Thursday, January 31, 2013

Is God a Spiritual Steroid for Athletes?

Thanks to my friend Tim Archer (read his blog here) for pointing me to this article.

A recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute reveals that over one quarter of Americans believe God influences the outcomes of sports events.

"While only about 3-in-10 (27%) Americans, believe that God plays a role in determining which team wins a sporting event, a majority (53%) believe that God rewards athletes who have faith with good health and success."
I'm not sure that these numbers should surprise me, but they do. 27% of Americans think that God cares who wins the Superbowl this Sunday. 53% believe Christian athletes will be more successful because God will reward their faith!

27% of Americans think that God who:
  • created the world, 
  • died on the cross for our sins, 
  • defeated death in his resurrection, 
  • maintains the struggle against sin and Satan, 
  • calls people to enter his kingdom and be transformed into his likeness while carrying out his mission, 
also cares who wins a football game in New Orleans this Sunday, and will take the time and effort to influence the outcome!!!!!! One quarter!!!! I'm flabbergasted!!!!

So does the Superbowl really come down to talent, focus, absence of injuries, X and O's, or just which team has the most Christians on it?

This survey brings me back to the article by Josh Graves that inspired this blog, "Is it OK to pray for your team to win Super Bowl 2012?" I encourage you to read that article. Josh did an excellent job of answering the question.

God cares about people, not scores. God cares for the kids with cancer in both Baltimore and San Francisco and while one may end the game ecstatic and the other devastated, God cares for both. He cares that their treatment is effective. He cares that they have the family and emotional support they need. He cares that they know Him. He doesn't care so much about the trophy presentation Sunday night.

Then 53% of Americans believe God assists Christian athletes?!?! All I can say is I don't think he does a very good job. According to this site, "In March 2004 he donated all $700,000 of his second place finish in the Accenture Match Play Championship to the building fund at St. Simons Presbyterian Church." This article in the Christian Chronicle describes how Kenny Perry is a deacon of a Church of Christ in Franklin, Kentucky and has donated 5% of his winnings to Lipscomb University throughout his career. While both Davis Love III and Kenny Perry have been tremendously successful golfers, their accomplishments don't come close to matching Tiger Woods who makes no profession of faith in Christ and was revealed as a serial adulterer several years ago.

As you look around the sports world there have certainly been successful athletes who are Christians, but seldom are they the most dominant player in their sport. So God must only be good for a bit of a performance boost, but not enough to get you all the way to the top!

Of all the information in the report I found this observation the most telling:
"Americans say religion is significantly more important to their lives than their fan affiliation, but they are about as likely to watch sports each week as they are to attend religious services."
It's as though we know the right answer to give, but our actions reveal another story. Of course there could be several reasons this is true:
  • Sports are on TV more often than church services are held.
  • Fans might watch 20 minutes of a game and then go to bed, which is hard to compare to a minimum 1 hour commitment at a church building.
  • Many people no longer associate faith with attending religious services.
  • Perhaps you can think of more.
It's true that religious services don't provide the full measure of a person's commitment to Christ, but I hope we all agree they provide some measure. When we discover that sports dominate our leisure time and casual conversations, it's time to dedicate ourselves to our relationship with God again. We know it's important, but we don't set priorities based on importance.

May each of us keep God and his mission as our priorities, not just in our heads, while enjoying the entertainment that is sports.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Grace Doesn't Win Championships!

I was thinking about the recent rash of PED headlines. First Lance Armstrong made his confession. Then on the eve of the Superbowl, Ray Lewis is accused of using illegal supplements in his recovery from a torn triceps. And to top it all off, just this week a Miami newspaper published a well documented list of professional athletes who were clients of a Miami "anti-aging clinic". They purchased a laundry list of drugs: HGH, synthetic testosterone, anabolic steroids and more. The players (mostly baseballers) named included:
  • Alex Rodriguez (Yankees)
  • Melky Cabrera (San Francisco Giants)
  • Bartolo Colon (Oakland A's)
  • Nelson Cruz (Texas Rangers)
  • Gio Gonzalez (Washington Nationals)
Major League Baseball is investigating the accusations, but had already been looking at clinics in that part of the world as suppliers of PED's. ESPN writer, Jason Stark, points out here that MLB commissioner has the power to suspend these players even in they don't actually test positive for a banned substance in their body.

