Fanaticism and the Kingdom of God
The crisp fall days have arrived, the leaves are turning and the skies are bluer after the lifting of summer’s haze. Football, soccer, and other sports abound. Auburn or Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina or Clemson football captures our attention in the ‘beaches’ of a stadium or family room. We check in for two and one-half hours of a roller coaster ride of emotion, anxiety, exhilaration and excitement when our team scores, fumbles, defends and pushes a ball across one hundred yards til the last second of a sixty minute clock ticks off. As Alex Shipman, pastor at The Village Church, reminded us in a recent sermon, “We say our team won, but we never touched the ball or played a down.” Many live and breathe on Saturdays by the outcome of their game, often affecting the way they feel on Sunday. But college football is just one sport many idolize. NFL teams capture a Sunday afternoon or Monday night for professional football fans creating another idol.
What about the idols we make of our children’s sports? Parents line the soccer field as their son or daughter sprint, kick, and pass the ball. Coaches stand on the sidelines watching their players, yelling instructions, keeping the referee in check, and hoping all the practices come together for a win. Parents talk among themselves, critiquing the referee’s missed call or his call against their team, commenting on why one team member played longer than the other, why their son or daughter isn’t in the game, or discussing which hotel is the best place to stay in for the next weekend’s tournament.
Picture the local neighborhood pool where most kids acquire the lifesaving skill of swimming. Swim teams are formed and the better swimmers touch with the faster times. Competing neighborhood pools are the scene of competition as if gladiators in a Roman coliseum. Parents and teammates scream, yell and spur their swimmer on. Standings are posted and points are listed. A team wins, sometimes by a fingertip’s touch as seen in this summer’s Olympics.
What is your idol? For many in this congregation, sports can be an idol. Whether you are a participant, parent, fan or coach, sports are given far more importance in our lives than our daily walk with God. We spend more time at the field, in the stadium, in front of the television watching sports. We read the blogs, we respond to the blogs, we visit our team’s site to get the latest player news. We plan and spend dollars, often hundreds of dollars traveling to our favorite team’s game or to our traveling sport’s team’s next tournament. Hundreds of dollars are put into uniforms, lessons, coaches’ honorariums, often more than we tithe to our church. Why? Is our excessive attachment to sports revealing the darkness of our hearts?
Until twenty years ago, sports were local pick up games in neighborhoods or in the schoolyard. We learned how to shoot a basket with other kids in a driveway. We learned to swing a bat in a neighbor’s yard or at recess. We learned to kick a ball and run bases on the playground. We learned that the good kids are always picked first and the not-so-great kickball players were picked at the end. But in those days, life’s lessons were being instilled through the usual challenges of being part of a group and play. Character was built in how we handled sitting on the sidelines. The concept of the importance of the person and players on the field sharing a common goal, self-awareness, or extending grace when weaknesses appear is losing its importance in our culture. With the advent of organized sports, traveling teams and the high powered stakes of successful college sports, many believe the character building opportunities are being lost. Parents expect to see their child in the game more often than not because of the amount of money invested rather than recognizing where strengths and weaknesses are best addressed. In other words, have parents made their children idols?
So, the question to answer is how do we redeem sports as fans, parent, players or coaches? We first need to realize the unrealistic expectations we place on our team, our child, our coach. We are called to be salt and light in a dark world. How we interface with a coach when our child is not being put in a game is important. Are you able to step back and look at the whole picture seeing the skills needed for the game’s moment or do you react with a stream of critiques and negative comments about the coach? Are you able to put the financial component aside and look at the needs of the team and what your child’s strengths bring to the team rather than continually asking why your child is not in for every play? Coaches say that most of their time is consumed with parent meetings, defending their coaching skills or decisions about putting a player in or taking him out. One coach stated that one of the hardest parts of his ‘job’ as a coach is helping parents understand that the older a player gets, the more important skills become and parents often fail to understand decisions are made from a team perspective, not an individual’s presence on or off the field. “It is our responsibility to encourage, to resolve conflict in a biblical, peaceful manner and to look for ways to live out the gospel.”
Some parents in our congregation are on the field coaching. They see this as an opportunity to minister to parents and to kids. This participation gives the opportunity to coach through action, speech and expectation. It enables coaches to pray with the players before a game for safety and protection or work on character issues with individuals. This opportunity to be Christ in all situations is where kingdom advancement work of Christ is taking place- whether resolving conflict, addressing a poor attitude, creating a team out of individual stars. Many players come to the pool, the field or the court with emotional wounds or personal issues that weigh them down. When a Christian coach is involved, the opportunity to extend grace and love and mercy is ever-present.
Our athletes face more pressure on the field as they age in sports. The stakes for winning become bigger in tournaments or competitions. Many parents are living through their child’s activities and this places even more pressure on the child and the coach. What would happen if all the adults looked at the athlete as created in the image of God and took off the pressure to perform perfectly? The opportunity to demonstrate unconditional acceptance and love regardless of performance is always present. It is a practical example of living out Christ’s unconditional love for us whether we act in obedience or not.
What would happen if 87,000 cheering fans translated their investments and love of football into cheering for God’s team, the church? Are we consistent in our actions whether watching a game that is not going well or walking in the church each week? What would happen if the body of Christ worked together to promote Christ as we do for our team to win? Imagine the impact of bleachers filled with people that reflect Christ, not their own interests.