The Character Coach

As most of you know, the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl over the Los Angeles Rams a week ago, 13-3, which was the lowest score ever. It was the Patriots 11th Super Bowl appearance. Not only did they have the oldest quarterback to win a Super Bowl, Tom Brady (41), but they also had the oldest coach to win a Super Bowl, Bill Belichick (66).

But do you know about one of the most influential members of the Patriots staff? He flew under the radar for a number of years, and you won’t find his name anywhere on the Patriots website. After this year’s Super Bowl, however, he is no longer hidden. Since 2013, Jack Easterby has been New England’s Character Coach/Team Development staff member. Easterby is the only person on any National Football League team with this position.  A college athlete himself in golf and basketball, Easterby previously served as Campus Director for the University of South Carolina’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Character Coach for the Gamecock’s men’s and women’s basketball teams. After that, he traveled with the Kansas City Chiefs of the NFL during the 2011-2012 season as a chaplain consultant.

So, what does a character coach do? Simply put, Easterby is a presence. He is a friend to everyone and is available to walk beside any and all of the Patriots players, to guide them in their relational, mental, emotional, and spiritual lives. Easterby counsels with players and their families when issues arise and is a resource when the Patriots face difficult situations. He is also a Christian. Easterby leads Bible studies and prays with players but never pressures anyone to attend. He’s there for players, coaches, staff, and families.

I was particularly intrigued by the uniqueness of Easterby’s job title: Character Coach.

Character can be defined as strength of moral fiber, or the personal qualities that are distinctive to an individual. When we say that a person has “character,” we often mean that this person demonstrates attributes such as integrity, honesty, compassion, self-control, kindness, consistency, graciousness, relational skills, a role model, and a welcoming attitude toward all.

When thinking about character, two quotes jump out at me. They are from Martin Luther King Jr. and the apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans.

  • “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the contentof their character.
  • “Therefore, since we have been made righteous through his faithfulness, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. We have access by faith into this grace in which we stand through him, and we boast in the hope of God’s glory. But not only that! We even take pride in our problems, because we know that trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope. This hope doesn’t put us to shame, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:1-5)

Imagine having a full-time staff member whose only job is to help create character in others! Easterby’s role is to build up the character of the Patriots players so that they not only become the best athletes they can be, but they also become the best human beings that they can be. In a February 1 article in USA Today, Easterby talks about his job. “I always make sure everybody’s here.” “If someone wasn’t on time, or was taking too long in the bathroom, or skipping, I need to know. I like to get ahead on any issues.”

Easterby also talks about character. “Character and the kind of people you hire is something that our country is in desperate need to get back to evaluating.” “Unfortunately, sometimes it matters most when we count it the least. And when we evaluate it the least, it matters most. It’s tough, but we have seen a lot of businesses and industries fall because of a lack of character. One of the things we’ve seen come up in our culture lately – from the (Harvey) Weinstein case and so many others – we’ve seen that choices matter.”

The door to Easterby’s office is always open. He is there to listen, offer guidance, recommend a book, pray, or meet with family members. He writes personal notes to players, offers scriptures and inspirational quotes, and is always available when Coach Belichick or other coaches need him. Fullback James Develin said, “Before every game – and I mean every game – he comes up to each of us and tells us he appreciates us.” Another player, defensive end, Ricky Jean Francois, said, “This guy here (Easterby), every day, he walks up to us and feeds us positivity. Every single day. This dude is not pretending.”

For his part, Easterly feels blessed to be the New England Patriots Character Coach and have the privilege of influencing the lives of others. During Super Bowl week, he spoke of his role. “When you lead people, you have to be with them at all points and for me, one of the biggest things is you come in as a servant. No matter if you’re winning and you’ve won Super Bowls which we’ve been blessed to do or you’re going through challenges which we did when we first got here. You have to serve. You have to serve. You have to take your gloves off. You have to get dirty and serve and work through any issue and every issue that’s thrown your way.”

Jack Easterby is somewhat is an anomaly. Can you imagine someone who is an integral part of a professional football team who is only there to encourage, appreciate, motivate, counsel, serve, and help develop character? It’s something to think about, especially as the time for the 2019 General Conference draws near. I wonder.

