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Who Do You Worship?

On Dec. 27, I visited the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. with my wife and our youngest son Ryan. We had passed it numerous times on our way to see our son Jonathon, who lives in the Navy Yard area of D/C. So, after spending the Christmas holidays with our families in Pittsburgh and Danville in Pennsylvania, we decided it was time to make a visit to the museum before heading back to South Carolina. 

It was magnificent. I could have spent a week there and will most assuredly make it back. There were people of all ages, races and religions. Some were in deep thought, some were in discussions, some were in awe. If you are a fan of history, you will be impressed with the amount of detail and the flow of the timelines with their back stories and interactive displays.  

Everyone was smiling and friendly. There was a genuine sense of common courtesy and mutual respect. I was most encouraged by the numbers of families with teenagers and children who seemed genuinely interested in the history of the Bible. There were sections devoted to the Old Testament and others to the New Testament and a floor dedicated to the Impact of the Bible on society. There were small theaters throughout the six-story building with well-produced short videos. One theater showed 10-minute videos from key moments from the world-renowned TV show “The Chosen” about the life of Jesus. 

Even if you don’t consider yourself to be a religious person, if you are interested in history, you will find the Museum of the Bible to be well worth the time to visit.

On Dec. 30, we entered a different kind of “temple” for a much more modern experience: Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, where my son and I joined 75,000 avid fans of college football for the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. It was the first ever football game between Penn State of the Big Ten and Ole Miss of the SEC. The night before included pep rallies and parties in downtown Atlanta, home of the College Football Hall of Fame, followed by a parade early Saturday morning along with the requisite tailgating.

I couldn’t help but find myself thinking about the vast differences in these two experiences — both of which I thoroughly enjoyed, except of course, for the final score of the football game. At the Museum of the Bible the focus was on the heroes and villains from centuries past whose lives impacted us from a spiritual perspective. In the arena that is Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the focus was on the modern-day gladiators of the gridiron.

There are Interactive rooms and video displays throughout the Museum of the Bible. Photo by Joe Battista.

This is a topic where I struggle with the amount of attention and focus that we as a society place on the hero worship of our athletes. In many cases, it comes at the expense of the spiritual heroes who we should be spending more of our time and energy to learn about. One centers on entertainment and a welcome distraction from daily life. The other focuses on how to live a better life. It’s why I still struggle with the question “Who do you worship?” 

I vividly remember as a youngster reading the illustrated Children’s Bible (they seemed to have one in every doctor and dentist office when I was a kid). I was fascinated by the stories of Joshua, Samson and David and Goliath. So even at an early age I saw the similarities between heroes of the Bible and heroes in everyday life, which in the early 1960’s included astronauts and soldiers. As I got older, my attention turned to sports. One of my favorite sports heroes of that era was the Green Bay Packers’ quarterback Bart Starr. 

As I became more interested in hockey, my focus was on legendary Boston Bruins defenseman Bobby Orr. The Pirates won a World Series in 1971 when I was 11 years old, and we idolized Roberto Clemente (who tragically passed away helping earthquake victims in Nicaragua in 1972). Next it was the Steelers, who won four Super Bowls and we worshiped Joe Greene, Terry Bradshaw, Jack Lambert and Penn State’s own Franco Harris. Then the Pirates won an unexpected World Series in 1979 and our worship turned to Willie “Pops” Stargell and Dave Parker.

Growing up in Pittsburgh in the first version of the “City of Champions” era was amazing, and it certainly cemented my lifelong passion for sports. Sports are more popular now than ever and our hero worship of star athletes has never been more rabid. Yup, no argument about that from me. As I have grown older, and arguably wiser, the argument I would make is, should it be? 

I’ve spent a lifetime playing sports, watching sports and earning my living through sports, and I believe it gives me a unique perspective. I believe it’s perfectly fine to enjoy sports and other forms of entertainment and be fans of the athletes and celebrities, but only if it is in the proper perspective. The key difference is that we need to be very careful about who we worship and who we make a priority in our lives to be the best version of ourselves. I would argue that our relationship and time to worship God must have a higher priority in our lives while our focus on athletes and stars of the entertainment world must be tempered. 

Have your fun, cheer your teams, support your school, but be mature enough not to “worship” false idols. I am especially concerned with the recent legalization of sports betting and its influence on young people. I’ve seen too many young people go down the destructive path of uncontrolled gambling. There is a reason that gambling sites have disclaimers and helpline information on all their advertising. It is an addiction, and I have seen first hand how it can impact lives.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not condemning the fact that we (me included) enjoy sporting events. I am simply advocating the old philosophy of “everything in moderation.” There is eternal peace, joy and happiness in the worship of God, while the worship of athletes and celebrities offers impulsive and fleeting highs and lows. I’m suggesting that we all do a little more soul searching and be more intentional about what and who we worship. 

We know from studying the fall of the Roman Empire that its gladiator games were meant to keep the masses entertained and distracted from the real issues going on in their society.  

Today it’s a plethora of video games, fantasy leagues, sporting events and sports betting that have me more than a bit worried where we are putting our focus.

There will be people who will snicker and call me a hypocrite. So be it. I own my past and the mistakes I made. I’m striving every day to make a positive difference in people’s lives while also working on my own imperfections. It’s not about judging or comparing yourself to others. Indeed, comparison leads to excessive pride and jealousy and sucks the joy out of life.

I have been pleasantly surprised at how well we have adjusted to life here in the Bible Belt. Since retiring here in 2022, my joy and happiness are encapsulated in my relationship with the Lord and the friendships that I have made with the people around us, primarily at LCC, the Christian Business Men’s Connection, and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

Pastor Crawford Loritts delivers the invocation prior to the Peach Bowl. Photo by Joe Battista.

I was encouraged to see Pastor Crawford Loritts give an invocation to those in the stadium before the Peach Bowl game (I doubt that was shown on the broadcast). I also saw the advertisement played throughout the game on the ribbon board and scoreboard with the tagline “Jesus left it all on the field.” I’d say a good 75% of the football players, on both teams, knelt and prayed before the game began. So, the very athletes we go to cheer on, and in too many cases, worship, put their own egos aside to publicly express their joy in their relationship with God. 

Having a purpose in retirement eludes many people who “flunk” retirement, some returning to their work because that is what has defined them and where they find safety, peace and in some cases joy. And that’s OK. For me it was important to go from “success to significance” and give more of my time to the church. Just last week over 10,000 people experienced our Lowcountry Community Church Christmas Experience in Bluffton, South Carolina. Families came from all around the Lowcountry to see the Christmas light show and tour our church campus, and the children had the chance to meet Santa Claus.  

So, I encourage you to go forward with a different lens, a different perspective on the real importance of the myriad of sporting events and the fleeting emotions generated by the outcomes of the games. We can enjoy both. I’m just of the mindset that one is going to impact you for a day, the other impacts us for eternity. Go to the games, interact with friends and family, celebrate the players but don’t fall into the trap of worshiping false idols. 

My hope and prayer for you is that you will pause and think about what was discussed in this column. That maybe you will give more thought and time to who you worship.