It’s Not About You, LeBron, It’s About Me

Ok, full disclosure up front.  As a sports fan, I was turned off by LeBron James making his free agent choice known in an hour-long, ego-inflating special on ESPN (and, no I did not bother to watch).  As a Chicago Bulls fan I was miffed that he bolted Cleveland to join forces with Dwayne Wade in Miami.  I joined the rest of the country (except perhaps for South Florida) in rooting for the Dallas Mavericks.  I felt vindicated watching Game 6, seeing James and Wade come unraveled and watching guys like Kidd, Terry, and Nowitzki celebrate something they had worked hard for.

I give full disclosure because this is not another treatise on why Miami lost or what is wrong with LeBron James.  There are already plenty of those available in cyberspace.  After reading several articles dissecting the NBA Championships, the Miami Heat, and LeBron, I realized that one reason it is easy to foment ill-will toward James and Wade, and to rejoice that the good guys won, is that it distracts me from asking some hard questions about myself.  You see, this is not about LeBron James.  This is about me.

I realized this while reading a great article by the always entertaining Bill Simmons, a writer for ESPN (if you are a basketball fan, read the entire column!).  In addition to an insightful breakdown of Game 6, he raises some great questions, regardless of whether you are the most gifted basketball player on the planet, or just an average person who, in the words of LeBron, “ha(s) to get back to the real world at some point.”  So with the help of Bill Simmons, allow me to ask three questions, not of LeBron, but of myself.

  • Do I have people in my life who will tell me the truth?

When was the last time anyone ever really yelled at LeBron James? You’d have to go back to high school, right? He just spent the past 10 years being coddled by everyone (teammates, coaches, agents, entourage members, yes-men, general managers, owners, media members, etc.). Imagine he was a little kid (which really, he might be to some degree), and imagine you were his father and didn’t believe in yelling at your kids. Now, imagine your kid screwed up in his second-grade play and, for whatever reason, you broke character, snapped, and berated him for eight seconds in front of everyone. How would he handle that? Poorly, right? He’d pretend it didn’t affect him, but the more he thought about it, it would gnaw away at him (especially once his buddies said, “I can’t believe your dad yelled at you like that”).

Back in Game 3, Wade called out LeBron and the cameras caught it.  LeBron didn’t play the same from that point on.  But this is what happens when any of us don’t want to hear truth about ourselves – our blind spots, our weaknesses, our idiosyncrasies.  And we all have them.  So the question is: Do I have people around me whom I can trust to call me out when I need it?  Ok, maybe not yell at me, but give me honest feedback when called for?  It might not be easy to hear, and it might not be caught on national TV, but if we are to experience personal growth, we need truth tellers in our lives.

  • Do I take the time for introspection and take responsibility for what I find?

And maybe that’s why, right now, (LeBron)’s in total denial. Even in the postgame presser, when he should have been devastated the same way Magic Johnson was distraught after coming up small in the 1984 Finals, LeBron was doing the Frank Drebin “Nothing to see here, please disperse” routine, bristling at the notion that he choked and taking shots at anyone who rooted against him. That’s what you do when you’re surrounded by enablers — you blame everyone else, and you never look within. He never understood that people only rooted against him because that’s what you do when someone boasts before they’ve ever actually done anything.

I might state it a slightly different way, “That’s what happens when you never look within – you blame everyone else and surround yourself with enablers.”  One of my first experiences with solitude was a week by myself in a mountain cabin.  And it was downright scary what I encountered when there was no one else around!  But it was also a wonderful time of healing and identifying blind spots.  Ever since then, I have found myself craving times of solitude.  If you have the courage to face up to what you will encounter, it can be wonderfully rewarding.

  • Am I searching out ways to use the gifts God gave me?

If that sequence alone isn’t enough to inspire LeBron to lock himself in a gym all summer until he emerges with a spin move, a jump hook, and a Jordan-eseque fallaway, then he’s the biggest waste of talent in NBA history. You know at the car wash when they offer the “everything” package? That’s what God gave LeBron. He’s threatening to waste it. In a nutshell, this is what makes us so angry about him. It’s not The Decision, or his lack of self-awareness, or the fact that he’s a front-runner … it’s that he’s blowing the “everything” car-wash package.

