Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
– 1 Corinthians 9:24-27
“It slipped my mind to try and deal with his problem and prevent him from ruining his excellent mind in his blind and headstrong passion for meaningless sport. But You, O Lord, who holds the helm of all that You have created, had not forgotten him who was one day to be numbered among Your sons and a chief minister of Your sacrament. So that his cure would plainly be attributed to You, You brought it about through me completely unawares.”
– St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, Confessions, Book 6 (Seeking Truth)
Augustine is referring to his friend, Alypius, who became fanatical regarding gladiators. Alypius would one day become the bishop of Tagaste and influential throughout the Christians of northern Africa. Augustine goes on to say how Alypius had slipped into one of Augustine’s lectures. Augustine, used a reference to gladiator fans to drive his point home, referring to the fans of whom “madness had enthralled.” Augustine had not prepared this illustration, but Alypius took it to heart as a rebuke. Alypius did not resent nor was he offended by Augustine, but he rebuked himself for wasting time in sport rather than expanding the mind. Alypius would struggle, but he had learned his lesson. Since Augustine had used an unplanned illustration, he knew God had used him to send a personal message to his friend.
We read the Scripture, and the Apostle Paul says nothing against ‘meaningless sport’. He suggests that if you are to participate, you need to strike a blow to your own body. In other words, preparation for competition has its own struggles, pain, and suffering. But Augustine refers to it as meaningless sport and a waste for an excellent mind to spend time watching it.
How do the two quotes fit since they seem on opposite ends of the spectrum? The Apostle Paul uses sport, something many are interested in, as an example to illustrate how he, the Apostle Paul, prepares for the preaching of the word. Paul understands that the average man, maybe less so for women, watches or engages in sport. They would understand the preparation required for being good at it. He does not praise sport, and he focuses his mental training (as opposed the physical training for sports) in the same headstrong attitude of the athlete. Augustine is frustrated that his friend has lost his focus and headstrong attitude for mental preparation. He is not calling ‘sport’ bad, just the fanatic side of sport, for whom “madness had enthralled.”
When men get together, they talk about two things: work and sports. Those are safe subjects. They have a few pitfalls. If you have some skill, you could brag and lord it over the others. There is always fanaticism that gets out of hand. It is one thing to root for your team, but another to make cheers out of deriding the other team. These are just a few of the pitfalls that make ‘sport’ less than a safe subject.
I am getting up in years, and I don’t participate in sports much anymore. I never was a jock, although I did train to run the mile in high school. I might have set the state record in the mile if I had not gotten sick right before the season for my senior year, a short season for track and field. Later, as a college senior, the president of the engineering student body challenged the business school’s student body in an American football game, one game for bragging rights, the Superfluous Bowl. As a fellow officer of the engineering student body, I protested. We had no athletes! We were thinkers. The business school was the home of half of the university’s varsity athletes from all sports. What was the president thinking? His reply was, “We have you. Aren’t you the Wild Hungarian?” (Note: I have not had a DNA test, but I doubt if I have any Hungarian blood.)
Okay. During my sophomore and junior years of college, I was a kicker for the US Army ROTC intramural football team. (We were called the Mean Green Machine. The intramural scheduler shortened it to MGM on the schedule. Most teams thought they had an easy opponent from the Fine Arts school, until they saw the Army vehicles pull up. Then fear set in.) I played other positions at times, but I did the kicking for kickoffs, extra points, and field goals. I had been known to kick the ball through the goalposts for kickoffs to prevent a kick return and to show off, equal to a 70-yard field goal. But what made me the Wild Hungarian was that I did my best kicking barefoot. One of my teammates on the Army team called me the “Wild Hungarian Barefoot Soccer-style Drop Kicker” and my reputation got around. I had the name before a long snap went awry and I had to do a barefooted soccer-style dropkick to get the winning field goal in a game. It was an accident of the moment.
I had a nickname! I was not a jock, but I went to the nearest field from the engineering school after the president’s challenge and started kicking field goals. I knew as Paul knew, preparation was required. A car pulled up and someone got out. He told me that he was the coach of the varsity soccer team and I was now a member of the varsity soccer team. Soccer wasn’t a big money sport at the school, so invitations could be informal. He wanted me to report that Saturday to take the team bus to our rival school and participate in my first soccer game. I then broke the bad news to him. I was a senior. This was going to be the last soccer game of the season. I had an Army commitment to serve after graduation. I would not be back next year to play fulltime on his team.
