten (barring serious injuries). They will win their fourth consecutive division title (though it will be closer than most think) and will play in the conference finals. They certainly have the talent, depth, and experience to earn a spot in the Super Bowl but so do four or five other teams in the conference. That said, 2014 promises to be an exciting, enjoyable season for Packer fans as long as the injury bug does not bite again, and has the potential to be something very special. A fifth Lombardi trophy and fourteenth World Title is certainly a realistic possibility.IMG_0148

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Pursuing our own glory.

Recently I attended a men’s Bible study that was studying the twelfth chapter of the book of Genesis. After reading the chapter out loud as a group the facilitator asked the men for any initial thoughts they had on the verses. One gentleman referenced verse two where God informs Abram (Abraham), “I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:2, NKJV). The man then explained that he believed the verse demonstrates that God wants to make the names of His people great. Specifically, he said the verse provided him the confidence that God planned to make his name great and would do so through his career. Other men agreed and weighed in with equal confidence that God would also make their names great among neighbors, at the church, and in the community.

After the others spoke I interjected that the book of Isaiah provides an applicable verse on the matter that we need to consider. In the forty-second chapter God proclaims, “I am the Lord, that is My name; And My glory I will not give to another,” (Isaiah 42:8, NKJV). God leaves no room for ambiguity – He will not share His glory with anyone. David understood this truth when he remarked, “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but to Your name give glory,” (Psalm 115:1, NKJV). I explained that God does not seek to make great the names of men but instead declares the glory of His name alone. Therefore, we ought to pursue Him with humility and in awe rather than explore ways to make our names great.

The others fervently disagreed and insisted these two verses had no application to the saints of God. They wanted to limit their relevance and take a narrow view of them. They even expressed umbrage the verses were mentioned since they were not germane to the conversation.

Sadly, the American church tends to adopt a similar approach to Scripture. We want to universalize verses that capture God’s blessings and promises and insist they apply to all saints, especially when they speak of material blessings and promises of greatness. We often individualize verses and proclaim they represent God’s plan for our own lives when they assert some benefit we desire. At the same time we dismiss as irrelevant and inapplicable any verse that discomforts us or contradicts the plan we have for ourselves. Certainly God would never want us to follow Him down a path that does not align with our own desires, we insist.

But if we examine again the verses above we realize that God gave the promise of a great name to Abram for a specific reason – to bless the other nations of the earth. Nothing in the passage suggests that God wants us to claim the verse as our own and then expect to have Him make our names great. We personalize it to ourselves because that’s what our flesh desires.

Similarly, the verses in Isaiah and Psalm are clearly universal in application because they reflect the omnipotence and worthiness of God, which require we give Him all the glory and praise. But we dismiss the applicability of those verses because they do not advance the narrative we want to believe – that our faith is all about ourselves.

Let me add that the interpretation these men had of the verse in Genesis is not unique to their church, which is by all accounts evangelical and professes orthodox doctrine. Reading Scripture with an eye towards personalizing the verses that appeal to us and rejecting as irrelevant those that do not, represents a disease that plagues most evangelical churches in America today. And no surprise since we have been taught for too long that Jesus came to make our lives better, more pleasant, and fulfill our every desire.

We need to discipline ourselves better as we read the Bible and resist gravitating to any interpretation that gratifies our flesh. Ask the Holy Spirit to reveal truth and remove our biases that distort our understanding of His Word – ask God to preclude us from viewing Scripture through the lens of our own agenda.

Otherwise we risk adopting a faith grounded in the desires of our flesh and not in the power of God’s truth – a faith that may well jeopardize our relationship with the Lord.

Opportunities abound in culture of hedonism

As our culture races toward a full-on embrace of hedonism, I grow increasingly concerned with the long-term viability of our nation. History is littered with states that possessed remarkable power, status, and influence but eventually fell to ruin due to internal rot rather than the hands of external forces. Moral decay bankrupts a nation as easily as it does an individual, or church for that matter.

As I observe society legitimize and celebrate behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs openly hostile to Christianity and biblical principles, I am both discouraged and saddened – at least initially. But on reflection it occurs to me that our culture’s rapid migration away from any semblance of Christian values has some unobvious benefits and yields a host of opportunities. While I prefer that we, as individuals and as a society, pursue God and His ways (not forcibly but freely), believers ought to remain mindful of those benefits and opportunities.

