Last Saturday night was one of the year’s highlights for me. It just so happened that our Sydney holiday coincided with a once in a forty years (take note of that biblical time period) visit to these shores by English Premier Leagues giants Arsenal FC.
And we got tickets. At the last minute.
Now I have been a tragic Arsenal fan since 1980 when Ken and Ray Davis, church friends of my parents, were over at our house for dinner one Saturday night in early May.
Ken, being a Pom, wanted to watch “the match”. So my dad duly obliged. My twin brother and I didn’t know what that match actually was, having lived in Australia since the age of six, but we soon learned as we settled in on the couch to watch.
It was the FA Cup Final between Arsenal and West Ham United. Being twins we decided to choose opposite teams on a virtual coin toss, as you do, and I went for Arsenal, and he went for West Ham. In the end the Gunners went down to the Hammers by a lone Trevor Brooking goal, a rather tedious end to a rather boring match. I do remember the constant roaring of the crowd though, something that is lacking in Australian Rules Football crowds for some reason, despite the high physicality of the game.
If only Mr Davis had been at our house the year before, 1979, when an Alan Sunderland goal capped off a magnificent last minute 3-2 victory for the Gunners over our continued arch rivals Man Utd. Mind you, imagine having a twin brother who would have supported Man Utd these past two decades. It would have made an insufferable situation unbearable. Glad there’s no such thing as time travel, because the alternate reality doesn’t bear thinking about.
So it hasn’t been all bad. Not at all. Since that 0-1 loss Arsenal has gone on to greater things, while for my brother it started a tragic love affair with a constantly relegated-last-day-of-the-season and promoted-via-a-play-off West Ham (though curiously the Hammers have a great record against us in the ensuing 37 years).
The highlight for me last Saturday night was my nine year old son Declan’s comment after Arsenal’s first goal of a three-one win. As we sat among 83 thousand people watching the likes of Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott, Mehmet Ozil and Olivier Giroud toying with Western Sydney Wanderers, he turned to me and shouted with a big grin on his face: “This is so satisfying!”.
And it was. It really was.
And here’s what made it so satisfying. The long, and I mean really looooooong, stretches of mundane Arsenal life in which “boring, boring Arsenal” was the mantra and a team of under-performing, overpaid English buffoons eked out nil-all draws in meaningless matches on a drizzly mid-February afternoon in Bolton.
Those long stretches of respectable mid-table results which could not be described as “awesome”, “fabulous”, “stellar”, or “stunning” in the manner that just about everything is described these days.
The years in which Arsenal were not awful, but not brilliant either. The years in which honest players won some, drew some, lost some, and appreciated the fact they were the .01 percent of the football playing population that got paid to do this job.
Arsenal, over those 37 years were, for long stretches, steady and high to mid-table dependable. Of course they did have stellar runs, including with the so-called “The Invincibles”, the dream team of 2003/04, which, as the name suggests were unbeaten the whole league season and duly won the Premier League. Thierry Henry, Denis Bergkamp, Ray Parlour, Robert Pires. No amount of money could be given to you to thank you for that season, though I happen to know a lot of money was!
But that year, and others like it, are an aberration. Good aberrations. But aberrations nonetheless. If I could have turned to tell Declan one thing about following Arsenal, following that first goal at ANZ Stadium last week in Sydney, it would be this: There are hugely satisfying moments supporting Arsenal, but there are long swathes of normal league life in which the Premiership is never a reality and in which a good run in the domestic cup competitions is designed to take the sting out of the normality of normal Arsenal life. Not bad. But not wholly memorable or exciting.
And if you can bear with the segue; I’d want to tell him that on the cusp of a life in which he follows Jesus too, not just Arsenal. Not that life in Jesus; his gospel and the truth of it, the hope of it, the power of it, the wonder and love of the church, are not exciting. It certainly is. It is just that long swathes of living life as a follower of Jesus will be marked by the mundane.
Not the mundanity of the message, but the mundane of “have to” life lived under the sun. There will be patches and stretches that are most satisfying, that are exhilarating and in which we plainly see God’s hand at work in our lives. And there are plenty of memes online to give us the impression that that is what life for the follower of Jesus will be like.
Too many in fact. So many that he could be tricked into assuming that following Jesus is always 2003/04 with Arsene Wenger as coach, and never 1981 with Terry Neill.
For, as I approach fifty years of age and look back, there are long seasons of mid-table respectability in the Christian walk. Lots of gird-your-loins years in which you just have to get on with it, asking God’s Spirit to guide and direct you. Lots of have-tos and musts. Lots of walk away from desirable sin and walk towards the desire of the nations instead.
And then there will be times when Declan will have to take comfort in God’s providence; the hidden aspect of God in which He still works and wills in your life for his good pleasure. As the hymn reminds us “behind a frowning providence/He hides a smiling face.” God’s hiddenness in those times will test my son.
Nil-all draws relationally, spiritually, physically and in terms of job satisfaction, direction and experiences; this is the stuff of life, for the Christian as well as the non-Christian, despite what Joel Osteen’s books tell you. I want Declan to know that, but to keep following Jesus anyway. Not because of what he merely gets out of it in the here and now, but because it’s worth it in the end!
And it’s faithfulness in those middle and middling years that will count I reckon. Faithfulness to Arsenal is supporting them even when you can see it’s going to be a tough year. Even though there are 15 matches to play and the premier league tilt is already over. Even when you see another team buy your best player, or sign a marquee overseas star who makes all the difference. When Man Utd keep winning and winning and winning.
And none of this is to make it sound like a downer. There is deep joy in following Jesus, but there are all too many occasions when it better be deep, because what is going on above the surface can be so painful.
But maybe that’s the point. My generation and the one before it has often been guilty of handing on a view of life to the next two generations that somehow life is supposed to be about maximising your personal pleasure in the here and now, and if your faith or church or Jesus can do that for you, then so be it.
And if it doesn’t? If it doesn’t give you the pleasure you want, the autonomy you want, the sexual partner you want, then find something else to support or be supported by. Because there’s nothing more important than being true to yourself, right? Especially when the hostile post-Christian culture is Manchester Uniting all over you, scoring goals and nutmegging your best arguments.
Those are the times, the critical times to find your ultimate satisfaction in Jesus. Not in your performance for him, but in his for you. Not the opposition you face in your support of him, but the opposition he faced in his support of you. Not the ideal seasons of the past, but the promised hope of the future.
I’ve followed him for about two years longer than I’ve followed Arsenal, and the best prize from him is yet to come. And with less years in my life to live than I’ve had, that is so, so satisfying.