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When we fail

The XXXII Olympic Games are being held in Tokyo after a one-year delay. Many Japanese people are unhappy that the Games are being held and at most events there will be no spectators present because of Covid-19 restrictions. More than 10,000 athletes from 206 nations will compete in 33 different sports. The preparations for these Games have been especially difficult for athletes, but many have arrived in Tokyo hoping to win an Olympic medal.

It is important for athletes to know how to cope with both success and failure. Nicola McDermott, the first Australian female high-jumper to clear two metres, explains: “When your identity is based on what you do – a performance-based identity – it will never satisfy. I found that I could never jump high enough to be truly satisfied. But when your identity is based on the fact that you are loved by God…that allows me to perform out of joy and freedom.”

Felix Sanchez, who won Olympic gold medals in the 400 metres hurdles in 2004 and 2012, says: “You see a lot of athletes say how blessed they are when they win, but you don’t hear it so much when they lose. They don’t realise that God’s grace is the same whether you win or lose – God just sees you the same. He’s given us this platform to compete and whether we win or lose is not important. It is important that we demonstrate our faith, make him proud with the talent he has given us and give thanks to him.”

Swimmer, Kirsty Balfour, went to the 2008 Beijing Olympics as a serious medal contender, but didn’t even make the semi-finals. Speaking of her disappointment, she says: “My first thought was of people I had let down, like sponsors, my family, who had flown out to China to watch me, and my coach and my teammates. All the money and the time that had been invested in working towards Beijing was gone.”

Yet as a Christian, in the midst of the turmoil, Kirsty had a great sense of God’s presence. The words of the song ‘How great is our God’ kept coming to her mind: “He is the name above all names and is worthy to be praised. My heart will sing, how great is our God”. She says: “It was amazing to have that and to know I was standing on the rock of Jesus. I was able to say: ‘Yes, Jesus you are in it. You are here. This was your will.’” She says: “Sometimes when it goes badly, God gets more glory in your reaction than when you win a medal.”

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Facing fear and vulnerability

Michael Johnson, the retired American sprinter, had an outstanding athletics’ career. He won 4 Olympic gold medals and 8 World Championship gold medals. He held the world and Olympic records in both the 200m and 400m and the world indoor 400m record. He is the only athlete in history to win both the 200m and 400m events in the same Olympics. After retiring from athletics, he opened Michael Johnson Performance centres and became an athletics’ pundit on BBC Sport. He has always made physical fitness a top priority; eating healthily, drinking alcohol moderately, exercising regularly and watching his weight.

In early September 2018, however, he suffered a TIA – a transient ischaemic attack. He lost mobility and co-ordination in his left side and in the days after it took him 15 minutes to walk 200 metres – the same distance he often ran in under 20 seconds. Thankfully Michael has made a good recovery. He approached his rehabilitation with the same determination he approached training during his athletics’ career and after 4 months he was paddle-boarding, rowing, cycling and running.

For the first time, he experienced fear and vulnerability because neither he nor his doctors could explain why he suffered the stroke. He said, “I can’t say I’m totally comfortable being vulnerable. I’m still working through this need I have to be superman. My persona, personally and publicly, has been that I have got everything under control, and I don’t need anyone else’s help, don’t need anyone’s sympathy. I don’t like sympathy or empathy. Now I have been faced with the vulnerable position of not being able to walk. Needing help to do that and some regular normal daily activities was tough for me. But I realised that in order to get back to where I needed to be, people’s help was something I was going to need and to open up to.”

Michael’s honesty highlights the fears and vulnerability we all experience. In Psalm 56 David, who was a great military leader, said, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in God.” The Apostle Paul, who was a man of great energy, suffered what he called a “thorn in the flesh”, a physical weakness with which he had to live. But God said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” So, Paul said, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

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Saved to serve

The obituaries that are printed in national newspapers provide a brief summary of a person’s life. How did the person spend their life? What were their main priorities and achievements? It is a good for each of us to ask ourselves what we are doing with the precious life God has given us? I recently read a short account of the life of Michael Lapage, who died in July at the age of 94. His father was the vicar of Shaftesbury and Michael went to Monkton Coombe School, near Bath, where he became an accomplished rower.

In 1942 Michael left school and, deferring his place at Selwyn College, Cambridge, volunteered for the Fleet Air Arm. After training he joined 807 Naval Air Squadron and flew Seafire planes from the escort carrier Hunter. Later he flew reconnaissance and air-to-ground strafing missions during the Allied landings in southern France. Towards the end of the war he was deployed to the Far East where he was nearly shot down while on patrol off the coast of Malaya. The tailpiece of his plane was seriously damaged, but he managed to get back safely to his carrier. Michael knew that he could easily have lost his life that day.

