Posted on March 15, 2011


My brother and I once decided that we wanted to play in a beach volleyball tournament.

I’m not sure where that decision came from.  Certainly not from reality, where our major qualifications for volleyball success were:

1) When standing in good light, my brother looks like a leaner Channing Tatum.  In bad light, he simply looks like the Silver Surfer in profile.

2) In college, I once had an ill-advised crush on Logan Tom, Stanford’s six-foot-one volleyball prodigy.  Proportionally speaking, this was like a bratwurst stand falling in love with the Empire State Building.  She could have picked me up and carried me around in a Vera Bradley bag like a baby kangaroo.

Luckily, lack of qualification has never stopped either of us from pursuing anything that we wanted to do, such as attend prom.  As a breed of man, we are of the “go for it” variety.  We say that, if something is worth doing, it is also worth getting in way over your head for.  Our entire lives are LiveStrong bracelets.

The volleyball tournament taught us a lot.  For one, it turns out that if you host a beach volleyball tournament in Kentucky, it’s likely that the other players will fall well short of the standard of sexiness that is mandated by most pro events.  This was a big deal because the AVP is very serious about policing the attractiveness of their competitors.  It is at the top of their priority list, right alongside negotiating sponsorship deals with bronzing lotions.  If they had scouted this tournament, they would have discovered that it violated bylaw 6.15, section 3, under the heading “Failure To Utilize Model-Hot Athletes For Volleyball Tourney/Possible Impromptu Fashion Show” and shut it down immediately.

We also learned that, when it comes to competition, most people will not respect the ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ divisions of play.  My brother and I registered to play in the ‘C’ division, which we thought was appropriate for two people who spent ninety percent of their practice time either attempting to jump-serve (me) or get a tan (him).  Thus, in the ‘C’ division, we expected to compete against players with an equally shallow grasp on the nuances of competitive volleyball.  So imagine our surprise when all our opponents came out spiking on us.

Let’s be real for a moment.  If you’re good at volleyball, you know it.  I don’t think it’s something you can be unaware of.  You can’t be like, “Look, I realize that I’m hovering near the net and unloading laser-targeted spikes like a volleyballing Apache helicopter, but believe me, I’m as shocked as you are.”  Skills like that don’t just show up overnight.  So when you’re playing in the C division of a volleyball tournament and setting the ball to your teammate with the velvet touch of an obstetrician, maybe- just maybe- you’re sandbagging a little.

Needless to say, we didn’t win the tournament.  Or a single game.  The aforementioned sandbagging meant that we spent most of our playing time scrambling around the court like a kitten chasing a flashlight beam, and having wordless conversations with our eyes that went like this:

JON:  I thought you were good!

ME:   No, I thought YOU were supposed to be good!

JON:  No, I’m awful.  But you’re not very good either?

ME:   I know, I’m terrible!  So does that mean that NEITHER OF US is good?

JON:  There’s an excellent chance that neither one of us is good here.

But we had a lot of fun, and we met a lot of very cool people, some of whom may even have been employed at the time.  In fact, we could have categorized the entire morning as a success, except for one thing:  for as much as we were spiked on, neither one of us ever really spiked the ball.

That’s a shame, because spiking is really fun.  Everyone loves to spike.  I don’t care whether you’re a seasoned pro or a backyard jungle-baller, when a volleyball is in the air near the net, you just want to jump up and commit an act of violence on it, right towards somebody’s face.   And when you get all aerial for that spike, you know that everything in the game freezes.  Every eye is on you, fan and foe alike.  What will you do?  Will you scatter your opponents with a mega-swing, or demoralize them with a controlled strike into the corner?  It’s your choice.  Regardless, one thing is certain:  at that moment of impact, it’s all about you.  You’ve got the attention.  It’s your time to shine.

Because spiking is such a moment of glory, we often forget to ask this follow-up question: how did the ball get in the air in the first place?  The answer is, ‘someone set it there.’  A spike is only one half of the equation for attacking volleyball.  Without the soft parabola of the set, there’s no hard vector of a spike.  But only the spike gets to be the show-stopper.  The set must content itself to be the prelude.

In John 13, the apostle John recounts the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.  At this point in the Gospel story, Jesus has mostly concluded his public ministry.  He has caused such a stir in the region that people were plotting to kill him, ultimately with success.   At his final Passover meal, Jesus stripped down, knelt with a basin of water and cleaned the feet of each apostle.  And after he finished, he said this:

Do you understand what I was doing?  You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you are right, because that’s what I am.  And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet.  I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you….I tell the truth, servants are not greater than their masters.

Serving people is hard.  Our culture daily urges us to spike, not to set.  The message to us is to “grow your personal brand”, “increase your platforms” and “go get yours” .  If we are to have a good life, we are told, we had better get on with what is flashy, eye-popping, and generates interest in ourselves.  If no one is paying attention or praising us, it is assumed that we are living some kind of withered, inferior half-life, badly in need of an excitement infusion.  A life of service is met with an arched eyebrow and a sidelong glance.  ‘You consider others better than yourself?’ people ask. ‘That makes no sense. Why are you setting when you could be spiking?’

My spiking ways are notorious.  I once volunteered at a local soup kitchen, but never went back because I wasn’t “getting anything out of it”, meaning that not enough people were impressed when I told them about it.  When some friends of mine in college started a Lion’s Club and asked me to be on the leadership team, I agreed, but mostly flaked on it because it wasn’t exciting work and it cramped my social schedule.  Two perfect setting opportunities, ruined because I only wanted to do things that enhanced my own profile.

Jesus’ disciples weren’t immune to this, either.  In Luke’s Gospel account, the writer records a squabble between some of the disciples over who among them would be the greatest in God’s future kingdom.  Isn’t that amazing?  Even with a front row seat to the life of Jesus, his closest followers succumbed to the hype of being in the inner circle of an exceptional person.  Self-importance carried the day.  Spiking won out over setting with the twelve Founding Fathers of Christianity.  It happens to the best of us.

When Jesus took soap and tub in hand, he modeled for his disciples a lifestyle of servanthood that subverts any obsession with a life of spiking.  I didn’t come here to spike, but to set.  Nobody is better than the best player, and that’s me- so do what I do.  Don’t mess around with trying to be a superstar all the time.  Follow my lead, and help others have the glory.

We can be encouraged that Jesus touched these men’s feet at all.  This Bible vignette shows us a Savior down on his knees, willing to serve and to teach followers that way.  Likewise, Jesus washes our feet, ignoring the muddy failures of our past and future, modeling for us the setting life that forsakes self-importance and washes the feet of others.  He calls us away from a life in pursuit of spike after spike, trying to chain together experiences that show how great we are, and beckons us towards acts of setting in the shadow of the volleyball net.

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