Saturday 27th September 2008 was one of the saddest days I care to remember: the day the Cats lost the AFL Grand Final after being the best team in the country all year. It was a disappointing end to the season, and was particularly sad for my family and me as we have been Geelong supporters for all of our lives. Geelong Australian Rules Football Club is part of my family inheritance; indeed the city itself is our ancestral town in Australia, so there is quite a bit of “rip and tear” when they lose; especially as they had been such red-hot favourites that year and had won 23 out of 24 games in 2008 going in to the Grand Final, and 24 out of 26 including the premiership (by a record score) in 2007. It’s one of those times when you’ve done all the hard work and have met 98% of the requirements for completion, but then you fall over and it’s all wasted.
Our tribe was in mourning, and feeling very short-changed as well.
This is a truth that Christians need to get, even amongst themselves. Of course there is no satisfaction like the love of God, but in this world there is pain and there are other loyalties. These are not conflicting loyalties, it’s not unchristian to follow the AFL, they’re just not church groups.
Our generation is a tribal generation. Australia is a tribal nation. We have always been a people who like to form groups around the things that define us in society: be that States of Origin (to various degrees, and not limited to sport) along with Ford vs. Holden, AFL vs. NRL (and the sixteenths within). These are the denominations of the world: not “of the Flesh” per se, after all when did Anglican vs. Roman Catholic be a different form of loyalty, but of the way we think as men and women on this side of Heaven. It was on this basis that my tribe entered a time of mourning. “Sorry Business” ensued and as a group we commiserated together before gathering ourselves around our faith and looking to 2009, as we had looked to 1990, 1993, 1995 and 1996 of recent memory, with renewed hope.
Christians need to remember that Earth is a tribal place and those coming in to the church still belong to other groups. We are in the world, but not of it, but in the world there are circles and we are still very much a part of those circles; indeed it is where our ministry lays. It is not enough to say “bah but it is only football and as Christians we have a higher calling”. Yes, we do have a higher calling, but not to the exclusion of our friends and to what is important to us. Some do not like football, and that is fair enough, but those people I am sure belong to other tribes, be they other sports, or other interests. One of the men I know from church, who supports the team which defeated Geelong on that day of blessed forgetting, consoled me that he knew how I felt as whilst he is not as devoted as I to his chosen sports he “felt strangely mournful” at the dumping of the New Zealand All Blacks from the IRB World Cup in 2007. Why should it matter so much that your national rugby team loses? Simply because it is “the team”, “our team”: there is a real belongingness in that and it isn’t just about the vicarious nature of following the ball in play. The team is “us out there” and we are a part of each other. Australasians are a sporting tribal people: to minister to us is to minister in and within the culture of belongingness: we must not forget that to reach our “unreached” we must be sympathetic to their cries: and we must allow ourselves to feel it when our own tribes are saddened in the fight.
I have belonged at various times to parishes of the Anglican and Uniting Churches, and in England I belonged at my local Parish Church and then to Hillsong Church London. In terms of residential identity I have been a Victorian, a Tasmanian, and a Territorian. I’ve lived in Kent, Norfolk, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire; and always specificallynot in London as is the local sensitivity of the Home Counties. I’m both Australian and English by heritage and have supported both nations (one at a time) in the Rugby World Cup, even supporting England against Australia when they won in Sydney in 2003. I will always support England in the cricket unless it’s The Ashes. But I have never been anything other than a Geelong supporter. It’s the only thing I have always been apart from a Christian, distinct from the changing denominational labels.
Yet I am all about Jesus: but I’m still in the world. The Cats is a part of the world I am pleased to be in.
I am a Christian. Not “a Christian first” as there is no comparison between my belonging to Christ alone and to my other allegiances. Neither am I “a Cat second” as there is much of higher importance in my life than my sporting tribe: however at one level I am a “Cat”, and my family (to whom I belong more than my team) are Cats too. On Grand Final day I was sad, and my family and I were sad together, especially as we were physically separated by half of the span of the Earth. On that day we found ourselves in genuine need of ministry in a way that “look to the cross” could not fix.
We got over it, it was only the end of the season and not the end of the world, but maybe in the pain we discovered an insight into how our generation works. Don’t disparage the shared culture of society’s smaller groups…much rides on the fortunes of the men on the field and we must remember as light to the world that we have a duty to weep with those who weep.
Football itself if not so big a deal of course, it’s just that I suddenly found a point of intersection between Emergent Church thinking and something in my own, personal, day-to-day world. Until Heaven even solid Christians will have “lesser loyalties” to their tribes; yet not necessarily divided loyalties as we remember that Jesus is not in the same plane. When the tribe is defeated then we have a duty to mourn with those who mourn, not that it’s a duty as we are often capable of feeling sad and disappointed all by ourselves. For Geelong in 2008 it was so near yet so far; all but undefeated all year, and indeed ahead for the first twenty-two of eighty minutes. Sometimes life sucks and as Christians it’s good to be reminded of that.
As I often say about my own life just because I am handling this well doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. There but for the grace of God: it’s good to be reminded of the grace of God so that we CAN minister to those who don’t know what we do. I sincerely hope that The Church in Geelong was down at Kardinia Park on Sunday September 28th: not all of them, but some as a sign of “this is our town too, and we are sad along with you because we are part of you.”
So let us be clear; to be sad about a defeated football team does not make someone less a believer in the grace of Jesus Christ: neither does it make the League (or the Game) his or her “god”. There is a call for compassion to those even within “The House” who have tribal loyalties: as an Aussie bloke my key one is my football team, but we as The Church (and as local churches) must engage in the world. We are not of the world, but we are in it, and we are in it with those who are of it. We must engage with them and that will cause us pain: but pain is good when pain is shared.
There are many for whom football is their god, but from whom are they more likely to hear the grace behind the words of Jesus Christ? We who also feel sad at the events of a Grand Final day, or the well-meaning (and I’m sure they are) legalist who denies the existence of football as a source of anything?
We may not subscribe to their tribe, (by which I mean the sport rather than the team: for example I could not care less for Rugby League), but there is nothing in the gospel that allows us to discount their pain. I know there were sad people in Melbourne even as there was rejoicing Manly after the NRL premiership, even as I care little for the game itself. I have seen what an England or local club loss does to the soccer fans in London, even in Hillsong Church. I believe this grieving to be a genuine and acceptable thing. “Sorry Business” in its original, indigenous form is both corporate and communal; and if a local church is indeed local then it should at the very least seek to engage in it, even if it shouldn’t be immersed in it.
OUR BELONGINGS ARE NOT OUR POSSESSIONS, THEY ARE OUR RELATIONSHIPS