Friday Deep Remix- The Bench

Posted on June 9, 2010

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Below is a newly edited version of one of my favorite Friday Deeps, The Bench. 

I’ve always been a big John Wooden fan.  If there wasn’t already a pope, and he didn’t have to be Catholic, I’m confident John Wooden could step up and fill the role as well as any random Italian cardinal.  There’s possibility in it-  Pope Wooden I has a nice ring.  But it probably won’t ever happen.   The world isn’t  ready for a pope that issues encyclicals on proper defense of the corner three, or owns an intricate knowledge of the full-court press.

That knowledge extended beyond basketball.  John Wooden’s reputation for wisdom was so great that his legendary center, Bill Walton, wrote Wooden quotes on his children’s lunch bags.  “Be quick, but don’t hurry.”  “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”  “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it?”  Those bon mots are priceless.  He’s Confucius crossed with ‘Pistol’ Pete Maravich.  The book of Proverbs with a pick-and-roll diagram in the middle.

This excerpt from his book, Wooden: A Lifetime of Reflections and Observations, On and Off the Court, exemplifies that wisdom.

I used the bench to teach. When future two-time All American Walter Hazzard came first came to us at UCLA, he had a tendency to get a little fancy. He didn’t continue to be fancy because he liked to play. Early on we may have lost a few games because I sat him on the bench for playing too fancy.  I tell coaches at coaching clinics ‘The greatest ally you have to get things working well and to get the players performing as a team is the bench. Don’t be afraid to use it, whether for a star player or anyone else’.

It’s hard for me to imagine the bench as a teachable place.  When I played sports as a kid, the meaning of the bench was clear- either a place of banishment for mistakes I’d made, or a safe haven when I wasn’t playing well. If I was benched, one of these two reasons put me there:  either I’d screwed up, or I was hiding out from screwing up again.

This dichotomy within the game, between “play” and” bench”, eventually made its way into my real life as well.  The bench became a comfortable place for me.  I kept away from the action of the world, where I might screw up or be punished, but stayed close enough to watch, safe from any kind of hurt.  It was not a fun place to be, but I was convinced I belonged there, and that God wanted me there.

Wooden sees the bench differently. It has two elements- 1) the teaching, and 2) its temporary nature. For John Wooden, the bench is a place of teaching, not of punishment. It’s where instruction occurs, with the end of bettering the player in mind.  Wooden sat Walt Hazzard for a specific purpose- to get him to stop showcasing how great he was and to start him playing in a way that helped the team win. It’s a constructive move. Notice also that the place on the bench is temporary. Walt Hazzard didn’t stay there, forever exiled from a place on the court;  he came back, and went on to become a two-time All-American. The idea of the bench, for Wooden,  is to get the player back out there, into the game action. The bench is a temporary place.

Christians have a word for this process, ‘repentance’. Too often the word “repent” is taught with religiosity at the core of it, and it’s heard in the same way I once felt about the bench.  Repent- you’re a failure, you’re doing it all wrong; get out of the game, you’ll never do it right; sit down because you’re getting in everyone else’s way, and you should feel bad about it. You’re benched.

But repentance is really more like how John Wooden sees the bench. We only need to look at how Jesus treats Peter to see it in action. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus consistently teaches Peter, even though it seems like on every other page Peter or one of the other disciples gets it wrong.  Yet, Jesus never lets Peter off the hook. When he’s out of line, Jesus says so and corrects him. But he doesn’t leave Peter on the bench either. When Peter falls beneath the waves after trying to walk on water, Jesus pulls him back up and into the boat. WhenPeter denies Jesus 3 times, Jesus reinstates him as the leader of the disciples. Jesus won’t let Peter run from following him because he thinks he can’t do it, or because he’s more comfortable on the sidelines. Jesus intends for Peter to be one thing- a player.  And, as the saying goes, players gotta play. They can’t learn by hiding from the game.

God intends the same for us. He is not content with us to be spectators, or benchwarmers. He intends for us to be players in the game, part of the action of His redeeming story for the world. And so this process of repentance- going to the bench, taking a moment for instruction, and then checking back in- goes on countless times in a day, every day, for the rest of our lives. This is the manner by which we learn to play, to really live. Repentcome here, was that the right thing? What’s the way I’ve taught you? You have what it takes, now get back in there. It’s the essence of why Jesus went to the Cross for us. By grace I have an infinite number of these chances to come to God, to be coached.  And by God’s goodness I have a role to play, a reason to be in the game and not in the stands.

It’s wisdom from Pope- I mean, Coach- Wooden, who taught with the bench.

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