There’s something that lures even this non-sporty girl to the NCAA tournament. In the process of 67 games there are so many beautiful stories—countless surprises, nail-biters, overtimes, upsets, and tearful moments surged by both “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” Monday night was the grand finale of the tournament, and for me there was not one, but five shining moments that stood out exemplifying what being the best versions of ourselves, embracing our true beauty, looks like.
1. Even though everyone was convinced they would lose, Middle Tennessee State University (a 15 seed), believed they could beat Michigan State (a 2 seed). They not only imagined the unthinkable, but MTSU went out there and played their hearts out, making their dream a reality winning 90-81. This is only the 8th time in NCAA history this kind of upset has happened. It wasn’t a fluke or a tight ending. MTSU—the underdog, the predicted loser, the presumed weaker link—outplayed the team that many, including March Madness authority, Dick Vitale, thought would win the entire tournament. As Michigan State’s coach, Izzo, said after the game, “We got beat by a team that played better than us today. There were no bad calls. Nobody missed a free throw that would have saved the day. We just kind of got beat.” I do feel badly for Michigan State, but MTSU reminded us that we all have potential, that we all have God-given talents, and we are called to use them to the best of our abilities, even when things look bleak. MTSU exemplified hope to all of us underdogs fighting our own giants, showing us that even when the world doesn’t believe in us, God does.
Then David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone; and he slung it and struck the Philistine in his forehead, so that the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the earth. So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone. Samuel 17:49-50 NKJV
2. Typically when we think about March Madness, we’re not thinking about the music, but Pitt’s band showed us not only how important a fight song can be, but more importantly how to live out the Golden Rule. Pitt’s band heard Weber State’s band would be unable to attend their game—Weber would be without anyone to musically cheer them on. Knowing the importance of a band and a fight song for moral support, Pitt’s band stayed in town after their own team was defeated earlier in the day to play for Weber State. Not only did they stay, but they ditched their own outfits for Weber State spirit wear, learned, and played Weber State’s fight song as enthusiastically as if it were their own. The Pitt band could have gone home. They could have been bitter about their loss. They could have shown zero interest in learning another random team’s song. But instead they exhibited how beautiful it is to love your neighbor as yourself. This class act was a reminder to all of us to do unto others, and that is beautiful music to everyone’s ears.
And Jesus answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” Luke 3:11
3. Another example of being the best versions of ourselves, living to the full potential of our true beauty was given to us by a young man named Angel. After winning the game against Wichita State, scoring a career high of 28 points, and advancing his team to the Sweet 16, Angel Rodrigues, the University of Miami’s point guard was asked by a CBS reporter what he thought about the praise his coach gave him. Angel responded, “Well first, let me give all the praise to my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
Here is his big chance to take a bow, to pat himself on the back, to revel in the glow of stardom, but Angel humbly points the spotlight back to Jesus. What a beautiful example to sports fans everywhere. What if we all did that? What if every time we got a compliment, achieved a goal, conquered a problem, or overcame a struggle we first, before anything else, publicly gave all the praise to Jesus? What a beautiful reminder of where our identities, our true reflections come from. No wonder his name is Angel.
And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Colossians 3:17
4. When the Virginia Cavaliers (a one seed) lost to the Syracuse Orangemen (a ten seed), you might have predicted something ugly might ensue from the UVA side of the bench, but instead, their coach, Tony Bennett, exhibited the truest beauty. As Bennett watched the 16 point lead his team had established disappear, he never yelled. Not once. He knew his boys were playing hard, doing their best. After the game the press wanted to interview the coach of the losing team who many (*cough* including me) had slated to win the tournament. When asked what he would say to his team, Bennett, replied he had an old church song ringing in his ears, “’Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning.’” He continued, “There will be some weeping and some pain for some nights because of this, but absolutely, joy will come in the morning for these guys, “ Bennett said. “For what they’ve established for our program, where they’ve taken us—what they’ve done for me – joy is coming. My guys are disappointed tonight, but they’ll look back and see what they accomplished, that what they did was amazing.”Did I mention this game took place on Easter? What a beautiful message to remind us all that even though basketball is pretty addicting in the spring, something even more important is taking place. That just as things looked bleak and dark for the world on the original Good Friday, God was at work, there would be joy in the morning. For all of us. That no matter what we’re going through right now, today, you and I, Jesus loves us. He’s cheering for us. And that message of amazing grace is the most beautiful thing I know.
Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning. Psalm 30:5 NKJV
5. Only in the Big Dance could a tango between two brothers create such a beautiful finale to the NCAA tournament. In the championship game, Nate Britt from UNC played against his adopted brother, Kris Jenkins, who by the way made the winning shot for Villanova to win it all. Nate and Kris met playing AAU ball together as youngsters, but due to extreme challenges in Kris Jenkins’ family, the Britts not only took him under their wings, into their homes, but legally adopted him. Kris says about the Britts, “They accepted me for who I was and elevated me as a person and made me better. It's something that I'm always thankful for. I thank God for it every day." In the past few days the Britts traveled back and forth from Philadelphia, to Louisville to Houston in order to see both of their sons play. And the brothers? Both of them were there to cheer the other one on in their final four wins prior to their match up Monday night. Kris Jenkins experienced family trauma (separation of parents, death of a sibling), struggled academically, and ten years ago was placed in a family that was not his own. His story could have been one of desolation and defeat. But a family who loved him as if he were their own, the nurturing of the Britt parents and of his brother, Nate, strengthened, enabled and inspired Kris to go to college, play the game he loves and make the shot that was heard around the world.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this.” John 15:12-13
How about you? Did you notice anyone exuding true beauty during the tournament? I’d love to hear your highlights. Leave them in the comments below.
We all have them, in different shapes and forms, huge, enormous obstacles that seem to blockade where we want to go and how we want to get there.
We look up at these mammoth roadblocks in our lives and find them insurmountable. I mean we’re just little old us, and they, well, they’re giants. Our giants come in different shapes and sizes, with different names wearing different types of armor. What’s your giant?
I have friends this week facing job interviews, awaiting medical results, starting new volunteer positions, being scouted by college coaches, meeting new teachers, making big presentations. Me? I’m making my painful transition full of tears as my kids return back to school and awaiting feedback from a publisher on a new book, knowing their decision could make or break the project.
But the thing about our giants is God says He won’t give us anything we can’t handle. Sometimes that’s easier to say than to believe down to our gut. But it’s true. I promise. It takes changing our perspective and finding a handful of stones.
And the Philistines stood on the mountain on the one side, and Israel stood on the mountain on the other side, with a valley between them. And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. 1 Samuel 17: 3-4
We’ve all heard about David and Goliath, that giants can be slain. But do we focus on how David conquered the mighty Philistine champion, and how we can do the same to conquer the hulking Goliaths in our own lives? There were two things David did, that gave him the edge, secured his success. These two things we can tap into as well, to knock our giants down to size.
1. David relied on God
Then David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. v.45
David, the youngest in his family, the kid who wasn’t in the army at all, but had been sent to bring snacks, he knew the most important thing in his life was his faith, and that with God on his side, everything would work out. Do you believe that? Completely? 100%? When you look at your giant, at this thing you’re facing, are you convinced that because God is on your side, you’ve already won? If not, pray about it. Turn this over to God; ask Him to help you completely rely on Him, because when you do, well the giant starts to shake in their shoes.
2. David used the gifts God had already given him.
Saul tried to suit David up in his armor and helmet. But they didn’t fit, and David knew it. Instead David used what he had.
And David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine on his forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the ground. v.49
What five smooth stones do you have in your bag? Are you energetic? Dedicated? Creative? Thoughtful? A hard worker? Analytical? Do you make people smile? Are you resourceful? Fast? Are you organized? Do you have family and friends you can rely on? Are you quick to grasp new concepts?
Don’t try to wear someone else’s armor. You don’t need an oversized helmet, or a sword too heavy to lift. God has already equipped you. What you’ve been equipped with might seem insignificant or simple – a slingshot, really? But you don’t have to worry about how your stones appear. Remember, we have God on our side.
