Monday, November 21, 2011

Sermon: "Moral Fluency and Moral Quietude" (Delivered 11-20-11)

“In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself” by Wislawa Szymborska
The buzzard never says it is to blame.
The panther wouldn't know what scruples mean.
When the piranha strikes, it feels no shame.
If snakes had hands, they'd claim their hands were clean.

A jackal doesn't understand remorse.
Lions and lice don't waver in their course.
Why should they, when they know they're right?

Though hearts of killer whales may weigh a ton,
in every other way they're light.

On this third planet of the sun
among the signs of bestiality
a clear conscience is Number One.

Over the last couple of months I’ve officiated at several weddings. When I do a wedding, it is interesting because I’m up there in front of a bunch of people and most of them I’ll never see again. They don’t have any experience of me, and most of them don’t have any experience of Unitarian Universalism. And, sometimes what happens is that people will come up to me and say things that project onto me ideas about ministers and churches in general, and these ideas don’t really have any connection to how I understand my ministry or our religious community.

Most recently a wedding guest came up to me and began, “Do you know why I don’t go to church.” I didn’t know, but I bet she was going to tell me. “I don’t go to church,” she told me, “Because church is someone telling you what’s right and what’s wrong, and I’m not going to sit there and have anyone tell me how to live my life.”

I politely excused myself as quickly as I could. But, now, I’m a bit curious. What exactly does she do that she is worried that someone will tell her not to do? But, I was also struck by what she thought it was my job to do. On one level, I kind of reject her understanding of the role of the minister. For example, say I run into you in a public place and you’re with your friend. “Oh,” you say to your friend, “I’d like for you to meet Thom. He tells me right from wrong and good from bad and he tells me what to do.” That would be awkward. But, I also would find it awkward for you to say, “I’d like for you to meet Thom. He’s a minister, but don’t worry. He never says a word to anyone about right and wrong or good and bad and he never says anything about how we should live our lives.”

Or, let me put it a slightly different way. Someone who lives in a different area of the country recently shared with me that she attended a discussion group at her Unitarian Universalist church. During the discussion, an older man remarked, “The great thing about the Unitarian church is that it doesn’t interfere with my life.”

I think a lot of people are drawn to Unitarian Universalism because of the freedom that is found here, because of the acceptance, and because nobody will say, “Here are the absolute answers. Here are the final truths. This is what the eternal word of God says.” But, it is also true that this church is a place where we ask questions about morality, attempt to figure out the answers to difficult ethical questions, and increasingly understand that there is an ethical dimension to how we live our lives. And, part of what we might gain here is some assistance with ethical discernment. We might develop a greater moral literacy, by which I mean the ability to read the ethical significance of affairs in the world around us. We might also develop a greater moral fluency, a larger capacity to speak about things of moral importance. And, we might exercise moral imagination and reasoning, the ability to question the way things are and think through significant ethical questions.

In bringing up the subject of morality, I should probably make clear that I don’t think that this is an area where we as a community of individuals are grossly inadequate or deficient or particularly in need of remedial instruction. Most of the time, most of us have a developed sense of right and wrong and good and bad. Our understandings of right and wrong have evolved over time and with experience and are open to the influence of those we trust and love. But, in articulating that sense of right and wrong, we may struggle at times to identify the source of authority.

Not a lot of us here believe that God literally gave Moses stone tablets with commandments chiseled on them. And, because we doubt that it happened this way, all questions about right and wrong will include a second question: on whose authority? The sources of authority we look to, then, are not singular. We find authority in the revelation that comes to individuals and communities and in our own experience of what works to preserve and uphold life. We find authority in the depth of our conscience, in the workings of reason, and in lessons from the humanities, the sciences, and the arts. We find authority in the examples and teachings of great moral figures and in multiple traditions of wisdom from around the world.

