Blazing the Trail

    Trailblazer: one who blazes a trail to guide others; pathfinder; pioneer

     “I know there’s something else I’m supposed to be doing.  There’s something God wants me to do.”

     “Like what?”

     “I’m not sure.”

     “You don’t think winning eight national championships and raising a son is enough?  You think there’s something more you’re supposed to be doing?

     “I know there’s something else.  I feel it.”

     Pat Summitt, head coach of the University of Tennessee women’s basketball program, said those words on February 23, 2011, just months before her diagnosis of early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type. 


      Summitt’s just published memoir, Sum It Up, tells the story of how a country girl from Henrietta, Tennessee, blazed a trail for women in sports by becoming the head coach of the Tennessee Lady Vols at the age of twenty-two.  For over four decades Summitt led her teams to more victories than any man or woman in NCAA Division 1 history.  Even more remarkable, every one of the 161 players over 38 years who completed their NCAA eligibility under Summitt received their degree from the University of Tennessee. The Lady Vols became the most elite and iconic basketball program in the country because of Pat Summitt’s intensely competitive spirit, love for her players, and determination to draw the very best out of those she coached.

     Yet the trail Pat Summitt is blazing now is very different.  It’s that “something else” God wants her to do.  At the height of her professional career, Summitt’s life changed at age 59.  After the Alzheimer’s diagnosis Summitt remained as the head coach of the Lady Vols for one more year before deciding to retire in 2012 as head coach emeritus.  Pat and her young adult son Tyler have formed the Pat Summitt Foundation, whose mission is to promote education, awareness, prevention, and support services for people with Alzheimer’s and their families. 

     Did I tell you that Pat Summitt is a United Methodist?  She writes, “We were in a pew as long as the doors were open at Mt. Carmel United Methodist Church, where the Heads have attended for over fifty years and my father’s parents had gone before us.  There we learned to worship with a simple gratitude to God and affection for Christ.  We were taught that you didn’t talk about faith; you showed it through kindness to neighbors and humility, the recognition that none of us was more valuable than another.” 


       The right of every American to first-class citizenship is the most important issue of our time.  The way I figured it, I was even with baseball and baseball with me. The game had done much for me, and I had done much for it.” (Jackie Robinson)  The recently released movie 42 is the story of Jackie Robinson, who also blazed a trail by becoming the first African American to play Major League Baseball.  Robinson’s number 42 is the only one ever retired by the major leagues.

     In 1946 every one of the 400 major league players was white.  Branch Rickey’s risky decision to offer Robinson a major league contract in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers was made easier because of the potential he saw in Robinson.  First and foremost, Robinson was a man of deep faith.  Did I tell you Robinson was a Methodist?  In a favorite line from the movie Rickey says, “Jackie’s a Methodist, I’m a Methodist, God’s a Methodist.  You can’t go wrong.” 

     Branch Rickey was also impressed by Robinson’s character, knowing it wouldn’t work if Jackie fought back after facing the inevitable insults, hatred, threats, and abuse.  “What about if you can’t get in a hotel or restaurant?  What will you do?  Will you fight?  It will ruin all my plans,” Rickey said.

     “I want a player with the guts not to fight back or lose his temper.  Like our Savior you have to have the guts to turn the other cheek.  We win if you are a fine gentleman and a great baseball player.  Can you do it?” 

     “Give me a uniform and a number.  I’ll give you the guts,” said Robinson.  Jackie Robinson’s “something else” blazed a trail that opened doors for Martin Luther King Jr. and many others who confronted racism with a non-violent and grace-filled response.

Miami Heat v Atlanta Hawks

      I’d never heard of Jason Collins until his picture was on the cover of the May 6 Sports Illustrated.  Collins, a National Basketball Association player, is the first professional male athlete in a major U.S. team sport to “come out.”  Collins wrote in Sports Illustrated that he felt there was “something else” he was supposed to do, “I’m a 34 year old NBA Center.  I’m black.  And I’m gay.  I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport.  But since I am, I’m happy to start the conversation.”

     Jason Collins is blazing a new trail.  While tennis player Martina Navratilova came out in 1981, and while there are many closeted gays in male professional sports, “coming out” has always remained a taboo subject.  Although Collins knew he was different as a kid, he didn’t accept the fact that he was gay until he was a young adult.  He didn’t even tell his twin brother Jarron until last summer.    

