Have you ever had one of those terrifying dreams where you’re suddenly in something like an athletic situation way beyond what you’re capable of? I had a nocturnal nightmare once where I was suddenly on the Lakers! Woo hoo! It was truly exciting sitting there on the bench . . . until the coach waved me onto the floor and expected me to actually play the game. There were nine other basketball players on the floor . . . and . . . ME. Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol were right there next to me – and I hadn’t realized until now how HUGE they were! Huge and quick! And on play after desperate play, everybody just blew right past me. Slam dunks and rim-rattlers . . . and everything bad was my fault. My passes went out of bounds; my shots were air balls. Every time a player hit me with a no-look pass my hands were like sticks of wood and the ball would skid out of bounds. Soon all of Staples Center was booing. I looked up into the stands; even my wife was on her feet, screaming: “Get that little white guy out of there!” She later went home with Metta World Peace (in my dream, that is.) Needless to say, I woke up in a cold sweat.
All this week as we watch the Olympic Games coming from Sochi, maybe you have a bit of that same feeling. These people are so far ahead of you and me. Their physical talents, their agility, the unbelievable endurance, the skill . . . here are three thousand people who really belong in a different universe. We turn off our TV sets after watching NBC all evening, and drive to Riverside and an ice skating rink – and it takes five minutes to wobble around one lap. There’s no sense buying a plane ticket to Pyeongchang, South Korea, for the year 2018, because there ain’t no way the U.S. Olympic Committee is about to invite me. No way.
And yet we find in the story of these Olympics a spiritual truth that gives you and me great hope. The great achievements of others, the heroic gold medals others are winning for God . . . they don’t have to make us discouraged. Because in the race toward God’s Kingdom, there’s room for you to win.
That may sound kind of trite, but let me illustrate.
A cover article in Newsweek way back in 1996 was entitled “Year of the Women: Why Female Athletes Are Our Best Hope for Olympic Gold.” Sportswriter Frank Deford then told the story of a number of U.S. female athletes who had a real shot at gold medals down in Atlanta, Georgia. And some of the statistics were very interesting.
In the first modern Olympic Games, Athens 1896, women were completely barred from participating. Golfer Margaret Abbott was the first American woman to win a gold medal, in the year 1900 in Paris. It wasn’t until 1948, London, that high jumper Alice Coachman became the first African-American woman to win a gold. As recently as 1976, the male-female breakdown on the U.S. team heading to Montreal was six to one. Women were still almost a rarity. Today the splits are virtually 50-50. Here in 2014, women are participating in the ski jump competition for the first time.
What does that mean? Very simply, the door’s been thrown open; a whole new segment of society which didn’t used to even get onto the playing field can now participate AND win! These six words tell it all: “All can play, all can win.” Plenty has changed from the early days of the Olympean Games where women weren’t even allowed in as spectators, and where the mother of Pisidorus was almost thrown off a large rock to her death as punishment after slipping into the stadium to see her son win. Being born female no longer means that you don’t have a shot at a gold medal.
I like how in the Bible, which certainly comes to us from rigidly male-dominated cultures, God allows this principle to come shining through. So many times it was the women and even the young girls, who played pivotal roles. Miriam. Queen Esther. Rahab. Mary. The little slave girl – we don’t even know her name – who stepped forward and witnessed to the power of her God before Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram.
Sometimes we look at ourselves in the mirror and we see severe handicaps. It’s not our fault; it’s something we were born with, but we feel disqualified. “Well, that’s it,” we shrug. “I can’t compete.” But the annals of history and especially the Olympic Games are bursting to overflowing with the stories of people who overcame huge odds to go on and win gold prizes.
Rafer Johnson was the returning Olympic hero who carried the torch on its final leg during the 1984 Games here in Los Angeles. He took home the decathlon gold medal in the 1960 Olympics in Rome with a new record of 8,392 points in the grueling ten-event, two-day competition.
