Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage (I Corinthians 10:12-14) transports me to the Anaheim Convention Center for the Games of the XXIII Olympiad, summer of 1984, where the now famous trumpeting of John Williams’ Olympic Fanfare was first heard, Mary Lou Retton won gold in gymnastics, Carl Lewis brought home 4 golds in track events, the Soviet Union countries boycotted and athletes from the People’s Republic of China competed for the first time. But the most memorable moment of the Games for me came when the resilient American Jeff Blatnick squared up against the big Swede Thomas Johanson in the super heavyweight gold medal bout of Greco Roman wrestling. Even for someone like me, used to professional fanfare featuring off-the-top-rope elbow smashes and piledrivers and suplexes, this tightly controlled match provided great excitement. Blatnick gave up 35 pounds to Johanson, and immediately had to employ some escape manuevers as he got thrown in the first five seconds of the match. The bigger opponent roughed up Blatnick and had him in the down position twice before the first period ended, with no points scored. Blatnick, who had lost an earlier match and needed the lucky draw in the tie-breaking criteria to even be in the medal match, had overcome many obstacles in his life to get to the Olympics. Two years earlier he had contracted Hodkins Disease, had to have his spleen and appendix removed, and endured a grueling series of radiation treatments. During his teenage years he had suffered the tragic loss of his brother in a motorcycle accident. The television announcers, between commenting on the match and on Blatnick’s personal life, must have used the word “overcome” more than a dozen times in the 6 short minutes of competition. And overcome he did, beating all odds to become the first American super heavyweight to ever garner a gold.
I thought about this storybook contest of strength when I read Paul’s coaching words to the Corinthian church. Members of the young Christian team were facing some fierce competition in the Temptation team, going toe to toe on the mat in the middle of the squared circle of faith. If you think are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! Paul encouraged them, reminding them that getting seized and thrown to the mat is common to the sport: Remember, no Temptation has overtaken you except what is common to humanity. And Paul assured them that the Judge had set up a fair fight – you’ll always be in your weight class, never facing more than you can bear. According to these prep notes Paul provided to the Corinthians, the maneuver they needed to watch out for most from Temptation was the choke hold of idolatry; if they weren’t careful they’d get themselves in a worldly “predicament” (which costs two points in the Greco Roman wrestling world). But Paul reassured the grace-filled grapplers: there’s always an escape move readily available for any hold Temptation gets on you.
God will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. Paul’s encouraging words here are not a promise of immunity from unbearable tragedies in life – tragic accidents do claim lives and people do get cancer and endure unspeakable suffering. But in the midst of it all we need not fall prey to cynicism or allow hopelessness to pin us to the mat. People do testify to the resilience of a joy that is deeper and stronger than the pain of tragedy. It’s interesting that Jeff Blatnick continues to be known far more for what he said immediately after the gold medal bout than for what he did in the ring. When the interviewer asked the winded wrestler how he felt, it was Blatnick’s turn to be overcome – with emotion. He could not keep the tears from flowing as he tried to speak. What most people who watched the 84 Games remember are the four heartfelt words he managed to get out in the midst of joyful sobs: I’m a happy dude! May we all be so overcome as we work our way out of the predicaments of our own world.
As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.