Friday, February 4, 2011

Is it wrong to pray for Super Bowl win?

On Sunday, before the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers face off in Super Bowl XLV, the two teams and their fans will likely pray and ask God to, in essence, rig the game in their favor.

But does God care who wins?

Prayer is the mechanism used to communicate with the Almighty. While God is omniscient (all-knowing), he desires that we make petitions to him so we can develop a relationship and reaffirm our dependence on him.

Theists believe God is omnipotent (all-powerful). Miracles — inexplicable phenomena that defy the laws of nature — are attributed to divine intervention. Therefore, people of faith believe God is capable of manipulating the outcome of any event. If he does not, it is not because he is unable, but because he chose not to do so.

Christians believe God hears our prayers. Jesus said in Matthew, “If you believe, you will receive, whatever you ask for in prayer.” But the Bible points to several reasons prayers seem to go unanswered. Chief among these: a lack of faith that God can deliver and petitions that are not within God’s will or, from his perspective, within our best interest. There also are times when God does not respond the way the petitioner envisioned and, therefore, the result is seen as an unanswered prayer.

Some argue that God answers the prayers only of those deemed righteous. The parable of the Pharisee and the publican contradicts this view. In his prayer, the Pharisee, who meticulously followed divine law, said, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people. … I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” The publican, a religious outcast, simply pleaded, “God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Jesus pointed out that God heard the publican’s, not the Pharisee’s, prayer because of the publican’s humility.

Even when all the human conditions for answered prayer are met, God sometimes does not intervene. Theologians do not claim to know why God chooses to act, but there are some agreed-upon premises: God never will do anything that contradicts any of his attributes, he does not intrude on our free will and he allows miracles to happen only if they ultimately will bring him glory.

Football is a physical game. Perhaps our prayers should be for the players’ safety.

There is certainly no harm in asking God for insignificant requests such as a victory for a favorite team. The dilemma, of course, is if both teams pray, God will have to take sides. Chances are, he will sit on the sidelines. But just in case God decides to heed the prayers of Super Bowl fans, I’m sending mine up for the Steelers.

How to help alcoholics

Three weeks ago, Ted Williams was homeless, holding up a cardboard sign along a highway in Ohio begging someone to give him a chance to use his "God-given" gift to get himself out of his hopeless predicament.

A reporter posted on YouTube a clip of Williams using his "golden voice." The video went viral and a few short weeks later Williams was a national celebrity with lucrative job offers.

Williams was a radio personality before drugs and alcohol derailed him. He had lived in shelters for nearly 10 years. He had been sober for almost three. But the new attention proved too overwhelming. Last week, Williams reportedly checked into rehab for alcohol abuse.

As a pastor, I have counseled addicts and their families through repeated relapses. Part of the problem is that our society does not fully understand alcoholism. Some still refuse to accept alcoholism as a disease.

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence defines alcoholism as "a chronic disease with genetic, psychosocial and environmental factors influencing its development and manifestations." The term disease indicates that the addiction is an "involuntary disability."

Because denial is so prevalent among alcoholics, many believe addicts simply lack willpower and motivation. Addicts must consent and commit to treatment and may need to change their environment and behavior, but self-discipline alone is not the solution. Williams had likely managed to subdue his urges several times during those three years but, as with other addictions, it can take just one moment of weakness to restart the cycle.

While alcoholism is treatable, it is not curable. I recently counseled an individual who relapsed after 20 years. Sometimes there is a trigger such as a divorce, a death or, perhaps in Williams’ case, a rapid change in lifestyle. Recovering alcoholics must be aware that they are always susceptible to setbacks. Williams should have received immediate counseling to help with his newfound fame.

Crucial to a recovering addict are loved ones who understand the disease and can balance tough love with patience. Dealing with an addict can be painful and frustrating. Relatives sometimes require their own support system. But perhaps if alcoholism were more widely accepted as a disease, family members would be less prone to embarrassment, which can prompt them to abandon the addict. There are times, to be sure, when all options have been exhausted, and the only step left is to sever ties. However, in many cases, with support and treatment, addicts can learn to live normal lives.

I celebrated Williams’ comeback and want him to succeed. Thankfully, he was able to get help before he slipped too far back.

