The Heart of a Champion: Be Strong!
II Timothy 2:1-7
So many times during the recent Olympics, I heard the commentators use the phrase “the heart of a champion”. I noticed that the phrase seemed to have nothing to do with winning the gold medal. In fact, some of those to whom the phrase was applied won the gold, but others did not. No, the phrase was used in reference to a particular athlete’s character, commitment, and courage. As I studied the way the phrase was used and the circumstances it underscored, it struck me that the phrase could just as easily apply to our living of the Christian life. Therefore, during the next several months, I want us to look at the qualities and the characteristics which mark “the heart of a champion for Christ”. We begin with “Be strong!”…
You know by now that I love sports, but I must tell you that a lot of what I read on the sports pages these days makes me want to cry. I want to cry when I read stories about greed and corruption and selfishness and gambling and drugs in the sports world. I want to cry when I encounter the constant barrage of news reports about bickering and fighting and lawsuits and lack of loyalty in the sports place. Those of us who could never imagine Stan Musial playing for anybody other than the St. Louis Cardinals or Walter Payton running under any other logo than that of the Chicago Bears or Larry Bird wearing anything other than Boston Celtic green do want to cry when we read stories about the young athlete of today who complains and whines about how unfair it is that he is making only three or four million dollars a year to play a game. The day when sports revolved around the purity of healthy competition, the virtue of good sportsmanship and the joy of loyalty to the team and to the fans seems all but gone. It’s enough to make you want to cry.
I guess that’s why when the recent Olympics gave us some glimpses of sports functioning at the highest ideal, the stories were enough to move me to a different kind of tears. No doubt you were moved as was I, at Kerri Strug’s heroic vault to win the gold medal for our women’s gymnastic team, and at Amy van Dyken’s incredible accomplishments in swimming though her asthma left her breathing capacity at only 30-60% of normal. The commentator said of each: “She has the heart of a champion.” But did you also come to know about U.S. kayaker Cliff Meidl? Ten years ago, Meidl, then 20, was working as a plumber’s apprentice when the jackhammer he was operating struck buried power lines carrying 30,000 volts of electricity and for 30 seconds those volte coursed through his body. He describes what happened: “I didn’t remember much because I had three cardiac arrests. I woke up 14 hours later in the hospital. Two toes were blown off. A third of my knee joints were burned away. A shoulder blade exploded. Part of the back of my head was gone. I faced amputation of both legs below the knee, but they removed a calf muscle from one leg and moved it to my knees.” Introduced to canoeing as part of his recovery regimen, he ultimately turned to kayak racing in 1993. And then, this summer in the Atlanta Olympics, he led our four-man kayaking team. The commentator said: “He has the heart of a champion.”
Or did you hear about the frail—looking fellow from Afghanistan—his name is A Baser Wasiqi—trying desperately to finish the marathon four and a half hours after the event began. He was 111th of the 111 competitors. When at last he entered the Olympic Stadium, the crowds had gone and the stadium crews were preparing the field for the closing ceremonies. But Wasiqi was determined to finish the race and so some of the workers stretched masking tape across the finish line so Wasiqi could break it as he ran through. They said of him: “He has the heart of a champion.”
Or did you read the story written by Ed Fowler entitled “A Sure Way to Spot a Champ With a Heart”? It’s the story of basketball superstar Hakeem Olajuwon and his visit with 9-year-old David Segal. David Segal was dying of lung cancer and Hakeem was his idol. When Hakeem heard that, he rushed to the hospital to see David. Here is how Ed Fowler describes what happened: “Often famous athletes are called upon to visit dying children, and when they do, they usually pop in and pop out just as quickly, fumbling for parting words as they go. Typically, a celebrity on the way out of the door of a hospital room will babble ‘Hope you feel better’ or something equally banal, and then they’re gone. Not Hakeem Olajuwon. He sat down on David’s bed and they shared a long visit. He answered each of David’s questions, gave him gifts, posed for pictures. Finally, after that long and wonderful visit, Olajuwon got up to leave. He leaned down to the little boy and said: ‘Be strong!’ One of the nurses who witnessed this remarkable scene said said as Hakeem left the room: ‘That is the heart of a champion.'” Sometimes the world is so tough. Sometimes the world seems so unfair. And sometimes the only thing that can be said is what Hakeem Olajuwon said to 9-year-old David Segal: “Be strong!”
Come to think of it, that incident reminds me of something in the Bible. The story revolves around a seasoned veteran superstar, who had the heart of a champion, giving advice and counsel to a young man who was facing a tough, harsh, unfair world. The superstar in the Bible story was the great Apostle Paul, and the young man was Paul’s son-in-the-faith, Timothy. The message from Paul to Timothy was simply this: “Be strong!”
