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 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 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 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 16: Because of Tender Mercy

And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before God to prepare a way,
to give God’s people the knowledge of salvation
through forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.

-Luke 1:76-79

Zechariah can sing. His song barely registers in our memories, outshined by Mary’s awe-inspiring Magnificat. But when he finally gets his voice back and sings to his baby John, he knows how to sing. 

If Zechariah is the guy who you don’t like to watch and you never want to play with, it’s not because of his lack of skill. He’s a skilled player. He just makes the wrong decisions in the clutch. And he happens to be on the field with Mary the Mother of God, who’s sort of a Marta figure. She’s just the best. It’s hard to watch anyone else when Mary is in the story. Sometimes, what makes a character forgettable is that they stand next to the greatest who ever did it. 

While Mary sings for her own, brilliant victory, Zechariah sings for his son. It’s a strange hope for his child: to teach the people about salvation and prepare a way for God. Perhaps he regrets this when John takes up the locust-eating lifestyle. 

Zechariah also speaks of the mercy of God. Having recently spent 9+ months unable to speak because of his unkindness to an angel, perhaps Zechariah is acutely aware of God’s mercy. The rising sun that shines on those living in darkness and the shadow of death is close to his heart. Or perhaps the shadow of death is particularly visible now that he is a parent. Zechariah is in awe, and he knows how to sing.

I’m usually cynical of the players who make religious gestures before they step on the field. It seems like a crude reduction of faith to God-is-on-my-side-ism. But there is also something admirable about the players who invoke God, who contextualize their work within their pursuit of a faithful life. Do you, in your ordinary life, offer a prayer before beginning your work day? There’s something more than triumphalism in this small act–God accompanies the player onto the field, not to win or to lose or to prove righteousness, but to guide their feet in the path of peace, regardless of the result of the game.

A busy birthing scene from a medieval painting, with women hovering around the mother and child, angels singing above, and Zechariah's beard and shoulders just visible on the right side of the frame.
In Jacopo Tintoretto’s 1563 painting The Birth of St. John the Baptist, Zechariah is struggling to even get half his body included in the painting.

Day 15: Morocco, Magnificat, Caveat

God has shown strength with an outstretched arm;
God has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
 The Creator has brought down the powerful from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.

-Luke 1:52-54 (edited for inclusive pronouns)

Apparently the Mother of God is a fan of the Moroccan football team. Yesterday, Morocco celebrated their first trip to a World Cup semifinal, the first African nation and the first Arab nation to reach a World Cup semifinal. The lowly are lifted up. Our souls are filled with joy.

Podcast host and actor Brendan Hunt recently observed that the greatest predictor of whether a team reaches semifinals is whether they have been to a semifinal before. The last time a team reached the semifinals that had never been to a semifinal before was in the year 2002, two-thirds of Jesus’ lifetime ago. In that tournament, South Korea and Turkey both advanced and played a stunning third place game that was a formative moment in the summer before high school (coincidentally, the same summer I was called to be a pastor). The World Cup is stacked in favor of the winners, down to the design of the draw spreading out the top 7 teams during the group stage.

A happy Moroccan woman with a green star on her right cheek, wearing a green hijab and red top, lifting 2 fingers as she grins at the camera.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

 Notably, Morocco is the team with the greatest number of players born outside the country they represent, with more than half born outside its borders. This includes the great penguin dancer Achraf Hakimi, born in Madrid to Moroccan parents, trained in the youth academy at Real Madrid, and now playing for PSG. Over half the Moroccan team plays in Europe. Morocco’s success is inextricable from the greed of the Eurocentric neocapitalist sports entertainment industry. As Michael Moore said in the 2005 film Bowling for Columbine, “they’ll sell you the rope to hang themselves if they think they’ll make a buck on it.” The European club soccer empire has hung themselves and made a buck on it. 

Most likely, the empire will rise to rule us again. But for now, we glimpse an upside down world in which this tournament really, truly, is for everyone. It is the whole world’s game.

We love the image of the powerful brought down from their thrones–not only because we have never seen Cristiano Ronaldo’s features in exactly that expression, but because the loss of the powerful is inextricable, in Mary’s song, from care for the marginalized. Excess is erased and sufficiency abounds. 

Morocco’s win reignites the hope that we can transform that Babylon of governance, FIFA. It also gives us hope, at least symbolically, that FIFA may yet be pressured to compensate the families of workers who died to create this tournament and its idolatrous temples. 

