Sunday, March 30, 2008

Allow me just a moment...

Most of my blog posts are about things other than basketball, but if I may take a moment to A) celebrate the Tar Heels reaching a record-setting 17th Final Four, and B) address a couple issues regarding Tyler Hansbrough.

In this week's Sports Illustrated, a reader wrote in and said, "I find it hard to believe that you would give player of the year honors to "Psycho-T", a one-dimensional role player who can't dribble, stroke the three or mid-range jumper and is not a deft passer. He is definitely top 10, but his supporting cast has more to do with Carolina's record than Hansbrough. Swap him for Kansas State's Michael Beasley and arguably UNC goes perfect, while KSU's record flattens further." Now, clearly this reader does not get to watch many/any Carolina games in his hometown of St. Louis, and I am sort of glad this letter was posted, because it reveals the man as an idiot when it comes to college basketball. Last night, when Tyler's "supporting cast" faltered, he stroked two mid-range jumpers with clock winding down, scored 20 second-half points, and carried UNC to the Final Four. But to hear Jay Bilas describe the performance (where did Jay go to school, by the way? I forget), Tyler is lucky to have hit any of his shots outside of three feet. He "willed the ball" into the basket - what does that even mean? How do you "will" a ball in from 18 feet out?

We get it, people. We know that Tyler "never takes a play off", that "his will exceeds his skill", that Beasley will be the number one pick in the draft and Tyler would be late first round at best. But without Tyler, there is no Final Four for the Heels. And 36-2 is pretty close to perfect (with one loss being to Duke in our first game without Ty Lawson). There is no way Tyler Hansbrough is not the consensus national COLLEGE PLAYER of the year. Maybe not consensus best player or pro prospect, but combining value with skill, there is no contest. Put Hansbrough on K-state and I believe that they would be a better team. Put Beasley in Tyler's place at UNC and I believe we would already be out of the tournament. Raw talent alone does not make a player great.

And now, rant complete, I will enjoy a week anticipating an awesome Final Four, with four great teams, and hope that the Heels finish 38-2, winning the title and setting the NCAA record for most victories in a season. This has been a special team.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

An Evening in the Park, Part 2

Between arriving home from the park and sitting down to dinner, I had to take a prescription to a friend’s house, and as I went to my car, I noticed a man sitting on the steps across the street. Normally I am too busy, to hurried to stop and say hello, but I think my heart had been softened by my trip to the park, and so instead of a simple hello, I also commented on his shirt (it looked like a Tar Heels shirt from afar). We talked for a minute across the street, and then I knew I needed to walk across, to extend relationship across the concrete boundary. I introduced myself as his neighbor, and we talked for a minute, as he expressed a desire to get back to church, to get back on track with the Lord (and this before I had told him what I did for a living). While I still had a question about his sincerity, he and I at least now knew each other’s names and had the beginning of relationship. A small step, but a hopeful one.

I lay in bed that night thinking about the dealers on the corner, wondering how to reach them, how to help them find a new way of life, and the first step is simply going to be relationship. Their knowing my name, my knowing theirs. They are people, not drug dealers. They are young men who need hope and direction, who have families and friends and at one point were simply little kids playing basketball and sliding down the slide at the park.

Ultimately, ugliness doesn’t win in my heart or in my neighborhood. In time, the hope of Christ beats back the reality of what I see around me, and I know with all my heart that with Him, all things are possible.

And time and again I am reminded by the necessity of relationship to bring the hope of Christ to bear in places of darkness and defeat. For me to have the hope of Jesus and not share it sort of transforms it into non-hope. I believe that hope should be lived, acted on, not squirreled away for comfort on a bad day. If Jesus ultimately is the answer to the ugliness in and around us all, then acting on that is one way that we unleash that hope into the world. Pray for me to have courage to simply learn the names of the guys on the block, hopeful for the power of Christ to bring transformation.

Monday, March 24, 2008

An Evening in the Park, Part 1

Diane and the kids and I took advantage of a recent “no tutoring” week and went to our neighborhood park one evening. Eliza and Psalter split time on their new tricycle (consignment sales are wonderful!), with me guiding them via a long handle attached to the back, and Diane pulled the others in our wagon. A very Norman Rockwell-esque picture indeed. To get to the park we had to pass several drug dealers, certainly not a part of Rockwell’s repertoire, and upon arrival, I took Jacob up to the basketball court to watch some of the pickup ball. He already really loves basketball on TV and loves the Nerf hoop on his door, and to see basketball live was really exciting for him. A couple of the boys playing come to our tutoring program, but being middle school-ers, they could barely bring themselves to acknowledge me. All of the boys playing were black, except for one short, pudgy white kid with glasses, and I knew that when the game began, he was not going to be invited to play. He seemed to know it to, and seemed resigned to his position as a person on the fringe. My heart went out to him, because in this neighborhood, I imagine he doesn’t fit in a good bit of the time at the park, and every kid needs and wants friends.

Walking back to the swingsets, Diane and the girls had befriended three small children playing there; the oldest seemed to be about 4, and the others looked to be about 3 and 2. There was not a parent or an adult or even an older sibling within 50 yards of them – the only person I could find in their general vicinity who might have been in charge was someone sitting in a car on the street. They gravitated towards Diane as she played with them, swung them on the swings, and helped them on the monkey bars. Eliza and the older girl had races to the picnic table and back and swung together on the swings. Life is so simple sometimes for little children, common ground so easy to find.

As I put Jacob in one of the baby swings, I noticed a curse word written on it in black marker, and as I began to swing him, I noticed many more things written on the green metal swing set. I looked around and there were more messages and words written on the slide, on the climbing wall, on the monkey bars. Hurtful, destructive words, yet void of any creativity or purpose. The same phrases written over and over, probably having no idea what they meant. Calling out particular girls, uplifting the Southside (whatever that is, because I don’t think Glenwood is the Southside of Greensboro), a small tribute to the Crips (a “C” with an upward arrow beside it and a “B” with a downward arrow) – not enough to be gang tags, but just enough to show how kids in Glenwood long to belong and to have street cred.

