One of the earliest surprises along this path through Oxford was to find myself back on the rugby pitch. It was the ‘big game’ at my high school in Canada, and I fell in love with it there. The highlight of my grade twelve year was the two-week senior boys rugby tour to Australia, taking us to Brisbane, Maroochydore, Mudgee, and Sydney (where before a growing stadium crowd, as we played the pregame before an inter-provincial match, some Aussie prep-school boys taught us a thing or two under the bright lights). After graduation, I also played as a flanker, prop, and hook in British Columbia’s primer division club rugby (which is not to be understood as on level with ‘club rugby’ in the UK!). But then as we got married and went to tackle degrees in Saskatchewan, where no rugby was to be found, I fell away from the game.
All that was to change with a whistle soon after the first formal event I attended as a student at Oxford.
Vainglory or Virtue?
My college, Wycliffe Hall, hosts a welcome barbecue at the head of every academic year. I was attending it as a new student fresh off the plane and was alone (given that Julie and the kids didn’t join me in Oxford until my second academic year, when I began the doctorate). Thankfully I quickly fell in at table with a lovely married couple and their children. The husband and I went to grab cake (or perhaps it was a second plate ;). As we stood in line I sized him up and, though we hadn’t mentioned rugby in prior conversation, said he’d make a great prop. “I was going to ask you if you played!” Sam replied, apparently having already sized me up as well! It was no time before he explained that Wycliffe had a sporting agreement with the much larger Queen’s College of Oxford, thereby allowing Wycliffe students to play on their teams in Oxford’s inter-collegiate sports leagues. Sam had played in the front-row with QRUFC the prior year, and was recruiting.
And so it began. Within a week or two I found myself back on the rugby pitch after over a decade off it. I would play that academic year and the next before taking up rowing in my third year.
Rugby is brutal. It can be dangerous. It always hurts. So why love it? Some think I just answered a question rather than provoked one! And to be true, I do love the grit. I love the smell of a fresh pitch and feel of the untearable jerseys. I also love the stories you leave a game with. The camaraderie shared off the pitch with teammates, and even with opposition players, after the struggle on the pitch is second to none. Something about the sheer battle of the game seems to open up relationships in some mysterious way. But to be a bit less sanguine and a bit more suspicious about the deep web of motivations we all live from, I confess that surely I have at times been wrongly motivated in my appreciation for the game. No doubt an undue zeal for physical aggression and, even sadder still, the seeking of a ‘tough-man’ identity, has surely played into the play for me.
But even as I whistle the vice of vainglory, I must also commend the requisite virtue of the game: courage. This, for me, revived my heart for it here on this Oxford adventure – or so I hope that’s what drew me back to it.
We were receiving the opening kickoff of my first game back on the pitch. As a prop, I was just behind the 10 meter from half line, on the far right wing. And if you have never watched an opening kickoff of a rugby game, watch this clip to get a sense for what it can be like as the receiving team. The ball can be kicked high and short, which means the opposing team is hankering for a head-full-of-steam tackle, barreling down on you the instant you catch the ball (and thus while you are in a very vulnerable position as the eye-to-the-sky catcher).
So as the referee prepared to whistle, welcoming the impending kickoff, I was unnerved only further to find the key line from the Tragically Hip song Courage as the background track of my mind: “Courage couldn’t come at a worse time!” Gord Downie howls. And though I rarely (as in ‘never’) have moments of inexplicable insight into the future, I somehow said to myself, “It is coming to me.” Sure enough the whistle blew, the kick was high and short and to my wing. There was no doubt that I was the player that had to catch it. The opposition swarmed in hard and fast. I wondered what on earth I was doing there. Insert courage HERE.
