I watched Simone Manuel finish first in the 100 meter freestyle in Olympic record time then turn to look at the score board and put her hand over her mouth in utter surprise and delight. That girl just performed a miracle as far as she’s concerned, and in her after-swim interview, the first words out of her mouth were…
“All I can say is all glory to God.”
She went on, “It’s definitely been a long journey these last four years,” and as her voice began to break, “I’m just so blessed to have a gold medal.”
What a moment for this young woman! The first African-American to win an individual medal in USA Olympic swimming competition. She knows the weight of her position and the responsibility it holds. She has a voice on the highest platform, to address all those children of color who may now aspire to do what they wouldn’t otherwise have considered possible. All Glory to God, indeed.
So I’m surprised when I watch clips of her interview, shared on tv, online and on social media, that they begin with …”This is significant. You are the first African-American woman to medal … what does this mean to you, Simone?”
“This medal is not just for me…”
And the reporters are off with the story of the woman who inspires, the symbol of a movement, the focal point of a message. All to the good, but why do we skip to the “good” part? Why do we edit God out?
I know journalists do this. We edit for time and space and message. We cut out the fluff so we can focus on the nuggets. But in this young woman’s case, I think we may have missed the first point she was making. God made me as I am, and I’m good, thanks to Him.
Can we please start at the beginning, where she began? where we all began? which is why what she says and does matters and why what we say and do matters?
Thank you, Simone, for your heart for God and your courage to say so.
All glory to God.
I used to get really discouraged watching athletes interviewed after their winning performances, especially the young, amateur athletes like you see on the Olympics. The news correspondent would say: “So, how did you do it? What do you recommend for all those aspiring swimmers, ball players, dancers, etc. out there?” This was inevitably their response,
“You just have to believe in yourself.”
This was discouraging, because I knew that it took incredible dedication, drive, skill, resources and probably a good bit of luck to end up where they were. I could believe in myself all I wanted to and, without these other things, I would never stand where they were standing. Belief was not enough. In fact, it felt like a lie.
Oh, they weren’t lying. I am sure they had tremendous belief in themselves and this propelled them. But so did the guy who qualified for the Olympics but didn’t make the finals and the one who finished 52nd with a personal best time by 3 seconds. So did the lady who broke all social barriers even to compete there. So did the Paralympic athletes. So did the Special Olympic athletes. They all believed in themselves to get where they got…which was not on the Olympic medal podium.
The deception, I realized, was the sampling method used by the correspondent (and my selective listening). The interviews given, and the ones I attended to were with the winners. Winners, across the board, believe in themselves. And when you ask them how they got to be winners, they’ll tell you so. But it is my error to think that believing in myself will cause me to win. Belief is not causal.
“Just believe” is a much tossed around phrase in Christian circles. As if, believing is something you do without thinking. That it is a mindless act or a desperate plan. But when the “just believe” is offered to people who are seeking in today’s world, people who subscribe to this “just believe in yourself” mantra, who reason that ‘if I believe hard enough or believe properly or with enough diligence, I will make it so,’ their belief gets misplaced. And is probably going to disappoint.
On the other hand, there are plenty of folks out there, perhaps most, who don’t believe in themselves. They don’t believe they can succeed, don’t believe they can win, and have real uncertainty about whether they’ll amount to anything. I have coached plenty. I have been one. One who, before the race is ever run, looks at opponents or reads the scouting report and thinks (maybe even says) I can’t beat him. She’s faster than me. He’s better than me. These people are the realists, one might say. But the one thing I know is, if I say I can’t do it, I am right – already. I have defeated myself before I have begun.
So, motivators the world over tell people to “fake it till you make it,” “be the person you want to become,” “act as if you’re champion and you will become one.” These coaches can’t guarantee outcomes, but they know this sort of approach gives their athletes, teams, or clients a fighting chance. They’ve figured out that defeating yourself is the first thing you have to overcome. And they know full well that in every contest all the competitors want to win, may even believe they will win, but there’s always a loser. Belief, not withstanding.
Perhaps that’s why so many of my coaching and athletic friends have trouble with believing in God or believing in Christ. Because they have competed their whole lives believing in themselves. They have, through hard work and dedication, brought about their success. But they know that belief cannot make God so. And perhaps, if they invested in that belief, they would feel responsible for that win. They don’t want to risk losing.
I have lost at plenty of things in my life so far – even things I believed in with all my heart. But of the things I have achieved, none of them can compare to the things I was sure I had lost that I turned over to God who showed me a new way to see them and a new way of winning. A way I would have never believed.
We Methodists do like to think, but I’m one day back from the beach and Pastor Tom tackles the Trinity…Really?
I remember being taught that our minds couldn’t think two things at the same time. The teacher challenged us to try it. I still remember struggling to hold onto one image while introducing a different one. The best I could do was to leap from one thought to the other. Quickly, for sure, but never at the same time. It made my brain hurt.
So I experienced some of this same exasperation during Sunday worship, trying once again to wrap my mind around One God in Three Persons. Not sequential, not divided in thirds, but simultaneous. One Being who, when called upon in prayer, says “yes” in three voices all at once. (I like that thought anyway – not sure if it’s theologically accurate.)
But Tom helped me out here, or perhaps it was Jesus to the rescue, when he mentioned a relay. Tom did say God was not like that. Not one racer passing the baton to the next. But I immediately pictured the young, beautiful, powerful women racing to a new world record in the 4X100 meter relay. (Yes, the excitement was spoiled ahead of time by my social media feed but anyway…)
I imagined what it must have been like for those ladies, especially the one running the anchor leg. Now, I have never been too fast on my feet but I was decent swimmer in my heyday. So I was remembering the times when the swim meet was to be decided by the last relay. Each swimmer in turn would launch themselves into the pool and swim as fast as they possibly could. And each, heaving with effort, dragged themselves out and then screamed encouragement to the swimmers who followed. If the volume of our collective voices could impel them, it would. Everything was on the line, it seemed to our little summer swim relay, and the spirit of the three of us would bring that anchor leg home. Somehow I always swam faster in the relay than I ever did in an individual event.
So if was a bit distracted sitting there in the pew I was imagining that 100 meter champion in the final leg of the relay sprinting down the straight away toward the finish line. She was full of power and exerting herself with every ounce of strength. She is beauty in motion. But her effort is not just her own. She is absolutely bursting with the hopes and urgings of the three women who have run before her. We can’t see it, but carrying that baton she is more than she is.
And that just doesn’t add up, does it? But, even in my tiny world of summer swim club competition, I know it’s true. I’ve been there.