children

Basketball Season, v. 1

Last night, basketball season began with a scrimmage at Northeastern middle school in York county. I spent an awful lot of time in York when I was delivering medical equipment…and I really hated it. I have a colorful expression to describe the area that I wouldn’t use here, because we’re a family friendly space;)

The game was not awesome, the Northeastern boys whipped our Annville-Cleona middle schoolers without mercy or apology. They dominated every facet of the game and left us downcast and discouraged. Anyone who has every competed in anything (from monopoly to Fortnite to the Super Bowl) knows that you sometimes have to weather a vicious thrashing from time to time. It builds character, coaches say, and they’re usually right.

But where they were wrong is that the loss itself doesn’t build the character; sometimes the loss is just a loss and nothing more. Nothing is built. Instead, you use the loss to build the character.

My son Elisha is on the team and I don’t mind at all if he loses a game or 2 or all of them. In fact, I find myself getting excited to see what he’ll do now, how he’ll choose to react. Will he cower in fear for the next game? Will he become resigned to the notion that they will lose again and again? Or will he pick himself up and fight? Will be use this loss to “build character” and become something new, something strong, stable and unstoppable (win or lose)?

It’s also the thing I get excited for in my life and the lives of the people I know and love. How will we face and deal with that attack, setback, disaster, pain? Will we get up (and get up again and again and again) and with what kind of mindset?

Now, the truth is that team was much better than our team was, at least it was last night.

In basketball or life or faith, growth (what we could call “becoming all of what we were created to be”) doesn’t just happen. It we go half speed and give about half of what we have to give, we get eaten up and stand around wondering how in the world this happened. I’ll often say we need to “show up” to our lives, but what I mean is an awful lot more than simply riding a bus, putting on a uniform, and making it to the court. I mean show up, commit, risk, take a shot, work hard, give all we are and all we have to whatever it is we are doing.

Our boys knew they were beaten the day the schedule was released, and that’s exactly how it looked from the stands through the eyes of a man who knows next to nothing about the X’s and O’s of this beautiful game. I don’t know what plays were called in what type of offense, but I’ve done enough giving up to clearly recognize that.

So what if they lost last night? Or if they lose them all? These boys are hopefully becoming men and last night’s lesson on the basketball court will give them the bricks to build the sort of character we all need in our homes, lives, and society. Or not. It can also just be the first of many pointless losses. The team gets to decide.

There’s a cool book called Choke, by Chuck Palahniuk, that ends like this:

“Paige and I just look at each other, at who each other is for real. For the first time. We can spend our lives letting the world tell us who we are. Sane or insane. Saints or sex addicts. Heroes or victims. Letting history tell us how good or bad we are. Letting our past decide our future. Or we can decide for ourselves. And maybe it’s our job to invent something better.

In the trees, a mourning dove calls. It must be midnight.

And Denny says, “Hey, we could use some help here.”

Paige goes, and I go. The four of us dig with our hands under the edge of the rock. In the dark, the feeling is rough and cold and takes forever, and all of us together, we struggle to just put one rock on top of another.

It’s creepy, but here we are, the Pilgrims, the crackpots of our time, trying to establish our own alternate reality. To build a world out of rocks and chaos.

What it’s going to be, I don’t know.

Even after all that rushing around, where we’ve ended up is the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night.

And maybe knowing isn’t the point.

Where we’re standing right now, in the ruins in the dark, what we build could be anything.

-end-”

I can’t wait to see what they will build.

Sports?

I write so many posts on sports because I grew up on a steady diet of sports, and often the things we eat when we are young remain integral to our lives. Teams, players, won-loss records, ERA, batting average, and second-guessing were often the only way my dad and I could relate and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t absolutely LOVE it. One year in the NFL playoffs, after I was out of the house and married to my Angel, Peyton Manning had a first half that was unbelievable, something like 5 straight TD drives, where he looked like a space alien brought here to play football. I was alone in my living room and called my dad. Just a father and son loving Peyton Manning together…

So, I love sports. Maybe I really just love my dad and the 2 have gotten mixed up over a lifetime into where I can’t tell the difference, and now he’s gone but sports are here and that’s going to have to be good enough.

Anyway. I can also see now that sports are primarily windows and illustrations – instead of ERA and batting average, I care far more about character, drive, and the human condition, perfectly displayed and refined on the practice field, bench, and weight room.