After the war was over, Michael went to Cambridge University and was a member of the crew that won the 1948 Boat Race. That same year he rowed for Britain in the 1948 Olympic Games in London and won a silver medal. In 1950 he won a bronze medal in the, then, Empire Games. In 2012, at the age of 88, he carried the Olympic torch in the relay for the 2012 London Olympic Games!

After leaving university Michael taught at Winchester College until, in the late 1950s, he went to Kenya to serve as a missionary. He was a schools’ inspector during the Mau Mau uprising and was later ordained in Kenya as a minister of the Gospel. Michael’s Christian faith, and the experience of nearly being shot down in 1945, convinced him that he had been “saved to serve”.

Michael’s life was shaped partly by the challenges of the days through which he lived but mainly by his love for his saviour Jesus Christ. He knew that Jesus came from heaven to this earth not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many. So Michael gladly dedicated his life to serving others and to telling them the good news about Jesus, who loved us and gave himself for us.

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The love that transforms

At the World Athletics’ Championships two great athletes completed outstanding careers. Usain Bolt is the first person to hold both the 100 metres and 200 metres world records. He has won 8 Olympic gold medals and 11 World Championships. He is the only sprinter to win gold medals in both the 100 metres and 200 metres in three consecutive Olympics. Mo Farah is the most successful British track athlete in modern Olympic history, winning gold medals in both the 5,000 and 10,000 metres in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. Between 2011 and 2017 he won 10 successive global finals. It has been a delight to watch both men run.

At this World Championships, however, Usain won a bronze medal in the 100 metres and Mo won a silver medal in the 5,000 metres. Both were disappointed and the sports’ commentators spoke as if they were “failures” when they had won world championship medals; something most athletes only dream of doing. After completing a lap of honour, Usain said, “It’s really sad, I’m saying goodbye to everything.” From now on Mo wants to be known as Mohamed. He said, “I just feel like Mo is done. I need to forget about what I achieved and what I’ve done.”

The story of South African long jumper, Luvo Manyonga, is remarkable and encouraging. He won the gold medal at the World Championships. Just 3 years ago his life was very different. Luvo grew up in poverty in Mbekweni township. His mother, a domestic cleaner, raised him on her own. Luvo was an outstanding young athlete winning the world junior championship in 2010 and the All-Africa Games’ in 2011. However, the prize money disrupted his life. He started using tik, a recreational drug commonly used in the townships, and as a result gave a positive drug test in competition. He described his drug-taking as “hooking up with the devil.” He admitted taking the drug for non-performance-enhancing reasons and was suspended from competition for 18 months. The lower sentence was based on his “exceptional social circumstances.” Luvo underwent drug rehabilitation and was greatly helped by two new coaches.

After winning the World Championship gold medal, Luvo knelt by the side of the long jump pit and gave thanks to God. When he was interviewed by Gabby Logan, he told her he was a Christian and that Jesus had changed his life. What a wonderful encouragement this is. When we fail, as we all do, we can find new life and hope through experiencing the transforming love of Jesus.

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Running so as to win the prize

The Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro has been a great event as more than 11,000 athletes, from 206 countries, have competed in 28 sports. Men and women from all over the world have been training for years for the opportunity to win an Olympic medal. The focus of their whole lives has been on Rio 2016. Their personal event is one tiny moment after thousands of hours in practice, dedication and sacrifice in the hope of achieving glory.

21-year-old Adam Peaty from Staffordshire won the gold medal in the 100 metres men’s breaststroke, breaking his own world record. Adam joined the City of Derby swimming club when he was 14 years old. His mother got up at 4am to drive him 40 minutes to Derby, where she would sit and wait for 2 hours while he was training. Then she would drive home before going to work as a nursery manager. In the evening she would do it again. She said, “It was really hard going, I’d have given up many a time. Adam never complained about getting up. If I wanted to stay in bed another hour, he’d say, ‘Come on Mum, champions aren’t made in bed!’” When Adam won the Olympic gold medal both he and his Mum felt that all the sacrifices had been worthwhile.

We all need a purpose in our lives; something to aim for. The first question in the Shorter Catechism asks, “What is the chief end of man?” The answer is, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” The Bible teaches us that we are all created in the image of God in order to enjoy eternal life in heaven with him. We are not an accident of history, a chance event. Death is not the end because every man and woman in this world was created with an eternal soul. So our lives are to be lived with our ultimate goal in mind.

The apostle Paul wrote, “Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. So I run with purpose in every step. I am not just shadowboxing. I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better.”

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Usain Bolt gives thanks to God

The Olympic Games have come to an end. The Olympic Cauldron has been extinguished and the Olympic Park is quiet. Athletes have returned to the 200 countries from which they came. The Olympic Games have gone well and have brought joy to many people. Many world and Olympic records have been broken, so fulfilling the Olympic motto, “Faster, higher, stronger.” Soon the Paralympic athletes will amaze us with more outstanding performances and achievements.