First, as our culture views Christians with increased contempt and hostility, the cost to practice Christianity faithfully grows. This heightened animosity tends to purge the church of its most casual members, those who embrace the faith largely because of what they can get from it. Their commitment to Jesus and His instructions extends only as far as the benefits they receive from Him. These believers often are the ones that malign Christ and His church by selfish behavior and hypocritical conduct – the ones who repulse society at large and from which it draws it caricatures. As more of these half-hearted followers leave the faith, the church will strengthen and grow healthier.

Second, a burgeoning apostate church precedes the second coming of Jesus. As we witness more denominations, Christian leaders, and churches dismiss God’s word as antiquated and allow the culture to inform its doctrine, Christ’s return draws closer. While I prefer to see the church in her entirety remain faithful to the Lord, Scripture makes clear that many will fall away from the faith in the end times and false doctrine will flourish. So we can know that an expanding apostasy in the church foreshadows Jesus’ arrival on earth.

Finally, as hedonism explodes across the culture and envelopes almost everything in its path, the lifestyle and behavior of faithful believers offers an increasingly stark contrast. Light shines brightest where the darkness is greatest. As the salt of this world, Christians can preserve our nation and prevent its eventual decay. With that in mind, society’s embrace of debauchery, selfishness, and moral relativity ought not discourage or frustrate but rather inspire us.

We have an historical opportunity to impact our nation for Christ unlike any other generation before us. The gulf between the cultural worldview and the biblical worldview has never been greater. Now is the time for all believers to commit themselves fully to living out all of Jesus’ teachings with reckless abandon.

–       Demonstrate love to a world that hates and despises us.

–       Display humility to those who treat us with contempt and want to kick us to the curb.

–       Remain steadfast and have the backbone to boldly proclaim your faith in Christ and commitment to His Lordship.

–       Share God’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness with a society in desperate need for it but which is resolute in rejecting it.

–       Articulate biblical principles with gentleness and courage when discussing culture, current events, policy, and matters of societal importance.

–       Offer hope, peace, and joy to those around you even when they insist on pursuing activities that bring despair, restlessness, and dissatisfaction.

–       Follow Jesus’ example by holding firm to truth while expressing it with acts of kindness, generosity, and love.

As we live out the gospel with renewed vigor, we can help stem the tide of moral relativity and preserve our great nation for another generation.

New novel is a thrilling, emotional, white-knuckle story that captivates readers

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The recently released novel, An Accidental Abduction, is the story of Katy Byrd, a young woman who enjoys her small town life in Lakesburg, MN but yearns to make a difference. When she decides to join her church on a mission trip to Morocco, Katy hopes God uses the experience to transform her ordinary life. But when local terrorists kidnap her, life turns upside-down for Katy and thrusts her into a harrowing scenario that’s far from routine. Now she must confront circumstances far more challenging and severe than anything she faced back home. Worse, her survival appears to rest entirely on the intervention of a man she barely knows – the man assigned to guard her and prevent her escape.

The plot examines Katy’s battle with despair as she struggles to understand why God allowed the abduction to happen and how the traumatic experience transforms her and those around her. It has adrenaline-inducing scenes while touching the heart and soul. A great read for the summer with an inspiring, encouraging message.

The novel is available online at Amazon and Barnes and Noble in paperback, and electronically on Kindle. To order, click the links below – and remember to recommend it to your friends as well.

http://www.Amazon.com/dp/B00LI30DEQ

http://www.Amazon.com/dp/149962879x

 

What Jesus taught about following Him as a disciple.

In my book, Difficult Is the Path: Why Life as a Disciple of Christ Is Not for the Fainthearted, we examine Scripture and identify examples Jesus provided, parables He shared, and lessons He taught about the challenge of living as His disciple. We focus particular attention on verses the American church has ignored historically or dismissed as irrelevant.  During His sermon on the mount Jesus specifically said that the path that leads to eternal life would be challenging, yet often we want to create an alternate path that arrives at the same location but follows a more leisurely and comfortable route. My book explores the dangers with pursuing that approach.9781462726233_COVER.indd

Of course, just because the path is difficult doesn’t mean it is not worth taking. This study lays the foundation for the reader to deepen his relationship with the Lord and increase his faith, and in the process enjoy a far more satisfying, purposeful, and rewarding life. Though Jesus left no ambiguity over the fact that following Him would be challenging, He also makes clear that doing so would lead to indescribable peace, joy, and hope.

