Sunday, January 2, 2011

Training (First Sermon in Series: Sports in Scripture)


My father had such high hopes that his first born son would be a great sportsman and have opportunities to play that he, as a child and a teen, never had. He began talking up baseball to me when I was about 7 years old so that I’d be mentally prepared to start playing Little League the summer I was 9. Halls Crossroads was a small place, and every boy I knew played Little League baseball. Tee ball hadn’t made it to Halls yet, and may not have existed anywhere in the summer of 1961. There were no organized sports for younger girls anywhere around Halls or surrounding communities.

Church was a big deal in the South in those days; still more people in the South attend church on a regular basis than folks who live north of the Mason-Dixon line. We managed, therefore, to get all our practices and games in without ever having to miss a Sunday morning or Sunday evening church service or even a Wednesday evening prayer meeting.

Before I started playing Little League baseball that summer, Dad tried his best to teach me the essentials of baseball. I wasn’t totally inept at the game, but “future star” was hardly written on my face. I caught better than I hit so Dad came up with a practice plan to improve my batting skill without having him chase the ball on the rare occasions that I managed to hit the ball. What he did was to take a baseball and drill a hole all the way through it. He threaded a piece of narrow rope through the ball and knotted it.

Avon sold soap shaped like a baseball with a yarn rope through it so you could hang your soap on a knob or the shower head. Maybe Dad got his idea from the soap that Mom bought for me every time she placed her Avon orders.

The rope was rather long demonstrating Dad’s guarded optimism that I’d really get a piece of the ball one day and knock it to the other side of the field separating our house from the closest neighbor in that direction. It was a brilliant idea that made perfect sense to his orderly, draftsman’s mind. In practice, there were a few problems, one of which was that the altered baseball didn’t always behave as predicted. The attached rope made the ball go in directions it might not have gone in had it not been tethered to Dad’s rope. A couple of times, I hit the ball, and before Dad could begin to reign it in, it wrapped around him a time or two, which irritated the pee-waddin out of him. Another problem was that the pitcher, Dad, had to leave exactly the right amount of rope when he pitched so that ball could get all the way to me, moving properly on its intended course. We noticed a problem a few times when the ball would get to me, and, though it was coming right into strike zone, at the last minute it would move up or down causing me to swing hard at what ended up being the wind, rather than the ball that suddenly moved.

Trying to fix that problem one time, Dad thought the ball was about to move out of strike zone, and he tugged ever so slightly on the rope, which caused the ball to move up instantly, busting my lips on its way. Pain. Shock. Blood spewing everywhere. I was an eight year old kid, and I began to cry involuntarily because it hurt so much. Dad was frustrated with the bugs in his invention and, at some level, with the evidence that I was not a born athlete. Normally a very compassionate Dad, my crying only further irritated him on that occasion, and instead of sympathizing with my plight, he began to speak sternly to me, “Shut up that crying. It looks much worse than it hurts.” I had no idea how he could have known that, but that’s what he said. Then the real reason for the reprimand came out, “If something like this happens on the field and you start crying in front of your teammates, they will never let you live it down. For the rest of your Little League career they’ll be calling you ‘Cry Baby’ so shut it up now!”

Despite my lack of promise as a baseball player, I went to tryouts and “made” one of the teams; of course, so also did all the boys who tried out. In fact, the coaches, and there were doosies among them, tried to even out the teams in terms of balance between more gifted and less gifted players. It would then be up to the coach to mold this raw material into a skilled, winning team.

Turns out, I wasn’t in the best or worst pile. I was in the middle; I was with the group whom the coaches thought might have some hidden potential so, even my first year, I started more than I sat on the bench; and the next year and from then on, I was on the “first team.” The second year, I was the right fielder. The third year the coach moved me to first base, and for my last year of Little League I was the team’s catcher. Generally, I was steady in the field. I caught well most of the time, but I never hit the ball well. Maybe I was just unskilled in that area, which is probably the truth, but I did wonder now and then through the years if the baseball busting my lips wide open hampered me and kept me from being a power hitter. On the few occasions when I did hit the ball, I hit well; the problem was, I rarely hit the ball and struck out most of the time; a walk was a real gift. No amount of practice helped, and each year when the All Star team was selected to play the best teams from surrounding communities, Farmer’s name was never called.

