Every few years the Olympics comes around and becomes the centerpiece of global culture. In a world filled with crime, war, poverty, and injustice, the spectacle of seeing people who have dedicated major portions of their lives to excelling at a physical discipline and rising to the highest levels of human achievement is not only a welcome distraction. It is inspirational, uplifting, and even awe inspiring! Seeing someone spin in the air more times than you can count, then land on a slippery surface on 1/8" wide blade of steel and do it with grace is a stunning sight to see! Watching people sled on ice at 90 mph with no real steering mechanism and their face inches from the ground seems surreal... or downhill racers going at similar speeds on two high tech beams at the hairy edge between control and disaster... it makes you wonder what drives them to put everything on the line with such rare abandon. While motivations vary and are often deeply personal, attaining the 'perfect run' and experiencing the 'thrill of victory' is one common fuel that keeps them focused and driven. There is something in us that longs for perfection, whether we experience it ourselves or see it in others.
There is a paradox of human experience that few people can really explain. When we see something so beautiful, powerful, wondrous and moving that we are filled with joy... why is it a very common response to weep... to be moved to tears? Tears are typically associated with sadness, yet in our most transcendent and happy moments, we often cry. While still in high school, I came across (and wrote a paper on) the writings of a French (first a Protestant, then agnostic, then Catholic) philosopher named Jacques Maritain who had the best explanation I had ever heard before or since. As I recall, his explanation was that we all long for Heaven, for God's reign, for perfection. When we get a glimpse of perfection in this damaged world, that deep and potent connection with everything we long for is made for a moment, then broken. In that moment of transcendent joy we weep with sadness as we begin to experience the inevitable loss of what we know is slipping through our fingers, knowing that we are powerless to stop it. We have touched Heaven itself, and now we are being torn from it kicking and screaming as the world pulls us back to it's harsh reality. It all happens in a moment, an instant, faster than we can comprehend, and we are left wonder what just hit us as we wipe the tears from our eyes.
One thing that is interesting about this is that it has a lot in common with 'near death experiences' (NDEs). Quite often when people 'die' and go to Heaven, they are so overwhelmed with the love and joy and perfection they experience, when they are asked (or told) about coming back to their earthly existence to finish out their purpose, that is the last thing they want! Despite being separated from family and friends and all of their 'stuff', they most frequently want to stay, and are sad, and even angry, when they have to leave Heaven to come back to life. Wanting to understand and experience the joys and wonders of Heaven myself (if not experientially, then vicariously), I started collecting videos of people who have had NDEs (or waking dreams) whereby they went to Heaven and then came back to tell about it. I put together a YouTube channel (check it out here) with this collection which currently has 48,000 hits and counting, so I guess I am not the only one intrigued by this phenomenon.
So what does it all mean? How can we use this information to bring more meaning and purpose to our lives? How can we tap into that powerful force that drives athletes in their pursuit of excellence? How can we 'touch Heaven', achieve that 'perfect run', and experience 'the thrill of victory' again and again in our lives? The first Olympics were held in Greece in 776 BC, so the Apostle Paul (being a Roman citizen and speaking Greek) would have been well acquainted with the Olympics (although 'Winter Olympics' hadn't been invented yet). He states, "Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air", and "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart." He also said, "However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace", and, near the end of his life, proclaimed, "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."
Bottom line? Jesus endured the most difficult course of events ever imagined... the cross. How? Like top athletes, by keeping his eyes on the prize of the joy that was set before him (sitting at the right hand of God). We are encouraged to follow His example and keep our eyes on Him, the one who will reward us for all the good we have done as we stand on the podium. A true athlete feels reward from discipline, progress, and incremental success, but ultimately strives for that 'Gold Medal' (historically it was a victory wreath or crown). Christ reminded us, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Getting to Heaven is one thing... gathering crowns and other rewards to be held until you arrive is another. Paul refers to a number of 'crowns' (or victory wreaths) to be attained for things like self-discipline, perseverance in difficulty, spiritual leadership, witnessing and discipleship, faithfulness even unto death, and looking forward to the return of Christ. Christ saves us by His grace if we make him Lord and Savior, but if we are faithful in doing good no matter what, we will have great reward in Heaven! We can raise our sights toward our heavenly calling and keep our eye on the heavenly rewards that not only will outshine anything this world could offer, but they will last for eternity! Perfect everlasting rewards are within our grasp! Lift up your eyes and go for the gold!
But wait... there's more! We who have faith also have daily access to perfection, to Heaven, to God's reign through a living relationship with our perfect Creator... through prayer, through study of God's Word, and through Holy Spirit inspired action. We can experience perfection every time we seek and find His holiness. When the Love of God is real to you, you will keep coming back again and again, and find strength, power and wisdom (when you need it most) by dwelling in His presence. As Isaiah said,
"He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint."