The other day, “Who Let the Dogs Out” was on the radio.
For those of you who don’t remember, “Who Let the Dogs Out” (click at your own risk) was a song written by a Trinidadian group called the Baha Men that made it to the United States as part of the soundtrack for Rugrats in Paris: The Movie. It was probably the most popular song of the summer of 2000; in fact, it won a Grammy for Best Dance Recording in 2001. On one hand, this is somewhat understandable. The song is catchy, danceable, and insidiously easy to remember. On the other hand, it’s hard to understand why anyone enjoyed the song in the first place. It has the dubious distinction of being third on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 20 most annoying songs, and it is frequently cited as an example of the fact that quality and popularity are not always one and the same.
The Baha Men are also an example of a common phenomenon in popular music: the one hit wonder. Though the Trinidadian group released several other singles, none achieved the ubiquity or acclaim of their magnum opus. For better or worse, this means that the Baha Men will forever be defined by a song that repeatedly asks a rhetorical question about the provenance of dogs. I imagine that being a one hit wonder has to be frustrating. Instead of being trusted for your talent and potential, you are known for an isolated moment in your career. Even if you go on to grow and change, people define you in terms of something you did in the past.
Holy Week begins tomorrow. As such it is appropriate for us to take stock of our Lenten journeys. And when it comes to Lent (and other things), I suspect that many of us think we might be one hit wonders. We assume that what we have done in the past will forever shape our futures. If we have had a Lent that was particularly fruitful, for instance, we tend to have two responses. We either assume that this is the best we can do and say that we will try to have the same experience next year or we believe that there’s no way we could possibly experience the same level of fulfillment and regard this as the high water mark in our spiritual development. We must recognize, however, that we are called to grow in our relationship with God. When St. Paul tells us that we are called to walk in newness of life, we are meant to walk in a particular direction. We’re meant to be aware that we are moving toward a deeper and fuller relationship with the God who created and redeemed us. I pray that this Lent has been a time of spiritual growth for you, but more importantly, I pray that you will continue to grow in your awareness of God’s love even as this season of renewal comes to a close. Above all, I pray that you will remember that in God’s eyes, you will never be a one hit wonder.
This morning, I bought a breakfast burrito from my favorite spot in Abilene.
Those of you who live in the area are probably familiar with the wonder that is La Popular. Indeed, this well-named local chain of hole-in-the-wall burrito shacks seems to be one of the more popular eateries in town. If ever I mention to someone that I went to La Popular for breakfast, I almost always get a knowing smile, no matter who the person is. And this is because La Popular’s appeal transcends a whole variety of boundaries. Whenever I stop by, there are people from all walks of life waiting for burritos: blue collar and white collar workers, English speakers and Spanish speakers, civilians and military personnel. A visit to La Popular is an opportunity to meet people of different backgrounds and celebrate the diversity of our community.
I think the main reason that La Popular’s appeal cuts across cultural boundaries is not for any existential reason, but rather because the burritos are really, really good. The tortillas are some of the best I’ve ever had: soft and chewy with just the right levels of flavor. The filling is always savory and delicious, and the little containers of salsa are so good that they should be illegal. But the best aspect of La Popular’s burritos is how well constructed and balanced they are. Each contains just the right amount of filling and is folded in such a way that your chorizo and egg (or whatever you ordered) almost never falls out of the tortilla and onto the floor. It’s marvelous to watch the cooks assemble these burritos: they place spoons into the containers of the chorizo and egg mixture, pull out exactly the same amount every time, place the filling into the middle of the tortilla, and fold the tortilla with utter commitment and not a moment of hesitation. The resulting burritos aren’t over- or under-stuffed; they are perfectly balanced and delicious.
We sometimes get caught up in the notion that our lives of faith don’t really count unless we are doing as much as we possibly can. We sometimes feel obligated to attend every educational opportunity at church, to go to worship services three or four times a week, to make sure all of our reading is somehow devotional, and to listen only to sacred music. There’s nothing wrong with any of these things, but we need to be careful that our faith lives do not become overstuffed. We must be careful that our devotional practices serve a purpose, that they move us toward a more intimate relationship with God, and are not mere obligations destined to end up on the floor. In other words, our spiritual lives should be balanced. At the same time, it does not make any sense for us to engage in these balanced spiritual practices halfway. Like the cooks at La Popular, we must engage our lives of faith with utter commitment and without hesitation. As you use this Lenten season to examine your spiritual lives, I encourage you to discern those spiritual places where you might be both balanced and committed.
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.
We’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.