Friendship

Dedicated Fans, Fractured Families, and Snowball Fights: How Sports Brings Us Together

 

by Jason Janz

Eight years ago, Juan Pena and I, our families, and a small team of people banded together to start a church and non-profit work in an urban neighborhood in Denver. Juan and I have become a tag team as we’ve worked together on urban education, poverty alleviation, and community development. We’ve become great friends and have seen each other in the best of times and worst of times.

Our wives would tell you that sometimes our biggest challenge is unplugging from the work. Our staff team has discovered that there’s an “on-call” nature to the work coupled with an endless amount of work to be done. Without creating intentional spaces for rest and relaxation, one can develop unhealthy patterns pretty quickly. One of the ways, we both relax or “chilax” as my sons call it, is through sports.

I am a 30-year Denver resident and a dedicated Bronco fan. Juan lived in a Boston and is a die-hard Patriots fan. Both of our teams are competitive and both sit inside the same conference. So, since we started working together, our teams have been in the playoffs twelve times and actually have played each other three times in the postseason (Denver won twice, Pats only once).

So, we good-naturedly poke at each other all season long. I have plenty of fodder as long as Belichick is at the helm. And Deflate-gate. What a gift! More fun than I could’ve asked for. Of course, Peyton has plenty of chinks in his armor and so it comes back my way.

About three weeks ago, things took an interesting turn. Our teams were both in the running and looking strong going into the playoffs. As you know by now, we faced each other in the AFC Championship. But something was different this year. As the game approached, word got out that Juan’s 5-year-old son, Ezzy, was entertaining the thought of cheering for the Broncos. The parents put on a full court press and bribed him with ice cream and candy to be a true blue Patriots fan. You can see their manipulation played out here –

So, many of us Denverites banded together to “save him from the dark side.” We created a GoFundMe site (https://www.gofundme.com/5ekpeezg) and people pitched in from all over. $150 was given to purchase Broncos gear for him. After we purchased these gifts, we invited Ezzy over to our house to present the gifts. This is how that went down.

Well, as you all know, the Patriots choked and the Broncos went on to be in the Super Bowl. However, out of the blue, Juan received a call from CBS news asking if they could use his YouTube video from the Super Bowl last year where he recorded his family watching the game. It’s one for the ages and has received over 100,000 views. CBS will be using it in the pregame show to talk about dedicated fans.

Well, Antonio Johnson, Juan’s co-worker and friend, couldn’t let it rest. He reached out to local news stations and told them about the video and our journey with Ezzy. Could we use this to make him even more of a Bronco fan? Plus, Ezzy needed encouragement before the big day.

So, Antonio planned an event to further embed Ezzy in the Broncos cheering section for life. The Denver Post picked up on the story and arranged for a photo shoot with Juan in Patriots gear and Ezzy in his new Bronco gear. Antonio decided to plan an ambush of the photo shoot (which the Post was in on) by bringing a cheering section to the house. About thirty of us, decked out in orange and blue, gathered to spring the surprise. Well, when Juan saw us coming, he quickly commandeered a counter-offensive.

 

After our melee, we gathered in the house and celebrated Ezzy and our joint humanity. Sports has a way of bringing people together and bringing joy, light, and celebration into our lives.

 

Nelson Mandela once said that “Sport has the power to change the world…it has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.”

Indeed, we have seen both here and around the world the important role that sports plays in this journey we call life. I’m thankful for Juan. I’m thankful for his friendship. I’m thankful that in the middle of serious work, we don’t take ourselves too seriously.

Oh yeah…GO BRONCOS!!!!!

 

 

Redeeming Love

We met twenty-seven years ago on a college trip. As high-school students from different states, somehow we connected on a campus basketball court and we’ve been friends ever since. We counseled at summer camp and attended college togethCamper. He often traveled to my home in Denver and I went with him to his home and family in Abilene and Dexter, Kansas.

