Life in Community

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Life in Community

Training for Discipleship

November 4, 2016 by

When our blog editor handed me a copy of David E. Prince’s new book In the Arena: The Promise of Sports for Christian Discipleship and asked me to reflect on its themes, I almost said no; my life is busy enough. With my youngest three sons still in high school, there is no end of making sure they collect rocks for earth science, press leaves for their biology portfolio, practice their musical instruments, and keep in shape for the soccer team. I was a little skeptical about the topic, too: I love sports in many forms, but hadn’t ever thought about them in terms of my faith and discipleship. But perhaps that’s what piqued my interest in the end.

To be clear, I prefer to use the term “athletics,” which puts the emphasis on the hard work and discipline of training and fair play rather than the superficiality, cheating, and idolatry so prevalent in professional sports. Prince addresses this, and it is an important topic for any parent to discuss with their star-struck child. Idolizing players in any way, or letting the effects of the wins or losses of our favorite teams color the rest of our day, is pathetic and, in Prince’s view, “unchristian.” Professional sports have been tarnished by violence, promiscuity, unsportsmanlike behavior, and big money – none of which I admire. I would rather my family participate in sports than watch them, hence my use of “athletics.”

two girls running

That quibble aside, In the Arena raises important questions such as “Are sports a waste of time for Christians?”, “Do sports serve as a metaphor for Christian discipleship?”, and “When do sports become an idol displacing God rather than honoring him?” Prince is a father, pastor, and sports enthusiast, and although he approaches the subject a little more theologically than I would, his insights are worthwhile.

Prince wisely sets the tone of the book with Theodore Roosevelt’s epic quote:

It is not the critic who counts. . . The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

For me, as for Prince, the “arena” is not merely the playing field; it is life as a whole. On their soccer team, I encourage my sons to play an adrenaline-filled whole-hearted game, but I also expect the same effort when I ask them to mow the lawn. I urge them to care more for the team than for themselves and to show respect for their opponents, but I also demand respect for their teachers in the classroom: their homework must be well done and handed in on time, and other students must be treated fairly.

As a father, I value each teacher, mentor, and coach who spurs my children on toward hard and honest work, toward selfless care for those around them, and toward courageous, tough self-discipline. And that is a space where athletics are invaluable: in my experience, it’s often been a coach who was best able to help my kids accept constructive criticism, follow instructions, win graciously, or lose without anger. These coaches are the adult role models who my children will remember and stay in touch with, who in the future may become advocates for them, or simply friends, when they stumble in the arena of life.

I place great value on a healthy passion for life. Nothing, from algebra to bow hunting, will be fully mastered unless it is tackled with a certain focused “let’s win” attitude. My dad always said that what worried him the most were young people whose eyes were dull and who had no interests whatsoever – Roosevelt’s “cold and timid souls.” It wasn’t about being the star of the team, or about being good at music or academics, it was about simply trying hard, giving the best you have, and having fun in the process.

So I’m glad I read Prince’s book. But rather than make me think differently on anything, it made me reiterate to myself and my sons that if we have the right priorities, athletics will comprise only a small and fleeting part of life. In the end, it’s really about balance. Athletics are great when kept in perspective; all work and no play makes for dullness, yet all play and no work is indefensible, too.

So as I raise my children, I hope I’m teaching them that each part of life must complement the other parts, rather than have one facet dominate their consciousness. Have they tutored a struggling classmate? Do they have opportunities to reach out to the elderly? Will they welcome a friend with disabilities to suit up with their team? Have they learned how to take a soil sample, bake an apple pie, send a message in Morse code, or saddle a horse?

As the apostle Paul wrote, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable” (1 Cor. 9:24–25). That final prize is what we Christians must keep in mind, and whether they’re athletes or not, if we can inspire our children to grab hold of life with vigor and thereby honor God in all they do, they’ll be winners, on and off the field.

Paul Button is a pastor and teacher. He lives at the Mount Community with his wife and their three youngest sons. He’s raised nine children, and now enjoys his four grandchildren as well. Comments

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