Devotion of the Week — Little Team, Big Wins

The NCAA Tournament is one of my favorite events in sports. The reason for that is that college basketball always seems to exemplify the cliché that anything can happen. This year, that cliché has stuck throughout the entire season with top-five teams losing left and right. The field was as wide open as ever, and March Madness has definitely lived up to its namesake, especially in one section of the United States.

The state of Florida has three teams currently in the Sweet Sixteen. Two of the teams were seen as pre-tournament favorites to go far in the University of Florida and the University of Miami. However, one team has come out of nowhere out of the Atlantic Sun conference to entertain basketball fans all across the country: Florida Gulf Coast

Florida Gulf Coast went into Philadelphia last week as unknowns  to most of the college basketball world. After their second-round win over Georgetown out of the Big East and third-round win over San Diego State, the Eagles of FGCU have arisen as celebrities due to their high flying dunks and great personalities. Their leader is shooting guard Sherwood Brown, and point guard Brett Comer has a knack for making great passes to set up the dunk show. “Dunk City” will be in Arlington, Texas, this weekend for the South Regional semifinals as they take on Florida in the final game Friday night.

In the Bible, we always find instances where the hero is not exactly the most handsome or most popular figure. Take a look at the root of how one of the greatest kings of Israel became King. David was the youngest of his brothers and was out tending the sheep for his father Jesse. In the book of 1 Samuel, we see the struggles of Saul, the first king of Israel, who continues to do things his way and not God’s way.

In 1 Samuel 16, God tells the prophet Samuel to go to the house of Jesse and anoint the person that He indicates will be the next king. Samuel goes to the house and brings Jesse’s sons to the sacrifice to find the next king (1 Samuel 16:5). He meets the older son, Eliab, who Samuel thinks will surely be the new king because he is the oldest and most handsome. But, God has other ideas.

“But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)

Jesse presented Samuel with all his sons, but forgot about David, who was out tending his sheep. God chose the one who was tending the sheep to be the next king. In the next chapter, we see David pull off the ultimate cinderella story by defeating the overall No. 1 seed of the Philistines, Goliath, with stones and a slingshot.

Today, I exhort you to always have hope that you can do the impossible when God is with you. David believed that the Lord was with him even though he was not the greatest warrior in the eyes of his people or his foe. Whenever I think of hope, I think of what the prophet Isaiah tells us:

“But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31)

David was seen as the No. 16 seed of his brothers, but God knew, based on his heart, that he would be the new king of Israel. He knew God had a purpose for him and would protect him even when going up against the biggest foe. David put trust in something bigger than himself in order to get the victory for the Lord.

By Ricky Keeler

Ricky Keeler is a contributor to Sports Spectrum magazine.

Devotion of the Week – No Weapons Against Us

The NFL playoffs brought great drama this year. There were many high-scoring games and most were tightly contested. But one player’s story came to the limelight – Ray Lewis. At the beginning of the postseason, he announced it would be his last ride, his career would be over at the Super Bowl or once the Ravens lost.

Going into the Ravens second round game at Denver, Ray Lewis and his teammates were big underdogs. The game had many twists and turns with punt and kick returns for touchdowns, deep passes, a 70 yard touchdown with 30 seconds left in the game on a defensive blunder, and a game-winning field goal in double overtime. Ravens’ kicker Justin Tucker was the hero for the Ravens as his 47-yard field goal went through the uprights to lead Baltimore to a 38-35 double overtime win.

