Friday, September 30, 2011

Friday Night Lights

Growing up in New England, football was never a big deal. I played my freshman year of high school. I remember the coaches coming to recruit us while we were in 8th grade. I was among the tallest in my class, so somehow I was marked, but I think they just wanted players. Like most teachers or coaches, they probably figured that they could train and mold players as long as they could get them there. But New England isn't football country, despite the Patriots. If anything, hockey is the sport, and my family had neither the time or money to be able to afford hockey as an option for my brother and me.

When I moved south of the Mason-Dixon line in 2004, I stepped into a world where football was bigger. Of course, it was nothing compared to the deep south like Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and other states where they take their football as seriously as they do their church going. I remember being exposed to just how serious football was when my band played at a camp in Texas. The rivalry between Aggies and Longhorns was made readily apparent to me when I saw these elementary school age kids going up to each other saying, "Aggies suck!" and "Longhorns suck!" to each other. I knew that I had stepped into another world.

After hearing a friend talk about how he and his wife had recently gotten hooked into watching the TV series "Friday Night Lights," I decided to watch the movie that the show was based upon. There were so many disturbing images and themes in the movie that could easily be translated to any other sport. Parents living vicariously through their children. Townspeople desperately wanting to relive the former glory of a championship gone by. Athletes who put their everything into a game only to have it dashed when an injury ends their season and career.

What is our obsession with sports? How is it that we are driven towards such fanaticism? I have had people poke fun at me regarding my lack of enthusiasm for football. I have had people joke about my adopted college basketball team of choice, adopted because my college's sport of renown was wrestling. We get caught up in the hype of the moment. Our days can rise and fall with a win or loss. as a Red Sox fan, I can equally understand and appreciate this. But why all the hype?

My parents never put a lot of pressure on me. Neither of them had ever really excelled in anything extraordinary. The most pressure that I was ever under was self-induced. It wasn't put there by expectations from anyone other than myself. I'm not saying that my parents didn't want me to do my very best, they always told me that, but if they knew that I had done the best that I could, they would not complain. They would simply ask me that question, "Was it the best you could do?" If I answered with an affirmative, that was the end of the issue.

In my repeat watching of "Friday Night Lights," I took particular notice of the coach's speech before the 2nd half of the state championship game. He emphasized their relationship with their families, friends, and teammates. He said that the most important thing was looking in each other's eyes and being able to say that you had done the best that you could. Sometimes the other team is just better. It's not that God was smiling more on them that day than he was on your team. It's not that a series of curses prevented your team from losing the game. Sometimes the best that we have is not as good as the best that someone else has to offer.

Does that sound defeatist? Does it mean that we are losers? I don't think so. Sure, there are times when heart and determination can rise above pure talent and skill, but I would venture to guess that part of the reason that heart and determination can rise above is because they come from a place of humility. Pure talent and skill have more of a tendency to lead to arrogance, pompousness, and cockiness, which will eventually lead to downfall. Talent and skill can focus us more on the individual than on the team. Heart and determination is caught and spread like a wildfire, if everyone catches them than the momentum that results can be unstoppable.

I don't know what my kids will be good at. I'm not sure that they will have any natural athletic ability or even a desire to play. I don't want to be the dad who lives vicariously through his children. I don't want to push my children to a place where passion and love for a sport is replaced with frustration and resentment. The minute that it stops being fun is the minute that they should probably not be playing.

In the grand scheme of things, championships can live in history. They can be the things from which legends are spun. We've all experienced at least one of these in our lifetime. But what happens to the champions when the lights go down? Where are they when all the fans have gone home? What happens when their names are simply etched into plaques or monuments? Do they continually try to live up to their former glory?

Sometime in the future, my kids will probably want to take their turn at playing sports. I can only hope and pray that I can be as encouraging and supportive to them as my parents were with me. Despite what some may think, the idea that winning isn't everything, but the only thing, doesn't teach us too many life lessons. After all, some of the greatest successes have followed some of the greatest failures. Would those successes have ever been possible had they not been preceded by those failures?