Both of my boys play basketball, and some days come home very frustrated and very angry. I understand this. There are some other boys on the team that, well…

Adolescence is marked by fear and insecurity, right? We are awkward and riddled with anxiety and acne, growing into the people we will become – but we’re scared to death that those people we’re becoming are somehow not enough. Of what? Whatever, we just live our lives wondering if we measure up. This leads kids to fight and claw and try to annihilate the ones standing nearby in a fruitless quest to appear better in proximity. 

The most arrogant, condescending and nasty of us, it’s easy to see, are the ones who are most viciously ruled by this inadequacy. In schools, playgrounds, fields and courts – then later workplaces, offices, and conference rooms – this behavior is totally predictable.

I understand this, too.

I know what it is to wake up in fear, wondering if today will be the day I am exposed, that they ‘find out’ (whoever ‘they’ are and whatever they ‘find out.’) Faced with fear, we fight. We rip and claw at others to prove our dominance.

We sit and talk about these other boys, they vent and I listen. 

I know these boys they talk about and the weight under which they are struggling that threatens every second to squish them. I want to hug these kids, hold them and tell them they are ok, that they are enough. I also know they won’t listen, will probably alienate everyone around them until they are alone and hollow, exhausted from the constant image-creating. I know how hard it is to see through the too-small eyeholes in the masks we wear.

When I was young, I wanted them to get what they deserve. I wanted to give them what they deserve. Now, I still do, but the thing they deserve has changed. I don’t want them fed knuckle sandwiches anymore (though I always fear that’s where this is headed), I want them loved, unconditionally and beyond reason, for no other reason than that they too are children of the King.

I think this is what Jesus meant when He said to love our enemies, the ones that are hardest to love, the ones that make it their business to make others feel sall and embarrassed and worthless, the ones who pretend, the ones who bully our kids at school.

This impossible-sounding command is only possible if we can see them as they actually are, without their carefully curated disguises, as frightened children. 

I want my boys to have these eyes that can see. I want to have these eyes that can see, too. 

Now that we’re here, I also want those boys to have the eyes to see themselves as they are, as He does. We are walking this path together, and if Jesus is to be believed (and I truly believe He is), this kind of overwhelming love will drive out the fear and we can all begin the healing. Let’s imagine that, just for a second, for a day, forever…        

    

Social Emotional Learning (SEL)

Every manifestation of greatness has hidden behind it a life of discipling, determination, and persistence. – Erwin McManus

Our local school district sends an email every Sunday that details upcoming events. This was one of the bullet points in Sunday’s message to parents:   

“As a District, we are focusing more on Social Emotional Learning (SEL).  At the Secondary School, all students will participate in bi-monthly meetings with their teacher during Advisory/Enrichment.  The first meeting will be on Monday, September 16.  The topic is Passion and Joy and the question all students will be asked to consider is:  “What brings passion or purpose to my life?”  Please feel free to ask your son/daughter about this as it will help bridge the home-to-school connection.”

I did ask my son, a 9th grade student, for his help in bridging the home-to-school connection, “First, what in the world is Social Emotional Learning? And second, what brings purpose to your life?” I don’t know if you’ve ever held a conversation with a 14 year old boy, but I still don’t know what social emotional learning is. It sounds important. After all, it has an acronym. All modern “important” things have acronyms. Truth is, I don’t much care what the administration means by SEL, I just love the 2nd question and he was able to answer that beautifully.

It’s a variation of my favorite question: what is your why? Why do you do what you do? We all answer that in so many ways in everything we do. 

I began with the McManus quote because discipling, determination, and persistence can never come without passion or purpose, without a why. If I don’t have a reason, it’s just an exercise in the will alone and that power loses interest or is distracted or stays up too late or gets sick or finds a date. Something will become more valuable and that will get the focus that was on the last shiny thing. The reason the SEL class started with passion/purpose is because that’s where everything starts (or, at least, should start). Without a solid why, persistence is generally impossible.

Most of my biggest disappointments, the things that kept me up at night, could be traced to a lack of determination and persistence. I failed tests because I didn’t study, lost games and underperformed where I hadn’t practiced or prepared. But it wasn’t a lack of determination. I actually have plenty of that – just not in those spaces, for that work. I wasn’t missing resolve or self-control, I was only missing a raison d’être, or more aptly, a raison de faire. (I have no idea if that is a real saying – I know raison d’être is “reason to be,” and raison de faire might very well be “reason to do” – probably because I didn’t pay enough attention in French class. I had no reason to, then. How could I know I’d write this someday?)

