How to Save a Life – Matt Szczur – Chicago Cubs

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Cubs OF prospect Matt Szczur

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Szczur with the Championship Trophy at Villanova

Happy Birthday Matt Szczur (pronounced Cesar)!  Today, he turns 25.  He is working his way through the minors in the Cubs system.  He has played a handful of games with the Cubs in each of the past 4 seasons. In the minors, he continues to hone his skills and develop his game.  He was also a football star in college, leading Villanova to a National Championship in 2009.  But the championship game is one that he was willing to skip.

You see, as a freshman Szczur and many of his Villanova teammates registered as willing bone marrow donors.  You can read the story here.  He was told that there was a 1 in 80,000 chance that those registered would be called to donate.  And Szczur got the call.  There was a girl – 15 months old at the time – who needed a transplant and Szczur was a perfect match. It looked like the procedure would happen during football playoff time, but that was OK with Szczur – he knew that helping to save this girl’s life was more important than any football game.

It turns out that there was a delay. The call came  during baseball season.  Being a donor meant taking some medications and putting his body through some pain.  He talks about how awful his body felt as he recovered, but that he never hesitated to do it.  Check out the feature that ESPN:60 did on him – and have your box of tissues ready.  It is great.

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Szczur, noted for his great speed, makes a diving catch

You can also hear Szczur talking about baseball and about his story with radio host Dr. Dwight Allen here.  He shares how he has seen his prayers answered with her health.  He talks about how his faith guided him to donate marrow and helps him in all of life.

This story connects with me in a couple different ways.  First of all, as a dad, there is a hopelessness that I feel when my daughters are sick.  I want to make their suffering stop.  My daughter, Olivia, when she was 3 years old, had an appendectomy.  Not a particularly dangerous operation but unusual for someone so young.  I can’t imagine having to deal with something as scary as leukemia.

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Anastasia Olkhovsky with her mom was the recipient of Szczur’s marrow

Secondly, the girl recipient lives in Ukraine.  My wife and I served as missionaries in Ukraine for a couple of years and look back with great fondness on our time there.  We were actually planning on being there on a mission trip right now, but our trip was cancelled due to the unrest.  Now, to hear all the bad things that are happening in Ukraine right now, my heart breaks.  I am praying for a resolution to come quickly.

My takeaway from this story:

No hesitation - Earlier this year, I blogged about Daniel Murphy and the controversy that was stirred when he chose to skip opening day to be with his wife for the birth of their first child.  He didn’t hesitate and neither did Szczur.  Even if it meant missing playoff or championship games.  When compared to saving a life, sports and games are a distant second.  Szczur had the perfect match – the perfect solution to the illness this girl suffered from.  As followers of Jesus, we also have a perfect solution to the illness that the world suffers from – sin.  Are we willing to sacrifice our own interests and schedule to share with people who are in need of knowing God?  Or is our stuff too important and we only choose to help when it is convenient for us?  I know that I am guilty of the second many times over.  It is hard to sacrifice what is important to us.  Szczur was ready to skip out on the championship game. He was willing to miss out on some games where pro scouts could make or break his future.  He even put himself through pain and discomfort in hopes that his actions might make a difference.  There was no guarantee that the girl would survive, even with the transplant.  But ask him if it was worth the risk to his career and pain?  No doubt the answer is yes.  The same is true when God uses you to share His love with others.  Thanks for the reminder Matt Szczur!  Happy Birthday to you!

All-Star Special – Real Not Routine – Mike Matheny – St. Louis Cardinals

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Matheny as a player was a 4 time Gold Glove winner

allstar gameI imagine it would be hard to take the place of a Hall 0f Famer. The St. Louis Cardinals were managed to 2 World Series titles in the past 8 years by legendary manager Tony LaRussa.  He retired after winning the 2011 title and he was replaced by Mike Matheny who at the time was not only the youngest manager in the Majors, but also had not managerial experience.  He was  known mostly for his defense, considered one of the best defensive catchers in the game during his career (He won 4 Gold Glove Awards).  He is one of only 3 catchers in history to play in 100+ games in a single season without committing an error.