Remember the biblical parable of the talents?  I may not have been given the “everything” package, but I am no less responsible for developing the gifts God gave me.  At times I have felt like there is no outlet for those gifts, but I have to keep searching.  Last summer a friend called me out, challenging me to put myself out there and not be held back by excuses.  Again, it’s not always easy, but neither is winning an NBA Championship.

The thing LeBron doesn’t seem to grasp yet is that his mansions and millions do not exempt him from questions we must all ultimately ask ourselves.  But then again, I am no better if, upon my “return to the real world”, I fail to ask these same questions of myself.

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What I’m Reading: After You Believe

While N.T. Wright has been one of my favorite authors, having read many of his books I was often left with the question, “So what does this mean for daily living, the stuff discipleship is made of?”  In his book, After You Believe, Wright attempts a long-awaited answer to that question.  However, if easy answers are what you are looking for, N.T. Wright is not the author to read.

After You Believe starts with this basic premise:

Christian life in the present, with its responsibilities and particular callings, is to be understood and shaped in relation to the final goal for which we have been made and redeemed.  The better we understand that goal, the better we shall understand the path toward it.

Wright has been passionately and convincingly refocusing believers of that goal: God’s kingdom here on earth, rather than the long-held belief of abandoning earth to spend eternity in heaven.  Quite simply, if heaven is the goal, then how we live on earth correlates little to that goal.  But if God’s kingdom is the goal, then how we live this life is only a precursor to life in the kingdom of God.  And this is where Wright reclaims the idea of Christian virtue.  What follows are some of my thoughts.

After You Believe

I have personally done a lot of reading on transformation.  Christians use that word a lot, but few seem quite sure of what it is.  Does it take place at salvation?  To a certain extent.  Does it continue to take place through the work of the Holy Spirit?  Again, that is definitely an aspect of transformation.  Will it only occur upon death/new life?  Some believe so, but I think it is more available to us now that we realize.  Now comes the controversial one: Can we be engaged in activities to bring about transformation?  Many get uncomfortable answering “Yes”, but I believe “Yes” is the correct answer.  Dallas Willard has written, “Grace is opposed to earning, not effort.”  The Holy Spirit works in conjunction with our efforts, not our attempts to justify ourselves.  And while the ultimate outcome may be out of our control, we are never-the-less called to put in effort toward transformation.  I appreciate that Wright is not afraid to suggest this.  Transformation does not just happen to us while we lie around on the couch.  We go to the gym – to use his language – and develop our moral muscle.

This leads to another observation, a broader topic mined from the entire book.  It is the idea that virtue prepares us for this “kingdom-in-advance life” – we don’t have to wait for heaven to experience kingdom life.  Now I have to say that this sounds great, but it can be difficult to live out, given the lack of immediate payoff and the time it takes to build up moral muscle.  I also say it can be difficult because, let’s face it, we are largely judged by this world’s view of success. And God’s kingdom stands in stark contrast to that view of success.  I am concerned that many churches today are primarily promoting the idea that following God will lead to that same view of success promoted by the world around us.  The more I read Wright, the more I grow uneasy with that idea.   Am I willing to develop virtue for a kingdom life that may or may not ever lead to success and fulfillment in this lifetime?

Another quote from the book jumped out at me:  “Part of the problem in contemporary Christianity, I believe, is that talk about the freedom of the Spirit, about the grace which sweeps us off our feet and heals and transforms our lives, has been taken over surreptitiously by a kind of low-grade romanticism, colluding with an anti-intellectual streak in our culture, generating the assumption that the more spiritual you are, the less you need to think.”  I couldn’t agree more with Wright on this point.  Christians should be some of the most thinking people around and yet are still largely perceived of as simpletons or naive.  Where did we get so off track?  His chapter “Transformed by the Renewal of the mind” was really good on just what that chapter title suggests.  Ironically, many Christians assume that the renewing of their minds is a very unthinking process – it is something that will eventually just happen to them.

In After You Believe, Wright calls for a transformation to take place through the reclamation of virtue.  But this transformation is different than what is encountered among many nowadays.  It is proactive, it is at least partly driven by our own efforts, it is mind-engaging, and it has a different goal: God’s kingdom on earth.  True to his other writings, I am left with more questions than answers, but I have been offered a different path to those answers as well.