Miserable, Glorious Night

I’ve sat through a lot of soccer games in all kinds of weather. I’ve endured blistering heat and glare from the sun and freezing temperatures with snow whipping across the field. So it means something when I say that tonight’s home play-off game was among the worst.

The temperature was in the upper-40s, Fahrenheit. A stiff wind of 15-20 miles per hour was blowing across the field and into our faces. And the rain kept coming in sheets and sheets and sheets that soaked us throughout the entire game. It was miserable.

But it was also glorious, because Elliot and his Roosevelt Rough Riders teammates won the school’s first play-off game in years:

Kent Roosevelt, 1 – Akron North, 0.

There was a moment, with about 20 minutes left to play in the game, when it seemed like we were going to die. The game was scoreless, and we dreaded the specter of overtime and a penalty kick shoot-out: for the anxiety and uncertainty of it all, and for the fact that it would keep us out in that miserable weather for even longer. The wind swirled across the field. The players were slipping and sliding everywhere. Then, Akron North put together a few passes, and they were suddenly right in front of our goal.

Our goal-keeper was off-balance, out of position. One of their forwards put a shot on frame, towards the right side of the goal, away from our goal-keeper. It looked like a long, slow, wet slide to our doom. And then, from out of nowhere, one of our center-defensive midfielders slid across the goal-line, blocking the shot. An Akron North player rebounded the shot with a quick volley to the left side of the goal. And again, seemingly from out of nowhere, our goal-keeper made it just far enough off the ground to block the shot back towards the top of the box. Another Akron North player gave it a try, managing to get a solid foot on the ball, but his shot hit the left post. And finally, their fourth consecutive shot was blocked by one of our back-line defenders, and the ball was cleared.

It was an unbelievable sequence of events. I yelled until I was hoarse.

Five minutes later, one of our forwards was taken down inside the box and awarded a penalty kick. He slotted his penalty kick, to provide the only score of the game. And then, it was just killing time until the end of the game and our suffering in the stands.

Elliot got to play the last six minutes of the game, and he made a few good plays to help kill time. On one particular play, he charged the goalie as he prepared to boot the ball deep downfield. Players at his position are supposed to do this, but it almost never amounts to anything. This time, however, there was a solid thud as he blocked the shot beautifully. In the two seconds of scrambling that immediately followed, it looked like Elliot might have a path to an open goal. Akron North’s defenders rallied, though, and they closed the gap — so Elliot just kicked a crossing shot from a long way out. A goal at that point in the game would have been amazing, but the twenty seconds of game-time that he milked were also valuable.

It was a proud moment to celebrate with the boys, following their victory. Elliot was elated. But we were also very glad to get out of the cold, wind, and rain. Hopefully, the weather will be better on Saturday, when they travel to Stow for their next play-off game.

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Glimpses of Fall Break

I could pretend that our family’s Fall Break was all corn and pumpkins and sunshine and magic. Because those things were a part of our extended weekend. The weather provided those crisp, clear October days that we dream about all year round. We slept in for three days in a row. We got to puzzle our way through a corn maze, together. We even ate Giordano’s pizza for dinner (they just opened a new branch of this beloved Chicago deep-dish pizza place in North Canton)!

But we also had to call for emergency roadside assistance for our mini-van, totally disabled, in the dead of the night, on a busy four-lane highway. We had to spend some time trying to fix our broken washing machine. Our refrigerator’s freezer started showing signs that it will need some attention soon, too. We experienced unusual levels of irritation and argumentation between the five of us. We had to deal with a child writhing in stomach pain, at one point.

It was not all fun and games.

But we got to at least enjoy some fun and games.

So how does one present a balanced view of such a weekend of family life?

We live in a visual environment — and the photos of pumpkin patches and pig races and hay rides are clearly the better visual images. Honestly, I didn’t even think to take pictures of the wet floor in our laundry room or the grumpy adolescent whining in the corner. There’s something about the human condition that makes us want to hold fast onto- and feature the beautiful things. The fun and games.

I’m still trying to decide if that’s a good thing or a hypocritical thing.

Honestly, it’s probably a bit of both. So I will say that it was ultimately a good Fall Break — even if there were some bumps along the way. We succeeded in spending some extra time together as a family — even if we didn’t love every minute of it. I’m not going to paper over the unsavory parts of the weekend. Strangely enough, I think one of the things we’ll remember and talk about the most — for years to come — is our broken-down minivan, Marci and the kids taking an Uber home, me hitching a ride with the tow-truck driver. It was stressful while it was happening, but the challenging stuff feels like a part of what made the weekend exceptional.