Entitled and Arrogant

The baseball world just witnessed an historical and epic collapse by the team that was favored to win it all in the beginning of the season: the Boston Red Sox. One writer called them arrogant, complacent, and entitled. Others blamed a lack of chemistry for the downfall of this super team. As a Red Sox fan, I find it ironic that they had become the very thing that they and their fans had despised about their opponents. One thing that I continually criticized George Steinbrenner for was for bringing big names together and expecting that they would all get along. The Red Sox did that very thing this year and yet they expected that it would somehow end up different for them. The old adage "pride comes before a fall" has truly been experienced by these 2011 Boston Red Sox.

The great thing about the 2004 and 2007 World Champion Boston Red Sox teams was that they were average joes. There was chemistry and camaraderie there that pulled the team together. Their success could not be attributed to a specific person, but everyone working together as a unit, a team. Kevin Millar's "band of idiots" statement seems to have defined the team fairly well.

At the beginning of this season, the Sox went 0-6 to start the season. This powerhouse of a team was looking like a complete failure. At the end of the season, it ended the way that it began. All the talent in the world cannot overcome arrogance, complacency, and entitlement. Just because you think you're entitled to something doesn't mean that you really are. In fact, if you think that you are entitled to something, most people are going to view you as arrogant right off the bat. Championships are earned, they aren't inherited. People don't win because others cower at their magnificence, they win because they invested blood, sweat, and tears into the process.

Curt Schilling was criticized a few weeks ago for saying that he hoped that the Red Sox did not make the playoffs. He did not think that they deserved it, and I can't say that I disagree with him. Mr. Bloody Sock himself can speak from experience. He gave all that he had to help the Sox win.

Dustin Pedroia, the Red Sox 2nd baseman and Jacoby Ellsbury were among the team leaders who continued to perform. They actually looked like they wanted to win and were enjoying every moment of playing the game. I have said on more than one occasion that I am a baseball fan. I will watch baseball just for love of the game. I was secretly wishing for the Rays to overtake the Sox in the wild card race this year because I knew that they wanted it more. I would love to see them take out the Rangers and the Yankees and I think that they have what it takes to accomplish just that.

One thing that has turned me off to professional sports is the kind of attitude that these 2011 Boston Red Sox portrayed. But what is the cause of it? Is it that we pay athletes millions of dollars? Is it that it has become job performance rather than love of the game?

This same thing can translate into anything else in life. When what we do is driven more by factors like money or popularity rather than a sheer love and appreciation of what it is that we do, we can find ourselves passionless and complacent. If I were pursuing a career that made me the most money possible, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing. Instead, I do what I do because it fulfills me more than a big fat paycheck could. A wise friend told me to find a job that I love so that I wouldn't have to work a day in my life. It would be nice if the things that we loved and were passionate about paid the best, but that's not always the case.

The 2011 Boston Red Sox can teach us a few things. 1) Never believe everything that they write about you. Just because they looked like the best team on paper doesn't mean that they actually were. Sometimes people can say really bad things about you that aren't true and should be ignored. Sometimes people can say really good things about you that if you believe, you might end up in a place of arrogance. 2) Big players and big payroll doesn't mean big dividends. Spending lots of money doesn't mean that you are going to get what you pay for. Sometimes, they younger players who have something to prove will outperform the seasoned players who feel like they've already proven themselves. 3) Never say never. It's easy to disdain certain things, but it's essential to never say that you would never become those things. That statement alone is usually an on-ramp to the highway towards contradiction. The Red Sox always complained about the Yankees and they have begun to take the exact form that they hated. Don't ever say that you would never be "those guys."

Am I disappointed at the 2011 season? Of course I am. But if there are lessons learned, then it was worth it. If they turn around and underperform next year the way that they did this year, than it was all in vain. Great losses can afford some benefit when there are lessons learned through them. If we learn from what we lose, than the losses aren't in vain. Words to live by.

I won't say that I'll never be like them. I think that I know better than that. I hope that the minute that I began to resemble anything like the arrogant, complacent, and entitled Red Sox that someone who cares for me lets me know. Friends don't let friends become the very thing they abhor. You can quote me on that! Go Rays

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Welcome Home

Five days ago, my life changed for at least the third time this year. Funny thing is, every time my life has changed this year, it has had to do with a female in my life with whom I was close. The first two times had to do with my mom. First she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and then she lost her battle. The third time my life changed was last Thursday morning at 2:46 AM when we welcomed my daughter into the world.

