Of Love & LeBron: Finding My Way Back to #Believeland
The final buzzer sounded to end the 2016 NBA Finals, and LeBron James, who’d seconds earlier laid on the court in pain from a poorly landed fall, fell to the court again. This time, he was sobbing tears of joy.
And I fell to the tile floor of our sweaty house in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, crying my own tears of joy.
The first time I watched a basketball game in Haiti, Lebron James played for the Miami Heat, and he’d lost handily to the Dallas Mavericks. I don’t know what feelings of defeat LeBron carried off the court that night, but I know I was carrying defeat and a thousand other ugly feelings around my own life court.
But wait. This isn’t some sports site, and you don’t care about Lebron or Cleveland, more aptly known as #Believeland during basketball season.
Before you jump ship for your regularly scheduled Instagram scrolling, hear me out. Because this isn’t really about basketball or Lebron James or all those now-broken sports records. This is about you and me and #Believeland and finding our way back to each other and the things that make us alive.
When I watched that Finals game five years ago, I felt like a mere shell of myself. I could feel my heart shattering under the weight of injustice, and the demands of ministry. And I hated LeBron, because the cute guy I was pretty sure I loved hailed from Ohio, and he happened to be the most devoted of Cleveland sports fans.
When LeBron James famously left his native Cleveland for the sun and sand (don’t blame you for wanting to be warm, LeBron) of South Beach, Miami to play for the Heat, all of Northeast Ohio erupted in anger and disappointment. People burned their James jerseys. This was no small betrayal. LeBron James was the most hated man in Ohio.
I left once too. No, I didn’t take a private jet to Miami, although I’d be up for that. Instead, I abandoned the life I knew I needed, and hid from the faith that has sustained my soul for all these years. Call it my own proverbial South Beach years, or the birthright of every millennial to question everything we’ve ever known about faith and truth.Those first years after Haiti - was it two, or three years, it’s hard to count when you’re wandering - were filled with more questions than answers, more doubt than faith, and more abandoning my tribe than huddling together on the sidelines to rework the game plan.
I first arrived in Haiti fresh off a six month missions training, with a penchant for adventure and world change. I tried to make all my ministry dreams play to perfection. I poured my heart and soul into my work. From coordinating disaster relief efforts after the 2010 earthquake, to hosting countless short term missions teams, to living in a crowded house with ninety people, to limping my way through the grueling work of one-on-one mentoring, I put my entire self into all of it. But, the ministry I worked for closed as soon as the last staff member left our once- bustling home. I quickly lost touch with all the teams and the girls that had once felt like sisters. It seemed I’d failed as I was just beginning.
Maybe that’s how LeBron felt leaving Cleveland for South Beach. He’d tried. He’d played like only the best player in the world can, and he hadn’t delivered a championship in his first seasons with his hometown team. He’d failed. So, it was time to take his talents elsewhere.
But, the thing with leaving is, you usually find your way home.
And so we did. We came back to our own #Believelands. For LeBron, #Believeland meant returning to the first, and now hopefully last, team he’d ever played professional basketball with. For me, #Believeland meant wrestling through ministry burnout, a wounded faith, and a sea of doubt to find my way home, not to my beloved Texas that raised me, but to my treasured Haiti, the one place I feel truly whole and alive.
I don’t know exactly when it happened, when my heart started to feel whole again. When I felt the courage coming back. When I booked my ticket back to #Believeland. Maybe it was singing an old hymn in the cranberry pews of the Texas church that raised me, the one where the pastor and his wife hail from South Carolina, and welcome every wanderer. Maybe it was in my friend Connie’s eclectic kitchen, where I found the space to fall apart when I needed it most. Maybe it was in the living room of my childhood home, savoring moments with my family. Or the dining room of our first apartment after Kyle and I got married. Or the long drive from Texas to Ohio in the middle of winter, uprooting just because we knew we needed to. Maybe it came in Sundays spent in the Anabaptist church I didn’t expect to love, just miles south of the actual Believeland. Or, maybe it was all of the above, because through the wandering, I found my people- my living, breathing #Believeland, scattered from Texas to Ohio to Haiti and everywhere in between.
Wherever it is, whoever they are, whatever it means for you, find your #Believeland. The place where you are most whole, and the people who choose to see the good in you and the world. Whether that good is in a prodigal son returning, or a girl coming into her own skin, braving the fear, and getting back to the life that makes her alive.
And, after a few years of rebuilding and hard work, you might find yourself hoisting your city’s first championship trophy in over half a century. You may get to beat the winningest team in NBA history, and be the first team to ever come back to win the finals after being down three games to one. Or you may find that your people are the best people, loving you across all the miles the Caribbean ocean spans.
That night last month, in our home in Haiti, when my husband stood frozen in disbelief and ecstasy, when I couldn’t stop sobbing, and LeBron couldn’t stop beaming, that night wasn’t just about basketball.
LeBron and I, we’d both come home in our way, to our own #Believeland. We’d both mounted unheard of comebacks. I wasn’t getting sprayed with champagne, and no one’s ever going to pay money for my name on the back of their shirt, but I’d found my own redemption. And, after fifty-two years of heartbreaking losses, and coming so close so many times, Northeast Ohio threw a championship parade.
Maybe it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Maybe it isn’t eternally significant that a kid from Akron came home to a city that hated him, and won them over again. Then, won them a record-breaking championship. But, in a world where people can’t go dancing without dying, my friends don’t always know where their next meal is coming from, and presidential candidates are actually reality TV stars, I say it matters. It matters that a tiny corner of the world, hit hard by recession and big economic things that make my head hurt, welcomed their prodigal son home.
And now, they get to live and breathe victory.
I don’t know what your home-place is. I don’t know who your winning team is. I don’t what it’s going to take to stage your own historic comeback. I don’t know what’s holding you back.
But here’s what I do know: I want to camp out in #Believeland, not the pin drop on my Maps, but the communal place we’re all longing for. I want the people who are going to stick with me through fifty-two years of losing, through half a century of heart-wrenching failure. I want the people in my corner to welcome me home after I leave in the worst way. I want those people on my team.
I want people who are going to show up and show up loud when there is finally, finally a championship parade. I want the confetti, and the screams, and the old people who never thought they’d see the day.
And I want to be that person too. I want to be the one who comes home to my tribe, and says, “Let me shoulder this,” and then I want to deliver, not just in small ways, but in big, earth- shattering ways.
That’s the #Believeland I want to raise my babes in, and that’s the kind of hope I want to wear on my sleeve, for all the world to see.
So maybe it is just basketball, and maybe this is the most you’ve ever read about sports. But maybe, just maybe, there’s a chance for all of us to find home again, to carry each other into #Believeland, and to throw the biggest victory parade our corner of the world has ever seen.
Because life takes guts, good people, and a whole lot of grace, and that always deserves a celebration.