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Matheny (far right) is the 8th manager in history to lead his team to the playoffs in each of his first 2 seasons winning the N.L. pennant last year

And while there were some critics who questioned his hiring, he quickly quieted them with a great season, one that saw him lead the Cardinals to the playoffs via the Wild Card, and saw them advance to the League Championship Series where they were defeated by eventual World Series Champs the San Francisco Giants.  Last season, he would go a step further as the Cardinals made it to the World Series, where they were defeated by the Boston Red Sox.  But as the manager of the National League’s representative in the World Series, Matheny will manage the National League All-Star team this season.

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Matheny’s Manifesto was a letter to parents of a youth baseball team encouraging them to be supportive but not interfering

Matheny was asked to coach a youth baseball team a few years ago.  He wrote a letter to parents outlining his expectations. – The Mathen  You can read it here.  In it he outlines his expectations for respect and class from himself, his players and their parents.  He also goes on to share how his Christian Faith will guide his decisions and actions.  He will not force his viewpoint on others, but he will be honest and unashamed about what he believes and why.

In this fascinating interview,  Matheny shares that he was brought up in a Christian family.  But he admits to “riding the coat tails of my parents”.  A guest speaker at his church challenged him to consider who God really was, and it was at this point that he chose to have a true relationship with God.  In his own words, he says his relationship with God became “real instead of routine”. He knew that part of his purpose would be to represent God as well as he could in all situations, good or bad.  In his words (taken from a FCA feature on him)

“I always felt I had the responsibility to be an example of how Christians ought to compete,” he says. “I still have those conversations with Christian players. We’re held to a higher standard. We’re serving a God who knows our intents and purposes. We should play the game in a way that honors Him, and that should be with a fierce competitor’s heart.

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Matheny will manage the National League All-Star Team

Here are my takeaways from Matheny’s story:

1- Real not Routine – What Matheny said spoke to my heart.  God calls us to a real relationship with Him.  It is not enough to attend a church service, sing some songs and go through the motions of Christian faith.  It is about truly getting to know the Creator of the Universe and allowing him to be Lord of your life.  A pastor friend of mine would often conclude messages by calling people to a real, genuine faith in God.  He would say it like this.  ”Do you know what 2 words do not go together?  - No Lord” If you are really making God Lord of your Life, it will change your life.  You will do what He leads you to do and you will align your desires with what He desires.  And when we do, life is not routine, but an adventure that will prove over and over again that God is Real.

2- The Thin White Line – When a baseball player goes onto the field of play, or when we enter our chosen vocational field, we are faced with a choice.  If God is real to us, do our actions reflect it.  This goes beyond our workplace, too.  It is in how we parent, how we live in relationship with others, how we drive our car and treat others at the store.  God knows our hearts and our words and actions are a reflection of what is happening inside of us.  If we find that we are mean, selfish, or harsh with others – that comes from what’s going on inside.  I know that I often don’t like what comes out of me.  But the Bible tells us that  Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control  are the what is produced from God’s Spirit at work in us.  If we have that true relationship with Him, He will show up in our interactions and use us to share His love with others.

 

All-Star Special – Big League Ace – Madison Bumgarner – San Francisco Giants

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Giants Pitcher Madison Bumgarner

allstar gameWith the Mid-Summer classic in town, All-Star fever is here.  Here is the third post in my “All-Star” week.  This time around, we check out the story of San Francisco Giants Lefty Madison Bumgarner.

Bumgarner is  considered the “ace” of his team. Which on a roster that boasts names like Lincecum, Hudson and Cain is pretty high respect.   Let’s take a look at some numbers. He chose to forego a college scholarship and go pro right out of High School.  He was drafted 10th overall in 2007 and after an amazing run in the minors (He went 34-6 with an ERA of 3.00) He made his Big League debut at the age of 20.  In the Majors, he will pitch in his second All-Star game next week. He also has 2 World Series Rings and is one of the top young lefty pitchers in baseball.  Here he is during the 2010 World Series, explaining in his own words the role that faith in God plays for him.