Because I grew taller more quickly than most boys in my classes, Dad pushed me to go out for middle school basketball. Reluctantly, I did. Same kind of thing happened and continued when I played in a church league during high school. I was a good defensive player and could block shots and impede the other team’s shooters till the cows came home, but I seldom scored any baskets. You can’t have a center in basketball who is unable to shoot the ball and win points. Neither did I do well with foul shots. My church league coach literally prayed during each game that I wouldn’t get fouled. I was relieved the year I went to work and couldn’t play basketball any more since I couldn’t make practices or games.

Given my lack of sports skills and a clear indication that sports would never be a part of my career, I thought over and over again when I got to seminary about how ironic it was that I would have a Hebrew professor who had been a professional basketball player while a student at that same seminary thritysomething years before I sat in his class trying to learn the language of Jesus’ Bible, as he used to like to call the Old Testament, since Jesus never read a word in, heard about, or saw any document that would become a part of Christian scripture; all of those were written long after Jesus’ death.

The professor’s name was J. J. Owens, John Joseph Owens, and he was a linguist and a Hebrew scripture scholar of the first degree. Owens was also so gifted with basketball that he made it into the Guinness Book of World Records. He was the guy, as of 1979, who had shot the most continuous foul shots with a trash can covering his head.


Well, my Dad’s heart was in the right place, and his understanding of the importance of practice in order to play the game well was precisely correct. No successful athlete shows up for a big contest without having trained well to be there. Training is more time consuming and arduous than the contest itself. The contest may be a one-time event or a season of events, but the training is always longer and much more involved than the contest or collection of contests for which one has trained.

Lance Armstrong is an amazing person and an amazing athlete. He has won the Tour de France seven times. Training is a part of his life--a constant part of his life. Armstrong’s lead coach of twenty-plus years, Chris Carmichael, was himself a cycling champion and an inductee into the Cycling Hall of Fame over in New Jersey. Obviously, he had ideas about training before he began working with Lance Armstrong, but his views and practices changed over the years of working with a truly exceptional athlete.

Carmichael’s approach is to have Armstrong and other athletes with whom he works do target training. The athlete is to keep one target in mind for seven weeks during which time intensity increases. Carmichael firmly believes that the best training--even long term training--is built with seven-week blocks of target training, one goal at a time. Eventually, the different pieces come together.

Leaving the sports world for a minute. When I started studying organ in college, I could already play the piano; I don’t know of any place where the organ is a student’s starting keyboard instrument. The organ keyboards require a very different touch than does a piano keyboard. That alone takes work to learn. The minute your finger comes off an organ key, the sound stops. This isn’t necessarily true with a piano, which has a pedal you can engage to cause the sound to be sustained even after you’ve taken your hands off the keyboard altogether. That pedal, the furthest pedal to the right whether the piano has two or three pedals, is called, of all things, the sustain or the sustaining pedal. It is also often referred to as the damper pedal. In addition to the sound issue, another major difference between organ and piano is that there’s a whole keyboard for the organist’s feet. Conceivably and often, actually, an organist may be playing on three keyboards at one time--one hand on each of two keyboards and the feet on a third keyboard. I could manage the hands-only part, even if each hand was playing on a different keyboard, but I never mastered hands and feet working all at the same time. I can pat my head and rub my tummy at the same time. I can walk and chew gum at the same time. I cannot make my hands play music while my feet are running along a keyboard doing something that neither of my hands is doing!

My beloved organ professor, magnificent musician Mary Charlotte Ball, tried everything under the sun in four semesters to help me learn how to do that. Play the part for your righthand alone. Fine. Now just the part for your left hand. Very good! Now both hands together! You have that down pat. Now just your feet. Not bad. Now all together, both hands with feet. What happened?!? Neither of us were significantly successful, but we both ended up admiring each other for trying so hard. Eventually, I realized that she was working so hard to help me succeed because she not only cared about me as her student, but also a person. I appreciated her for that, and eventually I loved her for that. I also realized that she was genuinely a great teacher and a natural; my inability to learn to play the organ well was not her fault in any way. I just don’t have what it takes to master those skill sets. She and her husband, master pianist Dr. Louis Ball, became my treasured friends over the years. She died shortly before Christmas, and my Christmas this year has been colored by the sadness of the loss of a great person-teacher-musician and my concern for the love of her life left behind. I pause for a moment today to honor her: Professor Mary Charlotte Ball.

