Wednesday, March 21, 2012

March Madness…

A monthly occurrence at church Board Meetings is what I call “The Collective Groan.” It happens at the end of my Pastor’s Report; if you’ve ever attended, you’ve likely groaned yourself. Because the final update I give our congregational leaders involves the progress of the men’s basketball program at the University of Kentucky, and my changing rationals as to why this year they’ll win the title. To which, inevitably, the Board responds, “Grooooaaaaan!” Or they try moving on before I can finish.

This tradition emerged not long into my tenure here. I learned that then-Board President, Chana, had ties to Indiana University, itself a perennial powerhouse and longtime rival to UK. So, in a fit of good-natured ribbing, I reported to the Board why my preferred team would be victorious. The levity continued throughout her term, then beyond. Alas, my strategy backfired this year when UK lost to Indiana. Chana’s husband Steve piped up, “Hey Shane, how about them Wildcats?” “Moving on,” I replied. “The Treasurer’s Report is next.”

Of course, this month will decide whether, this year, I’m a b-ball prophet or another blowhard pretender. I imagine everyone, whether you follow sports or don’t care, has encountered the annual college basketball championship dubbed, “March Madness.” 68 teams competing in a single-elimination tournament, winner takes all after three crazy, wild weeks. Scholars, I’ve read, have studied the effect this athletic phenomenon has on national productivity, and apparently, inordinate amounts of sick days accumulate during March. It seems we have more priorities than being on time to work every day.

Well, this year, while rooting on UK, I surprised myself by connecting the action with mid-20th Century theologian Paul Tillich. If you’re unfamiliar with Tillich, don’t be shocked. Nevertheless, over the past century, he’s been as influential as most any Protestant thinker. I read his epoch-making book “The Courage To Be” my first month in seminary, and ever since have noticed his insights impacting my own sermons and writings. Specifically, I found illuminating his emphasis on “anxiety”, describing it as a pervasive human experience effecting most everything we do. Not that we’re shackled by it every moment, every day. But like a dull background hum, occasionally flaring up into explosive energy, anxiety about death, sin, meaninglessness, frequently guides our decisions, the options we find relevant, the joy or dread we receive at life events, big and small.

What Tillich says about anxiety, though, isn’t simply that it’s always there, but that it’s a neutral participant in our life’s journey. In other words, anxiety can be good as well as bad. Sure, we often dub anxiety as an annoying, sometimes devastating enemy. For some, it’s paralyzing to the point of despair. But consider how a sports fan feels watching the end of a close March Madness game. Or even what the players themselves experience. Anxiety-like emotions flood our bodies and spirits. We’re piqued and poised and concentrated on only what’s happening in that moment. When our preferred team, then, hits a game-winning shot, living rooms and arenas explode into pandemoniums of jubilation. And the anxiety of the preceding moments only serves to magnify the excitement. Some athletes even describe how, in such situations, their heightened emotions help them make better plays, think more creatively about what’s at stake, how to achieve it, and so they rise to the occasion.

I think that’s an albeit imperfect, but maybe interesting analogy for Tillich’s teachings. For he claims that the root of human creativity is the anxiety we experience. In concert, perhaps, with God’s Spirit urging us to overcome, we’re spurred into actions, new solutions, fresh ideas or combinations because we feel this constant anxiety, but choose courageously to be, to not let our fears overwhelm.

So as you go through this March of madness, reflect on the potential positives of all that worries you or makes you anxious. Is it possible you’ve got the courage to respond creatively, to channel all that anxious energy into fresh possibilities and new things? I believe God thinks you do. More than I believe UK will win. And that, the Board will tell, is saying something.

Grace and Peace,
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