Thursday, September 19, 2019

Blessing Fall Athletes: An Opportunity for Joy

In class, I asked my seniors if they were familiar with the theme song to 1981 Academy Award winning film, "Chariots of Fire." I went so far as to try to hum it out for them, only to encounter a sea of blank stares. However, much to my delight, this iconic melody was used to welcome runners, water polo, football, volleyball and field hockey players, golfers, coaches and administrators together for the blessing of Fall athletes. Over 100 athletes and their coaches, school administrators and teachers gathered at the statue of the Holy Family which stands at the heart of St. Francis' campus for this seasonal ritual. This simple time together proved to be grace. 
After welcoming us to this prayerful gathering, a teacher/campus minister/cross country coach called everyone listen to the words of St. Paul. 
Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win.Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one.Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing.No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.
The celebrant spoke about the music that gathered us together. He reminded us of Eric Liddell, the subject of Chariots of Fire's great message. 
I believe God made me for a purpose. He made me for China. But He also made me fast, and when I run I feel His pleasure.
He asked us to glorify God through using our gifts and talents. He reminded us that we too can feel the Spirit—feel God's pleasure in our own sport. He called us to remember those people who make our participation in sports possible; we prayed for health and well being. We offered prayers of gratitude for the gift of sport, teammates and coaches. The gathering concluded with the ancient ritual of anointing with oil. Powerful to see so many young people seeking this blessing.
After WCAL Match #1. Ocean Course: Olympic Club
I moved to the side and stood with my captain. Slowly but surely other players from the girls' golf team matriculated to where we were standing. One freshman, who arrived late asked if she could leave her clubs with us as she wanted this blessing. This simple time and space afforded for something I was not expecting: joy.

We joked that she should take her clubs with her in order to get those blessed. A player quipped, "You mean a spiritual exorcism?!" I followed by offering a terrible pun. "I have a friend refers to her clubs as "weapons of grass destruction." "Oh I get it coach..." they said...though not convincingly. (I suppose that term is a little funnier to those of lived through the first and second Bush administrations). One girl picked up the putter from this bag to check it out. Another pulled a hybrid and started practicing her swing, all while getting input on both her swing plane and the her grip from a teammate. I entertained a conversation on using a utility wedge for the bump and run. Another girl started riffling through the bag looking for golf balls. I said that was ok so long as she planned to use them to juggle. One girl took my words literally and showed us all how she could juggle three golf balls in two hands or two golf balls with one hand. The Dean of students walked over and said "no I mean juggle the ball like Tiger Woods." I have a feeling if you had looked at our team from a distance you would have seen what I felt. Joy. A gift of the Holy Spirit. A gift made possible by the Spirit we called on to bless us. 
I can't say I find joy every day with my athletes. We all have our moments. There is a lot of time together and we're asked to do some tedious and hard things. But I do believe the Spirit bears fruit. The result of hard work, giving your best, sharing yourself, using your gifts and talents in a common endeavor? It's not that complicated. It doesn't cost much, if anything. It isn't prepackaged or planned. No, it's organic. It's palpable. It's shared, not divided. It is joy. Thank you, Lord for that gift.

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