A voice teacher or a vocal coach may also focus on one skill at a time. A beginning student with no breath control can’t move ahead until that skill is embraced at, at least, a rudimentary level so the major part of a voice lesson for several weeks may be little more than vocal exercises that establish the student’s capacity to utilize healthy breath control. Otherwise, the great vocal sounds will never be produced, and the voice will be damaged in a relatively short period of time.

I think this basic approach applies to many skills development learning processes--whether they are physical or primarily intellectual. The preaching process is made up of numerous sub-skill sets. When I teach the basic preaching course to seminarians, I don’t drag a student into a pulpit on the first day of class and yell, “Preach!” There are vocal production issues to address. There are audience connection and rapport issues to address. Students must learn the difference between a Bible study, which is predominantly a past tense undertaking, and preaching, which takes the same ancient literature but finds a way to contemporize its core message. A student must learn how to create and build on a central idea or thesis statement. Structure and organization are important, and the points or moves of a sermon must be well illustrated. An effective preacher must understand how to interpret scripture and must understand both human needs as well as world events, historic and contemporary. We attempt to do this in twelve two and a half hour class sessions. Every semester, I hope that medical schools require of their students much more time in “Introduction to Surgery” than we do in “Introduction to Preaching.”

Back to sports. Effective personal training begins with work on one specific sub-skill at a time. If you go to one of the gyms around here and employ a well-taught personal trainer with common sense--and both of those traits is required--she or he isn’t going to rush you right over to the heaviest weights you can manage and push you to lift those as many times as you can until your arms are like overcooked spaghetti, so limp you can barely, after the training session, put on your coat, get your keys into the ignition, or confidently steer your vehicle. The wise trainer will start slowly and move slowly. All body areas may get lite attention in a week’s time, but the central focus at first is strengthening the body’s core and, in eastern-influenced training, building a trainee’s bodily balancing ability.

Coach Carmichael says his training approach for cyclists sounds “deceptively simple,” but it has proven superior over and over again to working on all skills at once; if you do this, he says, you will end up with the training version of “Hungarian goulash.” If he has only one year to work with a trainee, he thinks in terms of four-week training blocks rather than seven-week blocks for his trainees who are with him indefinitely. With this longer time period, he has more opportunity to cover all the bases. One skill and one skill only for a 4-week period, then another skill during the next four weeks, and continuing that pattern until near the end of the year when the trainee starts pulling all the pieces together.

Armstrong’s coach says this training style is called “periodization.” He believes it was used was for Eastern European athletes during the Cold War years. I have no idea why that was the case.

Coach Carmichael says: “Periodization puts enough stress on the muscles and supporting tissue involved in each skill to help a cyclist gain specific physiological adaptations. An added benefit--one that’s especially attractive to cyclists with hectic personal and work lives--is that periodization keeps your training program bone-simple and easy to follow.” So you won’t be a champ in four weeks, but in every four week segment, the trainee will be gaining not only skill, but also confidence because of what he calls “noticeable, progressive improvements, building on each other both over the course of the season and over the years of your riding.”

Obviously, it’s not just one’s body that is being trained when being prepared for sports performance. Carmichael again: “Mental toughness stems from the mind and body working together to achieve goals. The holistic approach of preparing both the mind and body were key to Lance’s Tour victory, arguably the toughest challenge in the world of sports. Everyone who achieves success, whether in cycling or any other pursuit, does so because of commitment and passion.” Commitment and passion!


You may or may not be aware that the Olympic Games were initially religious endeavors. Named after the Olympians, the twelve goddesses and gods believed by the ancient Greeks to dwell atop Mount Olympus, the Games were intended to thank the deities for the strength and prowess of youthful manhood, the foundation of the power of the nation. To my knowledge, young women did not participate in the earliest Games.

The finest and most gifted of the young men were given the opportunities at the Olympics to demonstrate for the head god, Zeus, and the eleven others the results of their gifts to the Greek people. The young men who ran and jumped and threw trained for months and months leading up to the Olympic Games.

