Midway through the FIFA World Cup tournament, it's time for the knockout stages to begin, with England against Colombia this coming Tuesday (July 3rd). So with me, after many years of hostility towards any prospect of England ever winning the World Cup, as the blog title suggests, what has brought such a dramatic change of mind?
Could it be that Italy had failed to qualify? Amazing too that has happened, as I have not only recall the much-maligned Italy playing well within the midst of each tournament, but actually won the cup four times in its history (in 1934, 1938, 1982, 2006) which is second to the greatest number of wins achieved by Brazil, which was five times overall, including a penalty shoot-out against Italy in 1994, after a goalless draw, including thirty minutes of additional playing time. And that particular match was watched on a foreign TV set - complete with Arab commentary - alongside other volunteers at a Christian Conference Centre in Israel. But with Italy failing to qualify for this year's competition was not the cause of my change of mind. Rather it was something else.
By contrast with Brazil and Italy, England has won the cup only once in its history which, as we all know, was back in 1966, more than half a century, which within many born and died without ever a chance of witnessing an England win, or were too young back then to realise that their home team had just made history.
But I do recall having a favourable disposition for England during my childhood and adolescent years, second in favour after Italy. Even though I was born in England and grew up here, I was taught by both my parents that I have a pure Italian bloodline, and all our family members were Italian, not English, although after legalisation, I have always referred myself as British when filling in any important document, whether civic or otherwise.
|How the English see themselves...|
It was the influence of other people who eventually turned me against the idea of supporting England. And this may come as a surprise to anyone reading this, but the churches around here must share the blame. But even before my conversion to Christ towards the end of 1972, I have suffered sneering from British work colleagues for no other reason than having Italian origins. Sure enough, those who did taunt me were mainly disgruntled war veterans who fought "tooth and nail" for our freedom and democracy, yet felt little or no appreciation or thanks from my generation, the Baby-Boomers who were born into this world not long after the end of the War. Therefore to watch someone like me growing up and living off the fat of the land, and then innocently making known my origins, did not exactly endear myself to them.
But I can understand the plight of these veterans. They fought for the democratic freedom of this country against the threat of German Nazism and its potential takeover of Britain. Then following the end of the war there was several years of food rationing, something we juniors did not have to endure, far less worry about. Such former work colleagues are easily forgivable. But when I came across this church-going patriot during the mid-eighties, who is a few years younger than me, and whose sense of inferior complexity swelling his xenophobic English pride out of all proportions - well, that was something altogether different.
How incredulous it might have seemed for such contrasting people such as him and myself to share in the same Body of Christ, but such as both of us being true Christian believers. But not long after getting to know him, he made clear to me that the English were a superior nation, above the rest of the world, and certainly above the Italians, and how proud he was of that! Also a strong advocate of the British stiff upper lip, he certainly viewed us Italians with a sense of cultural backwardness.
Therefore, it did not take me long to realise that his train of thinking and emotions stemmed from a sense of social inferiority - having never entered university, nor having any qualifications from school, and remaining perpetually single, yet this former kitchen porter mixing freely with church-going graduates and watching one after another pair up to stand at the altar. Therefore whenever England played internationally and won, the look of gloating arrogance became unbearable, and if ever the time came for England to play against Italy - the thought of the latter losing to the former, it would not bear thinking about. Therefore this Christian played a major role towards the hostility I felt towards England, which wasn't edifying or faith-building at all.
Happy to say, now attending a different church, his continual absence has dulled any ill-feeling I might have had towards England. On top of that, he too is forgivable, and to forgive is not only obedience to Christ's teaching but also beneficial to all mental, physically and emotional wellbeing. If England is to win this tournament, I would no longer feel so threatened as I did during the 2014 World Cup, or during earlier World Cup contests. How could I ever forget 1998, when I fled to New York to deliberately miss the final, which was won by France, after England was already knocked out by Argentina even before I took off from Heathrow Airport?
Alas! Such fleeing abroad to escape the Cup Final is not quite so easy now, being a married man whose wife is partially disabled. But with my English rival settled in another church, I don't feel so threatened as I did before, and to a certain extent, able to wish the England team good luck. But this comes after remembering certain Scriptures with which I have been familiar for years. Such as Isaiah 40:15-17, which reads:
Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust in the scales;
(God) weighs the islands as though they were fine dust.
Lebanon is not sufficient for altar fires, nor its animals enough for burnt offerings.
Before him all the nations are as nothing; they are regarded by him as worthless and less than nothing.
When I posted this on Facebook, one friend commented that he doesn't sound like a good boss! Yet I cannot help read this as the appropriate rebuke to national pride. But to put the Scripture into its proper context, it is Lebanon which gives a clue to its meaning here. In Old Testament times, Lebanon boasted a forest of cedar trees covering the entire land, from which palaces were built and parts of the First Temple were constructed. It was also the source of firewood in abundance for sacrifices which were necessary for the covering of sins until the Crucifixion. Yet if Lebanon with its great abundance was still below par with its supplies, how less were all other nations? The context is to do with redemption, proving that absolutely no one was ever able to work himself up to God's satisfaction and earn Heaven after death.
