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Running the Spiritual Marathon: Parallels Between Athletic Pursuits and Faithful Journeys

Introduction:

It began with the gentle ripples of a pool. Swimming wasn't just an activity for me, it was a legacy. My father, who left a mark as a college swimmer, handed down this passion to us, his kids. From the tender age of seven, I embraced the thrill of competitive swimming, letting it shape me through my high school days. College then beckoned a shift to water polo, introducing me to a different kind of aquatic dance. And even today, six decades into my life, I rekindled that love by swimming a mile just this morning. This isn't just about embracing an old hobby; it's about challenging myself, facing my own benchmarks.

Seaholm High School Water Polo Team

However, as the years rolled on, a shadow of doubt began to creep in. My athletic spirit, once unyielding and sprightly, started showing signs of wear. Age, they say, spares none. The inevitable slowdown began – my pace slackened, the scales tipped, and my blood pressure readings became a cause for concern. The hockey stick, which I once wielded with vigor for over two decades, now felt heavier. With age not on my side and playing alongside players half my age, including my own son, the thought of being the team's weak link was unsettling. I found myself on the verge of hanging up my skates, thinking, "Is this it?"

But then, amid these growing self-doubts, a simple joke about a shirt collar led to an epiphany. "That's future Mike's problem," I had said, half in jest. But it got me thinking: What was I laying out for this 'Future Mike'? Was I charting a path of wellness, both physical and spiritual, for him? Or was I piling up challenges, expecting him to magically navigate through them?

Faith. It’s a term that seems to be sprinkled throughout my reflections. Do I have faith in the trajectory I've set for my future self? As I pondered my faith in God, I questioned if it too had taken a back seat. Had it aged and withered like my athletic resolve?

Join me as I unravel this revelation. This isn't just about an old athlete's quest to regain his physical prowess; it's about rediscovering faith – in oneself, the future, and the Divine. In the past month, a profound transformation has begun: shedding 15 pounds, rejuvenating my health, and most importantly, rejuvenating my faith. This journey, which might span over a few posts, is my testament to how a fresh understanding of willpower and the human brain can redefine one's life. And trust me, the change can be swift and profound.

1. Discipline and Devotion:

From Laps to Liturgy: The Athlete's Insight

For every athlete, their routine is more than just physical exertion; it’s a way of life. It demands daily commitment. You start to perceive things from a different lens. No longer is food a mere indulgence; it's the very fuel that powers you. While many may relish a glass of wine or beer to unwind, for an athlete, it's a weight that hinders performance. Even the once mundane act of reading labels on food packages becomes a testament to how cautious and conscious an athlete is about what enters their body. Our industrialized food system has distanced us so much from the origins of our meals, making this an essential practice. And, in this rigorous journey, there's a peculiar camaraderie. Athletes recognize each other - whether on the running trail, the biking path, the early morning swim, or even the icy rink. They form a unique community, bound together by their quirks, their dedication, and their unrelenting drive. They acknowledge the fact that they're different, that they’re running their individual races. And within these races, they grapple with competition, recover from injuries, and make the inevitable sacrifices for the sake of progress.

Faith: A Parallel Path of Commitment

However, the world of faith, though seemingly akin to the athletic realm, brings forth a different set of challenges for me. I've noticed that while I can easily call myself an athlete, when it comes to my Christian faith, I feel a disconnection, almost an inertia. While in sports, every event is a push to surpass personal limits, in faith, the milestones aren't as clear. The faith community, with its varied interpretations, hierarchies, and occasional dysfunctions, can sometimes muddy the waters. One might ask, "What does it mean to truly sacrifice for God?" Is the simple act of waking up early to get the children ready for church a testament to that sacrifice? Is religious tithing the epitome of giving?

