Getting in the game

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry heads down the court after making a three point shot during the second half of the Golden State Warriors 106-101 win over the Boston Celtics in an NBA basketball game in Boston, Sunday, March 1, 2015. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
AP Photo/Winslow Townson

Every once in a while, life imitates basketball.

Or perhaps it could.

Stephen Curry, a Christian who happens to be the NBA’s reigning MVP, is a bit of an anomaly in the league. Many players have tattoos on their arms. But his, on the inside of his right wrist, is in Hebrew, and translates to, “Love never fails” (1 Cor 13:8). I doubt any other player has that particular tat, in any language. He gives glory to God by pointing heavenward after making a shot (don’t ask me to defend the implied theology, I just appreciate the gesture). And he occasionally brings his precocious little daughter Riley to press conferences, letting her steal the show.

Last month, Curry was voted the Associated Press 2015 Male Athlete of the Year. As only the fourth basketball player to win the award in its 85 year history, he joined some pretty elite company: Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James. As noted in the press release, however, there’s an important difference: Curry can’t dunk. He has built his reputation instead on an incredible shooting touch and ball-handling skills that are second to none.

Why does it matter? Because as Curry himself would argue, these are skills that anyone can develop. It just takes patience and discipline. You may not be gifted with great height, long arms, or a three-foot vertical leap. But you can work, work, work at the fundamentals. After all, even the most impressive dunkers have to learn to dribble, pass, and shoot the jumper if they want to succeed long-term. Curry’s game is living proof that you don’t have to be an aerial acrobat.

Strangely enough, all this makes me think of the relationship between spiritual gifts and spiritual discipline.

From Pentecost to the present, there have always been those who admire and desire the kind of slam-dunk spiritual gifts that might make a church’s highlight reel. Impassioned, awe-inspiring preaching. Miraculous healing. Extraordinary evangelistic success.

And these are indeed gifts of grace to be celebrated rightly. But most of us can probably think of people whose showier gifts weren’t grounded in less glamorous fundamentals like diligent study and prayer. Such disciplines are needed to help keep things in perspective: spiritual gifts are not for the glorification of individuals, but the glorification of God through the unity and mutuality of the church.

A basketball team doesn’t succeed on the basis of players showing off their individual talents, however considerable those talents might be. Neither does a church. Everyone needs to be grounded in the basics and committed to using their skills for the good of the whole.

You don’t have to be Air Jordan.

You just have to keep working at the fundamentals, and get in the game.

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Update: since writing this post, I’ve actually watched Curry dunk a couple of times.  He was barely above the rim, but it qualifies.  I don’t expect, though, that this is going to be replacing his 3-point shot anytime soon.  Not even the ones from half-court…