Tag Archives: Michael Phelps

8 ways to work with your limitations

Image result for michael phelps 2008"

In 2008 Michael Phelps published No Limits: The Will to Succeed. Here is a quote:

So many people along the way, whatever it is you aspire to do, will tell you it can’t be done. But all it takes is imagination. You dream. you plan, you reach. There will be obstacles. There will be doubters. There will be mistakes. But with hard work, with belief, with confidence and trust in yourself and those around you there are NO LIMITS.

That mentality certainly paid off! He is the most medaled Olympian of all time. Plus, he makes about $9 million a year, even today, at 34 years old.

But there was another side to the great athlete. After each Olympics he experienced a major episode of the general pattern of his life. After the 2004 Olympics he experienced a major depression for the first time, and that year he also got his first DUI. After 2008 he was photographed smoking marijuana.  He said about that much later, “It would be just me self-medicating myself, basically daily, to try to fix whatever it was I was trying to run from.” After he retired the first time after 2012 he considered killing himself. He finally sought treatment. Now, he says he has learned it is, “Ok to not be OK.” He agrees that while mental illness still “has a stigma around it,” things are beginning to improve.  “I think people actually finally understand it is real. People are talking about it and I think this is the only way that it can change.”

Americans are a “no limits” and “freedom” society. We all seem to want to grasp the first quotes from Phelps and ignore the realities of the second set. Many Christians are the worst examples of denying any kind of limitations, because they think it would deny God’s sovereignty and the power of the Holy Spirit to do so. The only limitations many Christians  acknowledge are due to their own poor faith.

I think many people have given up their faith altogether because it just wasn’t working out as perfectly as they were promised. Their loss is especially tragic during Advent when we see God purposely limiting herself to become Jesus to join us in the limitations of being human and then demonstrating the fullness of being resurrected humans.

Working within limitations

While we all dream of having ultimate freedom to be and do anything and everything we want, the hard truth of the matter is that we all face some limitations, large or small. Limitations may be things you’ve dealt with all your life, or they may come upon you suddenly through an accident or change of circumstances. The older one gets, the more real limitations become, as I well know.

Limitations are not the same as a jail sentence. Phelps obviously perfected his swimming within the limits of a regulation-sized pool and mastered various prescribed strokes. Even in art, where complete freedom can be glorious and expansive, sometimes the most innovative ideas come from solving a problem. Having boundaries forces us to use our resources in imaginative ways, and a limitation viewed as a challenge can inspire us to create something completely unexpected.

Limitations can take many different shapes. The most obvious are health or physical disabilities and limited financial means. Others are limited time or energy; lack of skills, knowledge or credentials; and reduced opportunities due to age, gender and/or racial bias or economic background. A change in status due to divorce or job loss can also be a limiting factor.

We also experience “perceived” limitations. Feelings such as fear, self-doubt, feeling you’re not good enough live in our minds, but can stop us just as effectively as physical limitations. No doubt we all had an experience in our childhood where someone told us we were a quitter or bad at math or would never amount to anything that imprinted itself on our psyche and kept us from achieving our potential, at least for awhile.

But limitations can be overcome, or at least stretched, and you can probably find numerous examples of people in your own life who have done so — maybe even yourself. Here are a couple of famous examples:

  • Irish painter Christy Brown, born with cerebral palsy, painted with the only limb over which he had control. His story is told in the film My Left Foot.
  • Oprah Winfrey, a woman of color who grew up with poverty and abuse, is one of the richest and most successful people in the world.
paul's limitations
Paul in prison

Gently push the boundaries

So, what can you do to push back your limitations? Paul told the Philippians, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). One of the main things Paul thought he could do was face his present prison sentence and possible execution. He wrote one of the most encouraging and beloved books of the New Testament while under the extreme limitations of house arrest by the ruthless Romans! People from the U.S. empire often have expectations commensurate with their own ruthless society, so they might totally mistake Paul’s “I can do all things” for Michael Phelps’ “There are NO LIMITS.”

Contrary to a lot of American sensibilities, we all have boundaries to what we can do. I Believe I Can Fly is still kind of silly. If we can’t handle our limitations, we are Michael Phelps needing a hit.

But we can do all the things God calls us to accomplish with the strength we are given. Here are eight practical things to think and do if we want to gently explore the far reaches of our limitations with hope, not perfectionism, both as individuals and as the body of Christ.

  1. Be realistic about who you are and what you can do. You can accomplish more by accepting your limitations and starting from there, rather than depleting your energy wishing you were somewhere else. Self-pity and giving up are the biggest obstacles you’ll face.

As a church, we need to be realistic about who we are and what we can do. That’s why we map our future together and try to discern just how far we can go with what we have been given.

  1. When you feel limited by your circumstances, come up with as many alternatives or options as possible. Be imaginative. In the brainstorming process, you’ll open up new possibilities for yourself that you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.

As a whole church, a team or a cell, we keep the dialogue about where we are and where we are going fresh, so we can imagine with God. We should always have a Plan B (and C,D, etc) when we are committing to a course of action.

