Interjections. As in, the Schoolhouse Rock type.
Emphatically, this matters most.
Before I go on, let me remind you, gentle reader, that I do not play sports professionally (though once I did win sixty-something bucks in a disc golf tourney and set the course record for amateurs, though it didn’t–oh, sorry, more interesting to me) and have none of my livelihood riding on my sports performance. In 2012 there were 14,900 U.S. professional athletes, as recorded by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, from a populations of 314,100,000. I don’t presume that my reflections apply to them, because I have no idea what those shoes feel like. But even taking out all the aspiring-to-be-pros, this is most of us, by ninety-something percent (and most of those folks have delusions of grandeur, but so would I, with their abilities. I guarantee it.).
How you and I play the game is the most important thing about sports. Period.
This is no longer reflected in U.S. sports. It isn’t what I have experienced in Nicaraguan sports. But from the perspective of the Kingdom of God, it may be more true now than ever before.
One aspect of God’s Kingdom is that we are a counter-culture. We live by different values and priorities than the dominant culture and we speak truth to power, even when that makes us unpopular. We speak the truth of who God reveals himself to be in Jesus Christ. We live that truth.
(Shouting political slogans, demeaning those who disagree with us about these slogans, reminding one another how superior our views are to those with whom we disagree, these don’t make up our counter-culture. These don’t help people to know God’s delight in them. They don’t help people feel God’s grace in their bones*.)
We aren’t different for the sake of being different. We aren’t even different so that people will notice our differences and (we hope) draw closer to God. That would be a positive consequence. We are different because God’s spirit has invaded our hearts and is waging a pitched battle against the darkness there. God opposes our hatred and spite and envy and lust for power with the only weapon that has any chance: love. If you don’t think battlefield imagery is appropriate for what goes on within the human heart, then your heart is decidedly different than mine.
Sadly–no, tragically–Christians are not characterized by our love for others, nor for our love for one another, nor even for our healthy self-love (a prerequisite to “love your neighbor as yourself”). Each of those is a direct command of Jesus, or maybe a bunch of them, and by any sane reading of the Gospels is Jesus’ top priority for us (when someone asks Jesus, “What is the most important commandment,” it’s a sane reading to grasp that his answer is the most important commandment). Look at a poll of what non-Christians think of first when they think of “Christians.” It ain’t love.
How you play the game is the fulfillment of loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. Winning is a pleasant side effect, losing is a necessary tool of character growth, and how you play the game is the deal. Some of my coaches taught, “How you play the game.” I’m grateful to them. But it took me a long time to get it.
Here I could make a long and agonizing list of the ways in which I’ve failed at this. But let’s not fixate on when I was twelve. Okay, let’s say from when I stopped carrying my toy mouse, Ralph (from The Mouse and the Motorcycle) in my ball glove and first noticed that I could hit, throw and catch better than most of the other kids. From there, it started to dawn on me that I could be important, I could be someone, by playing sports better than other kids. From age eight to age eighteen, I bought in wholeheartedly to this view. In my small, Midwest town, the school was the most important entity, sports teams were the most important thing at the school, and therefore the star(s) of the team became, de facto, the most important person(/people) in town. I wanted that. I didn’t get it. I hated my coach with all my heart, soul, strength and mind. (Sorry, Coach.)
Here’s a glimpse of my transformation:
We played baseball every day, all summer and after school until it became too cold. I was at a friend’s birthday party, probably 10 or 11 years old, and he had invited all the guys in our class. We went to the park to play baseball. I played shortstop, of course. I can remember shouting, probably more like screaming, at the boy playing left field, who didn’t play much baseball, because he dropped a fly ball. The birthday boy had to tell me to shut up. (Sorry I was a jerk and screamed at you, Steve.)
A few months ago, a psychologist visited our community here in Nicaragua. He came out to our Sunday ultimate game. Afterward, he told me, “Of all the people playing, you were the one who stood out. By far. Not because of your ability or the plays you made, but because you were the one building everyone else up, encouraging people on both teams, giving everyone fives, keeping everybody going.”
Fortunately, I didn’t become a pathological murderer, I became a Christian (go ahead, take a shot). My dad commented once that he could see the change in me because of how I no longer spoke negatively about my coach. The hatred was gone. That’s a big change. You can say, “Gosh, I hope so, twenty-seven years later you ought to be a little more mature.” Fair point. But we’ve seen enough to conclude that maturity is not a given, and I’ve played pick-up basketball games–and leagues–in which guys in their 30’s and 40’s are still screaming.
Now I will tell you honestly that it took many years before I stopped trying to prove myself to myself (Who else? No one from my high school years was watching anymore) and at least that long to internalize that my identity needed to come from something else if I was ever going to enjoy playing sports. I have some friends who might suggest I’m still working on both of these. I forgive them their honesty.
