Nick Baines: Finding common ground between sport and prayer as World Cup kicks off

This month will either be a joy or a torture for you.

The World Cup will be a source of great excitement for some, but it’s also a cause for wailing and gnashing of teeth for others. When the footie gets going, the sensitive go shopping. Apparently.

In 2010 I complained about the Church of England’s special World Cup prayers. They were boringly churchy. So, they challenged me to come up with better ones. After watching England’s remarkably aimless and seemingly dispassionate performance against Algeria in their opening match, my first prayer was heartfelt: “Oh God…”

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Not everybody was impressed, but it had the benefits of both brevity and honesty.

England have endured years of disappointment at the World Cup.

The second prayer offered a little more: God, who played the cosmos into being, please help England rediscover their legs, their eyes and their hunger: that they might run more clearly, pass more nearly and enjoy the game more dearly. Amen.

This is what prayer is supposed to be. Not an endless talking to God, but an honest crying out of what is in the heart if not on the lips.

And I didn’t forget those who simply aren’t interested: Lord, as all around are gripped with World Cup fever, bless us with understanding, strengthen us with patience and grant us the gift of sympathy if needed. Amen.

Sport and prayer aren’t a million miles apart. Sport demands discipline and commitment, a long-term vision, an ability to cope with failure, an understanding of one’s own personality and bodily potential. Sport requires teamwork – even individual athletes need their trainers and support people as they train. You can train for years in order to win a race that lasts 10 seconds. What makes you do it?

Contrary to popular assumption, prayer is not about seeking short-term fixes to long-term challenges, but, rather, developing a long-term perspective on life, death and everything in-between. In other words, it’s less about asking God to change our circumstances and more about us being changed within our circumstances.

But, this doesn’t happen by magic or casually. It requires discipline, regular exercise, the commitment to keep going when every distraction in the world piles in. It means taking a long-term view and not giving up when failure outstrips success. It involves keeping on praying even when it seems pointless. Like an athlete who skips a day or two training, missing out on the regular exercise of prayer has an effect which is not noticed immediately, but has a cumulatively weakening effect.

If most of us find regular physical exercise a little bit too demanding, what chance have we got with doing stuff that doesn’t seem to make any measurable physical difference? The point is that prayer, like sport, is not a quick fix for some other problem. Running for the
bus might be effective once, but it won’t help me run a marathon pursued by lions.

However, the question most frequently asked of those who love sport (watching) and who also pray is whether God is partisan.

How can I pray for Liverpool to beat Arsenal if Arsenal fans are praying for the opposite? Some of the more unimaginative atheists even suggest this is a knock-down argument against the possibility of God. Yet, the point lies not in God’s partisan enthusiasms or capricious passions, but in the nature of prayer itself – it gradually helps the one praying to see as God sees. Any honest relationship encourages the parties to express themselves freely, to be outrageous in their desires and to tell the truth. That is what I am doing when I raise with the almighty the possibility of swinging it England’s – or Liverpool’s – way. Of course I don’t think God has abandoned me if we lose a game.

A more serious example of this sort of thinking is to be found in Psalm 137. Asking God to smash the heads of your enemy’s children against the rocks doesn’t appear at first sight to be ethically helpful – for anyone. But, the reason
we should read it unashamedly is that it isn’t there to vindicate the ethics; rather, it is to say we should not mutter “hallelujah” when we really think “stuff it”. God knows and can handle our emotions – but only if we are as honest about what we feel as he can be with what he sees within us.

Anyway, when I wrote prayers for the 2010 World Cup, I made sure there was enough scope for reality to intrude on desire: I didn’t pray for an England victory.

Nick Baines is the Bishop of Leeds