How do you define perfection? How do you apply it to a contest?

This past week I partook in that greatest of time-honored American traditions, jury duty. It’s more of a process than an event, marked out by several distinct stages:

  • Stage One: The Mailbox. You notice a small, but official-looking, note card (usually blue) that says you’ve been selected to serve jury duty at your local superior court. Apparently, I’m a potential ‘peer’ for those who have been accused of a crime. How comforting.
  • Stage Two: Exasperation. No one wants to fulfill this obligation. In fact, juries are entirely composed of those people who aren’t clever enough to talk their way out of jury duty. Which brings me to…
  • Stage Three: Brainstorming. On the walk back from the mailbox, you rack your brain to figure out excuses that would prevent you from doing your civic duties: ‘My students can’t do without me!’ False. ‘Santa Ana is, like, on the other side of the county!’ False. ‘I hate it when people get due process!’

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  • Stage Four: Strategizing. This actually works, in my particular case. When I’m eventually interviewed by the lawyers, they ask me what I do for a living. I respond in a very loud voice, ‘Sir/Ma’am, I teach CHRISTIAN theology at a CHRISTIAN liberal arts university.’ Either the prosecution or the defense is going to hate that and send me out the door.
  • Stage Five: Acceptance. I trudge into the juror gathering area at 7:30am with 700 other distraught souls and we wait for our names to be called.

On this particular day, I sat for 8 ½ hours. My name wasn’t drawn. There was, however, one redeeming moment to the drudgery. During lunch break, the Orange County Superior Court Jury Candidate Pain Infliction Division decided to be merciful and play the movie, Secretariat. The irony of watching a spectacular achievement of endurance, dedication, and athleticism in a room filled to the teeth with a herd of human zombies waiting to shuffle down the hall was lost on most that day, I surmise.

Secretariat, for those of you who don’t know, was the greatest racehorse that ever lived. In 1973, he ran the third leg of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes, in a way that was utterly stunning, in fact, practically inconceivable, so much so that I have goosebumps on my arms right now just thinking about it. The thunder of something so improbable, so inescapably physical, so fundamentally perfect … many men and women of that generation saw it like a ‘Where were you when Secretariat ran the Belmont?’ moment.  Watch:

The movie recreates the above moment in history in a simple, yet poignant, way. Music. Then silence. Then Scripture. Then music. Start at the 2:15 mark.

And I cry every time. Tears tears…not just getting misty. I can’t help it. I had to walk out of the juror gathering room (this is true) and gather myself in the bathroom. Anyone who noticed me must have thought I was utterly frustrated with being at the courthouse on a beautiful Tuesday. Certainly not this.

Why the tears?

Because the performance drew everyone, even me as one who didn’t watch the original event, to the front door of perfection. Not perfection as a philosophical or ethical concept, but as embodied reality. Spectators watched a horse race unfold, but as it was unfolding, they recognized that they would never see something like this ever again—because it wouldn’t happen, ever again.

I’d like to think that Moses felt this way in the presence of the burning bush. Or Peter before Jesus, fearful of the latter’s holiness. They mutually felt the presence of something perfect, profound, impossible.

false2Perhaps I am amazed that, so very rarely, humanity makes fragile contact with the absolute limits of its being. We can, for a brief moment, almost touch it. This is part of the draw of the Olympics, yes? Every four years, we watch tremendous athletes like Katie Ledecky, Usain Bolt and Simone Biles do things with their bodies that have never been done before in the history of sport. Shoot, watching Ledecky is like watching a sailfish carve through the Pacific for the simple joy of swimming. The great quest of the Olympian, through all the pomp and circumstance, is to press up against that human limit to see for oneself if it is fixed or flexible, a locked gate or a hedge to be hurdled.

Limitation is beautifully human. So is the yearning to transcend that limitation.

Limitation is beautifully human. So is the yearning to transcend that limitation.

Before we start singing the Star-Spangled Banner and march around the house chanting, ‘U! S! A!’ let’s also understand how the desire to transcend boundaries can quickly turn to a form of idolatry. There is a fine line between transcendence and violation.

Consider that when certain boundaries are broken, consequences (good or bad) remain.

  • Man ascends great mountain peaks like Everest and K2, yet they have to pass through the ‘Death Zone,’ an altitude (about 26,000ft) where your body literally is dying. About 200 climbers have died here and remain exposed as a grisly testament to human limitation.
  • Man breaks out of Earth’s atmosphere, only to find an environment that is cold, dark, and completely devoid of life.
  • Man breaks out of God’s prohibition, His spoken instructions to man and woman, by eating of the fruit in the Garden of Eden. The world breaks as a result.

Then, in an extraordinary turn, the God-man, Jesus, breaks out of the absolute boundary line of death and thus saves the whole of humanity, past and present, from its vice-grip.

This blog was partially an exercise for me to recognize and allow the strange tensions that come with being a Christian man in the world. The title, ‘Fishing for Leviathan’ itself was such a paradox. Limitation is one of those topics that force me to say two things simultaneously, to keep two things in tension with one another so that both might be recognized as fruitful for the Christian experience. On one hand, human beings are drawn to push the limits of their finite condition. They were born to discover. To search out. To test. On the other hand, it is the very essence of human limitation that imbibes our lives with meaning. God made us with his own hands, and by doing so, imparted a special dignity to us as his creatures. The ‘non-divinity’ of humanity allows us to seek community with one another, as we are not ever to be without need of the other person.

Limitation opens the way for genuine community. A god needs nothing. A man needs his fellow man.

Jockey Ronnie Turcotte rode Secretariat that day in 1973. As Turcotte came around the final turn with a lead already at 20+ lengths, the trainer of the horse, Lucien Laurin, shouted from the stands, ‘For God’s sake, Ronnie, don’t fall off!’

I can think of no better way to describe the accomplishment of Jesus Christ at the cross and grave. I didn’t do anything; I still don’t. I am passively riding the embodiment of perfection, resting on back of the savior who would carry me through life to death to life again.

Just don’t fall off.

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© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.