Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Head in the Boat

I was watching the footage of the Boat Race recently, which is the epic struggle between the oarsman of Cambridge and Oxford Universities that takes place on the Thames in London each year. Something I saw in the race reminded me of Paul's words in Philippians 3.

12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained. (Phil 3.12-16)

The course is one that I've raced in the other direction in the "Head of the River" race in London, and it is a tricky stretch of river. There is a tidal flow in the center of the river, and an umpire (always an old rowing Blue) decides where the course is, directing the crews away from each other if they clash oars. The four mile race is grueling and has twists and turns that advantage one crew for a time, but equal out in the end.

The Oxford crew went out well and gained the lead. Having the benefit of the first long bend of the river making their course shorter, they were unable to shake Cambridge, who always stayed in touch (overlap of their boat to the other). Losing touch, as it were, makes it very hard to come back, especially as the other crew slightly steers in front of your boat, and you have the difficulty of rowing in their wake. While already biased towards Cambridge over The Other Place, I would note that the Light Blues showed great heart in hanging onto Oxford around that long bend in Oxford's favor. This was a heroic effort.

One other thing I noticed on reviewing the video -- the discipline of the Cambridge crew when behind versus that of the Oxford crew when they fell behind. Now, these men are champions and show extraordinary discipline -- just to make it to the Blue Boat for their university is an amazing achievement. Which makes the looking out of the boat by at least one (maybe more) of the Oxford crew the more surprising. When racing, you keep your eyes in the boat. Always. Always. You trust the cox and keep your head and eyes pinned on the guy in front of you. To look out means you cannot be pulling as hard as you might, and you disrupt the rhythm of the boat. Furthermore, the guy behind you sees you look out and is tempted to look out himself.

With two minutes to go in the race (at 16:32 in the race, or 16:46 on the BBC video), it's possible to see an Oxford rower looking over at Cambridge. I didn't note any Cambridge heads out of the boat throughout the race. http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport2/hi/other_sports/rowing/8572343.stm

When I think of Philippians, the image Paul uses is athletic, and that of running. For the rower, the dynamic of the image is similar and different. As in running, looking aside to one's surroundings is full of peril. Unlike running, the rower does not see his goal, but trusts the voice of the coxswain and has an awareness of what he has already gone through as an encouragement to press on (in London, the Hammersmith Bridge is an example). So in some ways, the rower is more like the experience of the Christian, who has the voice of God (in the Bible) but does not have God in physical view. Such analogies always have weaknesses, but the point to the Christian from Philippians through the lens of the Boat Race is...trust the words of the one leading you to the finish, row the race with diligence with a focus on pressing on rather than on the adversities...and maybe throw in something there for good measure about seeing what you've gone through as an encouragement to yet press on.

Or something like that.

The Cambridge stroke, Fred Gill, did an amazing job leading his crew. Huge amount of heart in that race. They crossed the line at a very disciplined forty one strokes per minute.

p.s., there are probably some shots of me with my head out of the boat somewhere...