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.

Part of it was defiant optimism. Earlier in the season, I’d walked out of a home game when our girls got behind in overtime, only for them to pull off a miracle overtime comeback. I had to face those girls in my geometry class the following Monday. Tonight their bench was facing me; if I left again, they’d see it through their tears.

But there was something else to it. Sure, I was embarrassed to be seen with the hecklers. But a thought had leapt to my mind that night and kept me riveted to my seat.

I’m glad Jesus doesn’t leave when I start sucking.

Did God see me the same way I saw the kids (or some of their parents)? I’ve been out on the court of life for over thirty years playing for God’s team, and I don’t have the stat line I want. I’ve made some bad errors. I’ve blown all kinds of opportunities. Meltdowns, fights with my teammates, so many points left on the court, so many plays taken off.

I’d like to think I’ve done better in recent years under the guidance of the Spirit. But my sins have still contributed to the world’s sentiment of, “This is the church?” And nobody has had more reason to leave, more reason to avoid associating himself with me, than a perfect and holy Jesus.

But he has never left my arena.

“Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.” – Hebrews 2:11

Jesus apparently wasn’t worried about his image when he came to rescue us. He wasn’t stopped by the flogging, the cross, or the ridiculous ways we now twist and ignore his teachings. He knew it would happen. But he got right in there and took it on the chin for us. He was willing to be seen with us.

In fact, he insists on it. He makes us family. He even entrusts his very reputation to us. I don’t think we’ve considered how incredible this is: Jesus hangs the world’s ability to recognize his disciples on how well they love each other (John 13:35). We’re talking a military general filling his platoons with sensitive artists. Or Pete Carroll filling the ranks of the Seahawks with high school physics nerds and bragging about it to the press. It’s almost nuts.

Jesus isn’t leaving. He has too fiercely fought for our souls and our hearts. He has made a commitment to sticking it out until the fourth quarter. In our sin and our errors, instead of walking out, he walks right up to us on the bench, comforts us, and encourages us for the next game.

“Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died–more than that, who was raised to life–is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” – Romans 8:34

You can never sin badly enough, or too often enough, to drive him from the arena. Like a good coach who takes responsibility for his team’s loss, Jesus took the shame he did not deserve, to protect his players. He daily faces the cameras on our behalf.

Hold your head up and start prepping for the next game. He’ll be there.

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