May 17, 2015
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
IN THE ZONE
I learned something from the children at Wednesday Night Live. It was early March and one night they were all talking about Dr. Seuss. One of them was even wearing a “Cat in the Hat” hat. I wondered what that was all about so I asked. I learned that Theodor Seuss Geisel’s birthday, March 2 has become “Read Across America Day”. I was glad to hear that. I remember his books fondly. He made reading fun.
He was a funny guy. You can see that in his children’s books. He once quipped that he was thinking of starting a private detective firm. He was going to call it, “Surely, Goodness, and Mercy.” And he knew what he would print on the business cards: “We will follow you all the days of your life.”
Psalm 23 is called the “shepherd psalm”. It was written, so we are told, by young David while he was watching his sheep. It occurred to him that God is like a shepherd.
I think back to nights as a child when I was having trouble falling asleep. I haven’t had that problem for years. Now my problem is staying awake during the day. I’ve noticed some of you have that problem, too. As a child as I was lying on my bed wide awake, I would do what is recommended. I would visualize sheep jumping over a fence and I would count them. I don’t remember it ever working, but I do remember trying it.
Another memory goes back not quite that far. A dear woman named Doris Braybrook was giving a children’s sermon about the 23rd Psalm. Our daughter Heather was one of the children. At the end of the sermon, each children passed by her and spoke into the microphone, “The Lord is my shepherd.” It was very cute. I remember being relieved that our non-conformist little Heather actually said what she was supposed to say.
We affirmed our faith earlier in the service. There are a number of Christian creeds we can use, ancient and modern, but I don’t think there is a better one than this: “The Lord is my shepherd.” In other words, I am not the master of my own life. I am entrusting my life to the Lord’s keeping. I am placing my faith in the Lord to care for me as a shepherd cares for each one of his sheep.
Psalm 23 tells us how we will live if we believe that, if we truly believe that “the Lord is my shepherd.” It says we “will fear no evil” for we know the shepherd is right there with us. Watching over us. Taking care of us. Which isn’t to say life is going to be easy. It’s not going to be all green pastures and still waters. There are going to be valleys and dangers. Eventually there is going to be death. But again, “I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.”
Life is a journey. The 23rd Psalm tells us that. Along the way there will be problems we could not possibly have anticipated. There will be dangers. There will be frightening ordeals. Any good adventure story has all this. We can expect the adventure of our lives to be no different.
All the world’s great literature shares this common theme: an ordinary person is called upon to take on an extraordinary task. Maybe defeating an evil adversary, or slaying a dragon, or rescuing a princess, or going to battle against impossible odds. At the end, there is always some treasure waiting for you — fame, fortune, romance, a life lived happily ever after — something that you never could have found had you not taken that journey.
And this ordinary person who is called to do something extraordinary somehow knows that it is going to turn out well. Even when things aren’t going well in the moment. In the end, it’s going to be good. It’s going to work out. They might not have a clue how, but they trust that somehow it will.
There are some of us who can’t help but apply all this to the world of sports. I must say, this is a great time of year for a sports fan. Major league baseball. Championship playoffs in both the NBA and the NHL. A possible Triple Crown winner — that horse with the misspelled name. And even the NFL in their off-season has managed to stay in the news with the ongoing saga that is called “Deflate-gate”. Of course this is also a great time of year to get off the couch and go outside in this beautiful weather and participate in some sport. At least breathe the fresh air.
Any sporting event is like a journey. You don’t get the prize at the end until you are first tested with adversity. You must be physically ready for the challenge, but just as important, you must be mentally ready. You have to believe you can do it. You have to be able to block out any distraction or inner voice of self-doubt. You have to concentrate on the task at hand.
There is an ultimate state of concentration in sports. It is referred to as “getting in the zone”. My mind is so polluted with advertizing, that these days I involuntarily connect “getting in the zone” with going to an automotive parts store. But the phrase “getting in the zone” did not originate with AutoZone. It originated in the world of sports.
Ted Williams is often given credit. He was one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest hitter to ever play the game of baseball. He said that when he was “in the zone” he could actually see the seams on a fastball as it was approaching him at 95 miles per hour.
The soccer great of a few years ago Pele’ frequently found himself in the zone. He described it as a feeling of peace and calm in the heat of battle. He said, “When it comes, I feel like I can run all day without tiring. I can run right through the defensive zone of the other team without being touched. I feel like I can play without ever getting hurt.”