Remember, please, that at this point in time, Paul was in prison in Rome, facing death, and young Timothy was trying to lead the church through a time of terrible persecution. It took incredible courage and great commitment to be a Christian in those days. They were attacked and reviled and slandered and imprisoned. They were beaten with whips; they were burned at the stake; they were fed to the lions—and those were the more kindly deaths. And in the midst of it all, Paul said to Timothy: “Be strong!” Mind you, those were not just naive “Pollyana” words. Paul was practicing what he was preaching. He was facing his own martyrdom when he wrote those words of encouragement to Timothy. And notice, please, how he said it. He said: “Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.”
What does that mean? Simply this. If we are faithful in our commitment to Jesus Christ, then nothing can defeat us- not persecution, not hardship, not disease, not even death can defeat us because Christ has already given us the victory. It means that we can be strong because God in Christ is with us, and, come what may, God will win and God in His grace wants to share that victory with you and with me.
Clearly then, Paul is calling us to be strong in our commitment to Jesus Christ.
My friend, Frank Harrington, tells of a great church in Dallas where one Sunday the minister had, by his own admission, delivered one of those sermons where you wondered if anyone was listening. It had been a long week and he was tired, and as a result, the sermon was, in his own opinion, not so great. An associate pastor then began giving an invitation to discipleship in a kind of lackadaisical voice: “If you want to join, visit with one of the elders following the service.” Immediately that deadly atmosphere was electrified because suddenly, on the second pew, a man leapt up and in a loud voice cried: “You mean I can’t come down right now and re-dedicate my life to Christ?” Well, you can imagine how that went down in a Presbyterian Church! The associate pastor was shocked almost to senselessness. Desperately, he turned to the pastor and he asked: “What do I say?”
The pastor replied: “Say yes, for God’s sake! That’s what we’re here for!” Interestingly enough, the pastor had forgotten that he had on a cordless mic and so his words rang through the sanctuary: “Say yes, for God’s sake! That’s what we’re here for.” Well, they stumbled down to the front of the Communion table, and this man, like the prodigal son coming home, stepped up to commit himself to the Lord and to say yes to Jesus Christ. After church, one woman turned to her friend and said: “You know, when the pastor spoke, it sounded like the voice of God in this old church.” Her friend thought for a moment and said: “I think it was.”
And that is what we’re here for, isn’t it? Charles Truheart tells of seeing a T-shirt which had printed upon it in huge block letters: “FDFX”. When he asked what the letters stood for, he was told “Fully Devoted Follower of Christ.” There it is. That’s why we’re here. That’s the only business we have in the church. That’s our only reason for being—to turn irreligious and unchurched people into Fully Devoted Followers of Christ!
That’s what Paul was saying to Timothy long ago and what he is saying to you and to me right now. “Be strong in your commitment to Christ and His strength will see you through.” Whatever hardships or heartaches, pains or persecutions, troubles or temptations you may encounter, they can be handled by those who are Fully Devoted Followers of Christ. FDFX! Be strong in your commitment to Christ.
Equally clear, Paul is calling us to be strong in our commitment to Christ’s church.
That is really what Paul was saying to Timothy in that letter long ago. Keep the church going. Keep the church alive and well. Don’t waver! Don’t weaken! Don’t quit! Come what may, trust God to bring it out right. Be strong in your commitment to the church.
If I were to ask you to name the best-known athlete in the world today, you would probably know the answer: Michael Jordan. Wherever you go in the world today, his name is known. But if I were to ask you to name the best known athlete in the world 100 years ago today, you may not know the answer. His name was Charles Thomas Studd. He was known by his nickname “C.T.” Some say he was the greatest athlete who ever lived. He was world-class in a whole range of different sports, competing all over the world—Europe, Asia, Africa, South America. Long before there were communication media like television, he became so popular that whenever he appeared in the world, thousands of people clustered to see him, to hear him, to touch him. He was not only incredibly famous, he was also wealthy. His father left him a large inheritance, counted in the millions. Yet there came a day when C.T. Studd turned and walked away from all of the wealth and the fame. Jesus Christ became the great consuming passion of his life. He gave his entire inheritance to the cause of Christ’s church in the world—he gave it all. He then proceeded to spend the rest of his life serving Jesus Christ in the mission field, first in India, then in Asia, later in Africa. His family and his friends couldn’t understand it. In order to help them understand, he wrote a wonderful little piece of doggerel—it’s not great poetry, but it holds a great message. This is what he wrote:
Some wish to live within the sound
Of church or chapel bell,
But I wish to run a rescue shop
Within a yard of hell.
What a man! And what a commitment to Christ and to the church of Christ!
Let me finish like this…
When the young Michelangelo announced that he wanted to become a sculptor, a master artist said to him: “My son, this will take your life.” To which Michelangelo responded: “What else is life for?” Well, what else is life for but to be strong in our commitment to Christ and to be strong in our commitment to the church? Yes…
What else is your life for?