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What Andy Murray Taught the Church - There is More to Championships Than What You See in the Highlights


Yesterday Andy Murray brought an end to the angst of an entire nation becoming the first Brit to win Wimbledon in 77 years.  What made the win even more appreciable probably escaped the view of the casual tennis observer or even the sports enthusiast who caught the highlights on ESPN.  What made Murray great was the struggle; the immense amount of persistence in suffering that resulted in a championship.  
Winning Wimbledon is not easy.  If you don’t understand the tournament allow me to fill you in.  While Wimbledon gets better TV coverage than most tennis majors, the primetime stuff most of us see is only the last three rounds.  The tournament actually takes two weeks and it consists of seven rounds.  In perspective, there are 68 teams in the NCAA basketball tournament.  There are 128 players competing in the bracket at Wimbledon.  
For the men, each round consists of a best 3 out of 5 set match.  I am not trying to diminish other sports.  You’ve got to be a MAN to play football.  Football games last about three hours, but there is a halftime and constant substitutions.  Even the best players play somewhere between 45% - 55% of the game.  In tennis there are no subs.  It’s all about you, alone on the court against your opponent.  A quick match is a minimum of two hours with the later round more competitive matches lasting as long as four to five hours.  Cumulatively, tennis players are running about 3 miles in a dead sprint over the course of a match.  Then, depending on the schedule, you have to turn around and play again within 48 hours, sometimes within 24.  
Murray’s championship match was against world #1 Novak Djokavic.  Great baseball pitchers have a 95+ MPH fastball.  Djokavic has a 130+ MPH serve!  He’s Nolan Ryan with a racket, on jet fuel.  The match lasted over 3 hours in stifling heat.  Both players were spent by the end of it.  The final game was the best of the match.  It was one of the longest of the entire tournament.  That one game may go down as one of the greatest single games of tennis in tournament history.  For those that appreciate great athletes the final game is one worth watching even if you hate tennis!
Murray has now won Wimbledon once, but he has lost it 7 times.  The last few times he has lost it, he has done so in late rounds with the weight of his nation on his shoulders.  Last year he lost Wimbledon in the final to Roger Federer.  That was probably Federer’s swan-song.  He is a great champion on his way out and a much younger Murray couldn’t overcome the much older, experienced player who was trying to do what no man has done.  Federer has won Wimbledon as many times as Murray has lost it, 7 times!  Murray was great, but destined to lose.  Murray, classy but emotional, simply commented to his country after that match, “I’m getting closer.”  Those words hung over every point Murray played yesterday, especially when he found himself down significantly not once, but twice throughout the course of the grueling match.
Murray’s coach is Ivan Lendl.  Lendl was the world’s number one player for five years, 270 consecutive weeks.  He was one of the top five greatest players of all time.  He NEVER won Wimbledon.  Ironically, Lendl was hired with one mission in mind; help Murray win Wimbledon.  Even more ironic is that Lendl has never coached a pro player and has hardly picked up a racket in 19 years after seriously injuring his back.  
During Murray’s final game it looked to me as if the usually emotionless Lendl was breaking down.  To appreciate this you had to be a tennis fan back in the ’80’s.  If you were, you probably had an Agassi mullet.  I did!  As a player, Lendl was nothing but a stoic, yet viscous fire.  He NEVER smiled.  He always looked like he could choke your granny and then go to lunch without any remorse.  When Murray won Wimbledon Lendl not only teared up, but the man smiled, albeit for 3.8 seconds, but everyone watching saw it!
