Sex, Religion, and Gymnastics

photo by Rick McCharles

For the majority of my childhood, the gym was my home. Every day after school, I put on a leotard and my hair up into a ponytail and went to practice. At one point,  I worked out six days a week for four to five hours a day. Spending that many hours away from home, it’s not surprising that many of the lessons I learned about life took place on that square floor mat.

Amidst chalk-filled air and between turns on the vault runway, our group of adolescent gymnasts had conversations about sex that would make Hugh Hefner blush. The hormones among us were out-of-control, and, given the fact that we didn’t have time to date, we verbalized our curiosities as soon as they came to mind, and we had no shame as far as whom we would ask. I’ve heard that teenaged boys are disgusting and that locker room talk is foul, but I can’t imagine anything more crude than what came out of the mouths of us four foot seven girls with pink leotards and matching hair scrunchies.

While we discussed topics that were most unholy, a group of religious coaches formed a protective circle around us. The owner and head coach of the gym was a devout Christian–a Pentecostal– who prayed before every practice with us, and while he did not require that his staff follow his faith, many did.

During my time at the gym, I remember having coaches who were Methodist, Catholic, and Mormon. And while we would ask them questions about sex and when they had their first experience (I know; we had no shame), we also would ask them questions about their faith.

I don’t remember what started the conversation (maybe sex), but I remember sitting on the floor mat with Jerry and telling him my confusion:

“I know that Jesus died for my sins, but I don’t understand why he died for my sins.”

I had grown up Catholic and believed with my whole heart that Jesus died for me–I had that message pounded into my head since I was little–but I had no idea how Jesus ended up on the cross and what his death meant for me.

And there on that dusty mat, Jerry filled in the missing pieces. He explained that in the Old Testament, God had set up a system for the Israelites to follow. God could not allow sin, and we should die as a result of sin, but God would allow the sacrifice of a perfect lamb in place of us. In addition to this sacrifice, the shedding of blood for sin, God also commanded the priest to lay his hands on a goat and pray, symbolically transferring the sin of the people onto this animal. This scapegoat was then sent into the wilderness away from the camp, taking the sin of the people on its head.

God fulfilled the law by sending Jesus. No longer did we need to sacrifice a perfect lamb in place of us; Jesus acted as that sacrifice for all who believed. And like the scapegoat, He took our sins on his head and bore our shame. With his death and resurrection, Jesus died in our place and conquered death so that we can share eternal life with Him in heaven after our imperfect lives here on earth.

When I look back on my time at the gym, sometimes I wonder how I didn’t end up with a carload of kids before I was 20. In reality, I know that we were a good group of girls, and I’m glad for the time we spent talking that didn’t leave much time for doing. And I’m glad for that group of coaches–I don’t know what prayers they sent up for us on their own, but I do know their words didn’t fall on deaf ears.

These ears listened and believed.

Did a sport or coach help to shape you as a person? Did an area outside of the church or your family have a profound effect on your faith? Sharing my thoughts today with Jen.