Saturday, 3 February 2018

A tale of two footballers

We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised. Hebrews 6:12

The year I left school and went to college was the year England won the football World Cup. I can still reel off the names of those players - Nobby Stiles, Bobby Charlton, Geoff Hurst and the rest.

There was one player, though, who didn’t figure in that final, even though he had been an England regular, and, for a time, team captain.

I can’t remember now if this is because he was past his best, or if he had an injury, but there’s no doubt that Jimmy Armfield was a great player. And, following his recent death in his eighties, vast numbers of people, both in the football world and not, have been queuing up to pay him tribute.
Everyone seems to describe him as a “gentleman” and a thoroughly sportsmanlike player. And much has been made of his Christian faith: a committed member of his local church, he was even the church organist (I doubt if that could be said of many footballers!).

This outpouring of praise has been heartening - like the one for Cyrille Regis, also a great player and a Christian, who died even more recently. It’s good and right to recognise and praise people who set an example the rest of us can aim for.

But amid all the outpouring of admiration, there’s one thing I have missed. Wouldn’t it be great to hear somebody in the glitzy, money-soaked, celebrity-obsessed world of football not only praise the likes of Armfield and Regis, but also declare an intention to imitate them? Isn’t imitation, in fact, by far the truest way to honour people we admire?

I’ve no doubt there were times when Jimmy Armfield committed fouls; I’m sure he wasn’t perfect. But I’d be fairly confident that when he did so it was the result of a mistimed tackle, not a cynical decision to stop an opponent in his tracks (even if that means “taking one for the team” - boy, how I hate that expression!).

How much more beautiful the “beautiful game” would be if players stuck by a code of conduct that meant (can you imagine this!) no shirt-pulling or grappling with opponents, no diving, no snarling and swearing at referees or opponents, no claiming a throw-in when you know the ball went off you. Dream on!

But hold on - I’m running away with myself... This isn’t really about football: it’s about imitation.

So, to the Bible: the writer to the Hebrews tells his readers not so much to praise but to imitate those who set a Christlike example. And this is a theme that crops up in various parts of the Bible.

It goes without saying that ultimately it is Jesus himself who is our model: of course. But that doesn’t mean that lesser examples can’t also be a challenge and inspiration to us.

As I look back on my life I can think of many people who have influenced me deeply, not only by the things they have said and done, but, perhaps even more, just by being who they were. They would be amazed and embarrassed if I were to tell them now “You’ve made a big difference to me - you really have changed my life in various ways”, but the fact is that it’s true. I could never measure or calculate the effect they have had on me. My only regret is that I didn’t imitate them better.

What it boils down to is this: If I praise someone without letting their example improve me, then my praise is shallow and hypocritical. If, on the other hand, I treat them as a gift of God to help me become a better person, I not only do myself good, but also make the world a better place.

The American nineteenth-century evangelist Dwight L Moody said: “A holy life will produce the deepest impression. Lighthouses blow no horns; they only shine.” I think that’s beautifully true. And I think that in a world where there’s no shortage of shallow people loudly blowing horns, we desperately need to pay attention to those who simply shine a steady light - as long as we don’t just leave it at that.

“Let us now praise famous men” wrote a Jewish wise man called Jesus the son of Sirach. (He lived a couple of hundred years before the Jesus we follow. If you have a copy of the Apocrypha, you’ll find it at Ecclesiasticus 44:1.)

Amen to that! Let us indeed. But let’s not forget to imitate them too!

Thank you, Lord, for those who have been for me a challenge, an inspiration, a shining light - and perhaps also a rebuke. Please help me to imitate them, so that I may follow Jesus more closely. Amen.

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