A Spirituality of March Madness

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As a native North Carolinian, March doesn’t just indicate the beginning of Springtime and new life. Individuals in my state spurn the emerging outdoors to spend hours and hours on a coach in front of a tv. One will ignore everything else to flip between games, mark up her printed bracket when a favored team loses on the first day, and then toss out texts or quick voicemails to friends who made different picks. There isn’t much greater joy for a North Carolinian than having more Men’s Basketball tourney picks right than everyone else. (I will confess – I still have my 2001 bracket, when my beloved Blue Devils won the championship and I only missed 8 calls out of the 64 games.)

March Madness normally coincides with Lent, the Christian season for giving up things we don’t need in our lives and instead focusing on walking the spiritual journey with Jesus. With all the countless people I know who observe the season of Lent, I am very hard pressed to think of people who have abstained from tv. March Madness seems to draw one away from the sacred path. We are more likely to use foul or abusive language, perhaps at the referees or struggling players or coaches. We tend to eat junk food and consume a fair amount of beer. We might be petty if our team wins and our friend’s rival team loses. This whole thing is all about competition, right?

Yet, I do believe March Madness can offer some opportunities for us to grow along the spiritual path. Basketball is a sport accessible to practically anyone in our country. One just needs a ball and a hoop. Public playgrounds and recreation centers have these in abundance. No special shoes, fancy equipment, specialized training. As Jesus invited everyone – regardless of status, background, culture, or gender – to join his movement, so anyone can pick up a ball and start playing.

One of the things I love about this sport is the team aspect. There is normally a more gifted player, who might score most the points, or have most the steals or rebounds. Yet, all 5 members of the team are essential to the success of the 40 minute journey of a game. As 1 Corinthians tells us, the eye is just as important as the ear as is the head as is the foot or heart. They must all work together as one body.

Basketball takes a great deal of hard work and effort. There is no coasting on past achievements. One of the great stories during this season has been the reemergence of Rasheed Sulaimon, a young Duke player. One of the stars of the team last year, he endured some personal struggles and found himself on the bench for a while as his commitment to the game waned. Yet, he persevered, never gave up, and eventually was able to work through the difficulties in his life and once again become one of the most reliable Duke players. The spiritual journey is not an easy one, and some days or weeks or months are much harder than others. Yet, perseverance, struggling through the droughts, is always worth the effort.

Life is obviously more complex and intricate than sports, even a great game like basketball. Yet, I pray during this season of Lent, that I will remember the important things. I’m not saying I won’t gloat on Facebook about a particularly good pick, especially if my friends don’t agree – because I know I will 🙂 I am simply sending up a prayer that I will remember the gifts of something like basketball, and help incorporate those inspirations in my own spiritual journey.

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