The longest prayer I ever heard, and I mean ever, was at a high school football game. A pastor in that small town had evidently been saving up for his big chance to pray under the “Friday Night Lights.” He prayed for the football players, the referees, the coaches, the assistant coaches, the cheerleaders, the bands, the parents, the teachers, the school administrators, and the highway patrol officers who were directing traffic. No joke, he prayed so long and for so many people that the game started 20 minutes late!
Don’t get me wrong! I’m all for prayer, and “Sweet Hour of Prayer” is one of my favorite hymns. Nevertheless, prayer at sporting events bothers me, and it’s not just because I’m such a stickler about the separation of church and state. I think my problem stems from being a University of South Carolina Gamecock fan. I grew up going to all the games. I heard Dr. Lauren Brubaker of U.S.C.’s Religion Department pray at every game year after year. Here’s my problem as a U.S.C. fan. If you pray for the best team to win, that’s probably the other team. If you pray for nobody to get hurt, that might negate Carolina’s only hope of winning. Bottom line, I agree with Hall of Fame catcher, Yogi Berra. Once, when a batter stepped into the box and made the sign of the cross, Yogi said to him, “Let’s just leave God outta this, okay?”
Okay, I yield. I know prayer helps us in everything, but really… should we pray for our team to win? There’s an anonymous tongue-in-cheek story that puts this question in perspective: “Jesus Christ said he had never been to a football game. So we took him to one, my friends and I. It was a ferocious battle between the Protestant Punchers and the Catholic Crusaders. The Crusaders scored first. Jesus cheered wildly and threw his hat high up in the air. Then the Punchers scored. And Jesus cheered wildly and threw his hat high up in the air. This seemed to puzzle the man behind us. He tapped Jesus on the shoulder and asked, “Which side are you rooting for, my good man?” “Me?” replied Jesus, visibly excited by the game. “Oh, I’m not rooting for either side. I’m just enjoying the game.” The questioner turned to his neighbor and sneered, “Hmm, an atheist.”
Is God an atheist when it comes to sports? What harm is there in praying for good results about a game, a great round of golf, or a super outing on the lake? The answer is, “Nothing,” unless we take God’s apparent disregard or ambivalence to our request as indifference. God cares, for sure, about every facet of our lives, but maybe God has bigger fish to fry than who wins the game, and God expects us to be the cooks. Luke DeRoeck put it this way in a letter to the editor of Sports Illustrated, “To suggest that God really cares about the outcome of a sporting event is preposterous. Conservatively, 20 million people in the United States went to bed hungry on Super Bowl Sunday. A God who cares about the outcome of the Super Bowl is not a God I ever want to meet.”Being a good sports fan is great. I know I love my team. Being a disciple, however, is more important than anything!