To Tebow or Not to Tebow

            Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow has become famous (some would say notorious!) for kneeling down and giving thanks to God when he makes a successful play on the field. Tebow’s gridiron praise of God has contributed a new verb to the American language–tebowing. His example has been followed by many young people.

            Tebow is not, of course, the first player in a sport to give glory to God. In the 1988 baseball season, Dodgers pitcher Orel Herschiser knelt at the pitcher’s mound after winning the decisive game in the National League Championship Series; he repeated his gesture of worship after pitching the Dodgers to victory in the World Series. I remember, too, when the Mets won the World Series in 1986, the first words out of Gary Carter’s mouth were, “I’d like to thank Jesus Christ!” Yankee ace reliever Mariano Rivera gave an interview to The Sporting News a few years ago in which he basically said that he turns the ball over to God when he throws, and that any success he achieves is really God’s success. So Tebow’s bringing faith onto the field is nothing really new.

            But for some reason, Tebow’s gestures have captured the imagination of many people. In our internet age, innumerable fans have posted online pictures of themselves tebowing–indeed, 20,000 people from all seven continents (including, apparently, Antarctica) have submitted photos to the most popular tebowing site.

            In our world, where religion often causes division, Tebow’s public expressions of faith raise the ire of some. Tebow’s fiercest critic is a late-night talk show host who is famous for his atheism. This TV personality has been savage and profane in his treatment of the quarterback. (There must be some kind, gentle, loving atheists out there, but apparently they don’t write books or host TV shows). Nor is the practice of tebowing universally appreciated: Two high school players were savagely beaten after they tebowed at a game in South Carolina.

            While many of Tebow’s critics are unbelievers, some are Christians--believers who feel that the quarterback isn’t living up to Christ’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven...When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret...” (Matthew 6:1, 6).Jesus is here criticizing a kind of show-off religion that says: “Look at me! See how holy I am!” I don’t, however, sense that Tebow’s prayer falls into this category. I think it’s actually an humble gesture–Tebow is not exulting in his own talent, but is acknowledging the ultimate source of that talent. He’s not trumpeting, “I’m the best!”, but He’s declaring that God is the best.

            The same Jesus who tells us to pray in secret also tells us to display our faith to the world: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden...Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14,16)) The statements “pray in secret” and “shine your light” almost sound contradictory, but they’re not. They basically are telling us not to glorify ourselves, but to glorify God. Christ does not want us to make a show of our religion–but He does want us to witness to the world about His goodness. There’s a fine line here. When we wear a cross, we’re not saying to the world, “Look what a good and holy person I am!”–rather, we are saying, “Look at the Saviour who died for you!” When we pray before eating at a restaurant, we’re not saying, “Hey, other customers, we’re better than you!”–rather, we’re saying, “We should all appreciate God for the good food He gives us.” And I’m sure that when Tebow tebows, he’s not saying, “See what a holy guy I am!”–rather, he’s saying, “All good things come from God, including outstanding football plays!”

             It should be noted that praying to God does not guarantee victory. Tebow and the Broncos fell to the Patriots the weekend before last (probably so that the Giants fans at St. Paul’s wouldn’t have to root against him at this year’s SuperBowl Party). A columnist asked concerning that game, “When Tim Tebow Loses, Does God Lose?” Of course not. God does not have a “favorite team”. The Patriot players, too, have plenty of God-given talent (as, of course, do the Giants!) The spirituality of sports is not, ultimately, about victory–it’s about using the skill and strength that God gives. When Rocky kneels before his climactic fight, he’s not praying to win–he’s praying to “go the distance”, to simply be on his feet at the end of the last round. A friend once found General Patton kneeling in prayer before a polo match. “Were you praying for a win?” asked the friend. “No,” Patton said, “I was praying to do my best.” 

            So Tebow’s absence from the SuperBowl this year isn’t a defeat for Christ. But certainly his willingness to give God credit publically is a victory for Christ, who tells us not to hide our light under a bushel!

            God loves you and so do I!

            Go Giants!

(Correction from last month: Christopher Hitchens’ book on religion is titled God Is Not Great, not God Is Not Good.)

Vol. 83 - No. 2
FEB 2012