Some Musings on Faith, Flag, and Football (The Power of Symbols)

[This post is part of an ongoing series – you can access first post here.]

Several years ago we were fortunate enough to have a family from our church host an exchange student from Paris. I have many fond memories from her time with us, but there was one particular episode that I have never been able to forget. During one week in the summer, we attended a Christian camp and, as was the tradition each morning, the entire camp gathered around the flagpole and recited the pledge of the allegiance as the flag was raised. Our friend from France leaned over to me a

nd asked, “Why do you guys worship your flag?”

I’m sure my patriotic, Christian friends would be quick to dispel her confusion and assure her we do not worship the flag, but rather honor it and that for which it stands (isn’t that part of the pledge?) A few years ago, I ran across an essay by David Scotchmer entitled “Symbols Become Us: Toward a Missional Encounter with Our Culture through Symbolic Analysis.”[1] It helped inspire an article I wrote which appeared in the Restoration Quarterly journal back in 2010, and has helped me sift through the meaning and power of symbols. One of the early points that Scotchmer makes is, “One of the failures of the contemporary church is its inability to see its own captivity to the rules and norms of Western society.”[2] He focuses on the consumer-oriented approach many churches were having (and continue to have) in addressing spiritual needs, but his comment is just as revealing when applied to politically-infused debates like the one currently raging regarding the national anthem at sports venues.

As I’ve read articles and witnessed the responses by Christians to this entire discussion it is clear to me that for the vast majority of Christians offering their opinions, they are allowing the socio-political system of  the Unites States to frame their response. The responses tend to be binary: the athletes are using their platform to speak out against police brutality and social injustices rooted in racism OR the athletes are speaking out of turn and are providing an unnecessary distraction from actions/discussions that are more likely to provoke healthy dialogue and, hopefully, change. While the binary responses don’t fall definitively down party lines, the vast majority do.

To me, this whole discussion provides the perfect opportunity to talk about the power and place of symbols. Christians in the United States have an easy time pointing out the propagandizing emphasis in nations like China and North Korea, but remain mostly oblivious to the way in which it works in our own country. Go to nearly any toy story in our country and you’ll find plastic versions of fighter jets, tanks, and army men.

A few years ago while we were on spring break, my family went to the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, FL. I was appalled during our time there to see children playing on old, emptied bomb shells. It was like a playground.

One could wonder if the abundance of red, white, and blue in the US is visible from space. Consider our superheroes and cartoons: Captain America, Superman, and Wonder Woman – all dressed in red, white, and blue; Superman fighting for “truth, justice, and the American way.” Too easily do we dismiss these kinds of symbols as harmless and innocent. Make no mistake, the nation has a vested interest in indoctrinating its citizens to the power of its military and the righteousness of its cause. From a humanistic perspective, we can argue this away as a necessary evil of the nation-state, but as Christians called to a different citizenship – a different kingdom – we must be cautious to fall under their persuasive powers.

This brings us back to the vested interested the United States has in the patriotic hubbub that precedes most professional sporting events. Scotchmer states that “symbols embody the meaning of culture and serve as vehicles and repositories of meaning. Symbols express a worldview and join it to an ethos in ways that make it both meaningful and coherent.”[3] That’s why there is such unrest when someone challenges a nation’s symbols – they are calling into question the worldview and the presupposed meaning and order of the said culture.

Those who argue that the protesters have chosen a poor venue for their protest and/or should devote their time to (what they see as) civil discourse are assigning the symbol of the national anthem and the flag as a matter of core identity (which is often

wrapped up in the sport itself – think baseball as the national pastime and football as America’s game – these too function as symbols). Those who kneel or tweet #ikneel desire to bring attention to what they view as the insufficiency of the symbol. For some, the symbol doesn’t mean to them what it means to the other side, and for others, the symbol does mean that, but the manifestation of that symbol is sorely lacking.

Another quote from Scotchmer is helpful here, “Symbols provide powerful models of reality, as well as models for it, by giving meaning – that is, objective, conceptual form – to social and psychological reality both by shaping themselves to it and by shaping that reality to themselves. How people spend their time, money, and energy [in today’s world we might add how they spend their time on social media] reveals dramatically where their loyalties lie and which symbols they choose to preserve and promote.”[4] Which brings me to the point I want to make in this post.

I wrote in the introduction to this series of articles, “As I’ve sifted through comments on social media and listened to countless opinions on talk shows and news

radio, more than the political divide in this country, this whole saga is revealing a great deal about the state of Christianity in the United States.” In my opinion, arguing about kneeling or not kneeling is a distraction from the bigger problem in Christianity in the United States. This has put on display just how infested the US church is with American patriotism. We may give lip service to the church’s presence in the rest of the world, but episodes like this reveal the true scope of the disease.

Contrary to the militaristic symbols of power and might regularly put on display by the US government, the Bible is rife with symbols of its own. The Bible declares that the eternal destiny of the world was brought about by the symbol of a lamb that looked as though it had been slaughtered. Rome is depicted through the Bible with its own symbols of power and might (dragons and beasts), but they are always undone by a meek and mild Savior.

Regardless of your opinion regarding why the kneeling protests are taking place, you should be able to at least acknowledge peaceful kneeling during a nation’s anthem is not an affront against our faith. Perhaps more than anything else, this needs to be said: Honoring a nation’s anthem is not the business of Christians. As aliens and strangers, that’s just not our battle, so those who are quick to argue against those who are protesting should be careful in considering what exactly it is they are calling for. We are often told about those “brave soldiers who have given their life for the stars and stripes and our respect is rooted in them” but as Christians we must be mindful of the thousands around the world who have been murdered by the bombs those brave soldiers dropped. And we must be careful in our justification of the United States as “better than the other nations” – it is a great nation, but it is still not our home! Tony Campolo famously said, “The United States may be the greatest Babylon in the history of the world – but it’s still Babylon!” The kingdom of God is bigger than this nation or any other, and so for us to align ourselves in support of any nation’s anthem puts us on pretty shaky ground theologically.

We are allowing ourselves to get sucked in and divided by arguments and discussions that just aren’t kingdom matters. Justice is – and if someone kneels for that reason, we should be pretty slow to cast judgment as Christians. If anything, the act of kneeling or protesting during a nation’s anthem could be one of the most Christian things a disciple can do! Truth be told, we need more of that, than less. At the same time, wouldn’t it be nice to see some of the same fervor wrought  by this issue applied to how communion is observed, the sacred assembly, and the reading of Scripture. Christians should be much more concerned with flippant attitudes during moments like these than getting wrapped up in defending the traditions of the national anthem at a sporting event.

