If you’ve lived in the United States in the last few months to the last 10 years or more, and you’ve been anywhere near a television that streams ESPN, I’m sure you’ve heard the story of the love affair between LeBron James and the city of Cleveland, Ohio. But in case you haven’t, here is the abridge version as I have witnessed it: a young man, LeBron James, grew up outside of Cleveland, in the city of Akron. He attended St. Vincent St. Mary High School where he was an outstanding athlete, earning the privilege of being drafted into the NBA upon graduation by none other than his “hometown” team of the Cleveland Cavaliers (I put that in quotes, because “Cleveland” is unique in that, even if you’re from the suburbs or outskirts of the greater-Cleveland area, you probably tell people you’re from Cleveland. We love and own our city).
The city worshipped him; he was the golden child of the city, coined “King James.” A larger than life mural of him was hung outside the stadium he played in. He offered hope because he, arguably the greatest basketball player of this generation, was in a city that was struggling for decades against a curse that plagued our major league teams, preventing them from winning a championship. He tried valiantly for a number of years to break the “curse” but it never quite panned out.
So, fast forward to The Decision 2010: when his contract with the Cavs was over, Cleveland and Akron’s favorite son announced that he would be taking his talents to South Beach on live television. It shocked his city that the boy it had raised and idolized had left to play for the Miami Heat. While he retained a pocket of loyal fans in Ohio, he quickly became one of the most hated people in Cleveland. People burned their jerseys. When he took the court here in Cleveland for the first time in his Heat jersey, he was booed by thousands. For years, social media exploded with comments and memes that smeared his image.
He continued to live near Akron, and still poured into the community there and in 2014, after finally getting the championship he so coveted and again reaching the end of his contract with the Heat, Lebron did something that changed everything: he announced he’d be coming home to Cleveland, and that he intended to finish his career with his hometown.
What you might not know is that I myself am “from” Cleveland. Born and raised in the ‘burbs, Cleveland is still my city. And I witnessed the drafting of LeBron, every season he played for the Cavs previously, The Decision, and most of his playoff games with the Heat. I wasn’t so much mad he left as I was upset he did it in a way that made Cleveland and everyone in it look foolish after they’d been so good to him, so I will admit that I cheered on the Dallas Mavericks (a Mavaleir, we Clevelanders were called during those games), and also the San Antonio Spurs when they played the Heat.
And while I’m not here to debate idolatry or people worship, though it is a real thing, or even basketball for that matter (I’m saving that for another post), the thing I really want to point out is something I’ve witnessed that actually inspired me as a Christian, and lit a fire and a passion in my heart for something I long to see in not just my church, but in the Church, the body of Christ.
There’s a lot to be said here, so these three points will be broken up over the next few days and I’m really excited because I invited my Cleveland-basketball-fanatic husband to join me for it.
So here is part 1 of the 3 things the Church can (and probably should) learn from what is happening in Cleveland with LaBron James.
1. Accepting a prodigal son.
When LeBron announced his homecoming, you would never have seen a city with better energy. When the announcement came earlier this year, we were smack dab in the middle of baseball season and the only thing anyone could talk about was basketball. This city rallied around this man they’d once hated in a way I personally have never seen. Thousands of people celebrated, pouring millions of dollars into our downtown and local economies. It was incredible.
Hundreds of people bought new LBJ jerseys and season tickets sold out within hours. People took to social media to announce their own welcoming to him, and like I stated before, the city itself celebrated. The vibe was incredible. There was hope and forgiveness everywhere. During his time with Cleveland prior, one of the more popular shirts to wear was a “WITNESS” t-shirt. Black with plain white font, it was simple but powerful. Cleveland was witness to his skill and talent and we were proud. Upon his homecoming, Cleveland rushed out to purchase new shirts that, rather than, WTINESS, said FORGIVEN.
And as a Christian, I loved it. I know it had nothing to do with God, but the fact that an entire city and its surrounding areas could acknowledge that it had been hurt by him, and that we’d hurt him also, but all was forgiven. A mural went back up, donning his likeness, and for the home opener, the entire region threw a party. A concert was held in the parking lot next to the stadium. Everything was broadcast on national television. Celebrities flew in from all over the country. One of the biggest names in stand-up comedy, Kevin Hart, was brought in to MC the event, while one of the biggest and well-known hip hop artists in the last decade or more, Usher, sang the National Anthem. And finally, when the Cavs took the court, the entire area exploded. It wasn’t just a game; it was an all out celebration. He was Cleveland’s prodigal son.
The Biblical account of this story can be found in Luke 15:11-32 and most Christians are probably familiar: a father had two sons, and the younger son took his half of his inheritance and ran with it. Took off and abandoned his family to party and threw it all away. When the son ran out of money and realized he’d be living better as a slave of his father’s than where he was, he returned home. He came up the road to his father’s house dirty and covered in dirt and all things nasty (he’d been living with pigs), and rather than taking him in as a slave, the father restored his son to the position and ranking of being an heir, and he shouted to his servants to prepare a feast because the son who’d left him, abandoned him, and squandered his riches was home. No shame, no “I told you so” of any kind. He just celebrated.
How is what Cleveland did any different? Don’t get me wrong, I will admit I had my fair share of bah-humbug moments when the Cavs lost the home opener to the Knicks, but really – why aren’t we more like this in the Church? I’ve seen and probably been one of the people to do this, but when people come back to Christ, or come to Christ for the first time (this is also reconciliation) why don’t we celebrate more? I know the kind of party that Cleveland threw would probably break the bank if we did something like that for every new believer, but why can’t we blow the roofs off of our churches when this happens, rather than being skeptical of new believers or returning believers?
The father of the prodigal son didn’t question why his son had returned, or make him feel bad that he’d only come home after he had clearly lost everything. He simply celebrated; overjoyed that the one who’d been assumed dead was now alive and home. So why do we make a habit of questioning their intentions?
I think a great example of this is with the recent announcement Shia LaBeouf made, stating that he’d been saved and had given his life to Christ. In his interview about it, he swore. He said it wasn’t some f***ing bull***t thing, it was real. And I’ve had more than one conversation with Christians who said something to the effect of “Well, if he’s going to talk about it like that, I don’t know what kind of Christian he really is…” My answer to that is: He’s a new one. But he’s one of us. He’s our brother and he’s been reconciled to our Father God and King. Let’s be happy for him, no?
Jesus tells us in Luke 15:7 that there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous people who do not need to repent.
God loves each of his children, but when I saw Quicken Loans Arena erupt, I saw angels in heaven. Not for LeBron, but for each new sinner that gives their life to Christ. New believers need to know they are celebrated, not just by us because now they agree with us or something, but literally in the Kingdom of Heaven! They get pumped up there! And we should be celebrating, too, welcoming these people home, no matter their pasts.