Jesus in the Bleachers: What I Learned About Grace from a Girls’ Basketball Game

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Girls’ basketball games can be tough to watch.

A few years ago, the school at which I was serving experienced a tough playoff loss. Our girls had pretty much cleaned up in their first game, but sloppy play caught up to them in the second. The star player fouled out by the third quarter; two others would follow. You could tell the moment the downward spiral started: they started playing panicky, their shots becoming wild, turning the ball over, committing more fouls. By the fourth quarter, we were putting in eighth graders.

It was a 73-34 loss and the end of our tournament hopes. There were a lot of tears on our bench, and exhausted athletes are tough to console. I couldn’t do much but watch.

But that wasn’t what bugged me the most. What really got to me was the other teachers who left the stands and went home before the fourth quarter even started.

The reason wasn’t our girls’ performance; it was our crowd. Even by rural standards, some of our school’s traveling fans were absolutely horrid the entire game. They booed the refs, mocked them openly, questioned every single call, when clearly our girls weren’t doing themselves any favors.

Later, one of the teachers told me, “I left because I didn’t want to be seen as part of that crowd.”

I was reminded of the previous season when teachers made a point of skipping our boys’ games entirely over their poor play – ugly technical fouls, constant unsportsmanlike conduct. The teachers were trying to send the same message: “Right now I’m embarrassed to be associated with this school.”

But that night as our girls’ season faded, I stayed in the bleachers.

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Embracing a Season You Never Chose

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Valentine’s Day.

Like country music, Facebook, or prom night, it’s one of those institutions that celebrates romantic love for those who have it, and acts as kryptonite to the contentment of everyone else. It threatens to bring to the surface all the self-pity and frustration that besets the honest single who doesn’t enjoy being single.

But this Valentine’s Day…I’m cool.

That’s been a choice.

We are all in a season we didn’t choose. Some of us are in hard financial straits. Others have been hit by injustice. Perhaps you’re just dying to be finished with high school. Some of you don’t need to be in high school to be fighting tooth and nail for your self-worth.

For others, the frustration is their singleness. Especially around this time of year. I know – it sounds silly to compare that frustration to the true suffering others face. But the longing is real, and it’s too readily sniffed at by those who are a different kind of person and value different things in their lives. So you won’t hear me dismissing any longings, even if it does overflow its banks. Some people simply don’t enjoy being single, and weren’t designed to. (That’s why this isn’t another tired treatise on why Jesus is your valentine. “That’s just weird,” as a single female friend once said.)

Unchosen seasons can seem overwhelming. Our emotions are a bully, dictating that we must be laid low, that we have no way to find peace or joy in these moments (or that we’re not being “honest with ourselves” if we do).

But we have a choice.

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The Prodigal Son and That “I Had to Sin in Order to Grow” Thing

prodigal.jpgI’ve heard it quite a few times from young believers.

“I had to go through that tough stage of my life in order to find God.”

They’re coming out of a sinful time in their lives and acknowledging its darkness for the first time. What kind of darkness? Who knows. Our minds jump to the usual suspects – sexual promiscuity, drugs, partying – and it might have been that. It might be petty crime, or embracing of the occult. Or it might just a “crowd” that endowed them with a crass, hurtful personality.

Eventually, all things are exposed to light, and the emerging young wanderer starts getting honest. I celebrate with them in their light bulb moment.

But then you’ll hear some of them tack this on, in some form or another:

“I needed to sin so I’d learn my lessons”.

“I went through the wilderness because it was God’s way to grow me.”

“I wouldn’t have understood sin unless I went through it.”

Record scratch.

Wait, what? Where did that come from?

I can take a stab. In our age, popular culture has glamorized the wilderness. The hardened “guy from the wrong side of the tracks” is the hero from our stories; dirt under the fingernails is more impressive than white cuffs. He seems more real, certainly more relatable. His mistakes drown him and inflict their toll, only for him to somehow rise from the ashes and find an inner heart of gold, while the goody two shoes and the irritable authority figures turn out to be the real villain (how many movies have boasted this plot?).

We let this sneak into the church, too. The more debauched the old man, the more impressive the new. So much that young disciples actually feel diminished for having lived well from the start, because their testimonies are boring.

It’s a crock.

No. 

You did not “have” to sin in order to arrive where you are today. That is a lie. It is the wrong response to your wilderness.

And I plead with you to shake it, for it will also prove fatal to your recovery.

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