Rector's Blog: For the Bengals
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“Ok, it’s time for a serious question,” the Search Committee member said to me. I was in the living room of a parishioner in the midst of the final round of interviews for the role I currently hold at Church of the Redeemer. The Committee and I had been talking all evening about our vision of what the next chapter of the life of the church might be, about our hopes and dreams, fears and wonders. And then came the warning that the next question was serious. I took a deep breath and prepared myself. “If you move here,” he said with a straight face, “are you willing to root for the Reds and the Bengals?”
I’m a Johnny-come-lately to the glory that is Cincinnati sports. I cannot pretend to be a long-suffering fan. But I am a fan. It’s one of the ways I experience connection and a sense of belonging here. I loved that someone asked me that question in a job interview. It told me so much of what I needed to know about this town. Cincinnatians have a sense of place, a genuine affection for the city, and an identity that matters to them.
Cincinnatians are often curious about me moving here. They ask me why I, a Californian, would live here instead of, well, California. I like to ask them what they love about Cincinnati. They unfailingly have a list ready to go, their passion and pride clear and unabashed. And they usually list several things I love too. And then I ask, “Well, why wouldn’t I love those things too?” Sometimes they believe me. Sometimes they are flattered, or appreciative. But oftentimes, a lifelong Cincinnatian with a deep sense of loyalty for their beloved town will just shake their head and say, “I don’t know, though…you came from California…” and then immediately complain about Cincinnati weather and the sports teams.
Cincinnatians love their city in a way that I find really beautiful. They don’t need it to be the biggest or the best. They don’t try to bury its negatives under a pile of superlatives. They will gladly complain about their town. But there’s something lovely about it. The poet Robert Frost once wrote, “We love the things we love for what they are.” I see that lived out here every day: People loving something unabashedly without needing it to be the best. Our zoo, our music hall, our chili, our ice cream… ok, Graeter’s might actually be objectively the best ice cream in the country. And come to think of it, the Music Hall is such a beautiful building, and the Symphony performed an amazing rendition of Beethoven's 9th. And our zoo is exactly the right size, and that view of the skyline coming down the hill on 71 North…see this is what it feels like to love the things we love for what they are.
But then there’s Cincinnati sports. I have not seen anything in my time here that contains the pride, frustration, hope, and misery of a people quite like their relationship with sports. Inviting me, challenging me to root for Cincinnati sports teams was a crucible. It was as if they were saying to me, “You don’t get to love us if you’re not going to suffer alongside us.” And that makes sense to me. That’s always been my favorite part about Jesus: That he’s all in on us, and not just here for the good parts.
There are countless painful things about the last two years. We are nowhere near fully comprehending all that it has been for us. But one acute pain has been our inability to really connect with the things we love about the place we love. When you find so much of yourself in the shared life of the city, and you can’t go share life with the people of this city, you feel a deep sense of loss and isolation. I have felt that acutely. I have sometimes felt homesick for Cincinnati will being in Cincinnati – because I could not feel that sense of connection and shared life that is so much a part of being here.
And then last week the Bengals beat the Chiefs in overtime.
And we jumped up out of our seats and ran into our front yard and banged pots and pans and screamed. And our neighbors grabbed their Bengals flag from their porch and ran it up and down the street what felt like the whole neighborhood hooted and hollered and shouted “Who Dey” and horns honked and fireworks exploded. This single moment did not end the pandemic. It did not fix everything. But in that moment many of us felt in our bones a deep stirring of collective joy – a remembering of why we love what we love.
Sports are a strange and particular expression of love and identity. And I’m not going to spend any time on sports psychology here – I just want to say there’s something about loving a team. It can feel depressing and defeatist. Especially when they don’t win a lot. And Cincinnati knows a lot about loving teams that don’t win a lot. You can have all sorts of feelings about players, managers, coaches, and ownership. But when a team shows signs of life, it channels our love of place. Joey Votto doesn’t just make us love the Reds more – he makes us love Cincinnati more. That doesn’t have to make any sense for it to be true. And last Sunday night, Joe Burrow and Ja’maar Chase smoking victory cigars somehow embodied the joy and swagger of a few million people – a few million people, by the way, who really need some joy and some swagger in our lives right now. That’s no small thing. Their victory was our victory and helped us remember in some small way that we belong to each other.
Throughout this season our church has been focusing on Paul’s letter to a Christian community he helped build in Corinth. Throughout this letter, he shuns their desire to idealize the community – their efforts to pretend perfection and bury the difficult and discomfiting things. Some people think Paul is an idealist because of his radical insistence on Love. But Paul doesn’t see Love as a flowery abstract idea to be dreamt of – he sees it as a practical truth, as the primary reality of the whole world. We find our identity and sense of place in the way we love and belong to one another, the way we see each other as beloved, the way we recognize God’s presence in our shared suffering and joy. We love the things (and the people and the cities) we love for what they are.
So, I guess I love the Bengals now. Not just because they’re winning – though that doesn’t hurt. But because they make me feel more connected to you. They remind me that we are in this together, that we belong to each other. And that’s where Love shows up for me.
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