Why Lolo Jones Is for Real

Why Lolo Jones Is for Real

CLEARING LIFE’S HURDLES: Lolo Jones on Aug. 6, 2012, during an Olympic preliminary race for the 100-meter hurdles. She hopes to prove wrong the critics who are asking whether she’s more flash than substance. (Photo: Splash News/Newscom)

On Twitter, Lolo Jones sports a playful sense of humor, making jokes about her love life and Olympic adventures, and sometimes sparking controversy.

Her Twitter following skyrocketed after she talked about her decision to save sex for marriage in a May interview on HBO’s Real Sports, gaining herself about 20,000 more followers in four days. Jones has said her purity commitment is rooted in her Christian faith.

As she competed in the women’s 100-meter hurdles this week, Jones found herself in the spotlight again, and media outlets haven’t forgotten the buzz surrounding her virginity. The New York Times wrote about it this past weekend in a controversial article, provocatively titled “For Lolo Jones, Everything Is Image,” which suggested Jones was playing up her virginity, beauty, and poor upbringing for undeserved media attention. That piece has since come under fire.

But despite doubts that her athletic ability warranted attention, the 30-year-old track star came just shy of a medal on Tuesday, August 7, placing fourth in the 100-meter hurdles. Of course that fourth-place finish held little consolation for Jones, who had come so close to a gold medal four years earlier in Beijing before clipping the second-to-last hurdle and falling out of medal contention. Many viewed London as her chance for redemption — or at least that was the narrative that the media played up. Time magazine, for instance, recently featured her as one of three Olympians on the cover of their Olympics special issue and wrote about her trip-up in “Lolo’s No Choke.”

Unfortunately, Tuesday’s outcome fell short of a storybook ending. “I’ll definitely be reading my Bible and try to grasp the positives and see what God has to teach me from all this,” Jones said after the finals. “That’s the only way I feel I can get rebalanced right now, because I am so broken-hearted.”

Without fail, crude jokes about Jones’s virginity lit up Twitter and other social media following her loss.

Faith in the Public Eye

The New York Times wasn’t the first to criticize Jones for talking about her virginity or using sex appeal. TMZ made fun of her virginity. Others also questioned if her ESPN body issue photo compromised her values. On May 25, Jones tweeted in response:

“go to a museum & look at naked pictures/statues of ppl & its considered art but what I did is not? u see no parts exposed” and later, “Ryan hall is another christian. He’s done missions in africa & posed in latest issue. Shall u judge him as well? John 8:7”

Some suggested she date fellow Christian virgin Tim Tebow, to which Jones had a witty tweet: “Ask Tebow if he wants a glass of milk. If he says yes, ask him if he prefers chocolate. if he says no, then no more Tebow date suggestions.”

Jones is African American, Native American, French and Norwegian.

COLORFUL PERSONALITY: In interviews and on Twitter, Jones has been known to be outspoken and irreverent in her comments, which has sometimes landed her in hot water. (Photo: Walter Bieri/Newscom)

Even before this current New York Times controversy, Jones had been stirring things up in the media while awaiting her race in London. Her recent tweet about the Olympic skeet shooting competition drew criticism in light of the Aurora, Colorado, shooting: “USA Men’s Archery lost the gold medal to Italy but that’s ok, we are Americans… When’s da Gun shooting competition?” Jones later tweeted that she had been referring to Americans’ experience with hunting.

Sometimes Jones tweets about her faith, such as on July 26: “As I arrive in London for the Olympics, I’m overwhelmed with emotions. Thank you Lord for another chance and for holding me as i waited.” She thanked people for praying for her on July 22, but after criticism, clarified that her prayer was “to be an inspiration & to honor God,” not to win a gold medal.

“I never have prayed to win a gold medal at Olympics and never will,” Jones tweeted. “The Lord is my Shepard and I shall not want. May His will be done.”

Bonding Through Struggle

In her Real Sports interview, Jones said saving sex for marriage has been “the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, harder than training for the Olympics.”

But outside the spotlight, Jones tells how her Christian faith has sustained her through her struggles, and how her sister Angie Jefferson has encouraged her along the way.

Jones wrote about her older sister in an essay for the O.C. Tanner Inspiration Award, which recognizes a person who has inspired an Olympian to succeed. In it, Jones quoted Romans 9:12, “The older will serve the younger,” and wrote, “Angie is my reminder from God to stop at never.”

