4 Ways that Life is Like Soccer

If you know me at all, you know that as for me an my house, we watch soccer.

(Oh we like the NFL too, but for us, there’s no football like “futbol.”)

So sit back and enjoy while I show you why this sport is so much more like life:

1. It Doesn’t Stop (Until it’s Done)

Almost all of the major American sports have prodigious breaks in them. Though an entire game lasts well over 2 hours, each individual play takes mere seconds, and over the whole of a game this adds up to about 11 minutes total of play. The rest of the time is taken up with commercials, penalties, and various breaks in the action.

By contrast, there are notoriously really no breaks in the action of a soccer game. Commercials are only broadcast at halftime, and if you risk getting up and going to the bathroom at any point in the 90 minutes of play, you risk missing the play that changes everything.

And just like soccer, life doesn’t really stop. Oh, we can pretend it does by trying check out a little here and there, but like it or not, while we are still drawing breath we are in the flow of time, and learning to be present for all of it is an art.

2. It’s a Lot More Physical Than You Think

Because of #3 below, a lot of people think that soccer is played like ballet, and there is no physical contact. Especially on the youth level, it’s enjoyable to listen to parents unfamiliar with the game complain to referees about how their kids are being pushed around. However, as soon as you watch a game close up, you realize that this game can be brutal: elbows, fists, even teeth(!) are all a part of fighting for position. Players routinely get heads split open (to be stapled up and return to the game), and bruised by well-placed kicks. What’s more, a lot of teams have “a hard man,” or enforcer, who’s job it is to intimidate and generally make the other team’s players miserable. Vinnie Jones (of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels fame) was a notorious hard man in the English Premier League, and a  shows the essence of what it means to be an enforcer.

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For us, I think a lot of us still adjust to the fact that life is difficult, and struggle to react to pain and challenge. I know for myself, it took a long time for me to get over the fact that life simply isn’t that easy. However, once I was able to start conceptualizing that “in this life I will have trouble”, I was able to start viewing the bumps and bruises that came my way as opportunities for growth, and a “school,” or testing ground of sorts, for my faith. At that point, suffering can become productive, and even redemptive.

3. That Being Said, We “Flop” a Lot More Than We Should

I get it; soccer also has notorious actors and “flops” in it. They are attempts to get fouls called, particularly inside the 18 yard box, so that teams can win a free kick and an easy opportunity to score. There are some hilariously bad flops, when players dive through the air like they’ve been shot with a gun, and then writhe on the ground in excruciating pain, only to have the replay show that they were never even touched by an opposing player.

(Check out, in particular :19)

These type of actions get a lot of ridicule from soccer skeptics around the world, but maybe only until we realize how much we do this as well. 

I know for myself anyway, there are so many interactions that I’ve had that have just seem like the world has ended, and I am “devastated” or “enraged” … friendships have been jeopardized. The heat of the moment takes over. I am metaphorically “on the ground, writhing in pain.” Then, often in what is comparatively a really short time, I’m back on my feet, and I actually realize that what I thought was a really major incident, actually didn’t hurt me at all. In fact, I really didn’t even need to fall over or go down. I over-reacted. I let it get the best of me. (And maybe, just maybe I could have scored if I would have ignore the altercation and just gone on with my life.) 

4. It’s Diverse

Lastly, soccer/football truly is a world sport. Obviously, it’s played all over the world, and the numbers show it: by comparison, whereas the 2014 Super Bowl had 111.5 million viewers worldwide, by contrast the 2014 World Cup boasted 909.6 million.

It’s actually astonishing.

Watch any professional league, and the rosters are truly glimpses of a global community: Africa, Latin America, Europe and the Middle East are all represented (Sadly, North America (minus Mexico) is probably the least represented continent, at least in Europe).

What’s more, even amidst all the diversity, cultures around the world still maintain (more or less) their own brand of play. The English Premier League is a league of speed; Brazilian football still maintains the reputation of being beautiful and creative (in the United States, a lot of our reputation has at times unfortunately been centered on individualism and show-boating). On and on the list goes on. It’s a wonderful blend of cultural identity with diverse influences.

