Words fail to express my sadness at the death of my former Newcastle Utd room-mate Pavel Srnicek. He and I joined the club within a few weeks of each other and stayed together at the New Kent Hotel in Jesmond in those early days. Those days in the early 1990s were tough days on the field and not easy for any of us, let alone a young man in a new country trying to understand a new language... and of course a new Geordie accent!
But Pavel's character prevailed. We roomed together for a while and got to know each other quite well. He was a gentleman, a kind man with that elusive virtue... humility. This is why he endeared himself to everyone. He never thought too highly of himself. And this is also why he learned to become a very good goalkeeper. He came as a raw talent and left the club as a fine talent. He came to grow and to be taught and he left as a man respected by all of his peers and who became a teacher and mentor of many, including Steve Harper who wrote a heartfelt tribute on Twitter: "A truly beautiful soul has left this world far too early!! Thank you so much for everything you did for me Pav."
Even more than that, Pavel captured the hearts of the Geordie fans. I love the Geordies. My father's mum and dad, my grandparents, were born and bred in the North East, which makes me half Geordie. I grew up going to South Shields for holidays. My first kit was a Newcastle one and I loved playing for the club. I'll always remember my late granddad Tom, a WWII Navy veteran, telling me, "Bread and jam on Tyneside is better than fillet steak anywhere in the world". It was one of the proudest days of his life when I first pulled on that black and white shirt.
But before I signed for the club he told me another thing: "Remember, Gavin, the fans would sweat blood for thatteam if they could. So if they see that you would die for the club then they will forgive you many errors." This is where Pav won the Geordie hearts. He loved their club, he loved them, they loved him back and he became a hero, even one of the famous Entertainers in Kevin Keegan's era. Yet through it all, Pavel remained a humble man with a big heart.
A brief life
That is why it is so tragic that the heart of a man, so young, fit and strong gave way and he eventually lost his life at 47 years old. When we are faced with the death of family or friends it automatically turns our minds to a couple of things: the first is the person you've lost, the second is the brevity and fragility of your own life. The fact is that everyone who reads this article will die one day. Actually none of us knows whether he or she will live through the next day. Much like Pavel, we may be strong and fit and yet be struck down in an instant by illness or accident. And even if we live a long life, we will grow old, gravity will take its toll and we will lose our vigor and strength. You can't cheat death. Life is brief.
This brings up the question: for what do you live? What is the meaning of life? The common response is, "Just live each day to the full and make the most of loved ones around you." But it offers no hope. The secular mindset says you're born, you live, and you die. That's it. So eat drink and be merry. Get what you can out of it. That's selfish. However, the Christian mindset says, you're born, you live, you die, and yet you live. That's hope. So you can give your life away for others, knowing what you have can never be lost. That's selfless.
The Bible's view of man is that he is of great worth. He is created in God's image with the capacity to know him and obey him. He is not, as some would say, an accident of nature, chemical explosions or animal evolution. The Bible starts with God, not man. He creates us, which means we are obligated to him. And that is a good thing. But ever since Adam sinned by disobeying God in the Garden of Eden, all men and women "have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). God must judge sin because God is holy and just. And who doesn't want a just Judge in charge of the universe? If he is a just Judge then he must punish sinners, which means we also need to God to be gracious and merciful.
Our sin is the reason for suffering, sickness and death. Our sin is the reason for divorce and war, rape and child abuse, poverty and famine and the fractured world in which we live. We have elevated ourselves above God, so each one does what is right in his own eyes and every opinion is valid, until that opinion says ours is wrong. Autonomy, relational breakdown and chaos ensues.
Furthermore, the Bible tells us that sin is not just a sickness; man is not a victim, he is a rebel against God. That's a problem which humanity throughout history has not been able to solve no matter how many attempts at social reform we make. So Christianity is about God taking the initiative to love and reconcile sinful people to himself. How? Remember the banner you see at so many World Cups and major sporting events?
"God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16).
This is why we traditionally celebrate Christmas. It's about that moment when God became a man in history's greatest rescue act because man can't save himself. The Gospel of Matthew puts it like this: "And you shall call his name Jesus for he will save his people from their sins" (1:21).
Jesus saves by living the perfect life that we can't and by taking the punishment of God in the place of anyone who would turn from living their way and trust in him. In other words, he is the perfect substitute who steps onto the field for us, rescues us from defeat, and secures victory. Jesus frees us from guilt and condemnation. And when he rose from the dead he promised to return and he promised an eternal future in heaven with no more, sin, suffering or sorrow. To ignore this offer and die means to remain under judgment forever. So the question is not so much for what are you living as for whom are you living: yourself or Christ? He came to die so people like us could live.
Identity, belonging, acceptance and worship
You might think this is crazy, untrue and delusional, but this is the testimony of the Bible. It is the testimony of historic Christianity. It is the testimony of millions of Christians in churches worldwide today and throughout the ages. And it logically explains the reason why we exist, the reason why we die and the reason for real hope. Christianity is the only religion that satisfactorily deals with the problem of our reconciliation to God and to each other. Because it is the only religion where God comes down as a man to freely save man. That's called grace. All you need to do is turn and believe.
In all of us there is a desire for identity, a desire to belong and be accepted, and a desire to worship. We see echoes of this particularly in football. Football fans find an identity in the team they support. They find pleasure in the sense of belonging and camaraderie as they find acceptance simply because they support the same team. And their desire for worship of the big and beautiful and thrilling is found in the players who become their heroes.
Football is a great game. The best. But if you look to football for ultimate purpose it won't last, it won't satisfy and it won't eventually save you. It can only treat the symptoms without addressing the problem of sin in the heart of each man and woman, which separates us from God.
I have been thinking about Pavel for days now, especially yesterday as I was out jogging much like he was a few days ago. We haven't seen each other for years. That often happens in football when you move clubs and then retire. I was hoping I might see him at a Newcastle v Manchester ex pros game at St James' Park next year. Sadly this will not happen and so I am left with memories.
My first memory of Pavel was of a smiling, gentle giant walking into the Benwell training ground. My final playing memory of him was taking a penalty for Chelsea in an FA Cup shoot-out at St James' in 1996. We looked at each other, a twinkle in our eyes even in the heat of the moment. He knew which way I used to put them. I scored that day and Chelsea won. But he went on with the "Entertainers" and became a Newcastle legend.
However, my abiding memory of him will always be on a beautiful day in May 1993. We beat Leicester 7-1. We won the championship and promotion to the Premier League. We walked around the pitch on a lap of honour, and then in a special moment the big man took off his top revealing a t-shirt underneath that read, "Pavel is a Geordie". And so he will always remain in my heart, in our hearts – "Pav the Geordie" to teammates, coaches and fans alike. As Tyneside mourns let us remember the man, let us remember his family. And may Pavel's brief life give us cause to ask what we truly live for and where true hope can be found.