Friday, December 17, 2010

2010 Christmas letter - 'The Year of the Ironman'

I'll never forget when Eric announced to our kids around this time last year that he was going to do the Louisville Ironman in August, 2010. You would have thought he had just announced we were all leaving on the next plane out of town for Disney World. They were ecstatic. Their reaction, I'll have to say, was much more supportive than the reaction going on inside of myself. I had two very different trains of thought running through my head. On the one hand, I kept seeing it from 'my' point of view--'my' view couldn't get passed the fact that all of his training would impose on 'my' free time. I would have to pick up the slack at home so he could put in the hours of training. 'My' view believed that it was going to affect our time together in a negative way. How would we ever have time together as a family if he was always biking, running or swimming? 'My' point of view wondered how he could keep God and his relationship with Him #1 if he was doing all these extra hours of training. Thankfully, I didn't verbalize these reservations, but I definitely wasn't doing cartwheels over this decision like my kids were.

On the other hand, I had a completely different line of thought going on in my head and I believe this other view truly kept my mouth shut from voicing all the negativity warring inside of me. This other response had nothing to do with me and everything to do with God and His kindness. God knew I was going to need a little help in this area. He knew I needed to 'see' this working for someone else. Thus, He prepared my heart beforehand by bringing a friend into my life who's husband had done several Ironman races. She was very much a mentor (and still is) and I had been spending time with her on a regular basis. Her commitment to her husband and commitment to his leadership in their marriage prepared me to respond appropriately. Because her husband had done several Ironman races, I was able to see how it could actual be a positive thing and something that brings the family together. I am so thankful for such an example and thankful that God prepared my heart so that I could choose to be supportive of Eric and be on board with this goal.

I'll also never forget a few months later, sitting in the kitchen of these friends and learning for the first time the entry fee for the Ironman. Yep, Eric conveniently had kept this small piece of information to himself. My mouth fell open. I couldn't speak for several seconds. I was seriously in a state of shock. Are you kidding me? Let me get this straight...not only are you going to willingly subject your body to the worst pain and agony it will probably ever experience, but you are also going to pay someone a small fortune to do so? (I'm not going to divulge the amount; if you want to know the cost, go to the Ironman website!)

When Eric announced he was doing the Ironman to our kids, he explained he wouldn't be able to help coach their baseball teams because of the training commitment. I thought inside, 'whoa, they will not be okay with this--now it's getting personal.' Again, I was wrong. They were not sad in the least. It was like God had already given them the wisdom to know that this was a special thing that would take a little bit of sacrifice from each of us. As is so often the case, God was using our children's childlike, faithful responses to challenge and sanctify my own untrusting heart.

Thus, this is how 2010 began and why I call it 'The Year of the Ironman', because most of our year revolved around this central goal. Just as we are followers of Christ and we must run everything through the grid of keeping Him at the forefront of all we do, this goal required similar thinking. It was no small thing--it required a lot of intentional planning, hard work and discipline and everything we did had to be evaluated in light of keeping this goal out front.

An Ironman consists of swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles and running 26.2 miles. It is the triathlon of triathlons. It is a serious commitment. Thus, the first half of our year involved training, training and more training. Training doesn't happen without a plan. You have to pick a plan and fit it into your routine and be intentional about it. I relate it often to parenting. We must put in the hard hours of work in order to train our children and bring them up in the way that God would have them to go. It takes much intentionality. So does training for a race. During this time, Joshua, Wes and Jeremiah were playing baseball. When Eric wasn't biking, swimming or running, we spent our nights at the baseball field. If you'd like to read about our adventuresome baseball seasons, you may click on the following links:

With Spring, Comes Baseball

Unwrapping God's Gifts

Joshua's Season

Wes' Season

Jeremiah's Season

Ephesians 2:10 says 'we are God's masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.' When we surrender our lives to live for Jesus, we each become a masterpiece in the making. Each moment, each day, God puts a new stroke of color or shading on our painting. His strokes are deliberate and precise. He knows exactly what He is creating and He knows exactly when He is finished. In June of this year, God put the finishing touches on two beautiful masterpieces and called them home in all His glorious splendor. My grandmother, Mabel Winkler and Eric's grandmother, Margaret Polly passed away from this earth and on into the heavenly realm on June16 and June 27, respectively. These womens' lives reflected a love for God and their family. Please click on their names to read a tribute about each of their beautiful lives.

