Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Long Arm of LeBron's Law

I've never been more happy to be wrong. In both my NBA Playoffs preview column and my Finals preview, I picked the Heat (and therefore LeBron James) to lose in the NBA finals. They (and he) didn't. LeBron played so excellently that many of his critics have had to reconsider their criticisms. And it's that reconsideration that has been so interesting.

The most common talking point of the post-championship coverage (other than the celebration of LeBron's performance) is a question: Who will the pressure to win, that pressure that was once LeBron's, pass to? In other words, who will the sports world now begin to judge for their failure to win a championship? For several years, it was Phil Mickelson who "couldn't win" a major. He consistently fell short in big tournaments, seemingly wilting under pressure...until he won. Then it was LeBron...until he won. The question that sports pundits have been asking each other all week who's next? Here's an example.

A wittier man than I once said that we are born lawyers, and that we have to learn about grace. The urge to judge, the urge to find fault, is powerful, and seemingly inbred. It is sourced in self-justification; that is, the desire to find at least one person who is worse that you, so that if someone's going down, it's them, and not you. This is true from elementary school playgrounds to high-powered boardrooms.

The urge to transfer the "Why haven't you won yet?" pressure to another athlete puts the lie to the claim that LeBron put the pressure on himself with "The Decision" and with the Heat's welcome party, etc. Certainly those things intensified the pressure, but the fact that everyone agrees that the pressure must go somewhere proves that it exists outside of Mickelson, James, and "not five, not six, not seven..." We require someone to put the pressure on because we cannot bear the thought that it might end up on us.

This is the most generic of all laws, and therefore perhaps the most powerful. Even when we reject directives like "Honor your father and mother" or "Love your neighbor as yourself" we find ourselves beholden to the law of "be good." But what's good enough?

Our number one job as self-interested human beings is self-justification. It was a great comfort to be able to say, when confronted with a personal failure, "Well, at least I never jilted a city, joined another superstar, and then failed time and again in clutch moments!  At least I'm not a championship level loser!" Now that LeBron is no longer such a loser, we are thrashing around, flailing, for some other poor (read: wonderfully talented) athlete on whom to pin our outrageous expectations, all in the hope that they'll fail, so that we can look better by comparison.  If we worry about living up to the law of "be good," we can least be better than someone.

Tellingly, the thing that LeBron credits with enabling his success this year is his "owning" of his failures from years past. It is when we can stop our search for someone to whom we're superior that we can have the freedom to be ourselves...and possibly succeed.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Would a Human Help a Sister Out?

Near the end of a 3,200 meter race at the Division III girls state high school track meet in Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday,  June 2, last-place runner Meghan Vogel noticed something strange on the track ahead of her: Arden McMath, the only other runner yet to finish the race, had collapsed on the track with only 20 meters to go.  Vogel says that she did what any other runner on the track would have done for her: she picked McMath up and assisted her over the finish line, being careful that she finished behind the girl she was carrying.  As you might imagine, the two girls have become instant celebrities, meeting again a few days later for an interview on “Fox and Friends,” this after speaking to media outlets too numerous to count all weekend.

“It’s been crazy,” said Vogel. “I can’t understand why everyone wants to talk to me, but I guess I’m getting used to it now,” she said. “It’s strange to have people telling me that this was such a powerful act of kindness and using words like ‘humanity.’ It’s weird. When I hear words like that I think of Harriet Tubman and saving people’s lives. I don’t consider myself a hero. I just did what I knew was right and what I was supposed to do.”  It’s ironic, of course, that Vogel is hearing words like “humanity,” because she did something that no human ever does: put herself second.

Humans only ever invoke their humanity when they’ve done something wrong.  When was the last time you heard someone, celebrated for doing a great thing, say, “Well, I am human.”  Never.  Not once. We say “I’m only human” to apologize for our mistakes.  The Human League got it right in 1986: “I’m only human/Of flesh and blood I’m made/Human/Born to make mistakes.”  Jeremiah said that the human heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure (Jer. 17:9). Meghan Vogel should have been hearing about her humanity had she taken the opportunity to pass McMath and avoid finishing last.  That’s what a human would do.  Anything else is a miracle.

Another interesting thing at play here is Vogel’s shock at the public reaction to her story.  Any runner would know the inspirational story of Derek Redmond, the Olympic runner who was helped across the finish line by his father.  Any rational person should have expected to be lionized for such a selfless (read: gloriously inhuman) action.  That Vogel is surprised proves that her actions were completely un-considered.  In other words, her left hand didn’t know what her right hand was doing (Matthew 6:3)!