Most people don’t realize Murray was born with a knee defect.  His knee cap is split in two pieces.  It causes him extreme pain and has caused him to withdraw from several tournaments throughout his career.  Yet yesterday, Murray was in the best shape of his life.  He physically outlasted an amazing athlete in Djokavic.  Since losing Wimbledon last year Murray dedicated himself to winning the tournament.  In the past 12 months he has been unbeatable on grass courts (18-0) including an Olympic Gold Medal at Wimbledon, again in front of his home country.  For a man with a split knee cap, working through the pain both on the court and in training is an amazing accomplishment.  
So why such a long diatribe on a tennis match?  There is a pertinent message for the Church here.  I love sports, especially the back stories of great champions.  Apparently, the author of several Biblical books, Paul, was also a sports fan.  His letters to the churches are full of words and images drawn from the context of Greek sports.   
“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27, ESV)”
“Holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.” (Philippians 2:16-17, ESV)
“An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.” (2 Timothy 2:5, ESV)
Paul’s frequent reference to the struggle of sport serves to remind the church, there is more to following Christ than what you see in the highlights.  On ESPN Andy Murray’s win looks like five great shots in a few minutes, but in reality it was an excruciatingly disciplined journey executed successfully within a pre-determined set of rules.  
Such is the call of the gospel.  According to Paul in 1 Cor. 9:24-27, Christ calls us as well to an excruciatingly disciplined journey executed successfully within a pre-determined set of rules.  There will be highlight moments, but each of them will come at great cost.  Following Christ requires self-control, self-denial, self-sacrifice.  The gospel calls us to suffer without excuses.  Being a Christian is a constant journey toward being better tomorrow than you are today.  Too many of us want an ESPN version of Christianity - all highlights, no discipline, so suffering, no sweat!  This is not championship tennis and it is certainly not the gospel.
As great as Andy Murray’s win at Wimbledon was, he ultimately won a perishable, forgetful prize.  One that in the end will amount to nothing.  Do you know who won Wimbledon in 1888?  How about 1988 or even 1988?  How about 2008?  Can you answer those questions without looking up the answer in a web search engine?  Murray won a great prize.  The way he did is inspiring.  Yet for the follower of Christ we have a greater inspiration:  
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2, ESV)
We have a greater prize, one that is worth it all.  As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9, “They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.”   Because of the prize Andy Murray altered his life.  His goal shaped him.  His win was a highlight, but there are no highlights from his workouts or his diet.  ESPN is not interested in covering the countless hours of hitting tennis balls with a coach it takes to win Wimbledon.  
Like Murray focused on Wimbledon, the call of the gospel should shape the way we live our lives.  The goal is worth it all.  The church does not exist in the highlights.  The church exists in the call of Christ to an excruciatingly disciplined journey executed successfully within a pre-determined set of rules.  Let us deny ourselves - not for tennis, but for Christ.  Let us suffer - not for tennis, but for Christ.  May we alter our lives - not on the altar of sport or fame or for the highlight, but for the joy set before us in following Christ.  The prize is worth is all!

