Saturday, December 5, 2015

Playing football for God

I'm a seminarian, which means I study a lot of theology. I'm also a big Seattle Seahawks fan, which means I watch a lot of football. Lately, I've been more and more impressed with rookie wide receiver and returns specialist Tyler Lockett, who has demonstrated his value to this team both on offense and on special teams right away.

One thing about Tyler which especially impresses me is his mentality. In this autobiographical video, Tyler speaks about his experiences playing football under the shadow of his father and uncle at Kansas State University. His father Kevin was the best wide receiver in the history of the school, and his uncle Aaron was one of the best returners. The burden of his family name was heavy, then, and Tyler describes the initial despair he felt, knowing that the expectations for his play were so high. Yet he describes a critical change in his mentality which helped him tremendously: rather than playing to prove himself worthy of the family name, rather than trying to live up to the expectations of others, he says he started to play for God.  But what does that mean? What does it mean to play football for God?

This question invites us to delve into the under-explored topic of the theology of sports. What significance do sports have vis-à-vis our relationship with God? Does God care about sports at all? How does sports relate with our spiritual life? (I think that my meditations here will have application in other contexts, as well.)

Of course, there are references to sports and athletics more generally in the scriptures. For example, St.  Paul on a few different occasions compares his own attitude to the spiritual life to that of an athlete, training for a competition. For example, in light of the difficulties and responsibilities of preaching the gospel, Paul says: Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified (1 Cor 9.24-7). Likewise,  to Timothy he says: Train yourself in godliness, for, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come (1 Tim 4.7-8). The connection between athletics and the spiritual life is a fascinating one, and worth exploring at a later time.

But in this post, I want to talk about the concept of playing football for God. What could that mean? I haven't spoken with Tyler Lockett about the topic, but I am guessing he would probably agree with what I am going to say.

Playing football for God does not mean playing so as to impress God, or to win over God's favor, as if God could only love you if you were an accomplished athlete. Far from it -- God loves everyone, athletes and non-athletes alike. On the contrary, I think playing football for God means playing football with a certain kind of consciousness and awareness of God's goodness. The invention of the sport of football was possible because God created human kind in his image and likeness, with rationality and intelligence and a creative spirit, which seeks to bring new and wonderful things into existence, just like God is the creator of everything. But also, playing football for God means playing out of gratitude to God -- gratitude for the gift of life, for the gift of health, for the gift of human community, for the gift of strength, for the gift of the opportunity and ability to enjoy oneself.

God created human beings with a body that is capable of wonderful, magnificent things. A football player like Tyler Lockett, who plays football for God, does what he does best out of gratitude for God's good gift of a healthy, functioning body. The football player who plays for God thinks like this: "Thank you, Lord, for the gift you have given me. I want to perfect it and use it excellently out of gratitude for you, to demonstrate to everyone your goodness and generosity in allowing us to enjoy life!"

It is too easy to think that God has no concern for football or sports or other "worldly endeavors." But that's not the impression that I get about God from reading the Bible. St. Paul tells the Gentiles in Lystra that, although they did not know the true God, he has been giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy (Acts 14.17). When the Lystrans experienced joy in their lives -- and this holds true for the rest of us, as well -- it was a gift of God, a demonstration of his goodness and generosity. So also, the joy that Tyler Lockett gets from playing football, and the joy that the rest of us get from watching him do amazing things, is a gift of God's and a demonstration of his goodness. God, being good and loving, is happy to see that his children are filled with joy, same as any other parent.

So this is what it means to play football for God, I think: it means playing out of gratitude to God for the good gift that he has given us, the gift of life and health and strength and movement and community. Playing football for God -- and doing anything for God, for that matter, whether it be sport or being a mother or something else -- means playing our absolute best, making the best use of the gifts he has given us.

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