For the second consecutive year, I traveled up US 31 to South Bend, Indiana on a beautiful fall day. I traveled with Curtis Lawrence, and we went for the sole purpose of watching the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team take the field.
Now, I must note that it was my childhood dream to attend Notre Dame. Even loftier, it was also my dream - like many young boys growing up in Indiana - to suit up for the Fighting Irish. Surprisingly - even with such hopes - I had never actually visited the campus. For the first thirty years of my life, I never set foot on one of the more storied and celebrated college campus and football meccas in America. That absence was broken, though, when I made that first trip up to South Bend last year. Let me tell you: even after all those years of waiting, the campus and football stadium at Notre Dame lived up to all the out-sized expectations I had.
Like most places of prominence, Notre Dame Stadium really cannot be described through words. It is something, rather, to be experienced - to be taken in. You must stand in front of Michelangelo's "David" to understand the magnificence of the great artist's skill. Okay, obviously my analogy is already way off ... but ... there is still something "special" about Notre Dame's campus in the same way that the "David" is special. I think even none football fans would appreciate the architectural craft and planning of the way the library (with that famous image of "Touchdown Jesus") stands as a type of bookend to the stadium. The same could be said for the simplicity and sturdiness of the actual stadium, a structure where the memories and tradition of the past are the most prized ornaments. There's a reason football fans speak about going to a Notre Dame game like it is a religious experience.
And on both of my visits to the campus and the stadium, I have definitely been caught up into that old Notre Dame fame and lore. Tradition has its own weight. And as I stepped onto Notre Dame's campus this year, I was able to make a connection - a strange connection perhaps. As I walked across the lawn of the university and into the stadium, I was able to remember why it is such a gift and such a privilege for us to go to church.
Interestingly, this very topic came up yesterday after church. Yesterday afternoon, I stopped by a young families house to drop off something. After a brief visit, I was sitting in my truck talking with the father. His young son was nearby, and apparently bringing up a conversation they had had either before or after church the father asked me, "Why is it important for us to go to church?" He clearly was asking me to give the pastor's answer. So, I - instead - turned towards the young boy, and asked him why he thought we go to church. If I remember correctly, the boy merely shrugged.
It's a good question: Why do we go to church? It's an especially good question because many today don't see much need in going to church. I am reminded of Emily Dickinson's poem on Sabbath keeping and her own decision to find God in the beauty of nature. There are many people today who agree with Ms. Dickinson - preferring to stay at home or to enjoy a good walk through the woods than dressing up and sitting in a pew with some people they may or may not know well. Indeed, for some people, going to church requires too much investment and too much risk. You don't know what's going to be said, whether or not the preacher's message will be on or off that day. You run the risk of being around some people you'd rather not be around.
The same holds true, of course, for a football game. You very well might sit down next to some buffoon who will try his best to spoil your afternoon. You might find - as some people express about church - that it's not worth it. Or, you might get lost amidst the crowd (as Curtis and I did).
But, we go to football games and we go to church for other reasons - reasons that have their own merit. We go - perhaps more than anything else - to get swept up into something bigger than ourselves. That is certainly what you get when you go to a Notre Dame game. Stepping onto the campus, you cannot help but feel the tradition that has been developed - the "history" of the place. When you walk into the football stadium, you see banners hanging that remind you of those who once played upon the field. You go to your seat and see an old wooden bench where the numbers have been painted on faithfully year after year, and you can feel the time-worn practices that have nourished and maintained this building.
I think that is what going to church is meant to feel like. Or, at least, I think that's why God has given us the Church ... to remind us that we do not go this route alone, to help us remember the great men and women of faith who took the field before us, to allow us to celebrate the great victory God is winning in the world and that will someday be fully His.
In our own way, in our own time, we continue to come together. We continue to praise God's work in the world, just as Notre Dame fans celebrate the success of the players or the coach. But, we know that even if our campus does not have all the grandeur that say a place like Notre Dame has ... we have more of the history, and that on our side is the true tradition. We also know that the stakes of the game we are involved in are all the more important, and that the true victor will be that Touchdown Jesus guy who has watched over all those games at Notre Dame.