Sunday, August 21, 2011

Words and Lives

The passing of the legendary collegiate UCLA basketball coach John Wooden a year ago at age 99 provides an opportunity to reflect on his legacy. Though retiring in 1972, his achievement has yet to be surpassed, and likely never will. During his final twelve years of coaching he won ten NCAA national championships, at one point winning 88 games in a row. Various sports commentators, reflecting on his legacy, have questioned whether or not he would have been as successful in today’s game, concluding that he probably would not. In many ways, the game has changed over the past forty years, and not for the better. Others conclude he still would be, for he always stressed education, commitment and team play. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, commenting on Wooden on the occasion of his ninety-ninth birthday stated “Because of Coach Wooden’s mentoring I have never felt uncomfortable being a scholar in addition to being an athlete.” He noted that Wooden thought more of his players graduation rates being over sixty-five percent than he did of his amazing championship runs.

Those who personally knew Wooden point more to his character as a man and teacher than to his coaching ability, for his concern was always to develop the total person, not just his player’s basketball ability.

Trained as an English teacher, he sought to inculcate into his players the creed given him by his father at his eighth grade graduation. These principles were to be true to yourself, make each day your masterpiece, help others, drink deeply from good books, especially the Bible, make friendship a fine art, build a shelter against a rainy day, and pray for guidance and give thanks for your blessings every day. Wooden lived and taught these principles; they became the basis for his Pyramid for Success, developed over fourteen years of reflection.

The disciplines he developed throughout his long life contributed to his success as a coach, whether it was teaching his players how to put on their socks and lace their shoes, dribble a basketball, or dealing with their stardom. He could praise his star players, like Abdul-Jabbar and Walton without fawning over them, and criticize them without berating them. In all of his years of coaching no one recalls one time when he swore at a player. Although blessed with megastars, he always insisted that the main ingredient of stardom was the rest of the team.

Avoiding pre game emotional speeches, believing that emotional peaks are usually followed by passing through deep valleys, he focused on intensity, teaching his players to think small during games – to concentrate on quick but proper execution. Success was not winning, but obtaining the peace of mind that comes from knowing that one made the effort to do the best to become the best that one is capable of becoming.

But it is in an anonymous poem which Wooden considered one of his favorites that we see perhaps most clearly the character of the man that his players and associates saw most clearly.
"No written word, no spoken plea
Can teach our youth what they should be,
Nor all the books on all the shelves.
It’s what the teachers are themselves."
In this poem we see the essence of authentic, unhypocritical living, Because he lived this way, Wooded had a profound impact on the young men who played for him. becoming a mentor to many. As we go though life we often find ourselves taking on roles as mentors and teachers. In them our character is set forth for others to see. As they observe our lives, do they see us teaching what we truly are?

Monday, August 1, 2011

Cocoon Living

Working for a small privately owned company with a strong Christian presence has both its plusses and minuses. While there is a certain camaraderie which is beneficial, it can also be very isolating. A fellow co-worker, a recent college graduate, and I were discussing the frustration of spending most of our times in a Christian cocoon – Christian family, strong church involvement, having mostly Christian friends and co-workers – while desiring to have an evangelistic presence in the world in which we live. Neither of us wanted to live only in the cocoon.

As I later reflected on our discussion, the image of the butterfly came to mind. The caterpillar must go through the chrysalis stage in order to be transformed into a beautiful butterfly. The goal of entering the chrysalis is not to stay there, but to emerge at the proper time, free to soar above the ground instead of crawling upon it. It is a time of metamorphosis, when the caterpillar is transformed into a butterfly. If the butterfly emerges too quickly it likely will be deformed or stunted, unable to fly and will likely quickly die. If its emergence is delayed too long it also won’t survive. The length of time as a chrysalis depends upon the season of the year, the average temperature and the type of butterfly. Emerging at the right time gives the butterfly the freedom to be what God intended it to be.

The same is true in our Christian life. One of the goals of the church and the Christian family is to provide the Christian culture and nurturing environment for children to develop into young men and women who are free to be all that God intends them to be, able to think for themselves and develop a strong faith. During our growing up years, home and church should be a cocoon, providing the training and upbringing that will eventually allow us to spread our Christian wings and soar. They should provide the nurturing that we need in order to mature. Just as with the butterfly, either leaving too early or too late can cause problems – too early and our faith is not developed enough to survive the onslaught of the secular culture in which we are immersed; too late and we may not have the strength to be independent, always needing hand-holding and support in order to survive. In either case, one’s faith may wither and die.

Parents who are over protective are in as much danger as those who are over tolerant in seeing their children abandon the faith. While working in a coffee house ministry during my seminary years, I witnessed several college students, whose entire life until then revolved around church and Christian schools. They had been isolated from the larger world. As a result, they struggled with questions about their faith; both abandoning the church and living lives filled with drugs and promiscuity. Out on their own, away from home for the first time, with no one to hold their hand, they were ill prepared to handle their first adventure into the secular world around them.

In order to prepare one’s children for a life in the world, it is important to live out the faith we proclaim so that our children can see our faith in action. It is important to discuss issues from a Christian perspective so that our children develop a Christian worldview and understand why they have it. There is one question which Christian parents should keep in the forefront of their minds: How well am I preparing my children to leave the cocoon?