Amid these reflections, I realize that many of these so-called sacrifices are perhaps more directed inward. They are about personal improvement - being a more attentive father, a more understanding husband, or just finding a more profound sense of purpose in life. Yet, here's the twist - while I had, for a time, ceased to see myself as an athlete, I've never stopped considering myself a Christian. This dichotomy perplexed me. Despite being steadfast in my identity as a Christian, there's an underlying feeling, a whispering doubt: Am I truly evolving in my faith? What does it even mean to progress as a Christian?

"But as for you, be strong and do not give up, for your work will be rewarded." - 2 Chronicles 15:7

2. Overcoming Challenges:

Ice, Breath, and the Fragility of Life: An Athlete's Encounter

Every athlete, no matter how seasoned or how dedicated, faces moments of sheer vulnerability, times when their strength is tested not by their performance, but by circumstances beyond their control. I encountered one such defining moment on the ice, a setting where I always felt at home, especially with my son, Colin, by my side. But what started as a father-son bonding over a game quickly spiraled into a life-threatening situation. As stars began to cloud my vision and breath became a luxury, little did I know that I was grappling with a double pulmonary embolism. A seemingly invincible clot from my leg had attacked both my lungs. Despite the relief of survival, the ordeal was far from over. The weight of a doctor's words, "You'll never play hockey again," coupled with a lifelong prescription of blood thinners, felt like a heavier blow than the physical trauma.

Yet, determination is the athlete's mantra. Over the next year, I swam and ran, setting a pace to recovery. The hockey rink beckoned, and though the journey was cautious and fraught with anxieties of stray pucks or potential injuries, the allure was undeniable. And today, every glide on the ice is a testament to my perseverance, much to the amazement of my doctor.

A Leap of Faith: The Spiritual Odyssey

While my athletic journey was marred with physical hurdles, my faith journey had its own share of challenges, albeit of a different nature. The foundation of my belief finds its roots in witnessing a family miracle and the ensuing transformation of my family's spiritual disposition. However, college years were a hiatus, a detour that saw more church grounds for softball than for spiritual nourishment. But life has its ways. As I knelt with a proposal for my wife, our hunt for a marriage officiator led us back to the fold of faith.

"I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." - Philippians 4:13

And as I reflect upon it, it’s the rigors and joys of raising a family that have anchored my faith. Searching for guidance, seeking answers, and sometimes just hoping for a semblance of peace amidst chaos, it's been this journey as a father and a husband that's truly solidified my bond with God. The challenges faced in parenthood made me realize that while physical adversities can be daunting, spiritual journeys bring forth questions that probe deeper, seeking answers not just from scriptures or teachings but from the very essence of our existence.

3. The Importance of Coaching and Mentorship:

Skates, Sticks, and Lifelong Lessons: A Player's Gratitude

Every athlete owes a debt of gratitude, not just to their passion, but to those who mold and nurture it. While my athletic journey has seen me cross paths with several gifted coaches, a few stand out as true beacons. Kurt Pfister, my high school water polo coach, instilled in me the discipline and rigor essential for the sport, while Frank Fazzio, my Little League baseball coach, ignited the fervor and commitment the game demands.

However, inspiration doesn't always come dressed in official titles or decades-long expertise. My recent mentors - Mike Warren, with his incredible battle against Parkinson's; Fred Belcastro, whose commitment sees him at the rink almost every day; and Mark Peterson, who still dazzles on the ice against competitors half his age - have been pillars of authenticity and dedication, constantly inspiring me to push my limits.

Faith, Fellowship, and Guiding Lights: A Pilgrim's Acknowledgment

Spiritual journeys, akin to athletic ones, are seldom solitary endeavors. My own spiritual voyage has been punctuated with a myriad of experiences: from the humble beginnings of a small church to the vast expanse of a mega church, from active participation in church boards and ministries to the reflective serenity of a back-row seat. Through it all, the guiding hand of mentors has been unmistakable.

Pastor John Stikl, with his wisdom and insight; Jeff Bradford, my boss, a constant beacon of strength and support; Chad Hennings, Dick Siler and Bill Frado, fellow travelers in the path of men's ministry, have all played pivotal roles. Much like my athletic mentors, their unyielding authenticity and dedication have not only inspired me but have been foundational in shaping my spiritual perspective and grounding my faith.