I ended my article in Restoration Quarterly with the following anecdote from Robert Coles’ book: The Political Life of Children, and it seems to be a fitting way to conclude this article. He describes a twelve-year-old Hopi Indian boy who wrestled with his identity living amid a nation that was not his own.

The Indian boy will learn to bow to America’s power, even as his grandfather did: Horses are not Sky Hawks and Phantoms . . . [He] will only smile and shrug his shoulders when asked about presidents, congressmen, governors; they exist, he knows, but they belong to others, not him, though he has not the slightest doubt that the decisions those leaders make will affect him . . . They are they, we are we; their leaders are theirs, ours are ours; yet, of course, we are all part of some larger scheme of things – America.[5]

It’s about time for Christians in the United States to act like they are part of some larger scheme of things – the kingdom of God.

The next post will look at the challenging realities of living in the midst of a challenging and fallen world, particularly in matters like these.

                [1] David Scotchmer, “Symbols Become Us: Toward a Missional Encounter with Our Culture through Symbolic Analysis,” in The Church Between Gospel and Culture, 158-172, edited by George R. Hunsberger and Craig Van Gelder (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996.

                [2] Ibid., 159.

                [3] Ibid., 163.

                [4] Ibid., 165.

                [5] Robert Coles, The Political Life of Children (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986), 47-48.

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Some Musings of Faith, Flag, and Football (A History Lesson)

[This is the first post in the series, you can read the introduction here.]

The over-the-top militaristic parades put on by nations like North Korea and China broadcasted on their state-run television networks have always struck me as oddly NKOREA-SKOREA-MILITARY-ANNIVERSARYimpressive. You can’t help but be impressed by the thousands of soldiers lined up in perfect formations and surrounded by the heavy militaristic symbols of flags, tanks, and warplanes. The United States has its own pomp and circumstance surrounding Presidential Inaugurations and  Fourth of July celebrations, but even they tend to lack the military luster of the North Korean parades. There is, however, one venue in American society that does rival the militaristic and patriotic hype of these other counties – sports.

Progressive Field Indians Opening Day  My family has attended every Cleveland Indians Opening Day game for over a decade. Patriotism tends to be on steroids for these games. There’s always a flag so large it nearly covers the entire field, red, white, and blue balloons are released, fireworks are shot off, and the military provides a deafening flyover by their war machines. The climax of the pregame pomp is when a local celebrity comes out to sing the national anthem. For those of us who have grown blue-angels-flyoverup in the United States over the last 50 years, this is our reality in sports. It is difficult for us to know where patriotism ends and sports begins. The poster child for the prominent connection between “The Star Spangled Banner” and sports is Whitney Houston’s rendition from the Super Bowl in 1991 (her version of the anthem has been a Top 20 hit twice – after that Super Bowl and again after September 11, 2001). It may be difficult for us to imagine a sporting event without the anthem, but how many people know the actual origin of the practice?

Luke Cyphers and Ethan Trex describe the pivotal role that the national anthem played in the 1918 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox (fourteen years before the anthem was officially adopted by the United States government). You can read the interesting article in full here, but I’ll provide a short synopsis. In a game that was moved across town from the Cubs home field (Weegham Park) to Comiskey Field to accommodate an expected large crowd (Comiskey had double the capacity of Weegham Park) only 19,000 people showed up. Unfortunately, the day before Game One the Chicago Federal Building was bombed, killing four and injuring 30. This added to an already-dismal atmosphere across the country as the nation was already entrenched in World War I. Needless to say, interest in the World Series was an immediate casualty.

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On the diamond, Babe Ruth pitched the Red Sox to a 1-0 shutout win over the Cubs in front of a crowd that the Tribune described as “perhaps the quietest on record.” The exception was when the military band played “The Star Spangled Banner.” The scene was described the following day in the New York Times leading, not with a description of the game itself, but the patriotic outbursts during the seventh inning: “First the song was taken up by a few, then others joined, and when the final notes came, a great volume of melody rolled across the field. It was at the very end that the onlookers exploded into thunderous applause and rent the air with a cheer that marked the highest point of the day’s enthusiasm.” The spectacle caught on and each night the Cubs ramped up the pageantry, only to be outdone when the Series moved to Boston. At Fenway Park, the anthem was moved from the seventh inning to before the game. As Cyphers and Tex conclude: “Other major league teams noticed the popular reaction to “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 1918, and over the next decade it became standard for World Series and holiday games. In subsequent years, through subsequent wars, it grew into the daily institution we know today.”

Today, it seems unusual to watch a sporting event at any level (with the exception of local, neighborhood recreation leagues) without the preemptive playing of the national anthem. It has become a practice so widely entrenched in sporting culture in the United States that any deviance from it is worthy of headline news. For example, when the small Mennonite college in Indiana, Goshen College, considered breaking from its pacifist-inspired tradition of not playing the anthem, it was covered by the New York Times.[1]

Considering the fact that Major League Baseball maintained its color barrier until Jackie Robinson played in his first game 28 years later in 1946, it is safe to say this practice originated almost exclusively under the auspices of White America’s sports experience. We should not be surprised then, to learn that the playing of the national anthem has often provided a platform for protests by African Americans. Tommie Smith and John Carlos provided what, historically, has been the most prominent racially-motivated protest during the anthem when they raised their closed, gloved fist during a medals ceremony in the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico. Smith and Carlos provided a most dramatic image of protest (they were, by the way, subsequently kicked off the team and sent back to the United States), but there have been many others as highlighted in an article in Monday’s New York Times.

Many people seem to assume the playing of the national anthem before sporting events is some kind of official legislative decree by the United State government when it is instead a longstanding, albeit it unofficial, tradition. In sports, which demand conformity (conformity to team rules, team uniforms, and the rules of the game), the playing of the national anthem provides a unique opportunity for athletes to make contrarian statements. This most recent iteration of protest was prompted by Colin Kaepernick during last NFL preseason. (Read the response of his fellow protestor Eric Reid here.) What seems to be often overlooked is that Kaepernick and Reid (as well as many others) have been motivated to conduct their protest because of their Christian faith. In the next post, I’ll examine the significance of symbols and the way that empires utilize symbols to indoctrinate and control their people. The national anthem is a prominent symbol, along with flags and war machines, and the United States government has a vested interest its propagandizing power. All of this should be  more unsettling to Christians than we often realize.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/25/us/25goshen.html

[Click here for Next Post in Series]

Some Musings on Flag, Faith, and Football

In the midst of an escalating international conflict with North Korea, the continuing political posturing regarding the future of health care in the United States, the aftermath of multiple devastating hurricanes, and a church shooting in Nashville, TN, Monday’s news headlines largely ignored all of that and instead are dominated by professional sports. During my commute to work this morning, yesterday’s NFL protests during the national anthem and comments made by President Trump dominated the talk on political radio as well as sports radio.

