Friday, December 24, 2010

Advent Season of Life

The Reverend Jonathan A. Voorhees
8 January 2010
St. Joseph’s Chapel
Kent School

Two Sundays ago, the season of Advent began.  It is a special season of watching and waiting; of looking for the subtle and surprising signs of God’s presence in the world.  I love Advent because it has a spiritual subtlety that is very necessary in the commercialized excess of the holiday season.  It reminds me that I could miss the presence of God if I’m not looking carefully for it.  Yesterday many of you began a new athletic season.  My team was on the road, and we were fortunate to get a win in a close game with an exciting finish.  Despite the excitement, I reminded myself that there are deeper and more lasting lessons to an athletic season, but I will have to look for them, and cultivate them for my players.  I will have to look past the wins and losses to the lives of the young men who are sharing a journey with me. 
I recently read a book called Season of Life, subtitled “a football star, a boy, a journey to manhood.”  Dan Traub made me read the book, literally.  He even bought me a copy, so I had to give it a go.  I’m so glad I did.  The book is about a season of football at the Gilman School in Baltimore.  Though it is a day school and a boys’ school, there are many similarities with Kent.  The author Jeffrey Marx presents a portrait of a football team, especially the coaches Joe Ehrmann and Biff Poggi.  Joe is an ordained minister and a former professional football player who played thirteen years in the NFL.  On the surface, these coaches and the Gilman football players might look like any other prep school football team.  But there are some significant differences around the edges, beyond just the Pulitzer Prize winning author Jeffrey Marx following them around through their season.  The obvious differences are in the way the players and coaches articulate their purpose in athletics.    
            When the coaches ask the players what their purpose as coaches is, the players respond in unison, “To love us.”  To love us. 
            When they ask the players what their purpose is, the players respond, “To love each other.”
            The unique journey of this team whose purpose is to love each other can only be understood by knowing the life journey of Joe Ehrmann.  The author first met Joe Ehrmann when the writer was the ball boy for the Baltimore Colts, and Joe Ehrmann was an All Pro defensive lineman.  The famous football player noticed the white kid had an afro (there’s something wonderful about a white kid with an afro), so Joe nicknamed him “Brillo.”  The experience of being a ball boy is very powerful for Jeffrey Marx (aka Brillo) because it is the first time that he learns that men can be truly and fully emotional; that men have complex emotional lives.  Marx’s own father is practically without emotion in his stoicism.  The writer and football player reconnect years later when the author is doing a where are they now? piece on the Baltimore Colt players, on the occasion of their Memorial Stadium being torn down.  At first it is a shock to Marx that Joe Ehrmann is now an ordained minister.  As a player, he was the life of the team, and he never missed a party.  He was the ultimate prankster and partier. 
But something happened that changed him forever. 
Billy Ehrmann happened to Joe Ehrmann.  Billy was Joe’s younger brother, and he and Joe were best friends.  Being a brother is a special thing, but some relationships go even deeper.  This one did.  Joe and Billy were planning to be best friend friends for life.  Billy is also a football player, and he accepts a scholarship to Towson University to be near his big brother in Baltimore.  But during the early months in Baltimore, Billy is diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer.  Though he is getting every treatment possible, it’s clear that Billy is not going to make it.  Joe is devastated, and he would gladly give his own life for his little brother’s.    
If you’ve spent time in a hospital watching a loved one suffer, hope can come in strange and surprising forms.  For Joe Ehrmann, hope comes in the form of a short poem.  When Joe reads it, he is instantly mesmerized.  The poem is by Edwin Markham, and it is a mere four lines.
“There is a destiny that makes us brothers;
None goes his way alone;
All that we send into the lives of others
Comes back into our own.”

