Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

Football and Faith

Again, another great post from Jeremy Berg, and I’m keen to hear what you have to say. How do you respond to this mixture of football (sports) and faith? It has made the news here and here. Al Mohler has weighed in … and it’s your turn today.

“And when you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production either. All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for stardom! Do you think God sits in a box seat? Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God.” 

(Matt 6:5-6 The Message)

Footballprayer.jpgOctober is in air and that means among other things: the major league baseball pennant race. I have been watching the MLB playoffs the past couple weeks and once again have been reminded of how big of a sports fan God apparently is.  Interview after interview, amidst showers of champaign and victory cigars (which are not my concern, by the way), I’ve heard players giving credit to God for their postseason success.  

Now, theologically speaking, it is very possible for the omnipresent God to have season tickets to every game of every sport in every city every single night. (I was imagining Him taking the best seat behind home plate until I remembered Luke 14:7-11.) But I have to ask the question every time He is credited with one team’s victory over another: How interested is God in professional sports?  Should we assume this is where God is placing his interest and time on any given night?  (I know, God isn’t limited to one Friday night option, but you get my point.)

Now, I really don’t want to be a party-pooper here.  I absolutely encourage Christian athletes to give God the glory for their talent and to be grateful for all his blessings — blessings that include the rare opportunity to play professional sports and enjoy success at it. I have said many times to the students I minister to: “If I could relive my high school basketball days, I’d begin every game in silent prayer asking to let my talent glorify Him and end every game in quiet thanksgiving by my locker.”  

But this is something quite different than assuming Jesus was pulling for my team over the loser, tipping my hat to Him on camera for spiritual kudos in heaven or to appear more pious and devout than I might otherwise be when not in the spot light. I can’t read their hearts or judge their motives, but something just makes me cringe inside when I witness this.  

What do you make of this phenomenon?   Does it bother you?  What is the appropriate way for athletes to acknowledge God in situations like this?  What are the dangers and abuses to look out for?  Do Jesus’ words above from  Matthew 6 speak to this issue at all?

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Willie Krischke

posted October 19, 2009 at 1:27 am

People saying that “God helped them win” has always bothered me. I don’t think people think it through.
Suppose I had a rich and powerful uncle. Now suppose my powerful uncle came to my football game to root for his nephew. And we win the football game. But then suppose I find out afterwards that we won the football game because my powerful uncle bribed the refs, or drugged the other players, or really did anything at all to give my team an advantage…
How would I feel? Angry. Cheated. Empty– like all the meaning and joy in that win was gone and fake. I would feel like I didn’t win at all. And I would make my rich uncle swear to never interfere with another football game ever again.
So then why do we assume that God interferes with our competitive recreation? Isn’t the whole point of competitive recreation to win without an added advantage?

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John Sobert Sylvest

posted October 19, 2009 at 3:09 am

We might consider this in the context of Merton’s description of Bernardian Love which progresses from 1) love of self for sake of self to 2) love of God for sake of self to 3) love of God for sake of God to 4) love of self for sake of God. This is reminiscent of but doesn’t map perfectly over C.S. Lewis’ 4 Loves.
Early on our journey, our loves of self & God for sake of self reflect part of our problem-solving, empirical, logical and practical rationalities, which we acquire through early humanization & socialization processes. At this point on our journey, we practice imperfect contrition, for example, sorry for the consequences that we suffer from our sin. We also enjoy an enlightened self-interest, which helps us function in society as we focus on the extrinsic rewards of shunning vice and embracing virtue (vis a vis Ignatius’ degrees of humility, for example). Some say our faith, here, is clear but tentative.
Later on our journey, we come to love God for the sake of God and pursue the intrinsic rewards of truth, beauty and goodness for their own sake. We are sorry for the consequences that our sin has on others and on our relationship to God, perfect contrition. We move beyond but not without our earlier loves, our imperfect contrition and our enlightened self-interest. We move beyond but not without our problem-solving, dualistic rationalities to a more contemplative (nondual) and robustly relational approach to God and others and an agapic love. We move beyond the mere functionality of socialization to the more robust relationality of transformation. Some say our faith, here, is obscure but certain.
Some say our institutionalized religions are doing a good job in forming people vis a vis socialization processes but are not doing enough to foster authentic transformation. When I see athletes on the field and celebrities on award shows acknowledging God, on one hand, I am pleased that they are on the journey and that they are in touch with the reality THAT God wants to be involved in our lives. On the other hand, I always grieve a little, no, a lot, in that they seem to be too narrowly conceiving HOW God is involved in our lives and underestimating how much MORE God wants for them vis a vis degrees of intimacy in relationship with Him.
Karl Rahner, in his first sermon in 1946, noted how, each year, millions of parents will have lost children the previous year but that, curiously, most people don’t seem to have real theodicy problems until tragedy overtakes them, personally. So, this prosperity Gospel mentality of God providing bank accounts and touchdowns seems to me to be rather perverse. Merton calls the whole performance-based, merit-based approach taught in socialization a wooden nickel, totally crazy, when it comes to transformation and realization of God’s love.
What we are witnessing are churched people who’ve been socialized but not transformed. And the fact that they have not moved beyond their functional relationship with God to a more intimate, personal relationship results from institutionalized religion that has often infantilized the laity, emphasized the obligational over the aspirational and mistaken religion to be more about moralizing than growth in intimacy. Religion has strayed from its core axiological competency of interpreting reality, evaluatively, in order to incompetently masquerade as a cosmological authority, describing reality scientifically and norming it philosophically.

