The All-Important First Touch, Part II

The following is a talk I gave at the Health Talents International Breakfast, Lipscomb University, Nashville, TN on 7/2/10.


Thank you for your introduction, Marie.

I’m a little of a Johnny-come-lately when it comes to direct involvement with Health Talents International, but it’s certainly been on my radar for many years. We came to know Marie and Carl Agee through Cahaba Valley Church of Christ during my student days at the UAB School of Optometry in the late 80s. We were a mac & cheese, beans & weenies poor student family back then, especially after Sandy retired from being a full time CPA to take care of our newborn son. So Marie took pity on us and asked her to do a “little accounting” for HTI. A “little” turned into a “lot”—about 16 years worth. Marie has a way of getting the most out of people.

Marie also asked me many times to consider going to Guatemala on an eye care trip, and I kept putting her off.  I felt I had my own mission in Huntsville, which was certainly true, but I finally realized that it is possible to juggle two things at once, and the time came in my life and in my professional career to “shake things up” a bit, so I finally said yes. Remember that woman in the parable who kept knocking on the judge’s door demanding justice? Marie is that woman. Those of you who know Marie know that she is nothing if not persistent. Thanks for being my friend, Marie, and for not giving up on me.

You may have noticed there’s a little soccer tournament going on over in South Africa. In fact, later this morning, I’ll be searching for a tall cup of coffee and a big screen TV so that I can pull for the Netherlands, aka “Oranje,” aka “The Flying Dutchmen” as they take on Brazil. When you’re a fan of the US National Team, it’s very prudent to have a Plan B.

Oh no, some of you are thinking, he’s one of those soccer people. He’s probably going to pull out one of those little plastic horns and start torturing us with it! Relax, don’t worry, Marie made me leave my vuvuzuela in the car. But yes, I am a soccer person. If you go to my Facebook page you’ll see a profile picture of me dressed in my red, white and blue Nike National Team jersey, blue Nike soccer shorts, Nike shoes, an American flag bandanna on my head, holding the Stars and Stripes in my right hand, my right foot atop a soccer ball, flashing my best “Don’t Tread on Me” scowl. Not that it did that much good against Ghana.

I didn’t grow up playing, but when my sons started back in the 90s, I caught football fever–real football–and fell in love with what we aficionados call, “The Beautiful Game.”

Wait a minute, hold the phone, don’t you mean “The Boring Game?” Don’t you mean that game where they kick the ball around for 90 minutes, sometimes more, often with little or no scoring and everybody gets all excited and acts like the they won the Super Bowl or something when there’s a tie (or in soccer parlance, a draw)?

Don’t you mean “The Wimpy Game?” That game where a histrionic player flops on the field (it’s actually called the pitch) at the slightest contact, the one where the trainers rush on, carry the writhing player off to the sideline on a stretcher where they proceed to spritz his boo-boo with magic water, and lo and behold, seconds later the player springs to his feet completely healed and ready to reenter the match? Don’t you mean that game?

I’m not sure what’s in that magic water, but I know one thing—Oral Roberts was never that good!

I’ll be the first to admit that soccer is an “acquired taste.” When Sandy called me at work back in 1993 and told me that she had signed up David our oldest son, then 4 years old, for fall soccer, I replied, “You did what?” But I began to watch, then play and eventually coach. We spent years traveling to matches and tournaments with our 3 sons, and if you tried to remove the soccer thread from our family tapestry, I’m afraid the entire piece of cloth would unravel.

But if you’re one of those people who watch all this hoopla from afar and think What’s the big deal?, let me give you the key to appreciating soccer: Pay attention to a player’s first touch. The first touch is everything in soccer. When the ball comes to a player, does he gather it in, lightly and gently, bringing it under his mastery and control, or does the ball bounce off of him like it does a brick wall, rolling several feet away into the clutches of an opposing defender?

After that first touch, is the player able to look up and scan the pitch with his eyes, seeking useful and productive things to do with the ball, meeting the pressing need of the moment, or is he discombobulated and panicky, trying desperately to bring the ball under his control amidst great defensive pressure?

