Armchair Olympians

24 Don’t you know that the runners in a stadium all race, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way to win the prize. 25 Now everyone who competes exercises self-control in everything. They do it to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable crown. 26 So I do not run like one who runs aimlessly or box like one beating the air. 27 Instead, I discipline my body and bring it under strict control, so that after preaching to others, I myself will not be disqualified.

1 Corinthians 9:24-27 CSB

I must confess, I haven’t been watching much of the Olympic games currently taking place in Tokyo. Over the years, I’ve spent hours glued to the television, watching the competitions, gobbling up the emotional stories of various athletes and their struggles to qualify and chase their dreams. In fact, I used to get so involved in watching the Olympics, that I would fall behind in my housework, social obligations, and sleep! It can be very inspiring to watch as various athletes from around the world challenge themselves (and their competitors) to go faster, reach farther, and climb higher. And many of the stories and names have stayed with me over the years.

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There is nothing wrong with watching sports, and cheering on those who have worked so hard. And I love the pageantry and good will of the Olympic games, where I find myself cheering for athletes and sports I would never know otherwise–those who have overcome tragedy and incredible obstacles just to participate; those whose achievements have set new standards and inspired others to greater heights. But as Christians, we should consider our OWN level of achievement. Not in a competitive sense, and not in the sense of “earning” God’s salvation or approval, but in the sense of growth and development of self-discipline.

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We admire athletes, not only for their natural abilities, but for their discipline and spirit. They train for years, undergoing rigorous drills, keeping tight schedules, pushing their bodies– often to the point of injury–to get a little more speed or distance or strength. They prepare for the stress of competition and the pressure of expectation. They learn to leave behind the failures and the victories of yesterday as they get ready for tomorrow. We watch them, and we talk about being inspired. But inspired to do what? I have never developed the level of self-discipline to rise every day at 6 a.m. to run or stretch, let alone train for a race or a swimming meet. I briefly flirted with becoming a gymnast after watching Nadia Comaneci score a perfect 10.0 in the Montreal Olympics of 1976, but I quit after only one weekend!

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The Apostle Paul calls us to follow his example and “run the race” as we live for Christ–we are to develop our character and practice spiritual discipline in the same way that an athlete develops her body and practices physical and mental discipline. And our motivation is not a gold medal or a world record that will eventually be broken, but eternal victory over Sin and Death!

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I’m ashamed to say that I have not always followed this example. I’ve been an “armchair Olympian”– content to watch others do the hard work, and enjoy the vicarious feeling of victory when they cross the finish line. I cheer for those Christians who are called to foreign missions–I’ve even traveled on “short term” mission trips– but I don’t always see my everyday life as a “mission.” But that’s exactly what it is. Jesus didn’t watch the disciples heal the sick or preach about the Kingdom of God as He sat on the sidelines. And He certainly didn’t spend time analyzing and dissecting the “performances” of the prophets and patriarchs of old. He didn’t even tell the disciples to analyze His miracles or study His sermons. He simply said, “Follow Me!” “Walk with Me.” Christianity is not passively cultivating a feeling of victory in Jesus. It is living victoriously THROUGH Jesus.

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Our character won’t be changed by sitting on the couch or in an armchair, watching others do the hard training and running their race. Cheering from the sidelines isn’t going to increase our patience, or develop our faith, or make us more Christlike. Listening to Christian Radio or watching sermons on television won’t automatically translate into a life of integrity and peace. Even reading the Bible, or keeping a prayer journal, or writing a blog about spiritual things won’t teach us humility, gentleness, or love for others. We need to make the effort. And we need to seek the wisdom and discipline of the Holy Spirit– our “coach”– as we follow the example of Christ. It starts with small decisions– daily habits–and learning to be consistent. It also takes a willingness to repent and get back on track when we fail. And we will fail in our own efforts!

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We can admire earthly athletes. But we shouldn’t worship them. And we shouldn’t let them become idols that substitute for the kind of work WE need to be doing to learn discipline and faithfulness. I want to reach the finish line, knowing that I’ve run my best race for the King!

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“Wait For It…”

Movies and Television shows are breeding grounds for popular phrases that enter the culture and resonate with millions of people.  Just utter the phrase, and nearly everyone in the group “gets” the reference.  A recent American sitcom has made the phrase “Wait for it..” an iconic reference to comedic timing.  It’s often the anticipation of a punchline, a pratfall, an ironic twist, that makes it memorable or noteworthy, and a clever person will use the timing to maximize the humor in a joke or prank.