Like it or not, our world is beautifully complex, and it was created that way. Revelation 7 speaks of “every nation and tribe” gathered around the throne of God, worshiping. It’s too easy to think that my Caucasian, North American perspective is all that there is to life, to faith. But it’s not. It’s so much bigger than that. I can learn about life (and about my blind spots) by people who are not the same as me; who share different life experiences and who have different values than me.

When my son was learning to play the game, we used to take as many opportunities as we could to get him playing time, so even when his club team wasn’t in season I would take him to fields around town to see if he could play in pick-up games. Most of the time, the only games available to him (even as a 12 and 13 year old) were games that international grad students from FSU would hold on Saturdays and Sundays. He would say to me, “Dad, I really want to play,” and I would look at the field full of people from Ghana, Argentina, China, Mexico, and Lebanon, and I would listen to the amazing blend of accents and language, and I would say, “Well, then you need to go out there and play.”

And he would wonder into this blend of culture and language and perspective, and he would go play.

And I’m hoping that he’s learning something about the world, and about life: about the joy of diversity, and the gift that other people can bring to us.

 

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It’s Been a Week…

 

I don’t know what kind of week you have been having, or what kind of words you’ve been encountering, but this is been a relatively rough one for my community.

The words I have encountered this week or words like:

“cancer” 

“overdose”

“suicide”

It goes without saying, but these are not the type of words that we’d prefer to see and hear in a week.

On the other hand, it seems all too common.

So how do I respond? What do I do when those words enter my reality?

I can certainly rail and rage against them. That’s an option that is easy to embrace. But for me, I eventually come up against something that I cannot control, be it other people, disease, (or even broken politics and a pathological culture)

But then again, I am driven back to the simple reality of accepting the things I have no control over, and embracing what I can control (which is mostly my reaction to all of this stuff).

Two thoughts that help me:

First, I am reminded that life goes on. I remember walking the streets of Chicago with my wife on September 11, 2001. everywhere was under silence, exacerbated by the fact that all air planes were grounded, but that reality was shattered when we heard people laughing at a joke. We felt so violated, like that time and space and silence was sacred. Even in the midst of devastating sadness, somewhere a baby will be born; there will be genuine laughter and care in a family somewhere; new, creative work will be done to make the world a better place. When I was younger, as I encountered pain in the world I would expect the whole world around me to stop and be devastated right alongside with me. I always treated it as a grave injustice for there to be laughter in the midst of pain. But now I think I realize that it is both our gift and our struggle that life goes on. What’s more, I know that the cross means that as long as there is suffering in the world, Christ suffers right along with us. Thomas Merton said “Christ remains in agony until the end of time, and in His agony Christ triumphs over all power.”

Second, I find soul-affirming comfort wherever I can. Jesus actually prayed that we would not be taken out of this world (John 17; really, Jesus?). But he also told us that he would not leave us alone (John 14). That means that his presence, and his peace and his love and his compassion is really always available to us. For me, I find it in friends, and in prayer, and also in art.

I stumbled across Bill Fay while I was driving in my car around 2013. Florida State radio station play the song that instantly grabbed me, and also instantly made me think, “boy Jeff Tweedy is ripping this guy off big time.”

(Tweedy appears on “This World, off of Fay’s 2012 record Life is People, and Fay covers Wilco’s “Jesus Don’t Cry” on the same record. Tweedy has also covered a couple other Fay tracks, like “Be Not So Fearful” and “Please Tell My Brothers” in his acoustic shows.)

Ever since then, whenever I need to hear something comforting and gentle, but also full of faith, I turn to Bill thing. I actually even had a friend who, when he did his fifth step in recovery, made sure that he had Fay queued up to play on his drive home from his sponsor’s house.

There are plenty of good tracks, but this is one of my “go-to’s”.