Vogel was so tuned out to the world that the human ulterior motive machine was turned off completely, and a miracle happened in her: she thought of someone else before herself.  And in so doing, proved that, for a moment at least, she was something much better than human.  Martin Luther talked about sin being humanity curved back in on itself, and that redemption in Christ allowed humans to be what they were created to be: full of true humanity, loving their neighbor as themselves.  Of course, he also said that, even as redeemed, we are, at the same time, justified and sinner, so both “humanities” are ever-present.  Therefore, to invoke Vogel’s “humanity” is doubly fascinating, both as an ironic comment on what most humans would naturally do and as miraculous evidence of the kind of re-creation that Christ makes possible.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Community and the Law of Letter Jackets

Anyone who played sports in high school knows about letter jackets.  It was the thing you always wanted to get, and the thing you wore at every opportunity.  My own relationship with my letter jacket was a complicated one: I was awarded a letter during my sophomore year...for marching band.  As if that wasn't indignity enough, the marching band letter was a totally different style than the sports letters, making it impossible for me to pretend that I was a "real" letterman.  Eventually, though, I was awarded several athletic letters and could wear my letter jacket proudly.  I never got to let a girl wear it, but you can't have everything.

The most interesting thing about letter jackets is what happens to them after graduation.  In other words, where do letter jackets go to die?  If there's one ironclad rule about letter jackets, it's that you can't wear them after you're out of high school.  There's nothing lamer than holding on to past coolness.  Check out the below clip from the show Community, wherein Troy (Donald Glover) tries to make a decision about his letter jacket, because people at the community college that he now attends have been making fun of him for wearing it:

Now, it may be obvious to all of us that Troy's mistake was wearing his letter jacket to college in the first place.  That's not what I'm interested in.  What interests me is the theological insight of his new friend Jeff Winger (Joel McHale):  Whether he takes the jacket off or keeps it on, he's doing it for "them."  That's what's weak.

This is a gorgeous (and when you add Donald Glover's bulging eyeballs, hilarious) illustration of the inescapability of the Law.  Whether we struggle to obey the law or we reject it, we are under its power.  Think of your parents: whether you are just like them or are committed to being nothing like them, they are still the ones influencing you.  If we strive to mold ourselves into today's Barbie-doll aesthetic or go the other way into shabby-chic, Barbie is still directing our decisions.  "Do not be fooled," St. Paul writes to the Galatians, "God will not be mocked" (6:7).  In other words, don't think that you can avoid the reach of the Law.  You can run toward it or away from it...but it still controls you.  There is no escape.

Well, except for THIS.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

An NBA Finals Preview (and REview)

Astute readers will note that the NBA Finals have already begun, and that it's fashionable to "preview" something before it begins. Well, that's not how we roll here. At least, not here at the sports desk, which is currently covered in more paper covered in a lot of paper. If you read my completely serious playoff preview, you'll know that my pick for NBA Champion, the San Antonio Spurs, have already been fed through the woodchipper that is the Oklahoma City Thunder. Why, then, should you trust my analysis of the Finals?'re reading this already, so why don't you just read on to the end?

The Thunder won Game 1 last night, coming back from a 13-point deficit in the first half to win by 11 (Although, it should be noted that it was a five point game with 1:38 remaining...the final difference came because the Thunder are an excellent free throw shooting team and Miami had to keep fouling, trying to get back in the game). The Thunder have home court advantage, so might well have been expected to win (they were favored). In fact, there are a couple of historical notes that might serve to downplay the importance of this particular win.

First, the Spurs won Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals (against these Thunder) at home in similarly convincing fashion. Obviously, the Spurs went on to be defeated in the series. Secondly, the team with home court advantage in last year's Finals (it happened to be Miami) won Game 1 and went on to lose the series. It seems safe to say that this victory for the Thunder doesn't assure them of a championship.

Because of the old "a series doesn't really start until the home team loses" adage, last night's game has been turned into a referendum on the "LeBron James or Kevin Durant?" question. As you might imagine, it's not enough for them to both be wonderful players, we must decide which one of them is more wonderful. For instance, after the game last night, pundit Skip Bayless tweeted: "That clinches it: Kevin Durant is definitely better than LeBron." Here are their stat lines, for the curious:

Durant:  46 mins, 36 points (on 12 of 20 shooting), 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 block
James:  46 mins, 30 points (11 of 24), 9 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals

Pretty darn similar, right? The big differences are, first, that Durant was more efficient, shooting 60% from the field while James "only" shot 46%. 46% is a really good shooting percentage. 60% is great. The other main difference, and I suspect the one that Bayless is reacting to, is that Durant scored 17 points in the 4th quarter while James scored only 7. Am I living in a crazy world, or are first, second, and third quarter points worth just as much as fourth quarter points? I mean, you total the points from the whole game to decide the winner, right?

