So, I ran some regular posts during the Olympics, but failed to post during the Paralympics. This wasn’t because I was less enthused by them, but because of the timing gap primarily. At any rate, the Paralympics ended this past Sunday. I thought of the many overwhelmingly inspiring stories and the raw athletic talent featured throughout the games. I though of so many things that could have been said about these games in a spiritual context. Instead I will open this up to those of you reading this.
If you watched any of the Paralympics (or if you didn’t and can find some internet player to watch some), what is one Spiritual lesson you can draw from these games?
I’ll offer one myself. For me it seems to really drive home the inherent worth of people. These people are not only valuable, but have overcome what others would see as impossible or near impossible limitations. I also believe they have shown, in an interesting way, that God doesn’t make mistakes. They are not less human with the loss of a limb (or limbs) or other limitations (not that I ever thought any of these athletes were), if anything, they more fully express what it is to be human.
Ok, so that’s like three things. Anyway, it’s your turn.
Well we finally saw an Olympic Sporting event live. On Sunday, the last day of the Olympics, we were able to go watch the Men’s Marathon along part of the unticketed route (for those wondering, only the area around the start/finish was ticketed). We weren’t sure we would go to it or not, in fact we had all but decided against it for various reasons. But Sunday morning we got up, with every intention of going to Church mind you, and my wife and I looked at each other and both said “I really want to do this.”
So we packed up things for the kids and headed out to go watch the Marathon. Since we had been talking about going earlier in the week, I already had looked up where the route would be and where it would be both easiest to get to and we would get the most action. So we went to Waterloo and walked across the bridge there (which I think has one of the best views in London) and took the stairs down to the Victoria Embankment. We arrived early enough that we got a reasonable spot, nearly an hour before the race started and about an hour and fifteen minutes before the runners would first go by the area. And we set up waited.
Now, when I started to write this post, I thought about saying something about running the race, or striving toward the goal. I thought about things like how life is a marathon and we need to finish well. While all of those are true, and certainly have their place, they weren’t my experience that day. I wasn’t in the marathon. I was a spectator and my experience was significantly different. Most of the time this was our view:
There was nothing going on. We were waiting. As I reflected on the day, though, I didn’t think it was boring, even though we waited for over an hour before the first runners came through, something about it felt exciting. There was an anticipation as any moment the runners could come around the corner.
We did other things. We talked, we played with our kids, read them books. We looked around and took pictures of the empty street, and the London backdrop that we would be leaving before the end of the year. It was enjoyable and we liked the other things we did. We met knew people (whom we would likely never see again) and made a good day out of it. Still, we had a purpose to be there. We were there to see this:
And it was certainly exciting. Now, I want to be clear on something. If God has given you a specific purpose to do something right now, you shouldn’t wait around to do it, but go out and immediately take care of it. Still, as I reflected on our waiting in anticipation, I thought about our day to day lives as Christians. We don’t go on a mission trip every day. Even though we talk to other people about Christ, we aren’t only evangelists. There are other things to do every day. We go to work. We pay bills. We drive around and go grocery shopping. Sometimes we just take time with family. There are periods in our life where we are waiting. Waiting for the next big thing.
Too often, though, we wait without anticipation. The lack of anticipation, or purpose to our waiting, changes it from something exciting and enjoyable to drudgery. Waiting on a bus is different from waiting for an exciting, rarely seen event. God is going to do something, and instead of drudgery in the mean time, there should be an anticipation for it. It changes the intervening activities. While we waited for the marathon, our conversation was about how exciting it would be, about other things in the Olympics. We talked about how wonderful it would be for our kids in the future. We got them excited. There was a purpose to our waiting. In any other context it would have been dull and mundane. On that day, in that location, though, it was purposed. So while your waiting on the next thing to happen, get some anticipation for it, even if it’s not entirely clear what that is. And add some purpose to your waiting. A trip to the grocery store is mundane, but the same trip taken with the knowledge that the King of the Universe could be coming any minute, and, well, that’s a lot more exciting.