The one thing that has stood out to me about that game was the interview that Lewis gave with CBS reporter Solomon Wilcots after the game. This has been an emotional ride not only for Baltimore, but for the former Miami Hurricanes’ linebacker himself. As the interview began, Wilcots asked Lewis about how the Ravens were able to pull the upset against a team in the Broncos that came into the game with a 11-game winning streak. Lewis quoted part of Isaiah 54 to Wilcots:

“No weapon formed against you shall prosper,
And every tongue which rises against you in judgment
You shall condemn.
This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord,
And their righteousness is from Me,”
Says the Lord.” (Isaiah 54:17)

Ray Lewis has had his checkered problems in the past. Everyone wants to talk about his six children with four different women or the incident he was involved in with his friends at the Super Bowl in 1999. (EDITOR’S NOTE: And now there’s the deer antler spray controversy) However, Lewis is known as a devout Christian in a lot of NFL circles. I watched “A Football Life” documentary on NFL Network about Lewis and it completely changed my perception on him because God came up first and foremost in a lot of his conversations.

It also got me to read more into Isaiah 54, which talks about the future glory of Zion (Jerusalem). The reason the prophet was talking about this was to give the people hope as the Israelites were being held captive by the Babylonians at the time. The people of Israel were wondering if God still cared about them and loved them.

The LORD, however, assures his covenant of peace in this chapter. When we are fighting our fears or are in distress, God is always there, even though the situation may not be the most optimal for us here on Earth.

In that documentary, Lewis talked about the Ravens’ loss to the Patriots in the 2011 AFC Championship Game. Everyone was quick to pin the blame on wide receiver Lee Evans for dropping the game-winning touchdown or kicker Billy Cundiff who missed a perceivable chip-shot field goal to send the game into overtime. However, Lewis was quick to point out about how the Ravens lost as a team and that God doesn’t make mistakes.

Sometimes, God’s Will does not happen at the exact time we want or it does not coincide with the plan we thought about in our own head. The critics might not understand what the plan might is and sometimes, we are at a loss for words. However, we have to trust that God is in control! Paul told this to the Romans in his epistle:

“If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31)

Today, I exhort you to look at your situation and although there may be obstacles and barricades standing in your way, look to the Lord and the righteousness that He brings us through the death of His Son. As mentioned before, Isaiah 54 talks about how the people of Jerusalem were separated because of captivity, but they had hope of a future restoration of their city.

Today, we Christians have that same hope, as we press onward towards the goal of joining Our Father in Heaven as part of the Eternal Restoration of the New Jerusalem! So, despite the obstacles and being placed in an unfriendly situation, keep pressing onward with the Eternal Hope that one day we will be in the restored Jerusalem and get to view the fullness of God’s Glory!

Devotion of the Week – “Chuckstrong”

There is one story and one team that I have enjoyed following this year that emphasized the motto of always having hope: Chuck Pagano and the Indianapolis Colts.

After winning just two games in 2011, firing their coach and losing their franchise quarterback Peyton Manning, the Colts were a team with little expectations for 2012. There was a rookie signal caller in Andrew Luck and a new first-year head coach in Chuck Pagano. And quickly into the season came sad news. On October 1st, Pagano was diagnosed with leukemia and would not be able to continue coaching due to cancer treatment. This story would not only touch the entire Colts organization and the city of Indianapolis, but the entire football community as well.

All around Indianapolis, you saw the phrase “Chuckstrong” on t-shirts, bracelets, billboards, etc. Many Colts players (and even cheerleaders) shaved their heads to support the head coach. The team became motivated and inspired on the field, as his fight took place off the field. And as the team kept winning, hope grew stronger. Hope for their coach, and hope in winning and making the playoffs.

Pagano persevered and beat cancer, returning to coach the team on Christmas Eve as the Colts beat their division rival, Houston, 28-16, finishing the year 11-5 and securing a playoff spot. When I watched the celebration the team had in the locker room that day, it brought me great joy as a NFL fan and as a Christian seeing what hope can do to a group of individuals when the odds are stacked up against them.

But while this Colts team had a great season and has a bright future on paper with all the young talent, there is no certainty that they will get back to this same spot next year.And that is the difference between a worldly hope and a Biblical hope. With a Biblical hope comes absolute certainty!

The hope that we are talking about involves the hope of redemption. The hope that through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we all can be with Him in paradise if we confess that Jesus is LORD!

