The Game Before the Game
While cleaning out a closet in our house recently, my wife and I stumbled upon a collection of my old sermon notes from when I first began preaching. In the earliest of days I would actually pace around and record the message into a little hand-held tape recorder and play it back so I could hear how it was going to sound, and then sometimes if I didn’t like it, the process would start all over again. Looking at those old materials, I was instantly transported back sixteen years in time to the days where I would get physically sick before taking the stage. I relate to Eminem who is puking in the bathroom of the club before his first hip-hop battle in 8 Mile. It wasn’t my mother’s spaghetti (I could never preach with something that heavy and rich in my stomach) but I would almost always end up dry-heaving before speaking, and it went on like that for a year or so. I would feel shaky, light-headed, and absolutely terrified that I would go blank as I tried to remember the key points of my message. I usually felt better after throwing up and I always felt instantly fine the moment I took the stage. All the jitters would dissipate and I would be a duck in water doing what I was born to do, it was just agony to get there. Here’s the deal. The bridge between all that practice and the performance is the pre-game routine. The same is true in nearly every endeavor. You have to win the war inside before you can win the war outside.
Now, I will never speak without going through an important ritual. It involves being on my knees in prayer and admitting my weaknesses so that I can enter into Christ’s strength. Some things I have integrated into my preparation have come from athletics.
The best athletes know how to quiet themselves as they get ready to compete. The Brazilian Pele is considered the greatest soccer player of all time. In his book “Mental Gym” Gary Mack interviewed Pele about his game before the game ritual. He would go into the locker room and grab, not a soccer ball, but a couple of pillows. He would go lie down somewhere all by himself. He would put a pillow under his head and a pillow on his face. This is so weird, but it gets better. He said he would go back to his childhood in his mind and imagine himself playing soccer on the beach, because that’s where he first started to love the game. He wasn’t playing for money, he was just playing because he loved the sport. Then he would flash forward and start to remember the highlight reel of his career. He would picture the best moments when he had performed exactly like he had wanted to. After watching all of these great moments in his career, he would flash forward now to what he had come to do, the reason he was in the stadium he was in. And he would then begin to think about the way he wanted to play and he would actually feel himself watching himself in the movie theater of his mind doing what he had come to do. Then he would get up, join his team, do some stretching, and he was ready to enter the stadium as an unstoppable force. He would be cool and calm—he’d already watched himself win, now all that was left was to do it.
When I read this, I immediately thought of something Peter said. He wrote, “So prepare your minds for action and exercise self-control.”
I see this in Moses. Moses knew what he was supposed to do. Make a nation out of slaves, unite the clans, bring God’s people into the promised land. But he wasn’t winging it. He was given the steps: stick to snake, hand to leprosy, water to blood, and he did this twice before he got to Pharoah’s court on game day. He prepared his mind for action and made sure it was locked in.
When it comes to unpacking what God has put inside of you, we can’t overlook preparation. What if instead of referring to your time with Jesus in the morning as “quiet time” we just referred to it as getting your game face on. Take a pause, take a breath, hear from God, spend time in His word, let His truth wash over you.
No matter what is in front of you today, be it a stadium full of people you will be performing in front of, a rocket launch to Mars, a classroom of students you will be speaking to, or a toddler you will be parenting, this much is true: You’re not ready to face the game until you’re ready to put on your game face.
Questions to ask yourself:
What things should I remove from morning routine to start my day strong? What things should I add?
What is something God has put inside of me that I might be hindering from coming out by not preparing my mind for action?
If You Say So
The year was 1997. I’d just finished my homework and downed a peanut butter sandwich made with Eggo waffles, and the burning desire for milk kicked in. I hopped over the back of my sofa at the commercial break of Saved by the Bell, flung open the fridge and began gulping down cold milk straight out of the carton. I was satisfied for about 0.3 seconds until I realized…this milk had turned, this milk was not my friend. It wasn’t a day or two old, it was over a week old. Needless to say, I puked so hard I dislodged gum that had been in my small intestine since the second grade, and I learned on that day what Matthew speaks of in Matthew 15:10. (How’s that for a segway? TMI?) The gospel of Matthew tells us that there is something more dangerous than taking in something bad, and that is speaking out something that is bad.
When God hears you speak about your meeting as terrible, your car as crappy, your kids as ungrateful, your husband as lazy, your town as small, your house as cramped…His response is: If you say so. You will feel how you speak and find what you seek.
Likewise, there is power in speaking out something that is good.
At creation, God spoke the world to life. At the incarnation, God spoke Jesus into our world. That tells you something about the weight of words. And it should humble you to know that God has given you the same power of speech. That is part of the terrible privilege of being made in His image. You have great power in your speech that can unleash a forceful fury that can create, tear down, build, heal, or hurt.
One of my favorite stories in Scripture shows what I am trying to communicate. It is from Matthew 8, when a centurion came to Jesus for help because his servant was seriously ill. In response to this man’s plea, Jesus immediately agrees to come to the man’s home and treat the boy. This is where it gets really interesting. The centurion protests that there is no need for Jesus to enter his home. For one, it would be inconvenient for Jesus to have to travel, and secondly, if He entered the house of a Gentile He would be ceremonially defiled and have to go through a cleansing ritual before His daily life could continue. Translation: He would get Gentile cooties. He didn’t want Jesus to be put out while doing him a favor. When Jesus heard this He marveled, because the centurion’s faith was noteworthy. Jesus then turned and spoke 3 incredible words of wisdom that were original to Him long before they were sung by Paul McCartney and John Lennon: Let it be. Matthew 8:13 “as you have believed, so let it be done for you.” This is actually where we get our word AMEN. Amen translated directly into our language means “let it be.” When we say amen we are saying, “may what I have prayed come to pass.” But in light of the response of what happened in this interaction between the centurion and Jesus, our goal should be to pray such a gutsy prayer that with raised eyebrows God would say to you: Amen, let it be.
It is up to you whether the self-fulfilling prophecies you articulate become a delight or a dungeon. God’s response to the way you speak is: If you say so.
Questions to ask yourself:
How do I speak to myself and others? In what way is my speech positive? In what ways do I have a hard time controlling my tongue?
Think of an area of your life you tend to complain about or speak negatively of. Challenge yourself this week, every time you are tempted to complain, to find a way to thank God instead.