Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. — Janice Joplin
I was sitting in my counselor’s office when an image came to mind. It was of me on a football field in the middle of a game. A game I was apparently -playing! Armored up, I had the ball tucked under my left arm. My head was down as I stiff-armed the defenders coming at me and barreled on toward the end zone.
Me playing football is laughable. Not only am I getting up in years, but in my youth I was of the variety that got picked last for any game. To this day, if a ball comes my way I either run the opposite direction or duck and clasp my hands over my head.
Therefore, this image intrigued me.
As images often do, I believe this one has a number of interpretations and layered meanings. Most obvious to me was the theme of protection: not only the helmet and pads I was wearing but the way I was stiff-arming others while clutching the ball.
At first, I thought I was protecting myself. But a friend pointed out that football players train for being hit. They expect it. She said what football players are charged with is protecting the ball. The entire game is about that ball.
“So what is the ball?” my wise friend asked.
The first answer that sprang to mind was my ego. Not wanting to believe that answer, I searched for others — which kind of proves the point, doesn’t it? My ego. The ball I was protecting at all costs was my ego.
That revelation stung.
Theologian Richard Rohr describes the ego as a “small, self-enclosed, narcissistic, self-protective self that is not maliciously evil but tricky and untrustworthy.” The ego’s main job is to protect us from pain. It’s no wonder I want to guard it at all costs.
However, given this football image, I’d say it’s also an exhausting way to live. Because I need to constantly defend myself as I try to find a way through to my destination, always trying to outrun the pain.
“Your salvation requires you . . . to stop your silly efforts to save yourselves,” God said to his people through the prophet Isaiah (30:15, Message).
Silly efforts, indeed! If we’re honest, I think we could agree we all participate in a good bit of that self-saving behavior.
And not just individually. I wasn’t the only one out on that field. We have a corporate ego as well.
The word “salvation” in the Isaiah verse means to be placed in freedom. It’s a deliverance kind of word. It means to be open, wide, free. To be safe.
However, according to God, this safety is not going to happen by skill, speed or stiff-arming anyone. God says our true safety requires us to stop all this saving of self. To stop engaging in the games people play. Quite literally, to drop the ball.
As I’ve thought about this ball being my ego, it’s come to mind that what I’m carrying, clutching and curling myself around are my narratives. My interpretations and grievances. My ways, wants and will.
To use football language, I’ve had to defend my position, and in order to do so I must keep others who pose a threat to such things at a distance. Thus the stiff side-arm.
I see our faith communities here as well. We’re tucked in tight in order to feel safe. But the safety God invites us to, through the prophet Isaiah, is open, wide and free. It’s a whole different ballgame. It’s where we find Jesus.
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit,” the Apostle Paul wrote. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who . . . emptied himself” (Philippians 2:3-7).
“Emptied himself of all but love,” penned Charles Wesley in his hymn, “And Can It Be.”
When we’re empty, we have nothing to protect. Nothing to defend. No one to outrun. There’s no fear in anyone knocking that ball out of our arms once we, like Jesus, have laid it down of our own free will.
Jesus didn’t come to play the games people play. He was open, wide and free because he dropped the ball. Laid his life down of his own accord. Emptied himself of all but love. He invites us to do the same.