Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Milwaukee Bucks and Life

The outcome of a sports contest, positive or negative, really has little impact on the life of the civilized and emotionally balanced man.  It’s not as though one’s life depended on it, after all.  Nevertheless, it can be fun sometimes to watch such things, and to let this be one small way in which one takes part in the culture of his city.  So obviously I’m a Bucks fan (that’s basketball, for those of you who are even less sports minded as I am).  Two days ago the Bucks had a game for the record books, for they lost in a rather spectacular way.  So it got me thinking, does the ugly loss the Milwaukee Bucks suffered have anything to teach us about life itself?  I think it does.  For if you’re going to do something, you may as well do it big, especially if that something has any value or worth, or if you hope to clarify whatever that value might be.  The Bucks didn’t just lose; they lost big.  In the end, the score was 120 – 66, the biggest loss in the history of Milwaukee Bucks basketball.  Admittedly, there have been other big losses in professional basketball.  Here are some of the more notable ones, which I found after doing a brief search online.  (Note that a couple of them were games where Milwaukee was the winner.)
  • 15 December 1985 - Milwaukee Bucks 140, Sacramento Kings 82
  • 29 December 1992 – Sacramento Kings 139, Dallas Mavericks 81
  • St. Joseph’s Day, 1977 – Golden State Warriors 150, Indiana Pacers 91
  • St. Stephen’s Day, 1978 – Milwaukee Bucks 143, Detroit Pistons 84
  • Christmas, 1960 – Syracuse Nationals 162, New York Knickerbockers 100
  • All Souls’ Day, 1991 – Golden State Warriors 153, Sacramento Kings 91
  • St. Joseph’s Day, 1972, Los Angeles Lakers 162, Golden State Warriors 99
  • Candlemas, 1998 – Indiana Pacers 124, Portland Trail Blazers 59
  • 17 December 1991 – Cleveland Cavaliers 148, Miami Heat 80

Indeed, Thursday's game wasn’t even the worst loss in playoff history.  That distinction goes to a game played on Saint Joseph’s Day, 1956, in which the Minneapolis Lakers beat the St. Louis Hawks by a score of 133 – 75.  I think the Bucks loss yesterday was second only to the St. Louis loss in 1956 in terms of playoff games.

But there can be no dispute that what the Bucks accomplished was a failure of historic proportions. And when one considers their record of the past couple years, including much of the second half of this season, it may not seem all that surprising.  Indeed, Chicago fans might also say that it is not surprising considering that the Bucks were playing the Bulls.  Personally, I buy neither of those arguments.  In this very playoff series, the Bucks showed that they can compete with, and beat, the Bulls.  One of their losses in this series came only after going into double overtime.  Then, they win in Milwaukee on a last second shot. Then, they win in Chicago rather handily.  The Bucks were not expected to advance far in the playoffs, or even win this series.  At the start of the season they were not even really expected to get into the playoffs.  Nevertheless, it seems to me that to lose in this way, where a team gets into such a hole and then spends the rest of the night just increasing the depth of the hole, cannot be explained by a difference in ability.  It can only be explained psychologically. 

We have all seen teams on a losing streak which included games they “should have” won, or batters going too long without a hit, or field goal kickers who seem to have lost their confidence. One gets into a losing situation, and then finds it hard to climb out of it.  It’s called defeatism.  And it’s easy to chalk it up to having “given up,” but I suggest that it is not quite that simple.  Experiencing the defeatist mentality, the mindset by which one really defeats himself, and learning to overcome it, these are valuable lessons for a young team with much potential.  But none of this is, in fact, about sports.  Nor is it even about “motivation” or vile notions of “success.”  It is merely to say that on the road one travels in life, while there are many obstacles and challenges on that path, often the biggest are those which are self-made, and internal.