With July, came another turn of unexpected events. Eric had a bike wreck. Thankfully, he didn't break anything, but he received a mean down-to-the-bone cut just to the right of his knee cap. He had to take two weeks off from his training to recover. Two weeks may not seem like a long time, but it is when you are full throttle into your training regimen with only eight weeks to go. It's like turning your car off while your driving down the interstate at 65 miles per hour. You lose all momentum. In every race, though, there are unforeseen obstacles to overcome. It comes with the territory. Nike is a greek word that--most appropriately--means 'overcome'. Overcome. Exactly what you have to learn to do when you come up against adversity. And that is exactly what Eric did. At the end of those two weeks, he put his head down, set his mind on the task before him, and got to work. He put one foot in front of the other, little by little, step by step. In this part of his training, Eric got to physically experience God's Words: 'my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me.' 1 Cor. 12:9. It was at this point that Eric realized in a more tangible way that it was going to take more than just physical strength to get him through this. He was going to have to rely on God and His strength when he came to the end of his rope.

As the countdown to the race came in sight, um, so did my 40th birthday. With my 40th birthday looming in view (it was seven days before the Ironman), my sanity went out the window. Seriously. I was off my rocker for about two weeks. We can laugh about it now, but I need to call a spade a spade. I was knee-deep in the sin of 'me-ism'. I really was. You know that 'other' competing train of thought that I mentioned at the beginning of this post? The one that had taken a back seat all of these months? Well, it reared its ugly head. It was short-lived, but no matter. It was there. I was certain Eric was not going to do anything special for my birthday because of the Ironman being right around the corner. The fact is, I really didn't know if he had or hadn't anything planned for me, but just in case he didn't, I was going to be mad at him. Proverbs 21:9 says 'better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife' and Proverbs 27:15 says 'a quarrelsome wife is like the dripping of a leaky roof in a rainstorm.' Yes, I was leaky and annoying and Eric would have been better off living on the corner of our roof. Anyway, that it is the short version of it all. But I basically was a pain to live with for a couple of weeks! And guess what? Eric did some really, sweet things for my birthday and I allowed my ridiculous runaway emotions to spoil the time leading up to it. That is what happens when we allow our feelings to rule us rather than what we know is Truth or what we know is the right thing to do. Unfortunately, those memories will always be tainted with regret--regret that I chose my emotions to get the best of me. The bright side to this whole story is there is forgiveness and wide-open love on the other side of every sin. We can recognize our sin for what it is, turn from it and repent, thus restoring fellowship with our Creator and making our relationship with Him all that it is capable of. Whew. I am glad that part's over. And I am glad Eric didn't choose to shoot me during this time!

The morning of August 29. It finally came. We awoke at 4:30 am and I drove Eric down to the start line. Then I went home and got all my kids up and ready to go. Sporting our matching 'Team Groganator' shirts, we headed down to the start line at 6:30 am.

The day's forecast had an eerie ring to it. It was going to be in the upper 90's with high humidity. Brutally and stifling hot--the kind of day we in the Ohio Valley are used to in late August. The kind of day you want to spend lounging in a pool, not pounding the pavement. As we walked to the start line, in the distance we could see the Ohio River--an almost ominous steam settled lazily over its still, calm waters. Waters that would soon be torrent with activity.

