Clutch

Posted on February 13, 2011

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In the world of sports, a debate rages right now about whether there is such a thing as a player being “clutch”.

Statisticians love to start these kinds of debates.  They pick something which any reasonable person knows exists, such as that people in the South drive worse in the snow, and then dispute that thing’s existence.

“This idea of snow eroding a Southerner’s driving skills to the point of a demolition derby is a myth,” they say.  “It insults the intelligence of anyone who propagates such an urban legend, and I would welcome massive sums of grant money to help defend my position.”  Before long, the statisticians form teams and debate each other.  They trade papers and theories for years until the grant money dries up, after which they all retire to the Cayman Islands together, where they laugh about how statistics is the mathematical equivalent of a three card monte game.

And after the statisticians finish toasting themselves with their graphing calculators, the question of ‘does being “clutch” exist?’ remains unanswered, which is too bad, because it clearly does.  We know this because there is such a thing as neurosurgery.  Think about it.  Do you want a doctor poking around a patient’s brain who thinks that a frontal lobectomy has the same degree of difficulty as warming up the stethoscope?

Nurse:  Doctor, I couldn’t help but notice how relaxed you seem at this moment.  That seems odd considering this procedure has never been attempted before and the patient’s life is at stake.

Doctor:  That’s because I am relaxed.  Brain surgery, taking a temperature, it all has to do with the human body.  I’m not too worried about it.  What I’m really worried about is getting a granola bar right now.  I am famished.

Nurse:  Are you sure you shouldn’t concentrate a little harder?  This is crunch time.  His wrist is vibrating pretty rapidly right now.

Doctor:  He’ll be fine.  Listen, statistically speaking, there’s no evidence that such a thing as “crunch time” or “being clutch” exists.  I’m as good at surgery now as I was on the appendectomy earlier.  Now, my scalpel twitched a millimenter during this conversation.  Nurse, please make a note that the patient’s new favorite color will be ‘magenta’.

A practical sports example of a clutch scenario is this:  Game 7 of the World Series, bottom of the ninth, two outs, the winning run is on third base.  An entire season rides on one player’s ability to produce a hit.  A “clutch” player will have the presence of mind to call time-out, exit the batter’s box, and then hold out for several million more dollars on his contract.  Reggie Jackson once refused to bat in a playoff game for an entire month until an endorsement deal with Oreo cookies could be agreed upon, thus the nickname, ‘Mr. October’.  That’s clutch.

Everyone wants to be clutch.  However, we’re often unsure if we are or not.  If you want to know if you’re the kind of person who can come through in the clutch, it’s a good idea to ask yourself this question:  have I ever, in the history of my life, owned a skateboard with the characters from “Peanuts” on it?

I have.  In fact, I nearly died on my Snoopy skateboard, which is not surprising, on account of being young and male at the time.  The one, indisputable fact of parenting is this:  all little boys organize their lives around doing things that may kill them.  They may look like tow-headed bobble-head dolls, full of the life and vitality that we, as adults, yearn to recapture.  But make no mistake-  little boys are as cheerfully death-obsessed as a mortician on Prozac.

My childhood friends and I were no different.  We were like a a tiny goth clique in Osh-Kosh overalls and Sesame Street gear.  Our waking mantra was “How can I potentially maim myself today, in the name of fun?”  And so, long before any lessons on proportions from our math teachers, we made sophisticated judgments about any activity’s ratio of “possible bodily harm” to “total awesomeness.”

The result of those calculations reads like a ‘Goofus and Gallant’ cartoon, except if Goofus had ADHD and an adrenaline gland the size of a softball.  We set off our neighbor’s car alarm trying to steal smoke bombs and other fireworks.  We found hills to hurl ourselves down for no good reason, flipping and concussing our brains like the characters from “The Princess Bride”.  Sometimes, we combined matches and Aqua Net hair spray to make blowtorches.

