05 September 2014

On Sports and Faith and Life and Balance

Bruce Feiler wrote a great article a few weeks ago that my friend Erik Ullestad shared in his weekly "Recommended Reads" email from Elbow Co. (link here)  Take a few minutes and read what Bruce has to say about sports, faith, and families today, and then come back here for just a bit of me pushing back but also heartily endorsing much of what Bruce says.
As a pastor who has watched the decline of families in attendance on Sunday mornings, I can certainly understand and agree with a lot of what Bruce and others have to say.  Before I get to that, though, let me raise a few critical points for the church to consider:
  1. Coaches are people, too.  There are a lot of quotes in the article where coaches lay out draconian expectations.  Yet I couldn't help but note that not one coach was quoted in the article.  We saw one side of a conversation that should involve several.  Coaches and school administrators have their hopes, also, and most of the coaches I know have families as well.  My experience with coaches has been largely positive over the years.  Most coaches I know get involved with sports because they want kids to have the same beneficial experience they had.  They passionately believe that participation in the sport they coach will shape the lives of young people in a positive manner, regardless of the score of any contest.  Moreover, if coaches have strayed into spending too much time away from home for the sake of their sports, then they deserve to have people in their lives who are concerned for their well-being in addition to the well-being of their kids.  If it's too much for the kids, it's too much for the coaches, and we need to speak that message loud and clear.  Let's also agree that gossip and criticism behind the scenes is below us as parents, and that while abuse should certainly not be tolerated, we should support the effort coaches put into molding the lives of their players even if we aren't always sure it will work the way the coaches hope it will.  Due to the nature of my own work as a pastor, I have no small amount of sympathy for others who go out and do their work in front of a crowd which often has no idea how much pain, sweat, anxiety, and flat-our hard work went into it, and how easily one mistake beyond a person's control can derail the whole thing.  It's not easy work.  Sometimes we aren't up to the task.  But all of us deserve a little respect for putting in the effort.
  2. The current state of affairs came about with our blessing.  If parents had steadfastly refused to show up for excessive practices, off-season leagues, and Sunday morning youth sports, we wouldn't have this difficulty.  Sure, the changes happened slowly.  Insert your "boiling the frog" metaphor here.  But the simple fact is that all along the way parents had the chance to say, "This conflicts with other family priorities and our child will not participate", but we didn't.  And sure, it's coming earlier and earlier these days.  Our oldest daughter is 7, but in her first year of softball we had to skip two games because they occurred on holy days in our church calendar.  But let's not deceive ourselves.  Coaches and sports leagues didn't set out to destroy Sunday morning family time.  They wanted to offer more and we didn't say, "No thanks, we have higher priorities."  Until parents are willing to do this en masse, nothing will change.
  3. The church is not "owed" Sunday morning - and certainly not without attention to the experience we offer.  Let's face it:  one of the reasons Sunday morning worship attendance is in decline is because the experience is just not all that noteworthy for many people.  Name the issue:  uninspiring preaching, poor preparation, inadequate music leadership, inferior aesthetics in your worship space:  there's a lot competing for attention out there that presents a much more enjoyable experience than worship.  We got complacent because no one bothered Sunday mornings for most of the 20th century.  We are no longer the only show in town.  What's going to be more enjoyable for a kid:  listening to some guy in a collar drone on and on about God or putting up a double double in a travel league game?  If we are going to insist that there's something in our Sunday morning gatherings that is more important than youth sports, then we have a responsibility to make sure we give those who come to worship something that will stick with them.  If there is any power left in religious obligations on Sunday mornings (and I heartily doubt that there is), that power will fail quickly without some serious substance to impart to folks when they do come.  Of course Sunday morning worship is not about entertainment - but that doesn't mean it has to be unentertaining.
  4. Christian faith is not a Sunday morning thing:  it is a 24/7 thing.  Sure, worship remains the central element of most congregations.  But Jesus didn't ask his disciples to take up a cross and follow him for an hour each week (and he won't give us any bonus points if worship should happen to run longer than an hour, either!).  What are our congregations giving people during the week?  How are we encouraging folks to think about their faith on Tuesday during the staff meeting, or on Thursday as they commute home, or Saturday cleaning the house or going to the pool with the kids?  We may be losing the "battle" for Sunday mornings.  But social media and the hyper-connectivity of the modern age gives us the opportunity to reach people in a lot of places beyond the Sunday morning pews.  We ignore those places at our peril.  
Now, having raised these points, not all of which directly disagree with what Bruce had to say, let me say this:  I agree wholeheartedly that the situation can and should be addressed.  It's up to parents to do so.  It's up to parents to set the limits under which their kids will participate in extra-curricular activities.  It's up to parents to say "No" when the time burden grows too great.  It's up to parents to do this in a fair, respectful, even-handed manner.  Sports aren't inherently bad.  They can contribute much to the character formation of young people, and can instill a lifetime's desire for physical activity and life-affirming competition, against others and, most importantly, against oneself.  Anyone who's tried to shave a second off a 400 meter run, or add 25 pounds to a bench press maxout, or drop a golf handicap into single digits, knows it will take discipline, focus, and no small amount of courage to reach the goal.  These are just some of the worthy things that can come from participation in sports.  But like anything, the extremes can be toxic.  Coaches and school administrators will not have the same priorities as parents and other caring adults - that's why we need to be in conversation with them, so they can realize the price families pay and when the cost becomes too much.  

It won't be easy getting back to a good balance, but it must be done, and parents are the ones who will have to do it.  On that score, Bruce Feiler and the people he quotes are right on the money:
"So how should parents handle a situation in which they feel their vacations, weekends or religious practices are being threatened? 'A lot of parents think they can’t be outliers, which is absolutely ridiculous,' Dr. James Emery White said. 'The role of a parent is to be the mature one, not the immature one.' Parenting is not a popularity contest, he said. The goal is not to fit in. The goal is character formation."
In every sport I've played, balance has always been a primary issue.  As an offensive lineman, I needed good body position and balance to properly block my opponent.  As a shot put thrower, I needed good technique and balance to impart as much force as possible when I threw.  As a baseball player, I had no chance of hitting a curveball if I couldn't stay back on it.  As a golfer, I need balance to get the ball moving where I want it to go.  As a pastor, father, husband, and member of the community, balance is essential as well.  I need to help my kids do well in school.  That includes extra-curricular stuff like sports, music, art, drama, what have you.  But no one thing should be allowed to dominate all the others, no matter how many benefits it may provide.  For our family, the foundation under it all is faith, which isn't just one more thing to do on a weekend but the reality and lens through which we look at everything else.  Our faith in God keeps the rest of our life in balance - and we're better people (and better sports!) because of it.  Now, if you'll excuse me, it's Friday night, and I'm taking my girls to the football game.  

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