Tuesday, February 26, 2008

semi-serious subject

For much of my time at The Daily Home, I've spent basketball season following around the Talladega girls' basketball team, which means a lot of interviewing Jannie Keith, a 10-year head-coaching veteran. Keith's team is very good -- in fact, by the time you read this tomorrow, they'll likely already be in the 5A state championship game. In addition, Keith is an ardent Christian, someone who makes a point to praise God at every turn, and credit Him with all her team's successes.
Having grown up a Christian, and having been an athlete, I have the utmost respect for her faith, and understand how it affects everything she does. However, something Keith said in my interview with her on Monday raised my eyebrow.
“When I first started coaching basketball, the second year I decided to go up to Birmingham to watch the Final 4. And Coach Wilson was sitting beside me, and I was sitting there and I said, ‘Coach Wilson ... God just showed me I’m gonna be down on that floor.’ He looked at me strange, I guess he was thinking, ‘With what you got?’ I said that God had showed me that. Well, 2005-2006, God came through. I asked him to allow me to be on the floor. When that came true, I went back to Coach Wilson and said, ‘You remember I told you.’ I said I didn’t ask for enough. You have not because you ask not. I asked Him to put me on the floor, to let me see myself coaching on that floor. Well now, I found out that I need to ask Him for what I really wanted — I wanted Talladega’s girls to win a championship, to let me see that in my lifetime. And God is great. I don’t think, I know — He’s gonna make good on His promise.”
Essentially, Coach Keith is guaranteeing a Talladega title -- and she's guaranteeing it because of the strength of her faith, and the faith of her girls.
Now ...
When I played football in high school, I used to wear a WWJD bracelet on my right wrist. My buddy and I read a Psalm every day before practice and games. And we prayed routinely. So it's not as though I intend to disrespect Jannie's faith, or anyone else's.
But the idea of praying for a victory, believing God will allow you to score more points than your opponent ... well, it makes me uncomfortable.

So I suppose that's where the question comes: what, exactly, is God's role in the games we play?

My favorite athlete in the history of the University of Alabama was Jay Barker. Jay wasn't a terribly good athlete, he wasn't highly-recruited out of Hewitt-Trussville and he rarely wowed anyone with his physical abilities.
But his teams always found ways to win, and afterwards Barker would quote a passage of Scripture and charge off the field, helmet raised, as the adoring Alabama fans chanted his name.
Did having Jay Barker, a man of faith, a role model for Sunday School children across the state, make Alabama win?
Another example, just to keep things balanced: Auburn in 2004.
Remember those guys? I'll bet you do. Above all else, one of the best stories that came out of Auburn's 13-0 season was the team's Christian faith -- the skill players could always be seen praying on the bench after scores, they did that goofy "linking arms" thing when they came out of the tunnel ... they even sang a gospel song in the locker room ("Hard Fighting Soldier," which the marching band still plays).
The team was an absolute revelation for Auburn fans, given the discord and fractured community that resulted after a miserable 2003.
But was the team's Christian faith of consequence? Was God responsible for Auburn's 13-0 season? And if so, why didn't God lean on some of those BCS voters and give Auburn a chance at the national title that year?

Obviously, as Christians, we're taught that God answers the prayers of the faithful. But we're also taught that those answers aren't always what we believe they should be. To me, Jesus' ministry is the ultimate example (and since it's Lent, the subject is even more appropriate) -- believed by many of His followers to be a revolutionary bent on restoring the earthly kingdom of Israel to the line of David (and throwing off the oppression of the Roman Empire in the process), Jesus instead sacrificed Himself for the sins of the world, so that His children would have an opportunity to enter another, much greater kingdom in a world beyond this one.
I suppose there's nothing wrong with praying that God will deliver your team the victory. But does not the other side pray the same prayer? And so, when the game is over, what will the losers say? Did we not pray hard enough? Was our faith not strong enough? Or does God simply favor the other side more?

To me, prayers of thanksgiving are appropriate. Prayers for the safety of everyone involved are very appropriate. Prayers that we'll all remember God in everything we do, that we'll give Him whatever glory is to be gained from an athletic contest, and that we'll be a witness for Him with the way we play ... are appropriate. A prayer for our side to score more points than the other? Why does God care who wins a basketball game?

Which, I suppose, is the larger point here -- sports often teach us hard lessons about life, and, in some cases, faith. Some days, the shots simply don't fall, your receivers can't catch, your infield can't throw. Sometimes in life, things don't go the way you want them to. How will you respond? Will you quit? Will you find someone to blame? Will you lose heart? Or will you come back tomorrow and try again? And if you still can't do it, will you keep coming back, keep trying?
And thus, as a sports fan and a former athlete, as well as a Christian, that's where I perceive God's place in our games -- as a forum to make us better disciples.

Anyway, just something that's been on my mind. Feel free to share your opinions in the commentary section. I'll try to get something up tomorrow, but it may be tough -- there's a lot to do.



Alan said...

Interesting topic, and I was thinking about it as I watched the girls championship game today at the BJCC.

I'm not sure it is a bad thing to pray for success, even in sports. Don't we pray for the job promotion at work, or the new job?

And when we get the promotion, or the new job over rivals—isn't that much the same as scoring more points in a basketball game? Aren't other people praying for the same results we desire?

And isn't prayer about bringing our desires into communion with God, so that our desires through that conversation become more like Christ's?

And if God cares, or at least knows, when a sparrow falls to the ground, wouldn't he also care about activities in which his children are involved?

dbh said...

For what it's worth, Talladega lost in the championship game. So maybe God had other ideas.

Which I think is the whole point of this exercise. You're correct when you say that there's not that much difference between praying for a promotion, or success in general.

On the other hand, ethereal success -- or what we call "successful" -- isn't always God's plan for us. A woman in the office told me, "When you were growing up and wanted something, didn't you ask your father for it?" And the answer, of course, is that I did ... but my dad didn't always just give it to me because I asked for it -- he knew what was best for me, and it wasn't always what I wanted.

In the same way, Scripture teaches us that God gives us what we need, not necessarily what we want. Don't forget that Jesus prayed fervently in Gethsemane to be spared from the awful fate that awaited Him in Jerusalem before ultimately conceding ... "Yet not what I will, but what You will."

Obviously, we should strive to make ourselves more like Christ, and thus, try to line up what we desire with what God wants for us. But we should also be prepared to be wrong, and I suppose that's where I thought Jannie got it backwards -- she behaved as if God's desires would line up with hers, not the other way around.