We have an innate desire to see “what happens” next in life– “Where will I be in five years?”  “Will I get the job?”  “When will the baby come?” “Will she say ‘Yes’?” “Will the tests come back negative?”  The last thing we want at such times is a clever, smug comedian sitting back and using our anticipation for his own entertainment.

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Some people imagine God sitting in Heaven, smug and distant, pointing at us and laughing, “Wait for it..”  Every time they face disappointment, frustration, oppression, they raise their fists to Heaven and blame their creator for everything they haven’t gotten, every missed opportunity, every setback, every heartache.  “If God really loved me, he would not let me be hurt/sad/poor…”

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But, when God says “Wait for it…”, he’s not talking about a punchline or an ironic twist of fate.  He knows that bad things will happen, but he’s not asking us to wait for those things.  And he certainly isn’t sitting back laughing at our pain and disappointment.  He’s asking us to wait for something better.  Something we cannot even begin to imagine.  A restoration of all things– the dead brought back to life, the sick completely healed, the love we long for lavishly poured out in its fullness.

Anticipation is not part of a joke; hope is not corny or naive– it is built into the very soul of each person.  We long for what we have never experienced, but what we know is “out there”.  In this world, we will be left anticipating, because NOTHING can measure up to what God has in store.  Even the best of relationships, the best of comforts, the best of experiences, will leave us wanting something more.  And this is a gift, even though it can leave us disappointed, restless, and even hurt.  In light of what’s coming, there is no loss or setback so great as to cancel out the hope and the promise that stirs within.

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It’s because of this that we can pray with confidence in the midst of our struggles, and with abandon in times of frustration and pain.  We live in the finished work of the cross, but the unfinished and ongoing work of renewal and restoration.

Wait for it..

Out of Focus

I try not to bring current events into my writings on prayer.  That said, I feel compelled to discuss some recent events in light of a growing trend–instant and polarizing reactions to small events, petty arguments, and even non-events.

Recently, a celebrity–one whose entire career has been predicated on her whining, hateful, politically incorrect rhetoric–was fired and her TV show cancelled over a single “tweet” she sent making fun of a former White House employee.  The TV show in question was a regurgitation of her popular sitcom from 30 years ago; a show that was controversial then because of its irreverence and foul language.  The new show quickly invited controversy by seeming to support the current president– also known for making offensive and cringe-worthy tweets.

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There is more than enough finger-pointing, blame-sharing, and shaming in the wake of this incident–but there is even more hypocrisy.  The people who are celebrating in the wake of this comedienne’s downfall are the very ones who were supporting her three decades ago– then she was “bold” and “brave” and “real.”  These same people were likely watching the new version of the TV show just last week.  Now she is “racist” and “abhorrent” (I guess the word “hateful” is suffering from overuse, and needs a stand-in– it was used in at least two of the tweets from her boss and colleagues) and “unacceptable”.  The people who are defending her now were the ones calling for boycotts of her show in the late ’80s for its flippant tone and dysfunctional family morals.  They are calling for more shows to be cancelled– shows they still watch; shows they discuss freely on social media; or maybe shows they don’t watch, because their friends tell them how they should react to what they’ve missed.

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My point is that controversies and “outrages” like this are becoming more common, more polarizing, and more hypocritical every week.  In the rush to judgment, we are losing our focus and missing the bigger picture.  What this comedienne said was offensive– it was juvenile, personal, hurtful.  It wasn’t funny, it wasn’t appropriate, and it wasn’t fair.  But it also wasn’t shocking.  The reprisal was swift and harsh, but that wasn’t really shocking, either, except in the context of the show’s success (it was the highest rated show of the season).  In the days and weeks that follow, some will regret that this action left dozens of other actors and staff without jobs, and others will cry foul at those who continue to “get away” with bad behavior and hurtful language.  But few of us will turn the spotlight on our own faults, our own use of social media or hateful language, or our own contributions to the cut-throat culture that surrounds us.

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Before I cheer or protest or react to this recent event, I want to ask forgiveness–for losing my focus.  I invited that TV show into my living room, along with those characters and their skewed values.  I watched video clips of interviews and failed attempts at the National Anthem and other scandals, and I chuckled.  I clicked on the news stories about the sitcom “reboot”, and considered watching it because it would be controversial– something to talk about, yell about, or laugh at.  And I clicked on the “news” of this comedienne’s downfall, consuming it like popcorn, and being entertained by the fallout.

Forgive me, Father, and restore my focus.  Create a clean heart in me, and be my pure vision.  Help me to stop pointing fingers at others and point others to you.

Hebrews 12:1-2 New International Version (NIV)

12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

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