Day 27: And the System has not Comprehended

The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it.

-John 1:5

There are people who say that soccer is a religion, and it meets my first litmus test of religion: when the question is asked, “Has it caused more harm than good?” there are compelling arguments on both sides, and neither is a clear winner. Religion is a blunt force that exposes the angels of our better natures as well as the devil inside each of us. 

I don’t believe, however, that soccer is a religion (although I believe some people practice it that way). Soccer is, first and foremost, a language. It creates lineage and connection between strangers; allows us to ask and receive answers; opens a dialogue; offers a way to communicate.  No sooner do I begin to speak this language than Audre Lorde’s words come to me, “These are the master’s tools, but I need them to speak to you.” 

We cannot play the beautiful game without the master’s tools. When I began this project of writing Advent devotionals from the beginning of the World Cup to Christmas Eve, I hoped to learn how to live faithfully within massive systems of injustice. How to dismantle the system and dream new dreams and avoid hypocrisy and be good. The World Cup didn’t teach me this, but a lifetime of following Jesus has left me still learning, too. 

Traditionally, John 1:5 is translated “the darkness has not overcome [the light].” However, the Greek work for overcome, katalambano, more commonly meant something like, “to lay hold of with the mind; to understand, perceive, learn, comprehend.” Some translations read, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not comprehended it.” 

We take the master’s tools and we use them in ways that the system does not comprehend. As the poet Wendell Berry wrote, “As soon as the generals and the politicos can predict the motions of your mind, lose it.” This line can feel reductionist, but as Berry goes on, he points us to the gospel Jesus taught us: “Do something every day that won’t compute…. Ask the questions that have no answers. Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.” Play the beautiful game for the sake of play. Clown on the empire where you can. Invert the rituals that idolize the powerful. 

Wendell Berry, Kylian Mbappe, the Iranian national football team, Stephanie Frappart, Tyler Adams, Walter Wink, Walid Regragui, Megan Rapinoe, Audre Lorde… these saints remind us that these are the master’s tools, but we can use them for liberation, for salvation, for love. This is what Jesus teaches us, too. 

It takes more than repurposing the system’s tools to save ourselves. It also takes grace, love, and divine intervention. We cannot resolve the paradox of faithful living under empire, not in a lifetime. But we can shine in a way that the system does not comprehend. As we celebrate this new birth, we celebrate the child who, as much as anything, taught us to be incomprehensible, creative, loving, playful creatures. The light shines in the darkness, and the beautiful game continues.

Thanks for joining me on this journey of faith and football.

Day 26: After the Hype

The Spirit of the Sovereign God is on me
because God has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
God has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners.

-Isaiah 61:1-2

Today I am thinking about Joseph. Not the faux-father of Jesus; I’m thinking about Joseph of Arimathea. He’s not part of the Advent story. When Jesus is born, Joseph probably a 23-year-old techno-optimist working at Amazon who every now and then buys a bottle of good wine for his working class friends. Joseph of Arimathea is the ultimate “nice white ally.” 

Throughout the Bible runs a thread that asks the question, “Can a rich person truly be faithful?” Joseph of Arimathea is part of this thread; so is Job; so is King David. 

The Bible asks without offering a satisfactory answer. Sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes no. Joseph of Arimathea evolves, over the course of Jesus’ ministry. He provides the tomb in which Jesus is buried and the embalming spices. This can be read as a gesture of allyship or hypocrisy–how kind to turn up and help after the worst has already happened. 

Joseph isn’t exactly an Advent story, but he is tangled up in the same system. 

Now that the World Cup is over, I ask myself: Was it worth it? Did I stunt my moral development? Did I self-flagellate and moralize enough to justify enjoying the event? 

Asking if we have justified our moral existence is rarely helpful. If we answer “no,” there is paralysis; if we answer “yes,” there is self-satisfaction. I still find my earlier rationales convincing, that there is no moral purity in the First World extracting itself from one link in the global supply chain, and that we can shame FIFA into acts of human decency.

Maybe I will look back and judge my participation in the 2022 World Cup to be a moral failing; I reserve the right to do so, and hope I will be humble enough to take the possibility seriously. Condemnation, however, is not constructive. There are no easy wins in the global supply chain.

God’s call has not changed. To do justice, love mercy, preach good news to the poor, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim freedom to the captives. When he grows up, Jesus will announce his ministry by quoting these words from Isaiah 61. Isaiah and Jesus speak these words, inviting us to join them. The Spirit of God is upon us, too, to carry on this work. However you engaged the 2022 World Cup, this is what you are called to do now.

