A View From The Vicarage, September 2016
I wonder how you’ve been reacting to the tremendous success that our British athletes have been enjoying during the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro over the past few weeks? I know that I for one, non-sportsman as I am, have been extremely excited and indeed inspired by the sight of British athletes excelling in so many sporting endeavours and the sight of the UK as second in the medals table has been simply astounding. The dark days of Atlanta in 1996 when the British team came home with just a single gold medal feels like a very distant memory. For many commentators and sports pundits the difference between then and now comes down not to the calibre of the athletes that these islands are capable of producing but rather to the amount of money that we now spend as a nation to ensure that these superb athletes have what is needed in terms of support and training to ensure that they can compete against the best in the world, as they’ve proved beyond doubt over the past weeks. Whatever our own personal attitude to the National Lottery is, and I have to admit mine’s changed over the recent past, but surely we have to conclude that the money generated through it is changing lives for the better and the fortunes of our elite sportsmen and women in a way unimaginable as recently as 1996! We can only pray and hope that our Paralympian athletes will enjoy similar success in the same venues in a few weeks time.
Of course one of the vexed questions raised when elite sport is debated is the impact that it’s having in the communities up and down these islands, especially as we seem to be in the grip of a growing obesity crisis particularly among children and young people. I do pray and hope that many will take inspiration from those Olympians to make a difference to their own lives.
I’m sure that I don’t need to remind you that the Bible includes some significant passages in which sporting achievement is compared to a life of faith. Perhaps the most famous is St. Paul’s advice to the Christian community in Corinth: “Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete but only one wins the prize? Run the race in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable garland but we an imperishable one.” (2 Cor 9: 24-5) in the modern Olympiad a gold medal is far more durable than a garland of leaves but then the adulation heaped upon the heads off modern sporting heroes is no less fleeting than the olive leaves of the past. For St. Paul the significant issue is that spiritual athletes require the same degree of self-control as physical ones do!
For those of us who watch these astounding sportsmen and women and think well I could never achieve that or indeed anything like it, then the Bible’s on hand with that one as well. The book of Ecclesiastes includes the following observation: “again I saw that under the sun, the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favour to the skilful; but time and chance happen to them all.” (Eccles 9:11) You don’t need to tell Tom Daley that one! The writer’s point is surely that it doesn’t matter how naturally talented you are, all of us can and should make the best we can of the talents and gifts that we’ve been given and that the significant factor whether you’re a physical athlete or a spiritual athlete or even whether the idea of vigorous activity leaves you numb that all of us are endowed with God given gifts and that our own calling is to make the very best use we can of those gifts.
In common with those sporting superstars, the great heroes of Christianity have been ordinary men and women who’ve made the best they can of their own gifts and talents and like the sporting heroes not all of them have had the most auspicious beginning. St Paul that outstanding missionary began by persecuting the early Christians and yet towards the end of his life, he could write: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge will give me, and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” ( 2 Tim 4:7-8)
The crown of righteousness he speaks of will keep its lustre long after the Olympic Gold medal has become dust and ashes, and we can all of us aspire to that accolade.
I do hope that you have enjoyed the triumphs of our Olympic athletes and that you will equally rejoice in the efforts and attainments of their Paralympian colleagues and that we will all be inspired by the Olympic motto, “Faster, Higher, Stronger,” whether physically, mentally , spiritually or all three.
With my love and prayers, as ever