Okay, that gives you my journey. I didn’t come to these conclusions easily and it isn’t because of my gentle nature. I am as competitive as anyone else I know. I am not as athletically talented or gifted as anyone else I know, but the fire always burns pretty hot.
When I walk onto any court or field, I try to remember to pray three things: God, help me to glorify you, respect my opponent, and not get injured. Sometimes I remind God that I or we would like to win, not because he’s forgotten, but because it’s strongly on my mind so it’s part of my being honest. What does running after and catching a piece of plastic or getting a leather covered ball into a cylinder have to do with glorifying God? Our lives are about glorifying God and enjoying him forever. I believe we were given bodies so that we can enjoy being physical beings. That enjoyment glorifies God. Sports is a means of enjoying our bodies. When we do something we didn’t know we were capable of three seconds ago, it can bring a sense of wonder at this incredible gift God has given us, lungs and heart and legs and arms. I can do my touchdown dance and glorify myself or I can rejoice in this undeserved extravagance. When I do the latter, I am worshiping my Creator.
C.S Lewis wrote, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.”**
It is immortals with whom we race down the field and jump for that disc. It is immortals whom we box out and drive on. I experience awe at this physical body most often when I am playing against someone who is pressing me to my limits. I respect my opponent when I play fairly and cleanly and press him or her to that limit. Something deeply satisfying, I would say something godly, happens when we shake hands afterwards, knowing that we have poured all our energy into playing that game and challenging each other to find something more. In addition to how it helps keep me sane, I call that merriment between people who have taken each other seriously. This isn’t for everyone–my wife, for one, has no interest in competitive sports–and those who don’t experience competition this way know their own ways to play as Lewis describes. But those of us who experience sports as an important and sustaining element of life have the opportunity to worship God together this way–and to invite others into this form of worship.
I was a pastor for a number of years. One of the greatest compliments I can give to those churches is that they supported my going away for weekend ultimate tournaments (not so many pastors are graciously given random Sundays off). I played competitive ultimate as a means of outreach, but (usually) not in the sense of hoping that I could invite the other players to church. I hoped to help them know better a God who delighted in them and in the worship I was offering with them on that field. Body worship. Not worshiping the body, but worshiping God with my body, with my exercise, with my play. In that sense, I was in church. Just not the kind with walls.
This calls us to a much deeper sense of “how we play the game” than simply refraining from cheating and cussing and throwing tantrums***, more than avoiding what my father called “dirty pool.” It means recognizing that the people I’m playing with and against and those watching are made in the image of God and playing this game together matters because of them. Sports can form us, for good or for ill. Much of what we see of sports in media does not suggest this manner of “how we play the game.” Occasionally it does.
I don’t think Christians should quit playing sports because sports have become unholy, or even not play too hard because “it’s just a game.” I think we are called to be the counter-culture that spreads holy joy through basketball and ultimate and soccer and even MMA (don’t decide I’m wrong on that last one until you’ve read his blog). For those who love them, for those wired this way, competitive athletics give us the opportunity to love God with all we’ve got and love our neighbor as ourself. You’re right, we’re called to do this all the time. But it’s the intensity of the moment, the awareness that for just an hour or two we’re all agreeing to let the outside world wait and live fully present here, now. It’s the adrenaline and the endorphins and the biochemical processes that make us feel more alive (and can help us live longer and healthier). It’s the camaraderie, even on a single play, of working together smoothly, combining strengths, sharing success, celebrating one another. It’s one point in one game and you’re right, scoring that point–or not–matters little in the full scope of things. But it’s that person I passed to, that person who set a pick for me, even that person who outran me and scored, though I was running my fastest, who matters, in God’s eyes and now in mine. How much do they matter in the full scope of things?
I have a friend whom I’ll call Maggie (because that’s her name) who plays ultimate. When she started, she wasn’t very good. Few of us are, but she wasn’t a natural. But she liked it. She liked being out there. She liked being together on a Sunday afternoon. She got better. She gained some confidence. It changed from “I should throw to Maggie, give her a chance,” to “Ooh, Maggie’s open!” She saw that she was better. She gained more confidence. Saturday morning is our more competitive game. We invited her…or maybe she just started showing up, I honestly don’t remember, but if she did, no one objected, because she had earned it. She can play. She’s not the fastest. She neither dives nor jumps really high. But she’s reliable and she plays hard and every now and then she surprises me–and herself. I love being on her team. Even when one of us has an off game, we work well together, and we encourage each other. We remember it is just a game, but it’s a game that helps keep us sane, a game that matters.
Because Maggie matters.
*I am not saying politics are unimportant or that Christians should not be involved in politics. I am saying that Jesus said and modelled that how we treat others is our highest priority. Therefore, if we are not pursuing politics in a loving manner and, ultimately, as a means of love, we have lost our priorities.
**C.S Lewis, The Weight of Glory
***I don’t cheat.