Ep. 37 - Stephen Liggins: The Good Sporting Life
Ep. 37 - Stephen Liggins: The Good Sporting Life

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- Well, welcome to the Christians in Sport podcast. Thanks to the wonders of technology, it's a about half 11 as I'm talking here in Cambridge and Stephen Liggins in Sydney, at about half past eight in the evening. My morning coffee break, your bit of supper, Stephen. Bit of supper?

- Cup of tea in the evening.

- Perfect, tea. Perfect timing. Let me make sure I introduce you properly, cause before I even say anything, this book, "The good sporting life", this book here, let me read you the subtitle. Loving and playing sport as a follower of Jesus, written by Stephen, which is why we want to interview him. I got the chance, the privilege of reading it before it got published. And it is the best current opportunity. If you want to read about a good theology, a really good theological biblical foundation for thinking about the gospel in sport, and you want that combined with real detailed application and practical application? This is the book. Not a surprise because Stephen's a former lawyer and journalist, which would explain the book. He's now a minister and a visiting lecturer at Sydney Missionary College. And of course now a writer. Stephen, you played first grade cricket, you can tell from the book, the feed of the book, you played 14 years first grade cricket in Sydney, but you were in England for a year, and you could have gone pro. Tell us a bit about being in England?

- When I was about 20 years of age, I was at the stage of my cricket career where the possibility of going professional was a genuine chance. I mean, I'd always like lots of Australian kids I'd grown up playing cricket in the backyard, football in the backyard, that sort of stuff. When I got to the big teams, I suddenly started to improve quite dramatically. And I made the New South Wales under 16 and under 19 and was playing with people like Stephen, Mark Warren, Mark Taylor, and other people, who went on to become much more famous than I. And so I thought, well, I'd really like to give this cricket a go. So I trained hard. I played the season in the Middlesex league in London, for a club team called Richmond, which was an absolutely wonderful experience. And I was hoping to go professional, but unfortunately by the time a couple of years had passed through, I guess, a combination of injuries and perhaps a slight technical flaw in my bowling action. It didn't quite come to pass. I ended up playing 14 years of first grade with and against some great players, almost got professional, but I guess not quite.

- I know this is a weird thing to throw into the conversation, but sometimes I think if you've been in that position, you actually love sport more for the rest of your life than when you've been in the intense cauldron of huge professional pressure for 14 years. I think we can pick up on that concept, I think a bit later, when we discuss it because you and I both work with professional sports people. And just to be good enough to know that feeling and to play high, without the draining public sphere. That's what brings you, is a big.. No, comment on that now. I think that's quite a big deal you see.

- I think that is right. I mean, I wrote the book with sports people of all levels in mind. From the very humble weekend occasional player, right through to the international. And I guess the experience of sport is very different for people at different levels. And so I guess the level I got to, which was, I guess about as high as you can go without becoming professional. I was playing good sport against good people, but it was never my job. I never got to the point where my family dependent on it. I was in the local papers, but I wasn't in the international papers or anything like that. So I was just playing good sport against good people, without that added pressure of the financial strains, the career issues and those sorts of things. Mind you if someone had said to me, would you like to go professional? I would have said yes, count me in, I'm there for it.

- Absolutely right. And it's a big part. It's crossing those boundaries at Christians in sports Stephen, you've interviewed many Christian sport types. We'll get that because we'll focus on the competitive sports, Women or sportsmen, highly competitive, but not their job, good at it, through to the elite sports person. And that'll be youngsters and adults. You have, obviously, because of that, that's gonna be inevitable now playing the cricket, playing soccer. You played into your fifties, great stuff. Athletics, just to a couple more personal things cause it's nice to get a feel of you, because we'd love people to read the book. You've kept going at a pretty high grade of athletics into your fifties. Tell us a bit more about that.

- I guess I played stacks of sport in my life. It was mainly cricket, which I took most seriously, but I played a lot of soccer or football for fun. It kept me fit. It was just great fun in winter, nice sunny afternoon, the grass is green, the sky is clear, it was brilliant fun. But then seven or eight years ago, I got into masters athletics. I'm a minister these days, I do some lecturing, I've got kids aged 12 and 11, I'm married and I get a day off a week. And if you've got a day off a week, you don't really wanna spend most of it by playing cricket. But he might want it, it's not the smartest thing in the world to do. And I've done quite a bit of athletics back in high school. And the good thing about athletics is you can train when you want, it only takes a few hours rather than three quarters of the day. And so I started to get back into throwing the shot put, discus and javelin, and I've been teaching myself to throw the hammer. And I've done masters athletics and I've had some modest success at it, which is quite nice. So I still have a semi serious hobby going in the sporting arena, which I can fit in with my current lifestyle.

