Pray to win?

Well, after seven years of anticipation, we’re nearly there.  In a few hours Danny Boyle’s “Isles of Wonder” opening ceremony for London 2012 will be wowing us, no doubt. “Splendidly British and magnificently bonkers,” reflected one participant of the final dress rehearsal.

Then the action begins (except for some of the soccer players, including those from Senegal, who have already started)!

The important thing, according to Pierre de Coubertin, is simply to be there.  It was Pierre – the founder of the modern Olympic movement – who told us that “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part.”

But try telling that to the competitors,

Jesse Owens, who won his four gold medals at the infamous 1936 Berlin Olympics, reflected: “If you don’t try to win you might as well hold the Olympics in somebody’s back yard.”

But the big question for many of the competitors is “Can I pray to win?”  No doubt many will, for if you are passionate on winning, can you enlist God’s help?

I guess our immediate response is to say “Of course not.”   God wants each athlete to do their best, in a fair race – but the final result, he leaves it to the competitors in this open universe which we inhabit.

But I’m not sure it is as easy as that.

First and foremost, our prayer needs to be honest.  There is no point pretending before God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hidden.

God knows us through and through – he knows what we are about, he understands our motivation.  And can we devote a whole chunk of our life to a single goal and strain every sinew on the day, without giving the outcome to God?

And there are wider implications when we are engaged in any zero sum game – when I ask for a bigger slice of the cake, it will mean everyone gets less.  So do we pray waiting for the job interview or applying for a college course?  How do we pray when my success comes at the expense of your disappointment?

It is Jesus in his prayer at Gethsemane who gives us the lead.  He articulates what he wants but accepts that his Father makes the decision.  ‘Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.’

It may sound pious but in practice, such prayer is extremely stressful.  Luke tells us that Jesus was in anguish (Luke 22:44).  You will be surprised that the Greek word Luke chooses to use, agonia, is directly derived from the world of athletics, the stress the athlete experiences just before the race.  (I hated it).

Carrying the New Zealand flag this evening will be Nick Willis, who won silver in 1500m at Beijing.

His brother Steve, who coached Nick, recollects:  The prayer Nick and I prayed before his 1500m final in Beijing was that God would take all of Nick’s God-given talents and gifts, all the hard work he had put in during years of training, any anxiety about what tactics to use, his injury concerns, fear of failure, his childhood dreams, the weight of expectation, and all prayers from people at home, and use it all for his purposes.”

Willis crossed the line third, in 3:34.16.  It was Rashid Ramzi who stood on the winner’s podium to receive the gold medal – but he owed his success to blood-boosting drug EPO.  Ramzi was eventually disqualified following a positive drug test.  But it wasn’t’ until last year did Willis actually receive his silver medal – for which, I’m sure he thanked God!

Just goes to show how our prayer can have unexpected effects!

Not just the Olympics to look forward to but New Wine, which also starts tomorrow, one week at the showground at Newark!   Thankfully, the athletics begins once we return home!  (Surely not an answer to my prayer!).