The second round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament ended yesterday.

There is a thread that runs through the NCAA Tournament narrative every year.   It is the “Cinderella story”: the team that got into the tournament by the skin of its teeth, the team that no one has ever heard of, the team that no one saw coming.  Last year, the Cinderella team was Florida Gulf Coast University, a school that sounds like it was invented by the writer of a ’90s romantic comedy.  A few years ago, the team wearing the glass slipper was Butler, the first team from a “mid-major” conference to make the final four.  And of course, there is the tale of the charismatic Jim Valvano and his 1983 North Carolina State Wolfpack, a team with the stress-inducing penchant for winning games in their final seconds (earning them the nickname “The Cardiac Pack”).

UnknownThis year, the Big Dance seems to feature nothing but Cinderella stories.  Eleventh ranked Dayton won “the battle of Ohio” by defeating the Ohio State Buckeyes on the first day of the second round.  Harvard University, not typically known for its athletic prowess on the national stage, stunned everyone with a victory over fifth ranked Cincinnati.  And Mercer (which is in Macon, GA, in case you were wondering) issued an astonishing defeat to Coach K and mighty Duke Blue Devils.  In short, the first few days of the tournament have been fairly surprising.  For those of us who follow college basketball primarily for human interest purposes, this is a lot of fun; underdog stories are always more interesting.  For those who like to fill out their brackets and predict what is going to happen during the course of the tournament, these Cinderella stories can be frustrating.  Invariably, the success of these underdogs leads to “busted brackets,” meaning that there are people who spend the rest of the tournament sulking about their ruined predictions.

This is around the time in the season of Lent when people start to “cheat” on their Lenten disciplines.  Perhaps you gave up chocolate and accidentally had an after dinner mint at a restaurant.  Maybe you promised to call a friend every day during Lent and you’ve missed the last few days.  Perhaps you vowed to read a book of the Bible during the season but just haven’t found the time lately.  In situations like these, it’s easy to assume that your Lenten discipline is “busted” and you have to wait until next year.  But the beautiful thing about Lent is that there is no equivalent to a busted bracket in the Christian season of renewal.  We always have the opportunity to try again, to dust ourselves off, and reengage our relationship with God.  Ultimately, this helps us remember that the whole Christian life is shaped by this process of reengagement and repentance.  We will fail in our lives: we will pursue our own will instead of God’s, we will hurt our fellow human beings, we will turn to the power of sin and death.  The message of the gospel, however, is that our failures do not define us, that our sins cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.  We must remember that we have been created and redeemed by a God who loves us deeply, and that God’s love can never be busted.


Yesterday, I spent my afternoon off watching The Godfather, which is almost universally celebrated as one of the greatest movies of all time.  Widely regarded as Francis Ford Coppola’s most influential work, The Godfather comes from an era when movie directors were accorded a kind of demigod status.  During the 1970s, directors were so intent on articulating their vision for a film that they controlled every aspect of the filmmaking experience, from the color of a costume to the inflection in a line of dialogue.  Coppola was no exception and used his considerable influence very successfully.  One of the most striking elements of The Godfather is that in spite of its length, there are no extraneous scenes; every element of the film appears to have been carefully crafted to be a crucial part of the story the director is trying to tell.

screenlg2Nevertheless, there are a few indispensable moments in The Godfather that are completely serendipitous.  My favorite example comes from the wedding sequence at the beginning of the movie.  As revelers celebrate the wedding of Don Corleone’s daughter, the godfather (memorably and ably portrayed by Marlon Brando) is in his office, listening as people request favors.  The parade of supplicants makes it clear to the audience that futures hang in the balance based on the whims of this one powerful man, that one should not trifle with Don Corleone.  As the party continues outside, Don Corleone’s son Michael (Al Pacino) arrives with his girlfriend, who spots a powerfully-built man practicing a speech as he waits outside the Don’s office.  Michael’s girlfriend (Diane Keaton) asks who the “scary guy” is: Michael identifies him as Luca Brasi and tells a harrowing story that makes it very clear that one should not trifle with Luca.  But when Luca finally arrives in Don Corleone’s office, he stumbles nervously over the speech he had been practicing.  The message is clear: even this strong, “scary guy” who is feared by many is terrified of the powerful Don Corleone.

