“’Unique Humility’–In the NBA???”

We often perceive top-tier professional athletes as overpaid, over-adored hyper-inflated egos. But during the broadcast of Game 3 in the LA Clippers-San Antonio Spurs playoff series, commentator Jeff Van Gundy began preaching about the “unique humility of the San Antonio Spurs”. The commentary that followed opened a window through which deeper truth could enter. That’s a function of preaching, especially in a secular context. If you aren’t a fan, bear with me a moment. Maybe you’ll see the surprising Light I saw shining where I hadn’t looked before. Maybe you’ll sense the fresh Spirit-breeze blowing from a welcome but unexpected direction!

The San Antonio Spurs are the National Basketball Association’s defending champions. They’ve become a sports dynasty. Late in 1996 Coach Greg Popovich took over a team that had won only 3 of its first 18 games. That injury-riddled team finished 20-62 and failed to make the playoffs.  The Spurs have made the playoffs every season since and won 5 NBA championships. In February 2015, Popovich became only the second NBA coach ever to win 1000 games with the same team. The Spurs’ opponents, the LA Clippers, are a strong young team. Under coach Doc Rivers they finished one game ahead of San Antonio in the regular season. Clippers faithful think/hope/pray their team might be at the start of a run like the Spurs have enjoyed for eighteen years.

The Spurs and Clippers began their best-of-seven-games series last Monday night in LA. LA won 107-92. San Antonio was clearly outplayed. They played again in LA Wednesday night. San Antonio led by five points at halftime. The score was tied at the end of regulation play. San Antonio won in overtime 111-107. Friday night the series moved to San Antonio for two games. The Spurs led 46-38 at halftime, by 21 points after three quarters, and eventually won 100-73. Night-and-day difference from that first-game defeat in LA.

In a very one-sided game broadcasters scramble to find something besides the game itself to hold our attention (and theirs!). Late in the third quarter Van Gundy realized the game had reached that point. He commented that folks would say the Spurs’ experience was asserting itself. That’s true as far as it goes, he said. But the key is not the amount of experience. It’s the way players use and learn from experience. Van Gundy said the Spurs display a “unique humility”. If something’s not working, it gets changed. If a player’s not performing, he’ll be coached through it. If a coach (including Popovich) lets the team down, they’ll own up and make a change. The Spurs have minimal ego investment in personal success and absolute commitment to maximizing the contribution of every member of the organization and focusing all available resources on the ultimate goal of becoming the best possible basketball team. According to Van Gundy,  San Antonio’s “unique humility” had helped them move beyond that Game 1 defeat to a hard-fought victory in Game 2 and a one-sided victory in Game 3.

Can you see the Light (John 8:12 ) yet? Can you feel the Breeze (Acts 2:1-11)? Can you hear God speak softly (1 Kings 19)over the roar of the crowd? Yes, history matters—because whoever doesn’t learn from it is doomed to repeat it. So the point isn’t merely our two thousand years of  Christian tradition. (That number’s too small, incidentally. It omits more than a thousand years of heritage we share with our Jewish and Muslim neighbors.) The point isn’t our years and even centuries of history as a congregation or a denomination. It’s the difference we’ve made. It’s the mid-course corrections that have kept us vitally connected to our changing world. The point isn’t my 40+ years of experience as a local church pastor. It’s the constant adjustments and learning along the way. The world in which I began in 1968 looked very little like the world of 2011 in which I retired from active service.

As I listened to Van Gundy talk about the Spurs’ “unique humility”, I thought: Popular Christianity loves to tell stories of “growth”, “success”, “happiness”, and “vitality”. But I hear far fewer stories of the “unique humility” of followers of Jesus. Here are a few:

  • Dr. Kent Brantly and nurse Nancy Writebol are just two of hundreds, perhaps thousands whose “unique humility” kept last year’s Ebola disaster in Africa from becoming far worse than it was.
  • The recent renewed interest in this country’s Civil Rights movement highlighted many people’s “unique humility” as followers of Jesus. We know only a fraction of these people’s names. That’s how “unique humility” wants it.
  • In the late 1970’s-‘80’s, a gifted theologian named Dr. Henri Nouwen taught at both Yale and Harvard Divinity Schools. Then he moved to Toronto, Canada, to spend the last ten years of his life as pastor to L’Arche. In this unique residential community, …people with and without disabilities…share their lives in communities of faith and friendship. Community members are transformed through relationships of mutuality, respect, and companionship as they live, work, pray, and play together.”
  • In the early and middle-20th century, Dr. Albert Schweitzer focused his skills as a physician, world-class organist, and world-class New Testament scholar on improving the lives of some of the poorest people on the planet through the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Lambarene, French Equatorial Africa (now Gabon).

The renewal of the church doesn’t lie in the right music, the right organizational paradigm, the right beliefs, the right way of interpreting the Bible, or any other “magic bullet” fix that’s sold more books than it’s changed lives. Renewal (resurrection!) lies in a resurgence of “unique humility” in the individual and collective life of followers of Jesus. “Unique humility” means “It’s not about me” is our starting point for every plan, every prayer, every event–everything . “Unique humility”affirms the church exists more for its neighborhood than its members. It exists for those who hear and see Jesus more clearly through different language, music, and ways of praying and sharing than my friends and I prefer. “Unique humility” is “church people” embracing the most unlikely folks as brothers and sisters in Christ. “Unique humility” looks like Jesus’ followers embodying his definition of true greatness: “Whoever wants to become great must become a servant.” (Mark 10:43 MSG) 

Have you seen the “unique humility” of followers of Jesus alive where you live? How about sharing  some of those stories in your comments?

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