Sumter Pastor Clay Smith: Torn...


When my son went to Duke, it was fun to watch their basketball games and see if I could spot him among all the Cameron Crazies. One game, he was in the first row. Such a strange experience, seeing him yelling as the team went up and down the court. Because he went to Duke, I started pulling for Duke.

Then my daughter decided to go to UNC-Chapel Hill. If you do not know about this rivalry, it is not so great in football, but in basketball, it tops them all. The schools are 10 miles apart. UNC leads the series, but in modern times (since Coach K), the series is nearly even in wins and losses and points scored. Duke students camp out for weeks in the dead of winter to get tickets for the North Carolina-Duke game.

Naturally, my sweet oldest daughter asks, "Daddy, will North Carolina be your new favorite team since I am your favorite child?" I was torn.

What do you do when you are caught between a rock and a hard place? First, you look for a compromise. I told both children I would cheer for the home team when Duke and North Carolina played each other. That seemed to satisfy everyone. Until my daughter's freshman year, when Duke and Carolina met in the ACC Tournament. Both kids wanted to know, "Who are you going to cheer for, Daddy?" I proposed that I cheer for one team in the first half and another team in the second half. This compromise was rejected. Then I said, "I will pull for the team that is the lowest seed." This also was rejected.

Then it dawned on me: my pulling for one side or the other had no bearing on the outcome of the game. So I put down my parental foot and declared, "I will pull for whoever wins the game."

It is depressing when two of your children roll their eyes at the same time. My skillful solution simply resulted in both children being mad at me.

Then my youngest daughter decided to go to Clemson. This worked out nicely for me. Clemson basketball has improved, but honestly, Clemson is about football. Duke is not really relevant in football and North Carolina, while improving, is not a football power. It was nice not to choose sides.

But this week, a new dilemma has emerged. As I have often written, I have been a Florida Gator fan since I knew football had winners and losers. I have endured the horrible losing seasons and celebrated the National Championship seasons. Though not an alumni, I proudly proclaim that I am a boy from old Florida.

I went to Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, a good Baptist school. Samford had a football tradition (Bobby Bowden once coached there) but dropped football before I attended. It had gotten two expensive, they said. The reality was that the three men who were supporting it with blank checks all died within six months. After I graduated, Samford started football again, working its way up from Division III to Division I - FCS.

Traditionally, big-time programs like Florida play an FCS school down in the season. The idea is to play a game not too challenging before playing the big rivalries and conference championship games. This week, Florida, team of my heart, plays Samford, my alma mater. I am torn.

Do I root for Florida, who needs a win to get back on track after losses to South Carolina and Georgia? Do I root for Samford, the underdog, to pull a major upset, one that will lift the program up to new heights in the Southern Conference?

The sportswriters are saying no one cares about this game, but they are wrong. I can't decide which side to come down on. I do not bet on games, but I know where I would put my money. On the other hand, my school could join a handful of FCS schools (like Appalachian State) that defeat the big school with a game forever remembered.

One day the prophet Elijah called the people of God together to confront them about their divided hearts. "How long will you waver between two gods?" he said. "If Baal is god, follow him. If the LORD is God, follow him." What followed was a showdown to see who would send fire from heaven. Baal was silent - because he was not real. The LORD sent fire.

People sometimes say to me, "All religions lead to the same place." That is not true. To worship the god of Islam is very different than worshipping the god of Christianity. Maybe what people are trying to say is they feel torn. I get that. But deciding which god you will follow requires a choice: not which religion makes the most sense or feels right, but which god is real? Think about that carefully.

Meanwhile, I still have to make up my mind about who to pull for on Saturday: Florida or Samford. I think fire from heaven will be my sign.

The Rev. Dr. Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter. Email him at