Tuesday, February 12, 2013

AVERYday: God and Basketball - Part 24

This guy.

Avery really loved this guy.

Master of hide-n-seek,
conqueror of large snow covered hills with a flimsy plastic sled,
impromptu bicycle-ride planner that always ended in ice cream.

This guy.

Matt has always been easy going. A laid back and go with the flow, kind of guy. It's a wonderful quality. Endearing. Comforting. He demands little of the people in his life. A simple smile and this guy is your best friend for life.

When Avery started fifth grade this past September her number one goal was to play on whatever school sports team she could. Volleyball season came first and I worried thinking the experience would end up being bad for her. Avery didn't know how to play volleyball. Maybe the gym would be too loud and it would be confusing or her teammates would get upset because she would make a mistake and then she'd get embarrassed, or worse, maybe she would be such a poor player that she wouldn't get any play time at all and she'd just be heartbroken... of course, those were my fears, not hers.
Avery's dear friend, Katie, on the left at volleyball.

Avery ended up being a pretty good little athlete. Her assertiveness surprised me. Matt was so excited because he could see her potential. I was excited because she was so happy. They would sit together and talk about volleyball and then the upcoming season of basketball. They made plans to practice at the park. Avery was so excited to be placed under Matt's basketball training wing.

One day she walked up to Matt and told him he needed to coach their basketball team. He laughed it off, telling her to focus on volleyball, but she was insistent. He tried to explain that he worked full time, that the time commitment needed to coach a 5th and 6th grade basketball team wasn't possible with his job, plus, what did he know about girls? She then came up with an obvious solution: pointing to me she said that I could help coach! That way, I could start the practices and then Matt could come later when he was done working. I explained that wouldn't be possible because I was scared of the ball. In fact, I had made it my life mission to never, ever involve myself in any activity where people were hurling objects at me (except for my not-so-thought-out stint in the US Army). Anyway, ever been hit in the face by a basketball? It hurts. Bad.
But, man. Avery would not let it go. Over and over she would remind us, "you need to tell the school you're going to be the coach." One afternoon, we walked into the school for a volleyball game and Mr. Taylor, the Athletic Director, said to Matt, "so Avery tells me you're going to be our new basketball coach!"  I tried to talk to Avery. "Honey, I know you want Matt to coach, but I just don't think that's going to work." "But, Mom," she explained in that patient, matter-of-fact way she had. "He needs to."

After she passed, how could he say no?

At first I thought maybe she was so insistent for me. Maybe walking back into that school a week after her funeral was to help me move forward. But I remembered she was after Matt to coach, not me. She just used me as a vehicle to get Matt into that gym.

Then I thought, well, maybe it was for the girls. I remember in seventh grade my friend Veronica died. Her locker was cleared out and her name erased from attendance sheets. A part of my heart had hardened with the knowledge that one of my friends could be here one second and so completely gone the next. And, to me and my immature mind, it seemed like the grown-ups got over it way too easily. Maybe Avery had wanted us to coach to show the girls that even though mourning someone was hard, it was possible to go on and have fun. 
I loved seeing Matt with these girls. I loved how he knew each and every one of them within the first week and could tell you (in detail if you were willing to listen) which skill set this one had or needed to have or what position they would be best at. I loved how he would talk to them like they were professional ball players and act surprised when he realized they had no idea what he was talking about.
I loved how he came home all excited, excited not because of their incredible win, but because, as he exclaimed "I installed my very first ponytail!" (since one of the girls had forgotten to put her hair up).
After detailing every play of every game he would slump his shoulders a bit, "I wonder what kind of player Avery would have been." One of a million unanswered questions we'll always have.

Now, almost three months after Matt first took hold of the coveted dry-erase clipboard, I believe I know why Avery was so insistent that Matt needed to coach basketball. I believe God was preparing our healing and I believe Avery knew that. Maybe not the specifics, but she knew that God called Matt to coach inside this small gym of her modest Christian School and that he had to answer that call and that is why she was so insistent and so firm and adamant.
None of us knew how to cope with Avery's sudden death. I turned to God with the simplest of prayers: please, help me. Immediately a scripture came to my mind and would remain on repeat for five full days and nights: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens meI can do ALL things through Christ who strengthens me. I held on to the courage of others. I cried openly into the palms of my hands. But no one heard the words spoken between God and I in my heart.
And Matt didn't know God well enough to turn to Him, or to recognize Him speaking to his heart. Matt had no experience, no example. He saw only my head bowed, eyes squeezed tight, forehead wrinkled in an unrecognizable pain. He had no way of knowing the conversations pulsating through the core of my innermost being: my railing anger, confused pleading, and the comforting answers which found their way back to my knowing.
But through this team? This team has taught Matt who God is. 
Walking into the school that Avery adored, day after day, looking into the faces of children that had known Avery for years: had laughed with her, been annoyed by her, supported by her, created inside jokes with her, learned and played and prayed with her - somewhere along the way Matt learned about God's Gifts. He learned about the blessings of life.

