Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Every Game Matters

The middle of May is an interesting moment in the sports landscape.

Baseball season began almost 2 months ago, but teams are still less than on quarter of the way through their scheduled 162 games. At this point in the season almost no one pays much attention to the games and a bad start still has plenty of time to turn around.

Aussie Rules season also started 2 months ago and now approaches the halfway mark of the season. As teams take their byes they have a pretty good idea which teams are premiership contenders and which are the easy beats. Teams (like Carlton) that began the year with a string of losses now realise that it will take a lot of wins in a hurry if they want to make the finals.

Basketball (NBA) and Hockey (NHL) find themselves deep in the playoffs. At this point of the season each game undoubtedly means everything. A team (Pacers) that yesterday looked like it had a comfortable 3-1 series lead is now 3-2 and appreciating that the fourth win won't happen automatically. Every game, every shot, every moment matters. They also know that the importance of each action only intensifies as they draw closer to winning the championship.

Fans who show little enthusiasm for their team during the ho-hum matchups in the middle of the season come to life as the playoffs approach. Now the real business is about to begin. Now the emotions come to life. Now the heart leaps with each shot. Now every moment matters

As I considered the difference between baseball fans and supporters of hockey and basketball teams at the moment I realised the danger of complacency early in the season. There are teams that will miss the playoffs by one or two games. As they look back on their year I wonder if they can identify one or two games or moments early in the year where they relaxed, took it easy, didn't push as hard as they could?

I recently heard an interview with Rick Carlisle, the coach of the Dallas Mavericks, who reflected that because their playoff race was so close it felt like every game was super important for at least 2 months before the playoffs began. As the deadline approaches we understand and feel the urgency. But if a team needs a certain number of wins to make the finals, it really doesn't matter if they come early or late in the season.

The Indiana Pacers recognise this truth. They had 40 wins to 12 losses at the All-Star break and the best record in the NBA. In the second half of the season the Pacers barely had more wins than losses. Yet they managed to retain the best record in the Eastern Conference. If they had not achieved those early season wins their seeding in the playoffs would have been considerably lower.

I understand the argument that perhaps the effort to get those early wins tired them out and caused some of the late season losses. I also appreciate the importance of momentum and team cohesion going into the playoffs. Those points may make for a future blog post.

All this got me thinking about our Christian journey. We naturally grow more urgent in our desire to avoid sin and please God as we age. Our evangelistic fervor picks up when someone close to us receives a terminal diagnosis.

At the other end of the spectrum I can't tell you how many times I've seen someone give their life to Christ and then be told, "See you next Sunday." We seldom communicate an urgency to grow. We don't emphasis the importance of early victories in our struggles with sin. We're often content to let our newborn brothers and sisters coast along and "get used to the system" without inspiring them to strive for constant growth. We allow them to put their faith on autopilot. It's like they're playing baseball in March instead of hockey.

Our lives don't have scheduled seasons. Jesus tells us that only God knows the day or the hour of His coming or our going. (Matthew 24:36) The Message phrases 1 Peter 5:8 this way, "Keep a cool head. Stay alert. The Devil is poised to pounce, and would like nothing better than to catch you napping. Keep your guard up." Our competition never takes a break and we can't afford to either.

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