- Absolutely terrific. And in that context then, why write the book? It makes sense, but there's a number of us who feel like you feel and play like you play. But most of us aren't journalists that's for sure. You've written the book. Why write the book now?

- I guess I've played sport and watched sport, and read about sport all my life. I love sport. I really love it. But I've been a Christian since early high school and I love God even more. And I guess for most of my life with sport, I've been trying to integrate my Christian life and my sporting life, and to put them together. Back when I was in high school, when I was a cricket nut, I remember sitting in a school assembly one day when I should have been listening to something else, but I was thinking if God wanted me to give up cricket, would I do it? And now that's probably a pretty easy answer for most people or pretty easy question for most people to answer. But for me it was a real crunch one and I don't know how God would have told me to give up cricket. But if He had, I think I would have said yes I would, but I wouldn't want it, but I would. So I guess what's first, God or sport for me? But over the years I think I've noticed that many Christians are very clean sports watchers, sports players, coaches, parents of kids who play sport. But I've noticed that for some people like their Christian life is here and their sporting life is over here, and there's not much interaction. I was speaking to one gentleman actually from England, whose a fine Christian man, and he was telling me that when he was younger, he's Christian life and his sport life didn't go together at all. Sport was like something he did in his time off from being a Christian. And it was nice that God let him play sport on the side. He couldn't integrate them or he didn't integrate them. I mean, he does now. And he's now involved in sports ministry. But I guess what I wanted to do with the book was to help Christians to see how sport can be part of their Christian life. They'll enjoy sport more that way I believe. But also that way sport can be a plus, not a minus. For their spiritual lives a sport than the a plus, not a minus to the kingdom of God. And so I was really keen to help people think through those sorts of things. And I guess in a biblical, a practical and an interesting sort of way.

- Let's pick up then on what you've just called the pluses and the minuses. There are plenty discussed in the book. And so we couldn't cover the whole range here. I'm gonna read a list of some of the things that we've captured between us as pluses. So just in case we don't get to them. The joy of sport, friendships, opportunities to share your Christian faith, to meet other Christians actually as well, significant things, character development, health, physical health. If you were to pinpoint, all are covered in the book. If you were to pinpoint one or two of them now, that you think, in my own experience and in those I've talked to, here's a couple of substantial benefits to Christianity and sport in this combination. What would they be?

- I could talk about all of them but I won't. I guess one thing which is perhaps worth saying is that I think it's good, I mean sport, I believe has intrinsic merit. It's good in and off itself. God gave us creativity to create culture, to create architecture, to create music, to create sport. And I think by playing and participating in sport and enjoying it, we're enjoying something good, which is God has actually given for us. And I think God wants us to enjoy sport. The thrill of a cover drive or a half falling a shot into the top corner of the net, or hooping a ball from miles out in the basketball court. I mean, it's fun, it's physical it's just great to be part of. So I think one of the things we wanna do is not think that sport has got nothing to do with God. Sport is something we can thank God for and try and I guess glorify him from the way we participate, through doing our best, enjoying it, playing with a good attitude, that sort of thing. So, one thing I would like to highlight is that sport is just good in and off itself. It's something which we can thank God for. It's good for rest, it's good for fun. We all know that. We've all experienced that if we've played sport, I trust. But I guess one of the other many great things about sport is the relationships that you can build through sport. And some of my best friends in life I've made from sport. There are people I played cricket and soccer with 30 years ago who I still consider some of my better friends. I'm still in contact with. I touch base with them. There's something about, I think, striving against someone in sport, suffering and striving together with people in your own team. It really brings you very close. And so you can form great friendships. And then I guess if you're friends with all your sporting mates or friends, if they're Christians, you've got the opportunity also to encourage them in their faith. And if they're not believers, you've got the opportunity to be a witness for Christ, to be a representative for Christ, to talk to people as the opportunity arises. And I think the opportunity to witness to our faith, but also to encourage the other believers are great chances which sport can give us and I can think of. I've had many examples myself and I talked to many people that are great examples of both of those as well, as I'm sure you could tell yourself, Graham.