Growing up poor, Jones learned how to shoplift TV dinners and make a quick escape if she needed to, according to Time. Her family moved around frequently, and was at one point rendered homeless, living in a Salvation Army church basement.

Money was tight, but Jones has told stories about how her mother and sister helped her succeed. In a Procter & Gamble video series, “Raising an Olympian,” Jones said, “My mom would always try to do by any means necessary to make sure that we had what we needed. I definitely do not think I’d be going for this dream had I not seen her pick herself up so many times and keep fighting for us.”

STOPPING AT NEVER: Jones credits her sister for helping her develop a persevering spirit.

Meanwhile, her sister Angie Jefferson, then a teenager, recognized her talent and bought Jones her first running gear — which Jones said in her essay saved her the embarrassment of wearing old clothes.

When Jones moved across the country to go to Louisiana State University, Jefferson was again there for her sister through visits and tearful phone calls.

“Life was hard because the ghosts of my childhood were still there,” Jones wrote in her essay. “But thankfully, so was [Angie] — constantly reminding me there wasn’t anything I couldn’t overcome and survive with God’s help.”

Now, Jefferson serves as Jones’s manager. She encouraged her when Jones faced spine surgery a year ago. “It’s going to be okay,” Jefferson said, according to Jones’s essay. “I have a peace about Dr. Bray and his ability to help you. We are going to pray for God’s favor and trust God to take care of you.”

Jones wrote that she remembers seeing her sister with her prayer journal before a January 2012 race. It gave her a sense of peace. After Jones’s victory, the sisters hugged and cried together.

“It was a moment that words can’t express, a bond that together, can overcome anything,” Jones wrote.

On Monday, before her qualifying race in London, Jones was seen mouthing Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Even after Tuesday’s disappointing result, one suspects she’ll continue to hold onto that truth.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated to address the results of Jones’s finals race on Tuesday, August 7.

‘Hey, Tebow: Shut up already!’

‘Hey, Tebow: Shut up already!’

TO GOD BE THE GLORY: Denver Broncos starting quarterback Tim Tebow offers up a prayer to God before a recent game versus the San Diego Chargers. His gesture of Christian devotion has become known as "Tebowing." (Photo: Michael Zito/Newscom)

In 2009, the Word of the Year was tweet; In 2010, it was app (both are better than 1999’s winner — you guessed it — Y2K). Words like “gleek” and “drone” will no doubt occupy (my personal favorite) the 2011 shortlist, but the wordologists better make room for a late surge by two serious candidates: Tebowing and Tebowmania.

Call it a fourth-quarter comeback.

The question about Denver Broncos star Tim Tebow is not (for once) whether he is a good QB. He wins games, and that’s good enough for me. He wins ugly, but with six fourth-quarter comeback wins in 2011 alone, Tim Tebow has become a phenomenon. His jersey sales are through the roof; ESPN spends at least four hours of daily programming dedicated to his name; and, for better or worse, Tim Tebow is the most polarizing name in sports (I just heard LeBron James sigh in relief).

Let’s be honest: Most of the love/hate relationship that fans and critics express regarding Tebow has nothing to do with sports. This is about a man’s faith — which for some is inspiring, and for others sickening. This is about a man who does more than wear Jesus on his sleeve; he draws Scripture verses under his eyes. Some people say it’s too much.

There’s nothing odd about Tim Tebow’s public displays of faith (PDF). He is “on fire” in just about every way that evangelicals use the term: unapologetic, loud, and inspiring. He begins most every statement in true Grammy-fashion: “First of all, I want to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ …” We knew who Tebow was back in high school — he is devout and virginal and has superior character to match his athleticism.

If you are a Christian, there’s a lot to LOVE about Tim Tebow. I know pastors who applaud Tebow for his abandon of spiritual censorship: he loves Jesus and he doesn’t care what you think (shouldn’t we all be so faithful?). Lately though, I’ve been wondering if his abandon is reckless abandon, and if his public displays of faith are doing more harm than good.

It began after one of his signature fourth-quarter wins where — while still on the field — a reporter approached him, breathless and in amazement, asking a very simple question, “How are you able to continue doing this?” Tebow replied with stone eyes, “My God is Big.” Whoa. He made that exact phrase a few more times, mixing in some thoughts about defense, finally closing with, “I serve a big God.” (Cringe.) Then last week, one teammate of his reported that Tebow said God speaks to him during the games. That’s when I decided that I would side with the critics — Would you just shut up already?!? — and for altogether different reasons.

