Filled with Joy – James Jones – Seattle Mariners

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Mariners Outfielder James Jones

There used to be a commercial that told us “You never get a second chance to make a first impression”.  Seattle Mariners outfielder James Jones may not be familiar with that old ad, but he did make a strong impression with the Mariners when he was first called up in April of 2014.  He got a hit in his first major league at bat – an infield single.  And despite a brief return to the minors, Jones would have his name in the Mariners history books before the end of May.  He became the only Mariner to record a hit in each of his first 13 major league starts.  Not bad for a guy who was undrafted and barely recruited out of high school.  He played college ball at Long Island University in Brooklyn – close enough to home, as you can read in this article from ESPN, that his family could watch his games and he could remain active in his church. Drafted in the 4th round of the 2009 draft as a pitcher with a mid 90’s fastball.  He converted to outfield after the draft and hasn’t looked back.  He played over 100 games last season and split this year between AAA and Seattle.

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A Pitcher at Long Island University, Jones converted

As you can read in this article from the Alabama Baptist, Jones sees baseball as a great way to show God to others.  He says “Your relationship with Christ should just ooze out of you naturally to where it becomes a catalyst with other people… I am a light where everything I do is a reflection of my relationship with Christ. … My goal is for people to see Christ in me.”  a  His teammates sense that passion for God.  One said “The way he walks around all the time and just the joy that he has. If I could describe him in one word it would be joy. He is always joyful, always smiling. As the Scripture says you will know them because of their joy.”

Here are my takeaway from Jones’s story

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Jones, on right with Teammate Logan Bawcom and a young camper. Jones loves sharing what God is doing in his life with teammates and people who look up to him.

1- The Best Gift – What is the best gift you have ever received?  I asked that question at the after school program I direct and the answers were fascinating.  Most said some kind of electronic device, but some, as this question was being asked during our daily Bible lesson time gave answers like “life”, “family” and “God”.   The lesson for the day was Romans 6.23 which says “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.” It is a verse that I know I memorized at a young age, but only a careful consideration of each word in the verse really awakens the depth of what it means.  We deserved death – separation from God that is unending.  That is what we earn for our defiance of God, our rebellion and our inherited sinfulness.  It is a desperate situation that we are powerless to deal with on our own.  Which is why the second part of the verse is so jaw-droppingly amazing.  We deserve death, but God offers us LIFE!  He offers a life that is also unending.  It gives purpose for our life on this earth and promises a better life to come in a place more beautiful and amazing than we can imagine, and is without pain, suffering, sorrow, death.  It will last forever!

Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve, left, and Seattle Mariners' James Jones both look for the call after Jones stole second base in the second inning of a baseball game Saturday, May 24, 2014, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Jones safely steals second against the Astros (with both teams wearing some awesome throwbacks) Speed has been a big part of Jones’ game.

Let that contrast settle for a minute.  That is what God accomplished for us when Jesus died on the cross.  He made a way to offer that gift of life to us.  Our role?  Like any gift, we are simply asked to accept it – to receive it.  When we admit that we need a Savior and believe that Jesus IS that savior and choose to life for Him we will be saved (Romans 10.9). We all like to receive gifts.  As a father of 3 amazing young girls – there is little in life more joyful than receiving a gift.  So as we consider the gift God has given to us – the only logical response is to be filled with joy.  Psalm 51 talks about the “joy of my salvation” Think about what Christ has done for you!  Deserving of death and separation from God, He made a way to offer the gift of life.  When we start to understand that our sin means we deserve death but Christ made it so we could know life instead.  Even on our most rotten days, that fact can bring us joy!