May you be comforted, and remember that “the healing day” is coming sometime for all of us.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DdZzBO_YPJM

What’s In A Number, Anyway?

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“Ohmygosh what number on the Enneagram are you?”

One of my dear friends was messaging me; her ears were burning after listening to one of the hip, podcasts-of-the-moment where the hosts had introduced the concept of “Enneagram,” a really, really ancient way of understanding our personalities and tendencies.

She was illuminated and enlightened (understandably so), and now she was curious to know where I fell on the 9-number “wheel” of the scheme.

“I bet you’re a FIVE,” she declared.

Fortunately, since the enneagram seems to be hot stuff right now, a guy named Ian Morgan Crone had recently written a book that addresses it, and very helpfully developed an online test to recommend a number for everyone. So I went and took the test, and shared my results with her.

I was just getting ready for my annual silence and solitude retreat at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit outside of Atlanta, so on the spur of the moment, I threw my copy of The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective (by Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert) in my bag, thinking, “Maybe I’ll skim this while I’m away.” I’d read probably 60% of the book 2-3 years ago, and while I found it interesting, I got bogged down in the descriptions of each number, and eventually abandoned the book.

After I’d arrived and got settled in at the monastery, I still had a couple hours before Vespers (think, “dinner time prayer”), so I decided to sit down on a patio and do some reading and journaling. Call it intuition or the Holy Spirit, either way I picked up the Rohr book and started reading. I wanted to revisit the history and context of the enneagram before I reviewed my results, so I actually went back to the beginning and started reading.

Before I got to the descriptions, Rohr took me back (as he so often does) with this statement:

“In recent years a series of questionnaires has been drawn up so that people can discover to which Enneagram pattern they belong. Nevertheless, we recommend that readers take another approach first: *it makes sense to begin by reading through all nine descriptions. To some it will immediately be clear where they are ‘at home.’ … A good criteria is the following: if in reading the description of a type I get uneasy or am even humiliated, it could be that I’m on home ground.”

<sigh>

So, even though I had my pattern “in hand”, Rohr recommends that I read the whole book and come to conclusions more “organically.” (Part of this is because, according to the authors, the Enneagram is historically related to the seven capital, or “deadly” sins, so rather than *celebrate* my particular pattern, we are on more solid ground when we soberly look at the brokenness of each particular type first.)

So that’s what I did. The good news is that the type that I was drawn to actually reinforced the online questionnaire that I’d taken.

I was a “Nine”. 

Now, this actually shocked my friend because she was convinced that I was a “Five” (go and look these up for yourself if you’d like), but as I read the descriptions I knew without a doubt that I lacked the intellectual detachment that Fives had. I was a visceral, gut reactor to life (not always for the best), and could only detach myself through discipline and prayer.

But that was just the good news; there was some challenging information as well.

According to Rohr, while Nines are peacemakers and good at accepting other people, we (read: “I”) suffer from some critical deficiencies, or brokenness: we lack courage, we lack focus, we prefer the path of least resistance, it takes a long time for us to identify and name (and therefore own) our feelings, we withdraw.

Am I feeling good about myself yet?

What may have hit me the most was that Nines also have a tendency to be lazy and to avoid conflict.

Without going into too much of the detail, let’s just say that (a) I completely identify with these tendencies, (b) they are actually humiliating.

I’ve taken so many personality profiles: I’m mostly an INFP, my strengths are Contextualization, Indvididualization, Intellection, etc., etc.

This seemed somehow different; it hit me harder, where I’ve been “living” for a few years now.

For instance, because of my natural curiosity, I am fairly persistent about sniffing out the “next thing” theologically and/or spiritually (note: a lot of this is also driven by very personal needs and spiritual ambitions).

To be blunt, I’m typically pretty far ahead of the curve when it comes to spiritual trends, whether it’s liturgy, spiritual disciplines, or mindfulness…

… BUT NO ONE KNOWS ABOUT IT. 

