Lance Armstrong's 10-mile brush with faith
Armstrong, who was cycling in the annual 450-mile ride across Iowa known as RAGRAI, was in a pack of enthusiasts until a serendipitous crash left the brothers beside the cycling legend.
"On a turn in one of the pass-through towns, a cyclist lost control and wiped out most of the bunch," their father, Mark Coppenger, who also was a RAGRAI participant that year, recounted. "Caleb and Jed managed to weave through the wreckage and then find themselves riding right beside Armstrong for almost 10 miles."
The brothers decided to make the most of the opportunity to speak with Armstrong, who had just retired from professional cycling after winning seven straight Tour de France titles from 1999 to 2005.
After some brief small talk and thanking him for his work on behalf of cancer research, the brothers brought up their faith.
"We asked him if he was a Christian and he told us no," Jedidiah Coppenger, now a church planter in Nashville, recalled.
"We told him that we're not just against certain manifestations of death [such as cancer, which Armstrong had battled], but the whole thing. Since Jesus has overcome death in all its ugly wholeness, we're all about taking on death itself."
Jedidiah Coppenger, who also is an acquisitions editor for B&H Publishing with LifeWay Christian Resources, said Armstrong "graciously dismissed" their conversation and then moved on.
As Mark Coppenger, now on Southern Baptist Theological Seminary's faculty, ponders, "You can't help but ask, 'What if?' when you think of his opportunity to respond to Christ that day."
Armstrong, now in the media glare, has admitted to using performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) to win the most coveted prize in professional cycling. Even after being stripped of his titles last year, he had continued to deny using banned substances.
In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Armstrong said he had taken "a ruthless win-at-all-costs attitude" in his renewed training in 1998 after battling cancer to compete for cycling's top prize.
For Jedidiah Coppenger, Armstrong's answer was not surprising.
A former college athlete himself, Coppenger noted, "Our culture is obsessed with glory and fame."
"Outside of Eden, every culture has been driven to make a name for themselves apart from God.
"With modern technology providing greater platforms for recognition and modern science providing the ability to enhance performance, our fallen hearts will do whatever it takes to be 'great.'"
Georgia pastor Tim Dowdy, who has competed in triathlons, the same sport in which Armstrong began, agreed with Coppenger.
"In sport there is always the challenge of being competitive," Dowdy said.
"'I have to be the winner' mentality has permeated our culture, mainly because those who come in second are forgotten before the ink dries on the story," said Dowdy, pastor of Eagles Landing First Baptist Church in McDonough, Ga., and a former chairman of the North American Mission Board's trustees.
Armstrong, in his interview with Winfrey, took responsibility for his actions but said a new culture was pervasive in his sport and his life after he overcame cancer prior to his unprecedented Tour de France championships.
"Before my diagnosis, I was a competitor, but not a fierce competitor," Armstrong told Winfrey. "When I was diagnosed, that turned me into a fighter. That was good. I took that ruthless win-at-all costs attitude into cycling, which was bad."
After he was banned from cycling last year, Armstrong saw his oldest son publicly defend him and decided he had to confess to his son.
"He'd never said, 'Dad, is this true?' He trusted me," Armstrong lamented. Armstrong also acknowledged to Winfrey that he lost $75 million in income in two days as sponsors dropped him.
As the interview closed, Armstrong reflected on a moral to the story of his professional and personal demise.
"For me, I think it was about that ride and about losing myself and getting caught up in that and doing all those things along the way," Armstrong said about his cheating, lying and bullying those who spoke out against his doping.
The "ultimate crime," he said, is "the betrayal of these people who support me and believed in me -- and they got lied to."
Jedidiah Coppenger noted that the outcry over Armstrong's deceptions gives glimpses of hope.
"Even in our relativistic culture, events like these reveal that we as a culture still have a conscience," Coppenger said.
"The image of God may be marred, but it is still present."
Dowdy took note of the reality of redemption.
"It is easy, at this point, to pile on the deluge of condemnation for Lance Armstrong," Dowdy said, "but if we stop and think about it, his very public downfall is a reminder of how much we all need forgiveness and how powerful the grace of God really is."
Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, reminded readers of his blog that the patterns evident in Armstrong's story are not new.
"As a matter of fact, Scripture points to the fall of great people and calls us to learn humbly in such moments," Stetzer wrote, "not rejoicing in their downfall, but learning to guard our own hearts."
5 lessons to glean from Armstrong's fall
1. Internal desires are the root of external sins. "While the desire to excel is not wrong," Stetzer wrote, "if it becomes the focus of our lives it can lead to external behaviors that do not honor God."
2. When someone steps into sin, control is only a dream. "The downward spiral of one compromise, one sinful act leads to another and another," Dowdy said.
3. To fulfill selfish desires, people often look for shortcuts. "When a desire becomes all-consuming, shortcutting the rules or laws becomes the norm," Stetzer noted.
4. People have an idolatrous nature. "Although most won't soar as high as Armstrong," Jedidiah Coppenger said, "we must all be careful of the tendency to make an idol out of morally neutral things like bike-riding."
5. Exposure is inevitable – now or in eternity. "It has been said that what we cover, God will uncover," Stetzer wrote at his www.ed.stetzer blog. "Our sins will -– and do -- find us out."
Aaron Earls is a writer based in Wake Forest, N.C. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).