Matt and I turned down the lights, curled up underneath a gargantuan fuzzy blanket, and settled in to watch The Boys in the Boat for the first time a few nights ago. I was so deeply moved by this movie. I do NOT endorse it, because it did have some foul moments. But I experienced profound spiritual lessons from the sport of rowing and in the storyline, and I’m longing to share them with you, if you’ll allow me:
We sit with our backs to the direction of travel
Rowers never see where they’re going. The last three years have been so hard for Matt and I, because we haven’t been able to know where God was taking us. I watched the boys in the boat give every ounce of energy they had, with their backs to the finish line. This is what it means to follow Christ: we walk by faith, not by sight.
The Spirit of Jesus is the Great Coxswain
Rowing was totally foreign to me before we hit play on this movie. I had never heard of a Coxswain, who is the coach in the boat. He fastens a megaphone to his head and shouts instructions to the eight-man rowing crew. He sets the pace and steers the boat. He is the one who sees the destination and the competition. It’s his job to get the men to the finish line. The rowers look only at him. They listen only to him. They can see nothing of what’s ahead, so they trust him completely. He is the one who pushes when the men need to be pushed and who encourages when they need to be encouraged. When I watched the rowing team win the Olympics in Berlin by a hair, I thought long about whether the victory was earned by the eight incredibly strong men who pulled on oars or whether it was the Coxswain who made it happen. The team had physical ability to move the boat through the water, but the Coxswain’s hard tapping of rhythm against the boat and masterful coaching was intensely a part of how they won the race. I will never again think of God’s Spirit within me without seeing that Coxswain.
God will ask us to go harder and longer than seems humanly possible
For the first time in my life, I thought about getting a tattoo after watching The Boys in the Boat. I won’t do it (although it might be worth the shocked look on my children’s faces), but if I were going to it would be “46.” The Coxswain sets the pace, and in the early races, we were amazed when he pushed the rowing team to row 35 times per minutes. But in the Olympic race in Berlin, with one teammate flagging from pneumonia, the Coxswain pushed the team to row 46 times per minute. I’m overwhelmed even now as I write this, because over the last three years, it has felt like Jesus has relentlessly asked Matt and I to row at a 46. The difficulty and pace has not let up. It has been one hard trial after another, rowing a 46 and all while sitting with our backs to the direction we’re going. Oswald Chambers, in If You Will Ask, says that we can stand a bigger revelation of God than we think we can. We can row harder and faster than we can imagine. Don’t ever make the mistake of listening to the people who say, “God will never give you more than you can handle.” Ha. The skilled Coxswain will ask us to go far beyond what we think we can do.
We are part of a team
Those young men who won the Olympics came from a poor school. They were living in the Great Depression. They didn’t grow up in the Ivy League schools, where the teams were made up of men who had grown up with an oar in their hands. The boys from Washington brought nothing but grit. This image of the church of Christ is beautiful: a boat full of people who are desperate to be on a team, have nothing to offer, and learn how to row in perfect unity in order to go anywhere. Every man in the boat has a unique job, and every man doing that job well matters to the overall success of the team. You matter. If you drop an oar, your whole church is going to feel it.
We are living for a great purpose
Hitler watched those boat races. His team was on the water. It was his team that lost by a split-second difference to the Americans. It was painful to watch that race, which happened in 1936, knowing the terror Hitler would wreak only a few years later. That race was an important victory, with an evil dictator looking on. Why pull a 46 again, again, again, again? Why keep going? Because we’re in a great race that matters to the whole world–a race that matters for eternity. We must persevere. We cannot give up.
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the Great Coxswain.
Let him set the pace.
Let him steer the boat.
Let him call out the instructions.