"Not one of those players has ever tested positive for any PED. But that's irrelevant in a situation like this. The commissioner holds the power to suspend players without a positive test if there is firm evidence that they used, or even possessed, a banned substance."

Stark's article goes to ask, "what will it take for athletes to stop taking the risk of using drugs?" Alex Rodriguez has 5 years worth $114 million remaining on his contract with the Yankees, but according to this article if he's punished by MLB the Yankees may void the contract. Is that enough to persuade other athletes from attempting to gain an artificial advantage?

I suspect that as long as success and reward is performance based, and it always will be in sports, people will seek whatever means possible to improve their performance. No one will ever be gifted a championship, and if they were the sporting public wouldn't be interested in it. We may see moments of grace, or sportsmanship, on the field but not as the core value of a major league. Competition is intrinsic to the definition of sport.

Compare that with our eternal reward. Ephesians 2:8-9 says:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.
Without God's gift there is no prize. No matter how hard we try. No matter how extreme our efforts. At the end of the day if God doesn't give us a gift there's no salvation. We cannot take credit for our salvation.

This would make for a terrible sports league, but it makes a wonderful life. Every year thousands of athletes practice and train and even perform amazing feats, but the fail to win the championship of their respective sport. They might get injured. They might have bad teammates. Someone else might just be better. For all sorts of reasons their careers never capture the ultimate goal. But in life, God's grace covers those misfortunes. In life, God's made it possible for everyone to win. That's grace!

Strangely, it doesn't mean that there's no cost on our part. Consider Jesus' brief story about a pearl in Matthew 13:45-46.
Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.
God actually wants us to desire and prioritise His kingdom to the same degree as the drug cheats in sports. He wants us to risk everything to get it. But there are no shortcuts. He wants us to love Him and to be like Him. It's when we give God priority that God gives us the gift of entrance into His kingdom.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Banging Heads Is Destructive

In May 2012 Junior Seau, a star NFL linebacker who played in two Superbowls took his own life. He retired in 2010 and was just 43 at the time of his death.

Seau shot himself in the chest. His family believed he did this so his brain could be donated to science. It was studied by the National Institutes for Health who in January 2013 confirmed that he suffered from CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). There's a good summary of his career and later struggles here.

CTE has been increasingly diagnosed as more and more footballers (and hockey players) have donated their brains for research. Here's a stunning quote from the CNN article linked above,
"In a recent study, researchers found CTE in 34 of 35 deceased NFL players whose brains were donated by family members."
Of course, not all footballers suffer form CTE. The fact that many of them maintain successful post-playing careers in the media as commentators fair and square in the public eye demonstrates they haven't lost too many brain cells. However, it's certainly a serious health issue that contact sports such as the NFL and NHL are going to have to deal with. Is in conscionable to promote an entertainment form (sport) that results in the premature deaths of its participants? Some think that CTE could lead to the end of the NFL, and even American Football as a major sport at all levels.

On 24 January the Seau family announced that they're suing the NFL for wrongful death. This article mentions that 3,800 former players have sued the NFL. In all there are over 175 lawsuits related to brain injuries currently outstanding against the NFL. It's certainly not a guarantee that these will all be successful, but if they were, the payouts could cripple the NFL. Additionally, the game would have to change dramatically to minimise or eliminate the risk of future brain injuries. FLAG FOOTBALL ANYONE??

I'm not being trite or disrespectful when I say that Christians also need to remember that banging heads leads to injuries and in some cases premature death. In Philippians 4:2 Paul tells those two famous female gladiators of the church Euodia and Syntyche to stop fighting each other. Elsewhere God tells Christians to live at peace with everyone. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus teaches that if we want to be children of God, we will first be peacemakers. (Matt 5:9) In fact, the Bible frequently calls God "the God of peace" and identifies him as the source of all peace.