The media cacophony prompted by this weekend’s events initially dissuaded me from wanting to add to the obnoxious and relentless voices offering unsolicited opinions. As I listened to the radio on my way to the office this morning, however, I realized how uniquely positioned I am to offer my own opinion on this particular subject. My academic background, research interests, professional career, and experience as a high school football official all come to a nexus in this most recent national debate. My forthcoming book, Elite? A Christian Manifesto on Youth Sports in the United States analyzes sports from a socio-theological perspective that is often applied to the realm of politics. [I presented a paper at the Christian Scholar’s Conference at Lipscomb University back in 2013 that provides a synopsis if you are interested (“A Theological Inquiry into Sports’ Function in Culture.”)] As a Christian minister, I profess my allegiance to the kingdom of God and have renounced allegiance to all other kingdoms. For over a decade, I have spent Friday nights in the fall wearing white and black stripes to officiate high school football games. A few weeks ago, our game for this week was moved to Thursday so it could be televised. The contest is between two Columbus City schools comprised of mostly African American students and I’ve already begun wondering how this all might affect that game.

As I’ve sifted through comments on social media and listened to countless opinions on talk shows and news radio, more than the political divide in this country, this whole saga is revealing a great deal about the state of Christianity in the United States. When controversies arise within politics, sports, or religion they touch on people’s most fervent passions and tend to elicit the most zealous of response, so to address an event that simultaneously touches on all three of these subjects makes this an ideological landmine. There are so many different layers to peel back and dissect, yet the Facebook age has preconditioned us to wanting to make our points through zingers communicated via witty memes, snarky gifs, and 140 character insights.

The breadth of issues related to this incident has prompted me to write a long response in which I will attempt to address, what I believe are some of the most important aspects. Because of its length, I have decided to make this into a two or three-part series and I will publish a new part each day beginning tomorrow morning. In this essay, I want to address what I see as some of the most important and pressing matters when it comes to the protest of kneeling during the national anthem before a football game or sporting event regarding racial injustices in the United States.

[See the first post in the series here.]

Writing, Sports, Stephen King, and Donald Trump

I am envious of bloggers and writers who are able to maintain a consistent online presence.  Noticing that my last blogpost was more than four months ago, consistency is not the  name of my game.  When it comes to writing, the idea of writing is a lot more romantic and attractive than the actual writing itself.  It was about a year ago that I completed the longest writing project in my lifetime – a 200-page, double-spaced ode to sports and youth ministry.  As I clicked the final “submission” button for that project, somewhere a fleeting thought of optimism passed through the neurons of my cerebral cortex elating, “Now I will have the time and energy to blog and write more often about the things that I really want to write about.”

In one of Stephen King’s books he talks about how often people approach him and say, “Man, I would love to write a novel, but I just don’t have the time.”  King’s response is, “If you are a writer – you write.”  I think about that statement often.  As I have grown older, I have found an increasing joy in writing.  I’ve come to enjoy the challenge of artistically crafting sentences: searching for the right nuance of adjectives, wracking my brains for just the right verb, diving deeper for most meaningful word, typing and deleting, typing and deleting, typing and deleting.  I’ve come to appreciate something almost therapeutic about writing.  And yet, much like those throes of people who approach Stephen King, I just can’t seem to find enough time to write.  I just might not be a writer.

While irons never seem to leave the fire and familial responsibilities compete with pastoral ones, sitting quietly in front of a keyboard, typing out the thoughts and feelings pouring through my mind at any given moment just never seems to make its way to the top of the leader board on that day’s to do list.  Nevertheless, in the 60 days that have already passed in 2016, I have felt an overwhelming tug to make the time to write.  It’s almost as though I need writing to help work through and process the infinite number of feelings and emotions that are taking place each and every moment.  Reading and writing are important times to pause amid the busyness of the day.  Even now, I am compelled to tell myself to listen.  So, maybe this is another installment with the next coming four more months from now, but my soul needs decompressed, and in order to do that, I first need to purge.  So, forgive me while I purge through a litany of disconnected and unrelated topics and subjects that have been racing through my mind lately.  If you read them, thank you, and I hope you find some value in them – but the real value in this exercise is in my purging more than in your consuming.

Sports and Ministry 51xremj98jl-_sx322_bo1204203200_

Thoughts on youth sports and theology continues to take up a rather large portion of my time.  I recently read and reviewed the forthcoming book, Overplayed, by David King and Margot Starbuck.  The book comes out next week and reiterates a lot of the stuff I have been saying over the past couple of years.  My review is for the Englewood Review of Books and will probably be available next week.  I don’t want to rewrite the review here, so I’ll just link it when it is available.  In short, Overplayed would make for a great book for church youth groups or small groups of parents whose children are involved in youth sports.  Parents will find it both encouraging and challenging on several levels.  It is easy to read and easily utilized as a small group discussion book.

I continue to be amazed at how often I am having conversations with parents about the challenges that youth sports presents their families.  The Metzes are about the feel the full effect of having active children as our girls have decided to branch out from the confines of the dance studio this spring and summer with soccer and softball teams.  I continue to learn, discuss, and explore as we go!

The Stephen King Project2099-500x800

Awhile back I created a tab on the blog for The Stephen King Project.  If you’ve clicked on it, you’ve discovered that it is incredibly empty.  Nothing there.  I have a good idea, good intentions, but just haven’t been able to put it all together.  Back in 2014, I set out to read all of Stephen King’s books chronologically beginning with Carrie.  Some I had read before, so I am re-reading them when I come to them, but most of them I am working through for the first time.  Obviously (now two years later), I am working slowly through them, but my admiration and appreciation for King continues to grow.  Hopefully, this week I will be finishing up his longest novel (and maybe my favorite? we’ll have to see how it ends): It.

