Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Measuring up

By John D Ramsey
Okay, I admit, I am a sucker for the Olympics. I ignored the hype, I avoided all but the last few minutes of the opening ceremony. However, I cannot (or do not) resist the urge to watch the drama of sport. Gabby was just a toddler during the last Summer Games, so she is discovering the Olympics for the first time. I have let her stay up late and she has thoroughly enjoyed watching. I wondered what about the Olympics she found so captivating, and so I watched her watch. She identifies with the athletes from the United States and cheers when they succeed. She does this even though she only recently learned the difference between a city and a state and must have a fuzzy notion of what the United States is. I should not be too surprised with her nationalistic zeal because last football season and through the NCAA Basketball Tournament she always asked me, “Who are we voting for?”

Next time she asks, I shall have to correct her and say, “The proper form of your question is, ‘For whom are we voting?’ However, we do not vote, we cheer. Consequently, you should ask, ‘For whom are we cheering?’” I am certain that she would respond as her older sisters would, and say, “. . . Whatever.”

Nevertheless, Gabby is usually eager to lend her enthusiasm to whatever team or athlete I prefer, but sometimes she just likes one team’s colors more. She wants to cheer for someone. I suppose her affinity to an athlete or a team exposes the innate, existential surrogate scheme in which we all occasionally indulge. We feel like winners when our team wins.

During the Minnesota winter, it is difficult to cheer for the home team knowing that Green Bay and Chicago play real football on their home fields. By the same measure, perhaps I should not consider myself a football fan knowing that the true fanatics endure the extreme weather of Green Bay, Wisconsin. Nevertheless, as football fan living in Minnesota, I employed a different ethos than cheering the home team. Rather, I hoped that the better team would win.

I have realized that sport is a justice system. Whoever prepares best, plays hardest, and sacrifices most deserves to win. Like any justice system, there are those who try to pervert it. Some stack the bench with raw talent regardless of cost. Some use surreptitious means to steal competitors’ secrets. Some athletes use performance-enhancing drugs to gain an edge. Whenever someone gains an unfair advantage, his losses are sweet to the rest of us. When a great athlete is caught cheating, it is tragedy brought about by hubris. When the best team wins, we feel contented. All these illustrate a natural justice in sport.

Even though sport seeks justice, it is not without irony. Kirsta Coventry’s silver medal in the 100-meter backstroke is ironic in light of her world record in the semi-final of the event. As spectators, we sway to the courtroom dramas that unfold before our eyes. We deliberate with the announcers, and we render our own verdicts after injecting our own prejudice into the equations. We beautify our saints and condemn our sinners.

Perhaps we cheer when Michael Phelps wins gold and breaks the world record in the process. His labors are rewarded; justice is served. Perhaps we also cheer when Dara Torres overcomes the limitations of age to compete and win. Who works harder than these do? Their mental toughness is as commendable as their physical strength. Yet we might ask ourselves, what can we gain by their success? What would we lose if they failed? Most of us have not chosen to endure their sacrifices, nor will we earn the prizes that they seek. Any existential moment we enjoy is meaningless unless we can realize actual benefit. As athletes, very few of us would measure up to the dedicated men and women who earn the right to compete in the Olympics.

Nevertheless, the examples of great athletes encourage us because they confirm justice. Seeing justice in one realm, we can strive for justice in another. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Greeks in Corinth saying,

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

1 Corinthians 9:24-27 (NIV)

Paul implores the Corinthians to focus upon their faith even as an athlete focuses upon his training. Paul demands spiritual toughness of believers because there is reward for the faithful, and much is at stake. Later in his life, Paul concluded his instructions to Timothy saying,

The time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

2 Timothy 4:6-8 (NIV)

In our Kingdom in Context Bible study, we took a glance at the life of Joshua today. Joshua was spiritually tough. He fought the Lord’s battles faithfully from early in his life until the land of Canaan was subdued. He climbed halfway up Sinai, and he waited for Moses even while Israel committed idolatry. Joshua stayed with Moses even as Moses’ glory was fading. Joshua brought a good report to the people. He had confidence that God would deliver the Promised Land. The people nearly stoned him for his faith. He was strong and courageous as he led Israel in conquest. He succeeded in nearly everything God commanded him to do. When he failed to persuade all of Israel to treat God as holy, he punished Achan and his family, and then led the army to victory against Ai. When he failed to see Gibeon’s ruse, he owned his mistake and kept his oath. Joshua was spiritually tough. He was faithful.

Joshua was perhaps Israel’s strongest leader. Yet in his final days, he surveyed the men of Israel and he said,

You are not able to serve the LORD. He is a holy God; he is a jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins. If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, he will turn and bring disaster on you and make an end of you, after he has been good to you.

Joshua 24:19, 20 (NIV)

Joshua could see that regardless of what God had done for them; Israel was not spiritually tough enough to remain faithful. In light of Israel’s example, how do we know that we are spiritually tough enough? What hope do we have that we will fight the good fight and finish the race? If we hope to compete on our own merits, we are all like overweight, middle-aged men, trying to qualify for the Olympics. We are stupid to try.

However, we do not fight or run in our own strength, but rather we draw our strength from Jesus Christ. The writer of Hebrews carries on Paul’s sports analogy saying,

Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds.

Hebrews 12:1-3 (KJV)

Jesus is both the author and finisher of our faith. He is our example and he is our strength. What we cannot do ourselves, he has already finished for us. We measure up, because he has measured up. Indeed, we win because he has won.

When we look to Jesus, we will not be discouraged. His faithfulness will keep us faithful. The longer we strive to know him, the more we will long for his appearing. Learning of him and yearning for him will earn us a “crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to [us] on that day.”

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