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CAN HOCKEY BE HOLY?

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Go where the people will be. What one professional player and one passionate pastor teach us about living faith in the arena.

by Phil Wagler

I played in several church hockey leagues (also known as “hell hockey”) as well as on more “secular” expressions of the glorious winter sport. Sadly, the church moniker is often well deserved and my greatest opportunities to live my faith—to be stretched and enjoy “the good old hockey game”— came in beer leagues.

I played in several church hockey leagues (also known as “hell hockey”) as well as on more “secular” expressions of the glorious winter sport. Sadly, the church moniker is often well deserved and my greatest opportunities to live my faith—to be stretched and enjoy “the good old hockey game”— came in beer leagues.

There amidst the colourful language and pining for a cold one, the rubber met the ice of life. In those arenas I found myself on a mission, playing with purpose alongside others for a reason greater than wins and losses.

Longing to inspire such purposeful play, Jamie Ramer of Zurich, Ontario serves Jesus in the arena. In November 2010 Jamie was ordained by Mennonite Church Eastern Canada at his hometown rink in affirmation of a unique call: he is a chaplain to junior hockey players across Ontario.

By patiently growing chapel programs through a large network of volunteers, and building trusting relationships with hockey clubs such as last season’s Ontario Hockey League champion Owen Sound Attack, Jamie incarnates the love of Christ in the hockey world and reminds Canadian Christians that “if we want to engage Canadian culture with the Gospel of Jesus, we need to find ways to connect with and encourage those within the game.”

Sunday Sport

Many Canadian churches wrestle with what to do with the sporting life many of their members and particularly their children engage in. An uneasy tension exists between parents who feel marginally guilty involving their kids in activities that create Sunday and church activity conflicts, while the non-sporting types frown upon the primacy sports receive.

Priorities seem askew. Still, if you listen carefully to Sunday morning chatter, you’ll hear references to Saturday night’s Leafs’ loss or the exploits of the Oilers’ young stars. An unhealthy separation of the secular and sacred blinds us to the realities of our culture, how it shapes even those within our faith communities, and breeds the ridiculous creation of those church leagues that remove Christians from the very places they should be while they compete with one another for church bragging rights rather than unite together for the advance of the Kingdom.

To live on mission with Jesus requires living all of life—including what happens in the local rink—as under the reign of God. We would be wise to listen to voices like Jamie’s, a man on the cultural frontlines who calls churches to be present in the arena rather than heaping guilt on those who seemingly live there. He aims to equip believers to enter with purpose.

Jamie’s life as a junior hockey player was shaped by those who helped him work through the tension of his love for a game and devotion to Jesus. They helped him see that his athletic gifts were from God and sport could be an avenue for Kingdom impact. Inspired, Jamie and his wife Lea-Anne served in Sweden and now Ontario with Hockey Ministries International (HMI)—an organization serving the hockey subculture at every level since 1977.

Beneath the Glamour

The hockey player has become an iconic symbol of Canadiana and young boys and girls long to walk in the seemingly glamorous steps of Sidney Crosby and Hayley Wickenheiser.

However, when a 16-year-old leaves home and moves hours away where he’ll be a hero and a target, the ice can get thin. Or, when events like Dan Snyder’s untimely death in 2003, [the summer of 2011’s] suicides of Rypien and Belak, or Lokomotiv Yaroslavl’s tragic plane crash interrupt the thrill-ride, life becomes more than a game.

When the pipedream house of sticks comes tumbling down, the spiritual void that exists beneath the glitz and glamour is exposed. Who will be there then? That’s why HMI seeks to be a constant presence, and it’s what Jamie hopes local churches will do in the cities and small towns where the dreams are being launched.

One emerging star who knows this tale is James Reimer of the Toronto Maple Leafs. James, or Optimus Reim as he’s been crowned, grew up in tiny Morweena, Manitoba fighting that dichotomous tension between sport and the spiritual. Raised in an evangelical Mennonite home, Reimer rose to prominence as the starting goalie of that team you either love or hate.

With a new big-dollar contract in hand, James and his wife April, a pastor’s daughter, now live their vibrant faith in the place of dreams.

Or is it? At the end of Hockey Night in Canada, James is still a 24-year-old young adult facing the challenges—along with some very different ones—of most men his age. It can be a perilous tight rope. With every move constantly scrutinized, James says his greatest spiritual need is a place of genuine Christian fellowship, friendship and support.

This is exactly what HMI provided at every level of his development and what he needs from his local church. Whether facing the temptations of selfishness and pride that being labeled “The Saviour” can arouse, or feeling the pull toward the destructive habits associated with the sport, James avows that “HMI was the greatest thing; there was a believer who looked out for you.”

Fruit of His Roots

While this present support is very important, James is still the fruit of his roots. The people of his home community taught him to receive all he had been given as a gift from God; to realize God is the source of all things and is teaching you in success and failure. That communal modeling of a humble, hardworking, Christ-like life shaped him profoundly and prepared him to be a witness even in the crease.

His parents’ example and the sometimes-strict boundaries they set taught him that Christian community and corporate worship mattered and that hockey’s not the greatest thing. “If it jeopardizes who you are in Christ it’s not worth it.”

And here, particularly, may be the lesson to be learned from someone who has reached the pinnacle of what many aspire to and parents push their kids toward. The divide between the secular and the sacred must be eliminated in our homes, arenas and churches. For the believer, these are all together under the Lordship of Christ!

Our goal must be to make disciples who know their identity in Christ and live for him as Spirit-filled witnesses no matter where they work or play, while ready to lay down anything that may relationship.

And, we must walk with those like James so that they can stand strong.

Reimer reflects poignantly on the opportunity Christians have in a culture where the word of a masked Maple Leaf may carry more weight than a homiletically profound preacher: “We are called to be missionaries and, no matter how secular the position may seem, God wants people in those places to spread the word. So, broaden your horizon and go where the people will be.”

That vision, embraced with the passion of an elite athlete or die-hard fan, might just make hockey holy and our arenas the locale of Kingdom victories.

Phil Wagler is the author of Kingdom Culture: Growing the Missional Church and, yes, a long-suffering Leafs fan. A version of this article appeared previously inThe Canadian Mennonite.

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