Every time the summer Olympics roll around, I’m reminded of what I am not.
I’m fairly certain my parents knew early on that I was not destined to be a great gymnast. I wasn’t graceful, or bouncy or fearless — or athletic — at all.
Like all little girls in 1976, I’d been mesmerized by Nadia Comaneci.
But I must have forgotten my dreams when the Olympics were over . . . because in elementary school, I dabbled in baton twirling, kickball, basketball, swimming and soccer. (In case you were wondering, I was good at none of them.)
For some inexplicable reason I don’t recall, dreams of gymnastics perfection revived in the 6th grade.
Suddenly, I was determined to work very hard and dedicate my life to the sport. (Never mind that I was way too old to be starting the training for Olympic gymnastics.) I began a class with girls half my size and age and practiced every day.
But there was a problem with my plan . . . My family was moving to the other side of the world.
I was 11 years old. I told my parents they were ruining my life and destroying any chance I had for greatness by carting me off to a gymnastics-less third world country.
They didn’t give in . . . apparently the need for a Bible in the common language of a billion people outweighed my dreams of acrobatic stardom . . .
But while I was mourning the loss of the gold medal I would never win, God was shaping my life, directing my steps.
In Bangladesh, that regretfully gymnastics free country, my brothers became athletes and military geniuses. And my sister and I began to make up stories. And act. And sing. And play the piano just enough to call ourselves musical.
I attended my first writers’ master class when I was in the 8th grade. High school was by correspondence from a stateside university. I wrote and wrote and wrote.
There was literally one program a day to watch on TV, no computer, and not much for an American teen girl in an Islamic country to do. So I read — everything my Canadian-missionary-auntie-teacher-nurse-writer handed to me. Dickens. Lots and lots of Dickens.
By the time I was 15, I was “well-traveled.” I had a context for history and a compassion for poverty. And I began a lifetime habit of journaling my thoughts and prayers.
I was in training. Intensive training for what I would become. I’m not a retired gymnast. I’m a writer. My parents’ decision, it turns out, did not ruin my potential for success.
I honestly have no idea how long I harbored small regrets about the-Mary-Lou-Retton-I-could-have-been. Possibly until my daughter came along. I did everything I could to make her a gymnast: starting with tumbling and ballet in preschool . . . And she would have none of it. All she wanted to do was sing and act out stories for our cat.
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I’m thankful, now, that my life-long dreams didn’t rest on my sense of spatial relations. I will never step foot out of bounds and lose my shot at a piece of the glory.
No one will ever announce to the world that my performance was “Disastrous! There goes the gold!”
Better still, I will never age out.
I may never top the bestseller charts or even gather much of a tribe, but I am a writer. And God has directed my path in such a way that I’ve become one.
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I’ve been pondering these things . . . watching the Games.
It isn’t gymnastics this year, but distance running that captivates me.
Athletes from the poorest nations on earth, disadvantaged to our Western eye, compete side by side with our highly trained athletes on a level playing field.
They may not have had a gym, or a pool, or a tennis court, but they had fields and paths and deserts and jungles in which to run.
Who would have dreamed that something so terrible as fleeing for your life from danger as a little boy in Sudan would prepare you to be a marathon runner?
A simple footrace grips my heart, and gives me so much hope.
Sometimes, when your family has struggled through the mess of addiction or divorce or some other life trauma that earns your family the label “dysfunctional,” you worry about your children. How they will turn out.
You beat yourself up about the life they didn’t have. You were an addict. You lost your job. You were homeless. You had to work and give up homeschooling. You made too many promises. You stifled their noisy, childish play. You snapped and scolded when you should have embraced and applauded. You were preoccupied with your own troubles. Not all the time. But enough to leave a weight of guilt . . .
. . . we talk, my friend and I. She feels this weight, too.
And she reminds me of terribly dysfunctional families whose children turned out not only great, but epic. Like Joseph who was sold by his jealous brothers into slavery.
She reminds me that God needs people who have been wounded. People who understand deep hurt because they’ve been there. People who aren’t afraid of messy lives others would avoid.
I believe that.
I want my kids to be moved with compassion for outcasts the way Jesus was.
I want them to be a testimony that God redeems the past no matter how ugly it’s been.
I want them to understand that forgiveness is as much a real and healing choice as it is a point of theology — because they have witnessed it in their own home.
I want them to have love that suffers long, hopes and believes.
After all, we are not training them for a moment in the spotlight, but for endurance.
We cannot change what life has been for our children. And we do not know how the past will shape their future. But we can pray that God will refine the adversity of their lives, both imagined and real, into gold.
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. . . endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us . . . Romans 5:4-5
We can make our plans, but the Lord determines our steps.
I have observed something else under the sun. The fastest runner doesn’t always win the race . . .the wise sometimes go hungry, and the skillful are not necessarily wealthy. And those who are educated don’t always lead successful lives. Ecclesiastes 9:11
But he knows where I am going.
And when he tests me,
I will come out as pure as gold.
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