Obsession, anger, grace and dreams: Netflix’s Last Chance U

I may have related before that a few years ago  I was co-chaplain at a relatively minor professional football team in London. The club was in the parish I was working in; the chaplain approached a robe-clad, sun drenched version of myself about 20 minutes into my life as an Anglican minister. He’d heard from a mutual friend that I was going to be serving in the parish for a while and that I liked football; he sidled up to me, introduced himself and set about pitching to me to help him in his ministry. I was enthusiastic, but needed permission from the vicar with whom I’d be working. He didn’t need much convincing, so it was I was able to give a handful of hours each week to the football club. I worked with the youth teams, attending training sessions (as a spectator), hanging around to start conversations about anything and everything with coaches, playing staff and non-playing staff. We gratefully received free tickets to matches whenever we wanted to go; we sat amongst the directors, getting to know people. We led carols on the pitch at half-time at Christmas; I scattered the ashes of more than a few fans on the pitch on cold Tuesday mornings. I was at the youth training pitch when I heard a plane had flown into the World Trade Centre. It was a ministry of pastoring and mission enabled by presence; a kind of holy hanging around, waiting for God to do something. I wasn’t especially good at it, but I learned a lot from it. It fostered in me convictions about models of mission that I’m still fleshing out.

There was an annual conference for chaplains in the sports world which I attended faithfully. It was a tremendous fun – and I say that as someone who has a skeptical relationship with conferences. As well as some good training on specific issues, we had some fascinating speakers from the sports world. I even got to meet some proper legends of British sport; if you’re British and like football, you’ll know what a big deal it was for me to have conversations with Trevor Brooking and John Motson. Sport featured as an activity; and the food was atypically excellent for a Christian conference. We found ourselves queuing for supper with athletes from many disciplines using the National Centre for Excellence (which gave us a venue) for their own purposes. I remember wondering what Andrew Flintoff was doing eating that when he was meant to be healing his injury ahead of the Ashes.

All of this gave me a real insight into the various pressures at play in the life of full-time athletes at all levels. What it means to make your living entirely through your body; the sheer number of people hanging on coat-tails to be associated with success; the boredom of most of the life of the athlete; why a massage can actually be tiring. At one conference I heard a line which stays with me to this day. “If you want to be a sports chaplain, there are two things you need to remember. First, it’s only a game. Second, it’s never only a game.”

I remembered that line again over the last week whilst watching a 6-part documentary series. The show in question is Last Chance U. It’s produced by the online streaming service Netflix, but as is the way with these things it may well appear on other platforms at some point. Whatever your relationship with sport in general or the sport it focuses on, you should make an effort to check it out. It’s about sport; but it’s about way more than sport. It’s about people of all ages growing up. It’s about grace, forgiveness, family, obsession, failure, success, apologies, anger, forgiveness and much else besides. It’s utterly magnificent and compelling and hope inducing.

(For a 2 minute acquaintance with the show, click here for the trailer)

It’s focuses on the febrile world of college (American) football. As you may know, university level sport in the USA is a world unto itself; a breeding ground for excellence, simultaneously making and crushing dreams in front of an audience of millions. The college in question – in a small town, apparently adjacent to the middle of nowhere – takes promising players who had failed elsewhere and gives them another go. The college team has built a habit of winning and getting players well onto the path to big-league success, signed the next season by big name colleges. They’ve also built a habit of not losing, and not losing by huge scores. Which makes them fearsomely unpopular with their opponents.

The coach is obsessed with winning, and winning big; the life of the town revolves almost entirely around the team. The real hero, though, is the remarkable Miss Wagner. She is tasked with the job of keeping the players on the academic straight and narrow; if they don’t pass, they don’t play. If they don’t play, they don’t get signed. If they don’t get signed, they’ve lost their dreams – which for many of these guys is all of they’ve got left. Watching her reminded me of my wife and her endless capacity to work with people to help them discover what they’re best at and can achieve; part of her that I first fell in love with.

I’m a fan of the sport who is denied the affordable ability to watch it due to where I live, so I ate up the sporting side of it all. The game sequences – a relatively small part of the 6 hour series – are brilliantly directed. If you appreciate this sport, you’ll see just how good these guys are and you’ll feel the hits, the scores, the highs and the lows. But it’s all about the people, in the end. The story of individual hopes and dreams, and what this all might mean for their futures.