How will you preach good news to the poor and bind up the brokenhearted now? (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Day 24: What if There is Justice in the World?

The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

-Luke 2:20

All good parties end and the guests disperse. Players and journalists and dignitaries filter out of Qatar as quickly as they arrived. The shepherds leave Bethlehem, having encountered God, and they go on their way, back to the poop-covered fields and grimy, oily-furred sheep. 

The shepherds cannot stop talking about what they witnessed. This retelling of what’s been heard and seen can be exhausting for outsiders. Let me tell you something you won’t understand, because I don’t entirely understand it myself, but it has changed my life. This is part of the ritual of remembering, of sense-making. Long-time soccer fans love to recount the games that changed them, where they were when certain games took place. This final is a story we will retell strangers to explain who we are, where we were, why it mattered. The same thing the shepherds did to explain themselves, their joy, their awe.

I wonder if all the shepherds’ friends got annoyed at them for rehashing so much delight. I wonder how long the shepherds held onto that exquisite memory, if it remained shiny and special forever or if they had to work to recapture the magic of the moment.

 It is hard to go back to the ordinary after having witnessed magic. The shepherds return to their fields praising God, holding onto the memories.

Perhaps what is most stunning about this World Cup for soccer fans is that it was a fairy tale to watch Argentina win. Soccer fans are not used to receiving justice, in a sport where most scores turn on a single point, where the best team frequently fails to win. It seemed impossible that Messi could claim the trophy precisely because he’d failed to claim it–because the sport is cruel and capricious and we watch it in order to remind ourselves that life is unfair and justice is elusive and we are helpless against the indomitable force of FIFA and economic systems.

Until we aren’t. 

The shepherds, who roamed the hillsides raising the wool to clothe the Roman Empire, were not used to living in a just world, either. Having some small shred of evidence that perhaps the world is just and the good are rewarded and salvation will work itself out in our lifetimes–it’s revolutionary.

Of course, the shepherds will witness more injustice in their lifetimes. But they’ll hold onto this, perhaps the aged shepherds will be in the crowd when Jesus feeds the 5,000 decades later. Perhaps the shepherds will fall into ballooning debt and when someone takes their cloak they will hand over their shirt, too. Because they have glimpsed justice in the world, and so they fight for justice. 

A long-eared sheep with a bell around its neck gazes steadily, pensively into the camera.
Perhaps even a lowly sheep can bring more justice to the world.

Day 23: God Hates Scale (Kind Of)

On coming to the house, the Magi saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

-Matthew 2:11-12

The 2022 World Cup is built on a paradox: Global club football consolidates wealth in traditional white European powerhouses and is bad for the game, but global club football allows players to access merit-based playfields and build allyship relationships across countries and is good for solidarity and building coalitions of justice which, we hope, will one day tear down FIFA itself.

This paradox spins me in circles, like the Wise Men tracing a finicky star.

The Wise Men are in some ways throw-away characters, independently wealthy foreigners who dip into the plot just to ratchet up King Herod’s evil and highlight king Jesus’ omnipotence. And then they drop out of existence just in time to miss a massacre which, arguably, they caused. What the hell? Where is the moral? 

The Wise Men’s disappearance preserves the life of God Incarnate, but also causes a cascade of events that ends in the death of dozens (hundreds?) of Bethlehem’s baby boys. Were the Wise Men in the right? How do we reconcile the consequences? 

We live in a culture obsessed with doing everything “to scale”; this is what drives FIFA’s bull-headed move to expand the tournament in 2026. 

The more I read the Advent story this year, the more I hear Jesus’ birth as an argument against scale. Our ability to scale is so mismatched with our ability to perceive consequences. King Herod responds to the Wise Men by murdering baby boys at scale; Jesus does, eventually, bring down the Roman Empire and Herod’s kingdom, but only generations after Herod dies and Jesus dies, is buried, and resurrected. 

By whose hand does God’s kingdom arrive? In the Advent story, one faithful person’s choice cannot be disentangled from the other. There is no scale in Gospels, just a butterfly effect of justice arriving. 

It’s not that God hates scale; it’s that God does not ask us to scale. The Wise Men, in theory, have the power and resources to fund Jesus’ ministry from birth to untimely death. They could scale this story in another direction. But they do not stick around for Jesus’ life. 

They do their best to identify the right action, and are doubtless astounded by how the future spools out of their one decision to return by another road. It isn’t our job to scale; it is our job to do the next right thing. This is not a satisfying resolution to the paradox, but it is a faithful one.

