The Conservative Soul of Soccer

Soccer, with its order and slow, drudging progress, offers an inviting metaphor in our speed-obsessed culture.

I was the first in my family to be enchanted with soccer. None of us grew up playing it. We lived in SEC and Little League country, so when we said “sports” we almost always meant March Madness and the Super Bowl. The World Cup changed that—specifically, the 2006 World Cup, which I watched with awe and fascination in my grandmother’s guest room, avoiding extended family like a good 16 year old. But it was the 2010 tournament that sealed my affections permanently, as I watched the United States play England in the opening group stage match and plunged into romantic notions that the world was very small and that soccer was the truest bridge anyone could ever hope to build on it.

There is a global allure to the World Cup, something undeniably beautiful in the awareness that billions of people on every continent, under every solar season, are watching and screaming and praying toward the same thing. That’s what sucked me in, but it’s not really why I stay fascinated with a sport I didn’t even understand until high school. Rather, I stay in love with soccer because it has a conservative soul.

The most common thing I hear from people I love about soccer is that it’s boring. Teams don’t score enough; it takes them too long to score; games end in ties! For these folks, soccer is little more than a flesh and blood version of Pong: the ball just moves and moves. Only if you’re lucky, 90 minutes of patience is rewarded with 10 seconds of joy. We scored a point! Now what happened to my afternoon?

I get it. All of the major American sports that we dream of playing as kids define success in terms of lighting up the scoreboard. There’s nothing more glamorous in baseball than a grand slam, nothing more noteworthy in basketball than a triple double, and nothing more impressive in football than a 3 touchdown game by a player. Football, still the country’s most popular and powerful sport, has radically transformed over the past 20 years into an offensive game. It’s all about points, points, points.

Doesn’t this remind you at least a little bit of contemporary American culture? The low hanging simile would be consumerism, of course. “Get all you can while the getting is good” is how most of our society interprets e pluribus unum. But I’m even thinking of another way that scoring points dominates our cultural imagination. What about information? Isn’t there something quite “pointsy” about the way we all seem to feel obligated to be connected to smartphones and Instagram feeds and Twitter arguments all the time? To ask for moderation in these things is to ask for precisely the thing they were invented not to give us. Our uber-connected age runs on the same logic as a chaotic sporting event wherein it is impossible to go too fast or try to score too quickly.

Soccer, though, is far more inviting metaphor. If the frantic, hero-ball personality of our popular sports shows off the spirit of the current day, soccer’s drudging, almost maniacal precision evokes a spirit far older and greener.

Soccer is about the implicit advantage that defenders have over attackers. Defenders don’t have to run with a ball between their feet. Defenders don’t have to worry about offside calls. Soccer’s conflict privileges defending what you have over creating something new. This is why it’s “boring.” It’s also why it’s a deeply true-to-life game. At the heart of the conservative mindset is the belief that good things are much easier to destroy than they are to make. There are all sorts of good ways to “defend” the good thing that already is, but there are far fewer ways to create something good in the old’s place. This is the precise opposite of the progressive, revolutionary mindset, which tends to recklessly attack the status quo in the faith that new good is inevitable and cannot really be pursued in the wrong way.

What matters far more than speed in soccer is movement. Straight line speed, the raw ability to outrun a defender, is certainly valuable, but it won’t achieve much if you can’t move: Move yourself, move the ball, move your teammates. Movement and speed are not the same thing, just like progress and continuance aren’t the same thing. The world of late Western capitalism demands speed without movement, attack without deliberation, and heroism without a team. This is, more or less, the pedagogy that’s defined the modern university for the past two hundred years, and now the children are eating the parents.

Speed without movement is incoherence. This isn’t business or productivity jargon, either. It’s what most people in my generation have forgotten. In the race to actualize ourselves, tell “our truth,” and shape the right side of history, we’ve slipped and fallen into the weeds of depression, paranoia, anxiety, and loneliness. We are learned but don’t know what to do. We are connected but haven’t a soul to talk to. We are accomplished and bright but feel lost and hopeless.

