Posted on December 17, 2010


The World Cup may be the most popular sporting event on the planet, a once-every-four-years global soccer extravaganza, but for me it only means this:  one lucky country wins  a trophy that looks like a gold ball on top of a placenta.

I think this is because the winner always seems to be Brazil.  Once upon a time, when lots of countries were winning the World Cup, it probably had a really great trophy, one that every nation coveted and wanted to parade through rural villages and take on diplomatic trips to other countries just to rub it in.   But then Brazil started winning the thing every year, and finally the other countries got fed up and decided that if Brazil was going to get a trophy every 4 years, they would make sure it was going to be a radioactive eyesore along the lines of a Jackson Pollock painting.

Trophies were a big deal for me as a kid, mostly because the ones I had all sucked.  I blame growing up in the Era of Self-Esteem (motto:  “Ecto Cooler for everyone!”), which meant that trophies were plentiful, but never for winning.   They were always for something like ‘most team spirit’, or ‘fewest on-field pee pants issues’, or ‘graduating from D.A.R.E’.  Consequently, the trophies in my trophy case were so pitiful I couldn’t bear to display them.  They were like the toys you got in a  Happy Meal- tiny, plastic, and just for participating.

By contrast, my friend Jimmy Tipton was good at everything and had the collection of trophies to prove it.  There were trophies for baseball, trophies for basketball, and medallions for All-Star team participation.  They lined the walls of his room and covered his desk, and there were so many of them that the whole collection looked stolen from the Count of Monte Cristo.  There wasn’t anything he hadn’t won; I guessed that by now people were out there just mailing him trophies for no good reason, or laying them at his feet, like the Wise Men approaching the baby Jesus.  “We’re not even holding the Tucson Area Public Schools Geography Bee and Robotics Competition this year,”  they would say, “for we have seen your star in the East.  Please accept this trophy, forged from the purest Solomonic gold.”  And up on the shelf it would go. 

And so whenever we played in Jimmy’s room, I could imagine him admiring his trophies as he lay in bed, surging with confidence as they beamed out rays of confidence that bathed him in assurance of his own awesomeness while he slept.  Each one of them was a plastic-gold flag planted throughout his short life history, showing at each step where he had walked along a path of excellence.  No wonder he’s a doctor now.   

What this reminds me of is something the prophet Samuel did in the Old Testament.  In 1st Samuel 7, Samuel challenged the rebellious nation of Israel to lay down their idols and return to following God.  Upon hearing that the leaders of Israel were all gathered in one place, the Philistines raised an army and came to attack them:

While Samuel was sacrificing the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to engage Israel in battle. But that day the LORD thundered with loud thunder against the Philistines and threw them into such a panic that they were routed before the Israelites.  The men of Israel rushed out of Mizpah and pursued the Philistines, slaughtering them along the way to a point below Beth Kar.

Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far the LORD has helped us.”

As humans, Ebenezer-raising comes naturally to us.  Because we live exclusively in the present moment, the past retreats from our memory until sometimes we can barely remember even the incredible things that have happened to us.  This is not a fresh, 20th century insight-  Samuel knew this.  He knew that Israel had witnessed a great miracle (God throwing the Philistines into confusion), but he also knew that, in time, they would forget it, as they also forgot the Passover, and the parting of the Red Sea, and countless other great wonders.  So Samuel resolved not to let it pass into foggy recollection- he raised a monument.

Trophies are like little Ebenezers.  They are landmarks that we can, during times of forgetfulness, point to and say, “I was there.  I did that.”  And of course they don’t have to be actual trophies with faux-marble bases and a plastic figurine shaped like a Stratego piece at the top.   They can be anything- accomplishments, spouses, children, houses, or that monster 13 point buck head on the wall that scares your daughter to death.  Whatever they are,  they are gifts God gives us to allow us to mark a place in our lives where God clearly showed up- in short, to raise  our Ebenezers.

 The problem comes when the Ebenezers we raise become about what we’ve done, instead of what God does.   There is no more transient substance in the universe than earthly fame, and the whole of history can testify to this.  Alexander the Great once conquered all of the known world, and today he is best known to 99% of all people as Colin Farrell in a wig.  The Roman historian Suetonius wrote biographies of the twelve Caesars of Rome, once the most powerful men on earth who were revered as gods, and today practically no one could name them, let alone list their accomplishments. 

Athletic glory is even less permanent.  The great players of one era are eventually superceded by the next- George Mikan becomes Bill Russell becomes Dr. J becomes Magic becomes Jordan becomes LeBron becomes the next one ad infinitum.  Untouchable records fall- Maris’ 61 becomes McGwire’s 70 becomes Bonds’ 73.   And championship dynasties give way to others and fade- the Packers become the Raiders become the 49ers become the Cowboys become the Patriots, and so on.**

**- Sic transit gloria, Tom Brady.  You were warned. 

This backs up what the Bible says:  “…yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” (James 4:14)  “You have made my life no longer than the width of my hand. My entire lifetime is just a moment to you; at best, each of us is but a breath.”  (Psalm 39:5)  “Man is like a breath; his days are like a fleeting shadow.”  (Psalm 144:4)

The fact is that Ebenezers raised to our own glory are flimsy landmarks, crippled by the fact of our mortality.  They are tethered by spider silk to our papier mache lives, and as we die they erode almost instantly.  But those Ebenezers raised to the Lord are different.  Because God’s goodness is as infinite as we are finite, those monuments are steel cables, attaching the earth to heaven like rigging from a barge to a harbor dock. 

I read once where thieves stole most 0f the trophies that tennis legend Pete Sampras accumulated over the course of his record-setting career.  Setting aside the questions of how exactly one fences a trophy reading “1995 Wimbledon Champion”, or even who would want to buy it, the most interesting thing about the story was one of the things Sampras said after the theft.  He talked about wanting to show his kids all the championship trophies he’d won in his career.  “Losing this stuff,” he said, “is like having the history of my tennis life taken away.”

 It’s sad that Pete Sampras’ trophies were stolen.  But there is a sense in which he experienced literally what happens to all people figuratively.  All the trophies we acquire in life are eventually stolen, in some way.  And because they are about our own fleeting glory, they are powerless to do what we want:  to mark our path in a permanent way, and give us assurance that our lives were not in vain. 

Even today my trophy collection is lame.  But God’s grace to me, like it is to all of us, is to bypass the ridiculous trinkets of a jealous childhood and instead provide us with what we really wanted all along:  real trophies- the life experiences through which God reminds us that the trail of all life goes through His country, and moments that we can carry with us as constant reminders of His awesomeness.  Not mine or Jimmy Tipton’s.

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