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Carpenter’s Line - The Super Bowl and Immoral Prayer

by Steve Carpenter

I was one of an estimated 56 million Americans who watched history being made at Super Bowl XLI. For the first time an African American head coach’s team played in the world championship game. Ironically, both Tony Dungy for the Indianapolis Colts and Lovie Smith, head coach for the Chicago Bears, are African Americans. They are also both professing Christians. Coach Dungy in particular is known for his squeaky clean and soft spoken approach, which contrasts sharply with professional football’s loud, crass and mean persona.

The Colts won the game 29 to 17. In his postgame remarks Dungy, whose team trailed by 8 points early in the game said, “It was a storm. Sometimes the Lord doesn’t take you straight through; you have to fight for it.” He went on to say, “…we are not only both African American but Christian coaches, doing it the Lord’s way.”

Although Dungy acknowledged God in his victory speech, he didn’t go as far as to say God was on his side. However, his comments got me thinking. Does the Lord help us win Super Bowl victories? At a more mundane level: Does God help us find a parking space? Does he give us an advantage over other people, who are not Christians, or at least aren’t praying for the parking space or sports victory we want? As children of God, born into His family through Jesus Christ, I know He loves us and wants what is best for us. Kathleen Norris, in her delightful little book The Quotidian Mysteries writes, “The Bible is full of evidence that God’s attention is indeed fixed on the little things…simply because He loves us—loves us so much that the divine presence is revealed even in the meaningless work of daily life.”

One dilemma is that we often do not know what is best. Many pray for things that aren’t good for them. For example, sometimes those who win the state lottery are unable to handle their sudden and superabundant wealth. Their marriages, families and their very lives can be ruined by what they earnestly desired.

Another is that people are woefully prone toward self deception. In the realm of discernment the Holy Spirit, our own human spirit and a deceptive evil spirit often vie for influence. As a result, we too often look out for our own comfort, safety and pleasure while God is concerned with the development of our character and faith. Our view is earth bound while the Sovereign Lord of the universe has an eternal perspective.

In January I began studies at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. Reading portions of John Westerhoff’s Spiritual Life, I was struck by his thinking about prayer, particularly his concept of immoral prayer. Westerhoff, a former Duke University Divinity School professor, declares prayer must “…aid us to grow in relationship to God.” He contends that prayer has both theological and moral elements, “If our prayers are aiding us to grow in relationship to a god—an ultimate reality—such as economic success, which is not God, then our praying cannot be theologically justified.” Could our prayers for sports victories, promotions and parking spaces be aiding us in our growing relationship with worldly success and not God?

Westerhoff goes on to explain prayer’s moral component, “If, for example, a person hears a fire truck coming down the street and prays, “God, may it not be my house,” that person is uttering an immoral prayer because he or she is willing it to be someone else’s house. It would be better to pray, “God, may it be my house, but may no one be hurt.” This is the essence of my complaint against those who pray only for “our troops” without also praying for the Iraqi people who are dying in much greater numbers than American soldiers. Yes, pray for the troops but pray too for all affected by the atrocities of war.

I have the utmost respect for coach Dungy. I suspect that if I could ask him directly I would find out that he, like other wise coaches, prays not for victory, but that each of the players on both sides of the field might play to their potential and be kept from injury. Congratulations on your championship coach, you earned it.