Are We Participants or Observers?

Are We Participants or Observers?

Grace and peace from the mystery in whom we live and move and have our being.

 The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want”

Psalm 23

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”

Mark 6: 30-44

I’m doing interviews right now. There will be one before the 4th game of the NBA finals with channel 15. It will revolve around the OG, the original gorilla. It will revolve around the fun that everybody is in the midst of. But as this continues, more uncovers for me of what is important. I love sports. I love watching sports. I’m a diehard U of A Wildcat fan. Sorry to some of you! Bear Down for others! But there is so much more that flows in the cells of my body from my childhood to this day that is not purple or orange.

I lived and died Phoenix Suns basketball when I was a child.  It got me through some of the more difficult and dark times of my childhood because I had something to look forward to. I see that happening again in people’s lives, especially post COVID. While I’m happy for the team and the fans, there is a big part of me that is an observer of what is going on. If I were to title this message something different It would be “What does it matter if we gain the world championship but lose our soul.” But that would be too cheesy and opportunistic.

My heart goes out to some athletes and celebrities. If in the middle of the game Jesus would take them aside, what might he say? He might say, “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want.” In the middle of an NBA championship final? What a buzz kill!

The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want.

What Lords over us? Is it to win so badly that something inside dies if we lose? The need to win affects the soul for some and when the dust clears, questions arise, and we’ll have to ask ourselves is this all worth it?

When I walked away from the Suns in 1989 I did it in the face of personal questions that I would not have answers to immediately. They would unfold even to this day.

As a child I would have given anything for this moment. This NBA finals moment.

I was 11 years old as a young Suns fan when it was announced, on air, that Bob Vache, the play-by-play announcer I listened to was killed it an auto accident and wouldn’t be there that night. Rod Hundley, the color announcer, would take his place.

I remember when the Suns played Wilt Chamberlain and the Los Angeles Lakers in the playoffs. I lived and died with every game in that series. I thought we had it in the bag with a 3 games to 1 lead. Connie Hawkins was finally showing up as the goat that I believed he was. His swoop underneath Wilt behind the basket came long before Dr J’s much more publicized feat. My identity as a child was wrapped in what the Suns were doing. It predates even Al McCoy. It was before Charles Barkley and Kevin Johnson brought a new generation of Suns mania.

I Remember when my idol The Hawk was traded to the Lakers and my innocence was gone. It was the day I asked myself, “they’re trading people? Is that OK?! I was just a child.

My innocence was lost when I found myself receiving a paycheck from the very organization that had been my identity, my tribe. As a 23-year-old young man I watched negotiations being conducted that purely were about my monetary worth. A person, a human being, watching other people negotiate my monetary worth and my value to the organization. You see I thought as a child, I was already a part of the organization.  

The whole world watches the Phoenix Suns and their heroes.

The whole world watches. We would like to think it’s just a game. But it’s not! There are villains and there are heroes. There is animosity and tempers flare. There is life altering euphoria.  If it’s just a game, then why do people get paid millions of dollars?

For some observers called fans, all of life shifts and moves around the game right now.

I realize this is not a popular conversation to have but we’re going to talk about what is important.

 “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want”

As I consider what lords over us as participants and observers; fans and performers. I think of one of the lines in the movie Hunger Games. Just think about that movie as we listen to prognosticators and TV analysts and people talking about who is the greatest and who should have had a foul called on him. We watch thousands of people in an arena watching this sport and watching these guys that have exercised their bodies to near death just to come to this moment. These guys that are bought and traded behind the scenes to put out the best product for the mass of willing observers.  This is what it says in Hunger Games.

“What must it be like, I wonder, to live in a world where food appears at the press of a button? How would I spend the hours I now commit to combing the woods for sustenance if it were so easy to come by? What do they do all day, these people in the Capitol, besides decorating their bodies and waiting around for a new shipment of tributes to rill in and die for their entertainment?”  The Lord is my shepherd not the next game. The Lord is my shepherd. Not my next addiction. The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want any other Lord.

When the disciples saw the 5000 were hungry, Jesus took the disciples on a journey of intimacy in trusting their Lord. That their Lord has all the power that is needed. Even though Jesus at the snap of his fingers could have provided the food, he did not want them to be like observers watching a cage match, wrestling with their own needs. He wanted them to take what little they had, no NBA title ring on their finger. No PhD to bring credibility.  No reasonable bio for people to believe in them and to honor them. He wanted them to see they’re just as valued as every performer and executive out there. “The Lord is my shepherd, and I shall not want.” No want of popularity or position or power. The Lord is my shepherd.

