Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is … parents watching youth sports.  

Time, money, and personal sanity are stretched to their limits by parents with kids who play sports. (Have you ever been to a tee-ball game?!) A couple of months ago, I was telling my mom that if I ever have kids, I would only want them to participate in sports I would enjoy spectating. Swimming? Too humid! Dance? Never. Tee-ball? Torture. Never mind the talents, interests, or ambitions of my hypothetical future kids — Future Mom knows best. My own mom laughed at my comments. Then she replied, “You’ll feel differently if you have kids. We were happy to watch you all.” 

My parents spent 23 straight years watching their four children play sports. Thousands of hours of observing us dribble basketballs, stand at the plate, kick the ball, and run the race. They drove me and my brothers to practices, watched and cheered at hundreds of games and meets, washed the stains out of our rank uniforms, supplied us with Gatorade and granola bars, and cooked us countless pasta dinners. The same week my mom gave birth to me, she was back in the metal bleachers attending my brothers’ Little League game, newborn baby Grace in tow. 

Flyers: 0-22

As my parents’ fourth child, they were already more than a decade-deep into youth sports spectatorship by the time I started playing, too. When I was 10, they were regular cheerleaders during my trifecta of awful sports seasons, including my participation on an incredibly unskilled soccer team, a comically uncoordinated basketball squad, and a winless softball team. And yet game after game, loss after loss, rain or shine, they showed up. At the time, I didn’t see my parents’ spectatorship as particularly remarkable; parents had to show up to their kids’ games … right? Years later, I finally realized how showing up to my games was one of the most formative and loving actions my parents did during my childhood. 

Weeks after that conversation with my mom about my hypothetical future children’s athletic endeavors, I was on a run when I was suddenly overcome with a cinematic montage of memories from my childhood. I saw myself playing catch with my dad, emptying my sweaty running clothes into my mom’s arms, peeking out from under my softball helmet to see both my parents sitting in the stands, huddled together under an umbrella. The montage of memories made me cry. While my parents insisted that they enjoyed watching us play sports, I saw with sudden and stirring clarity how much of themselves — time, money, and sanity — they gave in raising me. I always asked my dad to play catch after he was done with work; I never heard him reply “not tonight.” My mom left her career to stay at home with me and my brothers; I never heard her complain. They came to every last boring softball game; I never doubted that they’d show up. No one said they had to do those things, but they did. Always. 

My parents were 27 — the age I am now — when they had their first child. My Grandpa Kelly baptized my brother Andy in the sanctuary of Waterford Presbyterian Church, asking my parents this question:

Relying on God’s grace, do you promise to live the Christian faith and to teach that faith to your child?

They would make that promise with three more babies. I wonder if they knew all that they were promising. Did they know this promise would follow them everywhere from tee-ball games to middle school basketball tournaments to rainy, muddy, messy cross-country meets? Did they know how much Tide detergent, pasta sauce, and time sitting on metal bleachers that promise would require? Did they know how much grace they would need to rely on to parent a child they named Grace?  

As a single, freedom-loving, laundry-hating 27-year-old, it is hard for me to imagine being capable of having enough grace to be a parent, of having enough patience to go to youth sports events, of having enough selflessness to dedicate decades of my life on pursuits outside of my own preferences. Tim Keller writes in his book Jesus the King, “All real, life-changing love is substitutionary sacrifice.” Am I even capable of giving that kind of life-changing love? Of taking a vow and keeping a promise? Of relying on God’s grace to live the life that he may call me to? I do not know. But, I do know this: my parents have already and can continue to coach me through it — through this life of Christian faith I was baptized into and now believe in for myself.

It was Paul Zahl who said, “Being loved creates an environment inside a person by which works of love begin to take place instinctively. Loving is born from being loved.” For 27 years, I have been a person who has lived, played, learned, and grown up in an environment of love. From the kitchen table to the soccer field, I had parents who, though imperfectly, never made me doubt their love for me. And in turn, their life-changing love and their obedience to carrying out the promise made in our baptisms was a mirror to me of God’s love, promises, and grace. I didn’t cry at that cinematic montage of youth sports memories just because they revealed how much my parents loved me — I cried because the memories made me realize how much more God loves me and delights in me than even my parents do. His love is the greatest of these.

I used to think 1 Corinthians 13 was just a passage used to tell people about how to love each other better: parent to child, husband to wife, neighbor to enemy. While that is partially true, now I see that 1 Corinthians 13 tells the story of how any and all real, life-changing love is possible: by Christ. Christ, the patient. Christ, the kind. Christ, who is not self-seeking. Christ who taught the faith to his disciples fully knowing that they would one day turn on him. Christ who trusted the plan and kept the promise perfectly. Christ who came to save the sinners and love the losers. Christ, who shows up rain or shine, year after year.

By Christ and through Christ, we are given the gift of grace that equips us to joyfully attend swim meets, dance recitals, and tee-ball games for 23 years straight. “Love bears all things,” reads 1 Corinthians 13:7. Love is parents watching youth sports.