Choosing A Side

As our family arrived at the baseball field for Louisa’s game (5th grade, mixed teams, machine pitch), we quickly made our way toward her teammates in their “Orioles” uniforms.  Looking around for an opposing team, we saw only a few players in uniforms of another color.  As it became more and more apparent that the other side would not have enough players to field a team, some of the Orioles were excited that they might get a win without even having to play, but I knew Louisa would be disappointed. She liked to win, but not by forfeit. Louisa preferred to be victorious after a hard-fought battle.

The coaches, meanwhile, had put their heads together and pointed out that there were enough total kids to field two teams so a game could be played.  They proposed that four of our team play for the opponents.  Everyone was quickly in agreement, so our coach glanced around, named off four players, and—as luck would have it—Louisa was chosen to play for the other side.

I groaned to myself as I anticipated her response. Louisa had loved sports all her life, from the moment she dribbled her first rubber basketball around the store and shot it into my shopping cart or tucked one little leg under another and slid with foot extended into an imaginary base in our living room.  She was fascinated by the equipment, enjoyed learning the rules, practiced the skills for hours, was intrigued by the strategy.  But as much as all of those consumed her interest, Louisa thrived on being part of a team.  From an early age she was heavily invested in her team, whichever group that might be, and whichever sport she might be playing.

And–just as I anticipated–happiness at getting to play turned to agony at the thought of playing for the opponent. The coaches completed the arrangements while we all waited, and Louisa stewed.  I knew how difficult it would be for her to play competitively in this situation. It would be a mortal internal battle the entire game.

Finally, as the other team headed to the outfield for the first inning, and the Orioles prepared  to bat, I walked up to the coach to explain why my daughter seemed stuck in her tracks somewhere along the first base line, and I asked if he could possibly choose someone else to play for the other team.  He was not particularly sympathetic or understanding, just shrugged and asked the team if anyone else wanted to switch sides.  In no time he had a volunteer and Louisa joined the Orioles in the dugout.  She wasn’t proud. She seemed emotionally spent.  But her sense of which team she belonged to was intact.

Happy to be playing for her team

“Whose side are you on?” We are fond of asking this question, especially if we ourselves identify strongly with one side.  It is how we identify people with whom we can form alliances or against whom we will do battle.  We ask, and we expect an answer so we can assess others’ loyalty to causes, values, beliefs, or actions.  Even when people don’t express strong convictions, we are bold to demand that they choose a side, or we look for markers to help us decide where their loyalties must fall. It’s important to know who sees things our way–who we can count on in a fight.

There is no shortage right now of motive and opportunity to ask the question, “Whose side are you on?”  We are in a world of hurt, literally and figuratively, and within our nation that hurt has intensified in the last two weeks.  Dividing lines are everywhere. For months we have engaged in debate about the COVID-19 pandemic, ways to control the spread of this virus, or the best treatment for those who have contracted it. What could be a unified battle against a global disease has broken into all manner of factions, generating anger and judgment and hateful speech and actions.

“Whose side are you on?” is an even more emotional question as we address the recent killings, injustices, and evidence of racism in our country and the pain they have brought to millions. Protests, peaceful or violent, have led in some cases to greater dialog and in other cases to greater division as we debate the many aspects of this sinful condition and the best ways to address it.

As if the crises themselves are not enough, battle lines are quickly drawn in this election year as we analyze the action, reaction, or inaction of our leaders.  At every level of elected government, and among our fellow citizens, we ask the questions and look for the evidence that will help us know who is on which side for this fight.

One of the more fascinating scenes from the Biblical account of the fall of Jericho is an encounter that takes place just prior to the battle, described in the last verses of Joshua 5.  Joshua is approaching the city of Jericho when he sees a man with a drawn sword standing in front of him.  Joshua approaches the man and asks him, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”

“Neither,” the man replies. “But as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.” 

“Neither.” Neither!  Here’s a guy, a soldier—a warrior apparently, with his sword drawn and ready for battle, yet he does not declare a side.  He simply identifies himself and his purpose–“As commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.”

What does Joshua do next?  The passage tells us, “Then Joshua fell facedown to the ground in reverence and asked him, ‘What message does my Lord have for his servant?’ The commander of the Lord’s army replied, ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.’ And Joshua did so.”

That’s it.  Joshua, the faithful leader of God’s people, does not respond in anger or frustration, or even in fear, but with humility.  He falls on his face in reverence and asks for the message that the commander of the Lord’s army must surely have for him, the leader of God’s people.  The instructions he receives are the same ones that Moses heard when God called him to lead his people out of Egypt….”Take off your sandals.  You are standing on holy ground.”  You are in God’s presence and He has work for you to do.

Suddenly, “Whose side are you on?” or “Are you for us or for our enemies?” are meaningless questions. Joshua gets the message.  Rather than being consumed with knowing who falls into his camp, and who falls in the camp of his enemies, his question changes:  “What message does God have for me?” and—perhaps–Am I in HIS camp? Am I prepared to fight the battles He gives me to fight, according to His battle plan.

Being on the Lord’s side changes my understanding of human divisions.  It also changes the way I look at God.  If I am going to recognize God as God, then He is not mine to try to manipulate, but I am His to lead and use.  Following Joshua’s humble example, I am inclined to fall face down in reverence and ask, “What message does my lord have for his servant” and then I pray I am ready to listen for whatever direction I may receive.

God’s moves and my part in them may well be something completely different from what I would do, just as marching around Jericho for seven days was not the way Joshua normally would fight a battle.  What God asks of me may even cause me discomfort and stress, but I am not a lone warrior. God does not fight battles according to human-defined sides but at the same time He DOES do battle.  Jesus life, death, and resurrection were all part of his battle over sin, fought out of tremendous, sacrificial love, and I must recognize that He fought that battle for every single person on this earth. The battle for salvation has been won, yet He continues to do battle for us against the evils of this world. 

Whatever the earthly battle lines, I would like to have the same unwavering desire to be on God’s side, the same strong sense of being on his team, that Louisa had as an “Oriole” on that baseball field long ago.  With wisdom from His spirit, compelled by his love and reflecting his boundless grace, I want to be willing and prepared also to fight on God’s side–for every single soul, every person on this earth.

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