Adoration of the Magi, by Andrew Walker (1959).

Day 23: Football, Our Embodied Salvation

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no room at the inn.

-Luke 2:7

Early in this series, I described football as an extension of my church community, the one place where we could explore and practice an embodied theology. The stunning ups and downs of yesterday’s final was a fine metaphor for a spiritual journey (if you’re an Argentina fan), but what I find myself holding onto is a new relationship with salvation. Let’s be clear: Messi is not a messiah and he has not worked out our salvation, but watching his total redemption changed the way I understand my own salvation.

Call me a cynic, but I was not expecting yesterday to see the greatest World Cup final of my lifetime. That’s what we got. As I wrote yesterday, I would not describe the game itself as a “joyful watching experience”–but contrary to my expectations, my joy was made complete at the conclusion, and I have never watched as much of a World Cup awards ceremony as I did yesterday.

It’s right there in Luke 2: Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth. The Western Christian church likes to think of salvation as something that happens exclusively to the soul, leaving the body behind among the broken things of this fallen world. Yet the Advent story makes it clear: salvation is complete, body and soul. Mary’s salvation–our collective salvation–comes through the chaotic, dirty workings of the body. There is no clearer way to include bodies in salvation than for God to incarnate into a body, and yet the Western church continues to argue that salvation is for souls only.

Watching Messi’s stunned face on the field, the sheer number of people he hugged (like a baptism), his physical collapse after Montiel’s game-winning penalty–it reminded me that God’s salvation is for the body and soul. Our salvation is worked out in our bodies, and is an embodied, fleshy experience.

We’re just a few short days from Christmas, and I’ll continue posting these daily reflections through Christmas Eve, as we make sense of what we have witnessed, what it means for us, and what we are called to because of Christ’s great love, which arrives even through the convoluted, corrupt structures of church and football.

The Adoration of the Shepherds, by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, is like many Western paintings of the nativity, in that everyone is suspiciously clean and put together. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Day 22: Overjoyed or Over It?

After the Magi had heard King Herod, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.

-Matthew 2:9-10

Confession: I am not expecting to enjoy the World Cup final. I am planning to watch it, but I expect to gain very little joy from it, because I watch with all the tension and expectation of someone who has assigned enormous significance to a moment that is unlikely to rise to the occasion. In my own metaphors, I’ve equated Lionel Messi to every people-pleasing overworked and underappreciated Millennial pastor and I want for him a victory because that, in its own way, feels like a “fuck you” to the broken system. If he loses, I will be very sad. If he wins, I will feel the creeping sensation that haunts every perfectionist after a victory: that it is never enough. This is probably not rational, but we passed the threshold for rationality a long time ago.

While finals are supposed to be the exciting culmination of a tournament, they are often injury-ridden and conservative games. Most finals are not that fun to watch. This is perhaps the hallmark of sports fandom, to submit yourself to a game that is unlikely to make you happy yet unthinkable to miss.

Christmas can be the same way. With all the expectation and anticipation, the day itself can feel like a tense spring of waiting for everything to unfold as perfectly as you’d imagined. We place such a big burden on these culminating moments. 

I envy the Magi their genuine, childlike joy when they see the star stopped over the place where the child was (probably not the stable, although it’s romantic to imagine so). Many adults struggle to find that kind of authentic, awe-inspiring joy in the Christmas holiday. The mysteries pile up over the years and turn into a to-do list of family and presents and bathroom cleanings. I am the sort of person that loves the holiday season and finds the holiday itself tedious. 

It is possible that a final is best experienced in the past or future tense, when we have the optimism to love it and/or the reality to make sense of it.  I take joy from anticipating it and I take meaning from remembering it, but in the moment, I am stressed and concerned. The joy arrives, but the joy is easiest to access in a different tense.

When you watch the final today, you don’t have to be like the Magi. You don’t have to be overjoyed. Let time work the joy into the moment. Find the holiday joy in the tense you can, whether that is past, present, or future.

A dozen players from the French national team smiling and surrounding Olivier Giroud, who holds the World Cup trophy, as gold confetti rains down.
In 2018, France celebrated like it was Christmas in July after winning; this year, they hope to make it Christmas in December.

Day 20: But the Final is on a Sunday

All men are like grass
and their glory is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall
because the breath of God
blows on them.

