Friday, November 26, 2010

Thanksgiving Day

Here in the USA, yesterday was Thanksgiving Day. It’s a national holiday for the expression of thanks to God for a year of bountiful blessings (and for gluttony, three professional and one college American Football games on television and ridiculous consumerism).

Below is a short list of people and things for which I am thankful this year:

• My wife – she tolerates my long work week and odd hours. She is supportive of my calling and helps me connect with coaches and competitors when she is aware of situations I am not. She welcomes collegiate student-athletes into our home every week. We have been married for 35 years and I trust our best days are ahead of us.

• My church – this is a place where I can just be myself. I don’t have to fill any particular role to be accepted or valued. They love me just as I am.

• My network of coaches – I love, appreciate and respect this broad network of men and women who are among the most influential people in the USA.

• My network of Sport Chaplains and Sport Mentors – this worldwide set of men and women are a constant source of inspiration, ideas, challenging thought and innovation. I am thankful for those with whom I’m privileged to serve from Asia, Africa, Europe, South America, Central America and even North America.

• Technology – the 21st century ways for communicating are so vast and immediate that it has enabled people like me to broaden our networks and to be more responsive than ever. Through email, SMS text messages, phone calls, facebook, twitter and more we can connect with the people we serve quickly and effectively, no matter where they are and no matter what time it is. Amazing.

• The abiding presence of Christ in my life - I often wonder what kind of person I would be if I had not trusted Jesus with my life when I was ten years old. How would my life have been different had I balked at His invitation? How much pain and despair have I been spared because I responded to His call so many years ago? At every step along my path I have been carried by the Lord’s grace and have been the beneficiary of situations even when I made foolish decisions and poor choices. I am given favor in places and with people which I neither deserve nor have earned. This is surely evidence of Christ Jesus’ work of transformation in the life of one as weak and flawed as I. For this I am eternally thankful.

Friday, November 19, 2010

A Man of Sorrows and Acquainted with Grief

Our Lord is “A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” Isaiah 53:3 Many of us have become similarly acquainted with grief through our service of people in sports. The last week for me has been one of multiplied sorrow and grief. Last Friday I wrote about a coaching friend who had come home to hospice care after science had exhausted its options for curing his particular form of cancer. My friend died mercifully quickly on Monday afternoon with his wife and two daughters present. Laid on top of that was the four day process of dying experienced by my mother-in-law. She decided on Saturday to no longer take insulin for her diabetes and to discontinue her kidney dialysis treatments, effectively saying, “I’m ready to die.”

Coach’s death was peaceful and thankfully quick. Betty’s was slow, painful and very difficult for her husband, children and grandchildren to witness. My last week has been filled with hospital visits, little sleep, emotionally charged meetings with college baseball coaches, players and administrators, long hours of waiting in hospital rooms, occasional conversations with dying people, and much prayer for God’s mercy to be extended to the dying and the grieving. We have had multiple conversations with the coach’s widow regarding the planning of a memorial service for her husband in person, by phone, by text message and by email. We have done similarly now for my mother-in-law with family members and have hosted numerous extended family members in our home as we became “family central.”

Having grown up with a large extended family and thus attending many funerals, wakes and having made hundreds of visits to emergency rooms and hospitals for any number of issues, I have become “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” We who serve as sport chaplains or sport mentors, like our Lord, are uniquely qualified to help people in sport to deal with the grim reality of death and dying. We must be prepared and willing to walk with people “through the valley of the shadow of death.”

For the 30 young me with whom I sat in their locker room last Friday and Monday afternoons, they are 18-22 years old and perceive themselves to be bulletproof. Death and dying are the farthest things from their minds, until tragedy assaults them with the inevitability of mortality. To help them understand the process of dying, the emotions that would accompany their grief and proper ways to respond to the situation was an immense privilege for me. To walk through it with the coach, his wife and daughters, as well as with the other coaches, the team and others was both painful and comforting. To be in it with my family keeps me from taking a cold, unfeeling and clinical approach to the grief or to simply see it as a part of my job.