Paul talks about this kind of hope and absolute certainty in his epistle to the Romans when he talks about his present sufferings as a prisoner in Rome. But, the letter also talks about a hope Paul has that will bring him future glory!

For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?  But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. (Romans 8:24-27)

In these verses, Paul talks about the hope that is God liberating us from sin and the Law while bringing us to freedom and getting to see the full Glory of God in Heaven one day. That is a hope that when we profess with our heart and mind that Jesus is the only way to get to Heaven will be absolutely certain!

Today, I exhort you, in times of trouble to look on The Hope and pray! In times of trouble, we have the Holy Spirit always with us to intercede when we don’t have the words to say something. It is tough for us sometimes to ask for help, but God will bring us that help if we ask for it, if it is according to His will! In weakness, go to the Lord with the confidence that He can renew our strength and the certainty that hope in Him brings salvation to all who believe!

Devotion of the Week — A Lesson on Forgiveness

Jerry Brown (1987-2012)

In early December, Cowboys’ backup nose tackle Josh Brent was arrested on charges of intoxication manslaughter. Out on the road at 2 a.m., Brent wrecked his car. He had gotten behind the wheel drunk and his teammate, Jerry Brown, was in the passenger’s seat. Josh was okay, but Jerry did not survive the accident.

Brent’s career is in severe jeopardy as he is looking at serving serious prison time for his actions. But even though he was at fault, Brown’s family and his teammates have shown tremendous support for him.

Brown’s mother invited Brent to the memorial service for her son and had Brent walk in with her. From all accounts, Brent is seen like a second son to her, but I wondered how Jerry Brown’s mother could forgive Josh Brent so quickly and easily after losing her son.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells a parable to Peter about an unmerciful servant. Peter had asked Jesus how many times he should forgive his brother or sister who sinned against him. Peter asks, “Up to seven times?” But Jesus responds:

“I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:22)

Then, Jesus proceeds to tell a parable about a servant trying to settle a debt with his master that is 10,000 pieces of gold. After the servant begged for mercy, the master felt pity for him and let him off without paying the debt.

Later, that same servant choked another servant who owed him a hundred silver coins and demanded to be paid. When the servant went back and begged for mercy, the master threw him in jail to be tortured until the debt was paid, despite the outrage of the other servants.

Jesus ends the parable by talking about the lesson behind it:

“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Mathew 18:35)

Forgiveness is not an easy thing for people to do. As Christians, when we find ourselves in that tough spot, we need to call upon the Lord to give us the strength to forgive others who do wrong the same way we expect others to forgive us when we make a mistake. In those situations, we can think about what Jesus did when He said on the cross:

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

The mother of Jerry Brown demonstrates the forgiveness we should have for each other. She told Piers Morgan of CNN:

“I know Josh Brent, and he’s been part of our family since Jerry went to the University of Illinois. All I can do is to pray for him and his family. I know [Brent] is hurting just as much as we are, because [he] and Jerry were like brothers.”

We should all be like Brown’s mother, who could show all kinds of malice towards Brent, but instead showed support for him. Instead of holding a grudge against a friend/neighbor/family member, we should show compassion like the master did. Rather than showing others our malice and anger—show them grace, forgiveness and the way to salvation.

Ricky Keeler is a contributor to Sports Spectrum magazine.

Devotion of the Week — Before Anything

Last year, the Harvard Crimson were the Ivy League Champions and made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1946. This year, they were projected to get back to the Big Dance, returning three seniors to their starting lineup. But head coach Tommy Amaker has some serious challenges to overcome in order to complete that goal for the Crimson.

Last week, Harvard had their co-captains Kyle Casey (F) and Brandyn Curry (G) leave the team due to alleged academic violations. Casey and Curry were allegedly part of a group of 125 students at Harvard who shared or plagiarized answers on a take-home test during an open-book final exam. To avoid potential punishments, the two seniors chose to withdraw from the school.

