Thursday, July 31, 2014

Choosing a Partner -- Bible times and today

                How do you go about finding a mate?  How we answer that question may depend on our culture and our time in history.  In America it is assumed that a person will date a number of people, starting in high school or soon after, before making a decision.  It’s assumed that a person needs to get know different kinds of people so that they can figure out with whom they can find the best match.  Over the course of time, they might meet someone they feel comfortable with and wish to commit the rest of their lives.  Although some couples create pre-nuptial agreements protecting assets they bring into a marriage, that rarely happens the first time around.  For one thing they often bring very few assets into the relationship, and the romantic vision has yet to be tainted by broken relationships. 

The age at which marriage first occurs is getting later every year.  Over the past thirty years the median age at which couples get married has increased from 24.7 for males and 22.0 for women to 28.2 and 26.1 in 2010.  That might not seem like a lot at first glance, but a lot happens in four years time.  One of the differences between that earlier day and today is that there is a growing trend, especially among women, to first get established in the work force and then begin looking to settle down, get married, and perhaps have children.   

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

GRACE against sex abuse -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

You have heard much information about sexual abuse by Catholic priests.  But they're not alone.  It's present in many places and forms.  This includes the evangelical community.  We don't hear much about it, but if Billy Graham's grandson Boz Tchividjian, is correct, it could be worse than what we've seen in the Roman Catholic Church.  In his last piece of the summer, Martin Marty examines this situation, highlights the leadership being taken by Tchividjian and his organization -- GRACE --  inviting us to do the same.  Take a read, and offer your thoughts.    

GRACE against sex abuse
Monday | July 28 2014
                                                                                                 Image Credit: Mikael Damkier / Shutterstock
GRACE acronates “Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment.” Its story is well told in Kathryn Joyce’s “By Grace Alone,” an article in American Prospect (May/June; see “Sources,” below). Please read it, since it offers background and details vital to the questions of “abuse.”

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A Hidden Abundance

13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Toughest People to Love (Chuck DeGroat) -- Review

TOUGHEST PEOPLE TO LOVE: How to Understand, Lead, and Love the Difficult People in Your Life -- Including Yourself.  By Chuck DeGroat.  Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.  177 pages.

We have all encountered people whom we find difficult to love.  For a variety of reasons they cause us headaches and heartaches.  They can be family members, neighbors, people we work with, and as the title of this book suggests – we might even find it difficult to love ourselves.  All of this is especially true for those who have been called to pastoral ministry and leadership.  While we might called to serve all the people in the congregation, there will invariably be people we find it difficult to work with.  Yes, Jesus may call us to love our neighbors, but some neighbors are more difficult to love than others.

Chuck DeGroat, Associate Professor of Pastoral care and counseling at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, MI and former teaching pastor at City Church of San Francisco, has written a book designed to help those in leadership understand and even love those whom God and church has called one to serve.  It focuses on the dark side of the persons leaders are called to love, serve, and lead.  This darkness is present not only in the “them,” but in the “us” as well.  The reminder that leaders might need to love themselves emerges out of DeGroat’s reflections on Henri Nouwen’s idea of the wounded healer.  One’s own brokenness becomes the fountain for good leadership.   

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Strange Customs -- A Sermon for Pentecost 7A

Genesis 29:15-28

This summer I had the privilege of officiating at the weddings of two  of our couples.  I’ve done a few weddings in my time, so I’ve got a bit of experience with these sorts of things.  It’s clear to me that wedding customs have changed somewhat since Cheryl and I were married thirty-one years ago.  I think things were a bit simpler back then, or at least that’s the way it seems to me and others my age.  But, that’s the way life is – things tend to change.

The reading from Genesis this morning tells an interesting wedding story. It’s part of a larger story that goes back to when Jacob tricked his brother Esau out of his inheritance.  From the very beginning of the story, we learn that Jacob, who is one of the heroes of the Bible, is also a  trickster who gets by on his wits. But sometimes tricksters get tricked, and that’s what happens here. 