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Tebowing

Before I discuss the current media infatuation over Tim Tebow (which made this week's TIME magazine) a confession is in order.  I am a lifelong, biscuit eating, sweet tea loving, Georgia Bulldog fan.  In case anyone would doubt my dedication to the red and black I have the signatures of Vince Dooley and Mark Richt on a football as validation.  When Tim Tebow played QB for the Florida Gators I appreciated him as a brother in Christ, but only because I had to do so Biblically.  I will confess that when UGA beat Florida and it made Tebow cry, I laughed.  My confession may seem odd to some, but such is the nature of SEC football.  If you do not live in the South you cannot possibly appreciate the culture.  If you do, you know that it could be worse.
When it comes to NFL playoff football, if the Falcons are not a factor (and they rarely are), I enjoy watching the traditional teams go deep.  This means that for the most part I would like to see the Bears or Packers and the Steelers or Jets in the Super Bowl every year.  Yet on Sunday while watching the Steelers and the Broncos I was torn.  I would have been glad to see the Steelers advance, but I also wanted to see Tebow win.  Why?
As much as I enjoy playoff football, I find greater amusement in watching the secular and supposedly unbiased media become confused, stumble over their contradictions, and expose their hypocrisy.  The beauty of Tebow is that if the conversation could be kept to simple QB mechanics the media fumbling is amusing enough.  Tebow throws the football like it’s a hand grenade.  The talking heads of the football pantheon hate it, but Tebow wins.  Tim Tebow is the only QB in NFL history who can complete two passes for over 316 yards and win the game.  Statistically he is a nightmare, yet in the end only one stat counts in the NFL, “w’s.”  Just win baby.
The gravy on the situation is that with Tebow it is impossible to only talk football with him.  Tebow has demonstrated that one can make life (which may involve football, medicine, politics, broadcasting, or being a mechanic) and faith a singular issue.  In so doing Tebow has reminded the church that in the gospel our identity is in Christ.  There is no way to separate a saved man from his Savior.  For the secularized and professedly unbiased media, Tebow’s union with Christ has made the man even more difficult for them to talk about.  For a man who throws the football like a hand grenade, with Bible verses under his eyes, who goes on mission trips in the off season, who prays on the side lines – for him to win is indeed supernatural.  The unspoken doctrine of ESPN is that Christians can’t win – they are boring prudes.  Mechanically Tebow shouldn’t win.  He is all wrong.  The mixture has forced them to ask an interesting question – are we witnessing a miracle?  Is there something supernatural about Tim Tebow?
What is happening with the media is that their hypocrisy with Tebow is apparent.  They want the guy to fail as a quarterback and as a man.  They want Tebow to be a fake for two reasons.  1)  The way he throws the ball shouldn’t work.  2)  What Tebow says and the way he lives is unselfish, self sacrificing, and convicting.  Tebow is salt and light.  Jesus made it clear, someone who comes into an otherwise dark world and redemptively challenges its flavor will not be welcomed.  Because Tebow is doing what every person who professes Christ should do whether they are a concert pianist, a beautician, or a dude on an 0 and 12 water polo team, he makes everyone around him think of Christ.  His faith cannot be hidden (Matt. 5:16).  If they criticize Tebow, they get Christ.  If Tebow wins, Christ.  If Tebow loses, Christ.  If Tebow lives, Christ.  If Tebow dies, Christ (Phil. 1:21).  Every follower of Christ should be the same thing whatever the context.  The difference with Tebow is that he has a huge stage because he plays football; and wins.  His life is more public and so when the result of the cross of Christ in Tebow confuses the “wise” and becomes folly to the perishing – we get to see the gospel do what it does on a national broadcast (1 Cor. 1:18-25).  Football has given Tim Tebow an incredible platform that has exposed scores of people to the gospel.  Though the conversations may begin with football, in the end, football has little to nothing to do with who Tim Tebow is.  He is not a miracle worker.  He is a guy making a living and being what he is supposed to be – a man who cannot be separated from who he is in Christ.  Because of this the media stumbles and fumbles to talk Tebow without talking Christ – but they can’t.  This is why they can’t describe the obvious – the guy is not Tebowing any more than Paul was “Paul-ing” or Moses was “Mos-ing.”  The dude is praying, glorifying God, living for Christ, and playing football.
