Memories are like the Mouse King in Disney’s new Nutcracker. A lot of little memories often come together to form very powerful big ones. One of the advantages of being over 40, or so, is that you have enough little memories to shape big responses to the challenges of the day. At least that is what it felt like the other day when I was reminiscing about how I learned about “moving the ball.”
In high school I played football. I know I am not supposed to approve of football, since it is a concussion factory and intrinsically too violent for peacemaking types. But, looking back, I really enjoyed my youthful collaboration in body-crunching. Even more useful, I learned a lot from those days about how to be a team, not least of all because we were a terrible team – and sometimes failure is a great teacher.
The big, instructive memory I’m talking about is about a time we were actually winning, I think, and Ron Herman was especially psychopathic. Unlike Ron, I was a rather mild-mannered football player, which never pleased my ex-Marine coaches — but I was efficient, determined and could remember the plays, so I got to play first string. Ron Herman, on the other hand, was a coach’s dream — a weightlifting, maniacal ball of energy at linebacker. I am not sure what happened to me; I think I got clipped after the whistle. Regardless, I became the center of a brawl on the field and was not faring well in the fight. I was having some kind of dazed reaction to a much bigger lineman who was coming at me. Then, from out of nowhere, Ron came at the brute like a smart bomb and took the guy out – laid him flat and then ran around him with his fists up like Rocky. My memory plays the impact in slow motion and I still enjoy seeing the enemy fall. (Sorry Jesus, but that’s the truth).
That moment contains a lesson about being a team I have not forgotten. It is: Some team mates are just better. Ron was a LOT better at football than I was. He had the strength and attitude and gleeful malice to be a force on the field. We needed him. I was scared of him off the field, but I was glad to have him on my side, watching over me (for some reason) on the field. Unlike him, I had a hard time just completing my small assignment on a given play, but Ron was seeing and wandering the whole field, improvising actions that would move the ball.
We are a big team
Memories of football came up because I was discussing Circle of Hope with a partner and we needed a good metaphor. Football worked. For one thing, like in football we, as a church, feel the urge to make a lot of “touchdowns” and we are disappointed when we don’t. Even more important, we are a big “team,” made up of many smaller teams, which contain many marginally clever individuals, for the most part — though we do have our Ron Hermans, thank God!. You see how well the analogy works? Church works a lot like a football team, if it works at all. How we perfect being a team is our greatest asset. But it is always our greatest challenge, too.
I learned a lot about being a team by being part of a terrible football team. I have learned a lot more by being part of the miraculous Circle of Hope. Who we are and what we do is so unique, so great, that we yearn for about a 1000 more people to join in the cause — seriously, that’s the touchdown we’re shooting for. If our congregations all expanded to their optimum size and we added a 1000 more people that would make us about .03% of the metro population — not really that much to shoot for, right? It will take good team work from our pastors and leadership team at the center, and good team work clear to far reaches of our constituency to “win” that “game.” We’ll have to move the ball.
At this point, I have enough memories stored up to think I can say three big things about how to move the ball that direction. Actually I guess I have already mentioned two. Maybe they are all pretty obvious. But here goes. To be a good team that makes it to the goal:
Keep the ball moving
When the Eagles don’t convert their third down and get a new set of downs, you can hear a palpable groan ripple through the stadium (like last night!). The other day a caller into sports radio said, “I just want a couple of players who can move the ball.” I yelled back at the radio (which I sometimes do), “And what else would you want?” Momentum is obviously the key to getting somewhere.
In high school football and the church, confidence is the key. As a church, we need enough people who think working with Jesus is just the best and only thing worth doing in order to keep our team rolling. In high school, our bench was full of anxious guys who weren’t so sure they wanted the coach to put them in. They got enough stuff out of just wearing the uniform, but they weren’t sure they were quite up to playing. The guard who played next to me, on the other hand, was well known for having the dirtiest uniform on the team after a game. Those kind of players keep their cell multiplying, the money coming in, the events excellent, the ideas coming to fruit. And if things aren’t moving, they can feel it and do something about it.