The scene between the godfather and Luca Brasi perfectly encapsulates what Coppola was trying to convey in the opening sequence: Don Corleone has power to make even powerful men fear him.  The best part about this scene, however, is that it was totally accidental.  Evidently, the actor who played Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana) was so nervous about doing a scene with Marlon Brando that he stumbled over his line in the first take.  Instead of reshooting, Coppola recognized the brilliance of the mistakenly reworked scene and added shots of Montana practicing Luca’s speech.  By being open to Montana’s serendipitous mistake, Coppola created a scene that articulated his vision and propelled Luca Brasi from “generic goombah” to one of the more memorable small roles in film history.

Lent is a time when Christians act a bit like film directors from the 1970s.  We imagine that we can control every element of our spiritual lives, that by making sure that we accomplish everything on our Lenten checklist we can have an authentic experience of God.  We say to ourselves: “I will fast from chocolate, attend church every Sunday, read a Lenten devotional, and say morning prayer every day, and then I will become closer to God.”  Unfortunately, spirituality does not work that way; it is not prescriptive.  I’m not suggesting that we should not engage in Lenten disciplines or go to church every Sunday; after all, the only reason Coppola was able to take advantage of Montana’s mistake is because he was so devoted to articulating his vision.  Rather, I am suggesting that we should not imagine that we can control our experience of God.  I think this might be part of what Jesus was getting at when he insisted that God is the God of the living and not of the dead.  We cannot presume that our experience of God will be the same every time we engage in some kind of devotional activity.  We serve and worship a dynamic God whom we experience differently depending on where we are in our lives.  It’s Richard Rohr who writes that the greatest obstacle to our next experience of God is our most recent experience of God.  And so we must be open to the unexpected movement of the Holy Spirit.  We must be willing to take advantage of what might seem like a mistake and transform it into a serendipitous opportunity to connect to the living God.


KN-C23643In September of 1962, John F. Kennedy gave a speech at Rice University in which he announced to the world that the United States would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.  This was an astonishing assertion for him to make.  John Glenn had only recently orbited the earth in Friendship 7, and that was difficult enough.  A trip to the moon seemed completely beyond the capacity of the young National Aeronautics and Space Administration.  Scientists had no idea how to get to the moon, no idea how to land on the moon’s surface, and no idea how the astronauts would return to earth.  Nevertheless, JFK promised that in eight years, an American would walk on the moon.

In the speech in which he makes this promise, the president put the moon landing on the timeline of human endeavor, mentioning the founding of Plymouth colony, George Mallory’s attempt to summit Mount Everest, and Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic.  None of these events came easily; none of the people involved could be certain that they would be successful.  Why would they risk their lives and their fortunes for something that is not a guaranteed success?  Why should the United States risk its reputation to accomplish a seemingly insurmountable goal?  Kennedy answers that gnawing question like this:

But why, some say, the moon?  Why choose this as our goal?  And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain?  Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic?  Why does Rice play Texas?  We choose to go to the moon.  We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

JFK affirmed that things worth doing are often difficult to do, and that if there is an easy way out, the endeavor might not be worth our time.

Throughout his presidency, Kennedy affirmed that America is meant to do difficult and challenging things.  From his first inaugural address, where he urges the American people to ask what they can do for their country, to his speech at Rice University where he says that we will go to the moon because it is difficult, Kennedy expects much from the people he was elected to serve.  From our contemporary perspective, this is astonishing.  One of the primary ways that companies try to sell us things is by telling us that they will save us time and energy and will make things easy for us.  Every article about exercising, which is hard work by definition, encourages us to try a “quick and easy” workout.  We tend to avoid doing things when they are hard.

We are now in the “dog days” of Lent.  Our Lenten routines are no longer fresh and new, but we have not yet arrived at the emotional intensity of Holy Week.  We may be tempted to take a hiatus from our Lenten disciplines because it would be so much easier to pay less attention to what we eat or how we use our time.  It’s important, however, for us to remember that these Lenten disciplines are not meant to be easy.  This does not mean that they are supposed to be arduous, but they are supposed to challenge us, to help us develop a deeper understanding of our relationship with God in Jesus Christ.  So keep at it.  Try not to see your Lenten routine as a chore, but rather as a way of opening yourself up to the grace of God.  Remember that we engage in these Lenten disciplines not because they are easy, but because they are hard.


urlOne of the more frustrating feelings we experience is the occasional sense that we do not belong somewhere.  Sometimes, we feel this way for superficial reasons: we go to a restaurant where we feel underdressed or we attend a party where we feel like we probably should have worn something a little more casual.  Other times, we might feel out of place for more intellectual reasons: perhaps we are participating in a conversation about a topic we know nothing about or attending a seminar about a book we haven’t read.  And every once and a while, we occasionally have a profound feeling that we do not belong, a gnawing sense that we may not be worthy to be in a particular place.