Moral fluency, moral literacy, moral reasoning: these are ideas I want to explore with you this morning. And, I want to suggest that moral fluency, and moral literacy, and moral reasoning are especially important because it can be argued that we live in a world that is less morally fluent. When I say that the world is less morally fluent, what exactly do I mean? I don’t mean that people behave worse than they used to. That is not what I’m saying at all. I mean that people are less likely to speak of things as having moral significance.

This idea for this sermon began as a response to an email I received from a member of this church. This member sent me a link to an op-ed piece by the right-leaning New York Times columnist David Brooks. Brooks’ article discusses a recent sociological study that concluded that young people struggle to articulate their thinking about moral issues. To quote from Brooks’ article,
[The researchers] asked about the young people’s moral lives, and the results are depressing.

It’s not so much that these young Americans are living lives of sin and debauchery… What’s disheartening is how bad they are at thinking and talking about moral issues.

The interviewers asked open-ended questions about right and wrong, moral dilemmas and the meaning of life. In the rambling answers, you see the young people groping to say anything sensible on these matters. But they just don’t have the categories or vocabulary to do so.

When asked to describe a moral dilemma they had faced, two-thirds of the young people either couldn’t answer the question or described problems that are not moral at all… "I don't really deal with right and wrong that often," is how one interviewee put it.
I think that Brooks is partially right and that the researchers he cites are partially right. But I also think that the truth is not nearly as bleak as they make it out to be. I do think that there is an increasing tendency to avoid speech that articulates moral principles. And, I think this is unfortunate. And, I think that there are good reasons that this is the case.

Allow me a digression to talk briefly about something that probably seems extraordinarily random: changes that have taken place in conservative political discourse. But, there is a reason why I bring this up, as I will explain shortly.

Conservative political discourse has changed over the course of the past few decades. A few decades ago, even a few years ago, the loudest right wing voices in America belonged to the religious right. In the eighties they were known as the Moral Majority, although both their status as a majority and as moral were dubious. In the nineties, they were known as the Christian Coalition, as the Religious Right. Their leaders spoke in the language of moral absolutism and moral certainty. They shouted condemnations and judgments. It was a movement that was morally repugnant and morally farcical. But then, this movement sort of dropped out of sight. Jerry Falwell died. Pat Robertson got old. James Dobson ran into money problems. Ted Haggard got caught up in a salacious sex scandal. Here in town, Jerry Johnston’s trajectory mimicked that of the movement as a whole. Of course, the dangerous ideas of the religious right are still around and they are still dangerous. Just look at Topeka. People who believe in religious diversity and the separation of church and state will always have to contend with Dominionists and demagogues.

Now, and this is my point, the loudest conservative political voices in America are much less overtly moral in nature. The language used by groups like, say, the Tea Party is not the language of morality. Their explicit goals are presented as amoral or extra-moral. Of course, the effects of their ideas would have significant consequences, consequences that I believe to be immoral and evil, but the discourse about those ideas, by and large, suspends morality as a category worthy of consideration. [Robert Putnam and David Campbell offer a slightly different sociological study of the Tea Party in this piece.]

I spoke about conservative rhetoric first because the opposite end of the spectrum, the religious left in America, has notoriously had a problem with articulating morality. Jim Wallis’ 2006 book God’s Politics: How The Right Gets It Wrong And The Left Doesn’t Get It. Note the subtitle. Wallis picks apart the moral vision put forth by the religious right, calling it shameful, but also condemns the left for being mute on the issue of morality.

Everything I’ve said so far has been painted with broad strokes. I’ve spoken in generalities and there are plenty of exceptions. But, thinking about those researchers who tell us that many in the younger generation struggle to articulate their moral thinking, I’m left to wonder whether this isn’t as much a rejection of the bombastic judgments of the religious right as it is something akin to the communication struggles that have plagued progressive religion and progressive politics.

If you read the actual interviews on which Brooks based his article, you find that they are not always as alarming as Brooks would have us believe. What is behind the moral quietude of these young people? The interviewees seemed cautious about judging other people whom they may not understand. They seemed careful not to express positions that may be insensitive or oppressive to ethnic or cultural minorities. There was questioning and curiosity mixed in with apathy. Moreover, they rejected the rhetoric of absolutism as false and fruitless and ugly. This is not to say that those interviewed always got it right. This is not to say that they don’t have much to learn. This is not to say that greater moral literacy and moral fluency and moral education are not needed.