Sadly the hypocrisy does not only exist with the media, but in the church.  Because American Christianity practices such a nominal form of faith we sound like bumbling idiots when we try to talk sports and God.  Why do we root for Tebow?  Is it to prove that God helps us win?  Before we create an argument we cannot sustain, let’s be careful to be logical and Biblical.  The Bible does give us stories of people like Joseph who God prospers in whatever they set their hands to do (Gen. 39:5).  A central story of the Old Testament is the crazy good slingshot skills of David vs. Goliath – which became in the end God vs. a devilish giant.  The Biblical accounts of Joseph and David make it seem that had these men played QB they too would throw the pigskin like a hand grenade and win.  Yet the Bible also says that godless, immoral people will prosper (Psalm 73).  Some of the NFL’s greatest players have been humanity’s worst people.  Great linebackers and coaches can be horrible husbands and fathers.  They may tackle like trucks but they are not good men.  So the logical, Biblical message for the nominal church is this, be careful to call Tebow a miracle.  Be careful to attribute the perfect landing of his oddly thrown football to some sort of supernatural manifestation of God.  Let’s remember, football is a team game.  Tebow may be throwing the ball to a Muslim with great hands.  He may have gotten the opportunity to score because a wife beating defensive lineman picked up a fumble on the previous series.  The wide receivers who take Tebow’s passes to the end zone may be outrunning defensive backs who lead the opposing team’s Sunday morning devotion.  Tebow may have other team mates who are great Christians who score touchdowns and pray who have been with Denver for several years.  If you follow Denver then you should know, over the last few years it would seem that their prayers were ignored.  If we pin all Tim does with the pigskin on God helping him win, the whole thing unwinds both biblically and logically.  Let’s be careful.
Where the novice church has gone wrong is in thinking that the only purpose of the gospel is to help us win games, make money, be great.  We believe faith means we do not need skill, we just need to win to prove our point.  But this is not the message of the gospel at all.  The message of the gospel is not in what we are promised to accomplish in Christ, but in who we are destined to become in Christ.  What is happening with Tim Tebow is what should be happening with all of us who profess Christ. 
We should not even be deceived into thinking that at the core of it all Tebow’s success proves that God cares about football.  Tonight LSU will play BAMA for a national championship.  Scores of nominal Christians will pray about the game as if God cares who wins.  Crimson will not only play against purple and gold, but they will also pray against them.  Yet, when Jerry Jones cuts a whole in the top of the dome in Dallas so “God can watch His team play” they will call him a blasphemer and an idolater.  Let’s be careful dear hypocrite. 
We have forgotten that we do not follow Christ or pray so that God can help us win games.  We follow Christ because we want to be like Him.  What Tebow is doing is not supernatural, in fact it is rather natural.  Tebow is simply being what he is in Christ.  The reason we are all talking about it is because the media nor the church has seen a man like this in quite some time, a man brings every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Cor. 10:5).  Tebow is not supernatural.  In an increasingly secularized world and an apostate church, Tebow is simply abnormal.  All he is a physically gifted male whose size, strength, character, never give up attitude, and ability to win games has given him a Heisman and a chance to play in the NFL.  Horrible men have done the same thing.  The difference with Tim Tebow is that he is not ashamed of who he is in Christ.  He just happens to be a great football player.  What is supernatural about Tebow is not how he wins games.  What is supernatural is what he has become in Christ.
We all have the same opportunity.
Did God help Tebow throw an 80 yard pass to end Pittsburg’s chance to advance in one play in overtime?  I don’t know, you’ll have to ask God.  What I saw was a good play call for the offense and a bad calculation by the defense.  They thought Tebow would run, but he threw a hand grenade.  Another guy caught it, and because he has was as fast as lightening and lifted weights in the off season he was able to stiff arm a defender and take the ball to the end zone.  It happens every Sunday, even for pagan people.  And that’s the point.  Life happens.  Yet what the gospel calls us to do is to be Christ in life, on any stage, at every stage no matter how big or small.  Whether it is nationally broadcasted, whether you win or lose, whether you cut hair or win the Heisman, every thought is to become captive to Christ.  Tim is not “Tebowing” as if he is creating something different any more than Paul was “Pauling” or Moses was “Mosing.”  Tim is simply being Christ where he is.  We are called to do the same.  
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Vicarious