So when I see Christians butting heads with each other, or arguing aggressively with the government, or with others with whom they disagree, it gives me a headache. CTE reminds us that fighting with each other is self-destructive. It brings no glory to God and seldom changes anyone's mind for the good. Like football, when Christians conduct themselves in this way parents will stop sending their kids to church for fear of injury. People will lose respect for the institution, and the future growth will be questionable.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Liar, Liar Pants on Fire

Headline: Lance Armstrong admits to Cheating

But it's not only that Lance used PED's, it's the extent he went to cover it up. The US Anti-Drug Agency made this statement in October 2012 accompanying 1,000 pages of evidence against Lance Armstrong.
In a statement, USADA chief executive Travis Tygart said, "The evidence shows beyond any doubt that the US Postal Service Pro Cycling Team ran the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen."  (Here's the link to the formal 200 page charge given to the UCI... if you care.)
It's not like Lance just denied his drug use once or twice. This article gives a short list of Armstrong's denials over a 10 year period. Look at this quote from June 2012 where he throws all his teammates and associates under the bus while claiming his innocence!
“I have never doped, and, unlike many of my accusers, I have competed as an endurance athlete for 25 years with no spike in performance, passed more than 500 drug tests and never failed one,” Armstrong said in a statement released by his publicist. “That USADA ignores this fundamental distinction and charges me instead of the admitted dopers says far more about USADA, its lack of fairness and this vendetta than it does about my guilt or innocence. Any fair consideration of these allegations has and will continue to vindicate me.” Washington Post
Not only did he make denials of PED use in interviews, he sued those who accused him of doping. In 2006 he settled with the British newspaper, the Sunday Times. The paper is now suing him for $1.5 million. That should be interesting. Earlier a book published in 2004 (L.A. Confidential: The Secrets of Lance Armstrong) received the same treatment. Armstrong sued everyone associated with it, including media outlets that published excerpts.

Other interviews I've heard on the radio describe Armstrong as a bully, who would run other riders out of the sport if they said anything about his doping.

Lies, on lies, on deceit, on bullying, on lies, on conspiracy, on scheming, on lies, on protestations of innocence, on lies, and maybe on bribes. AND NOW HE ADMITS HIS GUILT!

Armstrong has now lost his sponsors, his role at his own charity Livestrong, and his 7 Tour de France titles.

Complicating the whole issue is the good work that his Livestrong organization has accomplished in the field of cancer research. One report I read said that it has raised over $500 million since it was founded about 15 years ago. That's a lot of helping. While no one wants to see that research suffer, we can only blame Lance Armstrong for the foundations tarnished image, just as we must recognise that the $500 million would never have been raised without him.

When we survey the mess Armstrong's lies and cheating have caused I'm reminded of why God so often condemns lying. It's such a fundamental sin that it makes the famed 10 Commandments. "Thou shalt not bear a false witness." Later, it's included in a list of what are generally considered more serious sins as examples of who will not make it into heaven. (Revelation 21:8)

Lying  often seems like a minor moral flaw, but it is fundamentally opposed to God's nature. In John's gospel, Jesus describes himself as the Truth. While in John 8 he describes the devil as "the father of lies". Armstrong's world may come crumbling down, but that's not surprising when his lifestyle has been built upon a lie.

Strangely, in the same week a bizarre story has made headlines about Notre Dame's star player and Heisman trophy finalist, Manti Te'o. During the season his personal background story made headlines. Not only did his grandmother die mid-season, but his girlfriend who'd survived a car accident only to be diagnosed with leukemia, died a few days later.

Now it turns out that the girlfriend was never anything more than a figment of the internet's imagination. Whether Te'o was the victim of a cruel hoax, or part of an attempt to gain publicity to support his Heisman run, his life has been turned upside down when the deceit has been exposed. Apparently this fiction came to light in mid-December which raises the question of whether it affected his preparation for the national title game where he played poorly.

You can read all the details here. It's crazy. You wouldn't find it at all believable if it was a fiction story... but it's apparently true!

Te'o issued a statement Wednesday afternoon:
 "This is incredibly embarrassing to talk about, but over an extended period of time, I developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online. We maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone, and I grew to care deeply about her.
"To realize that I was the victim of what was apparently someone's sick joke and constant lies was, and is, painful and humiliating.
"It further pains me that the grief I felt and the sympathies expressed to me at the time of my grandmother's death in September were in any way deepened by what I believed to be another significant loss in my life. "I am enormously grateful for the support of my family, friends and Notre Dame fans throughout this year. To think that I shared with them my happiness about my relationship and details that I thought to be true about her just makes me sick. I hope that people can understand how trying and confusing this whole experience has been.