But did you know that Rafer, as a 12-year-old kid, caught his left foot in a cannery conveyor belt? He had to have stitches and face weeks on crutches. In 1956, going for his first Olympic gold medal in Melbourne, he suffered a knee injury and then torn stomach muscles. In ‘59 more leg trouble, and then serious back trouble due to a head-on auto collision while traveling to his sister’s high school graduation. As late as February, 1960, just a few short months before the games in Rome, he couldn’t even jog. How in the world was he going to participate – and win – the 100 meter, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400 meter, 110-meter hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin, and the grueling 1500-meter run? Ten impossible events, especially in his condition. But he did it. He trained and he worked and he went to Rome for the Olympic Games.
It came down to the last event, his weakest one: the 1500-meter race. He had a 67-point lead over his nearest competitor, fellow UCLA student Chuan Kwang Yang of Taiwan. All he had to do was stay within ten seconds of Yang’s finishing time in this last race, and the gold medal would be his. Rafer was exhausted, but he glued himself to the other athlete, and followed him the whole way. “He clung to him with leechlike persistency,” said one sportswriter, and finished just one second back, giving him the gold medal. Despite all the strikes against him, including the lingering racial prejudices that even swirl around here in 2014, Rafer Johnson triumphed. He didn’t let hardships and handicaps keep him from participating.
So whatever shortcomings you think keep you from being a player in God’s Olympic Games – God can help you gain victories despite them. There may be moguls in your way, just like we see on the snow-covered hills night after night in Sochi. You may think the high bar’s set far beyond where you can reach, let alone jump. But Olympic stories and Bible stories give us confidence to know that God has a plan to give you a gold medal.
I want to return to the earlier illustration about how so many women are competing in the Olympic Games today. Why the recent surge in female participation? Why did the floodgates finally open, and give us the opportunity to thrill to the Jackie Joyner-Kersees of the world? What happened?
At least here in the United States, many people point clear back to the year 1972 when President Richard Nixon signed into law Title IX, legislation that mandated full equality for women’s school athletics. Up until that time, even though half of all boys participated officially in school sports, only 1 out of 27 girls did so. But after Title IX, that number skyrocketed; now female participation is wide open, and a huge contingent of those hardened, well-prepped girls is in Sochi making us proud as they compete for Olympic medals.
Besides the gender balancing at the Olympic Games, we can notice other benefits for the girls who take part in sports. Those who do also do better in academics, they don’t drop out of school, they don’t do drugs, and they don’t get pregnant.
But the point I want to make is this: that 1972 decision, Title IX, was an official opening of the door to women. “The club is now officially opened,” it said. “Women are welcome.” And the signing of that statement into law reaped huge benefits.
In the Christian church we need to deliberately and prayerfully and officially make the same proclamation. Whoever you are and whatever you are, you can be a participant for God. Regardless of gender. Regardless of handicaps. Never mind where you were born or how you were raised. The community of believers needs to be avidly and enthusiastically and deliberately and officially open so that all can compete.
It gives me a thrill when I go to a church or a religious rally or a camp meeting appointment, and when I look on the platform, it’s a mosaic of humanity. Men and women. Teenagers. I love it when kids are brought up onto the stage or platform to sing or share their testimony or tell about their mission trip. But somebody’s got to think to invite them.
My brothers and I enjoy going back to our childhood mission home of Thailand for quick evangelistic adventures. And we see a new generation of young people – boys and girls alike – getting excited about Jesus and His plan to redeem that awesome land. The teenagers and even the children swarm everywhere, giving Bible studies, organizing meetings, picking up the offerings, picking up guitars and doing the special music. The church over there has flung open the doors with their own heavenly-mandated version of Title IX. “Everybody’s welcome,” they proclaim through their loudspeakers. “These Olympics are OPEN!”
There’s no denying we have a ways to go. But that gives me a big-screen picture of what God wants us to do.