An odd thing happened last week: the Kansas City Chiefs won a football game.
Other than the fact that the Chiefs have been a particularly terrible football team this season, going 2-11 through their first 13 games, their win was even more remarkable given the circumstances.
For those who don’t know, Javon Belcher, one of the team’s starting linebackers, murdered his girlfriend and killed himself on Saturday, December 1st, the day before the Chiefs played the Carolina Panthers at Arrowhead stadium.
Given the terrible play of the team this season and the obvious emotional trauma Belcher’s coaches and teammates must have been experiencing, it was safe to say most people expected another blowout loss for the home team.
But they won. Against all odds, they won.
I think sports provide us with a glimpse into one of the most important tenets of Catholicism: suffering brings people together.
I think we can assume that there was no great spike in skill for the Chiefs two Sundays ago, seeing as how seven days later they lost by 23 points to the last-place Cleveland Browns.
There must have been something more significant at play. Some might say it was just one of those days; things went right for them, nothing more. Carolina’s in last place in their division, too, so it’s not like they beat the ’72 Dolphins. But this is no isolated incident.
Just this past Saturday, another NFL player was killed, this time by one of his teammates in a drunk driving vehicular manslaughter case. The Dallas Cowboys rallied to win just hours after learning of the death of one of their practice-squad mates and the subsequent jailing of one of their starting defensive linemen.
As a boy from the Lou, I remember vividly the 2002 Cardinals season when the deaths of Darryl Kile and Jack Buck rocked the city of St. Louis. The Redbirds rallied around the memory of those men and won their division before losing in the NLCS that year.
There’s something about pain that draws people to each other. People have long wondered why this is; throughout the ages, men have asked if suffering means anything, if there’s any end to it, if there’s an explanation to how good seems to come from bad.
For the Catholic, the answer is easy. Suffering can be redemptive if we unite it to Christ’s suffering, if we remember that Jesus went through far worse than us, if we call on His name in times of pain because we know that He understands.
But obviously, non-Catholics understand something of this too. It’s safe to say that Dwayne Bowe wasn’t running Post-Routes-For-Jesus last week. I doubt Tamba Hali thought he was sacking sin itself when he hunted down Cam Newton that day. (Actually, maybe they were; I know nothing about the beliefs of those men…I just bet not all the Chiefs are practicing Catholics).
There’s something human about wanting comfort, something about pain that naturally brings us out of ourselves and makes us want The Other. Atheists would say this points to the fact that religion is the opiate of the masses, the Crutch of the Weak, the God Delusion to give us false hope.
I respectfully disagree.
There’s something within all of us that realizes, especially in times of sorrow, that things are not as they should be. Something’s not quite right. It doesn’t quite make sense. And it makes us reach for something else.
It’s good that the Chiefs leaned on each other in their time of sorrow. It’s a hopeful thing that they united, if just for a day, to accomplish something great and meaningful for them and their city.
Jesus watches, smiling, and, in the words of Lewis, quietly whispers, “Further up and further in.”
He wants us to forget about ourselves for a while. In the beginning, we knew God constantly, intimately. We saw Him in all things. Conversation with Him was easy, practically unveiled.
But now that we’ve turned away from Him, He uses whatever He can to bring us back to Him. Even death. Even pain. Maybe even football.
Did God want Javon Belcher to kill himself? No. But was it His will for that to be possible? Yes.
Lewis says we can understand this phenomenon by looking at parents. Parents want their children to learn responsibility and come to be more self-sufficient. So they ask their child to clean their room. The child doesn’t. He throws a fit, messing up the room more, screaming and pouting and crying.
Is that what the parent wants? No. Could the parent just go in and clean the room? Sure.
But while they don’t want their kid to throw a fit, they know that they need the choice to throw the fit if they end is going to be accomplished. Because remember, it’s not the room getting cleaned that’s important; it’s the child and who they are to become that matters most.
There is no love without choice. That’s why rape is so horrific: it takes the essential element out of the action that is supposed to be “making love”. We had the choice to make the world what it is. We made it a place of pain, a valley of tears.
And it is in that valley where Christ comes to us.
He suffered with us because we chose to make suffering a part of our existence. He died with us because we welcomed death into our story. But He also rose, because He knows our hearts, and He sees how unhappy we are in our own mess.
Suffering is good, but only if we let it be so. Only if we unite it to Christ. Only if we cry on His shoulder, even after weeping with our families and friends and even teammates.
Further up and further in. Let’s not settle for the comfort of each other. Rest in the comfort of the One Who Knows.