I have to be honest with you, when given the choice between a red-faced demagogue and a person who practices moral quietude I would often choose the company of the latter. And, at the same time, I have to admit that something is lost in this moral quietude. What is lost is the ability to critique or challenge or resist the dominant cultural narratives around us.

The researchers I spoke of earlier also wrote this about those they interviewed,
We went into this consumerism section of the interviews expecting at least some emerging adults to display a heightened awareness about environmental problems associated with mass consumer economies. We thought we would hear a variety of perspectives, including some “green” and “limits-to-growth” viewpoints… We expected at least some of them to speak critically about the emptiness or dangers of all-out materialism… We also went into our interviews expecting to hear [them] talk about the political or military complications of such dependence on foreign natural resources like oil. And we expected some to emphasize the importance of personal, inward, subjective, or spiritual growth or richness over the material consumption of products. But we heard almost none of that… Soon we were nearly pushing [them] to consider any plausible problematic side to mass consumerism, if they could. They could not.
If spending money is fraught with moral considerations, saving money can be just as morally dangerous. As one minister friend of mine shared in a recent email, monies that are saved and invested, depending on where they’ve been invested, can be used in multiple by financial institutions to provide loans for the predatory lending businesses and other forms of “development” that blight our local communities as well as to create the factories abroad that exploit workers. Banks can use our investments to place bets on whether Greece will go bankrupt. There are enormous moral dimensions to the dominant narratives in which we live.

Polish poet Wislawa Syzmborska, in her poem “In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself,” writes,
On this third planet of the sun
among the signs of bestiality
a clear conscience is Number One.
Moral fluency, moral literacy, moral imagination, moral reasoning. All of these actively resist quietude. All of these muddle the clearness of conscience. They demand that we be more outspoken about our values, to risk offending, to risk speaking.

There is a balance to be found between the zealousness of declaring how other people ought to live their lives and the quietude, indeed the silence, of choosing to avoid “interfering” with anyone else’s life. But, it is necessary to find our way in between. Conscience demands it.

Sermon: "The Spirituality of Civic Engagement" (Delivered 11-6-11)

Those of you who have been attending church for a while know that I was raised as a Unitarian Universalist. And, I mean I was raised as a Unitarian Universalist. From the first day of preschool to the last day of high school I faithfully attended religious education classes almost every Sunday. If they had given an award for best attendance, I probably would have won it. And, what I want to do at the beginning here is kind of reflect on that experience and how it had an impact on me.

Growing up attending a Unitarian Universalist Sunday school I did learn something about the history of Unitarian Universalism and something about the various religions of the world. Two weeks ago, in my sermon on suffering, I told the story of the Buddha’s adolescence and early childhood. The story of the Buddha was something I first learned in elementary school.

But, more important than any story, I also learned a particular approach to religion. I grew up learning that it was okay to ask questions about religion, that I could author my own religious understandings, that the differences between the beliefs and practices of different religions were not threatening, and that differences were worthy of respect. This education was priceless.

Another priceless learning happened in the areas of morality, values, and character. Religion, we learned, didn’t just have to do with what you thought about God or the afterlife. It had something to do with the type of person you were and how you lived your life. So, I learned something about religious stories and traditions. I learned something about how to approach thinking about religion. And, I learned something about what it means to be a good person.

But, that is not all that I learned. Some time ago I found myself asking myself, “How is it that you know what you know about civic participation?” I can tell you what grade I was in when I learned my multiplication tables. And, I can tell you what year in Sunday school we learned about the five pillars of Islam. But, when and where and from whom did I learn about the importance of civic engagement? One textbook defines civic participation in this way,
Civic engagement means working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes.