  1. Challenge your limiters. If you were given only 3 colors to paint with, what would you do with them? Keep pushing the envelope. Make it a chance to play, not a reason to diminish yourself or your abilities. Boundaries give us something to push against. While those boundaries may sometimes be constricting, they can force us to be more focused and productive than we might be without them.

In the church, we need to be grateful for what we have, not listen to the critics (inside and out) who try to damn us for all we are not. We are saved, not flawless.

  1. Change your expectations, or let them go altogether. Sometimes, when you try something you don’t think you’re good at, you can release your expectations and just go for it.

As a church, I think we are pretty good at this, since we love it when people try things and honor people when they fail. We know we are a miracle; we live by grace. We are not merely the predictable outcome of our own efforts.

  1. Value the talents and abilities you do have, and leverage them. We all have different strengths and weaknesses. The gifts you have may not be the ones your family or friends value. Understand your own value, rather than restricting yourself  to other people’s expectations, and use your gifts fully.

I also think our church is pretty good at this. Even among the society of churches, we allow ourselves to be our alternative selves, without worrying too much about how others look at us.

  1. Use your limitations to help you focus and use your resources efficiently. If you have $20 to pay for groceries for the week, you’ll think more carefully about what to buy than if you had an unlimited amount. Alternatively, you might starve yourself for fear of scarcity. Efficiency is about determination to meet a goal (like surviving, in this example!); it should not be about being a well-oiled cog in the machine of someone else’s unrevealed goal.

 As a church we are always walking this balance, too! We seem to err on the side of risk and it often pays dividends. When we bought 2007 Frankford Ave, it seemed like a huge investment, but it has paid off repeatedly in saved lives and social action.

  1. Do what you can when you can. Modify or adjust your dreams to suit your own parameters, not according to how it’s “supposed” to be done. Every path to fullness is unique. That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from each other, but we’ll have to apply what we learn uniquely.

As a church we are into this mentality. I think we are mostly committed to not really knowing how everything is supposed to be done. That way, we have freedom to trust God to use what we express. No small seed of faith is planted fruitlessly.

  1. If your limitation comes upon you suddenly, through accident, trauma or loss, be sure to deal with the grief and all the other feelings, so that you can move on.

As a church we do so much for each other as cells, we often provide a safe place for people to experience calamity. We welcomed Circle Counseling as a partner from the very beginning of our mission to help us face what has come upon us.

Challenging our limitations can be scary. We’ll feel discouraged at times. But if you feel drawn to doing something despite the challenges, your successes will be that much sweeter. Giving up can lead to boredom or depression or that great denial of our true selves Phelps described.

I don’t know anyone who’s ever regretted trying. Paul also wrote this to the Philippians: I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. He thought pressing on was his re-birthright, not some pressure-filled obligation. He pressed on because he was saved, not because he needed to succeed at being saved. He could press on even if he was in jail!

We always have a choice because we are chosen. God reached into our limitations in Jesus so they would not stop us. The Lord is such an inspiration that billions of people now follow Jesus all over the world. Jesus handled his limitations with love and demonstrated achievement so deep and high that we are all inspired to believe we can follow him with our own variation of his example.

There is a lie in the middle of Olympics

So let me be clear. I think the Olympians in Rio are spectacular and I thank God for them. They shine brightly and inspire us in many ways. Frank Bruni in the NY Times did not want that glory to be supplanted by complaint. And I don’t want to write this post and supplant it either.

But I do want to complain.

I am not complaining about all those nice kids being nice, being healthy, being dedicated and having a great time with their families all lined up in the stadium to watch them be the best. Just look at Simone. Thank you Jesus!

I am complaining because I think Christians should always be testing the spirits to see if they are true. And the Olympic Games tell a lot of lies, in case you are not noticing.

The Olympics imply, if not say, that the games are about bringing together athletes and supporters from around the world in a peaceful “fraternity.” But it is hard not to think that the games are mainly for profit, not love. Certainly NBC wants profit; Brazil expected some; the athletes hope to get endorsements and sponsors so they can spend their whole lives training. What’s more, the games are about the games, not community: the tradition, the health of the movement, the sports industry that needs to find a way to be fed.

The Olympic rings are supposed to represent peace and fraternity among nations, combining, as they do, all the colors of the flags. When Michael Phelps finally hugs Chad le Clos instead of trying to burn a hole in him with his laser vision, maybe that’s working out on an individual level. But when Russia is banned and booed, you got to wonder what is really going on.