"In retrospect, I obviously should have been much more cautious. If anything good comes of this, I hope it is that others will be far more guarded when they engage with people online than I was.
"Fortunately, I have many wonderful things in my life, and I'm looking forward to putting this painful experience behind me as I focus on preparing for the NFL Draft."
 Time will tell how truthful Manti Te'o has been. As confusing as this story is, Scripture reminds us that nothing is hidden from God. Here are some verses that Manti and Lance would do well to meditate on:

For God will bring every deed into judgment,    including every hidden thing,  whether it is good or evil. Ecclesiastes 12:!4

He reveals deep and hidden things;    he knows what lies in darkness,    and light dwells with him. Daniel 2:22

My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God. 1 Corinthians 4:4-5

Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account. Hebrews 4:13

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Voters Made a Mess of That!!!!!!!!!

Monday night's BCS Championship game between Notre Dame and Alabama turned into an embarrassment, not only for Notre Dame, but for the method of selecting the finalists.

NCAA football and basketball are unique around the world by having their rankings determined by votes. First the NCAA football gurus select 115 media and football personalities to rank the top 25. Then 59 coaches also rank the top 25 teams. Finally, 6 independent computer formulas rank the top 25. These 3 scores are combined and averaged and result in the official NCAA Top 25 List. This list is then used to determine which teams play in which bowl games and eventually the top two teams meet in the BCS championship game. (Study the details here or here...if you're feeling brave!)

The reason for all these polls and computations arises from the ridiculous number of teams in the same competition. No where else in the world do 120 teams compete in the same competition. Of course, there's no way they can all play each other, so any system must be intrinsically "unfair".

The closest comparison of a field that size that comes to my mind is the field at a tennis major which starts with 128 players. But in tennis each round is an elimination match that halves the size of the field. Players can also compete every second day making the entire tournament last just two weeks.

So for many years college football championships have been decided by voters, and more recently by a championship game. As this year demonstrates the "experts" don't necessarily do a great job of making this decision. In fact, during the "Bear" Bryant era ('64, '73) Alabama was twice voted national champions at the end of the regular season and then proceeded to lose their bowl game! In fact, in 1973 Notre Dame was the team that defeated the national champions in the Sugar Bowl.

How I picture the voters casting their votes.
As an outsider, one reason I see the voters seem to make these mistakes is that they give too much weight to an undefeated season. Of course, an undefeated season is a major accomplishment, but an undefeated season against weak opponents does not automatically make you a better team than a 2 loss or 5 loss team who played stronger teams. Even after the bowl games were played the voters still ranked Notre Dame above Georgia. That makes no sense considering how close Georgia played Alabama compared to the Fighting Irish.

I'm not saying Notre Dame is a bad team, but during the regular season they only played one Top 10 team compared to Alabama's three. Plenty of other teams also had a tougher schedule. Stanford, for example, also played three Top 10 teams during the season.

It's not all Notre Dame's fault. USC was ranked #2 when Standford played them early in the season, and outside the Top 25 when Notre Dame played them later. But who's responsible for the schedule isn't my point. The simple truth is that others had a more difficult schedule and losing doesn't make them a worse team.

All of this just reinforces the difficulty of making judgements. 115 football personalities and 59 coaches plus the mathematicians and computers all operating within their area of expertise couldn't correctly identify the best 2 teams in college football in 2012. BRING ON THE PLAYOFFS!!!! Even 4 teams is sooo much better than what we have now!!!!!

So when we're tempted to poke our nose into other people's business and criticise the way they're raising their kids, working on their job, attending church services, or whatever it is, we need to remind ourselves that we're not experts and we'll never have all the necessary information to make a completely accurate judgement. Of course we need to care for people, listen to them, encourage them, support them and occasionally within the church we even need to reprimand them, but we should always do so with an attitude of humility, leaving the final judgment to God.

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.
Romans 12:3