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Friday, October 2, 2020

Good Sports

 The background

    I’m excited. God answered a prayer that I wasn’t really even praying. I love it when He does that. He surprised me by providing a solution to a problem that I’d posed in an earlier article.

    As I wrote at that time, I’ve heard many stories of young people who are raised in prosperous Christian homes and who profess faith at an early age, but who are later blindsided by unexpected hardships and respond by turning away from God. My question was: How can parents in a land of plenty better prepare their children for the suffering that will inevitably occur? I didn’t have an answer. God did. I wasn’t even praying for an answer. But God led me to one anyway.

    Our world has been turned upside down since I published that post. It seems kind of irrelevant to ask that question now. With the coronavirus pandemic, no one is living in a bubble of protection anymore, where the pain and the fear can’t touch them. But shortly before COVID-19 invaded our lives, God used Cindy, a friend from church, to suggest a solution to the problem that I’d raised. I want to present it here as a follow-up to my earlier article, because I don’t like unanswered questions and I assume many of you feel the same way. In addition, Cindy’s idea can be applied to the challenge of helping kids to cope now.

An answer to my question

    Cindy went through a tough childhood. Divorced parents. A mother who didn’t want her. A father and stepmother who provided material necessities but no emotional support, no encouragement, no interest in Cindy as a real person.

    For Cindy, hearing the gospel was instantly and dramatically life-changing. She learned of God, the perfect Father, who loved her so intensely that He sacrificed His own Son to save her soul. She had never known a human being who would go one inch out of their way to show that they cared for her. But the God of the universe had spared no expense to demonstrate the depth of His compassion. She believed.

    Years later, Cindy is now a wife and mom. She and her husband both have college degrees and comfortable incomes. They live in a nice house in a nice suburb where their children are receiving a good education. They go to a nice suburban church with other people who live in similar circumstances.

    But to Cindy that’s a problem. How will her kids appreciate the enormity of God’s love if they’ve never known the pain and rejection that she grew up with from the day she was born? We had different questions, but one answer works for both. That answer: Sports. Cindy and her husband have a rule that their children will participate in sports.

The benefits

    Sports provide a safe, short-term exposure to suffering. Everyone loses at some point. Everyone fails sooner or later. With rare exceptions, everyone feels the pain of knowing that someone else is better than they are, that they will never be the fastest runner or the most accurate kicker or the highest jumper. To make it even worse, playing on a team involves struggling and hurting among people who don’t necessarily even care about you.

    When I was a child so many years ago, there was a push to make sports less competitive and more cooperative. It’s still going on. Why hasn’t it succeeded after all this time? I’d appreciate better cooperation in most areas of our lives (especially now), but Americans seem to know that competitive sports have an important role to play, too.

    Cooperation gives us a sense of control. If I’m involved in a cooperative enterprise, I get to help make the rules, choose the role I want to play, and determine what happens next. But suffering almost always demonstrates that I don’t have that kind of control.

    That’s why children need some areas, like sports, where they compete on someone else’s terms. Where unfair calls are made and sometimes luck beats out talent. Where the teams aren’t always equally matched but they have to play anyway. The most difficult moments in life hit us like that. We need to prepare our young ones to meet them.

    But we’re living in different times now. Now all of our kids are experiencing fear and loss in a way that this country hasn’t seen in many decades. They don’t need sports to teach them that life doesn’t always go the way they want it to. But they do need to find ways to process their emotions and responses. How can they do that?

    Through sports. Sports expose athletes to ups and downs, failures and successes, joys and sorrows. But at some point the game ends. Unlike the ongoing stresses in real life, sports provide an opportunity to learn how to deal with temporary pain. The players can then apply those lessons to the more difficult issues in their lives. Facing the minor trauma of striking out or missing a basket or dropping the football, and working through it, can give them the tools and the confidence to face the greater challenges that have come with the coronavirus.

    Sports can also be therapeutic. They can provide an acceptable outlet for aggression, releasing the unspoken fears and frustrations and anger inside. They can help young people to discover and develop their talents. They can allow kids to take pride in their contributions to the team.

    But how many sports are available right now? Many outlets have shut down. Some adults are hesitant about allowing their children to participate in activities where they could be exposed to COVID-19. Some young people are afraid of the potential risks involved. If sports aren’t an option, maybe similar benefits could be made available through a family or bubble-group game time.

    In addition, many of us are using this period of shut-down activities to do more reflecting. With a break from the pressure to be constantly on the go, we’re reconsidering our priorities and our use of time. Maybe some moms and dads will take this opportunity to rethink parenting styles. Maybe they’ll recognize the need to better prepare their children for the realities that the future holds through intentional exposure to short-term suffering. Maybe they’ll come up with a plan like Cindy’s and start looking for ways to get their kids involved in sports once the pandemic is under control.

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