“I Am With You” Courage (vs Its Substitutes)
Throughout my studies since that first game in the first days of my first year, I’ve often returned to that kickoff scene. You see, in the midst of that first year of study I struggled with an Oxford contagion they call ‘impostor’s syndrome.’ It is actually a ‘thing’ that I’ve heard seasoned academics reference in these terms a few times. It seems that new students to the University (and even some older academics), realizing they are now surrounded by exceedingly bright peers, can come to doubt that they belong in their midst, and can secretly feel that if others actually knew what they did (and especially didn’t) know, they would be found out as an impostor who does not belong. “How did I get admitted into this lot? If they only knew! How did I fool them on my application?! It is only a matter of time before I am found out!” So resisting that pull to shrink back, to cower, to hide, requires courage – the resolve to do what needs to be done in the face of fear of the impending dangers of failure, rejection, exposure. Where does this confidence come from – this courage?
My doctoral supervisor places a high price on confidence in young theologians by which he means, in part, the courage to say what one has been given to say without a kind of pandering after legitimacy in the eyes of other non-theological disciplines (though he certainly wants us to respect and attend to those disciplines in as much as they intersect with the theological themes we’ve been called to take up), and in the face of the sheer inadequacy of our attempts to speak of God, and the certain rejection we will face from some for speaking truly of Him. We were talking about the need for greater confidence in my work, and he said something that has stuck with me: “Confidence is something that emerges from your relationship with the Lord.” In other words, a proper conception of courage does not see it as an individual foolhardily whipping up zeal to press ahead alone in the face of possible rejection and danger, come what may. It doesn’t have an individualistic Hollywood sheen. It is not a, “You can do anything you set your mind to” mantra. Rather it is a virtue rooted in the reality of God – a God who loves, protects, calls, and has plans for His children, as inadequate for the task as they surely are. Without Him, it seems to me, one should cower at the vicious specter of life. But with Him…
Joshua and Jesus (and us?!)
Joshua was called to an ‘I’m-With-You’ courage on the eve of leading the people of Israel into the promised land, having taken the baton of leadership of the nation from his mentor, the colossal Moses: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9). Here, God’s challenge to Joshua to take courage is rooted in the reality of His promised presence with him along the way: “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you,” God says to Joshua (Joshua 1:5).
No Joshuas here. Surely God acted through Joshua within Israel’s history in an exceptional way. But at an even higher watermark of God’s work in human history, after the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Jesus promised His disciples to be with them always, right to the very end. And this “I-Am-with-you” promise founds courage in those who seek to live after Jesus, seeking His interests in the world. In its light we too can hear God’s call to Joshua to take courage, and we need to as we follow after Christ.
For my part, surely even attempting theological work following after the One who was crucified for His faithful witness in the world requires it. I’d go so far as to say that if one’s theological work does not require courage, it is quite likely unfaithful and surely is of little use in equipping God’s church to faithfully live and speak for the crucified Jesus today.
But even beyond the courage requisite for the theological work of the doctorate, this whole Oxford adventure has felt a bit like that high and short kick at its start. The challenges of finance, of uprooting family, of establishing new relationships, of raising children in an environment with less family support – it is all daunting and at times overwhelming. To be true, at times my courage has failed as I have hesitated to trust in God’s presence as I should. Thankfully He has proved faithful even when I haven’t been.
But living in response to God’s call and within the sphere of the promise of His gracious presence to be with us, has made it possible to keep putting one foot in front of the other through challenge. So as with any life worth living, yours and mine: courage required. And in following this call to Oxford, high kicks and all, we have found that in walking this path with Him, our (faltering) courage has found a sure-footing indeed.
PS: Did I catch the opening kickoff?! Yes, I did (miracle!) and was promptly flattened (predictable). But I managed to get the ball placed back to my scrumhalf. We kept possession. Game on. And so my rugby escapades got a gracious re-start.
PPS: And if you don’t care a whit for rugby, lie down on the couch here. Our therapy will begin with this documentary, with Russell Crowe, about Slammin’ Sam Burgess (A Sparkly Eyed Man). Burgess is not only formidable on the pitch, but also has persevered through serious family adversity, as the documentary tells. Many thanks to my friend Andrew who pointed it out to me in first year. Watch it and tell me you are not at all inspired!