In defense of Taekwondo … on World Taekwondo Day

101220111358

…as if it needed to defend itself

I remember a conversation with Kevin and Katey Deasy in Huntsville, AL where they were extolling the positive impact of martial arts on their sons.  I took that back with me to Togo and mused about the reality of having four very strong and physical sons, but I had no idea how to proceed.

When we’ve been flummoxed in such ways while serving in Africa, we prayed.  So, on a day as I was driving through Lome, Togo in February of 2004, I prayed that somehow God would help me find a master to teach my sons the martial art of Taekwondo.  I looked down the road within thirty seconds, truly, of finishing the prayer and saw a huge sign just off the road for Taekwondo.  I stopped by and had a discussion with the owner of the Dojang and within thirty minutes we had a plan for a master to come to Tabligbo, an hour away, on Tuesdays and Thursdays and teach my sons and myself, of course, I can’t let them have all the fun, along with anyone else interested.

You see, I had been a boy many years prior, and found myself testing the limits of my strength in sports, but that didn’t seem enough for me.  In junior high we humored ourselves by arranging fights for ourselves after school, of the bare knuckle variety, to give additional proof that we were stronger and tougher than the average Joe, not GI Joe mind you, just the average one.  I didn’t want that for my sons, to fight that is.  Yes, you are beginning to smile at the irony.  “Teach your kids how to fight so then they won’t fight?” you ask sardonically.

In reality, most martial arts are not about fighting, but instead about defending, and violence, particularly against those who are vulnerable is not tolerated.  My sons had the same question I had as a young man.  They asked themselves continually, “Am I strong?” And, they sought to prove it.  Also. we didn’t want them fighting each other, so, as we began Taekwondo, I warned them that now they were trained martial artists and soon to be masters and they were now very dangerous people and capable of inflicting great harm on others if they used their learning inappropriately.  Smile.  Yes, some weeks later I heard my third one goading the first born physically and witnessed my first born explain to him in no uncertain terms that he would not hit him as he wanted.  He proclaimed, “I am now a yellow belt, and I will not hit you, because my punch could possibly kill you.  I am too disciplined for that.”  Yep, it had worked!

You see, Taekwondo is based on five tenets of Courtesy, Integrity, Perseverance, Self-Control and an Indomitable Spirit.  All of which interestingly enough you can find scriptures to support in the Bible.  It has had an amazing impact on my sons and ultimately myself.  They grew up and were required by myself to compete internationally. You should have seen the African boys looking forward to taking out on my sons all the ills of African Colonialism; yes it took them a bit of courage to take the mat.  As well they had to stay in until they completed their second degree black belt as there is such a difference in maturity between the first degree and second.

This courage and inner strength empowered them to not react violently to not only each other, but more importantly to the many aggressive people that asserted themselves against them during our twenty years in Africa as well as to not be fearful for themselves.  If you know any of them, they have not suffered from that, but have walked with great self assurance and held their heads high.

I am thankful, looking back retrospectively, to God, for giving us the art and sport of Taekwondo and I had no idea that after our time in Togo it would come to have such an impact on not only our lives but the entire country of Rwanda and even advance the sport for Africa as well.

Romans 12:2  Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds then you can test and approve what God’s will is; his good, pleasing, and perfect will.

I can attest that not only God’s Will is good, pleasing and perfect, but that bizarrely it was His Will that we did Taekwondo.

More on that in the next post.

 

 

Aftermath of genocide

I hesitate to write this, but I long for you to understand more clearly that in many ways, the beauty that is now Rwanda came from such deep tragedy.

In 100 days from April to July of 1994 a horrific genocide occurred in Rwanda that brought about the death of an estimated one million Rwandans.  That is an average of ten thousand human lives extinguished each day.

It happened twenty-three years ago.  As a foreigner, I can only listen to, learn about, observe, and imagine what it was to survive, grow up in, or be born into the aftermath of Rwanda’s genocide.  It is now considered to be one of the most brutal in the history of man.  It happened neighbor to neighbor and hand to hand with machetes and clubs, as to not “waste” bullets because those killing didn’t consider those being killed worth a bullet. You can read about it in the many books, some that even debate the reasons for and origins of such carnage.  You can find pictures, videos, and movies about it and can even muse about the world’s lack of response and what could have happened if countries had cared enough to intervene.

