It’s About Time

Urban Faith It's About TimeWhether it’s the passing of a loved one or the end of a favorite TV show (goodbye Lost and 24), our losses, big and small, have much to teach us if we’ll just pay attention.

In times like these, times of economic uncertainty and turmoil, the natural response is to take stock of our most precious commodities. As many of us have suffered our losses, we’ve done our best to tighten our belts and get the most value from our assets.

In this respect, my life is no different. But the losses I’ve seen have helped me to bring into focus a need to evaluate the most precious asset of all: My time.

See, some people think money is our most precious asset, but I disagree. You can always make more money, but you can’t make time. We all get what we get, and none of us knows beforehand exactly how much.

Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about some of my losses, great and small.

And each loss in my sphere of experience — from the most emotionally poignant to the momentary and trivial — each loss, over the last few weeks, has served to bring about a fresh sense of urgency in how I think about time.

And try as I might, I can’t get away from it.

Recently, I “lost” my grandmother Lucille, who passed away after 90 years of life. She was my dad’s mom, a phenomenal, red-haired-in-her-prime, card-sharking, tell-it-like-it-is, firecracker of a woman. She was an outspoken critic, a warm source of encouragement, an emotional rock, and my last remaining grandparent. (As a bonus, she was also an enthusiastic hip-hop lip-syncher — check the 4:03 mark of this video.)

She was the type of woman who never seemed to waste her time, not because she was particularly organized or fastidious, but because she was always fully present. To spend time with her was to be in the presence of someone who made it a priority to be with you, even if it was only for a few minutes. And she carried that quality with her, even as her body began to cooperate less and less.

I remember once, when I came over to her room to visit with her and found her asleep. Not wanting to wake her, I left and mentally vowed to return later. The next time I saw her, she told me in no certain terms: “If that happens again, wake me up, child! I can sleep anytime.”

As her time here in this world grew more scarce, she did her best to make every moment count. That is one of many things I will miss about her.

And, turning to the trivial, it is also one of the things I will miss about the hit Fox series 24, which wraps up an eight-year-run on May 24.

I feel a little silly waxing eloquent about a TV show (though I’ve done so before), but the truth is, 24 has always held a special place in my pop culture universe. Among its numerous memorable characters was Dennis Haysbert’s fictional portrayal of America’s first Black president — an idea that in 2001 seemed so distant and fictional. Ever since that first season, I’ve been hooked.

Kiefer Sutherland as Jack BauerIn its eighth and final season, 24 has waned in ratings and overall popularity, but I started tuning in again for old time’s sake, and I must say — it’s still quite good. Even in the slower moments — where recent plot developments have [SPOILER ALERT!] forced Jack Bauer to experience his own profound sense of loss — even in those melancholy moments, the show has a way of reminding you, through the ever-present running clock, that every … moment … counts.

Indeed, this might end up being the most significant legacy of the show. Despite all the graphically violent torture scenes, despite the ridiculous, I-thought-she-was-dead plot twists, 24 has helped to influence a generation of viewers toward the idea that time matters. Even when we think nothing is going on, something is going on. In this way, 24 is teaching us what to think about time.

This is something 24 has in common with my other favorite show, Lost, which is also ending this May.

(Both 24 and Lost ! What am I going to do with myself?)

Say what you want about Lost, but one of the biggest reasons why it’s a hit among both critics and fans alike is its unique treatment of, and relationship to, time.

And it’s more than just the cerebral conundrums of time travel. The characters of Lost are constantly having to confront the universal character struggles that all hinge around time. Echoing in its plots are questions like, Will I ever outrun my past? Can I change my future, or am I doomed to repeat the past? Is it better to plan for the future, or just live in the moment? And how can I make the most of my present situation?

These questions are, pardon me, timeless.

And the proof is not simply that fans all over the world wrestle with them in their own lives, but that these themes continue to extend into unscripted television.

(Some of you probably shuddered at that last sentence because you’re expecting me to delve into Jersey Shore or something, but no … I’m talking about the original reality TV… sports.)