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Clint Parsons

posted October 19, 2009 at 8:15 am

David Robinson is a good model. So is Tony Dungee.
As for who wins or loses, I don’t think many people quite understand the implications. I agree Scot, God doesn’t really concern Himself with winner/loser. In the grand scheme of things, it’s irrelevant [depending on your level of Calvinism I suppose-tic]. The Super Bowl didn’t stop my grandfather’s cancer or give me the blessing that is my niece.
I am bothered by the inconsistency of professional athletes, coaches, et al. that I see (I, of course, am perfect in the matter). Just one example would be Kurt Warner. I was somewhat disappointed last year after his team lost the ‘big game’. He usually gives God the glory, etc., but never mentioned being thankful for the loss in his post-game interview. Nothing, actually.
But it’s everywhere. God has become, in large, our personal box of lucky charms.
Now thanking Jesus for an opportunity, that’s another story altogether (Ricky Skaggs in country music as an example). Jesus is a little dicier. Which brings me back to the first couple of names I mentioned … Consistency.

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posted October 19, 2009 at 8:16 am

Being one involved in the world of sports, when you see most teams pray they pray for a game that keeps them and their opponents safe from injuries not..”Dear God, help us pound the other team into the dirt so we can win”.
It does seem a bit pious to do it out in front of all the fans…but, it’s not as strange as believers who hold hands in restaurants and pray, or churches who hold out door meetings in public places so they might be seen and heard, or believers on TV giving God glory for whatever…it’s our culture, right, privilege to do these things. Some call it a witness and some call it a pious act. I think it’s the problem of those looking on and judging the hearts of those involved….and sometimes the pride in the hearts of those praying/witnessing in public.

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Your Name

posted October 19, 2009 at 8:37 am

Well if we were to look at the 8th graders I teach (at a Christian school), you would find that the mentality of God helping athletes begins early. And when we teach kids that God doesn’t affect the outcome of athletic events, they understand. So they shift their prayer to say “God, if it’s your will, help us to win”
Our competetive nature is so tied into selfishness and I think it’s hard for us to look beyond ourselves and our own desires and to instead focus on God and his Kingdom. For our 8th graders, it’s hard to imagine sports without winning as the major/sole focus.
Of course a failure to focus on God and his kingdom is probably a common theme found throughout life, and simply made more noticeable by the comments of proffessional (and 8th grade) athletes

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Wayne Cox

posted October 19, 2009 at 9:27 am

It makes an impression on me when an athlete, given an opportunity because of a camera and a mic stuck in his/her face, speaks humbly and expresses genuine recognition of the other team and their skills. This goes much farther than a tip of the cap to God/JC …

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posted October 19, 2009 at 10:03 am

I get tired of it all too. However, I think it’s largely that these guys are trying their best to get “Jesus” into the interview and just copy what they see other guys doing – thus they all sound the same.
Most just need some wise, experienced, humble mentor to show them a better way.

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posted October 19, 2009 at 10:13 am

I like the huddle prayer thing. It shows unity. I don’t think it’s the same thing as the Pharisees, because these guys don’t seem to be making a show of how righteous they are — it’s more about humility together, at least as I see it. Sure, the “God helped me win” thing can get silly. But then you have great examples like Mariano Rivera, who gave the same thanks to God after blowing up the World Series against the Diamondbacks in 2001 as he does when he wins (as he usually does, Red Sox and Cubs fans eat your heart out!).
What I wonder more about is the lack of prophetic critique of the nature of professional sports in our culture. These guys are out there every week literally beating each other up. Many of them will be in financial trouble and physically broken only a few years after retirement. We Christians are among the biggest consumers of the spectacle, and we seldom step back and critique it — myself included.

