How to pray for the Superbowl
This Sunday millions of people will take part in a long tradition of celebration and social interaction. There will be food to eat and alcohol to drink. Some will wear their favorite clothing for the event. Some will cheer loudly while others, absorbed by the pageantry of the event, will sit quietly. There will be music and lights and perhaps even a few surprises. And when it is all over some of those people will go home from their church services, wait until 6:30 PM, and watch a football game.
Yes, there are two big events going on this Sunday and I’d like to talk about the second one. This week I fielded a question I get from time to time: “Matt, how do you think God feels about us praying for sports teams?”
I love this question. It gives me the opportunity to tell a story and teach good theology.
The story goes like this – it’s 2001 and a group of first-year seminary students have arrived early for a theology final. Some are confident. Others are nervous. A few skim their notes, hoping they remember the difference between expiation and propitiation. (For the record, no one has ever asked me to explain the difference between the two.)
In walks the seasoned theology professor, an understated man who addresses the class without much ceremony: “Let us pray …”
“Fantastic,” thinks the young seminarian (who happens to be me in this story), “this guy must have a direct line to God so this prayer is going to give me the boost I need to ace this test.”
The professor (Dr. Jack Cottrell for the two of you who care) summons all the learning of his multiple degrees, decades of teaching, and numerous published writings and petitions the Creator of the cosmos, “Lord, may these students perform at the level of their preparation, amen.”
WHAT The HECK WAS THAT?! I’m not sure if that is a blessing or a curse! No, no. no. Dr. Cottrell, don’t you know you are supposed to pray that I do well? You’re supposed to pray that I get an A. You are supposed to pray that God gives me the ability and clarity to rise to the challenge of this moment. But the old man didn’t pray that. What a jerk.
This prayer was my last theology lesson of the semester. Dr. Cottrell believed something I needed to believe – that maturity is part of ministry preparation and maturity requires servants to serve and future teachers to learn. There is no miraculous substitute for preparation. Praying that God would grant me the ability to get an A while only studying enough to earn a C would not be good preparation for ministry. The prayer was a curse if I had not prepared well. Conversely, if I had studied well the prayer was a blessing – that my level of preparation would be reflected in my performance on the exam.
This story translates nicely to this Sunday If you take football and substitute it for theology. Exchange offensive strategy for expiation and special teams for propitiation. It would be wrong to pray that a team wins if the players and coaches did not prepare well.
So if you ever find yourself in the position of praying for your daughter’s field hockey team or your son’s basketball game or if you are tempted this Sunday to pray for the outcome of the big game here is your prayer: “Lord, may Manning and Newton perform at their levels of preparation.”
See you Sunday!