Pro athletes say stuff. A lot of stuff. And, like pop stars at awards shows, God gets thrown in there on a somewhat regular basis. Its something we’re used to by now. Look, I can’t judge, I was the small town evangelical kid who used to pour through “thank yous” in liner notes (I was more a music kid than a sports kid) to see if my favorite band (or the band I wanted to like but was afraid my parents wouldn’t let me listen to) “thanked God.” If they did, they were cool – I could safely move beyond being a fringe listener (oh, I totally skip most the tracks), and graduate to a real FAN. That was when I was young. I grew up, though, and became disappointed. I got let down, and even a bit cynical about the whole thing. I realized ultimately that I was setting people that I didn’t even really know up for some sort of failure in my own mind. It was silly, and, if I hadn’t grown out of it, could have been dangerous spiritually, close to idolatry. Maybe the biggest danger was associating success with blessedness in the Kingdom. The more I read the Gospel, the more I realized that didn’t quite work with the message Jesus was preaching.
The question of athletes and faith came up at my son’s latest AWANA meeting. AWANA is a long running and very successful baptist youth program that meets on Wednesday nights after Boy Scouts. Now, mind you, we’re Orthodox now, but we’re fine with letting our son go and be with friends and hopefully have some good clean fun while memorizing some scripture. Harmless, we hope, and maybe even good. Last week, though, my son came home and complained that the leader was asking the kids if they knew of any professing Christians that played in the NFL. The obvious ones came up – Tebow, Warner, maybe even Colin Kaepernick, the sensational young 49er QB who venerates scriptural tattoos on his biceps after a touchdown, but I’m not sure if they’d be cool with that. My son’s frustration came when he kept raising his hand and mentioning Steelers Strong Safety Troy Polamalu as an example. “Well, I don’t know about that….I’ve never heard him thank God in an interview,” my son reported was the leaders reply. Troy is actually very outspoken about his Orthodox Christian faith, and talks about it in interviews, and makes the sign of the cross constantly on the field…but I’m not sure he’s ever done the officially licensed “thanking God” in an interview. I hope his slight in the hall of Christian athletes is not because he’s Orthodox rather than Evangelical. But I digress. Not really the point of writing this, another battle for another day. On to the subject at hand.
I didn’t ask my son if Ray Lewis got mentioned in the litany of Christian players in the NFL. I’d be curious. The Baltimore Ravens’ star linebacker has a, well, interesting story. Any google search or wikipedia check will give you the details of his past – the double murder that he plead guilty to obstruction of justice to along with some other personal stuff. Despite this, though, Ray’s career has remarkably transformed throughout his 17 seasons in the NFL. He’s still polarizing, but for many he has become a symbol of perseverance, of overcoming adversity, even of commitment to making oneself “better” (especially when it comes to clean, healthy living – legend is that he raids his teammates lockers for Doritos or Donuts or Soda – saying “you expect to win a championship putting this poison in your body?!” – I love that story).
At the beginning of this season, Lewis announced that it would be his last year in the NFL. His “God” rhetoric increased and reached a fever pitch in the playoffs. After each victory he was seen wearing a t-shirt that read “Psalms 91” (A psalm of David – a psalm of protection and strength). His tearful interviews spoke of the wins in biblical overtones: “What is impossible for man is possible with God!” Its admittedly an inspiring story, a veteran player who has remained in the same city his entire career – overcoming a torn tricep and coming back to provide “spiritual leadership” (and a few tackles here and there) as the team made a successful run to the Super Bowl. Its inspiring, but I’m not sure that his story can be categorized as one of redemption, though. That’s where things get fuzzy. And that’s whats been on my mind following Ray’s recent comments about that past of his in the run up to the Super Bowl.
I’ve gotten to the place, having been through the aforementioned gamut of idealizing and then cynically dismissing athletes or celebrities public professions of faith, where I take the following approach: I honestly hope for and want to believe the best – I hope Ray has found real redemption, strength, and hope in God – just like I take Tim Tebow at his word – and hope that it is real for him. Its honestly not for me to judge – only God knows the heart of a man – so I dare not tread there. At the same time I am cautious – knowing that the “buying in” can be a dangerous place spiritually – especially for the celebrity on the pedestal. I’ve found this approach helps to guard against judgmentalism, which Christians are to avoid like the plague.
