Thursday, August 13, 2009

Play Catch, Invent Games, Find Jesus



FROM 2007

In 1977, as a restless eighth-grader in search of a good way to pass the time, I took up fishing. From my nerdy perspective, there was much to like about fishing – it required its own specialized equipment (to be studied and purchased with discretion) and it had its own magazines – but the actual activity of fishing turned out to be pretty damn tedious. Long bouts of staring at brown water, punctuated (rarely) by a few seconds of excitement, culminating in the dispiriting, smelly task of gutting and scaling a very small fish.

One day I was out fishing – unsuccessfully, as usual – at a small lake in a public park. I noticed a round yellow object floating in the middle of the lake. Figuring I might as well catch something, I hooked it and reeled it in. It was a Frisbee. A Wham-0 119G to be exact. I took it home and began to teach myself the art of throwing a flying disc. Before long my fishing equipment was collecting dust. Frisbee became my pursuit. Thanks to the fortuitous emergence of some nurturing conditions (a disc golf course opened near my house, a high school friend organized lunchtime ultimate Frisbee matches), I became a serious Frisbee player at 14 and remained one until I was 40. Mostly I played ultimate, beginning with the local college team, through a young adulthood of travel to weekend tournaments throughout the Southeast, winning and losing a lot of matches, learning to respect and uphold ultimate’s treasured “spirit of the game,” making plays (good and bad) that run on endless loop in my mind’s eye, establishing some friendships that I hope will last as long as I do, enduring two knee reconstructions, enjoying the small-time glories and fine bonhomie of the wonderful Atlanta summer league, and trying to make it all last far too long (the last time I ran well enough to be considered a good player was at least five years before I hung up my cleats for good). This sport has been one of the most fruitful pursuits of my life, and it all started when that yellow 119 seemed to rise up to me out of the depths of the lake.

If you think I am inviting a strained comparison between my Frisbee-finding experience and the legend of the Lady of the Lake bestowing the sword Excalibur on King Arthur, you are correct. That is exactly what I’m doing. I’m also here to tell you that ultimate beats the hell out of fishing.

I haven’t thought of Frisbee and fishing together in a long time, but tonight I am. I fished for a Frisbee, but some evangelist has hit upon the bright idea of using Frisbees to be a “fisher of men” (Matthew 4:19). One of my daughters was at an event at a Baptist Church this evening and came home with a flying disc that has proselytic messages on a sticker affixed to the bottom. The Frisbees we all grew up with merely bore some handy instructions on their undersides: “Flat flip flies straight. Tilted flip curves. Play catch. Invent games.” This disc that my girl brought home has a little about how to throw and lot about how to be a disciple. It features the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32) printed in its entirety, along with an interpretation (The boy who ran away is us; the forgiving father is God. Who knew?), and a four-step process for getting yourself on the road to redemption.

As a Christian and as a longtime Frisbee player, I recoil from this kind of evangelism. I don’t mind admitting that I’m a sinner and asking God’s forgiveness, but I’d rather not be instructed by a Frisbee in how to do so. To be sure, when Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations,” he did not add, “Just don’t be vulgar about it.” We Presbyterians kind of wish he had, especially when we’re clucking disapproval at some of the . . . uh, cheesier efforts of our more aggressively evangelistic brethren. Enough with the Bible verse soap and the Christian miniature golf courses. Then again, a Baptist might justifiably reply, “Yeah, how’s that ‘tasteful’ evangelism working out for you? Your denomination is shrinking by thousands of members every year.” We practice restraint and we lose market share. And who knows? Maybe those didactic discs work in ways I can’t imagine. The novelist and minister Frederick Beuchner once preached on the many spray-painted “Jesus Saves” signs that mark our highways, about how they make us wince with embarrassment. But perhaps, he observes, the embarrassment isn’t for the spray-painter but for ourselves, that when we read those signs we unconsciously place our own names after “Jesus saves” and we are reminded – to our shame – that we need saving, and we are astonished that anyone could save the likes of us.

Beuchner winds up rejoicing at God’s wonderful vulgarity, and sees the spray-painted signs as a reminder of how low God will go on our behalf. Maybe my daughter’s new flying disc is in that line somehow, but I still can’t reconcile myself to the Frisbee as an explicitly evangelistic tool. Action, not preaching, is still the most effective form of Christian witness. They tell me my wife’s maternal grandfather’s favorite saying was, “I am the Bible my neighbor reads.” That is, people should know what it is to believe in the Gospel by the way I live. That, honestly, is how I came to be a Christian. Everything loudly, garishly, or aggressively evangelistic had always repelled me. What drew me in at last was the humble, devoted conduct of certain Christian students of mine. Not all of them, mind you – I still give the self-righteous and the willfully ignorant a wide berth. Nor was inspiring behavior limited to Christians. But I saw in some Christian students certain virtues I knew I lacked and that I sorely wanted – mostly, a sense of quiet assurance about one’s purpose in the world and a devotion to kindness, selflessness, integrity. I wanted what they had. I still haven’t got it, of course, but I feel closer.

And please, if you’re reading this, I hope you’ll remember my conversion story the next time you hear some theocrat repeat the insidious canard that the early sixties Supreme Court decisions that outlawed school-led prayers and Bible readings “put God out of public schools.” God, in the form of the open fidelity of individual students to their faiths, is alive and well in public schools. The daily sight of my students unobtrusively striving to be followers of Jesus washed over me, and ultimately made me open to the message found in the scripture now affixed to the bottom of my daughter’s new flying disc: a great narrative of being lost and then found, of knowing God’s boundless mercy.

And when I consider all the blessings that have come my way because I found that Frisbee in the lake, it seems to me that sticking scripture on the bottom of a Frisbee is entirely superfluous. At least in my case, let the flying disc be its own argument that God is good.

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