Reflections on Super Bowl LI

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.” (1 Corinthians 9:24 ESV)

imageSuper Bowl LI is now in the history books. While I am disappointed that my home team, the Atlanta Falcons, fell short in their quest to capture the Lombardi Trophy, I must readily acknowledge that this year’s game definitely lived up to Super Bowl hype. As I reflect on all the related activities that always surround the game, there are several applications for gospel ministry that come to mind.

Time Investment: I am struck by the immense volume of television coverage devoted to pre-game analysis, opinions, advice, predictions, and post-game analysis as compared to time spent actually playing the game.

Ministry Application: Many of us, myself included, sometimes tend to over-prepare and under-minister. Churches devote a lot of attention to offering program after program, Bible study after Bible study, and multiple leadership/teacher/discipleship training opportunities. These are worthwhile activities designed to help us grow spiritually and equip us for the mission field outside our walls.

But all too often, rather than being a means to an end, they become an end in themselves. We can develop the false notion that somehow our participation in these activities defines us as a strong Christian or a devoted follower. And yet, the time we spend in hands-on ministry, being salt and light to the world around us, often pales in comparison to the time spent in preparation.

Jesus said, “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:17 NIV) In his teaching, our Lord emphasized the kind of people we ought to be and the kinds of things we ought to be doing. Clearly, he was more interested in our actions, rather than the depth of our knowledge. Paul famously said, “We know that ‘We all possess knowledge.’ But knowledge puffs up while love builds up.” (1 Corinthians 8:1 NIV)

Distractions: The Super Bowl is the ultimate football game. But we surround it with distractions as if the spectacle of the game itself isn’t enough. Inevitably, there is tremendous media buzz over the commercials, pointing to just how consumer-driven our society has become. (Although I must admit, this year’s commercials were exceptional!)

Then there’s the halftime show – this year with Lady Gaga. Widespread speculation concerning how outrageous her performance might be or what political statement she might make prompted Fox to televise her show with a five-second delay. Ignoring those concerns, she delivered a jaw-dropping, energetic, and acrobatic performance.

But can’t we just enjoy the game? After all, this was the Atlanta Falcons vs. the New England Patriots – the epic battle of good versus evil. (As to which is which probably depends on where you’re from.)

Ministry Application: As witnesses, we have been commanded and entrusted to go into all the world and share the greatest story ever told – the life-transforming gospel of Jesus Christ. While doing that, we must be mindful of avoiding the distractions the enemy employs to take the focus off of that message. To name just a few, these include: “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men“, (Mark 7:7 ESV) Christian celebrity, commercial concerns like book royalties and TV exposure, and worship services that feel more like Gaga-style rock concerts..

All these things tend to take our focus off of Christ, cause divisions within his church, elevate man instead of God, and needlessly dilute our message. Look no further than the Corinthian church for a Biblical case study on this.

Great Comebacks:  In sports, the most exciting and memorable games involve great come-from-behind victories. Last night’s game was a classic example. After being down by a score of 28-3, the Patriots scored 31 unanswered points to win what many are already hailing as the greatest Super Bowl ever. Certainly, it was the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.

But it is not the greatest comeback in human history. That occurred on an Easter morning 2,000 years ago when our Savior cast aside his grave clothes and left an empty tomb behind. And he has one more comeback to pull off still. Like the first one, it too will change history. In fact, it will make all things new. And the audience for that comeback will exceed that of all the Super Bowls combined.

“Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all peoples on earth will mourn because of him. So shall it be! Amen. ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.’” (Revelation 1:7-8 NIV)

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Rise Up!

This was going to be the year – the year I was planning to turn away from watching so much football. It had been my favorite spectator sport for years, but my interest had begun to wane. Several factors were responsible for my declining interest:

  • In spite of a shocking upset of Florida State, Georgia Tech only won three games in 2015.
  • After a very successful run as the head coach of the Georgia Bulldogs, one of the classiest coach in college football, Mark Richt, was dismissed.
  • The salaries being paid to head coaches had grown exorbitant, especially when compared to university presidents. In my mind, college football was becoming too much like big business, or like the NFL.
  • The documentary, Last Chance U on Netflix revealed disturbing exploitation of football players at a community college program in Mississippi. If the things that series revealed were going on at a community college, I could only imagine what must be happening at the power schools.
  • Alabama won yet another national championship- Ho-hum.
  • The movie, Concussion, starring Will Smith, painted a picture of the NFL seemingly disregarding the evidence pointing to the dangerous long-term impact of head trauma with its players. Other documentaries, like Gleason and books like Ben Utecht’s memoir, Counting the Days Until My Mind Slips Away: A Love Letter To My Family, left me hoping my grandchildren would pursue other sports.

