It was one of the most exciting times of my life. I was a nervous wreck, with my heart pounding in my chest, my knees trembling, wondering why I couldn’t seem to catch my breath. My mind was racing with visions of grandeur, but also gut-wrenching, anxious fears of embarrassment and failure. I slipped on the white jersey trimmed in royal blue piping which prominently displayed the assigned number “4” on the front and back, and then carefully stepped into my shorts. I stood in the locker room proud to represent my school as one of its twelve seventh grade basketball players.
I was 12 years old and had dreamed of this day since I was a little boy. Until that point, I spent nearly every moment of free time with a basketball in my hands. If my parents wanted to locate me, the first place they looked was in the barnyard where my dad had mounted a wooden backboard and an affixed rim to a retired, splintering telephone pole. In the gravel driveway, I perfected my jump shot and played out countless in-game scenarios.
All of those dreams about playing in an actual game were beginning to come true – dreams that for a 12 year-old, seemed as old as life itself. After our pregame huddle in the locker room, we lined up to sprint onto the same court which hosted the players I idolized as a child - players whose talent, sweat and effort produced many glorious victories for our small, country school. Basketball was the king sport around here, for there was no football or soccer or other sport offered aside from cross-country, track and baseball. The most revered players in these parts all dribbled and shot and passed a round, orange ball while nursing rug burns, scrapes and bruises from the previous night’s practice.
I almost couldn’t believe all my dreams were about to become a reality. We raced onto the court, and I felt as though my feet never once touched the court as we sprinted around the court, formed two lines, and began our warm-up routine with layups and other drills. Finally the moment came when the buzzer sounded signaling the end of warm-ups and the beginning of the game itself. I couldn’t wait for the coach to call my name as one of the starting five. I couldn’t wait to get onto the floor and show the world what I had been practicing my entire life.
But the call never came.
I was relegated to the bench, where I sat for the vast majority of the season, forced to watch my peers play the game I loved more than anything. For the first time in my life, my heart was crushed. To this day, I still cannot make sense of this experience. I knew I was a good player, at least good enough to play more than the time I was allotted. Some say it was a political maneuver, but it is all speculation. I ended up trying out for the eighth grade team, but was never assured of more playing time than I previously received. I ended up quitting before the season ever began. It was the only time in my life I ever quit anything.
I could not stand the thought of watching others play the game I knew inside and out. I could not take another season warming the bench. The bench had become a painful reminder that I was not good enough, talented enough, or qualified enough to make a positive contribution to the team. I hated the bench.
Sometimes, however, that is exactly where I find myself. Only this time, it’s not a coach who places me there. I can be the one taking myself out of the game, content to watch others perform while I sit back and critique their performances from the sidelines. Only this time, the game has much further-reaching implications than a junior high basketball contest. The game is faith, and the arena is life.
We have more armchair Christians playing Monday morning quarterback than we need. They talk a great game, offering stunning analysis of how faith should be practiced, but never really get involved themselves. They are all-too-eager to offer their insight on how others should be playing the game. But when called upon to get off the bench, there are a variety of excuses to fall back on. I’m tired…injured…too young, or too old. I missed my last eight shots. I’m nearly fouled out.
I wish Christians hated the bench. Jesus didn’t sit back and watch the world crumble. He got involved. He took on the uniform of the team with absolutely no chance of winning when he wrapped himself in flesh. He didn’t sit back and rule over the world from an ivory tower, or retreat to some other far-off heavenly dwelling. He came and dwelt among us. He got off the bench and came and gave his life to win a victory no one else could win.
If God is willing to go this far to love the world, putting it back the way he originally intended, how can we sit back and rest on our laurels? Jesus calls us – all of us – by name, compelling us to give our fullest effort in the game of faith in the arena of life. The beauty is, we all get to play; no one gets left behind. Imagine what the world could be like if followers of Jesus all stopped talking about faith and started living it. I believe it would look more like the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven…something worth playing for, worth living for, worth dying for.