- I like the order and I like the way you do it in the book, Stephen. I like the order in which you've articulated that. The intrinsic value of sport. Forgive me for repeating it, but I find it attractive. The intrinsic value of the sport, the gift from God, that's the integration. And the talent is a physical and partly psychological aspect of our being. But I found over the years, and this comes across very nicely in the way you write, Stephen Liggins isn't going to the cricket club to try and take God to people. He is that cricketer, that's who he is. He's made to be that man. He lives and breathes that world with his colleagues. Some will be Christian, some won't, but your witness is innate, it's part of the whole thing. And I think sometimes even if people are listening to us now trying to work out their own child who's a Christian and very sporty and they're not. I think somewhere in here is capturing how that child was made. Now I wouldn't mind picking up on this a little bit. You talk to parents. At the back of the book, you talk to a range of people, coaches, parents, for example, players, clergy, How do you advise parents who don't get this? How do you coach them in that for the sake of their child was very sporty for example?

- That's an interesting one. I mean, parents clearly have a really big role to play in their kids' lives, and if sport is part of it, particularly in their sport. I don't know whether this is directly answering your question Graham. So come back at me if I'm not. I think one of the important things for parents is to, I guess, you wanna love your kids. Sport gives you a great chance to spend time with your kids and also to spend time with your kids mates. And I think most parents would recognize that. I think all parents should recognize, I wanna say to their kids, look, I love you, regardless of how well you go into sport. If you're a Christian parent of a Christian kid, you wanna say God loves you regardless of how well you go in your sport. If you're not a Christian parent, I guess that wouldn't be something rather which would occur to you to say. And I guess what Christian parents wanna do, or what parents wanna do is to instill in these kids, the values which I think are important. So if we're a Christian parent, I want my kids to think, hey it's fun playing sport, God gave us sport, thank God for it kids. It's good to be an example of a Christian wherever we are. Why don't you encourage those Christian friends of yours and those who aren't Christians, why don't you invite them to youth group or if they're interested in coming? And another thing which I think is really important for parents that are, I don't know what the scene is over there in England at the moment, but it's probably the same as here, is I think parents have a great role to play in encouraging kids to play with good sportsmanship as well. I think some people in Australia a few years ago were getting a bit weary with some of our great athletes and they are great athletes, playing in a way, which I found slightly embarrassing in terms of it's great to be hyper competitive, I'm all for that, but nasty? You wanna be competitive, but not nasty, I think. And so I think you can say to your kids try hard, but remember that be a good sport and that sort of thing. And I think whatever you are whether you're a Christian or non-Christian parent, I think most parents recognize the value of instilling good sportsmanship in kids. I mean it's historic, but that's one of the reasons parents have usually got their kids to play sport. I think sport is good for their character development, good for their health. So I guess you wanna try and make sure that's actually being achieved.

- Let's flip that then. Again, I'm trying to pick out key themes that underpin the narrative, where so many practical examples underpinned by the theology. Many people listening to us will have experienced this or been asked about it. So you're saying God made the ability to play. He gave you relationships, which can be really, really enriching. But, and there's always the but, the but is people will say the thing is she takes sports so seriously, she gets so angry. She gets so sad when she loses. I mean, it brings out the best in her sometimes, but it brings out the worst in her shouldn't she stop playing? Now, that's a pretty blunt question that we're asked often by Christian parents. How do you deal with that? You deal with it in the book. How do you deal with it? Tell us .

- The most helpful thing for any sports person of any age, whether they're 15 or 25, whether they're playing for the local team or whether they're playing for their country. The most helpful thing for any sports person is to be a Christian. If you're in a relationship with God, you realize that God loves you regardless of how well you go. You realize that you might to God. God has given you a sport to play, but it's not the most important thing in the world. It might be very important, but God and people are more important than sport. And many of the Christian sports people of a very high level I've spoken to, internationals and good rugby players and things like that. They've said that by being a Christian, it helps to navigate the highs and the lows of sport. It helps them to deal with success better. It helps them to deal with injuries and disappointments better. And really the best thing that a teenager who's really into sport can do really, is to be a Christian, because that will help them to navigate the highs and lows, the ups and downs. To keep the ups in perspective, to keep the lows in perspective. And realize that it's an important thing, but it's not the most important thing. There's a very good female long distance runner in Australia called Eloise Wellings who's been to a number of Olympic games, and she was actually picked for the Sydney Olympics when she was 16 years old, really very young, she's a bit of a prodigy. And then just before the Olympics, she got I think it was a hip injury had to pull out and she was understandably devastated. But the interesting thing is that some friends of hers from school said look Eloise, she wasn't a Christian at the time, but we're praying for you. And Eloise ended up, I think going along to their church, becoming a Christian. And her career since then has been dogged by injuries. I think she's had 10 or 11 major injuries, in between all the international success. But she said that God's actually taught her stuff through the downs and the injuries, and the things like that. And it seems to me that for her, that her faith has helped her navigate the ups and downs really well. In fact, she became a Christian it seems partially through one of those injuries.