It doesn't seem like the "who is better" question can be answered during the careers of two competitors. It's hard enough to answer after retirement. Bird or Magic? Wilt or Russell? Durant was better last night. Not by much, but by enough to win.

Here's the thing about this series, in my opinion: Oklahoma City is a much better jump shooting team than Miami. The Heat sometimes fall into the habit of trying to "match" their opponent (they are the most notorious "play to the level of your competition" team in the league)...for instance, shooting a three when they've just given one up, etc. If Miami gets into a jump shooting battle with the Thunder, they'll lose, and quickly. For the Heat to have a chance, and I think last night's result proves that they can at least stay with the athleticism of OKC, LeBron and Wade must keep moving and cutting, barreling into the lane, and forcing the defense to react to them. Unfortunately for the Heat, I don't think they'll do it. I'm picking the Thunder in 6 games, because I think LeBron, for some reason, thinks he's a better jump shooter than he is. It's almost the only weakness in an otherwise super-human game, but it can be a crippling one.

A New Resource Ministry

There's a new ministry on the block, one that you should check out immediately.  If you like this blog, you've hopefully already looked at Mockingbird, a wonderful resource.  Here's a new one:  LIBERATE (I'm also a contributing writer).  As a teaser, here's a teaching my dear friend Jono Linebaugh did on what God is like.  Watch won't be disappointed.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

On the (Im)Possibility of Human Imputation

"Imputation" is a theological word that can be defined as something like "the act of regarding something or someone as having qualities that it or they do not naturally possess."  Imputation is HUGELY important in Christian theology; it is no exaggeration to say that its importance cannot be overstated.  For sinners such as us to stand before the judgment seat of God and be declared righteous, we must be regarded as righteous (via the "imputation" of the righteousness of Christ to us).  God's word, of course, is creative (as in, "Let there be light"), so when he regards someone as righteous, they actually become so.  In this way, imputation can be said to "work," that is, imputation is the mode by which life can come from death.  Imputation, therefore, is so important and so very full of grace that Christians are overwhelmed by the desire to "pay it forward" and "impute" to each other.

That's how we get situations like this:

As Joe House said in his piece on
I have watched the "GOOD JOB, GOOD EFFORT" video 391 times since Tuesday night. Because I can't believe the kid is being sincere with that sentiment. Tuesday night's Heat performance was not a "good job" and it was most certainly NOT a "good effort." I know this because I performed a very scientific study (i.e., scanned YouTube for five minutes) of the 10 hustle/effort plays that could have gone either way in the game, and my conclusion is the Celts won Every. Single. One.
So.  Humans generally "impute" when they want it to "work" in the same way it does when God does it.  When we want to encourage, or cajole, or build up, we "impute" in the same way the kid in the video did.  We don't actually think that the Heat did a good job, but we want them to be more likely to do one next time. But it rings hollow, just the way the video kid's words do.  Note the expressions on the faces of the departing Heat.  No new buoyancy, no encouragement.  They know that what the kid is saying just isn't true.

And this is the key: Human words are not creative.

Try it sometime.  Walk outside at 3:30 in the morning (in temperate cheating) and command light to come forth.  See what happens.  The same failure is true when we tell someone that they're successful when they know they're not, that they're thin when they know they're not, or that they're a "good person" when they know they're not.

During a summer that I spent as a hospital chaplain, I came across a dying man.  When I asked him how he was doing, he said that he thought he'd lived a good life.  After a pause, he looked at me and said, "I'm just not sure it was good enough."  Hearing the story later, my supervisor told me that I should have assured the man that his life was good enough; that he didn't have to worry.  In other words, that I should have "imputed" righteousness to him. In the moment, I felt differently.  I told the man that Jesus had come for those of us who hadn't lived lives that were good enough.

That man wouldn't have believed me if I'd told him that his life was good enough; who was I, anyway?  How would I know?  He didn't need faux-imputation...and it wouldn't have worked.  Though humans can't impute (we can only, like the "Good Job" Kid, pretend), we can announce that true imputation, through the creative word of God, has come.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Humans, Nature, and Bambi

My almost-four-year-old daughter requested that we watch Bambi yesterday, and unlike my normal practice (getting stuff done around the house while she watches a movie) I sat down and watched it with her. I hadn't watched the film all the way through in a really long time, and when Bambi's mother is (SPOILERS!) shot, I found myself thinking, "Wait, there's an hour left. What happens now?"