My laziness, apathy, cynicism (“nobody will read this anyway”) and introverted nature all combine to make a stew and a gumbo that produces… at times very little.

Meanwhile, I watch people—some of them my friends—who are decidedly NOT NINES (LOL) write, publish, and broadcast much of the same information that I’d processed sometimes years before. I sit and I watch/listen/read, thinking… “Wow… uh. This is actually old news to me. If someone would just ask me, I could have told everybody this stuff two years ago…”

(typical NINE stuff…)

By the way, honest: This is not about how great I am, or how smart I am.

It’s actually kind of humiliating, and I’m also just trying to be honest.

Part of my spiritual journey means that I’m trying to work on accepting myself, in all my glorious limitations and strengths. Also, let me be clear, when Rohr also writes that “in a certain way NINE represents the original and unspoiled human essence,” I have to acknowledge that it’s not all bad to, well, be me.

But since the Enneagram is related to my brokenness, I need to acknowledge that there are still issues I need to work through. I need to get better at productive, redemptive conflict. I need to learn to give to the world what God is giving me. I need to steward my journey, both for myself and for the world.

It’s about giving, not promoting.

As I was thinking about writing this, I was thinking about some of the most powerful words that people can speak about me. My spirit rises within me (even at 48) when I hear people say about me, “Oh man, you really need to meet Eric Case; if you’re interested in (Subject X), he’s someone you have to know.”

Vanity, I know.

So there you go: I’m a NINE. Prone to laziness, conflict avoidance, and cynicism.

But if you’re exploring spirituality, productivity, creativity, or even the Enneagram, I’ve probably been there, and I *do* want to help.

 

Links:

The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective by Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert on Amazon.com

The Monastery of the Holy Spirit

Enneagram Test (related to Ian Morgan Crone’s book The Road Back to You)

Blogs related to my monastery trip.

 

I Sit

I sit.

It is cold.

I sit.

It is cold and dark.

I sit;

it is cold and dark and quiet.

I pick up two “devotional” books, little nuggets of thoughts to “prime the pump.” Reading the daily thoughts would take about 45 seconds (a bit more, if I’m really tired, for re-reading). Living out the thoughts there would take a lifetime.

But that’s what I’m here for.

I put the two books aside, and take a sip of the still-too-hot coffee.

I check my phone timer, and set it to 20 minutes.

A deep breath, a whispered prayer:

“God, I am here, speak to me.”

Then a slow descent into the silence.

My first thoughts are slowly nudged away, using the imagery of a slow lazy river. I know that if I allow them to drift away, they will leave me. More will follow them, but they, too, will leave if I just release, surrender them to the flow of the river.

My mind is active—I have still-officially-undiagnosed ADD—but I slowly and gently introduce the word that I use to signify my intention and willingness to both myself and to God.

“Grace.”

This gentle back and forth will continue for the next 18 minutes or so: my mind will drift, and I will gently nudge it back by a combination of my will and a surrender to God’s work and presence.

I continue to sit.

Thoughts come: some of them “To Do” items that will wait.

I release them.

Thoughts come: amazing ministry ideas, an angle on a conversation I need to have.

I release them too. I trust that they will either be there waiting for me when the time is over, or that they were not important enough for me to retain in the first place.

Either way, there will be time for them later.

“Grace”.

Redirect my mind back.

I sit.

I wonder how much time have I been sitting?

Out of weakness and a deeply ingrained humanity, I steal a peak at my timer.

I sit some more.

The darkness is spacious, inviting, and eternal.

(Much like God.)

I sink deeper and deeper into this place that requires nothing of me but to be still, to simply, well, be. 

I sit some  more.

Occasionally, I touch something, something that is way beyond my human experience, a wonder and a peace and a grace that is simply overwhelming; it’s amazing how uncomfortable it can be to truly confront the wonder.

I’m thankful that God makes allowances for my human limitations.