Athletics is a powerful medium of communication. We know more about our favorite quarterback than we do about the people who live on our street. The language of sports is vicarious. It is "our team" and "we" always play against "them" even though most of "us" are only watching. Without touching a ball or getting off the couch "we" either win or lose. Our fate is tied to our team.

To spare the loss of a great deal of life, ancient armies often employed the use of "the champion." The champion of one tribe would combat the champion of the other. Based on the outcome of two, an entire tribe won and an entire tribe lost. The most infamous example of the clash of the champions is the Biblical story of David and Goliath. Goliath, the Philistine champion, called out the nation of Israel and tied the fate of the entire nation to one. Israel had no champion, they had a David. Goliath got plunked in the head. The Philistines lost.

This vicarious life through our champions creates a strange cultural psychology that asks, "What can I get from my champion?" We expect, through their winnings, for our champions to supply us richly with pride, a sense of belonging, and euphoria. An entire week of joy rests on the outcome of a game. Yet, when the champion loses we feel a strong need to distance ourselves from him. He has ruined our life by losing. The champion must then suffer for our frustrations. We critique his life and performance, and in the case of coaches, feel the right to determine his fate without regard for his life, feelings, or family. We have suffered through his loss. The champion must atone.

The culture of sport in America has influenced the Christian church so thoroughly that we have lost focus of our true vicarious champion. The ability to live vicariously is a phenomenon of spiritual engineering that God hard wired in us so that the cross would thoroughly change us. Yet, for some reason the church has adopted an ethic of sports as if the cross does not apply. Christians have every reason to be impacted by the outcome of sports. It is a part of being human. It is the beauty of the game. It is natural to feel disappointment in a loss and joy in a win. But the follower of Christ has no right to exchange the attitudes of the fruits of the Spirit for what the rest of the surrounding culture may express or feel. Christians have no right to crucify their athletic champions or their coaches, no matter how they may feel about the loss. The athlete and the coach are merely men, they cannot possibly atone. Slander is slander even if it is just about sports. Christians have no reason to relate to sports, to teams, or to coaches in a way that negates the reality that Jesus has been crucified for them.

Jesus is our champion. Our fate is tied to His. We do not have God's permission to lose our minds, our witness, or our lives over sports.
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Throwing Our Children Off a Cliff, For Sports

History knows the Spartans as tenacious warriors.  Legend holds that the Spartans were so dedicated to war that any male with a physical abnormality was thrown into a pit known as Apothetae soon after birth.  At the age of 7, boys were removed from their homes to be raised by the state for next 12 years in a strict disciplinary academy aimed at producing physically elite males.  In Sparta these academies were called agoge.  In Greece they were called gymnasiums. Validating these stories is historically difficult, nonetheless, this is the stuff of legends.
A June 25, 2006 article that appeared in the money section of the New York Times explores the growing costs of raising athletes.  Across America sports academies are becoming big business as parents are willing to spend thousands of dollars to give their children a competitive edge.  According to the article, some parents confess to having spent upwards of $30,000 over the course of several years on specialized athletic training and coaching.  Read the entire article here.
Many parents will not be able to shell out 30 grand to help their child make the baseball team, but cultural extremes often serve to dictate cultural norms.  Without question we spend far more time, energy, and money for our children to be involved in sports that we used to.  $30 used to get you an entire season and a jersey.  Most leagues now cost several hundred dollars per season, which does not include the extra costs of custom jerseys and highly specialized equipment.  Why are we willing to pay such a price?  Because its normal!
Has our children’s success in sports become the American Apothetae?  Many parents may regard the time and money spent on kid sports as sacrifice, but what are we really sacrificing?  Are we sacrificing time and money, or are we sacrificing our children?  Are we teaching them that if you don’t win, life is over?  Our nation’s infatuation with sports, the media coverage, and the exorbitant salaries for athletes have created a new class of cultural elites.  The money trail has trickled down to the American family and beckons parents to count the cost.  How much are you willing to pay for your kids to be elite?  
The cost may not be simply financial.
As we are experiencing in American sport, athletics is not only creating a new economy but a new morality.  It is not just how much are you willing to pay, but how far are you willing to go?  I hope to explore this theme, the morality of sports in American culture, tomorrow.  Yet as Christian parents the question of cost is simple.  What does it profit if you gain the whole world, but lose your own (or your children’s) soul?  In the end success is not measured in batting statistics or passing efficiency, but in obedience to the Word of God.  If our children become All-Stars but have no spiritual life, we have failed them.  
In Hebrew society parents had one mission in training their children, to teach them the will of God.  Parents were not to rely on the specialized academy, but the home was to be the foremost academy designed to help children become morally and spiritually fit.  The mission was simple, 
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9 ESV)
If we are not far past it already, Christian parents are at a cultural crossroads.  Do the rising costs and pressures of athletics in our country fit the gospel mission, or should I say its demand?  I would surmise that Christian brothers and sisters from other nations who observe our culture would judge that our addiction to sports has caused us long ago to forsake the gospel call.  Before you respond, please note that I did not say sports has caused us to leave the mission, but rather our addiction, our idolization of them, our love for them.  My daughter is a swimmer.  Some of my fondest memories of childhood revolve around sports.  But sports in America is not what it used to be - I think we all share my observations here.  All I am asking is that before we throw our children off a cliff and lose their souls, for us to return to a more Biblically balanced view of life, parenting, and sports.  
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Conditioning

