Finding Favor by Brian Jones, Free for CAPC Members
Jones helps us think rightly about the intersection of faith and blessing, setting straight some of the tainted notions we have picked up from the world at large.
My hometown of Kansas City, Missouri is hot right now, mainly because the Royals are hot right now. One of the reasons why the Royals currently have such massive appeal is because they were so awful and despised for so long; America loves a comeback story. But the Royals’ recent success is not merely an isolated matter of luck and timing. Their success is taking place in the context of a much bigger story of what has been happening in Kansas City over the last couple of decades — and it goes much deeper than baseball or even sports. As a lifetime KC resident, I can tell you that when President Obama recently remarked, “Something is going on in Kansas City,” he was right. And this “something” is more interesting and mysterious than people realize.
There is a lot of superstition in sports. In the past few years, Budweiser and Nike have cashed in on this phenomenon with their “What’s Your Superstition?” commercials. More recently, a writer in The Atlantic offered up the superstition idea as a possible explanation for the Royals’ success. He writes:
Maybe most of all, the Royals are a story about belief… [T]he Royals rallying cry, “Believe!” elegantly expresses something more profound about sports fandom — the scientifically baseless, yet fervently held belief that it’s possible to affect a game even if you are miles from the stadium. By, say, prayer. Or wearing lucky socks.
According to a Public Religion Research Institute poll, 26 percent of sports fans says [sic] they have prayed for God to help their team. The other 74 percent are probably lying. At the very least, most of those 74 percent probably wear something lucky during games. Or sit in a certain chair, or refuse to shave, all of it a form of believing-while not-quite-admitting that consciousness and matter can interact in ways we don’t yet understand. Maybe, just maybe, this wildly improbably [sic] Royals run is a demonstration of how faith can move mountains. Or, at least, move a baseball or two.
If people believe something strongly enough (against all reason), it will come to pass. That’s the popular view of faith described by the Atlantic article and the superstition commercials. However, apart from just being false, this sort of fideistic mindset, even if it actually worked, is not the force driving the Royals’ success.
If you know anyone from Kansas City, you might have observed in them an almost irrational love and pride for their hometown. I don’t mean the kind of patriotic pride that causes some people to believe their city or country is better than others — most of my KC friends are the first to admit to our city’s flaws and shortcomings. I mean the kind of love and pride that, say, a parent might have for their child; an unconditional love. We don’t love Kansas City because it’s better. We love it because it’s home.
For decades, KC residents have been pouring their love into the city, their home, often in seemingly arbitrary and irrational ways. People have willingly taken up residence in dilapidated areas populated by abandoned warehouses; they’ve planted thousands of tulips along Troost Avenue in the racially divided urban core; they’ve adorned the landscape with public art; they’ve poured their time and money into areas once condemned; they’ve kept going to Royals games.
And you know what happened? Well, nothing for a long time. And then, almost over night it seems, those dilapidated areas transformed into a booming arts and tech district. Kansas City became more beautiful and more unified — and, yes, the Royals started winning. None of these things happened, however, because people just believed they would. Like a bamboo shoot, they have grown suddenly and organically out of the nourishing love that people have selflessly poured into Kansas City for years with no measurable result.
G.K. Chesterton, in his 1908 book Orthodoxy, describes the very phenomenon I am talking about. He used the example of Pimlico, an area of central London that was essentially slums at the time he was writing:
If men loved Pimlico as mothers love children, arbitrarily, because it is theirs, Pimlico in a year or two might be fairer than Florence. Some readers will say that this is a mere fantasy. I answer that this is the actual history of mankind. This, as a fact, is how cities did grow great… People first paid honour to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it. Men did not love Rome because she was great. She was great because they had loved her.
Chesterton is careful to distinguish between the arbitrary, unconditional love he is talking about and the blind optimism of the nationalistic jingoists of his time. The latter type of patriotism tends to whitewash the flaws of one’s own city or country instead of admitting to them, and often breeds a mindset of superiority that leads to conflict and war. The type of love Chesterton is talking about is the kind I have seen displayed by many of my fellow Kansas Citians, and the kind I’m sure you can witness in many places across the globe. It’s a love that sees the flaws, admits them, and chooses to love and invest anyway.
Christians should well understand the type of love that Chesterton is referring to, since they claim to be the recipients of it. Christians believe that God has self-sacrificially loved them, and all of humankind, arbitrarily, unconditionally — not because we are so lovely, but because we are His children, and this supernatural love transforms us and makes us better people.
Arbitrary belief in an outcome is futile superstition. Arbitrary love, on the other hand, has transformative power. It has the power to transform individual human souls, neighborhoods, cities, and even baseball teams.
Something is going on in Kansas City. It is the caretaking its residents have poured into their home during its darkest times and into its unloveliest places. Kansas Citians love Kansas City simply because it is theirs. And we love the Royals simply because they’re ours. Moments of glory, like the Royals reaching the World Series, are like the blooming of a flower after a long frost. It’s a time of enjoying the fruits of our labor, and a joy that comes from seeing something you love flourish. Yet, we don’t only love Kansas City because it is flourishing. It is flourishing because we have loved it.
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