Thursday, February 23, 2012

"Tebowmania" and "Linsanity"

Throughout the fall ESPN and virtually all other sports media outlets went absolutely crazy with "Tebowmania." More recently they're losing their minds with "Linsanity." The media's fawning over Tim Tebow of the Denver Broncos and Jeremy Lin of the New York Knicks is predictable and precarious. It's predictable because sports media is more interested in stories than in people. It's precarious because the more strongly they shine the spotlight and the higher they build a player's platform, the farther players fall when they're exposed as human and fallible. They will find as much joy in reporting a player's fall after a moral failing, a foolish relationship or a slip of the tongue as they will in building him up following a last minute victory or a prime time interview.

One aspect of these athletes' lives that the media find both mysterious and controversial is their faith in Christ Jesus. They focus multiple cameras on Tebow every moment of the game, hoping to catch him "Tebowing" and reading his lips as he utters a prayer. They discuss ad nauseum Jeremy Lin's Asian heritage, his faith and his Ivy League education as they marvel at his appearance from nowhere to energize the Knicks to several wins across a couple of weeks. For both players, their faith seems to be integral to their lives. This is a total anomaly for the media and for many fans who live tightly compartmentalized lives with faith totally segregated from other matters of life. They insist on having public lives and private lives. They want their private choices of lifestyle and religion to stay separate from their public image. They simply apply the wares of celebrity culture to the sports world and these players' expressions of faith. Instead of Lindsey Lohan or Kim Kardashian, they're inspecting the lives of Tebow and Lin under the microscope of national media.

Sadly, the integrity being modeled by both Tebow and Lin is also enigmatic to most Christian sports fans. They too seem to cheer these players as being emblematic of "Christian athletes" because they are winning football games and making last second shots to win basketball games, and then speaking openly about their faith in Jesus in post-game interviews. To the players it's not unusual because faith permeates all they do, including sport. The fans go nuts about their speech and are ready to have these two replace Billy Graham and the Pope as spokesmen for Christianity. The fans miss the simple principle employed by these two and countless others who compete in sport at every level. Colossians 3:23 challenges the Christian athlete or anyone in any occupation, to work for his or her employer as if working for the Lord Himself, rather than simply for a man, a team or a corporation. All of one’s life is under Jesus’ lordship and his work is thereby consecrated to Christ. The work of Christian athletes happens to be sport and for these two and it happens to be in the glaring spotlight of national and international media.

Let’s be clear about some matters of faith and sport. 1) The Lord Jesus does not care who wins a particular sporting contest. He does not favor Tim Tebow or Jeremy Lin and their respective teams over others and thereby influence the outcome of games. Shall we pretend there are not Christian athletes on the opposing teams? Do we really believe that the Lord simply counts how many Christian players are on team A vs. the number on team B and then favors team A in today’s game? Maybe team A’s Christian players are simply holier or spent more time in prayer this week and thereby gain God’s favor over team B. All such thoughts are ridiculous. 2) Being a Christian athlete can give one real advantages. In so far as the Christian athlete grows in Christ-honoring character traits such as those listed in Galatians 5:22-23, he or she has an advantage in competition. As the Christian athlete competes in a way which honors God; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control enhance one’s ability to perform highly and to be the best possible teammate. 3) We who know personally or watch Christian athletes can be wise or foolish toward them. We can do as most and either treat them as flawless heroes and icons or simply criticize them as fools who drag their religion into public. We can also choose to hold a more mature and healthy view of them as simple people, redeemed by a loving God, and subject to the same weaknesses of humanity as we are.

Tim Tebow and Jeremy Linn are not God and are not worthy of worship. Jesus is God, worship Him. Tim and Jeremy are men, respect them. Do not confuse these relationships.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

For what should I pray?

For what should we pray regarding our lives in sport? For what can I pray in good conscience and expect that the Lord Jesus may answer? For what would we be totally foolish to pray? For what do coaches and competitors ask you to pray? I will make some suggestions about these matters and I’d love to hear from some thoughts you.

As I was thinking about this earlier today, I thought I’d list the prayer items in some categories as below.

Prayers of Thanksgiving:

• Thank God for coaches, athletes, team administration, support staff and other people related to the team.

• Thank God for the sport itself, its best attributes, and its virtues.

• Thank God for the privilege to compete in sport.

• Thank God for the opportunity we have to represent Him in the world of sport as both prophet and priest to this community.

Prayers of Consecration:

• Dedicate this day’s training, practice or competition to God’s purposes.

• Dedicate your passionate love for sport to the fulfillment of God’s purposes.

• Consecrate your body, mind and spirit to honoring Christ as you train, compete or practice.

• Dedicate the relationships with people to the pursuit of God’s purposes.

• Dedicate the timing for career changes, transitions and more to God’s care in times of uncertainty and insecurity.

Prayers of Confession:

• Confess your occasional lack of perspective related to the importance of your team’s success to the fulfillment of God’s will.