It being a documentary  with no narrator, the series allows the people and the events to speak for themselves. Events can be presented a certain way, of course, but we’re intimate spectators to a roller-coaster ride on which we can’t see beyond a few feet in front of us. Events take a startling and unpredictable (unless, of course, you know American college football especially well) turn in the last two episodes; we see success and failure, anger and forgiveness at their most raw and life-changing. We end with an act of grace so kind that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t all set-up for the cameras. Except of course, we know by then it can’t possibly have been.

Sport is only a game, right? Maybe. There are times when all of us  – players, fans – need to know that and remember that. It means nothing in the scheme of things. Yet it also means everything; sport, like all art, is unpredictable, messy, glorious and infuriating and utterly irreplaceable. Watch Last Chance U and you’ll use those few words of well-meaning diminishing with much less casual ease.

Which of us have never been obsessed? Never had a dream? Never hoped? Never got angry? Never needed grace?

Only a game?

You sure?

 

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Proudly No Nation

Proudly No Nation

The Olympics are in danger of helping me forget that 2016 is, fundamentally, rubbish. It’s tempting to think of big sporting events like this as bread and circuses (minus the bread); the ancient Roman tactic of staging magnificent spectacles of blood-sports in the Coliseum to distract from some inconvenient facts of life. Used the wrong way, such events can be just that. Put them in their right place, however, and they can serve an important purpose: a kind of holiday from the depressing full-time difficulties that occupy all of us, that when it’s over may leave a bit of a hole but as a result of which we will find ourselves somewhat refreshed with a bit more lightness in our spirits to help us navigate these dark and troubling times.

There are few absolute goods that are of human creation, however. Big sports events in general and the Olympics in particular can fan the flames of the sort of love for nation and exultation in nationhood that can be hard to resist. When a lifetime’s work – most of it away from the public eye – is rewarded on the big stage, it can feel good to wave or wear or post to social media a flag and enjoy the shared afterglow of one person’s achievement. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating the acheivement per se – especially if it inspires us to more unseen commitment to our own goals and callings.

I’m a British person who lives in South Africa. For many years I thought myself proud to be British. I’ve let go of that, however. I’m still proud of some of what British people have and do achieve; over the last week I’ve been freshly staggered, for example, by the almost routine commitment to excellence from the British cycling team. It inspires me, and I believe it deserves to be celebrated and rewarded; I want to learn about it, and apply it my own fields of endeavour. Increasingly, however, I find that I can’t call myself proud to be British. Not when I consider a history of colonialism, a present of racial and economic inequality, and much else besides. I’m not proudly British. 414eztpwzkl-_sy450_

This drive to exhibit national pride easily tips over into hounding good people for not doing what others think they should be doing. Think of American gymnast (and champion from the London Olympics) Gabby Douglas, hounded to the point of tears for not putting her hand over her heart during the playing of the American anthem (read about it here). It starts with criticisms of what this supreme athlete does with her body whilst a piece of music is played; it soon becomes the dog-whistle racism of criticisms of the texture of her hair. In other contexts I’ve lost count of the number of social media posts I’ve seen criticising a South African rugby coach for not being ‘#proudlysouthafrican’ because of his team selection (interestingly, I rarely see that particular criticism made when the coach has white skin). It seems that the message is this: be proud of your nation, and make sure you show that you are in the way I demand – or you’ll be hounded until you change or you’re gone.

This should be especially problematic for us who follow Jesus. When God chooses a nation in the Old Testament, he doesn’t choose it to be ‘great’ in terms of its achievements, victories and international power or fame; He chooses it to be a blessing to other nations. Blessing, in Bible terms, is about speaking well of others (or God) and enabling others to move into the fullness of what they can be, doing and being good towards them. In New Testament terms, Jesus models a use of power and status that empties itself rather than draws attention to itself; that wraps a towel around its waist and washes dirty feet rather than pride in self. We’re invited to take pride in a stigmatised death, a seeming capitulation to power, a use of one’s own power to open life in all its fullness to those who would snuff it out. Jesus, Paul, John, Peter – they all seem to have very little time for the very idea of a nation; let alone taking pride in an accident of birth. The identity and pride of a Jesus follower isn’t Israel or Rome or Britain or South Africa or America; there’s no true greatness in any of those, and there can’t be whilst they consist of sinful people. Identity, pride, greatness for us is in the new creation, in eternity and the way of the cross – suffering, death, sacrifice for others, that leads there.

