I walked out of the stadium press box and headed down the aisle to return to my usual seat where I’d sat at least five Saturdays a year almost every autumn since 1972. A woman who appeared retirement age said: “Excuse me. Were you the person who just delivered that prayer?” I said I was and braced myself for a tongue lashing.
But an excited smile spread across her face, and she said, “I would love to have a copy of that.” Relieved, I reached in my hip pocket and handed her the folded piece of paper from which I had just read.
The one I remember
Growing up the son of a faculty member at a small Baptist college, I heard more prayers than people who just attended church on Sundays and Wednesdays. My father was in charge of logistics for three graduations per year. I started serving as an usher around eighth grade. So, I also have heard far more commencement addresses than most folks.
The one that stuck with me the most was delivered by the late Jimmy Allen, president of what was then the Southern Baptist Radio and Television Commission. Allen said, “When you are on a journey, it is good to have a map, but it is even better to have a guide.” Mmm. Yep. Maps don’t allow for variation due to weather and other contemporaneous factors. And there is not much companionship.
That charge to graduates was delivered in the same stadium where I had been asked to deliver the invocation for that football game in 2012. That prayer and public prayers at athletic events in general have been on my mind a lot lately, in the wake of the Supreme Court decision siding with the Washington state high school football coach in his bid to pray after games.
Facing the Giants
I read a news account that it was the movie Facing the Giants that inspired the coach to start praying on the field after games at his public high school. The coach had a very different reaction to that movie than I did. The movie left me physically nauseated, soul-sick angry and fearful for the future of American Christianity. I’m not kidding. Sure, there is a copy of it in my DVD collection, but only to use it as an example of well-meaning but vapid ticket-selling pablum.
“The movie left me physically nauseated, soul-sick angry and fearful for the future of American Christianity.”
No, I do not like the movie, and I don’t think the fact it was made by well-meaning fellow Christians gives it a pass from the harsh criticism it deserves. If you are angered by that comment, please be aware that the same church made the movie Fireproof, and, as a marriage and family therapist, I was and am very impressed and grateful for the grittiness and message of that film. I wish Facing the Giants had been as honest. It’s the opposite, a horrible lie.
How so? At least three ways:
First, for people who have been through the agony of infertility and miscarriage, the movie is a dagger in the heart. The wife in the movie finds out she is pregnant just after she tells God she will love God regardless of whether she gets pregnant or not.
That’s a noble message, but the movie shows that as she is praying, a nurse inside the building sees that the wife actually is pregnant. The message? If you love God enough, you’ll get pregnant.
That’s just not true. Many God-loving people don’t get what they want.
Second, her husband winds up winning games because of his faith, and the team’s boosters give him a shiny new truck worth the annual salary of the average American blue-collar worker. Yeah, right.
Third, during the climactic football game, portrayed as a battle between good and evil (the opponent is wearing red and black), the game comes down to a 50-yard field goal, which is as rare in high school football as generous restaurant tips from the after-church Sunday crowd. The camera shows that wind is raging in the face of the kicker. This is depicted by an American flag flapping violently in the wind. The kicker prays, “God, help me.” The flag goes limp. Then it starts blowing the direction of the kick, which he then hits to win the game, with the help of God’s breath in response to his prayer.
“Facing the Giants turns God into nothing more than a fairy godmother or genie in a bottle.”
Thus, Facing the Giants turns God into nothing more than a fairy god mother or genie in a bottle. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, the drive-in movie theater along that road is showing Facing the Giants.
‘When I was a child …’
Mind you, when I was in high school, I joined the standing ovation when my school’s football team came out to do warm-ups in the formation of a cross. I joined that ovation because “when I was child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, and I thought as a child.”
The fact that some adults leading my school thought it was OK — especially at a public high school — for a team to be warming up in the formation of a cross, means that aging does not inherently bring maturity. Anyone who knows me knows my own life testifies to aging not being a guarantee of maturity. However, I am mature enough to ask a wide variety of folks their opinion before I publish anything.
“Aging does not inherently bring maturity.”
Part of what deeply offends me about Facing the Giants is there seems to have been no effort at feedback that would have avoided its pitfalls. It comes off as a monument to Christians putting mushy feeling ahead of uncomfortable thought.
Why do we pray as we do?
It was in college where I first was challenged to genuinely think about conventions I took for granted. For instance, a religion professor asked, “Before meals, many people pray, ‘God, bless this food to our bodies’ nourishment.’ Why do we do that? Nourishing our bodies is what food does. God already did that blessing when food was created.”
The Christian comedian Tim Hawkins does a great routine on this prayer. “God, turn this Cheeto into a carrot on the way down.” He also jabs at “just” prayers — the kind where the person praying repeatedly says words like “just” and “Father” so that it comes out like word soup. (My version of Hawkins’ riff goes like this: “Father, we just ask that you just pour out your mercy on us, Father, and just, Father, really help us just think about how our politicization of faith, Father, just makes us look oppressive, Father; and maybe just help us consider how our good intentions may really hurt your hyper-masculinized kingdom, Father.”)