Life rolled on and we both got married and started our families. Occasionally, we’d get a chance to connect. He would take a trip to Denver. We would stop by on our way through Kansas. As my wife and I and our four boys were traveling to raise prayer and financial support for a new church plant, we stopped and crashed at their house and had a wonderful time.

But we’ve had our hard times too.

He was there at the funeral after my brother died in 2008. I rode in the passenger seat of his minivan as we drove to his wife’s graveside after she died unexpectedly three years ago.

So, when Ellis called me and asked me to perform the wedding for he and Karen, I was delighted and honored. Life’s clouds often seem more dark than fluffy and white and so when sunshine breaks through, those moments become pretty significant.

In our conversations prior to the wedding, I became more acquainted with how they fell in love. The story was so moving to me that I thought it’d be beneficial to tell it so many more can hear and be blessed.

When I perform a wedding, I endeavor to find out what the couple is all about. What brought them together? What can we, the watching world, expect to see out of this new creation as two become one? The theme that kept surfacing in our time together was redeeming love.

Redemption can be defined many ways. As Christians, they would testify to the fact that God demonstrated redeeming love by purchasing their salvation from a life of slavery to sin and their own desires. This truth has anchored their lives through its many twists and turns. However, they have seen for themselves that redemption doesn’t just happen in a moment of surrender. God continues the process of redemption and, as Webster defines it, he takes something and “makes it better.”

I was captivated by how this story of redemption unfolded in their lives. Because sometimes the work of redemption doesn’t look like things are getting better, but rather much worse.

Karen and Ellis both suffered the dissolution of their marriages. Karen through divorce and Ellis through death. She had to begin a new normal as a single mom that would last for seven years. He became a single dad to four children and, by his testimony, the help was scarce.

Where was God? Where was his “bettering” work? They would learn in this valley that God’s redemptive workshop often looks different than what we would design. What He is creating in us often feels like confusing and misguided work.

In this valley of doubt, Karen found a church family to lean on who helped her when she was short on her mortgage payment. Friends at work shoved busy work her way to help her get the hours she needed to keep food on the table. God used a community to show her a broader definition of family.

Ellis would start to feel the redeeming love of God in a grief group at his church. Always one to be talkative, Ellis underwent a transformation as he sat week after week and just learned to listen. When he was eventually asked to lead the group, he stood up in front and heard the stories of people’s loss. He told me that for the first time, he felt the pain of others in his own heart. What used to be mere sympathy turned to real and deep empathy for those who are hurting. Someone was getting better.

But where was this leading? Could this good God who walked with them through the darkest valleys provide complete healing or would the hurt overwhelm them? Would God’s redemptive work ever involve bringing love back into their lives? Could God take two dark stories and make one bright light? Karen and Ellis would see for themselves that even though there are times when it’s difficult to believe that God is working, it doesn’t mean that He’s not. His power is often slowly, steadily working on our behalf to see all things come together for good.

By this time, Karen had given up on romance until her kids were grown and out of the house. After all, who could she ever trust with her kids? And it seems as though few men she knew understood the lonely land of single parenting. A mutual friend, Debbie, took a gamble and introduced Ellis and Karen over email. Both had experienced the loneliness, despair, and frustration that comes with just entertaining the thought of getting remarried. So, when the intro came, to say they were hesitant would be an understatement. Yet, as the correspondence zipped back and forth over several weeks, something seemed different. Ellis called Debbie’s husband, Tim. “Is she for real? I really like her heart and something’s happening here.” Tim assured him, “I’ve seen her in action for years. I’ve watched her sacrifice to help my wife when she was ill for a time. She’s consistent. She’s the real deal.”

It seemed too good to be true. The writing turned to phone calls which led to the obvious. It was time to meet in person.

Ellis made the trip to Kansas City several hours from his home in Abilene. As he pulled up to her house, his nervous excitement was almost more than he could bear. He parked the car and glanced toward the front door. There she was. Standing on the front porch waiting for him.

He said his first thought was “Whew! She’s pretty. That worked out!”