Occasionally, though, a statement is made publicly by an athlete or celebrity that really troubles me. I know these guys aren’t theologians – I don’t expect precise, nuanced, doctrinally airtight treatises. I figure these guys are speaking from the heart, from their experience – which is great. But they do have a huge megaphone, and the eyes and ears of a lot of people. So – it might just be for my own conscience – or, it might be because I’m the father of a son and daughter who I’m trying to raise in the faith. Or maybe its because I’m also entrusted with helping to lead and guide youth and young adults at our camps and at the parish that makes me occasionally feel the need to say — hold on, now – lets think about that – is that what the Gospel says? There are times when God is invoked in a way that communicates something very troubling – whether it is intended that way or not. So I offer my humble thoughts to the circle that I might have some influence over – not to judge the athlete or celebrity – but to defend the truth of the Gospel – which I truly believe to be THE Good News of redemption for all.
So on to what Ray said this past week. In an interview with Shannon Sharpe on CBS, Lewis was asked about the Atlanta incident in 2000 that ended with the death of two men. Ray responded:
“It’s simple. God has never made a mistake. That’s just who He is, you see. And if our system – it’s the sad thing about our system – if our system took the time to really investigate what happened 13 years ago, maybe they would have got to the bottom line truth. But the saddest thing ever was that a man looked me in my face and told me, ‘We know you didn’t do this, but you’re going down for it anyway.’ To the family, if you knew, if you really knew the way God works, he don’t use people who commits anything like that for His glory. No way. It’s the total opposite.” (Interview with Shannon Sharpe, CBS Pregame Show, my emphasis)
I have no idea what culpability Ray Lewis had in the murders. I hope and pray that the innocence he proclaims is true – I really do. What is troubling to me are the God statements. The implication is that because Ray’s life has been used to the glory of God (I hope it has and is! Although I don’t think football victories or success are necessarily a guaranteed sign of God’s blessings) then it is impossible for him to have been guilty of a crime 13 years ago. Maybe that’s not what he meant, but that’s how it sounded. This is troubling for a few reasons. First, the idea that God does not use people who commit grave sins for His glory is not supported at all by Scripture if we look at the whole story. No doubt, both St. Paul and St. John tell us that the wicked will not inherit the Kingdom of God (I Cor. 6:9, Rev. 21:8)- this includes, quite specifically, murderers, liars, the sexually immoral, etc. But we also see from scriptures that God did use people who committed horrible crimes at one point in their lives for His glory. Consider King David – who used his power as King to have a man killed so that he could continue an adulterous relationship with the man’s wife. Consider St. Paul (the author of one of the aforementioned verses about who doesn’t get in) – who brutally persecuted Christians, and was even a compliant witness at the stoning death of Stephen. There are many other examples in the Scriptures, and even in the lives of people since then who turned from lives of great destruction and violence and were certainly used for the glory of God.
The key is in the turning, though. Repentance, not success, it seems, is at the center of who God uses for His glory, its the litmus of who inherits the Kingdom, and its how God’s glory is manifest in us. “But He bears patiently with you, His desire being that no one should perish but that all should come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9). What’s missing, at least from the public statements is that turning, that repentance, which makes for a truly redemptive story that transcends mere good feelings and demonstrates that no one is beyond healing and new life – no one is beyond being able to be used for God’s glory – which is at the very heart of the Gospel. David repented of his grave sin. St. Paul repented and was transformed. They both committed or were at least responsible by their witness to the murder of another man. The Good News of Christ is manifest in that even these broken vessels were made great examples through God’s Grace. The Good News of Christ is manifest on the Cross – to the thief next to Christ who is accounted worthy – who is glorified in that moment by literally turning to Christ, not in his moment of success, but in his moment of condemnation in the eyes of the world – but at this same moment was the thief’s moment of realization of his need of healing, his need of Christ.
God has never made a mistake – that is true – it is we who make mistakes. But there is always a place for repentance and a returning to that becoming what God intends us to be. To separate the Glory from Repentance is to send a confusing message about God, a message that does not offer hope to all. God’s justice is, indeed, the opposite of the world’s. God draws near to the repentant heart and gives even the murderer, who, left in his sin, has no place in the Kingdom of God, the possibility of new life and healing. Truly, what is impossible with man is possible with God!