“God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure”

“God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure,” so said Eric Liddell, the 400m gold medalist from the 1924 Paris Olympics Games. 

Such a view may appear strange to many of our ears, partly because God is the idea we are trying hard to leave behind. Who needs God today? But also, we have accepted a popular myth; God is baggage that keeps us from having success and happiness. Over the course of the Tokyo Olympics we have heard multiple athletes showing us otherwise.

Like millions of Aussies, COVID lockdowns have been softened a little by the Olympic Games. Last night we were treated to an epic high jump final. Australia’s Nicola McDermott won silver and achieved an Australian record in the process. 

In the post medal ceremony interview, Nicola McDermott was asked about her faith,

“I think as a teenager i was always an outcast; and I got welcomed into a faith community that loved me. And I just remember encountering god’s love and it changed the way I though of my self – as a misfit why was I created so tall and stuff –  and it gave me passion and purpose to use it.

“In 2017 was my big moment when it flicked the switch and I decided to pursue God over sport.- whatever comes from sport is a bonus but I am already complete  and perfect and loved as a person regardless of it.

“That just allowed me to soar over high jump bar and not be scared anymore because I am loved and that is the most important piece.”

In a recent interview for the Guardian, Mcdermott offered this insight, 

“I keep the focus on making my identity outside of sport – I do sport, but it’s not who I am. That’s been the breakthrough for me – realising that my performance does not determine my identity. Once you do that, you realise that it doesn’t matter whether you win the Olympics or come last, you’re still the same person.”

Sydney McLaughlin is an American athlete who won 2 gold medals at the Tokyo Games, including breaking the 400m hurdle world record. Following her 400m hurdle final, Mclaughlin spoke to NBC, saying, 

“All the glory to God…Honestly, this season just working with my new coach and my new support system, it’s truly just faith and trusting the process. I couldn’t ask for anything more and truly it is all a gift from God.”

“I think the biggest difference this year is my faith, trusting God and trusting that process, and knowing that He’s in control of everything. As long as I put the hard work in, He’s going to carry me through. And I really cannot do anything more but give the glory to Him at this point.”

McLaughlin’s Instagram bio says, 

“Jesus saved me.”

“I no longer run for self recognition, but to reflect His perfect will that is already set in stone. I don’t deserve anything. But by grace, through faith, Jesus has given me everything. Records come and go. The glory of God is eternal. Thank you Father.”

Last week the gold medal winning Fijian Rugby 7s team sang of this reality that exists above.

These testimonies expose a large crack in the myth that belief in God prevents us from having the fullest life. These athletes winning Olympic glory speak of an even greater glory that belongs not to them but to God. For them, this greater identity and meaning exceeds winning athletic Olympic medals.

Of course, there are extraordinary athletes who follow Jesus and there are extraordinary athletes who do not. In every field of endeavour this is the case. Some of the most brilliant minds in the world today are followers of Jesus while others are not. Many of history’s most influential thinkers were professing Christians and others not. Today, in the fields of medicine, law, science, music, film, and economics, there are men and women who profess the name of Jesus and there are men and women who do not.

The difference does not depend on a persons intellect or effort but in the category that is greater than all others. Neither is the distinguishing characteristic success, as though Christians are more likely to win Olympic medals or non Christians are more likely. 

You don’t need to sacrifice God for sporting achievement. You don’t need to ditch God in order to find success. We are not required to ignore God in order to find our truest self. Nicola McDermott and Sydney McLaughlin are among the many athletes who prove this myth to be false. And what these athletes have shared is a message of good news that surpasses sporting achievement. Eric Liddell who felt God’s pleasure as he raced to gold, also said this, “Many of us are missing something in life because we are after the second best.” 

The Apostle Paul once wrote a letter to a young man. He used a sporting analogy to describe the greatest race worth running. 

“ I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”

No doubt many young Aussies are dreaming about future sporting success. Many more are thinking about the future and considering the possibilities before them. We do not need to make the mistake of denigrating God from life. Indeed, through Jesus Christ he promises something of eternal meaning, joy and satisfaction. A few may eventually win an Olympic medal, but let’s not miss out because we are after the second best.

Looking to the Russian Winter

News of the Russian Olympic drug scandal has reached the ears of the media and is being rightly exposed, but flying under the radar is another Russian story, one of tragic Dostoevskian proportions.