London 2012 has shown the amazing abilities of human beings. Every person on earth has been created by God. He knit each of us together in our mother’s womb and made us the people we are. Truly we are fearfully and wonderfully made. Each of us is unique and very precious to God, whether we are great athletes or not. Mo Farah’s elder brother, Faisal, who farms a simple smallholding in Somalia, is as precious to God as Mo, who did so well in winning 2 gold medals.

Amidst the euphoria following London 2012 many people will be given credit. It is striking, therefore, that after his victory in the 200 metres Usain Bolt, the fastest man in history, put a message on Twitter, “I want to thank God for everything he has done for me cause without him none of this would have been possible.” Usain knows that his amazing ability to run is not simply the result of hours of training and hard work but has been given to him by God. As he grows older his ability to run will diminish but his relationship with God and his experience of God’s love in Jesus can grow stronger and deeper.

We do not often see people from so many nations together in one place. One of the great experiences for the athletes is to live together in the Olympic Village. There is keen rivalry and an intense desire to win but also at the Olympic Games lifelong friendships will have been formed which transcend national identity. There is a wonderful vision of heaven in the book of Revelation, “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They cried out in a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’” Unlike London 2012, the joy of heaven never ends.

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The Inspiring Example of Eric Liddell

The Olympic Games is going well and many medals have already been won. Winning athletes have been ecstatic whilst others have sometimes been in despair. The pressure to win is very great. After 4 years of preparation, everything depends on the performance on the day and not everyone can succeed. The greater the expectation of success the greater the disappointment when you do not win a medal.

At the medal ceremonies for London 2012 the Chariots of Fire theme tune has been played. The tune reminds us of Eric Liddell, the “Flying Scotsman”, who competed for Great Britain in the Olympic Games in Paris in 1924. When the schedule for the heats of the 100 metres was announced, Eric realised that the first heat would be run on a Sunday. He was a Christian and always kept Sunday as a special day set apart to worship God and rest. He realised that he would not, therefore, be able to compete in his best event and quietly withdrew from the 100 metres. He began instead to train for the 400 metres in which he was not expected to win a medal.

When Eric was at the starting block for the 400 metres race an American man slipped a piece of paper into his hand with the words of 1 Samuel Chapter 2, verses 30 written on it, “ Those who honour me I will honour.” Eric won the race and broke the Olympic and world records. He also won a bronze medal in the 200 metres. Eric’s example of putting God first above everything else continues to inspire people today. Although he was as keen to win as any athlete competing in London 2012 he knew that honouring God was more important.

Eric was born in China in 1902, where his parents were missionaries. In 1925 he went to China as a missionary where he worked amongst poor people and proclaimed the good news of Jesus. In 1943, when the fighting between the Chinese army and the invading Japanese army was very fierce, he was interned at the Weihsien Internment Camp. Whilst in the camp Eric refused an offer to leave and gave his place instead to a pregnant woman. He died in the camp on 21 February 1945 from an inoperable brain tumour. His last words were, “It’s complete surrender.” He had gladly given his whole life to Jesus Christ, and has now received the ultimate victor’s crown which his Saviour won for him.

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Running the race of life

The 30th Olympic Games of the modern era have begun. The Opening Ceremony for London 2012 was spectacular and was watched by more than a billion people around the world. Athletes from more than 200 countries entered the new Olympic Stadium. They have been training for many years and are now hoping to win a medal.

One of the best kept secrets of London 2012 was who would be chosen to light the Olympic Cauldron. The Cauldron is lit at the Opening Ceremony and stays alight until it is extinguished on the final day. For 70 days the Olympic Torch has been carried around the British Isles. Normally a great champion from the host country is chosen to light the Cauldron in recognition of their past success. At London 2012 it was done differently. Steve Redgrave, the great British rower who won 5 Olympic gold medals in successive Games from 1984 to 2000, carried the Olympic Torch into the Stadium. Steve then handed it to 7 teenage athletes, representing the future of British athletics, who lit the copper petals which converged to form the spectacular Olympic Cauldron for London 2012.

When athletes competed in the ancient Greek Games they could see a former great champion sitting at the end of the course watching the race. These great champions from the past were there to inspire the competitors to run their best and to do well. The early Christians were encouraged to think of the Christian life as being like an athletic race in one of those great Games and to see their Saviour, Jesus, as the one who is there to encourage and inspire them.

In the first century many Christians experienced persecution for their faith. Some were executed by Roman Emperors, like Nero. In Hebrews, Chapter12, the writer says, “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” Each of us has a race marked out for us. Life is often very hard and we may become weary and lose heart. How wonderful it is to know that Jesus, the risen Son of God, is able and willing to help us.