Does God Care About the Final Four?

final fourIt’s the most exciting time of the year for college basketball fans in America: the Final Four. This weekend, they will don their team’s colors and expend no small amount of energy cheering as the last four teams alive battle for a national championship. Amid this excitement, I heard a radio host in Kentucky (where the University of Kentucky is hoping for its ninth national title) comment how silly it is that fans pray for their teams to win. His implication is a common one—God doesn’t really care about basketball games. After all, He’s busy with more important matters like sustaining the universe and righting injustice. But is that true? There is plenty of biblical evidence to suggest it’s not. Whether the sport is basketball, baseball, swimming, or soccer, both the outcome and how the game is played matter to God.

Of course, He’s not in suspense about the outcome like we are. The one who “declar[es] the end from the beginning” (Isaiah 46:10) doesn’t bite His nails at the end of a tight game. Nevertheless, here are some reasons why it’s biblical to say that God cares about the Final Four (or your sporting event of choice):

– His providence extends to who wins games. If He controls the outcome of lot casting (Proverbs 16:33), doesn’t He also control how a ball bounces off a rim, whether a referee sees a foul at a crucial moment, and even which team scores more points?

– God rewards the hard work. Proverbs 13:4 promises that “the soul of the diligent is richly supplied,” and Proverbs 14:23 says, “In all toil there is profit.” Although Proverbs are general truths that may have exceptions, it stands to reason that God would honor the efforts of a team that prepared for their Final Four appearance more diligently. If this law applies to school, business, and family, wouldn’t it also apply to sports?

– The Apostle Paul used sports analogies (1 Corinthians 9:24-27) and said physical training “is of some value” (1 Timothy 4:8). Though godliness is of greater value, we have divinely inspired testimony that God regards athletics as valuable.

– God cares about whatever licit activities are important to His people. For instance, Jesus took an interest in and blessed His disciples’ fishing business on more than one occasion (Luke 5:1-7; John 21:1-11). Some might claim that the Lord has more important matters to attend than something as temporal and insignificant as catching fish, but His love for the disciples moved Him to bless them in a realm of life about which they cared deeply. Might He likewise bless Christian basketball players occasionally as a gesture of love?

– God takes joy in His creatures’ using the abilities He has given them to display His glory (1 Corinthians 10:31). As Scottish sprinter Eric Liddell famously said in the movie Chariots of Fire, “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.” It can also display God’s glory when a man that He’s made strong and agile dunks a basketball or hits a three-pointer.

God makes no promises that godly athletes or even skilled athletes will always win. To the contrary, often He uses defeat to build character—and, as Paul said, that’s far more important than winning a game or match (1 Timothy 4:8). Still, God cares about sports. You won’t find Him clad in your team’s colors (though North Carolina fans have been known to ask, “If God isn’t a Tar Heel, why is the sky Carolina blue?”). But be assured this weekend that God is not ignoring the Final Four.



The Word and the World: No Stopping the Change—J. C. Ryle (1816-1900)

J. C. Ryle was a persistent advocate of Scripture reading and faithful preaching. As Bishop of Liverpool he did all in his power to advance knowledge of the Bible. At a time when the influence of the church was declining and the population growing rapidly, Ryle maintained the importance of the Bible both for individual salvation and cultural transformation. In this extract from his booklet How Readest Thou?, Ryle recalls the world-altering transformation accomplished by men of God armed only with Scripture, good theology, and Spirit-filled preaching.

Many centuries have now passed away since God sent forth a few Jews from a remote corner of the earth to do a work which according to man’s judgment, must have seemed impossible. He sent them out at a time when the whole world was full of superstition, cruelty, lust, and sin. He sent them out to proclaim that the established religions of the earth were false and useless, and must be forsaken. He sent them out to persuade men to give up old habits and customs, and to live different lives. He sent them out to do battle with the most perverted idolatry, with the vilest and most disgusting immorality, with a bigoted priesthood, with sneering philosophers, with an ignorant population, with bloody-minded emperors, with the whole influence of Rome. Never was there an enterprise for all appearances more unrealistic and less likely to succeed!

And how did He arm them for this battle? He gave them no worldly weapons. He gave them no worldly power to compel agreement, and no worldly riches to bribe belief. He simply put the Holy Spirit into their hearts, and the Scriptures into their hands. He simply commanded them to expound and explain, to require compliance and to publish the doctrines of the Bible. The preacher of Christianity in the first century was not a man with a sword and an army to frighten people, or a man with a license to be sensual, to allure people, like the priests of the shameful idols of the Hindus. No, he was nothing more than one holy man with one holy book.