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North by North-Quest

I love a good quest.

50-50s Collage

One of my earliest quests was to set foot in every building on the campus of Bowling Green State University. A little later, I decided to eat at every dining establishment in the city of Bowling Green. When I was living in Amsterdam, I once set out to photograph fifty different images of the number fifty (because it was a spiritually-significant number, and part of the name for the church we planted there). Another time, it was fifty different dining establishments representing fifty different ethnicities (to show the city’s incredible diversity). And, perhaps my favorite photographic quest during my Amsterdam years was the time I went hunting for “church carcasses” (to show the dramatic secularization that occurred in the city through the second half of the 20th Century and the beginning of the 21st Century).

I don’t know. I’ve found that it’s fun to keep a quest in front of me.

When I moved back to Ohio in 2012, I tried some variations of previous quests, like eating at every dining establishment in the city of Kent. Or growing out my beard in the winter and then taking a series of photographs as I shaved it off bit-by-bit. I’ve gotten into running since I moved back to the United States, and almost every race I’ve run has felt like a sort of quest.

But hiking quests have become my absolute favorite over the last few years.

I loved my quest to hike every step of every trail in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park (completed at the end of 2018). So when I started to think about what might come next, I remembered that some of the most rugged, remote, and resplendent trails that I hiked in the National Park also happened to be parts of the statewide system of trails known as the Buckeye Trail.

The total trail system encompasses over 1,400 miles of trail across the entire state. But I’m focusing my current quest on the 252-mile north-eastern loop of the Buckeye Trail, where it passes through Portage County, Summit County, Cuyahoga County, Lake County, Geauga County, and Stark County.

I’ve already logged over 500 miles in pursuit of this quest. That might sound funny with a 252-mile trail — but the size and shape of the Buckeye Trail are large enough that I typically have to drive to a spot somewhere along the trail, and hike the same segment of trail out and back. I’m also focused on enjoying the process, not just the end goal, so my routes aren’t always the most efficient. Anyway, I’m finally about three-quarters of the way finished with my quest, and I’m getting excited to see its conclusion drawing nearer!

Buckeye Trail Progress as of 2019.10.13

The last three months of the year are perhaps the best three months of the year for hiking — so I’m excited to keep chipping away at this quest between now and the end of 2019. I typically get to hit the trail once a week, as a part of my weekly discipline of seeking extended time with God. This week, though, I got to get to the northernmost (furthest-removed) segment of the trail twice because of Kent State University’s Fall Break.

I love the variety of scenery that I get to encounter on the Buckeye Trail. Beautiful forests and waterfalls… meadows and orchards… downtown Akron skyscrapers and suburban industrial parks… “seaside” scenes along the shores of Lake Erie… a little bit of everything that Ohio has to offer. I hope to share more of my experiences from the Buckeye Trail at some point in the future, as I get closer to the completion of this quest. For now, though, I’m enjoying the process.

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Piles and Piles of Floppy Fish

I’ve recently been studying the biblical story of Jesus calling his first disciples, in Luke 5:1-11. And there’s been one question in particular that’s been stuck in my craw: Why did Jesus have Simon Peter go out to catch fish that day?

Was it kind of like paying “rent” for his use of the boat as his ad hoc pulpit? Was Jesus hungry — looking for a small smackerel of mackerel? Was it a demonstration of power in Simon Peter’s fisherman “language?”

Think about it. Simon Peter and his partners had this massive, potentially-historic haul of fish… And then, presumably, they left all the fish flopping by the side of the sea to rot or for others to take to market. Because the text itself seems to indicate that neither Jesus nor Simon Peter, nor James, nor John benefited from the bounty of fish. It says that, “as soon as they landed, they left everything and followed Jesus.”

I’ve been thinking about this image of the flopping fish all week. It feels wasteful. It feels weird.

I think Simon Peter may have been wrecked by it, too. The text says directly that “he was awestruck.” But you can see it, too, in the way that he falls down on his knees, asking for Jesus to go away, and confessing, “I’m such a sinful man.” Simon Peter didn’t seem messed up by the wastefulness or weirdness of the flopping fish (like me). He seemed to be more bothered by what the flopping fish said about him as a person.

Simon Peter had just been going about his everyday life, probably doing the same thing he’d been doing six days a week since he was a boy, apprenticing in the family fishing business. He didn’t ask for Jesus to come into his space. But Jesus did come into his space. To the point that I even wonder if Jesus’ arrival felt a bit rude and abrupt to Simon Peter. Jesus presumed to use his fishing boat for his pulpit. And then, when he was finished with his sermon, he gave Simon Peter, the fisherman, instructions about fishing. I feel like I can hear some frustration in Simon Peter’s voice, when he says, “Master… we worked hard all last night and didn’t catch a thing. But if you say so…” If I was in Simon Peter’s shoes, I’d be like, “Listen. I’m the expert here. I don’t need no fishing lessons from no rabbi, or carpenter, or whatever-you-are.”