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Bumgarner’s All-Star games now equal his World Series rings

You can read this great article from Sports On Earth, where he is compared to Clayton Kershaw, whom I have blogged about on this site.

But it has not always been simple and easy.  As you can read in this article from Yahoo! Sports, he has gone through his parents divorce and the death of his sister (who died of cancer during his rookie year)  And yet, what he said in the video above shows his strategy on coping with the good and hard things that life brings his way.  A complete dependence on God is the only way that he is where he is today.

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Bumgarner hits a Grand Slam against the Rockies earlier this year

Here are my takeaways from his story:

1 – More than an Ace -An “ace” carries a tremendous burden for his team.  Each team goes to great lengths to find an Ace – the top pitcher on the team.  His role is to be dependable – to be counted on to end losing streaks, and to give his team a reasonable chance to win every time he takes the mound.  We all aspire to make a name for ourselves, to attain the top of our profession or to be “all we can be”.  When we put ourselves at the top of our priority list we tend to be defined by what we do, not who we are.  Bumgarner says in the video that he aspires to be known as a Christ-follower above all else.  At the end of the day, he believes that his identity in Christ is his most important characteristic. May we all aspire to the same.  To let God in us be our one true identity.

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Bumgarner, now 24, is in his 6th major league season

2- The Giving Tree – The Yahoo! article compares Bumgarner’s story – his upbringing in Hickory NC, to the Shel Silverstein story “the Giving Tree”.  In that story, a young boy plays with a tree, and as the boy ages, his needs and wants change.  The tree is always giving whatever it takes to keep the boy happy and coming back.  At the end of the story, the tree is used up and is only a stump, and the boy – now an old man – uses the stump to sit on.  The article talks about his home town being that tree.  But more than that, this is a story of all of us.  God watches out for us, giving us His best and wanting the best for us.  Often we take what God gives for granted.  But unlike the story, God’s resources never end.  He always wants us to get to know Him more and spend time with Him.  He gives good gifts, but the best gift He offers is Himself on the cross – the ultimate Giving tree.  He took our place, forgave our sins and invited us to spend eternity with Him.  We just have to accept the gift and let Him guide our life.  

 

All-Star Game Special – Lessons from a Fisherman – Charlie Blackmon – Colorado Rockies

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Rockies Outfielder Charlie Blackmon

allstar gameAs the All-Star game approaches, I continue my focus on some participants in the Mid-Summer classic.  This time around it is Charlie Blackmon of the Colorado Rockies.  He has a huge beard, he is an avid fisherman and he is a devout follower of Christ.  Seems similar to some guys I read about in the Bible.

Charlie Blackmon was drafted 3 times in his life,in 2004 by the Florida Marlins (24th round) in 2006 by the Boston Red Sox (20th round) and in 2008 by the Colorado Rockies (2nd round).  He signed with the Rockies and worked his way through the minors, spending essentially 1 season at each level.  He made his debut in Colorado in 2011 and split the next 3 seasons between the majors and minors.  He was expected to be a platoon player this season, but then opening day came and he did this.

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Blackmon, the “Bearded Wonder” will play in his first All-Star game next week

A 6 for 6 day will turn some heads.  He finished with 5 RBI, 4 extra base hits and fell a triple short of the cycle.  He has played in 89 of the Rockies 92 games and was named to his first All-Star game.  He is boasting an average just under .300 and 13 home runs.

As you can read in this article from the Denver Post, Blackmon doesn’t take himself too seriously.  He is having the time of his life living his dream and knows that “God has a plan for everybody and I try to do my part, and it’s more than just the baseball stuff”.  God’s plan for Blackmon has led him to be a deserving if improbable All-Star this year.