And how did these men of one book prosper? In a few generations they entirely changed the face of society by the doctrines of the Bible. They emptied the temples of the heathen gods. They starved out idolatry and left it high and dry like a stranded ship. They brought into the world a higher condition of morality between man and man. They raised the character and position of woman. They altered the standard of purity and decency. They put an end to man’s cruel and bloody customs, such as the gladiatorial fights—there was no stopping the change. Persecution and opposition were useless. One victory after another was won. One bad thing after another melted away. Whether men liked it or not, they were slowly affected by the movement of the new religion and drawn within the whirlpool of its power.

The earth shook, and their rotten shelters fell to the ground. The flood rose, and they found themselves obliged to rise with it. The tree of Christianity swelled and grew, and the chains they had thrown around it to arrest its growth, snapped like string. And all this was done by the doctrines of the Bible! Talk about great victories! What are the victories of Alexander, and Caesar, and Napoleon, compared with those I have just mentioned? For magnitude, for completeness, for results, for permanence, there are no victories like the victories of the Bible . . .

This is the book upon which the well-being of nations has always hinged, and with which the best interests of everyone in Christendom at this moment are inseparably tied. By the same proportion that the Bible is honored or not, light or darkness, morality or immorality, true religion or superstition, liberty or tyranny, good laws or bad, will be found in a nation.

Culture Warrior in God’s Army: William Booth (1829-1912)

salvation_armyOne morning in 1885, a Salvation Army worker unlocked the doors of the ministry’s London headquarters to find an adolescent girl sleeping on the front step. Surprised at her presence, the worker asked how she arrived at such an unorthodox resting place. The answer was appalling: After coming to the city to find work, she was lured into a brothel and imprisoned in the kitchen until she would agree to become a prostitute. But she escaped through a window and asked a police officer for directions to the Salvation Army headquarters, for she remembered the organization’s widespread reputation for helping women trapped in prostitution. Eventually, she received the help she craved, and the Army counted her among its many trophies of God’s gracious work amid England’s lower class.1

WilliamboothFounded by Methodist minister William Booth, the Salvation Army began as the East London Christian Mission, an effort to win London’s poorest residents to faith in Christ. Yet quickly, Booth and his wife, Catherine, discovered that ministering among the underprivileged required battling cultural decay in addition to preaching eternal salvation. So they changed the ministry’s name to the Salvation Army in 1878 and established a well-rounded program designed to move economically depressed men and women into lives of Christ-honoring productivity.

Indeed, nineteenth-century England desperately needed such a ministry. Industrialization created an expanding urban population plagued by overcrowding, poor sanitation, and low wages. In Manchester, for instance, one could find houses scarcely six feet wide and five feet long containing two beds surrounded by refuse and filth. Often the inhabitants of such dwellings had only sewer water to drink.2 To cope with those conditions, many of the nation’s poor resorted to alcoholism, prostitution, and drug addiction.

Booth’s strategy was first to call the down and out to faith in Christ and subsequently teach them His standards of work and productivity. For example, a drunkard who refused to work once happened upon a Salvation Army meeting and heard a sermon on the Scripture, “[S]eek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). Interrupting the preacher, he called out, “Do you mean that if I ask God for work, He will give it to me?” When the preacher said yes, the drunkard was converted. Shortly, he found work and became a productive citizen. On another occasion, an alcoholic named Maggie was saved while spending the night at a Salvation Army shelter. She likewise went on to live a sober and productive life.

For many of the poor, Booth’s program involved voluntary settlement in an urban cooperative community where they were assigned jobs and paid for their labor. Eventually they were moved to a rural cooperative where increased responsibility, combined with Christian discipleship, prepared them to live sensibly upon returning to independent life in the city. In addition, the Salvation Army established an anti-suicide bureau, hospitals, leper colonies, homes for the elderly, and criminal rehabilitation centers. By his death in 1912, Booth had grown the Army into an international ministry giant mobilized to help the world’s poor. Poet Vachel Lindsay speculated about the eternal fruit of his efforts:

Drabs and vixens in a flash made whole!
Gone was the weasel-head, the snout, the jowl!
Sages and sibyls now, and athletes clean,
Rulers of empires, and of forests green!3

May God raise up more ministers like William Booth, who support gospel proclamation with practical ministry to those who need it most.

