It was the great Liverpool manager of the 1960s and 70s, Bill Shankly, who, when asked in an interview about football being a matter of life and death, replied “I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that”.
If you live in Melbourne, you would have to have been asleep for the last couple of weeks to not be aware of finals fever. September is in the air. It is that time of year when the smell of the grass fills your nostrils, when spring has started and the weather is a little warmer, and Monday’s experts – to use a phrase from a popular song some years ago – are out in force. If your team is involved, you can feel the excitement as you make your way with the droves of other worshippers to pay homage at the temple, otherwise known as the MCG.
I describe it this way because this is indeed how it can be for me, a passionate Christian and a passionate footy follower. This time of year, especially when my team has been playing, is a struggle for me. It is a struggle against the idolatry that I can let into my heart when the fortunes of my beloved Hawks take the place of my relationship with God. It’s like I want to put God on hold during September and then I can live out my faith again. I have been aware of this over the last couple of weeks as I have felt the excitement in me again and as I have checked the papers each day for the latest news on Buddy Franklin or Luke Hodge’s injury concerns. Last Saturday morning, as I was having my normal morning quiet time, I was aware of this attitude in me and I had to pray that the focus of my day would be God and not the football. For by doing that, I would actually enjoy the football a lot more. And thankfully I did, and not just because my team won, but because it was a wonderful day all round, with good company, beautiful sunshine and great entertainment.
What is it that evokes such passion and emotion in sports fans at this time of year? Of course it’s not just in Melbourne, but the world over. Currently we have the Rugby World Cup in France, a sporting event incomparably bigger than the AFL Finals. Then there is the passion of soccer fans the world over who go week-in, week-out to watch their heroes, and whose very sense of well-being depends on how their team fares over those 90 minutes. In some South American countries it really is a religion. Thankfully in Australia we have not seen the sort of misguided, crazed passion that saw a Colombian player shot dead after the 1994 World Cup after letting in an own goal which saw his country knocked out of the tournament.
Why don’t I get as excited by following Jesus as I did in the first week of the finals when Buddy put through that last goal to win the match for the Hawks with 7 seconds to go? The feeling of ecstasy that shot my being when the siren went is something that I have relived a number of times during the last week. It is this that can be so addictive, that can so easily become what we live for. It was the anticipation of experiencing that again in the second week when my team fronted up again that was what I had been living off for those days in between. We live in an age where excitement is our goal in life. ‘Here we are now, entertain us’ is what Kurt Cobain sang before he tragically died of a drug overdose in the 1990s. But while there is nothing inherently wrong with enjoying the excitement of your team winning a close one in the dying seconds, the problem comes when this is what we live for, when it becomes our reason for being. The experience, though almost unmatched in its intensity by anything else, only lasts a few minutes and has to be fed to experience it again. And if we think of it like we do an addiction, it also has a diminishing return – you always need to feed it again to recapture the same buzz.
Much more beneficial for our emotional health is the quiet sense of God’s presence and the excitement that that can bring as we allow His Spirit to mould our wills slowly in line with His. The growing sense of quiet peace that wells up within us when we do this is something that does not need to be fed all the time. It is actually a by-product of our relationship with God. We don’t need to look for a feeling; our joy comes from looking for God and for what is right. You know when you are doing the right thing in a particular situation, that you have a peace about you that nothing can take away.
As I have been going with good friends to watch my team play in September, I have tried to take the advice of another friend of mine who encouraged me to see it as a time of fellowship with other males, about getting to them a little better, and to see the game as a side element of that. It really doesn’t matter whether my team wins or loses. My circumstances don’t have to dictate my sense of well-being. The joy of the Lord can be my strength. And it is then that I am able to enjoy the game more, win lose or draw.
As I go through this month and follow the fortunes of my team and their opponents, I invite the Holy Spirit to rule my life and to place all things in their proper place. I also paraphrase the words of Jesus – you cannot serve both God and football. One has to give. I choose to let the football give. And for the Hawks, there’s always next year!