-Isaiah 40:6-7 (gender exclusivity preserved for irony)

After a social media argument in which I wrote a small theological treatise encouraging pastors to watch the World Cup instead of going to church, on Sunday I took a deep breath and wondered if I’d taken this metaphor a little too far. Does the World Cup really have theological significance I have assigned it? Should I, as an ordained, retired pastor in Mennonite Church USA, take the dignity of my office just a little more seriously? 

My goal, in each of these posts, has been to collapse time and story: to put us more fully in the biblical story by putting us more fully in the present moment. For many people, the Bible is so distant that it is best understood through a mediating metaphor. That can be football or the Chronicles of Narnia or the Marvel cinematic universe. A mediating metaphor collapses the distance between our story and Jesus’ story. The World Cup is part of a healthy theological imagination. It’s what theologians call the hermeneutical bridge.

If the FIFA World Cup took place on the fourth Sunday of Advent every year, I would be singing a different song (well, I’d still be singing the Magnificat, I’d just be singing in a different place). But the World Cup just once in our lifetimes is being played on the fourth Sunday of Advent, and two or three billion humans will watch it. It is literally the most human thing you can do this year, beyond universal biological functions. And all humans are like grass; their glory withers and the flowers fall and most poetry doesn’t translate.

Metaphor won’t yield rich theology on its own. Exegesis, historical study, and other tools also matter. 

But the ancient flowers have withered, and so we search for the flowers that bloom in the present moment. Mediating metaphors. Things that collapse the distance between ourselves and the biblical story, that allow us to encounter King Herod and Zechariah and Mary in our daily lives, as much people we know as celebrities or social media influencers. The Bible matters to our life to the degree we understand the people to be full, moral characters whose choices are like our own.

Not everyone should skip church for the World Cup. It’s not a particularly moral choice, nor an educational one. It is, simply, a choice of meaning-making and metaphor. Those for whom soccer is a mediating metaphor will find the story of Christ within the story of this game. If the World Cup is something that has significance for you, it will have theological significance. If the World Cup is not something that has significance for you, may you find theological significance in your deeply held passions and practices.

This is not a hermeneutical bridge, this is just a bridge where things look different on one side than the other, but no matter which side you stand on you are in the same place, on the same bridge.

Day 19: Loved with an Everlasting Love

“At that time,” says the God Almighty, “I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people.

“I have loved you with an everlasting love;
    therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.”

-Jeremiah 31:1, 3

If you’re a certain type of soccer fan reading this Advent series, you have one question: When is she going to talk about Mbappe?

Let’s talk about Kylian Mbappe. I don’t mean the endurance to weave the ball through three Moroccan defenders as a metaphor for God accompanying you through the Valley of the Shadow of Death (although you can take that if you want, it’s free). I mean the player who pulled a Hunger Games-esque move and, after playing and winning a brilliant game, exposed the farce of the rules of play. Mbappe is like Jesus: they both understand how to use a t-shirt for ironic effect.

In Matthew 5, Jesus advised that when someone asks for your cloak, you should give them your shirt. Yesterday, Mbappe celebrated his nation’s win by pulling off his shirt and putting on the shirt of his opponent and club teammate Achraf Hakimi. There is an irony in both stories, a deliberate construal of tradition to expose the hypocrisy of the system.

Jesus knew that the only person who would ask for your cloak was a debt collector, and only if you had no money and no other asset to your name. However, to add your shirt to the exchange was a cultural taboo–because in Ancient Near Eastern culture, to see someone’s nakedness was a shame to the viewer, not to the naked person. Jesus repurposed a cultural shame of bodies into a shame of exploitative lending practices. Thelogian Walter Wink called this Jesus’ “sponsored clowning.”

Mbappe sponsored clowning when he took the soccer tradition of swapping shirts with opposing players and used it to undermine our concepts of nationalism and team loyalty. As soon as he made the swap, he tugged the smaller man’s red shirt over his torso and ran to join his teammates at the goal line to rejoice with the fans. He took his teammate’s hand and did his job: he celebrated. But with a dash of irony: one red shirt among France’s navy blue, a Frenchman of Cameroonian and Algerian descent in a Moroccan shirt, as if to say isn’t this a silly way to make teams? As if to say we don’t play against each other, we play against FIFA. As if to say, they could have as easily been here. As if to say, our win is in how we treat those who lose. As if to say, I have loved you with an everlasting love.

Kylian Mbappe with both hands raised in fists of joy, smiling wide and wearing a half-pulled on red Moroccan jersey that says Hakimi.
At least a tiny bit of his joy is from thinking about Gianni Infantino resigning in disgrace.

Day 18: If a Census Should be Taken

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register.

