February 2009


Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.  Lent is the 40 day period leading up to Easter. 

“I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.”

“Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.” 

-Excerpt from prayers said on Ash Wednesday from ‘The Book of Common Prayer’, (p. 265).

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This weekend I was out of town visiting friends and the movie they had selected  for us to watch from Netflix was called Glory Road.  I love sports and I love sports movies.  This movie was based on the true story of a basketball coach who had ever only coached high school girls in the 1960’s before taking a job as the head coach at Eastern Texas University in El Paso.  To put together a decent team, he took the unusual step of recruiting African American players.  This was a hugely radical thing to do in  the segregated south of 1965.   Recruiting  from as far as Gary IN, Detroit,  and the South Bronx, he managed to persuade seven  black guys to come to East Texas and play on his team.   To say this ruffled  a lot of feathers is a more than an understatement.  Prior to this, teams might have fielded one black player on the court at a time but to start with three at at time was unheard of.

Though this strategy led to a hugely successful team, they were met with virtual silence every time the black players were introduced at the start of a game. On one away game during a tournament,  the black players’  hotel rooms were vandalized leaving their bedding and clothes soiled and damaged.  The walls were smeared with threats including the ‘n’ word in blood red paint.  Chilling.  Not surprisingly, this integrated team began to realize their cause had become bigger than themselves,  involving real risks and potential danger.  

Their coach held caught onto this broader vision too.  And by the time they got to the final of the 1965  NCAA championship, he started with 5 black players, and subbed in the remaining 2 black players – the first time in the history of the sport that an all black basketball team represented a mainstream white university.   This decision by the coach, which he told his team in advance of the game,  meant that the rest of the team who were also talented and hard working  but white, were sidelined on the bench, for perhaps the most important basketball game of their college careers. 

Eastern Texas played played the huge favorites, #4 ranked University of Kentucky (who fielded Pat Riley, the same Pat Riley that years later became a celebrity coach of the NY Knicks).  To everyone’s surprise – including their own  – they managed to pull off an upset in the dying seconds of the game.  The credits following the movie claim it was the most important basketball  game ever played in the history of the game. It certainly set the stage for the eventual racial integration of US professional basketball.

What was so striking about this film, apart from the entertainment value and the fact that it was based on events which actually happened, was the perseverance of this white coach to support the best team he could find, even if it meant playing black players at time when this was not popular;  the courage of the African American players to venture to the segregated south to play in the 1960’s; and the willingness of the white players to sacrifice their talents and abilitiesto allow their black teammates to play.

Perseverance, courage, and sacrifice. 

Reminds me of Jesus’ act on the cross. 

Suggests that the road to glory is marked with perseverance, courage and sacrifice.

This is the title of a book I’m reading which is a compilation of the speeches of South Africa’s Desmond Tutu detailing the movement of non-violent resistance that he headed from the 1970’s through to 1990, when Nelson Mandela was released after spending 27 years in prison, and beyond.

Tutu became the first black African Archbishop of Cape Town and subsequently received the Nobel Peace Prize. As a Christian leader, he used these positions of power and the visibility that accompanied them to draw attention – at every opportunity he had – to the injustice of South Africa’s apartheid (“separate but equal”) system. In doing so, he remained totally committed to resistance through non-violent means; Jesus was his example.

As I read these speeches, I am struck over and over again by his incredible courage, his unwavering commitment, and his faithful perseverance. The unshakable basis for this passion was his belief that every human being is made in God’s image, and therefore a system like apartheid which distinguished human beings on the basis of race was both evil and unjust.

It made me think about the responsibilities of those of us God has placed in positions of leadership, be they in our places of work, or at Redeemer in our small groups. What are the ‘apartheid’ issues for us as Christian leaders in New York City in 2009? And are we standing up with courage and conviction to name the evils we see? Are we committing to bringing about their dismantling?