Coach Matt and Mr. T with the girls.

But most of all, by coaching this team, Matt has been led towards faith by a wonderful, God filled man: Mr. Taylor. Both Matt and Mr. T enjoy sports. (A lot.) They both are about the same age and have boys around the same age. They both do tile work. Their father's even have the same name. They both have a spunk and free spirit about them. They are both easy going and patient. And they both coached the girls basketball teams (5th/6th by Matt; 7th/8th by Mr. T.). The biggest lesson Mr. T has taught Matt is that a man whose heart is centered on God is a man who can accomplish anything.

Basketball Hall of Famer, Larry Bird, once said, "A winner is someone who recognizes his God-given talents, works his tail off to develop them into skills, and uses these skills to accomplish his goals." It's true for the girls on the basketball team, but it's also true of all of us. I hope that Matt can see the talents God has given him and he chooses to develop them to reach his goals. And I believe that, through Avery, Matt was able to take those first, very important steps.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

AVERYday: How Will You Answer if He Calls?

Avery might have only been 11, but she had very specific plans.

She was going to read scripture in church. And play the piano before services began. And help out in Sunday School. And, also, maybe she could help in the kitchen for coffee hour. (She liked helping out in the kitchen.)

She was going to go on mission trips with her youth group, hoping to cuddle orphans and tell young children all about Jesus. (She'd build houses if she had to, but she'd rather work with the little kids.)

She was going to go to college at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, stay in a dorm with her best friend, Katie and compete on the gymnastics team. (Katie's mom was going to send care packages full of chocolate chip cookies and soda.)

After college, she was going to travel to Haiti and save everyone. Because there was this awful earthquake in Haiti and for a while everyone helped... but then the help sort of faded away and Avery was going to make sure that she would go to finish everything that still needed help.

She was going to work in orphanages. Playing with children. Rocking them. Reading to them. Talking to them about Jesus. And I could come to visit her.

In fact, Avery was going to tell everyone about Jesus because, she surmised, "if people knew about Jesus, then they wouldn't feel lonely or afraid anymore."

Avery would tell me of her plans and I would smile. Because she was young and her thoughts were simple and surely she would change her mind a thousand times before she grew up.

Except God didn't want her to change her mind. Or her heart.

This little girl, who would never grow old, would hold Jesus in her heart for ever and ever.

My daughter saw her world as one where Christ reigned with simple rules: be kind. Help others. And, above all, tell people about God.

I received an email a few weeks after Avery's death: "you are Avery's voice; don't silence her." It was a lot of responsibility and kind of scared me, yet I found that the more I told people about who Avery was, what she believed in, about the faith that held her tight, the more my sorrow lifted and joy flooded in.

I spent the minutes, days and weeks after her death repeating Philippians 4:13: "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." Those words ran through my head, coursed their way through my veins, encouraged my heart to keep beating.

I can do ALL things... all things? Even this, Lord? Yes. All things. Even this.

Soon, an idea to me. But I shook it away. Yet it kept coming back. Uninvited, it would meet me around corners, before sleep, upon waking, staring back at me in the mirror. I've never "heard" God's voice; not as an actual voice...but for some reason, this idea wouldn't leave me. Was this what people meant when God showed them signs? Or led them to something specific? That tugging of the heartstrings - was that God?

Lord, I'm sorry, but you're mistaken. I'm not cut out for this. I'm ornery and sarcastic. I swear too much and watch R-rated movies. I don't like people.

You do, too, like people. You're just anxious and awkward about meeting them. Stop with the excuses. This is what I am calling you to do.

I went to my sister with this ridiculous idea.

What if we found a way to keep Avery's voice alive? What if we continued to do all the things she wanted to do, but can't do, but other people can do? What if we could find a way to support mission trips? Especially those to Haiti? She loved Haiti. What if we could figure out a way to tell people about Jesus through her love of reading? Donate Christian books to her school or to the library? What if we could find ways - fun, exciting ways, to tell people about Jesus, to plant seeds of faith?

Instead of thinking it was a ridiculous idea my sister only shrugged, "what took you so long?"

Before I knew it, my friend Ginger, my sister Shannon, and I were huddled around a crowded kitchen table, laptops lit, pencils scribbling notes on paper, lists growing as long as my arm.

I turned around and a long-lost classmate of mine was filing necessary paperwork and researching how to do things legally.

I blinked and my cousin had designed an amazing logo. This amazing logo:

And that was it. AVERYday Ministries was born.

Now, the hard work begins. I am filled with worry and doubt and anxieties. Do I even know what I am doing? What if I fail Avery? What if, what I imagine never comes to fruition? What's worse: creating all this only to have it flop? Or not trying at all?

I can do all things.... ALL THINGS... I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Even this. Yes, even this.

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