John Brodie, who played quarterback for the 49ers, said this: “There are moments in every game when time seems to slow down, as if everyone were moving in slow motion and I have all the time in the world to watch my receivers run their patterns.”
Shawn Johnson is a gymnast who specializes in the balance beam. This is a piece of wood 10 centimeters across. That’s about the width of your connection card. I couldn’t walk from one end to the other. That would be a very insecure environment for me. But of course the object isn’t to walk across it. It is to do all kinds of impossible looking flip combinations, landing on your feet or hands and hopefully not on the mat below. Yet she said, “There are times when the balance beam seems to get wider and wider, and I have no fear of falling at all.”
My favorite basketball team lost in the first round of the playoffs this year. But the Portland Trailblazers have a young star who frequently finds himself “in the zone”. His name is Damian Lillard. Let’s take a look.
(YouTube video: “Damian Lillard in the Zone“)
I know some of you would like to watch that again. It ended too soon. And some of you got the point after the first 10 seconds and you were ready to move on. My wife reminds me that not everyone who comes to church is a sports fan. And though sports is one way to illustrate what I’m talking about, it’s not just athletes who experience “the zone”. It’s something we can all experience. It’s something we are all meant to experience. And the 23rd Psalm sounds remarkably like one of these descriptions of what it feels like when you’re “in the zone”.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want; he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; thou anointest my head with oil. My cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
That’s the description of an attitude we can take into life. It’s an attitude of faith. It’s like being “in the zone”. When our journey takes us through challenging times, whether it’s an athletic event or an artistic performance or just some of those tough times we all have to face, concentration is important. So is focus. So is a positive attitude. It’s not what you’re doing so much as your attitude toward what you are doing. And your attitude toward the environment in which you find yourself. You feel at home in that environment. It is friendly, not hostile. It is for you, not against you. You feel an inner harmony between yourself, your environment, and God. When that happens you are living “in the zone”.
And the best way to get out of “the zone” is to start thinking about what you are doing. That’s why basketball coaches call a time out when the other team is about to shoot a critical free throw. They want to give the player time to think about it. Yogi Berra asked, “How do you expect me to bat and think at the same time?” The worst thing you can do is to start thinking, “How am I doing?” Actually, worse than that is to start thinking, “What do other people think about how I am doing?” The best thing you can do is to get rid of your self-consciousness, get outside yourself, get into the moment. Get into “the zone.”
There’s a sports zone, but there’s also a faith zone. You know you’re in the faith zone when you feel that inner peace and calm and confidence that comes from knowing that “the Lord is my shepherd”. When you know that and are able to rest secure in that knowledge, nothing else really matters. The challenges that come your way are no less imposing. The dragons you have to slay. The dangers you have to dodge. The disappointments you have to endure. The deaths you have to face, figuratively and literally. Life, from birth to death, is one wild adventure. We’re tested every step of the way. But with the shepherd on our side, it’s a test that doesn’t scare us away. It’s a test we welcome. Bring it on.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil; for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Charles Laughton was a great actor of a few years ago. He had one of the greatest speaking voices of all-time. He was noted for his recitation of Bible passages. You can find some of these on YouTube.
The story goes that he was attending a dinner party and the host asked if he would recite the 23rd Psalm. He was happy to do so. His reading was stunning. The timing and intonation were perfect. It sounded like God would sound if God had an audible voice.
The host’s aunt was there. She was nearly deaf. She know Charles Laughton had just recited something but she couldn’t tell what. So she decided that she would recite the 23rd Psalm. The dinner guests were embarrassed. It was one of those awkward moments. This poor woman had no idea she was reciting the same passage of scripture as the great Charles Laughton. But it didn’t take long at all, and everybody was caught up in the moment. Her recitation was incredible. Several people were weeping. It was the highlight of the evening.
Later someone asked Charles Laughton why her reading was so moving when she didn’t have any of the skills he had as an actor. Here’s what he said: “I know the psalm. She knows the shepherd.”
Do you know the shepherd? Do you trust the shepherd? Do you believe that surely goodness and mercy will follow you all the days of your life, and that you will dwell in the house of the Lord forever?
God our shepherd, we do indeed have everything we need because of your goodness. Because of your mercy. Help us to trust less in ourselves and more in you. Help us to think less about the bad things that might happen and more about all the good that has been and that will be ours in you. Through Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.