So a friend gave us their tickets to the Olympic Park here in London for about a week and a half ago (they had unexpectedly acquired tickets to an event, which automatically gives access to the park). I took the day off and we had a good time.
There were many interesting things to see. When we first arrived we were greeted by a rather imposing gate which marked one of the few entry
points to this park that was walled off within the city of London.
There were of course the largest McDonalds in the world (and the one where we ate, but still had to wait for an hour to get our happy meal:) ). The tallest Art Structure in Britain, called the “Orbit” which promised panoramic views of the city.
Or the many, many odd depictions of the rather odd Olympic mascots (in keeping with tradition).
But the thing that everything in the park was centered around, the thing that really drew our attention, was the Olympic Stadium.
Now, we weren’t able to go inside because they were rehearsing for what I assume will be the closing ceremony, and the athletics events didn’t start until Friday. But as I looked at the stadium and then at the massive crowds of people around, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the words from Hebrews.
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, 2 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. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. — Hebrews 12:1-3 (NIV)
The cloud of witnesses Paul is referring to is, of course, different from spectators who pay to come watch other athletes. Rather than those who could not do what the other runners (and other athletes) do, these are those who have already competed. Rather than competitors, though, these other runners are cheering the us to go further, faster, and better than they did. To perform the race in a more admirable fashion.
If you look at runners in the stadium, you can notice many things in common about their technique. I’d just like to focus on one. Their heads. For the majority, if not the entirety, of every race, the runners look straight ahead. They don’t look behind them or to the side, and they certainly don’t look at the crowds. If they do, they almost always begin to lose ground compared to the other runners. Instead they focus on what is ahead. For the Christian, what is ahead of us, the goal that have in mind, is Christ. To look elsewhere is to lose ground, to become hindered. We don’t focus on the accolades, instead our goal is on the cross. Not praise, as the Olympic athletes receive, but humiliation, so that God might be glorified.
So, this is the second post in my Olympics mini-series that I’m doing during the games since I’m living in London where this is going on. If you’ve missed the first you can click here to read it (and see the video that I took of the Olympic Torch Relay).
By now, I hope you’ve seen the opening ceremony of the London 2012 games. There is a strong sense of patriotism that arises from watching these events. That Ceremony was incredibly British and no doubt brought a certain amount of British pride to those here I’m sure. Although I live here right now, as you know, I’m not British. I am, essentially, a citizen of a different country living as a (albeit temporary) resident alien. My greatest measure of patriotism was reserved for my home country (USA).
I was certainly taken by the sometimes overtly Christian tone present at the games, mostly due to song choices that, although they had an affiliation with various sports of countries within the United Kingdom, were nevertheless hymnic in their tone. One such example that I found particularly moving was Emeli Sandé’s singing of “Abide with Me.” It is a song traditionally associated with Rugby, which will join the summer games in the next Olympic cycle, and it may have been chosen partly for this reason. Still, I found it particularly moving. Below is a clip of Sandé singing it in studio (clips from the Olympics are the property of the IOC and are not readily available due to licensing issues).
Still, at the end of the ceremony the athletes take a pledge that includes the line that they what they do “for the glory of the sport and our teams.” I am under no illusions as to the necessarily secular nature of the games. Despite this, the conflicting patriotic feelings in me, for my country of citizenship in addition (and dominance) to the one where I live, made me reflect on the less than overtly spiritual nature to the opening ceremony. Simply put, despite the fact that I live in Britain, and certainly have developed a great love for the British and the United Kingdom as a whole, I will never be fully assimilated and will always hold America as a place of priority higher than that.
You can probably tell already where I’m going with this, but just in case you can’t let me make it explicit. As much as I have a deep seated connection and love for America, I am more fundamentally a citizen of a heavenly kingdom, and I will never be fully assimilated into the secular country of my citizenship. Ephesians 2 and Philippians 3 both refer to the Christian as a citizen of another kingdom. Revelation describes the nature of this city in great detail. Also in Revelation is a reminder to us. We can never be completely assimilated into this world.