My wife and I found out that we were expecting our third child a few weeks into January. I wasn't exactly sure how to respond to the news. We had been unsure as to whether or not we should move from the "man to man" to the "zone" defense when it came to kids. We sort of left it in God's hands and we soon discovered that the Gibsons would be 5 rather than 4. To be honest, I put my hand through a door the morning that it was confirmed. Some other things had happened to add to my stress, but it wasn't my finest hour, that's for sure.

A few weeks later, my mom was given her diagnosis. Such has been my life in 2011, a mix of emotions. I've never really been sure how to respond and just when I think that I know the appropriate response, something else happens that upsets the apple cart, so to speak. It's been one of those, "wait a minute before you get too comfortable" kind of years.

Having already had two boys, my wife and I thought that it might be prudent to find out what we were having. We hadn't found out with either of the boys, but, as I said to a number of people, I'm getting too old for surprises. So, at our ultrasound appointment, the nurse gave us the news, "It's a girl!" Needless to say, both of us were pretty stunned. I have one sibling, a brother. My wife has a brother and a sister. Her cousins on her mom's side have all had boys. There was nothing in the chain of things that could have predicted this. We both scratched our heads and wondered, what do we do with a girl?

When we first decided to start a family, I secretly hoped for a girl. I don't think that I would have minded being outnumbered. What dad doesn't dream of all the fun he could have with a little girl? Dreams of tea parties, dance recitals, first dates, and first dances. But our first was a boy, and I wouldn't trade him for anything in this world. He stole my heart from the moment that I saw his face. I love and cherish the gift that he is to me. He has a sweet and tender spirit, always willing to lend a hand and very kind, compassionate, and loving (despite clocking his brother in the head with a MagLite once in a while). Our first child carried a legacy with him as his middle name is that of his great grandfather.

When our second child came, we again did not find out what sex it was going to be. At this point, I was hoping for another boy. They were easy to understand, or at least easier. I thought that it would be nice to afford my oldest the same benefits that I had with a brother. Our second was born less than a year after we had been in Virginia. He wears the name of my great uncle who had been somewhat of a spiritual mentor to my father. My father did not have much of a relationship with his dad who disappeared around when my dad was going into his teens.

So much was going on during the months leading up to us finding out whether we would be having another son or a daughter. I think that I had probably begun to wonder whether or not it would be at all feasible to name my child after my mom, regardless of whether she survived her cancer. It probably became an unspoken matter between my wife and I, but she's smart and can read me very well, especially after 10 years of marriage.

We explored the name options and settled on a first name. We had laughed and joked on many occasions that my side of the family had not left us many options for using names for our children, at least not in the 21st century. Some names were timeless, most of the names on my side of the family were dated, at least in my opinion. But as the situation with my mom became more and more bleak, the possibility and option of using her name as a middle name seemed greater and greater.

My wife did all kinds of research on name meanings and informed me one day that it would be perfectly fine for our daughter to have two middle names. She explained the meaning to me and it made perfect sense. In light of the year that we had been having, it seemed very appropriate to name a daughter with names that meant "blooming peace and joy." After all, that's what we were hoping that she would be to us, a light in the fog, a bright flower after the rain, a glimmer of hope in a sea of turmoil and despondence.

My wife is incredible. She has had all three of our children naturally. No drugs. No induction. Au natural. I'm just glad that it was her and not me because I don't think that I would have been able to endure what she did. But alas, she's got Swedish blood and resiliency and strength runs in her veins. She endured a 19 hour labor for our first child. Naturally, she expected more of the same for the second, but he came pretty quickly. She started laboring at 5:30 in the morning and he was born by around 8:30 that morning. We had no idea what to expect for the third.

Both boys came on Saturdays. Although we thought that our first one would be a Friday the 13th baby, he waited until the 14th to come. I had transitioned from engineering to pastoring by then, so it was funny to me that they didn't "interrupt" my schedule my coming on Saturdays and not Sundays. I expected that my daughter might do the same.