4. Celebrating the Victories and Learning from Losses:

From Pools to Pulpits: A Journey Through Triumph and Tribulation

The taste of athletic victory, the sweetness of success after tireless dedication, was a flavor I knew well. My memories of the Michigan state water polo championships will forever be imprinted in my mind, the surge of triumph when the underdogs rose above and clinched the title. These moments taught me about the rewards of persistence, discipline, and the drive to always improve.

But there’s another kind of triumph, a spiritual victory, that brings with it a profound sense of fulfillment. The role of a children’s pastor was one such pinnacle. It wasn't a position I had actively sought. But a divine intervention, a moment of clarity on an ordinary drive, led me to it. Answering what felt like a celestial calling, and finding myself fortuitously at the doorstep of a soon-to-be-vacant position, I took on the mantle. This experience stands out as a testament to the unpredictable ways in which faith can shape one's path.

"Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus." - 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

However, as with any journey, the road of faith has its share of pitfalls. The downfall of our church, entangled in debts and deceived by a fraudulent tenant, was a heart-wrenching chapter. Watching the community I had invested in crumble was painful. But this setback, though devastating, became an avenue for reflection and growth. I sought solace in a larger congregation, preferring the anonymity of the back row. It was a moment to heal, to reassess, and to reconnect with my faith from a different vantage point.

In both athletic and spiritual arenas, victories are exhilarating, but losses, while painful, often provide the most valuable lessons. They remind us of our vulnerabilities but also reinforce the importance of resilience, introspection, and the constant quest for personal growth.

5. The End Goal:

From Athlete to Elder: A Tale of Transformation and Testament

There's an unspoken gravity to the past, where memories linger like gold-tinted spectacles. My bookshelf serves as a physical testament to the athlete I once was – trophies, signed baseballs, swimming medals, all memories of a time when my physique was at its peak and every win was a notch in my belt. Yet, as the years rolled on, the laurels of the past seemed less like benchmarks and more like gentle reminders of a phase gone by.

The highlight today is not in reliving past glories, but in capturing new moments – playing hockey alongside my son, or setting fresh challenges in swimming. Aging is inevitable, but feeling old is a choice. By identifying as an athlete in the present, rather than dwelling on past exploits, I've cultivated a mindset that keeps me invigorated and proactive.

Parallelly, my spiritual journey has witnessed its own evolution. The fervor and emotion of accepting Christ during my youth have since transformed into a more analytical pursuit. While I've harmoniously merged my Christian beliefs with my faith in Science, I realized there was something missing – the emotional connection to God. Emotions serve as a bridge between the heart and the intellect, and in my eagerness to find a logical harmony, I had somewhat distanced myself from feeling God's warmth.

So, when asked about the pinnacle of my athletic journey, I'd point not to a specific event but to the present moment, where I continuously redefine my athletic identity. And as for my finish line with Christ, I envision it not as an endpoint but as a consistent effort to meld reason and emotion, ensuring I always remain connected to the divine spirit, both mentally and emotionally.

6. The Power of Community:

The Athletic Brotherhood:

Being part of a team transcends the individual limits one might experience. As a grandfather who sometimes finds himself gasping for breath while playing with my 5-year old grandson, I've often pondered upon the idea of identity. There's a stark difference between identifying as an aging man and seeing oneself as an athlete.

League Champions: My son Charles (goalie) and me front row 2nd from the left

Associating with the latter brings a transformative change in outlook. Be it the youthful hockey players, the dedicated morning swimmers, or the early risers taking their jog – there's an unspoken bond, a mutual acknowledgment. We might not share deep personal stories, but a nod, a wave, an encouraging shout is all it takes. It's a camaraderie built on shared sweat, pain, and determination. "I see you, you're tired, I'm tired too. But let's keep going. We've got this."