April and May for me have always meant watching the NBA playoffs and cheering for my hometown Portland Trail Blazers. But when Portland’s all-star Brandon Roy suffered a torn meniscus two days before the start of the postseason, Blazer fans wrestled over the question of which is more important — the present or the future?

Winning a first-round series in the playoffs had been the goal all season long, but without their star player the Blazers’ chances were grim against the higher-seeded Phoenix Suns. And yet, to bring him back early from his surgery, even at his own request, would risk further injury in the future and possibly threaten his career. It’s a conundrum no coach or general manager could face without suffering an avalanche of criticism.

Thankfully, they didn’t have to.

Portland's Brandon Roy guards a shooterRoy made his choice clear on April “24”th, when he shocked everyone by suiting up and taking the hardwood during Game 4, accompanied by the theme from Rocky and the thunderous applause from fans in the Rose Garden. Later it was revealed that he sent coach Nate McMillan text after text message, begging to play.

Although certain sportswriters were quick to condemn the move as reckless, I understood the decision. Brandon knew that his teammates were counting on him, and more importantly, he knew that there was no guarantee that if he sat out the current postseason he wouldn’t reinjure something else next year. Matter of fact, there was no guarantee that his team would even make the playoffs next year. By coming back early, he rallied his team to win Game 4, ensuring the possibility of a Game 6 at home.

I’m not saying it was the right thing to do. But it was his choice, and I’m glad he made it. Though my Blazers didn’t win the series, and the Suns are now facing the Lakers in the Western Finals, I know that Roy and his team gave everything they had to try to win.

All of us are faced with similar choices every day, and many times the stakes are much higher than the outcome of a basketball game. For those of us committed to following Christ, we have the weight of eternity hanging in the balance with every decision that we make. Most of these decisions do not have easy, obvious, this-is-right-and-that-is-wrong solutions. And we make them knowing tomorrow is not promised to any of us.

But there is good news in all of this.

As Chris Tomlin puts it, “age to age He stands, and time is in His hands.” We may not know what the future holds, but we know Who holds the future.

Convinced of God’s sovereignty, Christians can choose to regard the future with an open hand — anticipating with hope, but open to unexpected changes. And we don’t have to fret about not having all the answers, because we know that God freely gives wisdom to those who ask Him.

I hate to see my team lose. I really do. This team that I’ve followed faithfully since grade school, the only pro team in my small-market city. I live vicariously through them. When they lose big games, I feel a sense of profound loss.

But character matters more, and so does playing the right way. It hasn’t been until lately that I’ve really taken this to heart.

But man … it’s about time.

Photo of Brandon Roy by Keith Allison from Wikipedia.

Gilbert Arenas’s Unfunny Business

Gilbert Arenas's Unfunny Business for urban faithAmong other things, the NBA star’s troubles offer this sobering reminder: An occasional joke is okay, but don’t quit your day job.

Washington Wizards basketball star Gilbert Arenas was recently suspended by the NBA because of a practical joke involving several unloaded handguns, a joke that he played on a teammate who was angry over an unpaid gambling debt. Consequently, Arenas was hit with a gun charge, to which he pleaded guilty, and now his contract with the Wizards appears on the verge of termination.

Clearly, the joke didn’t go over that well.

Nevertheless, Gilbert Arenas is a genuinely funny guy, and I hope that somehow, despite the fallout over his recent transgressions, he doesn’t lose his sense of humor.

See, humor is a funny thing.

In one sense, it’s a basic human need, a notch or two below the need for food, clothing, and shelter. This is why sitcoms and comedians are so popular. As people, we don’t just love to laugh, we need to laugh. Humor is a critical way that we humans express shared meaning and make sense of the world, and it exists at the convergence of our intellect and emotions.

Unfortunately, this makes the concept of funny mysterious and hard to pin down. It often depends on context, which is why sometimes it’s so hard to relay a funny joke from one situation into another. So many factors can change the equation so many times, that a joke that sparks a bout of side-splitting laughter here might only elicit a chorus of yawns there — or worse, an avalanche of boos.

