On July 23 this year in Nashville, Tennessee, pastor Joe Nelms gave a prayer for a Nascar race. Since then, that prayer has been watched on Youtube over 2 million times, with over 4,000 comments. Most of the comments are either from non-Christians who think the whole prayer is ridiculous, or by Christians who often think it’s blasphemous. It’s even been “songified” (and is seriously catchy!), in an attempt to show just how silly the whole prayer is.
Personally, I don’t really want to join in the lampooning of the prayer. I think that’s a little too easy. Admittedly, I’m not a huge fan of the whole product-placement that seems to riddle the prayer (although Nelms swears he wasn’t getting paid to do it). But I can’t help thinking that a lot of the ridicule itself, from either side, is representative of the same deep misunderstanding.
What most people seem to be upset about is the sheer earthiness of the prayer. The prayer is for a sporting event, for heaven’s sake – as if God cares about a bunch of guys driving around a race-track! And Nelms thanks God for his “smoking hot wife” – as if God would be in the least bit interested in Nelms’ sexual attractions to his wife! God’s not into physical stuff, He’s into emotional and spiritual things, like her personality or her piety. And the whole “smoking hot wife” thing is actually a reference to a movie, Talladega Nights, which has a prayer that is, well, a bit of a stinging joke at Nascar’s expense – as if God would want somebody to make a reference to such a thing as a funny movie! And as if He’d like people laughing during a prayer! It’s a prayer! Prayers are meant to be serious, stately, because God is serious, stately.
The thing is, I think God is more earthy than we give Him credit for. The whole angst around this prayer reeks of a classic dualism, that says that there is a spiritual and a physical side to life, and that the physical side is bad, and the spiritual side is good. And thus, God prefers the “heavenly”, the spiritual, and doesn’t like the “earthly”, the physical or material.
But the Bible makes it abundantly clear that God likes the earth. He made it. God likes sex, and beauty, and physical attraction. He made those things. And sport might seem silly, and pointless, but the Bible seems to say that God likes us running, exercising, playing. The Sabbath, for example, is made for relaxing and not doing things that are constructive, responsible. God gives us that, and in fact commands us to waste time having fun. Theologians, from Paul in Philippians or 2 Timothy, to Gregory of Nyssa in his The Life of Moses, have seen the nobility, courage, dedication, and even joy of the athlete, as a powerful metaphor for the Christian life.
God actually likes humour. One of the most frustrating things I think Jesus would have gone through is nobody getting His jokes – Jesus is actually a pretty funny guy. Jesus said, “It’s easier to fit a camel through the eye of a needle, than a rich guy to enter God’s kingdom.” Have you ever pictured a camel going through the eye of a needle? It’s actually a funny picture! He also went to a wedding where the groom probably thought his wife was smoking hot, and Jesus gave them some good wine to celebrate. He probably played some games with some kids who were hanging around Him, too.
Jesus is the very reason why this prayer isn’t as bad as everybody thinks. Jesus proves that God cares about the earthly. He proves that, if there is any distinction between heaven and earth, it can be over-exaggerated by us. He came to earth. He is Lord of heaven and earth. That makes Him not only Ruler of it, but the Person Who fills it with beauty, dignity, and fun.