I am one year older than my cousin, Ian. I have always been a little bit taller than him, and he has always been much stronger than me. And even though he grew up in Boston and I in Atlanta, meaning we only saw each other a couple of times a year, we have always been close; which is why, as kids, we were always in competition. Our parents tell us that we were always trying to outdo each other, and I have a few memories which would seem to confirm that. One is of each of us trying to be taller than the other (remember who has the natural advantage), climbing on top of successively higher pieces of furniture until we could climb no further, and he knocked me off.
I am also confident that our parents were trying to pick sides. One Christmas, we got Batman costumes which, we were told, were absolutely identical. But if you really paid attention, there was a subtle, but important difference on the stitching of the cape. On my cape, the stitching revealed that the cape was plastic. On his, though plastic also, the stitching gave the appearance of fabric.
It’s good to know I’ve moved on.
The truth is that competition comes naturally to us. Even for those of us who are not athletically inclined, we will find something to compare ourselves with others and compete about that: income, success, happiness; or even undesirable things, like suffering. When we win, there is this little surge of adrenaline, like watching Sid Bream slide into home plate to clinch the National League pennant. And when we lose, the memory can linger for quite a while, like poor Bill Buckner, letting a routine grounder go between his legs, ultimately costing the Red Sox the World Series.
Competition is emotionally trying. And yet, in his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul is using competition as a metaphor for the life of faith. Writing to a cosmopolitan crowd, he recalls the energy of the public stadium, where athletes (which literally means “wrestlers”) compete for prizes: laurels, medals, things that are of only momentary significance. We, on the other hand, compete for a prize that is eternal.
What is Paul’s intention here? Is he trying to convince the Corinthians that they have to try harder to achieve God’s blessings? Are there limited slots on the heavenly medal stand, and so they are in competition with others to see who ultimately wins and loses, climbing on the back of furniture, comparing the insignificant details of children’s play things? Doubtful…and yet, it is clear that Paul is suggesting that one of the marks of faith is an athletic one.
What does it mean to be athletic? I want to suggest that there are two characteristics. The first is focus.
Elite athletes train with a focus that can border on maniacal. There is the physical focus, learning and re-learning basic skills so that they become ingrained in muscle memory. But there is also the psychological side. As Yogi Berra once wisely said, “Baseball is 90% mental; the other half is physical.”
I recently watched the film Man on Wire which tells the story of a French tight-rope walker, Philippe Petit, as he dreams, plans, and executes stringing a wire between the roofs of the World Trade Center and then walking across. Though not exactly competing, Petit demonstrates the focus of a dedicated athlete. He is physically fit, practicing the basics of wire walking over and over and over again. For this particular feat, he assembles a whole team of planners, who scout out the location, map out the physics, and accompany him on his mission.
Petit describes that moment some 35 years ago of stepping out onto the wire, having to make the decision to shift his weight from the foot on the building to the foot in thin air. It was, to say the least, nerve wracking; but once he did it, that’s when the concentration kicked in. Once he stepped back off the wire and into the waiting arms of New York’s finest, he was stunned to learn he had crossed the distance eight times, spending 45 minutes suspended above the city; such was his focus.
Do we have that kind of focus when it comes to our faith? Not the kind of concentration that would give us to daredevilish feats, mind you, but the kind that works always to keep God in mind? Do we discipline ourselves in the basics, prayer, reading the Bible, worshiping, serving, to the point that they take on the character of muscle memory, something we do without so much as thinking about it? And do we, in the deepest depths of our mind and soul, keep a focus on the kingdom, on being in on God’s dreams for this world, the way God desires us to be? Do we measure ourselves against this yardstick, not in an effort to beat ourselves up or compare ourselves against others, but to know where we are and where we want to be, as Paul writes, “staying alert and in top condition.”
Focus keeps us looking ahead. After all, the backwards glance could cost the runner the race.
The other characteristic of athletic faith, I want to suggest, is health. For athletes, this means physical health – eating well, sleeping well. When we look at the gospel of Mark, we see that Jesus cares about physical health as well. The leper comes to Jesus, looking for cleansing. And Jesus obliges, granting him the healing he so desperately wants. For the leper, this was about so much more than just clean skin. This was about inclusion, about moving from the margins into society’s mainstream. Jesus desires wholeness in life – and that wholeness is both physical and spiritual.
Physical health may not seem like it has a direct parallel with a life of faith, but then again, we do talk about the church as the body of Christ. Is the body healthy? Are we doing the things we need to do to keep the body healthy? Here at OPC, we are in the midst of a process of self-examination, taking a look at our ministries, seeing where both our health and our frailties are. Many of you have filled out the congregational survey, and many of you took part in our town hall meeting two weeks ago. And as the elders have discussed, listened, and prayed about all of this, I believe that it is an athletic faith at OPC which is their hope.
In the coming weeks and months, you will be hearing more from the Session about both our focus and our health, as well as plans for keeping ourselves in shape. And as we do so, I want to offer this note of caution: we do this all not for our own sake. If we do, if we are comparing ourselves with the income, or the success, or the happiness of other congregations; if we are building ourselves up, moving to ever higher pieces of furniture in an effort to tower over others; then we leave ourselves open to being knocked down.
Instead, we do all of this for the sake of God and God’s desires. We practice the disciplines of faith, not to outdo others, but so that we would keep our focus on God. And we take stock of our faithful fitness, not so that we can earn our rightful place on the medal stand, but because God has already given us that eternal prize, that gift of grace. And so, motivated by gratitude, we strive for God’s glories.
Like the healed leper, nothing could keep us silent about it. We want the world to know what God has done for us!
So, my sisters and brothers, I want to leave you with this question: what is it that God has done for you? What is it that being part of this community, here at the corner of Lanier and Woodrow, means to you and your walk with God? Have you experienced a moment, even just a moment, whether in worship, or fellowship, or in prayer, where you know that God has been at work in your life? I know you all well enough to know that most, if not all, of you can answer “yes” to this. If so, then I know that the race is before us. May we run it with grace and joy!