The Perfect Trick Play

My family at last year's Cotton Bowl. Don't worry; for this game, I was able to pay attention. :)
My family at last year’s Cotton Bowl. Don’t worry; for this game, I was able to pay attention. 🙂

I’ve never been much of an athlete. Yes, I love to run, but that doesn’t require much coordination or skill. I played volleyball for several years, but while my team did well and won our share of games, I wasn’t exactly a standout player. And my softball career, though long in duration, was short on quality. Though I had played since I was five years old, I was never even good enough to make my high school JV team. But hey, that freed me up to go out for track, which fortunately, as I already mentioned, required no coordination or skill.

I’m not much better at following or watching sports. For some reason, my attention span, which allows me to write essays for 12 hours straight, can find 2-hour games hard to watch. If I’m watching in person, it’s a little easier; the crowd’s excitement and energy help me stay engaged. And if it’s a game or team I really care about—like the Oklahoma State Cowboys or the Kansas City Royals—then my attention span and level of interest increase. But even with my favorite teams, I’m terrible at remembering specific facts about games, stats, and trivia. (And as a result, I’m a terrible trash-talker; I don’t even try. Oh well.)

But in this figurative sea of sports-related ignorance floats an itty-bitty island of knowledge about one particular sports moment. Years later, this game-winning play remains etched in my memory, and I don’t think it will ever go away.

It happened during the 2007 Fiesta Bowl matchup between Oklahoma and Boise State. Having just made a touchdown and down by two with only a few seconds left in overtime, Boise State opted for a two-point conversion. But instead of throwing the ball to a receiver in the end zone, the Broncos went with an unexpected “Statue of Liberty” trick play. I’m not a sports writer, so I won’t confuse you by unsuccessfully explaining it. After all, a grainy YouTube video is worth a thousand words:

Even though I’m not a “sports person” and I’m not a Boise State fan (although now, as an Oklahoma State graduate, I’ll gladly root against whoever plays OU), this trick play has stuck with me over the years. When everything was on the wire and victory seemed impossible, these players stepped up and made a huge difference. They didn’t break under pressure, and they didn’t back down. Instead, they fooled their opponents (sorry, Sooners) and turned what looked like an impending “L” into an unforgettable “W”. Their actions changed the outcome, and at least in the miniature universe of bowl games, these players left their mark.

So what does this have to do with Christmas? Great question. I think the Boise State play has much in common with the Christmas story itself. Let me explain.

At the first Christmas, things weren’t looking so great for the Jews and for the world. Israel had endured centuries of foreign oppression by empire after empire, with the Romans acting as the current dictators. Long since destroyed, the extravagant temple built by Solomon was now just the object of nostalgia, a sad testament to Israel’s lost glory. Even the Jewish religion, intended to draw God’s people into relationship with Him, had been distorted and corrupted. Though tasked with shepherding God’s people and teaching them His ways, the religious leaders had fallen into legalism, becoming oppressive and cruel.  Nothing was as it should be. And God, who had called Abraham all those years ago and had led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, had fallen silent. These were dark and hopeless times.

And yet into the very heart of this darkness and sadness, God did the most unexpected thing: He sent His Son Jesus as a baby. Yes, the Jews were expecting a Messiah, but they were looking for a conquering king, not a helpless infant. Prophecies aside, no one thought Jesus would come from a place as desolate as Bethlehem or grow up in a town as podunk as Nazareth. (Case in point: when first told about Jesus, soon-to-be disciple Nathanael’s initial response was, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”) And when God promised in the Old Testament that He would be a Shepherd to His people and make a new covenant with them, no one expected Him to literally become a man and live among us. And yet that is exactly what He did.

In what would become the “trick play” of eternity, God willingly took on human skin to be born as a little baby to an impoverished family in the middle of nowhere. He would then spend the next 30 years living in total obscurity, working as a humble carpenter. When the time was right, He would walk all over Judea, teaching everyone about the Kingdom of God and turning the religious world upside down. And then during the Jewish festival of Passover, He voluntarily sacrificed Himself for the sins of humanity, so that we might be restored to a right relationship with God. But not even death could hold Him, for in yet another “trick play”, He came back to life. He now reigns in heaven, and one day, when the time is right again, He will come again and finish restoring the world, making all things new.

This is the mystery of the Christian faith. Jesus’s presence with us changes everything. Because He came, we can know that God the Father loves us. Because He came, we know that God is involved in and cares about this world. Because Jesus came, we can know that we’re not alone on a “pale blue dot” suspended in the universe. For His very name Emmanuel means “God with us”. Not “God above us”, not “God beyond us”, but God with us. Right here, alongside us in the midst of the mess.

