Going for the gold

The Vancouver Winter Olympics are underway! After months of anticipation, the games are finally a reality. Go, Canada, go!

Like most Canadians, I have been enjoying the games. The opening ceremonies were spectacular and did a good job at honouring Native culture. The fence around the cauldron is unfortunate, and the weather has been wacky, but the games continue, and overall most Canadians seem genuinely enthusiastic. Despite some negative press and complaints about the inevitable glitches, there is lots to cheer about. The accomplishments of the athletes are truly impressive, and their level of dedication to the training and preparation process is a good reminder of the value of discipline and sacrifice. Some of the contestants have had to overcome great obstacles to get to where they are. When I hear the stories of some of the individual athletes, I am struck by their willingness to sacrifice and endure pain and hardship for the sake of an opportunity to compete.

Many of the sports also highlight the importance of teamwork, and there can be high drama when a less-favoured but cohesive team scores an upset as a reward for their passion, perseverance and team effort. Thursday night’s hockey game, in which the Swiss team came within a hair of defeating Team Canada, was a prime example of this. The Swiss team had far less “star power” than Team Canada, and was not expected to win. They also had a hot goalie, a core of players that had been practising together for months, and that intangible element of desire and passion – and they almost pulled it off.

So was Switzerland’s almost-win a victory or a defeat? It depends on your perspective. I’m guessing that the Swiss are proud of their team today – as they should be. Even though I’m cheering for Team Canada, secretly I’m happy that the Swiss came so close Thursday night. Their near-upset was a good reminder for Team Canada that it takes more than talent to win a tournament, and that over-confidence (aka pride) can be costly.

The Swiss hockey team’s effort Thursday night was also a great demonstration of those intangibles – team play, courage, perseverance, giving your all for a great cause – that make the Olympics so exciting. The Hudson’s Bay Company has hit upon a very compelling advertising theme for the Olympics with their slogan We were made for this.  Just as significant is the Believe theme chosen by CTV and Rogers for the games. These advertisers have put their finger on the desire of the human heart to believe in something beyond ourselves and to give our best for a high calling. Events like the Olympics remind us that there is more to life than the everyday, humdrum routine of work, eat, sleep. There is glory to be won, there are prizes to contend for, there are great causes to embrace.

For most of us, though, Olympic glory can never be more than second-hand. When it comes to the Olympics – or, for that matter, the SuperBowl or the Stanley Cup, or American Idol, the Academy Awards, and so forth – the most I can expect to do is take pride in someone else’s accomplishments, not my own. I have no illusions about ever being a superstar in any form of athletics or entertainment.

This thought doesn’t worry me, because in the end, contests like the Olympics aren’t really that important.  The reason they are valuable is because they remind us of the contest that really counts. It’s the great cosmic battle between darkness and light, and the future of the human race is at stake. The good news is that the final outcome has already been determined. Heaven’s champion has already run his race and has won the gold medal for us. But unlike the Olympics, we get to do more than just watch – we get to run too. Amazingly enough, unqualified though we may be, we all have an invitation from Jesus, the Victor, to be on his team. If we run the race, we are guaranteed a share in His victory.  Everyone who joins His team gets the gold. In fact, we must run if we want to obtain the prize that is waiting for us. If we don’t run, we forfeit – to our eternal loss. But even though we’re guaranteed a share in His victory if we run the race, it’s no cakewalk. This race involves faith, training, courage, sacrifice, and life-long perseverance.

In the end, Olympic glory will fade. There is only one prize that will endure forever – the prize of God’s smile, His approval. Compared to this prize, nothing else ultimately matters. It’s the reward for turning away from the self-preoccupation that is so characteristic of our age, and choosing to live my life for the pleasure of the One who sacrificed His life for me.

I’ve made my choice – I’m going for the gold. How about you?

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Will someone please just tell the truth?

I turned to the CTV news this morning and discovered that another aspiring politician, erstwhile Toronto mayoral candidate Adam Giambrone, has had his private infidelity exposed and has stepped down from the race to succeed outgoing mayor David Miller.  When the story first broke and it appeared that Giambrone was planning to stay in the mayoral race, one of the most perceptive commentators on the story observed ironically, “Don’t worry, a politician’s private integrity has nothing to do with his public integrity. Right…”

In a post on the Tiger Woods saga a few weeks ago, I commented that none of us is in a position to condemn public figures for their personal moral failures.   I stand by this assertion, but that doesn’t mean that the rapid decline in standards of public integrity isn’t a cause for concern.  I can’t help noticing that Canadians seem increasingly cynical about the truthfulness of politicians, business people, spiritual leaders, employers, and other authority figures.  Effective leadership in any arena requires that trust be established.  In an atmosphere of general cynicism about the motives and integrity of leaders, this task becomes much more difficult.

