Faith, Basketball, and a Flannel-Graph Jesus
My story of faith begins in the first years of my life. On Sundays, my father and mother took me to the small Baptist church in a neighboring town in rural Maine. In my Sunday School class, with a few other small children, I heard the story of Jesus, or rather watched it unfold on the flannel-graph stand before us in the creaky old building. I was intrigued by this Jesus. He seemed friendly, warm, and inviting, though I had little sense as a child of the depth of his kindness and warmth.
As I grew up I continued to attend church with my parents and supplemented this attendance with week-long visits to a nearby Christian summer camp. For six days, I played as I had never played before. Though I did not become a Christian in my youth at the camp, I realized as I heard there the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection that my profile matched that of those who killed Him. I lied; I was mean to my little sister; I sometimes grew very angry with my parents. I began to see the sin, the desire and agency to do wrong things, of my heart at that time. What was worse, I heard about the reality of hell, where sinners who did not turn away from sin and receive the forgiving love of Jesus were sent to be punished for eternity, and I believed in it. I am not sure that I ever wanted to believe in hell. But from day one, I could not help it. It would be some years, however, before I matched my belief with action.
So I grew up, a conscionable kid in a school marked as most high schools are by partying and the pursuits of sinful desires. Unlike many of my peers, I was close to my parents, who provided a steady witness to Christ by faithful church attendance and dedicated Christian living. During this time, I fell headlong in love with basketball. Basketball consumed me, and though the people in my church were kind and godly and my pastor's preaching was stoutly biblical, I wasn’t truly focused on God. Much of the time, I was far away in Basketball World, where I made every shot and won every cheerleader’s heart. Jesus? I believed in Him and the central ideas taught about Him—His deity, His perfection, His sinlessness, His goodness. But He remained distant. He was an interesting figure, sure, but like the flannel-graph figure of my childhood, He was distant, a curious but far-off presence.