In this life there are participants and there are observers. As we watch these NBA finals, we see players and coaches and officials. And we see a lot see a lot of fans!

Fans. The most knowledgeable people in the world. They know the fouls that should be called and who the foul should be called on. They shout coaching instructions from the upper level. They join with others in a raucous chant of displeasure over a bad call shouting, “beg to differ, beg to differ!”. They are brilliant observers! If you listen to broadcasters before and after the game, you will hear even more brilliance. They will opine late into the evening, giving their opinions and their predictions. They too are only observers, yet their comments are often brutal and cruel. They say they’re just giving their opinions and their feedback.

Well, here’s what Brené Brown says about feedback from observers:

If you’re not in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback.”

In these passages it appears that the disciples are participants as they say to Jesus with great pride what they’ve been doing and what they’ve been teaching. But perhaps they aren’t participants at all. Perhaps they’re observers in that moment. Observers of themselves. It doesn’t say that Jesus responded by giving at-a-boys and Starbucks gift cards. It says Jesus suggests that they go to a solitary place and get some rest and eat some food. That’s a really good idea when one becomes satiated with their own success and drunk on applause. Take a time out. Contemplate.

When Jesus finally arrives, the crowds have followed the disciples like the Beatles. You see they had become quite the celebrities. But their followers now need something else. They’re hungry. Now the disciples aren’t sure what to do. Earlier it says Jesus had compassion on the thousands because they acted like they didn’t have a shepherd, so he taught them. The disciples became concerned because there are thousands, and they might be hungry and want to be fed.

So, Jesus takes this opportunity to teach his followers about being participants and leaders. Getting in the mix of humanity and turning their prideful pulpits into firewood to warm the hungry broken hearts in the world. To learn the personal intimacy of participating in God’s divine nature.

Good life leaders like coaches aren’t concerned as much with the final outcomes or about one individual shot. They care about others, in all the aspects of their lives, both in season and off season. They’re concerned for the others who they journey with. The lessons they will learn for future games and for their own individual lives. I would hope so at least. Participants aren’t just the players getting all the game minutes. It’s also the guys on the bench who practiced to exhaustion all year round helping to make the team better. The observers in the crowd don’t see them. But coach does. Maybe that’s why so many of them become great coaches.

Jesus knows the trap that comes with having many followers. Because of the wilderness, he knows the danger and allure of popularity and power. He knows the importance of taking moments in a deserted place to be reminded of our true identity.

When a player or a disciple hears the taunts or praise of the world around them, they must with great focus stare only into the eyes of their coach, their liberator.

Jesus went to a solitary place often, and you know what I think was happening in that time with his Abba father? When the throngs would follow him, and it became so overwhelming because he saw the need. Perhaps he sat before his Lord and quietly he hears the voice of God say to him with a little sarcasm and a smirk, “hey there King of kings, Mr. Messiah look at you. You’re kind of a big deal huh? Jesus may have said, “ah knock it off dad!” and then God reminds Jesus, “Do you remember who you are? Remember what was declared over you about your identity? When you came up out of the Jordan River and you heard the voice of Morgan Freeman acting like me say this is my son in whom I am well pleased? You see that’s who you are and that’s who you’ve always been. That was your first tattoo, and it was not put on the outside of your body it was put on your heart so you could never have it removed not even with your own self-loathing. Not even with your own broken heart. Not even with your own feelings of inadequacy and abandonment. In these demanding moments of thousands of fans.  Surrender to who you really are. Who you always were. And then we can rest once again and participate in God’s divine nature and bringing life into the world and bringing compassion to those who hurt and teachings to those who are hungry.

Then Jesus says to the disciples “Look at all those folks sitting there waiting. They’re waiting for you. Waiting to be served this incredible food in the middle of the desert. And you get to do it.” We walked with our coach. We learned from our coach. We were disciplined by our coach and now we get on the court in the big game, and he lets us take all the credit. The Lord is my Shepherd. What a journey and what a God!