2- A Joy Known is a Joy Shared – We read from the articles that Jones is excited to be in relationship with Jesus.  He avidly reads his Bible and as you can see from this post on Mariners teammate Logan Bawcom’s facebook page, Jones is excited to share his testimony at a youth baseball camp.  When we realize the gift we have been given of life instead of our deserved death, it makes sense to tell others about it.  After a birthday or Christmas celebration, a commonly asked question is “what did you get?” And even if the question is not asked, we are often so excited, we are ready to share with anyone who will listen.  How much more should we be ready to share about this amazing gift of life that God offers us.  Not only can it make an eternal difference in the lives of those who hear us share our story, but it will also build our joy as again and again, we are reminded that God is really good and He really went to these great lengths to offer this amazing gift to us.  Who is He leading you to share your story of His goodness with?  Batter Up!

Leaning on Others – Kirk Nieuwenhuis – New York Mets

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Mets Outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis

In April 1972, recording artist Bill Withers released the now classic song “Lean on Me” which made Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the top 500 songs of all time at #205.  You likely are familiar with the song, but in case you have never heard the Withers song, or any of the many remakes and cover versions, part of  the lyric goes as follows:

You just call on me brother, when you need a hand
We all need somebody to lean on
I just might have a problem that you’ll understand
We all need somebody to lean on

Lean on me, when you’re not strong
And I’ll be your friend
I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long
‘Til I’m gonna need
Somebody to lean on

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Yankees and Mets met in 2000 World Series. Both teams are playoff bound again. Will they meet again?

As baseball season is winding down, there is nothing new about meaningful games being played in New York. The Yankees are always at or near the top of the heap.  But for the first time in almost a decade, relevant baseball is being played in both Major League parks in the city.  The Mets will make an appearance in the post-season for the first time since 2006 and just the second time since back to back trips in ’99 and 2000.  One of the role players on the Mets this year is Outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis and the above song came to mind as I read this article from Asuza Pacific University.  In it we read about APU grad and New York Mets outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis talking about living a Christian  life in the Majors.

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Nieuwenhuis hits 3 home runs in a single game earlier this year.

Nieuwenhuis was drafted by the Mets in the third round of the 2008 draft.  He played well at each stop in the minors and was called up to the Mets on April 7, 2012 and would play in 91 games for them that season.  He would be up and down between majors and minors for the next couple of seasons before the Mets dealt him to the Angels.  17 days later, the Mets claimed him on waivers and returned him to their roster. He caught national attention earlier this season with a 3 home run game.  And while he remains a bat off the bench, his contribution to the team has been significant off the field.  As you can read in the APU article, he has emerged as a faith leader on the Mets. He has taken on a leadership role in team Bible Studies.  Mets team chaplain Tom O’Connor says “Kirk understands that a fruit-bearing Christian continually matures, and he’s committed to becoming stronger in his walk. He’s not afraid to let others know what he believes.”

Kirk says “There aren’t many Christians in this arena, so you learn to lean on one another. You learn to become a leader, especially when there aren’t many who are willing to step up to the plate. It’s a blessing being able to do that.”

Here are my stories from Nieuwenhuis’ story

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Nieuwenhuis discusses how as Christians we need to lean on each other and on God when challenges come along.

1- Lean on Me – Part of the joy and responsibility of living as a Christian is seeing the needs of those around us and helping see those needs met.  The song Lean on Me really points to what living in community is really about.  Sometimes we are the ones in need of help and sometimes we will be the ones who will be called on to help.  Sometimes we are the leaners and sometimes we are the support for others.  Galatians 6.2 implores us to bear one another’s burdens.  It is so easy to get caught up in our own thing and not see what others may be going through around us.  But God calls us to go through this life with open eyes.  Eyes that will see how He has been at work in our lives and eyes to see the needs around us –  Needs ranging from practical needs to the greatest need that we all have – understanding our need for a Savior and realizing that Jesus is the only one that can help us.  As we take Jesus with us everywhere we go in life, He can use us to show his love to others.

2- Whose side are you standing on – I like the idea of faith nights – the nights when the faith community is invited to hear players from the hometown team talk about how God has been working in their lives.  As you can read in this article from a Youth Ministry Bulletin Board, Nieuwenhuis is mentioned as one of the 3 members of the visiting Mets team that participated in the Pirates faith night.  What a demonstration that fellowship is stronger than competition.  To erase the lines of opposition and stand along side of fellow believers for this event is another reminder that God is bigger than baseball.  To have the connection with other players on other teams and share the common bond of faith shows us that there is a greater purpose to life than what the world sees and expects.  We can stand with other believers despite our differences and share a bond of faith.