The flag has no place above, or next to, a cross. We live in the here and now – and that means in a nation, yes. But we die to self that we might live for others; we invite the awareness of the reign of a king who rules over a kingdom that transcends physical borders and breaks down the divisions of race and country and everything else of human construction.

We live under the rule of a servant king, who calls us to serve and love and carry a cross; not wave a flag.

 

More than the few: on English football and South African xenophobia

The latest outburst of xenophobic violence in South Africa has, as you might expected, provoked comment and soul-searching. it’s distressing to watch the colours of the rainbow nation fragment. This time around other African governments have been drawn to comment, which has in its turn provoked a belated act of leadership from President Zuma. In his impassioned response to a Mozambican writerr’s criticisms of the incidents, Zuma argued that the detestable actions of the wrongdoers were the action of a ‘few’, of a minority.

This sparked a memory for me. A memory of the darkest days of English football. Allow me to explain (even if you despise football, please bear with me; I think this is important). In the 1980s, and into the 90s, English football experienced a period of self-recrimination and examination in the wake of a spate of football-related violence (much of this could also be said to be true of the sport in other nations, but I want to turn the lens on that closest to me). The strictures that resulted from this were severe: expulsion, for a time, of English clubs from the highest level of international club football, a series of changes to the way crowds were policed and legislated. We could also argue that it resulted in the structural changes to the game that resulted in the multi-millionaire culture of today’s Premier League, but let’s not go there for now. As the game’s public image sank, there was a frequent refrain from inside the game. It’s only a few fans

Using comparative statistics, that’s true. In a stadium of 40,000, only a minority would be real trouble makers. Most were indeed there to see the game. It’s true; but doesn’t make the dead and injured any less dead and injured. Various things needed to be done – some of the legislation (though perhaps not all) was appropriate and necessary. In addition to this, there needed to be invitations from those in football to a different way of following the sport; witness, for example, before the 1989 league title decider between Liverpool and Arsenal, the Arsenal players presenting wreathes of flowers in memory of deceased Liverpool fans. This two-pronged approach was necessary; but it missed a third prong, one which still lies (largely) unaddressed. The third prong revolves around the inherent problem of something that gives English football such a unique and special identity.

English football has an almost unique culture of fans travelling to support their team, and doing so with a special kind of noise, colour and passion. Globally there are few sporting events with the vibrant appeal of an English football derby (local rivalry); fixtures like Manchester United v Liverpool and Arsenal v Tottenham (Spurs) have an atmosphere you really have to experience to believe. This is because of the inherent tribalism in English football; these rivalries go back over a century, drawing fuel from sources wider than sport, into the very fabric of the communities which they represent. As a life-long Arsenal fan living on the other side of the world, the morning of a game with Tottenham, I wake up with a feeling in my stomach best described as adrenalised dread. This is what makes it special; it’s also what makes it dangerous. Fair warning: the contents of the next paragraph may offend.

When Tottenham player Sol Campbell moved to Arsenal, it provoked a storm of protest and anger. The song that some Tottenham fans sung at him ran thus (to the tune of Lord of The Dance): “Sol, Sol, wherever you may be/You’re on the verge of lunacy/And we don’t give a fuck when you’re hanging from a tree/Judas cunt with HIV”. Count yourself blessed if you don’t understand all the mental-health, racist and homophobic references in there. Arsenal fans were not blameless. A favourite response was the massed sound of air escaping between teeth aimed towards Tottenham fans. Tottenham has a strong base of support amongst North London’s Jewish community; the sound imitates gas in the Nazi death camps. 

Yes, it was only a few fans who engaged like this. But this hatred, which I’ve seen contorted onto the faces of desperately ordinary people, could only grow in the soil of the tribalism and rivalries at the heart of English football. Not every football fan was guilty; but we are all responsible for creating the environment in which it can flourish. Only when we acknowledge that can hatred be removed from football.

So back to South African xenophobia. We need more leadership and legislation. We also need hashtags and demonstrations of other ways to be South African. Some of these we are getting. But a third prong is needed. This third prong needs a kind of self-examination that seems rare in these fevered times. It needs a self-examination that says that all South Africans live under the curse of apartheid, have inherited (as argued persuasively by Professor Jonathan Jansen in Knowledge In The Blood) a view of life based not on shared humanity but on race. I’ve reflected elsewhere how moving to South Africa can make you feel more racist, forcing you to think in a way you never would have.