     Oh, did I tell you that, like Pat Summitt and Jackie Robinson, Jason Collins is also a Christian?  He writes, “My parents instilled in me Christian values.  They taught Sunday school, and I enjoyed lending a hand.  I take the teachings of Jesus seriously, particularly the ones that touch on tolerance and understanding….  I’m learning to embrace the puzzle that is me.”  Collins received immediate support and expressions of respect and gratitude from his colleagues.

     How do trailblazers do it?  How do human beings garner the courage and strength to do “something else,” to pave the way for others to live whole and healthy lives and make a difference in the world?   There is no better model for trailblazers than the apostles who waited an upper room in Jerusalem until Pentecost.  Their hearts knew there was something more that they were supposed to do than go back to fishing.  When the Holy Spirit came upon them, the apostles were empowered to blaze a new trail into a hostile world, witness to the good news of Jesus Christ, and make disciples. 

·         Trailblazers have a calling from God that spurs them on.  Pat, Jackie, and Jason all relied on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of their faith, and the power of the Holy Spirit to guide them.

·         Trailblazers have the vision and willingness to travel into uncharted territory, breaking the trail for others to follow and keeping on even when the way seems unclear. 

·         Trailblazers count the inevitable cost of leading the way by controlling their own reactions, returning evil with love, and demonstrating emotional and spiritual maturity.

·         Trailblazers always rise to the occasion by understanding that failure and disappointment are great learning laboratories.  Our true character is revealed during the tough times.  There are many things in life we cannot control, but we can always choose our attitude.

·         Trailblazers know that if it were not for the support, encouragement, and prayers of others working together with them, they could do nothing. 

Jackie Robinson:

     When asked about his nightly ritual of kneeling at his bedside to pray, Robinson said, “It’s the best way to get closer to God.”  Then the second baseman added with a smile, “and a hard-hit ground ball.”

Jason Collins:

     “Doc Rivers, my coach with the Celtics says, ‘If you want to go quickly, go by yourself – if you want to go father, go in a group.’  I want people to pull together and push ahead.”

Pat Summitt:

     “Standing there (outside her house, gazing at the Smoky Mountains after her Alzheimer’s diagnosis) I know something with a certainty.  God doesn’t take things away to be cruel.  God takes things away to make room for other things.  God takes things away to lighten us.  God takes things away so we can fly.” 

Ralph Waldo Emerson:

     “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”        

     What is that “something else” that God wants you to do so that you, too, can blaze a trail, pull people together, and fly?  Do you feel it?





Forty Years Later, Still Living in Hope

“Happy 40th anniversary!  This date in 1972 was a Thursday.  You gave the valedictory address at 7:30 in the evening, and I have a picture of you in the line as we walked out to the chairs on the football field.  You were looking pensive.  I was goofing around behind you.”  I received that email on June 8 from a high school friend while I was sitting in a plenary session at the West Michigan Annual Conference.  I was taken aback, having completely forgotten the anniversary.

A week ago I was rearranging the basement when I stumbled upon a box labeled “Laurie senior year in high school.”  Intrigued, I removed the tape from a box that hadn’t been touched in 40 years and began reliving my past.  It was fascinating to discover that what I chose to keep reflects interests and values that continue to shape and form me today.

  • Dozens of newspaper clippings and box scores, many related to the field hockey and basketball teams in which I participated
  • My hockey cleats
  • A letter from the local bank, giving me a $25 scholarship
  • Report cards (my biggest regret: why didn’t anyone require me to take typing?)
  • Church bulletins and concerts where I played the organ
  • The worship service from a 24 hour prayer vigil for the Vietnam War
  • Clippings from a life-changing experience with Mennonite Disaster Service, assisting flood victims in Wilkesbarre, PA after Hurricane Agnes
  • A pin that said “War is not healthy for children and other living things”
  • Information from several colleges that I visited in the fall of my senior year

My passions as a teenager were sports, books, writing, music, church, and peace and justice.  Not much has changed over the years.  My biggest find, however, was four handwritten rough drafts and a final manual typewriter copy of my speech on graduation night, “Living in Hope.”

“Are you living in hope?  Are you looking to the future with anticipation or dread?  Are you able to endure the trials of the present because of a confidence in the future, or are you so weighed down by earthly problems that life promises nothing anymore?” 

Could have been written today.                                                    

“Unfortunately, life has no meaning for many people, for they have nothing left to believe in; nothing to comfort and reassure them; no life preserver to cling to.  They see no reason to continue their struggle in life because they are sure that the future will bring nothing but more problems.  For other people, however, hope sustains life, for hope is a faith in the future.  The kind of hope I am talking about is not a craving for material possessions, nor is it a blind optimism which sees only a world of roses.”

