Football is in High Season right now. It’s become enmeshed in headlines: kneeling, concussions, NFL attendance are all loudly flamed. But it’s also the time of championships, pro playoff debates and season-ending “rivalry games.”

I find an odd connection with the sport of football and faith in religion. Quite personally, for me, there is an intimate connection to the sport. I played, coached, and one son played all the way through college. The scale and hype of Big Time Football leaves me cold. But similarly, for this Cradle Episcopalian “Churchman,” church and churchiness leaves me cold, too.

However, the love I feel on the field and in prayer has indescribably poignant moments—like this Saturday.

No football game is bigger than “THE Game”: Harvard v. Yale. This particular game was, perhaps, the last game when a dear friend on the coaching staff could “get me in”—on the sidelines. Standing with him the laser focus on the ground-level realities of play are shared in mutual understanding and devotion.

The on-field experience is giddily great, and deeply moving to me—and was especially so this Saturday. This is not surprising, given my life experience with the game. Parenthetically, I also actually enjoy practices. Practices are uniformly monotonous, even boring for most. In football the practices also doll out pain, can provide a forum for “Lord of the Flies” tribal cruelties and ritualized Coach Abuse.

But at the field level, with the players, the devotion to each other amid those games is a human connection I have found no where else. Even in practices, I am with radically different people in extreme devotion trying at maximum effort to do an arbitrary thing well. This is not the “fan experience” of tailgating, over-consuming everything, basking in socializing and seeing the contest as a videogame or soap opera.

I must say the Game Day parallels to the rituals and memes of church worship can have the same baggage for me. Thomas Cranmer’s words and Anglican music tradition are deeply moving—I go to church every week because I love them. But I love the silent times, most often alone, more.

Despite 40,000 in the stands that day, down on the field, the sounds, smells, pain and joy of these brave, often heroic players and coaches simply does not exist when you see the glowing screen or the view from the bleachers. No one but the participants sees those practices—and no one celebrates our prayers, either.

Vulnerability most often has an intimate scale. Up in the stands or in the pews, fear is not visible, and, for me those gathered looking up at an altar or down to the field embrace the connection to their focus. But distance prevents the intense gut grab of up-close-and-personal presence. In football the humor, the voices, the sweat, the grass, the mud, the chaos are missing when you are up, up and away in the stands or  watching a TV show that happens to have a game as its screenplay. At church, the Still Small Voice is often heard, but, for me, not-so-much in the services that I so deeply love.

But the vast majority of us, including me, simply enjoy the spectacle. In football, the drama of teeny dancers down on the field doing their melodramatic ballet held away from our pretzels and hotdogs, banter and socializing in the stands or on the couch is compelling enough to engender a sense of participation. In church we are told what to do, what words to say and sing—we are focused. Both are easier than getting up close and personal with our devotions.

It’s cleaner, safer, actually understandable, when the melee of eye level speed and impact is held at a distance, or when The Prayer Book is perfectly paced and choreographs our words and actions. Coaches really want to see a game “up top” to watch, control and strategize, and clerics are extremely mindful of the liturgical correctness of the services they lead.

But both of these social visitations mean less to me than the direct embrace of personal contact.

Going to church, engaging in rituals, working for the Higher Good led by clergy, with many other folk looking to the detached altar, speaking of Jesus is meaningful but social. At the distance of religion I can objectively deal with things like morality, human relationships, even cultural meaning in the exquisite beauty of attempting to know God together.

But watching is not the same as being on the field.

For me this engagement may be football, but for others it can be literally anything else: Cooking is different than eating at a restaurant. Playing music is not listening to music. Building something is not buying it. Engaging, personally, has a gut connection that is not simulated by being a fan of engagement.

On the field I see the effort, hear snap, bang, thud of feet, helmets, oathing mouths in mid-collision. The screams of coaches, the whiff of body odor and sweat, the crescendoing groans and cries seen straight before me, even a little within me, holds part of me by voiding any detachment. When God is with me, alone, or just when the presence is most overwhelming, it’s Jesus, not the church that grabs my full attention.

It is so much easier to suspend faith unless you are dealing with it at eye-level. If I can pantomime faith in a service, I will, because it’s just easier—while still fully embodying what I know I believe.

I do enjoy being in the stands at football games and in the pews at services, and my life opens up to the presence of God when we are together in worship in my lame insufficiencies and lack of control. There is joy in being part of “The Game,” any game you care about—win or lose. But “attending” was not what you did when you played, or coached—the fear, the pain, the joy is not intimate, it’s the opposite. Reveling in common belief and social uncertainty is now our national norm—but we cannot escape being alone with God.

In the car, waking up, in the shower, working out, I am alone and undistracted by the noise of life. When I am alone I am forced to confront what is always there but blissfully overlooked in the day-to-day battle of getting stuff done.

“THE Game” is truly an event, but being on the field made it deeply personal. Being together in the game, side-by-side, demands immediate, intimate engagement. I could not hide in a cheer or a ritual. Being at eye-level with my faith forces me to see, hear and be part of what I am devoted to—and that is a good thing.