I was not an athletic child. I was a foot shorter than all the girls in my class and my hair was bigger than my backpack, making hand-eye coordination exceedingly difficult. I was on a basketball team in order to maintain some semblance of social status. I hate watching home videos of these games. I look like an afro trying to ride a chicken. My first grade team was called “The Babes”, which only served to communicate to us six year-olds that looks really are all that matter. As a member of The Babes, I went in every game but I had to be pried off the bench and bribed onto the court.
I remember in one particular game, I was charged with guarding the biggest girl from the other team: the tall six year-old who had either already hit puberty or had stolen some pills from the backroom of a GNC.
I weighed in at 40 pounds and was so intimidated that I kept wetting myself. When she’d run down the court, I’d run in the opposite direction.
My coach finally pulled me aside. “You’re not playing.”
“Yes, I am. This is me playing. I’m just not good.”
“No, you’re not playing. You’re hiding. You haven’t had one foul this entire season.”
I had prided myself on this clean record. I never once got that obnoxious whistle blown on me. I was never called out. Bottom line, I never got in trouble.
But my coach couldn’t have cared less. He looked me in the eyes and said, “If you’re not fouling, you’re not playing.”
This past week, God has asked me to engage in situations that are so beyond my comfort zone that they make going to a night club with my grandparents seem inviting. I’ve asked for opportunities to see my life rub against the grit of this world and more specifically, the pain of my neighborhood. In the last 8 days, I’ve closely encountered homelessness, CPS, abuse and death—and I’ve had no clue what I’m doing.
It’s hard to navigate the existing broken systems. There were times these past two weeks when I wondered if I could still quit, wondered if I could even make a difference, wondered why I’d left the safe confines of apathy.
And it’s rough, tiring days like today that I remember the appeal of looking the other way. The pained and grieving, those in poverty looking for a break, the children who want to know who will take care of them—all of these are difficult to look at and even more difficult to grab by the shoulders and kiss in the face.
I realized that if I give myself to God, he’s going to give me to other people: my kids, my friends and family. That’s just how it works. But when I give him myself, he gives me to other neighbors, as well. The kind of neighbors who I see beaten on the side of the road. The kind of neighbors who have nothing. The kind of neighbors who hate me. I’ve learned God is going to give me to this world.
That’s what happens when our lives aren’t our own.
I’m not talking about a boundary-less life. I’m talking about actually playing the game.
“If you’re not fouling, you’re not playing.”
I’ve made some mistakes this past week. I’ve given when I shouldn’t have, committed when I couldn’t follow through, and kept quiet when I should have spoken up. I’ve let myself think I’m doing others a favor or had moments when I’ve resented people because of my own insecurities and feelings of guilt.
There have been frustrating and lonely moments as I’ve gotten off the bench.
After the pep talk from my coach, I felt like a different person. I wasn’t going to let The Babes down. I was going to earn every bite of the pickle-flavored snow cone I got at the end of the game. I ran onto the court and grabbed the ball away from the first person I saw. When the whistle blew, I raised up my hand and yelled, “That was me!”
Discipleship isn’t about the avoidance of mistakes. The goal isn’t to keep the uniform clean. We were made to get out there and play. And we’ll fail- sometimes miserably.
But, the missteps and failures teach me as much as the successes and the times I squeak by.
Fouls are good teachers, but they are also a sign that we’re in the game.
What characterized my early basketball days was my love for the bench. I was a part of the team, I had a great seat and I got a treat at the end of the game regardless of whether or not we won. But how much did I miss by forfeiting the heart of the game?
At the end of the day, what do I want my discipleship to mean? If people can only define following Jesus by what they’ve seen in me, what will they think Christianity is?
There’s a reason we wake up every morning. There’s a reason we’re given our gifts and our resources and our passions. Are we asking why?
Why not dive in? But once we do, we can’t be surprised when we hear the whistle blow. We’ll disappoint, we’ll misspeak or misrepresent and grow disheartened, but maybe that’s the only way we can know that we’re actually playing. Maybe that’s just a part of going out and joining with others who are not just learning how to play, but learning how to walk.