I was never a jock, but I was an “almost varsity jock” for a few minutes. (By the way, the Business school, who could have fielded a team with people who would eventually play professionally, said that they could not field a team and withdrew from the challenge. Maybe they heard about the Wild Hungarian. …)
But what about the title of the post, Summer Sports? I had someone tell me once that summer had nothing regarding sports worth talking about. This person did not like, and never discussed, baseball. Tennis and golf are year-round with major tournaments in the summer, but this person was referring to team sports.
This year, I would have to say that the other guy is wrong. The World Cup has just ended with France winning the Cup. Why a team whose colors are bleu-blanc-rouge (blue, white, red) would win the title game wearing black uniforms is beyond my comprehension. I may write about that in the future. (A title of “Romancing the Darkness” comes to mind, but it is not fully jelled.)
While many of the eyes of the French nation were on a soccer match, some within the country of France were watching a different team sport, the Tour de France. One individual winner is crowned during the month of July as essentially the best all-round bicycle racer of the year, but it is really a team sport. The rest of the team sacrifices themselves for their team leader to get a better time. On the same day as the World Cup final, the Tour de France had an infamous stage in the race, over fourteen stretches of cobblestones with broken bikes, broken bodies, and broken dreams. Some of the contenders survived. The race was not pretty that day.
But when I can watch highlights of the races, I watch to see the beautiful countryside, the cathedrals, the small village churches, the mountains, the grazing livestock, and the wheat fields. It is sometimes more pleasant to mute the television and just watch the scenery pass by those odd fellows in colorful uniforms.
What brought all this to mind? I was watching the World Cup finals, doing an internet search on the bike race to see highlights that I could not get on TV, recording the scores of the Australian Football League games on a spreadsheet (with a season from March to September), and suffering a bit of writer’s block. A lot of writer’s block? All my brain could muster was the pageantry of summer sports. That’s when I read the passage about Alypius and how Augustine wanted to ‘save’ him from meaningless sport.
Will I give up watching sports? No, but there is less and less interest in watching the games anymore. I have the game on while I am reading. My wife will enter the living room and ask who is winning. Sometimes, I don’t even know who is playing. The game is just noise to drown out other noises of life so that I can concentrate on reading my book. The book might be a mystery, a biography of a Christian leader, or a Bible study. All three are more important than the game.
My wife asks me how I can concentrate on reading while listening to the television. I told her that it is simple. The announcers never say anything important. When I hear the crowd cheer, I will look up to see the replay. Otherwise, it is just noise. Then I told her that I could never ignore the television if I watched what she watches: True Crime, Mysteries, Cooking Shows, and Science Fiction. In those programs, what is being said or done on screen might be very important to the person watching.
I’ve heard this story by Myron Cohen, a comedian who appeared on Ed Sullivan a few times. I might not have all the details correct. Myron talks about an old man and his son. The son has set his father up in a Florida retirement home. When he visits his father, he asks his father what he’s doing. “Watching the game.” The son asks, “What game are you watching?” “Basketball.” The son asks, “What’s the score?” His father says, “86 to 83.” The son asks, “Who’s winning?” His father replies, “The 86.”
I have become the old man of Myron Cohen’s story (as shown on Ed Sullivan about the time I was born). If it is my alma mater or the hometown team, I might know who is winning. I might know the score. No guarantees. Otherwise, it is just blissful white noise to keep the world at bay while I read, unless it is July and I am watching the French countryside.
Now what is important in life? If Alypius had never learned that his fandom for all things ‘gladiator’ was keeping him from his purpose in life, he might have never become bishop of Tagaste.
Why is the score of the game meaningless to me? I serve a risen Savior. I have a limited time left to serve Him. I had a limited time when I was born, but I was too young to notice then and I have less time now. As the Apostle Paul used as the example for his focus in life, I must keep my eye on the prize both in my efforts to spread the Word and in my preparation in doing so. But, if there is a ballgame going in the background, that doesn’t hurt anything either.
Soli Deo Gloria. Only to God be the Glory.