Tennis and the creation mandate: Celebration, community and joyWritten by Subby Szterszky
What's inside this article
Tennis tournaments are not a standard source for theological insight about the creation mandate. But 2020 hasn’t been a standard year, and like most major sporting events, the 2020 US Open was held under strange, unprecedented conditions.
The cavernous stadiums were empty and silent. In place of thousands of raucous, cheering New Yorkers were rows upon rows of seats covered with tarps and giant banners in an effort to disguise the emptiness. The bright lights and big city atmosphere had been reduced to a muted, low-key affair. As one commentator observed, the city that never sleeps had in fact gone to sleep.
The players lived in a quarantine bubble for weeks before and during the Open, most of them separated from family and friends. On court they gave it their all, but afterward there were no hugs or handshakes, only a tap of racquets and a subdued “good match.”
For followers of Jesus watching on TV with eyes of faith, the tournament was a reminder of things we’ve taken for granted – things for which we’ve been wired by our Creator.
Missing the cloud of witnesses
The writer to the Hebrews uses the metaphor of a “cloud of witnesses,” referring to the heroes of faith he’d just listed, to encourage his readers to persevere. It’s a sports analogy evoking the Greco-Roman games popular at that time. The readers are the athletes, urged to lay aside any extra weight and run the race before them, while the cloud of witnesses is the audience cheering them on.
The image is powerful because it relies on a universal truth: we need the encouragement and support of others in order to succeed. This is true whether we’re trying to read through the Bible, stick to a diet or exercise plan, or finish that project we’ve been planning.
And it’s no less true of professional tennis players, who often speak of the vital energy they get from a crowd cheering them on. But there was none of that at the 2020 US Open – no cloud of witnesses – and players were left with the daunting task of generating their own energy in their most trying moments.
God didn’t create humans to be lone wolves, but to be interdependent, to rely on one another. That can be a tough lesson to learn for individualistic Westerners, but it was driven home by the subdued atmosphere among the players throughout the tournament.
Success shared and celebrated
At the end of Creation Week in the book of Genesis, God declared everything he had made to be very good, and then rested. This wasn’t because the project was big and God needed a break. In fact, the text says that God finished his work on the seventh day specifically by resting from it. The book of Proverbs adds that God’s wisdom rejoiced in his handiwork when he made the cosmos. Joy and celebration among the members of the Trinity was the fitting capstone to the work of creation.
As those made in God’s image, we are likewise wired to share and celebrate our successes with others. This isn’t optional window dressing, but an essential element that completes the success and gives expression to our joy. Whether it’s something we’ve accomplished or a blessing we’ve received, it’s somehow incomplete until we share it with someone else.
The Scriptures are filled with calls to celebrate together, to rejoice with those who rejoice. The majority of feast days in the Old Testament were occasions of communal celebration rather than communal mourning. Jesus himself looked forward to the day he would once again eat and drink with his disciples in his Father’s fulfilled Kingdom.
Such an atmosphere of shared joy and celebration is typical at major sporting events, not least at tennis tournaments. It engulfs the players, the crowd and even the viewers at home. But not so in 2020. As announcers noted throughout the Open, the victories rang hollow without a live audience to share them. An essential dynamic of human interaction was missing and made obvious by its absence.
Yearning for physical contact
The Triune God designed us for intimate relationship with himself and with each other. One of the principal ways we experience this intimacy is through physical contact in various forms appropriate to our variety of relationships.
God calls himself our husband and bridegroom, evoking the deepest level of intimacy we can picture. He also describes himself as our father who embraces us and wipes away our tears; our shepherd who carries us in his arms; and our mother who bounces us on her knee. Jesus often touched the people he encountered and allowed them to touch him in return.
We’re all different, of course, by God’s design. Not all of us are huggers, but all of us want (and need) human touch in one form or another.
This, too, was driven home at the 2020 US Open. Under normal circumstances, players shake hands after a match. Many of them embrace and exchange a few quiet words of consolation. Then they run to their player’s box and share hugs (and sometimes kisses) with friends, coaches and family members. If they win the tournament, they climb into the stands and weep on the shoulders of their mom or their dad or a beloved coach.
There was none of that at this year’s tournament, only quick racquet taps and nods of congratulation, after which players gathered their gear and left the court alone. The precautions were more than reasonable in light of the pandemic, but they underscored a powerful truth: we were made for human contact.
Wired for community and joy
When God created men and women in his own image, he also gave us what theologians call the cultural (or creation) mandate. In essence, this means living as his representatives, caring for and harnessing his creation for benefit and enjoyment, and reflecting his divine image in our personhood, in our relationships, and in the cultural works we produce.
As image-bearers of God, we’re designed to reflect the loving, relational nature of the Trinity. We’re wired for community and joy. We need one another for encouragement and strength. Our accomplishments aren’t complete until we share and celebrate them with others. And we’re made for affectionate, kind, intimate relationships, vitally expressed through human touch.
It may be that we take these aspects of our creation mandate for granted, seldom thinking of them until they’re removed from us, or at least made difficult to engage in. It’s only when we notice their absence at a popular event like the US Open that we begin to appreciate what God has designed us to be.
Cultural expressions are vital
There are church traditions that treat culture (especially popular culture) with deep suspicion. Cultural expressions are seen as valuable only if they convey overt religious messages. Otherwise, they’re viewed as a waste of time at best, a worldly snare at worst.
Like all of God’s good gifts, popular culture – movies, music, sports – can be abused and transformed into idols. But that doesn’t make them bad, any more than gluttony or greed make food or money bad.
In fact, the cultural mandate necessitates cultural expressions. Humans were created to create. We were designed to make things that are beautiful and beneficial and excellent, things we can gather around and enjoy together, things that allow us to reflect the creativity and the delight of our Maker.
Watching the US Open may not be everyone’s cup of Earl Grey, culturally speaking. But in good years, it offers drama, skill, excellence and the opportunity to celebrate these things with others. And in lean years like 2020, it serves up a potent reminder of the things that make us human, some of which we only notice when they’re taken from us. That and really good tennis. For all of which, thanks be to God.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2020 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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