So reach into your bag. Pull out your stones one by one, and sling them at your giant. This doesn’t need to be violent or combative. It just involves you being strong in God’s love and in His provision for you. The funny thing about giants, is that often when we stop thinking about how big and strong and imposing they are, and instead focus on how big and strong God’s love is, those giants shrink down to size, fall to the ground, and seem so trivial, we can simply step over them, and get back to being the children of God, to who God intended us to be.
How do you intend to slay your giant this week? I’d love to hear what stones you have in your bag?
Have you ever become unexpected friends with someone?
On my first young adult novel, Skinny, I had no idea how the whole editing/publishing process worked. I received an email from a woman named Amy Parker, the editor assigned to my book, saying she had sent me a previous email but hadn’t heard from me, and our deadline was approaching. I was intimidated just by the word editor. And WHAT email? How had I missed it? And deadline? Yikes! How could I have already messed things up?
I typed back with shaking fingers a giant apology, begging to chat on the phone, because I was a rookie and was clueless as to what was expected from me and when. I was anticipating someone firm, hard-edged, in a suit with black glasses. Too many movies, maybe. Instead a comforting, friendly voice packed with Southern charm and smiles filled my ear with reassurances, “no problem,” “plenty of time,” “minor changes,” “no big deal.” My shoulders relaxed. I smiled, too, even laughed, and we completed the project on time (much improved with her edits).
Amy was assigned as editor on my next two novels, Hot and Angry. And through the process we learned about each other—our shared love of coffee, chocolate, Jesus, Jack Johnson, and family. We discovered we both had a passion to share our faiths through the written word: we didn’t want to be pushy, we just longed to be genuine, and we strived for our work to be quality, to stand out.
Because God is God, Amy’s family vacation brought her within an hour of my home. We met for mochas and true confessions. Since then we’ve attended a writer’s conference in California together, she hosted me in her home, her writing brought her back to Ohio, and we’ve chatted on countless Skype sessions waving dictionaries, Bibles, and laughter. God knew I needed Amy Parker in my life. In many ways she helped launch my writing career, because she encouraged me back on that first novel to keep writing the kinds of things I was writing. But way beyond helping with my writing, she’s become one of my dearest friends. Her heart fills the room. Her faith is even bigger. And her passion for others is a result of the enormity of her heart and faith.
One of our visits was when Amy was in Columbus, Ohio. The zoo’s annual Fete, a fundraiser to protect Rwanda, the land of the gorillas, brought her to town, and I got to be her date. Amy introduced me to a man named Frederick. Frederick’s smile is as bright as a full moon on a dark sky. Immediately upon being introduced, he embraced me in a tight hug. He showed me his beautiful, colorful paintings of his homeland, Rwanda. The fete was also helping support Frederick’s foundation, a place where Rwandans disabled by the genocide can find life again, where they are taught life skills, and learn to play sports, and are given food and shelter, and most importantly, hope. Oh, did I tell you Frederick had his arms severed in the aftermath of the genocide?
Yup, that’s Frederick, grinning from ear to ear, helping others, fighting the good fight, even though he was left for dead on the side of the road. Painting bright images, embracing people he’s just met, and riding his bike around the country to raise money to help others, even though he has no hands. And, Amy, with that passion I told you about, has written with Frederick his story. You know what they named it? Frederick: A Story of Boundless Hope.
Where are you today? Does something seem too big? Are you unsure? Nervous? Overwhelmed? Defeated?
Hang in there. A friend like Amy Parker is just around the corner. A man like Frederick is changing people’s lives, when he could have given up on his. Read their story. Find hope again.
With the Olympics at the forefront of everyone’s minds and screens, we are filled with visions of young athletes overcoming impossible odds, training and working and sweating and crying and clawing and sacrificing and praying their ways to finding their dreams.
What’s your dream? To what ends would you go to achieve it?
I know it’s not easy. There are roadblocks at every turn. Hurdles and obstacles like:
It’s never been done before. I’m not strong enough. It’s a tough road. It’s not practical. When I’m older. If I was younger. I’ve never been formally trained. I’m not tall enough. I’m too tall. I don’t have enough money. I’m so busy. I don’t know how I’d get there. I’m exhausted. I don’t know anyone who does that kind of thing. I don’t even know where to start.
