There was a minute remaining on the clock and we were down by two. I was stomping my feet, trying to get the attention of our point guard when I felt someone tap me on the shoulder. I was hot that someone was interrupting me at that moment, “In the name of Methuselah’s ghost! Are you kidding me?! Who in heck wants to bother me in this moment!! We are down by two in the camp championship game with a minute remaining and someone is trying to get my attention!?” I was ready to whirl around and in a not-so-polite way tell that person to move along. I turned quickly, ready to pounce on my interrupter, when I saw a smiling face with curly hair looking back at me and I was stunned. The gentleman said, “Paul, I just wanted to walk over and tell you how good of a job you are doing.” That man was Tubby Smith. The game did not matter to me anymore.
I am an unapologetic Tubby Smith fan. The man has character, is a phenomenal in-game coach, and has a strong faith. I have followed Coach Smith from the time he was an assistant at UK to where he is now at Texas Tech. And, while following Coach Smith, I have often heard others say that he is best at getting his teams ready for March. March is the holy grail of college basketball because it is tournament season. Strange things happen in March to strong teams and mystical moments take place for teams many do not know exist. March Madness is what college basketball fans live for. March is an important season for Christ-followers as well.
What can March Madness teach us about following Jesus?
Interestingly, Lent begins around the same time the basketball post-season begins. Webster defines Lent as “a period of 40 days before Easter during which many Christians do not eat certain foods or do certain pleasurable activities as a way of remembering the suffering of Jesus Christ.”
“As a way of remembering the suffering of Jesus Christ…”
Lent serves as a reminder of Jesus’ life and death. We celebrate the Resurrection at Easter. For now, during Lent, we pause to reflect on Jesus-in-flesh and the pain he suffered to redeem humanity and creation.
Jesus, like all good coaches, lived his life in preparation for his “March Madness;” the period of time when all his work would culminate during Easter Week. And, like every basketball season, there was a time when Jesus knew it was time to take his “game” to the next level. The time occurred at a place called Caesarea Philippi. Matthew wrote the following during Jesus’ time at Caesarea Philippi, “From then on Jesus began to point out to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, scribes, be killed, and raised the third day.” Matthew's word indicate that the location of Caesarea Philippi was where Jesus began sharpening his focus towards the Cross. Jesus knew that his metaphorical post-season run was drawing near and that it was going to require suffering, persecution, and death. Yet, he stayed focused and sacrificial to the end.
What can we learn from Jesus’ metaphorical post-season run towards the Cross?
1. Jesus kept his focus on the Cross. We, too, are to keep our focus on the Cross. Hebrews 12.2 encourages us to keep our eyes “on the author and perfecter of our faith who for the joy set before him, endured the Cross.” Why keep our focus on the Cross? Because the Cross is the very center of the Christian faith. If there is no Cross, there is no hope. But, there was a Cross, so there is unlimited hope.
2. Like March Madness, Jesus’ journey towards the Cross was full of highs and lows. The high of Palm Sunday was replaced by the low of Good Friday. Peter’s insistence that he would never leave Jesus was gutted by his multiple denials of Jesus. Jesus said that in this world we would have trouble and he also said that he came to give life to the full. As we follow Christ, there will be days we feel like a 15 seed upsetting a 2 seed. However, there will be days when we feel like the 2 seed that has been upset. (I remember the first time I watched an upset in the NCAA Tournament. It was 1993 and Santa Clara, a 15 seed, upset Arizona, a 2 seed. I remember the excitement and enthusiasm displayed on the television from the fans, players, coaches, and even announcers. Everyone was excited except for anyone associated with Arizona.)
3. God loves a great comeback! In case you do not know the story, Jesus’ death does not end in a tomb. If we put our faith and trust in Christ, our grief, our losses, and ultimately our death will not end in a tomb.
Back to Coach Smith…Tubby Smith’s Kentucky team won the 1998 National Championship and along the way, that team was nicknamed, “The Comeback Cats.” Why? They overcame three double-digit deficits during their last three tournament games which ended with a 78-69 victory over Utah. The Comeback Cats reminded the world that comebacks are exhilarating to watch. Wait until Easter.
Passion + Gifting + Experimenting=Where to Serve
I call the above The Volunteer Equation. I did not completely make this up on my own. I borrowed from the works of Bill Hybels and Dan Allender along with a tweet I read a few years ago from a co-worker of mine.
Bill Hybels was the one who first encouraged me to see the necessity of volunteering. His book, The Volunteer Revolution, challenged me to feel the urgency of volunteering and to embrace the necessity of allowing church members the freedom to explore volunteer opportunities. Due to Hybels work, I am approaching the volunteer crisis at HBC with urgency and with an expectation for our members to explore many volunteer opportunities before they settle on a longer-term commitment.
Allender encouraged me to engage my heart when exploring service and volunteering in the local church. His book, Leading with a Limp, called me to search deep within my soul in order to look for times of crisis and pain in my life. I remember being so riveted by Allender’s thoughts that I could not put the book down. His encouragement to tie calling to pain and crisis still strongly influence how I lead today.
Regarding my co-worker, I remember reading his status, which emphasized the necessity of wise friends speaking into a person’s gifting. His tweet appeared to downplay the role of spiritual gift tests and I remember my first thought being, “Well, that’s not good. Spiritual gift tests are fruitful and informative.” After continuing in the ministry for the last few years, I have found myself leaning more towards my former co-worker’s thinking. Spiritual gift tests are solid tools. They provide you with a frame of reference and an idea regarding your specific spiritual gifts. However, I have discovered that spiritual gift tests can also leave a person confusing and stuck regarding where to volunteer. If you are stuck and don’t know where to serve, ask family members or friends what they see you doing well. Then, go explore areas that connect with both the results of a spiritual gift test and your family/friend’s input.
