Shared experiences give meaning

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The historian Will Durant, co-writer of the mammoth "The Story of Civilization" series of books in the mid-20th century, pens the following at the beginning of the sixth volume: "Religion is the last thing the human mind begins to understand."

Today is Super Bowl Sunday. The late Walter Cronkite, the heralded CBS newsman, once said he was amazed so many people got so excited about this championship game of professional football that -- in the end -- "means absolutely nothing."

Well, Uncle Walter owned a yacht. It can be certain that sailing excited him even if football did not. There is no question the Super Bowl has a hold on the national consciousness, if only for a day. One out-of-sorts clergyman (not myself) calls the Super Bowl "the annual national worship service."

The excitement associated with tonight's game is real for many but, and in this I lean toward Durant's sensibility, understanding why is elusive. The Pittsburgh Steelers play tonight in pursuit of the franchise's seventh Super Bowl championship. As a native of western Pennsylvania, no team holds a place in my affections like this one. No other team even comes close. I cannot tell you why this is so. But I will try nonetheless.

Perhaps it is that love of the Steelers is a simple family bond. Talking about the team is an easy source of conversation between my father and my uncle and myself. None of the usual cautions applies. We can say whatever we want about the team, no matter how outrageous or ill-sourced, because -- Cronkite is right -- ultimately it means nothing. My life won't change one iota beyond a momentary feeling of pleasure if, when time runs out, my team happens to prevail. It is only when things are important and existentially meaningful that we watch our words and tiptoe around the feelings of others.

You will tell me that sports build character and show young people what it means to work alongside others for a common purpose. That is true for the participants, certainly; however, there is no such effect in place for the fan. Whether they win or lose, I'll still have to pay all my bills, will still have to lose weight and will still need to show up for work. I don't know any of the players and almost certainly never will. The most highly compensated of the players will earn more in a single season than I will in a lifetime. That's OK; the economics of it are plain and reasonable. Yet it is hard to comprehend why the team's fortunes matter to yours truly. Will Durant is on to something.

A true fan is one who loves in victory and defeat. A true fan, to use the Hebrew word, practices "hesed" (steadfast love) regardless of the team's performance and the foibles of players and owners. When you give yourself unconditionally to something beyond yourself, when you joyfully enter in to an experience you can share with others -- as true fans do -- then you are not all that far from the kingdom.

A true fan, one who is steadfast regardless of the performance of the players or the outcome of the contest, is not all that far from Christ Jesus. Jesus was a true fan of us, despite our well-documented foibles and repeated shows of apathy, and he went to the cross for people he'd never met.

I'll be glued to the set at around 5:30 p.m., a true fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers, yet cognizant that someone else was a true fan of mine (and yours) long before. Enjoy the game.

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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