Here are my takeaways from Blackmon’s story:

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Blackmon is an avid fisherman. And a fisher of men

1- Fisherman and Fishers of Men – Blackmon is an avid fisherman.  At the start of this article, I drew a connection between some of the disciples who were fishermen and Blackmon, a devout Christian himself.  What I have always enjoyed about the story of Peter, Andrew, James and John is that Jesus called them to leave their life as fishermen and repurposed them as fishers of men.  Instead of catching fish, they will be capturing people.  Instead of simply ending lives of fish, they would be calling other people to die to themselves and experience true life with God.  For them, a fishing reference connected them to their purpose.  For Blackmon, it is baseball.  What has God equipped you to do?  How can you use that which He has already given you to help others know Him.

2- Juggling Life -We learn in the Denver Post article that Blackmon is also a juggler.  When I learned how to juggle, I would watch my friend and instructor Darren Collins  start some of his shows by asking the audience (mostly kids) to say “Praise God” in the event that Darren would drop a ball (or whatever he happened to be juggling).  Why?  Because we are not perfect and each time our imperfection shows, we can be reminded that God loves us and offers us forgiveness.  Each mistake we make gives God an opportunity to remind us of how amazing his grace, love and forgiveness is.  We all have some juggling to do in this life, with work, parenting, family, finances, serving others.  We are bound to drop the ball over and over again.  Praise God that He loves us and offers us forgiveness and restoration.

All-Star Game Special – Time for a Change – Jonathan Lucroy – Milwaukee Brewers

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Brewers Catcher Jonathan Lucroy

allstar gameIt is the mid way point of the baseball season and that means it is time for the Midsummer Classic – The All-Star Game.  This year it is in my city of residence – Minneapolis – and though I will not get to go to the game, I will focus a couple blog posts on some of the players on the rosters.

First focus will be on “the most underrated catcher in baseball” as he is called by SB Nation.  He is having a great, all-star worthy season and has been a part of the Milwaukee Brewers solid season.  He is top 10 in hits and batting average.

Lucroy worked his way to the majors quickly.  He was drafted in the third round of the 2007 draft and made his debut less than 3 years later.  He has made a name for himself both as a hitter and as a catcher.  His baseball skills have always been with him, and while they continue to improve, he has always had a solid foundation of baseball skills that have served him well.

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Lucroy is top 20 in many offensive categories in 2014

But his life outside of baseball was not going as well as his life between the lines.  As you can read in this article from Athletes in Action.  He says “I knew I was not living the right way and there were a lot of things happening in my life which were taking me downhill.”  

But like his baseball skills have given him a good foundation to draw on on the field, the foundation laid in his childhood about God and the importance of faith gave him something to draw on.  The article goes on to say that Lucroy became a Christ-follower and hopes that his daughter, Ella, will see his example and follow God, too – learning from the mistakes he had made in life.   His “walk up” song has been “Fight Inside” by Red, which talks about the struggles we have to do what is right.  Check it out here!

My Takeaways from Lucroy’s story:

1- A Firm Foundation – Lucroy knew that he was headed down the wrong road, and returned to the God he had learned about as a child.  I have worked and served in Children’s ministry for over 20 years.  Few things energize me like sharing the truth about who God is to young people.  I am always learning from God’s word and wish to challenge people of all ages to allow God to teach them through the Bible.  Sometimes I wonder if the excitement I feel and the words I speak connect with the people I speak to, but I also know that God can use my flawed human efforts to share His perfect love with others.   Isaiah 55.11 says

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Lucroy has become one of the top catchers in baseball

My word, which comes from my mouth, is like the rain and snow.
    It will not come back to me without results.
    It will accomplish whatever I want
        and achieve whatever I send it to do

I know this is truth.  God’s word gives us a strong foundation that can guide us for life.

2- Fight Inside – Lucroy used this song by Red as a “walk up” song.  It connected with him and the struggle he faces to do the right thing consistently in life.  It is not a new struggle, nor is it one unique to Him.  It is something that we can all relate to at some level.  Every day is full of battles between doing the right thing and doing the wrong thing.  Without God active in us, helping guide us to make good choices, life is impossible.  But with God active and working in our life, he can make a huge difference in our life and help us make a difference in the lives of others.

