“Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you,
and on the kingdoms that do not call upon your name!”
It is often noted that the Book of Psalms offers an eclectic mixture of theology and an honesty that can be equal parts refreshing and disturbing. Case in point, Psalm 109 details a terrible list of curses that one can only hope tells us more about the psalmist’s angst than it does about the actual character of God. We should be thankful that, more often than not, people don’t take these rhetorical flourishes too seriously; and remain troubled by the times they do.
Where the Psalms offer a glimpse into the prayer life and practical theologies of the psalmist(s), we might also say that the true character of a church can be discerned from the hymns/songs they sing and in the way the community prays.
We are all capable of using words and concepts which don’t represent God well, especially when we are trying to process a personal crisis or respond compassionately to the grief of others. And most churches still sing a song or two that makes their theologically-educated pastor cringe his or her way through, praying that someday no soul will ever need to sing Onward Christian Soldiers again.
Our best hope is that the weight of what we say, sing, and do, still presents a vision of God that honors the best of what we believe.
Enter the NFL playoffs. If you happen to live in a city or region that makes it very far into the playoffs, you are likely to encounter some awkward moments. Beyond players declaring God’s blessing as games end in their favor, you’ll find churches praying, perhaps lightheartedly, for victory for the hometown team. Some even film music videos.
Despite our excitement for the team we root for on Sunday afternoons, what does the weight of our acts of NFL devotion say about the God we worship on Sunday mornings?
Let me confess that I may think too much about what we communicate theologically.
- I worry about the cavalier way some fans and players publicly pray to God for a win.
- I worry about how quickly folks declare that God’s will has been done when their team wins or loses.
- I worry about our church’s pedagogy when the local big box church interviews the Christian players on the team, not so subtly suggesting that their faith is the secret ingredient that will bring home those cherished rings.
It is only fair to recognize that a lot of those who offer such prayers do so with a certain amount of levity. They don’t really mean it. After all, the NFL is just a game, right?
But life is great at throwing us penalty flags. One moment we’ll be celebrating a fantastic football win and the next we may be dealing with the loss of a child. Does our theological levity make it easier for people to assume the wrong things about God during those bad times as well?
Are we missing pedagogical moments that matter? Even worse, are we communicating false impressions of God that can actually cause deep harm?
- After all, what kind of God would intervene to help a football team win while allowing senseless violence in our children’s schools?
- Whose God delivers the Hail Mary pass while neglecting to protect innocents from terrible natural disasters?
- What can we say about the God who says “It is Good” to our team’s game winning field goal but won’t offer the same help to the young couple experiencing another miscarriage?
- And how far down the slope does one need to slip to accept that the God who stands with your favorite football team always stands with the United States regardless of what we might do?
Prayer isn’t a system to make requests of a benevolent deity. Prayer is one of the most public ways by which we communicate our theology. How we pray defines the character of our communities and it is the primary way we communicate our beliefs about God.
Now that doesn’t mean that God isn’t to be praised or that a faithful life can’t contribute to a ‘win’. When a player works through adversity, grounded in, and strengthened by, their faith and spiritual practice, this is an affirmation of many good things. And we shouldn’t forget that it is often the same faith and practice that allows these same athletes to work through adversity and loss on other occasions.
Still, success on the field should never be equated with divine intervention, even when Hail Mary passes are involved. In doing so, even in our light-hearted way, we subtly reinforce a vision of a God that is cruelly arbitrary in answering prayers.
Admittedly, there is something refreshing and raw about the honesty we find in the Psalms. And there is something tempting about calling upon God’s favor for something you are passionate for. But before we do, let’s think for a moment about what our prayers, and actions, communicate about our true character and beliefs about God.
After all, it may be the one time that someone is listening.