  • How can you, in your own setting, become a game changer like Jack Easterby?
  • What might happen if our primary goal for the General Conference is to exhibit character: the personal and moral qualities that can bring people together and really make a difference not only in The United Methodist Church but in our world?
  • What if encouraging, appreciating, and developing relationships between one another as brothers and sisters in Christ became more important than winning?
  • What if we ask ourselves the same question that Easterby asks himself in his role as Character Coach for the Patriots? “How can I leave everyone I interact with better than I found them?”
  • What if taking off our boxing gloves and serving one another is the only way we can be a witness to God’s unconditional grace for every person in our world?
  • What if each one of us made a commitment to become a Character Coach for Christ?

Today. Now.

I rise from my bed of sleep to adore your holy name, to live for you this day, to work with you in the bringing in of your reign, and to find in you eternal life. I consciously renew my calling as this day begins, thanking you for the privilege of living my life in this way. I know that I need to take care of myself if I am to be of any use to those I am called to serve. Grant me grace to walk in health and wholeness. Most of all, thank you that I can live today, knowing that I am your beloved. Amen.  

So begins my day. What will you do with this precious and sacred day: February 4, 2019? Today. Now. Jesus reminds his disciples in Matthew 6, “So do not worry about tomorrow, or tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”  

At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, after spending forty days and nights in the wilderness tempted by the devil, Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth. Luke 4:14-30 tells us that word about Jesus has spread like wildfire. Here is their hometown boy, teaching in the synagogues and being praised by everyone!  

On the sabbath, Jesus stands up in the synagogue in Nazareth to read from the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 

Just like that, Jesus unveils his mission statement and says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it.” Today. Now. Everyone is quite impressed by the gracious words flowing from his lips and says, “Wow! Is this really Joseph’s son?” But Jesus isn’t fooled. “I’m sure you’re gonna want me to do miracles in Nazareth, just as I did in Capernaum. But no prophet is ever welcome in the prophet’s hometown.” Well, well.

 But they don’t get it, do they? The very people who know Jesus the best expect that he is going to save them. Instead, Jesus disses them! He says that his mission is to minister to the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed. I can just imagine Jesus looking into the eyes of his own people and then saying gently, “Today. Now. This is your mission, too, and it’s not gonna be easy. It may even cost you your life. Still interested?”  

But this very day – today the people of Nazareth are so angry with Jesus for his arrogance than they run him out of town and are just about to throw him off the cliff. But Jesus passes through the crowd and goes on his way.

And what about us? Could today be the day when you and I feed the hungry, care for the poor, house the homeless, shovel snow, show grace, listen attentively, and act prayerfully? Who is God calling you to be today? Who is God calling The United Methodist Church to be today? And who will God call us to be later this month when the General Conference becomes today? 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer did not wait for tomorrow. Martin Luther King Jr. did not wait. Nelson Mandela did not wait. Mother Teresa did not wait. Martin Niemöller did not wait. Archbishop Oscar Romero did not wait. Ghandi did not wait. Archbishop Desmond Tutu did not wait. Today is the day to change the world by modeling hope, grace, mercy, and unity in diversity.

Last week, I had the opportunity to be a part of our annual Advocacy Day in the Iowa Annual Conference. Forty United Methodists gathered to learn more about the legislative issues that are important to our state. Iowa has a part-time legislature that normally meets from January through April. We have a small volunteer group of committed United Methodists who advocate for legislation that aligns with our United Methodist Social Principles. This year the emphasis is on five areas: mental health, poverty, gun safety, the environment, and human rights.  

For many years, Iowa United Methodists have had an active presence at the State Capitol. Last week I had the privilege of offering the prayer for both the Iowa Senate and House of Representatives, and a small group of us also met with both Republican and Democratic leaders in the legislature. I was very impressed by our stimulating conversation about these important issues, especially when one of our legislators said, “Those Methodists. They’re going somewhere! They’re a force!”

