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A leadership lesson from Virginia’s basketball meltdown

All the sports journalists called it a “meltdown.” The Virginia Cavaliers’ loss to tenth-seeded Syracuse in the NCAA basketball tournament was a complete shock. The Cavaliers led by 15 points with less than 10 minutes to play. The loss was a stunner.

I know a game doesn’t hold the same weight as other more important issues going on in our world, but I was especially impressed by the response of 23-year-old Malcolm Brogdon (Virginia’s best player, Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year, and first-team All American). After the unbelievable collapse—Brogdon’s last game—he skipped speech-making to talk personally with each of his teammates. He summarized his thoughts later:

It’s difficult, but at the same time . . . you start to remember all the good times you’ve had, and you start to realize how special these guys sitting next to you and on the court with you [are], how much they mean to you, how much your coaches mean to you, how much you’ve learned from them, and just how much you’ve enjoyed your experience and your college career.  Sometimes we get caught up so much in playing the game, trying to win every game, being so focused—I’m a very locked-in guy, rather than just smelling the roses—and now we can smell the roses. We can enjoy what we have established.

Brogdon might easily have weltered in his personal loss. Who would blame a college kid for that? Instead, this accomplished young man expressed his gratitude for the many benefits he received and helped his fellow players to do the same. That kind of leadership brings health and strength to people.

Christians, take the lead

Don’t people need health and strength now, with much weightier problems than games at every turn? Turmoil in our cities is growing (violent crime in Chicago is up 84 percent through March). The leadership vacuum in America is filling up with people who are impossible to follow. National political discourse is, by turns, bewildered and arrogant, embittered and confused. In this time of cultural dysfunction, many young people have disengaged from public concerns.

Yet, as Christians, we can’t sit idly by, stewing in anxiety or anger. We must take the lead in bearing responsibility for the good of others—all others.  A little good goes a long way, and we don’t know how God may use it.  What we do know is that we are not allowed to live for ourselves. Because Jesus has done everything for us, we must and can live for him, and for others. Yes, there is a cost; but it’s no more than the cost of discipleship.

Taking the lead as salt

By his death and resurrection, Jesus brought in the kingdom of God, and he has freely and powerfully given us the gifts of the kingdom. He says to the disciples of the kingdom, “You are the salt of the earth . . . you are the light of the world” (Matt. 5:13-14). Disciples are supposed to be visibly different as salt and light. In the biblical world, salt was understood as a necessary part of life. So, too, we are to have a beneficial effect on the earth, “which here refers to human life in general.”  We should ask ourselves, “In the place God has put me, whom can I serve?  How can I lead others to give thanks, to do right, to show civility, to take on need?”  When we serve in a self-giving way, we are just imitating the Lord. And in his power, God receives praise.

Taking the lead as light

Likewise, light gives life and perspective. We are to do the same in God’s world.

Witnessing to the kingdom, we are to give a thankful account of our lives and take responsibility for the good of those around us, regardless of our losses, perceived or real.  We should ask ourselves, “Where can I speak the truth—the gospel and its implications for life—to my neighbors? How can I help my co-workers get God's perspective on life? Do the children in my neighborhood know anything about the Bible? Can I help one of them?”  There is no truth too little to tell. Spurgeon said, “In this dark world, the light of a glow-worm is a blessing.”

If we don’t lead, who will? Or more to the point—what good is salt that has no taste or light that’s hidden? As always, only in losing our lives do we gain them and display the power of God through them so that others will see our good works. In Christ's power, others will follow and give glory to our Father in heaven (5:16). That should be our chief end, whether we find ourselves in the midst of terrific gain or stunning loss. We know the end-result of the game we’re playing for, and the prize has already been won.

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