Fireworks

On Wednesday evening, Brian and I and a friend went to see the Minor League All Star game. It was a beautiful night for a game, and the International League won handily. I paid less attention to the game than usual, because I hadn’t seen my friend in awhile, and there was lots to catch up on.

But all conversation stopped when the fireworks began. None of us had realized that there would be fireworks after the game, but we all became excited when the post-game show was first announced, sometime around the 6th inning. Without much discussion, we all agreed we would stay. Why would anyone miss fireworks?

There are few things that delight me so much, that fill me with such joy, as fireworks exploding color in the night sky. The noise which scared me so much as a small child became part of the delight as I grew older. “Boom! Boom!” I feel the vibrations in my chest as the flower of color unfolds high above, hundreds of meters wide.

As my self-conscious brain came back online – as I shifted from watching fireworks to watching myself watch fireworks – I realized another time that I have been transported so far outside of myself: in worship. The connection became clear: why do we celebrate sports and national holidays with fireworks, but churches do not set off fireworks on high holy days?

Wouldn’t it be great if Christians held fireworks shows  on Easter, on Pentecost, on Christmas: “This is how excited we are! This is what a big deal this is for us! He is Risen – Boom! The Spirit has been poured out upon us – Boom! God is with us – Boom! Boom! Boom!”

Yeah, fireworks are expensive. Which means that one congregation wouldn’t get to take credit for it. We would have to work together, across congregations, even across denominations. For instance, figure $15,000 for a mid-sized show – that sounds like a lot, right? But in my town, Durham, NC, there are dozens of churches. Get 40 churches in on it, and the average contribution per church is now down to $375. Which is a great deal, and an opportunity for people from all over the community to get together and celebrate Jesus. And since your average fireworks show only lasts 15-20 minutes, we should probably throw in a hymn sing, or gospel music concert, or something like that. Christmas carols and fireworks! Sponsored by (list of 40 churches here.)

Sadly, churches seem to have confused evangelism with church growth. We are more concerned with reproducing ourselves (“does Main Street Methbyterian have a future?”) than we are with sharing Jesus. Maybe because we don’t have enough faith in Jesus, and we think that we are needing to redeem ourselves (our only shot at eternal life is a name in a stained glass window)… or maybe because we live immersed in a culture of fear-induced self-reproduction, and living in the world but not of it is so very very difficult. Whatever the reason, when we stop to consider it, being the lone stranger at a cookout on the church lawn is more akin to the terror of transferring mid-year to a new elementary school than it is to the joy of believing that God really did love the world enough to live among us in a particular body at a particular time in a particular community. It is hard to say what the Incarnation has to do with a cheap hot dog, and the barely concealed anxious hope that one day you too will join us, and grill cheap hot dogs for the few souls brave enough to endure the onslaught of interrogators that is the average local congregation.

Instead, the combined immensity and particularity of God’s love for us is surprising and painfully bright and loud and beautiful, and I can feel it in my chest and my throat, and I cannot keep myself from gasping outloud, “Oh!” and my smile is so big and unironic that I am a little afraid that someone will see me and realize that I am not cool enough to be above this spectacle, but then I realize that I don’t care, because I don’t want to be so cynical that I refuse to be moved by the truly moving. The love of Jesus swells and bursts me like a firework. Alleluia Alleluia! Boom Boom Boom!

Winners and Losers

watching Ghana play the United States, World Cup 2014

Two young soccer fans watching Ghana play the United States, World Cup 2014

“I’m glad the other team is losing,” the young soccer fan said, munching on a tortilla chip as she waited for her quesadilla. Her friend sitting next to her nodded solemnly in agreement.

I felt the pang that precedes motherly admonition, but I quickly squelched it. Yes, it is “less polite” to the point of “not being a good sport” to be glad that the other team is losing – and yet we are encouraged to cheer on our own team – to be happy that our team is winning. These seven year olds could tell you that there really is no difference between the two. To be happy that your team is winning necessarily means being happy that the other team is losing. Why is it impolite to say one, but not impolite to say the other?

I realized that I was not willing to defend this sort of polite dissemblance. I refused to insist, “Don’t say that; say this other thing [that means the same thing, but in a more oblique way.]”

I’m not a big fan of rooting for a particular team. I enjoy the game itself. I enjoyed watching Ghana and the U.S. alike. Rooting for someone doesn’t tend to increase the enjoyment for me. And so instead of correcting the girls’ “rude” but accurate speech, I tried to model delight in cunning fakes and beautiful passes and amazing escapes from seemingly impenetrable defenses. I gasped as goals were nearly made and blocked at the last minute – without regard for whose goal was being defended, much less who was ahead and what was the score.

I guess it is an Arminian way of watching the World Cup. Just as single predestination is a pedantic hedge for double predestination, getting excited about a particular team winning requires being glad that the team they are playing is losing. If you can’t stomach one, how can you stomach the other? So I, for one, am going to steer clear of speculating about who Pope Francis is rooting for, and hope that the official Vatican answer represents the Pope’s true feelings: nobody.

Happy World Cup everybody – enjoy the spectacle!

“You can do it!”

Wilma Rudolph: The fastest woman of her generation
New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. – NYPL Digital
Accessed via Wikipedia
NYWT&S staff photographs are in the public domain per the instrument of gift. See http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/res/076_nyw.html

High school gym class was awful for me. In truth, I first noticed how un-athletic I was in the fourth grade, when it became clear that the only things I was good at in PE was dodging balls and square dancing. Oh, and the bar hang that girls used to do for the annual Physical Fitness Test instead of pull-ups – I was great at that! I just imagined that I would literally die if I let go. I failed all the other tests, but that one? Presidential, every time. But I didn’t hate gym class. It was a break from the routine, and it felt good to exercise. My elementary and middle school gym teachers accepted that, even trying my hardest, I was simply bad at every sport I tried, and none of my peers gave me a hard time about it.

