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The 1968 Olympics in Mexico City were the first summer games to be held at high altitude-7,400 feet above sea level. One of the United States' Olympic hopefuls that year was Jim Ryan. He was not only a world-record holder in the mile, but also a dedicated, outspoken Christian.
My family had returned to the United States from East Africa for a one-year missionary furlough, and we joined a large portion of our extended family in a relative's living room to watch the Olympic final for the 1,500 meters. Anticipation was running high, as it was a virtual certainty that the Stars and Stripes would be raised to honor Jim Ryan, the expected gold medal winner.
Indeed, Ryan quickly took the lead and soon was far ahead of the pack. The excitement in the living room was palpable. As the bell lap began, aunts, uncles, and cousins were on their feet cheering.
I squirmed to get a good look at the TV screen and noticed the lithe, last-place African runner suddenly surge forward at almost a sprinter's pace. By the time Ryan was cresting the final turn to sprint to the finish line, the African runner was right alongside him. As they raced shoulder to shoulder, the roar in the living room was deafening. Just before the finish line, the African runner outkicked Ryan to win the gold medal, and there was only one person in the living room still screaming-me. I didn't even realize it until I saw everyone's look of shock mixed with a tinge of anger. How could I be cheering against an American?
That's when it hit me like a ton of bricks-I was different from my red-white-and-blue American cousins. I had divided loyalties that spanned two continents. I (and my cousins) quickly realized I was pulling for the African runner. The winner of the 1500-meter race was Kip Keino-a Kenyan-the first of a long line of Kenyan Olympic gold medalists in the distance events.
Kenya is located in East Africa, the part of the world where I had grown up as a child of missionary parents. Kip was also a vibrant Christian who had been raised in a small village in the high altitude of the Great Rift Valley. As a child and young man, he had run everywhere, and this high-altitude training turned out to be a huge advantage when competing in the rarified air of Mexico City.
In their book The Sacred Romance, Brent Curtis and John Eldredge introduce a concept that they call "the message of the arrows." These authors believe that there are only two things that pierce our hearts: beauty and affliction. Affliction (what they call "arrows") often brings with it a message, the most defining of which strikes our lives when we are young and our hearts are most vulnerable. My particular arrow from this experience was the pain of feeling different and left out. The accompanying messages were "God must not really care about you if he sent your parents to Africa"; "Since you grew up in Africa, you'll always be different and isolated"; "Because you're different, there must be something wrong with you." Due to these messages of the arrows, I decided to be very careful about exposing my loyalties or sharing my history, because I wanted to be accepted and to fit in.
The Kindness of Coach Bennett
Several years later, my parents returned to live in the United States permanently. I remember driving around our new hometown for the first time. We had moved to this community only because we had free housing for a year, thanks to a house-sitting opportunity. The streets were lined with beautiful maple trees and each house had a lush green lawn. It was obviously a wealthy neighborhood.
Being struck with the standard of living and knowing we were still living on a missionary income, I felt the burning in the pit of my stomach as all the past messages of the arrows reemerged. Questions and fears swarmed me from all sides: Will I fit in here or am I going to be different? Do I have to be a "rich kid" to fit in? Should I risk letting these kids know that I grew up in East Africa? I wonder if I can make the varsity soccer team? I wonder if the coach will even give me a chance as a senior? Does God really care about how I feel? As the thought of being excluded began to gnaw at me, I made a silent vow to bury my past, use my well-honed cross-cultural skills, and learn to become a "real" American.
My dad was pretty astute, and he realized I was apprehensive about this final year of high school (my third school in three years). He offered to take me to the high school to meet the soccer coach and to get the details on the varsity tryouts. As we pulled into the parking lot of the large red-brick high school, uncertainty again began to well up inside me. The receptionist doubted that the soccer coach would even be in, as it was still summer vacation, but she went ahead and dialed his extension. With a surprised look, she obviously had gotten a response. She hung up the phone and said, "Coach Bennett is in and he's looking forward to meeting you." She then took the time to draw a map of the twists and turns we would have to navigate to find his office. As we walked through the dark, silent halls, I prayed that this would be a positive meeting.
