Why the Olympics Remind Me of the Kingdom of God

I was eight years old when the Magnificent 7 won gold in 1996. My friends and I spent the next several years playing gymnastics: pretending that the grout lines between kitchen tiles were balance beams, desperately wishing I could do a cartwheel but settling for somersaults, awarding each other perfect 10s for every wobbly pirouette on the back porch. (I should mention that I signed up for gymnastics lessons once. I was too afraid to ever flip over the uneven bars. That was the beginning and end of my actual gymnastics career.)

I still get goosebumps when I watch Kerri Strug stick that vault landing (which is more often than you might think), and I cry every time I see Bela Karolyi carry her to the podium. That moment is pure magic; the stuff Hollywood only dreams of, what we’d all say was too good to be true if we saw it on the big screen.

My Olympics obsession has been going strong ever since. I assure you that if I did not have 2 small children to care for, I would not have moved from my couch over the past week. Generally, I work hard to limit and control my sons’ screen time, but that’s all gone out the window right now. One of the first questions Ian asks each morning is “We going to watch the uh-mim-kicks today?”

This year, I feel particularly emotional and invested in what’s happening in Rio. This may be because I’m pregnant and exhausted from parenting a feisty toddler, which makes me more likely to cry at anything, let alone a near-perfect gymnastics routine or a Proctor & Gamble commercial.

But hormones and exhaustion aside, the world has been downright crazy lately. Every day, I’m afraid to check the news for fear of what I might find there. I’ve seen the jokes on Twitter; we’d all just like to cancel the rest of 2016 and skip ahead to January. I needed some joy, some excitement, and some pure goodness to balance out all the bad this year; I know I’m not alone in this. The Olympics are providing that reprieve.

And in the midst of all that (or perhaps because of it), the Olympics are reminding me of some eternal realities that are easy to forget in our hustling, striving, fearful, divisive culture. The Olympics remind me of the kingdom of God.

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We are the image of God. Whether I’m watching gymnasts or long-jumpers, swimmers or sprinters, divers or soccer players, I see the best of what our physical bodies are capable of: grace, strength, flight, and speed; hugging, screaming, running, and jumping. I grew up in a Christian school of thought that taught that my body—flesh—was not to be trusted. I didn’t grow up learning to pay attention to the signals my body sends. (See also: a complete lack of athletic ability.) I’m grateful for the reminder that God created our bodies for good.

We are living in the now but not yet. While I didn’t think the opening ceremonies were the most exciting I’ve ever seen, they were perhaps the most meaningful for me. I loved how Brazil’s history was represented. Amidst the dancing and music and supermodels, they showed us slavery, deforestation, and colonialism. They celebrated the good of their culture while not glossing over the more unpleasant realities of it. Now, but not yet. As I’ve gotten older, it’s been harder for me to ignore the complicated realities of an event like this on the world stage: security concerns, questionable ethics of how a country’s poor citizens are treated throughout the preparation process, wondering if we’re implicit in a country’s less-than-savory policies by choosing them to host. But then I watched the joy on Flavia Saraiva’s face as she competed just down the road from her neighborhood, and I cried (shocker) as thousands stood to applaud for Team Refugee. The very presence of Team Refugee forces us to acknowledge that all is not right in the world, yet each of us deserves a seat at the table. Each of those individuals have endured the most devastating of heartbreak and trauma and yet accomplished so much, and they had the chance to participate in this celebration. Now, but not yet. 

Everything we do with our lives can be worship. At the end of the women’s gymnastics all-around final, I watched Aly and Simone complete their floor routines with tears in my eyes. Then, Simone Manuel unexpectedly won gold in her race, and the tears just picked up from there. There is something holy, sacred, and yes—worshipful—about watching people do the thing they were clearly CREATED to do, and do it better than anyone has before. (When it’s unexpected, even better!) When I watch these athletes, it’s so obvious that God created us all skillfully, carefully, and intentionally. I don’t imagine we’ll spend eternity sitting around playing harps; what I imagine is each of us working without toiling, excelling without competing, at the things that most connect us to the heart of God, the very things He had in mind when He thought of us. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think Michael Phelps will be swimming a perpetual IM for all of eternity, but somehow, I know that feeling will be reflected in the new, perfect, unbroken kingdom Jesus is building. If we tumble or build, if we sprint or push a stroller around the neighborhood, if we coach teams or write books, if we are the underdog or the favorite, if we are swimming laps or grading papers—it can all be worship.

I’m going to soak up each moment, each medal ceremony, each sweet victory and painful defeat. And I’m going to pray that God will help me carry these feelings—joy, pride, unity, and passion—into this next season. I don’t want to wait until PyeongChang or Tokyo to be reminded that despite appearances, there is good to be found in our world, and Jesus is always building His kingdom.


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