Many, more scholarly than myself, can detail for you the psychological damages of witnessing such events and living in an entire populace of those affected by PTSD.  Upon our arrival to Rwanda in 2008, the average age of the country was, I believe, nineteen.  All those fourteen and above had witnessed and survived the genocide.  The government had already taken great strides in rebuilding the country physically and helping the people to move forward with reconciliation as well as judgement for the perpetrators.

I would use two words to describe most of the people I met when we arrived in Rwanda:  vulnerable, which creates a natural caution to trust no one and hopeful, which gave a deep longing for the better in all things.  Families and communities had been destroyed and with it all the good that comes from loving relationships such as encouragement, protection, culture, faith, history, and achievement.  Yet, there was hope that better days would come and the past would not be repeated.

I had not been here long and two events deeply impacted me.  I was asked by a group of orphans from the genocide to drive them around during the period of mourning to visit other groups of orphans and encourage them to persist in life.  I stood before a crowd and was asked to encourage them.  To say that I struggled for words was an understatement.  They had known pain that no human should ever know and had persisted through trials, I could never understand.

While on this tour, we visited memorial sites that contained the bodies of those victims.  One of them called Murambi, actually had the bodies preserved in their clothes and positions as they had been killed.  As I was touring and weeping, I looked up to see two horizontal scars across the base of the neck of the young man I was following.  I asked, later, what had happened to him and they let me know that by the time all of his family had been murdered before his eyes, that the machetes had been too dull to sever his head and that after two attempts, they had just thrown him into the river to bleed to death or drown.

As we are chronicling this journey into faith development through sport and establishing its value, I just wanted you to imagine with me, for a moment, what it would have been like for you, to survive one hundred days such as this.

Oh, and please continue to pray for Rwanda.

Thanks.

I didn’t want to do this Part 2 – Being

DSC01085

One of my great fears in coming to Africa was that my children would not have the opportunities to develop as I had growing up in the USA.  One thing, of many, that I have learned about God, though, is that He specializes in not just overcoming fears but more importantly in giving fullness and abundance to our lives.

Sports had been such a huge part of my development.  The learning of perseverance through pain, teamwork, discipline, overcoming loss, winning with humility, and the courage to take the field or run the race were so instrumental in teaching me authentic manhood.  How could we live in the bush of Togo, West Africa, raising our four sons and persist without sports, without the opportunity to teach the great lessons of life within the context of training and competing?

P1010420When our oldest son was seven, we had our first sport camp for our kids.  It was pretty simple, just introducing them to football, basketball, baseball, and soccer.  More importantly, it was a building of faithful character through sport.  Whereas my development in sport had not been with spiritual intention, it now seemed such a natural extension; to take the lessons of sport and apply them spiritually to life itself.

The good was obvious and I wanted to delve more deeply into it.

A couple of years later my initiatives to give opportunity to my sons to enjoy and grow through sports spilled over into our community.  We had an unused soccer field near our house and after I received permission from local authorities, I cut out a baseball field.  That year, titanium bats had been removed from high school baseball and friends in the US promptly had sent two teams worth of equipment to us in Togo.  We bribed the local kids that for every month of baseball they gave me, I would give them two months of soccer.  And, thus it began.

P1010333

A short while later, we started Taekwondo for our sons and myself.  This quickly became inclusive of our neighborhood friends.  Bible study and prayer very naturally integrated into the sports and the impact of the training, competing, and studying affected our sons and all other participants deeply.

Little did I know what God  had in store for us in our transition from Togo to Rwanda.

I Corinthians 9:25  Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training.  They do it to get a crown  that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.

 

Up, running, and even better! 

By His Grace and your generous affection for the work in Rwanda, our work truck, referenced in our previous post, Making Lemonade, has been completely revived.

These true sport utility vehicles are amazingly resilient and strong.  Even after spinning off the road and dropping into a river and remaining in said river for five hours, it was brought back to life.  The chasis was mangled, gear box shattered, engine filled with water, not to mention the damage to the rest of the suspension and the body itself. It had died.

Now, though, with the perseverance of a close friend and our mechanic, Bob, along with your Godly gifts of $6500, it is up and running again complete with stickers and all.  It is ready to transport our teams, officials, mobile venues, etc… It is ready for work.

