Bottom of the 9th

Bot9 - Creating Beauty

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Playoff baseball is the highest form of creativity. I’ve had to pause in amazement watching the Astros, Red Sox, Dodgers, and Brewers play this postseason. I’m trying to put my finger on this idea of the creativity I’m observing. It’s like I’m staring in observation of the extraordinary as I watch baseball on the television in the same way I’ve stood motionless in front of a Van Gogh or an inspired work of art in a gallery.

The creative elements of the game are on full display in the movements of the players on the field and in the application of data and analytics. People are using their God-given physical gifts to play the game, and people are using their God-given intellect to put the right players in the right position on the field. What an incredible act of worship the game of baseball is!

A couple of months ago, I wrote about how knowledge can lead to arrogance. What I’m coming to understand is that creativity can lead us to health.

Writer James Clear had this to say in his article titled, “Make More Art: The Health Benefits of Creativity”:

“The moral of this story is that the process of making art — whether that be writing, painting, singing, dancing, or anything in between — is good for you.

There are both physical and mental benefits from creating art, expressing yourself in a tangible way, and sharing something with the world. I'm trying to do more of it each week, and I'd encourage you to do the same.

In our always–on, always–connected world of television, social media, and on–demand everything, it can be stupidly easy to spend your entire day consuming information and simply responding to all of the inputs that bombard your life.

Art offers an outlet and a release from all of that. Take a minute to ignore all of the incoming signals and create an outgoing one instead. Produce something. Express yourself in some way. As long as you contribute rather than consume, anything you do can be a work of art.

Open a blank document and start typing. Put pen to paper and sketch a drawing. Grab your camera and take a picture. Turn up the music and dance. Start a conversation and make it a good one.”

The heading of James 2:14-22 in the ESV Bible says, “Faith without works is dead.” I wonder if part of the subtext of the word “works” there for James could have something to do with creative inspiration. Even in writing this my conscience is screaming at me, “Is this idea heretical?” I often wonder if we hold back some of our creativity because of that kind of fear.

Paul and the other writers of the epistles wrote letters as their creative outlet to exhort and encourage new believers in the faith. In 1 Peter 1:13-2:10, Peter connects Old Testament ideas to the current situation of the new believers. He specifically draws them into this idea of a “cornerstone” in Christ. What a beautiful image that has now lasted over 2,000 years!

Should we do the same with our faith? Instead of only reading or studying the Word this week, what if you created something with what you’ve learned? Write, discuss, apply, paint, sculpt…do something with your faith this week. Exercise those muscles and see what occurs. For me, that’s what Bottom of the Ninth and the other pieces we create through Complete Game are - a creative exercising of our spiritual walk. I hope it serves to inspire others to create with their faith as well!

Bot9 - Rewrite the Rules

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Sometimes it’s interesting how similar baseball and the Christian life are.

The marketing for this year’s postseason baseball run includes an interesting ad. The name of the campaign is “Rewrite the Rules” and ends with Ken Griffey, Jr. saying, “Let the kids play.” The video juxtaposes the unwritten rules of baseball with players of today breaking those rules.

Everyone in the game understands why Griffey represents an appropriate finish to the ad. His backward hat was a symbol of rebellion in the 1990s and he changed the game in so many ways, particularly in what was and was not acceptable. Being a child of the ‘90s and a Griffey guy back in the day (one of my first and wisest Rotisserie Baseball investments), I remember how his Griffey’s very existence seemed to make my dad’s blood boil. Griffey had that effect on the previous generation, but also ushered in a new generation of baseball ettiequte.

Traditions matter and they die hard. The Apostle Paul encountered the same thing in the early church, specifically in The Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. In Acts 15:1, the Bible says, “Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.’” Those who fit into the traditions of the pre-Jesus Jewish movement wanted to impose their traditions onto those new believers who were choosing the follow Christ.

Those debates were lively in the early church as Paul and the apostles spread the Gospel of Christ throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East. Just as lively is the debate around how the game of baseball should be played. The generation before attempts to tell the next generation how things “should” be done. While some tend to be more conservative in their approach, I tend to stress freedom for the players. I love expressions of joy and excitement on the field. I love new generations of thought giving the game a totally different flavor.