A few days ago, we commemorated the life of George Herbert.  Herbert was an English priest in the 17th century who has become known for his devotional poetry.  All of his poetry, however, was published posthumously.  During his life, Herbert was known as a country parson, a man who did his job: he visited the sick, comforted the dying, and did the sometimes menial chores required of someone who is in charge of a parish church.  The gospel appointed for George Herbert’s commemoration celebrates those people who might think that their lives are menial.  In the Beatitudes of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus begins by saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Blessed are those who imagine that they are not holy, who think that the tasks set before them are not godly, for to them belongs the kingdom of God.  I think that all of us fall into the trap of thinking that other people are holy, that other people deserve God’s grace, while we are are miserable sinners unworthy of God’s grace and love.

George Herbert understood this tendency, and wrote an extraordinary poem about our reluctance to accept God’s grace.  The poem is a conversation between Jesus (whom Herbert calls “Love”) and the hesitant believer:

urlLove bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.

The poem beautifully describes how we accept the grace of God.  We begin by refusing God’s offer of love, claiming our fundamental unworthiness, when God almost teasingly reminds us that it was God who created us and God who redeemed us; God has made us worthy.  Our response to this is not joy, but obligation: we feel that we must pay our debt to God.  God, however, gently corrects us as he invites us to sit down and embrace the grace he has offered.

As you travel through this Lenten journey, try not to think of your Lenten discipline as an obligation, but as an opportunity to open yourself to the grace and love of God.  Use this time of renewal as a way to accept the gracious invitation God has extended to you, to sit down and taste love.


“What are you giving up for Lent?”  cadburyWhen I was growing up, this was a common question in the week or so before Ash Wednesday.  For the most part, my friends and I saw Lent as an exercise in willpower: we picked the thing that we thought we couldn’t live without and gave it up for more than a month (for me, this was generally chocolate).  I remember that the first few days would be just fine; I might have even thought that I could go for even longer than forty days without chocolate.  By Easter, however, I would be clamoring for chocolate rabbits or peanut butter cups or my absolute favorite, Cadbury Mini Eggs.  Easter became less a celebration of the Resurrection and more a commemoration of the fact that I could not eat chocolate again.  The sacrifice I had endured for forty days made those chocolate morsels all the sweeter.

This is certainly one way to look at our Lenten disciplines.  By giving up that thing we think we cannot live without, we will hopefully come to the realization that the only “thing” we truly cannot live without is God.  The problem with this approach, however, is that we either end up in the place where I always ended up on Easter (counting the minutes until I could eat chocolate again) or we see our Lenten disciplines not as an opportunity to renew our relationship with God, but as a recapitulation of our New Year’s resolutions: “During Lent, I’m going to give up chocolate, which will hopefully help me lose 10 pounds.”  I’ll admit that at one point or another, I have taken both of these approaches to Lent.

I would encourage you to look at your Lenten discipline in another way.  A discipline, after all, is not supposed to be an overwhelming or insurmountable obstacle.  A discipline is something that we engage in on a regular basis, something that challenges us and constantly pushes us in a new direction.  Athletes are disciplined about their training regiments, not because they have a static goal in mind, but so that they can challenge themselves to be the best that they can possibly be.  We should take the same approach to our Lenten disciplines: we should not have a fixed goal in mind (“I’m going to make sure I say the Lord’s Prayer at least once a day”), our disciplines should allow for the possibility of spiritual growth (“I’m going to say the Lord’s Prayer every day and see whether it changes the way I experience God”).  For this reason, I’d like to encourage you to think not in terms of a “Lenten discipline,” but in terms of a “Lenten routine,” something that you do every day to bring yourself closer to God.  Naturally, this can include giving up those things we think we cannot live without, but we must be careful not to see our Lenten routines as ends in themselves.  Our Lenten routines should not focus on what we are sacrificing during this season; our Lenten routines should focus on our spiritual growth and on increasing our awareness of God’s grace.