Sunday, September 28, 2008

Spirituality & Sports

This time of year is a sports lover's favorite. Baseball playoffs are getting ready to start. The NFL season is taking shape, with contenders soon to distance themselves from pretenders. The NASCAR chase for the cup is close to completion. The NHL preseason is underway. And the NBA is right around the corner.

It's been suggested to me before that sports are a waste of time, money, and energy that could be more effectively directed toward more spiritual things like ministry, evangelism, and Bible study. For example, if all the money that Christians spent on sports tickets, jerseys, gas, parking, concession food, and other sports parephenalia were redirected to the church or to missionaries, what would the kingdom impact be? Or if all the time devoted to watching sports on TV, discussing sports at work, and reading about sports in the newpaper and online were spent in prayer, Bible reading, and serving others, wouldn't that be better?

I understand the logic behind that argument, but I still find myself irresistably drawn to sports. I think there is something fundamentally human about watching the best athletes in the world competing at their sport of choice. In addition, I think there are things for us to learn about ourselves and about the spiritual life. So here's what I see as the spiritual value of sports.

1. Let's start with scripture (always a good idea). Paul uses the athlete as a role model for us; he says that sports give us a picture to inspire us to the kind of focus, determination, self-control, self-discipline, dedication, perseverance, and persistance that we need to nurture in our pusuit of Christ. He says, "Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore, I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize" (1 Cor. 9:25-27 NIV). The author of Hebrews makes the same point: "Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us" (12:1 NIV).

2. Another spiritual value I see sports contributing to us is the understanding of teamwork. Although the Bible doesn't use the metaphor of sports in this precise way, it's clear that God created his church to function as a team (Rom. 12:4-8; 1 Cor. 12:4-31). Perhaps no other element of our 21st century society demonstrates the aspects of teamwork that are necessary for the church better than sports--aspects such as recognizing the inherent value of each team member, each player's unique role providing a necessary contribution to the overall goals of the team, self-sacrifice as necessary for the team's overall success, recognition of the individual contributions, and the absolutely essential importance of communication, unity, and accountability.

3. Today, sports has become one of the main forums for learning about leadership. While leaders are certainly present (and even necessary) in the fields of politics and business, most people reserve a high degree of distrust of political and business leaders. Yet sports leaders are fairly well respected, and (perhaps even more importantly for this point) the leadership issues for a team become common knowledge through press conferences and public actions (such as benching a player, firing a head coach, making a trade, etc.). Effective leadership--both from above and below--is absolutely essential in sports; there must be good leadership in place in the front office (owners, general managers), in the clubhouse (head coaches, assistant coaches), and on the field (veteran players). If you are a sports fan, you know about the leadership issues in organizations such as the NY Knicks, the NY Yankees, the Oakland Raiders, and the Detroit Lions. You also know about the leadership successes of organizations like the Boston Red Sox, the Indianapolis Colts, and the LA Lakers. Amazingly, and against expectations, sports teams' successes are often due less to the talent of the players, and more to whether they are all completely committed to the philsophy and direction of the organization.

4. The high profile of sports celebrities gives a rubric for understanding all kinds of stewardship issues. Many athletes fail miserably with their money, showing the truth of verses such as Ecclesiastes 5:10, "Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income." We learn not to envy the wealthy and successful, as they demonstrate that their lives are often utterly empty. Yet many athletes use their money wisely, setting themselves up for lifelong generosity and philanthropy. They provide us an inspiration for how we might use money if God were to choose to bless us in that way (it's always wise to think ahead of how we might use any of life's circumstances to God's glory). But there are other stewardship issues to consider besides money. Many athletes misuse their success by believing that their lives are free of consequences; witness the tragic failures of Michael Vick, Roger Clemens, Darryl Strawberry, Ricky Williams, etc. Yet many athletes can inspire us with the great example they provide even under the most intense microscope--Tony Dungy, Mike Singletary, Albert Pujols, David Robinson, and Kevin Johnson. There is also the issue of stewarding the talents, gifts, and abilities that God has given us. While we perhaps don't have the same abilities they do, we do have different ones--and are we developing and applying ours with the same kind of focus and intentionality?

5. I believe the playing of sports, growing up, taught me many great lessons that have served me well in my life. And I learned these lessons as habits planted in my life, not as concepts or notions that seemed like good ideas. It was sports that taught me things like commitment and follow-through, how to deal with failure, the importance of encouraging others, the value of practice and preparation, the thrill of the prize, and the pride of pushing myself further than I thought I could go.

Now, admittedly, perhaps this is just my attempt to rationalize my love for sports--it's always nice to put a spiritual spin on your favorite pasttimes, right? And maybe we shouldn't spend quite as much time and money on sports as we do--it probably is wise to consider whether we should go to the race or use the money some other way. But on the other hand, I believe sports have much to teach us about life, about God, and the pursuit of his kingdom.

Now, maybe you don't feel that way--that's fine. Go ahead and spend your extra time and money for prayer and evangelism, and I'm sure you'll be blessed. Not everyone is wired the same way. But for those of us who are sports fans, let's raise our foam fingers in the air, give a loud cheer, and praise the God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment (1 Tim. 6:17). I believe that all of life is spiritual, and we can find God and his lessons wherever we are willing to look.

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