Thursday, January 5, 2012

Football and faith…

Anyone who’s read these letters semi-frequently knows of my deep, deep love for the Denver Broncos. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of the family gathered around our TV, cheering wildly as John Elway quarterbacked one of his patented come-from-behind victories. Alas, my Mile High Heroes haven’t been great in recent years, culminating in an awful 2010-11 campaign. And this year began badly too. We lost four of our first five games, our quarterback got benched, the collective emotional state of Broncos Nation plummeted to irrational levels of despair.

Until a miracle happened- a new quarterback named Tim Tebow took over, and suddenly we’re winning again. A lot. Like, seven of the next eight, often in dramatic fashion. It was euphoric. I might even say, heavenly. The only problem being that Tebow’s play was erratic. Indeed, for most of these victories, he played lousy, until the game’s final moments when he’d morph into Elway Re-Incarnate.

Naturally, those who professionally comment on sports were dumbfounded, and endless debate ensued. But what really sparked controversy was Tebow’s personality. He’s an out-spoken Evangelical Christian, you might already know, born to a missionary family in the Philippines, attends church regularly, begins most interviews with, “I want to thank my personal Lord and Savior Jesus,” and ends with, “God bless you.” In a sports world that’s grown religiously cynical because of Jesus-thanking athletes kneeling in prayer after scoring touchdowns, one day, then sniffing cocaine in a strip club the next, Tebow’s seemingly stand-up character and public professions of faith became, to some, a breath of fresh air, while to others, a baffling annoyance.

I, too, have struggled with how to feel about Tebow. And I don’t just mean his hot-and-cold throwing abilities. I mean, especially, the non-stop, albeit genuinely nice, religious language. Some Christian churches, of course, teach that to their congregants. They believe the Church’s number one mission is to convert non-believers, and thereby save their damned souls from Hell. Thus, every conversation outside of church ought try to steer itself toward religion, hopefully “winning” the other person “for God.” As best I can tell, this is the Christianity Tebow endorses, as the ‘what we believe’ section of his father’s ministry’s website makes clear.

The Christianity I preach and practice, however, is different. Sure, I believe that if more people faithfully followed Christ’s teachings and examples, the better off we’d all be. And that’s especially true for already self-describing Christians. But I don’t believe that the only way to avoid Hell is to become Christian. Indeed, I’m skeptical that God would send any of God’s beloved children to eternal pain and torture. I put my faith, rather, in love and God’s abundantly amazing grace.

So normally, I find aggressive evangelism awkward, and in some cases, profoundly judgmental. Which puts me in a strange position vis a vis the new leader of my favorite team. Were he to ask me for spiritual counsel, I’d invite him to embrace a more open Christianity, one that’s respectful of religious differences. He could still evangelize; indeed, we all should “be and share” the Good News. It’s just he, and we, should also recognize that God’s much bigger than anything we could ever put in words.

But I also believe that you and I and Tebow can disagree about God, and still be good Christians all. For a better test of faithfulness than what you believe is what you do. And in that category, I’ve come to (mostly) respect the man. For one, it’s clear his religion’s authentic, not contrived. He’s not just trying to look good so he can sign richer endorsement deals. Plus, his own foundation, though saturated with Evangelical language, builds orphanages in the Philippines and sends disabled children to Disneyland. Sure, other things he’s supported- Focus on the Family, for instance- I don’t. But in every interview I’ve seen, he goes out of his way to be respectful and kind. Not a fire-breathing, Bible-beating Evangelical, but decent, good-hearted, even humble. And because I consider humility as good a religious value as any- regardless your faith tradition- he’s got me cheering for him. On the field, and off.

Grace and Peace,

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