Few authors have been as popular as King and his early works are especially well known because of the incredible number that were turned into movies.  His stories tend to be gory, gruesome, and he is easily the best known author in the horror genre, but what can be easily overlooked is the complexity and (often) beauty in his writing.  Additionally, there are clear Christian theological undertones that inform many of his stories and I hope that one day The Stephen King Project will include a theological review of each of his stories.  It is a particularly compelling example of King’s use of Christian metaphor and imagery.  In a lot of ways It is an extended (if gruesome) parable of Jesus’ teaching, “Let the little children come to me.”  This project falls quite low on the list, but I’d like to at least type out some quick thoughts as I finish each of the novels while the story in fresh in my mind.  Stay tuned for my take on It.

Sports and Christianity Conference

Just today I set up a Go Fund Me account to help pay for me to attend the Inaugural Global Congress on Sports and Christianity event at York St. John University in York, England.  I anticipate sharing two papers at the event: “The American Youth Sports Industrial Complex, the Betrayal of Local Community, and its Impact on Local Congregations” and “The Priests of the Games: A Call for More Christian Referees.”  World class theologians will be there giving keynote presentations: Stanley Hauerwas and Tony Campolo, as well as the author of one of the most significant books to be written on sports and Christianity in the last 100 years Michael Novak.  I hate to ask for help in paying for the trip, but my education budget is tapped out for awhile.  I am excited about the possibility and hope to go be a part.  Incidentally, if you’d like to help, here’s the link to my page:
A Brief Word on Politics

I think I am suffering the effects of a political hangover.  I mean, here we are in the most unusual and interesting political election in any of our lifetimes, and I just find myself rather disinterested.  That’s probably overstating the case a bit, but I do feel rather unemotionally involved.  That’s not to say I’m not frustrated with the cantankerous fighting between politicians and the seemingly lowering of standards by which politics are handled.  That’s  not to say that I remain incredibly disappointed in Christian leaders voicing their support for Donald Trump.  Thankfully, there are many others doing that.  The problem is, none of the other candidates are any better.  And I don’t say that in any kind of dismissive, upset toddler kind of way.  I mean we will constantly be disappointed and upset if we continue to place our faith and trust in the powers of this world.  There is a reason my belief in pacifism has grown in recent years instead of weakened.  The rancor of politics affords people the opportunity to make themselves feel like they are fulfilling some drastically important political responsibility and the weight of the world lies on their vote while not actually contributing to any project or efforts that actually enact change.

I’m not saying politics don’t matter or that elected officials don’t matter.  I know plenty of Christians who vote their consciences (many voting for opposite candidates), and I can respect that.  However, it is more difficult to respect those who treat their vote as their most powerful weapon or voice.  As Christians, we wield a power so much stronger than that.  We don’t need to go around rubbing that in people’s faces, but can’t we find the internal confidence and reassurance to not have to play by the same rules as everyone else?  No matter what person is elected – Hillary, Bernie – or even Trump . . . we’re going to be OK.  I think deep down, most Christians believe that, I’m just disappointed that I don’t hear more people saying that – actually leading with that.

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While I am purging.  I have this sinking feeling, as a Cleveland sports fan, that it’s happening again.  The Browns are in complete disarray and things may be looking optimistic for the Indians (it’s just so hard to win it all in baseball), but with LeBron’s decision to come back to Cleveland, it appeared all but certain that the Cavs would be the harbinger of sports championships for the city so desperately longing for one.  They were so close last year, and they’ve tweaked here and there to try and take that final step . . . and then it just so happens (in true Cleveland fashion) that something we’ve never seen before is beginning to take place.  What Golden State is doing with Steph Curry at the helm is leaving the sports media speechless (and that’s saying something).  There’s still quite some time to go, but you have to be crazy not to at least question whether or not the Cavs can climb that mountain.  I’m no the-sky-is-falling pessimist, but I am beginning to have that feeling of “here we go again” as the Warriors are playing at such a ridiculously high level.  My respect for LeBron is immense since his selfless return to Cleveland (how could it be seen as anything else), but the curse of Cleveland seems to be working in an altogether different way than it ever has before.  (If you’ve read It, it’s kind of eerie to see the parallel here as the clown manifested itself in so many different ways through its history in Maine – the same thing can be said of the curse in Cleveland.)  The sky is definitely not falling and the Cavs are definitely one of the best teams in the NBA . . . but those teams in the West . . . they certainly give us Cavs fans plenty to be worried about.  Let’s just hope I’m wrong.

That’s enough purging for today.  Hopefully, that purging will help me to move towards some more well thought-out ideas in the coming days and weeks.  Some of the things I hope to be posting about soon . . .

  • My (not so successful) experience with Lent this year
  • Our journey through the books of the Bible (Acts, Exodus, and Matthew so far)
  • Parenting in this age of technology (I am teaching a class in a couple of months about faith and technology with a special attention to parenting)
  • Politics – I’m sure I’ll get back in the ring to discuss them
  • Neighboring
  • Maybe an article or two specific for my Christian tradition (the Churches of Christ)
  • Woodworking – I’ve got a couple of projects at home waiting for me to dig into this spring – I want to try and document more of these things here on the blog

 

 

What is Youth Ministry to do with Sports?

I am excited to be headed to Waco, TX later this week to take part in Baylor University’s Symposium on Faith and Culture which has chosen as its theme this year, “The Spirit of Sports.”  I look forward to spending time with a friend in Dallas and exploring many facets of the relationship between sports and the Church.  On Saturday morning I will be presenting a paper entitled, “Pastoral and Theological Implications of the Youth Sports Industrial Complex.”  This has proven to be a good exercise in trying to simplify the message I want to present to churches and youth ministries regarding their relationships to the world of youth sports.

Eventually, I will upload the entire paper under the “Stuff I’ve Written” tab, but in this post I will provide a brief overview of what I’ll be presenting.  My focus is on the local church, and it is especially relevant for those who work in youth ministry.  While young people are involved in a wide variety of extracurricular activities, it’s no secret that youth sports is by far the most popular.  And for most youth ministers, they prove to be the most challenging to work around.  Most youth ministers I’ve talked with seem to be at a loss of language in trying to articulate what exactly is at risk in their youth’s hyper-involvement in sports.  More often than not, they dismissively shrug their shoulders and complain that sports takes their teens away from youth group activities and church services and makes them feel like they are fighting a losing battle. 

