The Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Tennessee Titans in yesterday’s AFC Conference Championship game. The San Francisco 49ers won at home against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Conference Championship. Oddsmakers are favoring the Chiefs slightly in Super Bowl LIV.
Since this is not a sports column and our nation is celebrating the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today, you may be wondering why I am leading with these results. Here’s what the teams who competed yesterday and Dr. King have in common: they illustrate the cultural leverage of excellence.
Faith and football
The Chiefs are led by CEO Clark Hunt. I was privileged to be his pastor for many years in Dallas and can attest personally to his family’s strong commitment to Jesus.
When his team won the AFC Championship yesterday, Clark told the world, “I want to thank the Lord for blessing us with this opportunity. The glory belongs to him. And this trophy belongs to the best fans in the National Football League.”
Tennessee quarterback Ryan Tannehill has made clear his faith in Jesus over the years as well, recently telling reporters: “I pray before every game. I spend time with God before I get to the stadium and then when I lace up my cleats, I thank God for the opportunity to go out there and attempt to glorify him.”
By contrast, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has made news in recent years for the fact that he no longer identifies as a Christian. After meeting and being influenced by Rob Bell, Rodgers told ESPN, “I think organized religion can have a mind-debilitating effect, because there is an exclusivity that can shut you out from being open to the world, to people, and energy, and love and acceptance.”
Rodgers is one of the most talented athletes of his generation. Like Clark Hunt and Ryan Tannehill, his commitment to professional excellence provides enormous leverage for cultural influence, whether the person uses that influence for Jesus or not.
Why Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. never completed high school
It may surprise you to learn that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. never completed high school. That’s because he was such an advanced student that he skipped his first and last years of high school and went directly into college at the age of fifteen.
He entered seminary at the age of nineteen and graduated three years later as valedictorian and student body president. He completed a PhD at Boston University at the age of twenty-five.
Dr. King was brilliant in his diagnosis of the problem facing our nation: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
He was brilliant in declaring the ultimate answer to our malady as well. While accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Dr. King stated: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. That is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”
He was brilliant in inspiring others. Dr. King told a group of students in October 1967, “Be a bush if you can’t be a tree. If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail. If you can’t be a sun, be a star. For it isn’t by size that you win or fail. Be the best of whatever you are.”
Today we remember with gratitude not just his legacy but the commitment to excellence that made it possible.
“An excellent spirit was in him”
Daniel achieved an exalted place in Babylon “because an excellent spirit was in him” (Daniel 6:3). Solomon noted, “Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings” (Proverbs 22:29). Paul was known for his “great learning” (Acts 26:24).
The person who lived with excellence more than any other was of course the Lord Jesus. He is the only person in history who was “tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15 NIV). The crowds said of his ministry, “He has done all things well” (Mark 7:37).
Now our Lord’s passion for excellence must be ours. We are to seek excellence in our thoughts: “If there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). And in our actions as well: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Colossians 3:23).
We most express such excellence through service: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another” (1 Peter 4:10). Jesus was adamant: “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35).
“You only need a heart full of grace”
Exactly two months before he was assassinated, Dr. King delivered a sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta titled “The Drum Major Instinct.” He described this instinct as “a desire to be out front, a desire to lead the parade, a desire to be first.”
By contrast, he proclaimed, Jesus defined greatness as service. Dr. King noted: “By giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second law of thermodynamics to serve.
“You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.”
Is your heart full of grace today?