In 1893 James Naismith invented the game of basketball. Some 82 years later, I was faced-up with surprising odds while engaging my eldest sister in a game of one on one.
I had my first basketball that year on my birthday. I remember quite poignantly, receiving the present while still recuperating from a strong flu. The gong-like bounce on its scales was spellbinding. Later that week, my father took me to the backyard for its sequential bonus: from scratch, he crafted a post, a backboard, attached a rim, and after about three hours of dedicated labor, we were both soaked in sweat gutting out our first ever hoops scrimmage.
I owned our back stadium. No one ever came close to an uprising: my ball; my hoops – they were simply my loyal pawns. Home always won. Visitors always had the cheap consolation of a glass of chilled water.
My eldest sister took interest in the game and somehow had the audacity to challenge me for a prize. I hesitated on grounds of mercy, but her persistent chide got the nod. She had zero aptitude for the game but her defensive tenacity was the equivalent of a dozen Dennis Rodman. She came in with claws and mortars. I was thrown into an octagon of confusion, fumbling and losing every point. Her reincarnation into a solo Dream Team machine ushered the horrific collapse of my kingdom domain. As she was doing her cartwheels of jubilee, a manic instinct sprung from my venomous ego: I lunged at her and bit her arm!
My father appeared rather quickly to the scene, arresting me with several bottom whips and fierce reprimands. I kept on arguing about my anger rights as I was firmly reminded that basketball never included an option for cannibalism. I was banned for a season. It was the modern version of a Babylonian exile.
I held on to the basketball, walking away from the crime scene.
It all seemed like hallucination. Laughter, cheers, and spirit went to the dugout. I began wondering why glee evaporates rather swiftly, or was this simply my self-enthroned dynasty that got exposed for what it truly was: nothing but empty gas.
Will someone please return my missing joy?
A song of ascents.
When the LORD brought back the captives to Zion,
we were like men who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
Our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
“The LORD has done great things for us,
and we are filled with joy.”
Restore our fortunes, O LORD
like streams in the Negev.
Those who sow in tears
will reap with songs of joy.
He who goes out weeping,
carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
carrying sheaves with him.
In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
First Corinthians 11:25 NIV
A unique virtue constitutes our seventh point. It stands on the premise of vigorous joy. Akin to the lure of a well-crafted espresso, one only returns to what is noteworthy if the recollection brings to life a generous history of bliss. It is to this introspective discipline that we are called next. We are admonished to return to what is real, albeit absent from our current events. The life of faith cultivates a necessity to develop the sacred habit of revisiting the grand vista of God’s enduring work. We are called to return to vestiges of hope, ever so often.
Life without God follows the trajectory of a dog-eat-dog existence. The survival of the fittest and the desecration of the weak, serves as the unspoken mantra. Everything is done according to the hard fabrications of human labor. Blood, sweat and tears facilitate personal rights to private acclaim. Our self-earned trophies abound with one message: we are the most valuable player within our own magnified domains. When others seek to dismantle our reign, our fangs settle the score. We bite, if need be … to ascertain who is the alpha and who gets licked to be omega. Through the intense drama of such existence, one definitive realization becomes apparent: the absence of joy.
Entertainment and giddiness abound for sure, but never deep abiding jubilation. The stultifying atmosphere negates any remote possibility of even the slightest hint of glee. In a word, the experience is exilic.
There resides a vacuum deep down in the human psyche for our image betrays our origin: the Imago Dei was the original birth pattern. We were crafted in God’s image and as such, we are patterned for irrepressible joy. No wonder, we all long for its companionship.
The radical inverse is true of those who are in the current streams of God’s care. While the prevalence of captivity looms, the promise of redemption is always guaranteed by covenant.
The Christian life is all about experiencing God within the context of redemption. From darkness, we have been transported into dazzling existence. From bondage, we have been set free unto unshackled faith. This intense reality is always accompanied by laughter, by joy, akin to the bliss of a child’s playful dream. Every believer’s journal discloses a wonderful segment of God’s mighty intervention, every now and then: every page, a testimony of joyful recollection. It is to this habit of retracing that we are admonished to pursue. God is calling us to return to the never changing reality of his stubborn love towards us. Whenever we turn on to these instant replays, the joy that we miss is suddenly beheld.
