FINDING THE SWING
Part of my reading in August was the true story entitled, “Boys in the Boat”, by Daniel James Brown, not the author of The Da Vinci Code. Few books keep me awake at night. This one did. I did not want to finish it the story was so good.
The time of this true story was in the 1930’s in the U.S. The locale was the State of Washington in the Northwest. The stage was the University of Washington. The primary characters were young men who largely came from very poor families. They were trying to stay in college, to make their grades, to pay their bills, to keep food on their tables, and to maintain relationships, while participating on the UW’s crew team, rowing in 8 man hulls on the waters around Seattle.
The historical backdrop was the Great Depression and the rising threat of National Socialism in Nazi Germany, with its demonic anti-Semitism. The Olympic Games of 1936 in Berlin, Germany, were coming and the UW crew coaches set their goal of winning gold at the games and of confronting Adolph Hitler’s propaganda claims of German supremacy.
A group of rugged individualists arrived as freshmen at UW. They were ambitious, competitive, seasoned in the north woods, and the victims of families in chaos and transition in the early years of the 1930’s when every dimension of the world’s economy had collapsed and millions were being displaced by weather, politics, loss of jobs, financial bankruptcy, and human suffering. Those who made it through university in those years knew what it was like to postpone gratifications, to wait, to be patient, to sacrifice, to stay at it, to be disciplined in studies, jobs, and family relationships.
The book told the story of gifted boat builders and coaches who took a motley group of tough minded and athletically gifted young men and through endless hours of rowing together, often in foul weather, formed teams who could perform not just as individualists but as one team rowing in sync, with one mind, heart, and soul, with their focus inside their boats under the direction of their coxswain. It was a story rooted in team building, in spirituality, in the principles of leadership, in what it takes to build unified teams out of different gifts, talents, and physical capabilities. At times I wanted to cry, to laugh, to celebrate the overcoming of seemingly impossible hardships, and painful family loses, and dynamics. I came to love each member of the team. I wanted to join them in their pursuit of the gold.
I want to quote the author:
There is something that sometimes happens in rowing that is hard to achieve and hard to define. Many crews, even winning crews, never really find it. Others find it but can’t sustain it. It’s called ‘swing’.
It only happens when all eight oarsmen are rowing in such perfect unison that no single action by any one is out of synch with those of others. It’s not just that the oars enter and leave the water at precisely the same instant. Sixteen arms must begin to pull, sixteen knees must begin to fold and unfold, eight bodies must begin to slide forward and backward, eight backs must bend and straighten all at once. Each minute action—each subtle turning of wrists––must be mirrored exactly by each oarsman, from one end of the boat to the other. Only then will the boat continue to run, unchecked, fluidly and gracefully between pulls of the oars. Only then will it feel as if the boat is part of each of them, moving as if on its own. Only then does pain entirely give way to exultation.
Rowing then becomes a kind of language. Poetry, that’s what a good swing feels like. The closer a crew can come to that ideal—maintaining a good swing while rowing at a high rate—the closer they are to rowing on another plane, the plane on which champions row.” (page 161 of 404 Kindle)
“The team effort—the perfectly synchronized flow of muscle, oars, boat, and water; the single, whole unified, and beautiful symphony that a crew in motion becomes—is all that matters. Not the individual, not the self. Even as rowers must subsume their often fierce sense of independence and self-reliance, at the same time they must hold true to their individuality, their unique capabilities as oarsmen or oarswomen or, for that matter, as human beings.” (page 178-79 Kindle)
Simply stated, each member of the boat must come to trust all the others, to be able to communicate, to surrender themselves for the sake of the mission of all eight, to have each other’s back, and to be in a mutuality of poetic partnership and synchronized labor.
Of course, that requires the transcending of human nature with its desires to be recognized, to stand out, to compete, to outdo others, to be entrepreneurial. How difficult that is in a world that is committed to a competitive model of human life and society. Yet, how necessary it is for the common good of any people, tribe, or race. How tragic it has seemed to me that human life with all of its competitive demands ends up dividing us, separating us, destroying the unity of the group, the nation, yes, even of the church.
Jesus knew all about this. Often times he was in the boat with his disciples teaching them to seek the Swing of the power of God at work within them through his presence.
At the Last Supper as he broke the bread and shared the cup of the New Covenant, he perceived that the disciples were arguing among themselves as to which of them was the greatest. He warned them that this was not the Swing into which he had called them and was training them. He told them that Satan had desired to “sift” all of them like wheat, to divide them for the sake of destroying them. “But I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers and sisters.” Luke 22:31f
Or “Find the Swing” over and over again.
