Thursday, October 20, 2016

In praise of ambiguity

Late Tuesday evening while most American sports fans were watching Game 3 of the Cubs/Dodgers series, I watched a recording of a soccer match played six hours earlier in Germany: Tottenham v. Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League. Parenthetically, in cases like this I quarantine myself from media so as not to learn the result before I have a chance to watch it. As a diehard Spurs supporter I experienced the match as a stressful emotional rollercoaster. It wasn't until the final whistle blew that I fully exhaled. "Wow," you may be thinking, "it must have been quite the back and forth high-scoring affair!"

Actually, no. You would be half right. It was a back and forth affair in which each side had the upper hand at various times, but the final score was 0-0 "nil-nil" with both teams walking away with a point (instead of the three points a win would have earned). Here would seem to be Exhibit A to the "soccer is boring" crowd's jibe that it's a sport that features "lots of running around with nothing happening." I get it, believe me, I get it, having once felt the same way. But like Saul on the Damascus Road I've had an epiphany, so even a match in which neither team scores can leave me breathless. Another example of an utterly compelling match that ended nil-nil -- and felt like a massive victory under the circumstances -- was the 2013 USA v. Mexico World Cup qualifying match at the Azteca. Still one of my favorite soccer matches, and sports memories, ever.

Football fan Andi Thomas writes in praise of the nil-nil draw in a terrific piece at SB Nation in which he compares the Tottenham/Leverkusen match with a less scintillating 0-0 result the night before in Liverpool (if you're a fan of the English Premier League you'll want to click through and read the whole thing). Thomas writes:

This is why the nil-nil draw is so important to football as a sport. Most, if not all of the other sports that might aspire to a similar kind of cultural penetration don't even permit such a thing to happen, either through explicit rules mandating some kind of overtime or by implicitly ensuring that points (or whatever) cannot help but turn up. (One exception is test cricket, which has produced some truly beautiful five-day draws.) As such, while almost anybody that takes any sport seriously comes away from a match thinking about the things that were good and were not, and barely any victory is entirely joyous, there is always a result to centre the response. 
Perhaps, to adapt the joke slightly, it's not that a nil-nil draw is 90 minutes in which nothing happens — did you see Hugo Lloris' save? That was definitely a thing — but 90 minutes in which lots of things happen but fail, ultimately, to resolve into anything immediately coherent. Which is a problem, perhaps, if you've promised millions of Monday night viewers one of the games of the century or you wanted to pick up three points in a tricky Champions League group. But we might also suggest that part of the singular character of football is that it forces those that follow it into not-infrequent moments of institutionalised ambiguity, where the uncertainty is the result, and frustration and satisfaction just have to find a way to rub along.

That last paragraph is the best thing I've read in a while about football -- and come to think of it -- is not only an apt description of a sport in which victory and defeat often cancel each other out, but of life as experienced most of the time.


Friday, October 14, 2016

The power of feelings (Dallas Willard)

This is how Dallas Willard begins Chapter 7 "Transforming the Mind: Spiritual Formation and Our Feelings" of Renovation of the Heart.

Feelings are a primary blessing and a primary problem for human life. We cannot life without them and we can hardly live with them. Hence they are also central for spiritual formation in the Christian tradition. In the restoration of the individual to God, feelings too must be renovated: old ones removed in many cases, or at least thoroughly modified, and new ones installed or at least heightened into a new prominence.
Our first inquiry as we greet people for the day is likely to be, "How are you feeling today?" Rarely will it be, "How are you thinking?" Feelings live on the front row of our lives like unruly children clamoring for attention. They presume on their justification in being whatever they are—unlike a thought, which by nature is open to challenge and invites the question "Why?"  

Further on Willard states: "Feelings are, with a few exceptions, good servants. But they are disastrous masters." The aim of this chapter will be to show us how we can master our feelings in the service of transformation into Christlikeness. And not just master, but more importantly, replace wrong feelings with the right ones.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

How to pray during hurricane season (originally posted in 2008)

Reports are starting to come in from the islands in the path of Hurricane Ike, as now it bears down on impoverished Cuba. Reports of 80 percent of homes destroyed, infrastructure wiped out, and more deadly flooding in Haiti. Just a couple of days ago we here in Palm Beach County were reckoning with the possibility of a direct hit from a category 4 hurricane. Instead, on a sunny Lord's Day I sit here counting my blessings that we were spared this one. The high pressure ridge that's causing our beautiful weather is the same ridge that kept Ike moving west through the Caribbean instead of turning northwest into Florida. It's all about the timing.

I've been reflecting on how a Christian should pray when a hurricane threatens. With almost three months left to go in hurricane season, we'd be fortunate if Ike was the last one. I offer three possibilities, well actually four. First, pray that it doesn't come here. Second, pray that the storm weakens and goes harmlessly out to sea. Third, thy will be done. I believe all three together are the best response. Personally, I can't in good conscience pray #1 without the other two...especially #3 ("Not my will, but thine" should be the default mode of all prayer). I'm no more deserving of being spared the wrath of a killer storm than someone in Cuba or the Gulf coast. Which leads me to a fourth response that's been impressed on me as I've been reading Isaiah the last few days -- in particular, the first terrifying chapters where Isaiah prophecies God's coming judgment on Judah and the nations. Humble repentance.

For the Lord of hosts has a day
against all that is proud and lofty,
against all that is lifted up—and it shall be brought low;
against all the cedars of Lebanon,
lofty and lifted up;
and against all the oaks of Bashan;
against all the lofty mountains,
and against all the uplifted hills;
against every high tower,
and against every fortified wall;
against all the ships of Tarshish,
and against all the beautiful craft.
And the haughtiness of man shall be humbled,
and the lofty pride of men shall be brought low,
and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.
And the idols shall utterly pass away.
And people shall enter the caves of the rocks
and the holes of the ground,
from before the terror of the Lord,
and from the splendor of his majesty,
when he rises to terrify the earth.

Isaiah 2:12-19 (ESV)

The prophet was predicting a day that came to pass when God used Assyria and Babylon as his tools to judge Israel and Judah, but he was also looking ahead to The Day when all the nations will be judged. In that day only the righteous, those covered by Christ's blood, will find refuge in the strong tower that is the name of the LORD. The meaning of the prophet's name conveys the blessed hope: the LORD saves. Hurricanes, floods and earthquakes are birth pains (Rom. 8:22). They remind us of a future day when every mouth will be stopped and every knee bow. They're a reminder of how powerless we are. They're a reminder that there's still time.

Zion shall be redeemed by justice,
and those in her who repent, by righteousness.
But rebels and sinners shall be broken together,
and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed.

Isaiah 1:27-28 (ESV)