But something about Jesus was more powerful than Simon Peter’s doubts. Maybe it was social convention, like a duty to be polite or accommodate a religious teacher… Maybe it was a certain charm or charisma, like a twinkle in Jesus’ eye… Or maybe it was the Spirit of God at work in his heart…

In any event, he went along with Jesus. He spent a little bit of time on a boat ride with Jesus, and he took little steps of obedience to follow Jesus.

He dragged his freshly-washed nets, his weary body, his skeptical mind, and his weary crew — and he sailed, or rowed, out to the deep part of the lake. He dropped his nets into the water, where Jesus said he should drop his nets. And then, all of a sudden, he had more fish than he knew what to do with. He had to call for back-up from his business partners, and even then they filled two boats until they were both overflowing with fish. To the point that they were on the verge of sinking!

Jesus came into Simon Peter’s space. And after the historic haul of fish came along with him, Simon Peter recognized that any previous presumption of superiority and self-control was silly. His weaknesses and limitations were overshadowed and overwhelmed by God’s power. And in that moment, he realized, “It’s not about the fish.”

The power and presence of God are far more significant than any individual’s successes or failures. This is significant for us, too. Not just for people inclined to count their successes and failures in terms of fish.

It goes for the state of my mental health (or illness). It goes for my physical abilities (or disabilities). It goes for my relationships (or estrangements). We’re often inclined to look towards God as one to meet needs, grant wishes, and fix problems. I know that I do this, anyway, when it comes to my insufficiency… my insecurity… my failures… my loneliness… my “lack of fish.”

And there’s something to this. Jesus can meet needs, solve problems, drive out demons, and bring in a bounty of fish. But it’s not so we can prosper in our everyday lives. It’s so we can know Him and walk with Him. And this calling is so total that we must leave all other forms of our identity and “expertise” behind.

It’s not about your college major or career choices. It’s not about how much money you have, or what your relationship status might be. It’s not about where you live or what team you cheer for. It’s not about how strong your Instagram game may be. Believe it or not, it’s not even about what kind of mark you make on history or what kind of legacy you leave behind. When Jesus calls us to follow him, just as he called Simon Peter, we have an opportunity. Not just to get good stuff. But to get God Himself.

And that changes everything.

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We got a f#¢%ing squad now.

October is the best sports month of the year. College Football and Professional Football hits its stride. Almost all of the Professional Soccer leagues are in action. Major League Baseball starts its playoffs in October. The National Hockey League starts its season this month.

And — my favorite of all — the National Basketball Association season gets started at the end of this month!

The NBA is the sports league I follow the most. The Cleveland Cavaliers, specifically. I was recently thinking about a moment that happened in February of 2018, in LeBron’s last season with Cleveland. The team that year was a pretty old team, with a lot of veteran players dealing with injuries and career instability: Isaiah Thomas… Derrick Rose… Dwyane Wade… They still had some of the core pieces from their 2016 championship season — like LeBron James, and Kevin Love, and Tristan Thompson, and J.R. Smith — but they dealt with a lot of dysfunction that season, and they were not looking like they had the legs to make another deep run in 2018. Do you remember that team?

Anyway, at the trade deadline in February that year, the Cavs’ general manager made a bunch of trades at the deadline that dramatically altered the make-up of the team. They sent out Isaiah Thomas, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, and Jae Crowder… and they brought in a bunch of younger, more athletic (but also less-experienced) players like Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., and Rodney Hood.

It was a big shake-up. I believe it did position the Cavs’ for a deeper playoff push that year — and, a lot of us Cavs’ fans thought, for years to come (this was before we knew that LeBron was going to move to Los Angeles for the following season). But it wasn’t certain how everything was going to come together.

A few days after all the big moves at the trade deadline, the Cavaliers had a game against the Boston Celtics, another top team from their conference. It seemed like it was going to be a big test for the new-look Cavs, and I remember bracing myself for a rocky transition.

Instead, the Cavaliers blew out the Celtics on their home court: 121-99. The new additions scored 40 percent of the team’s points. They looked good. After the game, I remember a news story recounting a moment on the team plane, flying back from Boston. The version of the story that I remember had LeBron James and J.R. Smith sitting on the plane, smiling at each other. And J.R. Smith said, “We got a f#¢%ing squad now.”