Where would I be if I would have played the game that the seminary asked me to play?  I don’t know.  But although one could make the case that there was a certain injustice involved, ultimately, the failure to play the game was mine.  That’s my problem.  But it’s going on “ten years burning down the road.”  And I can’t refight any of that.  My calling is to walk the path which is before me.  Sometimes, indeed, in the midst of life’s journey, the path may seem more like a dark wood, in which the way has been lost.  And so, at least when we are wise, we keep with us the best companions we know, as Dante was able to bring with him (in life as well as in art) the wisdom of the ages as personified in the spirits of Virgil, St. Bernard, and Beatrice.  But the question must continually be asked whether an obstacle on the path, as monstrous as it may be, is external, or merely self-made.  If it is self-manufactured, then it should and can be destroyed just as surely as the sinful self can be conquered.  He, that is, the Old Adam or our sinful nature, cannot be tamed or transformed or converted, but must be drowned, killed, and destroyed, along with all the obstacles he conjures to beset one’s path. 

I do believe that of the Christian’s chief enemies (the devil, the world, and the flesh) the most underrated, and in a certain sense most dangerous, is the self.  One naturally wants to escape that which afflicts and torments him.  With David we confess:

“O that I had wings like a dove! for then would I flee away, and be at rest. Lo, then would I get me away far off, and remain in the wilderness. I would make haste to escape, because of the stormy wind and tempest.” (Ps 55)

Yet in our fleeing we still never really seem to escape. I am reminded of St. Jerome, who even after leaving the immoral culture of Rome and seeking to live ascetically in the desert, found to his chagrin that he was plagued perhaps more than ever by temptations of the flesh.  The problem is that the enemy David laments in the psalm we quote above is not merely the wickedness of the world.

“For I have spied unrighteousness and strife in the city. Day and night they go about within the walls thereof; mischief also and sorrow are in the midst of it. Wickedness is therein; deceit and guile go not out of her streets.”

There is, in fact, something more insidious going on.

“For it is not an open enemy that hath done me this dishonour; for then I could have borne it. Neither was it mine adversary that did magnify himself against me; for then peradventure I would have hid myself from him. But it was even thou, my companion, my guide, and mine own familiar friend.”

The one most familiar, the one who is your constant companion, the one closest to you, this one can be your worst and most treacherous enemy.  And for the Christian, we know that this is exactly what the Old Adam in us is.  What is closer than one’s own fallen (deathly) flesh?  And who, therefore, shall save me from the body of this death?  I for one thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.  For by the paschal mystery the incarnate God has become even closer to me than my own flesh.  For I have been plunged into the paschal mystery of His death, and therefore also raised up with Him into the new life of His resurrection. 

But let us note well that new life in Christ means more than that heaven will be my home after this life is complete.  It means that I have the ability to trample Satan under my feet right here and now. Of course it is really Christ Himself who accomplishes this (Romans 16), for His conquering of Satan in His death (foretold already in Genesis 3) is a conquering that extends into my own life, and gives this little life great significance.  So I now have the ability, in Christ, to curse and destroy the most essential and dire enemies which come before me, and say of them, as David does: 

“Let death come hastily upon them, and let them go down quick into hell; for wickedness is in their dwellings, and among them.”

Or as we declare with David in another psalm (118):

“They kept me in on every side, they kept me in, I say, on every side: But in the Name of the Lord will I destroy them. They came about me like bees, and are extinct even as the fire among the thorns: For in the Name of the Lord I will destroy them.”

Believe it or not, dear reader, there are all too many Christians today who are embarrassed and scandalized by the fighting words in the psalms, like these.  How sorry I am for them!  For the enemies are real, and we are completely and perfectly fitted in Christ to take them on.  What matters in this conflict, in fact, is life and death, and as the Christian confesses in the midst of his afflictions with this same psalm, “I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord.” That death defying victory includes victory over the phantoms of our own making.  The same obstacles we raise, we can raze.  They include the defeatist mindset. They include the power we grant to our past. They include the low opinion we give to the dignity of our own personhood. 

So while none of this is to say that success or wealth or secular prosperity are to be expected, it is to say that the devils which haunt us, as frightening as they are, do not get the final say, or the final victory, and in fact many of them will rather handily be blown away even in the here and now by the breath of God, as we exercise our right to invoke the live-giving Spirit, Whom Christ breaths upon His people from the cross. And that’s what the final Bucks game means to me.

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