The last two lines of that poem begin a spiritual journey for Joe Ehrmann.  Or rather, it revealed the path to new life that his brother’s cancer had demanded: “All that we send into the lives of others comes back into our own.”  When I first read these lines, I was instantly reminded of the famous quotation from Jackie Robinson:  “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”  Joe Ehrmann had fame and money and celebrity status, but his brother’s suffering and eventual death showed him how much he was missing.  From Season of Life, after the funeral of Billy Ehrmann:
“…turning away from the grave into which the body of Billy Ehrmann had been lowered at Elmlawn Cemetery in Buffalo, Joe felt a cool wind whipping across his face and found himself struggling with life’s most difficult questions: If there truly is a God who loves us, how could he allow this to happen?  How can there be so much suffering and so much unfairness in the world?  What is the purpose of life?  Where does real meaning—real value—come from?”
            Joe Ehrmann realizes for the first time that, though coaches and athletes talk a lot about adversity, he had never really known it before.  Not really.  Here was real adversity.  The first thing he decides to do is figure out the answers to his own spiritual questions.  He begins to read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, and he finds deep connection with Frankl wrestling for meaning in a Nazi concentration camp, asking the very same questions.  Joe also uses his celebrity status to found the first Ronald McDonald house in the Baltimore area so that families like his own could have a place to stay when a loved one is being treated at the Johns Hopkins Medical Center.  Joe himself had spent nearly every night sleeping in his brother’s hospital room.  Now families would have a real place to stay.  But he doesn’t stop there.  He begins to study for the ordained ministry.  After his ordination, he opens an urban ministry center called The Door in a poor neighborhood in Baltimore.  The Door ministers to all the needs of the poor, and he makes the decision to raise his own children among these people in need.  Joe also begins to coach at the elite Gilman School, which is where we began our Advent journey tonight looking for real value: “All that we send into the lives of others comes back into our own.”    
            What is our purpose as coaches?  “To love us.”
            What is your purpose as players?  “To love each other.”
            Joe doesn’t get easy answers to his questions about his brother.  In every way, his faith goes much deeper, into the very real problems of the world and a God who loves each of us as if you were the only person on the face of the earth.  Joe makes a commitment to bring that wonderful, complicated God to the very real problems of inner city Baltimore.  Pastor Joe Ehrmann begins to see that the problems in Baltimore are symptoms of a disease. 
His diagnosis may surprise you:
            “All these problems I’ve been trying to deal with, they’re not just problems, they’re also symptoms.  They’re symptoms of the single biggest failure of our society.  We simply don’t do a good enough job teaching boys how to be men.” 
Joe’s new vision brings together what he knew from professional athletics and the spiritual questions and crisis from his brother Billy’s death.  Joe begins a program called Building Men for Others at his urban ministry, and he also brings the same program to his coaching.  At its heart is a new definition of manhood based on the capacity to love and be loved.  That’s his definition of manhood.  Building Men for Others also rejects the lies that true manhood is to be found in athletic ability, sexual conquest, and economic success.  The season of Advent is about looking deeper into our hearts.  Young men are taught to develop a code of conduct and to find a transcendent cause for their lives.  What kind of son are you?  What kind of friend and brother?  What kind of boyfriend and husband and father?  These are the most important questions.  No one in the world should be treated better than your mother, your sister, your girlfriend, your daughters, and your wife.  Building Men for Others is about remembering the big picture of how to measure a human life, male or female.
            “…the only other criterion for masculinity—is that all of us ought to have some kind of cause, some kind of purpose in our lives that’s bigger than our own individual hopes, dreams, wants, and desires.  At the end of our life, we ought to be able to look back over it from our deathbed and know that somehow the world was a better place because we lived, we loved, we were other-centered, other-focused.”
            My team won its first game of the year.  But how are we really doing?  I’ll answer that question the way Coach Don Gowan used to: “I’ll know in about ten years.”
            What is our purpose here tonight?  Like the Gilman football team it is to love each other, as Christ loved all of us.  And to love God with all your heart, all your strength, all your soul, and all your mind.  All that we send into the lives of others comes back into our own. 
            Be kind to each other.

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