“If I’m being honest, I don’t even really like basketball; I’ve wanted to quit since I was about 16. But people who love Jesus are people who work hard, and that’s why I press on.”
As I turned the corner to enter the gym for the 11 o’clock interview, I was greeted with a warm smile. One minute into the conversation I could already tell there was something special about her, but this hypothesis only scratched the surface of what would unfold in the minutes to come.
“I’ve been praying for the Lord to use my story, and this interview may just be the answer to those prayers; I just want you to know I’m honored.”
Lytle, a senior English major with an emphasis in creative writing and starting forward for the Union University women’s basketball team, has already turned many heads with her performance on the court this season. In the first two games of the season alone, she scored a total of 49 points.
“Now, you scored a total of 49 points in the first two games of this season,” I said.
Before I could continue, she leaned back in her chair, widening her eyes and inhaling thoughtfully. She exhaled a gentle chuckle, muttering, “Oh wow, I had no idea.”
She could tell I was surprised by her initial shock of her own impressive statistics. It just didn’t make sense how she didn’t know, but then she began to explain some of her story and the pain she’s wrestled with as well as the valleys she’s traversed throughout her life. Any provision or protection she attributes to her heavenly father. The life she once lived trying to control she now has surrendered to Jesus, and that has changed everything she said.
“Despite what people may expect, my joy just isn’t coming from basketball and scoring or rebounding,” Lytle said. “It’s only coming from Jesus, and being able to play hard is just an overflow of that eternal joy.”
In a post-game interview a few weeks ago, she shared that she’d grown a lot spiritually over the summer and that her strong performance on the court was just evidence of that growth. She was now seeking to play basketball for Jesus and only Jesus.
As she shared with me about her amazing summer, she was sure to inform me that it felt far from anything amazing. It was a rough season of life, but she grew spiritually. After trying to ignore her pain, she chose to sit in her pain and relinquish control, and about three months ago, circumstances of life sent her straight back to her bible.
“I think the Lord was using my hurt to lovingly say to me, ‘Sara, everything you try to idolize, I’ll take away.’ And every time I’ve felt the sting of him taking something away, that temporary pain pales in comparison to the joy I’ve found in surrender.”
Pain is no new acquaintance for Lytle, though. She’s walked through many instances in her life in which she has been deprived of the thing she thought would give her joy, but was actually keeping her from perfect joy found in trusting God.
In her sophomore year of college, Lytle had plans laid out for herself. She was receiving NCAA Division I offers left and right. But door after door closed as schools called to tell her the crazy news that they either just didn’t have room for her like they thought or they had changed their mind and were going another direction. She began to accept that she may need to stay closer to home in Memphis, Tenn., for her last two years of college. This was only confirmed by the news that her father had been diagnosed with kidney cancer.
“God took away all of my options except Union,” Lytle said. “But he was using each closed door to soften my heart and guide me.”
Union had already recruited Sara’s sister Bethany, and by closing every other door, the Lord was giving Sara an opportunity at Union to finish her degree and play ball while getting to to share a year with her sister.
Lytle was raised in a Christian home but she didn’t grasp what she describes as her real faith until she was 14 years old. It was at this age that real life problems began to intensify, and she finally understood the real weight of her sins and how nothing works without Christ. Pursuit of perfection is not what spurs her on each day, though she did struggle for a time with wanting to please the people she loves.
Lytle is the third youngest of eight siblings. Seven siblings have played basketball, and six continued their basketball career as they went on to play at the collegiate level. She inherited basketball without much say, but it’s taught her a lot.
“I’ve learned that the moment you stop trying to please people, you’ll find joy, which I’ve found through sticking with basketball,” Lytle said. “I stay committed to the game, not because I’m obsessed with playing or afraid of disappointing my family, but because I’ve promised Jesus to trust him and stay faithful even in the middle of pain.”
In the 45 minutes that was our interview, it was apparent that the bible shapes Lytle’s life and naturally permeates every conversation she has with people, as she referenced multiple passages and stories throughout our time. She especially highlighted Romans 5:3-5 as a Scripture that has transformed the way she chooses to see her pain.
Where most people define pain as an obstacle or burden, Lytle has a radically contrasting perspective. For Lytle, pain is her friend and even more so, a gift from God. This perspective even fuels her dreams for a career in creative writing.
Ultimately, she would love to write fantasy fiction that eventually becomes a television series. She has loved cartoons for as long as she can remember, but so much that is produced for adults now is crude and awful. Her hope is to bring new life to the realm of cartoons, developing relatable characters that face real problems.
She explained that so often cartoons are an escape for people to ignore their pain, but she wants to create entertainment that allows viewers to acknowledge their own pain and find solace in the struggles.
Lytle’s ultimate goal for this basketball season is something other than wins, points or rebounds. More than anything, she hopes for one thing— to influence people for God’s glory.
“They say you can’t bring anything to Heaven, but you can bring souls,” Lytle said. “People are going to forget you in basketball in a few years when someone else comes along and does what you could not, but eternal impact lasts forever; I have a perfect God who has forgiven my sins, and I’m just trying to live my life out of gratitude of that.”