When Jesus was born all those years ago, His birth wasn’t some last-ditch, split-second play at the end of the game. No, His coming to Bethlehem was just the beginning; He was here to stay. Charles Wesley put it well in his classic Christmas hymn:

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate deity

Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! The herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King”

That, my friends, is what Christmas is all about. The God of the universe was born as a little baby and lived among us. “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.” (John 3:16, The Message)

Merry Christmas, y’all! 🙂

christmas card edit

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Cotton Bowling

When I was growing up, my family took our share of road trips. Most of these were to visit family in St. Louis or to enjoy Silver Dollar City, our favorite 1880s-themed amusement park in Branson, Missouri. A handful were to more exotic places like Colorado, Virginia, or the Grand Canyon, but the vast majority were short and within easy driving distance of home. Overall, though, my family tends to be “home bodies,” especially during Christmas break. We enjoy lounging in our lounge pants, eating far too much chocolate, and watching the entire previous season of shows like Lost or Once Upon a Time. So when my mom told me at the beginning of December that we would be going to a bowl game, I was more than a little bit surprised; I was borderline flabbergasted!

If you’ve been reading my blog for any extended period of time (or you know me personally), then you are aware that I am a proud graduate of Oklahoma State University. What you may not know, though, is that my younger sisters followed me to OSU. They are currently seniors (crazy!) and will graduate in May. Although my parents both went to KU and remain loyal Jayhawk basketball fans, they have definitely discovered their inner orange. (In fact, they might even own more orange clothing than I do!)

These combined factors—our love of Cowboy football, my sisters’ impending graduation, and the preponderance of orange in our house—prompted my family to venture outside of our chocolate-filled, lounge-pantsed, Christmas break norm. We bought tickets to the Cotton Bowl! Bright and early on January 2nd, we left in our rented SUV and headed south for Dallas. Our four-day adventure included exciting highlights such as the following:

-cheering on the OSU football team as they walked out of their meeting room and through the Gaylord Hotel (according to the Alumni Association flyer, they were supposed to board buses and leave for dinner. Instead they just reached the end of the hallway and turned around, which was a bit anticlimactic. Oh well).

-seeing a Christmas tree made entirely out of cowboy boots. #onlyinTexas

-buying discounted child-sized OSU jerseys… and having them actually fit!

-designing and creating the most clever sign in the stadium (although I’m afraid that “What does the Fox say?” may be stuck permanently in my head now. Haha, whoops.)

-meeting former OSU Heisman candidate and pro-running back Thurman Thomas. He was really nice and very amused by my sisters’ twinnyness (Yes, that is now a word, haha).

-and, of course, watching the Cowboys play their hearts out in the Cotton Bowl.

Unfortunately, though, the Cowboys did not win. While they played incredibly well and “left it all on the field,” they came up short, losing to Missouri with a final score of 41-31. I don’t want to rehash the game (as tempting as it is to decry the official review that ruled our interception for a touchdown as a pass interference), but I would like to share a few thoughts.

You see, I love Cowboy football. I’m not as avid a fan as many of my friends, but when the Pokes are playing (and I have access to cable TV), I get really into the game. The Cotton Bowl last Friday was no exception. I wanted them to win so badly that I lost my voice from cheering and was moderately sick for the next three days. But they didn’t. Whether due to poor officiating or poor playing (we may never know and I don’t care to speculate), they lost. And that loss was very disappointing.

I know that football is not the be-all-end-all-of-all, and I realize that the Cotton Bowl was just a game. A big game, yes, but still just a game. Life goes on. A year from now almost no one will remember who played, let alone who won or lost. Yet while sports aren’t that important in the grand scheme of things, I also believe that God can use anything—including football—to teach us about Him.

Right before I started graduate school, a dear friend of mine gave me the book A Diary of Private Prayer by John Baillie. This little-known text contains a prayer for morning and evening for every day of the month. After the Cowboys lost, a portion of one of these prayers came to mind:

“Teach me, O God, so to use all the circumstances of my life today that they may bring forth in me the fruits of holiness rather than the fruits of sin. Let me use disappointment as material for patience. Let me use success as material for thankfulness. Let me use suspense as material for perseverance…”

Looking back on that game (and on the other heartbreaking losses in Cowboy football history—we’ve had plenty), I have found myself thinking a lot about disappointment. Life doesn’t always go our way. You can “give it all you’ve got” and still come up short. How do we deal with that? Do we curl up in a ball and cry? Do we give up? Do we complain and blame? Or do we “use disappointment as material for patience”, as Baillie so aptly prayed?

As much as I hate to admit it, I don’t usually handle disappointment in healthy, God-honoring ways. I tend to complain or blame (or after the pass-interference call, I’m ashamed to say that I even booed). Instead of seeing things from God’s perspective, I get caught up in my own, and I become very discouraged. I need to lift my eyes, as the psalmist says, and look to the Lord. In our lowest moments, this seems all but impossible. But when we ask Him, He helps us. Only by giving our disappointment to Him can we find peace, hope, and the courage to move forward.

Fortunately, the rest of our family road trip was far from disappointing. We reconnected with old friends, visited my collegiate stomping grounds in Stillwater, and we even stopped at Pop’s, the famous soda joint on Route 66. (I can officially check that off my bucket list. Yay!). But now that we’re back, I think I’ll change back into my lounge pants and call it a day. Can you pass the chocolate? 🙂

Through the “Eye of the Tiger”

As the high school football season comes to a close, I would like to take a moment to honor a very special group of individuals. These people may not fit the typical football “mold;” they come in all shapes and sizes; and you won’t see their names on the starting lineup. But without them, high school football—and any other high-profile team sport—would cease to exist as we know it. Who are these “x-factor” personalities? These game changers? These difference makers? They are none other than your team mascots.

