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Plumbline Author: Ethan Brue
Date: August 22, 2003
Topic: Reforming the Liturgy of Play

The dog days of summer are here. The weather is sticky, the corn is tall, the Kansas City Royals have World Series hopes, and our church softball team, well…we certainly have some room for improvement. As the regular season rolls into tournament season, I reflect again on competition and sport. In previous Plumblines, I’ve suggested that our contemporary notion of competition, that is the crude desire of seeing one individual gain an advantage over another, sets itself in stark contrast to the service ethos that is the guiding principle for those who have been reborn into life in Christ. I’ve also suggested that when guided by this service principle, Christians never play to win, but rather play to serve. The result is that Christians play their absolute hardest not for themselves, but for the sake of the other team. I also threw out the question that since the way we see sport is entirely different from the way the world sees sport, might there be rules of the game that exist in tension with our Christian worldview. In other words, are even the rules of our play in need of reformation?

But before I attempt to answer this question, I want to address the question that is probably foremost on your mind. You are probably wondering if this softball fanatic hasn’t gone a little too far. Come on now…it’s only a game. Isn’t he taking that which is “just for fun” a bit too seriously? Aren’t there more important issues in life to wrestle with in a radio commentary? Maybe you are right, but let me suggest that there is nothing more important than to take seriously those everyday ordinary activities that fill our lives; these lives that belong wholly to God. I believe that if we take our “just for fun” joking and playing activities seriously, the end result is an experience of joy deeper than we ever imagined possible. The “just for fun ” becomes an exuberant expression of spirituality. It is an act of worship. In addition, when the everyday ordinary is regularly offered to God, it becomes more than an activity. It becomes a spirit –guided habit. When living by the spirit becomes habit, I expect far more important activities will fall almost naturally into the furrow of obedience.

So in this light, consider with me how the rules of sport, which are never neutral but either encourage obedient play or discourage obedient play, might need some reforming. Take for example the 20-run rule in softball. Most softball players are familiar with some version of this rule. The rule goes something like this. If a team has a 20-run lead after 3 innings the game is over and the leading team wins, even if the allotted hour is not up. Seems like a pretty standard, rather harmless rule, right? Why should I be concerned about a rule like that? But did you ever ask why such a rule exists? Did you notice the perspectival bias in the development of this rule? In contrast to most rules that facilitate play regardless of the score, the 20-run rule assumes that the sole objective of the game is to win, to place one team above the other. When this goal is effectively achieved, the game is over. The rule assumes that any additional play would be unnecessary and inefficient. The rule assumes that the losing team needs some sort of athletic euthanasia. They need to be put out of their misery. But Christians do not play to win but rather we play to serve, so this assumption makes no sense to us. Being behind by twenty runs is only misery for those who have the distorted notion of playing to win. When a person plays to serve, each new pitch is an opportunity to give the opponent the best possible challenge. Each pitch presents an opportunity for the unexpected to occur, maybe even an unbelievable comeback; this is the delightful nuance that makes the game the obedient artwork it is intended to be.

Fortunately, in our league there are some teams who are by nature “reformationally minded” (maybe without even knowing it). These teams know how to break the unholy rules. A few weeks ago, our team was soundly beaten by the 20-run rule, however, instead of spoiling the beauty of the game, both teams agreed to keep playing until the next team needed the diamond. To stop the game seemed about as offensive to us as cutting off a worship service in the middle of a hymn stanza due to a council imposed 500-word per service rule. Maybe that’s because our gathering together on that diamond IS a worship service of sorts.

For Plumbline this is Ethan Brue, Assistant Professor of Engineering, Dordt College

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