The Torah contains a fascinating chapter (Leviticus 27) on vows.  Essentially these rules were put in place as incentives for people to keep the vows that they had made to the Lord.  The unstated assumption behind this teaching is that in our fallen, corrupted condition, we humans are inclined to try to weasel out of promises if they become too costly or inconvenient.  By the time of Jesus this had apparently become commonplace, prompting him to address the issue head-on by saying that making vows or oaths is a bad idea.  His point was that people of integrity don’t need to use vows or oaths to certify that what they’re about to say is really true – they just tell the truth, all the time.  So, for example, Jesus would say that swearing on the Bible in court should have no impact on your testimony; if you are truthful, you are truthful all the time.

It’s easy to become disappointed or even offended at leaders who are untrustworthy.  However, since we can’t change others but only ourselves,  a more productive response is to examine our own hearts.  Do we exhibit the qualities of truthfulness and trustworthiness that we look for in others?   Jesus said, Let your yes be yes and your no be no.  Anything more than this comes from the evil one.  In other words – please just tell the truth.

The choice to walk a straight path rather than a crooked one is a daily decision; it’s a reflection of our basic convictions about life.  The book of Proverbs (10:9) reminds us that our truthfulness – or lack thereof – will eventually become visible to all.  There is no “truthfulness switch” that can be turned on or off at will.  Integrity may not seem very exciting and it’s not always convenient, but it is absolutely foundational to a believable testimony and a stable and productive life.

Do I want the people I work with to know that they can believe what I say without question?  Then I need to practice truthfulness all the time – even when I have just made a mistake, and an honest report might make me look bad.  Even if I look bad because of my mistake, in the end an honest report will win me a better reputation than a lie to save face.  And in the eyes of God – whose verdict is the only one that ultimately matters – truthfulness always looks infinitely better than any attempt to hide or camouflage the truth.

Do I want my children to be truthful with me?  Then I need to be truthful in all my dealings.  If I cheat on my taxes by making meal or travel claims that don’t reflect reality just because I can get away with it, should I be surprised when my child cheats on an exam?  If I can lie when it’s convenient, why can’t he?  If I ask my child to tell an unwanted caller that I’m not at home, I shouldn’t be surprised later on to find my child betraying my trust.  If she can lie for me, she can lie to me.

Do I want to have good sex with my wife?  Then I need to be transparent with her.  Sex is not only physical – it is about emotional and spiritual intimacy.  I can’t expect my wife to desire intimacy with me if I’m hiding things from her.  A liar is a divided person; but she didn’t marry part of me, she married all of me.  If I expect my wife to be excited about being with me, I need to bring my whole self to the marriage bed.

Do I want to please the Lord more than I want to please myself or anyone else?  Do I genuinely believe that He is trustworthy and rewards those who place their trust in Him?  Do I understand that truthfulness and humility attract the favour of God?  If I understand these things, then I will be highly motivated to ask God daily to cleanse and train my heart, and make of me a person whose character reflects His integrity and uprightness.

Will someone please just tell the truth?  Good question.   Let’s be that person.

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Change your underwear

According to published reports, Ottawa Senators‘ centre Jason Spezza will continue to change his underwear despite his recent scoring streak.   Unlike some hockey players who continue to wear the same (unwashed) underwear during a winning streak, superstitiously fearing that a change in their apparel will disrupt their good fortune, he will wear clean underwear every day.  Spezza, you see, does not credit his success to his undergarments.

It is amazing, really, what people will do to get good luck or to avoid what they consider to be bad luck.  Hotels and office buildings frequently do not have a thirteenth floor, considering it bad luck.   Of course, the thirteenth floor is still there – they just assign it a different number (like 12a or 14).   Some believe that throwing a pinch of salt over one’s shoulder wards off bad luck.  Others try to avoid black cats, believing that they bring bad fortune – though some cultures see black cats as bringing good luck, not bad.  Many read their horoscope and take it seriously, believing that it tells them something about their character and future prospects.   Lots of people say things like cross your fingers or knock on wood, implying that doing this will bring good luck or ward off bad luck.  At least one of Canada’s prime ministers was known to consult mediums, looking for reassurance from the spirit world. Many people will visit the booth of a fortune-teller at the local county fair, and nowadays psychics market their services quite openly, apparently attracting plenty of customers.