Since democracy came 21 years ago, South Africa has embraced a flag and a view of proud nationhood which the world loves. Think back to the 2010 World Cup; bad football, but a good face to the world for the country. It’s what makes the country so appealing to many outsiders – hope, life, new identity. Alongside that, the fruit of apartheid continues to grow in the heart of all South Africans; in the soil of proud nationalism, dismissal of the other easily grows. It was well taught by apartheid, and doesn’t go away just because all citizens have the vote. It’s just subtly refocussed. Now it’s the other nations who are ‘the other’. For most that’s benign; for a few, it’s xenophobic. The third prong of attack that’s needed is the humble and gracious self-examination that says that all South Africans have skin in this game, have learned prejudice in the blood and in some way have guilt to bear.

It’s doesn’t appears to be fair at first sight, but it’s really a deeper vision of justice than mere surface level fairness. Christians call it original sin. We’re all guilty. Until that’s owned, expressed and consciously turned from, all the well-meaning efforts of politicians and activists will be of limited effectiveness.

To our knees, then.

Stillness and Speed

I had finished a 25-hour shift at the London homeless hostel where I was working. My night had been broken, as it usually was on such shifts, by incidents in which the night-shift worker needed support and assistant. I can’t remember the details. I was lying semi-comatose on the couch of our staff accommodation, kept from sleep only by the breathtaking to and fro of one of the greatest games of football I had seen. I would sleep after, I told myself. Holland v Argentina, a dream tie in the World Cup quarter finals. A game of high quality, decided in the game’s dying embers by a Dennis Bergkamp goal of such art, delicacy and precision it jolted through my system like a triple espresso. I sat bolt upright, mouth open. I shouted something incoherent. It was perfect. If you don’t believe me, click here for a moment of sublime sporting beauty.

As you’ve just discovered, it’s hard for words to do justice to moments like that. Bergkamp specialised in such moments, moments of perfection which even opponents and opposition fans would applaud, the sort of moments you dream of being in the same vicinity as, let alone being part of. On the rare occasions I found myself watching from the stands as he plied his trade for Arsenal it felt like his awareness of what was going on around him and his economy of movement were so supernatural that there must be two of him, one on the pitch in constant communication with another in the stand, able to relay down to the Dennis on the pitch where everybody else was and where the spaces were developing.

Then there’s this goal, the balletic grace of which frankly belies description. Watch it, and tell me your life isn’t better for seeing it.

How do you justice in words to such a player. Sports biographies – especially football ones, it seems – do not have a great history of artfulness or appropriateness. They’re usually written too early, with little insight or context. This one is different. Stillness and Speed is the English language version of Holland and Arsenal’s Dennis Bergkamp’s story, told by David Winner through deft prose and a series of illuminating interviews with Bergkamp himself and his colleagues. It have many of the elements of the biography, but is really trying to do something else; to get a handle on how genius is born and how great art comes to be. Hard work is part of it; resolute attention to, for example, the way different balls bounced. Training, fun, a desire to always do something meaningful and not ‘just’ try to do a job or simply win a game. All of it coming together in the revelation that as regards the second goal related above, he decided what to do when the ball was 10 yards away. Instinctive genius, served by muscle memory.

It’s a beautiful book, and like all good books its genius is in lifting the specific (a footballer) and finding things to say that are relevant and interesting way beyond the one arena. It’s hard to imagine people who don’t like football reading this, but really this is one for those who want to dig deeply into how a genius is set apart. In that context it might make a good companion volume to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.

Mainly though, I’m grateful. Grateful to feel closer to one of my heroes, but not to have the mystique taken away. Grateful that the book does him justice but leaves genius of this type where I want it – just out of reach. Grateful he’s both ordinary and extraordinary. Just grateful, really.

Want more? 9 more masterpieces here for your enjoyment.

