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Will Jesus show for the Louisville game tonight?

Fr. Lou DelFra | Wednesday, February 11, 2009

What would be a justifiable spiritual insight from Campus Ministry to get us through our men’s basketball team’s seven-game losing streak? All of us – fans, players and coaches – have been disappointed and discouraged at how the season has gone. But, if sport is a metaphor for life, then enduring unexpected losing streaks can teach us something about responding to disappointment in our own lives. But what? Or as the old bracelets would say: What Would Jesus Do … on a seven-game losing streak?

The easy – but ultimately dis-spiriting – answer is that, when we fail, God doesn’t care. God’s love is totally unconditional. God’s love is constant, and non-dependent on our performance. While these things are certainly true, alone they seem to blaze a spiritually futile path. Because they come dangerously close to suggesting that what we do, and how well we do it, is ultimately meaningless. True enough, God’s love for the members of our athletic teams has absolutely nothing to do with whether they win or lose, any more than God’s love for us changes according to our GPA. But do we really wish to conclude that our efforts, then, mean nothing to God?

Several Gospels point to the contrary. Perhaps most famously, the Parable of the Talents suggests that God rewards the efforts of those who invest their talents wisely, while being slightly less enthralled with ones who bury them. True, the Sermon on the Mount lauds the poor and the meek, but stops short of justifying losing on purpose, or not caring about our efforts. After all, Jesus concludes, “You are the light of the world. This light is not to be placed under a bushel basket.”

What the people in the Gospels do, and how well they do it, often matters – a ton. Peter and Andrew, James and John, have to make a decision about the use of their gifts when Jesus passes them on the seashore. Their heroic ending is not predetermined; they could be (un)known today as four mildly successful Galilean fishermen. Contrast the woman at the well with the rich young man – both encounter Jesus’ invitation to use their gifts in a stunningly converted way. One follows, and thrives. The other departs downcast. Our choices matter.

In fact, it seems fair to say that the Gospels teach us that God cares deeply about our decisions about how to spend our lives and talents, and the energy and exuberance we invest in carrying them out. So, it cannot be the case that, because God’s love is unconditional, therefore, it simply doesn’t matter how much energy we spend in sharing our gifts.

Still, before we go too far, we must contend with Jesus’ lauding of the poor and mourning in that Sermon on the Mount. We must contend with Jesus’ clear preference for sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes – surely not shining examples of folks maxing out their God-given talents. And we must contend, above all, with the central symbol of our faith – Jesus, miracle-worker and preacher extraordinaire, maxing out gifts like no one before – hanging from a Cross – utterly defeated.

The response of Christianity to human failure is profound, and complex – and fittingly so, for such is our existence. Our faith ought to match our experience in terms of profundity and complexity. Interpretations of Christianity that water down our disappointments and failures to “God will take care of everything in the end” may provide some temporary soothing, but do they really convince and satisfy us?

Gazing at the Cross, it is difficult to think that Christianity is a religion that will claim to defend against losing streaks, preserve us from any and all hurt, or rid the world of suffering anytime soon. What the Cross does teach us is that some failure and disappointment – even sometimes great, seemingly insurmountable failure and disappointment – is inevitable. If you’re going to play the game, you’re going to have losing streaks. If you’re going to live, you’re going to experience frustration and disappointment.

And what the Cross further teaches is that God is deeply present for it all. In fact, this central symbol of our faith contains within it the deepest promise of hope – that where we seem to fail, there God is most intensely present to us, transforming our failures and weaknesses into opportunities for new, resurrected life. As St. Paul wrote so full of hope, so defiant in the face of his weakness: “Where sin abounds, there grace abounds all the more.”

Or, as Jesus will gently point out in tonight’s pre-game: “Where losing abounds, there you have to rebound all the more.”

This week’s article is written by Fr. Lou DelFra, CSC, of Campus Ministry Bible Studies and chaplain for the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE). He can be reached at delfra.2@nd.edu

The views expressed in this Faithpoint are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.