Thursday, March 31, 2016

#10 - Partnering with Athletes in Action (The Year of 52)

Athletes are unique. Sometimes a bit strange. Keeping odd hours, eating copious amounts of food and never gaining weight, competitive, intense, athletes live a different life.

During my first year at the University of Cincinnati I met Mark Householder, campus staff with Athletes in Action (AIA). Some relationships become part of a road for a time while others become part of the heart, a piece of life no matter what the road. Usually we never know until later.

Mark spent time with me those first two years, one on one, in group settings and especially on a trip out to Fort Collins, CO for an AIA summer camp. A long drive with four of us provided great learning and relationships.

I didn't do much with AIA for more than 25 years, after retiring from swimming and heading into local church ministry with Salem Church. We crossed paths here and there, in some of the same circles around Southwest Ohio, but nothing formal.

In 2007 I reinitiated some contact because of my desire to connect ministry to my opportunity with officiating. Our fun, I believe, is never just for us. Everything we do is always about Him, whether it's building relationships, smiling at strangers, praying for the people around us - there is always an opportunity to serve a greater purpose, all while enjoying what we're doing.

I have a motto for approaching God's will: "Pay Attention." It's not very scientific, not deeply theological, but it works. I try to pay attention to the experiences, the teachings, the relationships that come into my life. My second stage is this: "Don't make more of them than there is and don't make less of them than there is."

I don't want to miss God's next step for me. AIA is one of those "next steps," not for going on staff, but for partnering to learn and impact the Kingdom through sports. Sports is just a hobby for me. Every hobby can be a ministry. God doesn't want us to find something we don't like to do for ministry. I believe He wants to use who we are - a combination of calling and experiences.

I think serving Jesus is a joyful thing - ok, not everything He calls us to do is enjoyable but it brings joy if it's not automatically joyful. Sometimes we just have to CHOOSE joy. Other times we get to live in joy.

This is what came of a relationship with Mark and AIA. Who knew? What about you? Are you paying attention? God is at work, sometimes for the moment; other times, for a lifetime.

Monday, March 28, 2016

#9 - Partnering with Salem Church (The Year of 52)

In college my horizons expanded, along with those of everyone else. New experiences. New opportunities. New dangers. For me it was seeking out new churches. I tried the Methodist Church. Definitely not for me. I ended up walking a good mile or so up Calhoun Ave. to First Assembly. Now that was an eye-opener for a kid from a "be quiet and don't misbehave" Sunday morning church. I went to InterVarsity Fellowship gatherings. I met up with Campus Crusade leaders and eventually Mark Householder with Athletes in Action. But FCA (First Christian Assembly) became a home for about 2 years.

During my Junior year my parents graciously purchased a car that I could take to school. This gave me the ability to enlarge my circle of searching: Episcopal Church of the Advent (only because there was a girl there!), back home to Anderson Hills and then to visit down the road at Salem Church with Pastor John Larsen.

Stephanie and I had begun dating in 1983. It was now 1984 and since we were on a trajectory toward marriage, we decided to join a church together and we made that church, Salem. Here is where I began to enter into the "business" of the Church, almost a testing to see if this was really where God was leading.

By late-1985 I was beginning to help lead Sunday mornings as well as teach at the California Church, down near the river, a church also Pastored by John. It was there, at California, that Stephanie and I stayed through our time at Asbury Seminary.

John took a chance on me, on us. He was a mentor, setting up challenges for growth. He allowed room to fail and was there to help pick up the pieces when I did.

One of the great lessons I took away from that time, a lesson that follows me to today, is the importance of people. Ministry is not about looking good or saving face. Ministry is about people. I've lived that out personally especially with my approach to guests and visitors at worship. While I would gladly welcome anyone with open arms, I am far more concerned that someone finds what they are looking for - where God wants them to be - than I am about a person coming to the church I'm leading. One way I say that is I'm more concerned with helping people be followers of Jesus than I am about growing members of a particular congregation.

My time at Salem was formational to a Kingdom focus rather than a local focus. Everything I do I try to keep it centered on His Kingdom rather than my space in that Kingdom. More often than not, people appreciate the approach. A few throughout 27 years have felt like I didn't care about them. The majority have said how refreshing it is.

So, thanks John. It was a good experience that has lasted a lifetime.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

#8 - Swimming at Cincinnati (The Year of 52)

From the age of 5 I've loved water. I do liquid only though, no frozen water. Therefore, no snow skiing, no ice skating. I'm sure with some practice I could learn but frankly I'm just not that good at it. I usually just fall and slide. It's not pretty. The result is probably due to the fact that during swim seasons I didn't dare get on frozen water for fear of breaking something and ruining the season.

In the pool is where I've always felt at home.

