[This was supposed to be a quick hit about Tim Tebow and praying. It's a bit more of a ramble. But, hopefully it makes some sense. If you want a more organized (but, even longer) take on this subject, check out http://rabbipaul.blogspot.com/2007/10/can-we-pray-that-red-sox-win-world.html]
There's been a good amount of talk in the popular press, and a great deal more in religious circles, about Tim Tebow and his religiosity, especially as it relates to sports. As I'm sure you know (and if you don't, where the heck have you been?) Tim Tebow is the quarterback of the Denver Broncos, and he is a deeply religious Christian. He is also extremely open about his religion–he speaks publicly about it, used to write religious references on the black-tape under his eyes, and most famously regularly kneels down for an obvious moment of prayer during games (a practice which has become known, and often mocked, as “Teodowing.”)
This has led to a rash of discussions of (among others topics) whether it is appropriate to ever pray at a sporting event. I'm not so much interested in the “I'm offended if you intrude on my Sunday sports watching with a religious moment” approach. Live and let live, I say, and if someone wants to pray while the camera happens to be on them, or someone wants to take out an ad for a religious organization or issue, even one with which I strongly disagree, more power to them. That's what it means to live in a free society, and that's why we talk about “the marketplace of ideas.”
No, what's interesting to me is the theological/philosophical question about whether it's appropriate to pray to God at these times. The arguments against this practice are (like everything else, it seems, these days) often offered sarcastically: Do you really think that God is a [insert your least-favorite sports team here] fan? Don't you think that God has bigger things to worry about than whether a field goal go through the rights or not? Why would you waste your prayers on something as silly as a sporting event?
I'll admit to agreeing with the sentiment behind the first of those—no matter what you believe about God, it seems to me to be ridiculous to think that God will favor one team over another. If for no other reason than the obvious fact that whenever a bunch of people are praying for one team to win, a roughly equal number are praying for the other team. Unless you're going to assume that God does some kind of headcount, or some slightly more involved measure of combined spiritual intensity (“well, Giants fans have reached 9.7 on the prey-oh-meter, but Packers fans only mounted a 9.2…”), it just doesn't make any logical sense to believe that God will directly influence the game in favor of one team over another. Maybe it's the computer geek in me, but the math just doesn't work out.
But, at the same time I have to admit that those other objections ring hollow to me. Don't get me wrong—I don't believe that God influences games directly. But, if you believe in a God who can, and does, directly influence events here on earth, then why is it impossible to believe that God would use that influence on sporting events? I mean, I assume that God doesn't have a limit on available influence, or on attention span. God could influence the flight of a football while having absolutely zero impact on God's ability to influence the progress of a drought or other natural disaster. There should be, almost by definition, I would think, nothing which is so small as to be irrelevant to God. We're told (I can't remember where I read this, but I can't find it…) that a gnat doesn't beat its wings on earth without God taking notice on high. If God can influence anything, God can influence everything. Right?
But, what if God can't influence anything? What is the point of prayer isn't to change the world, but rather to change the pray-er?
In the book of Deuteronomy were told that one of the great spiritual dangers of life: the belief that we are responsible for what we have accomplished. It was looking around and saying, “Look at what I've accomplished with my own hands.” Because, one of the great religious truths of life is that we have accomplished nothing solely with our own hands. We are a messy mass of dependencies, and everything that we do—absolutely everything—was accomplished only because of others. And, ultimately, because of the One who lies behind it all, about whom we know almost nothing, but without whom there would be nothing. For me, and for many Jewish sages, a prayer of “thanks” is not a statement about cause and effect. It's not saying that I think that God stepped in and altered the flow of history in some small or large way, the way that I thank someone who does a favor for me, here on earth. For me, a prayer of “thanks” is a prayer of humility. It's a prayer of perspective. It's a reminder that I can't take very much credit, if any at all, for anything that I accomplish. It's a reminder to think about the intricate web of connections which led to the possibility of me doing the final act in an infinitely long chain which led to some result.
Do you like this blog post? If so, I'm glad, and I'll admit that that makes me a little proud. But, if we're going to get thoughtful about this for a moment, it's easy to think of endless number of people and things upon which I was dependent to write this. We can bring up the teachers who taught me all the ideas contained here (since not one of them is original to me). We can think of the people who wrote the software which I'm using to write this. We can think of my parents who—among 1 billion other things—had me. We can think of the soldiers in the American Revolution who gave us the country in which I grew up—a country which allowed me to pursue my education, and to watch football. We can think about the first animals who crawled out of the sea (an event which Rabbi Arthur Green refers to as the greatest act of bravery in history) to allow land-based creatures to develop. I could literally spend this entire day writing this blog, rambling on about all the things about which I can think which had to happen in order to give me the opportunity to ramble on.
I very much don't believe in a God who intervenes in the world. I don't believe in a God who chooses whether to heal someone, protect someone, or grant some success, based on the beauty, intensity, or quantity of their prayers. But I've talked to some people who do believe in that kind of a God, and at least some of them will still tell you that the kind of humility that I am describing here is a purpose, if not the purpose, of prayer. Not to change God, but to change ourselves.
It's pretty obvious that Tebow believes in a personal, active, intercessionary God. But, because I've never heard him speak about it, I have no idea if, when he kneels, he's asking for specific things, or merely trying to get in touch with his own humility. And, you know what? I don't really care. What matters to me is not going on when he prays, but when I pray. And when I pray, I thank God for everything in my life. Even the things I did myself.