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The place of the poor

| Monday, February 22, 2016

When I was growing up in Cincinnati, I loved to attend baseball and football games. While I’ll admit both the Reds and the Bengals weren’t exactly relevant to the playoff scene, it was exciting to be able to watch games in person.

Attending games taught me a lot about sports in the purest sense, something that I could never quite appreciate from television or the comfort of the living room. Although I couldn’t quite describe it then, I got the sense I was a part of something much bigger than myself.

For a couple hours, these stadiums were places of gathering and community. People came together for a common purpose, uniting themselves and their energies toward a celebration and remembrance of realities that were much bigger than solely what was happening on the field.

At a very basic level — yes — we wanted the Bengals and Reds to win. (This was a lofty hope in most cases.) But there were other clear truths within our field of vision.

A well-turned double play that allowed a pitcher to escape a tight jam or a critical block that allowed a running back to get extra yardage could certainly be celebrated as good plays. Yet at the same time, these small moments were reminders of much greater truths. Life, in its purest sense, can be lived most fully when we realize true success is not an individual affair. Sport played well is a reminder that each part played well contributes to the success of the whole.

For all that there was to celebrate about these sporting events, however, there was always another reality that would give me pause outside of the stadiums.

In short, I really struggled with my encounters with the poor and homeless who, knowing where the crowds would be, lined themselves along our walks to the games.

I struggled with how many times I, like so many others, passed by them. Each time I would pass someone without acting (which was often), my heart would ache terribly.

Yet so frequently, I still passed by without doing anything. I would always try to rationalize the deep ache by thinking, “I don’t want to get separated from my family,” or “Well, maybe they don’t really need my help.”

I have tried to discuss this ache with others at different points in my life. Yet most of the conversations that follow are disappointingly dismissive. “They should just go find work.” “They’re probably on drugs or just want the money to buy alcohol.” “We can’t help everyone.”

For the longest time, I have been deeply dissatisfied by these answers. No matter what others said, I felt and still feel convicted. But, thanks to the example of sports, I was able to see, yet again, more truths within my field of vision.

Even among the greatest teams, there are players who are stronger in some areas and weaker in others. And some of these players, to put it bluntly, hold bigger roles than others. Yet, games (at least in baseball or football) are won and lost by teams whose players contribute in different ways. Because individual players are not at their best at all times, others step in to pick up slack.

In this way, the field of sport presents a pretty obvious analogy to the game of life. We make errors and have to deal with penalties for our actions. We get knocked down and injured, sometimes senselessly. Yet, our “teammates and support staff” give us the hope that the future can be different by helping us pick up the pieces. Here again, we are reminded that life can never be an individual affair.

Yet as members of the body of Christ, there are deeper implications for this truth. In Christ, there’s a pretty clear call for our own playbooks: “Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me” (Mt 25:40).

In God’s light, we are invited to consider a different standard by which to judge our individual affairs and how far we are called to go to help others pick up the pieces. We are invited outside of our own judgments to ponder the depths of the question the expert of the law posed to Jesus in the Parable of the Good Samaritan: “Who is my neighbor?”

In these two sections of the Bible, Jesus gives us a pretty clear answer: Our neighbors are the hungry, thirsty, imprisoned or sick. It is those who are battered like the man in the parable. It is, by extension, especially those we often meet on the way to stadiums.

Living into the truth of the world God has made is not about whether or not these people deserve our help, but how we can help. The truth of that fact has already been decided in Christ. Now it’s up to us to most fully live it.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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