To be successful, athletes spend inordinate amounts of time conditioning. The body must not only be able to endure, it must also be able to respond. Muscle fitness and muscle memory work hand in hand to keep the athlete consistent and efficient in motion.

Paul appreciated athletics. Immersed in Hellenistic culture, athletic competition was an important part of his Roman life. Paul borrowed from the principles of sports and applied them to Christian discipline in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27. Success in the Christian life demands conditioning.

I in no way desire for this conversation to be a wholesale condemnation of sports. I believe sport plays a vital role in culture, health, the rejuvenation of the soul, and the enjoyment God desires for us to get out of life. Historically athletic games have played a vital role in our relationships with one another as nations. Sport has its own language. It creates a unique spirit of comradery and commonality. As a pastor I would be remiss if I did not recognize that for many young men and women, their involvement in athletics has done more to inspire their life than anything they ever found in church. Perhaps this statement alone is a worthy conversation for the week.

Yet my question is how are we being culturally conditioned by our over emphasis of sports? While America has always been a nation that loves sports, our contemporary fascination with athletes is nothing short of a phenomenon. Twenty years ago ESPN was a 24 hour sports channel that few people understood. Now it is a growing list of channels that no one can live without. Sports was at one time a 3 minute segment on the news. Now, SportsCenter has created a reality in which there is a newscast with no weather, no politics, no local stories, just sports. What does all of this say about who we are becoming, or who we already are?

I am reading a book by Kevin J. Vanhoozer, research professor of systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical School, entitled Everyday Theology, How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends. In the opening chapter Vanhoozer challenges the reader to do several things in interpreting culture: 1) Do not be overly simplistic or reductionistic with interpretation. A trite statement about sports will not be accurate nor will it suffice. We need to really think about what we are seeing and saying. Furthermore we should realize that when it comes to reading culture we must not look only at a singular issue. Athletics is a narrow topic in a much broader issue. What is happening in sports is merely a symptom of a much greater disease. 2) We need to assess how we got here, communicate what certain cultural phenomena (in our case sports) means to us, and discern where we are headed. 3) As Christians we must take responsibility to interpret culture biblically. We cannot separate our faith from any aspect of life - not even sports.