But then it hit him. Here was a woman who had every reason to not trust men standing there waiting for him. It was as if she was saying, “Welcome home!” For Ellis, that meant everything. “Home” for Ellis growing up was not a place of security or solace. Dad wasn’t around and let’s just say that times were always pretty tough and lean.

Ellis thought to himself. “Could this be it?” After a pleasant time together, they began to see each other more regularly. And it was time to put this to the real test. They exchanged their objections seeing if one could scare off the other. She said it was like Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men” where he exclaimed, “You can’t handle the truth!” They were trying to see if they could handle each other’s “truth.”

“We have too many kids. You have three and I have four.”

“We live 2.5 hours away from each other.”

“You don’t know my dark side. So here, let me tell you.”

They got it all out. And neither of them ran away.

Ellis bald

They would soon discover that this match would make each of them better. He was trusting of others and demonstrated an “all-in” kind of love. She needed to see this as she had let hurt push her into a guarded corner. And Ellis parted clouds. His whole life, he has brought joy into dark places as he has endeavored to make the best of the tough cards he was dealt. She, on the other hand, brought order to his free-wheeling spirit. He said that the amount of lists and calendars she pulled out was a shock to his system. He was also moved as he watched her serve others. While he usually found himself up front and in charge, he watched her demonstrate a behind-the-scenes service that brought excellence and harmony to what she touched. There was no doubt that if these two became one, a lot of things would get better.

Ok. First test passed. “But what about our kids? This is about more than just us.” So the time came to see if a blended family was possible. At Spring Break, they rented two cabins on a lake and gave it a whirl. As the first meal was being prepared, nine humans were crammed around a small kitchen island with a cacophony of voices clamoring to be heard.

Karen thought to herself, “This is awesome!” She looked over at Ellis and caught his eye. They smiled. This might just work! Seven kids? Three 14-yr-old girls in one house? That sounds crazy! And it would be.

But sometimes crazy can be beautiful.ellis and karen baseball

It soon became obvious that “something better” was forming. They were clicking. The families were blending. On the Spring Break trip, the three 14-yr-olds became like sisters. Ellis and Karen decided it was time to take it to the next level. He began looking for a job and a place to live in Kansas City. After several months, God opened the door and he found a great job.  He struggled though in finding a place to live. They made it a matter of prayer and, to Karen’s surprise, one night she heard pounding outside. As she looked out to see what was happening, she saw her neighbor putting a “For Rent” sign in his front yard. For her, this was confirmation – a perfect environment in which to see if this “blending” could really pass the final test. Soon, Ellis and his crew moved in next door!

Once this was completed and a path became worn between the two houses, it was obvious this was meant to be. So, Ellis decided it was time to make it official. He gathered the courage and cash to make the ask. But he also needed words. Karen had referenced a Casting Crowns song during one of their conversations.

Maybe you and I were never meant to be complete
Could we just be broken together
If you can bring your shattered dreams and I’ll bring mine
Could healing still be spoken and save us
The only way we’ll last forever is broken together

These words provided context to this story of redeeming love. As he pulled out the ring, he referenced the song and said, “even though we are broken in different ways, our jagged edges fit perfectly together.”

And with that, she took him up on his offer.

Fast forward to January 2nd. Everyone’s dressed to the nines. The church building couldn’t be more beautiful and the wedding party couldn’t be more unique.

Seven kids.

Seven children all stood on the platform as they witnessed their mom and dad tying the knot.

IMG_2971Redeeming love took center stage that day. And it’s a story we all need to hear and believe in. It’s what the world needs. A hope that things can get better. A hope in a God who is working even in the dark places to see redemption come to full fruition. I realize that not every story culminates at a marriage altar and have two people riding off into the sunset. Sometimes, we stand at caskets and question “all things working together for good?” But take heart, God’s full work of redemption is always in motion.  Sometimes we see it in stories like this and sometimes we just have to trust that one day, all will be made right. The redeeming love of God has the power to make the most difficult stories better…much better.

EM with K signing