Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Best Way to Know God: Sports

The best way to know God is to love many things. 
--Vincent Van Gogh

The faculty and staff of St. Ignatius College Prep reconvened on August 24 for fellowship, professional development, meetings, and mass to commence the 2012-2013 school year. I am grateful we were given time for reflection, prayer and personal sharing before the chaos of the new year unfolds.

In our time together, we were asked to consider three questions:

  • What experience—event—image—from the summer gave you a glimpse of God or of love?
  • In light out our theme, “loving,” what is one hope you have for this new year?
  • What is your reflection on the call to be loving (in this morning’s talks, your experience, or  quotations below)?
One of the quotes was from a surprising source, the impressionist artist, Vincent Van Gogh.  He wrote, “The best way to know God is to love many things.”  I thought what a beautiful insight; its truth spoke to me.

I have always believed that creation is a reflection of the creator.  God’s goodness is reflected in God’s awesome creation—the Badlands, Yosemite Valley, a new born child, my friend’s dog—Lucky Dog—a Labrador and Border Collie mix.  Indeed, many people and tragedies challenge this belief, I am sure the good Lord agrees.

However, I write today because my immediate response to Van Gogh’s insight relates to Sports and Spirituality.  I thought “that’s right.  So many sports, so little time.”  Sports reveal creativity, joy and even a glimpse at immortality.  Different sports speak to different people—cultures and ages, personalities and mindsets.  To love sports can reflect a love of God, because I believe sports can build community—relationships and friendships like no other.

First and foremost, sports are a form of leisure.  Leisure implies freedom or choice; it is not obligatory (even though work or effort may be involved).  When we are at leisure, we are at play.  I have worked with young people long enough to realize that when they are at play, more often than not, they reveal their true self.  Am I honest? Considerate? Grateful? Competitive?

Sports put us in contact with people and places we might not otherwise know.  I think of basketball and its CYO programs.  The sport draws a wide demographic of boys and girls of all ages.  For example, St Vincent de Paul in an affluent neighborhood of San Francisco (Cow Hollow) plays the same game against the inner city's St Paul of the Shipwreck in the Bayview.  Neither child may have been to the other’s neighborhood had it not been required league competition.

Indeed, sports teams hold stereotypes.  Tennis, lacrosse and golf have often attracted “people of privilege” because of the access and pricey equipment that facilitiates the development of skill and mastery.  However, I am proud that our country has a commitment to public recreational programs and facilities, that many of us may take for granted.  Great athletes like the Billy Jean King and Arthur Ashe benefitted from public courts.  The Williams Sisters career began on the courts of Compton; today they sponsor tennis academies in the inner city.  And thank God they do, as we know the commitment and upkeep to our cities “park and rec” is under siege.  Other creative programs like “First Tee” and “Lacrosse for LIFE” are not state/federally funded, they are nevertheless responding to those needs in different ways.
At SI we encourage first year students to cast a wide net and try out for several sports for a reason. We know that our teams are places where new students can easily build and hopefully build confidence in a new community.  I was approached by one student who when cut from volleyball decided she was going to try out for girls water polo.  When she didn’t make that team she asked if she could run with the cross country team.   That young woman found a home with the team and loves the sport.  

Sports also reveal the unique talents of the human person.  I have no “hops,” I could never hit a curve ball, and I can’t dribble a ball in either soccer or basketball to save my life, but flip turns in swimming, running 26.2 miles without stopping or crushing a tennis ball with my forehand cross court shot has been almost second nature.  I heard the renown swimmer Haley Scott DeMaria tell an audience at Notre Dame’s Play Like a Champion conference that she grew up in a home that didn’t ask “if you would play sports” but "what sport would you not play?"  The world was their athletic oyster! 
This summer I took six students to Camden, NJ on an urban challenge to learn about poverty through Romero Center Ministries.  The entire week gave me “glimpses of God and of God’s love,” but one image has stayed with me I am reminded of Van Gogh’s quote.  

Coming from the San Francisco Bay Area, the concept of a warm rain in the summer was foreign these young people.  A typical east coast summer storm one early evening became an invitation for play for these six teenagers.  While most of the larger group stayed inside to keep dry, my students played Frisbee for nearly an hour in the pouring rain.  Whether they knew it or not, they were basking in the glory of God’s creation: the day, the warm rain, the ability to run and laugh, to jump and throw, to be with one another.  To love God is to love many things—Frisbee, rain, summer and each other.  Sports are often the vehicle that gets us there. 

Thanks be to God.

Photo Credits
Van Gogh: Self Portrait

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