Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Why Ray Lewis Is A Great Linebacker But Not My Favorite Theologian

Over the course of the last 17 years I have watched the best linebacker in NFL history wreak havoc on opposing offenses. I remember Ray Lewis being drafted. I remember his arrest. I remember his pardon. I remember him controversially hoisting the Lombardi Trophy a year later as Super Bowl MVP. I have witnessed in person his dramatic field entrance and dance. I have attempted it and failed miserably. I have watched in awe as he has stopped running backs in their tracks on 4th and 1. I have also shivered when I see photos of his latest face mask selection, which makes him look like a ferocious combination of the Terminator and Shredder from the Ninja Turtles movies.

I have heard him scream at his opponents.

I have also listened to him exclaim prayers.

I have seen him sport a "Psalms 91" sleeveless T that should have been proof-read before being screen-printed.

Lately, I have been along for the ride as Ray Ray announced retirement and began a playoff farewell tour that now makes its final stop in NOLA for Super Bowl XLVII. Yet, I was not prepared for 52 to become more than a linebacker and assume the role of a public preacher. While I knew of his deep faith convictions, which many have questioned, he has never been as outspoken, emotional, and border-line proselytizing as he has in the final days leading up to his final game. Ray has made Tebow look like an evangelical introvert.

And not everyone is on board.

So here are a few musings on why Ray Lewis may be the best linebacker EVER, but not my favorite theologian.

"No Weapon Formed Against Us Shall Prosper"

This has become Ray's refrain during post-game interviews. While Isaiah 54:17 is commonplace within prosperity gospel preaching (which Ray may be familiar), this text is really an ancient anthem of hope for the people of Israel during Babylonian captivity. They had been exploited, oppressed, and exiled and God was now promising their long-awaited deliverance. There was nothing that could or would thwart God's promises for God's covenantal people. They would return home to Jerusalem and become a new beacon of hope among the nations. If pressed, I would say this is less affirming for a prosperity gospel and more align with liberation theology...but that's for another post.

Still, Isaiah 54 has nothing to do with football. It has nothing to do with overcoming athletic injuries. Even more, the Colts, Broncos, Patriots, and Niners are not to be equated with Babylon. I am pretty sure there are Christians on those teams and many players who also prayed for God to deliver them from a variety of struggles and defeats. If we use Ray as our accredited theologian, it would mean that the only reasonable and theological end for Super Bowl XLVII would be a draw, as neither team's weapon should be able to prosper against the other. But hey, in the NFL regular season that theology might work. It would certainly work in the other kind of football.

"Now Is God's Will" (in locker room post win over Broncos)

Hard-work. Dedication. Super-human strength. Instinct. Football intellect. Speed. Ray has all the tools necessary to contibute to another world championship. But add God's will to it and good luck San Fran!

But for real? Is God really concerned about who is the victor after the greatest display of controlled violence and American commercialism that has become Super Bowl Sunday? Does God have control over this event's outcome and point spread? Did Ray Lewis do something to earn God's favor and convince God to make a second trophy in his already filled case a predestined probability?


While I think God can be glorified in how players carry themeselves on and off the field, I do not think God's glory warrants or requires a win for either team. While I may prefer, better said crave and demand, a Baltimore victory, I don't think God's "will" has anything to do with it.

I also don't think the language of God's will, as though all life events are fixed and blue printed according to some predetermined divine plan, is helpful at all anyway. God's will is more rooted in dreams for personal and corporate conformity to the Way of Jesus and desire that all of humanity and creation be saved and made new. God's will is for justice, compassion, peace, and a level playing field for all.

God's will has little, maybe nothing, to do with who wins the Super Bowl.

But my will does.

