Passion in Our Play: The Case for Excellent Christian Athletics

By Nate Hartman

September 28, 2010

Sit up straight. Be quiet. Don’t fuss. Stay out of that. Sit still. Move back over here. Don’t whine. I found myself in the midst of such a struggle with my three-year-old in church this past Sunday, where my darling daughter could be preoccupied with books and crayons for only so long; the moment of disinterest had arrived early this week. The rest of the service, then, was more of a time of disciplining and controlling Esther than it was an act of worship.

I’m sure that scenario sounds familiar to many of you – those of you who have been the whisper-wielding parent, as well as those of you who’ve played the role of the cooped-up kid. Many of us can remember vividly being cast as both characters in the story, and the setting is not restricted to church. We’ve been the parent and the child, the teacher and the student, the supervisor and the employee. My point is that many institutions in our society place a high degree of value on basic behavior that sometimes comes across as amounting to “looking right.”

“Looking right?” you ask. Yes, the child in the pew must not cause a spectacle or embarrass his parents, must behave properly in a church setting. The student at school must stay still in his desk, consistently raise his hand before speaking, and be sure to always write his name and the date in the correct spot on homework assignments. Likewise, the employee must dress professionally, answer phones cheerfully, and master the nuances of workplace etiquette. Codes of conduct, student handbooks, “time-out” – all are reflections of the paramount value we place on proper behaviors that help individuals maintain an acceptable image.

Now I’m not suggesting that all of these desired behaviors are completely invalid, or that maintaining a pleasing and positive appearance holds no importance. What we must recognize, though, is that our insistence on these matters often leads the child, the student, the worker – and the athlete – to confuse the rigor with the reason. Churchgoers often place more value on how they appear (as well-dressed, smiling Christians with cheery attitudes) than whether they honor God with their worship. Many scholars take pride in the degrees and honors they’ve received; they revel in the praise of their teachers, but often disregard whether they’ve learned anything truly useful or grown from their experiences. The “employee of the month” gets his name on a plaque, and the masses that comprise today’s workforce scurry about to please the boss, earn a promotion, get a raise; yet what percentage of employee seek daily ways to improve their work and maximize their service to others?

Consider now the athletes you know, even those who play there at the local Christian school. What priorities have been communicated to them about the nature of a Christian athlete? They should not drink or swear or smoke, am I right? Christian schools pray before their games, and many of their gyms are decorated with posters of Bible verses, positive messages, and crosses. The team smiles at the end of the game and shakes hands with the other team. These athletes give a good impression as a bunch of really nice, well-behaved Christian kids. Again, please don’t think I’m disregarding the value of any of those things; each can play a key role in accomplishing athletics that glorifies God. However, as we are often quick to criticize professional, collegiate, and even big-time high school athletics for allowing glitzy athletics to inappropriately occupy a much-too-lofty platform, we must take care that our Christian schools don’t create candy-coated sports programs of our own. We must not teach athletes that the appearance of their sports – the way the athletes behave and their impression upon others – is the full measure of a job well done, an attainment of excellence; there must be more. As we seek to honor God with our athletics, we must remember that just as winning is not the primary goal, excellence is marked by more than just “looking right.”

* * *

The rain-drenched soccer field is barren of its usual high school practices today, but mistaken is the assumption that a wet Labor Day brings a cessation of activity upon this lush, green surface. Seeking a refuge for solitude and quite contemplation, I arrived here minutes ago, only to promptly be interrupted by a rowdy group of 30 and 40-year-old men who have now laid claim to the field for a game of football. Perhaps I shouldn’t call it a game. There are no teams, as best I can distinguish; and the primary endeavor seems to be punting the football as far as one can, after which the rest of the participants engage in a wild scrum to claim the ball and the right to attempt the next awe-inspiring kick. This is no organized contest; these men, well past their glory days and uninhibited by the decline of athletic skill, are playing. There is no score, and I don’t believe that I’ll witness the declaration of a Player of the Game at the end of their festivities; they’re playing because they love it.

In Christian circles we hear much discussion of athletics being a means to “have a witness” for our Lord, to win others to Him, and to teach lessons to the participants. Though all of those goals are worthy pursuits and may be attained through an athletic experience, I would contend that playing (or coaching) a game for the sole purpose of witnessing to someone else seems a bit far-fetched. Our God created an athletic portion of our nature; akin to all creation, it is intended both for our own pleasure and for His.

Notice that the creation narrative is full of examples of God’s desire to bring joy and pleasure to His people. He lovingly and knowingly creates a world (soon to be given and entrusted to Adam) that He repeatedly declares to be good. He creates man in His own image, embedding in him the capacity to love and to create (Genesis 1:26). He blesses mankind with the ability to have children and the privilege of ruling and nurturing His creation (Genesis 1:28). He grants the blessing of a Sabbath rest (Genesis 2:2-3) and places Adam in a garden that is “pleasing to the eye and good for food” (Genesis 2:9). As the crowning gift of His creation, God then fashions Eve, given to Adam as an intimate ally, a suitable helper; and Adam declares her to be “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23). Is there any doubt that God intends for us to be pleased, and that He takes great pleasure in pleasing us?

