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Pointing to the sky
Sunday, April 3, 2005
Headlines this morning in our paper are white on black: "World Mourns Pope. We all feel like orphans this evening." There's a beautiful picture of Pope John Paul II, now with Jesus, sitting quietly, praying, hands before his face, eyes wide open.
Jesus said, "Let not your hearts be troubled." John Paul brought those words home to the twentieth century. He inspired Poland's spiritual warriors in their struggle against the Communist regime and became the world's spiritual leader three years before the Berlin Wall came down. He spoke into a cold-war world scarred by intimidation and betrayal and death: "Do not be afraid."
Papa John Paul led by vigorous example into the lion's den. The strength of his commitment to life, to Jesus, to integrity and generosity inspired his church. Most personally for me, he inspired one of my most precious friends in his own life struggles, turning him over and over toward Jesus, showing him and his family the way to surrender, to victory, to peace.
Do not be afraid.
The smaller headline today is black on white: "Illini, One to Go." These guys - who went small-town bowling on the way to the Final Four, who hug each other before, during and after games, who just keep on winning - make people happy. They are led by a coach whose humility in the spotlight helps keep them strong and generous with each other. CBS announcer Billy Packer re-spelled Illinois: "T-E-A-M."
One of last night's stars, Roger Powell Jr., kept his finger pointed skyward long enough for the cameras to hold it and fans to see it clearly. Interviewed on court he gave credit where credit was due, to his "Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I prayed at halftime ... and I really enjoyed myself today."
Last night's other star, Luther Head, is Powell's good friend. Head found himself in trouble with both police and coach last year after he and two other players were accused of breaking into a campus apartment. He stayed on the team. This year, during the national anthem before every game, Luther and Roger have their arms around each other.
At the post-game news conference they were both up at the table with their coach. A reporter asked, "What specifically did you pray, Roger?" He said, "I just prayed for the Lord to give us strength, like I always do, to just give me the confidence to get out there and play at a high level."
Let not your hearts be troubled.
Asked why the team was so loose and relaxed, Roger answered, "It's our maturity. We prayed ... played, all year with pressure from the 'streak'. We're used to it."
This calm style, along with the team's extraordinary camaraderie, rubs off on the most cynical reporters. Jay Mariotti of the Chicago Sun-Times, known for his witty big-city sarcasm, echoed the sentiments of a fellow "ESPN's Around the Horn" correspondent when he wrote this morning,
It's not often when you see an ordained minister share the post-game podium with an accused burglar. The Illini are charming that way, crafting a story that has a nation asking what possibly could be next. *
The final question asked at the Illini press conference was for Roger.
In the last few seconds of the game you were standing there with both your arms in the air, pointing to the sky. What did that mean, what were you thinking there?
I was pointing to Jesus, that's what I was doing. I was just really thankful. I did it last game that we won, against Arizona, and I felt I needed to do it again today.
He smiled. The interview was over.
Do not be afraid.
Jesus, keep us in peace, now, and at the hour of our death.