Something about that phrase has just stuck with me: “We got a f#¢%ing squad now.”

It was an obscure moment from Cavaliers’ history. And it’s ironic that the team ultimately made it to the NBA Finals that year, only to lose because J.R. Smith made a mental mistake at the end of Game 1 and LeBron subsequently lost his temper in the locker room and broke his hand on a whiteboard — which may have ended up costing the Cavs the whole series (though the young guys also kind of disappeared on the big stage).

I still wonder what might have happened if that squad could have stuck together for another season or two. The Browns are by far the hotter ticket in Cleveland these days. It looks like it could be another tough year for the Cavaliers. Even so, I’m excited for the sports adventures that October brings with it.

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The Peanut Butter Falcon

Olivia and I went to see The Peanut Butter Falcon after school last Monday. We had not heard much about the film beforehand, but the title and premise were intriguing. We decided to give it a try, rather spontaneously, because the movie theater in Kent has a special deal on Mondays — $5 for a ticket plus a small popcorn. Still, we knew we were going to be late for the start of the movie — so we watched / listened to the trailer on our way to the theater. Fortunately, we didn’t feel too lost, even after missing the first twenty minutes of the film.

It ended up being a powerful cinematic experience — and is perhaps now my favorite film I’ve seen all year.

The story of the film centers around two characters: (1) Zak, a young man with Down’s Syndrome who escapes from a nursing home to enroll in a professional wrestling school he saw advertised on television, and (2) Tyler, a sketchy fisherman on the run from some “Bad Guys” he’s crossed. Through a series of unlikely events, they travel together through the Outer Banks of North Carolina — pursued by the “Bad Guys” and by a woman named Eleanor, from Zak’s nursing home, who’s been tasked with returning Zak to professional care (though she’s initially trying to disrupt their journey, she definitely functions as another one of the “Good Guys”). The quest is interesting, enjoyable, and meaningful to follow. The cinematography and music along the way are beautiful. Zak, Tyler, and Eleanor are all well-developed characters. And the overall plot of the movie is compelling.

It wasn’t a perfect movie, however. There was more foul language than I might have wished for a film that I watched together with my 15-year-old daughter (though, in fairness, the language usage was consistent with the characters’ world; it didn’t feel gratuitous). The characters occasionally made decisions that didn’t seem to be fully backed by plot development, such as Zak’s and Tyler’s initial decision to join forces… Eleanor’s decision to go along with them… the “Bad Guys” decision of how to ultimately settle their accounts with Tyler… etc. Still, I’m glad to forgive the movie its faults because it’s just so artfully-rendered and so sweet.

I loved the way the film handled the romantic tension between Tyler and Eleanor. The Zak and Tyler characters worked together beautifully (great chemistry between the actors). I loved the way things played out for all three of the main characters at the end of the movie.

Above all, I feel like the film had something important to say. It spoke to themes of teamwork, courage, and hope in the fact of weakness, insufficiency, and antagonism from others. Without attempting to do so, The Peanut Butter Falcon seemed to provide a picture of man’s spiritual condition — through Zak’s lostness, naivete, optimism, and ultimate redemption. And even though it points to a solution that’s different from the hope I’ve discovered through faith in Jesus and absorption into a community of faith, Zak’s redemption is similar enough that it resonates deeply.

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Homecoming 2019

Our household sent two teenagers to the Kent Theodore Roosevelt High School Homecoming Dance last night: sophomore Olivia and senior Elliot.

Olivia went with a group of friends (and friends of friends). They had a hard time getting everyone on the same page about dinner plans — so half of the group went to a Mexican restaurant, and the other half of the group (including Olivia) went to a Chinese restaurant. They all met up again at the school for the dance.

School dances are a strange mix of formality, pageantry, and adolescent awkwardness — but I appreciate the opportunity to see my kids grow up, along with their peers.

Elliot took a date this year: a young woman named Kaylie, from the year below him in school.

They went with her brother, Nathan, and his girlfriend, Anna. So Marci and I met at Kaylie’s and Nathan’s house for pre-Homecoming pictures. We made small talk with Kaylie’s parents — much like we did a half-hour earlier with the parents and grandparents of Olivia’s friends — and we took pictures of different collections of people from different angles.

Elliot’s group went out to dinner at Taco Bell (not joking). And then, after the dance, they went back and hung out at Kaylie’s and Nathan’s house.

I’m proud of the way Olivia and Elliot are navigating life, including school dances. They were both out quite late, but I didn’t worry about anything except for two of Olivia’s friends who were at odds with each other earlier in the week and the funny way that Elliot’s tie kept skewing to his right.