What stood out to me as I read this passage is how different our customs are from those in the ancient world.  If things have changed since Cheryl and I were married, they’ve changed even more since biblical times!

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Myanmar: Buddhist-Muslim Tensions -- Sightings (David Steinberg)

There are growing political, ethnic, religious tensions.  Wherever we look in the world there is something going on and no one seems able to control it.  The world is becoming increasingly diffuse.  Religion plays a role in this, in part because religion often has cultural components.  It's not just Constantinian imperialist Christianity -- it is part of reality.  Americans are frustrated that we can't control events anymore.  We blame the President (both the current and the former), but in reality we are living in an age of transition, and that makes for a lot of discomfort.  David Steinberg in a Sightings piece explores the dynamics of Muslim-Buddhist relations in Myanmar (Burma).  Yes, even Buddhists have a dark side!  I invite you to read and reflect on these ongoing realities.  

Friday, July 25, 2014

Marriage Covenants -- the Ties that Bind

            When we look at marriage from a government perspective, it is essentially a binding contract entered into by two consenting parties.  This contract brings with it certain obligations and privileges – including significant tax benefits.  The state provides these incentives, because it has been believed that stable families – with legally binding agreements – provide for a stronger community and nation.  This contract continues indefinitely, unless the parties choose to end it through divorce proceedings.  These contracts can, and often are, celebrated with religious ceremonies.  The ceremonies, however, are optional.  The most important requirement is that the couple signs the document, has it witnessed by their representatives and another duly authorized person, often clergy, but not necessarily clergy.  That kind of definition of marriage might seem rather dry and mechanical, but essentially – from a governmental perspective that’s what marriage is. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Feasting on the Gospels -- Mark -- A review

FEASTING ON THE GOSPELS -- MARK: A Feasting on the Word Commentary.  Edited by Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.  x + 552 Pages.

Lectionary preachers, like myself, continue to be blessed by resources like the Feasting on the Word Series from Westminster John Knox Press.   With that lectionary based series finished, WJK Press has launched a companion series, this time focusing on the gospels utilizing the same methodology used in the first series. Matthew as the first gospel to be treated in this way.  Now, editors Cynthia Jarvis and Elizabeth Johnson, have added a volume covering the Gospel of Mark.  

The two editors bridge the academic-parish divide.  Cynthia Jarvis is a minister of the Presbyterian Church in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Elizabeth Johnson is J. Davison Philips Professor of New Testament  at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decataur, Georgia.  Both editors served on the editorial board of the earlier Feasting on the Word Series, so they were well acquainted with the principles of the earlier series when they turned to this new venture.      

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Russian Orthodoxy -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

With Russia and Vladimir Putin in the news following the downing of the Malaysian Airlines plane by (it would seem) Russian separatists, Martin Marty explores recent conversations about the nature of Russian Orthodoxy and whether it informs or is being used for "bum causes."  The closing line is key -- "what we don't know can hurt us."  So what do we need to know about Eastern forms of Christianity?  What do we need to know about religion and how it is used?  

Russian Orthodoxy
Monday | July 21 2014
Putin by Platon                                                       Image Credit: firdaus omar / flickr creative commons
“Many a bum show has been saved by the flag,” actor and playwright George M. Cohan once mumbled in criticism of the hypocritical use of patriotic symbols in efforts to rescue bad plays. One could also mumble, “Many a bum cause has been saved by the cross, or the crescent, or the star of David, etc.,” in criticism of the hypocritical use of religion in efforts to rescue incidences of hate, rage, and carnage.

Timothy J. Egan in his New York Times column (July 18, 2014) reviewed the previous week’s bum causes and mis-uses of religion by “Faith-Based Fanatics (see References). Among Egan’s examples: Buddhists, the World Cup, Governor Rick Perry “as spokesman for the deity,” Sunnis, Shiites, Boko Haram, but not Ireland for the moment.

Egan was thankful that the U.S. founders explicitly kept God out of the Constitution. “At least that was the intent. In this summer of the violent God, five justices on the Supreme Court seem to feel otherwise.” But the U.S. is not the topic of today’s Sightings.