A morally and civically responsible individual recognizes himself or herself as a member of a larger social fabric and therefore considers social problems to be at least partly his or her own; such an individual is willing to see the moral and civic dimensions of issues, to make and justify informed moral and civic judgments, and to take action when appropriate.
I didn’t learn everything I know about civics at a Unitarian Universalist church, but some portion of what I learned came from serving on committees, working with boards, volunteering, and realizing what it meant to practice care for an institution, a community, and the larger world.

It may interest you to know that the earliest Unitarian churches in America did not refer to their buildings as churches – or congregations or fellowships or societies – but as meetinghouses. The buildings were used for religious services on Sundays and for town meetings when the need for a town meeting arose. (The construction was also paid for with tax dollars, but that is another matter altogether.) What is interesting is that the business of the town and the business of the church were conducted in virtually the same fashion. Our annual congregational meetings look a whole lot like New England town meetings.

Our guest speaker on October 30 (Rev. Bobbie Groth) shared the fascinating history of the earliest Unitarians in Kansas. These activists literally risked life and limb to keep Kansas a free state. That was certainly one kind of civic engagement. You find stories that are equally amazing though far less dramatic in many other cities. In places like St. Louis, St. Paul, and Portland, Oregon, Unitarians played a leading role in establishing all of the important civic organizations, everything from the public school systems, universities, and libraries, to parks and museums, to various organizations that provided public services related to health and well-being.

This legacy of building social capital is not just something that our religious forebears did in the nineteenth century. My mentor, John Buehrens, recounts a visit he made as president of our movement to a Unitarian Universalist church in a mid-sized city. He met with a group of women from the church who told him that had been the largest city in the United States without a Planned Parenthood – well, at least until they started one!

Now, Unitarianism may be better known today if those people in St. Louis, St. Paul, Portland, and Lawrence, Kansas, had named all of their institutions after their faith. Alas, they also had humility. But, the important thing to note is that the building of these secular social institutions was the expression of a theological idea and a spiritual value. They believed that the arts and public education and public parks and social services that provide for the common good ought to be funded and protected. This is a sentiment that is much in need right now.

I want to talk about two books that offer troubling observations about the current state of civic engagement in our society. A decade ago Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. His study documented the decline of membership and participation in civic organizations. In an appendix he lists forty civic and professional organizations, everything from 4H to the Knights of Columbus to Parent Teacher Associations to the American Medical Association. All of these organizations were formed in the early decades of the twentieth century. All of them saw membership spikes in the 1950s and 60s. And, all of them have seen significant decreases in membership over the last three decades. Today parents are less than half as likely to participate in a Parent Teacher Association as they were forty years ago. Today professionals are much less likely to belong to professional associations in their field than they were in the 1960s.

On to book number two. Just a few weeks ago, a team of social scientists led by Christian Schmidt of Notre Dame University, released a book entitled Lost in Transition, a study of the lives and struggles of young adults aged 18-23. The researchers write,
Democracy requires the active political participation of its people. A thriving republic depends upon its citizens becoming civically informed and active in order to exercise the informed public stewardship needed to sustain communities of responsibility and freedom… Any thriving human life, by most accounts, requires some participation in civic life, extending oneself beyond one’s private world to participate in broader communities and public institutions. By doing so, people have the chance to learn more about the larger world, connect relationally with different kinds of people, consider how to build shared lives together that benefit all, and personally contribute to the well-being of others.
The researchers continue, writing,
Most [young people] are either alienated from or despairing of public life in various ways, or maintain only tenuous connections to actual civic or political involvements.
And, if observations like these are true, it is mostly a case of the acorn not falling all that far from the tree. Putnam shows how rates of civic participation have been decreasing steadily for decades and decades. In searching for information and statistics on voting, the best sources I could find show that rates of voter participation have been slowly decreasing over the past forty years and were already decreasing even before today’s young people were born.

During midterm elections, less than one out of five of eligible voters votes in the primary. Twice that number, just over forty percent of eligible voters, votes in the midterm general elections. Or, put another way, eighty percent of those eligible to vote fail to vote in primaries. Sixty percent of those eligible to vote fail to vote in midterm elections. And, at least forty percent of those eligible to vote fail to vote in presidential elections.

