My favorite soccer team, London’s Arsenal F.C., limped through the last home game of their season, both literally and figuratively. Key players were out with injuries, and after half an hour, yet another experienced defender departed with a fractured leg. The team looked tired and sloppy and, even though there were huge incentives for winning the game before their boisterous home crowd, the team struggled to put together a coherent performance against a vastly inferior opponent.
And the fans didn’t hesitate to let the players feel their frustration. You see, I am a proud member of one of the most fickle fan bases in all of soccer, and their support during the game mirrored their uneven loyalties. They cheered jubilantly as Arsenal took a short-lived lead, groaned and jeered as they fell behind. They roared as Arsenal stormed back into the lead – howling at the referee for perceived injustices of course – and booed with righteous fervor as Arsenal finally fell apart, snatching a tie from the jaws of victory.
This wasn’t the first time Arsenal fans have blown hot and cold with their support. Nowhere near, in fact. Their flighty whims can vary minute to minute as well as week to week. Depending on the team’s performance, Arsenal fans will swing between berating their useless, hopeless, inept squad to singing that they’re “by far the greatest team the world has ever seen.” And (embarrassed though I am to admit it) I’m worse than most.
When the team is playing well, I wax lyrical to anyone who will listen (of whom there are few, Joe Hoover) about how the team is pure poetry in motion. When they’re poor, I groan, complain, and sulk like the world’s coming to an end (my editor assures me that most of my comments on Saturday’s game are totally unpublishable [Editor’s note: well, they were!]). I wonder, though, if there isn’t a lesson to be learned in all this.
For sports fans, every moment is the most important moment. Ever. Every goal, every foul, every game, every substitution, everything is absolutely urgent. One catastrophe leaves fans demanding an entire new roster of players; one classy win leaves fans making bullish predictions of total domination. Sounds something like a lot of people’s spiritual lives. It certainly sounds like mine.
One moving ministerial encounter can leave me buzzing, excited, and energized. One setback can leave me punctured, flat, and frustrated. A kind word can leave me on top of the world, and a failure can leave me wallowing in self-doubt. A moment of intimacy with God in prayer can leave me with clarity of heart and peace in my mission, while times of confusion in prayer can leave me wondering whether I’m really doing everything God wants of me.
You get the idea. Sports fans, Arsenal fans (ok, me) think way, way too much about the present moment. They forget that even great teams have crippling lows that go hand in hand with their stunning highs, and they forget that it can take a very long time to know the strengths and flaws of a team. Likewise, our spiritual lives only unfold over time. God’s grace doesn’t change us overnight, we don’t grow into who God desires us to be in a moment.
The best fans, better fans than me, are patient, and so too are the best pray-ers. They know that highs and lows are a part of the experience, and that good things come in due time. In the meantime, sports fans get to watch the team they love at work, and if we’re patient and attentive all of us (sports fans or not) get to watch the wonder and the mystery of the God we love at work.