Instead, we look further East and mention the newcomer to the cast of characters, the one which came too late to catch Egan’s attention: Russian Orthodoxy. Its hypocritical mis-user of the week was President Vladimir Putin, who made a point of visiting a concert at a shrine for St. Sergius of Radonezh.

Putin sang this saint’s probably deserving virtues and achievements, and said things that the press interpreted as part of his campaign to make his version of Russian Orthodoxy more visible. He is turning a spotlight on Russian Orthodoxy at a time when most in the non-Russian world suspects him of participating in an villainous “bum cause.” I have no interest in impugning the concert-goer’s sincerity, but we have to note that his actions and words are, in general, drawing attention away from his role in the Ukraine.

Most noted was a comment by Carl Bildt, Sweden’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, who charged that Putin’s effort to de-stabilize the Ukraine and display his “anti-Western and anti-decadent line” builds on “deeply conservative ideas,” specifically those of Slavic Orthodoxy.

The most appropriate—to my taste—response to Putin and Bildt came from two Fordham University professors, Aristotle Papanikolaou and George E. Demacopoulos. The co-authors say that Messrs. Putin and Bildt are not the sole mis-users and abusers of Eastern Christianity. They cite the American professor Samuel Huntington’s well-known 1990’s-era argument that Slavic-Orthodox and Islamic “civilizations” were “too primitive to accept the Enlightenment principles championed in the West.”

The Fordham professors also quote other scholars who link Mr. Putin’s “revitalization” of “orthodox morality” with his aims to justify “his expansionist vision.” They see Putin in line with the long list of political leaders who seek to gain advantages by “demonizing the religious other.”

Of the Russian president’s moves they say: “This is not Orthodox Christianity but classic political showmanship.” They add that “Mr. Bildt should know better…[b]ut a more sophisticated parsing of the religious rhetoric is not useful to him and his neo-conservative American supporters.”

These “clash of civilization” expressions, say the Orthodox faculty members at Fordham, rely on “flawed assumptions about Orthodox Christian history and doctrine.” It is important to get this story and scene right, they argue because it will play out politically wherever “East vs. West” language is convenient in various causes.

So, one good sign in a bad week is that Messrs. Putin and Bildt are unwittingly prompting a reexploration of “decadent” and “non-decadent” manifestations of spiritual, political, and cultural life in both East and West.

What “we” in the West don’t know can hurt us.


Egan, Timothy. “Faith-Based Fanatics.” New York Times, July 18, 2014, Opinion Pages.

Itar-Tass News Agency. “Putin attends festive concern on 700th anniversary of St. Sergius of Radonezh.” July 21, 2014.

Papanikolaou, Aristotle and George E. Demacopoulos. “Putin’s Unorthodox Orthodoxy.” An internet ministry tool of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, June 25, 2014.

Agora Dialogue. “REX: Carl Bildt thinks Eastern Orthodoxy is main threat to western civilization.” Accessed July 20, 2014.

Image Credit: firdaus omar / flickr creative commons

To read previous issues of Sightings, visit
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at

Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center.
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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Treasure Hunting in the Kingdom -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 7A

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
31 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” 
33 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with[a] three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” 
44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 
45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46 on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. 
47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48 when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 
51 “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” 52 And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”

                What is the kingdom of heaven like?  When we hear the words “kingdom of heaven,” I expect that our first thoughts go to a non-earthly realm.  We live on earth and God lives in heaven – “Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed by your name.”  The kingdom of heaven lies wherever God is present – even in our midst.  But, it’s not easily spotted. 

The realm of God, which Jesus uses parables to describe, runs counter to our preconceptions.  We know what kingdoms and empires look like.  They’re hierarchical, top-down, power-sucking entities.  The people of ancient Israel went to Samuel and demanded a king, so they could be like everyone else.  Samuel got them a king, and Saul acted like Samuel expected.  He sucked the air out of the room.  He drafted the people to pursue his military escapades.  David would do the same.  After all, David the king wasn’t the same person as David the shepherd.  Power can corrupt even the person whose heart is said to be set on God.  Even the best of kings struggled to keep the things of God in mind.   There was always the need to expand the borders and defend them. 

