Sports and Faith

[I encourage you to read the previous post and comments if you haven’t already.]

In December 2009, I had the privilege of travelling to Russia along with the Senior Pastor of our church. We travelled with a Russian pastor named Andre – the Bishop of over 50 churches in the Urals. Andre has quite a story and is an incredible leader, pastor, and man of faith. On one occasion he preached in our church, and some of my high school guys called him a “beast.” He’s intense and he moves people to action. The story and reflection that follows took place during my trip.

We are sitting in a cozy, Soviet era apartment belonging to a Russian pastor named Sergei. The conversation between Bishop Andre and Sergei is getting heated, or so it seems. To be honest, it’s sometimes hard for me to tell when Russian-speaking people are worked up or just having a conversation. But it is clear to me an intense discussion is happening, and I am eager to eavesdrop.

I turn to our interpreter and ask, “What are they talking about?” “Something about sports,” she responds nonchalantly.

“Really?!” I am excited. “Well, what are they saying?”

“Apparently Andre’s daughter is a gifted athlete and has been invited to play for a special team of sorts.”

Now I’m hooked. Now I need to know the specifics. Why is this conversation so intense, shouldn’t this be good news, something to be joyful about? “Why are they arguing?,” I ask.

“Well, Andre isn’t so sure he wants her to play, and Sergei thinks she should play; that it would be a great opportunity for her to share her faith and life as a Christian. But…Andre’s not convinced this is a good thing. He thinks it would be a distraction.”

Then Andre says something that I’ll never forget. I’ll never forget it because my immediate reaction to Andre’s statement reveals a lot about my own values in relation to sports and faith. I did not express an opinion or say anything out loud, but I can vividly remember the instinctual – too instinctual – reaction I had in the living room of that Russian apartment.

I know you're asking, “Well, what did he say?"

Andre looks at Sergei and says with a straight face. No, a seriously intense face, “If she plays on this team, it will only mean less time reading the Bible, less time at church, and less time praying.” He is not messing around. He is dead serious.

How did I react? At my core, deep within me, I want to laugh, and I almost laugh out loud. Yes, I almost LOL. In the moment, his argument seems almost ridiculous. I think he’s surely joking, or at least exaggerating his case. But he is not. This is no joke. He is for real. And I'm the one who begins to feel ridiculous. Not because anyone knows what I'm thinking, but because I know what he says is true.

At some point in every athlete’s life, and in the life of every family who has kids in sports, decisions must be made. Will we go to church or to the soccer game? Will we pay for baseball camp or for church camp? Will we encourage our sons and daughters to spend time in prayer and in God’s Word with the same tenacity with which we encourage them to practice a sport and show commitment to the team? Nearly ever day decisions are made, and most of them are made too easily. I'm not judging. I've been there. I've made these decisions. I've found it much easier to hope for grace from the church than from a coach.

So Chad McDaniel, Associate Pastor of Student Ministries, feels like laughing. My first instinct is to laugh because for many Christian athletes the sacrifice of time in church, reading the Bible, or praying are things most of us are more than willing to risk. Dare I say it, we are usually happy to sacrifice these things for sports? It’s just part of being an athlete. Or is it? Does it have to be this way? Should it be this way? Is there an alternative?

I’m going to stop here. I have further thoughts on this, but want to hear your reactions. If you were sitting in that Russian apartment, what would you have done? What emotions are bubbling up within you even now?

I’m eager to hear your responses…

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