Sometimes here I stick out. The clothes I wear don’t always fit with the British style, though that is notably not usually what causes me to stick out. In particular the way I speak gives me away immediately: I’m not from here originally. Not only my accent, but the things I talk about and the words I choose to use all give me away. I can’t follow the politics of this country on anywhere near the level of those back home and there are some topics that I am entirely ignorant, or ones that I speak about that are completely foreign to most citizens of this country (probably less so than would be the case with other countries thanks to the dissemination of American culture via various media formats). I’ll let you draw whatever significant parallels you will, but the point is that while I live here and do love it, it is not my home. My home is somewhere else and I long to return there. My patriotism is for a foreign nation. And so we must each choose: where is your patriotism? In the land in which you now live, or in the Kingdom of God? The two are not always in conflict, but often they will be and a choice must be made.
So yesterday the torch relay came through our neighborhood on its way to the Olympic stadium to mark the start of the London 2012 games. There was a great buzz of excitement all throughout our neighborhood, as I’m sure there was in every neighborhood through which the torch passed. Essentially, the relay is an extended one person parade as people line the streets to see the procession of the torch as it makes its way to the main show at the stadium here in Stratford (East London). Different people carry the torch as it is passed from one person to another, and there is an excitement surrounding it. These torch bearers are all local or nati0nal heroes, generally selected for outstanding service to the community of the country. It is a unique and interesting, and genuinely exciting, thing to witness.
For some reason, however, the torch relay got me thinking about something else. There’s this theme used in Corinthianian correspondence of a parade. There, it is referring to the “triumphal procession.” It’s not really that related to the Ancient Olympics, despite the fact that Corinth had an early parallel in the Isthmian Games (named for the isthmus that Corinth straddles), but is a very Roman parade. In the parade, a general who had recently conquered new territory for the Roman Empire, was given a huge honor. As part of this honor, he would get to lead a lengthy parade through various parts of the empire. The general would lead the parade, coming as a national hero, followed by his officers and generals and new captives in the back. They would wind their way through most of the major cities finally ending in Rome, the capital, where a fire was lit and they were given an honor by the emperor.
Throughout each of these cities, however, and including up until Rome the general would hold a long chain in his hand. The chain would stretch back throughout the parade, past the officers, and cavalry, and foot soldiers, past most of the captives to the very back. There, at the tail end of the procession, was the conquered leader or king, being led like a dog. Rather than a king, he was a prisoner. At the end of the lengthy procession, once the fires were lit, he along with some of the captives, would be sacrificed
for the glory of the kingdom (Rome in this instance). The entire process was meant to humiliate the conquered king, who was essentially a walking dead man, and bring honor to the one leading the triumphal procession. With that in mind, let’s look at these two passages, first from 2 Corinthians 2:14-16 (NIV),
But thanks be to God, who always leads us as captives in Christ’s triumphal procession and uses us to spread the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are to God the pleasing aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are an aroma that brings death; to the other, an aroma that brings life. And who is equal to such a task?
and then from 1 Corinthians 4:9 (NIV).
For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings.
What is striking is that even though Jesus and God is the triumphant general leading the march, Paul does not consider himself to be among the officers, but among the king who must be killed. There is a real recognition that my own achievements are, as Paul says, rubbish (well that’s the clean translation of Philippians 3:8). He has truly died to himself and his old self is a walking dead man. He mixes his metaphors a bit to talk about the “aroma.” In the triumphal procession, as the captive king approached the stadium, he would begin to smell the fires burning and to him it would be an aroma of death. To the officers and generals, however, it was an aroma of life. For Paul he sees that for his old self it is the aroma of death, but for his new self that is Christ living through him and transforming his very being, it is an aroma of life. At the root though, rather than an honor before people, he sees his service to Christ as a his own humiliation before the entire universe. I’m not saying we shouldn’t give some sort of honor to those who clearly benefit our communities and the world around us, of course we should. I am saying, however, that the Christian should work with no thought for an immediate reward, but only to bring glory to Christ, even if it means humiliation. In contrast to a parade celebrating the honor of human achievement (even if it is for genuinely good work), Paul sees his work as only bringing honor to Christ. So the question, one that we all struggle with, is for whose honor or glory are you working?