I had to laugh the other day as I opened the trunk of my car. In the center was my gym bag; behind that, my golf clubs, draped with a drying swimsuit; my swim fins and other stuff in their bag to the side. My golf shoes and some things I recently picked up for my bike took up the other side of the trunk. I had to laugh, because if you had told me when I was 12 that I would still be involved with sports at the age of 41, I would have told you just how crazy you were.
Other than wrestling, which came rather naturally to me, I never really went too far with any organized sports. It was not due to a lack of effort or athleticism, but my size, strength, and issues resulting from my medical problems meant that my abilities were always just average.
As a result, I HATED school and other organized sports. They had a way to demean even the best player. Winning in organized sports is everything. Many coaches I had over the years never let us forget that. There are a lot of important lessons to be learned by participating in organized sports, especially how to win and lose with grace and decorum. But at a certain point, most of the sports I played, whether it was swimming or football, lost their fun. Even winning seemed empty.
Maybe it is because the times I had the most fun playing sports were either in the neighborhood or at camp, where sports were less about winning and more about the sport and the enjoyment of playing. Usually this was also done without adult supervision!
Sports could be so much fun when we collectively decided that the rules sucked and we were going to write our own. Most of the time that worked really well. No matter what we played, the rules were relatively the same. The basic framework would remain for the game we played¾ so if it were soccer, you would kick the ball into the goal, if it went out of bounds, it would be thrown in, and so on. But the rest of the rules, the technical stuff, fell away, and no matter what we played, they ended up being replaced with three things. Though never really formalized or even talked about, there was a strict covenant that if you crossed these lines, the worst punishment of all would come¾rejection.
The rules, or maybe guidelines would be a better way to talk of them, were simple. First, that we respect each other. This meant that you could not play if you did stupid things that would get others hurt, and teasing each other to the point where someone cried was never cool. Second, that we would be honest about things like whether or not a goal was made. This had less to do with altruism than it did practicality. We wanted to play, and all that arguing did was to take up our time and keep us from having the fun of the game. The last rule was that we would be fair. If teams were uneven, we would adjust. Again, this was less about benevolence as it was the sport¾what fun is it, really, to beat someone so badly it is embarrassing? They probably would not play with you again.
That was living! Playing like this was fun, and most importantly, though someone always left with a bruised ego, everyone remained friends when all was said and done.
If you are still with me, you must be asking, “What does this have to do with God?” Well, nothing and everything. I once joked that I was a “Christian anarchist,” in the same way that I see Paul as a Christian anarchist or Christ as an anarchist. All governments become religions unto themselves, where their rules and laws become the focus, rather than either the well-being or faith of the people. This was certainly true of both the Roman government and the Jewish leadership at the time of Christ. For both, it was far more about the law than what was best for the people, or moreover, what was best for serving God.
I believe we are coming to a critical point in our history where we are far more concerned about the winning than we are about the living. We are so consumed by the sport of life that we have forgotten what it means to play. Personally, I think this is what is behind many of the disparities and discriminatory practices in our country. Not only have we lost respect for each other, we’ve also lost the ability to be honest and fair.
As I prepare to go to General Assembly in a little less than a month, I am going to take you on a journey through a new focus for my efforts called “All Hate Hurts.” While the presidential campaign is an obvious target, it is only a symptom of a society that has lost the ability to play and work together with respect, honesty, and fairness, which I believe are the cornerstones for for any relationship. I believe it is time for us to be bold--not necessarily to be anarchists, but definitely for us to relearn what it means to be in relationship with others.
I think that is why I have kept with sports. While I’m no longer doing organized sports, I really enjoy the way that I can go out, meet people, play, and live. It gives me perspective, and from a grounded place, I am able to assess what is really important in the world.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen