New York City Reflection #5: The Greatest Home Run of My Life

I didn’t hit this home run. It’s a home run that happened to me. That’s sounds strange, except that we are talking metaphorically here. I am using a home run metaphor, because it happened during our recent trip to New York, where Robin and I attended a most unusual baseball tournament. If you haven’t read my other posts, you can see them in order here. I am also using the home run metaphor to emphasize the impact that one person’s relatively small action had on my life. One person’s initiative. One person’s courage. One person’s faith. The result: the complete transformation of my life from a panic-stricken, depressed and aimless youth to an overwhelming grateful husband and father who has lived a Great Adventure.

If you read my first reflection from our trip, entitled, “Crying Over Breakfast”, you know how our trip to New York was the second time in forty years of my being there. The first time was when my panic attacks began as I was eating breakfast in Manhattan. It was these panic attacks that were the impetus of my asking Yeshua into my life a few months later. I wept as I was struck by how much God has done for me through all these years. But it’s possible that I was also anticipating a very special meeting that was due to occur a few days later just before we would be heading home.

For the past forty years I have had the privilege of telling my story to people all over Canada and other parts of the world. Each time I explain how I met Jon, a friend of a friend. He was visiting Montreal from California, and gave me a remarkably clear and effective presentation of the trustworthiness of the Bible, the prophecies in the Old Testament that pointed to Yeshua (Jesus), and the process of being restored to a right relationship with God through him. Jon led me in a prayer asking God to forgive my sins and asking Yeshua to take over my life. I knew at the time something special was going on, but I didn’t know how special. I became a brand new person! I give God all the credit, but Jon was his chosen instrument that day. And did he ever hit it out of the park!

Jon remained in town for only a short time afterwards. Over the next couple of years, we talked on the phone a bit and exchanged a few letters, but never got to see each other again…until a couple of weeks ago in Brooklyn. Some time ago Jon and his family moved to the area. So knowing he was in the vicinity I contacted him and we sat down together for the first time in forty years.

It was surreal. It was so special to see him and to meet his wife after all this time as well to have my wife, Robin, finally meet this up-until-now mythic person. Over dinner we got caught up as much as we could in one meeting, Jon wanting to know as much detail of our lives as possible. And if you know some of how God’s grace has worked in and through my family, perhaps you could relate to how Jon must have felt.

Jon & Ellen

Having dinner with Jon & Ellen just before the final game at the World Baseball Qualifier, Coney Island, Brooklyn

There is an interesting true story told at the end of the baseball movie, “Moneyball,” which doesn’t exactly parallel what Jon did forty years ago, but illustrates how as we are true to what God calls us to do, we may not always be aware of its impact. Keep on swinging! You  never know when you will hit the Big One.

New York City Reflection #4: Conflicted

There we were. Team Israel had just won the final game of the Brooklyn Qualifier to advance to the March 2017 World Baseball Classic, and I am feeling somewhat numb. I was certainly happy that Israel would get to play in what amounts to the World Cup of Baseball for the very first time, but shouldn’t I be much more excited?

Team Great Britain (on left) and Team Israel prior to World Baseball Classic Qualifier, MCU Park, Coney Island, Brooklyn

Great Britain (on left) and Israel getting ready for their first matchup at the World Baseball Qualifier.

It was this unusual sporting event that brought my wife, Robin, and I to the New York area. Brazil, Great Britain, Israel, and Pakistan were competing for the final spot in the Classic. Israel just missed qualifying four years ago, when they lost to Spain in the final game of the 2012 Qualifier in extra innings.

Israel flag as end of aisle marker at World Baseball Qualifier, MCU Park, Coney Island, Brooklyn

I never thought this would be how I would find my seat at a baseball park.

We had never experienced anything like this before! Robin and I both grew up in a very Jewish part of Montreal. Our lives have taken us into many different cultural experiences beyond that of our native heritage. So it was very special for us to travel to Brooklyn, one of the most Jewish cities in the world, to root for Team Israel along with a couple of thousand other Jewish fans. It was absolutely delightful to be with religious and nonreligious members of our community. And that they won made it even better!

But why wasn’t the taste of victory sweeter?

Was it that this marked the beginning of the end of our remarkable time in the New York area, as I realized we were to head home the next day? If you have read my other reflections, you know about the incredibly moving times we had at the Holocaust Memorial near our hotel and the 9/11 Memorial in Manhattan. These were but two of the many meaningful and delightful shared experiences Robin and I had together during our six-day trip. Through our over thirty-six years of marriage, we have had several getaways, but there was something so very precious about this particular time, and it was coming to a close. But I don’t think that was it.