In both baseball and the Christian life, I’d encourage us to listen to the next generation. We don’t want to sway in the wind and move traditions easily, yet we also don’t want to get stuck in the mud and live by “that’s-how-we’ve-always-done-it” thinking. We should always be open to examine ourselves and seek to move the things we love closer to the essence of Christ.

Bot9 - Curses and Science

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This time of year brings out so many great memories. While it might sound strange, some of my favorite memories are related to the so-called “curses” associated with different teams and their postseason ineptitude. The Black Sox Curse that haunted the Chicago White Sox for so long. The Billy Goat Curse and the Bartman incident rolled into one for the Cubs. And, of course, the king of all curses - the Curse of the Bambino that hovered over the Boston Red Sox until 2004.

The sad part is that these curses seem almost silly now. There was this mystical quality to the game in the previous century, and it seems like all of the metrics used the game today has driven out that spirit. The man pictured above, Bill James, started this revolution and anyone who knows me knows the irony of such a statement coming from me - I LOVE the metrics. But I also love the emotion that came from feeling connected to a curse. It was bigger than the game.

I’m leading a book and Bible study right now and we’re reading More Than a Carpenter by Josh McDowell. In a short chapter around science, McDowell draws out an important distinction between two different kinds of proof. Scientific proof is repeatable in an experiment. Legal-Historical proof is proof that is beyond a reasonable doubt. There are things you can prove using the scientific method, and others that require proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

People have used science to drive out the spiritual from our daily consciousness. In some ways, the same has happened in baseball as it has become so driven by the data. But because baseball is a game played by humans, there will always be a spiritual nature to it. As I’ve learned and grown, it’s right and good to use the metrics to guide some decision, but people need other people to use the Holy Spirit as they coach and play. Humans need mentors to guide them through this life. The spiritual will always be there in baseball and in our daily walks!

As we roll into the postseason, watch how the great coaches and teams are connected emotionally, while also connecting to the most important data. And, of course one of the best teams at this is the New York Yankees who are heading into the divisional series against my favorite team, the Boston Red Sox. Dang it. Some curses never quite leave your consciousness.

Bot9 - Doing Spiritual Work

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Last week I referred to all of us as “baseball missionaries.” Through writing and coaching the game, I’ve learned how to help people make connections to faith with, through, and using examples from the game. It’s an opportunity to live like Jesus if just for a moment - you get to help someone make a connection to the Holy Spirit through an example from baseball. It’s truly amazing.

You can do this, too. In fact, I would say that you’re called to do it. You’re called to make disciples of baseball players and coaches, just as I am. You’re called to teach them and baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. In our Western model of education and ministry, we have come to believe that you need an expert to do these things. Nope, not a thing. The Bible doesn’t say you need certified, to take a class, or earn a degree to do spiritual work. I’m certainly not downplaying those things, and I have been looking into things like ordination, seminary, and the like. I’d enjoy doing that level of learning. But it’s not a requirement.

Check out John 4:2. The whole verse is in parentheses: (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples).

Interesting, isn’t it? Jesus is on earth, He’s the expert. Does He do the baptizing? Nope, the disciples do it. The guys He found in all walks of life and in all levels of failure. They did it. There’s are two really important principles in here, and I think it carries over to other parts of the ministry as well. The first is to just do the work the Holy Spirit is calling you to do. Be available to people and share what Jesus is teaching you.

The second is hold that work loosely. In Acts 8, we are blessed with the story of Philip and the eunuch. I’d encourage you to read the whole story, but take a look at the baptism part of the story in Acts 8:36-39:

And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.

This was one of those stories that I had to pay attention to as it came up in a conversation with my wife and then in the sermon at church. Here’s Philip teaching the eunuch and they come upon some water. Philip baptizes him and the Lord carries Philip away. Philip’s work there was done. Move on. Let the Holy Spirit go from there.

Bot9 - We Are Baseball Missionaries

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If you’re reading this, I’d refer to you as a baseball missionary. You see your time on the baseball diamond as time in the harvest field. You recognize the lessons of God and Christ that are available to be taught in and through the game. You’re looking at things with spiritual eyes and not physical ones.