The first touch is everything in soccer. I spent years trying to learn it and teach it. It can be taught, but it’s also a gift. Great players like David Villa and Lionel Messi were born with it and then spent many years refining it through practice and matches. The first touch is what separates champions from also-rans.

The first touch is everything in Christianity as well. Let me share with you one of my biggest fears this morning, one that has occupied my mind a great deal over the past few years. I fear that Christianity in America has lost its first touch.

I have often asked myself this question: Had I not born to Christian parents and brought up a believer, would I be a Christian today?

I’d like to think I would be, but really, I’m not too sure. I’d like to think that I would have been brought to the brink of faith by scripture and by fine, intellectual apologetic arguments by reasonable, smart Christians. I’d like to think I would have ultimately been moved past the threshold of belief by the pure, unadulterated faith and love of people like Ralph and Harriette Shivers, whom many of you know, who taught my Sunday School classes when I was a boy, watched my back and mentored me after my father died shortly before I graduated from high school, and even today show me how to keep the faith through the many seasons of life, full of both heartache and joy.

I’d like to think that I would believe because of my exposure to people like that, but really I can’t be sure. In fact, I’m reasonably sure that if all I had access to was the veneer of Christianity that is on display in today’s public square, that I might say, “Uh, thanks, but no thanks,” turn my back, and walk away.

I’m afraid that we Christians in America today are, by and large, not known for our purposeful, loving, feathery first touch, but instead for our collective lead foot which is often brought sharply into the backside of those with whom we disagree and consider to be “enemies” of God. What other conclusion can honest seekers draw when their first impression of Christianity, that first touch, is one of favoritism over justice, judgment over mercy, and arrogance over humility?

Praise be to God, then, that in 1973 a group of young Christians in Birmingham, Alabama  decided to put first things first and turn to scripture to consider the questions: What did Jesus do? What was his first touch like? What characterizes the coming of the Kingdom of God?

They found their answer in Matthew 9:35: “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness.”

Those early HTI  pioneers learned some very important lessons about the Kingdom of God: that it was not only about the “by and by” but also the “here and now”; that the Gospel was intimately connected to and concerned with the physical state of people, that this material stuff, these bodies that God had created and called “Good!” were to be cared for, tended to, and if possible, healed, and that this was a vital part of God’s regenerative purposes in the breaking out of His Kingdom on this earth; that when it was came to “teaching the Gospel” versus “meeting physical needs” that it was not merely a matter of “either/or” but instead “both/and.”

Since 1973, evangelical fads have come and gone. The latest and greatest “PROGRAMS GUARANTEED TO SPREAD THE GOSPEL FARTHER AND FILL YOUR PEWS FASTER AND FULLER THAN THEY’VE EVER BEEN BEFORE!!” have been trotted out, flashed briefly in the pan, and been washed away by the test of time.

But HTI is still there, quietly and effectively ministering, healing the people and furthering the Kingdom through its imbedded presence in Guatemala, a sustained effort made possible by dedicated leadership, superb full-time staff both stateside and in-country, and the countless volunteers who have helped staff Clinica Ezell and outlying clinics over the years.

But HTI’s effects are not limited to Central America; healing can take place anywhere and in a variety of ways.

I mentioned earlier that I came to a place in my life where I felt the need to “shake things up.” Two things brought me to that point. The first was professional “burnout.” If you had told me that I might eventually flame out 20 years ago during my residency, back when I had the energy to see 50-60 patients a day without missing a beat and then come back begging for more, I would have laughed and not believed you. Yet, there comes a time, when no matter how much good you might be accomplishing, the routine can become stale and flat.

I had heard tell of people in such predicaments going to places where the problems encountered were even more challenging and the work even harder, yet coming back renewed and refreshed. That seemed counterintuitive to me. Wouldn’t it be better to just get away from it all and spend a week on the beach? Nothing wrong with that after all, none of us get enough rest, Sabbath or otherwise, anyway.

But I can tell you after my week in Guatemala last March that “rejuvenation through sweat” is exactly what happened. I came back from that trip rested, relaxed, and better able to deal with the problems at work, which by now seemed much, much smaller. My vision was more focused and clear, my perspective enlarged. I can’t explain to you how that happens. I guess we’ll just have to chalk that one up to one of those paradoxical mysteries of the Kingdom, to the old truth that in order to “gain your life you must first lose it.”