Consider these extremely disparate images. Last week in our worship service we heard about families from Massachusetts who chose to move into a virtual warzone over 1,000 miles away in order to advocate for their deeply held abolitionist beliefs. This week we hear about people who cannot be bothered to vote. A century ago they created school systems from scratch in frontier cities; today they are less likely than ever to belong to a Parent Teacher Association.

On the subject of civic and political disengagement, the authors of Lost in Transition make this telling observation. They write,
We… find a statistically significant correlation among the [young people] we interviewed between enthusiasm for mass consumerism and lack of interest in political participation. The more [they] are into consumerism, the less they are into politics and civic engagement…

More profoundly at issue are their very visions of what a human self and society are and ought to look like. The ideology and practice of mass consumerism reshapes people – their fundamental visions of who and what they are – not into active citizens but acquisitive consumers. Society itself is transformed not into a rich network of various sorts of communities and social institutions that together comprise a civil society and promotes human flourishing, but rather a national mega-supermarket of endless products and services.

What disappears with the cultural takeover of mass consumerism are shared social identities, organic communities of solidarity, the civic virtues of duty and responsibility, and the learned processes of public deliberation, consensus building, and conflict resolution. What takes their place instead are individual-preference formation, acquisitive materialism, entertainment, and the sating of desires.
I want to ask us to hold onto the phrase, “a rich network of various sorts of communities and social institutions.” Wendell Berry, the great American writer and environmental activist, once wrote, “There is, in practice, no such thing as autonomy. Practically, there is only a distinction between responsible and irresponsible dependence.”

On the back cover of your order service you’ll find what you find every week, the seven principles of the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association. These principles hold in dynamic tension our own individual freedoms and our larger responsibilities toward one another, our society, and our world.

The seventh principle, “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part,” usually evokes images of nature. If I ask you to imagine an interdependent web you might think of ecosystems, food chains, the carbon cycle, the water cycle, the cycles of seasons, and so on. I think these environmental understandings are a part, an important part, of the seventh principle, but that the seventh principle also speaks to the interdependence of human beings in human society. It speaks to systems of health care, social services, government, and education. It speaks to financial systems and markets. Indeed, what Wendell Berry says is true, “There is, in practice, no such thing as autonomy. Practically, there is only a distinction between responsible and irresponsible dependence.”

In the architecture of the New England meetinghouse there was little difference between civic engagement and faith. On the Kansas frontier there was little difference between civic engagement and faith. In the building of cities there was little difference between civic engagement and faith. May you go forth aware that civic engagement is an expression of spirituality, that autonomy is a myth, and that we are called to practice “responsible dependence” within the interdependent web.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Lions 1, Christians 0: A Minister Reflects on Tim Tebow

On Sundays in the fall I believe in keeping a strict divide between the sacred and the secular. Sunday mornings are for spiritual pursuits, for leading worship, prayer, and celebration. Sunday afternoons are set aside for profane pursuits, for dozing on the couch while NFL games are on the television. Now, along comes Tim Tebow whose presence seems to demand that I introduce religious thought into my secular act of football watching.

At the end of this essay (section 4) I’m going to write about why I don’t like mixing football and theology. But before I do let me give a little bit of background information about Tebow for those who don’t follow football.

1. Background Information (for those who don’t follow football)
Tim Tebow is, for now, the starting quarterback for the Denver Broncos, one of the worst teams in the NFL. Tebow went to college at the University of Florida where he won a Heisman trophy and a pair of National Championships. He was a first round draft pick (25th overall) for the Broncos in the 2010 NFL draft. He spent most of his rookie season riding the pine but was given a chance to start at the end of last season once Denver had locked up last place in the truly mediocre NFL West. He did absolutely nothing during that time to distinguish himself as a future star.

