It’s been said, “There’s a thousand different entryways into the life of the Church.” For some, it was having the privilege of baptism at an early age – being born into the Church through a parent or grandparent by the providence of God. For others, it was a harder road of conversion. Maybe you came to Christ later in your life, finally acquiescing to the Spirit’s call, and saying ‘yes’ to discipleship. Still others may have found themselves coming to the Lord through the classical expressions of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. The truth of the Gospel came to you from unexpected quarters – music, a novel, a play, or philosophy. Perhaps a swim in the ocean, a walk in the woods, or an attempt to climb a mountain allowed for transcendent beauty to ravish your senses taking you out of yourself and into something beyond. Still, an entryway into the life of the church could have been the greatest action of all time; that is, love – the kindness of a stranger, an act of unconditional care, the touch of a beloved. All of these are one of a thousand ways in which God reaches in and reaches out to us beckoning us into the good life.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus shows us yet another way into the life and into relationship with God. It may be categorized as wrestling – wrestling and persevering with God. Like Jacob who wrestled with an Angel of the Lord, finally pinning him down, and demanding a blessing, today’s Canaanite woman begs for mercy, does not receive it immediately, but intellectually spars with Jesus in one of the greatest one-liners in the Bible, and in her perseverance finally receives not only mercy and blessing – but an increase in faith. Jesus, acting like a good coach doesn’t (initially) give her what she wants. He allows her to persevere in prayer which gives her the confidence she needs. Jesus, acting like a good coach calls her a derogatory name she’s heard all her life knowing she doesn’t really believe the name-calling. Jesus wasn’t tired. He wasn’t grumpy, and he certainly wasn’t prejudice. Jesus knew that she knew where mercy came from. Jesus knew that she knew where dignity was planted. Jesus knew that she knew the faith, and like an original coach with unorthodox methods, he drew these out of her; perhaps even surprising them both in the process.
I’m currently watching the sports documentary, The Last Dance on Netflix. It’s about the lead up to the 1997-98 NBA playoffs with the iconic Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. MJ’s second-hand man was Scotty Pippen back then. Next in line was the controversial figure, Dennis Rodman. The coach was Phil Jackson. Phil certainly had an unorthodox style of coaching, and this is clearly seen in the way he coached Dennis Rodman. Dennis was always in the news for being a bad boy. He liked to party. He liked women. He liked to gamble. Overall, he liked to live life on the edge. From time-to-time, and in public cries for help, Dennis would disappear. His team, coach, and organization didn’t know where he went and because of his battle with anxiety and depression they often worried about him. Dennis would allow his bad boy persona in the media to get the best of him during these times of despair. He was liked one day, and judged and hated the next. On the other hand, and for Dennis, basketball was very simple. It was ordered. It had rules and boundaries – something he never was really fond of outside the court. Phil Jackson understood the tension within Dennis. Phil knew Dennis knew that he was something far more greater than any reporter could ever write about him – on the court, as well as off it. Phil took him under his wing, and worked with Dennis’ dignity as a way of making him a better basketball player. He wouldn’t allow Dennis to believe what others said or thought about him.
This coaching posture is exactly what I see Jesus doing in relationship with the Canaanite woman. He saw her for what she was even though he names for her what other people (falsely) said she was. He challenged her. He gave her test. And she passed. With flying colors. Her perseverance in prayer paid off. Her daughter was healed, her faith was increased, and her relationship with God deepened.
Who are those coaches in your own life who wouldn’t let you get away with what others said you were? Who are those voices who have told you with their words as well as their actions that you are a beloved child of God, and don’t you forget it? Who were those voices who didn’t say such things, but allowed you the space to figure that out on your own? How, perhaps, have you challenged God to remember you, and to remember your needs as well as your wishes? Is your relationship with God mature enough that you’re willing to wrestle, to wonder, to persevere, and to get clear on things with faith as a backdrop?
This week, reread this story with Jesus as that coach asking yourself, “What deeper things is God calling me into – on the court, as well as off?”