The underdog’s win feels so good because it is as Mary said. We don’t tear down the powerful from their thrones for the sake of tearing them down, but because it is a prerequisite for filling the hungry with good things, for restoring the most basic of dignities to the most marginalized of communities. May it be so.

A crowd of about 60 Moroccan football fans standing shoulder to shoulder in rows, in what appears to be stadium seating. All the fans are standing, and one row holds a set of gold, inflatable letters that read MOROCCO.
Moroccan fans in 2018 now have even more reason to celebrate (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons).

Day 14: Don’t Question Angels

The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”

-Luke 1:19-20


My eyes were already back on the TV as I hit send, and the reply was almost instant: “That’s exactly what I just yelled at my TV.”

In most moments in soccer, it is better to be unselfish, to make the good pass, to find the person with the best angle to move toward the goal. There are 11 players on the team and so, it stands to reason, being selfish is a bad idea most of the time (even if, I would argue, you are a superstar, hello Messi with the assist to Molina). There are moments to be unselfish. But there are also moments when you are handed a gift and you say, “thank you very much” and drive it into the back of the net. 

I won’t name names (DePaul), but Argentina had at least one of these moments in their nail-biting penalty kick victory over the Dutch yesterday. When someone hands you a gift, say “thank you very much” and drive it into the back of the net.

Zechariah does not get much credit in the advent story–probably because he spends almost a year unable to speak–but he has a weirdly long and detailed story. Zechariah appears in this highly descriptive encounter with the angel Gabriel, again at the birth of John the Baptist, and following the birth, he has a whole praise song, a sort of reprise of Mary’s Magnificat in a masculine voice. Joseph–the presumed father of Jesus–doesn’t get his own song. Zechariah spends plenty of playing time, but we remember him as an early sub who barely makes an impact on the play.

What makes Zechariah forgettable is that he is the guy who is handed a gift and takes one too many touches. He questions whether this is too easy, he looks for the pass when he has a wide open goal, he misses his moment. We’ve all been there, turning an easy yes into an over-digested “who, me?” Sometimes, good news is just good news.

I don’t really believe in the soccer gods, but I do believe in divine gifts. When someone hands you the thing you always wanted and makes it look easy in a way that belies the decades you worked for it and makes you question everything you ever believed–shoot the damn ball. Don’t ask why the goal is wide open now. Don’t question divine gifts. 

Accept the gift, and let the moment be divine and incomprehensible and everything you dreamed.

William Blake’s 1799 painting The Angel Appearing to Zacharias. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Day 13: Stumped by a Stump

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of power
the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD—
and he will delight in the fear of the LORD.

-Isaiah 11:1-3

Sometimes, I wonder what is even the point of it all. Sometimes is today. I am in a sour mood as I am sick, away from home, and irrationally worried about my underdog teams losing in the quarterfinals ( as much as you can consider the usual stacked powers underdogs). I’m exhausted and unable to see the people I came to see, and on top of that, I’ve submitted my moods to what happens in 90 minutes between men I don’t know from countries I’ve never lived in.

I am not in the mood for Advent hope. Which is perhaps the best pathway into Advent hope: hope against hope. A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse. It is December and I live in Michigan, so I’ve forgotten what a shoot even looks like. I am stumped by this new vision of the stump.

In 2018, the World Cup led me to a new group of soccer players and I began to play regularly for the first time in more than a decade. That shift led me to the theological conviction that the most beautiful form of the beautiful games is what exists on unmarked fields among neighborhood players. We praise the elite players and admire their skills, but what they do is the airbrushed version of what belongs to the ordinary and the marginalized.

A shoot will come up from the stump. The thing I am waiting for will not meet me on Dec. 18 at 10:00am Eastern. I will catch a tiny glimpse of it when I return home to my familiar field and our last pick up games of the year on a near-frozen field. But that is not it, either. The hope I am seeking is a tiny shoot, is just beginning to grow in my life in ways that will terrify and save me. Because salvation is terrifying.

The frustrating thing about hope is that it doesn’t leave a lot of room for wallowing. I’d like to be sick and wallow and sulk. But the beautiful game is about to begin–somewhere, not yet, but eventually. I am committed to a God who is working all things for good and so, begrudgingly, I hope.

A shoot comes forth from regular, ordinary dirt.