By Pastor Graham Cooke
The death of Argentinian soccer maestro Diego Maradona has stirred up many memories and emotions. People argue endlessly about whether he was better than Pele or Cruyff, or indeed, the twin colossi of this age, Ronaldo and Messi. Wherever you rank him, this stocky, mega-thighed figure was blessed with astonishing talent. Of course, for us English, it’s not just positive emotions that are stirred up, as we recall that night in 1986 in Mexico City, the World Cup Quarter Final, and two remarkable goals that will never be forgotten. The first was daylight robbery, punched over Shilton’s head with his fist. The second was pure artistry, leaving pretty much the whole England team lunging at fresh air.
Context is all: this was only four years after the Falklands War, with Las Islas Malvinas still firmly in the grip of the British. Maradona surely fully understood that as far as his compadres were concerned, any act of deliberate cheating was absolutely justified in the cause of a victory over perfidious Albion. And so it was after the final whistle went that he made arguably his cleverest contribution; the moment when he described the first goal as being scored “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God”. That was pure genius.
That match serves as a microcosm of Maradona’s whole career; indeed, his life. Outstanding brilliance and achievement, interspersed with rather less beautiful aspects- the descent into cocaine addiction, the alleged links with organised crime, and so forth. Truth be told, he was not the perfect ten. In this respect he stands alongside many other great artists; poets like Byron, who wrote soaring poetry whilst living a sordid life.
No doubt we can think of other well-known figures in our time, gifted and talented beyond measure, yet whose lives have been somewhat blighted by the manner in which they treat others, or the struggles to behave in appropriate and acceptable ways.
The deeply flawed genius is a common phenomenon in our celebrity culture, almost a cliché. Maybe we accept it with little more than a shrug, regarding their faults as more than compensated for by their extraordinary artistry. Or maybe we feel that somehow the two aspects are bound to go hand in hand. Do great artists need to have known the kind of pain and brokenness that tends to lead to unacceptable behaviour, in order to be spurred on to such heights? Is this behaviour the inevitable tax to be paid on genius?
Or maybe, by using categories such as ‘genius’, we keep at a distance the light that might otherwise be cast on our own lives. The truth is, every human being is touched by the hand of God. Just as in the beginning God breathed life into Adam, so human beings, created in God’s image, are in some sense, all of us, recipients of the divine spark. We all have extraordinary talents, remarkable abilities, and immense potential to develop our capabilities. We lose sight of this because we always tend to compare ourselves with the greatest, the best, the most talented. However, God has made you capable of far more than you can even imagine. One clue that this is true is actually our ability to appreciate greatness in others. We are not alone in our ability to do remarkable things; just watch the stoop of a peregrine falcon, or the effortless leap of a deer as it flows up and over a high fence. However, perhaps we are unique in our ability to appreciate this in others. I can’t prove this- who knows how animals communicate? – but you don’t see the other deer standing aside and applauding as one of their number soars gracefully over an obstacle.
All of us touched by the hand of God. Sadly, though, that is not the whole story, because all of us are also seriously blighted by the curse of sin. The laziness that stops us practicing, the greed that settles for getting over giving, the pride that makes all our gifts a matter for competition, the lust that saps our creative energies, and so on. Just imagine how remarkable Adam and Eve must have been, when first created – all the talent without the sin to drag them down.
“It’s the hand of God reaching down, not reaching up, that we need.”
The Bible’s portrayal of the heroes of the faith emphasises this point. We are right to venerate Abraham, Moses and David. We are wise to contemplate the Bible’s honest appraisal of their weaknesses. Other characters such as Samson and Saul are rather more tragic- undoubtedly wonderfully gifted and talented as they were, yet brought low by besetting character flaws that got in the way of their reliance on their Creator.
Maybe that is the lesson for us at the end of this- all of us, astonishing creatures, touched by God’s hand, all of us deeply flawed and fallen. The question is, firstly, do we recognise his hand on our lives? Secondly, what happens next? Where do we look? On what do we rely? On those gifts and talents? Or on the God who made us? The God who, knowing how our brilliance has been undermined by our indwelling sin, has sent his Son, to live unblemished by such failures, and to die bearing the curse for the very same failures? The God who longs to restore us to where we belong, to enable us to reach our full potential in him, to restore the image of God in us, to transform us so that we reflect his glory.
It’s the hand of God reaching down, not reaching up, that we need. Let’s unclench our fists and reach out with our hands of faith to grasp that hand of God, reaching down to lift us up.
“Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, so that at the proper time he may exalt you” (1 Peter 5:6, ESV)
3rd December, 2020