Thursday, April 24, 2008

Real Life Sanctification: The Century-Old Dilemma of Guys and Sports

As I said a few days ago, I think that when we're talking about sanctification, the progressive growth in grace of the Christian, we need to start with the deeper, higher truths and then carefully but energetically proceed to the workings of everyday life. After all, it is in the cracks of life, the details, the nitty-gritty, that our sanctification is worked out. Much as we might think otherwise, our growth in grace centers not so much in Sunday School, but in how we apply the teachings of Sunday School (or preaching, or our theological reading) to everyday life. We spend way, way more time practically applying our views on sanctification than we do thinking about them.

Am I denigrating theology and the study of it? Not in the least. I'm merely trying to point out to an audience who shades reformed and theologically concerned that while we must richly feed ourselves rich Christian teaching, we must work very hard to break that teaching down and allow it to shape the hum and drum of daily living. Armed with such a mindset, we'll be far less quick to categorize thoughtful reflection on life as "legalism" and far quicker to examine our everyday decisions in the light of higher theology. So with all this said, what should we do about the problem--and I think it is one--of guys and sports? How are we to handle the sports culture and its effect on the church? How can we extricate even thoughtful Christian men (and women, to some extent, but the burden here is on men) from athletic idolatry?

We need first to square with this problem. For young men like myself, for the twenty- and thirtysomething age bracket, we've got to recognize that we grew up in an era in which sports and the celebration of sports figures exploded in the popular media. Boys like myself who grew up in the age of Jordan, Sampras, and Gretzky were exposed to nothing less than glorification of these athletes and many like them. In a society drifting from the port of Judeo-Christian belief and accompanying emphasis on traditional principles like masculine responsibility, traditional commitments to family, church, and society, and important pursuits, sports filled a waiting vacuum. It didn't rise out of nothing. No, it mixed with celebrity culture, entertainment frenzy, and image-driven personhood to shape the modern mind and life. Match these factors with an economy fairly bursting with life and you end up with the sociological marvel that is modern sport. No longer played merely for fun, mostly among friends, and without transcendence, athletics in the last thirty years have become, in the minds of many men, the highest end of life.

Perhaps someone out there scoffs at that rather bold assertion. Well, then, conduct this little experiment: go to a grammar school and ask the little boys what they want to be. Then get back to me. I'm pretty confident that you'll find that the psyche of these little boys has already absorbed on a breathtaking level the transcendence, the importance, of sport. For these boys, and for the men they become, there is almost nothing greater than leading one's team to glory, and than etching one's name in the record books while doing it. Were the Greek poet-historians alive today, they would not celebrate and eulogize the warrior, but the athlete. Of course, we don't need the Greeks--we've got Nike commercials to do this for us. Honestly, some of the most moving moments of my recent life have been had while watching commercials about silly little games and the people who play them. It's not that I wanted to feel moved by these paens to commercialism and the people who fuel it, it's that it's nearly impossible not to feel moved while Nike matches gorgeous slow motion shots with orchestral music. In these little 30-second spots, one discovers the story, the power, the pathos, of modern sport.

Okay, so what does all this mean for we who claim Christ? It means that, if we're men and thereby generally (not, of course, exclusively) inclined to competition and the pursuit of glory, then we're going to feel the pull of modern sports. Furthermore, it means that they're going to tempt us to sacrifice our families, our work, our societies, our sleep patterns, our bodies, our vacations, our conversations, for athletics. Can there be any positive value in sports for men? Surely. It can help men to bond, for example, and relax, and have fun, all things that are good within limits. But can sports get way out of hand for the average Christian guy? Can he--despite what he might think in his mind--fall prey to the cultural obsession with sports, and so compromise in varied ways his walk with Christ? I think that he can. I think that he, on a major scale, does.

I'm not presenting myself as immune to this problem. I'm not. I play basketball a couple of times a week and love it. But I often come home conflicted and sometimes bruised. I sometimes struggle to damp down my competitive streak when the game stops, and I'm aware that continual damage to my body will harm my ability to enjoy such blessings as grandchildren, Lord willing, in the future. So I don't have this all figured out, either in theory or in practice. However, I can see at the very least that I have caught the cultural bug. Left to my own devices, bereft of the Holy Spirit, I could easily go head-over-heels in pursuit of sports. This propensity allows me to see this tendency not only in myself but in other men of God. How many of us stay up too late to watch games, thereby compromising our care of our families? How many of us bruise our bodies week after week, thinking little about the unimportance of such activity (however much we might think differently in the moment) and its long-term effect? How many of us think about how much sports sap our care for our wife, our attention to our children, our hunger for the Word? I'm convinced that many of us struggle in these ways and many more, and that one of the single greatest temptations of your average Christian guy today is to properly balance athletics in a sports-obsessed world.

What do we need, then, if we can see that we are imbalanced? We need accountability. We need the church. We need people asking us hard questions and perhaps giving us direct rebuke for our bad habits. We need to talk about sports with other guys in our churches and to see if we share common struggles. Then, we need to take action. We need our pastors to remember that sanctification is almost never a 30,000 foot issue in the Scripture, but is routinely brought to the ground level of behavior. Therefore, we need pastors who keep in mind the fact that many men (and some women) are obsessed with sports, and need to extricate themselves from sin in this respect. We need to bring up our boys in homes where sports are nothing more than games, things that we can and may well engage in, but that are never, ever construed as being transcendently or even moderately important. They simply aren't. We need fathers to model such a mindset in their own lives by making lots and lots of small, hard choices--to turn the tv off, to resist glorifying an athlete merely for talent, to wax endlessly about mere games.

There is nothing wrong with enjoying sports. It can be a good gift of God. It can bring men together, it can create and deepen friendships, it can bring health to bodies. But we must never let the gift become transcendent. It is not. Instead, we must devote ourselves to God, to healthy fellowship in His church, to devoted care for our wives and children, and allow sports to rest in their proper place, alongside other diversions. We may enjoy them, but we must not let them master us, as they do so many other men. The good of so many around is at stake on issues just like this--men, how will we respond?

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