Superstitious practices generally are based on some form of belief about the supernatural.  The avoidance of black cats is probably based on a medieval belief that witches sometimes appeared in this form.  Throwing salt was supposed to ward off evil spirits.  Mediums are supposed to be able to put us in touch with the departed who can give us guidance, reassurance or comfort – and so on.  But whatever the specific beliefs that underlie a particular superstition, the motivation behind such practices is a desire for control.

The world can be a frightening place.  Many things happen to us, or could happen to us, which we fear we cannot control.   All of us are aware that in the physical realm we have to contend with wars, natural disasters, diseases, pollutants and other hostile forces.  What if, in addition to the physical realm, we have to contend with possibly hostile spiritual powers as well?  In that case, the reasoning goes, we need all the help we can get – we need to enlist the help of whatever beneficial powers might be out there, and we need to ward off the schemes of dark powers in any way open to us.  And if we can get insight about the future through fortune-tellers, mediums or tarot cards, why not?

Why not, indeed?  Well – it all depends on what you believe about the universe.

If you believe in the reality of the spiritual realm, but you don’t really trust any of the powers out there, you may use various superstitions or magical practices to try to manipulate or influence otherwise hostile or indifferent powers to do you good and not harm.  With some variations, and at the risk of oversimplifying, this is the basic worldview and mindset behind Wicca and all forms of paganism.   Haitian Vodou (see my last post) is a good example of such a belief system.  The idea is that spiritual powers are real, but not necessarily friendly.  Some are helpful and some are harmful, and they are also potentially open to influence.  So, it is in one’s best interest to learn how to influence the spiritual powers, co-operating with the helpful ones and seeking to avoid being harmed by the nasty ones.

The mindset behind such belief systems is essentially self-centred, the key to success is knowledge, and the goal is power.  The problem with this approach is that you never really know if it’s going to work.  It might, or it might not.  You may think you have a pretty strong hand, but if  someone else with more power than you comes along and trumps you, you’re in trouble.  You can never be sure.  One can see this basic insecurity reflected in the Harry Potter movies and books, and all forms of fantasy literature.  People who place their hope in superstitions or various forms of magic can never be truly secure.  The best they can do is to hope that everything will pan out in their favour.

If you believe that we’re entirely on our own, and that all events have a natural (physical) explanation, then you probably aren’t reading this blog – but if you are, you will of course agree (being a completely rational person) that all superstitious practices are totally nonsensical because there are no spiritual powers out there to affect us, for good or ill.  However, like the pagan, you can never be totally secure if you hold such a belief system.  Ultimately you are not in control, and you’re not really sure who is – so you do the best you can, and take your chances.   I’m not 100% sure, but my guess is that this what Jason Spezza believes.  It’s how an increasing number of post-Christian North Americans live their lives.

But if you believe that you were made in the image of the God of the Universe, that He cares about your life, and that He has the power to preserve and bless those who entrust themselves to Him, then things look very different.  As one who has placed his hope in the Holy One, I don’t deny that there are many things I can’t control, but this thought doesn’t frighten me.  I know that my Redeemer has come, that He has risen from the dead to conquer the powers of evil, and that He is coming again to establish His Kingdom on the earth.   I know the spiritual realm is real, but instead of trying to placate a plethora of potentially hostile powers, I place my trust in the One who has won the right to rule over all other powers, and whose name is love.

Consequently, I have no need for superstitious practices, and I don’t need to worry about the future.  I still make plans, but my trust is not in my own plans but in the One who is ultimately trustworthy.  I can make use of every legitimate means to improve my life, but ultimately my hope is not in these secondary methods, but in the One who made heaven and earth, and to whom I belong.  Because I don’t live for myself, but for His Kingdom and glory, I can trust Him to look after me.  That doesn’t mean nothing bad will ever happen to me – in fact, Jesus made it very clear that his followers should not be surprised by trouble – but it means that even in the midst of trouble I can have peace, because I’ve read the last chapter of the book and I know how it ends – I know who wins the battle.

So – will I still change my underwear the next time I beat Joe at racquetball?  Well – first of all I have to beat him, of course – which is an uncertain proposition at best.  But if I do, it won’t have anything to do with my underwear – or his, for that matter.   Not only that, I am totally unimpressed by horoscopes, unafraid of black cats, and have no fear of walking under ladders.  I also choose not to complain about the weather, or worry about my health or the stock market.  If I can make something better, I try to, but I find that life goes better if I place my concerns in the Lord’s hands, do my best, and live free from worry and anxiety.   He knows the future, and I have found that my life goes much better if I trust Him to manage all the stuff that I can’t really control anyway.   Just some food for thought …

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