To watch soccer is to be reminded that life, especially the Christian life, is a long obedience in the same direction, not an inspired sprint. There is more movement than speed, more plodding than attacking. For those souls who see themselves primarily as agents of revolutionary change in their generation, and especially for those who have drunk deeply of cynicism toward existing institutions and transcendent claims on their identity, soccer looks like failure. But to those who understand the order of the universe—fixed, but not static; orderly, but not un-invaded—soccer looks a lot like the rhythm of life itself. There’s a lot of passing, a lot of staying where you are, a lot of making sure you’re where the people around you need you. And there are opportunities for glory, indeed. But they’ll be forfeited without deliberate care. A triple double is probably not in your future, but you may very well be part of a movement that does something special…if you can resist sprinting.

Soccer is a beautiful visual liturgy of the conservative spirit. One watches with wonder how individual players can function so cohesively as units, such that the one seems to know where the other is going even before he does. Give it a passing glance and all you’ll see is a ball moving seemingly aimlessly. Pass, pass, backward pass, sideways pass, pass. But the ball is going forward. Just keep watching.

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My Father’s Best Gift

My father’s best gift to me was his obscurity. In the 20+ years in which he pastored churches and his children grew up, he never published anything other than a newsletter article, spoke anywhere other than a church pulpit, or was known by anyone other than those who had met him or us. Whatever the opposite of a “celebrity pastor” is, that’s what Dad was in those years. And it was the best thing that could have ever happened to a son.

I was a man when I first encountered the pressure that is on ministers to create something for people to remember them by. And in my life I’ve known some sons of pastors and ministers who did indeed have large platforms, impressive CV’s, and the like. I’ve known some children of these “celebrity” ministers. Of all these children I’ve known and talked to, not one of them expressed gratitude for their father’s celebrity. Most of them loved and admired their dads, yes. Most of them weren’t bitter and resentful (with some exceptions). But none of them actually said they were glad their dads were as famous and accomplished as they were. In fact, most of them who still tender-hearted toward their fathers and faithful to the gospel intimated that it was despite their fathers’ successes, not because of it.

Don’t read some imprecatory analysis into this. I write only what I’ve seen. For this pastor’s son, coming to grips with my own Dad’s struggles in the ministry has not always been easy. There’s been temptation to blame hard seasons of life on him, or on the church, or on God, or on myself. Obscurity is not an elixir. Life is hard and painful and mysterious no matter how many people know your name. The problem of suffering is history’s great equalizer.

But I do know that my Dad’s obscurity has taught me something I’m not sure I would have learned otherwise. It’s taught me that what most people, even Christians, mean by “success” is perilous. Success for the celebrity pastor might mean failures for the celebrity pastor’s son. Failures for the struggling yet faithful minister might mean success for the son. My own life might have even to this point looked very different if Dad had valued his own success the way some of the books and conferences wanted him to. But he didn’t. And now, in his 60s, with no book contracts to his name and none on the horizon, with no legacy of expertise to leave behind for strangers, the whole of my Dad’s faithfulness is known only to the objects of it: His savior, his wife, his children, his flocks.

I cherish my father’s obscurity. In the moments I find myself not aspiring to it, I aspire that I would.

 

A Prayer For Wonder

Heavenly Father,

Thank you for being God. Thank you for being such a wise, creative, powerful, tenderhearted, patient, and sovereign King of the world. May your name forever be hallowed, in my heart, in my home, in my church, and in my world.

You are indeed a good King, and we, made in your image, are made to see and savor you. We are made to bask in the light of how beautiful you are. It is not enough to agree that you are good. You demand that we enjoy you. You demand that we wonder at you. In your wisdom, you have commanded our wonder.

You have not hidden your wonder. You have stamped it throughout creation. The bristle of the tree leaves in a summer wind says, “Wonder!” The orange lake poured over the sky in sunrise says, “Wonder!” The impenetrable depths of the ocean floor, where live creatures our best technology and brightest minds cannot fathom, say, “Wonder!” The Milky Way, the exoplanets, the distressing vastness of space, they all say “Wonder!” You have commanded our wonder, and you have given us much to wonder at.

But wonder doesn’t come easy to us. Like the man in Bunyan’s slough of despond, our eyes are weighed downwards, away from the majesty and toward the muck. Your night skies go unheeded in favor of the dull blue glow of our iPhones. We ignore the wonder of words (how amazing language is!) and focus instead on how we can use them to gain platforms from people we don’t pray for. We greet the world you have made not with wonder, delight, and worship, but with cynicism and defensiveness, so occupied with trying to show others that we belong here that we forget why we belong here.