ENOUGH! Or to use one of my favorite Italian words - BASTA!
You could spend the rest of your life coming up with excuses why you never chased your dreams.
You could think of all the things you’re going to do today, tomorrow, before the Olympics are over to launch them into a reality.
Oscar (Oz) Pistorious, aka The Blade Runner, is a double amputee. He plays rugby, water polo and tennis with prosthetics – unbelievable. But what is even more miraculous is OZ will be the first double amputee to run in the Olympics. Let me say that again. He had both of his legs amputated below the knee when he was a baby, yet he is running in the 2012 Olympics.
He will be competing in both the 400-meter and 4 x 400 meter races for his native South Africa. Oz’s motto is. “You're not disabled by the disabilities you have, you are able by the abilities you have." It’s no wonder his last name rhymes with victorious.
In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. Romans 8:37
What abilities to you have?
How are you going to use them today?
I’ve danced, run, played softball (abysmal disaster), and taken my share of aerobics, spinning and Pilates classes, but last week was the first time I’ve ever tried yoga.
I sat on a thin mat with my legs criss-crossed. The teacher began, “Go into prayer position with your hands folded in front of you and your eyes closed.” The room full of strangers wearing spandex pants and tank tops were posed to pray? Maybe I should have tried yoga a long time ago.
She continued, her voice a peaceful, deliberate cadence, “If you’re spiritual, say a prayer of thanksgiving, maybe for the lovely breeze coming through the windows or for some reflective time today, or you can dedicate this workout to someone or something special on your mind.”
I inhaled and exhaled and prayed. Not the kind of prayer I so often say – a ‘to do’ list of wants and needs and demands on God. No, a different kind of prayer -- the kind of prayer when I don’t talk at God, but with Him, and actually give Him a chance to be heard over the noise in my head.
Class continued with an hour’s worth of poses and movements stretching muscles I didn’t realize needed to be stretched. The instructor peppered the class with comments like, “If you’re feeling particularly stretchy, lift your left leg over and behind your right leg.” She didn’t demand we do the move, but gave us the chance to do something even better for our bodies, if only we’d give it a try. Much like God doesn’t force us to go outside our comfort zone, but He gives us amazing prospects, if we’re willing to strike a new pose.
“If you’d like to get a deeper challenge, pull both arms behind you and turn your gaze upward.”
Did she really suggest I look upward, if I’d like a deeper challenge?
God’s just waiting up there with an incredible opportunity, if only I’ll look up to Him. God wants me to stretch! God wants to stretch me!
And God wants to stretch you!
What is it that God has been challenging you to do, but either you let your agenda drown Him out, or you haven’t felt particularly stretchy, or you’ve felt challenged to the hilt already?
I know. Just like you, I’m ready to pull out my iPhone, tap the Notes App and show God the list of reasons I’m not equipped for His plan. I don’t have enough time, experience, strength, contacts, expertise, resources, money, Twitter followers etc. to execute His plan.
Moses was weak and nervous and stuttered. But God said “What’s that in your hand?” Moses answered, “A staff”. And all Moses needed to take on the powerful pharaoh of Egypt and free an entire nation was that stick. David was young, inexperienced and ridiculed by his own brothers. But, David didn’t need King Saul’s armor or sword or army to take down the biggest terrorist this side of the Jordan River. He only needed five small, smooth stones. And Peter? Jesus asked him to leap out of a boat in the middle of the sea and “Come ahead.” Jesus didn’t throw Peter a raft or scuba gear or water skis. Peter just needed his own feet to walk on water! Well, they needed a stick, some stones, two feet and … faith. Maybe all we need to be stretched is our faith and something as simple as a yoga mat.
We all have constraints. But God doesn’t care. Like my yoga instructor, He doesn’t demand we accept His challenge. But He knows if we step up, the blind will see, mountains will move, seas will part and justice will be done. His Kingdom will be a better place. We will feel invigorated, empowered, energized, peaceful and comfortable in our own skins, because we’ll be living out His plan for us.
How is God asking you to stretch today? I’d love to hear. Leave a comment on where your legs and arms and gaze need to go to get a deeper stretch. And when you’re done grab your mat and strike prayer pose.
Laura L. Smith