Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Rebecca Adlington and following Jesus

Fascinating article in the Times earlier this week about how Rebecca Adlington was coached to her gold medal, and the various elements which went into that amazing swim in Beijing.

The article picked up on a number of things:
- a defeat earlier in the year, which led the coaching staff to focus on particular weaknesses
- dealing with stress, in the forms both of public pressure (hence the decision to hire a private pool in Beijing, away from the public gaze) and illness
- working on transitions, the turn at the end of each length which saved valuable time over the course of the race
- training and recovery practices which enabled Adlington to be at her best in the final.

As an Olympic swimmer, it's fairly simple to focus on just 1 thing, and to direct all your energies towards that. I initially started relating this to preaching and leading worship, but then realised that there are loads of points in a working week when I need to hit top form - not just the up front stuff, but listening, leading meetings, asking questions, thinking through issues and stuff that people are saying to me, not to mention being a husband and a dad.

So how far is Adlington's excellence a model for Christians? Ultimately we're about 1 thing only - loving God with all of our powers. And if we are seeking first God's kingdom - his rule in our lives and in the world, then every other part of our lives orbits around this centre, whether it's work, family, rest, ministry or blogging.

1. Defeat: Anglican liturgy has the confession of sin hard-wired into it, but though at one level we spend lots of time focusing on our defeats and failures (and the Book of Common Prayer is even more trenchant about it), at another level we never take sin seriously enough. Say what you like about the Catholic practice of confession, at least it forces you to be specific. Adlington won because she, with her coaches (of which more later) was able to identify and focus on specific weaknesses, and correct them. Leadership guru John Maxwell contends that it takes 60 days of persevering effort to change a habit. Merely declaring each week that the habit is a bad one won't do the trick.

Confession 'works' at one level in that it gives us the chance to admit our guilt to God and recieve forgiveness. But it doesn't work at the level of discipleship, because it doesn't help us form character and grow in grace. If we want to change a habit, we need to focus on it, pay attention to it, be accountable for change, and monitor progress.

2. Stress: life is stressful, it's now a standard condition of life. So the question is, which stresses will we voluntarily go through, and which will we strategically avoid? There's loads to say about this, but 2 thoughts here:

One stress which afflicts loads of Christians is the need to 'witness' - for which read 'keep up a good public face because if we don't then Jesus won't be honoured'.

Actually I think we do God more harm than good with this; the word hypocrite was coined for an actor who presented a public face to the audience, behind which s/he hid their real one. Jesus doesn't seem to be too bothered about either his own reputation, or that of God. If the public face of his followers is, according to Jesus, a condemned criminal staggering under the weight of a cross, then Christians have no business being shiny happy people. If we really are happy, great, praise God, but if not don't make it harder for yourself by being 2 people instead of one.

We are not called to lose our integrity for the sake of the gospel, and neither are we called to lose our health, be it mental or physical. Burnout, nervous breakdowns, exhaustion - all quite regular occurences among church leaders - should alert us to the fact that something is wrong in the way we do church. It's worst in December, as my 18-item list of Christmas services shows, but the whole year we seem to spend most of our efforts and resources a) maintaining a building and b) laying on events in that building. Is that what it's really all about?

Someone has compared the church to a football match: hundreds of people desperately in need of exercise watching 22 people desperately in need of a rest. We're currently discussing clergy deployment in our Deanery, but what we're not discussing is the model of working we expect of our church leaders. Are we just going to keep cranking the handle until the cranker keels over, or is there another way to be the community of Jesus? At one level we are caught: the residue of Christendom demands that we be one sort of church (building, events, carol services) and post-Christendom requires that we be another (listening, creative, relational, community based 'go to them' rather than event-based 'come to us'). Trying to be both at the same time is hard.

3. Transitions: when I've been in music groups, it's often been the transitions - introductions, changes between songs - which have needed more rehearsal than the songs themselves. I'm aware that I don't do very well here: my sermon introductions and endings need far more work than I actually give them, and acts of worship that need to be crafted to flow well are often simply stitched together from a few component parts.

For visitors, there's the transition to the interior of the church - is it a good one which raises their spirits, or a threatening and dark, unfamiliar building, full of wary glances? For Adlington, one of the points she had to work on was how to get the most energy from pushing off at the beginning of a new length. When we begin our worship, our meetings, our anything, do we do so with an energy and a fresh sense of momentum, or just float into the next thing? I'm frequently conscious of my own energy levels in worship, and those of others, and how we can lose that energy in the way we lead, the words we use, and so on.

4. Training and recovery. I don't ever recall being taught how to recover from a sermon, but this is a season when I'll be recovering from adrenaline highs several times over a very short space of time. In retrospect, I'm doing too much, and have agreed to too many requests to take services, but at the time each one looks like a great opportunity.

It also makes me conscious that I've not been filling my tanks when I had the opportunity. At quieter times of the year there's been the chance to train, read, go on retreat, pray with people, plan ahead, rest, do things which renew me and give me energy. December is not the time to realise that you've nearly run out of steam, yet for 2 Sundays on the trot I've spent the afternoon in bed, exhausted. Some of that is illness, some of it isn't.

The common thread throughout Adlingtons story is not only her own talent, but having coaching staff who were able to spot things and help her through them. Adlington had such trust in her coaches that she changed training routines, followed instructions, and through disciplining herself to be led by others, achieved what she wanted. It's a challenge yet again to accountability: if we want to grow in grace, or to grow in the skills and abilities God has given us, we have to make ourselves accountable to others. We may even need to surrender some of our freedom and power to choose, in order to submit ourselves to a spiritual discipline (fasting, giving, silence) or to a programme of training. And the thing which motivates us is the goal: gold medal for Rebecca Adlington, a crown of glory for followers of Jesus.


  1. David

    See link to where I have blogged (a little) on your piece and placed a link to your site. All good stuff. If you like it, you could place a reciprocal link? Thanks for the words in any case. I have read other parts of your site and found it enjoyable and challenging.

  2. Thanks chik, will do when I get a bit of time between Christmas services!