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”).
This 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.