-Luke 2:1-3

If FIFA was some kind of Caesar Augustus that required players to travel to the country of their birth for a census, 59 players would travel to France, representing 10 countries. FIFA has complicated rules for national team eligibility. Players have long represented countries they were not born in; but as soccer benefits from the twin forces of legalized child trafficking through youth academies and global migration (especially between former colonies and their colonizers), questions of nationality become increasingly complicated. This maze of qualification results in scenarios like brothers Inaki and Nico Williams playing for two different countries, Ghana and Spain, respectively.

FIFA also has a somewhat unique definition for “country,” counting Scotland, Palestine, and Puerto Rico, among the nations eligible to play at the World Cup (should they qualify). Under FIFA’s rules, not only would Judea be a nation, the tiny semi-autonomous kingdom nominally ruled by Herod, so would Rome, Galicia, Corinth, and practically all of Paul’s geo-nomously titled letters. The mind is boggled.

To complicate matters further, once a player chooses–as an adult–to represent a country, it is incredibly difficult to switch allegiances. Part of the intrigue of the World Cup is the way players navigate national identities. The angst of Lionel Messi’s career is the accusation that he is more Spanish than Argentinian. Timothy Weah plays for the United States, but his father played for Liberia. Former French team captain Patrice Evra described sending the French and Algerian flags to current (out on injury) French player Karim Benzema, because you are always loving both, even if FIFA will only ever recognize you as belonging to one nation. 

Under FIFA’s rules, Jesus the son of Mary would be eligible to play for Judea (his mother’s  country), Egypt (where he lived as a child), and the Roman Empire (although he would not qualify for Roman citizenship because Rome was racist and practiced ethnicity-based discrimination). Is there theological significance to Jesus’ FIFA eligibility? 

Depends how you define “significance.” Surely God Incarnate could have simplified God’s national identity if God wanted to. God could have shoehorned Jesus’ birth under King David and been God Incarnate of a simple geo-religious-ethnic identity. 

Viewing Jesus’ identity through the lens of FIFA eligibility recontextualizes the geography of the Bible and recontextualizes contemporary conversations about race, migration, and identity. It binds together past and present, exposing the way national identities across colonial relationships ensnare and liberate, how oppressors and oppressed are bound together in inextricable ways, in the present and the ancient past. God’s kingdom makes space for the multiplicity of identity, and requires no declaration of single national allegiance.

Johannes Kepler's 1627 map of the work.
While Johannes Kepler did create this map, his FIFA eligibility remains unclear.

Day 17: Comfort, Comfort, O My Fourth Best Team in the World

Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from God’s hand
double for all her sins.

-Isaiah 40:1-2

What is true today is that by 4pm Eastern Standard Time–4:50pm at the latest–one nation will be elated and one will be in tears. 

We love this game because there is a loser. And we care about the loser because they are sad, because grown men cry, because after carrying the entire tournament in their bodies, it collapses upon them. US soccer star Megan Rapinoe describes professional football as an extension of the entertainment industry, and it is true, we are entertained by this sadness. Sometimes we revel in it; sometimes we are crushed by it. If the loser shrugged and hugged the winner and said, “well, it’s just a game, I’m still in the top 10% of global earners, how bad can my life be?” we would be disappointed.

Because we live in a culture that hushes sadness behind closed doors, there is something cathartic in the way the cameras pan across the high-definition tears of the losers. Football is a container for feeling the full range of human emotions, publicly, without judgment. 

Comfort, comfort. When England lost to France after Harry Kane missed his second penalty kick, there was plenty of derision directed at Harry Kane. But there was also a rush to comfort: of course it wasn’t Kane’s fault, we all would have picked him to take the penalty.

When Marquinos’ shot bounced off the post and collapsed Brazil’s hope for a World Cup run, it was crushing. How painful to have the post–not even the goalkeeper, the post!–have the final word on your hopes. A shoot out can make any team sympathetic. 

The World Cup allows us to practice grief and to practice comfort. 99% of competitors end up losers. Comfort, comfort. The beauty of this passage is that the prophet calls us not to deny pain, but accompany it. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem”–honor the sorrow of this moment. This is the end of the hard service, the beginning of transformation. Not the erasure of sorrow, but the long, slow transformation of it, even it takes from Isaiah all the way Luke, almost a quarter of the Bible. Comfort, comfort. We’ve got four long years just for comforting.

A photo of Harry Kane on the sub bench, mouth slightly open, eyes wide, as if something very concerning is happening in front of him.
Don’t you feel a little bad for the guy? Just a little? (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)