The Gospel according to Roy Williams

Last week, the Villanova Wildcats defeated the Carolina Tar Heels in the championship game of the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Both teams played with brilliance and passion. Indeed, it was the most exciting Championship game anyone can remember: there were countless lead changes and the result literally came down to the final moments of the game. Kris-Jenkins-buzzerbeater-jpg-300x169With 11 seconds remaining, UNC was down by three. Marcus Paige, the veteran Carolina guard, attempted an ugly, contested three point shot, which miraculously found the basket, tying the game. With 4.5 seconds left, Villanova guard Ryan Arcidiacono drove the ball down the court and passed it to Kris Jenkins, who launched and made a buzzer beating three pointer, winning the game and shocking millions of viewers. It was one of the great finishes in the history of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, one of those moments that reminded me why I enjoy watching sports.

The most compelling moment of the Villanova victory, however, took place off the court. After the game, correspondent Tracy Wolfson interviewed Roy Williams, Carolina’s highly decorated head coach. Though these post-game interviews are a standard and often tedious part of the sports viewing experience, full of platitudes and cliches, there was something different about this one. imgresWilliams’ face was red and swollen; it was clear he had barely composed himself for this interview. As he fought back tears, he told Wolfson, “I’ve been a head coach for 28 years, and the worst thing on a loss like this is I feel so inadequate.” It was a moment of searing honesty and undeniable truth. Carolina played brilliantly. They “left it all out on the floor,” as the saying goes. They shot astonishingly well (65%) from the three point line in spite of being the worst three point shooting team in the history of the school. They even made a nearly miraculous shot to tie the game with seconds left. In other words, they did everything right! Yet they still lost the game. No wonder Coach Williams felt inadequate. He was bereft, because everything he implicitly understood about the game of basketball and about life had come crashing down. After being asked what he said to his team in the locker room, Williams mused, “I just talked, I mean…nothing, because you can’t say anything.”

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul describes his life before he had his experience of God’s grace: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” Paul had everything going for him. He was doing everything right. He was more than adequate; he was confident that he could make himself worthy of God’s favor with his accomplishments. “Yet,” he continues, “whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” There was a moment in Paul’s life when he realized that in spite of all his accomplishments, he was inadequate. There was a moment when everything Paul understood about the world came crashing down. In this moment, Paul had to locate his trust, not in his own ability, but in the grace that had been made known to him in Jesus Christ.

Ironically, the most eloquent moment of the interview with Roy Williams was when he admitted that there was nothing he could say to his players in the face of their loss. With this admission, Williams uncovered a fundamental truth: when we come face to face with our inadequacy, words fail us. Several years ago, the Diocese of North Carolina released a video featuring the Right Reverend Michael Curry, who is currently the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. At one point, Bishop Curry describes what it’s like to bring Holy Communion to those on the margins of life. “What do you say to a person who is dying?” he asks. “What do you say to a person who is on death row? What do you say to a person that is addicted to a life that’s destroying them? I don’t have the words and you don’t. But Jesus does.” That is the gospel. As Roy Williams demonstrated last week, there are moments in our lives when words will fail us, when accomplishments will fail us, when our carefully constructed self-image will come crashing down. The only thing that will not fail, that cannot fail is the grace that has been made known to us in Jesus Christ.

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Just Another Game

There are few things I find more frustrating than the moments after a televised sporting event.

Of course, there is the  dejection I’ve experienced as I watch the people who beat my team celebrate.  There is the challenge of enduring the inane commentary from the play-by-play announcer and color commentator.  The most frustrating moment of the post-game experience, however, is the on-field or on-court interview with the player of the game.  It’s always the same: a person who is completely worn out is placed in front of a camera, reminded what a great game he or she had, and asked some obvious questions, inviting the regurgitation of some stock answers.  It is an exercise in pointlessness.  In fact, the only time in recent memory a post-game interview was remotely interesting, it stirred a controversy that lasted for weeks.  We are much more comfortable with the tedious and predictable script, with the questions and responses we all expect.

simple-post-game-interview-shows-the-biggest-difference-between-the-nba-and-college-basketballWe’ll see versions of this post-game interview a lot as March Madness continues over the next few weeks.  And when interviewers ask players what it’s like to play in the NCAA Tournament, one of the responses we’ll hear most frequently is, “We’re playing like it’s just another game.”  I’ve always found this particular response to be patently ridiculous.  After all, when was the last time these players played games that were broadcast on national television?  When was the last time every game they played could potentially end their season?  The notion that they could play like it’s just another game in such stressful circumstances seems unlikely to me.  But of course, this is because I’ve never played basketball (or any sport, for that matter) at the elite level.  This is a crucial distinction.  The men and women who are competing in the NCAA Tournament train on a daily basis; they practice until every move they make on the court is in their muscle memory.  They have the capacity to play stressful games like any other game because they have put in the hard work to be ready for any possibility that will come their way.  Every aspect of their game is grounded in all they have done to prepare.

It occurs to me that this is, ideally, how we should operate in our spiritual lives.  We are encouraged to pray on a daily basis, not because God will be mad if we don’t, not because it’s the only way God will do what we ask God to do, but because prayer is the equivalent of athletic training and practice.  Prayer is meant to help ground us in our relationship with God, to help us root our identity in the God who loves us.  When we are grounded in this way, when we put in the hard work of spiritual discipline, we will be better equipped to deal with challenges when they come our way.  Instead of being overwhelmed by stressful situations, we can rely on our spiritual practice and place our trust in the God whom we have come to know in our prayer lives.  Lent is a way of engaging this training and practice, an opportunity to begin rooting our identity in God so that we will be ready for whatever comes our way.

Busted

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.