This past Sunday we witnessed a miracle on gridiron. A nearly 40 years old, relentlessly battered quarterback took his team from a 25-point deficit through a quick series of drives that culminated in earning the team, New England Patriots, their fifth Superbowl trophy.
At half-time, it seemed like it was almost over. At the score mark of 28 : 3 in the third quarter, it looked completely impossible. At that point, many people tuned off their TV sets to avoid witnessing the complete embarrassment. And those who did that missed the most improbable comeback in the history of NFL Superbowls.
As I was looking at the football field when it was all over, with members of opposing teams shaking each others’ hands (a sight sorely missed in today’s politics), and as tri-color confetti began to obscure the view, a sudden realization dawned on me. The next day I checked a few headlines, and my initial hunch was confirmed. The miracle didn’t happen on the football field. The real miracle happened in the locker room at half-time. While Lady Gaga was serving the public her warm, magnanimous, above-the-fracas entertainment magic (I don’t listen much to her music, but I found her half-time performance well-choreographed and tasteful), something very deep and dramatic was happening in Patriot’s locker room. (Let’s reclaim the phrase “locker room talk” for its lofty and legitimate purposes, shall we?)
Coach Belichick is not just an unparalleled coach. He’s also an unparalleled persuader, and a man of real faith as far as his trade is concerned. He can do what very few others in his role can do as well as he does. He knows how to get his athletes to believe in themselves, and how to instill faith in the power of well-practiced tightly-knit teamwork. Like – really believe, in a way that shows in real life. Because on gridiron, bullshit doesn’t really fly – except maybe in your own face.
Past Sunday, however, he was faced with a unique challenge. At the 18-point deficit, he had to persuade the team to forget the embarrassment and the dispiriting failure of the first half of their most important game of the year. He had to persuade them to not look behind at Deflategate, which was another self-inflicted and still festering wound. Instead, he got the team to believe in their identity as being the best, the fiercest, and the most prepared team in the NFL. And in their destiny as being champions, Superbowl 2017 winners. He managed to do it in such a way that when the Patriots got back out on the field and instead of turning things around they suffered yet another 7 points scored against them – it didn’t break their faith. It only made their resolve firmer. And what happened next is history in the most real sense of the world.
I don’t know about you, but I see plenty of Gospel parallels here. Getting people to believe in themselves, in their unique identity, and erasing a sense of past failures is what the Gospel is all about. It’s not about being sin-conscious doormats, as medievally-rooted religion would have us believe. It’s about being son- (and daughter-) conscious, love-conscious, mission-conscious, and victory-conscious. Apostle Peter says that not remembering our old failures is exactly what makes it possible to move beyond old failure points (2 Peter 1:9). Sins are dealt with once and for all on the cross, so that we can look past them and remember them no more. Ever.
God didn’t come on earth to convince us that we are unworthy. On the contrary – he came to tell us that we are his children, who were lost maybe – but who were still dear to him in every way. He came to tell us that we each have a unique identity, an amazing destiny, and that when we are together – nothing that we ask shall ever be withheld from us. We can win our own superbowls in life in a way that will be forever etched in the history of our families and our communities. And eventually and cumulatively, all those victories will uniquely shape the history of this world – something that no NFL Superbowl can even lay claim to.
Much territory has been given to the enemy of humankind on the gridiron of life throughout history. From a certain perspective, 20th century was one of the darkest in human history, with two world wars, over 140 million dead during wartimes, and ultra-right Nazism and ultra-left Communism pulling the world apart. Nazism fell apart, then did Communism (largely), only to be followed by waves of terrorism which ushered us into the 21st century. And in 2016-2017, we have seen many self-purported guardians of morality in the U.S. vacillate in their convictions and heavily compromise on their once “absolute” values in the name of political expediency.
But as we have seen – it doesn’t really matter what it looks like on the outside. The question is – who is talking to us in our locker room, away from all the brouhaha? Are we even listening to the right coach? Does our coach believe in us, in our destiny? Are we letting him train us into the best version of what we can be? Are we finding others like ourselves, with burning hearts, with fire shut up in their bones, with voices ready to stand for the truth of the Gospel, with ideas that seem too crazy for most? Above religion, politics, and any ethnic or national divides?
We were never told to watch others play “king of the hill” (or “king of the platform”, to be more accurate). Each one of us is instructed to run the race of life as if there’s only one winner in the end:
1 Corinthians 9:24-27 The Message (MSG)
24-25 You’ve all been to the stadium and seen the athletes race. Everyone runs; one wins. Run to win. All good athletes train hard. They do it for a gold medal that tarnishes and fades. You’re after one that’s gold eternally.
26-27 I don’t know about you, but I’m running hard for the finish line. I’m giving it everything I’ve got. No sloppy living for me! I’m staying alert and in top condition. I’m not going to get caught napping, telling everyone else all about it and then missing out myself.
That’s real faith. That’s the way of Jesus. That’s what I want, and I am seeing more and more glimpses of it, and I am connecting with a few others on the same path. I am not interested in auditioning for a marching band. I want to play some friggin’ BALL!! I don’t want a participation ribbon for being a faithful pew-warmer for the past 5, 10, 25, 40 years. I don’t want a pennant for being the most enthusiastic hallelujaher and amener, a black belt of the art of keying my vocal exclamations to the right intonation patterns in preachers’ voices.
Here’s why I am saying all this. I want to look myself in the eyes in the mirror in the morning with deep unshakable confidence, knowing that the man looking back at me is the best version of me there can be, with all the training and coaching that’s been poured into it. I don’t wan’t to be the Tom Brady of following Jesus. There’s only one Tom Brady, and he is a football player. Thank God for this man and his example of passion, discipline, and resiliency, but let’s not make ourselves idols out of people. I want to be the best version of ME living, breathing, and walking our Jesus who I know is already in me. And I know most of you do too, but you just don’t know how to get there. And that’s where the training comes in, and that’s one huge missing piece in today’s mass-marketed Christianity.
Very few of us have Bill Belichicks of following Jesus available to us, who could take us through the training and the playbook (and there are really too few good, time-tested programs where coaches of that caliber would be trained in the first place.) In the meantime, we can simply learn to do those things directly from God, exchange our experience with one another, train ourselves in those disciplines, and then share this knowledge with others younger in the faith. Someone has to do it, so why not me and you?