When you are born in the long shadows of Bryant-Denny Stadium, at least one of your major choices in life has been summarily made for you. For those of you not in the know, Bryant-Denny Stadium is in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and the home field of the Alabama Crimson Tide, a college football team (because I'm aware not all of you reading this blog follow football - however shocking that is to many of us in the South). Alabama is one of the more storied college football teams in history. And when you are born in Alabama or live in the state for more than say, two minutes, you must choose between Alabama and Auburn (the other major college football team in the state). For some of us, the choice is in our DNA. As I said, I was born in the long shadows of the stadium named, in part, for the legendary college football coach Paul "Bear" Bryant. I think my family has been cheering for Alabama since the days they had to dodge dinosaurs to get to the games.
Alabama has lots of winning seasons, lots of national championships, and lots of reasons to cheer, which is a great bonus for fans. But, as writer Warren St. John says, growing up an Alabama fan significantly skews your perspective. Any year that doesn't end in a national championship is a disappointment. Every game is significant in a particular way because it is a stepping stone to something bigger. While there are certain games that are very important to win (Auburn), the Alabama football season is often one long drive to win yet another national title. Given that they are rather challenging to win, you can imagine that many seasons, while wildly successful in other aspects, are seen as less than stellar if they don't win the big "You're the best football team ever" prize, also known as the BCS Championship.
I moved to Lexington, Kentucky last year. They play basketball the way Alabama plays football. If the year doesn't end in a national title, it's an off year. We get each other that way, Alabama and Kentucky fans.
Kentucky football, however, is a different animal. It's like Alabama basketball, which is to say, they actually play each game to win, knowing that they won't win them all. National titles aren't in the mix. It's all about that one game, then the next, and then the next. Having a winning season is great, but even beyond that, it's often simply about the game at hand.
Last Saturday, I did what most Southerners did: Watched football. Of course, the main dish was the Alabama-Auburn game. Alabama spanked Auburn. Life is good. I cheered and clapped and texted my Alabama friends whose life and ministry has scattered them far from the state of our births. We are anxiously awaiting the BCS polls to see if Alabama will play for another national title. So far, this season may still be a great one. Roll Tide.
But the best game that day just might have been the Kentucky - Tennessee game. It's been a bit of a struggle for both teams this year. Fans have begun stupid speculation about the tenure of both head coaches, as if a couple of years is enough to make significant changes to a system. But I watched, because I like Kentucky and can cheer, "Go Big Blue!" with almost as much gusto as I can belt out, "Roll Tide!" It was a low-scoring game. Kentucky had lost to Tennessee for something like four thousand years. Both Kentucky quarterbacks were out, so the entire game plan had been designed in three days around a senior wide receiver in the quarterback position. For us church types, this is akin to pulling out a member of the congregation to preach and celebrate on Easter Sunday, giving her/him about two days' worth of heads-up. My relatives would say this is just plum crazy, like playing golf in a lightening storm or eating mashed potatoes without brown gravy.
But plum crazy resulted in the game clock winding down with a three-point Kentucky lead. Tennessee had the ball. Again, for those of you who don't watch football but are still reading, if Tennessee kicked a field goal, they would tie the game and send it into overtime. If they scored a touchdown, they would have won the game. Needless to say, Kentucky fans (including me) were on the edge of our seats. And then there was a glorious interception. Kentucky got the ball back. The clock ran down. They won the game.
Kentucky fans rushed the field, albeit hesitantly. I suspect hundreds just looked at the scoreboard, realizing they'd actually won the game. Kentucky beat Tennessee. And for that moment, the players who played their final game at Commonwealth Stadium walked off the field big winners. They had done something that a few decades' worth of Kentucky teams had not done. They sent the Tennessee Vols home losers. And the celebration was a sight to behold.
Remember now, neither team has a winning record. Kentucky will not go to a bowl. The national title was not resting on winning this game. It simply was one of those glorious moments where being fully present to that time, space, and emotion was what mattered. Playing against the odds mattered. Playing at all mattered, because how many of us don't even want to engage if we know we are pretty much going to lose and our egos will be bruised. And living into the joy of that win mattered (I hope they tore down the goalposts, by the way).
I need reminding of this truth - that life, while not exactly comparable to a football game, isn't about winning the best ever award every year, in and out, but about being fully present in the moments. Success is not based on having the nicest car ever, serving the best (often synonymous with richest/biggest) parish ever, or whatever external we need to validate ourselves. The biggest title ever has been won for us - we are God's beloved. Nothing we do or don't do will change that. Our life moments, including the people we meet, are not stepping stones to a national title. They are simply moments woven together by God and us as we live our life together.
A full measure of successful living a spiritual life is being fully present to the moments we encounter. We will have losing seasons where we will be sad and disappointed by ourselves and others. We will squeak out some close ones, amazed we are still fully within our selves and souls after such a beating. We will have moments where it is simply not all about us. We will also dance with joy, because the unexpected miracle of redemption does crash into our lives, too, with regularity.
Advent is a season of moments, where in the busy-ness of the holidays, from the parties to the shopping to the special events and even, perhaps, Church services, we may lose focus of being present and instead focus on whatever award or external validation we feel compelled to slather on ourselves. We think, perhaps, if we pull of the perfect Christmas party or have our church decorated the best or buy everyone the most amazing gifts ever, that we will win the best person ever award and silence that part of our souls that doesn't feel "enough."
Our deep validation is knowing that we are God's beloved, and we are enough. Period. We don't have to play every game as if that's the award on the line. The moments are the real treasures. Being present to the people, situations, formation, and opportunities that open to us. Being present to changing plans when what we've been doing doesn't work. Being present to quiet and candlelight as we just sit for a time. Being present to joy and grief, laughter and tears, and fully feeling them.
Being present, as if nothing else before or after would be more or less important. It's one of the core lessons of the Christian mystics.
And one of which I'm glad jubilant Kentucky players and fans could remind me as we begin Advent.