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Fun With Flags
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flagAfter worship on Sunday, I went home to engage in my normal ritual for an autumn Sunday afternoon: falling asleep while watching football. A lot of times, if the game is exciting enough, I will actually stay awake through it but yesterday was a struggle; mostly because NFL games are constantly stopping because of a “flag on the play.”


It’s hard to get excited about seeing an athletic catch or a long run downfield when you’re constantly aware that there is probably a yellow hankie laying somewhere on the field out of the television picture. The referee appears to get more screen time than the players do these days, explaining the intricacies of the infraction to an audience who sits at home with their hands raised and faces screwed up in disbelief. That’s not to the mention the egregious acts of football malfeasance that the officials actually miss (and I’m not going to go on an extended rant about the hit that knocked Steelers’ quarterback Mason Rudolph out of Sunday’s game, but COME ON!!).


Too many flags makes for an unwatchable product on the field. I found myself flipping over to watching playoff baseball which, interestingly, proved to be far more action-packed and exciting than the NFL games that were on. I saw a study once that tracked the actual action in a three-hour plus football game at only eleven minutes. A pitcher’s duel is far more intriguing than that.


It’s hard to have fun when you’re constantly being told that you’re doing something wrong and are being publicly shamed for it (“Holding. Number 72. Yes, 72 is the idiot who couldn’t keep his hands to himself. Now his team doesn’t get a touchdown. Feel shame, 72.”). Yes, the rules need to be enforced, but when the ones enforcing the rules take over the game and hog the spotlight it’s no longer a game. It’s a court room.


It occurred to me as I was watching yesterday that this is how a lot of people approach their spiritual lives–either they are always flagging other people for infractions or they stay on the sidelines afraid of making a big play or a taking a risk because they might get flagged and shamed for it by the ever-present referee trolls in our culture. It leads to a boring, mediocre sort of faith that plods along from week to week without ever making a bold move for God’s kingdom–the equivalent of an 8-8 NFL season.


In the NHL, particularly in the playoffs, the referees will often “swallow the whistle” and let the boys play, particularly in a tight game. The penalty has to be especially heinous in order to be called out. Both teams are allowed to make some mistakes and it’s understood that the real goal is the actual game, not the things that stop the game. I wonder if that’s a better approach to faith–that we not spend our energy looking carefully in order to call out someone else’s sin or fail to take a risk for God’s kingdom because someone might call for us to spend time in the “sin bin.” Holiness isn’t about absolute perfection, but about going all in to win in what matters to God. As Paul puts it in Philippians 3:13-14, “Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do; forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Jesus Christ.”


The best games are the ones in which the referees are invisible and have no effect on the outcome. They keep the game moving and keep the rules in play, but they do so in ways that are seamless and put the focus on the players. If we live our spiritual lives the same way, putting our focus on God and on making others shine in their game of life, things become a lot more interesting.


No flag on the play!

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