Sunday Play … Again

July 12, 2004 | 26 comments
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The issue of Sunday play is a perpetual discussion-starter in Mormondom. Some celebrate as courageous those who refuse to dishonor the Sabbath by participating in sporting events. Then there is this story. On Saturday, Todd Miller, BYU golfer and son of golfing legend Johnny Miller, qualified to play in the Sunday final of the Utah State Amateur, then declined to play. Miller said: “What I do on Sunday is way more important than winning a tournament. I don’t look down upon people who play on the Sabbath. I would just feel like a hypocrite in my own heart if I did. I made that decision, and I’m going to stick with that.”

As you would expect, the sponsors of the tournament were outraged. This is from Utah Golf Association executive director Joe Watts: “I’m surprised, I’m shocked and I’m disappointed. Although I fully respect a person and his religious convictions, it’s a matter of what process that kind of religious conviction should have shown itself. There’s lots of considerations a person has to make besides his own personal religious convictions before he enters into an activity. Volunteers . . . , golf courses . . . , contestants who have put in their time and effort. . . . It should have been handled sooner.”

Of course, the comparisons with British runner Eric Liddell of Chariots of Fire fame appear early in the story, but Miller does not remind me of Liddell. Liddell’s pursuit of Olympic gold did not necessarily entail Sunday play, but most high-level golf tournaments conclude on Sunday. Miller knew that the final match was scheduled for Sunday, and he is a good enough player that his participation in that match was a strong possibility. In my view, he should not have entered the tournament. By the way, although I never played at the level of Todd Miller, I have been down this road.

Finally, Miller’s scheduled opponent in the title match was another BYU golfer, Clark Rustand, who is also a returned missionary. He is quoted as saying: “I totally respect his decision of not playing on Sunday, but I’ve made the decision to try and compete at the highest level, and that puts me in a position to play on Sundays. I wish it wasn’t the case and that I could have Sundays to relax and go to church. But at the same time if I do make it and it becomes my livelihood it will put me in that predicament even though I honor my commitments to my church.” (Did he say “relax and go to Church”?) I could use some help here because I cannot understand this attitude, which seems fairly prevalent in the Church. My reasoning is as follows: Sunday labor and Sabbath observance are antithetical; choosing a profession that requires (regular) Sunday labor necessarily entails a decision to forsake the blessings of Sabbath observance; and anyone who is willing to make that choice does not understand the Sabbath. What am I missing?

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26 Responses to Sunday Play … Again

  1. John H on July 12, 2004 at 3:23 am

    I’ve always thought of Sabbath worship as such a personal thing, I’m generally at a loss as to why people try and suggest what is and isn’t “appropriate.” Of course, we could probably agree on some truly obvious stuff – but so many things are so subjective. For example, my wife and I were genuinely surprised when her parents turned down our offer to have lunch in the canyon after both our Church meetings were out. They’ll drive to the grandparents house and have lunch in the backyard with them, but they won’t drive up the canyon and have lunch at a picnic table with us. I’ll confess I don’t see the reasoning, but I didn’t ask them why they declined because that’s not my place. I respect their decision and can only hope they’ll respect ours.

  2. Gordon Smith on July 12, 2004 at 4:58 am

    John,

    You are right about many activities being hard to catagorize as appropriate or not. My taste in this area runs more in favor of standards than rules.

    But I don’t think that anyone is arguing that playing in a golf tournament is a close call. Clark Rustand doesn’t say, “I don’t see what all the fuss is about. I honor the Sabbath by playing golf.” He acknowledges that it is a problem.

    Just to add some more fuel to this, the newspaper story linked above begins with this: “Golfer Johnny Miller once said he’d love to be leading the U.S. Open or a similar tournament going into the final day and then tell everyone he wasn’t going to play on Sunday because of his beliefs. Miller never did anything like that during his successful PGA career, during which he played golf hundreds of times on Sunday.” Assuming the reporter got the story right, this is just bizarre. Are we supposed to understand that Johnny Miller had noble aspirations, but lacked the courage of his convictions? Or that he realized his dream of withdrawing on the cusp of his big moment was just silly? Or, worse, that it would be dishonest and unfair? Whatever else we might say about it, Johnny Miller’s “fantasy” implies that Sunday play is contrary to his beliefs, so we all seem to be on the same page in this instance.

  3. Jared on July 12, 2004 at 11:35 am

    Ah, the athlete exception.

    This issue, of course, has a long and tortured history, but in the end I think you must be right. It is difficult in my mind to ever argue that playing golf, or any other competitive sport on Sunday is honoring the Sabbath.

    But even if we assume a priori that playing sports does not honor the Sabbath that doesn’t end the discussion. In essence, I believe it comes down to an Adamic choice: committing a sin to achieve or greater good or to keep a higher law.