Every student in college may make a mistake or two at some point or another, but the problem I have is seeing student-athletes forget that they are students first. You see cases like this at Connecticut where the school’s academic progress report was so low they were banned from postseason play this year.

It got me thinking this week about what it means to be a Christian and living for Christ. In our lives, when people ask us what we do for a living, we may say we are a writer, accountant, fireman, etc. But, before anything, we should be followers of Jesus Christ, and our actions should show that. Similarly, student-athletes should be students before anything, and their actions should show that.

In the epistle to the Galatians, the apostle Paul talks about walking in the spirit and how it cannot conflict with the desire of the flesh. Keeping in line with the Spirit shows that Christ comes before everything else in our lives. This is what Paul describes as the fruits of the spirit:

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.  Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.  Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.” (Galatians 5:22-26)

Today, I exhort you to crucify the desires of the flesh and keep our minds focused on being a follower of Christ first, your occupation second.

Devotion of the Week — The Lord Uplifts

Over the last week, I have been thinking about the proper way to express my thoughts after the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Sandy made her presence known on the East Coast, in particular the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Houses have been damaged, lives have been lost, and power and heat have been out for days. I live on Staten Island, so seeing my borough for the first time since the storm broke my heart.

One of the sub-stories in New York that became the talk of the town were the sporting events. Mayor Michael Bloomberg postponed the Brooklyn Nets’ home opener against the New York Knicks last Thursday due to limited transportation options. The New York Giants game was played as scheduled Sunday afternoon against the Pittsburgh Steelers. But that wasn’t the main focus of the city in terms of sports.

Until Friday night, Mayor Bloomberg wanted the New York City Marathon to continue – despite most of the city having no power and limited resources. There was much public outcry especially from my borough where the race was scheduled to begin. Bloomberg later cancelled the marathon, but the runners did not let that stop them. This past Sunday, runners took to the streets of all five boroughs helping the people in need by delivering supplies to work sites. It was absolutely incredible to see the runners perform these acts of kindness and charity.

It got me thinking of the Good Samaritan story in the Gospel of Luke. In this story, Jesus is talking with the teachers of the Law who were trying to test Jesus by asking Him what they can do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him most importantly to love their neighbors as themselves, but the teacher does not know who his neighbor specifically is.

Jesus goes on to tell the man a parable about a man who was beaten up along the side of a road and left there to die. Two men, a priest, and a Levite rode by, but nobody came to help him. Then, a Samaritan came along the road and takes care of him. Keep this in mind for historical context, Jews and Samaritans have not been very fond of each other since the days of the Old Testament. This is what Jesus says about the Samaritan man in the parable.

But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.  He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him.The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.” (Luke 10:33-35)

Despite the lack of good relations between the two groups of people, the Samaritan still took care of the Jew and made sure that he was well. That is what loving your neighbor truly means. I saw a little bit of Good Samaritan qualities in the marathon runners who took supplies to Staten Island, Breezy Point, Rockaway Beach and all the other ravaged areas in need.

Today, I exhort you to not only keep in your heart, but also keep in your prayers the many people who have been affected by Hurricane Sandy. Also, I exhort you to always be kind to others even though they may not always be kind to you. You can also donate your time to help others in need and show mercy to others like the Lord continuously shows us mercy that we don’t deserve.

Also, in the gospel of Luke, Jesus talks about how we should show mercy to others:

“But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.  Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:35-36)

So, when helping others, always share the love of Christ in everything that you do!

By Ricky Keeler

Ricky Keeler is a contributor to Sports Spectrum magazine who writes a weekly, online devotional for sportsspectrum.com.

Devotion of the Week – Scapegoats

Jesus, Our Eternal Scapegoat

While the World Series is about to get underway, there is one storyline that is still sweeping Major League Baseball – at least in the New York City area. Last week, the New York Yankees were eliminated by the Detroit Tigers in a resounding sweep. The story around the nation wasn’t about the Tigers’ solid pitching, but the lack of offensive firepower throughout the postseason from the Bronx Bombers. The Yankees are set for an interesting offseason that could include many players being moved; but one player seems to be the one that the organization and its fans care about the most.