The ways of this world disables our mind from developing the discipline of creating space for remembering God. We are lulled into being read into multiple scripts that speak of life situating us to the front, end and center. It is a narrative with no true center. Such existence always misses the opulence of joy while afflicting a malignancy of despondency. The joy-filled life only thrives when God is central.
The way to recover our proper life script is to enter into a conversation with the Author. God has our story. He beckons us to return to the original script. In solitude, we retrace our steps and remember what God has done. We flesh out our creed: Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again!
When we return to recognize God’s amazing loyalty, our experiences of drought are immediately overtaken by the flood-rush of God’s abiding presence.
God’s love takes its form by way of seed sowing. He cultivates our existence with his enduring patience. The weeds are gently pulled; the pests are urgently snuffed; new kernels are introduced. While this is done, the air sniffs the mist of joy. All of humanity seeks the joy that is lost. God has not ceased to work. He desires for all, to find it all over again. The simple discipline of writing a journal leads us to remember.
Like carefully handpicked Arabica beans, we are being gathered to distill an aroma that brings joy to every sip. Life with God was designed with exuberant joy in mind.
Return to this cup of blessing, every single day.
Redeem your demitasse of joy!
The concept of God was her target. She was raised in Europe to form an intellectual crusade against this delusional opiate. She was young, beautiful and intuitively articulate. Her tour included the US, as part of a student exchange program. Her host family happened to attend my church.
She was all books and journals. Her social life got relegated to the few hours of worship on Sundays, while she sipped a cup of Starbucks latte. I always sensed her quivering revolt each time I spoke about the absolutes of the Christian gospel. Without fail, she would come with civil kindness and say: “that was quite a strong cup of coffee, pastor!” I always responded with a smile: “no apologies, it is the only coffee that I know to be best.”
She became such a darling to our community of faith, despite her solid resistance to our faith. Her friendship was honest. She only had a year to finish her program and the days zoomed by like a blur. On her final week, I got invited to her place for a true European feast. She cooked her family’s recipe and took out her precious photo albums. It was a delightful night of good food, family bonding, and brewed coffee.
As I was looking at the collage of photographs, I was particularly drawn to the pull of her baby picture. While I was intently holding the polaroid, she reminded me: “that’s me, the baby!” Of course, I knew, but there was something explosive that beckoned my senses to engage her serious curiosity. I looked at her, while looking at the photograph saying: “Nadia, please look at this picture, and tell me straight in the eye, that there is no God.” She abruptly changed the topic, gave me a cup of espresso while nonchalantly grabbing her own.
I left that night, with a deep sense of excitement on what comes next. On the way out, she surprised me with a quip: “okay, pastor-friend, if you find a Romanian bible, I shall read it!”
Call it a quirky coincidence, but that week I met a Romanian pastor at a parking lot, headed for Europe but with a spare bible available for my friend. She was so stunned when I handed her the providential gift.
On her very last Sunday, I preached on the audacious exclusivity of God’s grace found in Christ alone. At the sermon’s end, she went up to me with her customary grace … knowing what she was about to say … I interrupted: “It was quadruple espresso, I know but that is for you to remember until we see each other again.” I handed her the book of Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ, with my parting words: “Lee is a seasoned journalist just like you, who never thought it possible to believe in God. His memoirs are written in this book. Just for friendship’s sake, will you please read this personal present?” She smiled, while sipping her latte.
Two years passed and there was no news about her.
Joy carried on within the community of faith, while I wondered why some seeds just seem to fall through the cracks. As God’s postman, I always long for good returns: a smile of consolation, a nod of affirmation … the surprise of conversion.
One afternoon, an email resonated with sonic boom: “dear pastor, thank you for all the incessant prayers. I have recently chosen Christ and presently growing in the faith with a bible-study group here at home. Please send my love to my family there. Signed, Nadia, God’s coffee bean.”
The propulsion of joy moved to an otherwise parched existence. Like the sudden burst of oasis through the streams of Negev, songs of joy have returned to a foreign land.