The Quest for Brotherhood in Faith:

In the cacophony of the world's demands, where competition often overshadows collaboration, there lies my quest for a sanctuary. This sanctuary isn't a place, but a brotherhood – a tight-knit circle of men of faith who understand life beyond its superficial dimensions. These aren't just friends or acquaintances; they are brothers bound by a shared belief, driven by a collective purpose, and rooted in a mutual trust. Their presence in my life isn't a mere luxury; it's a necessity, a source of sustenance for my spiritual journey.

"And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near." - Hebrews 10:25

It's within this fellowship that I find solace during life's tumultuous storms. They are my confidants, the ones I've entrusted with the privilege to see beyond my masks, to challenge my perspectives, and to infuse wisdom into my decisions. They're the ones I've given permission to course-correct me when I veer off, and the ones who have granted me the honor to reciprocate that trust. It's a dynamic relationship, one built on mutual respect and an unwavering commitment to uplift, inspire, and guide each other.

When I'm weighed down by doubts or entrapped in the snares of despair, it's this brotherhood that becomes my beacon of hope. They remind me of my worth, realign my purpose, and rekindle my faith. But it's not just about the moments of weakness; it's also about the joys of victories, the learnings from failures, and the countless life moments in between. Being part of this brotherhood amplifies every experience, making joy more profound and challenges more bearable.

Beyond the camaraderie, there's also an undeniable sense of purpose in this relationship. I'm not just living for myself; I'm living as a testament to God's grace, reflecting His love and teachings in every interaction, every decision. This brotherhood aids me in realizing a life much larger than individual pursuits. It's about understanding and embracing the greater design, about living in the beauty and purpose of God's kingdom rather than getting lost in the transient and often misleading allure of worldly competitions.

In a world that often champions individualism to the point of isolation, my circle of faith-filled brothers stands as a powerful testament to the strength of unity, the beauty of shared faith, and the transformative power of authentic relationships. They help me navigate the craziness of the world, grounding me in the values and virtues that truly matter. Through them, I am constantly reminded of my purpose and my place in the grand tapestry of God's creation.

Conclusion:

Throughout life, it's been intriguing to observe the intricate parallels between the worlds of athletics and faith. Both are realms where our strengths are tested, our character refined, and our deepest vulnerabilities unveiled. But diving deeper into the parallels between the two has unlocked profound revelations for me.

The fusion of lessons from both fields makes me understand the concept of identity in a new light. While we all have past achievements and failures, pigeonholing ourselves into static labels is a great disservice to our growth potential. Labeling oneself as a "has been athlete" or "a sinner saved by grace" might offer a sense of humility or even nostalgia, but it also confines us to a narrative of the past. It's a narrative where our achievements become history and our potential seems capped.

Instead, recognizing oneself as a present-day athlete or a cherished child of God offers empowerment. In this understanding, I'm not a product of yesterday, but an active participant shaping today and molding tomorrow. It’s a forward-looking perspective where every new day offers a playground for growth, both in physical prowess and spiritual depth.

By choosing the latter identity, it’s not just about celebrating the glory days gone by or finding solace in redemption; it's about proactively steering the journey ahead. One is reactive, shaped by external events, while the other is proactive, driven by internal conviction. The distinction is subtle but immensely powerful.

Consequently, we're not mere bystanders in this journey called life. We’re architects of our destiny. While the world might seem vast and uncontrollable, our personal world - our thoughts, actions, and beliefs - remain within our sphere of influence. And that's where the real magic happens. By harnessing this power and understanding, I've embarked on a journey where every challenge is an opportunity, every setback a lesson, and every achievement a stepping stone for the next.

In reconciling these two realms, I've come to appreciate the boundless potential within me. It’s a realization that by surrendering the little we believe we possess and embracing the abundance God promises, we truly tap into a life of purpose, passion, and profound transformation. The athlete-faith parallel hasn't just been an intellectual exercise for me; it's been a lifeline, continually reminding me that every race, every leap of faith, every hurdle overcome adds up to a journey worth cherishing.


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