A Religious Story

Although the Swimwatch comments facility is turned off I do receive quite a number of emails with suggestions about the website. One email this week from an old swimming friend and said, “David – you never tell any religious jokes.” That’s probably because I don’t know anything funny about religion. However I did promise my friend a story with a religious theme.

The first occurred on Easter weekend when I was sixteen. My family, including my grandparents, had our Easter Sunday lunch interrupted by the continuous barking of one of our dogs who had obviously trapped an opossum. My father ordered me to go out and shoot the opossum. A few minutes later the opossum lay dead at my feet.

Except it was not an opossum. I had shot Sooty, our pet cat. I went inside and confessed. It was not well received. My parents, my two brothers and my grandparents came out to inspect the dead animal. Sure enough David had killed Sooty. A small box was build and Sooty was buried close to our back fence on the edge of the Hangaroa River.

Being Easter Sunday, some call it Resurrection Sunday in memory of the risen Christ, our family went to afternoon church. The mood was pretty dark. I was not going to be forgiven easily. We drove home in stony silence. I went inside and there lying in front of the fire was a very sleepy and very alive Sooty. And remember this was Resurrection Sunday. None of us had the courage to dig up the grave. But seven of us had identified and buried Sooty. She lived another four years before dying of old age. But was it for a second time?

An equally surreal event occurred in Gisborne a couple of years earlier. Greg Meade and I were swimming in the Bodle Shield. In world affairs the Bodle Shield ranks very little attention but in Gisborne it has Olympian status. Greg was entered in the 50 freestyle against the local sprinting superstar, Jim Westwood. Neither of us thought Greg would win.

On the way to the pool Greg stopped outside the local Catholic Church and asked me to wait while he went inside. “What are you going to do?” I asked. “I’m going to confession,” said Greg, “It might help the 50 freestyle.”

I was amazed and knew straight away that Greg could confess all he wanted. Jim Westwood was better at 50 freestyle and all the divine intervention in the world was not going to change that fact. A couple of hours later we swam the 50 freestyle. As expected I was third.  I’m told the race between Jim and Greg was very close. But Greg got there first. Confession is good for the soul. It apparently does no harm over 50 freestyle either.

A bigger puzzle was the question of how does God choose? For example at High School in America our team gathered in the locker room with the coach and recited the Lord’s Prayer. Presumably our opponents were down the corridor doing the same thing. Does God really take sides and, if he does, how does he decide which team is to receive his blessing? Besides, when you are being given credit for creating the universe, isn’t the result of a football game between Thorpe and Stanley High Schools a bit of an anti-climax.

During my University years the local Presbyterian Church had an elder’s debate about whether it was proper for me to swim on a Sunday. My grandfather won a positive vote by arguing that 1 Corinthians, Chapter 6, Verse 19 says, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God.” What could be wrong, he asked the elders, if David spent a couple of hours on Sunday improving the temple of the Holy Spirit?

In New Zealand a terrific swimmer and a wonderful person was, and is, a strict Christian. I enjoyed the years she swam with the team. You should have seen the delight on her face when she discovered a plastic bible that she could read through long kick sets.

But the influence of religion has its finest expression in sport and in every other aspect of life in Saudi Arabia. The faithful are called to prayer five times a day. As soon as the prayer sirens sound shops and restaurants and swimming pools – everything closes for half an hour. On my first day at work I couldn’t believe it. The team was on repetition four of a set of 10×200. The prayer sirens sounded and the team climbed out and spent the next half-an-hour praying beside the pool. I managed to get their agreement to finishing a set before getting out but finishing training was beyond my powers of persuasion.

Two aspects of flying to swim meets on Saudi Airlines I found slightly unnerving. Before every take-off a recorded prayer asks for a safe flight. A fairly ungodly, Western mind like mine immediately wonders what Saudi Airways don’t know about this Airbus that they feel the need to ask for God’s help. There are many who will disagree with me but faced with the choice between the Koran, the Bible or an Airbus flight manual I think I want the flight manual.

On the way back to Jeddah most flights fly directly over the holy city of Mecca. A couple of minutes prior to reaching Mecca the pilot announces that he will count down to the point where we are directly over the city. Anyone can then pray. And that’s what happens – a quiet rumble of prayer spreads through the airplane as we fly over Mecca. I’m still unsure of the reason for praying at that point. Perhaps the line to the almighty is clearer. Perhaps there is no long distance calling charge.

But the religious custom that tops all that is the martial arts and boxing villains who pray to god for his blessing in beating up his fellow man. Now that really is odd – asking God to assist you in beating the life out of another human being. And worse than that, thanking God for his help when your opponent is unconscious and bleeding on the floor. If it is true, the founder of the universe sure has an odd sense of humour – just like my email mate.


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