It Is What It Is

The first step toward healing and life is acceptance of reality.

Will Ryan / 4.14.22

This past week the NBA regular season came to a close. Among those teams left out of the playoffs and the play-in tournament for the final two playoff spots was the LeBron James-led Los Angeles Lakers. The most storied (and probably hated) franchise with the most championships, led by the far and away greatest player of his generation (I don’t want to get into debates about the greatest ever), is on the sidelines for the slate of games that will determine this year’s best team.

I’m sure there were more factors in LeBron’s decision to take his talents to LA, but chief among them had to have been access to championships. But this season wasn’t championship caliber. It wasn’t great. It wasn’t good. It wasn’t even bad. With the standards set by LeBron and the Lakers, it was abysmal. You would be well within your rights to call it a failure … except LeBron didn’t.

A reporter asked him “how personally he took the team’s collective failure?” to which he responded, “Yeah, I mean it’s not a failure at all. We came to work every single day, put on our hard hats, and all that. We tried to get better every day and the results just didn’t happen for us. But it’s not a failure.” He did go on to say he does take heavy responsibility for the season, but I can’t get away from him saying the season wasn’t a failure when by all accounts it was. No one expects a LeBron-led LA Lakers team to miss the playoffs, but they did. They spectacularly failed their goal of achieving an NBA Championship, but LeBron can’t bring himself to face reality. Like a typical theology of glory, he can’t call a thing what it is.

It’s a temptation we all face — to turn a bad thing into a good thing, or as Luther puts it, “to call what is evil good and good evil[1].” We talk about the lessons learned from COVID, or how a breakup was a blessing in disguise, or that getting fired freed me to do what I was really passionate about, or that a loved one’s death really taught you to live each day to the fullest. We refuse to come to grips with reality, with suffering and pain, so we turn it into something beneficial — something we can control, something from which we can work.

We even do this with the Cross. We call it “good” when it was anything but. We talk about how it was just a stop on the way to something greater (Easter). Or we try to turn it into just another example for us to follow. Or perhaps we hide behind our different theologies and theories about the effects of Jesus’ death without ever dealing with the act. Or worse, we turn him into another martyr for the cause. We refuse to call the Cross what it is, the only way to know who and what God is like.

But we can’t escape this temptation on Good Friday. The prayers, songs, and scriptures of the day won’t let us. Take the Isaiah reading:

He was pierced because of our rebellions
and crushed because of our crimes.
He bore the punishment that made us whole;
by his wounds we are healed. […]

But the Lord wanted to crush him
and to make him suffer. (Isa 53:5,10a)

Isaiah’s Suffering Servant poem causes us to face the full reality — Christ died because of and for our sins. As We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, the children’s book my toddler is constantly making me read, says “We can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. We’ve got to go through it.” We can’t skip over what happened on Calvary, nor can we get under our complicity in it. It’s only by the crisis of conscience the Cross engenders upon us that we can hope to move through it, or as Forde says, “The cross does not merely inform us of something, something that may be “above,” or “behind” it. It attacks and afflicts us.[2]

The meat of the Isaiah text is a reflection of the community who witnessed this nobody, this outcast, this failure’s death. They are led to confess their sin because of the Servant’s innocent suffering for them. They sing a dirge on his behalf, and it’s why we read it on Good Friday.

But in the thing which causes pain, there is healing. Like the ancient Israelites in the wilderness who were healed of their snake bites by gazing upon a bronze snake lifted high on a wooden plank, the Servant who suffered on the Cross is what heals our sin-sick soul. He bore the punishment that made us whole; by his wounds we are healed. The crisis caused by The cross — seeing the sinless one punished for our sins — is solved by the Cross. And it is there that we are forgiven. He is the wounded healer and wholeness comes from the risk taken upon his body.

The guilt we feel, the sin we commit, the wrongs not put right, they have all been borne and in their place, we have been imputed the righteousness, the goodness, the justness of Christ. Our failures are the places where Christ comes and gives life.

LeBron’s allergy to naming his and his teammates’ season a failure makes sense. It’s typical of all of theologians of glory, which is to say all of us. But I hope he is able to do what we are forced to do on Good Friday: be confronted with reality and find that the first step toward healing and life is acceptance of that truth. It’s that way for Sinners at Calvary, and it’s true for GOATs in the NBA.

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