I remember at the age of 12 saying to my parents at the dinner table: "I'm going to get a scholarship to swim in college." It became a goal, probably an obsession - which might have been a bit unhealthy at times.

I made my college decision based purely on the scholarship offer. That I now know what not a healthy choice. Not that I regret my choice, it's just not what I advocated for my children nor others when I'm asked.

Eastern Kentucky came calling, my parent's alma mater, but no scholarship. Missouri flew me out for a weekend, but no scholarship. A few tenths of a second too slow. Mt. Union's President called, seeing that I was planning to go to Seminary and be a United Methodist Pastor. He tried to convince me going to a United Methodist School would be the best thing I could do. I visited Ohio Northern, where my son now attends and swims, but it definitely was not for me. Sad that it's the same pool today as it was then!

Then the week before High School Sectionals, my team from Anderson went down to Cincinnati to practice. Coach Frank Busch and Coach Tom Keefe were on hand. Pulling me out to talk, they were encouraging and wanted me to come for a visit after the State Meet. I did that, was offered a scholarship and that made my decision. Done.

I swam for two years, until my left shoulder gave out. With a torn muscle and a sublexating shoulder, swimming was over. I chose not to go through surgery at that point with a goal to re-enter the pool. I rehabed for two years trying to avoid surgery, but finally went under the knife in 1986.

I wouldn't recommend my decision making grid for college. But for me, college was merely a formality for getting to Seminary, so I didn't much care where I went. College wasn't my final destination. I'm not sad I went to U.C. as God used that time to shape me into who I am today. 

It was at U.C. that I met Mark Householder, campus staff for Athletes in Action, who played a large role in discipling me in my faith. 30 years later Mark and I connected again as I was moving into a role of international swim official and he was now President of AIA. It's been a great partnership, thanks to my time at U.C.

Because I was close to home I was able to start working at my now home church, Salem UM, under the leadership of John Larsen who took some risks and allowed me to lead. This time shaped me. 

Being a college athlete was awesome. I wouldn't trade it. Some of those teammates continue to be friends. Some of the foreign teammates became good friends - from West Germany, Sweden, Norway, Canada & Great Britain. My mother, having a gift of hospitality, would invite them over for Thanksgiving dinner, fixing a local dish each time - Black Forest Cake for one. They were grateful for a home-cooked meal. We enjoyed their friendship and the connection for years to come.

If I had it to do over again, I wouldn't make the decision for school the same way.....knowing what I know now. I look at that decision as an illustration of how God uses our choices, whether they are His first choice or not - whether they are done with His values or not - and He shapes us. I am grateful for all He taught me at U.C. and how He is using those things even up to this day.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

#7 - Learning to Lead (The Year of 52)

Even if you have innate leadership skills, there is always a place to start and always room for improvement. My learning and growing and training began in 1980 when Mark Rowland, my youth pastor at Anderson Hills Church, invited me to lead a Sunday School for 8th Graders. Looking back and I think I may have been Mark's last ditch choice because who would choose to volunteer for a Sunday School class of 8th Graders!!

I remember very little other than I was faithful to be there every Sunday. I don't remember the students. I don't remember any topic. But I did learn my first lesson on leadership: "show up." Leaders show up. 

The year was then 1981. Before the start of my Senior year I partnered with my friend Kathy K to lead a Bible Study for 8th graders. Her parents graciously offered their house as the meeting place. I remember a few more things from this experience. I've got some of the lessons we made those trusting teens endure. God forgive us!!

For some reason, the group grew. In fact it did more than grow, it flourished. We grew so large that we had to divide into two groups. Kathy and I invited two others to lead one group with each of us. Through prayer and the faithfulness of showing up, some of these teens became life-long friends. I was privileged to marry two of them and baptize a couple of their children many years later.

Here I learned some more foundational leadership lessons. Choose the right people as leaders. Without the right team, the future is uncertain. Every time I have lessened the expectations for leaders, I've regretted it. 

Encourage young leaders but be careful to not advance them too quickly. I watched a young leader or two crash and burn because I encouraged them but didn't form and shape them in God's Word. I don't mean to make that sound like it's all about me. What I know is that leaders do have a responsibility to take careful steps with young potential leaders.

Then there was the lesson of taking risks, the risk Mark Rowland took in supporting us to lead this group. I'm honored to be a colleague of Mark's today, but he was not always so certain of my leadership. But he took a risk to support what I sensed.

I've learned to not stand in the way of God's Spirit leading someone, even when I'm not certain it's God leading. Just recently when the former Pastor of The Park Church, where I now serve, said God was leading him to plant a new church, I commented: "I'm don't sit in the seat of telling someone they have or have not heard from God." This attitude and approach had its genesis in these early 80's days. 

