When Phillip, the youth minister, asked me to coach the church’s middle school basketball team, I asked him, “Am I coaching to win games, or are we just making sure everyone has fun and gets equal play time?” He told me, “I’m sure they all want to get their share of play time, but we’d really like to win some games.”
I love coaching basketball. A couple of years ago a friend of mine asked me to coach his high school girls’ summer league team. We won the championship. I coached a team of guys who had mostly never played before to an intramural championship game in college. I love teaching the game. I love making complex things simple. I love making a plan and seeing it come to fruition. I love seeing a game played the right way.
I love to win. There is a formula to winning basketball games, and if a team buys into that formula, winning happens. I love when that formula takes an underdog team to a victory against a team that overmatched them in the talent department.
I had to retire from my church league playing career a few years ago because I am unable to “play for fun.” I can play softball, ping pong, Frisbee, cards, and Chutes and Ladders for fun. I cannot play basketball for fun. When I play, I want to play my way, because my way will win.
As you can imagine, I was very happy when Phillip told me that I was coaching to win games. Perfect. Now to meet the players, get them to buy into the formula and start winning games.
Not so fast coach. Phillip emailed me my roster. “There must be a mistake here,” I replied. “This roster only has five names!” Phillip replied, “You only need four to start a game, and now you don’t have to worry about everyone’s playtime!”
Ok, minor speed bump. But if I’ve got five guys who can buy into my formula, we can still be successful.
I met my team at our first practice. They were pretty raw. The first time I saw them, only a couple could successfully dribble a basketball from one end of the court to the other. It was a struggle for some to get the ball to the rim on a shot attempt. Our first game we were blown out 58-3. It was apparent that we were out matched physically, athletically, and game experience by every team in the league.
I honestly wondered if the boys had it in them to take an entire season of blowouts. I would have wanted to give up. But these boys started to teach me something. These boys loved the game. They all showed up for the next practice, and the next game. They encouraged a couple of their friends to join the team. They wanted to be better. They were sponges for information about how to defend better, dribble better, shoot better and rebound better. And we got better. A lot better.
Our measuring stick for success is different than most teams. We are almost assured to lose every game we play this season. But we have been successful. Victories for us are games where we hustle on defense or we make it an entire quarter without a double dribble. We went out for ice cream after the game that we kept our hands up on defense for the entire game.
That team that beat us 58-3 beat us 46-16 the last time we played them. They were upset they didn’t beat us by more and left their press defense on us the entire game, despite having an insurmountable lead. We’re getting better. We’re still a team that will lose a lot, but better than we were our first day.
These boys have taught me a lot. If you were to watch them play for the first time even today, you might think they are not very good. Maybe you would be right. But I know that these guys love the game. They are learning, and they are getting better every day. They still make a lot of mistakes, and they still lose. But they don’t give up.
Let’s shift gears, away from basketball. In Luke 18, beginning in verse 9, Jesus tells a parable about a tax collector and a Pharisee. Spiritually, the tax collector was overmatched. The Pharisee has hung many banners in the rafters commemorating his victories. He’s chalked up wins against extortioners. He’s proved himself better than the unjust and adulterers. And now he’s thanking God for his most recent victory, against this tax collector.
The truth is we are all spiritually overmatched. The truth is we all need to realize our spiritual poverty so that we can humble ourselves like the tax collector to beat our chest and say, “God be merciful on me a sinner!”
Teams that claimed victory against us this season were far from perfect. Sure, compared to an inexperienced team like us they looked pretty good, but they still had their flaws.
It can be very easy as Christians to fall into the trap of using people around as a spiritual measuring stick, like the Pharisee did in Luke 18. As long as we’re not a drunkard, homosexual, adulterer, abortionist, addict, murderer, prostitute or thief, we usually count ourselves winners. As long as people worship the way we worship, sing the way we sing, believe what we believe, and teach what we teach, we consider them part of the winning team.
Can the spiritual underdogs ever claim a win? Could it be that sometimes we’re guilty of covering up our flaws by playing against the spiritual equivalent of a middle school basketball team that can’t dribble? And maybe that spiritual middle school basketball team has grown more than we have over the course of the season. Maybe we keep the press on them sometimes because we are embarrassed by their growth and our lack of development over the course of the season.
Perhaps that homosexual, that prostitute, and that addict are way better than they were at the beginning of the season. Maybe that person that doesn’t believe what we believe, teach what we teach or sings the way we sing is a sponge soaking up knowledge, but just started playing the game a few weeks ago.
My team has taught me that even when we’re not where we need to be, we can still claim victories if we are passionate about what we believe. Spiritually, I drop the ball on a daily basis. My heart is in the right place, though. I want to do what is right. I want to be pleasing to God. I want Him to be merciful on me, a sinner.
I’m thankful because these boys are teaching me that we’re all spiritual “losers” who can only gain victory through Christ. I’m realizing that as long as we share a common goal, we play for the same team, regardless of our differing levels of experience. I’m thankful because these boys are teaching me that if someone has a heart to learn, they will get better. I’m thankful because they are reminding me that dropping the ball yesterday doesn’t mean I have to drop it today.