Thankful for the big picture

Public praise, private critique.

Perhaps that’s a New Year’s resolution. Oops, wrong holiday.

But maybe not. Thanksgiving is a good time for public praise.

(Private critique will remain that. Social media aficionados, take note. Chill out and be more positive. End of rant.)

In my first full year of retirement from paid work, I jumped into three significant volunteer projects. All three are worth a little public praise.

After-school basketball

First – and no doubt, the toughest – is an after-school basketball ministry organized by the youth director at our church’s new Lorain, Ohio, campus (which hasn’t even opened yet).

boys pray

In the spring, Joe sought volunteers to help him reach neighborhood youth through basketball. I’ve played pickup ball – never in a league – and our three sons all played recreation basketball as children, so I’ve been around the game for a long time. I try to keep myself in somewhat decent shape, so I decided to give it a shot.

The church building is an old YMCA that is still being transformed into a church, but we’ve been using the big gym all along. We enter through a side door now while the rest of the building is under renovation.

Sometimes, I wonder why I’m there. How does a retired white guy from the suburbs connect with inner-city kids of multiple races and ethnicities?

The answer: Slowly.

As the weather turns cold, I’ve been taking one or several of them home after the hoops is done. That might be where “ministry” is beginning to form. I’m seeing a window into their lives outside of the formal basketball program.

Some of them are hungry. Some of them have broken families. Some have values that I’m not comfortable with.

I don’t judge. I’m just listening at this point. Not probing too much – I’m not aggressive that way.

But I’m thankful to connect with these young men (and the occasional woman who comes with them).

This is a long-term ministry. Hearts don’t change overnight. First, we have to connect. That’s not in my comfort zone. But this is the kind of thing that the living God is doing.

I don’t have to do this. Yet here I am. Thank you, Lord, for this opportunity to serve You.

Food pantry

wcws 2

Also this spring, I began volunteering at a food pantry in South Lorain. I’ve always had a soft heart for hunger issues – I’ve never been hungry in my life, literally. I’ve never had to worry about where my next meal is coming from. Many people can’t say that.

crop walk logo

In Saginaw, Mich., I was treasurer and off-and-on coordinator for the Saginaw CROP Hunger Walk, an annual walk that raises funds and awareness of hunger issues, for more than 20 years. We lived in Rockford, Ill., for a little over a year and I connected with the CROP Walk folks there too. Here in Elyria, the CROP Walk leaders have no passion for the ministry and I wasn’t up to the effort of trying to fire them up, so I looked for other opportunities.

Enter We Care We Share, a 12-year-old food pantry on a shoestring budget that serves thousands of needy residents every year.

The pantry’s volunteer coordinator attends the same church I do. He invited me (and others) to participate, since more volunteers were (and still are) needed.

He didn’t tell me he was going on vacation, so one Tuesday I just showed up. Didn’t know anyone there. Told them who I was and why I was there. They invited me to stay, so I did – for four hours that afternoon. Then, they invited me back.

So I came back. And I’ve been coming back, two afternoons a week, ever since.

We’re family. We laugh, pray together, rib each other, volunteer together, serve together, pitch in wherever needed. We’re on the front lines of fighting hunger. We hand out dozens of food boxes each day – non-perishable goods, meat, bread, fruits and vegetables – whatever Second Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Ohio delivers to us on Monday afternoons.

Young families just getting started. Senior citizens in poor health who can’t even carry their food box to their vehicle. Many adults with kids and grandkids in their household. Some say, “I wish they’d leave” – not to be mean, but to get out on their own and learn to support themselves, and to give the older adult a little peace. We are there during the transition.

Residents get evicted, and frequently change addresses. A few are homeless.

We serve them all, face to face.

As with the basketball kids, I can’t relate. I don’t have to do this.

I never want to take the material things of life for granted. God has given me a heart to serve folks down on life, struggling to make it.

There’s no quick fixes here, either.

All we can do is serve. And pray.

So that’s what we do.

I’m grateful for this opportunity.

