This summer, Bromleigh and I are going to experiment with writing a blog of sorts, just to help people feel connected to Union Church. We might engage in a little theological reflection, scripture commentary, movie review, personal story, reflection on parenting, or, in this case, sports talk.
I just returned from watching my daughter, Muriel, compete for Brown University in the NCAA Championships for Division I Women’s Rowing. Her team placed sixth in the nation, and her boat (three boats race for each team) placed fourth. Over the course of three days of prelims, semi-finals and finals, it was fantastic, difficult, heartbreaking, amazing, nerve-racking, impressive, sad, and satisfying. Sports are like that. They drive me crazy. I love them.
Sports have been an important part of my life. While I am a little confused by the enthusiastic passion some people have for sports that function primarily as entertainment (most professional sports, and college football and basketball – although I love a good NBA finals!), I am a huge fan of personal participation in sports – especially, of course, for young people. Some ancient Greeks taught that athletics were an integral part of living a good life, and for the most part, I agree. (But I am not a purist in this regard: I think music and some organized games – e.g. chess – can function in much the same way.) For my first 18 years, I think I loved life mainly because of sports, both organized and just-for-fun. And it is the nature of sports that while swimming or playing organized football or neighborhood baseball and having fun, I learned something about discipline, cooperation, problem solving, pursuit of a goal, and that current buzz-word, grit, along with much else.
Today it is a bit of a problem for me as a pastor to admit I think young people should participate in sports, though. So often, now, sports and church are in competition for the time of young people – and I believe that both church and sports require a commitment of time for the benefits to sink in. Although there are some who find a way to make both work, for the most part, more sports means less church.
I am, honestly, sick of worrying about this. I don’t want to see the two in competition. In many ways, church and sports aim for the same thing: healthy personal development that leads to full human thriving. I know they have both played that role in my life, and the life of my daughter.
But there are at least two important differences too. First, in the church, we have a different measure of success. You and everyone else, including every child, are a “success” because God loves you for who you are, and everyone in the church (at least tries to!) shows that same love. As Grant Glowiak, who ran cross-country and track, as well as played tennis for Lyons Township, has said to me, “The church was the only place where I didn’t feel judged, where my value wasn’t directly correlated to my achievement, whether on the field or in the classroom.” If you don’t invest time in church, you’re not going to get that. This may be a little strong, but if you don’t invest your kid’s time in the fellowship of church, sports can end up being more destructive than constructive.
Second, sports are not an end in themselves, although in our culture it sure can seem to young people (and their enthusiastic parents) like there is nothing more important. In other words, sports are like prayer, fasting, and alms-giving (see Matthew 6 if that doesn’t make sense) – they are great gifts from God that can be terribly misused. Ultimately, sports don’t give meaning and purpose to life. Only God and being part of God’s people in church can carry that burden. In other words, church is where we learn the greater goal toward which we are moving by bettering ourselves through sports. Without that greater goal, sports are going to drain life, not give life.
So everyone, please, somehow, someway, make the time to enjoy sports, and worship God.
Reverend J Michael Solberg
The Union Church of Hinsdale, U.C.C.
P.S. for a great reflection on a similar theme, see this blog post by MaryAnn McKibben Dana.