Life was further complicated by the fact that I was starting a seminary class in D.C. on Friday. Somehow, she ended up coming on Thursday instead. I can only wish that my kids continue to be so respectful throughout their lives (ha!). I was able to rest enough to get to my class on Friday and even enjoy a Sunday where I had little responsibilities within our morning worship services.

I'm still trying to figure out how I feel in the midst of all of this. I am beginning to get used to saying "she" and "her" instead of "he" and "his." I think that my wife is very happy. She's no longer as outnumbered as she was before and before our daughter came, there was pretty much no chance of a female dog as there are allergies a plenty in our house.

Everything happened so fast that it was hard for me to respond. Within a little more than an hour of getting to the hospital, our daughter came. I was so concerned about making sure that my wife was comfortable and had everything she needed that I hadn't given much thought to the immenseness of what was happening. When she arrived, I thought to myself, "I wish Mom was here to hold her granddaughter." I wish that she could have survived for just a little bit longer. Two months and three days is all that she would have needed.

To be honest, I think that she willed herself to live for as long as she did. When she knew that death was looming around the corner, I sort of think that she welcomed it like an old friend rather than fighting it off. There were no complaints and cries, just a quiet dignity and strength that I could read pretty well. I wouldn't say that she gave up, I would say that she succumbed to the inevitable. After all, even if she had survived, a few years down the road, she would again be staring death in the face.

My daughter's legacy is that she has her grandmother's name as a middle name. I don't think that I ever told Mom that we were going to do that, but I kind of think that she knew. I had begun writing her eulogy before she died and read it to my family in my parents' living room with Mom in a bed in the other room. All the healthcare professionals told us that she could hear us when we were beside her, and I know that moms have that uncanny knack to hear and see things that the average human being is incapable of hearing and seeing.

My daughter came into the world with screams and cries. My mom left this world with a whisper, a hushed breath that grew fainter and fainter. My daughter will never physically know her grandmother in this life, but through the power of story, she will know her. I expect that they will meet each other one day. I expect that Mom will be waiting for her. In my mind, I even imagine conversations that could go on between my mother and daughter in my daughter's dreams. Mom is gone, but I've been given a little angel to care for in Mom's absence.

So much of the imagery around Mom's death was about planting. Trees were planted. Bushes were planted. The earthly shell of my mom was planted. And a seed was planted that grew and became a little girl. When I look at her and her name, I think of Mom. As she grows, she will teach me more and more about how much her grandmother meant to me. Not sure how, but I expect that Mom will be smiling as it happens.

As I lean down to kiss my little angel "goodnight" tonight, I will miss my mom. But somehow I think that she feels like I'm in pretty good hands. I might think that my daughter's been put on this earth for me to look after, but I should probably think again. Maybe she's really hear to look after me. I love you, Mom, and I miss you very much. And I love you too, my sweet little blooming peace and joy.

Saturday, September 24, 2011


Yesterday was the beginning of the end. I began my long 30 week journey into Greek with my first trip up to southern Maryland for class. It was somewhat appropriate that I began Greek the day after my daughter was born. She is the only one of my children with a name found in the New Testament. Also, I started Hebrew just a week after my second son was born. I guess you could say that I am a glutton for punishment.

This was also the first trip to class that I have taken since my mom died in July. The last 3 years that I have been driving north to class, I have spent the first hour of my two hour ride home on the phone talking to my parents. There was a little anxiety in me as I anticipated what my ride home would be like, but I needed to get up there first. Easier said than done!

Northern Virginia is never a good place for traffic, especially on a Friday afternoon. Virginians also drive as if the rain is snow and should they see flashing lights on the side of the road, they need to slow down to a crawl or near stop in order to assess the situation. Maybe it's unfair to say that it's Virginians only, but that's my current context, so they'll get the brunt of the blame.

For the three years that I have been making these trips, I have always allowed myself enough time to get to class with time to spare. Yesterday was no exception. I thought for sure that I would be in the clear as it usually takes me just under two hours to get to class from my house. I was wrong.

