Can you bring heaven to earth with a basketball?
Some people think you can.
Chris and Laura Harris are members of Richmond’s First Baptist Church, and today they will spend most of the day in the gym working with players, coaches, parents, referees, and cheerleaders to make the game of basketball a fun, uplifting, and rewarding experience—even spiritually rewarding. It’s called “Upward Basketball,” and you almost have to see it to believe it.
I saw it a few weeks ago when I was invited to do the halftime devotions. What I noticed first when I walked into the gym was all the people working behind the scenes. There was Maron El-Khouri making the announcements and playing the music at halftime. There were a half-dozen older kids helping out until it was their turn to play later in the day. There was Laura Harris, answering questions and making sure that everything was running smoothly (the day I was there one of the coaches was taken to the hospital in an ambulance, complaining of chest pains. Laura’s husband, Chris, went with him, leaving Laura to quiet the chaos as well as find a substitute coach and a referee. She was amazing; unflappable; I began to think that if she’d been on the Titanic it wouldn’t have sunk).
But then there were all those kids out on the floor—little kids at the start of the day—being shepherded by kindly referees in striped shirts who didn’t keep score and didn’t call fouls. The coaches on the sidelines shouted encouragement and offered advice but I never saw them yell at a player or throw a chair. They were trying to teach those kids how to play basketball, and how to do it in a way that was fun and fair. The parents sat on the bleachers and watched their children race up and down the court, and if they took a shot and missed, well, at least they took a shot, right?
Their parents were proud.
When it was time for devotions I talked to the parents about taking shots and missing. I told them the Greek word for sin was hamartia, which means, literally, “to miss the mark.” I said, “When your child takes a shot and misses do you stop loving him?” They shook their heads emphatically. Of course not. I said, “When you try to do the right thing and fail do you think your heavenly father stops loving you?” Again, they shook their heads, but less emphatically. They hadn’t heard this particular line of reasoning before, at least not from a Baptist preacher. “Sin is not about waking up in the morning wanting to do the wrong thing,” I said. “Sin is about waking up in the morning wanting to do the right thing, but failing. It’s about being human. It’s about taking the shot and missing.
“And when you do, your heavenly Father still loves you.”
These are the kinds of lessons that are being learned at Upward Basketball, and I could see it when kids were disappointed by their own efforts but got loving pats, hugs, and words of encouragement from their parents and coaches. They were learning that it’s OK to take a shot and miss. And sometimes, to their own amazement, they took a shot and made it, and when they did basketball was fun, as it was always meant to be,
And heaven came to earth.