Longing for more than a Raptors championship?

A red, black and purple tide of euphoria uncorked Thursday night, with a roar of joy and passion not usually seen on the streets of the Six — Toronto has come alive like never before. After so many years of losing, cellar dwelling and season ending disappointment, a deep yearning finally has been gloriously fulfilled. City streets crammed with boisterously exuberant (but orderly — nicely done, Toronto) celebrations; car horns honking not out of the usual traffic irritation but in revelry; people gathered together in pubs and viewing parties, decked out in a sea of jerseys, t-shirts, and caps, all proclaiming a “we the North” belonging; strangers — old and young, from every colour and ethnicity — smiling, singing, jumping with joy, hugging and high-fiving one another like they were family. The Toronto Raptors have captured the attention of the world and electrified this city.

As a pastor watching it all, I couldn’t help but ask, “What’s going on here God?” Apparently, it’s not a foul to see more at play in this beautiful celebration. Have you noticed the language people are using to describe the Raptors playoff run and victory? It is nothing short of religious. The Raptor faithful believed - this was a season of hope and faith, this playoff run about redemption. People felt like they were a part of something bigger, experiencing emotions like ecstasy or nearing rapture, a transcendent joy (this is the language I’ve heard or seen in media). Toronto Star columnist Bruce Arthur noted that “everyone is welcome in the church of basketball,” probably because it’s almost felt like worship to many. Is secular Toronto going through a revival?

Perhaps I’m reading way too much into this moment. Isn’t this just a sad-sack-sports city finally tasting a moment of victory? Isn’t this simply the power of sport at play? For sure. Sports provides an amazing outlet to bring people together, a place where a kid can discover the wonders of what their body can do, driving the lane and pivoting for a lay-up. And it has offered our city and nation a drama, a unifying story of guts and glory to find ourselves in.

But I still wonder, isn’t there something beyond this drama we’ve gladly joined in, something Divine that the Raptors championship run is surfacing in us? Is this perfectly lovely, and long overdue, celebration pointing beyond itself to something more?

One theologian, John Calvin, observed that every human has a sensus divinitatus, a profound inner bent toward God. Woven deep into every human being, almost like an eternal homing beacon, there is an awareness of the divine, a sense for the sacred in life. Along this line of thinking, some of our deepest hopes and desires are revelatory, pointing us to more eternal yearnings that live within every person.

Which means, we humans want God even when we think we want the edge-of-your-seat awe of that four-bounce, series-winning Kawhi Leonard shot, or the beautiful swish of steady Freddie VanVleet draining three-pointer after three-pointer, or the thrilling hustle of Kyle Lowry setting the first-quarter tone for victory, or the vicarious and shared championship glory in countless viewing parties across the country.

Could it be that the hearts of Torontonians long for God when we thought we wanted a Raptors victory? Could it be that all the very spiritual and religious language currently used to describe this beautiful moment is expressing a deeper desire, an eternal yearning to be part of a bigger drama being played out in life? What if all the goodness we’re savouring as a city is a pointer to a greater goodness we were meant to know?

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor observes that ours is a secular age yet one haunted by God. Drained of transcendence, our disenchanted secularity leaves us with a thirst for wonder, beauty, mystery and the numinous; ours is a culture that hands us both a malaise of felt flatness along with a sneaking suspicion that we are missing out on something beyond this life we’ve constructed.

I can’t help but wonder if this moment of rapturous Raptor victory is like a crack in the secular veneer of our lives. We’ve been caught up in something more; we couldn’t help but surrender to a larger goodness and transcendence we were always meant to know yet compelled by our secularity to push aside and suppress.

The wonder and beauty of this celebration will fade but it points to what we were meant to always know. We were made to live with the hope and joy this city has been relishing in this Spring playoff run. Because our world is so polarized by politics, ethnicity, identity, we hardly can believe that we were meant to be united with others different than us, like we’ve seen in the shared community of nation-wide Jurassic Parks. Bad news is so much the default of daily life its hard to conceive that our hearts are designed to feel and know the glory and elation of victory that brings us to our feet, screaming with delight.

Something in this moment has stirred and moved us, broken through all of our distracted and busy lives, a distant gene memory of the way the Maker meant for life to be, the community, holy joy, shared glory, and drama of life before and with God.

Or maybe it's this simple reality: could there be a more compelling Canadian sign for the reality of God than all of Canada celebrating and cheering for Toronto?

—Phil