My high school coaches, on the other hand, refused to “give up” on me. They really believed that I could be better if I just tried harder, and so they were relentlessly, vocally encouraging. They were especially “encouraging” about my running. Shooting baskets, or serving a volleyball, or any of dozens of other skills require some amount of practice simply to do in a mediocre way. Running, on the other hand, is something most kids learn how to do naturally before they are 18 months old, so obviously I had had lots of practice. And lots of practice meant no excuses.

Running. I wanted to believe that I was shooting off the starting line at top speed, but in seconds, I would be huffing and puffing, and by the end of the run, I had been double lapped by literally my entire class. 30 people or something, all not just faster than me, but embarrassingly faster. And to make matters worse, Coach was standing in the middle of the track, singling me out, shouting, “You can do it, Cosby! Keep going! Don’t stop now! What now? Are you going to start walking? Are you going to walk like a quitter? Keep running! You can do it! I know you have it in you!”

What exactly was the “it” that I had in me, anyway? It felt like what I had was a knife in my chest, starting as early as the 100 meter mark. And it didn’t go away. By 400 meters, my legs were like jelly. By 600 meters, I felt like I would pass out. And already my entire class had passed me – they had gone almost twice as far as I had, and they weren’t slowing down. Most of them seemed to be enjoying themselves. I, on the other hand, was going at my absolute top speed, and was sure that this was going to be the day that I died on the track. Maybe the last thing I would hear would be Coach telling me to just try harder.

Coach didn’t actually know I had it in me. He couldn’t possibly know I had it in me. I didn’t know for sure myself if I had it in me.

I remembered reading in Sunday school about Wilma Rudolph. That was quite the inspirational works righteousness story. She contracted polio as a child, and had been told by a doctor that she was never going to be able to walk without a brace. But she was so determined that not only did she walk, but she ran. And not only did she run, but she ran in the Olympics. She became the fastest woman alive. The moral of the story, we were told, was that we could do anything we put our minds to, as long as we didn’t give up no matter what anyone told us. (To be fair to Ms. Rudolph, she herself would likely have recognized that only one person can be the fastest in the world at a time, heroic efforts notwithstanding. She was not responsible for the way the curriculum writer had chosen to turn her life story into a morality tale.)

If Wilma Rudolph could run after having had polio as a child, certainly I could do it – I who had never had to wear a brace, who had never been diagnosed with anything particularly serious. I so wanted to be a runner like Wilma Rudolph. I didn’t want to be that slow – it had not been that long ago that I had harbored secret dreams of being the fastest woman alive, like Wilma Rudolph. Maybe Coach was right: if I kept trying my hardest, surely one day I would at least be able to keep up with my class mates.

It wasn’t long before his certainty became oppressive. I started to doubt myself – started to oscillate between rage at his certainty and self-loathing: no matter what I thought, I must not be trying if I was not getting any better. He believed, he suspected that all I needed was more encouragement, or embarrassment, or effort, and I would be as good as anyone else. But he didn’t say, “I suspect…” He didn’t say, “I believe…” He said, “I know.”

We should always be careful about our certainty about another person’s ability or potential. “I know you can do it!” is not a helpful motivator. For someone who really is trying, relentless encouragement can be discouraging.

Take addiction, for instance: when I was interning as a chaplain at a residential addiction treatment facility, I was told that only about 5% of addicts actually manage to stay clean for a full five years after treatment. So what do you say to someone who statistically is 95% likely to get back on drugs in the next 5 years? “I know you can do it?” That’s pretty cheeky – and definitely setting up the vast majority of people in recovery for a serious shame spiral down the road. You could try reverse psychology – hope that you can make them angry enough to fight with the words: “Almost everyone fails at this. What makes you think you are so special? I’m going to see you right back in here in a matter of months.” That’s rather dismal, isn’t it? But most importantly, it isn’t true. No one can tell anyone else for certain that they will or won’t be able to stay off drugs. No one can even know that for themselves. At best, it is a weekly or daily struggle. Sometimes, it’s moment to moment.

None of us can tell another person what they are able to do or likely to do. We don’t know that a person can stay off drugs, or that they will start using again. We don’t know that a person can keep commitments if they just try hard enough, or that they definitely won’t. We don’t know that a person will be able to speak more clearly, read more quickly, or jump farther if they just put their mind to it. When we say that we do know, we are being dishonest and unloving.

We can’t have perfect knowledge. At best, we can have hope: we can desire for a person to be able to do more, or to be able to take better care of themselves. At best, we can be honest enough to say “I don’t know, I hope so,” when a friend asks us, “Do you think I can quit smoking?” or “Will I ever finish this novel?” or “Will I learn how to stop getting so angry at my kids?”

Those three words, “I don’t know,” are a gift. “I don’t know,” means “there is grace for you.” It means that I will not assume that you are lazy if you fail. It means that I know that no matter how well I know you, I cannot know you well enough to peer into your future. It means that I acknowledge that no one’s will is all powerful. Omnipotence is reserved for God alone.

But the next three words, “I hope so,” these are a gift too. “I hope so,” says, “I want you to be healthy.” It says, “I love you.” It says, “I will pray for you.” It says, “I will do my feeble best not to make you stumble.”

Will I be able to remember this advice when the time comes? Will you?

I don’t know. I hope so.