Craig, one of the players on my Second Grade basketball team, stood like a statue with his index finger buried up to the second knuckle in his nasal passages. Hypnotized in his excavations, he was oblivious to the frenzied activities of dribbling, passing and shooting all around him. He was also oblivious to the voices of his coach, and mortified Fifth Grade sister, who were attempting to break the spell of his spelunking endeavors, and restore a shred of family honor. As his basketball instructor, I had to wonder if I should have been more explicit about what I meant by “setting a pic.”
Craig, along with the rest of his teammates, are in Fifth grade now. Having coached this team for nearly six years, I have come to take the normal excesses of boyhood in stride. But what can still catch me by surprise, is the occasional parent who wants to stick his or her fingers into things where they don’t belong.
During our usual second-grade/half-time shoot-a-long, young Craig grew indignant as my short, point guard/son stole the ball from him. The ensuing melee involved the swinging of frustrated fists and an outburst of tears. A coaching intervention became complicated when Craig’s mom stepped in to provide some “assistance.”
As the boys sat soothing themselves down on the sidelines, Craig’s mom took the opportunity to let me know that her son had really been working hard, and deserved to get more passes from teammates like my boy. Her entreaty immediately transported me back to almost precisely the same time last year when she made a similar observation. Then, as now, little Craig had demonstrated the same skill set of standing in a stationary position, picking the basketball equivalent of clover in the outfield. Fortunately, my mouth was able to form a few non-sarcastic words that gave me just enough space to take a fast break of my own to sooth my heart down. “If Craig works to get himself open,” I told my son, “I want you to pass the ball to him.” With that, Craig’s mom turned on her heals and headed out of the gym in an apparent huff.
In this Sunday’s Gospel passage, (Luke 13: 6-9), Jesus spoke of a landowner who grew weary of a non-producing fig tree. Like Simon Cowell on American Idol, he gave orders to cut the tree and make space for a more high yielding replacement. The groundskeeper prevailed upon the property owner to give the little tree another shot at proving what it could do. He saw potential. Let me “cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future.”
The unfortunate exchange with Craig’s mother left a bad taste in my mouth for the week after the game. I found myself wondering how I could recruit for next year’s Third Grade team in a way that might avoid such unfortunate verbal sequences. In other words, I was wondering how, like the orchard owner in this week’s Gospel, I could cut unproductive, or nettlesome members from my team. Upon reflection, it seems to me that my knee-jerk reaction to Craig and his mom (i.e. to cut them out) is an option that is all too frequently chosen in our world. When a family conflict heats up, family members often choose to cut off from one another rather than to learn the skills of soothing their own hearts down and working on their relationships. When a marriage conflict has proven unfruitful over the years, rather than finding a counselor to cultivate the relationship, spouses frequently settle into a distant (frequently unspoken), cut-off arrangement with one another.
A week after the basketball incident that I described, while playing a different team, something amazing happened. Craig had holstered his drilling finger and came to play ball. He jumped away from defenders. He dribbled effectively. He made good bounce passes. He shot! He scored! His coach leapt off of the ground in celebration!
I have seen this kind of thing happen on the hard wood court of real life. Just when I thought a marriage had to be taken off of life support, and pronounced dead, a husband or wife would suddenly show up with the skills I had been trying to teach them. Just when I thought a client would never make any headway, some internal corner gets rounded, and they improve. Just when I thought some part of my personality or soul was as useless as a shriveled, barren, old fruit tree, come to find out, it was the very place where God’s grace had flowed, producing some unexpected fruit.
In a world where God’s indwelling grace flows through everything, life-giving surprises can, and frequently do happen so long as we are willing to cultivate, water, and fertilize the right things in our lives. Rather than wielding the ax of relationship cut-offs, this Lent could you consider extending the compassion and patience of a loving gardener, or coach?