The first time I was a passenger in an airplane was at about the age of 10.  My friend and I boarded an Eastern Airlines DC-3 in route to Washington, DC, via Charlottesville.  We took turns by the window, faces pressed to cold glass, propellers whirring, our seats vibrating. It was 1968.  As we rose above the earth for the first time I sensed the expanse of place, beyond neighborhood and city, beyond home.  I knew maps but lost all bearing there in the air, didn’t know how to make sense of what I saw but wondered at its beauty.

I am not a pilot, but I know a few and know their love of flight.  In his recent book, Skyfaring, 747 pilot Mark Vanhoenacker is like a poet of flight, using finely crafted language to capture the feel of seeing the earth from above.  He says “Flight is the cartographic, planetary equivalent of hearing a song covered by a singer you love, or meeting for the first time a relative whose features or mannerisms are already familiar.  We know the song but not like this; we have never met the person and yet we have never in our lives been strangers.”  

For those who fly, the sky must be like coming home.  You already know the song.  You met somewhere in your imagination or maybe the tug of elevation was buried deep in some gene, was activated when your father tossed you in the air, was primed by the helicoptering swings from an adult’s arms, was nurtured by the flight of books, by high buildings and roller-coaster tracks to the sky, by watching a balloon float high above.  

The first flight must carry some sense of deja vu, some echoing memory of soaring.  And when you rise, when wheels are up and the ground falls away, and you poke through the clouds and float over a bed of air, an ocean of billowing cloud-sea just below, then earth-bound non-pilot that I am, all I can think is that it must be like hearing Pet Sounds for the first time, every time it happens, must be like those first chords of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” or the fading train and dog coda of “Caroline, No.” Hearing it, feeling it, all I can say is “Play it again. One more time,” and hit repeat.  And I'm soaring.  Is that what it’s like?

The Reformation of Athletics

Clip_image003Ok, I admit it.  I have an attitude about sports and athletic competition.  At best, it seems like organized sports are a monumental waste of time.  At worst, it seems like idolatry.  I remember well a conversation I had with a man I met after a worship service in an unfamiliar church.  Amongst the small talk that accompanies a new acquaintance, he asked me which team I was rooting for in the game that afternoon.  I said I really didn't care and didn't plan to watch it.  He seemed offended.  I don't think he understood how an American male could not love the game.

My attitude had been reformed some over time, and with knowledge.  I understand that the teamwork and discipline required in playing sports builds character, that facing loss may yield humility.  I also understand that Christians can be a witness in this arena, like other venues in the world, that we can be moral in the midst of immorality.  All good, but ultimately unsatisfying.  I'm after something bigger, something transforming.  And today I received a glimmer of it:  In explaining a vision for atletics, a friend described the goal as nothing less than a "reformation of manners in athletics," in other words, a tranformation of athletics consistent with a biblical worldview -- more than morality, more than a platform for witnessing.  Nothing less than a reformation.

This I will have to think about.  Given my ignorance about the content of and experience of athletics, probably someone better than me should think on it.  But here are some thoughts.

First, have we lost the sense of play in athletic competition?  As a boy, I remember simply playing basketball -- not because Michael Jordan played it, not on a team, but simply for fun.  People, this is serious business in some high schools.  Parents are highly invested in this activity.  You can see it on their faces.  God made work, and he made play.  Isn't this play?  I'm not sure, given the way kids are pushed to excel at all costs.

Second, in the midst of this competition, can we discern Christ's presence?  Mark Galli thinks so.  Writing in Christianity Today last year, in an article entitled The Grace of Sports, he says that "[t]he game, like a great painting, can become a signal of transcendance, a window into a world of mystery and meaning."  After all, didn't Jesus say that "in Him all things consist" (Col.. 1:17)?  Sports is one of those "things."  Galli says that "[e]very sport has its kairos moments, when as spectator or player, one becomes childlike again, or experiences the grace of human excellence, or bonds with complete strangers, or feels as if chronos time --- the slow march toward death --- is suspended."  The feeling? It can only be joy -- joy that transcends loss.  We are the kingdom of God at play.  That's what it looks like.

I know that feeling of time standing still, that feeling that something special is happening, that this is an important moment -- when I listen to music.  But I do begin to see that it can happen in sports as well.  Maybe I'm beginning to experience a reformation of manners, an attitude check and reorientation in regard to sports.  It wouldn't be the first time that's happened.