    The classic example is Steve Young. He is quite simply a revered figure. The church routinely uses him in PR events and videos. If the rumors are true that he will run to succeed Orin Hatch when he retires, then he will be a shoe-in. But at the same time, Steve played on Sunday for years, and even after retirement he still works on Sunday as a football commentator. Why then is he so revered? Most members respond with a basic utilitarian argument: his actions, although perhaps questionable, accomplish a greater good for the church. Whether this is true or not, or whether such utilitarianism is proper for the church is the more interesting discussion.

    I believe that in life we all will run into Adamic choices. Missionaries ask people to dishonor their parents by joining the church every day, for example. I am not saying there are no consequences for such choices; Adam did not get stay in the garden after all.

  4. Gordon Smith on July 12, 2004 at 12:52 pm

    Jared, Good comment. As you suggest, this story implicates more fields than athletics and more commandments than Sabbath observance. Being at the top of many professions requires tradeoffs. “Be the best and fulfill all of your responsibilities along the way” … well, that is a pretty tall order, especially if you include not only Sabbath observance, but FHE, general good parenting and spousing, and fulfilling a calling among the responsibilities. So, why is it important that members of the Church be at the tops of their professions?

  5. Kaimi on July 12, 2004 at 1:16 pm

    Gordon,

    As someone who works in a high-hours job that not infrequently requires evening and/or Sunday work (and it’s a job which you worked in for several years), this is a question that I deal with often. I’m not sure what the right answer is. I know some attorneys at major firms (including a few who are partners) who are LDS; one who I know has managed to hold down several stake callings, help raise a family, and also become an important attorney in his firm. I also know directors at different investment banks who are LDS.

    Members make choices. I’m not sure that I would make the same choices, but I can understand how someone says, “I’ll be an investment bank analyst for the next two years, I’ll work 120 hours a week, but it will get better from there.” We all make sacrifices; we all choose what sacrifices to make; I don’t feel that I’m in a position to criticize others for choosing not to make the same sacrifices that I make.

    Of course, the flip side is that if we don’t honor the Sabbath, we will lose blessings. Similarly, if we don’t spend time with our family, magnify our calling, read scriptures, have Family Home Evening. I don’t particularly want to lose those blessings, yet I fail in those areas more often than I like.

  6. John H on July 12, 2004 at 2:03 pm

    One side of the “working on Sunday” debate that I think is neglected is the number of people who simply have little choice or control over this part of their lives.

    It’s easy for us to come online and ruminate over the appropriateness of lawyers, investment bankers, golfers, Steve Young, etc. working on Sunday. For these people, the decision really is an Adamic one. But I live in the poorest ward in the Salt Lake valley and the simple reality is that a lot of people have to work on Sunday. Many are Mexican immigrants who work multiple jobs in the food service industry to support their families.

    It was interesting to go from a posh Holladay ward on the east bench of Salt Lake, where it was easy for all the six-figure earners to condemn working on Sunday, to a ward where working on Sunday is just a reality of life. People try and do the best they can, working out their schedules so they can come to Church, or get at least a Sunday or two off a month.

    Out of all the people I know who do work on Sunday, not a single one of them wants to. This simply isn’t a part of their life they have much control over. Many hardly speak English (we have a translator in our ward each Sunday), so they consider themselves lucky to have the jobs that they do. It’s easy to say “Well, you just have to have faith that everything will work out if you don’t take the job that makes you work on Sunday,” when you’re not crammed into a small, two bedroom apartment with four kids wondering if you’ll be able to pay rent with the job you do have.

  7. Matt Jacobsen on July 12, 2004 at 3:00 pm

    What is and what is not appropriate Sunday activity is certainly a personal choice. I would like to agree with your point that Todd probably should not have entered the tournament. Or at least he should have communicated with them much earlier about his conflict.

    While I don’t have children old enough to play sports at that level, there are quite a few very intense sports families in my ward. Not only do they battle with the sports-on-Sunday issue, but there is also the issue of being fair and loyal to your teammates. If you know that 50% of your games will be on Sunday, do you play at all? What about going to a team tournament that culminates on Sunday, but you didn’t really know about the date before you joined the team? Early communication is a must in these cases.

  8. Gordon Smith on July 12, 2004 at 4:42 pm

    John, You are undoubtedly right that many people are not able to exert much control over this issue, but acknowledging that does not shed much light on the discussion for those who do have control.

  9. MDS on July 12, 2004 at 6:36 pm

    I for one was pretty appalled at the level of criticism received by Miller. I would think that Utah, of all states, might be a little understanding of his stance. I’ve always found that there was a simple formula for determining what was appropriate on the Sabbath. Work may be done when the proverbial ox is in the mire. The important thing is to be careful not to be the one who pushes your ox in the mire.