The audience of Bottom of the Ninth are baseball players, coaches, and parents across the country and world with similar eyes. But we know that few share this view with us. For most, baseball is just a source of recreation, a game to be played for fun. I’ve been floored by the number of Christian people who separate what happens in their spiritual lives with what occurs on the baseball field. Baseball (and other sports) is the microscope for where you are in your spiritual walk and maturity. It provides all of us with a stick by which we can measure our progress.

I watched Silence this weekend with my wife. Silence is the story of priests who endure incredible trials to share the Gospel in the nation of Japan in the 1600s. So much of the film was about the subversive, underground attempts to encourage the believers in the secret churches, and the violent attempts by the Buddhists to thwart the spread of Christianity in Japan. It’s a fascinating film and one worth watching and processing.

The thing that stuck with me is this - through Complete Game we are called to spread “The Gospel of Jesus in the Language of Baseball.” In Silence, they were called to spread the Gospel of Jesus through the language and culture of the Japanese. It’s a long, hard road and it requires deep, intimate understanding of the culture. You’re not going to colonize a group of people who process and think about things one way to an entirely different way of thinking overnight, through a single message, or a single blog post.

Our call as baseball missionaries is to learn, to observe, to walk this road, and to live out both of these Scriptures:

“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” - Matthew 10:16

“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only…” - James 1:22

Get into the culture of baseball and learn it. Make the movement of Complete Game like the secret church. Help people to see that this game is meant to find and build disciples. For if the purpose is only the game, there is no purpose at all. This beautiful game was created so that we can show people the goodness of God and the glory of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.

“Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” - John 1:3

“For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.” - Colossians 1:16

Bot9 - Relationships

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We are made for relationship. Relationship with God and others. Follow this thought from Paul’s letter to the Philippians (2:5-8):

Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Jesus didn’t have to come from Heaven to dwell with us. But He did. He chose to serve us. All of us. He came to be in relationship with us and to express the importance of relationship in His teachings. The importance of Christ making this choice cannot be overstated. He didn’t stay in Heaven, turn the clock, and let everything go. He came to earth, to know and be known.

With this being the case, why do we justify barriers to relationship? As a player, you might choose to dislike a teammate, to hold onto a hurt, or to look down upon someone. As a coach, you might choose to protect yourself from relationships with parents, or draw lines in the sand that keeps you from knowing your players (or them knowing you). I’m not talking about the obvious boundaries protecting us all from inappropriate relationships. I’m talking about having a group of students over to your house for a barbecue, or a game, or inviting kids to come to church with you and your family. Like Christ, we should seek to know and be known.

The Maker of Life invested in our life. He seeks to dwell in each of us through the Holy Spirit. Take time in the next month to build deeper relationships. Talk about the pennant races, and invite players and teammates over for the World Series. Pull your players into your office and have a conversation about their life. Grab your teammates and do something together as a group in a low-pressure environment. It’s the best time in the annual cycle of college, high school, and youth baseball programs to invest in lives as a foundational element to your coaching. In this you will be living out the essence of servant leadership as Christ did.

Bot9 - Confidence

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I had an epiphany about confidence this weekend. This may be something that has occurred to many of you previously, but this idea became much more clear to me while coaching girls softball this past Saturday.

I’m coaching hitters on a high school softball team this fall. Coaching girls is awesome. They’re kind. They’re respectful. They listen. They also internalize their performance very differently than most boys. When they come up short on the field, they really FEEL it and show the emotion of those feelings. Boys seem to have it trained into them to bury the negative and forget it quicker. Girls seem to open up those emotions, whether they’re in the middle of a competition or not. As a coach it makes it so much easier to know what mountains you’re trying to move in that moment. It’s very cool.

Now here’s the epiphany - confidence and faith are connected. Deeply. They might be so similar that they’re close to the same thing. What I’m finding is that girls (and maybe people, in general, growing up in this generation where media is so readily available) connect their results to their confidence. If they don’t see it happen, it’s not real. It’s not possible.

Here’s the thing - that’s not faith. It’s not confidence either. Your results are not a firm foundation for confidence. They’re important building blocks towards confidence, but they’re not the foundation. Jesus says this in Matthew 7:24-27:

“Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock. Though the rain comes in torrents and the floodwaters rise and the winds beat against that house, it won’t collapse because it is built on bedrock. But anyone who hears my teaching and doesn’t obey it is foolish, like a person who builds a house on sand. When the rains and floods come and the winds beat against that house, it will collapse with a mighty crash.”