The start of an Ironman is something to behold. For as far as we could see there were men and women lined up with their bathing caps and slicks on, their arms marked up with their racing number. There is music playing and an excitement in the air that is catching. As we watched the mass of people walk slowly forward waiting for their turn to jump in the water and start the 2.4 mile 'swim', I wondered what each of their stories were. In that crowd of people, there was one who had fought cancer and overcome and was now taking what he had learned through that physical trial and applying it to this monumental feat that stood before him. There was one who had suffered through a horrendous car crash, been told he would never walk again, yet--defying all odds--was standing in this line of people today. The oldest woman in the pack at the age of 62 was attempting her first Ironman. The oldest participant of all was a man of 79, who had twenty something Ironman's under his belt prior to this one. There was a woman who was here because she and her co-worker several months back had decided they were going to start doing triathlons to lose some much needed weight. Here she stood, 120 lbs lighter, doing her first Ironman. And among the participants there were many regular Joe's, such as Eric and two of his friends, Charlie and Scott. They were all three first-timers and had most everything in common except for the fact that (cough, cough) Eric is just a wee bit older than them.

After watching the start, we walked down to the transition area. The transition area is where the participants come up out of the water, change into their biking gear and retrieve their bikes. In the transition area there are rows and rows of bikes--2,600 to be exact. We stood on the side of the street, around the corner from where the bike course began, waiting to see Eric. We finally saw him. He stopped to talk to us. You could tell he was excited about his swim time. He looked strong and hyped up. He needed to be because 112 miles of rolling hills and lonely terrain loomed ahead of him; it would take him anywhere between 6 1/2 to 7 hours to complete the bike course. This is the part of the race that many of the participants' bodies would fall prey to the scorching heat.

The kids and I would now spend a large part of our day driving to different points along the bike course to cheer on Eric, Scott and Charlie. I now had my own Ironman challenge ahead of me: keep our five children in line (and off the streets!), make sure they had plenty of food and water, figure out where to stop and park along the race course, hopefully be able to find a place to park my ginormous big-rig, all the while sweating bullets in the thick of the heat.

We met a group of friends at a point about halfway along the bike course. We cheered on Scott--who seemed to pedal by effortlessly and then Charlie--whose smile seemed larger than his face--and then we waited. And waited. And waited. I began to worry. Was Eric, too, going to fall victim to this leg of the race? We finally saw him at the bottom of the hill. When I saw how white his face was I knew there was trouble. We learned his legs had been cramping basically since he had started biking. He was downing salt tablets, staying hydrated and eating. But nothing seemed to be working. His legs were just in one continual cramp. I began to wonder if he would be able to finish.

We continued to trek him along the bike course. As the day progressed, we saw the race bring more and more people down. Many were leaning against wooden fences or laid out in the shade of the trees, struggling through dehydration, heat exhaustion or severe leg cramps. Only mental toughness and sheer tenacity could get you through this part. Eric told us later that he started to wonder if he would be able to finish. He said his legs were cramping so badly he wonders how he got his pedals to turn and that he prayed and prayed and prayed over those long and lonely miles. Once again, he got to experience in a very tangible way the drawing upon the strength of the Lord when he had nothing left in himself. He drew on the bible verse 'that is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.' 2 Cor. 12:10, allowing the power of Christ to pedal him through.

It was long. It was brutal. It was tortuous. It was, for awhile, questionable--but he did it. Never was he happier to see that transition area as he finished mile 112, and never had he been more grateful to get off that bike! Now all he had to do was run a marathon. Yep. Just 26.2 miles. No big deal.

Of all the three components--swimming, running and biking--running is Eric's strength. The downfall, of course, is that you go into it with the brutality of the day weighing down on your body. Your muscles are sore and stretched beyond anything they have ever endured. You just have to resolve to keep going. You need a mind of steel that won't buckle under the physical strain of the pain. So many people came to cheer and root on Eric, Charlie and Scott that day. There were people along much of the running course that kept them going. Encouragement infuses courage and that is exactly what all of our friends and family did--they enfused those tired souls with courage.