But even those transcendent experiences need to be released; I am after something different here. I am after the deep mystery and darkness of God, and so I trade the known for the unknown, the trumpet for the silence, the sight for the blindness.

In other words, I’m seeking pure faith. 

I sit.

The timer goes off on my phone.

(Blessedly).

Who knew 20 minutes could feel so long?

Regardless of my experience in prayer, I thank God. This is an important discipline for me, because one of the central truths of my humanity is that I cannot wholly trust my human experience to evaluate and determine the spiritual “success” of an activity. I simply have no way of knowing what God has truly done in my life; I only trust that He is working.

“Trust in the slow work of God,” indeed.

I rise.

Morning.

I woke up this morning at… well, 3:15.

I tried to go back to sleep, but by 3:45, I realized it was pointless, and I went ahead and woke up. One of my mentors has always maintained that we should assume that when we wake up, God wants us awake and we should respond accordingly.

They probably never saw me as a teenager when my parents tried to wake me up.

God may have wanted me awake, but that didn’t necessarily mean I had to be thrilled about it.

MOST of the time, in fact, I am able to stave off God, and you know what? He actually respects that. It’s as if He’s like a child: He pokes and prods me like a 5 year old on Christmas morning. “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon get up, it’s happening! It’s here!” Except “It” is simply just another day, and not the once-a-year mad festival of gifts.

But the metaphor breaks down, because for me most of the time if I simply ignore him once or twice, he leaves me alone and I go back to sleep. If he was truly a child he’d bug me unceasingly until I woke up and got the coffee brewing. But as a spiritual master once said, “God is a perfect gentleman,” and so when he occasionally whispers, “Psssst. Hey: why don’t you wake up? I have some amazing things to talk to you about!” And I respond with disinterested grunts, and then roll over to squeeze another 45 minutes of time out of my night, he actually says (with really no disappointment, but with an amazing, unending disinterested love, “Okay… Maybe next time!”

That’s pretty much God. Always there. Always wanting to meet with me. Always willing. Never disappointed. Never shaming. Never quilting.

Just wants to know that he wants to meet with me. Pretty much any old time.

And then again, that’s pretty much me. Frumpy. Slightly lazy. REALLY, REALLY into what I’m doing at the moment, rather than looking up from my work (or my pillow) to see this bright-eyed child who just wants to sit with me, who really just wants me to know that, “Hey, I love you.”

An Open Letter+

It started with waking up to an alert on my phone:

“20 Dead in Orlando nightclub shooting.”

(I wake up to WAY too many of these alerts lately, but that’s the price of living in the States these days…)

I do my work on Sundays, trying to connect people with God, sometimes through music, words, or conversations. I plan and listen, situate and discern as best I can.

I get to work pretty early on Sundays—6:30AM if possible—and I usually put everything on “Do Not Disturb” so I can keep my head clear and my world quiet as long as possible before it’s no longer possible.

Sometime before the congregation arrived I checked my phone again, and my spirit darkened even more as I read, “Death toll in Orlando at 49…”

What is a pastor supposed to do in these cases?

I took a deep breath, and then I did the thing that, in retrospect, I now regret.

I went ahead with the plan of the day.

It was not malice, or callousness towards LBGTQ people, that caused me to “stick to the message” that day. I just literally neglected to pull my head up above the mire long enough to think about and *really process* what had happened.

I now regret that.

Maybe it’s just a sort of “numb-ness” to it all. A rather sad conviction that this is the world in which we now live. I don’t know.

But I know I think I should have said something.

And so I write this now. Maybe a day late and a dollar short. Who knows?

But here’s what I want anyone who reads this to know:

Any strain of religion—Christianity, Islam, or Judaism—that preaches hate and de-humanization—is really no religion at all, at least in the purest sense of the word. Religion is meant to pull things together (our souls, our communities), not destroy them. I don’t know whether or not the shooter was ultimately motivated by blind, irrational hatred of life in general, some demons that he sees in the West, or something specific in Gay and Lesbian people, but I do know that his targets that night were specifically gay, lesbian and transgender human beings that night. That makes the “Universe” (and in my world the Abrahamic God that is behind that universe) weep with abject sorrow and even bitterness at what is being done “in His name.”

