junior varsity

I should really get out more. That’s what I told my sister as we sat in the bleachers of the auxiliary gym watching my nephew’s JV high school basketball scrimmage last week, because I found myself completely, totally, entirely caught up in the high school basketball game. Correction: not the high school basketball game; the junior varsity scrimmage.

The game WAS a good one, even though both Leah and Mike, my brother-in-law, had warned me not to expect too much. But those kids played hard and fast, and Tyler’s team ended up winning by a single point. The gym was full – a huge crowd for a Tuesday night JV scrimmage – and the fans were IN IT. In the 3rd period, a kid from the opposing team ran into a layup – which he missed – and as he and the defender floated back down, the ref blew his whistle. The entire gym waited with bated breath for the call. When he pushed his hands out in front of him and pointed at the shooter, calling an offensive foul and curtailing any chance of a free throw that would tie up the game that had been a hair’s breadth apart for minutes, we all, collectively, as one being, both sighed and cheered in relief.

Here’s what’s hopeful about a JV high school basketballs scrimmage: the coaches for both teams were COACHING. I mean, COACHING – pacing the line, constantly calling out plays and encouragement, giving individual direction, getting the players on the bench to start chants and cheers and applause for their teammates. The bleachers were filled with kids’ parents, families, and friends. There was a varsity scrimmage happening across the parking lot, but still the JV gym was full of people showing up on a Tuesday evening to support those kids. And we weren’t scrolling our phones while we sat there, either, we were present, attentive, totally engaged in what was happening, in what those kids were doing out there on the court.

For a time, my life was filled with teenagers. I spent a few years as a youth minister, and was bowled over by how much I loved it. I’m not a charismatic dude with a guitar, and I prefer a quiet nook filled with books to loud music and amusement parks, but holy cow did I love those kids. They were smart, and honest, and tender and kind and always, always surprising. I didn’t know exactly what being a pastor to teenagers would look like, but it took me to places of incredible joy and incredible pain. My heart will forever be mapped around a teenager-shaped spot of tenderness.

And I realized, sitting in that auxiliary gym last week, what a marvel it is to show up for young people in times like these. Those coaches don’t have to coach like that. Those families aren’t required to show up like that. There are no VHSL rules that require players on the bench to clap and chant and cheer for their teammates. Nobody made the guy standing at the end of the court nod and chant and call&response his way through that scrimmage, cheering those kids like he was on court at an NBA championship game. Leah and Mike could do all kinds of things with their time, but they spend their weeknights and weekends at Tyler’s games – baseball and basketball and then a little more baseball – choosing to invest their time and energy and love with him in the simplest, most powerful way possible: showing up, consistently.

I am thinking, this morning, about all those folks who invest so heavily in young people: parents, yes, and teachers and coaches, youth ministers who lose sleep on lock-ins and retreats and mission trips, grandparents who spend their retirement in stinky high school gyms and elementary auditoriums, mentors and friends and foster parents who make room in their lives for young people, all the ways we wizened, cynical adults insist on loving and encouraging and shaping kids for a future we have trouble imagining. If that’s not hope, I don’t know what is.

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