Yes, we Methodists are going somewhere, and we’re going today! Who is God calling The United Methodist Church to be today? And who is God calling you and me to be today? God’s reign is here, and the mission is now! There is an urgency in our faith that requires us to be faithful now, in this moment of time, because The Spirit of the Lord is upon us today.  

But Jesus’ friends don’t quite understand. They keep saying, “But what are you going to do for us? We’re your tribe, your family, your people. What has gotten into you, Jesus? Why are you associating with ‘them’? What’s wrong with you? They’re not worthy.” Rejection. Misunderstanding. They expect what they experienced of Jesus in the past. But Jesus has come to preach, release, recover, liberate, and proclaim. 

When? Today. Now. No more delay. No more waiting. God’s reign is here today. So why are you waiting? God can use any person – even you and me – to change the world today. Now! 

Last Saturday I attended the funeral for Bishop Judith Craig, who served as the episcopal leader of Michigan from 1984-1992 and West Ohio from 1992-2000. One thing I admired the most about Bishop Craig, who was my bishop for eight years, is that she was unafraid to lead now. She believed that life was too short not to be a witness today, not to be a prophet today, not to show grace today, not to liberate the oppressed today; not to make a difference today.   

Now the silence. Now the peace. Now the empty hands uplifted.

Now the kneeling. Now the plea. Now the Father’s arms in welcome.

Now the hearing. Now the power. Now the vessel brimmed for pouring.

Now the body. Now the blood. Now the joyful celebration.

Now the wedding. Now the songs. Now the heart forgiven leaping.

Now the Spirit’s visitation. Now the Son’s epiphany. 

Now the Father’s blessing. Now. Now.

Jaroslav J. Vajda 1968 (words), Carl F. Schalk 1969 (music)

If those Methodists are a force and are going somewhere, then who is God calling you to be today … now? Who is God calling The United Methodist Church to be today … now? What will you do with each precious and sacred day? Today. Now.

Up Your Game or Lose Your Life?

For the past eleven years, I have been spending three days in January at the Hilton Garden Inn in Des Plaines, Illinois. This is where the North Central Jurisdiction Committee on the Episcopacy and the NCJ College of Bishops meets every year. For eight years, I represented the West Michigan Conference on the NCJ Committee on Episcopacy, and for the last three years I have participated in the College of Bishops as the episcopal leader of Iowa. 

Both groups have their own agendas. However, part of the time we spend together building relationships, and, in the case of last week, discerning and praying about who God is calling us to “be” at the special called General Conference in February. Each bishop also meets with a small group of Episcopacy Committee members to give an update on our lives and ministries. In addition, a mid-quadrennial evaluation is completed for each bishop by selected lay and clergy members of each bishop’s annual conference. It’s always a spiritually enriching and blessed time.

I observe two “traditions” for my yearly visit to the Hilton Garden Inn in Des Plaines. In 2009, I was preparing for the Boston Marathon in April and decided to train for the Boston hills by running up and down the ten flights of hotel stairs early one morning during my stay. I’ve continued my yearly “memorial” stair climb each January. 

My other tradition is to visit the Rivers Casino, which is a five-minute walk from the hotel. The Rivers Casino opened in 2011, and my inquisitive nature led me to check it out. I do not normally frequent casinos and agree with our United Methodist Social Principles, Gambling is a menace to society, deadly to the best interests of moral, social, economic, and spiritual life, destructive of good government and good stewardship. As an act of faith and concern, Christians should abstain from gambling and should strive to minister to those victimized by the practice.” (¶ 163G, United Methodist Book of Discipline, 2016)

Every year, my experience is the same. The huge rotating sign outside the casino urges me inside: Bigger Jackpots! Let’s Go Big! Up Your Game! As I gaze around the packed casino, all I see is people, some in wheelchairs and even hauling oxygen tanks, but most mindlessly pulling on slot machine handles, eyes glazed over. Although there are the occasional whoops and hollers of a winner, few people look happy. 

I am bombarded by sights and sounds, all carefully orchestrated to encourage me to become a winner. Hypnotic rotating wheels, amazing video displays, and flashing images are intended to keep me focused solely on the games. Fifty table games, including Blackjack, Craps, Roulette, 3 card poker, Baccarat, Mississippi stud, Pai-gow, and Caribbean Stud, beckon me to gamble.