After all, sports can promote healthy lifestyles and physical activity in a generation facing an obesity epidemic, reinforce qualities like team work and self discipline that serve as important life skills, and immerse children in positive social environments where they can grown and mature their interpersonal skills.  The benefits of youth sports are well documented, so for the Church to explore any shortcomings may seem like nothing more than a needless exploration of “too much of a good thing.”  In response to this, I believe that the Church as a whole, and youth ministry in particular, is in a dire need of a more robust theology to help address the many complex realities of youth sports.

Too often, the Church has attempted to wrestle with the many practical issues that sports presents: performance-enhancing drugs, injuries, cheating, etc. without first establishing a robust theological foundation from which to build.  This has left our message anemic, at best, or completely absent, at worst.  I want to propose three theological areas from which the Church can begin to build this more robust understanding of sports and, subsequently, begin to provide a more effective pastoral voice to the families of youth athletes.

1 – The Rhythm of Life                               

Simply complaining that kids are too busy to do anything with their youth group is a shallow argument from frustrated youth ministers.  While weekend out-of-town tournaments have made it impossible for many families to maintain a healthy connection with a local church family, the busyness of youth sports is about more than “being at church.”  The schedules of sports families are low hanging fruit in what frustrates most youth ministers.  We should be cautious, however, that our frustration over sports schedules isn’t simply a hidden jealousy that they’re cheating on us with their sports team.  Something more significant must be considered.

The words of Ecclesiastes rings a little differently in today’s sports-obsessed world than it did in Old Testament times: “There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1).   I don’t think he was talking about sports seasons!  More to the point here, the writer reinforces the beauty and need for balance in our lives.  Balance was built into the very fabric of Israel.  Work six days, then rest.  Work six years, then rest a year.  The rest was for the citizens, for the animals, and for the land.  Balance is built into the very fabric of creation itself.  That’s the problem with most youth sports today.  We talk about sacrifice, commitment, and all that.  But is that simply another way of excusing our imbalance?  More than questioning how often our sports families are attending a worship service any given Sunday, we should be asking the more dynamic question: What is dictating the rhythm of their family’s life?

2 – The Formation of Identity                          

Perhaps the crucial developmental aspect of adolescents is their identity formation.  The many environmental influences on a young man’s or young woman’s life begins to really show their impact as teenagers are answering that question, “Who am I?”  Sports has an interesting role in this whole process.  Many young people who excel in a particular sport find acceptance and popularity there that they cannot find anywhere else.  Just think about the life that the starting quarterback lives in high schools across the country.  Particularly in those situations, their sport becomes a very significant part of their identity formation.

This aspects of youth sports isn’t inherently bad, however often times the identity youth find in sports is the very identity they are intended to have in Christ.  In Galatians 3, Paul emphasizes the importance of finding our identity solely in Christ – beyond racial, sexual, and socioeconomic terms.  It seems silly to extend those core aspects of identity to sports – until you watch a college or professional sporting event.  The painted chests, dyed hair, and voracious chants are visual reminders of the identity-forming power of sports.  I believe it has become common place for many people to find their identity primarily in sports and allow that to dictate their participation in their faith.

3 – Theology of the Body

While I haven’t presented these three in any particular order, this may be the best starting point for moving forward in our ministries of sports.  Too many parachurch organizations and sports ministries have treated sports as a neutral entity and have seen it simply as an effective way to draw a crowd  so the Gospel can be shared.  Unfortunately, this reinforces a dualism that has long pervaded Christianity.  Although it may sound like metaphysical mumbo jumbo to say that the Platonic dualism has led to an unnecessarily negative view of the body, there are, in fact, significant, practical consequences.

When sports are viewed as simply a means to an end, we have a tendency to ignore the ethic and practice of the sport.  One example illustrates this well.  What is the Christian to do with competition?  Competition is at the heart of athletics (not to mention America itself) and yet serious theological reflection on competition is almost impossible to find.  As a result, we have a difficult time knowing how to teach our children to compete in a Christian fashion, because we’re not exactly sure ourselves.  By and large, I haven’t seen much difference between what Christians expect from sports than what anyone else expects.

I believe that the way forward begins with a better articulated theology of the body.  We  need to teach our children about the beauty in sports and have serious conversations about the challenges of reconciling the Sermon on the Mount and competitive arenas.

Much more needs to be said on these matters, but I believe that if we could just take as a beginning point, these three theological areas and dedicate some time we will be more prepared for the many challenges that lie ahead in the world of youth sports.  I hope to continue to refine this message and find ministers and youth ministers who have a passion for filling in this much-too-neglected area.

If you plan to be at the National Conference on Youth Ministries in Denver next January, I’ve got a ten minute talk to share some more thoughts in this area!

 

Praying for an Error

We’ve all heard those stories of famous athletes who became a public goat following a highly public sports gaffe.  One of the most heinous examples was that of Colombian soccer player Andes Escobar who, during a 1994 World Cup match against the United States accidentally scored in his own goal and was murdered two weeks after returning to Colombia.  While the Escobar incident is notoriously one of the most extreme examples, there have been countless examples of fans threatening to harm or even kill athletes for their shortcomings in big sports moments.

No one represents the fallen athlete in American sports as much as former Major League Baseball player, Bill Buckner.  Buckner had a highly successful major league career that lasted over 20 years.  He collected over 2,700 hits and even won a batting title in 1980 while playing for the Chicago Cubs.  Buckner, however, is best known for missing a routine ground ball in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series at Fenway Park while a member of the Boston Red Sox.

Like many of these big time sports goats, Buckner was sent death threats and this one error came to define his career – quite unfortunate when you consider how good of a career he truly had.

It would seem as though the majority of spectators and fans of sports  are stable enough to resist sending death threats to athletes or harming those who make mistakes (though attending some youth sports games can make a person begin to wonder).  These extreme cases, however, do reveal a troubling characteristic with which most sports fans are forced to wrestle. Team sports has a tendency to dehumanize its participants.  Athletes wear uniforms of the same color in order to set themselves apart from the other team who wear a different uniform.  Spectators in the stands wear their teams’ colors.  We feel camaraderie with our team.  And many of the sociological traits that are present in the concept of mob mentality permeate sports venues.  We feel a hyper connectivity with fellow fans.  So we high five strangers after our team scores a touchdown.  We scream and yell for our team to succeed.  And we root against the other team.