I wonder how often our passions line up with our lives. If they don’t, life can feel very much like an uphill climb. We would be tired, bored, uninspired. We would continue to believe awfully destructive lies about ourselves, like that we are lazy or unintelligent or clumsy or weak or whatever, when in reality, we are simply searching for our why.

I’m sure my son’s why will change, and I hope and pray he changes with it, tightly holding onto it’s hand until it becomes a Him and he truly learns the meaning of the statement, “I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of.” (Jn 10:10 MSG)

Yet Another Post About Youth Baseball

I am finished coaching baseball for the year, and I am equal parts disappointed and thrilled.

This weekend we will not be playing in the state tournament for 13 and 14 year old all-stars. Baseball is strange (and that is, of course, what makes it so great.) Samuel’s team played a best-of-3 series with a Harrisburg area all-star team and, in the first, Saturday morning, pounded them 14-2 in a 5 inning mercy rule game. The second, after 4 innings, we were ahead 5-0 and planning our trip and hotel accommodations. In the next 2 1/2 innings, we were handed a 9-5 loss. This forced us to come back for Sunday afternoon and the wrong end of a 17-6 whipping. What looked like an easy coasting to the next step turned to mush in our hands. Baseball, right?

Samuel, for his part, played very well, but baseball is a game where everything you hit can be solid and hard and you can come away empty. That’s just what he did, with great frustration. I keep reminding him that you can also hit everything softly off the end of the bat and find every hole and go 4-4. He didn’t care about my wisdom. Not even a little.

I thought the team was pretty good, pleasantly surprising me in other ways off the field. The kids were kind and encouraging, the best players were leaders and, at least for 2 days, displayed the sort of character that made me feel like the future was sunny and everything was possible (if not winning a 3 game series.) I told a few of the boys and wanted to call each of their parents. 

This was a stark contrast to our summer team (ages 13-16). I thought this team was pretty good, too, and also surprising off the field. This just wasn’t a good surprise. I expected the older kids, fresh from high school ball to encourage the younger, wide-eyed newbies, to show them what it meant to be ballplayers, where to go on a steal, who the cut-off man is, how to spot a pitcher’s tendencies, and most importantly, what a team looked like, felt like, and what winning required inside each of them. Sadly, the mood crashed the day they came, 2 weeks after practice had began for those not yet playing for the school. With one very notable exception, the boys were clique-ish and sarcastic, choosing to mock and tear down rather than build. Of course, they didn’t take coaching well, usually disrespectful, rarely listening and often saying “No” to instruction on the field (ON THE FIELD!!!!) – after all, they are early teenagers and we all understand that all we’ll ever learn we’ve already learned by our thirteenth birthday, right? They were nasty and mean to each other as well as the requisite muttering behind backs (even to their ‘buddies’ in their own clique.) They clearly didn’t like each other, and to me, the most heartbreaking part of that truth is what it tries to hide: they don’t like themselves. Their insecurity (not only theirs, theirs is just more obvious because of the outward nastiness) worn on their sleeves like a sponsors logo directed every word and move. 

It was an environment that caused my soul to ache every day. What could I do to affect some change? What could I do to speak fresh words into such negative self-regard? What could I do??? I tried many approaches, to varying degrees of failure. The questions still haunt, and the nagging new question: did I let these broken boys down? I guess I probably did. Sigh.

I also coached a team of younger boys (under 14) from 3 different areas. We were, by all accounts and measures, terrible. I believe they have far more ability than even they would guess that needs to be coaxed into the light, and we made strides. We were always able to find encouraging details to build on, even in the middle of mounting losses.

I will say this, though, about those boys. I loved every moment of our short time together. I told all of those boys that I liked them so much “they could come and live with me” (HA!) and I actually did contact most of the parents (I will end up contacting all of the parents) to appreciate their children. 

I guess the point is that hardly anything is ever just one thing. Sometimes you play well and lose, sometimes you lose and have a great time, sometimes the worst thing is the best, sometimes you’re depressed and thrilled, sometimes you’re full of gratitude and regret.

I spoke at a funeral yesterday (an experience that deserves its own space, which I will give another day, but…) and my funeral messages usually concern this duality, and I offer my own humble permission to feel everything. The Scriptures have an underlying honesty that God, at the very least, allows. Allows? I would say the truth is much closer to ‘demands’ or ‘requires.’

So. 