Before I go, I want to reemphasize why we must volunteer. The first reason is that it is Biblical. Jesus calls us to go and make disciples. For many, the primary avenue through which they “go” is through volunteering at their church. The second reason why we must volunteer is tied directly into the first reason. When we do not volunteer, people go unreached. Jesus has provided way too much hope and healing in our lives for us to not, in turn, go provide hope and healing to others. If you are a member of HBC, I pray you are volunteering. If you are a member of another church, I pray you are volunteering. If you are not volunteering, but are considering it, please do.
(Are you attending HBC and want to know more about our volunteer efforts? Check out HBC's webpage at hardinsburgbc.org and click on the "Volunteering at HBC" tab.)
Yesterday at HBC, I encouraged the congregation to spend time contemplating their calling in life by reflecting upon personal moments of crisis and pain. I tried to explain how Esther and Mordecai (good guys), two Jewish characters from the Old Testament, were motivated to rescue their people from the impending crisis of Jewish eradication called for by Haman (bad dude). I then attempted to show how their crisis led to passion and then that passion led to calling.
As I was engaging family and friends this weekend at a birthday party, I was reminded of my passion. If you were to ask me point blankly, “Gibson, what is your calling in life?” Or “What are you passionate about?” My answer would come quickly, “My calling is to help people grasp their truest identity in Jesus Christ through relationship and teaching.” In other words, I am passionate about helping others see and accept that they are treasured Children of the Most High God.
Why was I reminded of my passion and calling at a birthday party? I ran into some of my former college students who recently had a difficult week. For a few of them, their passions and theological beliefs were devalued and dismissed. From what I understand, the devaluing and dismissing were attached to theological conviction. This post is not being written to question or even devalue or dismiss the person who critiqued my former students. That person was simply standing for their theological beliefs. I applaud a person who takes a firm stand in what they believe. Those are the types of people you want around to remind you that Jesus is secure and never-changing.
However, what stirred my passion and reminded me of my pain was seeing college students who were hurting. They needed an advocate and a comforter; someone who was willing to not necessarily rescue them, but care for and cheer them on as they muddled through a very difficult past two weeks. They do not need rescuing because being rescued would rob them of an opportunity to grow. But, they do need care and encouragement because they need to be taught that their opinions and passions matter as they shape their world for Jesus Christ.
What if their opinions and passions are unbiblical? Thankfully, Jesus took a group of Jewish fisherman who knew very little about the Torah and through coaching and teaching, used them to change the world. If someone has, what a leader deems to be, unbiblical theology, coach and teach with “great patience and careful instruction.” (1 Peter 4.2) Peter, who wrote those very words, was one of the fishermen who did not know very much Torah. Yet, Jesus proclaimed that Peter would be used to start the church.
Can you read it in my writing? My pain and passion are coming out. I once was a student with a lot of opinions and passion. Some of those opinions were Biblical, others were Quixote-like as I chased windmills and causes that really did not matter. Thankfully, I had a mentor who came along side of me, coached me, taught me, and more than anything, embodied Jesus’ love to me. He showed me that God loved me regardless of my theological convictions and it was because of that love that I believe my developing passions and convictions turned out to be more Jesus-like and Biblical.
So, where are the moments of pain in your life? Have those moments been translated into passion? Are you channeling that passion into serving others so that they can avoid the same types of pain or maybe even learn how to grow through that pain? Want to know your calling? Spend time reflecting upon crisis and pain in your life and see how that translates into passion for a specific cause.
(Rant: I have seen way too many pastors and theologians use the idea of “truth” as means to prove that their theology is Biblical. I get it. I am a pastor and do that often. However, I believe we must always remember that Jesus, while truth, did not stay just truth. Thankfully, the truth became flesh and made his dwelling among us. Proclaiming the “truth” without proclaiming “Jesus in flesh” is only promoting a half-Gospel. Vice versa, promoting Jesus as cool or hip or a promoter of life change, without proclaiming his “truth” as King and Messiah also promotes a half-Gospel.
Bottom line, the full Jesus is “truth” and “flesh.” He made his dwelling among us and that dwelling was amongst people who were extremely messy and sinful. In the midst of such mess and sin, Jesus was patient, truthful, loving, and held people accountable. Again, a difficult and messy process. It even led to his death. If we lead people with truth and with relational dwelling amongst them, the process will be messy and painful. It might even lead to what feels like death. However, the process can also be redemptive because the combination of truth and relational dwelling is the catalyst for John 8.32 life change; “And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Knowing Jesus is about relational truth. If I or any other pastor hope to promote truth without getting into the messiness of doubt, hurt, anger, and rejection, truth will never be known. But instead, wading into the messiness means caring…
…with love although that love might be rejected,
…with joy even during times when joy feels impossible,
…with peace in the midst of what feels like over-whelming conflict,
…with patience although it feels as if we are talking to a wall,
…with kindness even as every fiber in our being cries out for revenge,
…with goodness in a world of badness that feels unjust and wrong,
…with faithfulness because people need friends who are faithful to each other and the truth,
…with gentleness because there is too much abuse in the world, and
…with self-control because we often focus too much on what we cannot control.
As we pastor, may we be pastors of both truth and relational dwelling. Let’s do our best to embrace the messy and sinful process of ministry. And, as we do, may we always remember that it was because of relational truth dwelling among us that we have new life and hope. Rant over.)
Paul is the husband to Tara, father to Natalie and Isaac, has an average jump shot, and enjoys running. His secret wish is to one day become a Jedi Knight. Paul holds a doctorate in marriage and family counseling from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and currently serves as senior pastor of Hardinsburg Baptist Church. Paul desires to help young couples navigate the early crucibles of marriage, especially when one or both of the spouses are engaged in vocational ministry.