Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Life and Death Rivalry

My first memory of the Michigan State University and University of Michigan rivalry ended in defeat.  In the first grade, I began to build a pattern of green and white linking cubes to represent the Spartans' school colors.  Gary Parsons, one of my best friends and a Michigan fan, used the Wolverines' colors of maize and blue to start a rival pattern.  Within minutes, Gary recruited several other boys from our class to assist with his chain of cubes.  I desperately tried to recruit classmates to help my cause.  When I said, "Go Green!" no one responded with "Go White!"  My throat lumped as the maize and blue pattern dwarfed my Spartan chain (pun intended).  I burst into tears and ran to my teacher, a Michigan State alum, for comfort.

The athletic rivalry between the two schools pretty much followed the same script for my entire childhood.  Michigan owned Michigan State in basketball for the first 15 years of my life and dominated the Spartans in football for the first 25 years of my life.  Occasionally, Michigan State would pull out a surprise win, but overall the rivalry was quite one-sided.  As an annual rite of autumn, I could count on trudging onto the school bus on a Monday morning in October with the hood of my Michigan State Starter jacket pulled over my head to drown out my buddies' taunts after the Wolverines won yet another football game against my beloved Spartans.  I still wore that jacket with pride.

During my last year of high school, I faced the choice of choosing between the two rivals not on the athletic field, but in the classroom.  For a couple years, I begrudgingly assumed that I might end up going to the University of Michigan.  I excelled in math and science, earned the grades and standardized test scores needed to gain admission, and wanted to pursue a degree in engineering.  I attended a county-wide magnet school for math and science that heavily advocated, over-emphasized in my view, attending the most prestigious university possible, regardless of other factors that might influence the decision.  Honestly, in the view of the guidance counselor, the University of Michigan was a fallback in case you didn't get accepted to an Ivy League school, MIT, or Cal-Tech.  So imagine his surprise when I told him that I had decided to enroll at Michigan State despite holding an acceptance to Michigan.  He said that he had never seen any student make that decision.

What he didn't understand was that I didn't choose Michigan State, I was born into it.  I was born into green and white onesies.  I was born into trips to research farms with my grandfather, a retired animal science professor at Michigan State, to see sheep, pigs, and cows.  I was born into family hockey games at Munn Ice Arena, where my uncle was the equipment manager for the Spartan hockey team.  I was born into attending late autumn football games with my grandpa, where I learned to sing, "Fight!  Fight!  Rah, team, fight!  Victory for MSU!"  The devotion only grew stronger as I proudly wore my Starter jacket and sewed a green and white football in home economics class despite the overwhelming opposition of my peers.  Fittingly, green and white thread was also interwoven through my life and choosing to attend Michigan over Michigan State would have seemed like taking scissors to all that stitching.  Of course my family would have loved me the same, but we are Spartans.  It is who we are.

What my guidance counselor also didn't know was that choosing Michigan State would end up being one of the best decisions of my life.  I received significantly more scholarship money from Michigan State, immediate entrance into the Honors College, and the opportunity to work with professors on research projects.  The College of Engineering's strong internship program offered me the opportunity to work my way through college and graduate debt free.  Attending the "family school" enabled me to enjoy regular Sunday brunches with my grandparents.  Through the influence of Spartan Christian Fellowship, I dedicated my life to Christ and started deep, life long friendships.  I love Michigan State University.  I love all the memories, thoughts, and feelings that it conjures in my mind.  Yet, I still haven't forgotten the opinion of my high school guidance counselor: Why would anyone choose Michigan State over Michigan?

Similar experiences and the perceived hierarchy of the schools is why it matters so much to Spartan fans when Michigan State battles Michigan on the athletic field, particularly in football and basketball.  I know it might be hard to fully understand for those who didn't attend Michigan State, particularly for those who aren't from the state of Michigan.  There is more history to the rivalry than could ever fit in this post, but there is a perceived history of institutional arrogance from the University of Michigan on the field of athletics and in the halls of academic.  There is an assumption that the only people who go to Michigan State are the ones who couldn't get into Michigan, who weren't "the leaders and the best."  When the Spartans play against the Wolverines, they are in part playing to refute that opinion.  They are playing for the man who loves his school and the life transformation he experienced on the banks of the Red Cedar.  They are playing for the twelve year old boy who is unashamed to wear a green and white jacket.  They are playing for the first grader with tears dropping on green and white linking cubes.  They are playing for all those who are proud to be Spartans.