I still have a lot to learn. A key character trait of a leader is they are learners. As soon as leaders stop learning, they stop being leaders. We've never arrived.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

It Makes You Think

I've been in a hospital only once before for a procedure - a package discount of wisdom teeth and shoulder surgery back in 1985. I wasn't supposed to stay the night, but because they were operating on my left shoulder, a couple of MIT grads put the IV and blood pressure cuff on the same arm. They kept me overnight because they were concerned my skin was going to die. AWESOME!

So, tomorrow I lose my first body part. Actually I hope it's the only body part I ever have to lose. It's minor, not really a big deal. Gallbladder. Over the past month I adjusted what I ate and found I was able to control most reactions. I learned what had more fat in it than I thought. It was an interesting journey of self-control, even as the weekend messages @ The Park Church were going through the Fruit of the Spirit, ending last Sunday with "Self-Control." I was the illustration for me.

I'm not much of a fried foods, red meat guy, going rather for chicken, fish or turkey burgers without sauces. But suddenly, when those things were off limits, that's all I wanted.

The whole thing has made me think. Any time anesthesia is used there is risk involved. It made me think when the hospital asked: "Do you have a living will and or health care power of attorney? Please bring a copy with you." This is serious and it made me think.

I'm thinking about asking for an under 1-hour discount from the Doctor. He said it would be about 40 minutes because "I was in shape." I think I should get rewarded for that. But then again, I don't want him to rush. I think I'll be OK with the full charge. It made me think.

Everyone reacts differently is what I've learned, at least in the food category. Some friends went back to eating fried things within 2 days. Others it took weeks. Some have told me it took almost a year to figure it out by trial and error.

I don't think I'm worried about. The Park Church has an extremely high per-capita of nurses who have told me anything from: "piece of cake," to "just suck it up and be a big boy!!" I think what I'm more concerned about is missing my daily 90 minutes at the Y for the next couple of weeks. I told Stephanie tonight that it'll be like I'm on taper (swimmer language for those who don't get it). Her quick response with rolling eyes: "I'm going to work!" Not being able to swim for a period of time, nor lift over X pounds, I'm not sure what I'll do with myself. It's made me think.

I've been a bit more existential, thinking about the difference between the temporal and the eternal. It's so easy to pursue that which seems urgent, which often means it's right in front of us, begging for our attention. The eternal is more rewarding in the long run, but it's not "in your face," clamoring for our time and energy. This is not a big deal surgery, but still it's made me think.

What have I been pursuing with my life? What will I be remembered for? What do I want to be remembered for, and am I pursuing that vision? Self-control is a central key. I don't always feel like getting in that pool, but I'm in better shape today than I have been in 20 years. The reward is worth it. It helps to have 2 or 3 others to swim with and we hold each other accountable, basically through sassiness and disparaging remarks when we miss.

The same goes for pursuing my purpose on earth. Having others who hold me accountable is essential, for without that team, I'll be tempted to stop doing those things that no one else sees. These are the necessary things that make the biggest difference. I'm inspired by the new Under Armour commercials with Michael Phelps. One tag line is: "It's the things you do in the dark that put you in the spotlight." That's it - self-control. Lead yourself first.

We human beings tend to disintegrate and become lax over time and these moments of reality - I'm human - I'm not eternal and indestructible - I'm getting older - I won't live forever - are like a slap in the face to wake us up. Life is short, too short to waste not pursuing a dream, a passion, your purpose.

It's made me think. I'm grateful for the pain (it was more a discomfort really) that triggered the doctor visit that led to the ultrasound that brought me to this point. Pain is a friend that reminds me to focus on that which lasts and not worry so much about the things that won't. When the Doctor asked about any pain in the middle of the right side of my back and I said yes, over about the past 9 months, I was a bit shocked. He said: "I'll get of that too!" Awesome!

Spending time over the past month helping my mother in law learn a new normal after the death of her husband (not my father in law), served to double the message - "What do I want my legacy to be?" If I don't know what I want, I can't know how to achieve it. It's the difference between the financial planner who already knows what's best for you versus the one who asks for the details of your needs and wants, understanding your desire for the next generation, before laying out a plan.

I've had a "life goals" list for a while. I've got short-term goals, long-term goals and also dreams "if I get to choose." Proverbs reminds us: "In his heart man plans his way, but it is the Lord who establishes his steps." (16:9)

Life is full of twists and turns, surprises; detours and delays, even the destruction of dreams and plans. It's not the events that determine our end but rather our response. "Some people just get stones," my Doctor said, "even though you eat well and exercise." Awesome! But there are more serious things in most of our lives, things over which we have little control. It's our response that makes it a launching pad or a grave that masquerades as a rut.

With lots of time when I can lift things much less get in the pool until after Easter, I'm hopeful I'll be sharing more with you.

It makes you think.