A close friend of mine, a soccer coach, once shared with me a conversation he had with a former player. When asked why she played soccer, she said without hesitation, “I play because I couldn’t not play.” There is a love of play, rooted in us by the design of our Creator, which is essential to any participation in athletics that we might deem to be excellent.

* * *

I hate weeding my yard. I’ve yet to discover in myself an innate passion for the task of pulling all the pesky, little buggers out from amidst my grass. I find myself chuckling, then, when I think of my dad’s yard. He’s a chemistry professor by trade and a gardener at heart; and if you give him a day and an empty calendar, you’ll find him in a flower garden or a yard (not always his own), picking weeds. He loves it; he’s good at it, and he loves it. If you wanted your yard weeded well, you wouldn’t want me to do it; you’d ask my dad. God has given Him an ability to garden well, coupled with the passion for doing it. Those qualities typically come in tandem: gifts and gusto. I am not suggesting that, because God has not blessed me with remarkable gardening skills, I never need to weed my yard. Certain that I could adequately weed my yard, if necessary, I might be compelled by responsibility to do so at the moment of need; I might even improve my weed-yanking proficiency and find some satisfaction in completing the task. Unlikely it is, though, that I will ever be a Master Gardener or choose a festival of plucking weeds over the front nine at Fox Run.

Theologian Frederick Buechner grasped the truth that God gives us delight in and ability for the calling He presents to us, that “the place God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” (Wishing Thinking: A Theological ABC) After identifying these areas of intertwined gifts and passions in ourselves, then, we must recognize our responsibility. The giver of these is our Lord; He is the master that gives talents to His servants and calls each to employ and improve the gifts that he has been granted. There is no room for mediocrity, laziness, or distrust here. All of us, then – athletes included – are beckoned to use and develop the gifts we’ve been given to glorify God. An athlete must recognize that both the calling and the blessing are from God and for God. Our Lord calls an athlete to mature his gifts to the level of excellence (and He judges, remember, “each according to his ability” – Matthew 25:15). However, an athlete who excels must remain determined to offer the garnered glory for his accomplishments to the Lord, not reap a harvest of pride and self-endorsement.

But wait! Casual athletes and team role players must not seek to tiptoe around the implications of the Master’s words. The universality of the parable is evident in that even the servant with only one apparently small talent is expected to multiply it; his master has recognized in him the ability to do so and has endowed a level of talent proportionate to that ability (Matthew 25:15). Why, then, does the servant bury that talent in the ground and then, at the time of accountability, answer his master with only excuses (Matthew 25:24)? Why do we encounter athletes who have no zeal for improving, or – worse yet – are intensely jealous of those who have a higher level of skill?

Perhaps these problems exist because we have not taught the principles and encouraged the application of the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) and the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-31). Athletes must be helped to identify their areas of skill and realistically measure their current level of ability, that they might confidently use the gifts given to them (Matthew 25:16-17). In addition, parents and coaches need to teach athletes, beginning at a young age, that athletic gifts are not to be used self-servingly; the concepts of team and service help an athlete to develop confidence (1 Corinthians 12:17), value others (1 Corinthians 12:21-26), and avoid jealousy (1 Corinthians 12:14-19). Finally, all athletes need the security of a truthful concept of God’s love for them – that He loves them not for the abundance of their talents, nor because of the esteem others have for them, but rather because they are His children. Such a self-concept promotes a poised use of gifts, rather than a fearful avoidance of failure (Matthew 25:25).

Passionate lawn-weeders, weekend golf hackers, athletes on a school team – all of us concerned with excellence need to be attentive to the challenge of claiming and pursuing the development of our God-given abilities. He calls us to boldly “desire the greater gifts” (1 Corinthians 12:30) in order to bring glory to Him; let us not, then, be that lazy servant who is thrown “outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:30).

* * *

Then Frodo came forward and took the crown from Faramir and bore it to Gandalf; and Aragorn knelt, and Gandalf set the White Crown upon his head…But when Aragorn arose all that beheld him gazed in silence, foor it seemed to them that he was revealed to them now for the first time. Tall as the sea-kings of old, he stood above all that were near; ancient of days he seemed and yet in the flower of manhood; and wisdom sat on his brow, and strength and healing were in his hands, and a light was about him. And then Faramir cried, ‘Behold the King!’ (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King)

My soul to the Lord has said, ‘You are my Lord. No goodness have I beyond You’…My heart’s glad. My soul joys. (Psalm 16:2,9)

O sing a new song to the Lord; all earth sing to the Lord. Sing to the Lord and bless His name; ‘He saves!” each day proclaim. (Psalm 96:2)