- You deal very well with this question. The concept of idolatry is almost the nemesis of dealing with some of these issues. If you're a passionate sportswoman at the highest level like Eloise, or like many of us in competitive sports, you're passionate about it, you love your team, but you're so captured by your own vanity. Cause you've always been the best kid to this sport at school and so on. That what I've really enjoyed, forgive me for putting it in sort of religious way, but that sport is a school of discipleship. You actually learn to fight your idols. And I find that's thrilling at 58 years of age, part of a professional football club. I'm fighting my idolatry all the time. When I won as an eight year old, I was top boy in the class and all that stuff. At 58 years of age, if my team loses, I feel like the worst kid in the class. And that idolatry is powerful. And to fight that through together as Christian sports people in local churches is the most exhilarating possibility, isn't it?

- Yeah, I think one of the most helpful things for Christian sports people is to.. Well, the key thing is to keep close to God. So you wanna be reflecting on the scripture and praying, but one of the most helpful things which God gives us is fellowship with other Christians. And if we're in consistent fellowship in the way you've described, our Christian brothers and sisters can rejoice with us when we rejoice, wait us when we wait. But to help us see the main game, which is God, stays the main game. That we can really strive at sport, but God is still our number one. And I guess the danger is for sports players, but also sports fans, I think this is a real big one for football supporters in particular, in all around the world is that it's a wonderful thing to support a team, but it's not the most important thing in the world. And if you put sport number one, you've got the emotions are going to be all over the shop with your fortunes of your team. But if you have got above your sport, it tempers it and it's actually putting things in perspective. But I guess it can be a challenge because we're very invested in sport even without realizing that I guess our self identity can get sometimes a bit caught up in our sport and our sporting success. Just on that last point there granted, if I may, I sort of thought I was gonna become a professional cricketer for quite a few years. And then when I didn't, I mean was always been a Christian and God was more important, but when I realized I wasn't gonna make it, I wasn't going to become a household name, I actually found that quite a difficult adjustment. Because I guess in the back of my mind a lot of my identity had been caught up with the fact that I am good at cricket. And then suddenly I realized I was good, but I wasn't that good. And that was quite a big adjustment to make. So when you're heavily invested it is one of your areas you've gotta keep an eye on. I guess you've got to keep it in perspective and keep close to God, and he'll help you navigate those highs and lows.

- The reason I was nodding was that I think that book's worth reading, just the way you talk about that, actually. The way you actually describe what you've just articulated, is priceless for a young man or a young woman who's very good. But sport is littered with a loss of love for the game. And sometimes a loss of love for God if you're a Christian as a young person, when you realize that you're not quite as good as you thought you were. And the deep disappointment that comes from it really requires navigating. And that section very early on where you talk like that is very helpful--

- Could I say. I actually think we enjoy sport more by putting God first. Because when we keep sport I guess in that perspective, it's a lot more satisfying and fun, and their identities are invested in it. And so we enjoy it more. If we try and make sport God, which is not supposed to be, it's a lousy God, and yet the world is littered with sports people who've been disillusioned for all sorts of reasons. If you wanna so you become a Christian.

- When you started drawing Stephen, you got my mind racing, as you can see. I'm sort of looking up at the sky thinking that's really interesting. What should I talk about? Because you watch the clock don't you? Let's talk about the local church in this context then. Local churches. You're a church minister, I am. In different ways probably parallel each other with a sport and the jobs we've done and sworn and our passion for sports in the context of the Christian gospel. The history of the church and its engagement with sport is well documented. It's touched on by you, and it could be read elsewhere. As you sit in this interview today, how should a good local church look at the men and women, girls and boys in its congregation initially, let's go there, and deal with so many of the things that you've articulated well in a few minutes here? What's the best for a local church?