On NBC’s "Today" show, Williams indicated things were different this time around because of his faith in God. I hope Williams emerges from rehab better equipped to deal with the pressures of life — which will be more valuable to him than fame and fortune. This time he has God.

Believers aren’t being duped

American Atheists erected a billboard in Huntsville, Ala., that claims all religions are cons.

The ad pictures religious symbols — including the cross, the Jewish star and the Muslim crescent moon and star — and reads, “You know they’re all scams.”

The billboard further contends that the American Atheists group has been “telling the truth since 1963.” The scam, the group says, is that “all religions … tell you how to live, and then take your money, all in exchange for an afterlife that does not exist.”

It is presumptuous to claim that theists are being bamboozled into their beliefs. Most people of faith have made a conscious choice to trust in a higher power, to believe in an afterlife and to commit their lives and resources to certain religious practices.

It is true that some blindly follow and lack a clear understanding of their faiths’ tenets. They participate out of obligation, not devotion.

But such belief does not qualify as authentic faith. In Christianity, the scriptures teach that true faith stems from the heart. God does not simply judge a person’s actions but their motivation; doing the right things for the wrong reasons does not please God. Likewise anyone who believes in God simply out of fear of the consequences misses the point.

Atheists often argue that theists are weak, needy and irrational, because they believe in God yet cannot prove he exists.

The Bible defines faith as “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” Thus, by definition, faith does not seek to prove God’s existence. This does not mean that people of faith are fideists. When science, archaeology or philosophy supports religious claims, theists can embrace these evidences. But while such sources can strengthen belief, they do not form the basis of one’s faith.

Some argue that if God were visible, everyone would believe in him. But the Old Testament contains many accounts of God revealing himself more visibly to people. In the New Testament, he came to Earth as Jesus. Yet many remained skeptical. Furthermore, people of faith argue God has revealed himself through nature and, for many, through their own experiences.

It takes trust and commitment to believe in an invisible deity. This is God’s desire — a relationship in which we rely on him. But those who hold to their faith do so because it has proven to be fulfilling and unfailing.

The bottom line: There is no scam. Theists understand you cannot prove the existence of God or the afterlife but still choose to believe. Hebrews says, “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists.”

Oh, for a lasting Christmas truce

Around Christmas Day, in 1914 during World War I, the combatants reached a truce in a number of places along the Western Front.

The holiday spirit led to a temporary halt in the fighting. German and British troops sang carols, and some soldiers reportedly came out of their trenches, shook hands, wished one another “Merry Christmas” in their native languages and even exchanged gifts.

Christmas is both a sacred holiday and a secular celebration. Around the globe, the occasion is observed in various ways for various reasons, but it elicits the same basic responses: joy, peace and generosity.

These themes are echoed in Jesus’ Nativity, which Christians mark during Christmas.

In Luke’s account of Christ’s birth, an angel appears to shepherds and says, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all people.” A child was born. He was the promised Messiah, whose coming was foretold centuries before in Hebrew scriptures. He was to save the world. The prophet Isaiah called him the “Prince of Peace.” This birth signaled the beginning of God’s plan to redeem humankind. Thus, people of faith view Jesus as a gift from God.

Secularly, Christmas is marked by Santa, who epitomizes joy and generosity.

The Santa legend can be traced back to a monk named St. Nicholas. He is believed to have given away his inherited wealth and traveled around helping the poor and the sick. The modern-day, gift-giving “jolly old St. Nick” became popular in the 19th century; similar characters existed around the world. The commercial phenomenon that has become Christmas has Santa as its standard-bearer.

Whether one celebrates the birth of Jesus or anticipates the arrival of Santa, Christmas truly brings out the best in humanity. People give more, love more and go out of their way to help the less fortunate. Homes are decorated with Christmas trees, bright lights and Nativity sets in hopes of spreading Christmas cheer. Strangers smile and wish one another well.

But, much like the Christmas Truce of 1914, after the presents are unwrapped, the guests have gone and the lights, trees and crèches are packed away, the world returns to normalcy — the rest of the year can be anything but merry. It is unfortunate that the good we see at Christmas is only temporary.

I am not suggesting a year-round Christmas celebration. Few of us could tolerate being around extended family for that long, the overindulgence or the numerous renditions of the same holiday songs. But it would be a welcome change if this year — after the symbols of Christmas vanish — the joy, the peace and the generosity stuck around.