The Beautiful Game

The Euros have given me a lot of pleasure these past weeks; it’s been good for us to be inspired again by watching football played well. I love the skill of a passing game when players know each other’s strengths and play as a team, discerning the path of the ball and keeping possession. I get excited when there’s a sudden burst of dynamic dribbling down the wing, past defenders, then an accurate cross to the anticipating striker who with a first touch scores – GOAL!

Turkey, a team I support, played poorly in the Euros and were put out early. With several quality clubs back home, it was strange to see them appear unfit, panting in the heat. Scotland played really well against England- sad they didn’t progress further.

No team wants their fate decided by penalties. Watching the final shoot out between England and Italy was excruciating. Great to see Gareth Southgate consoling and comforting the young players who missed. Holding their faces in his hands, looking them in the eye, he tried to cover their shame by taking responsibility himself.  

The Ugly Side

I hate to see flagrant fouling on the pitch, the dives and feigned injuries, but the supporters’ behaviour can be worse – really ugly. There was booing of the national anthems, that wicked laser attempt to dazzle the Danish goalkeeper in the semi-final, and the fights that broke out on Sunday when fans without tickets rushed the gates of Wembley stadium. The litter and wasteful disrespect for property and a complete flouting of COVID-19 restrictions during the Euros have meant massive clean up operations in many cities.

After all the hype and ‘coming home’ rhetoric surrounding the Euro final, fuelled by media obsession, the trough of despair for England fans was inevitable. We are rightly horrified by the ugliness of the racist abuse directed at the three young black men who missed England’s penalties.

Racist? Surely not me, Lord

It was thirty years ago that God cornered me and put his finger on racism in my own heart. I was shocked and would never have recognised it had I not been living abroad. In Turkey I was part of a delightful international community, and my friends often drew attention to what they considered my rampant nationalism. I continually argued Scotland’s case, giving geography lessons to those who thought we were a part of England, history lessons to those who confused English with British, never missing the opportunity to put people right over all manner of cultural issues. It was confusing for me to be accused of nationalism; I knew I was pretty tame compared to friends at home!

I was actually in Kazakhstan taking communion with a group from many nations, east and west, north and south, when it happened. The leader invited us to take ‘the cup’ and share it with someone from another country and pray together. Immediately I knew what I must do. I found Sue – the only English person there. There was something ugly inside me – a stereotyping of the English as arrogant, and a despising of them that seemed to be inherent to my Scottish culture. I wanted to be rid of the defensiveness – the felt need to battle for Scottish recognition.

As I brought my sinful attitudes to Christ’s death on the cross and prayed together with Sue, I felt a shift inside me. It’s hard to describe, but I knew something ugly had left. There was a new liberty in my heart. I was free to celebrate my Scottishness without an angry negative edge. This apparent small step of obedience proved to be a gateway for me to more effective intercultural ministry across the globe!

Taking the Knee

If we can’t love our neighbours with whom we have much in common, we are fooling ourselves to think our hearts are free from racism towards those less like us. The post match racist abuse on social media is blatant, but much prejudice remains as an unconscious bias until it is brought to our attention.  And yet, it’s only together with believers from all nations that we can fully understand the extent of God’s love. It’s to this end that the Apostle Paul ‘takes the knee’. He says he kneels before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that we might have strength and wisdom to comprehend this love and be filled with the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:14-20).

So, let’s kneel before Christ who is able to do much more than we can ask or think, and allow him to root out prejudice and malice whenever it rears its ugly head. Let’s rejoice over our neighbours’ victories and weep with them in defeat. And let’s enjoy the beautiful game.

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