This piece originally was published and appeared on the Liberate blog. You can read it in full here: liberate.org. Many thanks to Tullian Tchividjian and Nick Lannon for sharing and shaping this content.
The longing usually sets in around this time of year. It must be the crisp air and the biting breeze, or it may just be nostalgia creeping in. Either way, like clockwork, around 3 PM every day I resist the urge to lace up my boots and find the nearest field.
There I am, sitting in my cubicle, dreaming of greener (or turf-ier) pastures.
I reminisce. Competitive soccer will forever be a part of me, and I am incredibly grateful for many of the life lessons I learned through sport: mental toughness, endurance, sacrifice, discipline, and—most of all—community.
Our program’s motto came straight from the book of Proverbs: “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (27:17).
This mantra was hammered into us as athletes, as teammates, and “as men.” In soccer and in life you rise and fall to the level of those with whom you surround yourself. Work hard, and not only will you be rewarded, but so will everyone you’re brushing shoulders with.
While in one sense this is certainly true, I often wondered, “What happens when you don’t feel like iron? What happens to those who aren’t iron enough to begin with? And what happens to you when you aren’t performing at an iron level?”
Perhaps this is where the Christian life and sport diverge? While I am deeply indebted to the way those coaches and leaders invested in me, I fear that the “just work harder, just dig deeper” mentality common to most athletic psyches may fail us in life off the pitch.
Even on our best days, we all must deal with our places and portions of rustiness. Each of us, no matter our mental or spiritual toughness, has fallen and will continue to fall short in some pretty big ways.
I’m afraid we sometimes misread Solomon’s advice as a call to distance ourselves from those weaker or not worthy of our iron-ness. Certainly we want to surround ourselves with strong and trustworthy voices; counsel and care that we have tested and know, but is that all?
The Christian life differs from sport in this one big way: God will never cut you from the team. No matter what. No matter your spiritual deficiencies or mistakes, no matter your weaknesses or shortcomings.
I am reminded of the prophet Samuel in his search for Israel’s first king. The LORD cautioned Samuel to pay careful attention to the heart: “Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
Surely on our best days, this is what our well-meaning coaches have desired us to believe. That our “iron” is really measured internally. However, what I’m afraid many of us have heard or experienced instead is that our worthiness (or lack thereof) in community is measured by our performance.
I was in another lifetime one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness a creature void of form
“Come in” she said
“I’ll give you shelter from the storm” …
I was burned out from exhaustion buried in the hail
Poisoned in the bushes and blown out on the trail
Hunted like a crocodile ravaged in the corn
“Come in” she said
“I’ll give you shelter from the storm”.
–Bob Dylan, “Shelter From the Storm” (Verses 1,4).
St. Vincent is perhaps the most moving and compelling film I have seen in a long, long while. For those not familiar, it’s a fresh take on a familiar tale: a grumpy old man is befriended by a boy who needs a father-figure/friend.
By all appearances, Vincent (played by Bill Murray) is a total curmudgeon and a complete screw-up. His gambling addictions and alcoholic dependency can be surmised from the trailer, and that really only scratches the surface.
At a glance, this man is not ‘iron’ in least.
And yet, in God’s great mercy, he is exactly who the boy needs him to be. Without giving too much of the film away, you need to know that the reverse is also true: Oliver, the young boy, is—in all of his naivety—exactly who Vincent needed.
Sometimes we need iron to sharpen ourselves, to better ourselves, to grow. Sometimes though, we just need “shelter from the storm.” In his provision and grace, God provides community as a place of refuge. The body of Christ exists not only to propel one another forward, but in our weakest moments and most futile places, it exists to help provide shelter.
If you are lucky enough to see St. Vincent in theaters, as the screen fades to black and the credits roll, stay. If you do, you will be treated to Murray’s rendition of Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm.”
Murray mumbles through his cigarette, “Try imagining a place where it’s always safe and warm, ‘Come in’ she said ‘I’ll give you shelter from the storm.’”
If only the Church was more consistently that Shelter. We catch glimpses of it, but we have room to grow. “Come in,” The Bride of Christ beckons, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm.” Rustiness and all. Come in.