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Getting Pissed at the Penguins and the Art of Self-Confrontation

June 6, 2013

Last night I should have been thrilled as my ten-year old daughter Madeline dropped everything and sat down beside me and talked with me passionately. As she shared with me the various name changes our family was undergoing to conform to the Fellowship of Ring character names, I found myself getting frustrated, tense and nonplussed. Madeline caught one of my sighs and questioned me, “What?!” I responded with something like “Oh nothing, just the stupid Penguins.”

You see I was also watching the Penguins, down 2 games to 0 in the series with the Bruins. Game 3 was in overtime. They had just gone 0/5 on power plays, and had been playing the worst hockey I have seen the talented team play. They got blown out the previous two games played at home in Pittsburgh.  Since living in the Pittsburgh area when the Pens won the Stanley Cup, I had become a fan.

Then I had the nightmare vision of Madeline as a teenager rebelling against her old stodgy pastor Dad who was two busy watching the stupid Penguins to listen to her when she was younger. Uh-oh…I need help. What value do the Penguins have to me versus my relationship to my daughter? I have hit “Bottom.”

Thus began my self-confrontation and self-intervention to save me from my self-destructive affinity, oh alright, addiction to watching sports.

How did this happen? How did I come to the point of getting in a bad mood and neglecting my daughter, sleep, study, prayer, family, etc? Why do the Penguins, the Packers, the Steelers, whatever soccer game happens to be on, any sports on TV matter to me?

I remember being in the 5th grade and watching the USA Hockey Team triumph over the Soviets in the 1980 Miracle on Ice event. I was at home alone that Saturday morning. When the USA team won the game I ran around the house shouting. I shouted at our collie Katie that the USA team had won. During the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, I yelled so loudly when Landon Donovan scored a goal in the waning seconds of the USA’s game against Algeria that I scared everyone in the house (click the link and watch this video and you will understand). These are two highlights of a pattern of behavior throughout my life. I almost consider it like a job, a responsibility that I have to watch certain sporting events. It’s a job a love. But, is it a problem? Last night it was, and not just because the stupid Penguins were blowing it; rather, it was a problem because it was interfering with what is really valuable.

Watching sports provides leisure, sometimes exhilaration, sometimes anger or frustration. Sports Fanaticism can create camaraderie like among Steeler fans in Pittsburgh or a whole nation cheering their National Team.

This phenomenon is illustrated in the British version of the movie Fever Pitch. The main character played by Colin Firth is a soccer fanatic whose life ebbs and flows based on the performance of the Arsenal Gunners, a team that has not won the English Premier League in 17 years.  Here is a clip that shows his passion for the team, as his girlfriend confronts him (beware includes one F-bomb).

Arsenal only has to tie the final game to win the league, and they go down two goals to nil with few minutes remaining. They miraculously score two goals in the final game and win the league. (Here is the entire game scene with the last 90 seconds showing the goal and celebration.) The character who has been apoplectic with anxiety and rage during the game now joins in the celebration at the stadium dancing in the streets and singing with the crowd. He is reunited with his girlfriend and is truly lifted into a sort of “newness of life” in his context. He narrates the final scene and says of that day and victory:

I do know this. Something happened between me and Arsenal that night. It was as if I jumped on to the shoulders of the team and they carried me into the light that had suddenly shown down on all of us

That is a great feeling—almost nothing like it. The problem is that same team will drop you on your head the next thing you know.

This reminds me of how I kept playing soccer as an adult, even though it hurt and was frustrating as I lost my skills and athleticism. I continued to yearn for the exhilaration of seeing the ball go into the back of the net after leaving my foot. It is a great feeling…that “Yes!” that seems to consummate our yearning in satisfaction.

Taken to the extreme, the yearning is summed up in the line by Harold Abrams, the Jewish sprinter in Chariots of Fire, “I will raise my eyes and look down that corridor; 4 feet wide, with 10 lonely seconds to justify my existence. But will I?” Ahhh, when it all comes together what justification it seems! Even when the team wins the game at home in the second overtime like the Bruins did last night at about 12:30 a.m. EST, the exhilaration comes and goes. We then must continue seeking it, looking for it…for thrill, justification, escape, entertainment, camaraderie, whatever it is we get out of watching sports.

Jesus takes me back to the story of Martha and Mary. Jesus commends Mary for choosing what is best and what will not be taken from her. She chose intimacy and relationship with Jesus. She chose it over all else. What she chose is eternal.  Jesus has the only shoulders that can lift us up and never let us down.  His light never wanes; no darkness can overcome it.  All of our exhileration in this life points to his abundant life–intiamcy with him.

Graham Cooke writes, “God is highly relational, and so intimacy must be the highest priority of life in the Spirit…The biggest battle in the church at this time is the battle for intimacy with God.” In my case, the battle at this point might be with watching sports.

Now don’t get me wrong…I’m not going radical, crazy, cold-turkey or anything. I mean I can control this! But I have to admit watching sports can be a problem…alright it might be a problem. I need to give this to Jesus and turn to him to satisfy that yearning for exhilaration. I can promise you this…I am not watching Game 4! But if the Penguins make it to game 7 in this series…well, that would be a miracle – something God would surely want me to see!

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