When Jesus came preaching the kingdom of God, he had a lot of history to reckon with.  And so, he told parables.  He told parables that had a subversive bent to them.  Matthew brings a number of them together in Matthew 13.  We’ve already looked at the parable of the sower and the parable of the weeds.  Now we’re invited to focus our attention on a series of relatively small parables.

There is the parable of the mustard seed.   It is interesting – thinking back a week – that the mustard seed might be small, but when planted (intentionally or not) it produces a shrub that most people of that day would have considered a weed.  It’s not something you want in your garden crowding out roses and tomatoes.  And yet this weed that messes up the garden is a sign of God’s realm.  When the kingdom of God draws near, it upsets things.  That’s why we try to institutionalize it.  Yes, church-folk like things to be done decently and in order (I prefer some orderliness).  In America the church is the harbinger of the middle-class – it lifts up the value of being nice.  Remember cleanliness is next to godliness!  The kingdom of heaven, however, is like the mustard plant that takes root in the garden and is threatening to take over.  It started small, but it’s growing fast.    

            Then there’s the yeast.  The woman mixed it into her flour, so that the bread would rise.  But yeast can be a problem at certain times of year.  In fact, for Jews of that day yeast was a symbol of corruption.  Just a little will leaven a loaf.  This woman is playing with fire!  But of course Jesus plays with fire as well.  Paul got a reputation for doing much the same thing.  Wherever the reign of God is present, things get changed and transformed.  Consider the children at the border.  They are a challenge to us living in the United States.  They are the “least of these.”  What should we be doing?  More importantly, what are they saying to us on behalf of God?

            Then there are two parables – one involving land and the other involving a pearl.  Both speak to treasures that are desired.  The question is, what are you willing to part with in order to obtain this treasure?  It too is hidden.  It might be buried in a field that doesn’t belong to you.  Or it might be a small pearl, hidden in a jeweler’s drawer.   Whatever it is, the treasure is waiting, but you have to act.  So what are you willing to give up to obtain this blessing?

                These parables are brief in scope.  They are short on details.  But they are rich in their message – the realm of God is not easily discerned.  You have to be looking.  You have to be aware that God is on the move.    

                Then there’s the final parable – the one about the fish catch.  In many ways it’s a parallel to the parable of the weeds.  The fishermen go out into the lake, bring in a haul of fish (who are hidden in the depths of the lake).  When they bring in the catch, they separate the good from the bad (as opposed to the weeds, which are to be left in place).  But again we’re not doing the sorting – that’s the job of the angels.  I think we can see in this parable a reminder that we are not the power of the realm of God.  We have our responsibilities, but we’re not the sorters (even if we’d like to have the job). 

                As we contemplate the realm of God, using this diverse collection of parables as fodder for our consideration, it is good to be reminded that the realm of God is not to be equated with structures of power, whether in church or in state.  The traditional idea of an invisible church fits this understanding.  Structures and clergy can be used by God to sow the seeds of the kingdom, but they’re not one and the same thing. 

                Do you understand Jesus’ message?  Are you ready to go the distance when it comes to the realm of God?  I’m not completely sure that I am ready.  I like my orderliness. I like my comfort.  And yet, I want to be part of what God is doing in the world.  So what shall I do?  What will you do to bring out the treasure?              

Monday, July 21, 2014

Dare We Speak of Hope? (Allan Boesak) -- A Review

DARE WE SPEAK OF HOPE?: Searching for a Language of Life in Faith and Politics.   By Allan Aubrey Boesak.  Foreword by Nicholas Wolsterstorff.  Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.  Xiv + 202 pages.

                Religion and politics – these can be and often are volatile partners.  The founders of the United States sought to separate them institutionally, but since religion and politics are central to human life, the lines are often blurred.  So, how does one speak a word of hope when faith and politics intersect?