Bible study group leader

Third, I was asked to be a group leader this fall for Bible Study Fellowship, an international in-depth Bible study that this year is studying Acts in the New Testament. I attended the 30-week class for the previous two years, and the leadership there thought enough of me to invite me to step up my involvement.

bsf photo

As with basketball and We Care We Share, BSF is a major time commitment. There is “homework” for each class member to do before we meet on Tuesday evenings.

I’m at a satellite class in Avon, Ohio – one of three satellites around the main program in Parma Heights, just past Cleveland International Airport from where I live.

The leaders of all four areas – about 40 of us total – gather at 6:30 a.m. Saturdays to go over the upcoming week’s lesson, and to receive leadership training. I set my alarm at 5 a.m. to ensure I get there on time.

I wouldn’t miss it for the world. We begin our time literally on our knees in prayer.

I’m shepherding a dozen guys in my class every week. I keep in touch when they miss. Some have health issues of their own or of family members, and some travel for work. We pray for each other.

This week, three guys attended who had missed two to four weeks each for various reasons, and all three said they missed our discussions. They want to come every week. Circumstances sometimes prevent that. Life happens.

Again, relationships take time. As a leader, I have to be pro-active. I’m learning as I go.

The big picture

2019 has been a year of beginnings for me, changes and challenges. The honeymoon periods soon will be over, if they aren’t already.

That’s when ministry will begin.

Time to take the next step. Next steps, actually.

Hope you’re as thankful for the big picture of your life as I am of mine.

The elusive meaning of life

What is the purpose of life? Solomon figured it out in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes – too late for his own good, but hopefully not for ours:

Life never stops

All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow. (1:7)

If we focus our attention only on the world’s issues, we will see no redemption, no solutions, no ending point – except our own death, which we don’t want to face.

The struggles of life never end. Our friends and relatives get sick or injured. People we know die too soon. We marry and divorce, have children and raise them, work and go out on Friday nights. We give thanks and buy Christmas presents – then do it again next year.

Nothing is permanent.

Rinse, repeat. There is nothing new under the sun.

It’s a mad, mad world

I applied my mind to know wisdom AND to know madness and folly … (1:17, emphasis mine)

How can we know wisdom AND folly? Doesn’t wisdom avoid folly? What is wisdom, if it’s not to seek the best this life (and the next) has to offer? Are madness and folly worthy pursuits? Seriously?

Madness and folly are destructive. Perhaps meaningless, perhaps worse than that. If I’m mad in this sense, I’m acting without thinking. I don’t consider consequences. Anger is the same, but I think madness in this context refers to being crazy. Bad crazy.

Folly means lack of good sense, or foolishness. How can that parallel wisdom? How can one pursue both?

This is why Solomon failed at life. He wanted to have it all. But even Adam and Eve knew better than that. When they sinned, they hid from God. Solomon flaunted his madness and folly. How can that possibly be a wise thing to do?

Gone in a moment

Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. (2:10-11)

He wanted girls, he had girls. He wanted business success, he built cities. He wanted wealth, he taxed his subjects – heavily. Because he was the king, he received everything he asked for.

henry ford 9

Business success and wealth are not bad pursuits in themselves, but they aren’t the end – only the means to a different end.

Solomon never understood this. What’s the big-picture purpose of life? Money, sex, wealth … once the act is done, the pleasure ends.

Rinse, repeat. There is nothing new under the sun.

That’s why Solomon was never satisfied. He pursued things that can never satisfy. They give pleasure for a moment, and then it’s gone.

Priorities …

For everything there is a season …

A time to kill, and a time to heal …

A time to seek, and a time to lose …

A time to tear, and a time to sew …

A time for war, and a time for peace. (3:1, 3, 6, 7, 8)

What are we pursuing, anyway? Life is a series of contrasts. There is a time to kill, and a different time to heal. That takes wisdom, to know when to do which. Perhaps we need to kill our madness and folly. Perhaps wisdom provides healing from that.

memorial 28

What are we to lose or tear? When are we to pursue war? When wisdom opposes folly, does that cause a fight? Do we have to choose one or the other? Do we tear ourselves away from madness, and sew our hearts into wisdom’s coat of many colors? I have friends who pursue peace at all costs. Is there a time to say, wait a minute, we need to stand up for what we believe in, even if we will suffer for it?