I think I know what it was. Even though our team won, I was conflicted. You may remember how it came about that we attended this event. If not, briefly: I provide chapel services for the Ottawa Champions professional baseball team. I was having coffee with the player who acts as a liaison between myself and the team. Turned out that he was due to play for Team Great Britain in the Brooklyn Qualifier and their first game was to be against Israel. This was the first I heard about all this, and I thought it would be wonderful to attend in order to both support this player and to cheer on Team Israel. But herein lies the conflict. The way it worked out Great Britain and Brazil played in a semifinal to see who would meet Israel in the deciding game. The result was both our dream and nightmare, because while we wanted Israel to win, we didn’t want Great Britain to lose.

It was surreal both times these two team met as we stood to sing the national anthems of both countries. Being Canadian, we grew up singing “God Save the Queen” in the days before “O Canada” became our official national anthem in 1980. The former remains Canada’s royal anthem. That’s all to say that while we don’t necessarily have great feelings of connection to Great Britain per se, “God Save the Queen” is still our country’s song. But Hatikvah, the national anthem of the State of Israel, is also our song. Here is a translation of the Hebrew original:

As long as the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart,
With eyes turned toward the East, looking toward Zion,
Then our hope – the two-thousand-year-old hope – will not be lost:
To be a free people in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem

To sing this song along with our kinsman at MCU Park in Brooklyn makes the occasion much more than a sporting event. It’s a statement of enduring connection. But that takes nothing away from our love for Canada, “our home and native land.” So whether it was “God Save the Queen” or simply the participation of the Ottawa player playing for Great Britain, my heart was divided.

British & Israeli National Anthems:

Something else happened that underscores the complexity of the situation. Through my involvement with Baseball Chapel, I have had some telephone contact with Frank Reynoso, the New York City area director for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). We met in person for the first time during Israel’s second game of the tournament, playing Brazil. We chatted about our respective backgrounds and current ministries. Me a Jewish guy from Montreal and follower of Yeshua (Jesus) the last forty years, ten kids, homeschoolers, itinerant Bible teacher. Frank, born in New York, parents from Dominican Republic, grew up on the street, drug lord whose life was eventually radically transformed by Jesus. Afterwards, Robin asked me a question that I too was asking myself: What did I think the Jewish fans we were among thought of our conversation, which they must have overheard? The scene of the two of us in intense conversation and our subject matter must have sounded so strange to our people’s ears. While Jewish people have become successfully integrated in Western society, centuries of persecution in Jesus’s name has instilled an indelible sense of us and them, making the brotherly intimacy experienced between me and Frank completely foreign to the point of being repugnant.

Frank Reynoso and Alan Gilman

Frank Reynoso and I in intense conversation at MCU Park, Coney Island, Brooklyn

But what I told Robin was that while I understand how our people feel, what they don’t realize (yet!) is that the brotherhood enjoyed by me and Frank at the ballpark that afternoon is actually Israel’s destiny. Our oneness in the Messiah is an essential aspect of the Abrahamic promise: “through you all the nations of the world will be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). God’s heart has always been to build a family from among the nations, including (especially!) the Jewish people. Frank and I were enjoying a foretaste of what the Jewish people will one day fully embrace when “all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26). But until then I must continue to bear with an inner sense of conflict, knowing my people look at both my faith and my faith community with great mistrust and regard me as a traitor. I want them to know how much I am rooting for them – just like I was rooting for Team Israel – even though I am also deeply connected to the vast international community of Yeshua followers – like I was cheering on the Ottawa player with Great Britain. One need not undermine the other. It’s uncomfortable, but love is like that.

You can read Frank Reynoso’s incredible story here.

A Baseball Odyssey

Baseball players in silhouette Growing up in Montreal, I liked baseball. Hockey was my favorite, but I watched both sports on TV, played with my friends, and collected trading cards (those were the days when they came with bubble gum, and we preserved them in binders). In my later teens and twenties, I didn’t follow sports that much. There was a moment later on that baseball caught my attention in a special way. We had returned to Montreal in the latter half of the 1980s and one of my household contributions was doing the evening dishes. So when possible, I would listen to Montreal Expos baseball games on the radio. From time to time, they would have a special commentator on by the name of Bobby Winkles. Winkles had been a major league manager and coach. Knowing the game as he did, he drew the listener into the mind of the manager. The effect was a pulling back of the veil, so to speak, and I was able to see the intricacies of the game as never before. People will often criticize baseball for being slow and boring. But once one grasps what’s really going on in preparation for each and every pitch, the anticipation becomes as interesting as the action.