Meanwhile, my college political science professor, during a lecture on separation of church and state, raised the issue of prayers offered before athletic events at state schools. Referring to the University of Tennessee, he said, “I go to games, and as soon as the prayer ends, some half-drunk guy behind me yells, ‘Give ’em hell, Big Orange.’”
All this got me thinking about why we keep doing things that don’t really make sense.
Thoughts on corporate prayer
Granted, I don’t think we need to become too self-conscious of the way we pray. However, I do think we need to be conscious. If we are worshipping God, doesn’t that ideally require our best effort, and doesn’t our best effort require thought? While I think there is a place for corporate vocalized prayer by a leader, we do have to wonder about Christians calling attention to their public prayer, when Jesus, as recorded in Matthew 6:5-15, specifically says not to do that, but to go into a private closet to pray.
“I don’t think we need to become too self-conscious of the way we pray. However, I do think we need to be conscious.”
Still, we have a variety of vocalized corporate prayers. I love a good benediction. It literally means “good (bene) words (diction).” I love it when a leader raises a hand and blesses me and my fellow pilgrims on our journey. It feels connecting. I love the sense of blessing as we depart into the world.
By contrast, the word “invocation” baffles me. How do we invoke the presence of an omnipresent God? It’s not so much that we invoke God as that we acknowledge our desire to commit our efforts to God’s service. So, maybe we ought to call it a convocation. Regardless of what we call it though, we need to consider the conventions of what we say.
Food will nourish our bodies whether we ask God to bless the food or not. However, it does seem like an exercise in humility to give thanks for food while being cognizant of the need to generously share with those who don’t have enough.
Likewise, people will get hurt at most football games whether we ask God to protect them or not. What does it say when we ask God to “protect the players from injury,” but they get hurt anyway? I mean, it is a brutal sport. Maybe we just need to humbly acknowledge our responsibility and be open to ongoing changes that make the sport — and our lives in general — as safe and healthy as possible.
“People will get hurt at most football games whether we ask God to protect them or not.”
My football career
I only played football in middle school. I was a small-for-my-age kid who was just trying to be popular; and I was pretty horrified by football, one drill in particular. It was called blood box for a reason. The team made a circle. The coach called two numbers. Those players dashed at each other. There were only two rules: You couldn’t exit the circle without being shoved back in, and you weren’t to end up on the bottom. Avoiding winding up on the bottom could be accomplished by any means. Kicking, scratching, hitting. Just don’t wind up on the bottom.
As I write this, 44 years later, I still feel terrified as I remember the animal-like shrieks of one of my teammates who wound up knocked to the ground beneath the attacker about to pounce down on him. I can see him using the bottom of this cleats to claw at the person over him. I looked on in horror, dreading the call of my number.
How to pray at football games?
However, this is not a missive against football — a sport where the vast majority of players and coaches are noble athletes. Let’s just not forget that it is a very brutal sport, made more brutal when it is seen as combat. So, how silly does it seem to ask God to protect the players from injury. It has an air of “Well, God let it happen, so it must be OK.”
We shirk our responsibility to make things safer. While I am not arrogant enough to think my ideas and the prayer I’m about to recount have no room for growth, I think the prayer is a far cry better than the thoughtless prayers we usually hear in such contexts. Remember, this was at a Christian university. I don’t think there is a place for sectarian prayers at state schools — nor for leaders doing things that inevitably will make others feel compelled to either participate or be left out.
“Having been asked to vocalize a prayer before a football game at a Christian university, I decided I didn’t have to say the same old things.”
But having been asked to vocalize a prayer before a football game at a Christian university, I decided I didn’t have to say the same old things. I’ve already told you a woman immediately asked me for a copy. A few rows later, a colleague excitedly hugged me and said, “Thank you for saying something that makes sense. My wife and I were laughing so hard our shoulders were shaking.”
Another colleague said, “When you finished, the student beside me said, ‘What was that?’ and I said, ‘A sermon.’”
The next day, the person who had invited me to do the prayer — the public address announcer — called me and said: “I’ve been doing the games for 20 years. That’s the first game I remember where there were absolutely no injuries.”
If that was true, it wasn’t because God was asked to protect the players from injury. Because what I prayed was this:
At many football games, the person offering this prayer asks you to “protect the players from injury.” Yet many people get injured anyway. It’s enough to make a cynic think you’re falling down on the job.
BUT … maybe injuries happen not because you don’t care, but because that’s what happens when people intentionally run into each other at full speed. So, I’m not going to hold you responsible for players’ injuries any more than I’d ask you to keep a bottle from breaking if I tossed it up in the air over concrete.
I will give you thanks for giving us the freedom to take risks. I’ll also ask you to give us the humility to deal with the consequences. To the extent that this game is a metaphor for life, I ask you to help us deal with the consequences of the injuries resulting from our substance abuse, hatred, gossip, lying, jealousy and general meanness. And, I will ask you to give us the grace to applaud — even for our opponents — when we stand up from our injuries, wrap our arm around your shoulder and hobble along in our continued journey.
I ask this in the name of Jesus Christ, who suffered injury for our sins but was raised and reigns in glory, giving us the hope of healing and the sweet assurance of amazing grace.
And all God’s people needing that grace say … Amen.
Brad Bull is a family therapist in private practice. He previously served as a minister, professor and seasonal UPS driver helper.
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