- One thing I would love to think is that the local church is helping Christians in their church deal Christianly with all areas of their life. You wanna think about your family Christianly and what the Bible has to say. You wanna think about your work, Christianly. You wanna think about your reading and your music Christianly. You wanna think about your sport Christianly. So I think one of the most helpful things the church can do, is to help them see how the Bible's teaching impacts on their involvement with all areas of life, including sport. And I would suggest it's probably a good topic for a seminar each year or something like that, or like directing towards my book. But I guess you want people to see that all the sorts of things, which my book talks about. If you're playing sport and you like it? Great, thank God for it. It's a gift from God. If you're playing sport? Great place to have friends. If you're playing sport in a church team? Make a point of encouraging your Christian brothers and sisters on the court. Don't discourage them. If you're playing in a team, there's lots of nonbelievers? Remember you're an ambassador for Christ. How can you be a better ambassador for Christ where you are? And so all those sorts of things I'd be wanting to I guess.. I want people to think about sport as part of their Christian life. And so as a church minister, I'd be wanting to do that. Sometimes churches can actually use sport for reasons of just general fellowship. Here in Australia often you'll get church together and watch one of the big rugby league games on a big or big football game, or something like that. You've got church sporting teams which is fun, and you can even engage in sports ministries of various sorts. Putting on sports camps and those sorts of things. So there's really a whole world of opportunities for the church. And I guess what you wanna do is to use sport as a plus not a minus. Something we can thank God for which is a blessing. And not to see it as an enemy or as irrelevant, or anything like that.

- Let's just draw in then on perhaps a more tricky question along those lines. Let's narrow this down. As a church minister yourself then with the conflict that goes on now, we're asked this all the time, I have no doubt. With the conflict that goes on in the last 25 years in Western culture. With Sunday sport, non-existent here until the eighties. Wouldn't mind five pounds for every time I've been asked the question, what do we do about church? Specifically with our very, very good sporty kid? Well, we both know there's not a simple answer to this. We believe in the local church. We believe that God gave the gift of sport. We both know it's complex. Where do you go with this Stephen, when you try and give advice because people crave advice on this?

- Well I actually write I think a few pages about that in the book, which summarizes my thinking. What's the most important thing? It's your relationship with God. God says the Christian fellowship is really important. So we know that. Sport, we know is a good gift from God which we can really enjoy. And there are so many good things which can be achieved through sport. And really one of the best things. One of the many instrumental benefits of sport is that Christians can be out enjoying the company of non-Christians. And if non-Christians are interested in the gospel, they're probably more likely to talk to their sporting friends who are Christians than to rock out at some church, or speak to some minister or anything like that. So, wonderful opportunities. When the sport clashes with Sunday church, you could look at it individually. The most important thing for that young keen sports person who has sport on play Sunday mornings, is their relationship with God. But for instance, when I was playing cricket at a good level, my dad said, "Right, you can play sport on Sunday mornings, "but I'm gonna take you to church with me on Sunday nights". So what, every Sunday night, you can do that. And for most of my sporting career, when I was playing sport on Sunday, I used to go to night church. So there wasn't really the clash. So there are often creative ways to get around the issue. So if I was a parent and my son was really talented at a sport, which involves some Sunday morning play, I'd think, okay, if we think this is a good direction for my son or daughter to head in, how are they going to get their fellowship? Okay, I'm gonna put myself out and I'm gonna take him to church at night. Or some churches have services on Saturdays, or things like that. I'd find an alternative. If their sport was that important I'd find an alternative. I think one of your colleagues, Graham, was saying that when she was playing Sunday sport her parish organized a midweek youth group at their church, which she went along to and got her fellowship there for a year or two. So I think there are creative ways if you really wanna pursue a sport, that you can while still getting your Christian fellowship. And I think the important thing, for a minister to do is to try and be flexible and creative. And the important thing for a parent or a kid to do is to think, right, I wanna put God first in my life, or help my son and daughter to say that, but how can we do that while still pursuing the sport? And you want Christians in every area of life, including sports. So I think that in most cases there's usually a good way forward.

- I want to do it . It helps enormously because it summarizes what I think about the book and what I said at the beginning of the book. The Christians in sport we're extremely fallible, but we have a passion that the gospel is proclaimed clearly and truly in its historical evangelical fashion. We want to do that. And we want to be all in for sport as well. And therefore there are no simplistic answers to some of the dilemmas of idolatry or corporate worship, and a range of other things. You capture them in the book and you combine the pragmatism and practice with a serious theological approach. "The Good Sporting Life, loving and playing sport "as a follower of Jesus", by Stephen Liggins. Great partners and friends tenofthose.com will sell you this immediately. Look out for our social media, all across the Christian's sports social media. We'll be pointing you towards the book. Stephen, absolutely terrific to have your company and a bit of insight that underpins the book, and we wish you well. And we hope many, many people get to read it and learn from it. Thank you, Stephen.

- Well, I hope people find the book helpful and it's lovely to talk to you as well.

- Delightful, thank you very much, indeed.

- See you later.

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