Archive for the 'basketball' Category

“’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?

Jesus and March Madness

For you non-basketball fans, “March Madness” is the media-created frenzy surrounding the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Our enlightened age has also seen the Women’s Tournament grow in popularity. It now generates some “madness” of its own. I became a serious rabid March Madness fan when I entered UCLA as a freshman. Legendary coach John Wooden‘s teams were just beginning their incredible tournament run through the ’60’s and ’70’s. Lately we’ve experienced some lean years. But this year’s Bruins showed signs of returning to their former glory as they reached the Sweet 16 and lost (respectably) to overall No. 1 seed Florida–who will also experience Monday night’s championship game as spectators rather than participants.

What does Jesus have to do with March Madness? A few weeks ago my wife and I were digging through some too-long-unopened boxes in the garage. We unearthed some children’s books that had belonged to her and her brothers. One was called “How to Star in Basketball”. This 1958 publication taught the fundamentals of the game for elementary-age students (boys, according to the illustrations).  The one-hand push shot, two-hand chest shot, and underhand free throws have ridden off into the basketball sunset as the game has evolved. But most of the book’s fundamentals still apply-including the importance of team play, which comes in toward the end of the book.How to Star in Basketball

That title–“How to STAR…”–grates on me. It appeals to every entitlement-believing, under-performing wannabe who loves the spotlight, hates hard work, and can’t imagine why he (or she) still doesn’t have his(her) own private suite in the locker room.  I’m sure that title would have sent Coach Wooden over the edge. One of his bedrock principles was that the team mattered more than any individual player. Players pursuing individual stardom at the expense of team play were guaranteed to wind up on the bench, if not off the team altogether. Wooden’s players took the court every day with the goal of helping their teammates become stars.

Now about Jesus. One day two of his disciples approached him: “’Teacher, we have something we want you to do for us…Arrange it so that we will be awarded the highest places of honor in your glory—one of us at your right, the other at your left.’  [In other words, they wanted to be Kingdom SuperStars.] Jesus didn’t grant their request. In fact, he slam-dunked their hopes for an easy title run. When the rest of The Twelve heard about it, they were furious with James and John. Jesus let them feel the heat for a while. Then he silenced all twelve wannabe Kingdom Stars: “It’s not going to be that way with you,” he told them. “Whoever wants to be great [among my disciple] must become a servant.” (from Mark 10:35-45 The Message) Want to be a great disciple? Make it your mission each day to help your brother and sister disciples grow into their Christlike greatness. Want to be a “star” in church? Start helping others, especially “non-stars”, discover and use their giftedness. Want to be a star in life? Start praying for eyes to see the image of God in in the ordinary folks who share your life. Start asking God’s Spirit to bring forth the “star qualities” (spiritual gifts in church-talk) in them–and offer yourself as an instrument in the process. That’ s how Jesus got The Twelve going.

A basketball player is credited with an “assist” when his pass to another player directly results in that player scoring a field goal. Very few assists relative to field goals indicates that a team isn’t working together.  A high ratio of assists to field goals indicates that a team is working together to get the ball to the player with the  best opportunity to score. In their last game before the Florida loss UCLA’s opponent had about half as many assists as field goals. The Bruins scored 29 field goals and had 22 assists–76%. They didn’t care about “How to Star in Basketball”. They were laser-focused on creating an environment where every player plays at his highest level.

John Wooden used his basketball platform to teach his players significant life lessons. His faith informed his whole approach to the game and to life. Imagine if that life lesson about stardom and servanthood got down deep into our bones. Imagine if it infused our churches, our families, our politics, our sports, our music, movies, media,  every aspect of our culture. “How to Star…” describes the way self-centeredness poisons life and relationships. It’s the polar opposite of the way to which Jesus calls us:
His friends at their best (and admittedly that’s not all the time) embody the power of that servant life. Let us become as serious about our discipleship as those March Madness teams are about their team-focused basketball? Let us move now to shift the focus away from our own “stardom” as individuals and congregations. Let’s redefine “success” as helping one another and all within our reach to become true Kingdom Stars as Jesus defines it.  To me, that sounds a lot like “Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”.


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