By Andre Castillo
“The end of all things is near; therefore, be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers. Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining. Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.
“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.” – 1 Peter 4:7-10, 12-13
I crouched at the starting line, legs coiled like springs, ready to launch. I looked back over my shoulder at the relay racers barreling down the track in my direction. With sweaty palms and steady hands, I prepared to receive the baton for the final leg of the race. The final race of the meet. The final meet of the season. In one sense, it was just another race. I had done this a hundred times before. At least, that’s what I told myself to keep my nerves at bay. But if that were the case, why was the adrenaline I felt coursing through my body so intense? Why, as I look back, is this moment so vividly seared in my memory?
In part, I’m sure it was because the race was supposed to have unfolded differently. While I was the anchor, or the last leg of the 4×400 meter relay, the talent of the three men who held the baton before me far exceeded that of the men they were pitted against. By all accounts, at this point in the race, the Broncos were slated to have a commanding lead. But our first man had stumbled; the second had subbed in for an injured teammate; our third man had already run several races that day. The trouble was, so had I; and as I stood shoulder to shoulder with the anchor for the other team, with our batons coming down the straightaway neck-and-neck, there was no escaping the cold truth that, in a one-on-one situation, I was outgunned.
But something else was also true: my next lap around the track was bigger than I. Bigger than the four of us men who had suited up to do battle. This had become the most consequential moment of our season. The day’s point totals put this final race in the position of deciding who would win the day, and consequently the league championship. As I lunged forward and thrust my hand back to feel the cold steel of the baton hit my palm, reality had set in: with both teams roaring on the infield, and the stands on their feet, everything would be decided in the next 50 seconds.
But, wait a second! Let’s back up – I had done everything in my power not to end up in this position. How were the expectations of so many stacked on my shoulders? After all, I had intentionally left team sports in the dust years prior. In my younger years, I played a lot of basketball. I loved the contest, the contact, the camaraderie. But my independent and competitive nature struggled with the concept of team sports. I could not bring myself to accept the idea that, even if I gave the best athletic performance of my life, if my team was not up to the challenge, I could still lose. It flustered me to no end that my fate could be in the hands of teammates whom I couldn’t imagine being more dedicated that I.
So, I sought out a sport in which I was dependent upon no one but number one. And though for years I was able to live under the illusion that I was dependent upon no one else for my success, in that unforgettable moment on the track, and over the course of the thousands of miles I ran alongside my fellow soldiers, I learned that there is no such thing as an individual sport. I learned that life, in fact, is a team sport.
Yet we treat life as if we had complete autonomy. We approach life with a defensive posture, with such unflinching independence that we are perpetually wary of the goals of the team interfering with that autonomy. This is especially true of our approach to spirituality: it is all about what I feel and believe, all about my subjective perspective. My relationship with one theological community or another depends entirely upon my preferences. The trajectory of the community ought to bend to my supremely nuanced desires, and if anything does not go my way, this must not be the place for me.
Particularly in seasons of turmoil, we are tempted to throw in the towel; to sit on the bench and watch the game play out, as if this were an individual sport in which we have no responsibility to the team. But faith? Church? This is a team sport. When we get frustrated with how the score is taking shape, teammates cannot afford to take off their jerseys, sit on the sidelines, and wait to see what happens. We double down, and finish what we started.
There are a lot of parables and stories that teach lessons through metaphor in the Bible. But Peter takes this opportunity to talk straight. He doesn’t mess around when he talks about suffering. His letter does not assume a spiritual vacuum or a congregation where no storms collide overhead. His is not an individualized message about spirituality and faith being whatever investment you feel like making, but rather, in the eye of a tempest that seeks to take the team out of play, Peter says, “Get serious! Discipline yourselves! Be hospitable, love one another, don’t complain, continue to do good.”
As he continues, he very well could be writing to us in this moment: “Dear churches of Greenwich, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” In effect, he says, “Why are you surprised? As if the Christian life is one without storms? As if you’ve never had difficulties before, or you would never see them again? As if the spiritual battle doesn’t intensify as soon as the devil begins to see God’s hand at work? As if the darkness doesn’t rage against the Light of the World breaking through?”
A few verses after our passage, Peter describes the devil as a lion on the prowl, looking for someone to devour. If you have ever watched National Geographic, you know how lions choose their prey. They look for an individual; someone operating outside the herd; someone who doesn’t realize that life is a team sport; someone who doesn’t realize that we don’t stand a chance on our own.
This season is a test of our interdependence. And when we pass this test, we will see that these are the moments that make for greatness. Because the truth is, real greatness demands deep commitment to the community. In my own struggle against reliance on a team, I could not imagine a world where I made all the right moves, but things could still go wrong. I wanted to be the best, but I did not want to go through the pain of devotion to inevitably broken relationships. This would require a completely new set of spiritual tools. I would have to do the work of strengthening spiritual muscles I had never used before.
It’s like when you are getting ready to go to the gym for the first time. You buy all the right gear, you sign up for that discounted, year-long membership, you make sure to reserve your spot in the group classes, and you even schedule an appointment with a personal trainer. Finally, you show up for the first day, all smiles, sparkling white sneakers, matching track suit. You pick up your first set of dumbbells, and then it hits you: these things are heavy! You pull them to your chest a couple times, but then you start to feel this burning sensation in your biceps. You think something must be wrong with these dumbbells, so you put them down and move to the lat pull-down machine. You begin to pull the bar down to your chin, when you start to feel the same burning sensation in your back. Is this a joke? I think all these machines must be broken. What kind of a gym is this? Nobody told me this was going to be hard! If we give up the moment things get hard, we have no chance of becoming the people we always hoped we would be. That difficulty, that resistance: that is the very thing that makes us stronger. And it takes but a little foresight to realize that, when we lean into difficulties, a strength is revealed that we did not know we had.
When things get hard, the people of God double down, and finish what they started. That is who we are, because that is the character of the God we serve. When things got hard, God pushed back even harder. When God’s people were lost in darkness, God sent the Light of the World so that they might see. When the religious leaders turned God’s word into an instrument of bigotry and division, Jesus preached love and unity. When the people of God turned their backs on Jesus, crucified him and buried him, he met Satan at the gates of hell to lay claim to the precious souls made in the image of the Almighty. When he came back to life and into a world full of doubt, he called his disciples out of hiding and said, “It’s your turn. Trials will come, but get in the game, because your team needs you.”
Coming full circle, and not wanting to leave you hanging, the Broncos did win the race that day. And consequently, the meet and the championship. But more important than the outcome was what I learned about myself that day: I am at my best when it’s not all about me.
As Christian people, as members of a family of faith, our success depends on our choice to be in this together. In the grand plan, what will be remembered about us is that we are warriors, designed by God to withstand any enemy.
Did you know this about yourself? Because you have been endowed by our Creator with the image of God, you have the inescapable capacity to affect the team’s performance. Our destiny, our future, the outcome of this battle between good and evil is profoundly impacted by our willingness to get in the game.
Faith is a team sport, and your team needs you. I’ll see you on the field.
The Rev. Andre Castillo serves as the Associate Pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Greenwich. He also serves as the Chairperson for the Board of Trustees of the Presbytery of Southern New England, and as an Advisory Board Member with the Greenwich Center for Hope and Renewal.