Standing on the wide open playing fields, amidst the markings of a football pitch, I realise something is amiss. For many such places are a source of joy: the source of cheers and whoops as the ball gets kicked from one goal to another. Yet as I stood there I felt the desolation beyond that which was brought on by the looming thick grey clouds above me. For me the football field is a place of sorrow, a place of hurt, a place of loneliness.
Football was one of the main sports at school. It was also a sport I sort to find my way into a community as I moved from place to place. There were moments of joy: finding myself playing in my favourite position at right midfield, just like my football hero Kenny Daglish, collecting the ball from the defence and then delivering it to the striker near the goalmouth. But overwhelming the joy of football is the sadness associated with it: the memory of being left out in the cold of the sidelines.
Being picked last for sports at school isn’t great at the best of times, but as the new kid on the block it emphasised that I had not yet been accepted. No one quite knew how good the new boy was so didn’t want him in their team, and the team that ended up with him rarely passed it to him for similar reasons and worries that he would cause them to loose. So he was, I was, the last to be chosen and the last to be involved. My place on the football pitch was one of hopes of friendship and inclusion being repeatedly rejected. I was left on the outside, hoping to be let in to the game, to the team, to the friendships.
Perhaps that’s why I’m not a football fanatic
Although I grew to like the anonymity and solitude, and still do, I’m experiencing the same sense of awkward loneliness at the school gate, and the reasons are as simple and complex as the football pitch. At the school gate I am once again the ‘new kid in town’, and my long-lived out introversion and anonymity is right at the surface of who I am as I wait for my daughter to come out of school.
There are well established friendships between both parents and children, but unlike the children who mix within defined class-bubbles the parents are urged to practice social distancing as a preventative measure against catching the Coronavirus. The combination of introversion, anonymity and social distancing mean that forming new relationships with other parents can feel like an impossibility. It requires tremendous emotional and mental energy to cope with the worry about the words to say and the fear of rejection that might follow. But it also requires a bit of good fortune. Whilst some parents are less cautious about social distancing, I am very cautious – a spell in isolation at my local hospital earlier in the year reminded me of the fragility of life. This means that conversations with unknown people requires the good fortune of being safely positioned and making eye contact, which is remarkably difficult when all eyes are focused on seeing their particular child emerge out of school.
I had not walked onto the football pitch earlier with a mind to reflect on the loneliness of being the new kid in town. I had gone for a walk to marvel at the immense beauty of the hills around where I live. From the edge of the plateau on which the football pitches lie, one can see from Salisbury Plain in the east, to the Mendips and beyond in the south, and to the Brecon Beacons in Wales to the West. One can also see across the City of Bath and look down on where the steep topography has halted its spread. I asked God what all this meant as I continued my walk past the Racecourse and came across new vistas.
I let my thoughts wonder as my feet did. My feet took me to the summit of another local landmark, my thoughts took me back to last Sunday.
After the second church service last Sunday I had felt like a failure. My struggle to engage in conversations with people I don’t know meant that I lost a golden opportunity to speak with someone I had not seen at church before – I don’t know if they were visiting or new as most are still new to me. Even those I have spoken with can be hard to identify, with much of their face hidden by a facemask.
Last Sunday all barriers to beginning a new relationship, however briefly it might be, had been removed; all barriers except one —myself. God had presented me with the opportunity to invite a person from the edge of the pitch and into the team that is the Body of Christ, the Church. Instead I had said a banal “nice to see you” and they walked on. They had been left on the pitch-side and the ball passed onto someone else.
The instance after church, and my sense of failure, fuelled my determination to do better. So I looked for opportunities to speak with a parent at the school gate. It took a few days but one did present itself, and I pushed past the nerves screaming at me not to speak and found a way to start a conversation. The conversation was little more than small talk, but it established a sense of who each other was to the school and therefore to each other. It might be a relationship that doesn’t go beyond pleasantries, and that’s fine, but as more such presented opportunities are seized the more I will be known and the easier conversations will occur. As they do the ability to serve and pray with the community will emerge.
But that wasn’t why the football pitch revelation had arisen. Finding the energy to get off the sidelines was looking at the situation through my eyes. The memory of the loneliness of the football pitch had surfaced to remind myself of the loneliness of those who are distanced from the activity going on without them. Just as I looked on as the other children chased the ball up and down the pitch, so others are watching on from the sidelines as church, school and life in general goes on. Just as I hoped someone would notice me and invite me into the game by passing me the ball, so are others hoping to be noticed and invited in. Those people might be seen at the edge of the pitch, standing or sitting silently alone by the edge of a school, church or other such gathering. But they might not be there to be seen at all. In times such as this present pandemic, many are not even able to get onto the sidelines — instead their protective isolation keeps them out of sight. These remain in need of being brought into the team, they remain with the desire to be involved in the game, but most of all they remain wanting to be seen.
Starting a curacy in a pandemic is challenging, whether any more so than starting one not in a pandemic is impossible for me to know. But I know that the pandemic has exacerbated one problem I, and others, have: seeing and knowing those we don’t know and can’t see. God knows and sees them. My prayer is not just that He helps me to see them too, but that he helps me to know them as well. If that happens I can invite them to the game, and if they want to come off the sidelines and join in, then I will be there to invite them to join in and receive the love that God channels through His Church.