Paul Pierce and Gospel Poetry

I spent most of the day working on a message inspired by 1 Corinthians 1:18- 25.  In that passage, the apostle Paul says that the cross and the message it sends are foolishness to the self-styled wisdom of convention, but to those who “are being saved, it is the power of God.”

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the ways the life of Jesus bucked convention. His birth and upbringing, his passion, death, and resurrection. let alone his passion, death, and resurrection.  Te irony, subversion, and poetry of Christ’s story is precisely what I find so compelling.

Last night, while I watched Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith throw down about the trade rumors swilring around Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo, I did a little reading up on lifelong Celtic forward Paul Pierce.  It’s not often that professional athletes quote Mark Twain and Blaise Pascal on the front page of their website, but as Shaquille O’Neal will tell you, “Paul Pierce is the Truth.”  As Pierce’s website reminds any nonbeliever:  After a Lakers’ victory over the Celtics in 2001, O’Neal pulled a Boston reporter over and gestured toward his notepad:

“Take this down,” said O’Neal. “My name is Shaquille O’Neal and Paul Pierce is the [%*$&ing] truth. Quote me on that and don’t take nothing out. I knew he could play, but I didn’t know he could play like this. Paul Pierce is the truth.”

Compare that wit the first three verses of the apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthians:

“Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, to the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

My name is Paul and this is how it is with Jesus. 

My name is Shaquille O’Neal and Paul Pierce is the truth. 

Sometimes that’s how I feel about the poetry of Jesus’ story.  Whatever else, that poetry’s the truth.

“Fiction is bound by possibility,” Pierce quotes Twain as saying, “the truth is not.”  Pascal adds, “we know the truth not only by reason, but also with the heart.”

What’s In A Name? Ron Artest Picks Up On World B. Free, Updates the Message.

Okay. Okay okay okay.  This is awesome.

When I was six, the Point Guard Formerly Known as Lloyd Bernard Free returned to my Philadelphia 76ers.  By then, of course, Free had legally changed his first name to World (having been so nicknamed as a youngster because of ultimate vertical skills), and I was introduced to a man named World B. Free.  A man. Named World. B. Free.  Could people really do that? We’re talking circa-Rocky IV, still-afraid-of-the-Russians, Red Dawn middle ’80s. After Scooby Doo and He-Man, World B. Free was the absolute coolest thing I could imagine. It was like me telling my kindergarten teacher, “yes, my name is Christopher, but you will call me Nemesis Enforcer.”   I should have.

Today I saw a headline that said Ron Artest wants to legally change his name.  First thought? Please, please, let it be to World B. Free II.  But the truth is even better.  When the ink dries, Artest shall henceforth be known as Metta World Peace.

I absolutely love this.  I also happen to think that “World Peace” is the perfect 2010’s analog to the “Free World” concepts of the 80s.  It’s not that I think we shouldn’t want our whole world to be free, but I suppose a truly peaceful world would also be a free one.  We’ve certainly seen that war has not necessarily wrought freedom abroad or even made it more secure at home these past 10 years. Am grateful that we haven’t been attacked here for a decade?  Absolutely.  Do the erosion of civil liberties and the overt wars we’re waging worry me?  Yes, of course they do.  But it just may be that freedom will finally come through peace and sustainability and not, as we have wagered, military force.  If the President is correct in saying yesterday that we have spent a trillion dollars on war since 2001, consider the kind of economic, educational, and nutritional justice an additional one trillion dollars given to the developing word could have done for stability, peace, and public relations.  I’m just saying.

Metta World Peace, welcome to the planet, crazy diamond.

I should also say this: if your birth name is actually Lloyd B. Free, and you’re called “World” as a kid because you can jump like you’re in zero gravity and you spin-dunk like planet, you’re pretty much going to make the legal change 9 times out of 10. You owe it to yourself and to the Lloyd.