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posted October 19, 2009 at 10:44 am

Seems to me we should avoid dividing secular from sacred. All of life is sacred. So why shouldn’t it be a part of sports too? A good friend of mine, Jim Stump is chaplain for the Stanford Cardinal football team. His organization has a ministry called Sports Challenge. You should read the marvelous testimonies from some of these atheletes he shephards. Many of his children are now in the pros and have maintained a public testimony. I think of Danny Abramowitz a Catholic, former New Orleans Saints great who now has a great sports ministry and is part of a successful television show aimed at men called “Crossing the Goal.” All of these guys are penetrating the atheletes in college and professional sports. The result of their work is seen on the playing field where many players from opposing teams gather before or after games to glorify God. I think this is great. It shows the gospel has a place in in a secular world like a lamp shining in the dark to show the way.

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Jeremy Berg

posted October 19, 2009 at 11:18 am

I’m not bothered that they speak openly about their faith on camera (intentions seem honorable). I’m concerned by WHAT comes across and the immature – even silly – theological perspective they bring to the millions watching. John (#2) offers some good thoughts on this.
In most cases we want our most respected, wise and articulate leaders/speakers representing Christ to the masses — whether it’s the inaugural prayer, commentary on world events, or a Billy Graham festival. We would never send a young, uneducated recent convert to address a packed stadium at a Billy Graham festival, be interviewed on National TV or to teach a seminary class. (We send the Scot McKnights in these situations, right? ).
Yet, with professional athletes we have a platform reaching audiences in the millions and an opportunity for more immature believers to address the world. It’s not fair to them; and it’s not fair to the watching world. But it is the reality. M (#7) is right: “Most just need some wise, experienced, humble mentor to show them a better way.”

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Your Name

posted October 19, 2009 at 1:30 pm

I like it when, like after a touchdown or after a runner wins, they point to the sky or get down on one knee and bow head, or do that cross thing on the chest, to me that’s just a short acknowledgment that God has given them the ability. They just trained their butt off in order to win. There’s the ability but without the training they wouldn’t be winning. The child of a couple we are friends with, we watched this kid grow up, is in pro ball now. After making a dunk, he points up as he’s running down the court.

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posted October 19, 2009 at 1:36 pm

Interesting comments about the need for mentors for these athletes. Has anyone here ever worked in sports ministry? I know some folks who are chaplains for professional sports teams. These chaplains are generally good folks and I think they do try to counsel the players about humility and such. I do wonder sometimes whether there’s a bit too much of the American evangelical male rah-rah thing going on. But it’s just such a bizarre media-saturated world pro athletes inhabit.

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John Sobert Sylvest

posted October 19, 2009 at 1:45 pm

I whole-heartedly agree about not compartmentalizing the secular and sacred. In my view, just like with public displays of affection, there are certainly norms, both cultural and ecclesial, for public displays of piety and for witnessing. I haven’t given much thought to what those norms are or ought to be but I suspect there’s a fairly wide range of what’s generally acceptable and mostly helpful. Even then, not all of us are going to be comfortable with everything lying in that range, where it becomes more a matter of individual preference. I personally like the huddle prayer when it is done after the game and includes those players from both teams who want to voluntarily participate. I am personally uncomfortable with any words or gestures that reinforce an unnuanced prosperity theology, which is an unhelpful, misleading, simplistic interpretation of the Good News that (potentially & eventually)scandalizes believers and unbelievers. At the same time, we do not judge the dispositions of any individual’s heart, especially knowing they have been thus formed.

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posted October 19, 2009 at 3:56 pm

i have more of problem with christians assuming that excellence on the field means that the player is someone we should listen to/weigh in on theology/spirituality.
that’s the clear implication/claim when we elevate these people off the field…their spiritual journey is no more important/significant than mine or that of the homeless person on the street.
furthermore, these people are not pastors, theologians, etc. There is a critical role for equipping/training/teaching.
(please spare me the “priesthood of all believers” thing too, because that’s not what’s being talked about here.)
it all reminds me of a conversation I had the privilege of having with Rich Mullins a few years before he died.
He basically expressed incredulity at people asking his opinion about how to handle divorce biblically, or women in ministry. In effect he said, “I’m a song writer. Asking me about women in ministry is like asking your car mechanic for psychological counseling because he’s good at fixing cars.”

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Matt Edwards

posted October 20, 2009 at 1:29 pm

ESPN ran a great piece on Kurt Warner’s faith last year. He used to annoy me until I read the article. Search for it on–it’s called “Good Deeds are Warner’s Focus,” by Wayne Drehs from January 29,2009. Among other things, it talks about Warner beginning his Super Bowl MVP interview, “First things first, I’ve got to thank my Lord and Savior above.”

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