Friday Deep- 21

Posted on June 28, 2010


8 feet.

That’s the height of the basketball goal in my parents’ driveway.  8 feet.  It was adjustable, in theory, but in reality it was bolted in place.  We never learned  how it worked, and so it stayed at 8 feet for all its life, the Elephant Man goal, a refugee from the Island of Misfit Toys’ sporting goods department.

My friends and I compounded its shame as as teenagers.  There is a time of life where a boy looks at everything he sees, and asks: “Can it be dunked on?”.  We answered by staging a World’s Most Expensive Dunk Contest, From The Perspective Of Our Insurance Company, and we competed in dunk categories like Most Aggressive, Longest Time Hanging On The Rim, and I’m Tired Dude, Just Try And Break It.

That ‘dude’ was the only other kid in my neighborhood: Frank.  Frank showed up in my yard one day when my dad and I were playing catch.  He was lean, tanned brown like a baseball glove, and a lefty to boot, the first I’d ever seen.  This lefty-ness, which I was jealous of to the point of commandment-breaking, clinched it: we were buddies.

Because it was just Frank and I, we modified sports to fit our lack of players.  For football we just threw the ball the length of the front yard and then tried to tackle each other.  A whole convoyof ghost runners kept our Wiffle Ball games going, games that answered long-ignored questions like, “Can a figment of our imagination go from first to third on a ground-out?”  And when it was time for basketball, we eschewed boring old one-on-one in favor of something different, something a little more street:  21.

21 ruined my basketball life.  I’m not afraid to say it.  21 is as similar to basketball as Daniel Day-Lewis is to Thundercats.  For years Frank and I spent countless summer hours playing 21-  no fouls, no out of bounds, no passing, all on a rim short enough to limbo on- and this did not help my game any.  Every hardwood skill I ever learned came from playing a streetball variation on basketball, on an 8 foot goal, against one other person who happened to be lefthanded.  That experience  short-cirtcuited my surefire Hall Of Fame career.   Without 21,  I would have my poster on your son’s wall and a nickname that includes some combination of the words “highlight”, “dominator”, and “Big Jam”.  With 21, I did academic team in high school.

Here is a quick list of skills 21 taught me, 1)  how to drive to the rim without getting a shot blocked with enough force to alter orangutan DNA,  2) how to defend a bigger player by fouling, and 3) that I am so deadly from 19 feet that you could put a scalpel to my jump shot and circumsise a baby on the rim.

Here is what 21 did NOT teach me to do: how to play the actual game of basketball.

During the whole time I played 21, hours upon hours, for years of my childhood, I didn’t really learn to play basketball.  I thought I did.  I learned how to play something like basketball.  It had all the same elements, like dribbling and shooting and talking about how someone’s mom was so fat she ate Oreos without removing the plastic.  But it still wasn’t basketball.  It was a different game.   21 has no screens, no off the ball movement, and no teammates that you’re forced to learn to play with.  It’s really not much like basketball at all.  Skills overlap between the two games, but the mentality and strategy of each differ.  Yet I played it non-stop.  And so each game of 21 shaped me into a basketball player, almost- but not quite.

Athletes understand this shaping process.  They willingly immerse their lives in games.  They practice, get coached, attend clinics, watch game tape, all so that their skills will more closely align with  the patterns of success in that game.  They gladly repeat the same drills, play thousands of games, all in hope that this repetition will make them better.  No effort is wasted on the inessential.  Describe what this process is however you want- improving, becoming one with the game, git er’ done, whatever.  I have my own favorite word.  Discipleship.

21 discipled me in the game of basketball, and this discipleship produced almost a basketball player.  Almost, but not quite.  For a long time being a Christian felt exactly this way.  I had discipleship questions-  how do I follow Jesus?  I thought that I should do what most Christians around me did- go to church, buy Casting Crowns CD’s, go to religious schools, go to youth conferences, attend prayer meetings- and that if I did this, I would become more like Jesus and know him better.

Except I never did.  Church made me a church boy.  Christian culture made me a nice guy.  Neither made me much of a Jesus follower.  I spent years wondering how people became like Jesus, then I doubled down on a status quo that wasn’t working.  It turns out, every way I went about following Jesus was like 21- almost the real thing, but not quite.

Even my reading habits are almost.  I’ve read more Christian books in my life than Zondervan has in print- that’s only slightly fewer than John Piper has written.  I have the largest private collection of Max Lucado books outside of a Tyndale warehouse, and I keep them right next to the Mark Driscoll books, although I’m terrified that they’ll accidentally touch and erupt, like a matter/anti-matter collision, and trigger Armageddon.  I have all this reading material because somewhere along the way I got the idea that reading Christian books is just as good as reading the Bible.  This is why, to this day, I can say things like, ‘Oh, I think C.S. Lewis said something about that,” or “That reminds me of a Watchman Nee quote,” but I’ll read something in Galatians or Exodus and be shocked that it’s in the Bible.  Turns out, I love to read about the Lord-almost, but not quite.    

Discipleship is everything we do, all the time, and no less.  Everything we touch affects the way we think and act.  There are no neutral inputs.  Movies disciple cinephiles and magazines disciple grocery shoppers.  Anger disciples those in rush hour traffic and lust disciples beach-goers.  We are clay people, malleable and formable to everything that surrounds us.  And it’s happening every second of every day.

So when Jesus wanted to create mature followers of him, he didn’t send them to a leadership boot camp, or make them fill out a workbook, or suggest that they buy a bunch of his official merchandise.  He told them to come and follow him, and they did.  They followed him everywhere for 3 years.  Watched his every move.  Heard his every word.  Saw his miracles.  Jesus’  discipleship program was himself.  And that’s how we are discipled today.  We watch him, hear him, see him, every day.  Like practicing basketball, we keep constant contact with the game we want to play- in this case, the Jesus life.  It won’t happen by playing the church game, or the Christian culture game.

I think that’s why Jesus likens himself to a spring of living water.  God knows that there’s nowhere we can go to escape the discipling touches of the world. We will be shaped by it.  It is inevitable, and there’s no running away-  God called us to go into the world to share the Gospel and serve the people there.  But while the discipleship of the world inevitably  hardens our life-soil into parched clay, God goes to work under the surface, deep in the dark earth, where he creates His wellspring.  This spring hits our rocky crust and punches through to the sunny surface.  It sprays water over our thirsty lives and rains into the lives of others.

My own discipleship is a jumble of church culture, the Internet, Saturday morning cartoons, and enough Dashboard Confessional songs to turn Clint Eastwood into Nicholas Sparks.  No wonder sometimes I more closely resemble a game show host than a follower of Christ.  Like my basketball abilities, my almost-ness is tangible.  But the Potter God has me, and you, on His wheel.  In Jesus he shows us that disciples aren’t made doing the almost-but-not-quite things that teach people how to do something like follow Him.  It’s nothing less, but nothing more, than the essential thing of following Jesus every second of every day- the opposite of 21 discipleship.

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