In the just released She's Got Next: Life Under the Net, Melissa King writes about why she plays pick-up basketball:

"I've played because, when the game is good, when everyone is doing, not thinking, it happens, little stillnesses in the moments when you see your open man and nothing else, or you feel your shot going in the hoop as it leaves your hands, or you share a laugh with someone you've never spoken to. Race, money, gender, age, they're still there. But the junk we're all saddled with is gone."

The passage reminded me, despite my ongoing aggravations with preening athletes and greedy owners, why I still love sports. I recognize two realities.

1. Since sports is a human activity, it is corrupt. Paul's seemingly hyperbolic list in Romans 1 literally applies to modern athletics: "filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice … foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless."

2. Since God uses sinners to reveal himself, sports can become a means of grace—"a signal of transcendence," as Peter Berger puts it—despite its corruptions.

Christians are sometimes tempted to let the first reality rule their response. They have viewed sports as idolatry at worst, or a huge waste of time at best. But with entire sections of the daily newspaper and multiple cable channels and countless water cooler conversations dedicated to sports—well, to ignore athletics is to remove oneself from American culture. Hardly the appropriate response for those called to love their neighbors—most of whom play, watch, and even love sports.

So Christians, wisely, have immersed themselves in this world—as professional athletes, sports writers, city-league participants, season ticket holders, and parents running around the soccer field with their 5-year-old. They try to be moral in the midst of this corrupt world, and to exploit its character-building benefits. Or they treat it as a mission field, hoping to win others to Christ. And the especially gifted hope to use their athletic success as a platform to witness for the gospel to the larger culture—a culture that practically worships great athletes.

All this is praise worthy. But it doesn't interest me as much as what sports does to all of us from time to time—like when Melissa King briefly enjoys the grace of athletic excellence and the joy of community with complete strangers.

Or when sports columnist Joan Ryan watched Andres Galarraga, an older ball player at the end of his career, steal a base toward the end of the 2003 season, and then saw him break out in a huge smile:

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"These are the moments you wait an entire season for: an athlete caught in the act of being absolutely happy," she wrote. "For an instant, I could see in Galaraga something of my forgotten self, the girl who ran through sprinklers and ate Ding-Dongs and made perfume out of tap water and rose petals. Watching Galaraga at that moment was like getting a cross-section of time, with youth and age layered on top of one another, making an impossible joint appearance."

Or when John Brodie, quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers in my youth, played football: Sometimes "time seems to slow way down, in an uncanny way, as if everything were moving in slow motion," he once wrote. "It seems I have all the time in the world to watch the receivers run their patterns … . You can get into another order of reality when you're playing, a reality that does not fit into grids and coordinates that most people lay across life."

Ancient Greek had two words for time. Chronos referred to measured time; it answered the mundane question, "What time is it?" Kairos referred to the meaning of time, and answered the question, "Of what significance is this moment?"

Every sport has its kairos moments, when as spectator or player, one becomes childlike again, or experiences the grace of human excellence, or bonds with complete strangers, or feels as if chronos time—the slow march toward death--is suspended.

Sport does for some people what music or art does for others. It's not "just a game," any more than Van Gogh's Starry Night is "just a painting." The game, like a great painting, can become a signal of transcendence, a window into a world full of mystery and meaning.

This vague and elusive "signal of transcendence," has a name for the Christian, who is not at all surprised to find this One even in the corrupt world of sports: "All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist" (Col. 1:16-17). He is the one who "fills all in all." (Ephesians 1:23).

The mind reels at the image of Jesus trafficking with violent, self-centered, greedy athletes, immersed in an institution infamous for steroids, multi-million dollar contracts, trash talk, and indecent end zone celebrations. It's a scandal.

It's also the gospel. Indeed, if the grace and presence of God cannot be discerned in modern sports, then it will not be found in the modern world. No, sports does not bring us a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, but like many other aspects of creation, it does allow us to touch the hem of his garment from time to time. And when that happens, it opens people up to considering a deeper dimension to life.

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There is a story, some think apocryphal, in which theologian Reinhold Neibuhr took the newly arrived Paul Tillich to a baseball game. Tillich struggled to comprehend the game, and was especially confused when, after a superbly executed double play, the fans roared with approval. No ball was hit out of the park, no runs were scored—Why, Tillich asked, was everyone delighted?

When, after many attempts, Niebuhr failed to help him understand, he finally just said, "It's a kairos, Paulus. It's a kairos."

Mark Galli is managing editor of Christianity Today.

Related Elsewhere:

Galli's previous Play Ball columns include

Baseball Isn't Entertainment | The sooner we stop thinking sports are about the spectators, the more enjoyable the games will be. (Feb. 25, 2005)
Rooting for T.O. | Why Terrell Owens irritates most of us most of the time. (Feb. 11, 2005)
Freedom Between the Goal Posts | Sports is much more important than our culture lets on (Feb. 4, 2005)
Salt and Light in the Arena | It's going to take more than a few good Christians to clean up sports. (Feb. 18, 2005)

To learn about Christian athletes in sports, or for daily, sporty devotionals, our sports channel offers that and more.

Play Ball
From 2005 to 2007, "Play Ball" examined the relationship of sports and faith: sports is important precisely because it is a form of play, that is, a manifestation of the Sabbath. Contributors included Mark Galli, Collin Hansen, Mark Moring, and others.
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