That being said, I want to share a statement from Vanhoozer's book. Before you dismiss this discussion as silly, somehow thinking that sport is amoral, that it has nothing to say about our culture, or has no implications on our faith, think about this statement. "Culture is hardly a faith free zone. On the contrary, in programming it's members to live a certain way, culture also predisposes them toward a certain kind of faith (33)." If we continue as we are with sports, thinking about them as we do, rearranging life around them as we have (ESPN), what will this do to our faith? A more relevant question may be what has become of our faith? As I cited in my last post, a strategy of Antiochus Epiphanes in Hellenizing the Jews was to replace Temple life with the gymnasium. We are being culturally conditioned by our affinity to sports. When all of this has run its course, what sort of faith will emerge? According to Vanhoozer's statement, what will our current cultural "conditioning" do to the gospel mission; in the sense of will people be more or less likely to respond to the gospel if our lives become overly saturated with sports? What will it do to the church if we continue giving up worship for tournaments? How has the practice schedule replaced the family altar and the parental responsibilities of Deuteronomy 6? What sort of faith is emerging from our conditioning in this culture of sport?
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Gyms and Temples

Hellenism is a historical term that refers to the conquest of Greek culture over foreign peoples. It was the reason the Romans had a pantheon of gods that were little more than Grecian transplants. Jupiter was Zeus without a toga. The world appeared to be diverse. Ethnically it was Jewish, Persian, Egyptian, Assyrian, and Roman, but mentally the world was quickly becoming Greek.

Antiochus Epiphanes was a Seleucid ruler who controlled Palestine from 187 to 175 BC. While he initially allowed the Jews to observe Torah his agenda was to conquer them religiously and culturally through Hellenism. He replaced the Jewish High Priest with someone who looked like them, but thought like him. The replacement of the priest was not popular, but it was critical for cultural shift. Re-imagine God, make Him a voice of the emerging culture, then replace Him under the cover of night.

In his Old Testament Introduction, Temper Longman refers to another aspect of Antiochus' agenda of culture shift, "The gymnasium not the temple was to be the social and even religious heart of the city." Antiochus sought to loosen the convictions traditional Jews by turning their mind away from God and on to sports.

This week I would like to begin a conversation about the role of sports and its replacement of religion as the epicenter of cultural formation in America. I would enjoy a broad conversation, but I would especially like to engage Christian parents, more specifically the Christian parents of our church and community. How far will we go with the increasing demands of sports on family life and its growing intrusion on religious life? What do you think? Do you see any correlation between our infatuation with sports, professional athletes, the secularization of our society, and our diminishing heartbeat for holiness and God? What has been your experience? What is your struggle?

I have written on the relationship between sports and faith in the past. Also read my post "Sports on Sunday." Share your thoughts.
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The Good Guy Wins

I am not as much a golf fan as I am a “human story behind sports” fan.  As much as the media tries to separate golfers, b-ballers, and sports icons from morality - it can’t be done.  Basketball does not say as much about a man as pulling a gun on a teammate does.  Birdies do not say as much about a man as faithfulness does.

How ironic is it that as much as the media, the tournament directors, and Tiger tried to avoid it happening, the Masters became a morality play.  How would Tiger be portrayed by the media and received by the audience?  In the end, amazingly, his story was trumped and a greater story prevailed.  A man whose wife is suffering from breast cancer won a major.  His wife able to get out of the bed only long enough to see her husband birdie the final hole and win The Masters.  She watched her husband win.  He has watched her suffer.  Tiger played Augusta markedly alone.  Mickelson played Augusta with a pink bow on his hat.  Mickelson walks to the 18th green, to get his jacket, with his family.  The people at Nike scratch their head, trying to figure out why everyone thinks they and Tiger have no class for using the voice of his dead father to inspire us.  Both men are golfers, but carry with them metaphors of home.  Morality and sports cannot live separate lives.  We do what we do being who we are.  We cannot be separated from our secrets.  We wear our character.

What will be interesting for me is to see now which story the media will amplify.  Will they celebrate faithfulness, marriage, and morality - that the good guy won - or will they continue to demonstrate that they don’t get it.  Good guys win.  We should celebrate those men, those stories, and and encourage people to be good.
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Forgiving Tiger

The Tiger Woods press conference last week only served to reiterate two things. 1) From the moment Tiger hit the tree, the whole thing has been weird. I will admit that I only saw the last three or four minutes of his statement, but it looked weird, sounded weird, and in my mind it was weird. 2) The statement also served to reiterate that for the media and most of America, all Tiger has to do to be forgiven is win. No matter what he says or does from this moment forward if Tiger Woods wins, America will move on.

