Arise (and stand on your platform?)

I do not bleed blue. Far from it.

But it is the baseball off-season still, and I am hungry enough for the game that I opened the pages of Clayton and Ellen Kershaw's new book, Arise. May I say this? It may make you forget all about Tim Tebow.

What the Kershaws have done, with the assistance of Ellen's sister, Ann Higginbottom, is deliver the strongest statement on identity in Christ I have ever read from a Christian athlete. I don't know whether one or another among the three is really the theologian in the group, but when a Cy Young Award winner signs off on a book this articulate in expressing the beliefs and actions of faith in Jesus, you have a guy who is not afraid of his platform.

And platform is what I am far more interested in tackling here than Arise itself. The question of platform is one that has invited debate in recent considerations of Christian professional athletes. One critic of the concept suggests that platform isn't far enough away from the idea of pedestal--and we know what happens too, too often to those who get put or put themselves on a pedestal. Bells and whistles and red flags make a parade through the discerning part of my brain when Christian sports fans clamor loudly for a player to step up and speak of Jesus after a victory. Rarely would we be bold enough to thrust 20- or even 30-somethings into maturity-required leadership in our local churches, but we want these same young stars to make big statements for Jesus in front of national audiences. It's not as easy as all that.

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The Bible for Athletes in the Thick of Competition

Let’s start here: I won’t be calling anybody out.

            Still, in my attention to professional golf events and interaction with Christian golf fans, I often hear expressions of excitement over tournament winners who “speak up for Jesus” by quoting verses they have used to push them to victory. And I’m afraid it is all I can do not to write back to these elated fans and ask, “You do realize that the passage they’re quoting is being entirely misconstrued?”

            To their credit, most Christian athletes will be the first to tell you that they are not theologians—and honestly, it shows in the Scripture passages they regularly choose. So as tempting as it is to capture your attention by giving some specific examples of athletes’ victory speeches and the Scripture they have commandeered as a catchphrase for their winning day, I’ll keep the names quiet for the sake of the humble and the innocent.

Football coaches, theology, and the God stamp

So Jim Tressel took himself out of hot water. Or his bosses did. Hard to tell with coaches’ “resignations.” But however it went down, Tressel is now separated from the decade past, those ten years when he led one of the country’s most dominant college football programs at The Ohio State University.

Or maybe not.

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Athletes? Christians?

What makes an athlete?

It’s a common question, with bowlers normally excluded and football players (both kinds) always counted in.

It’s a question we can raise again today as Forbes has announced its top 10 most influential athletes for 2011.

At the top: Jimmie Johnson, a NASCAR driver.

I’ll give Johnson the sweat part that comes with most athletes. But that comes with most farm workers, factory laborers, and gardeners too.

I’ll give Johnson the concentration part that is required of humans driving vehicles at fatality-encouraging speeds for hours on end. But concentration comes with data entry operators and death defiance with airline pilots.

Charles Barkley, Theologian

I know, I know, it was Sir Charles Barkley (not really a knight) who once famously said that he was not a role model, that he had no desire to be a role model, that no one should expect him to be a role model, that he had no intention of behaving like a role model. Actually, Barkley didn't stretch it out with so many words--but if you know Charles, you know that he could have. And you know that Barkley has lived up to his non-role model title more than a few times.

But listen to Barkley now.

As the Monday night halftime show between the Mavericks and Lakers neared its end, Barkley and his studio company took a look at the nasty turn of ankle suffered by Chicago's Derrick Rose (he of the almost MVP) in the closing seconds of the Bulls' loss to Atlanta. Host Matt Winer noted that the Bulls had declared Rose "day to day."

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Just Asking

During Game 2 of their opening round NBA Playoffs series with the New Orleans Hornets, the Los Angeles Lakers debuted a public service announcement intended to discourage anti-gay slurs such as the one made recently by Lakers star guard Kobe Bryant in the direction of an NBA official.

For noticeably and loudly saying this slur so heinous that almost no news outlet dared hint what it actually was, Bryant was fined $100,000. Interestingly, the outcry and fine came only days after a UCLA study reported that just 3.5 percent of Americans are homosexual (a number far smaller than the usual 10-percent figure announced by LGBT groups).

Which leads me to ask: If a slur bothering 3.5 percent of the population earns you a $100,000 fine, and as many as 80 percent of Americans call themselves Christians, would NBA commissioner David Stern truly consider a--doing the math here--$2.3 million fine for the next player who clearly profanes the name of Jesus Christ? Or would such a huge number only apply to a star like Bryant?

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The Masters and the Greatest

“Sing praise-songs to God. He’s done it all!

   Let the whole earth know what he’s done!

Raise the roof! Sing your hearts out, O Zion!

   The Greatest lives among you: The Holy of Israel.” (Isaiah 12:5-6, The Message)

They wore their emotions for all to see on Sunday. Anger. Frustration. Disappointment. Happiness. Satisfaction. Glee.

And I emoted right along with them, from Charl Schwartzel’s holeout at the second just after I turned on the TV, to Rory McIlroy’s crushing blow at the tenth, to Adam Scott’s dart at the sixteenth, to Luke Donald’s bizarre pin-slamming, chip-dunking birdie at the last.

Willing to wrestle with God

I spend three or four afternoons a week this time of year coaching a local high school golf team. The following words emerge from a part of that work and the community of adults who explore Jesus together with me every other week at an area country club. At the core of this piece is the one thing God has been impressing on me most deeply since the day I officiated a funeral this winter for the father of one of my players: that we must keep wrestling with Him.



The man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” (Genesis 32:28, NIV)

I’ve been working with a player whose short game has no variety.

Victorious humility

It seemed like only hours since I had put down C.J. Mahaney’s mini-book, Don’t Waste Your Sports. In it, Mahaney outlines a number of representative traits that Christ-focused athletes playing should be displaying on and around the playing field. Among these is humility.

I have to tell you, I’m a sucker for humility. In fact, I have made a habit of teaching through the years that, contrary to popular opinion, God does play favorites. He favors the humble. This is true both for those who are made lowly by their circumstances and those who endeavor to humble themselves before the sovereign Lord. This latter group, James wrote, are those whom God lifts up.

But humility is hard to find in the many arenas of sports. Last night, L.A. Laker Ron Artest made a crucial 3-pointer in the team’s eventual triple-overtime win against the Phoenix Suns, then blew big kisses to the crowd when a timeout immediately followed. It got a big laugh out of me. But no, it was not humble. And in the NBA, particularly, where most games could contribute 30-40 such moments to a highlight reel, there are plenty of opportunities for athletes to point their fingers, thump their chests, and otherwise make sure their accomplishments are noticed and rewarded—at least with endearing applause.

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Nick Watney's improvement and ours

The devotion I have written for Tuesday's Links Daily Devotional speaks to issues of grace and spiritual growth. It may be helpful here in light of recent discussion:

 We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience… (Colossians 1:9-11, NIV)

Johnny Miller couldn’t get over it. He kept returning to the statistic about Nick Watney’s short game.

Last year Watney, who won the WGC-Cadillac Championship on Sunday against the world’s best players, was 146th on Tour in scrambling, the ability to get up and down from off the green to save par. After Sunday, Watney is—and this truly is amazing—second.

That’s right. Watney’s short game has improved so much that he has gone from one of the worst regulars on tour to nearly the best. I’m with Miller. This is both impressive by itself and indicative of why Watney walked away with the trophy on Sunday.

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Jeff Hopper has played, coached, spectated, written, announced, and simply enjoyed sports since falling asleep to ballgames on the radio as a kid. He now oversees resource development for Links Players International.

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