Once we arrived in the hallway by the gymnasium, I noticed a short, energetic man waiting outside an open door. When he saw us looking for an office, he quickly came our way and introduced himself. "Hi, I'm Coach Bennett, and you must be Dan." He had a twinkle in his eye, and I could tell he was genuinely interested in meeting me. I spent the next half-hour telling him about my background and learning about the soccer program and tryout schedule. Before we left, Coach Bennett told me the returning varsity players were holding an impromptu scrimmage in the city park that evening and invited me to attend.
When I showed up for the pickup game that evening, Coach Bennett was there to introduce me to the other players, and he stayed around to watch the scrimmage. I didn't realize it until later in the season, but that was the only time all summer he stopped by to watch the guys play.
The tryouts for the varsity soccer team were quite competitive-seventy-five athletes vying for eighteen roster slots. The school's soccer program was perennially ranked among the state's top twenty, had a large following in the student body and community, and received frequent press coverage. As we all gathered in the middle of the field, Coach Bennett thanked everyone for making the effort to try out for the team and informed us that the varsity roster would be posted on the bulletin board outside his office.
After three days of tryouts, I nervously got in line to check the soccer roster and watched as many young men left crestfallen and disappointed. I finally reached the front of the line and couldn't believe my eyes. I had made the team!
Inside the locker room, everyone else was whooping it up and celebrating. When the coach announced it was time to hand out jerseys, a mad scramble ensued. I couldn't figure out what was going on, so I ended up at the back of the line. Then I realized what was happening: each player was selecting his jersey number, and whoever was at the beginning of the line got his preference. This was completely foreign to me because, in the part of the world where I had lived, jersey numbers were assigned based on each player's position (if you wore the number 10, you were a forward; if you wore the number 3, you were a defender, and so on).
When I finally reached the window, Coach Bennett asked, "What number do you want, son?"
I looked around and shrugged my shoulders. "Since I'm the last one in line, I guess I'll take whatever is left." Coach's eyes twinkled and, with a smile, he said, "Here ... I noticed you were the last in line and I've saved a jersey for you." He handed me a jersey with the number 5 and said, "This was the number I wore in high school and college. I want you to have it."
I was stunned and I felt my eyes well up with tears. I could hardly choke out a "thank you" as I took the jersey.
Sometimes God uses people to reveal the lie embedded in the messages of the arrows. Coach Bennett noticed me, included me, and made me feel special at a point when I was especially vulnerable and when the messages of the arrows were particularly appealing. I'm sure he did not understand the full ramifications of what had happened with that small act of kindness, but he impacted my life in a powerful way.
After my senior year, I became an "American" and fought to get in the front of every line for the privilege of selecting my soccer jersey. And in every one of my subsequent soccer pictures, I'm wearing the number 5. In fact, dozens of young men around the world are now wearing the number 5, and the number has equal significance for them. Why? Because as a soccer coach, I would tell my team members the story of the number 5 and challenge them to accept the baton Coach Bennett handed to me, and then pass it on with their own acts of kindness. Perhaps they too will have the opportunity to change a life forever!
Upon graduating from high school, I attended a small Christian liberal arts college on an athletic and academic scholarship. It was during my college years that I had another life-changing experience with one of my teachers.
A Visit from Miss Jackson
Just as I was getting ready to leave my dorm room to answer the phone at the end of the hall, a classmate shouted, "Dan, the phone's for you!" I wondered who could be calling; it was mid-morning and I was getting a bit of studying done between classes. As I picked up the receiver, I recognized my father's voice.
"Someone you haven't seen for a long time is in town. It's your elementary school teacher, Miss Jackson, and she wants to catch up on your life. She'll be by to eat lunch with you in the cafeteria today."
