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Rivers Running Uphill and Cats Petting Dogs

By February 8, 2016 5 Comments

by Brian Keepers
It’s the day after the Super Bowl. There was an extra amount of hype this year with it being the Super Bowl’s “golden anniversary” and speculations that this could be future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning’s last game. I’m writing this Sunday afternoon before kick-off, so I don’t know who won or if the game lived up to the hype. But by the time you read this, you’ll know. Or you won’t. Maybe you really couldn’t care less. Maybe you tuned in only to catch the commercials so you can join the water-cooler conversations today about which ones were the best. How much for a 30-second ad this year? $5 million? Are you kidding me?

I have a love-hate relationship with the game of football and the NFL in particular. I played football in high school and am grateful for all it taught me—perseverance, grit, discipline, teamwork, and sacrifice. Watching the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday afternoons was a source of connection with my father who was otherwise distant and aloof. Football gave us something in common, something to talk about as father and son up until his death.

But the violence of the game and the concussions and the way the NFL has deceived, intimidated and bullied (portrayed powerfully in the recent film Concussion) makes me want to boycott and be done with the sport completely. In fact, I did give it up a couple years ago after watching an episode of Frontline when the NFL concussion scandal was first exposed. That was also a year the Vikings had a lousy season, which made kissing football goodbye a little easier.

But just when I am ready to be done with it I’ll come across a story that rekindles the tiniest spark of my love for the game. The story of a coach who sees football as an opportunity to debunk cultural myths about masculinity and teach young men how to love each other (read the book A Season of Life by Jeffrey Marx). Or the story of a football program that does a better job than the church at being a vehicle of reconciliation in a community burdened with racial tensions and socio-economic divides. I wonder…will American football be included among the parts of human culture—the “glory of the kings” (Revelation 21:24)—that will be redeemed and carried into the new heavens and earth?

Since it’s the day after the Super Bowl, let me share one of my favorite football stories. I stumbled upon it in a book by a Princeton scholar of all places. Here’s how Kendra Creasy Dean tells it in her book Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church.

In November 2008, two high school teams in the town of Grapevine, Texas faced off. It was the Faith Christian School Lions (7-2) verses the Gainesville State Tornadoes (0-8). The Lions were the home team—a strong football program with over seventy players, eleven coaches, the latest equipment, and hordes of involved parents. The visiting team, the Tornadoes, had only fourteen players, wore seven-year-old pads and dilapidated helmets. They were escorted by twelve security guards who took off the players handcuffs before the game. Gainesville State, a maximum security prison north of Dallas, gets its students by court order. Most of the Tornado players had convictions for drugs, assaults, and robberies. Many of their families have disowned them. They play every game on the road.

Before the game, Faith’s head coach Kris Hogan had an idea. What if, just for one night, half of the Faith fans cheered for the kids on the opposing team? “Here is the message I want to send,” Hogan wrote in an email to Faith’s supporters. “You are just as valuable as any other person on Planet Earth.” The Faith fans agreed.

When the Gainesville Tornadoes took the field, they crashed through a banner made by Faith fans that read, “Go Tornadoes!” The Gainesville players were surprised to find themselves running through a forty-foot spirit line made up of cheering fans. From their benches at the side of the field, the Gainesville team could hear two hundred fans on the bleachers behind them, cheering for them by name, led by real cheerleaders. “I thought maybe they were confused,” said Alex, a Gainesville lineman. Another lineman, Gerald, said, “We can tell people are afraid of us when we come to the games…But these people, they were yellin’ for us, by our names!”

At the end of the game (Faith won, 33-14), the losing team practically danced off the field with their fingers pointing #1 in the air. They gave Gainesville’s head coach Mark Williams what ESPN sportswriter Rick Reilly described as the first Gatorade bath in history for an 0-9 coach. When the teams gathered in the middle of the field to pray, the Tornado’s quarterback and captain, Isaiah, surprised everybody and asked if he could pray. “Lord, I don’t know how this happened,” he stammered, “so I don’t know how to say thank you, but I never would’ve known there were so many people in the world that cared about us.”

As guards escorted the Tornadoes back to their bus, each player received a bag filled with burgers, fries, candy, a Bible and an encouraging letter from a Faith player. Before he stepped on the bus, Williams turned and grabbed Hogan hard by the shoulders: “You’ll never know what your people did for these kids tonight. You’ll never, ever know.” The Gainesville players crowded on one side of the bus, peering out the windows at an unbelievable sight—people they had never met before smiling at them, waving goodbye, as the bus drove away into the night.

It was, in Reilly’s words, “rivers running uphill and cats petting dogs.”

Sounds a bit like the Kingdom of God, don’t you think? A kingdom where rivers run uphill, cats pet dogs, lions lie down beside lambs and a little child shall lead them.

Brian Keepers is the minister of preaching and congregational leadership of Fellowship Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.

Brian Keepers

Brian Keepers is the lead pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa.


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