And there happens to be a fine line between cheering for our team and rooting against the other team.  You see this happen when a player gets injured.  I will assume the humanity in all fans – that there is a pang of empathy for any injured player and an authentic hope that he or she is OK, but if we are completely honest, doesn’t the empathy seem to come a little more quickly when it’s one of “our” players?  In this split-second pause, we are confronted by the major challenges that sports presents us.

All the time I hear aggressive parents encouraging their children to play harder and stronger and faster and . . . there is the slightest feeling that they want to take that other team – or player – “down.”  Taking them down is part of the game!  If we can’t all win – someone has to lose.  And we’d just all assume it would be “them ” lose instead of us.   And, ever so subtlety, we feel ourselves hoping, not just that we win, but that they lose.  Just watch a parent when their child is playing a team with a player who is significantly better than all the other players.  They can easily find themselves rooting for that player’s failure as much as their own child’s success.  It’s the same feeling we get when we are playing a game when we know that it is impossible to win.  Those are difficult emotions to process.

Which is one of the reasons why sports is so great.  It offers us a relatively safe environment to experience these feelings of aggression and inadequacy.  It offers us a playground to try out feelings and emotions that are every bit as relevant to the workplace and the real world as they are to the sports contest itself.

Throughout all of our experiences in sports – whether we are playing them or watching them – we must remember to humanize the event.  While we are watching our children playing a game, it is not another team they are playing against, it is another group of boys and girls with different personalities, gifts, challenges, and experiences.  Maybe that player is a jerk because his family life is in shambles.  Maybe that coach is over-the-top because she struggles mightily with her self image.  Maybe that parent is so boisterous because he and his wife are going through a divorce.  Maybe that official made a bad call because he got fired the day before and his mind isn’t completely in the game.

It seems like a simple enough task, but our passion for sports makes remembering the humanity of the players more challenging than it seems like it would be.  When our rival team hires a new coach, we don’t wonder about his family life or his off-the-field demeanor.  We just don’t like him and hope he is unsuccessful.  When a player from the other team takes a cheap shot on our child or one of their teammates, we don’t wonder how she does in school or whether she is loved at home – we just hope our daughter will get her back somehow.

Sports are at their best when we humanize them – when we remember that sports are created for all of us to enjoy.  Sports journalism illustrates how this works when they give the back story to players we watch on television.  They serve as a reminder of the humanity of the players.  They remind us that there is more to life than sports, and while we all know that, in the heat of the moment, it can be hard to keep that in mind.

It’s kind of like when my children see one of their teachers outside of the school.  They have a difficult time processing the fact that their teachers have any life at all outside of the school building.  Most elementary school children have trouble imaging their teachers ever leave the school building.  Everyone always gets a good laugh out of this when we meet them outside of school.  It seems to me, this is the same thing that happens in sports.  The sports figures are there for our enjoyment and our pleasure and it is easy for us to forget that they leave the field, arenas, and gyms too.  They have other lives besides what we see.  Remembering this fact will help us keep sports in their proper place.

Rivalry and the Perpetuation of The Other

It was January 11, 1987.  I was seven and a half years old.  It was Cleveland, Ohio.  And it was the first time that Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway slowly and painfully ripped out the hearts of Cleveland Browns fans everywhere.  It became known as “The Drive. ” [All Browns fans close your eyes, others can watch this link.] While playoff aspirations have been a distant memory for the Cleveland Browns over the past two decades, during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s the Browns had incredibly talented and wildly successful football teams, though the Super Bowl would remain elusive.

I live in Columbus and love the Ohio State Buckeyes, but I think my first love will always be the Cleveland Browns.  They have been so bad for so long that I wish it wasn’t true, but the beginning of every football season reminds me of my first love.  I attended several Browns games during this era, and the images of old Cleveland Municipal Stadium remain ensconced among my greatest memories.  It was during this era of heartbreak that I actually attended a regular season game against the Elway-led Broncos.  The success of the future Hall of Fame quarterback wasn’t respected or appreciated among Browns fans during those years – to say the least.  Instead I remember jeers raining down from the stadium making fun of anything and everything the inebriated crowd could mumble out together.  One of the first cheers I ever remember hearing at a professional football game was “Elway’s a faggot.”  As  a kid, I joined right in the jeering and cheering against this arch rival.

In sports, there’s a fine line between cheering for a team or player, and cheering against another team or player.  It maybe a reality that we Cleveland fans can appreciate more than most people.  The Indians and Browns last won world championships long before I was born, so there’s been plenty of time to root against other teams and their successes.  And what Cleveland fan didn’t root against South Beach LeBron?  It’s part of the fun, really.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find at least some delight in the recent faltering of Michigan’s football program.  After all, they are our rival!  My son has a sign in his room that says, “My favorite two teams are Ohio State, and whoever is playing Michigan!”  My two favorite teams have been doing pretty good lately!

I’ve been thinking a lot about rivalry lately.  There has been no better case study for what rivalry does to a person than Ohio State’s recent hiring of Urban Meyer.  Now, Urban Meyer is an Ohio guy – something that people in the South seem to forget.  He was born in Toledo, grew up in the Lake town of Ashtabula, attended the University of Cincinnati, and had his first head football coaching position at Bowling Green State.  His rise to prominence in college football was profuse, immediately finding success at every school he has coached for.  However, it was at the University of Florida where he achieved the highest level of success, winning two national championships.

The culmination of the 2006 football season found Meyer’s Gators taking on the Ohio State Buckeyes.  I remember watching and listening to Urban Meyer in the weeks leading up to the game.  I remember thinking how much of a pompous ass he was.  I remember how much I didn’t care for his demeanor and his cut-throat mentality (he has a reputation for running up the score on lesser opponents).  Compared to the buttoned-up, senatorial, humble ethos of Ohio State’s coach Jim Tressel, Urban Meyer was an arrogant prick.  And that arrogant prick helped kick my team’s behind in one of the more lopsided national championships you will ever see.  Which made me hate him all the more.

In the year’s following Meyer’s championships at Florida (they won again in 2008), he had some serious health concerns that eventually led to his resignation at the end of 2010.  I can honestly say that I’ve  never wished ill on anyone, including my rivals, but I can say without reservation that I wasn’t heartbroken to see him leave Florida and football altogether.

Then came a scandal at Ohio State.  Then came Jim Tressel’s resignation.  Then came probation.  Then came the rumors of Urban Meyer accepting the head coaching job at Ohio State.  One year after resigning from Florida.  Wait.  What?