Don’t bring my God into your violence.

Everyone deserves to have a beer, or to dance, or to worship, in safety.

We all deserve to be in a space where we will not be shot at or yelled at because of our lives. Jesus had this way of holding some pretty intense beliefs about God, *and yet not really getting in anyone’s way who wished to hang around him or his message.*

I am so sorry for this tragedy. I don’t know how much guns are to blame (surely a little?), an undiagnosed mental illness (perhaps?), an unreasonable perversion of faith, blind hatred of a people group?

I don’t know.

I just know it’s wrong.

I’m sorry I didn’t pray for the victims and their families. I’m sorry I didn’t cry out to God more for the brokenness of this world.

For me, I share the perspective of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who writes that only in religion—true, uniting and life-affirming religion—can we ultimately break the cycle of violence and death in our world.

Economics won’t fix it.

Politics won’t fix it.

Science won’t fix it.

Only the best of faith can give what we all want most, at our deepest and most human levels: a deep sense of meaning and the sense that “every thing is going to be alright.”

Nights like last Saturday night challenge that. But I refuse to (a) give into the despair that would toss faith out with the bathwater, or (b) give into cynical hate that demands a strike back, or a cold shoulder.

I guess I’m opting for messiness, and to be honest, I don’t really need any more mess in my life. It’s not like I don’t have enough of that going on already.

But this is reality.

I’ll opt for hope. I’ll try to opt for love and compassion and acceptance.

You see, I really I have no other choice. I’ve signed on to follow this Jesus guy, because, like his disciples told him long ago, “Where else could we go? No one else has the words of life.”

So I’m sorry. I’ll try to do better next time.

Unfortunately for us in the US, I know there most likely will be a next time.

“Stuck Inside a Saturday Rain”

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Did you ever think that the resurrection could have gone down in an entirely different way?

In one sense, we didn’t really need Saturday… Jesus could have given up his spirit, then died, and then bounced back to life immediately. After all, God is not all that bound by time so he’s really capable of doing anything he wants in any timeframe that he wants…

But instead we have all of Friday and all of Saturday…

Which means we have doubt.

It’s simply not good enough or even accurate to maintain that the disciples were just sitting around on a Saturday biding their time until Sunday. The Biblical record would show that they were, well, freaked out. Devastated. Maybe they were left with a shred of hope, but overall what they have witnessed—the betrayal, the arrest, the torture, the beating, the execution—had shaken them to their core.

Saturday in Holy Week is a day of anticipation and hope, but it is also necessarily a day of faith and doubt.

Sometimes I think that Jesus left us with a Saturday (and a Friday for that matter) so that we would know that doubt is not only okay but is actually integral to the life of faith. For my part, while I wish I did not have periods of doubt, and that my faith was rock steady and consistent in the face of whatever life threw at me, I know otherwise.

My vision gets blurry. My hope fades sometimes. My trust waivers.

And all this from a pastor?

But here’s the deal: the disciples doubted. They lost hope, at least temporarily.
Sometimes, we fall into the trap that thinking that faith means never having doubts… we think that to believe means that the sun will always shine, and that will never be confused, and that we will never be afraid, that we will never look to the heavens and ask “why God?”

But that’s not really the definition, is it? There’s a distinction between faith and knowledge, and we are called to one and not so much the other.

(Hint: the answer rhymes with “faith”.)
Though the Gospels fairly consistently show that Jesus responds to radical faith, they also consistently show that he understands our human weakness. Somehow, someway doubt is a part of our legacy. Though we are not called to remain in it perpetually, neither are we called to pretend that it does not exist.
God allows for Saturday. Not just once, but over and over and over again.
Here’s to the doubters; Sunday’s coming.