As Eric approached the finish line, his excitement grew. His tired and sore muscles were forgotten as sheer exhiliration carried him. When he rounded the corner and saw the last one hundred yards in front of him, every grueling, painful inch of that race became worth it. As he ran those last steps, he thought to himself that what he was experiencing right at this moment must be a small glimpse--a snapshot--of what it will be like one day to step into eternity with our heavenly Father. At 9:26 pm, a mere 14 1/2 hours after he began, Eric came across the finish line. He got to hear those infamous words he had been waiting so long to hear: 'Eric Grogan--YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!' The words of 2 Tim. 4:7 had dual purpose for him that day: 'I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.'

August 29th--I have such a vivid recollection of snapshots in my mine from this day. I picture Joshua and Sophie setting their alarms for 4:30 am just so they could give their daddy a big hug and wish him luck, I picture all of us taking turns decorating our van, I picture my tenacious friend Amy Jo and her family riding along with us in the big rig, directing me down side streets and such, I picture another friend pulling us together to pray for Eric after seeing him looking white as a ghost, I picture others who got on each other's shoulders to cheer on Eric at one point, I picture Eric's good friend Jeff giving him a pep talk at the bottom of a hill, I picture my in-laws sitting in their lawn chairs waiting to watch Eric pass, I picture us in our Team Groganator shirts, I picture the zillion kids of all of our friends and family chasing Eric down the street like the Pied Piper. And my favorite snapshot is when he crossed the finish line and did that little victory thing with his arm you see great athletes do after a big win!

What a special day this was for our family! This day was a day of us coming together and seeing a dream fulfilled for the leader of our pack. From that moment on, there was a definitive change in all of us. It inspired our kids to give it their all in the midst of their cross country season. It inspired me to not give up in the midst of training for the Colombus marathon. It inspired each of us to persevere when the going gets tough--to draw on that resolve and steadfastness that we had seen in the face of each of those Ironman participants that hot, steamy morning of August 29th.

Yes, this was the year of the Ironman. I believe, in all of God's sovereignty, Eric completed and accomplished this feat in August, 2010, because the Lord God knew what was coming. He knew that in the latter part of 2010, Eric would need to be able to draw upon all that he had learned on that scorching, August 29th day. He knew that once again Eric would need to draw on the fact that 'His power is made perfect in weakness.' God knew that on November 19th, 2010, Eric would lose his job. He knew that Eric and our whole family would need to take what we had learned physically about persevering and apply it to a difficult, life circumstance.

My devotional today in 'Jesus Calling' said this:

'When you are plagued by a persistent problem--one that goes on and on--view it as a rich opportunity. An ongoing problem is like a tutor who is always by your side. The learning possibilities are limited only by your willingness to be teachable. In faith, thank Me for your problem. Ask Me to open your eyes and our heart to all that I am accomplishing through this difficulty. Once you have become grateful for a problem, it loses its power to drag you down. On the contrary, your thankful attitude will lift you up into heavenly places with Me. From this perspective, your difficulty can be seen as a slight, temporary distress that is producing for you a transcendent Glory never to cease!'

Oh, I can truly say to you that God has been and continues to be so faithful to our family amidst this trying time. We do see this as a rich opportunity for learning how to live more like Jesus. We are having to rely on our Father in a way that we have never had to before. It is increasing our faith and our children's faith. It is teaching us to hold loosely to that which has no eternal value. And, oh, how it has taught us to be thankful!

A wise friend told us not to miss the many gifts God has for us while we walk through this. I am thankful for that advice. He has given us many, many treasures to behold during this trial. We have been able to have a relaxed Christmas season with Eric home. It, honestly, is the first year things have not felt busy and rushed. I wouldn't trade the time we've had together as a family for anything. Now, I'm warning you, the things I am about to tell you will make you a tad bit jealous. Eric has labeled and organized everything in our pantry. Then, our laundry room, in the unfinished area of our basement, used to be hazardous to walk through. But not now. I can do cartwheels free and clear. It is neat, clean, labeled, and organized. Now, I actually look forward to doing laundry, but you know what? I rarely do it these days because my machine husband is all over it! And--get a load of this--currently, Eric is typing up and organizing all my recipes...I know! Now you are wishing your husband could be unemployed too! :)

Of course, I am not exactly thrilled with ALL that he has been doing around here. Recently, he enacted this policy:

Yes, these are circles for each of our children's cups. Each day they are to use only one cup and when they are not using it, they must put their cup in 'their circle'. Okay. I'm sorry. That is so ANAL.