My basic concern about PDF is that it is an ironic conquest. Openly giving God the credit for “miracles” seems to be exactly the opposite of what Jesus himself wished. There’s Mark 7:36 (and 8:30), and Luke 5:14 — “go and tell no one what has happened.” But then there’s Mark 5:14 — “go home and tell your friends” — so the “Messianic Secret” is far from answered, even in the Gospels. It seems to me, though, that the overwhelming portrait is of a quiet and humble Jesus who doesn’t want to be thanked at award shows or after athletic contests. Not because God isn’t worth recognizing, but something more dangerous happens when we too readily open our mouths in the Winner’s Circle. God becomes a “God for Winners.”

The most famous story of this is with Michael Chang, a tennis prodigy who at 17 was the youngest player to ever win the French Open. At the press conference, when asked how he was able to defeat Stefan Edberg, Chang replied, “I won because of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Well, he’s giving God glory, right? No, (according to John Feinstein, who reported deeply on this in 1989) Chang believed that his victory was the result of his having a closer personal relationship with Jesus than Edberg did. He honestly believed that.

Tebow and Chang are of the same evangelical cloth; we have to wonder if Tim Tebow believes his wins are the direct result of his personal relationship with God. His PDF is beginning to convince me he does. So what’s wrong with that?

God — if we may so feebly name the divine — is not a “Winner’s God.” More than half of the Bible is written for an audience that is losing, whether it be in culture, politics, or economics. In fact, by all societal standards (and messianic expectations), Jesus fails. And despite the adrenaline rush of victory, there’s nothing wrong with NOT winning. Hearing Tim Tebow only after victory may send an uncritical message about our “big” God: He creates and loves winners.

What about the losers of our society, the poor and the politically oppressed? Does God only love the 1%? Is this “God” only on one sideline, rooting against those with lesser faith? Is God BIG for Tebow and small for Marion Barber?

I don’t want to believe that God cares that much about sports: that would break my heart considering how much real pain and suffering yet remains in this world. And I certainly don’t want to believe that God loves only the winners, as the poisonous Prosperity Gospel proclaims (that would explain the Cubs’ “curse,” though. Hmm …). But that’s the impression we get from these snapshots of Tebow’s faith. Admittedly, he probably needs to break it down further, and a press conference is not the time.

So rather than a half-baked faith, I say to Tim Tebow: SHUT UP ALREADY! Not for me, but for the teenager who idolizes you and prays and fasts before games, just like you do, believing that God will “show up” for him on the field. When that young man loses, it won’t be because of the size of his God, it will be because the other team was better on that day (and even in defeat, To God Be the Glory).

We didn’t hear much about Chang’s God when he started losing. I wonder if the same will be true for Tim Tebow, though we may not find out this season. When the defenses do finally catch up to Tebow, will it be bad for Faith as well? That’s my only concern.

I’m looking to be converted on this one.

‘Machine Gun Preacher’ Poses Tough Questions

‘Machine Gun Preacher’ Poses Tough Questions

"Machine Gun Preacher" Sam-Childers

RADICAL MISSIONARY: Sam Childers at the New York premiere of 'Machine Gun Preacher,' which is based on his action-packed life story.

Machine Gun Preacher, a new film starring Gerard Butler and Michelle Monaghan, poses challenging questions about just how far a Christian should go in the pursuit of justice for the world’s most vulnerable members, in this case children who were kidnapped in Sudan by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, also known as the LRA.

The biopic is about Sam Childers, a Pennsylvania drug dealer whose radicalism was redeemed by Christ and redirected toward preaching the gospel and saving orphans in East Africa. In the process of rescuing those orphans, Childers engages in gun battles with LRA soldiers, but he also manages to pull hundreds of children from either death or the murderous grip of the LRA.

The movie is a cross between The Blind Side and Rambo. For a faith-based film, it certainly doesn’t shy away from Rambo-style action. But The Blind Side might be the even more apt comparison, since both it and Machine Gun Preacher are based on true stories that navigate tricky racial issues. In fact, The Blind Side, just like this summer’s The Help, reignited the ongoing debate about films featuring benevolent white heroes who come along to help needy black victims. When I spoke to Childers at Machine Gun Preacher’s New York premiere, he insisted he was no “white savior” going into an African nation to save black children.

“If anything the children saved me,” Childers told me. “The children gave me a purpose. I wasn’t always a good person in life. I believe probably the only good thing that I ever done and stuck to doing was helping the children of Sudan.”