Lucroy will be here in town next Monday at the All-Star Game.  Lucroy, will be one to watch and cheer on as he continues to live for God and point others toward Him.

A World of Faith – Faith in God at the World Cup – Team U.S.A.

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U.S. Captain Clint Dempsey

imgresWhile I am not an American citizen, I am a green card holding resident and as such, I am hoping for a great showing for the Yanks at the World Cup in Brazil.  It brings me great joy to share the stories of a few members of the USNMT and their faith in God.

Here we go:

Clint Dempsey:

You can read in this feature on him by Sports Spectrum Magazine that Dempsey has lived a life affected by tragedy.  At the age of 12, his older sister (aged 16) died of a brain aneurysm.  In college two of his teammates were involved in a car accident – one killed and the other would never play soccer again.  But through all that he has faced, his faith in God – instilled in him by his grand-mother, has become very important to Him.  This article from Christiantoday.com talks about the role that faith plays in his life even now on the biggest soccer stage in the world

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U.S. Goal Keeper Tim Howard

Like Dempsey (and all of us, too), Tim Howard has also faced some challenges in this life.  As you can read in this article from Athletes in Action, his parents divorced when he was 3.  At the age of 12 he was diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome.  And also like Dempsey, his faith in God was greatly influenced by his grandmother.  Now he enjoys using soccer as a platform to share his faith with others, encouraging them to trust God, no matter what their struggles are, and to understand that winning, losing, playing time – all those things are pretty insignificant compared to knowing God!

Here is a video of him talking about his faith

 

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U.S. Goal Keeper Brad Guzan

Beyond the Ultimate did this feature on US Goal Keeper Brad Guzan.  In it we learn about Guzan’s faith that his parents instilled in him at an early age, and how it has helped guide his life since that young age.  He knows that God has been with him all along.  In the article, Guzan gives a great reminder that “when things are going well – great – I give praise to Him; and when things are not going well, I ask for His guidance and His help to keep me going in the right path.” He goes on to say that he knows that soccer and all it has provided for him can be taken away in the blink of an eye and that following God is all that really matters.  Check out the video below.

 

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U.S. midfielder turned defender DaMarcus Beasley

DaMarcus Beasley :

I also want to draw your attention to Beasley.  U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann asked him to change position from mid-fielder to left back (defender). This is a pretty drastic change.  He had been one of the top scoring threats for U.S. for a decade,  but with the change Beasley said

“the goal was now to stop strikers from doing to him what he’d been trying to do to others for so long“.

He had been one of the U.S.’ top scoring threats for the past decade and now, his focus would be on defending his own end.  He agreed and finds himself playing in his 4th World Cup.  When asked why he made this big change without hesitation of complaint when, he said

Even if I thought things were not going the way they were supposed to go, I have always had faith that God would open that next door for me to walk through. A lot of what I do is based on the grounding I have with faith. 

There is a lot to learn from the example of these men.  Depend on God in hard times.  Trust Him at all times.  Be willing to follow where He leads and understand He is more important than anything else.

 

World Cup Special – David Luiz – Brazil

imgresThe World Cup kicks off tomorrow in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  And while soccer is not a huge blip on the radar of most North American sports fans, it is the most popular sport in the rest of the world.  And much like the Olympics showcases the best of hockey around the world, the World Cup puts on display the best soccer players in the world playing the best soccer one can see.

Some of the star footballers that will be playing are using their celebrity and the world wide attention that the World Cup brings to shine a light on the problem of sexually exploited children.  Check of the video from itsapenalty.com.

Sexual exploitation and human trafficking are big problems, everyday, worldwide.  My wife has become an activist against human trafficking and is working to raise awareness of the issue so those caught up in this terrible world can get the help they need.  Check out what she has going on at Stories Cafe.

