We are in full swing of gymnastics season, which means later this month, I will celebrate 16 years of my faith. Sharing my faith story will give you more insight to my "why" and "how." Even if believing in God is not in your beliefs system, I do think this story is important for me to share in order to be my most authentic self. My faith is a staple of who I am as a person and friend. It is the staple which invites itself into all other pieces of who I am and keeps them together. To understand all the other pieces though, you need to know where, why and how MY God began.
Like running has been for me, faith too, is a journey. It has a clear start, but no finish line. For many, faith begins in a church building surrounded by a church family, chosen by their parents. I was introduced to God and learned all about who Jesus is in that way, through my parents. I would not say that is where my faith began. Faith is personal. I cannot remember a time in my childhood which I felt faith on a personal level. I experienced what faith looked like and meant through the adults in my life. Maybe I knew God knew me, but I wasn't sure I knew God for myself. It was as if I "should" know God. All the tools were right in front of me. My parents took me to church every Sunday. We had really good friendships there. Even today, many of those people are the ones I would call if I had a need. (Some are probably reading this!) I had faithful and insightful pastors, teachers and role models. I'd like to think I made the effort to take in what they taught me through Sunday school and sermons. Most of the time, I mainly appreciated them as examples of good, loving people. All of that leading to the exact moment I realized who God was to me. I can name it. It has it's own story. I was not sitting in a church pew between my mom and dad. I wasn't even at church. I was standing on top of a four inch wide balance beam. If you found yourself standing on top of balance beam, you might hope and pray to something too!
MY faith began in the gym at Kennesaw Mountain High School for the 2005 Georgia Gymnastics Level 9 State Championships. I was a teeny, tiny, high school freshman in my second season of level 9 with a little more experience, a little more ambition and a little more confidence. My goal was to do well enough at that competition to qualify to represent Georgia at the Southeastern Regional Championships. I had already competed on the vault and bars, which had resulted in decent, for me, scores. It was time to head to the "make or break", elusive, dreaded for many, balance beam. I'd always been pretty good at the balance beam, just never quite comfortable and always just nervous enough to get the shakes. Shaking leads to wobbles, leads to falls, all resulting in deductions, which would have kept me from my goal. I had all the skills and with a little more confidence, the potential to do well. That day, I can remember standing on the ground waiting for my turn to warm up and the gym was loud. Cheers for other athletes as if we were at a football game. Background music felt like it was plugged directly into my ears. I got up to run through my skills. First one, fall. Second one, large wobble. Next few, more nerves. Dismount, huge step. The other thing. I was near the end of the lineup, so I had to sit to the side and wait for everyone else to finish before it was my turn. In the world of gymnastics, this is REALLY hard on the invisible, mental game. Finally, it was my teammates' turn and I was to be after her. So, I stood up and began to walk through my routine and mentally prepare. I looked up for half a second and my teammate had fallen. I continued to run through my routine in my head, with a slight sense of panic that as she inched through her's, mine was coming. She finished and I walked toward the mat. As is typical after a gymnast falls, it takes the judges a little longer to tally the score. So, after all that waiting, I waited some more and heard more cheers and blaring music. I was still trying to focus when my coach came up beside me, put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Just do Elizabeth." Maybe he said this to everyone, I don't know. This seemed to be his go-to encouragement when I'd stand at the beam or the floor exercise. Those were MY events. Then, it was time. I stepped up, saluted to the judges, went to put my hands on the beam and paused. For some reason, in that very moment, the verse from Philippians came to me. I held my hands right above the beam and said them to myself, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." What I realized moments after, as I stood up on the four inch wide balance beam, those words were not just words. They were a prayer. And my prayer was being answered as I moved. Silence. I could not hear anything happening around me. I went into my back handspring layout (most difficult skill in that routine) and I don't know how to describe what I felt other than to say it was an out of body experience. Something was holding me up there. Something was making absolutely sure I did not fall like I had before. I went through my routine as if I was walking on the ground. I felt confident, like I knew what I was doing! I remember stepping into position for my dismount and smiling. I was smiling because I knew exactly who was holding me. God. I performed my dismount, stuck the landing and threw my head back in a relieved and proud salute. Those of you who watch gymnastics will know exactly what I'm talking about. I got hugs from my coaches and teammates. Then my score flashed, a 9.425. As it turns out, plenty to take the highest score in the state on that event, that day. As I won the first of my 6 state titles, I gained something much more special and important, my faith. MY God.
*I think these pictures are from my freshman season, leading up to the story. (That back leg in the first picture makes me cringe... had some training to do.) Picture on the far right is proof that I indeed did qualify to Regionals! Somewhere in my parents' house is a VHS tape of the story I'm sharing. Maybe one day we'll convert it and you'll be able to see for yourself!
After that day, I looked for God. I looked for verses to memorize as prayers, like I had with the verse from Philippians. I can't say I remember any in particular, but I do remember writing them in notebooks and on random papers or circling them in church bulletins. The place I found MY God was not a church building. I did not yet find MY God in my people either. MY God was always with me at the balance beam. At practice, 5 days a week and at competitions. I talked to MY God on the balance beam. MY God listened and spoke back to me. I had never experienced that conversation anywhere else. It felt special. Just me and my God. Like God was saying to me and no one else, "Hey! I've been trying to get to you, but this was the only way you'd hear me!" The sliver of the balance beam opened the door to my faith and building a relationship with MY God.
Before some of you theologians come for me, I know the context of that verse in Philippians now, but as a freshman in high school, I admit, I did not. You may also be bothered by my clearly stating, God belongs to me. God doesn't belong to everyone else too. Faith is journey, right? My faith journey began by understanding and knowing God for myself and not because of or through other people. That would come next. MY God was sure of it.