Tuesday, March 4, 2014

On Tending Goal Vs. Tending the Flock

This post strays a bit from my more tried-and-true stomping grounds of writing about being a young progressive Christian whippersnapper, but the subject matter (however glibly I'm about present it) has actually gotten me thinking...and hopefully it allows you to know another side of me as well.

Regarding purely non-religious pursuits, the game of soccer has been, and will likely always be, my first love.  In 1994, I was eight years old and had been playing in my county's peewee soccer league (really more like herdball league, because that's all it was: a herd of little kids running after a size-three soccer ball) for a year or two.  The United States hosted the World Cup that summer, and I promptly fell head over heels in love with the beautiful game.  I have remained madly in love to this day.  This also means, for those of you keeping score at home, that I definitely liked soccer before it became cool to like soccer.

For the vast majority of my time in the beautiful game, I was (am) a goalkeeper: the player who wore that distinctive, colorful shirt and awful, oven-like gloves and who ran the biggest risk of getting embarrassed by being the cardboard cutout opponent on some golden boy striker's highlight reel of goals.

But by God, I loved it.  I loved every single minute of it.  I loved the adrenaline rushes, the shot-stopping, even the pre-game warm-up drills were occasionally capable of putting an uncontrollable grin on my face.  I even took a perverse love to the pain involved in keeping goal--I proudly kept a running tally of all my soccer-induced mishaps: sprained wrists and ankles, jammed fingers, shots to the face, shots to the nads (ouch), and even last year while coaching one of my youth rec teams, popping my right Achilles' tendon.

All those injuries--or at least risk for injuries--led to the conventional wisdom that us keepers have to be at least a little bit crazy.  As Bayern Munich and Germany legend Oliver Kahn famously put it:

Goalkeepers need an element of insanity.  Who else would stand there and allow people to shoot balls at his face and still think it's great?!

The guy could have just changed out "goalkeepers" for "pastors" and "shoot balls" with "say completely inexplicable things" and he would still be speaking 100% the truth.

Jonathan Wilson, in his excellent book The Outsider: A History of the Goalkeeper, argued that there was a propensity for writers and thinkers to play keeper themselves if they had any sort of soccer background--he cited, among others, Albert Camus and Vladimir Nabokov as authors/philosophers who were also goalkeepers.  I would add to this, on my own personal experience, that it would be interesting to see how many former keepers are in ministry as well.

If you watch soccer--and if you don't, you should (see above about it being cool now)--look at the goalkeeper and what his job is.  There really are a lot of similarities to ministry as well, such as:

We both wear distinctive clothing so that you always know who we are.

Collars, cassocks, robes, albs, stoles, chasubles, you name it: there are all sorts of special clothes for clergy so that you know exactly who we are just by looking at us (collars and cassocks are meant to be "everyday" wear, all that other stuff we mostly just wear on Sundays).  Meanwhile, the goalkeeper is the only player on the field required by the laws of the game to wear a distinctly different-colored jersey from the rest of their team so that everybody knows who they are.  But if you've got an eye for it, you make the best of having a proverbial target on your back--just add some flair (no, not the Office Space kind) to it.

We are both safety nets who are called upon in times of crisis.

Goalkeepers represent the last line of defense against conceding a goal--if they're making a spectacular save, it likely means that something has gone wrong beforehand.  Similarly, much of my most profound work takes place in situations where things have gone to pot: someone loses their job and needs help and doesn't know where to turn; a person's illness has suddenly taken a turn for the worse and they are now actively dying...the list goes on.  We are still there when things are good, too--the keeper is always on the field and I am always on call 24/7--but we're often invisible during those times.

We both take a lot of bumps and bruises for the sake of the courage our work requires.

I cannot tell you how many times I had to dive head- or at least hands-first into an opposing forward's boots to strip the ball away from him.  I can tell you it was often painful (see above).  Diving headfirst into the mess and muck and pain of peoples' lives is simply part and parcel of what ministers are called to do as well, regardless of our own emotional and spiritual well-being at the time.  I may be in the middle of an existential crisis, but if I get called from the hospital, I'm walking those two blocks from the church to St. John in about three nanoseconds.

We're both easy to blame.

This is the big one.  Soccer journalist Simon Kuper is talking about defenders here, but he could just as easily be talking about goalkeepers instead: Strikers "can play terribly and be praised for one goal, but defenders are hanged for one mistake."  When a goalkeeper makes a mistake, everybody knows, because it often will directly result in a goal, and when a preacher makes a mistake on Sunday morning, everybody sees it.  The keeper reads about his/her mistake the following day in the papers, the pastor hears about it in emails and phone calls.  And all of it can have a deleterious effect on your confidence in yourself, which is absolutely clutch in either activity.

So that's what I have been thinking about lately.  I wanted to move--at least for one post--away from the really super-heavy stuff I have been writing about lately into something a bit lighter, and besides, with MLS still awaiting the start of the 2014 season, this post may well represent a cry for help!

But I do remain as convinced as ever that ministry intersects with a great many other passions and occupations, sometimes in ways we can scarcely fathom.  Hopefully this post has helped you to see that perhaps a bit more in your own life as well.

Yours in Christ,

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