Vicarious Thrills

This morning I wrote on my Facebook page: “Now, I know them Texas Longhorns are good people, but I enjoyed watching the LSU rout over them so much last night (for the collegiate baseball championship) you’d have thought my sons and my brothers and I had just whupped up on the Ayatollah, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban all combined!”

Watching me root for the LSU baseball team over the past couple of weeks–through the regional playoffs and then this week in the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska–you would have thought I was a longtime alumnus of that university or knew half the players on the team.

Neither is true. I’m a native Alabamian, went to college at Birmingham-Southern (we rooted for Alabama or Auburn since we had no football team), and have lived in Louisiana only since 1990. I don’t know a single player or coach at LSU.

Still. They’re a fun team to root for. Many of our church members sent their kids to school there, and the university is only 70 miles up the interstate, and perhaps, most of all….

They’re winners.

Let’s face it: it’s easy to pull for a winner.

My terrific son Marty, the webmaster for this blog, was never the greatest sports fan when he was a child. He lacked the patience Neil and I had to sit in front of a TV or in a crowded stadium for hours, taking in what was happening on the field. Marty would walk into the room where we were yelling at the screen and say, “Who’s winning?” When we answered, he would say, “I’m for them,” and walk out.

There’s a lot of that going on. Ask any college or university sports information officer. When the team is winning, alumni come out of the woodwork to throw money at them. Stores cannot keep their jerseys in stock.

People do love to be identified with a winner.

I see that in churches.

The mega church across town draws people in like a tornado sucks up everything in its path not nailed down. Little churches suffer most, we’re told. Church members look with longing at the fine edifice and dream of what it must be like to belong to a congregation that is a) fielding fifty sports teams, b) playing on its own fields and does not need the city parks and recreation department’s approval for anything, c) sending mission teams to Africa and Asia throughout the year, often with the church members funding every dollar of it, and d) winning large numbers to the Lord.

And, like this preacher rooting for LSU, they want to be a part of such an impressive enterprise.

The problem is–this is only my observation from decades of pastoring–when they do join, the vast majority do nothing in the big church other than bask in its glory. They sit in the massive auditorium, glory in the professional sound of the musicians, enjoy the world-class speakers the pastor brings to the pulpit, and cheer at the victories and impressive numbers announced from the pulpit.

Then, they go home with the satisfied–smug even–feeling that somehow they have done something for the Kingdom.

Vicarious thrills. Not actually doing anything ourselves, but entering into the excitement of someone else doing it, and convincing ourselves that we have achieved something.

It’s why people go to movies. For a couple of hours, you are Jack Ryan or James Bond or Roy Rogers or some starlet.

It’s why people have lived and died for generations by the soap operas, first on radio and then on television. These make-believe families and fantasy relationships become real to them.

But they’re not. It’s only make believe. (Cue Conway Twitty!)

I still recall the day a sports announcer commented on something he saw in the stands. Now, what he saw was such a typical little event, that it happens hundreds of times in every ball game of any kind. But he got it just right.

After a football player took the handoff and charged down the field, side-stepping would-be tacklers, and vaulting into the end zone to score a touchdown, his fans going wild with cheering, the cameras zoomed in one two men high-fiving one another. The announcer said simply, “Look at these two. Like they’ve done something!”

It feels like we have. Honestly, it feels like I was a member of that baseball team that took the national championship last night.

The truth is I don’t even own an LSU shirt or bumper sticker. I haven’t attended a game in Baton Rouge since the LSU-Tulane game of 1966. I don’t know a single player.

I’m only a spectator, not a team member.

And, in this case, that’s just fine. No problem. Sports for me is a tiny luxury activity to be taken or left alone, but nothing that translates into anything permanent. Six months from now, I will recall almost nothing about this baseball season.

But this is definitely not okay in real life.

It is not all right to spend one’s life in front of the television set, worrying over Jon and What’s-her-name and their houseful of kids. You have your own children; worry over them.

It is not all right to spend money buying the fanzines so you can keep up with the latest gossip on the hottest celebrities. Leave them alone. Let them have their lives, and you go live yours. They are not worthy of adulation and you were made for better things.

It is not all right for you to spend hours every day at the computer playing your fantasy games and experiencing make-believe adventures. You were given one life and it’s slowly ebbing away. It’s far superior to anything on the screen, whether high-definition and oversize or hand-held and computer-driven.

It is not all right for the sum total of your Christian discipleship to involve sitting in a pew listening or amen-ing or absorbing. The Christian life is lived for the most part outside the church building. Go next door and visit your new neighbors. Go down the street and witness to that troubled family. Go across town and volunteer in the food pantry or clothes closet.

But do something. How does that John Lennon line go: “Life is what happens to us when we’re doing something else.”

Here’s a Bible study assignment you will enjoy. Read through the New Testament–well, okay, just the first four books, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John–and notice how many times our Lord speaks of the essence of the believer’s life being “doing” the will of God.

–the man who builds his life on the rock is the fellow who “heard the word of God and does it.”

–if you know these things, blessed are you “if you do them.”

–be doers of the word, not hearers only.

The best I can figure out, the blessings of Heaven are not promised to those who love the Word of God or read it or hear it or study it or memorize it or distribute it or brag on it or defend it or argue and debate over it, as important as these may be. The blessings of God are promised only to those who do the will of God.

In God’s Kingdom, there are no virtual Christians and no vicarious blessings pledged to spectators who watch others do God’s will.

Another “best thing” I can figure out is that biblically the gate into the spectator section of the Kingdom of God is death. (See Hebrews 12:1-2) Only the previous generations of disciples sit in the grandstand to cheer on the rest of us.

The only gate open from the locker room for us leads to the playing field.

You and I are players. We’re on the field.

I look outside and see a new day has begun. At this moment as I write, the watch on my wrist shows 6:10 a.m. on a Thursday morning.

Good morning to you. The referee has just blown the whistle. The game has begun. Now, get out there and give the Lord’s side all you’ve got!

There’s a huge cheering section. You just can’t see them. But they’re there, rooting for your success.

2 thoughts on “Vicarious Thrills

  1. Bro. Joe, after Katrina, I was nine months in Cleveland, Ohio.

    I went to a wonderful new church that had the kind of music I dreamed of hearing (the worship leader had been the keyboard player for Steve Green) and everyone was so nice. It just seemed like heaven for a few months, until I started taking the classes to possibly join the church.

    The rulebook was a half-inch thick! I started going to church less and less until one day I felt God telling me Matthew 23:27 and I realized this mega-church was dead!

    It had all the programs for the youth, day-care, a coffee shop, etc., but I should have known something was up when I realized that the prayer room was one of the smallest in the entire building.

    Grace and Peace, Jay Culotta

  2. One of the pastors I serve alongside is Herman Gauthier, FBC, Madisonville. He is not formally educated, though I have conferred a Ph.D. in “street” on him. He says he isn’t too caught up in trying to design elaborate vision and mission statements for his congregation. In fact, his church’s mission statement is one all of us can memorize. It’s “Go.” That’s it. I asked him if he spelled it “Geaux” so we’d know it’s a SE Louisiana church and he said, “I don’t care–just do it!” I think Nike stole that idea from the Gospels. Frankly, I get bored with sideline thinkers. Life is simply too mesmerizing to spectate, and that is exponentially true for the life of the Believer in Christ. Thanks as always for the good word.

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