There’s a lot of different sides to this complex story, but the thing I want to focus on for a minute is the strange situation it put us in as Ohio State fans.  Everyone I knew thought he was the perfect person for the job.  There wasn’t a better candidate.  But, man, once you’ve rooted against someone, it’s hard to just forget that and move on.  I still thought he was a pompous ass.

It’s interesting how quickly, my feelings about him began to thaw.  You know, he looks pretty good in scarlet and gray.  Now he was talking to the people of Ohio.  Now . . . you know what? . . . he wasn’t too bad of a guy after all.  Still intense.  Still kind of cocky.  But don’t you want that for your coach?  Then the magical season that was 2014, and the Buckeyes won the first ever college football playoff, and the entire state of Ohio has forgotten all about Jim Tressel.  Well, not forgotten, more like forgiven.

While this is the extreme case, every sports fan knows this feeling.  It happens all the time in baseball.  In the middle of the season, teams out of contention trade their good players to teams in contention, and the next thing you know,  a player you cheered so hard against, is wearing your team’s colors.  It’s heretical to even think about it, but if the Browns had been led by John Elway instead of Bernie Kosar, maybe the Browns have all the success that the Broncos would come to have.  It’s just impossible to picture him in their colors.

I’ve come to realize that sports displays a microcosm of life when it comes to identity.  We identify with our team.  We wear their colors, familiarize ourselves with their traditions, and we feel a part of them.  As a matter of fact, it isn’t them – it’s us.  While watching from the inactivity of our couch, we stand and shout, “We won!”

What helps us forge our identity is knowing that we are not them.  Rivalry can betray humanity.  For the jeering fans in the 1980’s and 1990’s in Cleveland, John Elway wasn’t a person.  He was a quarterback.  He was a Bronco.  He was a football player.  But he wasn’t human.  He wasn’t a husband or a father or a son and didn’t have a soul.  When Urban Meyer was pacing the sidelines in Gainesville, FL I saw no humanity in him.  I just saw someone who was better than me and my team and who made my skin crawl.

Over the next six years, Urban Meyer will make on average $6.5 million each year.  Celebrity Net Worth reports that John Elway’s net worth is over $145 million.  In the world of high profile sports, I think most people would be able to put up with the mean-spirited fans and mudslinging rivals.  I’m not saying it excuses it; I’m just saying that no one is feeling bad for these millionaires.

However, this reality isn’t limited to the highest levels of sports.  It was early on in my son’s baseball career when I realized how conflicted I would be when it comes to his success.  If the bases are loaded and there are two outs and the game is tied and my son is up to bat, what is the right outcome to hope for?  Do I hope he throws a ball and my son draws the winning RBI?  Do I pray for a meat ball right  down the middle that I know my son can smash?  How do I root him on, without wishing ill on the other team or player?   Could it be that the other team needs a win more than our team at the grandest scheme of life?  Could it be that the kid in that illustration would be much more greatly blessed with a strike out than my son would be with a walk off hit?

It’s when the discussions of rivalry hit the local level with youth sports that I think we really begin to get into the heavy conversations.  My next blogpost will begin to deal with the challenge of balancing rooting for your child’s success while not rooting against the success of others.

Trash Talk, The Cultivation of Identity, and the Kingdom of God

One of the staples of college football Saturdays for over 25 years has been the television show College Gameday on ESPN.  College football fans across the country begin each Saturday morning with ESPN’s table-setting program that helps introduce the narratives underlying the match ups each week.  The banter bounces from heartfelt, off-the-field, journalistic stories that highlight athletes who have overcome family issues, health obstacles, and poverty to on-the-field match ups that often fuel regional debates about which conference is better, who’s the best player in the country, and whose schedule is more challenging.

Each week the show travels to a different college town that’s hosting that week’s “big” game.  The hometown students and fans come out by the thousands to listen to the pundits banter back and forth and to try to get their two seconds on television.  The success of the show can directly be attributed to the unique atmosphere and social cohesion that college football provides.  The television show piggybacks on the passion of the fans and the traditions unique to each school giving free publicity to a different school each week.

My favorite sign from last year made by Harvard students

Throughout the years, the easiest way for students in the crowd to get on the camera has been to create catchy, funny, and edgy signs which they hold up in the background.  In recent years ESPN has even capitalized on this whimsical tradition by having the public vote for their favorites.  (You can see the weekly winners of last year here.)  Mixing together the passion of college students with their sophomoric, hormonal inclinations, it is not surprising to find a large number of inappropriate signs being held aloft each Saturday.  My guess is that they’re always in the market for camera men and women with quick eyes and quick hands to pan away from the most offensive.

This past Saturday, Gameday was in Tuscaloosa for the big Alabama-Ole Miss football game, and two signs in particular have created quite a stir.  The first sign calls Ole Miss girls “easy,” and the second pokes fun at Ohio State’s head coach Urban Meyer and his health concerns from a few years ago. 

ESPN took flack for the first sign before GameDay was even over, and Urban Meyer’s wife and daughter tweeted GameDay taking exception to the implications of the other sign (which GameDay had tweeted a picture of saying it was the most Retweeted (and Appropriate) sign from Saturday’s broadcast).

“All of this was done in good, clean fun!” I’m sure the creators of these signs would argue.  How many times has that statement been used as an excuse for some kind of misunderstanding?  After all – it’s just sports, right?  I know as well as anyone – we’ve all got our own sense of humor.  Some things one person finds hilarious, another finds offensive.  I often find a great deal of humor in these signs as creative college students try to outwit one another, and there’s always a fine line one walks between being edgy and being offensive.

As is usually the case, however, there is something deeper going on here that I felt was worth a few blogposts.  In this first post, I want to focus on sports and rivalry at the highest levels, then I will look at what rooting against teams and people can do to our identity, and finally shift gears and talk about the implications that this has in youth sports.

Rivalry is one of the great things about sports.  Few would argue that sports would be better without Ohio State versus Michigan.  Army versus Navy.  Harvard versus Yale.  Duke versus North Carolina.  Cowboys versus Redskins.  Yankees versus Red Sox.  Celtics versus Lakers.  Steelers versus Browns.  (Sorry if I missed yours!)  These rivalries take on a life of their own.  They are all bigger than the game themselves.  Professional sports leagues try to create rivalries with newer teams to help deepen the narrative for fans.  We have bulletin boards where we can talk trash to other fans.  We make cartoons.  We make jokes.  We have the Dead Schembechlers.  (They epitomize rivalry – check them out).  We create College Gameday signs.

