About two months ago, our grandsons joined a water polo club and we were able to go to one of their tournaments this weekend. I had heard of the sport, but never watched a game. The boys told me how much they enjoy it, so I was excited to observe them play with their team and observe how the coach works with them. It would be fair to say their coach is very verbal and I was curious as to how my grandsons handle that, so I watched her interact with the teams before, during, and after the game. She was very tough on them, not only paying attention to how they played, but how they interacted with each other, how they interacted with their parents, what they ate and drank, and their application or lack of application of sunscreen. It was obvious the team and the parents have a great amount of respect for her and want to learn from her. It was also obvious that character-building was as important to her as the game and she wanted the team to win because they played hard and applied the skills she taught, not because they played mean and dirty.
There were three games each day. The first day the younger team played and they had a rough start. During the first quarter of the first game they didn't play as a unit, hindering their ability to play offense, defense, and transition between the two. The coach observes and instructs from the deck where she can see both her team and the opposing team. She has a voice that carries and is not afraid to use it to direct, to correct, to encourage, and to applaud her team. During the first quarter, she reminded the team to play the positions she had assigned repeatedly and reminded them to transition between offensive and defensive stances. She also reminded them to play as a team to get past the opposing team to score. A few times she even had to coach the parents and the grandparents because in our ignorance we yelled instructions that were either contrary to hers or illegal in the game. When the team listened and did what she instructed, they did amazing and became this well-oiled machine that could guard the goal and work past their opponents and score. When they lost focus, they became confused as to where to position themselves and she would regroup them. I also noticed that when the team communicated with each other, she said less and would sit back and watch them play.
The students had to exercise trust in the coach. They had to choose to believe she had their best interest at heart before, during and after the game. She cares about them as individuals as well as the team as a whole. They also had to choose to trust that from her vantage point the coach could observe both their weaknesses and strengths as well as their opponents’, and that she had the wisdom to know what position they would be best for on that particular team. At times, she adjusted the positions because of what she observed, what she believed the team needed, and sometimes to stretch a player and show him or her what they were capable of doing.
It was obvious she didn't tolerate laziness, pride that causes someone to try to be a ball hog, or negative self-talk that allows someone's fear to hold them back from trying. She may have been on them hard, but she was also their loudest cheerleader and noticed every effort they put into the game, every improvement they made, and when they stepped out of their comfort zone and played harder than before. She had to remind both the team and the parents that water polo was a contact sport and that it was not a sport for the fainthearted. Believe me, the Gorilla Mama rose up fast within me when I saw the opponents drag our grandsons under water to stop a play. By the end of the weekend I realized they were actually learning some valuable life skills from her.
As I observed I could not help but compare what I saw to the Christian life. Contrary to what some of us were taught, Christ warned His disciples that the Christian life is not an easy life. He warned that there would be tribulation in this life and that can come in the form of circumstances, health issues, difficult relationships, people who get in the way of what God is trying to do in and through us, and the consequences we reap for the sinful choices we make. He also warned us that there is a very real adversary who is prowling around like a roaring lion, seeking whomever he can devour. He also told his disciples not to be surprised when they are hated, because He was hated first.
Just like water polo has rules that keep the players safe, God has given His people the Word to instruct us and teach us to live this life. Just as the coach called out instructions to help them apply the rules of the Game, the Holy Spirit brings to mind what we have been taught through the Word. He also fills us with wisdom that is specific to particular situations that helps us walk in victory as we navigate life.
Just like the coach knows her players with their strengths and weaknesses and assigns them positions to play, God knows His children and gifts them with abilities as He sees fit. Just as a team is made up of many individual members, so is the church. Just as each player has certain skills that help the team, the Spirit has empowered each of us for specific things that build up the church to carry out His will. Just as a little guy who faithfully guards his opponent, rendering him ineffective is just as important as a goalie blocking a shot or a teammate scoring a goal, each person fulfilling their God-given role is as important as the pastor teaching from the pulpit, the evangelist leading thousands to the Lord in a city-wide campaign, the worship leader leading us in song, or the elders who run the church. Some of us are gifted to serve, some to teach, some to exhort, some to give, some to display faith, some to lead, some to encourage, some to demonstrate acts of mercy, some to preach, and some to disciple. Just like it would not make sense to have a water polo team comprised of just goalies, or just offensive players, or just defensive players, it doesn't make sense to have a church that is a one man show where the pastor does everything. It doesn't make sense to have a church comprised only of teachers, only of evangelists, only of worship leaders, or only of those who do acts of service. Nor does it make sense to box people in to all serve exactly alike. So often we simply fill positions by what we think we need, not considering the gifting, calling, or experiences of the people attending. The day I realized I needed to say no to filling in as a teacher in a children's Sunday school class was when I realized one of my sons grasped and hung on every word taught to him by his gifted Sunday school teacher. I became comfortable that I was gifted for discipleship that occurs through relationship, through conversation, and through teaching. I also began to embrace the calling to write for those who God is leading to process and think at a deeper level.
It was both humbling and freeing to understand God gifts people to fulfill particular roles. It prevents one-man shows and places people in positions where they can bear much fruit. God has used people with the gift of giving, who saw needs we never spoke and met them, using the resources God gave them to fulfill our needs in sweet and humble ways. He used people who have the gift of mercy to come along side of me when I needed it in ways that alleviated shame and got me back on track. He has used people with teaching gifts to help me understand His Word in ways that changed my mind, heart, and life. I have had the thrill of observing teachers who could turn a room full of rambunctious eight-year-old boys into followers of Christ. I've seen youth workers who could love difficult wayward junior high students and guide them to Christ who could give them a sense of identity and worth that changed the course of their lives. I have seen workers hear ugly confessions of high school students who lived with one foot in the church and one foot in the world and help them overcome shame that plagued them and help them choose to make choices that helped them fully plant both feet in the middle of God's story. I serve with a group of ladies who can hear shameful stories of victimization and instill hope where there once was none. I have seen those who could serve love-starved hearts of needy people and help them connect to the One who can love them well. I have seen those God has healed walk with those who are struggling with the same hard questions that once kept them from fully trusting God, giving them a safe place to question until they can let go and fully trust the One who can heal. I have seen those with prophetic gifts challenge churches content with the status quo, seeped in pride, or failing to engage in the messy lives to which Jesus calls us. Every person who is a believer is a valuable part of a team called the Church and every person fulfills a specific role for which God has gifted Him.
Oh, that we would learn to trust the truth that God, from His vantage point, is like that coach who cares so much for her team. He knows our weaknesses and our strengths and He knows the opponent who wants so badly to stop us. He has gifted us and can show us how to use those gifts to fulfill our God-given role in the church. His Word--it will correct us, it will exhort us, it will encourage us, and it will even heal us if we read it. His Spirit--He will empower us, He will fill us with wisdom for the battles we fight in this life, and He will comfort us in our sorrow. Oh, that we would be people who believe that we can trust a God whose character is love and who has a vantage point bigger than our minds can comprehend.