If you know me on any personal level or have listened to some of my personal illustrations, you probably know that some ten-plus years ago, I took up the sport of water polo. This is kind of an odd hobby to join for several reasons. First of all, it is a very difficult sport to play, let alone enjoy. There is a lot of physical exertion both in swimming and also wrestling, which demands that you maintain good cardiovascular endurance throughout. The whistle blows and you find yourself moving from a resting heartrate to an anerobic heartrate within about a minute. The key is to get used to that and then engage the game and keep going.
To say the least, water polo is not something you usually pickup post middle age. I’m pretty sure I was 39 or 40 when a friend of mine (from SoCal, who played through High School) and I braved the UAA dive pool to play club polo. It was enough of a struggle just to fight nervous butterflies to jump in with a bunch of competitive athletes, but I did.
For the early months I learned to swim back and forth, fight for position, wrestle off my defender, and go for the ball. All while trying not to pass out from a lack of oxygen! So, now over ten years later, “Why did I start in the first place and then why did I keep playing?” I’ll answer this by building my case, arguing from the lesser to the greater. Also, I want to qualify what I am about to say: I am not recommending water polo or any particular form of physical exercise for everyone. This is just me, musing about something I thought you might find interesting. But I also want to make a spiritual point that will apply to everyone.
Here is the reason I play water polo: It gathers together a lot of prior experiences I have had up to this point. I grew up in warmer climates and swam a lot (non-competitively). I also surfed a lot on the east coast and later the west coast, life guarded, and taught kids swimming. I also wrestled a few years and have always enjoyed playing pick-up basketball and the like. I found that water polo incorporates all these things in a way that is both full-contact, while being low-impact on the joints! Suddenly, I feel like an infomercial for polo. I’m not trying to sell this sport, believe me. However, I have been happy to engage it here in Alaska because there are indoor pools, and the weather requires that. So, the nostalgia of the past keeps me playing but the physical and mental benefits are palpable. Water polo used to be scheduled at the UAA pool on Sunday evenings but now we have shifted to Service High School, still Sunday evenings. In either setting, playing on Sunday evening has been a tangible way for me to go shed the pressure of the day, post-preaching. This might sound a bit brusk, but preaching two times each Sunday is mentally and physically taxing, even exhausting. Saying so is not an appeal for sympathy, as vocational preaching was a clear path I chose and believe I was called by God to take. I also understand people work in ways that are equally or even more demanding. Yet, I have come to believe that water polo is a way for me to literally flush my system and reset after preaching.
My old neighbor used to observe me coming and going to polo on Sunday evenings and he commented that Sunday evening polo was a way for me to make my body as tired as my mind was by that point in my week. Another way water polo helps me reset myself is by how physically competitive it is. When you play, you really are performing in the kind of sport that could appropriately be called, “A little brother of war.” Pastors may not ever tell you this but preaching and pastoring people at times feels very much like warfare. Again, this is not me having a pity party, “I signed up for this!” Paul told Timothy to, “Fight the good fight of faith!” So, what should I expect, right? That said, moving from spiritual warfare to some good-natured sport-warfare has been healthy for me.
One last thing to mention is that this has been a great way to evangelize non-believers in the community. Polo as a team sport makes for some significant common ground. Getting out there and surviving with other people creates a level of mutual respect where you can build friendships in ways that are otherwise impossible. A lot of us know something about what the other person does for a living but by and large we are there to talk about the game. Usually how to improve. So, people know I am a preaching pastor. They know I’m a believer, a Christian, and they know I have a big family but usually, they do not know much more than that. Currently, we have a midweek practice and a Sunday evening scrimmage so there is a lot of casual interaction, but it stays superficial. At the same time, I have played in tournaments in the Lower 48 with team members, where there is a chance to socialize a bit more. But things are still platonic. That said, I do witness where possible. Occasionally, players have opened up to me when a sudden tragedy strikes but even this has been rare. From time to time, I have invited the team to come to hear me preach like on Christmas or Easter holidays and this has been met with strange looks or people just walking away, so there’s that. I personally believe the key is to take the long view and to just be a Christian while I play. For me, that means to play as hard as I possibly can to be the best I can and then to be gracious in the fight.
The final and main reason I play is that this sport is a diversion to everything else I do, and this diversion makes me more effective for everything else I do. Whether being a better husband and dad or better pastor, I need to do a lesser thing (like training for and playing a sport) so I can do well at the main things. Keeping the main thing the main thing is a good principle to live by, but for me to do that I need to do well at a lesser thing like playing water polo.
The sport is fun and I enjoy scoring a goal or making a good steal, but playing this has served me by being a good analogy for by Christian life. Because playing polo is so physically demanding, what I have found is that the more conditioned I am to play and the more experienced I am at the game, the more tired I become when I play it. This probably makes little to no sense but when you think about it, the more in shape you are, the more you can do, and so the more you can do, means you do more! In Christian living it is no different. The more spiritual muscle God builds in your life the more weight he will put on you to bear. Practically speaking, when God knows you can handle increasingly difficult circumstances, he will, for your own good, increase the difficulty of your life circumstances.
“James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion: Greetings.
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds,
for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.
And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
(Jam 1:1-4 ESV)
Jesus taught that those who are “faithful in a very little is also faithful in much” (Luke 16:10; 19:17).
The Apostle Paul lived out this principle with excellence. He relentlessly pursued Christ, leaving all else behind and straining towards the goal of the resurrection from the dead (Phil 3). He took His apostleship seriously, outworking all the rest of the apostles (1 Cor 15:10) and disciplining his body so he could remain qualified for ministry (1 Cor 9:25–27). He likewise encouraged Timothy to follow his example, applying the analogies of the devoted soldier, the competitive athlete, and the hard-working farmer to the life of ministry (2 Tim 2:1–6). Paul suffered much, but he was faithful to the end. He fought the good fight, finished the course, kept his faith (2 Tim 4:6–7).
The reward? A crown of righteousness from the Lord, promised to all who have loved His appearing (2 Tim 4:8). Press on, saints!