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David Luiz praying for his Chelsea teammate.

luizFor the purposes of this blog, I also want to share a little about Brazilian defender David Luiz.

He first appeared for Brazil in 2007, and went on to captain them in 2012.  He has been playing in Europe since 2007 – most recently with Chelsea in the Premier League.  He is a fan favorite in Chelsea and can often be seen sporting his “God is Faithful” t-shirt under his jersey.

Luiz is very outspoken about his faith in God.  As you can read in this post on Sports Almighty, He likes to talk about football but enjoys talking about his relationship with God as well.

Over the coming weeks, as the World Cup is played out, I will feature a few more soccer/futbol players from around the world and high light their faith in God as well.

Enjoy the great soccer to come and keep checking back for more stories of the Christians at the World Cup.

 

Where is your Focus? – Rajai Davis – Detroit Tigers

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Tigers outfielder Rajai Davis

As the Major League draft happens this year, I want to celebrate the stories of those players, taken in the later rounds, that have gone on to be successful as major league players.  Rajai Davis is one of those players.  He is in his first season with the Detroit Tigers after stints with the Pirates, Giants, A’s and Blue Jays.  Here is an article introducing him and telling his story to Tigers fans. In it we read about how even as a young player, he trusted his career and life to God.  It reads “I made a decision, made a commitment to put my life, my career, my hopes, my dreams in God’s hands”

He was drafted in the 38th round of the 2001 draft (1,134th overall).  He is known for his speed.  As I write these words, he has stolen 284 bases in the majors and another 251 in the minors over the past 14 seasons.  But as a 38th round pick, despite his speed, his trip to the majors was not a quick one.  He spent 5 years in the minors before the Pirates gave him his first crack at the Big Leagues.  It would be another 2 years (and 2 teams) before Davis would be a regular player.  But given his draft position, it is impressive that he worked his way through to make it.  Many others drafted before him would not get that chance.

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Davis, known for his speed, has stolen over 500 bases in the minors and majors

And while speed may be the most prominent part of his game, it is not the only skill needed to succeed as a baseball player.  Speed only really brings benefit if you can get on base.  Hitting requires practice and focus.  As you can read in this article from the National Post, when focus wavers, hitting is much harder. And when focus is on, production goes up too.  Davis went through a stretch where he was distracted in the batter’s box.  The result – a batting average of  .091 and 19 strikeouts in 23 games.  But when distractions are dealt with and focus is restored, results are better.

Davis said that his loss of focus was not just a baseball issue.  It was a reflection of what was going on in his spiritual life as well.  He said “he lost focus on his Christian faith, “derailed by things that look good but really are not.”

He would go on to say:

“My plan in life works at the plate. If my spiritual life is working, everything else works,” he said. “I’m feeling great.  My mind is at ease. I feel like I have the confidence again that was lost. It’s only a matter of time until we see the manifestations of how great God is.”

Here are my takeaways from Davis’ story:

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Davis says that focus is important both as a hitter and in spiritual life.

1- Focus is Essential – Just as Davis said, his struggles were not simply on the baseball field, although they did show up there.  He talked about how he had lost focus on his Christian faith and it affected his baseball game.  When we lose focus on God, when we stop making Him the most important part of our life, it affects the rest of our life as well.  We are more prone to selfishness, and more susceptible to temptation.  Life is hard enough when we have to deal with all the pain and hard things it can bring.  It is impossible without God on your side.

2- A Strong Support Network – Davis talks about trusting God with his career and his life, even when he was cut and found himself without a job.  At the same time, he talks (in the Tigers article) about his “anchor” his church in Connecticut and pastor Larry DeLong, who has been a spiritual influence in his life for a long time.  God is all we need, and wants our trust to be in Him, and often He gives us others to help guide us and remind us to trust God when things get challenging.  Who has God put in your life to encourage you in your faith walk?  Who has He put in your life for you to encourage through hard times?  Here is an article of Davis sharing his faith and experience with College baseball players

Keep God as number 1 in your life and follow Him on the adventure of a lifetime!