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Endnotes:

1 Roy Hattersley, Blood and Fire: William and Catherine Booth and Their Salvation Army (New York: Doubleday, 1999), 304-305.

2 Harold G. Steele, I Was A Stranger: The Faith of William Booth, Founder of The Salvation Army (New York: Exposition Press, 1954), 44-46.

3 Vachel Lindsay, General William Booth Enters Heaven and Other Poems (New York: Macmillan, 1916).



Teaching the Bible: “The Truth Lives as It Is Loved”—Charles H. Spurgeon (1834-1892)

spurgeon[1]For thirty years, Charles Spurgeon faithfully proclaimed the gospel at London’s New Park Street Church. Though quite capable of literary allusion and rhetorical flourish, Spurgeon explained in this passage from “The Mustard Seed: A Sermon for the Sabbath-School Teacher” that the heart of effective Bible teaching is simplicity and love for the Gospel.

It is well for the teacher to know what he is going to teach; to have that truth distinctly in his mind’s eye . . . Depend upon it, unless a truth is clearly seen and distinctly recognised by the teacher, little will come of it to the taught. It may be a very simple truth; but if a man takes it, understands it, grasps it, and loves it, he will do something with it. Beloved, first and foremost let us ourselves take the gospel, let us believe it, let us appreciate it, let us prize it beyond all things; for the truth lives as it is loved, and no hand is so fit for its sowing as the hand which grasps it well.1

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Endnotes:

1 C. H. Spurgeon, “The Mustard Seed: A Sermon for the Sabbath-School Teacher,” The Parables of Our Lord (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2003), 704.

Theology at the Oscars

oscars-2011-poster-600x320Through the years, Hollywood has done a lot of theology—both good and bad—whether in Ben Hur, It’s a Wonderful Life, Bruce Almighty, Chariots of Fire, or Lord of the Rings. But they also packed of lot of it into a single evening at the Academy Awards, in the acceptance speeches and follow-up interviews. Here’s a sampling from the most recent event:1

1. Words for the Dearly Departed:  Morgan Neville, (Documentary Feature, 20 Feet from Stardom), said, “[Producer] Gil [Friesen] passed away just weeks before we premiered the film at Sundance. And tonight I know he’s celebrating with us along with his wife, Janet, and his son, Theo.” Steve McQueen (Best Picture, 12 Years a Slave), observed, “Finally, I thank my mother. My mum’s up there. Thank you for your hard-headedness, Mum, thank you.” And Lupita Nyong’o (Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role, 12 Years a Slave), declared, “I’m certain that the dead are standing about you and watching and they are grateful and so am I.”

Matthew McConaughey (Actor in a Leading Role, Dallas Buyers Club), waxed eloquent on the subject: “To my father who, I know he’s up there right now with a big pot of gumbo. He’s got a lemon meringue pie over there. He’s probably in his underwear. And he’s got a cold can of Miller Lite and he’s dancing right now.” Chris Buck (Animated Feature Film, Frozen), whose son was killed on the freeway late last year,2 ended by saying “We’d like to dedicate this to our guardian angel, that’s my son, Ryder Buck. Thank you, Ryder.”

Well, the Bible surely speaks of the joys and comforts of heaven (Revelation 22), of a cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12), and of what could be taken as guardian angels (Matthew 18:10), but it’s a stretch to bestow gumbo, salvation, and angel status so freely. The Bible teaches that the way to heaven is narrow and few take it (Matthew 7:14). Access is exclusive, for Jesus is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” and “no man comes to the Father without” him (John 14:6). Furthermore, words are cheap, in that “not everyone who says, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

2. The Power of Prayer: In his backstage interview, Morgan Neville said, “We felt like caretakers of what their lives [the backup gospel singers] were about. And they said over and over, we’re praying for you. They would call me all the time and say, we’re praying for you, we’re praying for this movie. It’s the most prayed over documentary in history. And I think they’re on to something there.” On to something, indeed, as James 5:16 assures us.

3. God’s Providence: Whether he was referring to “common grace,” as in Matthew 5:45, or to his special relationship as a child of God, Matthew McConaughey began with, “I want to thank God. ‘Cause that’s who I look up to. He has graced my life with opportunities that I know are not of my hand or any other human hand.” Backup gospel singer Darlene Love expressed it in song. After saying, “Lord God, I praise you,” she drew on Matthew 10:29: “I sing because I’m happy! I sing because I’m free. ‘Cause his eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches me.”