Most of the sports images or metaphors used in the Bible were chosen by Paul to help him illustrate some spiritual point he wanted to make in one of his letters. Though not himself Greek, he worked most of his ministry in the Greek world, and he, no doubt, was familiar with the Olympic Games and their origins. He may well have known about the Olympic Games independently of his association with the Greek world; certainly, what happened in the Greek world was heard of in the Roman world and visa versa. Another thing to take into account is that Paul was an athlete so wherever and whatever he learned of the Olympic Games naturally stuck with him.

In any case, in our scripture reading for today, Paul is concerned with the training aspect of sports. Even though only one person wins individual competitions, and only one team wins a team competition, all of those involved--even those who will not ultimately be the winners--try their hardest to be the winner or winners. I don’t know who coined the modern maxim, “Be in it to win it,” but it’s a paraphrase, known or not, of what Paul wrote in one of his several letters to the Church at Corinth. To runners he said, “Run in such a way that you may win it.” There are those for whom just being in a race, being one of the runners, makes them winners, but most of the runners want to be the first to cross the finish line so that they may get the prize.

Prizes have improved considerably from the races Paul knew about. Olympians today get the gold medal if they win and also bring a kind of honor to their country; they also get all sorts of big paying opportunities to be spokespersons for every product imaginable. The runners Paul watched when he went to the races, and he had once been one of those runners himself, were running for a much lesser prize--a garland of leaves that would dry up and die in a few days. Their win also brought intangible prizes such as honor to their families and/or to their favored goddess or god.

Winners run or box or jump or throw with a purpose. Every movement counts. No energy is wasted, and the focus for being able to accomplish such singularity of purpose starts with the training. Runners make every pace count, and boxers can’t afford to punch into the empty space where no opponent is standing.

Paul says that the best athletes “exercise self-control in all things.” They train and train and train so that every bit of energy used in the contest may propel them into the winner’s position.

This was not sports commentary on Paul’s part; it was a lesson in spirituality. I don’t care how smart any one of us may be or how well-intentioned or how adaptable or how willing, we simply cannot win in the big competitions into which life throws us unless we have trained steadily and intelligently beforehand. I’m not saying that we can or should have experiences with all of life’s tragedies and possible calamities in order to know how to handle them if they challenge us a second time. What I am saying is that we know life is going to throw us some curves; I’ve never heard of a pain free life. Our training is to learn to lean into the Love, which is God, as a matter of course; otherwise, we may find ourselves the losers in one of life’s big competitions. If leaning into the Love that is God isn’t a practice to which we have allowed ourselves to become accustomed then we will have no idea what to do when our foundations are shaken.

The way I read the first part of the twelfth chapter of the book of Jeremiah, the prophet is sort of thinking out loud in the presence of God, struggling to understand why evil seems to have the upper hand so often in life, even in the lives of those who have established a strong and positive connection to God. Jeremiah is in part talking to God and, at the next turn, talking to himself. Here is a question, hopefully a rhetorical question, he asks himself in his time of frustration and confusion: “If you have raced with foot-runners and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses? And if in a safe land you fall down, how will you fare in the thickets of the Jordan?”

There must have been runners in Jeremiah’s day who raced not only against other people, but also against horses. Can a human being ever out run a horse? I don’t know, and maybe this a purely hypothetical scenario in Jeremiah’s mind. The comparison is well illustrated, however. So is the followup comparison. If we can’t manage to hike steadily over even ground and wide open spaces, what in the world are we going to do when the hike takes off the trail and into a pathless thicket with branches and underbrush there to trip us up every step of the way? The spiritual lesson is asked this way: If we do not train ourselves to face life’s smaller challenges day by day, how in the world can we keep standing when one of life’s more devious opponents takes us on?

Now, if you have embraced a theology that says God is responsible for everything that happens to every one of us; if you believe that God causes earthquakes and tsunamis and crippling illnesses and separations of people from those who have been the core of meaningful life itself to them, then it will seem odd indeed, dementedly incongruous, to believe that the same God will love you through your challenge and be the source of the strength you need to prevail over evil, tragedy, and pain of all sorts.

Therefore, on a good day like today when I have no pressing needs or pressures or challenges, I will still practice leaning into Love knowing that Love is God, and God is Love. Then when a day comes in which an event takes place that wants to rob me of my focus and make me a loser in the race of life, it will be natural for me to keep running life’s race, leaning into Love. Training is the key.