I had no idea what I was seeing. Sprawled across the low sofa, squinting at the figures on the television screen, I could not recall ever watching a Super Bowl before, though I may have seen one out of the corner of my eye. This was certainly my first time to sit down and intentionally watch the game. I found myself disappointingly dispassionate about it. Watching the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos jerk awkwardly across the frame felt like catching a glimpse of a nondescript stranger across a moderately crowded train: blank.
I grew up with two footballs. Real futbol was played by every boy and man in the country (and a few intrepid girls), barefoot on packed red dirt streets, flip-flop-shod in bumpy cow pastures, or in a blurry clash of red/blue and black/white on the turf of the dazzlingly bright Defensores del Chaco stadium. It was universal, and it was beautiful in its logic. American football, on the other hand, had a ball that was not a ball and an incomprehensible scoring system. I disdained its unnecessary complexity, its padded violence, its unapologetic nationalism.
Trying to follow the starts-and-stops, I wished I felt something of the joy people in Levi’s Stadium seemed to feel, a joy unmediated by commentators or commercials. I sat down to watch the game in hopes that I would learn something about people I love but can’t seem to understand, my friends and family who speak a cultural language I find utterly incomprehensible: American. Quickly, I saw the fatal flaw in my plan. In deciding to engage in this annual community ritual, I had left out community. For the past 18 years I have tried and failed on a daily basis to understand this country and this people in which I find myself immersed, and once more I had completely misread a situation. Sitting alone with my taco dip and my Coke Zero was not what Americans mean when they talk about “watching the Super Bowl.” I thought of all the jokes I had not understood, the pop culture references I had missed, the social faux pas I’d committed during my adulthood as a fake American. My Super Bowl Party of One clicked neatly into place in my catalog of American Things I Have Messed Up.
For two decades I’ve been in hot pursuit of Americanness, combing the culture for something that feels like home, finding it in some glorious moments, grasping it, but then fumbling and watching it bounce away into the dark. A few days after returning from Europe, I said over breakfast, “When we were in Germany, even though I’d never been there and didn’t speak the language, I felt more at home than I have in 18 years of living in the U.S.” Her eyes flashed pain, because she thought that I was saying she was not home. Inasmuch as anything is home for my bewildered soul, she is; so is “This Land is Your Land;” 100 laps in a chlorinated pool; Appalachian Spring; beer with a friend; pronouncing the words “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”
I should have known better. Doing something alone that is meant to be done in community never works. That truth is at the core of my being as a pastor in the Christian tradition. “Where two or three are gathered in my name,” Jesus said in the gospel of Matthew, “I am in the midst of them.” One cannot baptize oneself, nor can one serve Communion to oneself. I may be stirred to tears of ecstasy when I listen to a Gospel choir singing the words “Lord, I will lift/Mine eyes to the hills/Knowing my help is coming from you,” but even in that ecstasy, if I am sitting alone in my study, hearing that promise beamed on bits and bobs of Internet dust, it is not church. Transcendent, yes. Life-giving, yes. Church, ecclesia — assembly — no. Something happens when we share space with other people, when we inhale their breath and their humidity as we eat the bread and drink from the cup, when our “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” tumbles over our neighbors’, the words falling clumsily into each others’ spaces, reminding us that we owe debts to real people, even as they owe them to us.
I found myself squealing suddenly, “Ooh! Ooh!” I was unsure what had happened, but for a few seconds it almost looked artful. “What happened?” my wife called, walking down the hall to check on me. “They …. did something! The … uh … the Panthers? Did something really nice with the ball.” I sputtered, “It was exciting!” She laughed, and I watched nondescript strangers tumbled over each other clumsily, inhaling breath and humidity, rubbing bits of themselves onto each other, becoming community.