I rated this book 5/5 on goodreads.com

On the perils of safety, Or a challenge to make the new year one of illogical recklessness

It ended not with a bang, but a whimper. Test match cricket once again at its maddening, spirit-testing, soul-searching best had tantalised and teased for a day. The South African team, chiefly in the form of batsmen AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis, had seen out most of the day to put South Africa in a position to do one of two things. The first possibility, the one which would have been the focus of most of the hopes and plans at the outset of the final day, was a draw. Having batted all day, to have saved a game on which they had a tenuous grasp at the day’s outset, would have been a very good achievement from manifestly the best team in the world. They are ranked number one, and deserve to be so. A brave, young, inexperienced Indian side had put up a good fight, and a draw would have kept the series alive for both sides going into the second and final game in the two match series.

The second possibility was to go for a win. To go for a win which was within grasp. To go for a win which, if achieved, would have made history; increasing the long-held record for successful match-winning run chases run chase by a barely credible 10 per cent. Well within grasp as such a feat was, it required gambling on a risk-reward axis of high sporting stakes; to do so would mean risky shots which would put the draw in danger; batsmen still to come in were the least competent of the line-up, one was injured and batting for him would either be impossible or run the risk of worsening his injury.

The option taken was the first one. Safety won the day, the draw was secured and the best team in the world went to the second and final match in the series with the series still theirs to win – as they duly did after seeing off more plucky Indian resistance. The decision was an entirely sensible, logical, professional one.

Which is precisely the problem. The series had already been ruined before it started by the money-wielding intransigence of the Indian authorities bullying scared and compliant South African authorities into accepting a format of the visitor’s wishes. A two match Test series is, all agree, deeply unsatisfying and ultimately insignificant. In the long-term, no one will remember who won a two match series. But it suited the Indian authorities to have it this way, so that’s what happened. Money won the political game. With a two match series forced on them, it made perfect sense for the South African team, clearly superior to the Indians, to safely bat out the draw and go into the second game with the series there for the taking.

However. However…

What better way to undermine the power of money and cricket politics than brazenly going for the illogical win when every professional instinct preached safety first? What better way to transform a very good team stacked with a few great players into the history books by taking the rarest of opportunities to rewrite what players, fans and journalists thought of as possible? History was lost on the altar of safety.

Safety isn’t always dangerous. The human instinct towards safety is there to keep us alive, clearly. But sometimes it’s best unheeded; it’s possible to train your instincts to cut against the grain and go for that which seems illogical. The reasons not to do so are always good. Make prudent financial plans, sure. But what if a little bit of imprudence might release what’s needed for a project to start that could ultimately lead to the employment of many more and raising them beyond mere subsistence? I’m not claiming greatness for myself, by any means … but there were many appealing jobs in nice places I could have taken; instead we chose the adventure of a new country and a job that was all potential and no recognition. I know which option presented me with more life. On the face of it, there’s more logic in not living for God. There’s no proof of His existence, there’s no reward that I can see and touch dangled before me; following seems a life-lesson of giving-up. But … what if there’s eternal fruit for others in the no-reward choices I make today? What if there are consequences I can’t dream of to me investing in 2 or 3 lives of no so-called ‘significance’?

What, comes the reply, if I die and there is nothingness? Well, I won’t ‘know’ objectively so it won’t matter. But I will have lived for something beyond me, more than me.

The courage to risk at the right times comes with a sense of history and heritage, of knowing the wider context. If you know the sweep of history of which you’re a part, then you’ll know when your place in that lies within your grasp. Cricket has a rich history. One way of expressing that is in the numbers on the front of the shirts the players wear. These represent where that player stands in the history of his nation’s sporting heritage – if the number is 123, then he will be the 123rd player to have played that format of cricket for his country. In the day-to-day grind of professional sport, it’s easy to lose sight of a game’s historical significance. This is one way of cutting against that. The South African team is an exception. The country was excluded from cricket, and many other sports, in the apartheid years. The numbers on South African shirts count only those who represented the country since it was readmitted to world cricket in 1991.

Entirely understandable  – the desire and need to build a new country. But as the heroes of the safe transition to South African democracy taught us, you can’t forgive what you don’t know. History has no reset button; what makes the achievements of the South African nation great is the scars and the pain which freedom has been achieved in spite of. The present means nothing if you don’t know where you’ve come from. Others have done a better job of unpicking this than I have – click here for but one example.

The current South African team is, and deserves to be, the best in the world. It contains some great players and other very good ones. In 30 years time the players may be remembered, but the winner of a two-match ‘series’ won’t be. Within their grasp lay a history rewriting shot at corporate greatness, lost at the hands of professional safety and logic. What if …. ?

