Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Why I'll Watch

In case you missed it, there’s a little football game being played this weekend. Last month, when the Network of Spiritual Progressives met on a Sunday evening, we were scheduling for the coming months, and I noted that the date under consideration at the moment would fall on the highest holy day of the American calendar: Super Bowl Sunday.

While my comment was met with some derision by a few of the stalwart progressives, you’ll notice that the February meeting of the Northern Virginia NSP is, in fact, on Feb. 11.. Personally, I’ve never been one of those progressives with a knee-jerk dismissal of sports; probably because I love to play, and only recently gave up my life-long dream of playing professional basketball.

Hey! What was it that Carl Sandburg said? “Nothing happens unless first we dream.”

On the other hand, dreaming won’t make you 6’5” when DNA offers only 5’11 ¾.”

Of course I can recite a sound, progressive critique of the horribly skewed values that lead cities and states to spend hundreds of millions on playgrounds for the rich while neglecting public schools and health care and public safety. And I can join the chorus of complaints about paying worn-out relief pitchers $5 million while paying teachers and firefighters and police officers one percent of that amount. And I can rail against the media frenzy that so easily lets us entertain ourselves to death while an unjust war rages in our name.

All those critiques of misplaced values and misspent money are spot on; but still, I watch the games, and play them myself whenever I get a chance, because I see something when I watch great athletes perform.

I see human beings fully alive, and, as Augustine said, “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.” (Check out the "Human Being ..." pictured above.)

I see human beings fully alive, seizing a moment in time to use their singular gifts and become – for a brief moment – precisely what they are called to be as athletes.

Most of us, of course, will never experience such moments when our bodies behave precisely as our minds imagine and desire. Indeed, few of us experience many moments when we feel that we are using our own gifts to become precisely what we are called to be – not as athletes, surely, but as human beings.

So, I’ll watch the game this weekend with only a smidge of liberal guilt, which I’ll set aside as I witness a small group of men try to live into their own particular calling for the one sphere of their lives lived on the field of play.

I’ll watch with jealousy – not of their skill, nor of their stardom, nor of their salaries. Rather, I’ll watch with jealousy because these guys seem to know, with great clarity, precisely what it is that they are called to do with their gifts.

Granted, if we use Frederick Buechner’s provocative definition of call – that place where your deep joy meets the world’s deep need – one can quickly question what need in the world athletes meet? Most of the answers that one could offer – beauty, excellence, play itself – are gratuitous; on the other hand, most every human culture has celebrated athletic achievement in some fashion.

That our culture and economy have created a place of incredible financial reward for certain highly marketable athletic gifts no doubt helps athletes in some sports reach clarity of purpose. I imagine multi-million dollar contracts have a way of focusing one’s attention! Still, I’m willing to bet that most of the truly gifted athletes we watch play for insane amounts of money would be playing games for nothing if the money were not there.

That’s certainly one way of measuring the deep joy dimension of call: what would you do with your time if money were no object? When Michael Jordan signed his first huge contract, he had a so-called “love of the game” provision included that allowed him to play pick-up basketball games at any time, even though that posed a considerable financial risk to his team if he were injured.

In the end, the way we spend our time is the way we spend our lives. How, then, do we measure it, and dole it out, and decide how to spend what we have been given – life itself, and our several seasons in which to live it?

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