3- Step Up – Nieuwenhuis talks about his role as a Bible Study leader and Chapel attendee.  As he talks about taking this leadership role, he says it is important to “learn to become a leader, especially when there aren’t many who are willing to step up to the plate. It’s a blessing being able to do that.   When we follow God, and he is the most important part of our life, He will often call us to step up and lead.  Where has God placed you?  How can you lead others to Him in the places where He has placed you?

Being a Blessing to Others – Adam Conley – Florida Marlins

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Marlins pitcher Adam Conley

I enjoy blogging. It is so fun for me to learn and share these stories of athletes and how God is at work in and through them.  I like to connect with the stories personally too.  To see how their stories are relevant to what is going on in my life is a tribute to God’s grand design.  And it is an extra treat when I can find a professional athletes with a blog or active twitter account.  It is a great way to connect with the human side of them and remember that there is more to them than a name and number on a jersey for our favorite team.  It offers a great insight into life outside of the spotlight.  I have written about Jeremy Affeldt and his great blog.  I’ve written about football player Benjamin Watson whose blog is also a great read.  And now I’ve found another one.  It is the blog of Kendall Conley, wife of Florida Marlins pitcher Adam Conley.  I stumbled across her blog from her twitter account and the first post I read was this one  about a house they are considering purchasing.   What caught my attention and connected with me was the way she talked about the decision they had.  She writes “(we) talked over the potential purchase of our very first home and what it would look like to glorify and honor to God through it”

This week, at my church’s Wednesday night kids program, I spoke of God’s blessing.  I came across a story I had never noticed before.  The story is from 2 Kings 7.  There is this group of 4 lepers who are living by the city gate.  It is during a time of serious famine.  These men essentially say “If we stay here, we die.  We could go into the city, but there is no food so we will die there too. Or we could go to the enemy camp and surrender.  If they spare us, we live, if they kill us, we are going to die here anyway so we have nothing to lose.” So they decide to go.  Imagine their surprise when they arrive at the enemy camp and find it abandoned.  The enemy army left and left in a hurry. They have left behind food, wine, gold, silver, horses and other livestock.  It is a jackpot for these lepers.  They decide to hide their bounty, but as they are doing sp, they decide that this is not right.  They know their city is in trouble and so they report back to the king.  And the people are saved.

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Conley with his wife and daughter. It was her blog that brought this story to my attention.

The lesson God showed me through this story (and that we see so many other places in Scripture) is that God blesses us so that we can bless others.  When we hold onto God’s blessing and don’t share it, we miss out.  These lepers found this stuff and consider keeping it all for themselves.  But in the end, they decide to share with others and many more are blessed by this miraculous provision.

I love that as the Conley’s are trying to decide on a home to buy that their consideration includes how they can serve God with their house. They know that God has blessed them and they are looking for ways to share that blessing.  And I believe that God will bless them for their desire to serve him through their house.

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An injury in college led Conley to become a Christian. He saw baseball as something temporary and wanted something more permanent to pin his hopes to.

Conley was drafted in the second round of the 2011 draft by the Florida Marlins.  He made his big league debut in June of this year and has pitched well for the Marlins thus far.  4-1 in 12 games with almost a strikeout per inning pitched.  As you can read in this article from The Daily Evergreen, Conley became a Christian a few years ago when he broke his pitching hand.  He says “Baseball was basically my idol in life and when it was taken away, I had a glimpse of what that feeling was going to be like when baseball goes away.  It scared me. I knew I needed to hold onto something more permanent.”    That permanence that he was looking for he found in God.  And quickly, he noticed how the off-field decision was impacting his entire life, even his on-field performances.

