March has arrived, and the “Madness” will soon follow.
For most sports fans, March is the last bastion of hope that announces the calendar end of winter (sorry, New England regions, but your hope is in May). Football is over a month removed from its most important event and sports fans are hungry for something exciting.
What about you non-sports fans? You will probably be encouraged by your place of employment to haphazardly fill in brackets for teams sporting any number between 1-16 by their names, and you’ll probably win without having the slightest clue about what you were doing.
Welcome to March Madness.
In my experience, most of the time that I see sports referenced in Christian media, I will also see at least one of the following themes: idolatry, socially acceptable tribal warfare, sports violence, etc. I’m not here to confirm or deny any of those things. Those opinions are valid to varying extents. On the contrary, I’m here to shed light on something about March Madness that is near and dear to my heart and became an important footnote in my spiritual formation. March Madness helped me to learn how to survive seminary.
I began seminary in the fall of 2008, mere months after my college graduation. I am not a person who embraces change, and seminary is the kind of place that forces you to do just that. I had met some good people, but I was not adjusting as well as I had hoped.
By the spring semester, I had begun to make the relationships that I still have to this day. I shared residence with many of them in an old dormitory that is the oldest building on campus. At that time, there was one lounge area and one ancient projection big screen television. This is where the magic happened, because unless any of us wanted to stay in our rooms, this one common area allowed you to eventually meet everyone in the dorm. It was a musty, yet lively haven of fellowship that came alive when the “Madness” hit. Coming from a state of football fans, I had never really watched much of March Madness. It just wasn’t interesting to me alone. Even so, there I was, pencil in hand, spending way too much time on my first ever bracket for the “Larabee Bracket Challenge”. A thick foliage of white bracket entries soon spread across the large wall that stretched behind the television. March had officially arrived.
At any given time during the next two weeks, there were ten to twenty people in that room, exclaiming over game winning buzzer beaters, groaning when their teams didn’t make it, and patting the backs of disappointed fans whose teams were eliminated. And of course, since inevitably there were Duke and UNC fans in one room, some occasional friendly trash talk could be heard. Game after game would go by, but it never got old. It is one of my favorite seminary memories, and seven years later, my former classmates and I still sometimes talk about how fun it was to be together during that time.
Why am I mentioning this? Isn’t seminary a place of learning and spiritual growth? One of my alma mater’s major points of emphasis concernins the word “community.” This word got drilled into my head at New Student Orientation (several times) and at many of the phenomenal chapel services. Even the slogan, “A Community Called,” could be spotted emblazoned on a banner or a sign just about anywhere on campus. Despite this, I remember seeing some people come and not last long, because they couldn’t seem to find their place or had closed themselves off like I originally did. It was hard to see, because I knew the feeling all too well. For some, community doesn’t come easily. I mentioned earlier that I am rather adverse to life changes. Frankly, I wasn’t making enough of an effort, and I had unwittingly decided to stay seated in the midst of my problems. Thankfully, God can use pretty much anything to get our attention.
No, it wasn’t March Madness that improved my spiritual well being, but the connections that I made showed me something: that we are the “People of God”, not the “person of God”. Many of us may not realize what we’re doing when we engage in fellowship, but spending quality time is a precious thing. A person only has so much time and every single one of us has taken it for granted. When we spend time with others, we are engaging in the most common and beautiful acts of life.
If one can get this much out of a gathering of friends over something that really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, how much greater is it when we meet together in Christ? When a fellowship of believers gathers, that fellowship enters into sacred time, whether it’s meeting Christ at the table or ministering to the marginalized. It’s a hallowed time—a portion of time that is, in essence, a sacrifice given of ourselves unto God. Yes, we have our alone time of prayer and devotions, and that is extremely important. We also have a time together before God that is just as important. God is not in a closet shrine at our convenience. On the contrary, God is public. God is meant to be experienced together as His creations marvel at their Creator.
Without that little spark of connectivity toward the end of my first year of seminary, who knows how things may have turned out. I certainly would not have matured as well in my faith, for community breeds maturity. How can we say that we are mature Christians if our relationships are superficial and incapable of growth? Without authentic community, no one would know what maturity, in any of its forms, should look like.
But what about divisiveness? Even in watching sports, things can get heated. Sure, community is not easy, but being alone is less easy. All of us are unique and bound to disagree over something, whether in a superficial or spiritual sense. Allowing Christ in the midst of community allows us to appreciate our differences to the point where we start seeing how those differences may actually be compatible. It’s like turning a jigsaw puzzle piece to a different angle to find that it really does fit after all. The piece did not change, but the perception of how that piece could work did change.
Christ draws us together, overcomes our differences, and allows to mature together to become better human beings. So when we watch March Madness with friends or participate in any type of fellowship, sacred or secular, let us be reminded of who we are: not individuals going our own ways with our own problems, but a community in Christ moving forward and shouldering burdens together.
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