Easter Morning by Andy Shenk
April 8, 2012, 10:29 am
Filed under: Spirituality | Tags:

My wife and I celebrated Easter this morning by attending our church’s sunrise service. The day began with our alarm clocks ringing at 5:20 AM. I jumped out of bed to silence the hideously loud ringing coming from my cell phone, which lay on the floor by the dresser. Darkness engulfed the apartment; the sun’s rising still an hour and a half distant. In the cold we quickly dressed and prepared to set off on bike for the church.

I stepped out the back door on my way to the garage and noticed the neighbor cat, Henry, sitting patiently on the deck for me. He drops by frequently, looking for a scratch or two on his belly and chin. I wonder if he heard our alarm go off this morning, or if he simply hung around our back door all night, hoping for a chance to receive our affections. Henry’s great charm lies in his plumpish, ample girth. Whenever we notice him across the yard, we call out and enjoy watching him saunter lazily through the grass, belly swaying slightly from side to side. This morning I picked him up for a few moments to scratch and rub vigorously before setting him down again to go bring out our two bikes from the garage.

I went back inside and, knowing we had a few minutes to spare, turned on the computer to check sports news. I wanted the computer ready, too, in order to watch the VTB League quarterfinal game between Lokomotiv Kuban and Zalgiris when we returned from the sunrise service and breakfast.

A little before six Nikki and I took off. Our bike lights flashing, we rolled down the St. Olaf hill into downtown Northfield, made a right on Division Street, and biked six blocks to Main Street Moravian Church. Daylight began to grow as our cozy fellowship of twenty gathered in the Moravian sanctuary to sing and read liturgy together of the Lord’s resurrection in Palestine two thousand years ago.

The second half of our service was held at Oakridge Cemetery, at the grave of our most recently deceased member. Again joining in song and reading, we made a small circle about the cross marking Ed’s resting place. The full moon slowly drifted below the trees in the west, while red swelled from the eastern sky. After the service concluded Nikki and I walked a bit, placing flowers on tombstones nearby. Some blades of grass were flecked by frost, soon to vanish under the sun’s warmth. The fleet of five sedans parked neatly on the cemetery road caught my attention; their sleek forms merged with the crisp outlines of the trees and tidy rows of gravestones.

Still awaiting the sun, we rode back to church for breakfast. The warmth of the church basement cheered me and Nikki and I languidly engaged in small talk with others while enjoying blueberry pancakes, ham, and sausage. A little before eight we biked back home in the sunlight. Nikki repeated the Russian Easter greeting to me, “Khristos Voskrese!”, while I laughed back  with “Va Istiny Voskrese!”

Lokomotiv Kuban leads Zalgiris 66-41 with only 2 minutes to play. Now we’re off to church again for the 10 AM service. He is risen, indeed!


Optimism by Andy Shenk
April 3, 2012, 11:50 pm
Filed under: Spirituality, Sports | Tags: , ,

Optimism is dangerous, depending on the environment in which it is displayed. Earlier this year I expressed several times my optimism for the Xavier men’s basketball team on an internet forum for Xavier fans. My comments, coming on the heels of a long period of poor play, were met with ridicule. The same thing happened to other contributors who believed that the season would improve. Though I internally maintained my positive outlook, I was psychologically wounded by the negativity and refrained from opening myself up to such attacks again.

The negativity was, of course, very rational. Given Xavier’s inability to win an important game for over two months, the only reasonable expectation was that the team would close the last month of the season in similar fashion. The only real point of discussion amongst the internet faithful centered on whether this program was flawed for years to come, or, if next year’s team would be able to put the 2011-2012 season behind it and return to playing “Xavier” basketball.1

It took someone stubbornly irrational to believe that the team would reinvent itself by early March, qualify for the NCAA Tournament and advance past the first weekend. I cannot claim to having always held firmly to such faith in the team, but I did persist in hoping that they would make it that far.

Of course, I realize that the pessimists could have been correct. My hope could have disappointed me. Having learned my lesson, the following year I could spare myself the emotional toll, which accompanies misplaced trust, and resolve, instead, to place no expectations upon the team and assume the worst. Or, I could allow for some optimism at the beginning of the season, always ready, of course, to give up on the team at the first sign of trouble.

In reality, no matter how Xavier’s season concluded, I would pick hope and optimism as my keywords for the season ahead. I believe this is an important attitude for me to adhere to as a sports fan for several reasons. First, this is the attitude that everyone expects a team to believe in, no matter their successes or failures. No athlete or coach has ever been praised for throwing in the towel, writing off a season, or giving up. It seems reasonable to me, as a supporter of a team that I would, likewise, never give up. Just as one player or coach losing hope would psychologically hurt a team, so, I believe, do its fans losing hope and interest negatively affect the team.

Second, and this captures one of my primary justifications for being a sports fan, developing the optimism necessary to enthusiastically support a team over many years is very helpful in gaining the emotional strength to look with optimism upon one’s own life and its inevitable failures and disappointments. In life, just as in sports, there is no guarantee that the good guys will win. I will root for Xavier my entire life and there is no guarantee that they will ever win a National Championship, let alone make the Final Four. Likewise, my dream to become a professional sportswriter may never be realized. However, steady optimism in myself, and, of a little less importance, in Xavier basketball, will help me to eagerly anticipate the next opportunity, no matter the failures that lay behind me.

I already hear the skeptic’s final question, however. What if your dreams are never realized? What purpose will your optimism have served then? I’ll even add that I believe very few people ever achieve all of their dreams before they die. Full-fledged, Pollyanna optimists in the end, then, appear only to be delusional kooks attempting to hold reality’s disappointments at arm’s length.

To this I respond with the optimism I hold dearest to my heart: faith in the ultimate Creator who promises to love and to value me forever. Like the championship season that never ends or the career accomplishment that never grows old, I believe in a hope that will never disappoint me. One of the early leaders of the Christian church, the Apostle Paul, wrote to the church in Rome that “hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Sprit who was given to us.”2

The British novelist, academic, and Christian apologetic C.S. Lewis loved to tell the story of how he moved from agnosticism to faith in God with the help of his friend, J.R.R. Tolkien. Faith, Lewis shared, finally made sense when Tolkien compared God’s redemptive gift of his son Jesus to the redemptive, “fairy-tale” ending found in so many myths and stories throughout history. So, too, I believe is the sports fan’s mystical hope for redemption, for justification, for a championship analogous to the eternal hope we can have in a loving God. One hope is fleeting, ephemeral, the other eternal and unchanging. Yet, both require a deep optimism that things will turn around and that such hope will be rewarded with a long-awaited crown.

1 “Xavier” basketball – the uncanny ability, year-in and year-out, of Xavier teams to win every regular-season game in which they are favored or given even odds to succeed. The only failures tend to be unexpected road losses to Atlantic 10 foes such as Dayton, Charlotte, or St. Louis.

2 Romans 5:5, NASB.