This problem has plagued many comedians over the years, especially White entertainers who complain of an unfair double standard regarding ethnic slurs. Many White folks in general have cited, from the annals of Black pop culture, example after example of things said by Blacks that if said by a White person would be denounced as racist.

So it’s with more than a little schadenfreude that pundits and commentators of almost every persuasion have emerged from the woodwork to pontificate on the subject of fallen-NBA-star Arenas and his recent incident involving handguns in the locker room. Like Caesar, they come not to praise Arenas, but to bury him under a cloud of suspicion.

This wholesale denunciation is problematic.

Much has been said in defense of Arenas’s quirky, practical-joking “Agent Zero” persona. And I agree with those who have detected a racialized difference in the overall response and coverage of this and incidents like it, proof of the NBA’s overall image problem in mainstream America. Both the NFL and MLB have been dogged by far more police blotter activity, particularly as it relates to violent crime and drug abuse, yet neither is tagged as routinely as the NBA is as a “league full of thugs.”

Furthermore, too little has been said about the reason why Arenas had the guns in the locker room in the first place, which, according to reports, was because he didn’t feel comfortable with them coexisting with his children at home. This seems, on the face of things, to be a responsible decision.

But all of that is beside the point.

The real travesty is that Gilbert Arenas earned all the penalties levied against him because he failed to grasp a rather obvious truth: In life, not everything is a joke.

Inveterate pranksters often use humor as a defense mechanism to mask their insecurity. Arenas’s story — abandoned by his mother and raised by his father, whom he didn’t meet until he was 3 years old — is filled with the kind of personal pathos that can inspire insecurity and fear of rejection. Not only has Arenas fit this pattern throughout his career, but after the gun incident went public he actually admitted in his Twitter feed — boasted, really — that he never takes anything seriously.

This quality often makes him an engaging interview subject, but in this case, it clearly impaired his judgment.

How do we know this?

Because with even a modicum of awareness, he would have noticed the following:

• Guns are often involved in violent crimes, which are often perpetrated by, and thus associated with, young Black men

• The NBA is a league dominated by young Black men

• The NBA has, for the last few years, been trying to recover from a series of scandals that have generated a lot of negative publicity

• The D.C. team used to be known as the Washington Bullets, but the general public decided the name was in bad taste, considering the District’s notoriously high murder rate

• Not coincidentally, The District of Columbia has some of the strictest gun laws in the country

All of this, and still …

Not only did Arenas not have the sense to ask a team official about how to properly deal with his guns, not only did he not have the sense to realize that guns and practical jokes don’t belong in the same sentence, but even after he did these things and they became public knowledge, he didn’t have the sense to apologize or show any genuine form of contrition outside of a statement drafted by his attorney.

I think Gilbert Arenas defaulted to his normal response to everything, which is to turn it into a joke and hope it goes away.

This time, it just didn’t work.

Now, I’m not saying that he should lose his job over this. Some punishments, though understandable and legally permissible, are still excessive — like the guy who was fired from his job for being a fantasy football commissioner.

Plus, this will remain as a stain on Arenas’s reputation. As such, Gil will probably continue to feel misunderstood as he tries to put his career back together. Like many talented Black men with chips on their shoulders, he might be tempted to adopt a me-against-the-world mentality.

“Only God can judge me,” goes the typical ‘hood refrain. This could become his mantra.

But I hope not.

Likewise, I hope he doesn’t lose his sense of humor altogether. Maybe one day he’ll crack open a Bible, find Proverbs 26:18-19, and learn to use discernment when cracking jokes. And maybe he’ll discover Romans 13:1, and learn to receive correction from authority more gracefully.

Maybe, as part of his NBA penance, he’ll end up in a public service announcement about the dangers of practical jokes.

Now that would be funny.

Photo of Gilbert Arenas by Keith Allison from Wikipedia.