One of Rio’s murals
  • Rio sold itself to the world at the expense of their poor. The Olympics seems to have been the political straw that broke the corrupt camel’s back. The games don’t always bring peace and fraternity. The 1996 Atlanta Games displaced homeless people, the Sydney Games foisted a huge debt on Australia, the 2004 Athens Games played a role in the Greek financial crisis, and the 2008 Beijing Olympics highlighted a repressive military state. Now, in Rio de Janeiro, private developers are reaping profits and exploiting workers, while anti-Olympic protesters are treated like terrorists.
  • NBC bought the rights to distribute the footage of the “fraternity’s” activities. They cut it up according to whatever algorithm they thought would supply the most return and sold the bits to whoever would buy them. The powers assess if we are watching enough to justify their investment (they love watching us watch and watching themselves watching us). Am I the only one still complaining that giant corporations (Comcast owns NBC) can buy the airwaves? I am not sure it is right to commodify communication.
  • Are there regulations for how small your bikini must be because beach volleyball players want to wear them, or because for years they pimped themselves out to get some viewers?
  • Is the crush of media outlets looking for stories to harvest from among the brilliant youth of the world really a good thing for them? Aren’t they exploited for a hot minute and then discarded when the machine moves on to unharvested people?

We could go on with a lot more questions, couldn’t we? (And act like we did not already know the answers). It is tempting to hear people say, “Don’t be so negative” and shut up, just stop testing spirits altogether, just let Comcast create the world and be the ruler of the air. At the same time it is tempting to not shut up, go ahead and damn  it all and miss all the beauty in the middle of the dump, like missing all those beautiful children in the favela. Maybe most of all, it is tempting just to shut down and just buy it all, as every product vies to make some connection between itself and the shiny Olympians, as if Coke really were some universal drink of love.

I am not cynical, which Merriam Webster says is a “sneering disbelief in sincerity or integrity.” I am not sneering at the Olympics. Much the contrary, I fully believe that humankind if destined to be sincere and integrous. I fully believe in sincerity and integrity. I want to have them as part of my character. And it is not hard to see how sincere one must be to train for the Olympics!

Jesus followers are set free to shine, not just complain that people are shedding false light. It’s just that when we shine, the light falls on NBC and I realize that I sincerely disbelieve that they had the world’s interests in mind when they delivered the opening ceremony in tiny bits between commercials. They pre-sold $1.2 billion in ads, showed a half hour of them during the ceremony  and had five breaks in the first half hour. That could make someone cynical, not shiny. As a Jesus follower I’ll try not to go there. I’m trying to note the deadly lie in the middle of Olympics at the same time I am straining out the goodness and love all around us.

An Inspiring Olympics, So Far.

Let’s ponder this: Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air.  1 Corinthians 9:24-26

My wife, Gwen, was training to be an Olympic swimmer at one time (she was even in the pool with Mark Spitz, at one point). We were watching one of the 2012 swimmers talking about the training regimen he had gone through to get to the finals. It was something she knew well. She remarked, “It just dawned on me again why I gave that all up when I was a teenager.” She became a Christian and it seemed ridiculous.

I have offended some people before by implying that what they are doing is ridiculous, so I apologize in advance for not understanding your situation. One of the gymnasts was saying just last night how the Bible helps her calm down so she can do her floor exercise. Plenty of people think that God is quite devoted to them becoming a world-famous swimmer, or something like that. I have never been sure of that.

I think we should be devoted to Jesus. And, like Paul, I think we should be in training to receive our everlasting crown. Like Paul, I admire people who go into strict training. Like Gwen and Paul, I am amazed that they would do it to get the reward they get. But I admire the training and I apply the concept to receiving that “well done” from the Lord as I cross the finish line, having run the race of my life hard.

The most specific way I apply my training is to church planting. I think you probably can name what event of the “Christian Olympics” in which you are participating, too. If you are running with me, there are some hard things to overcome.

The main thing that makes church planting training and the racing hard is the commitment it takes to do something that does not give us an immediate prize. There will be no endorsements for serving the cause of Christ, I think. I suppose that is why I was so moved when the Welsh kids sang “Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah” in the opening ceremonies. I am so used to Jesus being scrupulously extracted from any public media that I was shocked by the affirmation.

Lesser threats to our training regimen make it very demanding, as well.

For instance, we are always tempted to make church planting another consumer choice. Maybe Phelps lost out to Lochte because he became a consumer choice. We’re tempted to make our kingdom-extending a personal matter that makes no more difference than if one likes Irish Spring or Dial. It is hard to get excited about the intricacies of how your coffee tastes for too long.

What’s more we are all a little ADHD, it seems. There is quite a bit of science around now about how all those video games and other media absorption has even changed the way our brains work, and it is not for the better. We have a hard time paying attention if a conversation is too long; we have much more trouble if we are supposed to maintain a lifelong commitment to the cause of Jesus.

Plus, we are so overwhelmed by our rapacious power elite in the empire that we tend to be reactors instead of actors. I don’t mean nuclear reactors ready to blow (although we may feel oppressed enough at times), I mean we don’t feel like we have the power to do anything. We just react to what is thrown at us (like Jim Crow laws in PA) instead of acting to build a church that can undermine the system the same way it did the Roman Empire.

The good thing about the Olympics is seeing how many people can compete at such a high level of proficiency. We are an impressive creation! They inspire me in so many ways to get into shape. Not only could I lose a few pounds and do a few sit ups, I could pray again, and I could act on all those inspirations that the Lord has planted in me for planting the church. I love how almost nothing I do in the name of Jesus is aimless. And the finish line is so great!