In a few weeks, we will be sitting in stands again, watching local high school and college football teams compete. In a few weeks, we will be amazed as these young men work as a team, winning or losing together.
The plays will seem like second nature to them, running, blocking, passing; they will each play their part, like they have always done these things.
But they haven’t of course, not these particular teams that are formed anew each fall. Old players have graduated and moved on, new players stand nervously as they approach their time wearing the local colors.
They will only be able to do what they do because in a few days they will come together and begin their practices. Weeks before they take the field in that first game, they will spend endless hours, or hours that will seem endless, in the heat and humidity and the coach’s gaze.
They will practice those plays, but more importantly, they will practice being a team. For a few weeks before we fill the stands, they will practice and they will fail. They will fail a lot. They need to, because it is in the failing and getting up and trying again that the plays become second nature, that they become a team.
It is good for us to remember this as we see them clothed in their clean, new uniforms on that opening Friday evening or Saturday afternoon, to remember that for weeks before that they were clothed in sweaty t-shirts and shorts, running plays over and over again in the oppressive heat and humidity of August.
They worked and they failed, and failed again, and again until they began to succeed. Only then were they ready to face the challenge of their opponents on the field. Even then they will fail at times, the plays may not go perfectly or they may be outplayed, a team has to lose after all, but that does not take away from the struggle they went through in those hot and humid days at the end of summer.
It is important for us to remember this because this is also a struggle we have to face in life as well. We have to face it, and perhaps more vitally, others will have to face this struggle as well. It is in those moments that we show forth the compassion and the empathy which is what it means for us to be Christians.
A year or so ago a friend and I were having a conversation over some coffee and doughnuts and our talk turned towards the struggles we have had in our lives. My friend, who is not a Catholic, talked about a tough time he had and how the people of his church, and his pastor, were so supportive and caring during this rough time, how they kept calling and checking in on him until he was on his feet again.
My friend said it really meant a great deal to him, and he felt he had found a home in which he was loved.
Then, he said, a few years later he had another rough time and the support was not as freely given, there was more frustration and the love was a bit more grudgingly given. He listened as his church members told him that he needed to straighten up and get his life in order.
He concluded his thoughts by saying, “I guess we Christians are pretty good about helping people when they fall, but not so hot when they fall again.” I had to agree, the first fall is just life and we accept that, the second is just frustrating and annoying, we wonder why they did not get it all figured out the first time.
But that is not how life works, or how we come together to transform the world. No team gives up on a member just because they took a few times to figure out the plays, no team quits on each other because they did not come together with perfect knowledge and ability from the start. Teams, like life, like churches, need practice, training and patience.
We are going to fall and fail, simply put, but we grow in the compassion and empathy given us by Christ to overcome the natural frustration and anger, to be there for each other, knowing that the day will come when our imperfections are made known to the world.
When that day comes, we pray our brothers and sisters have practiced enough to know how to love, a second time, a third time, or seventy times seven times.