  10. greenfrog on July 12, 2004 at 7:45 pm

    I am familiar with a ward in a resort area where the last sacrament meeting of the day starts at 9:00 p.m., in order to accomodate all of the members of the Church who work with tourists on Sundays, but who still want to worship on Sunday.

    Any interest in holding Church meetings on Tuesdays?

  11. Kingsley on July 12, 2004 at 9:27 pm

    If you are walking in the woods on a Sunday and see, for example, Oprah thrashing around in a quite deep quagmire and bellowing, what do you do? On the one hand, you have the suffering ox, and on the other, you have the Sabbath to consider. The solution, paradoxically, is that you make the “Adamic” choice and leave her there, thus keeping the higher law and achieving the greater good simultaneously.

  12. Yeechang Lee on July 12, 2004 at 9:44 pm

    When my family immigrated to the US 25 years ago this fall, they could have easily gone down the route of many other Korean immigrants in working long hours seven days a week at their own greengrocer, bodega, or liquor store. Instead, from the very beginning, my parents consciously chose to avoid work on Sundays, and to seek out an occupation that would ensure them enough time during the week to fulfill their callings. Their choice didn’t made them rich, exactly, but a quarter century later they have done well enough to retire just ahead of my Dad’s 60th birthday, and to serve two full-time callings (as mission president and, currently, as a member of a temple presidency). My parents absolutely credit this outcome to their decision way back when.

    As a college senior interviewing for investment banking jobs I still remember the LDS managing director who pointed out that Orthodox Jews are well known within the industry for being rigidly observant of the Sabbath, and that we Latter-day Saints ought to be as observant as they. I’ve tried my best to live up to that advice. At both of the bulge-bracket investment banks firms I’ve worked at since college, I’ve always made sure while accepting the job offer to state that 1) I prefer not to work on Sundays due to religious reasons, and that 2) I will do my best to get my work done during the rest of the week. The people I’ve worked for have always graciously accepted this. So, for those who feel like they *must* work on Sundays: Have you tried asking?

  13. Yeechang Lee on July 12, 2004 at 9:54 pm

    As a followup to my previous comment, I want to emphasize that the manner of observing the Sabbath is a very personal decision and I don’t want in any way to sound like I am condemning those LDS athletes who have chosen to compete on Sundays, or LDS firemen, soldiers, or policemen who work on Sundays. My family and I have been fortunate to not *have* to work on Sundays; others are not.

  14. sid on July 12, 2004 at 9:56 pm

    Yeechang – I understand where you are coming from. However, someone like me is stuck working at a pretty miserable, poorly paying job, unlike you r situation at a professionally run company. In my case, when I asked if I could have the option of not working Sundays, I was told that I didnt, if I wanted to keep the job and my health insurance. Being that at that point of time, i was in sick with a serious brain tumor and other health problems,, I had no option, but to swallow my disappointment, and stay at said job.
    Yes, if one is at a white-collar job, or in investment banking, or academia, or in law, it is easy to take sunday off, or it is easy to switch firms if one firm does to make things easy. but, like John said, when circumstances are such that like me, you are stuck in a dead end, minimum wage job, one really does not have too many options.

  15. Yeechang Lee on July 12, 2004 at 9:56 pm

    As a followup to my previous comment, I want to emphasize that the manner of observing the Sabbath is a very personal decision and I don’t want in any way to sound like I am condemning those LDS athletes who have chosen to compete on Sundays, or LDS firemen, soldiers, or policemen who work on Sundays. My family and I have been fortunate to not *have* to work on Sundays; others are not.

    Yeechang, whose former home teachee is competing for a spot on the US Olympics track & field team at this very moment

  16. Gordon Smith on July 13, 2004 at 12:12 am

    greenfrog, Is there anything special about the day that happens to appear on our calendar as Sunday? It seems to me that Sabbath observance could be perfectly appropriate on another day of the week. In fact, it may have been Dan Burk who told me that when living in Saudi Arabia, his family was instructed to adopt Friday as the Sabbath.

  17. Gordon Smith on July 13, 2004 at 12:23 am

    Yeechang, Thank you for the story of your family. I cannot speak for other people, but I have found that most people are willing to accommodate the Sabbath at work. Even my large New York law firm … most of the time. (There were other problems with that job, however.)

    Actually, the worst experience I have had with this issue was in Salt Lake City, just prior to law school. My wife and I both worked at Herman’s Sporting Goods to earn some extra money for law school. When we applied, we told them that we would rather not have the job than to work on Sundays. The manager acted very supportive, and that lasted for a month or two. Then he scheduled us for several Sundays in a row. We reminded him of our views on that, and he just shrugged. So we quit. We really could have used that money, but it worked out.