Almost 1,000 slot machines are programmed to deliver small, frequent “prizes” at irregular intervals, psychologically manipulating me to keep coming back in the hope of finally hitting the jackpot. Naturally, the big jackpots only come when huge bets are placed, thus encouraging gamblers to risk more money. History is strewn with gamblers who won the big one, only to lose it all within hours.    

In its relatively brief existence, Rivers Casino has become the leading casino in Illinois in gross income. According to the Illinois Gaming Board, Rivers had 3.1 million admissions in 2017, with adjusted gross receipts of more than $433 million. By comparison, the 2016 General Conference of The United Methodist Church approved a general church budget of $604 million for the 2017-2020 quadrennium. 

Every time I enter Rivers Casino, I learn something new about human nature and about the church and my faith.

  • As disciples of Jesus, we need to be upfront and honest when sharing our faith with others. Whereas the casino always wins, you and I will almost always not win. The heart of Christianity is found in losing, not winning. Jesus says we have to lose our lives in order to save them. The first will be last, and the last will be first. Being a Christ-follower implies thinking of others as better than ourselves, emptying ourselves, and humbly asking, “Could I be wrong?” 
  • In the casino, everyone is welcome to play the slots and lose their money, although the high rollers are often given preferential treatment. As Christians, we also need to be transparent about who is welcome in our church and who isn’t. If we say everyone is welcome, then we must live that out by how we greet guests, how we invite others to participate in the leadership of the church, and by our conscious decision to be inclusive. I suspect that gamblers treat the strangers sitting next to them with more kindness than some of our church members treat “outsiders” sitting in their pew.

  • It is important for Christians need to understand the difference between gambling and risking. The only sensible way to approach gambling is to be prepared to lose everything. If we place a $5 bill in a slot machine, it is not a risk, it’s an almost sure loss. With gambling, we have to be able to anticipate and absorb the loss, but the addictive thrill of winning the “big one” keeps us coming back. 
  • Risk, on the other hand, is an important part of our Christian faith. When we risk stepping outside our comfort zone to engage our communities in deeds of love and caring, we grow in grace and hope. Risk is thoughtfully and wisely making big decisions to give ourselves away, while gambling pays no heed to failure.
  • Whereas signs outside the casino like “Bigger Jackpots!” “Let’s Go Big!” And “Up Your Game!” may rally people around the gambling table, the signs that describe the mission of a disciple of Jesus are more like “Lose Your Life,” “Love Your Neighbor,” and “Make a Difference.” 

A few years ago, I had a conversation with a retired pastor in his 90’s who was so invested in the future of The United Methodist Church that he even volunteered to pastor a church if it would help. He said, “The church has to change, or it will die. We have to change our image by putting a moratorium on judging and welcoming everyone into the church, without exception. We also need to be continually offering spiritual growth and mission opportunities to people and sending them out in ministry wherever there is hurt and pain in our world.” 

As I wander the casino, observing and praying, the words of this pastor still linger in my heart. As different as the church and the casino seem to be, they are also very much alike. Many people go to the casino to find community and acceptance. Strangers get to know each other when they sit side by side. There is a remarkable camaraderie around both winning and losing. 

In the same way, the church is the body of Christ in our world. It’s where we connect with God and others as we pursue a common mission to bring in the kingdom of heaven. Human beings yearn to be in relationship with one another and be accepted for who they are. Healthy churches provide multiple opportunities for people to form deep and lasting commitments and then go, make a difference.  

Wouldn’t it just be better to tell the truth before people walk through the door of the church? “Enter at your own risk. Even if you’re fortunate enough to come in a winner, you’ll leave a loser. Only when you recognize your weakness and vulnerability will you see your need for a savior. Join the rest of us losers, for when Jesus gets a hold of you, you’re going to die to everything you hold dear. God may ask you to give up your career, your home, your salary, or your long-cherished misconceptions about life and other people. You may even end up at the bottom of the rung rather than the top: dead last. Up your game or lose your life. What will it be for you?