Madness and folly cannot produce healing or peace. We must fight madness and folly. We must kill them.

This is wisdom, too.

God creates, we discover

… (God) has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. … then I saw all the work of God, that no one can find out what is happening under the sun. However much they may toil in seeking, they will not find it out; even though those who are wise claim to know, they cannot find it out. (3:11, 8:17)

Oh, here is madness defined. We play God. We think we can understand everything. We understand plenty and we discover new truths all the time, but that’s all we can do. We cannot create anything. We can only discover what already is.

There is nothing new under the sun.

Computers didn’t exist in Biblical times, you say, so mankind does create things. The technology is new, that is true; but the scientific principles on which the technology is based are not new. They’ve always been there. We invent the technology, but we do not create the science.

God created the science back in the day. All we can do is discover it.

I dream of …

Dreams come with many cares, and a fool’s voice with many words. With many dreams come vanities and a multitude of words; but fear God. (5:3, 7)

What do we dream of? A nice family, a house on the lake, a fulfilling job that pays all the bills, athletic, musical or acting ability that gives us fame … To what end? We can’t take any of those things, wonderful as they are, with us into the next life.

What are we willing to sacrifice for these dreams? Are the sacrifices worth it?

Intoxication

The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain. This also is vanity. … All human toil is for the mouth, yet the appetite is not satisfied. (5:10, 6:7)

Appetites are for the moment. We are satisfied, but we get hungry again very quickly. If our bank account is heavy, the intoxication of wealth urges us to continue on. When we reach our goal, then what? We need a new goal. We need more.

We understand this. We know it’s true, yet we do it anyway. This is madness and folly.

True friends

It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools. (7:5)

Will we accept rebuke from anyone? My ways are set: Don’t tell me what to do, how to think, how to live.

Go ahead, live Frank Sinatra-style: I Did It My Way. See how that goes. (Wise people have your best interests at heart, fools do not. Wise people see things you are blind to. Fools don’t care.)

Deception

See, this alone I found, that God made human beings straightforward, but they have devised many schemes. (7:29)

Wisdom is God’s design. Madness and folly are our fault.

Nothing new

The end of the matter, all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil. (12:13-14)

This is Solomon’s conclusion, but I’m not sure he believed it. He wrote it, but he didn’t live it.

The fact that he wrote Ecclesiastes is wisdom. The fact that we ignore it and are doing the same things Solomon warned us about is madness and folly.

There is nothing new under the sun.

What the Browns don’t understand

Cleveland Browns wide receiver Jarvis Landry taunted an opposing player after scoring a touchdown Sunday, then wouldn’t apologize for it. Nor did his head coach expect him to.

Therein lies the problem with this underachieving team.

As an outsider to the Cleveland area (we moved here almost six years ago from out of state), I find it fascinating – and sometimes hilarious – to see how fans react to the local professional sports teams. I learned very quickly that a synonym for Cleveland is “Browns Town.”

No kidding.

Never mind that the Browns haven’t won an NFL championship since 1964, before the Super Bowl era began. Most of those years across the past half-century, the team hasn’t even been competitive. And 20 years ago, the then-owner moved the team to Baltimore. Many passionate Browns fans still haven’t forgotten that. (Cleveland got an expansion franchise three years later.)

Never mind that there are two other major professional sports teams in Cleveland, both of which actually are (or were) pretty good.

No, this is Browns Town. Clevelanders would rather freeze their fingers off at First Energy Stadium on the shores of Lake Erie than battle mayflies for a week during the summer heat at Progressive Field. The Q, or Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse or whatever they call it these days, has no such outside limitations. Doesn’t matter.

Team sports

Anybody remember who the three Indians starting pitchers were who began the season in the minor leagues, but all played pivotal roles in the baseball team’s push to the postseason (which fell just short)? Didn’t think so. Zack Plesac, Adam Plutko and Aaron Civale provide a bright future for the Indians.

No superstar resumes there, just quality athletes who did their jobs very well.

The Cavaliers basketball team reached the NBA finals four consecutive years, winning one title, all with LeBron James as the cornerstone. When he left before last season, the team fell apart. But the Cavs gave this city the sports championship it was starving for.