That’s right; mascots receive very little recognition. Their efforts go largely unnoticed. The hours of sweat, sweat… and more sweat are usually unseen (literally), but they are incredibly, unbelievably and invaluably important. Without a mascot, who would little children clamor around for photos? Without a mascot, who would represent the school on expensive athletic apparel? Without a mascot, where would the “face” of the school be? On behalf of all high-school sports fans, I would like to say “thanks” to mascots everywhere. You are valued and appreciated.

Okay, yes, I know; this all sounds more than a little absurd. And as usual, I would have to agree with you. However, as former high school mascot, I really do have a special place in my heart for all those who don the mask of famed obscurity. During my senior year, I had the opportunity (or rather, I begged the Assistant Principal for the opportunity) to be the Tiger for most of the football games. As strange as this likely seems, this mascot-ship was a dream come true. Ever since my first day at BVHS, I knew I wanted to be the mascot and every year brought me one step closer to making that dream a reality. When my first game finally rolled around, I could not have been more excited. If mascots were not silent, I would have shouted and yelled for joy. I was the Tiger, and I couldn’t have been happier about it. 🙂

Here I should note another fun facet of mascothood at my high school: No one knew it was me. According to long-standing BV tradition, the identity of the mascot was to be kept secret. Only my closest friends were allowed to know; to the rest of the school, it was a mystery. Naturally, this made my stint as mascot even more thrilling, and I enjoyed it for all it was worth. For instance, before the Homecoming parade, I got permission to leave class early and put on the costume under the pretense of visiting the nurse. Or when our football team played an away game, I snuck my costume to the stadium, concealing the oversized head under a massively large blanket in my backseat. (Unfortunately, Volvo trunks weren’t designed for mascot transportation. Thank you, Sweden.) Every game night, I was living the dream, my smile underneath the mask rivaling the permanent one on it. Life was good. I loved it.

However, sometimes, being a mascot had its downsides. For one thing, the costume was unbelievably hot with very little ventilation. To my knowledge, it had also never been washed, so a certain indefinable odor camped out inside the head. Not only did the head reek, but it also wreaked havoc on my hair. To call it a bird’s nest would be a gross understatement; a “bird apartment complex” would be far more accurate. But I think the most challenging part of mascotdom was simple: the silence. By definition, mascots don’t talk. Which, in case you were wondering, can severely limit one’s social interactions. Although I definitely loved my stint as the Tiger, the time came when I was ready to pass the head-shaped baton to someone else. I missed my friends, I missed cheering in the student section, and most of all, I missed simply being me.

But unfortunately, the Tiger wasn’t my only mask. No, I wear a lot of other ones. And if I had to guess, I bet that you do too.

As human beings, we have a very real fear of being ourselves and, furthermore, of letting people know us for who we are. So instead of overcoming that fear, we close ourselves off, putting on invisible masks that no one can see, but that keep us from truly being seen. For each person, this plays out differently. For some, it may be the mask of independence; we act like we don’t need anyone else, saying that we can handle everything on our own. For others, this mask is perfectionism; if we have it all together and act like everything is great, then no one will ever know otherwise. Some people get absorbed in work, hobbies, sports, music and other entertainments in their attempt to hide. Still others turn to harmful behaviors, finding their satisfaction in unhealthy relationships or the abuse of various substances. Whatever our mask of choice may be, the core problem is the same: We’re messed up and we know it, but we don’t want anyone else to see. And so we hide behind the masks of our own making, closing ourselves off from the people around us, hoping no one will notice our hurt and fear underneath.

But Someone does notice. And He wants to set us free.

You see, God created us for glory. He desires to shine through us and to use us to make Him known. He loves us dearly, and He desperately wants what is best for us. And this “best” can’t be found behind a mask. As Galatians 5:1 states, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” Jesus died, so we could live—and live abundantly. Yet far too often, we sell ourselves short, choosing instead the familiar comfort of bondage rather than the joy and liberty He desperately wants to give us.

For once, I have no bullet-pointed plan for achieving this, no simple to-do list to solve this problem. Instead, I have only a poem I wrote during my freshman year of high school. I pray that God uses this poem to speak to your heart as He has mine.

The Mask

I wore a mask for all my life
To cover up my inward strife.
My pain, my shame, my sorrow grew,
And somewhere deep inside I knew
Masks do not help; they just bring pain
And even can make one insane.
They blind; they hurt; they never heal
The only cure: Simply to kneel
At the foot of His great cross
And give Him your heart; He paid the cost.
He bought me, a slave of sin
Put my broken heart together again.
He took off my mask; He set me free.
Now I can live eternally!
He bore my sin, my cross, my shame
Forgives me time and time again
He loves me and loves you so.
He just wants to let you know.
Jesus Christ will change your heart.
He’s loved you from the very start.
He’ll take off your mask; now here’s the deal:
All you have to do is kneel.

Life is found beyond the mask, not behind it. Won’t you let Him set you free?