  18. john fowles on July 13, 2004 at 1:21 am

    Gordon: Is there anything special about the day that happens to appear on our calendar as Sunday? I’ve had excruciatingly drawn-out discussions with Seventh-day Adventists about that question. They strongly believe that Saturday still needs to be the Sabbath. I feel like the Gospel is more flexible than that. But there are a lot of arguments for setting Sunday aside for the Sabbath, and many think that it must be on Sunday–I’m not saying they’re wrong.

    As for working on Sunday, this is another situation in which I feel like the Church is taking undue criticism (as with the beards, white shirts, and people who suffer from same-sex attraction but don’t act on it). I just don’t see intolerance of peoples’ decisions in this regard in the Church. If people have to work on Sunday, it seems that the Church is not criticizing them for it. I know many will post in reply with anecdotes of intolerance and then imply that that is the posture of the entire Church. But it won’t convince me. The Church is very understanding of peoples’ situations and, in my experience, understands the teaching of Jesus that the Sabbath is made for the people, and not the people for the Sabbath.

    I agree with Yeechang and with Sid at the same time. Sid won’t be judged by the Church because of his financial situation and the fact that it necessitates him to work on Sunday. But Yeechang is also right that it pleases the Lord when people make an effort–if they can (and many who cannot would if they could and the Lord knows it)–to set the Sabbath day aside for worship and coming closer to the Lord (not necessarily just resting).

  19. Gordon Smith on July 13, 2004 at 2:05 am

    John: “set the Sabbath day aside for worship and coming closer to the Lord (not necessarily just resting).”

    Just resting? How do you understand “resting” or “day of rest”? Isn’t it related to the expression, “enter into His rest”? Indeed, in my view, this is the whole key to Sabbath observance. It is our weekly opportunity to “enter into His rest.” It is hard for my to imagine why someone would sacrifice that for golf or football or investment banking.

  20. John H on July 13, 2004 at 2:17 am

    I’d chime in that I think John Fowles is correct that the Church often takes undeserved criticism when it comes to the Sabbath.

    My limited experience leads me to suspect that many leaders and members are very understanding of individual situations and needs – that’s certainly the case in my own ward. But I wonder if we focus on a few “bad apples” who become extremely dogmatic about Sunday and, instead of seeing the day as an opportunity to increase their own spirituality or family relationships, they see it as a chance to play cop and remind everyone of what the rules are.

  21. Gordon Smith on July 13, 2004 at 2:30 am

    John H. and John F., Living as I do in the boondocks, I am unfamiliar with criticism of the Church over the Sabbath. My experience is similar to yours that the Church leaders and members tend to be very understanding of individual needs. If anything, I think we go too far toward enabling people who might, like Yeechang’s family, be blessed for more vigorous Sabbath observance. So you leave me wondering, who is doing the criticizing?

  22. Silus Grok on July 13, 2004 at 11:06 am

    John Fowles: on a slight tangent, I’ve always found the use of Mark 2:27 (“Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath) interesting as I can glean two very different readings from the quote:

    The first is that “the Sabbath is a gift for mankind, men are not to be slaves to it.” Which is the reading that I believe you and most everyone seems to intend. The second is practically its opposite… that “the Sabbath was made to improve man’s lives, it is not an easy thing I require as the natural man hates the Sabbath.”

    Anyway, just a thought.

  23. john fowles on July 13, 2004 at 1:47 pm

    Silus, I like your take on that scripture.

    Gordon: by stating that the Sabbath was intended for worship and coming closer to the Lord, and not just for resting, I was not in any way enabling athletes to justify their way around the Sabbath. They are free to do so if they choose, but I was merely observing that keeping the Sabbath means more than “resting,” i.e. sleeping the day away. I imagine that entering into the Lord’s rest actually entails some quite vigorous activity, and that only those willing to engage in such hard work will be fit to enter the Kingdom.

  24. Silus Grok on July 13, 2004 at 2:09 pm

    john fowles: thank you. The second reading of the quote, though, only seems to work when taken out of context and used as a mindless aphorism… as it seems unlikely that the context of scripture lends itself to anything but the first reading.

  25. Renee on July 13, 2004 at 8:30 pm

    It might be interesting if T&S were to start a thread on recent Virginia laws which repealed, among other things, the right of employees to take either Saturday or Sunday off as a day of rest or get paid triple pay.

    http://news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&u=/chitribts/20040713/ts_chicagotrib/dayofrestlawquicklyputtosleepinvirginia

  26. Ethesis (Stephen M) on July 14, 2004 at 8:24 am

    I think if you don’t watch other people working on the Sabbath, you’ve made a good start. Years ago I quit watching sports on Sunday (with occassional back-sliding).

    Guess I was really struck by a letter to the editor at BYU by a kid who was a waitress, she got every Sunday off except for the multi-stake firesides, on those days she had to work because of all the kids who went out to dinner afterwards.

    Just a thought.