PLYMOUTH, MI – My stomach tightened as I peeked around the doorframe of the middle school gymnasium from the hallway. The bleachers were filling-up with guys wildly talking and punching one another in the shoulders. There was an excitement as guys yelled to one another about what position they were going to play on the seventh grade football team. I paused. I felt the cool steel and rough brick of the door frame and wall as I imagined myself disappearing into nothingness. I did not know the names of the positions on the field. The pit of my stomach stirred. I felt like an idiot, a zero, again. It was an all too familiar seventh grade kind of feeling for me.
It was the end of an autumn school day. Behind me, other students were rushing to the line of yellow buses outside preparing to deliver students to their homes. I had to make a decision. That morning I told my mother, “Mom, I’m going to join an intramural football team at school this year. Will you come pick me up? We’re having a meeting. The teachers who coach will be choosing teams.” My mother replied with a look of shock in her eyes then added her typical, reliable support, “Sure honey, I can do that. It’s good that you’re joining a team. What time and where? I can keep the car after I drop Dad off at work at the shop.”
Replaying that conversation in my mind, I calculated that if I got on the bus that I would arrive home before my mother left the house to pick me up at school; so, I turned down the hallway toward the school’s exit, fell into stream of departing students, and silently settled into my familiar bus seat in solitude. The deep sadness calmed my sick stomach. When I appeared in the doorway, at home, my mother was shocked and saddened; but, she intentionally raised her voice to a happy tone to lift my spirits, “I’m glad you’re home, honey. You don’t have to join a team. We’re your team. Come on in here and relax.” Nothing further was spoken about that day back in 1970 something until now.
Today, I hear some of the most effective churches say something like, “Get out of rows and get into circles.” Another says, “You grow best when you share life in community with others.” I agree with them, but I wonder does anyone find it as hard to join a small group or a team like I did as a seventh grader? If so, do church leaders work as hard at including people in small groups as they do at increasing the crowd for worship? How does a person snuggled in his or her blanket of solitude get untangled and enter a small group? What needs to happen?
During eighth grade, I entered that same gymnasium. The sounds and the scene were similar to the prior year. I was determined to conquer whatever frightened me back into obscurity the previous year. No one helped me. It was a scary experience. My stomach was sick. I had moments of panic; but, I remained there during the entire initial meeting and selection. None of the coaches knew me. I was the proverbial last pick on Coach Thompson’s team. When the football gear was given out, I was handed the baggiest pants and the oldest pads. Those thoughtless gestures said, “You’re not important. You won’t last.” Nevertheless, my personal resolve kept me going to practice and waiting to play.
Weeks later, Coach Thompson’s team had the worst record. I heard the other teachers-turned-afternoon-coaches tease Thompson mercilessly during school hours; so, Coach Thompson let our team know what he thought of us. He did not hold back. The team understood he was not only angry; he was disgusted with us. He ran us through drills reassigning players into different positions. He tore us down as a team and as individuals.
One afternoon, Thompson screamed, “I’m looking for a defensive nose tackle who is not afraid of contact! Someone who will go after the ball!” Thompson lined up our five best offensive linemen and directed the center to snap the ball to him. The rest of the team lined up single file facing the offensive linemen with Thompson behind receiving the snap. One after another, each of my teammates was stopped from getting to Thompson. He told us what he thought about our pathetic efforts.
When it came time for me to line up face-to-face with the center, I was brewing with anger. I went into a down position getting as low as I could. I pulled back my right arm estimating the path of my palms going under the center’s shoulder pads so I could lift him out of my way then lunge at my coach’s legs. I wanted to silence the Coach’s outbursts. I think the offensive line underestimated me, or they may have been exhausted repeatedly going through the drill. When the ball was snapped, I snapped. The moves came just as I had imagined. The only surprise was that I felt a warm burning sensation in the palm of my right hand as my hand was deeply sliced open by a rivet on the center’s shoulder pad.
To this day, I remember that astonishing moment when I smeared my bloody hand across the chest of my practice jersey and the coach grabbed me by my facemask, then guided me around in circles like a dog on a leash and yelled into my face, “I found my nose tackle. I found my nose tackle!” My teammates patted me on the back repeating over and over that afternoon, “Good job, Lynn.” The dark storm with our coach was over. It was a significant turning point in my life.
I am not the guy who defines himself by a sport, though I enjoyed playing football. I was never the outstanding star. I simply took part in a football community where for a few years I learned more about myself and the value of a team.
So, what are some take-aways from this memory?
Churches need to intentionally make joining groups easier on shy, frightened people like me when I was in seventh grade.
Groups can be a place of tension and stress, however people can discover greater strength when overcoming challenges even within a group.
Spectators at a football game do not invest in a game as deeply as the players and coaches who practice, workout, live as a team and strive for excellence.
There is something wonderful about getting out of the rows and getting into circles. Community is better experienced in small groups, genuine friendships and even in the stress of life as long as you have company in the midst of those tough times. Join-up. Go deeper. Share life.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tony Lynn is the State Director of Missions for the Baptist State Convention of Michigan. Before coming on staff at the BSCM, Tony served as lead pastor for more than six years at Crosspoint Church in Monroe, Michigan. He and his wife, Jamie, also served with the International Mission Board in Africa and in Europe.