                Religion played a significant role in the South African struggle for freedom and equality.  Both sides in this struggle appealed to religion.  Both found support and sustenance.  That apartheid finally collapsed could be a sign of God’s favor, but that is a matter of interpretation – as was true 150 years ago in the midst of the American Civil War.  One of the key figures in this struggle for freedom in South Africa was Allan Aubrey Boesak.  Boesak recently served as the first holder of the Desmond Tutu Chair for Peace, Global Justice, and Reconciliation Studies at Christian Theological Seminary and Butler University in Indianapolis.  Before this recent honor, Boesak served as a pastor, theologian, and anti-apartheid activist in South Africa.  He was a member of the Coloured branch of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa.  Like everything else in that nation, even the church was separated by color. 

                In Dare We Speak of Hope? Boesak brings his experiences in the liberation efforts in South Africa into the contemporary conversation.  He also brings into the conversation the election of Barack Obama, for it too signaled a change in the political fortunes of persons of color in this nation, even as the end of apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela did in South Africa.  The journey, in both countries, has not reached its climax.  In neither places has a true – post-racial society been born.  But, there is hope that we can build bridges of hope that will move us to that day of reconciliation.  The greatest enemy in both countries is cynicism and the pursuit of power at the expense of the most vulnerable in society.  Will we, fall prey to the “lure of what Martin Luther King defined as ‘detachment?’”  That detachment involves being “too unconcerned to love and too passionless to hate . . ....” (p. 13). 

                With the challenges of cynicism and detachment standing in our way, can we embrace a vision of hope?  In writing this book Boesak challenges people of faith not to abandon politics, but instead “strengthen our commitment to the politics of justice, peace, and equity” (p. 21).  Boesak’s understanding of the relationship of the two emerged from a liberationist context.  Simply retreating to a non-political religion would not bring to an end the injustices perpetrated, often in the name of God, in his country and in ours. 

                In the course of this book, Boesak invites us to consider a word of hope in six different contexts or ways.  First, we must speak out of a sense of woundedness.  It is not victimhood, but recognizing that injustice occurs, people are physically, emotionally, psychically, and spiritually injured by injustice.  It is recognition of suffering, and it is a hope that emerges from suffering that refuses to be silenced.  It is resilient, Boesak writes, because it is “rooted in the promises of God, in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and in the faithfulness of God’s people.

                Hope involves speaking of Hope’s children – and Boesak reminds us that hope takes on the woman’s voice.  He draws from Augustine who said that hope has two daughters – anger and courage.  Boesak reminds us of an important element of organizing – one must own one’s anger at injustice.  But both anger and courage are needed for there to be hope.  One must be outraged to act

               Hope involves speaking of struggle – and for non-white South Africans that struggle continued from the formation of the Union of South Africa as an independent white country that denied political rights to a considerable portion of its population to the end of apartheid in 1994.  That was a period of eighty-four years.  For some the pathway involved violence, and for others, like Boesak, it was through non-violence.  That is, by way of the cross.  Boesak writes that “hope is found where Jesus is to be found, this Jesus who was despised and rejected, whose countenance, like the faces of the wretched of the earth, no one desires to gaze upon” (p. 80).    

                Hope comes as we speak of seeking peace.  This chapter should be a challenge for Americans who by and large find it difficult to recognize their (our) complicity in imperialism.  Our ability to act in peace is complicated by ideas of American innocence and manifest destiny.  Boesak asks whether we are willing to embrace the message and example of Jesus and pursue nonviolent struggle.  He writes: 
If we have a hopeful word to say at all, we should, in these matters, seek to be the voice of the innocent victims of war, never the voice of the powerful, who for whatever ambiguous reasons “have to have a war.”  (p. 114)
As history demonstrates, violence is never the solution to the world’s problems.  Neither world war was the war to end all wars, they just spawned new ones.   As one who embraces non-violence, but isn’t a committed pacifist, I take to heart Boesak’s challenge. 