What if, indeed. In 2013 I lost a friend to terrorists. Like all of us, he was a flawed human, but one thing you could never accuse him of was a desire to play safe. He impacted lives because he chose the illogical and the great at the expense of the sensible. There is a time and a place for planning, prudence and safety. Of course there is. But let’s resolve to never let safety scare us into inaction. If it hadn’t been for God’s illogical decision to pack Himself into human form and allow Himself to be spat upon, whipped, broken and hurt, I’d have had to find something else to live for.

The sums of eternity do not add up. No. They make a deeper sense than logic.

In praise of … last minute perfection

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Think of a task, a discipline, a project which you love and to which you dedicate yourself. It could be a relationship; it could be something artistic; it could be a sporting achievement; it could be a qualification for which you long. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as it’s something to which you regularly give much energy and commitment and in which it is hard to become proficient.

In the realm of professional sport one of the hardest disciplines (if not the hardest) is hitting a baseball. Specifically: hitting a baseball for a home run at major league level. If you take the technical definition of a successful hit then the reality of how hard this is will come home to you. You do not merely need to lay 2.75 inch diameter and 42 inch long bat on 5 ounce, 9 inch circumference  ball at speeds of 90+mph. You need to put the ball you have hit in play, in the wide ‘v’ in front of the hitter. You also need to do so in such a way that you do not get out – caught or beaten by a fielder’s throw to the base to which you are running. A good major league hitter will, over a career, achieve this about a third of the times he takes to the plate. This means that the best fail at what they are paid to do two-thirds of the time. Imagine failing at something you love two out of every three times. You’d have to be strong to cope with that, wouldn’t you? A home run is still harder. You need to connect with the aforementioned ball in such a way that if flies the 300 plus feet to the field’s edge and clears the wall there within the legal zone. A really good major league hitter, over the course of a 162 game season, will hit around 40 or more home runs.

Baseball is America’s game of myths and legends. It’s not the commercially dominant one – that status belongs to (American) football. But it is the one in which a nation continues to find at least a good part of its meaning. It gives rise to notions and phrases which have spread the globe: three strikes and you’re out, curve ball (not curved ball as some of my friends keep saying), touch base, step up to the plate; all of these are phrases which have entered parts of the global cultural lexicon with ubiquity. A home run or hitting it out of the park are concepts we can grasp – it’s something monumentally successful which is very hard to achieve. To do so in the context of major league baseball takes athletic power, almost supernatural levels of hand-eye co-ordination, a cool head under pressure in order to know when to go for it and when to refrain, and an elusive dash of luck.

I’ve always liked American sports. I have little time for the lazy ignorance which assumes that the stop-start and heavy padding of football means it’s not physically intense. As the ex-England rugby captain who trained with a football team will tell you, it’s the most physically intense sport there is. Including rugby. With an extra serving of the strategy and tactics of chess reinvented as a blood sport. As for those who dismiss baseball as rounders … well, by now you should have got the point.

So as we do when we visit my sister near San Francisco, we recently managed to see our baseball team – the Giants – live. Last Friday was my fourth live baseball game, each time seeing the Giants. I’d never seen a home run, and was of course longing for one. What we got was a special night. My wife and I, my sister and her husband, two of their three kids and my sister’s friend were off to see the San Francisco Giants. This is a successful team, winning two of the last three World Series; success can breed passionate fans and sell out crowds. We had tickets for a game with the Giants’ bitter rivals, the Los Angles Dodgers. Over the long season they play each other 15-20 times, and each one is broiling mass of emotion and passion. A sell-out 41,000 crowd on an early season, early summer San Francisco evening saw a low-scoring game defined for the most part by the Giants hanging on in on a game from which they should have been dismissed.

Hang in there they did. Low scoring in baseball usually implies two good teams and a bucket-full of tension; it was that, though in truth the first portion of the game was characterised by Giants errors from which the Dodgers should have made more capital. Good teams hang in there, though; so we entered the 9th and final inning with the scores level at 1-1. If a winner didn’t emerge, which seemed unlikely, we’d head for the potentially endless torment of sudden-death extra innings. The Dodgers, batting first, failed to score, stymied by Sergio Romo, the Giants’ electrifying close-out pitcher (meaning he specialises in finishing games – the pitcher who starts a game will never finish one; it’s just too long). Up came the Giants’ hitting line-up, to this point this evening stutteringly ineffective. With extra inning beckoning, Buster Posey came to the plate for the Giants. One pitch, one perfect connection. 41,000 stand watching the white ball describe a high but fading arc against the night sky. Go on. Go on. Go on. The arc dying over deep left field, it seems to gain a new lease of life. On it goes, over the fielder, somehow over the wall.