I’ve always been a serious person.  No humor in this speech!

“Hope recognizes the inevitable suffering of man but elevates him to a level where he can realistically cope with life and at the same time eagerly await the future.  Hope provides a foothold to grasp for many people who are poor, sick, and lonely.  Hope is, in fact, a will to live….”

Clearly, I had not yet been exposed to inclusive language.

“Hope is naturally directed toward God, for He is the ultimate source of hope.  Only through faith and trust in God can we look to the future with confidence and anticipation.  Hope can give us security in times of loneliness and faith in times of despair.  Hope can free us from the life that binds us and lead us into a new kind of freedom, a freedom in which we know that the future is in God’s hands.” 

Even as a teenager, I took advantage of times when I could witness to my faith.  Probably wouldn’t be allowed at today’s graduations.

“But what do we graduates, who are the future of the world, have to hope for?  The future looks very dim when we talk about the senseless of Vietnam, the tensions in the Middle East, the growing arsenal of nuclear arms, the pollution of our environment, the overwhelming number of college graduates out of work, or such issues as poverty, ignorance, dissension, and prejudice.  It seems that we are living in a sick society for which there is no hope.”

Forty years later, and we’re still lamenting the same problems.  Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us.   

“Many young people, even your own sons and daughters, are speaking out against the corruption and hypocrisy in America.  Contrary to the opinions of many Americans, however, we are demonstrating and protesting out of a genuine concern for America.  The popular folk song, ‘We shall overcome,’ reflects this hope and confidence that we still have in America and the world.…  Although the words do seem a bit idealistic, our hope and willingness to work toward a better life for every man can become a reality.”

Protesting injustice and oppression wherever they present themselves is the responsibility of every Christian as we work together to bring in God’s kingdom of shalom.  

Near the end of the speech, I quoted Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  “I don’t know what will happen to me….  We’ve got some difficult days ahead, but it doesn’t matter to me now….  I just want to do God’s will.  And He’s allowed me to go up the mountain.  And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land.  I’m not fearing any man.  Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” 

I graduated from high school just four years after King’s death.  I still remember the pit in my stomach when I heard the news that day.

     “What Martin Luther King Jr. said applies to me as well as to all of you.  Like Mr. King, I don’t know what will happen to me after tonight.  I know that my life will not be all happiness and that I will have to suffer endure much (I changed words at the last minute), but I am able to look beyond today toward a joyous future.  I am not afraid because I am living in hope.”

How could I have ever imagined the truth of this paragraph?  I was just 17 years old: out of the mouths of babes. 

     “We all have great hopes for the future, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore the present.  Everyone must do whatever he can to make hope for the future a reality so that all people can live in happiness and peace.”

I had no inkling at the time that this just might have been my first sermon.

The primary difference between the five drafts was the beginning.  Even though I had not received any coaching or help with the speech, I evidently realized how important it was to get off to a good start.

I was also curious that the fourth draft included this sentence, “The old proverb, ‘Where there is life there is hope’ has a much deeper meaning to me if it were turned around and it read, ‘Where there is hope there is life.’”  For some unknown reason it didn’t make the final cut.  I should have kept it in.

I am much older and a little wiser than I was in 1972.  I now know what it is like to feel utterly helpless and subject to circumstances beyond my control.  I know what it is like to offer up my life and my loved ones to God because there is no other option.  I have known deep suffering, intense fear, and existential sadness.

I have also seen the fruit of intense prayer for individuals, nations, and our world.  I know what it is like to ride the crest of the Holy Spirit as it makes all things new.  I’ve seen great and lasting change take place because of the persistent outcry of faithful people who imitate Christ.  Like Martin Luther King Jr., I’ve been to the mountaintop and the thin places and have seen the glory of the Lord.

     Forty years later, I am still living in hope, especially as we enter the season of Advent, for the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.  I am still looking beyond today to a joyous future as I do my part to prepare the way of the Lord.  And I still vow to make hope for the future a reality so that all people can live in happiness and peace.  Come, Lord Jesus, come.



P.S.  My 40th high school reunion was last Friday night in Souderton, Pennsylvania.  I chose instead to spend a few days in Florida with my four year old grandson, Ezra, who inspires me by living every second of every day in hope, wonder, and joy.