The second thing that brought me to the point where I finally told Marie “Yes” was the death of my mother in April of last year. I was there when she took her last breath, holding her head in my hands. You don’t enter the Valley of the Shadow and come out again and remain the same person you were before. The Reaper’s sickle comes so close to you that you feel its wind against your skin. It nicks you, and you bleed.

In the months that followed as I moved through my grief, I was impressed more than usual with the great truth, one echoed by Jesus, that time is limited, that there are only so many hours of daylight to work before night comes.

The same thing often happens in soccer in those milliseconds after a striker’s first touch. A sliver of time and space may suddenly appear, and he must release his shot quickly before the opportunity is snuffed out by a gang of eager and effective defenders. I reared back and took a shot of my own, and for once in my life at least, found the back of the net.

So the would-be healer was himself healed.  Funny how that works. I looked into the faces of those wonderful patients at Clinica Ezell, like Nicole and Marta whose story I shared on my blog and in the last HTI newsletter, and their faith burned so brightly that I practically had to shield my eyes to keep from going blind myself.

I realized that despite the often ugly public face of American Christianity, there are many here in this country and in other distant places who are practicing the “first touch” of Christ and that all is not lost. Like Elijah, I am reminded there are thousands—and more—who have not bowed their knees to the modern day Baals that surround us.

However, as I reminded the Lipscomb students who traveled and worked with us last March, it’s not enough to merely discern the Imago Dei in the faces of the people of Guatemala, on those mission mountaintops with their lush, exotic settings, where colors are brighter, conversations more crackling and the Spirit of God hovers so heavily that you feel like you could reach out and brush it away with your hands.

We must also bring that same gentle, healing “first touch” back to our own workaday, mundane lives; into our families, communities, workplaces, classrooms and houses of worship, into our land of cornucopia where people are surrounded by more than they can possibly ever consume but are nevertheless starved for some truly Good News.

That strikes me as a lesson that none of us will ever completely master in this life. Like all lessons learned, it will take much repetition. It took Jesus two touches before the blind man in Mark 8 saw men, not as trees walking around, but as real human beings, created in the image of God. And in my case, it may take another trip or two down south until I finally start to get it right.

Thanks to you all for your support of HTI, a “first touch” ministry of the highest and most sublime order. And thank you for listening to me prattle on about soccer—and other things. Now that we have this out of the way, let’s get out there and cheer on the Netherlands against Brazil. Go Oranje!

  1. ME

    I have the same exact thoughts on my faith, as to whether it is something I inherited or found.Great speech – always good to tie-in things you are passionate about.

  2. Steve

    Great sermon.  My son Derek and his fiancee, now wife, Catherine Lynn were on a Guatemala mission this spring.  She did quite a bit of translating.  Was it the same one as you?  Derek had been on other ones to G as well.  The first one seems to have tipped the scales in favor of and strengthened his resolve to become a medical doctor.  It was a transformative experience.

  3. Mike the Eyeguy


    Did Derek and Catherine Lynn go at Spring Break? If so, then they were probably with the group of LU students that went with Kemmel and Lisa Dunham to one of the remote clinics up in the mountains. I was with the Clinica Ezell group in Montellano. We met up with the other LU group at Antigua at the end of the trip.

    My oldest son is planning on med school (he’s a rising senior at Bama), and he also found that his experiences there seemed to confirm that choice.

    What was somewhat surprising was my youngest son (then 16). He had never expressed any interest in health care, and in fact had made it plain that he would do anything on the trip but help with patients. Once there, however, we couldn’t get him out of the OR he enjoyed it so much! Now he thinks he wants to go to PA school. Funny how things work out.

  4. Steve Allison

    Mike, Yes, they were in the remote mountains.  They had some heart rending stories.  On his first trip, as a sophomore, they let him suture following tooth extraction and “Doctor” in several ways.  It was motivating and  life changing.  He starts at Georgetown Medical School in a few weeks. 

  5. Mike the Eyeguy

    That’s great, Steve, congrats to you and Derek and Catherine Lynn. Georgetown is a great school and DC such an interesting place to live for a few years. All the best to them as they start this adventure.

  6. laurie


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