"You can make us whole again!"

When asked to write a reflective piece on the Euros from my perspective as a football Club Chaplain and local Church Pastor, these were the connecting points between sport, culture and faith that provoked me.

What are the main take-aways from the delayed Euro 2020? What are the issues from which we can learn and grow?

Is it the leadership gift and character of Gareth Southgate, his team building, encouragement and fathering, that stands so distinct from the toxic culture of past squads or other examples of leadership today in life and politics?

Or maybe it’s the character of the players? Young men we’ve been stereotyped into thinking can only mumble anodyne soundbites on repeat to a press conference. Now expressing themselves with clarity and intelligence on a range of issues on and off the pitch, showing a heart for social justice and holding a sense of their own privilege and desire to make a difference with their influence.

Maybe it’s their ability to communicate directly to us through social media and respond so eloquently, often in the face of unwarranted attack and abuse?

Perhaps it’s the make-up of the squad, a snapshot of 21st century Britain, where any combination of first 11 Southgate picks will trace their roots within a generation or two, to immigrants who came to Britain, and hard-working families who sacrificed much?

What about the unity and friendship of such a squad? Family heritage, different nations of origin, north or south, class divides, differences in education, yet one team – it all stands out in bright contrast against the backdrop of angry Brexit Britain. Here, instead of the easy, lazy triggers to tribal division we see across our society, this group has become a unifying force, creating a bond of strength. There’s a normality in this comfortable mix, which maybe our youth culture instinctively understands, but millennials and beyond have not or will not grasp. In this, perhaps signs of hope offset our despair of the character of our English tribe, who seem always so ready to drink, fight, abuse, blame and divide. No wonder these young men, and in particular these young black men, have become outstanding role models in their conduct, restraint and focus for all of us.

Maybe it’s the open sewer of ready racism on tap? The exposure of all our ugly biases and inner distortions of heart. The easy condemnations trotted out in social media which cover the shame like a fig leaf. Our collective horror at the act, leaving the bigger question unanswered: Is this getting worse, or is it just easier to see what’s always been there in the heart of a person now that we are so openly connected online?

Could it be the response of compassion and unity of the majority? The painting over of defaced murals, redemptively covering the shame of exposed sins. ‘This is us, we are one, we will not be this way, we cover hate with love!’ Yet even in this glimmer of light, a reactive intolerance and hate of those who sinned first displaying the illogic and selfishness of the human condition. More stones are thrown, and in the torrent of rocks, none of us can see that we had no right to throw them in the first place, the sinners that we all are. Where is the love for enemies, the gentle answer that turns away wrath?

Or consider the deep, eschatological yearning of singing ‘It’s Coming Home’, and feel the ache of that God-shaped hole to be made whole again, to sing and rest with others in victory, to feast, drink and celebrate with all enemies vanquished. No more hope deferred to make the heart sick. Every tear wiped from our eyes, all the years of hurt finally gone forever, all things made new. These redemptive themes aplenty surround the worship culture of sport, multiplied and deepened by a sense of nationhood and identity that trumps affinity to mere club sides. As the tournament grows, we all begin to feel it. Even the cynic begins to care, surprised again to be passionately English. In our age of dislocation and isolation, fearing others, we find that we do belong, we are a tribe… although what kind of English do you want? Well, see above and pick your side!

Perhaps the downside of this is the disintegration of the UK? We are reaping what we’ve sown. More than family banter with our Scots or Welsh cousins, amplified by social media minorities and political mismanagement of the Devolved era, all the old fault lines have opened as wide as ever. Did you notice the colourised and remastered release of the 1966 final, where the Wembley crowd proudly waved Union Jacks? It seems as outdated as the clipped BBC vowels of the commentary or the players hairstyles! What future for our divided Isles, seen through the lens of football rivalry?

Or were you one who took this festival of football as a prompt to pray around Europe? Seeing an insight into culture and language, to be stirred to pray for the re-evangelising of post Christian unreached people groups next door. 

Oh, by the way, the football was pretty good too! Did you notice amongst all the noise, that we got to an actual final for the first time in most of our lifetimes? A team to be proud of in so many ways.

On reflection for this Chaplain –  no ready answers, no resolution, this is the tension of our position, the mirror on our culture and our hearts though sport. This is what we are immersed in, where we live, prophesy, pray, serve and heal. This is where we are charged to make disciples who live and think distinctly with a biblical framework, who will shine like stars, unite the divided, affirm the good but speak out with courage against the bad.

This is our story. This is our England, this is our peculiar tribe whom Jesus loves with deep compassion in its splendid brokenness. It’s for such a time as this that we have been called to live, plant, multiply and bless our cities as the people of God. Only He can make us whole again!