God is a Raptors’ Fan, Right?

This blog is a shameless reworking of a piece I wrote a few years ago when the Jays were on a hot streak. It seemed to be an appropriate offering again for this Raptors’ moment.

I jumped up at the end of Monday night’s dinner for our church’s women’s group. I had been asked to give a final blessing and had done so. But suddenly, I realized that there was another word needed. “We need to pray for the Raptors!” I cried. Everyone bowed their heads, and I lifted a shameless prayer for our Toronto basketball team, not just to do well, not just to have fun, but to win.

As I drove home to get into game watching mode, I was reminded of a debate my kids had years ago when the Blue Jays were on a hot streak and Cecilia had given thanks in our evening prayers for a dramatic win. “Cee-ya!” Gordon had interjected, wise beyond his years, “You can’t thank God for letting the Blue Jays win! It doesn’t matter who wins! It’s just about having fun!!”

Once again, I was left musing over the very question Gordon had pointed to: What does God make of our sports? What does God think of the prayers that ascend with such sincerity and hope and gratitude by players and fans on both sides when a championship is on the line? Is God pleased with the public prayer of thanksgiving that is given from a grateful basketball player when an unlikely 3 point shot is made? Is the divine ego stroked at all by the fact that millions of people are watching as those words are ecstatically mouthed heavenward: thank you Lord! Surely God must wish that we could collectively get as animated for, say, celebrating Pentecost or reducing greenhouse gases as we do about a Canadian team inching closer to a championship? We can certainly conclude that God must feel utter disgust for us when fun and games become brawls and riots, when a stadium cheers because a star player on the opposing team goes down with an injury. I once read an NFL feature in Rolling Stone magazine in which quarterback Russell Wilson credited God with preventing him from throwing the extra yard it would have taken his interception to clinch his second Super Bowl championship. “God told me it was part of his plan,” he explained. And while I appreciate the faithfulness it takes to trust God even in times of disappointment and challenge, it didn’t quite ring true to me that God might have been puppeteering that, or any other, Super Bowl game.

I should be clear: I am the epitome of a bandwagon sports fan. My nerves could not handle year-round cheering (neither could my backside — we’re talking almost three hours of edge-of-the-seat sitting to make it through one of these basketball games! How do people do this on a regular basis?). I feel a sense of pure gladness for these periodic sports’ occasions (Olympics, women’s soccer, that long-ago year when the Leafs made it to post-season…) which invite us out of the ordinary worries and routines of life into a shared sense of the festive. Yes, I wish that people were as excited about voting this fall as they were about watching the game last night. Yes, the adrenaline that courses through my body for four twelve-minute quarters is ridiculous, illogical. My nails get gnawed down to the quick, I am restless and jumpy and high-strung, my hand mindlessly reaches for the ketchup chips, eating to quell the blood-boiling anxiety… over what? There actually is nothing particularly at stake in whether they win or lose (maybe a few high-end pay cheques as players advance up or down the ranks. Do I care about that? Yes, the hype has been fun and it’s nice for our country to rally together around a sports’ team together, and it would feel like a colossal national disappointment to have them not come out on top…) Gordon was right: it’s just a game.

And yet. As a priest, my job is to Lift Up. I Lift Up so that we might say thank you, so that we might invite God in, so that we might be blessed. Somehow I can’t help but suspect that there is something to Lift Up about getting to cheer my heart out with my two kids and our friend Tom, who kindly invited us over to take advantage of his cable and large-screen television, on a Monday night in June as the Raptors looked to make history on home turf.

So I Lift Up

Gratitude for a quintessential evening with Cecilia and Gordon, one which feels extraordinary enough to us that we will no doubt pull it out and polish it off as a treasured memory for years to come.

Amazement at athletes in their physical and mental prime, at the astounding combination of dedication, folly, good luck, encouragement and discipline which goes into any pursuit of excellence, any pushing of the human body and psyche to achieve a narrow brilliance in one particular skill. It feels true and right that so many of them would have prayers on their lips as they ascend those jaw-dropping heights of achievement.

Gladness that in our over-stimulated, massively entertaining world, we haven’t lost that very human aptitude for Carnival, for collectively staying up late, setting up spontaneous gatherings of friends and strangers, so that we can have our senses heightened, and our joys and fears and challenges can be worked out in an arena where everything and nothing matters. Where we can agree to be swept together into a shared drama, and in doing so, we might for a few hours set aside any stakes that may actually be claiming their ground in our real lives, we might make memories as a community, as a country — silly, loud, whooping memories. And at the end of the four quarters, it really is just a game.

In the end, what I Lift Up is laughter. God is a Raptors’ Fan in the same way that God is a Martha Fan. When I am particularly irritated with someone in my life, I will inevitably find myself ascribing to God a share in my irritation. God is on my side. And when I actually let God speak into my feelings — my hurt, my annoyance, my bafflement — God’s message to me is amply clear:

Yes, they are silly. So are you.

The words come to me wrapped in God’s love. For me and for the ones that I perceive as against me. Surely it must be lovely and amusing to God that sometimes we could choose hoops and sportsmanship to draw battle lines around, that we could offer up fervent prayers from all sides for all of our teams for strength and clarity and good defense and stellar hand-eye coordination and a few bursts of celebratory fireworks. That occasionally we could fight for reasons that are right and ultimately inconsequential: so we can push one another to be better, and we can be swept into a few shining moments of something that gets to be about all of us.

Image via EFKS/Shutterstock