And I wanted to cry. I was angry that people would write all over our beautiful new playground equipment (less than a year old), and write such hurtful things, things that I wouldn’t want my children to read. I was angry at the disrespect for property, for people, for themselves. I felt hopelessness begin to settle on me like a blanket – how do you get permanent marker off of plastic, and even if you did, wouldn’t they just write again? I didn’t want to be at the park anymore. I wasn’t afraid. I just wondered what could be done.

The contrasts of beauty and relationship (my family playing together and welcoming the children there; a lone daffodil growing beside a trash-littered creek; my love for the guys playing basketball) with ugliness and brokenness (a kid left out because he didn’t fit the mold; defeating words grafittied on the equipment; young men with no better options than selling drugs and hanging on a street corner; children longing to be parented) were striking and in that moment, ugliness overwhelmed the beauty.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Presence of Peaceful People

I recently spent a day away at a Franciscan retreat center in Stoneville, NC. One of the perks of being a vocational minister is that you are allowed regular times of solitude and prayer as part of your work (though it saddens me to see how rarely colleagues and I take advantage of that privilege and how often we miss the importance of these recharging times). To take a day away is like plugging my soul into a spiritual generator, as I have time away from people, email, and the phone. But I can also be fooled into thinking that the only and best way for me to rest is in being by myself.

St. Francis Springs is a large center with hotel-style rooms, a large dining room, sitting room, library and chapel, and acres of woods to walk in, and surprisingly I had the place to myself, except for two of their staff and one volunteer. After a morning of prayer and Scripture study, spending time on a rock in the middle of a creek and walking in the woods, I was treated to a nice lunch with the staff, and I couldn’t help but find rest in being with them.

Do you know people who are just at deep rest with Christ, who exude His peace and love and calm? It’s a joy to be in their presence because that peace sort of drifts over to you. There are different ways that I have reacted to that peace in others – one time I met with a pastor whose soul-rest so contrasted the frazzled and dry state of my soul that I went back to my office and wept. Other times I have tried to emulate the rest and peace of others, tried to figure out how they got and what I needed to do to get there. But the best way I’ve found is to simply receive it and enjoy it as a gift. Rest is a gift from the Lord, a command with a loving purpose (which, actually, is true of all His commands), and the presence of peaceful people can usher us into a place of rest in the midst of community. I love to be around people like that, and I long to be one of them for others.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Yeah, about all those posts on margin....

Who was that guy who wrote so much about margin last fall? Where has he gone? I feel so marginless right now, and I miss the pleasant pace of life that we had in October, November, and December. I feel like my work and family responsibilities are dragging me and dictating my days, and I am going non-stop from 7 am until 8 or 9 pm. Maybe that is “normal” for most people, but it’s not the kind of normal that I want to get used to. I want rhythm and space, moments to think and to breathe, and the only rhythm I am playing to at this point is the rhythm of the immediate, the right now.

I think that this marginless way of life is part of why I was short and impatient with “Bob” (see previous post). Having run all day, filled up to the very limits, I had no reserve left, and so Bob’s phone call during date night made me just overflow. I had only frustration to give, nothing left in the tank.

Margin never increases on its own; it will always be encroached upon by need and busyness, and need and busyness will always feel good and important and even noble. But they can easily be idols, things to be worshiped instead of God, ways to feel significant apart from the love of Christ. Margin, saying no, reminds us that we are not our own, that we have no life in ourselves apart from Jesus.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Date night interrupted

Thursday night Diane and I had a date night. The pace of life and work has been so great that I was convicted of the need to carve out time for just us, once a week, every week. We’ve had some great friends step forward to give us free childcare, and so we were out on our own, enjoying some Qdoba. My phone rang three times with an unidentified number, and finally I answered it. It was a man that I had been working with for about 3 weeks through the church. He is homeless, but had obtained a great job and we had been helping him with cab fare to work, getting tools for his job, and bus passes. It had taken a lot of my time (even outside normal work hours) and a good bit of money from the church, but to get him working and to the point where he could eventually move out of the shelter and sustain himself was worth it.

I had forgotten that he had asked me to hold his money from his first paycheck, because he was afraid it would get stolen from him, and so he was calling me that evening to give me his money. But I was on a date with my wife. True, we were through eating. I could have driven to where he was to get the money. But I was on a date with my wife, and she needed to know that she does not always come second to ministry. I felt bad that I had forgotten that he was going to call, and I was anxious for Diane to know that she was a priority, so I was little short with him, telling him that I would call him later. I tried two times last night, to no avail, and I have not heard from him today. I called the shelter and he moved out this morning. I called the guy who was driving him around yesterday, and he told me that “Bob” had asked him yesterday to take him to get some drugs, but that he hadn’t obliged. Bob had not told me that he had a drug addiction history.

And so tonight, I wrestle with whether I did the right thing. I know that it’s right to prioritize Diane, for her to know that she is number one. But it’s tempting to take responsibility for his choices, whatever those may be right now. It’s tempting to expect the worst and to think that I could have ‘saved” him. It’s tempting to think that I have failed because I wasn’t ready to help at a moment’s notice. I can still hear him asking, “What do you want me to do?”

I think that there is a way of the Spirit, a way that allows me to honor Diane while still letting Bob know that I hear him and am willing to help him once my time with my wife is through. I am not sure my heart was in that place, but, as always, my hope and Bob’s hope is the Lord alone. There is a Savior, His name is not Marshall. Thank goodness.