Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Beautiful Game

(I'm back and married!  Mine and Carrie's wedding in her hometown of Swannanoa, North Carolina, was amazing...the weather cooperated, the flowers and foliage were all beautiful, and all of the food was fantastic.  And I ended up married to a truly amazing woman!  I appreciate your patience as I indulged in a two week vacation from writing during that time, and I am happy to be back! E.A.)

So you may have seen me blogging about soccer previously on what is ostensibly a Christian blog, and with the World Cup in full swing, I am about to do so again.  But just like last time, I think there are a lot of Christian tie ins to what I am about to say.

In the winter of 1914, during the Christmas Truce that bracketed the beginning of the First World War, an international soccer match was played...between the trenches by soldiers of England and Germany, whose nations were at war with each other (the Germans won 3 to 2, thus beginning the time honored tradition of England losing in agonizing manner to Germany in soccer).

In the fall of 2005, when the national team of the Ivory Coast qualified for its first ever World Cup in the midst of being racked by three years of civil war.  Taking advantage of the universal celebrations taking place on both sides of the conflict, the Ivory Coast team begged both the government and the rebel factions to adhere to a ceasefire for the sake of national unity for the World Cup.  Within a week of doing so, their request was fulfilled.

And I grew up as a tween with grisly stories coming out of Bosnia headlining the nightly news: stories of the ethnic cleansing that was taking place, stories of the human rights atrocities, and stories of the horrendous siege of Sarajevo that would eventually claim the lives of over 11,000 citizens.

But today?  The soccer players of my generation are now the ones pleading for national unity once more out of Bosnia, not only for the sake of peace, but for the sake of recovery from some of the most disastrous flooding the country has ever seen.  Miralem Pjanic, a midfielder for Bosnia and for AS Roma in Italy's Serie A, bought himself a drugstore...and then donated the store's entire stock of goods to the victims and relief efforts of the floods.

I'll be damned if this isn't exactly how we would want all our athletic heroes to act.  Imagine if, say, LeBron James or Peyton Manning bought out an entire Walgreen's and donated all of its supplies to the victims of the next natural disaster to strike the United States.

All of this is to say: things like this are why I have always rejected the "bread and circuses" argument that sports are meaningless...that they are only a game meant to distract us from things that really matter.

National unity in the face of a civil war matters.

Laying down your weapons because you are literally begged on bended knee to matters.

Using your own personal fortune from playing a game to help others in an emergency matters.

All of those things matter because they make someone's life out there better.  Safer.  More secure.  More plentiful.

All of those things matter because they are things that we as Christians should be doing as well: encouraging unity, the cessation of violence and hostilities, and material aid to one another.

This is kingdom sized work that a mere game is capable of...a mere game that is, of course, able to hold the world entire rapt for a month at a time every four years.

There is a reason why we refer to soccer as the beautiful game: because at its aesthetic best, it produces sport that is more akin to art and performance than to simply grit and stamina.

But I think we can also call it the beautiful game because of the other things it can do.  Because of the other things its practitioners have done.

Because of the things we can do.

I'll be following this World Cup, like all World Cups since the USA World Cup in 1994, as closely as I can, waiting to see that beautiful game emerge.  Not just on the field...but hopefully off the field as well.

And when it does again emerge off the field, I will cheer it on, just as I would in the stadium, with a beer and a hot dog in hand, ready for the next moment when a small collection of talented individuals amazes me.

What a beautiful game.

Yours in Christ,


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