Decathlon

Posted on January 14, 2011

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Christmas cards are important in my family because we’re very competitive.

We’re not competitive people in the “Gatorade commercial” kind of way.  We’re peace-loving people, a Neville Chamberlain family in a Kim Jong Il world.   To us, Monopoly games are just an excuse to see who can get away with stealing the most $500 bills.  None of us has ever body-slammed the other through a coffee table because of a Guess Who? tournament.   And my sister has never thrown down the left bauer in Euchre, pounded her chest, and screamed, “We must protect this house!”

But when it comes to Christmas cards, the Pax Larsona goes out the window.  That is where our competitive neurons go berserk.  For us, the beginning of December is like kickoff at a Kennedy family football game at Hyannisport.

We’re not bad people, I promise.  But I feel sympathy for the families that send us Christmas cards.  They don’t know that, when they drop their card in the mail, it is not a gentle expression of goodwill and joy.  They are collectively stepping into the Larson Family Octagon, an eight-sided Yuletide face-off of domination.  Sending us a Christmas card is like trash-talking Kobe Bryant, or revving your engine next to Jimmie Johnson at a red light.  The truth is, when it come to Christmas cards, we don’t want to share in the bounty of another good year, or be reminded of the reason for the season.  Family versus family, we want to have the more awesome Christmas card.  We want to beat you.  Big time.

The Larsons understand that the true purpose of Christmas cards is to convey these twin messages: 1) our family is still alive, and 2) we had a better year than you.    This is why sending Christmas cards early in December is a rookie mistake.  It gives all the other families ammunition.  Veteran Christmas card senders wait until as close to Christmas as possible so they can analyze the competition.  “The Roberts went to Jamaica this year, but not on a missions trip- we might want to mention something about scaling back during hard financial times for the guilt factor.  It also looks like these people’s son graduated from college.  Jon, mark it to emphasize that you made Dean’s List twice.  Wow, this girl really got hot this year, let’s make an optional note to include that picture of the three of us where we all look like Hollister models.  And I know we photoshopped a picture of Christina fist-bumping Nelson Mandela, but let’s wait to use it until we see what the Fischers have.”

I love the Olympics, and not just because one year I had a crush on gymnast Dominique Moceanu.  No, I love the Olympics because watching them is like getting Christmas cards from sports.  In non-Olympic years, our national attention is focused on the big sports: baseball, football, basketball, soccer, maybe even lacrosse if you want to catch a Who’s Who of Future Pyramid Schemes.  But every two years, the Olympics happen and remind us of all the sports we’d forgotten existed, such as archery, cross country skiing, and deciding which women on the Chinese swim team used to be men.  And just like the people who we exchange Christmas cards with, these are sports that you remember liking, but not so much that you actually kept up with them during non-Olympic years.  Speed skating?  I remember you!  Bobsledding, how’s it going!  Judo?  Looking good, my man!

Of all the events, my favorite Olympic sport is the decathlon.  Part of the reason is because it’s ten events in one.  It’s like the buffet of the track and field world.  Whoever wins it should get a gold medal with a bar code on the back that gives them lifetime free food at CiCi’s Pizza and Ponderosa Steakhouse.  But the other reason is that whoever wins the decathlon earns, not just a medal, but also the title of “World’s Greatest Athlete.”

I covet that title for myself, but I’m realizing that I can’t win it just for putting enough topspin on a ping pong ball to dig the Suez Canal.  Still, the idea of being known as the “World’s Greatest Athlete” intrigues me.  Decathletes have a cachet that other competitors don’t.  When Olympians (the athletes, not the Greek gods) gather, the decathlete alone can claim to truly be able to do it all.  Even in a roomful of specialists and virtuosos, only the decathlete can claim to be a Renaissance man.

