Monty Williams and faith in tragedy

Jim Hume writes:

There’s a good chance before last week you didn’t know who Monty Williams was. If you know now it’s probably because on social media you came across his incredibly powerful, gospel fuelled speech.

Monty Williams is an assistant coach on the NBA Basketball team the Oklahoma City Thunder. He started that job in September, having been the head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans for the previous five years. His life changed dramatically and tragically just under two weeks ago on February 10th. His wife, Ingrid Williams was driving home with three of their five children that evening when a car from the other side of the road lost control and hit them straight on. The children were seriously hurt but Ingrid Williams died. The driver of the other car died also. The police later released information stating that the other driver was doing 92 mph in a 40 zone when they lost control and crossed lanes.

Last Thursday the Williams family held a memorial service for Ingrid. The church was filled with over 900 people, many of whom were past and present NBA players and coaches who had worked alongside Monty Williams. The video that was released, and is embedded below, is of the speech Monty Williams gave.

Many Christian websites have already written a number of very good things reacting to this video. It’s worth looking for them online. Having watched it a couple of times four things came to my mind, and it seemed worth sharing them.

1. This is the Gospel in action
You’ve almost certainly heard preachers tell you to trust in God in the bad as well as the good. That can be easy to say, but maybe not so easy to do. It’s maybe also hard to believe that’s possible. Monty Williams showed it is. From his speech it’s clear he ‘processed’ (to use a contemporary, secular term for dealing with events) his loss with his theology. Watch how he speaks, starting with his notes and then just speaking from his heart. His emotions and gospel truth run as one. He understands everything that happens in his life through the lenses of belief in Jesus.

There are countless films and TV show arcs that have characters in situations like this just being broken by it. When we did a series of seminars in Aber last year and called it ‘Off Limits’ we had to include death as one of the four topics. The world cannot handle it. Deniol Williams started that seminar showing the example of the Paul Walker tragedy. His final Fast & Furious film ended with him driving into the sunset, nothing definitive could be said. The song that plays over the scene (which you all know) just talks of seeing each other again, but where, how and why are left painful unanswered.

Monty Williams was clear, he’s not lost Ingrid. He knows where she is. He trusts unwaveringly in the saving God who decided now was the time to take her home. People may often tell you the Bible / the gospel hasn’t got all the answers. Well, it’s not going to give you all the answers to the questions you’ve got but it absolutely has the answer to the ultimate question you need answering.

2. Forgiveness is incredibly powerful
One of the points that has struck the commentators (many non-Christians in particular) so hard is Monty Williams’ insistence of prayer and forgiveness for the driver of the other car and their family. Above I said trusting God in the hard times can be tough to do. Forgiving someone in a situation like this is quite possibly something many would say is impossible. There could be some who say there’s no reason to even attempt it. Monty Williams was clear, he knew he was no ‘perfect saint’ and God had forgiven him, and so he then forgave others. If ever you need to show someone an example of how powerful forgiveness is, this is it.

We often hold on to so many petty and pathetic grudges, slights and injustices. Jesus told us we need to forgive seventy times seven times. He wasn’t asking us to do mental arithmetic and organise a careful tally chart for forgiveness admin! Christians are to be characterised by hearts that forgive. Notice I didn’t say lips or actions. An easier path at times can be to just appear to be over something and yet be holding onto it inside, refusing to let it go. Extratime speaker Jon Thomas has a useful saying that goes something like this: bitterness is like drinking poison and expecting your enemy to die.

3. Evangelism is daily and opportunistic
You’re probably wondering where this comes from, let me explain. I’ve followed the NBA for almost the entirety of Monty Williams playing and coaching career. He wasn’t that remarkable a player but since he became a head coach I knew who he was. Until I heard this speech I didn’t know he was a brother in Christ. I’d never heard him mention Jesus. You get a fair bit of talk of God and prayer from NBA players and people. A lot of this I think arises more out of the wider Christianized American culture and specifically the African-American gospel background lots of the players have. When you read other things about them it can be hard to believe a lot of it is a reflection of sincere faith in Christ.

So does that mean Monty Williams had been doing a poor job of evangelism up to now? He had an international platform to speak about the gospel. Every day mics are stuck in his face and he’s allowed to just say what he thinks. Where was the 1 minute gospel presentation from the NBA play-off podium? You can actually find video clips of him after being fired last year in which he spoke of trusting in God. I’d missed that, it wasn’t as close to being as high profile as this.

What I think has been happening is Monty Williams knows what real evangelism is. My guess is he doesn’t try to reach the world via the secular media because he knows the folly that lies that way. What is clear from the evidence of the comments of people he worked with was that he shared his life, his home and his family with others. He did it daily, year in and year out. That’s true evangelism. It doesn’t take much courage to approach a stranger with some kind of hook to get a 3 minute conversation in which you try to squeeze in the gospel. What counts though is the day to day life lived amongst others for the sake of Jesus and with a desire to spread the good news about him.

Evangelism is also opportunistic. Monty Williams wanted to make a distinction about what this service was. They used it to celebrate Ingrid’s life and worship the God she loved. In maybe the most trying moment of his life he used the opportunity to speak to an audience of hundreds (and now via this video, millions) of the God he knew, loved, was saved by and trusted in. He seized the opportunity God gave him and preached the word. He did it though with integrity and love. This wasn’t a case of shouting at a captive audience on a bus or harassing the colleague at work who’s stuck next to you. In his life he walked with Christ, knowing when to speak and when to listen. When a platform arose, no matter how painful he spoke of the God who is his everything. People heard and people listened.

4. Only God can open blind eyes
Last night I watched the OKC Thunder play a national TV game. At a point during the contest the two commentators (who are actually a great pair) took a few moments to speak about Monty Williams speech. Either they felt they needed to sanitise what he said (which would be strange as it played in the half time show of a major game on national TV days before) or they’d missed his point. One minor mention was made of his ‘religious’ beliefs. It seemed like what they’d taken away was Monty Williams strength of character and how admirable it was that he offered forgiveness.

Below is a video of two well-known EPSN talking heads discussing Monty William’s speech. I’ll point out that I’m no fan of their work and their brand of sports journalism. I’m not going to pick apart everything they say but I think it’s just a telling clip of how people can respond to the gospel being spoken so clearly. All three people in the video speak of having a belief in God, but none of them seem to really have grasped or fully accepted what Monty Williams was truly saying about trust in Jesus and God’s plan.

You may have had a well-meaning Christian friend say something to you like ‘how could anyone not believe after hearing a sermon like that!’ at the end of a service. Without trying to over interpret what they mean in the most negative way possible it does remind us our words don’t count unless God works. We can make the gospel as logical and theoretically clear as day to people, but it doesn’t mean they’ll turn to Jesus. Evangelism, and of course all gospel work, begins with prayer.