Third Baseman Alex Rodriguez is in the middle of a record 10-year, $275 million contract in New York, but Yankee fans have grown tired of his lack of postseason production since joining the team in 2004 (the 2009 postseason the lone exception). The tumultuous October for A-Rod began when manager Joe Girardi pinch-hit for him in Game 3 of the ALDS against the Baltimore Orioles for Raul Ibanez. Ibanez hit a game-tying and game-winning home run that night to give the Yankees the win. It continued on as Girardi benched A-Rod in Game 5 and throughout the ALCS against Detroit as Rodriguez was toggled in and out of the lineup. Yes, A-Rod could not hit a high 80’s fastball, but even the young second baseman, All-Star Robinson Cano, was only 3-for-40 in the postseason. Outfielders Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson were also not living up to their numbers and were also benched in the Detroit series. Yet, all the blame was fully placed on the broad shoulders of the highest paid player in all of sports.

Living in New York, it is easy to realize that you get scrutinized and blamed for every small thing you do – such as Rodriguez throwing baseballs with a message into the stands to two women in Game 2 of the ALCS vs. the Tigers. With Alex, he doesn’t get the grace period that most athletes get because of the lucrative contract given to him by the Steinbrenner brothers and general manager Brian Cashman.

It got me wondering about all the pressure Our Savior went through on the night He was betrayed. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed to His Father that the cup of suffering would somehow pass over Him. He was going to be the proverbial Lamb who would suffer for the sins of the world, even as John the Baptist identified him, saying: “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)

The Jewish leaders were one of the groups that were not particularly kind to Jesus because of all the crowds He was stirring up in the community. In John’s gospel, he talks about a meeting the Pharisees had after Jesus raised His friend Lazarus from the dead. The main point of the Jewish argument is how we can make sure this Jesus does not incite the Romans to want to crush our people. This is where we first hear of the Jewish high priest, Caiaphas:

“If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation. Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.’” (John11:48-50)

This passage shows that the Pharisees were looking for a scapegoat for the people. Little did they know that the scapegoat they wanted to provide would end up being the Savior for the whole world! Jesus knew He had to suffer and die in order to save us, especially in the Garden of Gethsemane when He asked His Father “if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39)

One of the more famous prophecies of Jesus being the scapegoat for our sins comes in Isaiah 53. This chapter of the Bible foreshadows the crucifixion of Jesus and talks about the transfer of our sins onto His shoulders. That is a major burden that we would never be able to endure!

“Surely he took up our pain

and bore our suffering,

yet we considered him punished by God,

stricken by him, and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions,

he was crushed for our iniquities;

the punishment that brought us peace was on him,

and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:4-6)

Whenever I read this passage, I just stop and say thank you to Jesus for taking on, and bearing, that punishment for me. Without that punishment, we would not be able to have any connection with the Father, nor would be able to receive the gifts of grace and eternal life.

Today, I exhort you to remember that when you feel that a situation is all your fault, although you may be guilty, or bear some measure of responsibility, you must at some point transfer the weight of that burden to the One you believe bore your guilt, the Lord Jesus Christ. This is even the case when we feel that the weight of the world is on our shoulders. We not only have a Savior who took upon Himself the burden of our sin, but He invites us to continuously cast our burdens upon Him!

I pray that you will continue to seek the Lord when you feel weighed down by various burdens and, in the midst of affliction, remember the punishment that Jesus took in your place and mine! Such was a burden none of us could bear.  May such reflection lead you to continually stand in awe of the Lord!

By Ricky Keeler

Ricky is a student at St. John’s University majoring in sports management and a freelance writer for Sports Spectrum. He maintains a faith and sports blog called JesusNSports. You can follow Ricky on Twitter @Rickinator555

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