Competing … For the Greater Good

By James Johnson 6-18-2013
Rev. James Johnson, the Whiskey Priest
Rev. James Johnson, the Whiskey Priest

(Go here to read the first in this series, Finding Grace in Reality TV)

“One of the greatest gifts we give each other is honesty – not to injure or destroy but to recalibrate and heal.”  Old Sage

Watching yourself on television feels like an out-of-body experience. The Me who is watching the show finds the other Me, on screen, at times a sympathetic character and at other times, a bit ridiculous. Part of the blessing of being involved in a reality television show is, for better or worse, you get to see more of yourself.

After watching the first episode of Neale Bayly Rides, one thing is clear: I am very competitive. I didn’t realize it was so obvious, but there it was, in high definition.

To be fair, a competitive spirit was obvious in each of the participants. Dr. Laura, who struggled to keep her motorcycle upright through many of the off-road training sessions, took great delight watching the guys crash and fall in the dirt. Troy, an admitted perfectionist, REALLY didn’t like losing two (count ‘em, two) races to a Whiskey Priest. Then, of course, there was me who not only won both races, but chose to take a victory lap rather than assist my fallen comrade. Remind me to pray for forgiveness later …

The whole first episode — fully one-third of the series — focused on the training leading up to our epic trek through Peru. In this type of intense adventure, individual preparation is such a crucial part of the team’sjourney and safety. For three months, each participant directed energy and drive toward their areas of greatest need. Dr. Laura, already in outstanding physical condition, spent each weekend training on various types of motorcycles to cram in as much experience and skill as she possibly could. Troy, who came late to the team, though already an experienced dirt bike rider, committed his energies to fine tuning his off-road skills.

My own preparation, in an effort to stave off a nagging fear of failure that seems to be the genesis of my fierce competitiveness, entailed months of hard work in all areas. In addition to a crazy motorcycle training schedule, I quit smoking (again), cut back on the whiskey, and began an austere diet that though I hated at first, I came to enjoy. Assisted by a fierce trainer, half my age and built like Michael Phelps, I took on an intense workout routine. The result of all this work was a 25-pound drop in weight, a reduction of a couple of pant-sizes, and the bonus of being in the best shape of my life.

Perhaps equally important given my competitive nature, was the 24 hours spent in spiritual retreat at the Benedictine Monastery. I had gotten so busy with the physical training that I needed to step away and re-center on Christ.

Despite the spiritual strengthening afforded by my monastic experience, this first episode of the show gave me a clearer picture of my inner, ongoing conflict. And this is what I see: in the midst of real life, when the motorcycle engines are lit and the race is on, I want to win. Regardless of what I read in the scripture about establishing your worth in God’s unique, creative expression and what I learned from my soul-nourishing experience with the monks, it pisses me off to lose.

Yes, there was an arduous journey ahead; and, yes there were people who needed attention. But in the moment, I want to prove myself. I’ve seen this so often in my life — when my connection with God grows cold, the endeavor becomes more about my performance and less about God’s presence.

We compete to determine our strengths and weaknesses, not to determine our value. I understand that. I think only a Jesus-grace experience can finally answer the value question. But in real life I’m not there yet. I still struggle with the intersection of my faith in Jesus and my fierce competitive nature. I make more out of winning (or losing) than my faith warrants.

In Latin, the word competition originally meant “to strive together or to come together toward a common goal.” In that sense, the team had come together in a spirit of true competition. Despite any egotistical desires, we grew stronger and engaged the mission as one — each of us better for the competition. And, though I don’t have it all worked out yet, I continue to trust The Great Storyteller — there is yet much grace for a fierce competitor and Whiskey Priest.

(Read more about James’ retreat with the Benedictines here.)

Neale Bayly Rides: Peru, aired on Speed Channel on June 16 at 9 p.m. Catch episode 3 on June 23 at 9 p.m.

Rev. James Johnson, affectionately known as the Whiskey Priest, is an ordained Presbyterian Minister, spiritual director, writer, and occasional speaker. Check out to find out more about his work and follow him on Twitter @awhiskeypriest

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