Spiritual teaching from the Army/Navy Game

My wife and I attended our first Army/Navy football game last Saturday. The game was played at FedEx stadium in Washington, DC on a perfect winter’s day, with the sun shining and a cold wind blowing. Eighty thousand rabid fans filled the stadium. They were “rabid” because no one goes to this annual event unless they’re sold out Army (that would be my wife and I) or sold out Navy (the other guys).

The game is what the media and everyone who’s ever attended say it is: an athletic contest embedded in stirring military pomp and patriotic fervor. President Obama flipped the coin that began the game and Lee Greenwood sang “Proud to be an American” at the half-time show, accompanied by a huge American flag carried onto the field. Almost everyone there sang the chorus with him. Eighty-four West Point graduates have lost their lives in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; almost that many Naval Academy graduates have died in the same wars. That sobering reality—along with the other thousands of brave Americans who’ve died there—brings a different perspective to this game.

The Army/Navy game is so unique that it is the basis for a new television series called “Game of Honor” that tracks the experience of two football players through their respective Academy experiences. Along the way, the show gives an inside look at what cadets and midshipmen go through in their four years. Here’s a trailer.

Here are some takeaways from the game this year that have a direct bearing on where many of us are in our own lives:
1. Alexander de Tocqueville was right: America is great because America is good, and when America ceases being good, she will no longer be great. The young men and women in attendance at the game—4000 West Point cadets and 4000 Naval Academy midshipmen—are representative of the millions more who have served and who presently serve to defend our nation. These young people are rigorously trained not only in their respective fields but more broadly in their character; and their ethical standard benefits the nation as a whole. To make doing the right thing an expectation isn’t just effective parenting, it’s also necessary for authentic spiritual growth.
2. Outcomes matter. The nation’s military is rigorously (some might say ruthlessly) devoted to the bottom line: what’s important is that a soldier, sailor, Marine or airman gets their job done. In our modern culture that’s often more devoted to how people feel about themselves at any given moment, we don’t always value results as much as we should. The end result is that many people live unproductive lives. The principle holds true in our spiritual lives. So many people in our churches don’t pay attention to the outcomes God wants to achieve. He wants to do something special in my life. If I’m still dealing with the same sins, baggage, fears, animosities, anxieties and inner struggles a year, ten years or thirty years after coming into a relationship with Jesus then I’m not paying enough attention to the outcome of my faith.
3. Ceremony and symbols make a difference. The carefully planned  “March On,” when the Corps of Cadets marched onto the field in perfect order followed by the Midshipmen Brigade of the  Naval Academy (which was pretty sloppy compared to the precision of the Cadets—I’m just saying) in their dress uniforms; followed by a fly over from F-18s and Apache helicopters; the United States Flag everywhere evident; the presence of the President of the United States; the singing of the National Anthem—all this and more gave the game a special feel. The patriotic gestures and symbols raised the event well beyond what other college football games usually represent. When LSU and Alabama play for the National Championship on January 9, there will be even more people attending and watching on television. There will be intensity and passion off the charts. People will dress up in crazy costumes and froth at the mouth. But all they’re doing is playing a football game. The Army/Navy game represents much more, and all the ceremony emphasizes the difference. In our church’s rush to embrace more and more modern styles of worship we’ve got to be careful not to erase the symbols and ceremony that call the human spirit to higher purpose. Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, for example, with the highest weekly attendance in the country, has carefully removed all crosses from their worship center. They don’t want to offend anyone by distracting them, they say. Distract them from what, exactly? When we lose our symbols we lose touch with our purpose.
My wife and I probably won’t have the chance to go to another Army/Navy game. Our son graduates from West Point in May. But we wanted to attend at least one while he was there. It was worth the effort.