Machine Gun Preacher is a unique faith film in that it is R-rated and its main character is not sanitized either before or after his conversion. Its realism in this regard is its greatest strength. Too often our heroes are portrayed as one-dimensional converts who go from bad to good in one fell swoop. In Machine Gun Preacher, the converted Childers character has a crisis of faith and takes it out on everyone around him as he struggles to raise funds for a ministry that eventually threatens to consume him. Its strength may also be its greatest weakness, because it fails to adequately address the questions it raises.

When I interviewed Childers, he said his son “was killed” a number of years ago, but there is no mention of a son in the film. Instead a friend dies of a drug overdose and this too fuels his rage. At the after-party, Childers said his son had died from heroin.

Michelle-Monaghan-and-Gerard-Butler

ON THE RED CARPET: Michelle Monaghan and Gerard Butler at the 'Machine Gun Preacher' premiere. Butler and Monaghan portray Sam and Lynn Childers.

The intensity of the character is well served by Gerard Butler’s bold performance. When I spoke to Butler, he said he was raised Catholic, but that he had tapped into his Scottish heritage more than any religious faith to bring Childers to life on the big screen.

Michelle Monaghan, who plays Childers’ ex-stripper wife, Lynn, was also raised Catholic, and described herself as “a very spiritual person” when I inquired about her faith.

“I definitely think there’s someone out there greater than me,” she said.

Machine Gun Preacher is Monaghan’s first faith-based movie, she said, and she is “incredibly proud of it.”

“It’s faith based, but I think it’s something everyone can really identify with. … I don’t think anybody can see this movie and not be impacted by it in a positive way.”

Monaghan spent time with Lynn Childers and sought to honor her in her portrayal.

“I consider her the quiet giant of this relationship. Without her strength, I don’t know if Sam would be able to pursue the things that he does on a daily basis,” Monaghan said. “I wanted to understand who she was as a person, and what I’ve realized is, still to this day, her faith is what guides her. She really believes that he’s doing God’s work.”

Monaghan used her interviews on the red carpet to encourage the public to support the Childers’ Angels of East Africa Foundation. As the film was introduced and again as guests exited the theatre, they were encouraged to support the ministry.

Angels of East Africa took in close to $878,000 in 2009, according to its IRS tax form 990. The filing says that the organization runs one of the largest orphanages in South Sudan, serves 1,800 meals a day in Africa, runs a medical clinic, and has reunited over 1,500 orphans from displacement camps with their families.

The ministry is an outgrowth of Shekinah Fellowship, the church the Childers founded in Central City, Pennsylvania. Although the church website lists Sam as its pastor, he said Lynn is now the pastor. Their daughter Paige Wirick accompanied Sam to the premiere and said at the after-party that she works in the children’s ministry and that her husband Justin is the church’s youth pastor.

Although the film portrays the strain Sam Childers’ devotion to Sudanese orphans put on the family, Wirick said she supports the work.

“Every young girl eventually goes through where she needs her dad, but I don’t hold any grudges,” said Wirick. “I think everything I went through has made me who I am today, and I completely back my parents on everything that they do. I even want to run the ministry along side of them. I don’t take anything to heart where it pushed me away.”

She was born after her father’s conversion, she said, not before, as the film suggests.

And that’s not the only instance of artistic license that the filmmakers take with the story. The film version of Sam Childers’ life “amped up” the violence, he said. And while he doesn’t condone violence, Childers asked me what I would want him to do if the child he was trying to save were mine?

I posed a similar question to Christian peace activist Shane Claiborne when I interviewed him before he co-hosted the anti-war Jesus, Bombs, & Ice Cream variety show in Philadelphia on September 10. To hear what Claiborne had to say about the appropriate use of “redemptive violence,” listen here.

Childers’ question is a good one. Another is: how does a lone American citizen engage in armed conflict in another nation and continue traveling freely into and out of that country? Is it ever appropriate for a Christian to do so?

Tell us what you think. Is there a place for “redemptive violence” in the life of a Christian? Do you plan to see Machine Gun Preacher when it opens this weekend? If so, please come back and share your thoughts.

UPDATE: Christianity Today reports that Sam Childers is accused of neglecting children at the orphanage he founded in Sudan.

“Witnesses have said that the children at Shekinah Fellowship Children’s Village are malnourished, unhealthy, and unhappy. Several locals — including pastors, government officials, and a high-ranking member of the military — tell Christianity Today that Childers has exaggerated or outright lied about his work in the African nation,” the article said.

Childers denied the accusations, saying they ultimately stem from an employee he fired for corruption and theft.