Admire the great players
Being a good team does not mean everyone is the same or what they do has the same value or weight. It means everyone is valued for what they bring right now with the hope that they will get to be better and better players. Regardless of whether you are good or not, we need whatever you have at the moment to make a good team. When Eddie Velasquez walked around school after a game, I wouldn’t even talk to him when I was a freshman. I had just watched him break through the line and run for a touchdown, moving like the wind, as far as I was concerned. I admired him so much I didn’t think he’d want to talk to me.
Now that I look back, I regret how seldom our really great “players” in the church get the admiration they deserve. They are so humble and Christians are so shockingly stingy with their praise (lest someone lose their humility under the pressure of their affirmation, I guess) that we tend to nurture the mediocre and hamstring the creative. I don’t think our church has the worst case of that disease, by any means, but sometimes we hitch thoroughbreds to plows just because they will plow, when they should fly.
Do the best you can with what you’ve got
We did not succeed much as a football team, so our task was more about making something from nothing, like feeding 5000 with a few loaves and two fish. I admit I often felt successful if I did not make a complete fool of myself while my dad trained his binoculars on me. Now that I look back, I think that hanging in there, even when you don’t feel like you are that great, is a lot more OK than I thought it was then. As it turns out, even an hour of bad football is a decent training session. It was preparing me for the long haul of following Jesus as a member of the body of Christ. Churches full of inadequate, even terrible Christians have been moving the ball for centuries, now. That’s the huge way we are NOT like a football team.
When the ex-Marines were getting our team into shape. They wanted us to run a six minute mile in our equipment. Needless to say, the tackles regularly failed to achieve that goal. Don Lancet, for one, was always last. He was just too fat and out of shape. But he was big. So when he got in the game, just falling in front of people often proved effective. Our quarterback was short and indecisive. But he was afraid to fail and managed to make plays out of his messes. Our fleet running back was sent to jail, so the coaches platooned the second, third and fourth stringers. It does not matter how we get there. It matters that we keep moving and use all the gifts we’ve received to make the biggest difference we can make together.
Keep your eyes on the first down which leads to the goal
It is depressing when you are an ineffective team on your own 30 yard line looking way down field at the goal post. There are going to be Ron Hermans who have a vision for winning the game – admire them as they are yelling at you to play harder! (And wake up and play harder!) Thank God for the leaders, because most of us will have to rely on their vision, since we are doing well just to line up and run the next play.
Most of us will content ourselves with gaining the most yards we can on the way to a first down. A touchdown may feel like a lot to ask. I think that is OK. Because, over time, the little things count even more than the big plays for the vast majority of us. Yard by yard, we move the ball. The body of Christ is also like the Mouse King — a compilation of all our small efforts in service to our profound memories of grace and the promises they speak to us. We’re all about a long obedience in the same direction, not just memorable video clips of the best plays.
I think my varsity team won two games in two seasons. But the real value of the experience was not lost on me. I think I even have my letterman’s sweater stored someplace. I never really qualified as a jock, but I was proud that I was successful enough to letter. I was part of the team – that terrible team. At this point, the terrible is not as important as being a part. My usually critical parents were delighted to see me out there in uniform doing something. I kind of blew off their admiration when I was a teenager. But now that I look back, like in so many things, I can see why those 40somethings were happy I would have a few memories to mull over.
When we tell people they should leave behind their precious memories of church and move into the future, we don’t mean that their former churches were all bad or that they should not remember them. As you can see, even if their churches were terrible, I think they could learn a lot from them. What our proverb means is that we need to deliberately grow from our past experiences, not sit in them the rest of our lives like my poor friend Phil, who never once got his uniform dirty the whole season. The coach knew he just wasn’t going to play.
At the end of this list, it seems like most of my ideas kind of run together; they are even a bit repetitive. Maybe that’s the nature of team sports and the nature of being a community in mission – everything kind of works together. It is not so important to define and understand how all the parts work, or even to individually excel at our part. It is more important to get up for each play, all of us doing it again with all we’ve got, and advance the ball as far as we can before the buzzer sounds. That keeps us in contention. And there is a lot with which to contend, isn’t there?