If you want to see more pictures from the evening, check out my Flickr account.

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Fall Retreat 2019

H2O Kent’s Fall Retreat was this weekend.

We worshipped together with music and biblical teaching, of course. But also with quiet time for individual reflection… And a riverside Baptism celebration… And casual conversation in the Dining Hall… And team competition on a big grassy field.

Our annual H2Olympics always create some great photography opportunities, with each of our Life Groups decked out in their colors.

The H2O Fall Retreat is a key turning point for our ministry, as we transition from our beginning-of-the-year intensive outreach activities to the routines and rhythms that will sustain us for the rest of the school year.

And it’s a key turning point for individuals, too. The baptism celebration is a particularly visible example of this — but it’s really just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve been praying that this weekend would serve as a launching point for steps of faith, development of relationships, and decisions about vocation that will play out for years to come.

What’s craziest to me is that all of these elements I’m describing and all of these pictures I’m posting happened within a span of just sixteen hours! I missed the last six hours because I had to get back to Kent for my kids’ Homecoming festivities. Still, so much happened in the time that I was there that it felt like a very full weekend.

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Sunset Reflections

The sun is setting on Elliot’s years of involvement with the soccer program at Kent Roosevelt High School. I know this language suggests I’m waxing poetic and sentimental and perhaps a bit clichéd. But he played his last home game last night, under a spectacular sunset! So it felt poetic and sentimental… and sweet.

We had fifteen people join us for our tailgate party and cheering section last night. Even some international fans! And Kent even pulled off a 1-1 draw with one of the top ten teams in the state! It was a great way to end the Rough Riders’ last home stand.

Combined with everything that happened last Thursday, I’m very pleased with the way we were able to celebrate Elliot and everything he and his team have worked so hard to achieve over the last four years.

I’m glad that Elliot played high school soccer — but I’m also glad that he’s almost done playing soccer (he’s got a few more road games to close the regular season, and then the playoffs).

High school soccer has been a refining experience for Elliot. It’s often felt like he’s been overlooked. He’s logged heavy minutes for the practice team and light minutes for the varsity squad. And since he didn’t get regular repetitions throughout the course of his years with the team, he fell victim to a vicious cycle of “lack of experience” and a lack of opportunities to build self-confidence that would have made him more valuable to the team.

Even though there have been challenges with Elliot’s soccer team (even more than I can record here), I’m genuinely glad he stuck with the sport. Because it’s taught him perseverance. Endurance. “And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation” (Romans 5:4). I’ve genuinely seen how Elliot’s character and sense of his true identity has grown through his experiences with the soccer team. At the beginning of this season, without any input from me, Elliot took a Sharpie to his cleats and wrote a remarkably concise summary of the lessons he’s learned.

On the front, he wrote, “God gets the Glory.”

And on the back, he wrote, “I am who You say I am” (referencing a worship song that talks about submitting one’s identity to God).

Isn’t that amazing? I love that he’s learned these things — perhaps in spite of soccer, perhaps because of soccer. I also love that he’s learned to build relationships with his teammates. And that he’s learned the value of physical discipline and mental toughness. He’s learned to submit to — and even learn from — authority figures who don’t always feel fair or friendly. There are so many ways that Elliot has grown through his years with the soccer team that I’m genuinely grateful for all the afternoons and evenings at the stadium we’ve gotten to spend cheering him on, even when he didn’t get on the field all that much.

I’m also especially grateful for all the friends and family who surrounded Elliot over these last two soccer games and affirmed him for all the right reasons. It was wonderful to cheer when he was exhibiting his quick feet and tenacious toughness on the field, during the surprisingly-meaningful minutes that he got to play. But it was also wonderful to cheer at the end of the games, at the end of the nights, at the end of the home stand — with the rest of Elliot’s life in front of him. I look forward to cheering him on for many years to come.

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End of the Soccer Season

We’re very thankful to our friends Pete Kenworthy and John Roebke for capturing some images of the Senior Night formalities from last Thursday’s soccer game.

For anyone who’s available, tomorrow night (Tuesday, September 24th) is the last home game for Elliot and the Roosevelt Rough Riders Soccer Team. We’re going to have a tailgate party in the parking lot of Stanton Middle School, starting at 6:00 PM, and then the game will start at 7:00 PM.

Elliot Senior Night 2

The team will still have a number of away games to close out the regular season, and then we’re hoping for a deep run in the playoffs. But tomorrow will be the last best opportunity to see the team here in Kent.

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