It gets better. Years later, now back in Vancouver, I was due to give a sermon at the congregation we attended. I was working in web hosting and design at the time. While I was at my desk, I had some music playing. The song, Home Run by the band Geoff Moore & the Distance, began to play. I knew then what to speak on. Being aware of the statistical reality that home-run hitters tend to be strike out leaders, I was going to explain how people who are called to attempt the greatest achievements tend to experience the most embarrassing failures. And unless those folks learn to how to deal with failure, they are never going to fulfill their destiny. Too many people are sitting in the stands, watching the game (of life), because they are too afraid of failure. It turned out to be a very special morning.

This one object lesson has become a book’s worth over time. I came to realize that there is something about baseball that illustrates the dynamics of real life in a way that perhaps no other game does. Some years ago I put many of these ideas to paper, hoping to publish them one day. They continued to sit on the shelf when last year I received a surprise invitation to be the chapel leader of Ottawa’s new professional baseball team, the Champions. Through all this time, I have pondered why it is that the theme of baseball would capture my heart the way it does. My greatest passion is for the Scriptures – that I would be able to help others effectively connect with God and his Truth as revealed in his written Word. Yet at the same time I know how essential it is to let God do the leading, and that the paths he calls us to take may seem very strange to us. While seeking God about my possible baseball book, I had no idea that I would ever be asked to be involved in sports ministry.

And I never would have dreamt that this sports ministry would end up being a spring board to a most unusual baseball (and life) adventure as Robin and I get ready to head out to Brooklyn for the World Baseball Classic Qualifier, featuring the national teams of Brazil, Great Britain, Pakistan, and…wait for it…Israel!

Team Israel is favored to win as they have the most players with major league experience. The vast majority of players on Team Israel are Jewish American. Like all these teams, players don’t have to be citizens of the country, but simply eligible for citizenship. If you are interested in learning more about Team Israel and this week’s tournament, here’s a great article.

I really don’t know what to expect this week, but as appropriate and able, I hope to blog as often as I can and post pictures to Instagram and Facebook.

What Am I Doing Here?

WhatAmIDoingHere01_600

The other players had just left. I had closed in prayer at the end of another Baseball Chapel time, but he stayed. Looking up at me he said, “You’re from a Jewish background, right? How does that work, your becoming a believer?” I gave him the condensed version of how I came to the Lord almost forty years ago. Then he expressed his frustration with his life. That’s probably why he had stayed. I had taught on Joseph and how his ability to focus on God’s goodness amidst his terrible circumstances not only had sustained him through great difficulties but allowed him to remain free of bitterness and be a blessing to others. All of professional sports is full of dashed dreams, but in the league in which I minister players more regularly find themselves dangerously close to the precipice of despair. “What am I doing here?” he asked me. There are the really young guys fresh out of college for whom this is their first pro gig. They probably just missed being drafted by a Major League club and are waiting for their big break. Then there are the veterans. They’ve been around for the long haul, had a year or two in the majors, or the minors at least. They would rather play baseball in an independent league than not at all. But then there are those like the player I was talking to. Still relatively young, but getting to the stage where the door to greatness is just about closed. “What am I doing here?”

So we talked about Joseph whose dreams appeared to be even more impossible. God seemed to indicate he would be a ruler one day. Instead, he was sold by his own brothers as a slave and eventually ended up spending years in a dungeon for something he hadn’t done. “What am I doing here?” And then there’s David, called to be King, given an early promotion to the King’s court, but it wasn’t too long before he was running for his life from that same King, living in caves. “What am I doing here?”

“Hold on to your God-given dreams,” I say. “Keep your eyes on him, and wait and see what he will do.” Then I prayed God’s blessing on his life, that he would stay close to the Lord and that he would be a blessing to others.

I am no professional athlete, but I knew exactly what he was feelingAlan Gilman after a game at RCGT Park, Ottawa, having a dream and wondering what in the world is going on. As I was teaching on Joseph and referred to being overlooked, getting the wrong end of the stick, having unrealized expectations, I knew what I was talking about. Been there. The encouragement to be like Joseph was not just for the players. I was preaching to myself.

For me, enough time has gone by to learn how this works. The road to the destination God calls us to takes all sorts of dips and turns along the way. When we are younger we don’t realize how much we actually need time to get ready for what God has in store. It also takes time for our God-given dreams to be sufficiently clarified. We are too quick to determine where we think God is leading us. Only God sees the whole picture of our lives. But even as we struggle down the twisty road of life, he is faithful. As I quoted when I spoke on Joseph, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). When we are in right relationship with God, it doesn’t matter what the world throws our way, God’s goodness will always prevail.