When You Sacrifice for God, Anything You Desire You Will Be Granted

"If you sacrifice something for God, he will give you anything your heart desires. I gave up a lot of things and sacrificed a lot for this team. I was counted out with torn triceps and God just kept telling me, 'no weapon formed against me shall prosper.'" (Ray Lewis after AFC Championship)

If Ray is right, our relationship with God is about constant sacrifice so we can receive our heart's desires. We surrender and suffer for God so that we can be rewarded. It's a give and take kind of thing. This sort of theology scares me, especially as one who works with youth. It can lead to self-abuse, affliction, and even pious quests for and silence amidst persecution and oppression as a means to aquire approval and acceptance from God.

But God's love is not transactional. God's grace is not conditional. God does not provide because we have sacrificed. God's sacrifice in and through the person of Jesus is God's ultimate provision for the hope of the world. God's self-offering in human flesh, upon a cross, and through an empty tomb is God's universal act of grace and love. Period. No preconditions. We then freely live into this hope and carry our cross as we follow Jesus into hard places so to share this good news. We do this not because we are striving for rewards, trophies, publicity, or acclaim. We do so because this is the way that leads to life and redemption.

And redemption is about the whole world. It's not about Lombardi or free trips to Disney World.

Although, this past Sunday's win over New England may have felt redemptive to fans who lament the drop by Lee Evans and the wide left by Billy Cundiff, which certainly cost the Ravens a chance to play in Super Bowl XLVI.

But just maybe we can learn...

While I may struggle with Ray's appropriations and applications of biblical texts and pseudo-Christian theology, I admire his unapologetic passion. Ray has been a faithful presence within the Ravens locker room. 52 has rallied a rather diverse cast of characters, many who have faced a variety of personal, familial, and professional struggles. While I do not think that the Super Bowl is in any way related to divine rewards or interventions, I do think that Ray Lewis has attempted to bring his religious convictions into his place of work because he longs to see others share in the same hope that is within him (1 Peter 3:15).

So while we may critique his theology, approach, method, or motive, we also must beg the question, when was the last time we spoke of our Christian convictions beyond the sacred sanctuary and secure pulpit?

When was the last time I spoke to someone in my neighborhood with passion and conviction about the real hope within me?

I am ashamed of my response. Thanks, Ray, for the nudge.

Also, Go Ravens! Let's hoist another Lombardi!


Monday, January 14, 2013

Kingdom of God as Palindromic Poetry: Jesus' Inverted Imagination

I was paging through Kenda Dean's, "Ascension Deficit Disorder: Youth Ministry as a Laboratory for Hope," when I read of the form of creative writing that took YouTube by storm in 2007. It's called "Reverse Thinking." AARP had launched a contest called, U@50, where youth contestants were to create a video that depicted what life would be like for them upon eligibility to this senior organization. Jonathan Reed, who would place second, submitted his poem, "Lost Generation." The masterpiece can be read backwards and forwards, right-way-up and upside-down, with completely different meanings.

When read top-to-bottom, the future is bleak and heart-breaking at best. When the poem is re-read in reverse, the false and fatalist assumptions about the current generation of youth are flipped on their heads. Instead of life as a dead-end disappointment through work-aholism and over-consumption, youth claim hope that the world and their generation can and will be different. Reed illustrates an upside-down vision and dream for his generation.

It was early into the first-century A.D. when a Jewish revolutionary, unconventional rabbi, prophetic story-teller named Jesus began to proclaim his own alternative vision for the world. The one we know to be God-in-flesh ushered an inverted imagination that paved the way for a better and fuller way of being in and for the world.

Said differently, Jesus was the first one to drop reverse thinking as a creative and incarnated art form.

The last shall be first.

Come all you weary.

Blessed are the poor.

So I thought I would offer my own rendition and kingdom-inspired palindromic beat, "Truth Be Told: live in Reverse." Read from top to bottom and then reverse your thinking and read from the bottom to the top.

The discipline of writing palindromic poetry is its own illustration of our call to live in reverse as Jesus' disciples. It takes time, creativity, patience, and a willingness to try and fail and try again.

Thanks to Eliza Glipin and her college friends who did the voice-over video version.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

What My Son Taught Me About Epiphany: 12 Days of Christmas & QR Codes, Too.