For the last week we have been sorting out the sounds and rattles and now it is running in stealth mode, more quiet than even when we bought it from a safari company in 2009.  All is well.

Thanks to you all, especially Jennifer and Jason Durand, for making it so!

Romans 8:28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

I didn’t want to do this Part 1b – Becoming

Friday the 13th of June, 1997, I turned in badge and keys to the district manager and resigned as an area director of Wal Mart.  It was time to pack our container, say goodbye to our families and, along with our two young sons, fly to Togo, Africa, our future home for the coming several years.  We had become missionaries heading to a new life in Africa.  How ironic after my bold declarations of nine years before that I would never be a missionary and would absolutely never by a missionary in Africa.  What in the world would have led us to such a risky and somewhat bizarre change in our lives?

A tribute to my wife – Louise

All who know her love her.  She is undoubtedly the most talented woman I have ever met.  She is a fine artist, a gifted seamstress and designer, a graphic designer, a professional photographer, an exceptional teacher, an amazing wife to me and mother to our four sons, and a deep lover of God.  She is truly a beautiful woman.  She had married me assuming I would be a physician and an Olympian.  After the injury, though, I had assessed my direction and realized I would make a proper physician but would likely be a poor husband and father while doing so.  She was in a solid career in advertising but was supportive as I transitioned out of grad school and a future in medicine to working in retail for Wal Mart.  She knew what I did not.  We were destined for missions in Africa.  So, in 1993, while on a visit to Memphis, she dined with some future missionaries heading to Togo in West Africa and confided in them, unbeknownst to myself, that we as well had some interest in missions one day.

Three years later in 1996, many things had changed.  I had become successful in my new career and had matured considerably, by God’s grace.  Nothing like walking into a 200,000 square foot Wal Mart with 600 employess and 20,000 visitors a week; being handed the keys and wished good luck, to grow you up a bit.  We had moved to the beautiful small town of Remington, Virginia and were part of a vibrant church in Warrenton.  Over the previous years my faith had taken hold and permeated most of my life (would love to say all but am trying to be honest!).  Our preacher quit and I began, alongside my 80 hours or so with WM.  After five months of dueling works, a businessman and his wife took us out for a meal, looked across the table and asked, “Why don’t you quit what you are doing and do what God has called you to do?”  With a start, we said, “Excuse me?”.  He then said, “Why don’t you quit Wal Mart and go to Africa and be the missionaries that God has called you to be?”  We wept, right there in Jerry’s Pizza.  It was time.

Two days later, we were encouraged to call a missionary who was home on furlough from Togo, West Africa.  I did and brought him up to date.  He then asked if I was sitting down.  I was.  He then informed me that since Louise had visited them three years prior he and another teammate had been praying for us daily that we would quit our jobs in the US and come to Africa as missionaries.  We wept.

How could God love me that much that he was so patient to “wrestle” with me for those previous eight years?  Amazing.  Just call me Israel (one who wrestles with God), bum hip and all.

Later, just before leaving for Africa, someone approached me and remarked how great our faith must be.  Immediately I responded that with all that God had shown us, and even with a repeated “calling” after eight years and all the answered prayers, it would be a greater show of disbelief in God to stay in the US than a show of belief to go.

1st Sidebar – My greatest victory in the Marathon was a DNF (did not finish)

A turning point occurred in December of 1991.  I had trained more than 140 miles per week for the previous nine months.  I had raced over thirty races in the preceding year winning many of them and racing faster with each contest.  I was ready to qualify for the 1992 Olympic Trials and possibly the Olympics themselves.  I had only taken one break in the previous ten months, my honeymoon in July.  That week I only ran eighty miles as I would daily sneak out early in the morning while my bride still slept and get my twelve milers in.  Yeah, what a swell guy I was.  All this while taking a fourteen hour per semester graduate load and having a full time corporate exercise scientist job.  Lucky for Louise, my wife, to marry such a relaxed and balanced guy (cough, cough)!

Once in August, after dragging her to yet another race and trying to explain away the obsession as the focus of elite sport, I made a declaration.  “If God didn’t want me to race in the Olympics, then I would get injured, let’s leave it to Him”, I said.  