• Confess your inability to make significant changes in people’s lives independent of God’s grace and power.

• Confess the Lord’s super-ability to accomplish His purposes in the lives of sportspeople, possibly even through you.

• Confess sin when your overly competitive flesh overtakes your heart in speech, anger or gesture.

Prayers of Intercession:

• Pray for your team, each and all, to compete at their absolute best.

• Pray for the coaches to have wisdom and insight related to leadership, strategy and motivation.

• Pray for them all to have a sense of the Lord’s presence and pleasure with them as they train, practice or compete.

• Pray for the officials to arbiter the sport in a way that both protects the competitors and honors the sport.

• Pray for your opponents to compete honorably and safely.

• Pray for all those involved in the sport to experience the best that it has to offer.

You may have noticed, I never pray for wins. You can ask me about why if you like. Here’s the bottom line: Pray for and with the people of sport. When you do, you engage their hearts with the Lord of Heaven, the omnipotent Creator of the Universe and we are all enriched in the process.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Chapel – Team Unity

1 – Competitions like this one require tremendous team unity. Each one must bring his/her best to make the team all it can be.

2 – Think for a moment about how diverse your team is:

• Size

• Strength

• Background

• Ethnicity

• Skill sets

• Personalities

3 – Think about how the team is diminished if any one of you is at less than 100%.

4 – Think about how the team’s personality on the floor changes with each substitution. You are not interchangeable parts in a machine.

5 – Think about the factors which unify such a diverse set of people. These are most important.

6 – Ephesians 4:4-7 (read the text aloud)

• One body / one Spirit / one hope of calling

• One Lord / one faith / one baptism

• One God / one Father

• Over all, through all, in all…

• But each one was given grace as a gift.

• Each one is uniquely gifted. All united, but not all the same.

7 – Today, your team will be most successful when each one brings the best of his/her unique giftedness to a unified effort with the whole team.

• You will be very good today as you play as one.

• Unified in purpose

• Unified in values

• Unified in strategy

• Unified in heart

Friday, February 3, 2012


One of the most important, but easily overlooked qualities that enables us to be most effective is to listen well. In an evaluation meeting with our university men’s basketball head coach, among many other questions, I asked him what the players most valued from my time with them that season. He said, “You listened to them. You let them talk.” While that seems very simple it was also very important to me. As I thought about this later I gained greater understanding about the value of listening to sportspeople.

In the world of sport, the coaches do lots of talking and very little listening. In collegiate sport, the NCAA places a limit of twenty hours per week for the coaches to work with their players. The coaches work countless hours each in evaluating video, developing scouting reports on upcoming opponents, brainstorming game plans, meeting together to strategize and when they finally get with the players they want to communicate and to download all this information to them. They’re trying to squeezed hundreds of hours of information into twenty hours of video review, training and practice. Lots of talking, very little listening by the coaches.

It daily becomes increasingly clearer how important the skill of listening well is to my role as a sport chaplain or character coach. The players simply need to process some of what they’ve been learning, their frustrations, their concerns and more. I can be the listener for them. Simply repeating their questions, restating their thoughts, asking follow up questions, sharing a related life story or simply looking them in the eye enables them to communicate their hearts and to perceive that they’ve been heard, their opinions valued and their ideas respected.

Yesterday’s Team Building session was emblematic of how such listening helps the development of the players’ relationships with each other and with me. We were discussing the fifth of six sessions on Coach John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success. In particular we were discussing the traits of: ambition, adaptability, resourcefulness, fight and faith. I asked one discussion question about each one and welcomed their thoughts in dialogue. Right out of the blocks while discussing ambition, the players whose pre-season ambitions were playing in the NBA or in Europe were suddenly said to be graduation, finishing the season well and playing their best basketball in the post-season tournament. The team’s record of seven wins and sixteen losses certainly has changed their ambitions. Another player commented during our discussion of adaptability, that he had to adapt from being a starter playing twenty-two minutes per game and getting lots of shots, to being a reserve, averaging six minutes and very few shots.

As we discussed faith, I asked, “When does basketball require faith of you?” Several said, “Right now.” In the midst of a disappointing season, some find it hard to go to practice. Others find the travel, training, practice and more to be a terrible grind. One of the seniors, the unquestioned leader and most enthusiastic player on the team, confessed that for the first time in his life his passion for the game was drying up. He was losing the joy of playing basketball and was almost looking forward to the end. This shocked his teammates and me. We followed up with a question about how faith can help restore the joy of sport and concluded our discussion with a challenge to continue to prepare well, to play these last games as part of the process of improvement and to be in position to play the team’s best games during the post-season tournament.

We left the locker room after our twenty minute discussion with open hearts and enthused voices. I am sure that was primarily the result of listening to them and encouraging them to be their best. It surely helped to have Coach Wooden’s Pyramid to frame our discussion. Please take the time to listen to your players and coaches. Work to improve your listening skills. Don’t simply wait for a pause so that you can start talking. You’ll open hearts and enlighten minds more effectively if you just listen.