He closes the article saying “You fail so much in this game, that if you are afraid to fail it’s going to become a really tough game”. I think this is a great lesson for life, too.  This life will be filled with let downs, failures and disappointments.  But God loves us no matter what.  He may lead us to do some crazy things – things that seem like failure is probable, but if we go fearlessly into the plan God calls us to, we will see Him at work in both the successes we see and the failures.

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Conley has pitched well in his first season with the Marlins

Here are my takeaways from Conley’s story.

1- Failures happen -Conley talks about how being afraid of failure limits your effectiveness as a baseball player.  It can limit our willingness to follow God, too.  If we are scared of failure, then we are either doubting God or trying to do thing in our own ability.  When God calls us to do something, following him through this call is success – Even if it looks to the world like failure.  We may fail by the world’s standards but connecting with God and building a stronger dependence on Him is success.  And when we try to go on our own strength, and fail, we can learn from that and see God turn that into success too.

2- Looking to Bless Others –  The Conleys are so open about praying for wisdom – and desiring to be good stewards of  their resources and use their space for God’s purposes. God has given us so much – things, talents, strength, life.  How can we use what He has given us to us for His purposes?  A big part of the blessings we receive is sharing it with others.

 

Making It Look Easy – Anthony Rendon – Washington Nationals

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Washington Nationals Infielder Anthony Rendon

As I look for stories to share, I try to find ways to connect their stories with me in some way. Today, as I read this Washington Post article about Washington Nationals infielder Anthony Rendon the similarity brought a smile to my face. But my story is more connected to Sam Palace who helped Rendon buy his first guitar, only to see him playing songs by the end of the week when it had taken Palace 3 years before he could play a song.

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Darren Collins taught me how to juggle – eventually

For me, it was not guitar but juggling.  When I was 21, I traveled around the U.S.A. with 2 other guys putting on children’s ministry workshops.  One of my colleagues was a juggler and so I asked him to teach me.  He started giving me pointers but it took me Eight months before I was finally was able to juggle a little bit (my record when I got home was 35 tosses before dropping).

But more than learning to juggle, I learned to teach juggling.  I worked as a youth pastor intern and started teaching some of the kids in my youth group how to juggle.  One young man I worked with -Eli – went from picking up juggling balls for the first time to tossing under a leg and behind his back in less than half an hour. A few days later when I saw him again, he was doing things that I couldn’t do. I’d like to take the credit for it, but I think his natural ability had more to do with it.

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Rendon won a SIlver Slugger award in 2014

Rendon’s natural ability with a guitar was pretty amazing, and his natural ability at baseball is also evident.  He was the 6th overall pick in the 2011 draft, and made his major league debut less than 2 years later. He has not looked back.  He has won a Silver Slugger Award, led the league in runs and has put up great numbers.  But if Rendon doesn’t seem like a household name, maybe it is because Rendon strives to remain humble.  He says “(My parents are) quiet. They raised me not to be boastful about anything we do. My faith as well — it says don’t boast about anything that’s coming your way. The Lord has given you everything. It’s just being modest, being humble about everything and keeping my head on straight.”

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Rendon has played well at third base and second in his career

In fact, as you can read in this article from mlb.com, Rendon tries to stay away from the spotlight.  He says  “It’s not who I am. It’s not how I was raised. I don’t like seeking all the attention. When you start doing stuff like that, it gets into your head, you are not being yourself. … I just like playing the game. I don’t like all the extra stuff that comes with it.

Here are my takeaways from Rendon’s story:

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Rendon volunteering at a food shelf in DC. He talks often about the importance of humility

1- Make others better – I loved learning to juggle.  But maybe not for the right reasons.  I liked to be able to show off my skills and so it was humbling when someone I would teach to juggle would quickly pass my skill level.  But what I learned from having this happen to me a few times is that there is a certain satisfaction seeing someone identify and grow in a gift that they have been given.  I have never entered a juggling contest and don’t ever expect to do so.  I will never make my living as a juggler so why get upset when I help someone and they turn out to be better than me at it?  It doesn’t.  It is just cool to see there interest grow as they start to figure things out.  I get to teach lessons from the Bible often.  I hope that I can be used to grow other’s interest in God as I teach others about Him and continue to learn about Him myself. In what ways is God using you to bring out His best in the lives of others?

