Thursday, January 22, 2009

Are You There, God? It’s Me in Last Place

When I competed at track in college, I had a teammate who was very religious. Now I’ve been a church-goer all my life, so having a very religious teammate wasn’t, in and of itself, a big deal. Besides, the school I went to was a Catholic university, so a quick Sign-of-the-Cross before or after a race wasn’t unusual for anyone.

But this teammate was religious in a way that took that whole "Spread the Word" thing a little more seriously than most. Beth liked to hang out near the finish lines of races, hand out prayer cards and invite people to her Wednesday-night prayer meetings. But she didn’t hand the cards and invitations out to the runners who won. Beth was smart: She went after the folks who came in last, or close to it. That’s because she knew there’s nothing like getting your butt kicked hard to make a lifestyle change that doesn’t generate lactic acid seem more attractive.

Mr. Coach’s school is affiliated with the Methodist church, but they attract people of many different faiths to the school. I’ve modified more than one dinner menu for religious or philosophical reasons, and that’s cool. Food is a great way to learn more about how and why other people live their lives the way they do.

So Mr. Coach runs a swim team with plenty of room for spirituality on it. The only time he gets nervous, though, is when a kid suddenly discovers God (or any kind of Higher Power) in the middle of a season that hasn’t been going so well. It has been Mr. Coach’s experience that mid-season conversions rarely take – although if a kid is eating right, sleeping right, showing up for all the practices, getting good grades and then decides to start speaking in tongues, then that’s a spiritual awakening he can live with. But finding religion while short-cutting around the earthly obligations usually means somebody is just looking for the on-ramp to Miracle Highway.

Which reminds me of my fourth-grade teacher, Sister Caroline Mary. Before every test, Sister Caroline Mary would have our class repeat a prayer that she dictated to us.

"Dear God...," she said.

"Dear God...," my classmates and I repeated.

"I pray that I...,"

"I pray that I...,"

"Get what I deserve on this test."

Sister Caroline Mary would have made a great coach.

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