One of the things that rivalries do is help remind us of who we aren’t, and by default help further deepen our own identity.  If alma maters and marching bands and stadium-wide cheers are intended to remind us of who we are, rivalries help articulate who we aren’t.   I live in Columbus, OH so the rivalry I am most familiar with is Ohio State and Michigan.  Woody Hayes famously went for two in a blowout game and when asked why he did it he said, “Because I couldn’t go for three.”  Urban Meyer recently made a student to 20 push ups in class for wearing blue.  When Brady Hoke was hired as Michigan’s coach he would only refer to Ohio State as Ohio. During Michigan-week in Columbus, a local store will let you trade in a blue article of clothing (which they donate to charity) for a “Beat Michigan” tee shirt.  All of this serves to build the community.  To remind us that we are Buckeyes – and Michigan still sucks!  But . . . as the signs from this past weekend remind us, the drive to define ourselves against someone else is often problematic.

In the next blogpost, I want to consider the hiring of head football coach Urban Meyer by the Ohio State University and discuss how it illustrates the way identity formation works within the community of sports fans.  How can fans of Ohio State so deftly embrace the same Urban Meyer who coached the University of Florida when they defeated (no destroyed!) Ohio State in the national championship several years ago?  How has our impression of him changed?  How do we see him differently?  And, correspondingly, how has the impressions of Florida fans changed?  Are these perspectives rooted in reality or is something else going on? I think there are answers in these questions and others that help point out the challenges and quandaries that rivalries and rooting against other teams and players creates for Christians.

Sports Were Made for Mankind, not Mankind for Sports

Photo Credit: Crisis Magazine: http://www.crisismagazine.com/2015/god-sundays

A couple of weeks ago, I had a Monday evening that looked like this: I dropped my son off for football practice at 6:00, then drove half way across town for my weekly football officials meeting at 7:00, then drove all the way back across town to have a meeting with a couple of other dads at 8:30 where we talked about the possibility of putting together a new baseball team next summer for our sons.

Just today, I was sent video from our Friday night game last week to review and find mechanics to work on for our game tomorrow night.  I am part of a pick ’em college football pool that some friends at church and I have done for several years, and I had to get my picks in before tonight’s game.  I have a middle school game to officiate at 5:30 so I’m going to try and get a run in before that, my daughters have dance classes all night so my wife will be shuttling them back and forth, my son has football practice again tonight, so we’ll need a friend to help run him back and forth to it, and, when I finally get home, I’ll probably try to catch a few minutes of the Michigan – Utah college football game .  Luckily the Indians are off , so I can resume my attention to their post-season push tomorrow night.

When I was doing research for my dissertation, I came across a reporter who said something to the effect that keeping busy sports schedules has become a kind of success gauge for suburban parents.   A busy sports schedule has become a kind of insinuated mark of accomplishment.  The busier your kids are in their sports, the better athletes they must be.  Living, working, and ministering in the suburbs, I overhear countless parents lamenting their children’s busy sports schedules.  About how they never have dinner together anymore.  About how they drive hours on the weekends  and live out of hotels several times a year.   About how expensive the team has become.  About how much money they spend on equipment.  About how competitive the other teams are.

And, almost with exception, they all sound trapped.  Oftentimes I’ll hear the caveats, “But what are you going to do?”  or “That’s the cost of being blessed with an athletic son or daughter;”  or “That’s just how sports are nowadays;”  and my favorite, “Just wait until your kids are older.”

Well, my kids are getting older, and I’ve taken sports on as a kind of special cause towards which I intend to dedicate a great deal of time and energy as my wife and I seek the best direction for their sports and academic upbringing.  I don’t have a lot of answers – but I can look around the landscape of youth sports and identify a great many problems.  My hope is that we can begin to address some of these problems in the lives of our children and work towards better practices in the future.

As I began to study sports and the relationship that we have with sports, I was drawn to a particular story from the New Testament involving Jesus and his disciples.  At the end of Mark 2, Jesus and his disciples are out picking up heads of grain in the fields (the Old Testament has a provision that farmers leave the grains that fall onto the ground during harvest for poorer citizens to come and pick up and eat.)  In that regard, Jesus and his disciples were doing nothing wrong.  However, the fact that it was the Sabbath was cause for concern among the religious leaders.  “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” (Mark 2: 24)

The disciples were picking up the grains because they were hungry. Jesus had them running a pretty busy schedule the other six days of the week.  Here, they paused to eat some of the grain in the fields.  The Pharisees, however, had a pretty established code of ethics for keeping the Sabbath commandment, however.  Remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy was a big deal – one of the Ten Commandments!  And so they outlined what would be considered work, and what wasn’t.  Going through the fields and picking up leftover grain definitely was work, in their books.

Essentially, what God’s followers managed to do, was to take something that was created for their benefit (Sabbath) – something that would ensure they wouldn’t be overworked, and wouldn’t overwork the land – something that would make sure they took time to enjoy life, and they turned it into something that was oppressive and yet another burden.  They spent all their time of rest, worried about whether or not they were resting the “right” way.  In one of Jesus’ more pointed rebukes he states: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2: 27).

I haven’t been able to shake the connection of this teaching of Jesus’ to our practice of sports in the world today.  I wonder if Jesus wouldn’t say the same thing about sports.  Sports were created for our enjoyment – for our leisure.  They were intended to bring families together – now, they rob most families of their family time.  They were intended to help maintain healthy bodies, and while there is an obesity epidemic that largely needs positive practices of sports – at the same time, there is a growing lists of ailments and overuse injuries witnessed in younger and younger athletes.  They were intended to foster a spirit of camaraderie and unity – now, they often ostensibly support teamwork and team spirit, but often fuse with a competitive dog-eat-dog spirit that sows further dissension.

There’s no quick fix or easy answer for wrestling with the intricately, complex world of youth sports.  However, I think a first step in the right direction is to remember Jesus’ words regarding the Sabbath.  Every parent and young athlete alike should ask themselves the question, “Does my participation in this system still allow for me and/or my child to fulfill the goals of leisure and enjoyment sports should help embody?”  “Do I feel stuck and enslaved to a sport, a team, a coach, or a league?”  Admittedly, there is a fine line between committing to compete at a high level, and selling ourselves to the sport itself.  My fear is that few of us are genuinely wrestling with these issues at all and would do well to seriously ask ourselves these two questions.