                Hope comes as we “speak of a fragile faith.”  It is recognition that we, in ourselves, are weak.  We do not act from a position of strength.  It is a faith that wrestles with the lure of power.  Boesak notes that in political life, President Obama could not maintain the “audacity of hope” that he first heard Jeremiah write speak of in sermons.  That is because, “hope is too subversive of politics” (p.  139). Our hope, then, lies not in the power of politics, but we cannot avoid politics either. 

                Our ability to speak of hope requires an ability to dream.  Martin Luther King spoke of dreams, and Joseph was a dreamer.  Indeed, Nelson Mandela was a dreamer.  Boesak speaks of Mandela’s recognition at the end of life, looking forward not from the position of power or glory, “but as a hope-filled captive of ubuntu:  my humanity, and my human well-being, is caught up in your humanity.  I cannot be what I want to be until you are what you need to be” (p. 169).  It is a forward looking vision that is not content with what is, but looks to what needs to be.

                Boesak’s book emerges from his experience in South Africa.  It is a story that many of us have heard, at least in parts.  We know the stories of people like Nelson Mandela and possibly Stephen Biko.  It is a story of oppression and liberation.  But it remains an unfinished story – even as the road to freedom in America has not yet reached its destination.  Politics is part of the story.  But it is not the whole of the story.  If we are to pursue justice and experience hope, then, as Boesak reminds us, “we have to learn the lesson that while our hope has to shape our politics, the center of our hope never lies in politics or politicians.  Christians have to look elsewhere if we are to find a hope that is durable, life-affirming, and life-giving” (p. 176).   Neither political party has the final answers to our search for hope.  They can be a means to an end, but they are not the end. 

                Hope involves the pursuit of justice.  It is a struggle that requires anger and courage, dreaming and a recognition of our own weakness.  If we want to engage in a struggle that truly changes the reality for those on the margins, then we would be wise to consider the wisdom of Allan Boesak, a wisdom forged in the struggle for human dignity and justice.  Both Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama are signs of hope, but not the means of hope.  The struggle is not over.  Thus, we need guides like Boesak, if we are to understand the relationship of our faith to our politics – that we might be harbingers of hope.   

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Oh God, Please Let My Team Win. Please. Amen. -- Sightings (Joseph L. Price)

It is common to hear athletes thank God for delivering them victory.  God seems rather partisan when it comes to sports -- or at least many of us hope so.  That must mean that the Cub fans are rather poor in their praying (not to mention Lions' fans).  The World Cup brought out many pray-ers on behalf of team and nation.  Obviously God was on the side of the Germans and not the Argentinians.  Could this be a sign that God preferred Benedict to Francis?  (I hope not).  In any case, Joseph Price offers us interesting reflections on the phenomenon of sporting prayers.  I invite you to read and reflect.   By the way, I'm praying for a either a repeat of the Bay Bridge Series of 1989 (so the Giants can obtain bragging rights) or a repeat of the 2012 Series (with the Giants winning, of course).     

Oh God, Please Let My Team Win. Please. Amen.
Thursday | July 17 2014
                                                                                            Photo Credit:  Ed Yourdon / flickr creative commons
More than half of Americans believe that divine forces play a role in the outcome of sporting events (according to a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute conducted prior to this year’s Super Bowl).

American sports fans are not alone in seeking God’s help. Shortly before the World Cup soccer competition began in Brazil, the Church of England issued a news release authorizing several prayers related to the games. For this year’s World Cup, the Bishop of Leeds, the Right Reverend Nick Baines, who is described as a “die-hard Liverpool fan,” revised the set of prayers ecclesiastically embraced four years earlier for the World Cup events in South Africa.

The first of Bishop Leed’s prayers implores the Lord “who played the cosmos into being” to guard and guide the games’ participants so that they might enjoy “an experience of common humanity” and “generous sportsmanship.” One prayer requests support for the tournament’s thirty-two nations— especially for Brazil as the host nation; and another, intended for use by Anglicans immune to World Cup fever, petitions the Lord for patience with those who are possessed with futbol passion.

Two other prayers manifest national partisanship, beseeching blessings on the British team.  While most of the prayers are brief, the shortest is specific to English fans and players. The two-word prayer, “Oh God…,” initially intended as a plea for England’s advance, effectively served (with different intonation) as a lament following England’s early exit from the competition.

