White Men Can’t Jump: A Theology

I do not recommend you watch the movie White Men Can’t Jump unless you can find the on-TV version, in which case you’d be insane to miss it.  It’s the best basketball movie ever for it’s quality of basketball, pro-level trash-talking, stereotype-busting, and Aristotelian levels of philosophical inquiry.  White Men Can’t Jump (WMCJ) is the story of two West Coast streetball hustlers — the stereotypical, flashy play, take-it-to-hole black guy Sydney and the stereotypical, fundamental, outside-shooting, white guy Billy.  Sydney is an aspiring entrepeneur; Billy is a gambling addict on a quick road to nowhere.

In the movie, Billy is dating Gloria Clemente (played by the incomparable Rosie Perez) whose own addiction is studying for Jeopardy, an appearance on which she’s basing her life (which she eventually gets on and ends up winning hundreds of thousands of dollars).  Getting to the point, Billy takes some stupid risks, makes a couple bad gambles, ends up winning the big game but losing Gloria.  Gloria says:

Sometimes when you win, you really lose, and sometimes when you lose, you really win, and sometimes when you win or lose, you actually tie, and sometimes when you tie, you actually win or lose. Winning or losing is all one organic mechanism, from which one extracts what one needs.

I first saw this movie in high school and when I heard her say that I can remember thinking, “That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”  

I’m wired to win at all costs.  Doesn’t matter how, doesn’t matter who gets in the way, to me in my flesh, winning is the most important thing.  Sports, academics, work, ministry, coaching…winning is most important.

Winning is a self-defined concept.  I went to a small college in south-central West Virginia.  We had a good soccer team, but from time to time, our school would get paid a lot of money by a big school from a higher division to pad their schedule by destroying us.  One season we lost a game 11-0.  Later that season, we lost to that same team 4-2.  We won.

The importance of winning to some people (including me) is paramount and naturally idolatrous.  I’ve done things I am not proud of in order to win.  In high school, I was marking an excellent striker from another team on their end-of-the-game corner kick with us ahead in the game 2-1.  I ran the guy right into one of the goalposts, smacking his head off the metal with my forearm.  But they didn’t score, and we won.  Well, we won but I lost.

Gloria gets it right when she says sometimes a loss is a win and sometimes a win is a loss, but that’s not something we humans are quick to embrace.  When God asked my family to carry the cross of cystic fibrosis in our two youngest kids, that compromised my ability to win on a ministry front.  To anesthetize my pain, I worked all the time.  My ministry grew and was very successful — victory was mine! — and then I nearly lost my family.  I had convinced myself I was winning, but I was so badly losing.

Charlie_2b33c2_1871533I know everyone thought Charlie Sheen was crazy and maybe he was — he was certainly tripping — with his whole “life is about winning insanity” but on some strange level, my fallenness sort of got where he was coming from.

Point Of Note: several times so far while writing this post I’ve mistyped “winning” by hitting the key under the “w” and thus spelling “sinning”.  That’s funny.  

Some of you at this point are questioning the dichotomy I’m creating: winning versus losing.  To that, I’d have you reference 1 John 5.4,5:

For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith.   Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

This is a spiritual reality: victory on one side and losing on the other.  Victory is winning, and overcoming the world is a victory for which we’ve been re-born.  And it’s our faith that overcomes the world.  To be overcome by the world is losing.  Overcoming the world is winning.  Faith in Christ is our victory because Jesus is the Great Overcomer.

His victory is our victory.
How fully did He win?
That’s how fully we have won.
How great was His power over sin, death and the grave?
That is our power too.

…then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.
But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Corinthians 15.54-57

Where I get tripped up is in my concept of how winning happens.  Gloria’s words ring with a truth that is transcendent and eternal.  In the Kingdom of God, winning is often losing and losing is sometimes winning.

Five/six years ago or so, I was hanging out with by buddy Tim.  We were talking life, family, ministry, and whatnot and Tim made this off-hand comment in the course of conversation:

“You know how it is, with God sometimes winning is losing and sometimes losing is winning.”

The Holy Spirit that day enlightened and drove those words home in my heart.  I responded something like,

“No, I don’t.  I have no idea what you’re talking about right now.  Remember what Gloria said to Billy in White Men Can’t Jump?”

Ever since then, God’s been teaching me about his definitions of winning and losing.  The journey has not been an easy one for me, but the grace in it has been profound and I feel like I’m experiencing pieces and ways of God that I’ve never known before.

Sometimes when God asks me to lose so that someone else can win, I can sort of see in a round-about way how He’s going to do something cool in this situation.  Other times though, I feel like He’s just irrational, whimsical or capricious for calling me to a loss in this regard.  I can’t see anything in it at all that could be good, but He’s calling me to a loss nonetheless.  As I walk in faith and trust though, He blows my mind with the wonders and ways of His victorious Kingship and Kingdom.

The glorious beauty of Holy Week is that a loss is a win — not that a loss becomes  a win — a loss is a win.  In all estimations and considerations, the cross was a grand failure.  Here was this revolutionary rabbi who garnered a big following, declared His leadership over a new and greater Kingdom, had the people dancing in the streets of the capitol, desperate to crown Him king, and then died a horrific criminal’s death.  What a loss!  We know the resurrection is a great victory forever over sin, death and the grave.  But the cross itself is victory.

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  — 1 Corinthians 1.18

The Procession To Calvary by Pieter Bruegel

So in Mark 8.34 when Jesus calls us to take up our cross, deny ourselves and follow Him, that’s a journey to victory even though it is a path to loss.  This is what He goes on to say in the next verse:

For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.

The WMCJ theology of winning and losing came to a crystallized point of clarity for me in the production of this Netzer video this 2015 Lenten season.  It was already posted on this blog and my FB page two weeks ago.  So if you took some time to view it, I hope it was encouraging to you.  If not, it might be worth your time.

2 thoughts on “White Men Can’t Jump: A Theology

  1. “We can afford to follow Him to failure. Faith dares to fail. The resurrection and the judgment will demonstrate before all worlds who won and who lost. We can wait.”
    ― A.W. Tozer, Born After Midnight

    I have been on a Tozer kick. Thanks for sharing your journey…you are getting so wise as you age 🙂

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