I think the Browns are trying to re-create the Cavs’ success using the Cavs’ formula. I’m not a fan.

Basketball, football and baseball are team sports. In basketball sometimes you can get away with stacking a team full of superstars – or, in the Cavs case, one really big superstar – and challenge for the title.

Strong leadership

Tim Duncan, Gregg Popovich

But which NBA team has had the most success over the past 20 years? The San Antonio Spurs have won five championships in that time frame – 1999, 2003, 2005, 2006 and 2014. They had the same coach for all five: Gregg Popovich.

What’s up with “Pop?” Alone among coaches in the ego-driven NBA, Popovich actually runs his team. He demands that the players fit into his system, not the other way around. Even superstars like David Robinson, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker – current or future Hall of Famers, all – bought into Popovich’s system. They thrived as individuals, and flourished as teams.

As an alum of Michigan State University, I enjoy following the Spartan basketball program. Coach Tom Izzo – the head coach for 25 years, and an assistant to Jud Heathcote before that – has reached the NCAA Tournament Final Four eight times in those 25 years, more than any other coach.

What’s Izzo’s secret? He doesn’t recruit the five-star one-and-done players that Kentucky and Duke sign. He goes after the next level of players – excellent athletes, perhaps a little under the radar, then keeps them three or four years and develops them. His teams, most years, are veteran teams with a mix of freshmen and sophomores.

He pushes them hard, in practices and during games. He’s not berating them; he’s pushing them to become better players. And better young men.

Tom Izzo, Cassius Winston

They know that. Which is why they submit to his authority.

Izzo knows when to be soft, as well. Over the weekend, the brother of his star player, Cassius Winston, was hit by a train and killed. About 24 hours later, the team played a game.

“I guess if I was to be honest, I expected him not to play, but everyone grieves a different way, and we left it 100 percent up to Cassius,” Izzo said. “His brothers are the world to him. I’ve never seen a kid over my years that was as close with his brothers. Zachary grew up around the team so much. He grew close to all the guys.”

Winston played, and played well in an easy non-conference victory.

Winston is a senior, beginning his fourth season under Izzo’s tutelage. In his first three seasons, he averaged 6.7, 12.6 and 18.8 points per game. That’s the Izzo way. Keep improving, keep getting better, become a leader.

Izzo’s passion for basketball is well-documented. He screams at referees during games. He screams at his own players during timeouts.

Channel the passion

But unlike Jarvis Landry of the Browns, Izzo’s passion is not about himself. He’s challenging his players to reach their full potential, to go beyond what they think they are even capable of. For their own good. For the good of the team.

That is what the Cleveland Browns do not understand.

What is the culture of the Browns? How does an organization develop a winning attitude?

Browns Football

Owner Jimmy Haslam has to decide this, then hire and draft employees who will buy into his system. Head Coach Freddie Kitchens doesn’t know what the culture is. Jarvis Landry is allowed to run the team, basically, and set his own culture.

Landry needs to grow up. He is part of a team, and it does not revolve around him.

Passion is a good thing. I’m not suggesting he muzzle his passion.

However, he must channel that passion into positive plays. Taunting an opponent, which cost his team an extra point (it could have cost his team the game), is unacceptable. Landry must fuel that passion between the white lines, while the clock is ticking. Catching passes. Blocking for his teammates. Doing whatever else his coaches ask him to do to help the team win.

My wife and I raised three boys. They could have gotten into all kinds of mischief. But we didn’t let them get destructive. We didn’t crush their spirits; we re-focused them in positive directions.

Sports offers a great outlet for male aggression. But it has to be done correctly. You’re not helping your team if all you do is cause penalties and do things to get ejected from games. Channel that energy. Work with your own talent. Get better at what you do. Make yourself better, and make your team better.

A winning plan

The Cleveland Browns will never come close to winning a Super Bowl until they understand this. Fans can scream and offer advice til they are blue in the face, but none of it matters, really.

Cut the noise. Focus on what’s important.

Develop the individual. For the good of the team.

If the individual won’t play that game, keep him off the roster, no matter how much talent he has. Find players who will.

Just ask Gregg Popovich or Tom Izzo. Both are winners, for a reason.