In 1st Corinthians 12, the apostle Paul addresses the issue of personal skills and talents to the Corinthian church.  Paul wants to leave no room for confusion on whether, in the church, some members can be so supremely gifted that they are worthy of special veneration and love from the rest of the church.  So he rolls out an extended word picture comparing the church to a human body, and says this:

If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?  But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.  If they were all one part, where would the body be?…The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”  On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.

Decathletes achieve success because they are multi-talented.  Their overall athletic prowess means that they cannot be pigeonholed into just one event, or compete in a solitary discipline.  Ten separate events demand their mastery, which is why the winner of the decathlon at the Olympics can rightly boast the title of “World’s Greatest Athlete'”.  Their breadth of skill sets them apart from their track and field contemporaries.  They are the best of the best.

Paul’s concern is that the Corinthian church will misunderstand the Christian life to be like an Olympic decathlon.  He worries that they will look to those with the flashiest gifts, the most compelling skills, as the”World’s Best Christians”, and exalt them over the brothers and sisters in Christ that display less compelling gifts.

So Paul’s humorous visual- a whole body made up of eyes?  Of noses?- illustrates his point that every person that Christ died for contributes something vital to God’s kingdom.   Do you really want a whole community of bookworms that write books about the merits of the infralapsarian view?  Would your church really be better off if every single person in it was a guitar prodigy, with 600 people all onstage playing killer worship riffs and soloing out in a 360 degree rotating cube over the pews?  Or do you agree that a Vespers service would look ridiculous if all the people brought their accounting calculators and simultaneously crunched numbers on the church budget?

Paul’s concern was warranted.  The decathlon urge to exalt the talented and flashy, and minimize the humbly gifted, is deeply ingrained in us.  At the family camp my family attended when I was a teenager, one of the attendees was an old, old man named Richard.  Richard had severe cerebral palsy.  When he spoke it was difficult to understand him.  He often had halitosis, and he walked with a side-to-side shuffle, like a penguin.  Richard took an interest in me, and would often engage me in conversations that I could only half understand- encounters which I would tolerate because I thought that’s what a good Christian boy should do, but also quickly excuse myself from because I wanted to have fun with my friends.

As a spiritual decathlete, he had nothing to offer.  He could never have a top 10 most downloaded podcast from iTunes.  The local Logan’s Run Evangelical Church would never put his picture on their website.  And he would never be asked to lead a small group, or lead seminars on how to have the perfect marriage and raise children who will work in the Life Coaching Industry.

Richard was also a genius.  His passion was computers, but he was, in fact, something of a polymath in the mold of  Leonardo da Vinci.  His brilliance was locked behind a mouth that could not always form the words, and a body that disobeyed his mental commands and presented an unflattering appearance.  My enduring image is of Richard at camp, sitting alone in an adirondack chair near the bay, baseball cap askew, watching as boats sailed in circles while the rest of us campers passed around him, like a toy car sunken in a creek bed.  We had pity on him, but not much time for him.

My hope for Richard is that God placed him in a community of worship that took seriously Paul’s words that “… the parts (of the body) that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty…”  My worry is that Richard instead found a church like the one Paul warned the Corinthians about, filled with decathletes like me, intent on locating “successful” Christians and associating with them, so that we’ll look like winners.

Paul admonishes the Corinthians not to distract themselves with the gold medalists among us.  He instead reminds them that Christ’s sacrifice made each of them equal members of the church (v. 13), and that the purpose of the church is to coexist as God places them together. (v. 27).  Building a winning program has nothing to do with it.  Vince Lombardi died for no one’s sins.

There is an old theater adage that goes, “There are no small parts.  Only small actors”.  So too can there be no decathletes in God’s kingdom.  The grace of Jesus humbles us all to the status of “World’s Worst Christian”, and strips from us the privilege of assigning rank and hierarchy to each other based on outward usefulness.  In its place is the unity that comes from knowing that each person, as an image-bearer of God, is placed intentionally among us for His purpose.  Probably so we could have more people to send Christmas cards to.

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