ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Last Thursday night sports station ESPN aired a one hour prime time special called “The Decision.” Free agent LeBron James, 25 year old former superstar of the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team, was to announce his decision. Would he re-sign with the Cavaliers, where he was not able to win an NBA championship in 7 years, or would he jump ship to another team?
Even if you don’t follow sports, I imagine you heard about this impending “decision.” For the last year James has been intensively courted by various teams, including the Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks, New Jersey Nets, and Miami Heat. Since LeBron comes from Ohio, Clevelandfans were hopeful that he would remain loyal to his beloved hometown team. A 10 story high mural of James with outstretched arms and the words, “We are all witnesses,” has long adorned a building near the Quicken Loans Arena.
At 9:27 p.m. last Thursday, halfway through the TV special, James said these words, “This fall, I’m going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat.” LeBron will join buddies Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in the hope of winning that elusive NBA championship. The economic impact of James’ decision on the city of Miami is expected to be $500-$600 million.
I have no use for shameless self-promotion, so I paid little attention to the constant LeBron James hype over the past year. After all, James is only 25 years old and has been playing in the NBA since he was an 18 year old teenager. Even though James is a supremely gifted basketball player, he still has some growing up to do.
To allow his media handlers to string people along for a year, then concoct a scheme to announce his decision on prime time television demonstrates youthful immaturity, extreme narcissism, and a misunderstanding of his importance in the grand scheme of our earth. I am more concerned, however, with the way Cleveland fans and LeBron’s own teammates were treated. To make an announcement to the world without the courtesy of informing the Cavaliers’ organization ahead of time is both disappointing and disrespectful. No wonder fans began burning LeBron jerseys on Thursday night. On Friday the mural came down, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer published a picture of James walking away with the word “GONE” at the top and an arrow pointing to his finger with the phrase, “7 years, $62 million, no rings.”
Whenever national or international events receive an excessive or even outrageous amount of media attention, it prompts me to stop and reflect. In this case, why was there such an intense reaction to James’ announcement? What does our obsession with the rich and famous say about our country, and what does it say about us?
Shame on ESPN for accentuating the hype and using James to their own benefit. ESPN claims that they did not make money on the show, that James’ media team was allowed to sell all the advertising, with proceeds going to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. But, as the highest rated program on TV on Thursday night, was this responsible journalism? Then again, if Americans are willing to watch, why not?
Clearly, Clevelandfans were outraged by James, as if his decision to exercise his free agency was a betrayal. Cleveland Cavaliers majority owner Dan Gilbert responded heatedly to James’ decision in a letter to Cleveland fans on the team website, “You simply don’t deserve this kind of cowardly betrayal … I personally guarantee that the Cleveland Cavaliers will win an NBA championship before the self-titled former ‘king’ wins one. You can take it to the bank.” Gilbert also criticized James for his poor attitude and lackadaisical performance during the last months of the season and the play-offs.
Some people called LeBron a coward. Some said he was more interested in playing with his friends than loyalty to his current team. Some felt he should stay in Clevelandbecause he has unfinished business (winning a championship). Still others claim that James is not a leader but a follower. He doesn’t want to carry a team by himself, so he is looking for others to carry the load.
Doesn’t the anger seem out of proportion to the issue? Everyone knew that James’ contract was up on July 1. Doesn’t being a free agent imply LeBron’s freedom to choose another team? So what’s the problem? Why did they even expect LeBron to come back? If James felt it was time to move on in his career, who could fault him?
I wonder: what if pastors in The United Methodist Church could sign 7 year contracts and then become free agents? What if we could market our services to the highest church bidder and negotiate our own salary and benefits? What if we had a 2 hour TV special in West Michigan every spring where churches and pastors could go at it and out-bid each other for their dream pastor?
You’re probably aware that there are 2 primary systems for deploying clergy in Christian churches, the call system and the appointment system. Most denominations use a call system, where pastors seek out positions on their own, and churches are free to call (hire) whomever they wish. In contrast, in The United Methodist Church and the Catholic Church, pastors are appointed by a Bishop. In The UMC, there is mandated consultation with both churches and pastors, but appointments are made by the Bishop.
As a District Superintendent, I hear complaints about the appointive system from time to time. Churches don’t like the pastors we send them, and pastors don’t like the churches to which we send them. Occasionally, pastors are upset because they feel they have the skills for leading churches that are far larger than the one to which they are appointed. “You are preventing me from realizing my full potential,” they lament. “I deserve better than this and am far more capable than I am portrayed to be.”
The reality is that in the West Michigan Conference we don’t have a lot of large churches with hefty salaries. Few pastors get what they deserve, and many of us will probably experience a pay cut in the course of our careers. “If you want a large church, grow the church where you are appointed,” I am sometimes tempted to say. Ah, I digress. Well … maybe not.
Perhaps “The Decision” has touched a raw nerve at the same time as it exposes our preoccupation with LeBron James. At the heart of our struggle to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ lurk 2 huge temptations:
- Our hidden desire to control
Just as God gave Adam and Eve the freedom to disobey God, so you and I are given the freedom to make our own way through life. God deliberately chose not to create us as robots. What fun would that be? Rather, God wants us to freely choose the way of discipleship, sacrifice, grace and servanthood.
In the same way, none of us can force the heart of another person, even LeBron James. Unfortunately, our sinful nature rears its ugly head when we desire to control other people’s choices, whether it is our spouse, children, pastor, friends, or the Bishop. For heaven’s sake, let LeBron choose his team, respect his choice, and move on!
- Our secret craving for fame and wealth
Jesus asks us to give up ourselves, let go of pride, and offer our very lives in humble service. You know what that means. It means we probably won’t ever be as rich as LeBron James. We’ll never have a 10 story billboard with our face on it inGrand RapidsorMuskegon. We won’t be on TV, and we may not ever be recognized as much as we deserve by our family, church, and community.
Are you okay with that? Really? To be honest, I’m not sure I am. In the depths of my heart, I still imagine the day when I’ll be duly recognized as God’s gift to the world. It’s a foolish and unrealistic dream, but it’s nevertheless part of my ongoing struggle as a human being to lose my life, my jealousies, and my desire for acclaim for the sake of thekingdom ofGod.
So we’re left with “The Decision.” Do you know LeBron’s nickname? “King James.” We remember King James as the King of England who, in his desire for a uniform Bible for the whole Church of England, authorized a new translation, which was in process from 1604-1611. In the preface we find these words about the men chosen to work on the translation, “There were many chosen, that were greater in other men’s eyes than in their own, and that sought the truth rather than their own praise. Again, they came or were thought to come to the work, learned, not to learn.”
I pray that LeBron’s decision is a good one and that he enjoys playing basketball in Miami, whether he wins an NBA championship or not. I also hope that he will eventually learn how not to seek his own praise, for that is the mark of human growth, maturity, and responsiveness to the needs of the world.
But what about you and me? What decision do you need to make about how you will live your life? Remember, you are a free agent.