Photo: Angela Maria Posada and one of her daughters, Veronica. Angela lived on the streets for years. Her family now lives in a poor community near downtown Medellín, Colombia.
By Andy Olsen
I was riding in a taxi in Colombia last week, and the driver, once he learned I was American, immediately wanted to know if I thought the United States would stay at the top of the Olympic medal count or would be overtaken by China.
Who doesn’t love the Olympics? In a great global irony, every two years, a billion of us come together to live vicariously through a handful of athletes pushing every physical limit, while we push the limits of our couches.
The excitement of high-stakes competition and displays of raw skill are hard to resist. But there are other things that draw us to the games. Beautiful bodies. Televised construction of celebrity, and the sense of significance that follows. The sheer logistics of it all, thousands of people from every corner of the Earth descending on a single city, cheering in stadiums that are each-one-more-impressive monuments to success.
Centuries after God foiled man’s attempt to unite around an ill-fated tower and scattered us across the planet, humans now reunite around sport.
The key to the Olympic mystique, I have a hunch, is the ordinariness of the athletes. We can relate to them. Unlike professional athletes, the olympians seem so approachable, and (most) are not yet millionaires. They seem, well, a lot like us. Which is why we have all at some point imagined ourselves in their shoes.
The Olympics embodies everything that the world values. Self-made success. Rewards for the fittest. Physical beauty and sex appeal. Perfection and winning. Advertisers know this very well. In the United States, television commercials during these games whispered to us: “You’re not an Olympian, but you can be like one. Buy this luxury car, use this credit card, wear these clothes or this makeup, and you’ll be (almost) one of them.”
There are few other events where mankind puts so much importance, where governments and corporations put their massive resources behind a select few individuals to bolster their image before a watching world.
As Christians, it should make us pause and ask: What are the things that thrill God as much as the Olympics thrill us?
The truth is, what the Olympics say about our values is quite opposite of what we know that God values. The gospel is about downward mobility. Christ taught and modeled a life of meekness, of fleeing from self-glorification, of sacrificial service. He minced no words in Mark 9:35 when he said that the least of these would be those most honored in his Kingdom (and you can be sure that will be a much grander stage than the Olympic podium). He made it very clear that he did not come to build his reign on the backs of self-made winners, but through the humility of self-confessed losers.
Don’t get me wrong. World-class athletic competition surely puts a smile on God’s face. After all, it is a spectacle of his most prized creation in perfect physical form. It must fill him with joy when his children go on camera and publicly thank God for the gifts he has given them. Great sport grips us with unexplainable interest, and it’s a safe bet that God made it that way on purpose. At its best, it is worship of our Creator.
But alas, the world loves sports-spectacle in different ways than God probably does. It so easily wins our hearts because it lures us with the possibility of greatness that we all crave. If we can’t personally win at sport, we certainly hope we’re flying the flag of the nation (or city or school) that does. Which is why we invest so much of our collective resources in professional athletics.
“His pleasure is not in the strength of the horse, nor his delight in the legs of the warrior, but the Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love.” – Psalm 147:10-11
The news media is a great indicator of just how much we project on the Olympics. NBC alone spent over a billion dollars only for the rights to broadcast the 2012 Olympics in the United States. That sum dwarfs the GDP of some of the very countries participating in the games. And it doesn’t include the actual cost of producing the coverage, estimated at easily more than $100 million dollars. Add to that the money that hundreds of other news outlets around the world spent to send photographers, writers, video crews and producers to London.
As Christians, we are not necessarily called to remove ourselves from all the spectacle, but we are called to balance it. We must remember that where the world invests its hopes is generally not where God calls us to invest ours. Wide and obvious is the road of the world. Our privilege is to point people to the road that is narrow and easy-to-miss.
Last week, around the same time that millions were cheering for (or against) Usain Bolt, I was sitting in a tiny room in a drug-filled building in Medellín, Colombia, listening to Angela weep. Now a believer, Angela had once been addicted to drugs and lived on the streets on-and-off for 18 years. She shared with how she had just learned that her 15-year-old daughter was pregnant. The young girl had begun using drugs herself and was shacked up with a professional thief.
Her story is predictably common in her neighborhood, a place where the cycle of drug abuse, prostitution and poverty is particularly vicious. But the miracle is that Angela and her other children have come to love Jesus and are, slowly, escaping from the hell that they once lived. Their story is the fruit of the hard work of Fundación Viento Fresco, a ministry we at LAM serve with in that barrio. They are a small team of people who have been feeding children and providing after-school programs for over eight years. They work every day with no recognition, no big funding, and no quick-and-easy results.
Why do I bring up Viento Fresco and Angela? Because one of the things I love about my job is that I get to tell the stories of unsung heroes like these. We tend to overlook the narratives of the poor and struggling unless they are part of the past of someone who has now achieved greatness. But I have to think that God leans over the ledge of heaven, hanging eagerly on every twist and turn of their stories and rooting for them like we would never believe.
If we can invest billions of dollars in the distribution of a few gold medals, then surely we have a responsibility to also broadcast the good news of a few lives transformed by the love of God. Because a family pulled from the grip of the most unthinkable circumstances is a greater event in the Kingdom then shaving a few milliseconds from a world record.
As I reflect on my past week, I’m super glad that our church schedule allowed us to watch the USA basketball gold-medal game on Sunday morning. But I am eternally more grateful for the chance I got to listen to Angela’s story, to pray for her and her daughter, and to share her story later this year (when it publishes).
The narrow road is full of easy-to-miss champions walking along it. May we notice them and have the courage to follow along, especially in the times when the wide road is calling us so loudly.