In reading this true story and in celebrating the final team triumph in 1936 in Berlin I realized that the wisdom’s and truth’s of this great effort, this long obedience in the same direction, as Eugene Peterson might have called it, was at the heart of the Apostle Paul’s understanding of the church of Jesus Christ.
He taught that when we are baptized into Jesus we are incorporated into the body of Christ, with Christ at the head of the church. Baptized members each become important members of the body of Christ. In Romans 1 and 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4, Paul reminded the members of those churches that we are all called by God, chosen by God’s providence, and incorporated into a body under the control of the mind of Christ, that must learn to seek the THE SWING in our life together and common service for the kingdom.
Yes, as disciples of Jesus we are being taught and we are in the process of learning what it means to die to self and to sin, for the sake of coming alive in the Spirit of Christ. As fellow members of the same body we begin to be aware that each member is important, that we are all connected in Jesus Christ, part of one covenant community. When one member of the body is honored we all rejoice. When one member rejoices we rejoice together. When a member weeps we weep also.When one member is wounded we all feel the pain. We learn what it is to be a member of one team with different gifts given for the common good of building up the body of Christ, of strengthening and encouraging one another until we all arrive at our common destination in the fullness of time.
To achieve that end we seek to find “the Swing”, to use the Spirit’s gifts in harmony, until we all together live into the perfection of God’s love and the beauty of the kingdom of God is fulfilled. In doing so we transcend what any human community can do on the basis of will power or simple human effort.
Of course, “the Swing” is the end toward which we move. The truth is that no church achieves the goal, nor does any human association or fellowship. The Swing is difficult to find and just as difficult to sustain, but to transcend the human condition in order to fly in the power of the Holy Spirit, it is the call we have received.
Paul challenged the church in Ephesus,
“I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. We must learn to speak the truth in love; we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ. When every part is working properly, we are built up in love.” (Ephesians 4)
A rower would have called it “The Swing”. We are all just learning the importance of the Swing and we are seeking to find it and to sustain it. But how difficult this is. It comes and goes as a fellowship works together, worships together, suffers together, struggles together, forgives together, and remains faithful together in the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. You see Jesus is the “Lord of the Swing”.
The good news is that he is still working with us to find and to sustain the Swing of a crew who know how to write the poetry of love in the community of faith. So Jesus sent the Apostle Paul to encourage the Roman church that was small in number, made up of Jews and Gentiles living at the center of the Roman Empire in which they were being pressed to confess that Caesar is Lord rather than Jesus.
The Spirit had created a longing within Paul to travel to Rome for the sake of sharing his spiritual gifts with the believers, but also of receiving the spiritual gifts of the Romans Christians. He wrote, “I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—or rather so that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.” (Romans 1:11-12)
In preparation for the 1936 Olympics one of the crew named Joe was given an older mentor to help him discover the Swing. The mentor was George Pocock, the famous builder of eight man rowing boats. He was an authority on team rowing. He had been watching Joe and knew he would not make the team without wise counsel and transformation. He told Joe, after winning his respect, that it seemed that Joe thought he was the only man rowing in the boat, that it all depended upon him.
Joe came from a family of origin in which his mom had died, his Dad and his new wife abandoned him, and he had to make it on his own from his teenage years on. Joe had become totally self-reliant. He did not trust anyone. Those wounds threatened to destroy his future.
Pocock said to Joe,
“You need to think of yourself as just one player in a symphony orchestra. If one fellow in an orchestra was playing out of tune, or playing at a different tempo, the whole piece would naturally be ruined. What mattered more than one man was how well everything he did in the boat harmonized with what the other fellows were doing. And a man couldn’t harmonize with his crew-mates unless he opened his heart to them. He had to care about his crew. He had to give himself up to, even if it meant getting his feelings hurt.
“If you don’t like some fellow in the boat, Joe, you have to learn to like him. It has to matter to you whether he wins the race, not just whether you do.
“Joe, when you really start trusting those other boys, you will feel a power at work within you that is far beyond anything you’ve ever imagined. Sometimes, you will feel as if you have rowed right off the planet and are rowing among the stars.” (page 234 of 404 Kindle)
Joe accepted the counsel of his mentor George Pocock.
The result was that he was transformed. The shell christened the Husky Clipper began to fly. As a team they won the right to represent the U.S. at the Olympic Games. As one team who had realized the Swing they won the gold in Berlin.
Every Christian and Christian church I know is called to become surrendered to the mission of God that is bigger than any one of us. This is a mission that requires trust and humility.
This is what Paul modeled for Rome and what he taught in his letter.
“For by the grace give to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” (Romans 12:3-5)
By Dr. Jerry Tankersley