2 – Humility wins the day – Rendon often talks about shying away from the spotlight.  He remembers that all the natural talent that he has received as well as the opportunities to turn these skills into a major league job is all a gift from God.  When we understand that all we have, even life itself is a gift from God it is easier to remain humble.  What has God done for you?  How do the gifts and blessings that God has filled your life with point you toward Him?

 

Keep On Smiling – Johnny Giavotella – Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

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New Orleans suburb Metairie in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

Ten years ago last week, the nightmare of Hurricane Katrina was becoming a reality as the city of New Orleans was flooded in one of  the worst natural disasters that this country has ever seen.  My wife and I spent 2 full summers and part of a third in the city leading short term mission trips to help in the recovery.  As a tribute to that city that won over a part of our hearts and the recovery that continues to happen there still, I focus this blog post on a native son of the New Orleans area and his story of faith that has sustained him to this point in his journey to be a major league baseball player.

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L.A. Angeles of Anaheim 2B Johnny Giavotella

Meet Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim infielder Johnny Giavotella.  Born in the New Orleans suberb of Metairie, Giavotella was about to start his first semester as a college student when Katrina struck.  The University of New Orleans were forced to play their semester at New Mexico State.  Read more about Giavotella’s ordeal in this report from ESPN.  But despite the challenges and bumps in the road, Giavotella kept a great attitude and a strong work ethic.

Also along the way, Giavotella leaned on his faith in God to guide his life and his career in baseball. It is a faith that was instilled in him from his parents, as you can hear in this video interview from Mother’s Day.

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Giavotella has leaned on his faith in God to battle through the challenges that life and career have brought.

In this article from the Examiner, Giovatella discusses how he has seen God at work, even in the challenges that life has brought.  He says “I have peace that God is with me in every situation and using circumstances for my own development and benefit”

Hurricane Katrina was not the last bump that Giovatella would meet en route to the majors.  He spent a season at A, the next season at High A and the following season at AA.  Then came AAA, where Giovatella would spend the better parts of 4 seasons.  He had a couple of chances in Kansas City to stick, but was unsuccessful.  Then came the trade.  The Angels had an opening at second base and when Giavotella was waived by Kansas City, a deal was struck.   This season he has set career highs in practically every category.

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Giavotella has almost always been the smallest player on whatever team he has played on. But he plays bigger than his size.

1- Happy Wherever I am  –  when following God and living life for His purposes, we can find joy where we are.  Giavotella was asked how he “keeps on smiling” when he bounces from minors to majors and back.  His response? Peace that God is with him.  When hard things come our way, how easy is it to remember that God, the Prince of Peace, is with us and will comfort us.  He will not keep us from pain and hard things, but He promises to go through it with us and to work everything out “for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8.28).  There was a kids chorus we used to sing in church.  The words are “With Christ in the vessel we can smile at the storm” It was taken from the story where Jesus speaks to the storm and calms it.  (Mark 4 & Matthew 8) When hard things come, with Christ by our side, we can find joy and peace.  We can smile in the face of adversity because we know that He is bigger than the hard things face.  Keep on smiling!

2- Play bigger than you are – Giavotella has almost always been the smallest player on his team.  Yet he has consistently played bigger than his size and not just in baseball either. In high school, he was the starting middle linebacker.  A teammate talked about Giovatella’s mindset.  He said “I think not as much [that it’s] little-man syndrome,” “More like back against the wall. ‘No one really believes in me. I’ve got to go out and prove myself everywhere I go, and no matter what I do, I’m going to have doubters.” God can give us the ability to play bigger than we are and exceed expectations.  But the other cool thing is that even though we will always have people who doubt us and think less of us, we can take comfort in knowing that we are highly valued by God and He never underestimates our potential.