One of my son's favorite words, in his limited yet rapidly-expanding vocabulary, is star. Upon discovery, his eyes instantly widen, arm extends, and tiny finger points to this curious shape that has captured his fascination. So when it came time to put the topper on the tree, Amber and I handed him the golden glittered star and let him put the finishing touch on our festive ficus. After all, he is the a mere one minute. Next year, his sister will have the privilege.

Needless to say, when my wife brought our son down the aisle of the sanctuary and placed him in my arms for the first song during Christmas Eve worship, he was on star-overload. I leaned my head against his and followed his finger as he pointed and announced to anyone within earshot every single star he found in the sacred space.




Even the one on the screen behind us...STAR!

During the prayer of confession...STAR!

They appeared almost too fast for my twenty-month-old son to notice. They were appearing everywhere and he was overwhelmed with joy.

"In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, 'Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we have observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage'... When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road." (Matthew 2:1-2, 10-12).

This coming Sunday, January 6th, the church universal celebrates Epiphany. After 12 Days of festive observation of Christmas, Epiphany meets us on the heals of the narrative and recollects God's appearance to the magi from the East. While we may want to lump the "wise men" into our nativity scenes for the purposes of Christmas decor, the reality is that they did not show up for the party until later...much later.

It may have been up to 2 years later, given the ages of the victims of Caesar Augustus' massacre and the fact that the Holy Family was no longer behind the inn rather in a house (2:11).

But so what about Epiphany?

Up to this point in the Christmas story we have heard much about the salvation and deliverance through this Messiah for the people of Israel. But now we have magi and wisdom teachers showing up from the East. They follow this obscure and brilliant rising star and pay homage to this king.

But are they not from Babylon?

Do they not dwell among the Gentiles?

Is it true that this story and the hope offered through Jesus' life, teachings, death, and resurrection will be for all the world, to include those East of Jerusalem where Jesus' ancestors were once held captive?


Epiphany is a reminder of the far reach and universal scope of God's love incarnated in this one called Immanuel, God with us.

Epiphany is reasonable cause to consider that just maybe the deliverance offered through this one named Jesus, "YHWH saves," is not only for a select group of people but also and especially for the whole world.

Epiphany is a day, some traditions celebrate it all the way to Lent, when we contemplate and consider God's appearance in flesh and bone- a child. Epiphany is a liturgical response to the Christmas story and launches a new way of being, doing, loving, serving, hoping, dreaming, longing, expecting, wondering, wandering, and praying that God would continue to make God's self known to us and the whole world.

This we do even during Ordinary Time, which begins on Monday.

So while we may think, "Christmas went too fast," and begin counting down the days until the season meets us again next December, Epiphany bids us something different.

Epiphany beckons us to look for stars rising up all around. We are to have our eyes wide open, our arms extended, and our fingers pointed to signs and symbols that God is indeed among us- even beyond climactic seasons of our liturgical year.

So maybe we should pay more homage to Epiphany?

We should at least use this day, and every day, to consider where and how God may lead us in new directions, down other roads, as we seek to extend the love and joy found in Christ to our neighbors near and far.

Happy Epiphany!


"There's an unmistakable missional bent to Epiphany. Jesus, the light of the world, calls us to let our light shine before others (Mt. 5:14-16). Drawn by the light of this star, the Magi came and signaled the universal scope of Christ's mission, where the nations of the world come to worship the King of kings. Epiphany calls us to live God's mission, announcing the good news of Christ's arrival to every culture and to those across the street, bearing the light of Jesus to the nations and to those who share a home with us. We, the church, are sent out as the manifestation of Jesus to a watching world."

Philip Reinders, Seeking God's Face, 107.

Just for Fun:

12 Days of QR Christmas: A relay game I developed, using QR codes, which helps engage the liturgical significance of each day of Christmas that moves from December 25th and concludes with Epiphany.