Of late, the temperatures during the day around Matawan have been hitting 90+ degrees Fahrenheit. Today, there are air alerts, letting people know that "in the heat of the day" there is an increased breathing/stress risk for folks affected by asthma and cardiopulmonary issues. For us, we realized this morning that if we are going to get a good walk in with the dog, get any work done in the yard, etc...it means getting up and out early, before the sun rises too far into the sky and the air becomes too heavy to work, walk or breathe in.
I am always reminded, on days like these, of the area where I grew up. The little corner of Southeastern Ohio that we called home for the greater part of my childhood and teen years was a river valley tributary of the Ohio River. Summers were hot and humid, often with temperatures that hit the 80s late in May, holding a moist heat next to your skin through into September. Late July and the month of August were the most challenging. Heat indexes of well over 100 were the norm, and of course that was the time I had to kick into training for the fall soccer season.
A major portion of that training was the enjoyable (though sometimes painful) tradition my friends and I had of going down to the river on the south side of the local University's campus on Sunday and Wednesday evenings for pickup games with the students and foreign nationals who lived in town over the summer quarter. We would have anywhere from between 15-30 people show up, all with a love for the game of "real" football. Nigerians, Ghanians, Kenyans, Hondurans, Venezuelans, Mexicans...you name it. At any one time, there were at least six languages being shouted out on the practice pitches, a human mosaic of men (mostly, though sometimes women would show up) who had one thing above all in common-a desire to play soccer.
It is a set of memories I treasure. For one thing, it was a time when the competition for starting spots on the local High School team was suspended. All the regular, and debilitating, politics of the competitive game fell away. It wasn't about winning, but about playing well. The people who showed up at these games desired "a good game" and the expectation was that you would play well, play hard and do your level best.
I learned how to enjoy sports on those summer evenings...and learned as well that pursuit of winning for its own sake is not a healthy pursuit at all.
I also learned how to listen to my body...playing an open-ended game in 100+ degree weather can literally boil your brain. Playing with people who grew up in, and were accustomed to, tropical heat meant that there would be little sympathy for losing wind, energy....or consciousness...due to the heat.
One Nigerian graduate student, a Yoruban who had a great left foot and a stunning ability to just keep running all the time during a game used to come over to where we were lacing up our boots and drinking water before playing (to stay hydrated) and chide us for weighing ourselves down with water before a match. He never drank a drop until after the match, he said. It kept him alter.... For us, that would have meant an early death. Still, the lesson learned was that everyone has a different liturgy of preparation for a physical ordeal. His was abstinence....ours was to top off the metaphorical tank like camels getting ready to cross the desert.
All of these images come to mind on a number of levels. The first is the presence of the World Cup in our lives this summer. This global tournament is the largest, most watched event in sports in the world. Bigger than the Super Bowl, the World Series and NASCAR put together. People are watching the matches around the globe, listening to radio broadcasts of matches in the most remote places on earth. All "for the love of the game" and a desire that perhaps this year their country-or favorite-will move up through the groups and into the championship game.
Another set of images is, for me, just as powerful. The Sunday lections of these past two weeks find us in the desert wilderness with Elijah. He has journeyed deep into the waste, running from conflicts with the ruling powers of human society he seeks to hide/die out in the wild. God gives him just enough water and food for a forty day journey to the holy mountain...and even less for the walk home. 81 days out there in the heat, with only his thirst, hunger and the word of God to keep him company. As these days are hot, as the soccer matches on television remind me of salad days playing pick up games in the 100+ heat of river valley inversions, as God seems to press in on us like the humid, hard air that is prevalent after the summer solstice in this hemisphere, I find my self stepping back into those days when I felt closer to my body, to me fellow human beings and often even to God.
Sweat and effort, exhaustion and heat-stress...sometimes we find God at the extreme end of our endurance...and for that I give thanks.