This parable connects the dots. Our foundation must be built on that which is constant, never changing. Our performance is always changing. Jesus and His teachings are never changing. They are eternal. How you play that day is like a storm. It’s calm, it rains and storms, and then it’s calm again. We must build our house of confidence and faith on a firm foundation.

We must continue to encourage people in this regard. I love verses like 2 Corinthians 5:7 (“For we live by faith, not by sight.”) and Hebrews 11:1 (“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”) because they also speak to this idea. Faith means we don’t see it, but confidence means we have belief in what we do not see. Listen to the voices in your life that raise your faith and confidence, and be one of those voices for others!

Bot9 - Errors & Mistakes

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Look at the picture. There is no part of that player who wanted to make that error in front of his teammates, his coaches, the fans, and the television audience. He didn’t make that error on purpose. What’s the proper response to an error such as this?

Yell at him!

Sorry, that was sarcastic. But a lot of coaches would choose that course of action, right? Belittle the person for the mistake he just made so that he’ll be so afraid he won’t repeat the error. What that teaches the players is to react in fear and to yell at their kids when they are coaching their own kids. It’s the circle of life.

Just kidding.

Paul’s words in Romans 3:32 will forever be true: “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” Yes, we all screw up. We all make errors. We all make mistakes. One of the keys to our own success is how quickly we realize the truth of Psalm 103:12 (“as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.”) when we seek forgiveness for those sins and make a better path forward.

As coaches, one of the most valuable things we can do when we see a mistake or an error is take a step back and ask ourselves this question: “Is that person ignorant, weak in the habit, or rebelling?” If they are ignorant or weak in the habit, it’s up to us to train them better and create a stronger learning environment. If they are rebelling, we have the opportunity to restore them gently back into good living. That one reflective question will allow you to assess yourself as a coach and dive into deeper relationships with your team.

I’m watching the team I’m coaching now deal with themselves harshly. When they make an error or mistake, they beat themselves up pretty good. It is my hope that they will learn to forgive themselves the way their coaches and Christ already have!

Bot9 - How Should I Coach?

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One of my favorite podcasts is “GM Street” on The Ringer. Former NFL GM Michael Lombardi goes through a series of NFL topics from his perspective, as he draws on a wealth of personal interactions and experiences from NFL legends ranging from Bill Walsh to Al Davis to Bill Belichick.

This past week, Lombardi gave his perspective on how coaching should be done. The great coaches now learned from a great coach in the past, and it seems there’s a “way” to do it. Because a head coaching job in the NFL is harder to get than one in the US Senate (30 jobs vs. 100 jobs), fitting into that tight funnel doesn’t leave much room for error. Lombardi is convinced that you have to be a hard man, even somewhat distant as a leader, in order to become a head football coach in the NFL.

The NFL might be a lot like the military and require such an approach to be successful, but I’m concerned that people look to those coaches as their role models when their coaching context is nowhere near the National Football League, the military, or be an organization that would require “life or death” kinds of decisions for individuals and countries.

It’s important for us to realize that the idea of “coaching” is relatively new, one that in the sports context only stretches to about 150 years. The military style of coaching has dominated our understanding of that vocation, but I wonder if the history of coaching is much longer than we realize.

One of my mentors referred to Jesus as “the master coach.” Jesus was certainly many things (Lord, Savior, Lion, Lamb, keep the list coming…), and I love this image of Him as a coach. Choosing His team. Discipling His followers in the way to go. Helping people do more than they could do on their own. Would Jesus as a coach resemble the picture Lombardi portrays as the best practices for a coach, or would it look different?

At the end of the day, Jesus didn’t coach in the NFL, or the MLB, or the NBA…and neither do most coaches. The context of our coaching matters. If that’s the case, maybe we would do ourselves good to look to Jesus as the master coach, and not the leaders in the NFL. The context may not be the same as the end goal and purpose may not be the same. I’m not going to pretend to know what it looks like to coach at that level, but I think it is safe to say that the highest level of coaching would be one that keeps in mind the great commission as an end goal for coaching for most of us.

"Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…"(Matthew 28:19 NIV)