4. Anybody’s Guess: Matthew McConaughey observed, “He [God] has shown me that it’s a scientific fact that gratitude reciprocates.” Perhaps he means “the law of sowing and reaping,” but it may be more a matter of karma, the power of positive thinking, or The Secret. More mysterious was his claim, “In the words of the late Charlie Laughton, who said, ‘When you’ve got God, you got a friend. And that friend is you.’” Is this a New Age motto, referring to divinity within us? Is it simply saying, “God helps those who help themselves?” Who knows?

Some of this is heartening, some mystifying. Some of it gives us the queasy feeling that the Third Commandment, against taking the Lord’s name in vain, has been broken. And who can judge hearts with such little evidence? At least we can pray that, where good things are said, the conviction behind them will grow and persist in the souls of the speakers and hearers.

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Endnotes

1 “86th Academy Awards Press Transcripts,” https://www.oscars.org/press/transcripts (accessed March 19, 2014).

2 “The Heartbreaking Story behind Ryder Buck, ‘Frozen’s’ ‘Guardian Angel,’” March 5, 2014, http://www.sooziq.com/6252/the-heartbreaking-story-behind-ryder-buck-frozens-guardian-angel/ (accessed March 19, 2014).



Presidential Devotion to the Bible

The United States has long illustrated the truth of Proverbs 14:34, which says that “righteousness exalts a nation.” Though far from perfect, America historically has upheld biblical standards of justice and liberty, and consequently enjoyed God’s blessing. A contributing factor to the nation’s virtue doubtless has been the devotion of its presidents to the Bible, recounted by Tevi Troy in a February 13 Wall Street Journal article. Spanning four centuries, occupants of the Oval Office have shared a unique love for Scripture—even those who exhibited prominent moral flaws or were not committed followers of Jesus. Consider the following:

presidentsAll 44 US presidents have referenced God in their inaugural addresses, with many quoting or alluding to the Bible. George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison were all committed readers of the Bible. Madison even studied Hebrew as a student at Princeton University so that he could better understand the Old Testament. Though Jefferson was a noted skeptic who regarded Scripture’s miracle accounts as “contrary to reason,” he nonetheless called Jesus’ teachings “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” In retirement, he arranged excerpts from the four Gospels into a chronological account of Jesus’ life and teachings. The resulting book—which includes four columns with biblical texts in Greek, Latin, French, and English—came to be known as The Jefferson Bible.

John Qunicy Adams wrote letters to his son about the Bible’s teachings. In one he called the Hebrew prophets “messengers, specifically commissioned of God, to warn the people of their duty, to foretell the punishments which awaited their transgressions.” Abraham Lincoln read the Bible from cover to cover many times. His famous reference in the Gettysburg Address to “four score and seven years ago” was an allusion to Psalm 90:10, which refers to the human lifespan as “threescore years and ten” or “fourscore years” for those with exceptional strength.

Woodrow Wilson refused to discuss public policy on the Sabbath and read the Bible nightly. When he suffered a stroke, one biographer noticed a Bible beside his sickbed. In the introduction to a New Testament for distribution to soldiers, Franklin Delano Roosevelt wrote, “As Commander-in-Chief I take pleasure in commending the reading of the Bible to all who serve in the armed forces of the United States. Throughout the centuries men of many faiths and diverse origins have found in the Sacred Book words of wisdom, counsel and inspiration.”

Gerald Ford requested that a Bible be placed in the stateroom of Air Force One whenever he was aboard, and having a copy of Scripture on the presidential plane became a tradition. Jimmy Carter published a study Bible compiled from the Sunday School lessons he taught for decades at a Southern Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia. Ronald Reagan said of the Bible, “All the complex and horrendous questions confronting us at home and worldwide have their answer in that single book.”

Bill Clinton knew the Bible well. When Commerce Secretary Ron Brown died, a speechwriter inserted Brown’s favorite verse in Clinton’s eulogy. The president saw it and said, “Oh this is Isaiah 40:31. It sounds like the New English translation. I prefer the King James version myself.” George W. Bush read the Bible annually, along with a daily devotional. In his book The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama spoke of reading the Bible “not [as] a static text but the Living Word.”

Of course, some presidential references to the Bible are attempts to win religious voters more than reflections of deep Christian commitment. And the actions of some presidents belie their expressions of devotion to God’s Word. Still, it is a testament to Scripture’s power that so many presidents drew from it as they led the nation. May this tradition continue. Presidents give it up at the nation’s peril.