Home run. Game over, home team victory over bitter rivals in the bag. 41,000 (minus a few Dodgers fans) erupt in a spasm of joy. Posey jogs round, dives into his team mates at home plate.

I have now seen a home run. One game out of a 162 game season, more if the Giants make the play-offs as expected. Pause for a moment and think, though: what is going on in that moment of last-minute perfection?

It’s easy to criticise sport, especially if you seek to follow Jesus. Sport can obsess; it can and does become an idol, elevating money and celebrity at the expense of the ordinary and every day. To see only that misses the point. In a moment of near-perfection achieved, of a game irrefutably won, we in the stadium and watching or listening elsewhere are purely and simply caught up in the moment. Now to live purely for the present is another trap we Jesus-followers must avoid; we are called to see behind and beyond, to think and act with our eyes on eternity. But to do so, crucially, in a way which leads us to be present to the moment we are in. Giving it our full attention and focus; weeping or laughing or thinking or stopping or whatever is required to be done as fully as possible, then moving on. Not living in it, but fuelled by it, seeking to point ourselves and others to the eternally bigger reality of which this present moment pulls back the curtain. It is, to use the words Jesus spoke, ‘not worrying about tomorrow for tomorrow will worry about itself...’.

Playing and following sport, if done well, allows us to consider the lily of the moment in front of us, to maximise it, to drink fully from it, to relish it and move on. For the Dodgers fans, it allows the same – in sport as in the rest of life, for those on the mountain top are relatively few. Most of us are down in the valley somewhere. For me, and for others that Friday night, we had a mountain-top moment of perfection, joy, euphoria, hope fulfilled. Most of my life I am not there. That much is true for most of us most of the time. Sport, when seen with the eyes of eternity, can help light and elevate the soul with moments of prowess and beauty and achievement; aware that most of the time we are reaching and grasping for it, falling short in the two-thirds majority moments of failing even at that to which we are most devoted.

So, consider the lilies: the cricket, the soccer, the rugby, the ball-game, the coffee, the painting, the child, the lesson-plan. For even in the two-thirds moments of apparent imperfection you will, if you stay present enough, see eternity’s curtain pulled back just a touch; enough to give you fuel for the journey onwards, upwards, downwards, on the level. Whatever the elevation, it’s still forward.

Scroll down for some of my wife’s brilliant photos of the night, and down further still for a link to her full collection of photos of the game.

If you’re not yet convinced by the romance and beauty of baseball, or just fancy a good watch, then I strongly recommend two wonderful films (which will I promise make sense to the newcomer). First and most importantly, the beautiful and beguiling Field Of Dreams. Then the more recent, more factual but no more real, Moneyball.

To see the decisive home run from this game go here (this link may not work outside the USA)

Also in this series: In praise of … counter-cultural sport

To see more of Bev’s photos of the evening click here.

In praise of … counter-cultural sport

Well that’s a ridiculous title. Is there a field of endeavour less counter-cultural than sport? By its very definition it habitually elevates to ridiculous levels of acclaim and fame the young, the physically disproportionately able and the (often) atypically beautiful. Elevating the cult of personality; a seemingly endless lust for more attention, more money, more everything; ultimately utterly pointless in the eternal scheme of things yet to so many taking on an unnatural level of importance. Counter-cultural?

Yes, it can be and often is. It may be in the burgeoning and increasingly respected paralympic movement; it may be the sports club run by volunteers in inner-cities; it may be the romantic stories of winning against the odds. Sometimes, often, sport is and can be beautiful and life-enhancing.

For now, let me talk about test match cricket in that context. Strip cricket down to bare essentials and it is a ridiculous sport. All sports are ridiculous in essence; but cricket is so absurdly contrived, so littered with a history of English colonialism, so often rooted in class privilege, as to stand out as especially absurd. It’s suffered recently and has adapted in response. Dwindling audiences for domestic cricket around the world; the one-day 50 over format suffering; the seeming ubiquity of the instant thrills of Twenty20 versions of the game bringing in attention, coverage, money and even glamour to a game sometimes seemingly teetering on the brink of irrelevance.