I had no idea, He would take me so seriously!  It was the Rocket City Marathon in Huntsville, Alabama.  A flat and fast course with cool December air and usually no wind.  My wife had gone on ahead finishing up an advertising job in that area while I made the trek mid-week.  As I was driving through West Memphis, Tennessee on that rainy Wednesday night on my way to the race, an 18 wheeler (large lorry for my international friends) struck my car and crushed it against a cement wall while traveling at 60 mph.  He drug my car for more than 800 yards before it was so disabled it broke free and he continued on his way never knowing until the police caught him several hours later.   

During the accident, instead of considering the danger to my life, my relationship with God, or the loss of our vehicle, I was consumed with thoughts of affected performance in my race on Saturday.  I felt a little off physically in my left hip, but we have since learned that my pain tolerance is a bit wacked from all the years of sports and racing, so I didn’t really pay attention to it.  

On raceday, I took off, feeling fairly good and helped set the pace with the lead group for the first five miles or so.  It was my wife’s home town, so her family were all out with encouraging signs with “Barcelona or Bust” (Barcelona, Spain was the host for the 1992 Olympics).  They didn’t see me again until the 10th mile.  In the interim, God and I had a conversation as the previously unknown crack in the head of my femur continued to widen and bring my racing and Olympic hopes to a grinding halt.  The wreck had done me in.  Amazing that I walked away from that accident with my life.  Miraculous that I had walked away with just a small fracture in my left hip.  I pulled off the course at mile ten, got in the van with the family and simply said, “Well, He has spoken, and I guess the Olympics aren’t to be.”  I was devastated, but, He had a plan to heal that too.  He was redirecting me.  I had been so consumed with what I desired, that my pursuits had become gods unto themselves that I worshipped daily.  It was in this loss, and the redirecting, that I won.  I was not yet ready to go to Africa as a missionary, but I was ready to choose Him over me.

Mark 8:32-34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.

About the healing.  Eleven years afterwards, in Togo, West Africa, during our misson team’s training session, our team was encouraging each other.  It came someone’s turn to encourage me.  In this moment they talked of my determination and persistence and I expressed guilt and remorse that sometimes this “gift” from God had led me beyond His will to pursue my own desires.  I gave the example of my career in racing while accidentally expressing deep remorse and loss.  Other teammates spoke up to ask where I had been injured.  I said, “In my left hip.”  They then spoke of a couple in Arizona that had been praying for the Togolese people, who even though they did not know me, had, while praying seen me lying on the ground and God call out my name, touching me on the left hip and saying, “You are healed.”  I wept deeply as the remorse, loss, and guilt washed away and was replace by His peace.  I was then left in wondrous awe of such deep love that He would use an, unknown to me, couple in Arizona, to speak healing over me.

Grace and Peace

I didn’t want to do this:  Part 1a – Becoming

This is a three part series on how my sport development story happened.

I came from a family where we were given every opportunity to succeed and were expected to do so (in a kind and supportive way).  My father, as an officer in the army and former basketball player, saw the value of sports in developing our character and led by example continuing to play basketball and running well into his adult years.  As well, we all pursued a vibrant relationship with our savior Jesus and sought to live a life where our faith in God was integrated into all.

From the age of five, I ran.  Our parents were quick to put us in “everything”.  I played tennis, basketball, football, baseball, and swam in addition to the running from the age of seven.  We were a “sporting family” of the 1970’s.  At the age of ten, I wanted to accomplish two things:  win the Olympic marathon and become a cardiologist.  I know that is a bit early for lofty goals, but it was important in our family to plan ahead.

Spring of 1988.  As a junior at Harding University, I was racing well and had scored decently on my MCAT.  Things seemed to be humming along very nicely for my 10 year old plans.  What I didn’t count on was the impact of my Bible courses at Harding which began to augment the faith journey I had been on since childhood.  That semester, I was being taught by a missionary serving in Kenya.  Towards the end of the semester after many heated discussions in class, he called me to his office or maybe I just happened by and he expressed that he could see me becoming a missionary to Africa as well.  I remember, either just in my imagination or in the flesh, placing my hand on his desk, quite possibly in a fist of defiance, and proclaiming that I would never be a missionary, and most definitely would never be a missionary in Africa.

Thus began an eight year wrestling match with God that I eventually lost. Only, in losing to God, I won at life.

Jeremiah 29:11

11For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.