Christian Croquet, Anyone? October Reflection Dr. Milt Sernett
Reflections . . .
Christian Croquet, Anyone?
Football season is upon us. Men in helmets and shoulder pads butt heads while other men (and some women) cheer from the sidelines clutching a Golden Molson in one hand and the television remote control in the other. I had a moment of glory once on the ol’ gridiron back in Hampton, Iowa, when I was trying out for a second string end position with my high school team—the mighty Bulldogs. Joe Jennings, our junior varsity quarterback, threw the long bomb. I caught it and gazelle-like danced into the end zone. No defensive player touched me. I was ecstatic. In the second quarter, by some fluke of the gods of sport, I caught a Jennings pass again. This time Mark Geddes, a really big boy whose dad ran the local milk dairy plant and sold ice cream cones for 5 cents a piece, hit me—and hard. I went down feeling as if one of Papa Geddes’s milk trucks had run over me. On that day, I learned two lessons—I don’t like pain and football involves a lot of pain.
In subsequent years, I looked for a non-contact sport at which I had a chance to excel. I thought it might be tennis, since I usually beat my younger brother on our hometown court—a concrete affair with grass growing profusely out of the cracks. But when Jan and I began dating in college, she routinely beat me at tennis, having had a college class in tennis. Badminton then became my forte, until a stickler for the rules pointed out that it wasn’t legal to reach over the net. I tried volleyball too, was good at the sport, and was convinced that I had found my calling. Then I saw a match between the Chinese national women’s team and the Syracuse University women. The shortest Chinese player could have spiked me into the ground.
Now at the age of 72, I have, at last, found my sport. I shall call it Christian Croquet, to borrow a phrase coined by Rick Bohlke. Rick was among the group of husbands who once accompanied members of my wife’s monthly Bunco club who came to our house. While the women played Bunco indoors, we men set up a Croquet game in the back yard. Though the verbal exchanges echoed loudly in the gathering darkness and several of my good friends got a bit heated when Ralph Richmond played according to the Rules of Ralph rather than anything Milton Bradley might have written in his 1871 publication Croquet—Its Principles and Rules, no one was injured. Except to the loser’s ego, Croquet is a pain free sport. The clumsy may, of course, bruise a foot with an inept stroke. But this is not the essence of the game. By way of contrast, knocking your opponent on his behind is part of football.
This raises a theological issue for our best minds. Are there some sports that are more Christian than others? This is not an entirely facetious question, especially in the American culture where sports heroes are treated like gods and millions worship at the Shrine of Monday Night Football. I suspect that in some parts of the country (places like Kilgore, Texas) football is religion. Coaches and players huddle together in prayer before the big game. Local preachers give their (and presumably, God’s blessing) to the home team. Then the young men are sent out onto the playing field to maul and maim. Football enthusiasts will argue that mauling and maiming are not the main goals of the game. They are right, of course, but I’ve yet to see a hard fought football game with the participants acting as if they were at a country hoe down doing the square dance. What must go through a 300 lb. born-again Christian offensive tackle’s mind as he slams into the defensive tackle opposite him—“Jesus loves you, and so do I. Bam! You’ve got a broken nose!”?
Lest you think my dour musings about football stem from deep emotional trauma occasioned by that hit from Mark Geddes decades ago, I hasten to add that I have cheered for the Syracuse University Orange and for the Buffalo Bills too. Still, I am left to wonder about the facile connection in our culture between religion and sport. Too many Americans make sport their substitute church, be it football, baseball, or golf—they vicariously find self-affirmation in having their team trounce the opponent. In spite of all of the pious rhetoric about being a good loser, most boys in the Pop Warner leagues want to grow up and be winners. Some sports junkies become dependent personalities, and when their team loses they feel like losers in life. Occasionally, the passion for winning borders on the criminal. Those European soccer fans who routinely riot and pummel the supporters of the other side are a major menace to the good name of soccer.
Contrary to pre-Olympics speculation, the 2004 Games in Athens, Greece, were a success. No terrorist attacks. No major scandals. I did find the opening and closing ceremonies to be a bit too theatrical, with those Greek gods flying about over the heads of the participants. The ancient Greeks, as St. Paul discovered when he preached in Athens, believed in multiple divinities. Their Olympian pantheon consisted of twelve gods and goddesses, such as Hera and Hermes, who sported among themselves. Classical Greek myths portray the gods as superhuman beings intent upon having a good time. Game playing is heavenly sport.
By way of contrast, the Hebrew Bible gives scant attention to sport. If the ancient Jews played games, their writers and prophets tell us little about them. The New Testament is remarkably silent about gaming. Jesus is never depicted participating in an athletic sport. His mission was of a higher order. As our substitute, he fought the good fight, defeating both the devil and death. This cosmic battle resulted in Christ as the Victor, champion of all lost souls, even those of us who will never wear an Olympic gold medal, much less, get our name as winners on the local sports page. Christ’s crown of thorns is our crown of gold. Wear it proudly.