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Lydia Jacoby, small-town teenager, shocks with Olympic gold in swimming

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Lydia Jacoby of the United States, sees the results after winning the final of the women's 100-meter breaststroke at the 2020 Summer Olympics.
Lydia Jacoby of the United States, sees the results after winning the final of the women's 100-meter breaststroke at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Tuesday, July 27, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Lydia Jacoby, a teenager from Alaska, won an Olympic gold medal in swimming Tuesday. 

She is from Seward, population 2,733. I have been to Seward but never when it was warm enough to swim. “Alaskan swimmer” seems to me a bit like “Hawaiian snow skier.”

But Lydia Jacoby was not to be deterred. Even though she was the first swimmer from Alaska ever to make the Olympic team, she finished first in the women’s 100-meter breaststroke. 

After her victory, she said, “A lot of big-name swimmers come from big, powerhouse clubs. Me coming from a small club, in a state with such a small population, really shows that you can do it no matter where you’re from.” 

A strip club has become a church 

Here’s another story from Alaska that caught my eye: a strip club in Anchorage is now a church

Linda Dunegan, the daughter of a former exotic dancer, has transformed the building that housed Fantasies on 5th into the start-up Open Door Baptist Church. The show floor is now a sanctuary, and a pulpit stands where the dancer’s pole once stood. 

The pastor working with Linda believes God is blessing their work: “I would say God is pleased to have a change, a transformation in the building, a place that really ultimately points more people towards him instead of away.” 

Now let’s consider one last story in the news: Former US Senator Mike Enzi died Monday. The Republican was elected to the Senate from Wyoming in 1996 and reelected in 2002, 2008, and 2014 before retiring in 2020. 

Senators are among the most powerful people in America. There are only one hundred of them out of a nation of 328 million. Sixteen of them have gone on to be elected president, including the current occupant of the Oval Office. We imagine them as living on a different level from mere mortals, occupying the Mount Olympus of American political power. 

However, Sen. Enzi died because he was doing what some 103.7 million other Americans do: riding a bike. 

In his case, this was near his home in Gillette, Wyoming, last Friday. He was badly injured and flown to UCHealth Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland, Colorado. He died three days later. 

The turtle on the fence post 

Here’s what these stories have in common: they illustrate the fact that our past and our present do not necessarily determine our future. 

A teenager from Alaska can win an Olympic gold medal in swimming, a strip club can become a church, and even a former senator is not immune from the tragedies of living on a fallen planet. 

Here’s another fact these stories have in common: we will achieve our best future when we do so through authenticity and community. 

Lydia Jacoby is part of a team that encouraged, challenged, and celebrated with her. Linda Dunegan is part of a team that is building a thriving ministry in a challenging part of Anchorage. Sen. Enzi achieved political success through the efforts of many in Wyoming and Washington and is being grieved and remembered today by many with whom he shared life’s challenges and victories. 

Our society celebrates the “self-made” person, the rugged individual who defeats all enemies and climbs to the summit of the cultural mountain through unaided determination and courageous effort. But this is a myth. It is difficult to define even a single achievement of significance a person can accomplish alone. We are all a turtle atop a fencepost illustrating the fact that we didn’t get there by ourselves. 

How “real community can develop” 

We are instructed to “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). We cannot do the second unless we do the first. 

Henri Nouwen writes: “Over the last few years I have been increasingly aware that true healing mostly takes place through the sharing of weakness. Mostly we are so afraid of our weaknesses that we hide them at all costs and thus make them unavailable to others but also often to ourselves. And, in this way, we end up living double lives even against our own desires: one life in which we present ourselves to the world, to ourselves, and to God as a person who is in control and another life in which we feel insecure, doubtful, confused, and anxious and totally out of control.” 

What is the way forward? 

Nouwen testifies: “It is amazing in my own life that true friendship and community became possible to the degree that I was able to share my weaknesses with others. Often, I became aware of the fact that in the sharing of my weaknesses with others, the real depths of my human brokenness and weakness and sinfulness started to reveal themselves to me, not as a source of despair but as a source of hope.” 

By contrast, he continues, “As long as I try to convince myself or others of my independence, a lot of my energy is invested in building up my own false self.” Nouwen concludes: “Once I am able to truly confess my most profound dependence on others and on God, I can come in touch with my true self and real community can develop.” 

What will you do to develop “real community” today?