And so, I intended to devote many less hours to watching football in 2016 and devote more time to writing or a number of other worthwhile and productive activities. I purchased no tickets for Georgia Tech games. And then, a series of events occurred:

  • Georgia Tech won nine football games in 2016, including an exciting comeback win over the Georgia Bulldogs in their rivalry game and a Taxslayer Bowl victory over Kentucky.
  • The ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) had the best post-season record of any conference ever, its teams winning 9 games against only three losses.
  • In perhaps the most exciting game of the year, Clemson (an ACC school), defeated those bullies, the Alabama Crimson Tide, to win the National Championship.

And now,

The Atlanta Falcons are playing in the Super Bowl!!!!!

imageSo fly high, Matty Ice and Julio Jones! (my favorite former Alabama player) Rise up, you Dirty Birds. Take it to those lying, cheating, ball-deflating New England Patriots. The hopes of my championship-starved home state of Georgia rest on your mighty shoulders.

As far as those other issues I raised earlier, I heard this week that concussions are down 11% in the NFL this year. So there’s that!

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Hope In The Face Of Adversity

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

After much speculation, Mark Richt was officially named today as the next head football coach of the Miami imageHurricanes. Even though he coached my team’s arch rival for the last 15 years, I have always had the utmost admiration and respect for Coach Richt, both as a football coach and as a life coach for his players, most of whom will not go on to play professional football, but will need other life skills, knowledge, and character to succeed in life after their playing days are over. Coach Richt understands that better than most coaches at the college level.

It amazes me that a coach of his caliber and abilities, the fifth winningest active coach in Division I football, whose team was 9-3 this season, averaged 9.6 wins/season over 15 years in arguably the toughest conference in college football, who won two SEC championships, led his team to 14 straight bowl appearances, was 9-5 in those bowls, was 13-2 against his team’s state rival, finished the season ranked in the top 10 seven times (most recently 9th last year), and came within five yards of a national title game just three years ago, was fired this past Sunday.

This action adds to my increasing disillusionment with what college football has become- big money and win championships at all costs, no matter the impact on those who are putting their health on the line to fill the stadium. Coach Richt never bought into that philosophy and I applaud him for it. Meeting with his team for the last time Thursday, he reportedly told them “Life is about people, not rings.” Amen, Coach Richt!

The greater lesson in all this is a spiritual one. Coach Richt’s response to his unwarranted dismissal last week has been both encouraging and inspiring. His calm professionalism, grace, and unshakeable faith in his Lord has been on display for the world to see. In interviews following his dismissal he made it clear that he answers to a higher authority than athletic directors when it comes to the direction of his life. I’m glad that direction will keep him coaching college football where he will continue to have a positive impact on young men’s lives and the Kingdom of God.

He is a living example of a truth I have emphasized for years as a teacher of God’s Word – that our responses to the inevitable adversities we encounter in life are our greatest opportunities to witness to others about the reason for the hope they see in us. (1 Peter 3:15)

One of my favorite authors, Philip Yancey says that “Faith is believing in advance what will only make sense in reverse.” Coach Richt clearly has that kind of faith and I firmly believe when he looks back on this week in five years, he will see that things worked out much better for him than for the Georgia Bulldogs. And as a lifelong Georgia Tech fan, that would please me very much!

By the way, Coach Richt is from Boca Raton, Florida and played his college football for the University of Miami. That’s right- he is returning to his Alma Mater. And unlike the Georgia fan base, Miami fans appear to be extremely united in their approval of his return. This story just gets better and better. Congratulations, Coach Richt and Go Hurricanes! You have a new fan in me. (Unless, of course, you’re playing the Yellow Jackets or the Tarheels!)

“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect ..” (1 Peter 3:15)

Note: All Scripture references taken from the New International Version (NIV)