Glory and the heart of God

Alan Bean dreams of glory

In 1963 (about the year my father snapped this picture) Canada entered a long period of decline as a hockey power.  You can’t appreciate the chauvinistic excesses on display in Vancouver yesterday unless you grew up playing hockey on a frozen backyard rink.  The picture was taken in Yellowknife in the Canadian Northwest Territories.  It’s twenty below zero, my toes have turned to ice, snot is running down my face, the wind is in my teeth, and I’m in heaven.  Like I say, you had to be there. 

In 1963, I was listening to radio (we didn’t have television in Yellowknife) when the Trail Smoke Eaters lost to the Soviet Union.  Canada used to send real amateurs to international hockey competitions and the Soviets were virtual professionals who played for the Red Army. 

It wasn’t supposed to happen.  Hockey was our game, it defined us.  We weren’t just a sparsely populated British colony or a mouse sleeping next to the American elephant (as Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once described our national plight); we were the greatest hockey players on earth.  We invented the game and we owned it.

I cried when the Smoke Eaters went down to defeat.  I cried because the kid in the picture is lost in fantasy.  It’s game 7 of the Stanley Cup final or the gold medal game at the Olympics and Bean breaks in on goal.  He shoots . . . he scores (as Foster Hewitt, the voice of Hockey Night in Canada, used to say).  And when Canada (or the Maple Leafs) won the big game, every Canadian kid who ever laced up a pair of skates imagined himself right there in the mad scrum with all the toothless heroes.  When Canadian teams started losing in international competition it was a blow to our national psyche.

Sidney Crosby exults

Then Sidney Crosby took a poke pass and fired the puck into the net to give Canada an overtime victory over the United States.  Every true Canadian shared his elation.  Hockey was our game again.  We had our identity back.

I watched the game yesterday with my sons, Adam and Amos.  They were both born in Canada but grew up in the United States.  Like every good Canadian, I was behaving like a total idiot; moaning, gasping, wriggling and twitching.  When the Americans tied the game with 24 seconds on the clock I was devastated.  I prepared myself for the worst.  Then Crosby put the game on ice and I went dancing around the room (something Canadians rarely do). 

None of this makes a lot of sense, of course.  I knew it was foolish to invest my happiness in a bouncing puck I could not control.  Team USA could have won the game just as easily as Team Canada.  But there is nothing rational about Canadians and the game of hockey.  You inherit this national madness as a toddler and, for better or worse, it never lets you go. 

This morning I read a high-minded column by an American journalist lamenting the flag-waving chauvinism on display in Vancouver (he compared it to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin).  “The first Olympics I ever attended were also in Canada,” Gil Lebreton wrote, “the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal. For a kid not long out of college, it was a profound experience . . . one of the speakers at that Olympics used a phrase that lingers with me still: the family of man. There is no earthly event that reinforces that notion as well as an Olympic Games . . . It persists, despite the overwhelming chauvinism of the past two weeks. They showed us Canadian Games, all right. And in most cases, nothing but Canadian Games.”

How ironic to hear an American lecturing Canadians on the sin of national pride!

Of course, he’s right; but there is nothing specifically Canadian about pride of place.  The brotherhood of man is a grand notion.  It originated as the second clause of an ideal framed by social gospel theologians around the turn of the 20th century: “The fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man.”  A marvellous concept.  In fact, for Americans, the brotherhood of man (or a less masculine equivalent) remains the only alternative to the dogma of American exceptionalism currently embodied by the Tea Party movement.  

The better angels of our nature dream of the brotherhood of man, but our deep emotional place (what Freud called the “id”)  is controlled by us-against-them visions of conquest and glory.  When these visions capture the rational and the emotional mind we’re in real trouble.  The 20th century was dominated by such demonic visions.  Martin Luther King and the Kennedy Brothers were martyrs to this ghastly vision, as were the untold millions slaughtered on the battlefields of Europe, Africa, Latin America and Asia.   Adolf Hitler was the walking embodiment of the “we’re number one” mentality.

Yesterday, I listened to a splendid sermon on loving our enemies.  Here’s Luke’s version of Jesus’ message:

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?  For even sinners love those who love them.  If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you?  For even sinners do the same.  If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you?  Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.  But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.  Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.  Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

What would the Olympics look like if all the athletes followed the advice of Jesus?  How would American foreign policy be altered if Barack Obama adopted a love-your-enemies mindset?  And, most importantly for this blog, how would our criminal justice system change if we took our lead from a merciful God who is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked?

We are not supposed to ask these questions, of course.  You can’t apply the radical values of Jesus to the world of real politic.  You can’t apply them to the business world, the political arena or even the push and shove of parish politics.  In fact, the non-violent, enemy-loving teaching of Jesus can’t be applied in a meaningful way to any human endeavor.  Human nature being what it is, you’d be crazy to expose the jugular like that.

That’s the whole idea.  Jesus wasn’t dishing out helpful hints for living life in the real world; he was introducing an entirely different mode of life rooted in the nature of God.  Jesus makes no sense unless we shift our attention away from the demon-haunted world of human nature to the pure heart of a loving and merciful God.  When Christians talk about being converted or born again, that’s what we have in mind.  At least, that’s what Jesus wanted us to have in mind. 

In reality, we incorporate Jesus and his God into our us-against-them fantasies.  God is on the side of the good and opposed to the bad.  We are good; they are bad.  Therefore, God is on our side. 

The criminal justice system is rooted in precisely this Manichean vision.  Love and mercy have nothing to do with what happens in our courts and prisons.

Does God give a damn who scored the winning goal yesterday?  Of course not.  Did God share my joy and relief when Sidney Crosby broke free from his check for a split second and fired a rubber disc into hockey immortality?  Maybe just a little bit.  In fact, I think God was celebrating right alongside Mr. Crosby, just as God would have been exulting with the American kid who could just as easily etched his name in the annals of sports legend, just as God was on the streets of New Orleans a few weeks back celebrating with the Saints fans. 

God knows our irrational and emotional sides.  God knows how badly we need to belong to something bigger than ourselves.  God knows that, at heart, we are all incurably selfish and that identifying with a regional entity can be a step in the right direction.  In a world crowded with outrageous fortune we need our little victories.  If a rubber puck crossing a red line in the ice can meld an entire nation into one glorious unit for a split second, God has no problem with that.  God made us this way, after all.

But God also knows how dangerous these can be.  So long as we admit the silliness of our celebrations–even as we are celebrating–we’re okay.  But how easily we slip inside the jaws of death and hell.  chauvinism can be fun; but it is always dangerous.  Canada, like the Katrina survivors in New Orleans, needed a confidence booster.  Don’t we all.  But our feeble attempts at self-glorification always look embarrassing, and more than a little scary, when viewed from the outside.  And God, let us remember, stands on the outside looking in.  God is the Other.  God will have no part of our domination fantasies or purity delusions.  In God’s eyes, we’re all just silly kids skating around the backyard ice rink dreaming of glory. 

Nothing wrong with that, but we were created for so much more.


2 thoughts on “Glory and the heart of God

  1. Pretty good sermon, Alan. And the preacher just had to preach it. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  2. I have this image of you dancing around your living room in celebration of the Canadian victory – not necessarily a pretty picture! Sadly, I have a more difficult time imagining a world that has moved beyond the self-glorifying, us-them dichotomy into the “brotherhood of man” – even though that image would be a much prettier picture. Keep up the good work!

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