Saturday, July 28, 2012

the reason we love the olympics

I’m surprised, as I write this, to discover myself confessing that I was more excited about the opening ceremonies than I was about the Green Bay Packer’s last appearance and win in the Super Bowl and the St. Louis Cardinals appearance and win in the World Series (both 2011).  Given that these two share the top spot as my favorite sports teams, I’m compelled to ask myself why.  I do not have a commitment to any particular athlete like I do either of the sports franchises nor do I think I am as patriotic as most Americans.   And though I always cheer for the Americans to win, I find that I’m genuinely excited for the all the winners, regardless of their country of origin, in a way that I could never be for the Minnesota Vikings or the SEC.  

Maybe it’s because the Olympics are really about more than athletics.  Because I have a deep love for rankings, brackets, and all things sports-comparison, I’m a regular participant in ESPN’s polling questions.  Tonight I was asked to rank the best American Olympians of all time.  ESPN offered me 10 athletes to choose from.  I was immediately confronted by the question, “how am I ranking them?”  By the numbers?   Phelps hands down!  By Significance?  Jesse Owens ... that’s who I picked.  His episode in the 1936 Berlin Olympics means more to the development of human history than Phelps 14 gold medals.  The Olympics offer a different sort of commentary on the state of the world.  They demand that hundreds of the nations come together and confront the fact that before we are American, Canadian, Afghani, Russian, Iraqi, we are all human, whether our/their respective political establishments want to acknowledge that or not. 

Two facebook comments stuck out to me as we approached this Olympic season.  The first I got from Anne Lamott via my friend Craig.  She said:

“The only thing that could possibly save this country right now is in fact starting up in eight days--the Olympics. The timing feels like a miracle. My dressage horse Eric has just been sitting around my office for the last two weeks, eating cinnamon toast, so I don't think we are going to get to compete. But I will watch it all, and my belief is that two billion of us worldwide are going to experience this collective show of greatness as a salve to our minds and spirits, like when a few billion of us get to watch a solar eclipse together. A hush falls over the whole world, like a mantilla, and then gasps of amazement, and gratitude to be out of the prison of our thinking and self-absorption and anxiety and greed. We get to watch the Olympics together, holding our one great human breath and cheering others on. Wow.”

Yes, Wow.  Visa just ran an add on my television, even they got it right “Go World.”

Though I do not consider the Olympics an explicitly Christian extravaganza, I do not consider them an un-Christian extravaganza.  That is because, as UBC has taught me, the division between the sacred and the secular is a bad one.  The community has helped me develop the skill not of detecting if something is beautiful, but why something is beautiful. 

In my last semester at Truett, I took my capstone class—Reconciliation.  I had little interest in the topic and made the choice out of scheduling convenience.  But as is often the case, if we take the time to expose ourselves to new ideas, themes, and concepts, we learn something.  What surprised me in that class, was how pervasive that theme is within the Bible.  Of everything I read, I found myself particularly taken with Ephesians 2.  Here, as is often the case with Paul’s epistles, he is talking about Jew/Gentile relationships.  In 2:16 describing what the cross does, Paul says:

“and [Jesus] might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.”

The reason this surprised me, I now know, is because as an American Western Protestant under the spell of the Reformation, I was latently (and exclusively) taught that the cross was about Jesus taking my sin so that I could go to heaven.  It’s not that, that is not true, it’s just that, that is not the only thing that is true. Atonement may be unique in that it’s the one theological issue that does not demand a right answer or even the best answer.  Scot McKnight offers a nice metaphor when he suggests that atonement theories are like golf clubs.  Depending where you are on the course, you use a different club.  Christus Victor, Penal Substitution, Satisfaction, Ransom, Recapitulation, etc.  They all make use of language that permeates the New Testament.  The lesson to be learned is that the cross did a lot of things. 

Jesus didn’t just die to save sinners from hell, he died for a heaven full of different kinds of saints. 

The other comment I noted from Facebook, I consider theological exposition of Lamott’s commentary.  My friend Emily posted this:

“The way I figure, the Olympic parade of nations may be a beautiful, tiny preview of what it will look like when all of the earth's nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues are streaming into the new Jerusalem at the center of the "new heavens and new earth" (Rev 21-22). Behold, Christ is making all things new!”

Indeed!  To bolster the statement I add Revelation 5:9-10.  A ditty from the Eschatological Victory Chior:

“9They sing a new song:
‘You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals,
for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God
saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; 
10 you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, 
and they will reign on earth.’”

In the last few years the phrase “thin places” has gained traction within Christian writing and speech.  It’s an idea from the Celtic tradition that describes the places where the boundary between heaven and earth seems especially thin.  Perhaps what we witness in the Olympics is about more than cycling, running, swimming and even great stories narrated by Bob Costas.  Perhaps what are witnessing is a thin place--the nature of things to come.