Of the aforementioned skateboard fiasco, I plowed into the curb of a friend’s driveway, and went airborne to a height usually reserved for traffic helicopters.  When I landed on my back, all of my breath whooshed out of my lungs at once, like bellows stoking a fire.  For 12 seconds, I couldn’t breathe and thought I was going to die.  And I wasn’t even going to go out in an awesome way.  I was going die flat on my back, my lame ‘Joe Cool’ skateboard beside me, knowing for the first time how it felt to be an accordion.  Not clutch.

A clutch situation differs from a normal situation because the stakes are higher.  There is more on the line.  The best “clutch” athletes come through in pressure situations because they are able to rise above the do-or-die nature of the moment and execute their play without interference from outside stressors, like distraction or self-doubt.

My skateboard bucked me like a rodeo bull because the pressure of the moment overwhelmed my ability.  At the very time when I needed my skateboarding skills the most, they fled when confronted with my inexperience and nerves.  I was a decent skateboarder, and fully capable of handling that curb with ease.  So why didn’t I? Because I wasn’t clutch.

The story of Jesus walking on the water is a story about being clutch as well.

Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.

….

“Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”

“Come,” he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14)

Matthew records this story halfway through his Gospel account. By this point, Peter has already witnessed Jesus perform numerous miracles. He has heard much of Jesus’ teaching in the Beatitudes. Jesus has even seen fit to commission Peter and the other disciples to go from town to town, proclaiming the Kingdom of God. I don’t want to overstate Peter’s intellectual abilities, but it’s clear from the Gospel narrative that he knows some stuff.

Yet on the water, all of that was for naught. The waves and the tumult of the winds swamped Peter’s intellectual understanding of Jesus, and he sank. This was his crunch time moment, and it was too big for him. Peter was not clutch.

There is an attitude among evangelicals that the more we know intellectually about the Bible and Christianity, the healthier our spiritual life is. This is often measured in things like the number of Bible verses we can quote, the amount and breadth of Christian books we have read, or our mastery of difficult theological concepts.

Yet for most Christians I know, their primary struggle is not to articulate correct theology, but to act in accordance with those truths when the chips are down. While we say, “God is sovereign over everything. He is totally in control,” the actions of our lives still ask, “God, are you in control? Are you really sovereign” We may say, “God loves the world so much”, but with our lives we question, “God, do you actually love me? Am I valuable to you at all?”

We’re not hypocrites. We just fail to recognize that there is a difference between talking about what we believe, and actually believing it. That gap is like the difference between batting practice and batting with game the game on the line. It’s about being clutch.

I wiped out on my ‘Snoopy’ skateboard because, as the speed increased, something in my brain said, “You can’t handle this.” I panicked, the hard drive of my skateboard abilities crashed, and I bit the dust. Peter heard something similar as he stepped from the boat. What he felt in his gut deleted what his brain said it knew about Jesus, and Jesus had to pull him to safety by the hand. On the boat, Peter knew exactly who Jesus was. But out on the water, he wasn’t so sure.

Matthew records that after Peter gets back in the boat, “the disciples worshiped [Jesus], saying ‘You really are the Son of God.’” The experience of Peter’s water-walking adds new depth to their faith in Jesus. Before this moment, they were saying, “You are,” to Jesus, but now they are saying, “You REALLY ARE…”  It took a clutch moment for the disciples to see the gap between their stated beliefs and their hearts.

The purpose of the Christian life is not to know stuff, but to know Jesus.  He does not want to make us good say-ers, or even do-ers, necessarily, but clutch people-  people who for whom there is no separation between our ‘mouth theology’ and the life we lead when times get intense.

God gracefully multiplies instances in our life where He calls us to “come to [Jesus] on the water.”  Those times begin with us on the boat, saying “You are…” to the Lord.  But they end with us gripping Jesus’ hand, soaked, on our knees on the deck, saying “You really are the Son of God.”

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