Where salvation is concerned, every nation is worthless and less than nothing. By comparison, this is strikingly equivalent to the aprons of fig leaves Adam and Eve had made and wore immediately after the Fall. Despite its covering, those leaves still failed to enable them to stand before God, but instead they hid in a bush when they heard him approaching. When God was able to speak to them, he totally ignored their efforts and slew an innocent animal to provide the skins suitable to clothe them (Genesis 3). This involves only the work of God himself without man's help, and involves the shedding of blood of an innocent substitute, the forerunner of Christ's crucifixion.
Those aprons were a symbol of religion - a system of trying to attain reconciliation with God by self effort. It can take several forms, including a high sense of morality, but also through empire building - whether it was by means of the Tower of Babel, the Egyptian or Babylonian Empire or the British Empire, or any form of individual, family, tribal, or national achievement or glory. Indeed, any nation can excel in glory by comparison with other nations, but will never attain the holiness of God by its own efforts or self-promoting glory.
Which brings me to ask: Am I reading too much into the World Cup tournament? No, not really. The football competition is another way of seeking national glory, to stand head-and-shoulders above all other nations in the world by means of eleven men kicking a football across a field. Indeed, football is a religion, a means of worship into the heights of glory. Or in other words, like the Tower of Babel in the depths of history, an attempt to reach the heavens through the efforts of a team of players.
The players themselves do the work, and if a victory is won by them, then the whole nation is glorified through them vicariously. There seems to be very little difference from the vicarious victory won by Jesus Christ through death by Crucifixion, Burial and Resurrection. There seems to be parallels between the England football team and Jesus Christ in the sense that both do the work on behalf of others, leading to glory for all - in one, for every Englishman glorified in winning the World Cup through the efforts of just eleven men playing on the field, for the other, every believer to receive glory through the work of atonement by Jesus Christ.
But there is a difference, maybe only one difference, but a major one at that. The Englishman's glory is temporary and will eventually fade, receding into memory, especially if England fails to win at the next contest. Neither does the Englishman's glory bring reconciliation with God or partake in his holiness. On the contrary, the glory awaiting every believer in Jesus Christ is eternal and will never ever fade or recede into memory. Furthermore, the death of every believer is defeated and is forever reconciled to God, eternal life is given, and made a partaker of his holiness.
Without the work of God to intervene, every nation is as dust, worthless and less than nothing as God sees them. Their struggle to attain glory through self effort or vicariously through means of a team of players, all is vanity, vanity of vanities, so wrote King Solomon in his book of Ecclesiastes. Therefore every Englishman (as well as everyone whose nationality are still in the World Cup contest) should think deeply, and consider that we are all dust and ashes whose breath of life in our nostrils is from God, who sustains us each day. We are the work of Divine Creation and we are not here by accident, neither a turn of luck on the evolutionary scale.
With this way of thinking, the football supporter is humbled, recognising the power and glory of God and therefore doing away with any feeling of superiority over those who had lost out in the contest. Apart from death itself, awareness of the glory of God is a great equaliser, it has that heart-cleansing power to eliminate arrogance and national pride and glory. With this in mind, I would like to bring to attention one marvel of Creation - the unique characteristics of the Earth.
It was from a recent BBC programme, following our planet on its full orbit around the sun. Both my wife and I sat there feeling very humbled at the knowledge that our planet is tilted by 23.5 degrees from the orbital plane, giving us the seasons, which according to scientists, are essential to life, including a diversity of animal and plant species depending on the seasons for reproduction and sustenance. Furthermore, the orbit of the Earth around the Sun is not quite circular, nor is the Sun bang centre of its orbit, but rather elliptical, with the Sun nearer one end of the orbit (the perihelion) than the other end (the aphelion).
It seems ironic that the perihelion happens to occur around January 3rd, that is during our Winters here in the UK whilst the southern hemisphere, enjoying its Summer, also has the privilege of being closer to the Sun. On the contrary, around July 4th, at the height of our Summers, we are also furthest away from the Sun. And then I wonder why we have such lousy Summers here in England! But the truth, highlighted by the BBC, is that the Southern hemisphere is mostly ocean-covered, with just Australasia, Antarctica and South America being the three main continents down under. The result having far cooler and lousier Summers south of the Tropic of Capricorn, simply being a vast expanse of ocean, it takes much longer to heat up. If Southern Winters were on the peak of aphelion, chances are of a permanent Antarctic ice age. To me this was quite a revelation.
The position and gravitational moon is just right, causing solar eclipses as our satellite blocks out the sunlight and giving the impression that the Sun and Moon are exactly the same size. Then not to mention the tremendous effect tidal cycles have on marine life and climate. Finally, despite its eccentricity, the whole of our orbit lie within the Goldilocks zone, the only zone away from the Sun where water can retain its liquid form.
Although some of these facts I already knew from adolescence, the BBC unwittingly highlighted the very power and glory of God in his Creation. It caused me to humbly worship. Indeed, with knowledge of such revelation, the pride, strength and glory of every nation does appear as fine dust, worthless and less than nothing when compared to life giving and life-sustaining powers of Divine Creation!
But having said that, poor England, deprived of an international World Cup win for 52 years - go on, go for it, and bring the trophy home this time. I'll support you. But remember God and acknowledge him, for your very existence depends on him.