Tebow started this football season on the bench once more. After 5 games, and with Denver again racing towards the bottom of the league, Tebow was given the chance to start. In his first game he played three and a half quarters of terrible football, but he did orchestrate an excellent fourth quarter comeback and overtime win. It should be noted that this victory came against the putrid Miami Dolphins, a team that very well may be trying to lose all of its games so that it can draft Stanford’s Andrew Luck in the 2012 NFL draft. (Luck is regarded as a once-in-a-generation football talent. He is so good and so coveted that some think multiple NFL teams will try to lose all their games this season in order to try to win the right to draft him. The strategy is commonly known as “suck for Luck.”)

Tebow, of course, is more than just a bad quarterback playing for a lousy team. He is more than just another in a long line of college superstars whose game did not convert to professional football. Tebow is a cultural icon, a bigger-than-life brand whose every move is deemed worthy of headlines on ESPN.

Tebow is an evangelical Christian and is very public about his faith. While dominating the college game at Florida, Tebow gained fame for wearing black stickers under his eyes with Bible verses written on the stickers.

Before he was even drafted, Tim Tebow made headlines in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl. He appeared in a Super Bowl commercial paid for by Focus on the Family, a right wing Christian organization. The vaguely anti-abortion commercial spot featured Tebow’s mom talking about how she had a medically challenging pregnancy, but her son turned out to be a football star.

2. Tebow as Culture Phenomenon, Icon, and Idol
The Tebow phenomenon is not really about Tebow. It isn’t about football. Somehow, perversely, Tebow has become a symbol of the relevance and significance of evangelical Christianity in American culture. This is much more than I want to think about while dozing on the couch on Sunday afternoon. Grantland writer Brian Phillips only half-jokingly commented, “Somewhere within all our reptilian hearts lurks an instinct for trial-by-combat. This instinct tells us that when a person is strongly associated with an idea, we can use that person's success or failure within the sphere of competitive athletics as a legitimate indication of the quality of the idea… As a result, it's basically impossible not to see Tebow's ability or inability to complete a 15-yard out pattern to Matt Willis as a referendum on the Book of Deuteronomy.”

That may seem completely absurd, but fans have certainly attached enormous significance to the player. He has the bestselling jersey among any player in the league, unheard of for a player who is a second-stringer at best. Fans in Denver literally purchased billboard space demanding that Tebow be allowed to start. They weren’t rooting for a player as much as they were rooting for an idea. The idea was that Tebow is entitled to play. He is a clean cut kid whose faith says that “all things are possible to him who believes.” (Mark 9:23) And, it seems as though his fans really do believe that that he has been chosen and anointed for success on the football field despite all of his human limitations as a player.

Hollywood could not have scripted a better start for him. The Broncos comeback against the Dolphins was labeled “the Miami Miracle.” Tebow marked the victory by kneeling in prayer, bowing his head, and pressing his fist against his forehead – imagine Rodin’s “The Thinker,” just with the fist against the forehead instead of under the chin. Was Tebow’s pose earnest or was it premeditated? Only Tim knows for sure, but there will always be skeptics. It might be noted that with the right amount of pressure from the fist, your face will wince in pain making the prayer seem a lot more intense and sincere.

Even this pose became culturally significant. Over the course of the last week, “Tebowing” became an internet sensation with people tweeting pictures of themselves kneeling in prayer in all sorts of random locations. So grew the myth of St. Tebow.

Well, at least until Sunday. On Sunday there would be no second coming of the miracle in Miami. On Sunday the Broncos hosted the reeling Detroit Lions and the game was a slaughter. The Lions embarrassed the Broncos, winning 45 to 10. Tebow didn’t lose the game all by himself, but he certainly contributed to the blowout loss, playing the quarterback position as ineptly and abysmally as anyone in recent memory. Some of the Lions players even decided to show him up. One Lions defender sacked Tebow and celebrated by striking his iconic pose as he lay crumpled on the ground. Another Lions player Tebowed in the end zone after scoring a touchdown. Lions haven't treated a Christian this badly since the days of the Roman Coliseum!