Wonderful things are close to us, yet wonder feels far away. Yet we often confuse this for nostalgia. If we could just go back to childhood, if we could unlearn what we’ve learned, if we could lose ourselves once again in pleasure and play, we think we would wonder again. “Things were better before,” we say every year, meaning “Before this year.” We want the good old days and we want to know we’re in them. We want to wonder and yet feel ourselves wondering. We want to wonder at our wondering.

We want, so often, to wonder at ourselves.

But we can’t. No matter how hard we try, self-wonder crumbles under the distractions of life. It is exhausting to see mirrors everywhere. We are tired. We want to see you.

Father, help us to do this. Help us to see you. Help us to see you in the beauty of the summer skies and the winter frost. Help us to see you in the great stories. Help us to see you in each other. Help us to see you in the simplest of things, the things we don’t even think about because we are distracted. Help us to love where You have put us, with whom You have put us, when You have put us. Help us to wonder, not wander.

Help us to wake up every morning eager to wonder at You, who You are, and what You’ve done. Help us not to wake up already imagining ways to make strangers respect us. Help us not to see the world through social media, nor through all-consuming careerism. Help us to be productive but also to rest, and help us remember that work and wonder are not always the same. Help us to be calm in an outraged time, and help us to be quiet in a culture that demands we fill all silence with words.

Help us to wonder now, like we will be doing for eternity.

In Jesus’ name,

Amen.

My Father’s Anger

Growing up, I did not see my father angry often. But it did happen. If my father was angry with me, it was almost certainly for one of two reasons. Either I had disrespected my mother, or else I had been cruel to my younger sister. On those occasions I did witness and endure my Dad’s anger.

But here’s an important distinction. Though I felt Dad’s anger, I always knew what kind of anger it was. It was the anger of, “You, my son, have done something wrong, and I am angry that wrong has been done.” But there’s another kind of fatherly anger that I never felt. It’s the anger that says, “You have done something wrong, and I am angry to have such a son who would do this kind of thing.” The first kind of anger came and left. Even minutes after discipline I knew I was welcomed into the love of my father.

But the second kind of anger sticks with you. It never really dissipates. The emotions will calm, and deed will be forgotten, but there’s just something about feeling the weight of that anger–anger directed, even for just a moment, at the father-son relationship itself–that darkens the heart. I’ve heard from many friends whose fathers were angry in this kind of way. Healing is possible, but the scarring is there.

One reason I believe some Christians struggle with the idea of substitutionary atonement is that they cannot convince their hearts that a God who would sacrifice his own son for their sins can really ever forgive them. They cannot imagine in their soul a Father who pours wrath, wrath over their sin, on his beloved Son, and then actually welcomes them–the one responsible!–with open arms. The idea of God’s wrath at sin is, for them, inextricable from the kind of deep-sealed anger that God must feel at having to put up with sons and daughters who caused the death of his begotten. For them, God’s anger at sin is not the anger at sin and its wages, but anger at them for being what they are. For these Christians, the gospel of Christ’s substitution does not comfort. It reinforces their fear that their heavenly Father resents them, even when he says otherwise.

It does not surprise me that people would think this about God. Fatherly anger is such a precarious thing. Children are good at hearing the heart behind the words. Vocabulary is not a disinfectant for resentment. This is why, I think, the authors of the New Testament go to such great lengths to talk about the love of God for his church. He really does love us. Not begrudgingly, not resentfully. He loves us day and night, and his love does not even sleep.

I thank God often for showing me some of Himself through my father’s anger. There were times I knew Dad was displeased. But there was never a time when I wondered if he was displeased to have me. The difference is the difference between life and death.

The lessons of George Bell

“You can die in such anonymity in New York.”

This lengthy story in The New York Times is a haunting, heartbreaking narrative that depicts a reality that many of us might be embarrassed to admit is one of our greatest fears: Dying utterly alone. “The Lonely Death of George Bell” is a fine piece of investigative journalism by N.R. Kleinfield, but more than that, it is a grievous commentary on the ability of lives to disappear–both by individual choice and by societal obliviousness.

Here’s an excerpt:

Neighbors had last seen him six days earlier, a Sunday. On Thursday, there was a break in his routine. The car he always kept out front and moved from one side of the street to the other to obey parking rules sat on the wrong side. A ticket was wedged beneath the wiper. The woman next door called Mr. Bell. His phone rang and rang.

Then the smell of death and the police and the sobering reason that George Bell did not move his car.

