Love God, Like Sports

Love God, Like Sports

Growing up the son of a prominent sportswriter in Northern California, sports were a significant part of my upbringing. My dad wrote for the San Jose Mercury News for 33 years and covered a wide variety of sporting events during that time. He covered the San Francisco Forty Niners and the Oakland Raiders for several years, and later focused on professional soccer along with all kinds of college and high school athletics. It was great to attend games with my dad, sometimes sitting with him in the cigar-smoke-filled press boxes, and often getting access to play on the field (or court) after games while he was working on his story and trying to make deadlines. I distinctly remember being at the 1982 NFC Championship game between the Forty Niners and the Cowboys where Dwight Clark (Clemson alumnus–– of course) made sports history by making “The Catch.” Moreover, I fondly recall attending the 1988 World Series with my dad and watching the Dodgers’ legendary Oral Hershiser pitch against the A’s. In addition to attending live games, we watched a lot of sports at home on the television. The inception of ESPN in September of 1979 made that easy. If we were home on the weekends during football season we would watch NCAA and NFL football for countless hours.

I have distinct and wonderful memories of meeting famous athletes with my dad, men such as Joe Montana, Steve Young, Earl Campbell, Herschel Walker, and Ken Stabler. It was a joy to meet John Elway after a Stanford University baseball game, and shake hands with Michael Jordan after a University of North Carolina basketball game (If you are under 35 years of age these names may mean nothing to you!). Going to NFL training camps and hanging out in professional teams’ locker rooms as my dad interviewed famous athletes provide vivid memories for me. Once when I was no more than six years old, the gargantuan, six-foot-eight, Oakland Raiders defensive end John Matuszak playfully picked me up by my shirt with one arm, raised me over his head, and asked with a loud voice, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE KID?!!!” I broke out in a nervous and perplexed smile as my dad stood by and chuckled.

Watching sports and meeting athletes were fun, but being a spectator would not do. After I turned seven, the athletic field became my second home. Soccer became the priority and passion of my life. I went on to play for twenty years, joining the ranks of college and professional athletics. As a youth, my club teams always had several practices a week, with games and tournaments on the weekends. My coaches were serious and intense (my first club coach had a thick Italian accent and once chastised my mother for bringing me to practice five minutes late–– we still talk about that).

Though perhaps not as prevalent as in our day, Sunday games were a regular part of our season. In fact, to play in a Sunday match often meant that your team was successful, that you had made it to the final (Isn’t this also true of tennis, golf, et al.?). And if there was a conflict between Sunday worship and one of our games, the game seemed to always take precedent. Looking back on it, making sports the priority on Sundays had the unintended consequence of fostering in me a low view of worship, the church, and ultimately of God. This was, of course, never the intention of my loving parents who were excited about my progress in the sport and wanted to encourage my development, and who themselves never received instruction on the doctrine of the Lord’s Day. Even so, for an impressionable young boy our unyielding commitment to sports had a powerful influence. It inadvertently taught me to love sports and like God, not the other way around.

In a provocative Christianity Today web article entitled “The Sunday Sports Dilemma” (June 12, 2013), Megan Hill asserts that:

Turning down Sunday sports teaches our children about God's authority. “The coach doesn't go to church,” said one Christian parent, “so he schedules all the practices for Sunday morning, and the kids have to be there.” Ultimately, though, the God who created time, who made the world in six days and rested on one, and who commanded that one whole day be set aside for worship, is the authority over our time. And the question is not merely how to squeeze a worship service into our busy weekend, but how to obey the God who requires a Sabbath. Parents do well to teach their children from their first youth soccer game that only the Lord can tell us how to use our time.

Sunday sports do not pose a unique challenge; the issue does not go away as our children enter into adulthood. Throughout life, they will confront the temptation to allow others to dictate their use of Sundays ... Our children need to learn early that no coach—or anyone else—has greater authority over their time than the Lord.

Refusing to participate in Sunday sports is not easy. It’s not easy for parents, and it's certainly not easy for children whose friends celebrate victories without them. But the truth is that Christianity is not an easy life. Following Christ is a path of self-denying cross-taking and Jesus himself urged potential followers to count the cost of commitment (Luke 9:23-27, 57-62; 14:25-33). We give our children an unrealistic picture of Christianity—and set them up for disillusionment—when we smooth the path of faith ahead of them.

Beloved Christ Church, Christians have been gathering together on the first day of the week for public worship since the resurrection of Christ (Acts 20:7; I Cor. 16:1-2; Rev. 1:10; Acts 2:42). Sabbath observance is part of the Christian’s identity (Ex. 20:8; Is. 58:13-14). Jesus Christ is Lord of the Sabbath (Matt. 12:8), and the Christian Sabbath or Lord’s Day is that “market day of the soul” in which our Lord feeds, nourishes, instructs, rebukes, trains, and comforts His beloved flock. In Lord’s Day worship we not only receive and respond to God’s ineffable grace, we also encourage one another in the Lord. We all need this encouragement, don’t we? Isn’t this why the writer to the Hebrews exhorts God’s people to “consider how to stir up one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25; Acts 2:42)?

Brothers and sisters, let us be a people who love God and like sports, not vice versa. May those of us who really enjoy sports put them in their proper place so that they never eclipse what is most important in our lives and families. Let us never make God’s gifts (even the gift of sports) the center of our lives as I once did and still am tempted to do as my own children begin to demonstrate athletic talent. May the Lord’s Day be a day set apart to the Lord for rest from ordinary activities and a rest in our Lord–– setting aside the day as a holy day of worship, Christian fellowship (including family time), and loving service to each another–– fully recognizing that some will do “works of necessity” on the Lord’s Day, and will also occasionally have to pull the proverbial ox out of the ditch (Luke 14:5; WCF 21;8).

I understand that some will –– from time to time –– make rare exceptions with Sunday sports. The challenge is, of course, not to allow the exceptions to become the rule. Beloved, this pastoral letter is not an exercise in legalism or even a soft rebuke (I’m not aware of any in our congregation who are committed to Sunday sports), but rather a call to reevaluate our basic Christian commitments and to stand firm in what we know is right. To be sure, not one of us will ever honor or obey God as we ought on the Lord’s Day, and we will for the rest of our lives seek to improve upon the way we spend our Lord’s Days. We will, indeed, always fall short of God’s standard. But thanks be to God for Christ Jesus our Lord who lived, died, and rose again for our salvation! He was the perfect sabbath keeper! The perfect Lamb of God has purchased our redemption, in full, with his very own blood. We are saved by grace. Therefore, in light of God’s amazing grace, may our Lord’s Days be God-centered and not sports-centered. Indeed, may our very lives be God-centered and not sports-centered. Let it be abundantly clear to the world that we love God and like sports.

- Pastor Jon