OKAY, I CONFESS: I’m an NFL fan. And this, without ever having put on a helmet or pads … EV-ER.

It must be the competition and character thing, also the self-deluding ”I could do that!“-thing.

But INfinitely better — and this is not a delusion … my wife is an NFL fan, too!

I didn’t marry Shelly for this reason, of course, but I don’t mind telling you it was an unexpected and inestimably delightful discovery in our courtship!

So for something more than seventeen years, we have enjoyed watching NFL football together. Now that we have kids, we have passed on the NFL fever to them.

Throughout the NFL season, we enjoy Sunday Night Football and Monday Night Football as highly enjoyable, anticipated, and weekly family events – especially when Payton or Eli Manning are playing. (GO, COLTS … NEXT YEAR!)

I first caught the NFL fever while growing up on the farm in Huntington, Indiana, back in the dark ages – you know, when there were just the three broadcast channels on TV, and PONG was the latest (and only) ”video game.”

     I also became a hopeless Chicago Cubs and University of Notre Dame fan, during this early formative period of my character and outlook on life, so that may tell you something more.

But I digress ….

I was enthralled by “America’s Team” – Roger Staubach, Billy Joe Dupree, Drew Pearson, Bob Hayes, Harvey Martin, Randy White, Bob Lilly, “Captain Crash” Cliff Harris, Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson, Tony Dorsett, Coach Tom Landry, and the rest of the 70s Dallas Cowboys.

They inspired me on many a fall and winter Sunday afternoon to go out and punt, pass, and kick a cold-hardened football in the barnyard. (I used to make a kicking-tee out of bunched up dirt or snow, depending on the season, and I often threw that football into a circle drawn onto the side of the barn.)

I know it won’t make much sense, but I also loved and followed with equal fervor the Pittsburgh Steelers of that day – Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Rocky Bleier, Lynn Swan, John Stallworth, ‘The Steel Curtain’ (“Mean” Joe Greene, L. C. Greenwood, Ernie Holmes, and Dwight White), the two linebacker Jacks (Ham and Lambert), Mel Blount, and Coach Chuck Noll.

Nonsense, maybe, except that between them, in the ten years 1970-79, the Cowboys and Steelers appeared in nine Super Bowls, winning six (Cowboys, 2 of 5; Steelers, 4 of 4 and back-to-back, twice, in ’74-’75 and ’78-’79), and met in two – both won by the Steelers (’75 and ’78).

This was truly the Golden Age of the NFL – that is, I suppose, unless you’re a San Francisco 49ers fan. But there were other great teams and great rivalries in the 1970s.

Coach Don Shula’s Miami Dolphins went undefeated in 1972 – still the only team in NFL history to do so – and appeared in three straight Super Bowls (1971-73), winning back-to-back in ’72 (over the Washington Redskins) and ’73 (over the Minnesota Vikings).

Speaking of the Vikings, after he cut his teeth here in the CFL with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Coach Bud Grant and his men made four Super Bowl appearances in the 70s but without a win. (Marv Levy’s Buffalo Bills also appeared in four Super Bowls without a win, in the early 1990s; only, the Bills appeared in FOUR STRAIGHT – even a bigger feat, and defeat.)

And who could forget the real hostility of the rivalry between the Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos, which began in the 1970s but persists until today?

Now, why on earth would a pastor go into such an historical review of the NFL?

Well, first, as I confessed alrealy, I am an NFL fan. But also as I wrote in a previous post, I want my blog to be a forum where I can “think out-loud” about any topic of interest or relevance.

I also hope to make a consistent spiritual connection to life – that is, real life and not just “church life,” though I do strongly believe a commitment to Christ implies a commitment to His Church.

Finally, you may have been hearing, just under the surface of my words, a sort of lamentation – comparing yesterday’s NFL with today’s NFL, or just yesterday with today.

If you heard that, then you heard correctly. But it’s also a lament over the loss of former substance and values, replaced by hype and imagery and self-promotion and appearances.

     Can you imagine famously-tough-and-front-tooth-less Jack Lambert and Terrell Owens co-existing? Can you conceive of Ben Roethlisberger playing for Coach Tom Landry? How about Larry Czonka and Albert Haynesworth on the same team? Me neither.

Substance has been exchanged for flash, and long-term health and stability for short-term gain.

Athletic (or bottom-line business) results are now preferred over personal and professional integrity, while money has been thrown at problems (and players), where only character and discipline will deliver the [lasting] goods.

I believe this is true for today’s NFL, with billion dollar stadiums now being built and petulant players being signed to $100 million contracts, and they still won’t play as the coach directs.

It’s also true for goods and services produced and marketed today, as well as for what we are teaching our children these days, concerning priorities and values in life. It’s also true for how we are doing church-life and ministry today.

How this contrasts with the biblical order of things in the upside down kingdom of God!

Today, I’m thinking of God’s covenant people, after Israel began clammoring for “a king to lead us, such as the nations have” (1 Sam. 8:5).

First, God reassured Samuel that the people whom God had appointed him to serve were not rejecting Samuel as their prophet, so much as they were rejecting God Himself as their king.

Nevertheless, God instructed Samuel to do as the elders of Israel demanded, erroneously and rebelliously. And so, he anointed a human king, pleasing to their own eyes and befitting their own ambitions. King Saul became the personification of their own best imaginations of themselves.

It didn’t take long to see that it wouldn’t go well for Israel under the rule of their chosen king, or for King Saul himself. Despite a pleasing appearance, exceptional height, and manly-man-warrior-ness, Saul the man was in way over his head, trying to be Saul the king of God’s chosen people.

Accordingly, presciently, and along with His instructions for Samuel to anoint Israel’s first [human] king, God also instructed Samuel to issue a dire warning to His people of the many disastrous consequences that would come as the direct and inevitable result of rejecting God as their king for a king in their own choosing and making.

It didn’t go well, as predicted.

And after it hadn’t gone well, when the time came for anoint the next king — one of God’s own choosing — even while the first king still reigned, notice what God said to Samuel:

     “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him [one of David's brothers]. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7).

As I watched the two NFL Conference Championship games yesterday – the winner of each advancing to Super Bowl XLV (45), I couldn’t help but contrast the hype of the events with the events themselves, and the talkers with the doers.

As in the ’70s, the two winning teams were those with the best combination of defense, offense, fewest mistakes – as measured by turnovers and special teams, and coaching.

The more things change, the more things stay the same, it seems. And for sure, the best people don’t always win, and that’s unfortunate.

But common to winners in every realm, as was the case yesterday, players and coaches alike quickly testify to the power of the unselfish and sacrificial team-play of specific individuals in securing the victory – over the season and in the championship game.

This is the testimony of character and substance over appearance and talk.

I wonder what would happen, if more of us took hold of that which is real, substantial, and eternally valuable – in God’s estimation, I mean, as He has revealed it in His word to us.

     What if we actually replaced – deliberately, even ruthlessly – what is merely appealing to the eye, or preferred by individuals in the moment, or the passing fad of the day … with such character and substance? In life? At work? In our relationships? In the Church?

Grace and peace from me and mine to you and yours,

Pastor Mark