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Like Moses and Barnabas, we can be cheerleaders for other people

Sunday, July 8, 2012

"Save the cheerleader, save the world."

This plea, oft-repeated during the inaugural season of NBC's "Heroes," may appear a quirky, even incomprehensible, beginning to a religion column. The reader's patience is therefore requested.

Cheerleading has become an expected element in America's sports culture, although it is not universally present. In the most popular U.S. sport, football (sorry, Cardinals fans, it's true), only six of the NFL's 32 teams do not have their own cheerleading squads: Lions, Giants, Browns, Bears, Packers and Steelers.

Is cheerleading important -- as the quote which starts this column presupposes? Given that sociology is not part of my personal tool kit, there are no empirical studies for me to cite to back up that notion. However, from a biblical standpoint, cheerleading was vital.

At its core, what is cheerleading? To lead a cheer is to give encouragement or to offer inspiration. Since cheerleaders face the spectator and not the player in performing their duties, we can surmise the primary objective is to keep the crowd in the game. The mission statement of any cheerleader, to put it into first person parlance, may be the following: "It's not over, fans. Our team still has a chance. Keep believing."

To be sure, there are no colorfully clad, pom-pom-wielding women or men in the pages of the Bible. It is a fool's errand to locate biblical characters building cheerleading pyramids or to find pithy declarations empowered by an active verb urging people to press on to the prize. (e.g., "Israel, let's go!")

Yet was it not cheerleading when Moses lifted his arms at Rephidim, giving travel-weary Israelites the hope desperately needed to defeat the Amalekites? Moses' personal cheerleading was deemed so important to the people's morale that when his arms became tired, two men, his brother Aaron and a man named Hur, were dispatched to hold them up. As long as Moses' arms were in the air, Israel was succeeding in the battle. (Exodus 17:11) Cheerleading, pure and simple.

Cheerleading is never more necessary when the chips are down, when one's fortunes have gone south, when hope seems to dim to a mere pinprick of light. Imagine being John Mark, the young companion of Paul, whom the great evangelist discarded from his traveling cohort. John Mark had apparently abandoned the mission in Pamphylia -- at least in Paul's eyes. We are given no details about this desertion. In the face of this dismissal, Barnabas became John Mark's advocate, pleading his case before Paul for a second chance, becoming the boy's cheerleader. When his arguments were not convincing, Barnabas was unwilling to cast the young man aside. Barnabas put the encouragement of a vulnerable disciple ahead of his partnership with Paul and broke with the fabled evangelist. Barnabas took John Mark with him to Cyprus to plead the cause of Christ there. (Acts 15:37-39) Cheerleading, pure and simple.

When have you been the cheerleading Moses, lifting up others by the power of your presence -- by offering inspiration at a school board session, a city council hearing, at a meeting of your subdivision trustees?

When have you been the cheerleading Barnabas, putting your personal capital on the line for someone more vulnerable -- by encouraging just one person and standing with him or her through a difficult time?

Yes, save the cheerleader, save the world. It only takes one. That one may be you.

Dr. Jeff Long is adjunct faculty in religion studies at Southeast Missouri State University.

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