We have a very good football team at Fitzgerald High School this year; the Purple Hurricanes are 6-0 and ranked No. 2 in the Georgia AA classification. Head Coach Robbie Pruitt and several of the players are members of the church that I serve as pastor. We have good reason to be proud of the manner in which they conduct themselves.
Last Friday night, during a home contest with region rivals, the Berrien County Rebels, a young man named R. J. Davis caught a touchdown pass and, before handing the ball to the referee, pointed his index finger toward the sky. As a yellow flag fluttered to the ground beside him, I turned to my wife and said, “Well, that’s an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against us.”
I remember thinking that it was unwarranted; it was a very quick gesture by Davis and it did not seem designed to draw inordinate attention to himself or to taunt the opposing team.
It was not until the following Wednesday, when I learned that a crew from WALB-TV, the NBC affiliate in Albany, Ga., had arrived at Fitzgerald High School, which is, incidentally, right next door to our church campus, that I found out that the player’s gesture had religious significance.
As it turns out, Davis’ gesture was intended to glorify God; he was pointing toward heaven as a way of thanking God for the good thing that had happened to him. He said in the interview that was aired on WALB‘s 6 p.m. broadcast on Oct. 14 that he pointed upward “to give God thanks” for allowing him to “be open in the first place.”
I do not know Davis personally; folks who do know him affirm that he is a fine young man and that his religious convictions are sincere.
There are some who would say, I know, that God is neither interested nor involved in whether or not a football player catches a touchdown pass, such legendary football terminology as the “Hail Mary” and the “Immaculate Reception” notwithstanding.
I suppose they have a point, given that we would probably prefer that the Almighty give attention to such slightly more important matters as hunger, war, poverty, disease and injustice than to the outcome of a football play or a football game, even if a school with a name like Trinity or St. Pius or Notre Dame – or even Ouachita Baptist – is involved.
Besides, some would say – and again, I guess they have a point – what kind of theological crisis might be created if we were compelled to conclude that God directed the path of the Fitzgerald High School receiver more than God directed the path of the Berrien County defensive back and that, by implication, God favored the Fitzgerald team over the Berrien County squad?
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It is true that the Bible speaks often of God’s mysterious choosing of one over another or favoring of one over another – Jacob over Esau and David over everybody, for examples – but do we really want to extend the theology of divine election to sports teams, as in “Fitzgerald I loved, but Berrien I hated?” I would think not. On the other hand – no, really, we don’t want to go there.
There is another way to look at it. Should we not be pleased that a Christian young person – that any Christian person – acknowledges and takes seriously the fact that God is somehow involved in all the moments and in all the events of his life?
This particular young man does not worship with our congregation. If he did, he would sometimes hear me say that if God is indeed God then God is God in every aspect of our lives. He would assume – rightly, I think – that God is a football player’s God on the football field just like God is a doctor’s God in the operating room or a teacher’s God in the classroom or a farmer’s God in the field.
That does not mean, of course, that God micromanages the routes the player runs any more than it means that God micromanages every cut that the surgeon makes or every word that the teacher says or every furrow that the farmer plows. However, it surely does mean that somehow God is present and involved in every step that they all take.
It is absolutely appropriate, then, that the Christian praise God in all things because God is in fact God in all things.
That means, though, that God would have also been God if Davis had dropped the ball or if he had twisted his ankle and even if – God forbid! – our team had lost the game. And doesn’t it mean that God was God when the referee, who may be a fine Christian middle-aged man, too, for all I know, threw that flag when that fine Christian young man pointed his finger toward heaven?
Somehow God is in it all.
Sound theology – not to mention sound living and maybe even sound football – requires such nuances in perspective.
Maybe that’s a lesson we can all learn from the night that God got flagged in Fitzgerald.