Blessed Are Those Who…Play Ping Pong?

We’ve inaugurated, we’ve marched, we’ve reacted to the inaugurating and the marching. We’ve watched, we’ve heard, and we’ve decided whether or not to engage in sometimes more and sometimes less meaningful discussions, perhaps unfortunately mostly on social media. We’ve supported, we’ve ranted, we’ve moralized, we’ve demoralized and, my guess is, we’ve rarely changed anyone’s mind including our own. What might it be like if we made time to sit down and have discussions with one another where we might see one another’s faces and hear one another’s tone of voice and notice in one another’s eyes a lack of all the things it’s easy to assume about someone from posts on social media?

This Jesus we follow pretty much offered change and opportunity and blessing and healing in the midst of direct human contact, even with those with whom he had major disagreements about politics, economics, and the definition of community. Direct human interaction, however, is more complex and more vulnerable… and way easier not to do. The most meaningful experiences in life are sometimes also the ones in the midst of the greatest struggle.

Okay, so yes, there was all the inaugurating and all the marching and all the reacting, but there was also something else… There was all the ping-ponging! Whaaaat?!? In the midst of life and world-altering events, there was all the ping-ponging happening on Sunday afternoon at a place called Grace in Olathe, Kansas. I know, right?!?

Have you seen the movie Forrest Gump!? I know, I know, I’m showing my age – but I’m going to risk the audacity, in the midst of the just-revealed Oscar nominations, to state boldly that if you have not seen the movie Forrest Gump, then you’ve missed a timeless classic! Perhaps most particularly in the heated political context in which we find ourselves, its message about another era of political controversy and polarization might remind us that we have found ways as a nation to survive complexity and heated differences and move forward. And part of it has to do with ping-ponging, as you might note from the movie clip that heads this blog. The perspective of that era of history in our nation, as told through the narration of an extremely kind, generous-hearted, child-like man, reminds us of a common humanity that, at our foundations, we all share… but I digress. For the tournament in question – my equipment:

Impressive, right? Or so I thought until a few folks came in to register for the tournament carrying their paddles in ping-pong paddle carriers. Who knew? They make ping-pong paddle carriers! In that moment, I wondered if my Kelly green Chuck Taylor high-top canvas Converse tennis shoes from my Jr. High Northern Valley Husky basketball playing days (not even kidding) would be the key to my success. As you might imagine, my secret weapon was little match for the competitive ping-pongers whose abilities amazed and astounded all who witnessed them.

We had five tables going at once – 4 competitive and one warm-up/fun table. Our youngest player was 10, our oldest… ummmm, let’s just say there might have been one or two folk older than your pastor. Before the matches started, Danny in the booth played the Wabash Cannon Ball – Wildcat fans, you know the adrenaline that stirs up in the deepest purple heart. Lest anyone fear, there were those wearing crimson and blue Jayhawk gear and even a couple gold and black Mizzou Tigers hanging out. Each table had official umpires who refused to be intimidated by my repeated sharing of the fact that Jesus was on my side.

The most illustrative match for my day happened when I lost a first game 11-0, was down the second game 8-0 and my 13 years old opponent was reminded he still had to face the pastor in a confirmation class next year and I suddenly rallied to score four points in a row. Down 8-4 but looking strong, the umpire then chose to tell my opponent something about grace and Jesus being on everyone’s side and not to play less than his best… whatever. The game happened to end with his winning 11-4. I know how the Chiefs felt after the Steelers game and the ref flagging that holding call. Sorry Umpire Connie, your integrity and sense of fairness did not work in my favor. *snort*

For a little over three hours on a Sunday afternoon, life didn’t feel quite so heavy. In the most heated competition – one of which was the Calkins’ men, Dad Troy and son Evan, you rock – there was laughter and amazement at unbelievable shots and hugs and high fives and fist bumps in the midst of winnings and losings. One ping-ponger chose to play with two paddles – Miranda, you looked good! Little Grant Hrabik, fine, you’re now taller than me as well, took the eventual champion to the limit in a semi-final match. And the last ping-ponger left standing – Matt, we salute you – is one of our newer members whose spouse was an umpire, and they will welcome into their family in a little over a month their first baby! HOW GREAT IS THAT!? Brad, long-time volunteer in our youth ministry, thank you. Thank you for organizing, for detailing, for structuring, and mostly for your spirit of generosity that encourages us to remember there are opportunities for flat out fun in the midst of the complexities of our world.

Grace. In the midst of polarization. Grace. In the midst of serious decisions about the nation and the world. Grace. In the midst of responsibilities to be aware and make a difference. Grace. In the midst of winnings and losings. Just. Grace. The faces and presence of our brothers and sisters are beautiful and courageous and worth our time to sit down together – or to play ping-pong, or bowl, or checkers, or marbles, or board games – and get to know. Or to serve a meal, or work in a clothing closet, or be an after-school tutor, or take a class, or teach a class and get to know. Social media is a gift with both challenges and opportunities – and human beings – Brothers and Sisters? We are the image of God together.

As Forrest Gump reminds us, “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.”