If you look back over some previous reflections, you will see that most of my mentions of modern day sport have been negative ones. These criticisms still hold for some of the worst excesses of commercialised sport. But I saw a show on the television the other day that made me change my mind about some sport, and I am envious.
The show was about an American high school football team in Mississippi which was near the bottom of its league table. It had hardly ever won a game, and was completely demoralised. The team was composed of a number of troubled, poor black teenagers who were not likely to finish high school, but who were kept on because of their ability at football. They were coached by a guy whose own father had walked out on the family when he was young. This documentary told the story of this team and how in the end they not only made it to ‘the playoffs’ but came within a whisker of winning the finals series.
Now my previous criticism of sport is that it is idolatry. First, modern commercial sport demands ‘my life, my soul my all’ and then can not deliver the goods when my ‘life’ starts to break down in the service if the god ‘sport’ and I am no use to it any more. Second, the god ‘commercial sport’ is a wholly owned demi-god of the bigger god ‘Money’. What the players do on the field is of secondary importance to the money generated for the sponsors. So at the top level, that’s how it works.
But at the level of this high school football team the ‘sport’ they played was of secondary importance. It was a vehicle for some much bigger processes, which it served. Listening to the coach I was amazed to hear him saying such things as ‘It’s about character! When we are losing, remember that we have come back before. Don’t ‘drop your bundle’ but have character. Keep hoping! Keep doing what we have been practising!’ And, ‘It’s not about you! It is about the team! We are down 17 points now because you are all playing for yourselves. Remember, each person plays for the whole team.’ I loved it.
When the team lost the final match, the coach said ‘I am just so proud of you. Now the test of character is how you handle this situation. Winning is hard, but this is harder.’
There were other impressive moments in the film too, where one person had attacked another. There was a big conference about what to do with this teenager. He had done it before and some were for throwing him off the team. The coach, like the ‘good shepherd’ goes after the young man, and we see him driving his car alongside the footpath, inviting the young man to tell his story. In the end they opt for a long suspension. After the suspension has been served, there is a joyous welcome back into the team, with tears and forgiveness. This young man goes on to play better than before, and to finish is high school. A benefactor who has heard of his story, offers to pay for his tertiary education. As the end of this, as my friend David says ‘I was awash.’
But why? First of all, and this did not bring on the tears, I can see the way that here, the sport plays a secondary role. It is the vehicle for the turning of these boys into men of character. It is a way of helping them to learn values that will stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives. It shows them what it means to have people who are committed to them. It shows them how it is possible to come back after failure. This kind of sport is the kind that gets the values round the right way, because it is in the service of something bigger than itself, and does not try to be ‘god’ itself. Sport in this context became the field within which these young men, full of energy and testosterone, were initiated into the best qualities of manhood.
The story of the young man reminded me of the Church in Corinth. There, there was a person who had done wrong, and was punished by the community. But now he has repented, and been received back. St. Paul writes “This punishment by the majority is enough for such a person; so now instead you should forgive and console him, so that he may not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.” (2 Cor. 2:6). Here was a Church that could act in the same way, for the transformation of its members, as this football team.
I grieve for the Church because although we are representatives of the one true God, we have lost the capacity to initiate people into the life of that God in the way that this football team, and the Church in earlier times was able to initiate people into their respective realities. Let me quote you a particularly telling quote from Ralph Keifer * about the state of the Church’s ability to initiate people into the life of Christ. He says ‘The Church tends to operate as an establishment. It speaks mainly through its officers and at a distance. As a result, it can only exhort. …it is unable to challenge, because it knows in reality that it demands minimal commitment. To demand, all of a sudden, more than this is more than the market will bear. …Since the church has no clear vision of itself hat does not include establishment, it is forced to stand between conservatism and cheap relevance…we are religiously schizophrenic because we tend to rock between assumptions resting on an irrelevant, outmoded, and mostly inoperative model (of church) on the one hand, and on the other, and assumptions resting on an uncritical appropriation of less than Christian values of pour culture on the other. The result is a Church incapable of initiating because it is incapable of living and acting as a community of faith into which people can be initiated. As we stand at present, people can be partially assimilated, but not initiated. Moreover, all of our initiatory symbols are symbols of transformation and if there is anything the present church does not stand for it is transformation.’
Do you recognise how in our own life how our conflicts tend to be between the polarities of a conservatism that wants to return to pre Vatican 2 Christianity, and a fear that if we do anything else we will have to become ‘happy clappy?’ My own project for the church is more like that of the coach of this football team: to help us, as St. Paul urges, to be ‘not conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you might know what the will of God is.’ (Rom. 12:2)
There are places where initiation and transformation go on. That football team in Mississippi is one of them. It still goes on in some tribal societies, but the place where it should go on as a sine qua non of the life of its members, the Church, has given up its willingness to do this. We can put outside our Church door ‘anyone who is serious about life transformed, lived with God will be taken seriously here, and not disappointed here.’ Will there be any takers?
* Keifer, Ralph A. 1976. Christian Initiation, The State of the Case, in Made not Born, University of Notre Dame Press, London, UK. pp 147 -8.