Olympic-sized courage

This week, I’ve been taking a closer look at the courage of Deborah, a prophetess who was one of the judges of Israel before they had kings to rule over them. Judges 4:5 tells us that she sat under the palm tree of Deborah, where the people of Israel sought her out to settle their disputes.

Deborah had the courage to take on a nontraditional career for a woman in a patriarchal society, and her faith and courage were contagious. When she told a man named Barak that God intended for him to lead the Israelites to victory against an oppressive king, Barak refused to go into the battle unless Deborah came with him. He needed her courage. While Barak lacked courage and complete trust in God’s message, Deborah fully believed, and her belief filled her with courage. Her courage to accompany Barak brought victory to Israel and peace for 40 years. (For more of their story, check out Judges 4-5.)

Modern day courage
Of course, I haven’t only been concentrating on Deborah’s story this week. The Olympic torch and anthem beckon, and though my beloved track and field events don’t start until Friday, I’m glued to the TV and internet more than usual these days.

I admire the competitors’ courage to compete on this global stage, their courage to transform their hopes and dreams and sacrifices into reality at these games, and their courage to face harsh questions if they fall short of their goals. Show of hands: How many of you would be brave enough to face the other end of Andrea Kremer’s microphone at the London Aquatics Centre?

The courage of professing faith
There’s another test of courage going on during the games, and that’s the courage of faith. Faith can be a deeply personal experience, and there are competitors who have a strong faith in God but who won’t display their faith openly. There are others, though, who feel called to put their faith story out in the open. Whether quiet or loud, competitors may find their faith tested at the Olympics.

Today, I’d like to share with you some stories of Olympians’ courageous faith as they give God the glory for their abilities and try to witness to an oftentimes skeptical public about the joy and peace their faith gives them, even if the gold medal doesn’t come their way.Archery is one of my favorite Olympic events outside of track, probably because it was one of the few things I was ever remotely good at doing during summer camp. I was abysmal at tennis, swam only well enough not to drown, and called my equestrian hopes quits after three weeks with a painfully bouncy retired racehorse named “Go Boy.” But put a target in front of me and a bow and arrow in my hands, and I could actually hold my own.

So I’ve been looking through the array of video footage of the archery events the last few days and found this gem of a video. Think it’s not worth your time to memorize scripture? Archer Jennifer Nichols would disagree. For her, reciting scripture calms her jitters during competition, and I’m so thankful she had the courage to share her message of the peace her faith gives her.

The prize worth winning
Okay, I’ll admit it: I’ve been fast-forwarding through Bob Costas’ interviews and other cringe-worthy, post-race interviews, meaning there may be other great faith testimonials that I’ve missed.

So I hope you don’t mind if I focus on some of the runners whose faith stories inspire me. If you don’t know who they are, let me briefly introduce them to you before you see them competing over the next two weeks.

You may not know about US marathoner Ryan Hall and his controversial coach, but you’ve probably seen him during the last week in a fun ad for AT&T. He’s goes for a “short run” while listening to The Odyssey in its entirety on his iPhone. Hall may be a spokesman for AT&T, but his most important endorsement is for God.

Hall has faced criticism for openly declaring God as his coach and saying that he’s concentrating on “faith-based coaching” that keeps him actively engaged in daily conversation with God. This concept isn’t something that’s easy for everyone to understand, and his critics think he’s squandering medal opportunities by not having a human coach. In this interview with CNN, Hall says, “Jesus is the greatest prize I can have.”

His statement calls to mind these verses in 1 Corinthians:

Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives
the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in
the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a
perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way,
as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline
my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I
myself will not be disqualified. (9:24-27)

In many ways, Hall might find life easier if he were quieter about his faith, if he just ran the race for the perishable prize. But through his gift of running, he feels God’s call to testify to imperishable prize of Christ and the power of God he has experienced in his own life. To Hall, I say, “Preach it, my brother.”

To pray – or not – for the win
Meb Keflezighi will also represent USA in the marathon. After winning the New York City Marathon in 2009, he wrote Run to Overcome, an inspiring story about his journey toward achieving the American dream. In the opening line of his book, Keflezighi admits to an unusual prayer (at least for him): “I run a lot and pray a lot, but I generally don’t ask God for a win. I was breaking precedent at the 2009 New York City Marathon” (1). His faith has largely shaped who he is as a runner and as a person, a faith that he shares openly in the book and in quieter ways on his website. (Here’s a great video snapshot of how far Meb has come and where he hopes to go next. Notice the Bible verse at the top of his page?)

When Meb lines up to start the marathon at the Olympics on August 12, I don’t know whether he’ll break precedent again and ask God for a win. But I do know he’ll be praying, and I’ll be praying for him to run a good race, one that pleases God and provides a good witness to those running with him and those watching him.

A quieter statement
One of the most emotional moments for me at the Olympic trials back in June was watching Dathan “Ritz” Ritzenhein claim a spot on the US team in the 10,000 meters. Ritzenhein is much quieter about his faith but has written eloquently about it in his blog. It’s as important to have the quieter ones living out their faith, too, in front of spectators because, win or lose, even the quiet ones can provide a powerful message about God’s blessings in our lives.

To Hall, Meb and Ritz, I say, “God speed. Run in such a way that you may win.” And I’m not just talking about the gold.

Which Olympians inspire you?
I’d love to know which Olympians inspire you the most. If I’ve missed a great testimonial from one of the athletes who already competed, or if you hear a courageous athlete talking about his or her faith in the coming days, I hope you’ll share it in the comments below.

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