Yeah, I know. Some of you anal people out there think this is brilliant and you're going to institute the circle policy at your house too. You go right ahead. Knock yourselves out. But I'm not putting my cup in a circle when I come over, I'm not!

...All kidding aside, we are holding fast to God's promises as we seek Him and what He has in store in the coming months. We don't know how all of this will end up and shake out. But we do know that God is Jehovah Jireh--the Great Provider. He provides all that we need, when we need it. He will provide for our family in our current crisis. I am thankful he has prepared our hearts for such a time as this and has taught us about overcoming adversity. I am thankful for his Word in James 1:2-4 that tells us to 'consider it pure joy whenever we face trials of many kinds because we know that the testing of our faith develops perseverance and perseverance must finish its work so that we may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.' I am thankful for this present testing of our faith, for what good is faith that has not been tested?

Overcome. It has been the year to overcome. The year of overcoming deaths of loved ones. The year of overcoming a bike wreck. The year of overcoming back issues and physical ailments. The year of overcoming a job loss. But, with Christ, we are more than conquerors.

'...In this world their will be trouble, but take heart! I have overcome the world.' John 16:33

God brought his precious Son, Jesus, into this world--a world laden with great sorrows and tribulation--to overcome that which is in the world. Only through Him and Him alone, can we experience eternal joy and unsurpassing peace.

'For everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.' 1 John 5:4-5

All of us will undergo difficulties and trials. That's just life. Our hope is that no matter what your present circumstances, you will be overcome by the Overcomer--Jesus Christ. May you not look to the temporary things of this world to fill you, but may you find your fulfillment in that which is eternal! And may you be overcome with the everlasting love that God the Father wants to lavish upon you!

Merry Christmas!

With Love,
Eric, Maria, Joshua, Sophie, Wes, Jeremiah and Owen


Wendy said...

Oh Maria, I love this so much. Dean and the children read it as well. I love how all of your life is seen through His redeeming love in your life. You encourage me like no other...and I am blessed to call you "friend". I love you! Merry Christmas!

Maria said...

Thanks! I so love my Wendy friend!We are so glad you guys are in our lives! :)

Lou said...

Reading your blog this morning really encouraged me. What a picture of faith in action you and your blessed husband are. it is a privilege for us share this road trip through life together with you guys at Fellowship. I know God has great things in store for the Grogans in 2011. All good things come down from the Father of Lights, in whom there is no shadow of turning. We thank God for the trials He brings us, because they show us that He loves us and desires that we grow through them. We continue to pray for you, and continue to be motivated by your witness and love for your Savior.

Maria said...

thank you for those words--we are so very thankful for you and Anita and your many prayers! Merry Christmas!

Karen said...

Hey sweet friend! I so loved being able to catch up on all that I have missed. I'm so thankful for you, your family, and all that God is doing in and through you all. Thanks for using your amazing gift of words to inspire many. Love you! Miss you! Praying for you and your family.

kelle grogan said...

for a second i thought jerry had been hanging out at your house and had his own cup circle until i realized jeremiah was missing!
please send eric to my house for a day.

i have that jesus calling devotional on my list of wants! i must need it, i have heard it mentioned or seen it several times in the last week!

see you soon.
my word verification is mix havoc.
more like reek havok right now! i just left best buy with the girls. wowzers!

Maria said...

Karen, Oh, how I've thought of you often! I keep meaning to send you a note on fb--sure do miss you! I just realized that you are still writing on your blog (I lost touch with the blogworld for awhile) so I am going to hop over there and see what's up in the Woelke World!

Kelle--you crack me up... although Jerry would totally get into having his own circle. See you tomorrow!