It’s now around a week later and I am still looking at this, still on this screen, yet to be made public, and I’m only this morning seeing the irony in my hesitance. You see, I’ve been waiting because of the paragraph on the older team. I lost a good friend once because similar feelings, observations, and words about kids (1 in particular) I had coached proved me, to her, harshly judgmental in my assessment. I understand her perspective, I probably did look like a man who had written off these kids and closed the book, rigidly deciding who they were and who they would be. If there was a misunderstanding, it was only in the finality of my opinion. I hold all of this loosely, only an observation, hopefully wishing to open my hands and pick up a new one. The 1 that cost me a friendship did indeed have some of the qualities I perceived. But that was then. One year later, he had grown and matured – as most people do – and I would no longer say those things. Not only would I not say them, I no longer think those things. He is different. And (hopefully) so am I. So are you. 

Every day, I drove to the teener practice crossing my fingers that this would be the day that a big red switch would be flipped and they would step into the next phase of their development. Each evening, I mourned that another day passed in the old patterns, and each morning, I saw them with new eyes. Maybe today. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe next Tuesday.

The irony is that this post is about honesty – and here I am hesitating to communicate in an authentic fashion, wondering if I should… 

I should. We are in the business of offering all of who we are, even the ugly parts, and allowing them to move and change and transform into who we will be. Ignoring, or hiding, them leaves them unseen and unchanged. Swept out of sight, unacknowledged, we stay who we are, and that is the only unacceptable outcome. 

This post also concerns things not being just one thing. You’re not just a nurse or a lawyer or a pastor or a teacher or a wife, and neither am I and neither are they and neither is any moment of our lives. I held off on posting this because I didn’t want to be misunderstood again, but maybe I will be. And that’ll be ok. These kids are not one thing, now or ever, and they are certainly not today who they will be in 1 or 2 or 15 years. I don’t ever close any books. Nothing is final.

No, that’s not true. Some things are final. But we aren’t. We’re works in progress. 

Today is not just an extension of yesterday. It isn’t just what it is. 

Except this post. It is exactly what it is. And I’m posting it before it gets any longer.            

Graduation

Today my youngest son will graduate from 6th grade and move on from the elementary school into junior high. I’ll just let that sit for a second and allow the weight of that statement to wash over me.

My oldest son is moving out of junior high into the high school, as well.

I have no children in elementary school.

Yesterday they were sleeping on my chest, or nursing, or needing a diaper change. Last night I was spoon-feeding them from a jar. And this morning, Samuel (the soon to be 9th grader) drove his shoulder into my belly (probably breaking 3 ribs,) lifting me off my feet and into the couch.

I can no longer throw him over my head and into the air, drawing the concerned gasp from their mom. As long as we’re at it, she is now “mom” exclusively, no longer “mommy.” It would be the sweetest song to hear the word “daddy” again. I tried to throw Samuel over my head like I used to at the pool last week and I’m pretty sure I tore several muscles in my back. 

I have no children in elementary school. 

[Now it’s 2 days later and the graduation is over. Summer vacation has begun!]

Yesterday, during the music/photo montage at graduation,  I had absolutely no hope of holding back tears as I saw that sweet 1st grade boy smiling and running and laughing. To tell you the truth, I didn’t really want to, either.

Elisha (the graduate) is growing into a really wonderful human being, I love who he is and watching him become who he will be is overwhelming. He is kind (mostly;) and polite and self-assured and grounded and hilarious and has moves on a basketball court that only show me how old and slow I’m getting. He’s so handsome and lovely it would break your heart. He gets the haircut and wears whatever he wants – which only the most stylish can/will do – and sings out loud. He reads, tells jokes he makes up, can run like a deer and would rather eat nails than let you win. At anything. He’s not always nice and he’s not always concerned with your feelings; He has rough edges, which only makes me like him more. 

The boy that he was is gone and isn’t coming back, and that fact must be mourned, an offering of salty tears. But the young man that he is becoming, and the man that he will become, are worthy of euphoric celebration, also an offering of salty tears. Both of these are 100% true.

My heart works exactly as it should. In that graduation, I was fully present, engaged, feeling all of the emotions of this beautiful gift of life. I am so, so thankful. How could I not weep?? Why would I hold anything in? 

2 of my favorite people in the world gave birth to twins this week. All four of them are unbelievably lucky and blessed. And I know the tears they will cry as the pictures of babies in car seats will transform into teenagers in the drivers seat, the cribs into graduations, and the loss and the hope and the mourning and dancing and the times for weeping and laughing and the times for tearing down and building. And I wish them everything. I hope nothing more for them than that they are there for all of it and hold nothing in.