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!