Normally for us in high school, club, collegiate or professional sport, tragedy is a torn knee ligament or a separated shoulder injury, things from which one recovers over a few months and returns to competition. For our friends in motor racing, tragedy means someone has died in an accident. Drivers, pit crews, even spectators are all in harm’s way as the cars or motorcycles are flying by on the razor’s edge of control and chaos. Death is a much more frequent visitor to their sporting events. We would do well to learn from our motor racing chaplain colleagues related to handling issues of grief, injury and certainly, death among sports people. My conversations with Indy Racing League Chaplain, Bob Hills, have been invaluable to me. The brief training and the book I received from Sports Chaplaincy Australia were also helpful in preparing me for weeks like this one.

I would challenge each of us to be prepared and willing to walk boldly into the arena of injury, disease, tragedy and death with the people of sport. We carry the living presence of the Lord Jesus into that terrible environment and thereby transform it into a place where men and women can hear the voice of the Savior, finding hope and comfort. “The wicked flee when no one is pursuing, but the righteous are as bold as a lion.” Proverbs 28:1

Friday, November 12, 2010

Battle with Cancer - Final Update

This is the last update on my coaching friend who has been battling cancer. It’s been two years since I first received word that he was undergoing experimental, radical treatments in a valiant attempt to keep him alive until his daughter would graduate high school the following May. My friend has battled courageously and has inspired the hearts of many in the game of baseball and across our region.

I received the call I have often anticipated, but hoped would never come. They are bringing Coach home today to begin hospice treatment. He has entered his final few days. I was honored that his wife would call me and request that I be there with him today. A little later in the afternoon I received a call requesting me to spend some time with the baseball team. I have cleared my calendar in order to be with the family and the team.

If I said that I feel totally confident and fully prepared for this day I’d be lying. I prepared my heart and my mind all through yesterday afternoon and evening, slept poorly last night and can already feel the weight of the pain, loss and grief which will characterize the emotions of those with whom I’ll speak today.

I will attempt to carry the same heart of grace and mercy which the Lord Jesus displayed at the tomb of his friend Lazarus. He was gracious and kind to Mary and Martha and even shared their emotions, but our Lord also knew the power of God and held tightly to hope and faith. That will be my approach today. To love extravagantly and to believe strongly will be my agenda. To communicate compassionately and to feel deeply will be my emphasis.

Please join me in praying for this coach and his baseball team and coaching staff as we look death in the face with peace, hope and love in our hearts. (I’m not naming him so as to protect his family’s privacy in these most sensitive days.)

Friday, November 5, 2010


The first eight weeks of this college football season (American Football) have brought some perspective to my role with our team. For the previous seven seasons we had enjoyed unequaled success in the history of the program. We have won numerous conference championships, have been in the NCAA Division I FCS playoffs for the last seven seasons in a row and entering the season, had expectations for more of the same. We presently have three wins and five losses on the season. Suddenly – perspective.

When our teams are performing well it’s easy to see our value to the team, to individual coaches and players, reflected in the win/loss record or in gaudy championship rings we receive because of our association with the program. When the team is not so successful, we gain some perspective regarding our true worth. I have had more and better quality conversations with some players this season of mediocrity, multiple injuries and surgeries than I remember in our more “successful” seasons with high national rankings, media adulation and community approbation.

The quality and commitment of our service with the people of sport should not be affected greatly by the relative success or failure of those whom we serve. If we pull back in times of loss and struggle, we’re showing less of the Lord’s unchanging love than we might. If we act just like the fans who jump on the team’s bandwagon as they finally prove their worth, we’re so fickle that the coaches and players will be rightly slow to trust us. However, if we maintain a proper perspective, if we hold tightly to the Lord’s way of loving without respect to class, status or rank, we will be in the perfect spot to serve faithfully.

I say all this knowing the incredibly competitive nature of my heart and the incredibly contentious nature of my flesh. I really like to win and I abhor losing. To keep my flesh at bay I must maintain a perspective on why I am with the team and who I am serving. I’m here to represent the Lord Jesus and to bring His gracious presence to the locker room, coach’s office, sideline and onto the field of competition. I am here to serve the Lord Jesus and those whom He has given me, not my own ambitions nor the weakness of my underachieving flesh.

The challenge for each of us is to maintain the proper perspective on the days we experience thrilling wins as well as on the days we feel the gut wrenching pain of bitter loss. Let’s be the ones who carry the Lord’s grace of perspective and unconditional love to the people of sport and thereby share the love of God in word, action, facial expression, gesture and embrace.