We are lured by the lie – often, in fact – that worship is something we undergo, like a surgery or an inspection. We show up at church and listen to a sermon; God convicts us of our sins and sends us back into another week with the task of living better, being more faithful to Him. The problem with such a view of worship – besides the fact that it is dreadfully dull and oppressive – is that it revolves around us. The worshipper can never been the center of true worship; when we subscribe to such a view of worship, we have lost any promise or hope, joy or life. Genuine worship is a response; in recognition of the wholeness granted to us by the mighty King of the entire universe and all of life, we pour out in completeness our hearts and lives in praise, proclaiming that “before Him honor, majesty, and strength and splendor be!” (Psalm 96:6)

Likewise, any athletic endeavor that amounts to self-service will quickly become dull and oppressive, will be drained of promise or hope, joy or life. We can look good, perform impressively, act like Christians; we can claim a love for the game, revel in competition, work hard; we can improve year after year, earn awards and honors for our valor and character, and even make friends along the way. However, each of us is reminded that no seed of speech, activity, knowledge, ability of character – purposed to serve itself – will produce a crop of excellence. Without love “I am nothing…I gain nothing” (Psalm 13:1-3).

* * *

Jimmy Morris is an old man, as baseball players are concerned; he’s a high school science teacher and baseball coach, married father of three, and long has given up on his dream of playing in the major leagues. However, after making a deal with his team and throwing a 98-mph fastball at a tryout, he signs a minor-league contract and begins anew the pursuit of his boyhood dream. Enthusiasm and hope are soon dulled, though, by grueling road trips, harsh critics, and the weight of self-doubt. Morris, mired in emptiness and frustration, hears his own story on the television, then his own voice in an interview.

This game has been the true love of my life, other than my wife, Lorri, since I was a little boy. I had a dream, as a little boy, of playing professional baseball. I used to pitch and imagine myself, you know, like every other kid in this country, being in the World Series, pitching in the seventh game, ninth inning, big-league ballpark. There’s drama in it; there’s suspense; there’s a camaraderie with the other players, the fans in the stadium. You add that to it, it’s a great game.

Out for a walk that night, Morris is drawn by the lights of a ballfield; he strolls to the outfield fence and gazes out over the field, as young boys run out to take their positions. A boy in left field, making eye contact with Morris, smile and waves; and, as Morris returns the gesture, a renewed gleam gathers in his eye. The next day Morris walks into the locker room, bearing an eager smile, anxious to see his teammates; stopping beside his closest friend, he says, “You know what we get to do today, Brooks? We get to play baseball.”

Having rediscovered his passion for the game, Morris proves to be a man among boys, pitches brilliantly, get his shot at the major leagues. Sure, it’s a storybook ending, but it’s not a fairy tale; the story is true. The Rookie is a movie based on the experience of the real-life Jimmy Morris, portrayed by Dennis Quaid in the film. Strikingly, Morris’ achievements are not fueled only by the desire to achieve individual greatness, nor does the film suggest that the old ballplayer attained his dream by the sheer inspirational boost of reconnecting with his childhood love for baseball. Morris’ passion for play is teamed with an appreciation for his giftedness and the opportunity presented to him, as well as a deep commitment to his son.

Morris and his wife, Lorrie, discuss heatedly one evening whether Jimmy should return to play minor-league baseball; after the conflict, Lorrie retreats to her son’s room. She watches Hunter sleep, gazes at the posters of ballplayers that adorn his bedroom walls, and recognizes how intensely he admires his father. She returns to Jimmy, who is seated on the porch, fixed in contemplation.

JIMMY: I’ve been thinking.
LORRI: So have I. I think you should do this.
JIMMY: No, you were right.
LORRI: No, I don’t think so. We’ve got an eight-year-old boy inside this house who waited all day in the sun and rain to see his daddy try to do something that nobody believed he could do. Now what are we telling him if you don’t try now?

What I’m suggesting is that excellence is the natural fruit of a tree borne from the seeds of passion, stewardship, and selflessness. We must guard against the temptation to equate excellence with winning, as our championship-frenzied society often assumes that anything great will finish first, will rise above the rest. We also must guard against the notion that athletic excellence is worthy of greater glory and honor than achievement in other pursuits. I dare you to spend an hour listening to Andrew Peterson’s artistic album Love and Thunder, or to meander the majestic acres of Brookgreen Gardens in Pawley’s Island, South Carolina, or to journey through Narnia with the characters enlivened by C.S. Lewis – and then to even hint that excellence cannot be composed, sculpted, planted, or scripted as gloriously as it can be played out in sport.

The challenge for all of us, then, is this: that we do not allow excellence in athletics to be either unjustly idolized or ignored. Administrators, students, teachers, parents, coaches, board members, fans, alumni – this charge is issued to us all. Our master has assembled us, his servants, and entrusted this arena of athletics to us. He demands that we put aside all distractions and excuses that restrict us from gaining a good return from our work, and he longs to call out to us at the end of our labor, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come an share in your master’s happiness” (Matthew 25:21). Let us, as competitors and companions, join in making that victory our prized goal.

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