Though the London Olympics began rather bitterly for Baltimore with its hometown swimmer Michael Phelps’s loss to Ryan Lochte and a few others in 400m Medley, the creative spirit of the opening day festivities and the thrill of the competition make the upcoming weeks sportive blast also here in Charm City. Hampden United Methodist Church has joined The Games with its collaborative, five-week sermon series focusing on the lessons that the ancient and modern athletes offer for our journey of religious and personal growth. I went to the Sunday afternoon’s informal worship on July 22 to learn with Pastor Robin Johnson and his congregation spiritual dimensions of such athletic concepts as training, coaching, teamwork, and competition. The remaining weeks of Hampden’s Games sermons, August 5 and August 12, will focus on endurance as well as the lessons of victory and defeat.
The spirit of improvement is deeply ingrained in the American psyche; the ideas of growth and transformation resonate with many. The Americans are not alone in this beautiful struggle; they are in the company of ancients thinkers and religious masters who have viewed the life through the lenses of training and betterment. “We all need to get in better shape,” Pastor Johnson summed. This recognition is the foundation for personal regeneration – be that physical or spiritual – but this positive desire alone is not enough to secure that the planted seed of change bears fruit. Hence, the Greek philosophers as well as the biblical writers, such as Apostle Paul, advocated for devotional regimen that involved practices of self-control, perseverance, sense of direction, and the thrill of meaningful competition.
The GPS guides – in this case the acronym refers to the words Grow, Pray, Study –of Hampden’s Olympic-inspired theme bring together a large selection of Bible texts that offer advice for the way of faith that unites the mind and the body, the belief and the practices of daily life. The sermon series itself is an example of another important athletic concept, teamwork, for part of the Games sermons are delivered as video broadcasts from The Church of the Resurrection, the nation’s largest United Methodist Church, located in Leawood, Kansas. Adam Hamilton, the Resurrection’s popular pastor and shepherd of more than 16 000 congregants, offers series of athletic reflections that weave the key principles of Methodism into the fabric of sports, spirituality, and personal growth. Constant reminders concerning the positive foundation of moderation and delayed gratification are certainly needed at this age that leaves so many helplessly spinning in the powerful currents of consumerism and immediacy of physical pleasures of all sorts.
At times the greatest battle in the spiritual growth is not the demands of the body but rather the hurdles set by the weary, lackluster, mind. It seems to me that the author of the closing hymn at Hampden’s Sunday service knew that the discouraged spirit can make even the strongest athletes stumble. The congregation sang: “May you run and not be weary.” We all need positive emotional contagion, cheering on, and a sense that we can actually reach the goals we have set for our training. And, admittedly, at times it is also good coaching to offer the medicine of laughter for weary athletes. This is just what Mr. Bean (Rowan Atkins) did at the Olympics opening ceremony when he entered to win a race at the famous beach scene from Chariots of Fire (1981), a classic movie about faith and running. Mr. Bean’s method of cheating and cutting the corners is not from the books of religious advice but laughter and sense of humor certainly can be.