Each year around 50,000 people die in New York, and each year the mortality rate seems to graze a new low, with people living healthier and longer. A great majority of the deceased have relatives and friends who soon learn of their passing and tearfully assemble at their funeral. A reverent death notice appears. Sympathy cards accumulate. When the celebrated die or there is some heart-rending killing of the innocent, the entire city might weep.

A much tinier number die alone in unwatched struggles. No one collects their bodies. No one mourns the conclusion of a life. They are just a name added to the death tables. In the year 2014, George Bell, age 72, was among those names.

Who was George Bell? Kleinfield’s inquiry into this anonymous New Yorker’s life yields very little. There are photographs of a teenage George sitting beside his father at Christmas, looking content and happy (“He was especially attached to his parents,” Kleinfield writes). As the years progress, the photos begin to depict a man with large appetites but little joy. He spent the last 20 years of his life collecting disability payments, a union pension, and, as a “hoarder,” just about anything else he could get. But he never had people over, never went out with friends. He existed, and obtained. That was the extent of George Bell’s life.

Why did this article affect me so much? I think it may be because, in a way, I identify with George Bell. Why was he the way that he was? What stopped  him every time the thought occurred to him that he should maybe, just maybe, go out with a friend, or write a letter, or call somebody? What was it that he believed about himself or about others that made a rotting, shrinking apartment more comfortable and more appealing than a week’s vacation?

The truth is I don’t know. And that’s why I identify with him. This kind of habitual solitude, this kind of perpetual retreat into one’s own decaying lifestyle, defies logic and reason, and yet, its appeal is undeniable. To never be at the mercy of someone’s probing questions. To never have to explain why it’s been so long. To never have to promise someone to get help, or to see a doctor, or to make that visit. Anonymity is the currency of autonomy. The best way to have control over my life is to make sure to keep others out.

Is that what happened with George Bell? I’m not sure. Perhaps, as the article suggests, there were psychological factors at work. But what about us? It’s easy to look at the unrestrained chaos of a New York hoarder’s apartment and scorn, but should we? We are, after all, the lonely generation. We are the lonely generation that marvels at our social networks and our mobile connectedness, collecting “Friends” and “Likes” and “Followers” much the same way that George Bell collected trinkets. Are our digital villages much better than the locked apartments of anonymous New York pensioners?

We such a desperately lonely people. Whether we read about the sad life of a George Bell, or about the angry isolation of a school shooter, we can’t deny this. We are lonely, and in most cases, we don’t even know it.

Perhaps it would be a mistake to try to draw out a simple “lesson” from the death of George Bell. Perhaps it would be too crass, an inadvertent participation in the dismissal of life that seemed to define his last two decades. But it seems right to me to reflect for a moment on the tragedy of a life spent and finished in obscurity. It doesn’t have to be like that. It was never meant to be like that. Our God is the God who puts the lonely in families, and not just families that share DNA but families that share adoption in Christ. The church is where loneliness meets its match.

Did anyone ever tell George Bell?

Why the “Billy Graham Rule” is a good thing

One of the highest privileges of being a pastor’s kid is seeing, over the course of two decades, the inner life and thought of a ministry family in a way that no other eyes can possibly see. I’m grateful to be a “PK” for many reasons, but chief among them is the empathy and grace for those in ministry (surely not enough, though) that come from spending many years watching genuine love meet genuine care in what is almost certainly one of the most emotionally demanding and vulnerable vocations in the world. It’s nearly impossible to watch a truly Christian, truly compassionate minister wear a congregation like a burden on his soul and not come away with a measure of sober thankfulness and understanding for others like him.

I get reminded of this often nowadays. That’s part of the reason I tend to push back against broadly sweeping, wholesale criticism of organized religion and its clergy. I recognize that there are indeed many people who have suffered at the hands of self-seeking ministers or power-drunk churches; and I freely acknowledge that a prophetic word of rebuke needs to be spoken to these people, urgently. But my own experience growing up in ministry has left me indelibly convinced that overstating the villainous nature of the clergy or the problems with the American church is not only untrue, but Satanically prevents people from experiencing the grace of Christ in a life-changing way.

I say all that to reinforce a principle that I think is important: When godly men and women share wisdom and practical counsel, gleaned from a lifetime of faithfulness to Christ and to others, we ought to listen. It would be a profound mistake to instinctively look for the error or the selfishness in the advice given by those whose lives are a testimony to Jesus, even if–and this is crucial–the advice grates against our modern sensibilities or individual personalities.