Well, a bunch of stuff happens, but one thing that really surprised me: I knew that "man" was the bad guy in the movie (that Bambi's mom thing again), but I had no idea how bad. When Bambi's father shows him man's encampment, he explains that the deer must retreat further into the forest. The smoking fires of man are shown at a great distance, and the most prominent feature of the camp is the circling vultures overhead. The implication is clear: mankind equals death and destruction. In the next sequence, Bambi fights off a pack of a dozen seemingly rabid hunting dogs, and barely escapes a raging forest fire, both put into play by "man," whose role in the film is faceless and senseless destructor.  

It reminded me of a scene in one of the FernGully films, wherein a beatific forest has been shockingly marred by a clearing with a stump in the center of it. "This is NOT natural," one of the animals exclaims. Both of these films posit humankind as the enemy of nature, not as part of it.

But humankind has always been part of nature. Even the native Americans, those paragons of natural harmony, killed animals, farmed the land, set fires, and cut trees. Animals fashion tools, build homes, redirect water, and hunt. Sesame Street defined "nature" as "anything not made by humans." That's not true. We make homes just like beavers do, and they're not any less "natural." There are certainly arguments that can be made against the quality (and extent) of humankind's behavior in nature, but these arguments should be made from the standpoint of human beings as part of nature, not as a Cruella deVil-style antagonist toward it, and with the knowledge that the same arguments then ought to be made about other organisms.  I mean, have you seen the insatiable appetite of the Venus flytrap?

Friday, June 1, 2012

ESPN and Lisa Simpson Denounce the World

Am I the only one who still watches The Simpsons every week? Sometimes it seems like it...and it seems like the writing staff of The Simpsons knows it. The show has become a trifle (after beginning as a powerhouse) over the last several seasons, and only occasionally still has something interesting to say. In last week's episode "Lisa Goes Gaga" (even the episode titles are boring..."Lisa Goes Gaga?" This from a show that brought us "Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk.") Lady Gaga comes to Springfield. She's not planning to; her joyful train only stops in town after Gaga notices what a sad and depressing place Springfield is (a billboard reads Springfield: The Little Town that Can't - and Won't). All Springfield needs, she figures, is a dose of the Gaga magic.

"Never forget, you're all my little monsters," coos Gaga. "You should love yourself as much as I love you. Because..." and then she breaks into song:

When they're young, all little monsters learn that they are scary/Ugly, stupid, shunned by cupid, overweight and hairy/But every monster needs to find the secret deep inside/that transforms Dr. Jekyll into sexy Mr. Hyde.

Come on monsters so beautiful/Monsters don't need implants or [an awesome] monster car/Monsters only need to love the monsters that they are.

When she's finished singing joy and self-love into the gathered residents of Springfield, she breathlessly asks, "Does everybody love themselves?" Lenny, one of Homer's wage-slave colleagues at the nuclear power plant, answers her with the brilliant, "That kind of thing sounds hollow coming from anyone but you!"

With that one sentence, the Simpsons writers put the lie to Gaga's rhetoric. Of course her song is hollow: If loving oneself were so easy, we'd all do it. Immediately. Later in the episode, Lisa Simpson loudly denounces Gaga on the school playground: "I denounce thee! I denounce thee for giving people ambitions they cannot fulfill, [and] for positing a world where social acceptance and walking on heels are easy! I denounce thee, I denounce thee, I denounce thee!"

Entertainers are forever suggesting that if the rest of us "just want it badly enough" our lives can turn into the glorious fever-dreams of their latest songs. Athletes tell us the same thing:  desire equals success. In his "The Fix" column in the May 2012 issue of ESPN: The Magazine (which is, as ESPN's own Gregg Easterbrook jokes, published on Earth: The Planet), Chris Jones pulls a Lisa Simpson: "You have most likely been told all your life, probably by people who love you very much, that you can do or be anything you want. You have been lied to. You might be living smack in the middle of the Age of Entitlement, but desire alone doesn't make dreams come true." Ask the hundreds of thousands of kids who grow up wanting to play in the NBA, NFL, or MLB or who want to grace the silver screen in Hollywood. Jones' words are unassailably true, and elucidate the reason that Gaga's ring so false.

The world has no answer for the people who try and fail.  The Simpsons loses its nerve: Lisa finally admits that she just needed to vent, and that Lady Gaga's magic did, in fact, do its work, and Jones' Age of Entitlement survives another day.  The answer must come from somewhere outside the world.   Gaga suggests that we fall in love with our Mr. Hyde. Deliverance sounds better to me:
I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate...I can will what is right, but I cannot do it...wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Romans 7:15, 18b, 24-25a)
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