What had been a mostly light rain all morning and early afternoon had turned to a torrential downpour during parts of my trip. Surprisingly, those were not the places where I encountered the most traffic. But the rain had sufficiently slowed people down enough that it has a domino effect. By the time it manifested its impact on me, I was only 20 minutes from home. And so, my journey began.

I was already tired, having had little sleep from the birth experience the day before. I was doing my best to be around for my boys, which meant up at 5 AM. I had stopped by the hospital a few times to check on my wife and daughter and finally had the chance to hold my little girl. When I finally got myself together to get to school, I was pretty tired. There was the emotional exhaustion of having experienced the birth of my daughter (I know, I know, my wife was the one who did the most work, which I already acknowledged, she was incredible) and this first trip without having a two-way conversation with my mom.

The traffic hit me like a ton of bricks. I was hoping, and somewhat expecting, a fairly smooth trip to school. I had no idea that it would take me nearly twice as long as it should take. Sitting in traffic was complicated by my need to go to the bathroom after drinking half a liter of water and my lack of air conditioning in the car, resulting in fairly foggy windows. As the traffic conditions worsened, so did my attitude. I quickly updated Facebook with my best attempt at a pithy statement and the texts and phone calls began...that's usually what happens to me when know that something's going on.

To avoid allowing everyone to hear my frustration, I avoided the phone calls. After all, did I really want anyone hearing me verbalize my frustration. In began to wonder what the next 29 weeks would hold if this was only the beginning. Had it really been worth this? Would it be worth the trips in the end? The end was in sight, but what was I going to have to do to get to that end? What would be sacrificed?

How overly dramatic was I going to be? It was just one bad traffic day, was I really going to blow it out of proportion? Of course I was, isn't that what happens when there is a convergence of sleep deprivation and emotional exhaustion? But really, I was getting pretty frustrated over something that was completely out of my hands. I couldn't will the traffic away, frustration with other drivers was going to get me nowhere.

Thankfully, Maryland was pretty wide open. There was little to no traffic and I was able to sail smoothly to my class. As I sat there in my driver's seat, back sore from not having changed position for some time, I began to feel the guilt of my frustration. People were experiencing difficulties far greater than my inconvenience and I really had the audacity to think that my inconvenience was important enough to have gotten all worked up about?

I got closer to school and realized that the sky was pretty clear to the west, in fact, I could see the sun. It was still misting where I was, but the contrast was becoming more and more apparent as I neared the church where my class was held. It dawned on me that this combination of sun and rain should result in a rainbow. As I got out of my car in the parking lot, I looked up to see a full double rainbow. I began laughing to myself for a few different reasons.

I first thought about the significance of a rainbow. In Genesis 9, after God has spared Noah and his family from the flood, the sign of the covenant that God makes with humanity is the rainbow. God promised that he would never again flood the earth in its entirety. The rainbow signifies God's promise of provision and protection. It represents new beginnings, a constant reminder that God is with us.

Back in July, I had a conversation with a friend who had lost her mother to ALS a few years back. As I saw the rainbow, I recalled our conversation. She had mentioned that the rainbow was pretty significant to her and was a constant reminder to her of her mother. Considering this my first trip since Mom had died, I smiled as I thought about her. God was still there. He was still in control. After the rain, there was the rainbow.

Finally, I laughed as I heard myself say, "Woah, a full double rainbow!" It reminded me of a YouTube video that I had seen, actually shown by my friend at one of our chapel sessions out at Bethel Seminary. A man, who was most likely stoned, was at Yosemite National Park and took a video of a full double rainbow. He is basking in its magnificence and beauty and even begins to cry as he says, over and over again, "Oh my God!" His use of the phrase "Oh my God" may be seen as offensive to some, but I see it as giving credit where credit is due, regardless of whether he was conscious of it or not. If you feel like watching it, it might make you laugh and you might understand why I chuckled, but it's not essential. The link to the video is:

I was pretty ashamed of myself for having gotten so upset about traffic. But God's grace met me where I was. I'm not self-centered enough to believe that the rainbow was there all for me, but I considered myself a guilty bystander, encaptured by the beauty of God's promise. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. Even when I'm a heel, God is still there. The rainbow was a great reminder of God's grace, and it came just in time for me to dive into Greek. What a long, strange trip it's been...and it's not over yet.