Feeling an obligation to honor my father and my former teacher, I agreed to the invitation, but I was a bit worried about everyone seeing me with my primary school teacher. So I planned to get to lunch early, escort Miss Jackson through the line, and find a table in the corner of the cafeteria. Maybe no one would notice me eating with her.
Once we made connections an hour or so later, I walked slowly and deliberately to allow Miss Jackson to keep up with me. She walked as though in pain-I remembered how she had always seemed so strong and confident when she was teaching.
I had grown up on a remote island in Lake Victoria, the source of the Nile River in East Africa. The best schooling option for me was a one-room schoolhouse on the shores of the lake that offered a boarding program for elementary students. At the age of eight, I went to this school for the first time and Miss Jackson was my teacher. In fact, she was my teacher for virtually all of my elementary years. Miss Jackson spent her entire career in a corner of Africa teaching the children of missionaries-and I was one of her kids.
As Miss Jackson addressed me ("Daniel") from across the lunch table, I immediately felt the urge to sit up straight and pay attention. Her voice had not changed; it still commanded respect. We talked about our memories and my life at college. As we neared the end of the conversation, Miss Jackson paused as if deep in thought. She reached down into her purse and pulled out a worn, faded, black notebook. Flipping through the pages, she paused periodically and read out the name of a classmate and told me what that person was doing these days. In nearly every case, she ended her update with a summary of how she envisioned they would invest their lives for eternity.
Finally, Miss Jackson pulled out her pen and opened the faded notebook to a fresh, blank page. She carefully wrote my name at the top and slowly jotted down some of the key points of our conversation. Then she paused, looked straight at me, and said, "Daniel (I sat up straight), now I want to know how you're going to invest your life for eternity." I was speechless. And because of that, I felt embarrassed and ashamed.
By this point in my life, thanks to Coach Bennett's influence, I was no longer ashamed of my heritage. However, I had succumbed to a new and potentially more destructive message of the arrow, deciding that I would not make the same mistake my dad and Miss Jackson had made. From my perspective, they had gotten stuck in some little corner of Africa and no one knew who they were. That would never be me. My main objective was to make a name for myself and leave my imprint on the world. People were going to know Dan Egeler.
As I got ready for bed that night, the conviction of the Holy Spirit pierced my heart. I realized all that Miss Jackson had given up. She had never married. The loneliness must have been crushing during the quiet African nights and during the holidays when she was apart from her family. She must have doubted the validity and cost of her commitment when the years began to mount. Miss Jackson never achieved tenure or received professional recognition for her achievements -and those were remarkable. Yet she taught the span of five grades in a multigrade one-room schoolhouse and was able to fan the flame of a love of lifelong learning in each student. That's the definition of "master teacher"!
Miss Jackson never was able to contribute to a 401(k) and build up a healthy nest egg. Instead, she invested in the lives of young children whose parents were so committed to the Great Commission that they were willing to sacrifice the comforts of their own culture to venture to another. When Miss Jackson arrives at the judgment seat, she'll hear the voice of her Savior saying, "Well done, good and faithful servant," and for the rest of eternity she'll have a line of more than a hundred missionary kids queuing up to embrace her and thank her for her efforts on their behalf.
I knelt down beside my bed that night and made a new vow: to refute the message of the arrows and commit to redefining success based on an eternal perspective. A few years later, I heard the bittersweet news that Miss Jackson had gone on to heaven. It was then I truly realized her intention of passing the baton from one generation to another. This baton was the commitment to live in light of eternity. It was Miss Jackson's legacy, and now the challenge was to make it mine.
Teachers Turned Mentors
As you may have guessed by now, based on the topic of this book, I consider both Miss Jackson and Coach Bennett my mentors.
Miss Jackson devoted her entire professional career to investing in the lives of missionary kids like me. It was a tremendous sacrifice, but one that she willingly made in obedience to the King of kings. She cemented that legacy by crisscrossing the country to challenge her past students to live their lives "in light of eternity."
Excerpted from MENTORING MILLENNIALS by Daniel Egeler Copyright © 2003 by Daniel Egeler
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