You might not guess it by reading what I have written so far, but I actually take rivalry much less seriously than some Spartan fans.  My uncle won't even wear blue.  Maturity and my faith in Christ have taught me that there are far more important things than who holds the Paul Bunyan Trophy, the prize awarded to the winner of annual football game.  I know that may not seem like the most profound lesson, it seems pretty obvious actually, but it is one that I need to be reminded of from time to time.  At my best, I am able to appreciate the passion, teamwork, drama, and sacrifice that are displayed in college athletics.  At my worst, even in adulthood, I can slip from a fan to an idolater and the enjoyment of competition can become an obsession.  In these times, the rivalry seems like life or death.

Which is why it is ironic, or perhaps providential, that real life and death has intertwined with my experience of the rivalry in the last couple years.  Now, I am not narcissistic enough to suppose that God has ordained the outcome of the Michigan-Michigan State football game just to teach me a lesson, but I do believe in a God who works all things for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28) and who lets not one sparrow fall to the ground outside his will (Matthew 10:29).  God is big enough to use the same event to impact my life in one way and in the life of players, coaches, and supporters of the University of Michigan in a completely different way.  God is also creative and omniscient enough to build purpose into seemingly minor and insignificant events, such as the outcome of a sporting event.

Two years ago, my daughter Evelyn was born on October 20, the day of the big football game.  I was actually able to watch the game since Evelyn was born at 12:15 in the morning and Becky appreciated a little bit of rest time by mid-afternoon.  The Spartans lost on a field goal as time expired, another agonizingly close defeat in a season full of "almost" and "only if."  Needless to say, on the day my daughter was born, I did not waste a lot of emotion and mental energy bemoaning the defeat.  Instead, I prayed that the Lord would sow seeds of faith in her heart and spring them to life by his Holy Spirit.  I longed that she would be filled with love, hope, faith, generosity and kindness.  I hoped that Christ would do more in her life and through her life than I could ever hope or imagine. 

This year, as I sat and watched the game in our basement, I kept the phone nearby wondering if my grandpa, the same grandpa who took me to football games as a boy, would live to see the end of the game.  He is currently receiving hospice care and is still with us as I type this post.  Michigan State completely dominated the Wolverines, and while I enjoyed watching the Spartans' performance, I did not invest a lot of emotion and mental energy relishing the victory.  Instead, I prayed that the Lord would help my grandpa finish his race strong with his eyes fixed on the cross of Christ.  I thanked God for my grandpa's long life filled with love, hope, faith, generosity and kindness.  I longed that my grandpa would soon taste eternal glory that is beyond what I could ever hope or imagine.

On the day Michigan State experienced a crushing defeat to their rivals, I welcomed new life into the world with great joy.  As the Spartans soared in victory, I solemnly prepared for the loss of my grandfather.  The outcome of the Michigan-Michigan State football game still matters to me.  It matters to a lot of people.  Yet, it is greatly overshadowed by the things that truly matter in life, that make life joyful.  Smiling at my daughter and reading her the Chronicles of Narnia during her first day on earth and cherishing beloved memories with my grandfather are realities that are far greater than the outcome of any football game, whether victory or defeat.

In the same way, those realities are also viewed and experienced through even greater realities.  At many football games, fans hold signs proclaiming one of these realities: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).  That reality, God's sacrificial love for us, changes how I view both the life of my daughter and the death of my grandfather.  Evelyn is not just a cute, cuddly little baby, but an eternal soul created in the very image of God.  Jesus calls her, and all children, to come unto him and admonishes others to model her childlike faith.  The Lord promises that he will not lose any that have been given to him and that he will continue a good work in her life.  My grandpa's death is not the end, he is more than mere bones and tissue that will decay and return to the circle of life.  He too is an eternal soul created in the very image of God.  While he lived a good and honorable life, it is not his righteousness that gives me hope in this valley of death, but Christ's righteousness for God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21).  It is also the unchangeable and unconquerable nature of God's love that fuels my hope.  In his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul writes:

What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:

"For your sake we face death all day long;
    we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (Romans 8:31-37).

I think Paul sums it up best, what shall we say in response to these things?  If God is for us, who can be against us?  God is for me in the birth and life of my daughter.  He is for me in the death of my grandpa, as I ponder all the ways that the Lord has blessed me through my grandpa's life and in his eternal promises for my grandpa.  Yes, there are eternal realities that are greater even that the first cry of a newborn and the last breath of an aging man.  These realities are found in the unfathomable love of God shown to us in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and in the ongoing work of God in our lives.  These realities are far greater than any outcome on this earth, even life or death.