The sports writers loosely use the term “forgiveness” when describing Tiger’s future. Will America forgive him? The fallacy here is that it actually matters if Tiger finds forgiveness with sports fans. It is also fallacious to believe that forgiveness weighed in the courts of public opinion is the real thing. America may move on and celebrate him if he wins, but celebrating a winner is different than dealing with sin. In this respect the sports writers and most Americans have it dead wrong. Rooting for Tiger is not the same as forgiving Tiger. Being willing to overlook what someone has done because of their accomplishments is not forgiveness. Filing something away in the mental recesses is not the same as forgiveness. To demonstrate the point I ask this question. What if Tiger does not win another golf event? Will he be forgiven or will his transgression then be celebrated in the media as the moment Tiger fell. When I say “celebrated” I do not mean cheered, but rather documented, replayed, analyzed, scrutinized, and exhaustively written about in the media ad nauseam. Forgiveness is not found in low golf scores, athletic accomplishments, and media favor. Forgiveness is another matter entirely.

Tiger needs forgiveness that has nothing to do with golf. He needs forgiveness that involves restoration, reconciliation, and repentance. He needs to be able to walk away from his past and find a more hopeful future that is marked by changed behavior. He needs forgiveness that has nothing to do with a public opinion poll. Tiger may find favor with ESPN again, he may remain a billionaire, he may endorse shaving gel and Buicks again, but if he does not find true forgiveness the tale of his unraveling has only just begun.

Tiger has become for many Americans what most sports icons are to us, a vicarious offering. We have all sinned. The only difference in most of us and Tiger is that our sin just isn’t on film. Yet in Tiger’s experience, most Americans are hopeful that they too can lose self-control and yet retain a fairytale ending; as in, “they lived happily ever after.” Sin doesn’t work this way and neither does forgiveness.

Sin destroys. While forgiveness may heal the man, it may not return him to the luster of his accomplishments. Forgiveness is not simply finding public favor. Forgiveness is about finding a place of repentance. It is the contrition of the soul, the surrender of the will, an altar of mercy. King David’s sin cost him a peaceful throne, but he found forgiveness. Public opinion polls found him wanting the rest of his days, but the fate of his soul he knew quite well (Psalm 51).

If we were honest we would have to admit that the ESPN, public opinion version of forgiveness is way too uncertain. That version of forgiveness is tied to golf. If Tiger wins he will be forgiven. Personally, I want something more. So do you. Our souls need something far more substantial to rest upon than scores. Do not be duped by ESPN’s definition of forgiveness. The stories they broadcast about Tiger and America’s resulting opinion matter not. Tiger doesn’t need the media or America’s cheap, pragmatic, results driven version of forgiveness. True forgiveness is not weighed in the courts of public opinion, but before the throne of Almighty God. The good news is that God has given His Son as a sacrifice for sin. ESPN’s version of forgiveness is public. God’s version of forgiveness is personal. Jesus crucifixion is connected to every illicit affair and lie of Tiger Woods. Jesus’ crucifixion was because of me. Jesus’ crucifixion was because of you. If Tiger doesn’t win, the gospel teaches that he can still be truly forgiven, but only if he seeks it with a God who has given His Son for sinners.

Sin is not about golf. Sin is about God. Forgiveness found in the gospel of Jesus Christ is substantial and has nothing to do with low scores, media hype, or public opinion. In the gospel man’s soul finds sure footing, peace, and rest. You and I, and Tiger need Jesus. Only a relationship with the Son of God, as defined by His gospel, can bring about what our souls really need; reconciliation, restoration, and a version of healing that is not dependent upon scores and public opinion.

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