Seriously, though.  Growing up I never knew that Free was World’s own given surname.  Given the context of American history and the importance of naming conventions, that’s a birthright legacy to begin with, and a so-much-more than poignant witness to the power of endurance, hope, and freedom.  May we have these things in abundance, and every kind of peace.

Assessing The NBA Finals with Joseph Campbell

Dirk Nowitzki
I'm really, really tall. (Wikipedia)

A few nights ago, I dreamt  I was playing basketball while talking about Joseph Campbell’s theory of the monomyth.  And also, I was playing basketball with Joseph Campbell.  After deftly receiving my in-bound pass, Campbell started explaining the archetypal hero of the monomyth to me:  “Some people find this hero in Beowulf or Roland or Hercules. Other people find it in him.”  With that, Campbell passed to Larry Bird, who was wearing a Mavs jersey.

It’s pretty clear that the ball was a symbol of authority and of the power to speak.  Ball’s in your court.  Get the ball rollingGive me the ball. Those “only the person holding the ____ can speak” totems from Youth Group.  Bird,  a quintessential Campbellian hero in his own right, also stood for a Dirk Nowitzki finally poised to vanquish the foe and bring back the Promised Land’s boon.

Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Mark Cuban, and Co: Congratulations.  You deserve it.  You persevered through years of not-yet frustration, losing the dance to a LeBronless, Boshless Heat in 2006…a finals team led by Dwayne Wade’s talent and will and more than a little closeout power from the old Diesel himself.

As for LeBron James, let’s end the whole “same breath as Jordan or Russell or Chamberlain or Abdul-Jabbar or West or Erving…” discussion.  That narrative’s over.  In a repeat of last year’s playoff loss to the Other Big Three,  LeBron shut it down when it mattered most, something Michael Jordan can never once be said to have done.  As far as that comparison goes, that’s it and that’s all.  James still has time to win lots of hardware, but this loss, coming when it does, as it does, is going to stick for a while.  King James, so far, just can’t close it.  Please note: I’m not making fun or delighting in this.  If James gets this block straightened out, we’ll see the player everyone expects him to be deep into the playoffs.  He will hoist trophies and win multiple rings.  His regular-season talent, aggression, and drive won’t abandon him on the big stage.  LeBron needs to talk to somebody and beat this thing, and I say that as someone who rooted against the Heat this year on principle.  Who doesn’t want to see this guy be the best he can possibly be?  Witnessing greatness excites us and reminds us of what interesting, compelling creatures we are.  That’s why we love heroes. That’s why we watch.  We are the narrative species.

In LeBron’s hero epic, the next step every year is always supposed to be the redeeming grace of the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy.  I’d make more Grail allusions if they weren’t so obvious, but I will suggest that redemption isn’t quite the right word for what a Heat win would have meant.  The Mavs’ win is vindication:  Nowitizki had none of the public ill-will LeBron carries.  Dirk had much to prove, especially to himself, but this win caps many good years that fell short, sometimes tragically.  The Mavs’ win feels like the proper end to an authentic quest.  It feels good and fitting and right.  A Heat win would not have vindicated or redeemed James in the same way.  It would have been an important Step One to those 8 or so championships James predicted last year, and only outdoing Bill Russell will really redeem the careless and off-putting hubris of the James to Miami saga.  No, a win for LeBron would have been accretion, one small step toward a compelling case for his kinghood and greatness.  That’s gone.  The Heat have to win the next 3 titles at least to start this process anew.  But first, LeBron has to learn how to close.  His archetypal, Campbellian enemy is not the media, public perception, or the Big Stage.  It’s whatever shuts down inside him when he’s playing on it.  Concur that Grendel, sir knight, and the basketball boons will follow.  Ignore it and you’ll retire having achieved far less than your talent makes possible, and, more importantly, without the long-lasting peace of knowing yourself and overcoming your fears.  That’s about more than basketball.  That’s about more than heroes.  That’s about a kind of fulfillment crass achievement can’t bring, and that’s the truly heroic journey we’re, all of us, on.