“That I am chosen to minister means to let other people discover that they are chosen, too.” ~ Henri Nouwen
For so many of us, chosen takes us back to that moment on the playground when the captains were choosing up sides. The best kids go first. The worst were saved for last. It was those same few kids that always had to wait for the their names to be called. That took patience and fortitude, but selection was guaranteed because everyone got to play.
Those were the old, shall we say good old, days when picking teams was simple. Self-selection, even by peers, seemed much better than being assigned to a roster. It was the way we kept things fair. Split up the “good” players and the “bad” so no team had all of either.
Somewhere along the way, as playground gave way to organized sports, adults started forming the rosters. Players were selected by coaches but picked according to rounds in the draft in an effort to keep things even and encourage strong competition during the season.
Somehow regular seasons gave way to all-stars, then travel teams, then select and now elite versions of those teams. You were picked for all stars, selected (obviously) for select, and recruited for elite. Each one was a step up the ladder of chosen. How different those words: selected and chosen.
To select an apple from the bin I pick it up, give it a squeeze, turn it over in my hand, and if there are no mushy spots and there is no evidence of worm holes, I put it in my basket. Selection is simple. But chosen, now that means I have given serious consideration to all of the options, evaluated every characteristic, and diligently sorted until I have found the one and only, the most special, the one certainly meant to be mine.
Perhaps it is this terminology that upends us in the youth sports arena today. “What! You didn’t choose MY child?!” She’s special, talented, the best kid out there. And of course she is. Each parent knows their kid is special, select, chosen, gifted. Getting on the elite team doesn’t confirm this, just as being cut from the team doesn’t deny it. But the positioning of our precious ones on stratified teams somehow misses the point. I mean, when did it become fashionable to be “elitist” anyway?
I much prefer the lesson taught to me by 7 and 8 year old soccer players. At the end of the season we voted on “superlatives.” I gave them a few ideas, but generally they were instructed to assign a “best _______” to each of their teammates. Some were silly, some were more serious, all of them were complimentary and were voted on completely by the team. No coaches. No parents. Just kids.
Each season, I would tally the votes, and while a few kids got creative (ie. the most likely to have her laces untied) most were a true reflection of the recipient: best smile, most friendly, happiest, best shooter, fastest, and so on. The funny thing was, I always had at least one kid who’s list would have multiple teammates voted best at the same thing. In a child’s eyes, it’s perfectly normal to have 3 players chosen as best shooter, best goalie, best smile or even MVP. Why stop at just one best?
One day, the quantified, ranked, ordinal world breaks in on all of us. The 7 and 8 year-old in us learns that there can be only one superlative. I guess that’s why our chosen-ness is so hard to embrace. Me? I’m not best at anything. Maybe chosen doesn’t mean best at or even better than, rather we’ve been selected, hand-picked, and identified as just the right one.
For what? Well, that’s what life after 7 is all about.
I used to get really discouraged watching athletes interviewed after their winning performances, especially the young, amateur athletes like you see on the Olympics. The news correspondent would say: “So, how did you do it? What do you recommend for all those aspiring swimmers, ball players, dancers, etc. out there?” This was inevitably their response,
“You just have to believe in yourself.”
This was discouraging, because I knew that it took incredible dedication, drive, skill, resources and probably a good bit of luck to end up where they were. I could believe in myself all I wanted to and, without these other things, I would never stand where they were standing. Belief was not enough. In fact, it felt like a lie.
Oh, they weren’t lying. I am sure they had tremendous belief in themselves and this propelled them. But so did the guy who qualified for the Olympics but didn’t make the finals and the one who finished 52nd with a personal best time by 3 seconds. So did the lady who broke all social barriers even to compete there. So did the Paralympic athletes. So did the Special Olympic athletes. They all believed in themselves to get where they got…which was not on the Olympic medal podium.
The deception, I realized, was the sampling method used by the correspondent (and my selective listening). The interviews given, and the ones I attended to were with the winners. Winners, across the board, believe in themselves. And when you ask them how they got to be winners, they’ll tell you so. But it is my error to think that believing in myself will cause me to win. Belief is not causal.
“Just believe” is a much tossed around phrase in Christian circles. As if, believing is something you do without thinking. That it is a mindless act or a desperate plan. But when the “just believe” is offered to people who are seeking in today’s world, people who subscribe to this “just believe in yourself” mantra, who reason that ‘if I believe hard enough or believe properly or with enough diligence, I will make it so,’ their belief gets misplaced. And is probably going to disappoint.
On the other hand, there are plenty of folks out there, perhaps most, who don’t believe in themselves. They don’t believe they can succeed, don’t believe they can win, and have real uncertainty about whether they’ll amount to anything. I have coached plenty. I have been one. One who, before the race is ever run, looks at opponents or reads the scouting report and thinks (maybe even says) I can’t beat him. She’s faster than me. He’s better than me. These people are the realists, one might say. But the one thing I know is, if I say I can’t do it, I am right – already. I have defeated myself before I have begun.
So, motivators the world over tell people to “fake it till you make it,” “be the person you want to become,” “act as if you’re champion and you will become one.” These coaches can’t guarantee outcomes, but they know this sort of approach gives their athletes, teams, or clients a fighting chance. They’ve figured out that defeating yourself is the first thing you have to overcome. And they know full well that in every contest all the competitors want to win, may even believe they will win, but there’s always a loser. Belief, not withstanding.
Perhaps that’s why so many of my coaching and athletic friends have trouble with believing in God or believing in Christ. Because they have competed their whole lives believing in themselves. They have, through hard work and dedication, brought about their success. But they know that belief cannot make God so. And perhaps, if they invested in that belief, they would feel responsible for that win. They don’t want to risk losing.
I have lost at plenty of things in my life so far – even things I believed in with all my heart. But of the things I have achieved, none of them can compare to the things I was sure I had lost that I turned over to God who showed me a new way to see them and a new way of winning. A way I would have never believed.