The Spurs Way – Substance over Flamboyance.

Sunday night the San Antonio Spurs defeated the Miami Heat to claim their fifth NBA Championship over the past sixteen years – an impressive thirty-one percent of the titles during that span. In the Heat, the Spurs beat the two-time defending champions whose big three includes four-time NBA regular season MVP, LeBron James. And the Spurs didn’t just defeat the Heat, they dismantled them. Their seventy-point differential during the Finals established an NBA record. This was not an accidental championship.

In addition to their five titles, the Spurs have been a model of consistency since Duncan’s rookie year. They have made the playoffs seventeen consecutive seasons and tallied fifty or more wins during each of them, except for the strike-shortened 1998-99 season in which they won their first title. The latter represents an NBA record.

So why do the Spurs so often get excluded from the conversation when discussing the greatest dynasties in NBA history? They have five titles that include one at the beginning and one at the end of their run (not that it’s done yet). They possess a known superstar in Tim Duncan who, despite his humble and soft-spoken demeanor, has earned two MVP titles and ten first-team All-NBA selections. And they have established a legacy of consecutive playoff appearances that is unprecedented. Their production cannot be ignored.

But for many experts and fans the Spurs lack a critical piece to the dynasty puzzle. Panache. The Spurs are not flamboyant. They are the anti-Showtime. They prefer relentless efficiency to a flair for the dramatic. They are one hundred percent substance, zero percent flashy. And in a nation that increasingly favors style over substance (look no further than reality television and, especially, the Kardashians – those quintessential examples of flamboyance and style over substance), the Spurs just don’t measure up.

Which is a shame because I think we can learn a lot from how the Spurs have gone about their business. Their stars have sacrificed personal stats for the success of the team (see Manu Ginobili coming off the bench instead of starting). Humility and poise irrespective of the outcome – no in-your-face trash talking from these guys. Review the video from the end of game four in Miami last Thursday. The camera scanned both benches and it was impossible to tell which team was about to win the blowout and which was about to lose.

The Spurs have not only achieved an enviable and, at times, unprecedented measure of success, they have done it the right way – the Spurs way. Substance over style. That may prevent some experts and fans from placing them among the greatest dynasties in NBA history. But that says more about our culture and us than it does about the Spurs’ accomplishments.

Tony Gwynn: All-time great.

The baseball world learned today the sad news that one of its great ambassadors had passed away at fifty-four. A legendary hitter whose career average of .338 places eighteenth on the all-time list, Gwynn garnered 3,141 hits over his remarkable twenty year career. His prodigious feats with the lumber were a reflection of his incredible bat control, further evidenced by his never striking out more than forty times in a season.

But what made Tony truly special was the manner in which he carried himself on and off the field. For all his accomplishments he never displayed an air of arrogance – that fatal flaw that plagues so many superstar athletes today. He paired his genuine humility with an unbridled enthusiasm for the game, as demonstrated by his persistent (and contagious) smile. He was a role-model parents could be excited about their kids emulating because he not only showed young boys and girls how to play baseball exceptionally well, he showed them how to treat others and conduct themselves off the field.

The most special sports memory I have occurred in August of 1999 in Montreal. Gwynn’s Padres were playing the Expos in a game one might have assumed carried no significance judging from the several thousand fans in attendance. But something historic happened that night. Tony Gwynn knotted his three thousandth hit and in typical fashion did so on a punch-and-judy single between short and third. The limited number of fans present for that memorable achievement might have hastened baseball’s decision to relocate the Expos (how can a city reasonably expect to keep a franchise when its citizens have no interest in experiencing baseball history).

Tony Gwynn is one of three all-time favorite baseball players for me. His legendary talent in the batter’s box and his exemplary behavior off the field made him a true ambassador for baseball. The combination of exceptional talent and modest graciousness is difficult to find in any profession but especially so in the world of professional sports. We may never see another athlete embody that combination the same way again.

Commentary: Faith, Politics, Culture, and Bible Prophecy.