Yet ultimately the highest level of the sport – international test match cricket – remains gloriously, essentially counter-cultural. A test match is the name given to an international cricket match played between two teams over 5 days. If the game runs to full-length with no weather interruptions, that’s 30 hours of sport. 30 hours. There are only 9 teams playing it globally at the top-level. They won’t just play one test match – they will play a series of occasionally two, often three, sometimes 4 and between certain opponents 5, matches. That’s a long time. Often a winner will emerge. Sometimes it won’t, and therein lies the format’s counter-cultural beauty.

As I write, a three-match series has just concluded in New Zealand. It should have been straightforward. An eighth-placed New Zealand team in turmoil hosted the number-two England team. England were widely expected to romp to victory, weather permitting by an overall score of 3-0. In the first match weather saved England from losing a match New Zealand deserved to win; the result was a draw. In the second match weather prevented England from completing a victory they had just about earned; again, a draw. In this third match, New Zealand totally dominated for 4 days. On the fifth, New Zealand threw everything at England. One English player stayed on a score of zero for well over an hour. By all rights New Zealand should have won. Somehow, miraculously, England clung on – for a draw – in a match in which they were indisputably inferior. Thus at the end of a 3 match series, 15 days, a possible 150 hours of sport, the score was 0-0. Yet it was breathtaking, nerve-shredding, emotion-draining, gripping. A five match series  – such as is played out between England and Australia known as The Ashes – is all those things, multiplied exponentially. 0-0 after 150 hours Ridiculous. Yet in an age of the instant answer, when some church cultures promise solution and resolution, when politicians think of short-term vote-winners, this tells us something vital about not always getting what we want or even deserve and yet how that is somehow more right than getting what you think you should get.

Ahh the Ashes. I’ve been to a lot of live sport – world cup football, my beloved Arsenal football club, the Olympics, American Football, golf, rugby … so much I have been privileged to see. The Ashes – especially live – is unlike everything for suffocating tension and intensity. Years of colonialism, years of history, of tactics developed to achieve the ‘mental disintegration’ of the opponent; of other tactics to physically damage the opponent; all that and more erupts into a five-match series which captivates and entrances two nations and international fans. For England and for many others this reached a peak in the English summer of 2005 which became the most intense, tightly fought, but also fairly contested, sporting occasion most of us have ever or will ever see. Click that last link for an article hinting at that summer’s excruciating beauty.

But none of this still quite does justice. I could talk about the rich tradition of cricket writing which this post can’t touch; I could talk about the high levels of depression and suicide amongst professional cricketers; I could talk about broadcasters who can fill hours of air-time during rain delays with riveting, infuriating, moving discussions. In the end, for all these truths, its deeply personal. I love sport. I watch a lot of it, lots of different sports, and get passionate about it. It means much to me; sometimes too much. My football club Arsenal is mine, for better or worse. It’s part of me and my family. But put a gun to my head and give me only one sport, and it would have to be test match cricket. When I grew up in a sports-loving house, cricket was on network television and football wasn’t. So cricket was the sound of our summers, on television and radio during long car journeys. It was in trips to London grounds on summer-holidays. I was soaked, earthed, bought up with cricket in the blood and bones of my being as deeply as my own DNA. I can’t forget it, can’t get rid of it.

In my memory. when a Test match would start, something would happen. Traditionally in England that was a Thursday at 11 a.m., though sometimes that now changes. What would happen, in my mind anyway, was that my Mum would make some good coffee, and we’d sit down, sip our coffee and eat some shortbread. And the day would drift on, the summer would burble by with the cricket ever-present. I’m just old enough to remember an absurdly improbable series known as Botham’s Ashes in 1981, which cemented cricketing heroes, myths and legends in my eight-year old psyche.

That’s what it is for me. So when I’m having a bad day, something cricket related will do something to and for me. The languid, slow, intense rhythms of the game can be a strange agent of healing in my head in ways I can’t explain. It worms into my psyche and does something. If a test match, especially an England one, is starting and I’m able to watch, I will make coffee and grab a biscuit (ideally shortbread), and I’ll be connected to my family even though my Mum has died and I’m physically absent from the rest.

I, we, will always need the strange and alien beast that is test cricket. It takes time to learn to love it. Like all time spent, it profoundly, endlessly repays you.