Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Sports: Exhibit of Stewardship and Worship

It is common to hear people bemoaning the moral decline of America.  Some believe the moral decline is spilling over into the sports world as seen in more severe unsportsmanlike behavior and the use of performance-enhancing drugs by athletes.  In an era when our young people especially are looking to the sports world for role models, it seems that there are fewer and fewer athletes and coaches deserving of this respect.

As I try to understand the intersection of science, faith, and culture, I want to avoid becoming pessimistic about the apparent moral decline.  Two things give me hope.  First, the Scriptures have not left us without moral clarity and guidance about our future.  The Bible spells out clearly the characteristics of moral decline that have been a part of human history and which are increasingly in evidence today.  While he was imprisoned in Rome awaiting his execution, the Apostle Paul wrote to the young pastor, Timothy, the following words:

But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come.  For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; and avoid such men as these. –2 Timothy 3: 1-5

Whew!  That list is discouraging; but, it seems on the mark for today’s culture.  Knowing these indicators of a culture in decline, we should not be surprised or depressed. Nor should we be passive spectators awaiting the rapture of the church and the tribulation that God has predicted in the Book of Revelation.  Instead, we should be all the more diligent to sanctify Christ as Lord in [our] hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence…(1 Peter 3: 15).  Have we shared with our friends and family our hope and its basis for escaping eternal judgment?

Although Christians are not perfect, we are the salt and light the culture needs.  Like salt we can enhance flavor and preserve against moral decay; and, like light we can share Scriptural truth to point the way to peace with God through faith in the death and resurrection of Christ.  This point brings me to my second reason for hope.  My hope is renewed when I find heroes of faith who are leaders in our culture.  Some examples of my heroes can be found in the following links—heroes in (1) education, (2) science, (3) missions, (4) sports, (5) fine arts, and (6) politics.

Clemson Tigers Head Coach, Dabo Sweeny
Monday, the Clemson Tigers became College Football Championship
Finalist Runner-up with a 14-1 record in 2015. My attention to the 2015 college football season, now ended, was highlighted by several head coaches who have inspired their teams by a clear and consistent testimony of who they are as men.

First, I’ll mention The Ohio State University head coach, Urban Meyer, who led the Buckeyes to the 2015 college football championship.  Coach Meyer credits some major changes in his life between his tenure as Florida Gators coach and his coming to Ohio State to his reading of LEAD ... For God's Sake! written by Todd Gongwer.  Meyer reached out to Gongwer after reading the book and confessed, according to ThePostGame, "He had lost sight of what was important, and now kind of had his eyes opened to those things that mattered most in life.”  Now, Coach Meyer maintains contact with Gongwer with whom he has developed a close relationship based on their common faith in God.

Coach Jim Harbaugh in Peru (L), and on the sidelines (R).
Having just completed his first season as head coach of the Michigan Wolverines, Jim Harbaugh, integrates his Catholic faith with principles of leadership. In 2014, filmmaker Sean Maddison traveled to Peru with Harbaugh to film Peruball: Jim Harbaugh in South America.  The film documents Harbaugh’s short-term mission work in Peru.  Afterward, Maddison concluded, “Jim’s faith is certainly a foundation for the principles he brings to everything he does.  He comes across as a man of conviction, so (his faith) explains a little bit where it comes from.”

Monday, Clemson University head football coach, Dabo Swinney, a devout and outspoken Christian, and his Tigers played with excellence and nearly won the 2016 national college football championship.  According to David French, writing in National Review, Swinney’s faith in God has guided his life and leadership so much so that the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) complained, “Christian worship seems interwoven into Clemson’s football program.”  The FFRF particularly objected to the presence of a team chaplain and provision of transportation to “church days.”

Swinney did not back down to FFRF efforts to rid his program of Christian influence, and Clemson University stood behind him.  According to French, Swinney’s policy was “a model of polite conviction” with three rules players must follow:  players must (1)  go to class, (2)  give a good effort, and (3) be good citizens.   Coach Swinney also emphasized that he recruits players “of many faiths,” Finally, he makes it clear that (emphasis mine):

Recruiting is very personal. Recruits and their families want — and deserve — to know who you are as a person, not just what kind of coach you are. I try to be a good example to others, and I work hard to live my life according to my faith.

A year later, neither Swinney nor Clemson University budged; and, Swinney added (emphasis mine),

We weren’t doing anything [wrong]. Ain’t nothing to change. .. . People have just got to be who they are, it’s that simple. We’ve never tried to force anything on anybody. Everybody who comes here to Clemson knows who we are as people. There’s no surprises in that regard. 
He adds, Everybody has the opportunity to grow if they want to, spiritually, but that’s a personal thing. We play the best football players. As far as me personally, I am who I am. I don’t apologize for that.

Coach Swinney’s successful spiritual model suggests that rational and reasonable objections to a sports program fully integrated with Christian principles cannot prevail. 

Swinney’s life and leadership also present a metaphor of biblical stewardship at its best.  According to Scripture, stewardship is performed with the understanding that God owns everything and graciously entrusts time, talents, and treasures to us to manage them for His glory (1 Corinthians 4: 7).  As willing Christian stewards lead, teach, coach, or whatever they do, they do it heartily, as to the Lord (Colossians 3: 23).  Therefore, in essence, stewardship is worship.  According to Oswald Chambers, “Worship is giving God the best that He has given you.” (My Utmost for His Highest, January 6)

Although our culture may be in moral decline with difficult times upon us, I am thankful for leaders in every vocation (calling) in life.  I have highlighted three leaders in the world of sports.  May the tribes of Urban Meyer, Jim Harbaugh, and Dabo Sweeney increase.  I’m sure they will as they are permitted to demonstrate excellence in their roles in influencing young men and women with whom they work.  And, as spectators may we observe them and their victories and defeats with thankfulness for their example and for sports in general.  Sports in a biblical context affords athletes the opportunity to demonstrate through their rigorous discipline and performance the very essence of good stewardship—worship of their Creator—and the pleasure of giving back to God the best that He has given them.

I believe God made me for a purpose.  For China.  But he also made me fast.  And when I run, I feel his pleasure. 
Eric Liddell (1902-1945), Olympic Runner and Missionary to China

Your Comments Welcomed:
You may wish to add other coaches (Bobby Bowden comes to mind) whose Christian character was a major influence in how they coached.  Please respond with their names and any comments about them you wish to add.

Do you consider worship of God as one aspect of the broader concept of stewardship?  Or is it equal in scope to stewardship?  Or is worship broader in scope than our stewardship?

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