Joy, Lament, and Basketball Liturgy

“If there’s a God, He’s laughing at us and our football team.” – Ben Folds


Steph Curry and the Good News

The good news is that Steph Curry knows the Good News. The regular season MVP of the NBA is clear about professing “the Man who died for our sins on the cross.” He has been outspoken about his faith in Jesus Christ throughout his career, but he admits he is “not a guy who’s going to be trying to bash people over the head with the Bible. Instead, Curry hopes to live a life of faith across the categories of his life, whether on the court or off, whether winning or losing games. Curry plainly claims, “I know I have a place in Heaven waiting for me because of Him, and that’s something no earthly prize or trophy could ever top.” That kind of foundation of faith is good news indeed, as Curry and his Golden State Warriors have just endured one of the most heartbreaking losses in NBA Finals history at the hands of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

A foundation of faith like Curry’s has invited a variety of reactions from the sports world. This has been the case for decades, from Eric Lidell (the Olympian who refused to run on Sundays) to Tim Tebow (who was roundly ridiculed for his outward expressions of faith on the field). Sports fandom has been divided on this issue, with one side even praying for healing for Steph Curry amid the physical challenges and limitations that he has had this season. Others have rejected the idea of God’s involvement in sports, such as Aaron Rodgers saying in 2015, “I don’t think God cares a whole lot about the outcome. He cares about the people involved, but I don’t think he’s a big football fan.”

Joy and Lament in the NBA Finals

This leads us to the 2016, where occasions for joy and lament abounded in the NBA Finals. The sheer number of grown men crying on the basketball court Sunday night was a sight to behold in itself. And, as LeBron James screamed, “Cleveland! This is for you!” it was clear that the whole spectrum of emotions was on full display at Oracle Arena.

But did God have anything to do with it? Did The Babylon Bee’s fictionalized story of LeBron James praying an imprecatory Psalm against Curry actually work?

First Century Christians clearly believed that Jesus was involved in every part of their lives. In other words, Christians weren’t given the right to follow Christ in one activity and compartmentalize him another. And so Paul professed, “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28, NIV) And he added, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Colossians 3:23-24, NIV). And this is what Curry knows to be true: the eternal prize of Jesus Christ is of far greater worth than any of the trophies and titles that the world has to give. In that sense, Curry is right, as he is reported to have said, that he doesn’t pray to God for whether or not he will win or lose, but that God would use the situation that Steph is in for God’s glory. Now, that is a Biblical understanding of God’s involvement in sports!

The truth is that sports (like any other endeavor in life) is full of both joy and lament. It is a human past-time with the full spectrum of human emotion. You don’t have to look any further than J.R. Smith’s post-Game 7  press conference to see that! And, in that full range of emotion, there is an opportunity for God to use both joy and lament in a liturgy that shapes our souls. Steve Kerr understood this point, as he faced the Warriors after their Game 7 loss.

Kerr said, “You know, we’ve had so many moments of joy together, and it was like, wow, we’re actually having a moment of sorrow as a team. It’s a great reminder that, first of all, it’s not easy to win a championship. But, as I said, it’s life. Things happen. You move on.” And so we say “Congratulations” to Steph Curry, who knows (despite what The Babylon Bee claimed) that he can, in fact “do all things” (Philippians 4:13, NIV) through Christ after having learned the “secret of being content in any and every situation” (Philippians 4:12, NIV).

Everyday Liturgies

Such is the task that faces each of us, as we move on through the liturgies of our everyday lives. Merriam-Webster defines “liturgy” as a “fixed set of ceremonies.” This has typically been used to describe what happens in church. However, in You are What You Love, James K.A. Smith discusses the various liturgies we go through on a daily basis. Smith writes, “The point of looking at culture through a liturgical lens is to jolt us into a new recognition of who we are and where we are. This means we need to read the practices that surround us. We have to learn to exegete the rituals we’re immersed in.” In other words, the events of each day have an opportunity to shape us as human beings and as followers of Jesus Christ. And this opportunity for growth occurs whether we are in joy or lament, whether we have won or lost, and whether God is a Cleveland Cavaliers fan or not.

A Sacrifice of Praise

“Part of the sacrifice of praise is singing music that is not necessarily our heart language.” – David Clifton


This week, I attended “Spirit and Sacrament” at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. The seminar was put together by Andy Piercy (Director of Worship Development for the Anglican Mission), with a great deal of help from John Witvliet (Director of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship) and Glenn Packiam (Lead Pastor of New Life Downtown in Colorado Springs, CO). Each of these men had a significant amount of insight and tools to contribute.

One of the gems of the week came from David Clifton (Director of Music and Arts at Apostles in Knoxville, TN), who said the phrase above: “Part of the sacrifice of praise is singing music that is not necessarily our heart language.”

This statement was so clear, so succinct, and carried with it such an incredible message that it has stuck with me for the days since hearing it. This is an idea that others have communicated before, especially in worship contexts that are trying to figure out how to engage multiple generations and cultures in a unified corporate worship. But, this was the first time I have heard this connected to the idea of it being a sacrifice of praise.

What Clifton references here, is the idea found in Hebrews 13:15, which says, “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise-the fruit of lips that openly profess his name” (NASB). And, it only follows that as we seek to continually offer God a sacrifice of praise, we must throw off anything that can hinder this fruit. Now, if you have been around worship circles for any amount of time, you understand that the hinderances to this kind of sacrifice are numerous. What Clifton gets so right in this statement is the connection between the heart language of the worshiper with the sacrifice of praise that is to be made. This is especially true in corporate worship, where one must be willing to give up his or her own self in order to offer corporate praise to the Lord. That sounds like a sacrifice to me! Each worshiper must be willing to give up his or her own preference of heart language in order to join in the heart language of the full body as God is glorified.

In this way, “Worship leaders become language coaches for the church,” said John Witvliet. The worship leader learns how to invite the full body to engage in a sacrifice of praise, whether it is specific to their individual heart language or not.

And so, we make a joyful noise unto the Lord, unifying our hearts and our language to the glory of God the Father!