Two weeks ago President Vladimir Putin signed into law measures outlawing evangelistic activities of religious groups in Russia. Under the guise of ‘anti-terrorism’, the Russian Government has banned churches from communicating their beliefs outside of sites officially designated by the state.

Charges can now be made against individuals for inviting people to church, for distributing literature in the community, and for presenting in peaceful ways, a persuasive case for one’s religious convictions.

Chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Thomas J. Reese, has said,

“These deeply flawed anti-terrorism measures will buttress the Russian government’s war against human rights and religious freedom…They will make it easier for Russian authorities to repress religious communities, stifle peaceful dissent, and detain and imprison people. Neither these measures nor the currently existing anti-extremism law meet international human rights and religious freedom standards.”

Thousands of Churches across Russia are holding prayer vigils, but with little hope of seeing the Government return to any sense of reasonableness.

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Most Australians will recognise these measures as alarming, draconian, and unbefitting of any nation claiming to be a pluralist society and a liberal democracy. Whether Russia would consider itself to be these things is disputable, but surely we would never witness such restrictions here in Australia?

Before we ask Dale to tell the world of the hole we haven’t dug, we must recognise that Putin-like voices can also be found in Australia, on both poles of politics. The ideology is different, but the desire to control and limit religion is similar.  In the media, politics, and education there is a growing murmuring, arguing that religion is tolerable in private, but has no place in public discourse, and certainly not in politics and in our schools. For example, both the Greens and the Sex Party are famed for policies that will reduce religious freedoms, and the current Victorian Government has done more to legislate against Christian freedoms than any other Australian Government in living memory.

Then there is the now infamous example of Section 17 of the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act, and how it was used to attack the Catholic Archbishop, Julian Porteous. What was so intolerable that the weight of law was required to come down on him? Well, Porteous published a pamphlet for Catholics, explaining a view of marriage that is congruent not only with Catholic beliefs, but which also reflects the legal definition of marriage in Australia.

It is possible to prohibit religious speech through law, and it possible to achieve the same goal by bullying and slandering those who hold religious convictions. In the lead up to the Federal election there were notable voices telling the Australian people that public dialogue about the Marriage Act was impossible. Ironically, the very same people proved their point as they employed insults and derogatory words against those who dared suggest a plebiscite might be a good idea.

Secularists wants us to believe that the public space is a purist place free from ideologue, which of course they define as atheistic humanism.This could not be further from the truth, for there is no public vacuum free from assumptions and beliefs informed by world views.  The Australian public space is pluralist, and invites people to contribute, not by leaving their convictions and consciences at home, but by bringing them to the conversation. The epistemic and moral superiority of secular humanism is as mythical as the pokemon, and yet we are chasing after it.

There is a distinction established in Australia’s Constitution between the secular state and religious institutions, but it does not denude the role of religion in public, but simply protects the State from either being controlled by or instituting any single Christian denomination.

“The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.” (Ch5. Section 116)

This Australian dichotomy between government and religion is easily sustained for Christians, given that the distinction exists because of the Christian world view. For the Christian, Jesus is Lord over all of life but the church is not the state and the state is not the church. There is an entity called the  ‘Church of England’, which is the unfortunate outcome of various historical quirks, rather than theological necessity, but it is not the situation we have here in Australia. To what extent other religions can manage this distinction, is a topic worth exploring.

During the recent Symposium on ‘Freedom of Speech’, hosted by Mentone Baptist Church, the new member of Goldstein, Tim Wilson, remarked,

“we need a lived culture of open discussion”.

It was as though someone had finally solved the congestion issues on Melbourne’s roads, such was the freshness.  Mr Wilson gave example to this value by addressing the marriage debate, saying, “I don’t think we can have a constructive conversation around the marriage of same-sex couples until both sides can say what they truly think.”

I couldn’t agree with him more.

A darkness is descending on Russia. For so much of her history the Russian people have been oppressed by one totalitarian rule or another. The light of democracy that dawned late last century is now disappearing over this vast steppe. Australians can assume the naive posture of ‘never us’, but the seeds of religious intolerance are already planted, and without due care it will grow and choke free speech. 

Not imposition but persuasion; that is the mark of a true liberal democracy. Progress cannot be achieved when the State bullies its own citizens and stifles disagreement; it only further polarises people. We would do well to heed Tim Wilson’s exhortation. More than that, perhaps we should return to the words of the Christian Scriptures’ that many Australians now deem as irrelevant, ‘speak truth in love’. Imagine, grounding a society upon that ethic?