In a manner akin to the Anglican news release, the Catholic News Agency reported on Pope Francis’s World Cup message. In a brief address telecast throughout Brazil on the eve of the games, the Pope focused on the value of sports, especially their challenge to overcome individuality, work as a team, and promote peace based on the experience of camaraderie. The Pope concluded with a prayer asking that the games “take place with complete serenity and tranquility, always with mutual respect, solidarity and brotherhood among men and women who recognize themselves as members of the same family.”

More spontaneous than either the Anglicans’ crafted prayers or the Pope’s telecast message are prayerful gestures by players, and petitions by futbol‘s global fans. One American professor writing for The New Republic’s World Cup blog reflected on his agnostic friends who implored God to support their favorite team, and he noted Neymar’s prayerful display—crossing himself—moments before scoring Brazil’s go-ahead goal on a penalty kick in the opening game. Identifying how prayer can even bring out the best in some fans, the blog also reported that one skeptical fan had gone to church specifically to pray for the safety of referees in World Cup cities filled with passionate Brazilians.

Prayerful petitions are not limited to futbol. Organizations, churches, players, and fans offered public prayers for their teams during the NBA season, the Stanley Cup playoffs, and the NCAA World Series.

Whereas some of the Church of England’s World Cup prayers exposed national pride, prayers can also betray sectarian partisanship. On the eve of the NBA playoffs, the New York Times featured a story about the Oklahoma City Thunder who precede all home games with an invocation, the only professional basketball team that maintains this practice. Seventy percent of Oklahoma residents, according to a Gallup Poll, identify themselves as Protestant Christians. Not surprisingly, although the team asks prayer leaders (including priests and rabbis) to deliver non-sectarian invocations, the prayers frequently resound with a Protestant tone.

Ministerial leaders, devout practitioners, and even agnostic fans often beseech God to intervene on behalf of their favorite teams, especially for championship events.  During the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Catholic diocese in Montreal encouraged the faithful to support the Canadiens by lighting a virtual votive.  And before the final game of the NCAA World Series, ESPN began its telecast with a shot of the Vanderbilt team huddled together with heads bowed. They then confidently took their places on the field, beating Virginia for the championship.

As a passionate sports fan I have often wished that prayers for my favorite teams or players might influence their performance; yet I do not believe that the Lord of heaven and earth really cares about the outcome of games on the field. What kind of ecumenical dilemma might God face if Notre Dame and Baylor should meet in a championship game?

Even so, it is possible that when participants experience the freedom and joy of genuine play in sports, their efforts can be understood as a kinesthetic form of prayer to the One who “played the cosmos into being.”
Sources and Further Reading:

“Church Releases World Cup Prayers including Prayers for England Team.” The Church of England.

Hamilton, Graeme. “Montreal Canadiens Fans Paying Catholic Diocese $1 apiece to Light Virtual Candles for their Team.” National Post. April 21, 2014.

Harris, Elise. “May the World Cup be a ‘feast of solidarity,’ Pope exhorts.” Catholic News Agency. June 12, 2014.

Keh, Andrew. “Praying for the Home Team in Oklahoma City.” New York Times. February 27, 2014.

Price, Joseph L. “Playing and Praying, Sport and Spirit: The Forms and Functions of Prayer in Sports.” International Journal of Sports and Religion I (2009): 55-80.

Stavans, Ilan. “God Uses the World Cup to Teach People Geography.” The New Republic. June 13, 2014.

Survey. “Half of American Fans See Supernatural at Play in Sports.” Public Religion Research Institute. January, 16, 2014. 13, 2014.n-2014-sports-poll/.

Photo Credit: Ed Yourdon / flckr creative commons
Author, Joseph L. Price, (Ph.D. University of Chicago) is the Genevieve Shaul Connick Professor of Religious Studies at Whittier College. He also serves as the series editor for the “Sports and Religion Series” published by Mercer University Press.

Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center.

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