Silly Prayers

Jim Nantz pushes through the screaming crowd to ask, “How did it feel when you hit the game-winning shot?”

The beaming player answers, sort of: “I just want to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. God was in control. God was not going to let us lose. We owe it all to God. Yeah God!”

Don’t you wish Jim would respond, “Let me get this straight. You think that in the moment you let go of the ball, God said, ‘I’m through letting the best team win. I’ll take it from here.’ Explain this to me, college educated theologian. If you think God fixes basketball games, why do you suppose God doesn’t fix the mess in the Central African Republic?”

Brent Musburger could interject, “If you really believe that God is the reason you win, why doesn’t your team skip practice to fast and pray? Better yet, why don’t you spend the time caring for poor children? Given your theological perspective, why wasn’t Mother Teresa a deadly three-point shooter?”

Wouldn’t you love to hear Dick Vitale shout, “Listen, diaper dandy, you played Awesome with a capital A, but if you think God is the PT prime time performer for your team, how do you think that makes the other team feel? What does God have against them, baby? Unbelievable.”

If God picks the winners, why does God want Mercer, my school, to ever lose? How often would Mark Fox, the Georgia coach, have to go to church to win as many games as John Calipari, the Kentucky coach? If God is picking games why do the Blue Devils keep winning and St. John’s keeps losing? Why should Las Vegas ever beat St. Mary’s? If God is in control, why doesn’t Notre Dame win more often? What are Baptists to make of Brigham Young having a good team? Where in the Bible can we find anything to suggest that God is more interested in the Final Four than the hungry?

We should challenge silly ideas about prayer. God is not a genie and prayer is not rubbing the lamp. God does not need to be told what needs to be done or that God needs to get to work on it as quickly as possible.

From God’s point of view it must be amusing and sad to listen to prayers for contradictory wishes. People pray vehemently on opposite sides of wars as well as basketball games. Some pray for God to rig the lottery. Some pray for our hair to grow back.

If we pray believing we will receive anything we ask for, then we will find it hard to keep praying when we do not. We may find it easiernot to pray. Many of us have been praying all of our lives and still feel like beginners.

Every once in a while you promise to pray more. You decide to pray for ten minutes. You find a quiet place: “God, it’s been a while since I’ve prayed. I know I don’t pray enough, but I’m praying now.”

You think, “This isn’t a good prayer. I have to pick up the pace. I need to praise God or something.”

God, I praise you for being so praiseworthy.”

Well, that sounds redundant.”

God, I thank you for everything I should thank you for.”

That’s stupid. Maybe I should confess. That doesn’t seem like fun. What’s in the freezer? Do we still have any Cherry Garcia? I don’t need ice cream. I should get up early and go to the gym. Maybe I can pray on the treadmill.”

Prayer can feel like talking to ourselves. Without thinking about it, we stop praying for a while, and we don’t miss it much.

We need to keep praying because we need God. We need to pray even when we don’t know what to pray, when we have bad memories that won’t go away, when our addictions seem more powerful than we are, when our child is troubled and we don’t know how to help, and when we can’t pray like we wish we could.

You and I may feel like our prayers are silly, but if our prayers are sincere, then they are not foolish at all. So we pray in the shower, at breakfast, on the way to work, at work, at school, at home, and before we go to sleep. We pray for justice, honesty, and compassion. We pray because when we pray God is there turning hatred to love, doubt to faith, and despair to hope.

When we pray, God does not always answer our prayers the way we want, but God comes, and deep in our souls, that is what we are praying for.

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Bracketology Theology: Who Would Jesus Pick?

NCAA college basketball tournament brackets are being emailed, faxed, and taped on refrigerators. Many will make their picks without reflecting on the theological implications.

Unfortunately, some with no real love for basketball are filling out brackets. People who do not care will pick Virginia because of Aunt Virginia, Wisconsin–Milwaukee because of Laverne and Shirley, San Diego State because of Ron Burgundy, Colorado because of John Denver, Dayton because of the Wright Brothers, Stanford because of Condoleezza Rice, Kentucky because of Ashley Judd, and George Washington because of George Washington.

They will pick Brigham Young to take out Oregon because a duck would not have a chance against a cougar. Picking between the Arizona Wildcats and Weber State Wildcats, as well as the Kentucky Wildcats and the Kansas State Wildcats, is confusing. The Villanova Wildcats are taking on the Wisconsin–Milwaukee Panthers, which is hard to pick. Thankfully, those Panthers are not likely to meet the Pitt Panthers. Most nicknames show little imagination, so it is hard not to love the Albany Great Danes, Coastal Carolina Chanticleers, Delaware Blue Hens, Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns, Manhattan Jaspers, Massachusetts Beacons, Saint Louis Billikens, Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks, and Xavier Musketeers.

Many will not care if their picks actually win, but if some tiny team like the Wofford Terriers beats some big dog like the Michigan Wolverines, these prognosticators will think they are Jimmy the Greek. We know deep down that it is wrong to pick against Kentucky because their players don’t go to class or for Cal Poly because it sounds like a dental product.

Basketball matters. Indifference runs contrary to the Christian faith. Jesus cares, so should his followers.

Others have learned that picking Texas Southern to win it all will leave you without a team two hours into the tournament, so they throw in with the experts. Favoring the favorites is the easy way. They cast their lots with #1 seeds—Florida, Wichita State, Arizona, and Virginia. They bet that 2s will always beat 15s, 3s over 14s, and 8s over 9s. They give up on high hoops hopes, and give themselves only to the solid hardwood of the expected. If there are no upsets, they will have their bracket laminated. These people are no fun to play with.

Something is desperately wrong with doing what is safe. God does not call us to be sensible. People of faith do not carefully weigh the alternatives. Jesus lived beyond prudence, so should his followers.

People of faith eschew apathy and predictability. We belong to a different world than the one where big schools with big players and big money win all of the big games. We follow our hoop dreams.

We give our hearts to directional schools (North Carolina Central, Western Michigan), states that do not sound like states (San Diego State, Weber State) and schools that are not often on national television (Albany, Coastal Carolina).

We take seriously the religious inferences of our choices. Because we like the new pope we look favorably at the Catholic schools (Creighton, Dayton, Gonzaga, Manhattan, Providence, Saint Joseph’s, Saint Louis, Villanova, and Xavier). Because we like not having a pope and do not have nine schools in the big dance, we are sympathetic toward the Baptist schools (Baylor and Mercer).

The first round features a clash between two universities that have divinity schools—Duke and Mercer—but Duke is the Blue Devils, which sounds like they are cheering for the other team, so serious theologians cheer for the Bears. Our love for the Mercers in this tournament may keep us from winning the office pool, but Jesus calls us to hope.

What is the point of living in the world of boring brackets, when we can live in the vibrant rainbow dreams are made of? Why wouldn’t we choose a world in which a small Baptist college with little athletic tradition and not enough rebounding could take the trophy?

Picking with our hearts may be madness, but the faith-filled choose the NCAA tournament of what should be. People of faith believe that David will defeat Goliath. We do not give ourselves to what is most likely. We dream of a tournament and a world that is better than it is.

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