I was listening to a podcast this week about one of my favorite subjects: sports. There really isn’t a pro sport I don’t like, so I spend WAY too much time listening to other people talk about things other people do that I will never be able to do myself. But that’s another matter.
Anyway, a subject came up that I was not expecting. It was the coronavirus. The NBA has suspended the rest of the season indefinitely to minimize unnecessary social contact during games. This is on the heels of numerous draconian measures worldwide to limit the spread of coronavirus, and signaled other drastic sports moves as well. March Madness appears to be canceled. The Big 12 tournament is toast. The NHL, MLB, MLS, and even the NFL, have postponed league operations for weeks, and perhaps even longer.
One of the podcasters then noted something that sparked a thought. This isn’t a direct quote, but he said something like, “The reason we turn to sports is because we get in the flow of them. It’s March. We long for March Madness. It’s April, and baseball starts. It’s May and June, the NBA playoffs begin.” He went on to say how weird it feels that these events, their timing, their attendance, and everything that goes with them, may look very different this year.
I don’t know if I’d ever thought about it this way, but the word that came to me was liturgy. Liturgy is a religious word, to be sure, but it has application more broadly than that. James K.A. Smith has done incredible work helping us to see that liturgy is really a human activity. It’s the basic habits, patterns, and behaviors that give society meaning and make it predictable and controllable, among other things.
The sports calendar, in this sense, is a liturgy. It’s predictable. It inspires hope among certain fan bases (a special apology here to folks from Cleveland and Detroit). Sports give a sense of meaning and comfort, even if they are shallow and short-lived. Don’t believe me? Look at what happened to Kansas City after the Super Bowl win. We can debate the fine line between fanhood and outright idolatry in sports all day, but you can’t watch that victory parade and not at least wonder at its deeply spiritual (and even Messianic) overtones.
Enter the coronavirus. I’m no expert and I can’t predict what will happen in our country over the next few weeks. But we can no longer doubt the disruptive power this virus has caused among our most sacred cultural liturgies. If sports leagues are willing to lose millions of dollars to host empty stadiums, or cancel games outright, you know a liturgical shift has arrived.
On top of sports, the threat of this virus is changing how we interact in public. Deserted streets, not crowds. Elbow bumps, not handshakes. Masks, not smiles. These are all, in a sense, liturgies turned on their heads.
This all served to remind me a few basic truths.
1. God often disrupts the liturgies of the world as a means of spiritual awakening. Now, I’m not predicting a revival, per se. But God has used the disruption of geo-politics, famine, and fear to call the world to repentance and faith. The Old Testament in particular is full of examples. Remember Abraham, when he leaves God’s promised land for fear of lack of food, the liturgy of the harvest having failed. Remember Israel, still going about their business, as God threatened to send Babylon to exile them, the liturgy of political appeasement no longer sufficient. Even Jesus, when He wants to warn Israel of the temple’s impending destruction due to a lack of faith and obedience to God, does more than just say so. He turns over tables, temporarily interrupting the liturgy of the temple itself. I’m no prophet, and I’m not saying God has sent the coronavirus, Exodus-style, to overturn Pharaoh. However, there may be an opportunity here for God’s people. Which leads to…
2. Christians must live a counter-liturgy to the world.
We live in light of Jesus’ kingdom reign, with a different view of time, of life itself, and even of death. This makes our witness during this time especially important. We must point to joy and Jesus in our lives more than ever, which leads to…
3. Our worship must direct a frightened world to a sovereign and good God. There’s a reason that, at our best, the church at worship is a people unlike any other in the world. This is why, when we gather together, we sing ancient songs, read thousand-year-old texts, and even (God forbid) turn off our cell phones. It is also why, when we scatter to our various callings and occupations, we do so with a spirit of worship, welcome, and love in all that we say and do, doing our work well even as others succumb to fear or despair. Wherever we are, our worship is a counter-liturgy, a powerful proclamation, not that coronavirus will win, but that Jesus already has.
Our worship reminds us, and equips us, to say no to fear and yes to faith. To say no to despair and yes to hope. To say no to market crashes and yes to life abundant. To reject a liturgy of nihilism and death, and to say yes to the cross and the resurrection.
I say this to encourage myself. If I’m honest, I’m afraid. The liturgies of this world do bring me comfort, and perhaps, at times, I’ve put my faith in them more than Jesus. Now is the time to notice. To repent. And to believe.
We have an opportunity here. I don’t want to miss it.