For that reason, I think Marvin Olasky is exactly right in urging us to take the “Billy Graham Rule” seriously. Olasky, pivoting off the recent confession of marital infidelity and consequent resignation from ministry of Graham’s grandson, Tullian Tchividjian, wonders whether the recent upshot of ministerial sin (particularly sexual sin) could have been thwarted if more ministers had emulated Graham’s famous personal dictum to never meet with or travel alone with a woman other than his wife (This point is evergreen and doesn’t require any further query into the details of Tchividjian’s resignation).

Olasky also responds to criticism of the principle in the form of a ChristianityToday.com piece by Halee Gray Scott. Scott criticizes Graham’s rule for stifling the influence of women in ministry and argues that the rule unhelpfully plays into the “hypersexualization” of contemporary Western culture. Scott:

It’s the refrain recurring throughout many ministries: male and female working relationships are tricky and fraught with tension.

As a researcher who focuses on female Christian leaders, I hear it over and over. The first female vice president of a Christian organization confessed she missed out on opportunities to advance her projects because the president made businesses decisions over lunch, and he promised his wife he wouldn’t eat lunch alone with women. It was enough to make her want to quit. A female pastor in Minnesota told me about being overlooked for staff development opportunities, while the lead pastor invested in her male coworkers. A female seminary professor shared the too-familiar struggle of trying to find a mentor among her all-male colleagues. But it’s a tension the gospel demands we work through. In Ephesians 4, we see God’s intention for ministry is a productive, collaborative environment between men and women.

Such a collaboration is impossible, Scott argues, when the church unwittingly affirms the world’s worship of eros by prohibiting close friendship and ministry partnership through policies like the Graham rule.

Olasky’s response is, I think, a fair one:…

[B]ut since the real root issue is original sin, and the way it noetically affects our ability to recognize our weaknesses, shore ourselves up, and build relationships, it’s not enough to say, as Scott does, that “We can pioneer a middle way. … We can stand firm against the tide of culture by committing to relate to one another as family members.” That’s a worthy goal but an abstract one. With [pastoral sin] in front of us, we should begin with something concrete.

I agree. The problem is not that Scott’s concerns about an unnecessarily partitioned church are unfounded (they’re not), it’s that her approach to the question of opposite-sex relationships doesn’t seem to prioritize in accordance with Scripture. Biblically, the primary relational obligations of a husband and wife are to each other first, preempting other relational obligations in the church. This doesn’t undermine biblical community but instead forms the basis of it by privileging the one interpersonal relationship that in its very existence portrays the Gospel. Marriage is not something in which individuals gain membership but a spiritual reality that transforms individuals into a mysterious one-flesh union, a union that is in its very nature different than and relationally primary to all other relationships.

The “Graham rule” is not valuable because it is a 100% effective tool against sexual sin (nothing this side of glorification is that). Actually, the opposite is true–the Graham rule is wisdom because it is honest and self-aware about how precarious the fight against sin really is. Scott’s critique that the Graham rule “hypersexualizes” male and female relationships confuses a cause with an effect; it’s not the rule that creates hypersexualized relationships but our own indwelling sin. Personal principles like the Graham rule are indeed only necessary because we live in a fallen world, but we should be careful of an over-realized eschatology: The Church is an embassy of the coming Kingdom, but it is not a rabbit-hole escape from the fallen culture we live in now.

My father practiced, to my knowledge, the “Billy Graham rule” his entire ministry. It was not out of a desire to mute the women in the church or showcase his own godliness. It was instead a personal principle that safeguarded Dad and the people he ministered to. If a woman needed counsel, Mom would come along. Oftentimes it would be my mother who was able to speak most powerfully into another woman’s life. Those situations reinforced Dad’s belief that his marriage was indeed part of his ministry, not merely an accessory to it. And it was helpful: Again, to my knowledge, my father was never once accused, falsely or truthfully, of an inappropriate sexual relationship.

We should, like Scott says, strive to bring men and women together in the local church for Kingdom work. That is part of the reconciliation that Christ has accomplished for us. But such union need not preclude being zealous for the purity that God demands of all of us. Billy Graham’s rule isn’t Scripture, but it is a Scripture-honoring habit that comes from years of godly ministry and experience. That’s not something we should sidestep lightly, or, I think, at all