Religion and sport. What happens when they mix? I for one am pretty good at singling out things which make Christianity look good, and trying to ignore things which make it look bad. So when Brazil won the world cup a few years ago and took off their team tops to reveal half a dozen 'I love Jesus' t-shirts, I smiled and carved a mental notch on the fence post. When Hansie Cronje, South African cricket captain and committed Christian was found guilty of match fixing in blaze of publicity, that was a bit harder to process.
So when Ireland, on St. Patricks day (and what a great saint and missionary he was), beat Pakistan (the most overtly religious team in world cricket, with a very high profile convert from Christianity to Islam as their premier batsman), what are we to make of it? In their news conference, the Pakistani captain put the result down to the fates not being with them. That's always a good cop-out for a religious system which has two powers - God gets the credit when things go well, and the fates cop it when things fall to bits. I guess there are plenty of Christians who do the same dualistic trick with God and the devil, and at times I've been one of them.
But in the end this isn't right. If all the important things, like cricket results and life in general, are down to whichever of the great spiritual forces is having a better day, where does that leave humans? One of the things I never felt happy with in charismatic circles was the tendency to praise God for everything good and blame the devil for everything bad - not just at a macro level, but in terms of individual lives. The individual human person disappears in this scenario, we become just an empty playing field where the big spiritual beasts battle it out.
I can't accept that, for two reasons:
1. It flies in the face of human value. God made us special, and we have unique value and worth. To turn us into a background canvas for a spiritual battle fought by other agents devalues humanity.
2. It gets us off the hook too easily. Once we blame our failures on the devil, or on fate, or on God's will, or on any other impersonal power, we absolve ourselves of responsibility. Maybe we have made it so hard for people to fail (look at the coverage today on Andrew Flintoff, England cricketer, for a nightime indiscretion) that we'd rather cover our tracks and find some other agency to blame, instead of putting our hands up. Challenge to the church - lets become a safe place for people to botch it. They'll come flooding in.....
And until we have failed, and accepted our failure, we will never change. Any church which shrugs and sighs and blames culture for its own decline will continue to decline. Any individual who really believes that 'the devil made me do it' will be prone to do it again, until they grow up and accept reponsibility. One trick children learn early is how to avoid blame and pass it on to to others. I don't think Jesus was talking about that when he said we had to become like children to enter the Kingdom. That is Genesis 3 stuff, 'it was him/her/snakeeyes over there'. Maturity says 'it was me.' (One rider to this - it's possible also to accept too much blame, and the strong are very good at getting the weak into this position. Look at the number of abuse victims who blame themselves for their situation, because they've been succesfully manipulated by the abuser.)
One of the good things about Lent is that it allows us to see failure as the starting point of spiritual growth. As a season of pentitence, it's actually ok to think about ourselves as sinners, not in some morbid, bash myself over the head with a wet hymn book kind of way, but in a positive way. Positive? Sure - Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, so the only way to get access to the grace and Spirit of Jesus is to accept that I'm a sinner. Once we can honestly say how we've blown it, then the Spirit of Jesus can blow through us and help us to grow up into fullness in Christ. The Spirit doesn't take over, we can recieve him or resist him at will, but he makes it possible for us to change, grow, and fail better next time. Or even win.
P.S. So hats off, then to the Independent, which today on its front page admitted it's been wrong to campaign for the legalisation of cannabis for the last 10 years. Maybe we should have a repentance amnesty, where ever public figure or newspaper is allowed to say it was wrong about one thing, without anyone having a go at them.
P.P.S Awful news, the death of Bob Woolmer, Pakistan coach, former England cricketer, earlier today. If it had anything to do with the abuse heaped on the Pakistan team after their defeat by Ireland, then all the more tragic. A very sad loss.