3. Cold, Hard Football Facts
Before I conclude with some reflections about Tebow and theology, let me just say a few words about Tebow the football player. Tebow was, without a doubt, one of the great college players of all time. However, for a number of reasons, success in college does not necessarily translate into success in the pros.

The college game is extremely diverse with teams adopting innovative styles. Georgia Tech runs the triple option. Oregon runs the blur. Teams use the statue of liberty play and the hook and ladder. On a drive late in last Sunday’s game between Stanford and USC, Stanford utilized the wildcat formation and had Andrew Luck run a naked bootleg. The conservative NFL, meanwhile, prizes homogeneity. The players are too fast and too disciplined for strategies like these to work.

Tebow is far from the only Heisman trophy winner – an award given to college football’s most outstanding player – to not project as much of a quarterback in the NFL. Oklahoma’s Jason White won the award following the 2003 season and went undrafted. He never played in the NFL. Option quarterback Eric Crouch won the Heisman following the 2001 season and was drafted in the middle rounds by the St. Louis Rams. The Rams hoped to convert him into a backup wide receiver. Crouch retired before he ever played a game in the NFL. (Arkansas’ Matt Jones was another star college quarterback who was drafted to play as a wide receiver.) Andre Ware, Ty Detmer, Gino Torretta, and Danny Wuerffel all had underwhelming NFL careers. 1993 winner Charlie Ward elected to play professional basketball instead of football.

Each year there are several highly regarded players who are busts. And Tebow was not highly regarded as a "can't miss" NFL star.

4. Theology and Tim Tebow
The information I’ve shared above strongly indicates that it would be idiotic to draw any conclusions about Christianity from Tebow’s performance on the field. To do so would be the very definition of idolatry. Tebow’s performance is not a referendum on God’s truth or power. Those who want to make it such a referendum are setting themselves up for a significant disappointment.

The NFL is full of committed Christians. Of the 2,000 or so players who will play in the NFL this year, we can conservatively guess that hundreds of them are devout Christians. Kurt Warner, a very successful quarterback, used to attribute his success on the field to God. Which begs the question: when a safety missed a tackle on Torry Holt or when a cornerback failed to cover Isaac Bruce, was God causing those players to fail? Surely, Warner scored many touchdowns against defensive players who were devoutly Christian.

If an individual’s success on the football field is a part of God’s plan, then are the horrific injuries on the football field – concussions, spinal cord injuries resulting in paralysis, broken bones – also a part of God’s plan? What about the child who goes to sleep hungry in the neighborhood next to the stadium? What about all of the cumulative suffering in the cities of Gainesville, or Miami, or Denver? If God had a design for the play that sends Tebow’s team to victory, did God also design the trajectory of the stray bullet that killed the child during the drive-by shooting?

These questions trouble me. I would prefer not to think about them while watching football on a Sunday afternoon. In fact, what I find profoundly soothing is that the game is a game. It is a diversion, a spectacular and restful diversion. The outcome really doesn’t matter. One team will win and the other will lose and it won’t matter.

We’re surrounded by things that do matter. This is true for me as a minister and it is true for all of us. We face questions of life’s meaning and death’s meaning. We face the reality of pain and suffering. We face struggles and challenges. We ask questions about what it means to live lives of integrity and purpose. We wrestle with big issues. And, on Sunday afternoons for a few months during the fall, it is nice to enjoy a respite from these troubling thoughts. Play the game and don’t try to tell me it means anything.

When I think about mixing football and religion I can't help but remember the unfortunate case of Reggie White. Reggie White played in the 80s and 90s for the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers. He was one of the greatest defensive football players of all time. He was also a Christian minister and his nickname was "the minister of defense." Unfortunately, White's great play on the field was diminished by an address he gave to Wisconsin legislature, a thoroughly ignorant and bigoted speech that was homophobic and also full of disgusting racial stereotypes. Not only is there a separation of church and state issue here, but I think there is also a separation of religion and football issue. White's celebrity as a football player has no religious or theological bearing. I don't show up and demand to diagram football plays. I'll stick to what I'm good at.