When I saw the score was 3-0 I just had to go. I legged it up to the pub. I was there to see to see the audaciously taken winning goal. I was there as the tension mounted, willing the team on to victory, nervously cheering every interception. I was there to see the extraordinary scenes when the whistle blew, fans singing their lungs out, tearful players wandering around in a daze hugging each other.
Well done Liverpool. They beat Barcelona 4-0 to get to the Champions League final. I had never seen anything like it. A proper fan would have been there from kick off even though the odds of overcoming a 3-0 deficit against the world’s best club side were wildly improbable. But then Liverpool aren’t actually my team.
I was in the same pub a few weeks back to see local side Sheffield United win a crucial game against much hated promotion rivals Leeds United. Again I willed them on. Again they’re not my team. Worse still if you’re a football purist I’ve been in other pubs with mates who support Sheffield Wednesday urging them on to victory. They’re not my team either.
At this point I’m almost waiting for a knock on the door to be marched off and imprisoned for crimes against football supporterdom. But in reality lots of us watch lots of sport and you have to pick a side. There’s no fun in being a neutral, sport has always been about winning and losing and the excitement, the possibility of prevailing.
For the record my actual team is West Ham and my real local affinity is with Hallam FC. Hallam FC are the world’s second oldest side and play at the world’s oldest ground, which is a 20 minute walk away. They have been there since 1860. I’ve been twice and am hooked – there are the obligatory men running around after a ball, there’s a ref you can shout at, there’s a friendly atmosphere and you get given free pork pie at half time. Smashing.
The sports we recognise today have generally been going a couple of hundred years but we know of earlier variations, games and competitions stretching way back into history. It’s a part of the human psyche to compete, to test, to measure. At times this can all feel a bit silly – 22 grown men chasing a ball and at times the competitive instinct can be dangerous and damaging out of a context of mutual respect and of knowing we are valued whatever the outcome. Fundamentally, though sport lover or not it is part of our nature to stretch beyond where we are and see what is possible.
Two thousand years ago Biblical writers were talking about this. 1 Corinthians 9 verse 24 says:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.
Running races are about the simplest form of competition there is. Surely all of us can remember as kids someone saying ‘race you to that tree’. And off we charged.
For some it’s not going to bring back happy memories but testing ourselves to see what we can achieve has always been a part of life. What does that mean for us on a day to day basis?
In my wife’s first teaching job at a very dysfunctional secondary in Leeds she was given an extra responsibility to teach some girls PE. The girls were not up for it. They sat down and refused to budge. ‘Not doing it’ was the response when she tried to get them to move.
Often we don’t try things because we are afraid to fail. So we avoid the moment of disappointment and embarrassment of failure but we never know what we could have achieved. We can’t all succeed in any given challenge but not trying is the biggest failure of all.
Faith enables me to be secure enough to try and fail. I went for a job interview for a promotion a couple of weeks ago. Fresh from lessons from an interview last year I offered them what I had and this time round I wasn’t the right person. That was disappointing but I was okay with that, it didn’t make me any less to have not been successful. I knew my value to God and those around me was not dependent on the outcome.
If we’re honest it’s in the challenges that we grow. Like an athlete stretching themselves to strengthen their muscles and grow their stamina. This is not always popular in a culture of instant food and entertainment. Our culture encourages us to be self-centred and lazy but we know that’s not a road to fulfilment.
Going back to the race analogy the good news in God is that we can all win. I know that can sound a bit wet like all the kids getting a medal on sports day. I don’t mean that. God has a path for each of us – to know him and to know a life where our unique gifts are unfurled to the world. He makes this possible. Our part is to join the race God calls us to run and I can testify after 30 years that it’s no soft option. But I can also say after all that time that this race makes sense of it all – the prize is the life we were created for.