 I hope that doesn’t ruin watching the game because I’m going to watch it! I’m going to enjoy it, but I can’t help but keep my head on straight because of my own experiences and what the cost is. The cost is, what good is it if I gain the whole world and lose my soul. I will still do the interviews. I will still give people an ear to hear their stories and a voice to share their memories. But thank God we can come came to our senses and know what is important.  To then give it away to others in such a way that they don’t need to be one of prestige. To remind them that God sees them as the G.O.A.T as the MVP and remind them that they are as important as tomorrow night’s superstars. Because that’s what it means to participate in the divine nature of God.


Wednesday Respite is a 30-min contemplative service of scripture, prayer, music and a Spirited Touchpoint this week led by Spirit friend, spiritual director & retreat leader Henry Rojas.

Touchpoint is a reflection on where God’s story touches our life story. It is a short homily based on a biblical story of people in the Old and New Testaments and their relationship with God. Our spiritual ancestors’ experience of God’s grace connects with our lives in the present and our relationship with the Divine. Previous Touchpoints are available as PDFs or on SoundCloud.

One Comment

  1. Anonymous Girl

    Wow. I cannot even fathom how entirely I resonated with this writing. It was one hundred percent me, well almost. I can never, not even in jest or for the spirit of the church, claim to be a (puke) Wildcat fan. Sorry. Not for saying that, but for you, because wellll, it’s sad. I am a Sun Devil through and through, an alumni, and most definitely have my Forks Up at all times! Even my high school colors were maroon and gold, because of course! I also am still actively working on my maturity level, which astonishingly is still absurdly third grade. I kid – I kid – sort of.

    However, honestly, I was born and raised in Arizona, in the west valley, and I lived and died by our Phoenix Suns.

    They were “THE” team. No Dbacks. No Cards. No Yotes. Not even the Rattlers had made their entrance into Arizona sports.
    There were the Arizona Wranglers, but that lasted as long as an ice cube on Phoenix pavement in July. Buh-bye.

    I remember meeting one of my heroes, Walt “number 6, aka the greyhound” Davis at – believe it or not – as ridiculous as it sounds – the greyhound dog race track at 40th street and Washington. I was maybe 9, 10?, in shock and awe.

    He gave me his autograph, and I gave him my drool as my mouth hung open at the mere site of a legend. I vowed to never wash the hand he shook, which my parents quickly crushed my commitment a few days later as I was becoming a bit crusty. Hey, it was Walter Davis! Hello people!

    Then, my story continues to resonate with yours, as I, also at 23, got a job working in the front office of my childhood heroes – The Phoenix Suns.

    I lived and breathed my job, working every single day, many more hours than what was required of me, not because I had to, but because I needed to. Well, for one, my husband was an ass and 2) hello?! The Phoenix Suns people! Oh, and as I was there, we began our entry into the MLB, so yeah – I was down for the count. My dream job, and and I was good. I quickly moved up the ranks into management, where I also became privvy to the buying and selling of humans as entertainment pawns, as well. I agree, weird feeling. (Side note: You must have made your exit about 5 to 6 years before I made my entrance – I was not a gorilla, however. I didn’t fit the suit). J/K (about the suit). lol

    I continue to resonate with all things Henry, as I, also am a recovering addict – I still play with saying those words, so as to NOT manifest substances back into my life, by the way. Oh, did I mention I’m an overthinker as well? Yeah, that, too.

    I struggle with these very thoughts that you so eloquently put into this piece. I question, “What will lose our soul to/for?” What are willing to give – or not give? What are we willing to do to win?? What circumstances may take you to point of all bets are off?

    For me, after being in and out of recovery since 2009, and in and in and in since 2015, I am still challenged almost daily by what will I do to stay sober…and equally important, of course, what will I not do? My instructions are simple, but my mind in true fashiom, complicates – well – EVERYTHING.

    So, pieces like this – I absolutely love (minus the whole “Bear Down” reference; that can go away 😬)!

    Thank you for your openness, honesty, and thoughtfulness. I am grateful beyond words. And, while I nurse my broken heart and shattered dreams due to the Phoenix Suns being still world title-less, I thank God for another day, on this side of the soil, another day free, and another day to tell my story so someone might not have to go to the depths of hell that I did, and I stay in gratitude. Grateful for the good, the bad, the ugly, and the Phoenix Suns – who will always be -my world champions.

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