Defense (doesn’t) win championships

black and white football game

The static from the AM radio station comes through the speakers of the Chevy truck. The bumpy dirt road feels even rougher than normal with the cattle trailer pulling behind us. I am sitting in the front seat with my dad on a Saturday morning, eating breakfast tacos and listening to the football game on our way home from hauling some cattle to a sale. 

I feel as if I have discovered a secret time warp where I am back as a small girl, or even a teenager, driving these familiar backroads, surrounded by familiar smells, views, movements, and sounds. It feels deeply nostalgic. It feels secure. It feels really safe. When I am in the front seat of the truck with Kevo (my dad) on a Saturday morning, I don’t have to be “on” in any definition of the word. I wear crusty old boots, denim shorts, and a t-shirt. I may or may not have brushed my hair before throwing on a ball cap. No one is expecting me to say something intelligent, eloquent, or enthusiastic. Silence is acceptable. Dramatic reactions to whatever the announcer is saying about the football game is expected.  

“Defense wins championships.”

This Bear Bryant adage is one I have heard my entire life as an avid sports fan and athlete. Scoring is great. Spiking the volleyball down the line is great. But at the end of the day, if you can play solid defense, you can play with anyone. 

Saturday mornings in the front seat with my dad remind me what it feels like to put all my defenses down – to feel safe, secure, and seen. These Saturday mornings stand in stark contrast to how I operate in much of my day-to-day life. 

Merriam Webster describes defense as the “means or method of protecting oneself.” Self-protection is a habit I have practiced for a long time, longer than I have even known the phrase to coin my behavior. I self-protect in a million ways, constantly on the lookout for things that have the potential to hurt me.

I self-protect through the use of to-do lists and a chaotically color-coordinated calendar to make sure I never miss any action item or due date to help protect myself from the feeling I have disappointed others. I self-protect by not getting my hopes up about events or relationships in case they do not pan out. I self-protect by not asking for help when I need it, in case no one can come and I am left feeling abandoned. 

This summer, I read a book by Annie F. Downs called “That Sounds Fun.” Overall, it was a lighthearted and well-written read; however, there was a particular portion of the book that struck a chord in me, and fun is not the word I would use to characterize the impact. She wrote about a wound of abandonment she carried and how it manifested itself in her life. She writes:

“The actual definition of abandonment is ‘lack of protection, support, or help from.’ This is true of me. I spend every day thinking about how I am in charge of myself, how no one else is thinking of me, how I have no covering.”

As I read those words, I felt them deeply in my heart. “I am in charge of myself.”

When I move through the world as though I am in charge of myself, a few different things start to happen. I do not give myself the permission to feel negative emotions or express sadness around others because if I did, I tell myself, no one would want to be around me. I hold tightly to every commitment and to-do list item on my agenda because if I let even one ball drop it will shatter and prove to others I am incapable and unreliable, and no one will trust me. I do not share vulnerable parts of my heart and my story with others, choosing instead to always be the one asking the questions, so I do not reveal too much of myself and risk rejection if someone walks out of my life. 

This paragraph holds some heavy insights I have only recently begun to uncover in my heart, but I write them here with the belief I am far from the first or last person to feel and express these things. 

A few weeks back at church, the Gospel readings were from Mark 8. The subtitle in my Bible calls this particular section “The Conditions of Discipleship.” As I listened to Jesus’ words to His disciples, I heard a line of scripture I have heard a million times in a brand new way. 

“For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.”

Mark 8:35

I live each day constantly trying to save my life. I try to save myself from disappointment, discouragement, pain, suffering, failure, and a million other negative emotions. I hedge my emotions, attempt to predict the future, and put guards around my heart in a constant attempt to self-protect and save myself from pain. Not only is it an exhausting and not overly successful endeavor, it is contrary to the call Jesus gives us as His followers. 

The commentary on these verses in my Bible beautifully states the following:

“This utterance of Jesus challenges all believers to authentic discipleship and total commitment to Himself through self-renunciation and acceptance of the cross of suffering. . . Life seen as mere self-centered earthly existence and lived in denial of Christ ends in destruction, but when lived in loyalty to Christ, despite earthly death, it arrives at fullness of life.”

Fullness of life is what my heart is after. Using my human logic and experience, it is so easy to fall into the trap of believing the only way to fullness of life is to work to avoid any kind of spiritual, emotional, mental, or physical death. Jesus tells us the opposite. 

We do not have to live on the defensive to emerge victorious from this life. Instead, we can open ourselves up to the suffering the world will bring with the hope of the healing and fullness of eternal life that we will experience in glimpses during our earthly life and in fullness at the end of it. With His words, Jesus reminds me self-protection will lead only to more isolation, more hopelessness, and a heart that is more hardened to His good purposes. Fullness of life awaits when I recognize the safety, protection, and covering already given to me as a chosen child of God.  

Defense might win you earthly championships, but eternal reward is found when we lay ourselves bear at the foot of the cross. 

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