By Bob Hiller –
This past week, we entered a new phase of 21st century family life in the Hiller household: organized youth sports. My middle boy joined the local under-8 rugby squad. I know there are all kinds of problems with youth organized sports. I have to tell you, taking my son to rugby was pure joy. I loved watching him run around while getting barked at by the coach. I loved the look of satisfaction on his face when he figured out how to succeed at his drills. I loved how much fun he had with his friends. I loved him asking when he could do it again. “Thursday night, buddy.” “Yes!” he beamed. At least for now, youth rugby is fun.
Watching my son play rugby was a learning experience for the both of us. Neither he nor I know the first thing about this sport. I cut my sports teeth on America’s big three: baseball, basketball, and football. I know a bit about hockey. Rugby is entirely foreign to me. As I watched six to eight-year-old kids practice this game that is foreign to me, I found myself focusing a great deal on what the coach was saying. I was trying to pick up on the language he used and see how it applied to what was happening on the field. He used familiar words like “try,” for example, in technical ways that didn’t make sense to me. I heard new words like “scrum” and “ruck.” Scoring and the way one moves the ball down the field is entirely new for me. The unfamiliarity requires me to focus so that I will be able to be conversant in this strange new world. To use a nerdy Lutheran buzzword, my son’s rugby practice was a catechetical experience for me.
To be honest, there is a great deal I don’t get about rugby yet. Signing my son up for this has given me something new to figure out, something new to grow into. But don’t you think it would be strange if I went up to the coach after practice and said, “I appreciate you teaching my son the basics. But, we’re really a football family. Could you make it a little more like football? Could you change the language you use and adjust the style of play until he gets a better grip on what is happening? Then, later, once he’s figured this out in terms he understands, then you can teach him the harder stuff.” The coach would probably put me on the ground, rugby style (I’m sure there’s a technical term for that). And he should. All this would do is teach my son and me a distorted version of the game. Rugby wouldn’t be a sport he’d grow into. Rather, he’d be learning a dumbed down version of the sport he’s trying to play.
There’s a lot of ink spilled these days about discipleship and what it means to be a Christian. Very often, to make the Christian life more appealing or attractive, steps are taken to speak of Jesus and matters of faith in easy, relatable terminology. Christianity is made to look more like the culture to which it appeals. Jesus is presented as having the same values that a particular subset of people hold dear. I’ve referenced Stephen Prothero’s American Jesus: How the Son of God became a National Icon before. He has a marvelous quote in there where he says,
“The American Jesus has been something of a chameleon. Christians have depicted him as black and white, male and female, straight and gay, a socialist and a capitalist, a pacifist and a warrior, a Ku Klux Klansman and a civil rights agitator…he has become an athlete and an aesthete, a polygamist and a celibate, an advertising man and a mountaineer, a Hindu deity and a Buddha-to-be.”
In other words, Americans in general and the Church in particular want to make Jesus something easier to understand, someone easier to stomach. They want church to be a place that domesticates God by presenting Him in ways that are manageable. They’re fine playing rugby, so long as they can turn it into something more like football.
But in the process, and with all the right intentions, I fear we in the Church have ended up ruining the game! I once heard someone, I believe it was Michael Horton, say that we need to teach Christianity to our youth as something to grow into, not something they grow out of. The Church doesn’t need to dumb down the Word of God. When one is Baptized into discipleship, they are transferred out of the old, familiar domain of darkness and brought into the new, unfamiliar, and uncomfortable kingdom of the Son God loves, in whom we have redemption and the forgiveness of sins (Colossians 1:13-14). They’ve been brought to a new game that is played in a way different than they are used to. There is a new language to learn and a new freedom to explore. There are new practices to be trained in and new enemies to fight. And we’re never going to learn how to live under the reign of grace if we try to adjust to our new dwelling by speaking the language of death and condemnation. We’re never going to grow in our freedom if we continue to live like slaves.
Perhaps we in the Church need to take the work of equipping the saints to live in the freedom they’ve been given in Christ much more seriously. This is an entirely new game that requires relearning how to play. It comes with death to an old way of living, which was actually death. We are learning to truly live. Life in the Gospel is something we grow into, which will happen on into eternity, as CS Lewis says, further up and further in. We don’t need to adjust the game. We need to train the players in the joy of this new found freedom.
Well, that’s enough for now. Time to get back to the scrum… Yikes, I’ve got a ways to go…