Enduring Struggles

Avoiding Criticism

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As followers of Jesus, we should never give people a reason to criticize us, but we shouldn’t compromise our commitment to Jesus in order to avoid criticism either. We should not be ashamed to be associated with Jesus.  

Jesus told his first followers: “Whoever is ashamed of me and my message; I also will be ashamed of him.” (Luke 9)

Today, I was reading Paul’s second letter to Timothy where he pleads with Timothy to not be ashamed of the negative stigma that may come with being loyal to Jesus. Paul writes in 2 Timothy 1:8:

"Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God."

Now, we have to put ourselves into this scene and in this story to really understand what Paul is saying here because the context is so different from what we have grown up experiencing here in our own country where following Jesus is not viewed as an offensive insult to the president or an unpatriotic act of defiance.

So here’s the scene: Paul is once again in prison for proclaiming the message of Jesus. But for Paul, being criticized, persecuted and even put in prison has just always been part of the deal. For Paul, suffering for proclaiming the message of Jesus is just normal and expected. And so that’s what he’s reminding Timothy — that suffering shouldn’t shock him. 

In Paul’s mind this kind of suffering is closely connected to Jesus’ own suffering. In Paul’s mind, if Jesus experienced the shame, humiliation and execution of the cross then his followers shouldn’t be afraid or surprised if they experience similar suffering for the sake of Jesus and his message.  

Now, again, this is hard for many of us to understand because this is just not our experience (and how thankful should we be that it’s not!?). But we can relate to what he’s telling Timothy here about not being ashamed.

Paul points out that there is obviously a negative stigma in Roman society to being associated with Jesus. And the same thing is true for us today in our society and even in this game. You’re not going to be persecuted or put in prison for it here, but people are going to put a negative label on you the more you associate yourself with Jesus or being a “chapel guy”. 

And so Paul’s words here to Timothy are just as true for us today. He tells Timothy to not avoid the unwarranted humiliation that comes from being associated with Jesus. He tells Timothy to endure all the humiliation and to share in suffering for the sake of Jesus and his message to the world. And again, he reminds Timothy of the power of God that is available to him and that is able to help him embrace this life of loyalty to Jesus.

Paul is pleading with Timothy to not compromise his loyalty to Jesus by trying to avoid the negative label that might come with being a follower of Jesus. 

And this is a temptation that we still face today. 

Many people try to say that their faith is personal or a private thing and that they don’t want to be pushy with their beliefs or something like that. It sounds humble and comes across as respectful, but lets just be honest, many of us keep our faith in Jesus to ourselves because we don’t want to get labeled with any of the negative labels that people put on Christians.

Jesus was willing to be crucified for us, but many of us are not even willing to be criticized for him.   

Paul reminds Timothy that God has given him the gift of his Spirit that now dwells within him, and it is a Spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-discipline. 

We have this same Spirit dwelling within us. It is God’s Spirit that leads us into becoming more and more like Jesus himself. And Jesus was not a man of fear nor was he ashamed of his life and his message.   

And so lets remember what Jesus has done for us and reciprocate that kind of love with a loyalty to him that is willing to be criticized and mocked and even persecuted if that’s what it comes to. 

 

The Secret of Contentment

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This week I've been reading through Paul's letter to the Philippians, and I came across a very popular verse that many of us have memorized (whether intentionally or not). However, we have to make sure that we understand what Paul is actually saying in this particular verse, and we have to be honest with ourselves about whether or not we are actually living out what it means when we quote it. The section in which we find this verse is in Philippians 4:11-13 where Paul writes:  

"Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me."

The Jesus-followers in Philippi had sent one of their members, named Epaphroditus, to take a financial gift to Paul to support him in prison. So Paul writes this letter and sends it back to the Philippians with Epaphroditus to say “Thank you for your generous support.” But he also wants them to know that he hasn’t been sitting around waiting or wondering when they might finally offer some support. He says, “I want you to know that I’ve learned how to be content in every situation and no matter my circumstances.”

The fact that Paul could be at peace and stay content in the midst of everything that he had experienced was an amazing mindset, but it’s also one that’s available to every other follower of Jesus as well.

And so, how can we get to a place in our own life where we can actually say with integrity that, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”?

And you see, that hits on the very thing that Paul has been teaching throughout this letter. He’s been pointing out that living as a follower of Jesus means that you begin to see your own life-story as a living expression of Jesus’ life-story. And so difficult times in life become times where we can experience a heightened awareness of Jesus’ love and presence with us. And this can give us hope and humility during times where things aren’t going as good as we’d like.

And so, Paul shows us throughout this letter that truly knowing and following Jesus is always a deeply personal and life-changing experience. It changes your mindset on life and your own view of yourself.   

As Jesus-follower, we must learn to view our life as not being our own.

We belong to our Lord.

Our life is no longer primarily about us; it’s about him.

And that’s what Paul’s been saying since the beginning of the letter. He says for me to live is all about Jesus and to die is a good thing. And so when Paul says here at the end of his letter that he has learned the secret of contentment, he is saying that the difficult times in life have become his greatest teachers and that they have taught him that the secret of contentment is simple dependence on God and devoted service to him. 

That is why he can say, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

This verse is probably the most popular Bible verse among athletes. Players put this verse on their gloves, on their shoes, in their social media bios and if your Tim Tebow on your eye-black. It’s a phenomenal verse, but we have to make sure that we understand what Paul is actually saying here and we have to be honest with ourselves about whether or not we are actually living out what it means when we quote it. 

“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” doesn’t mean that Jesus is going to help me become successful, get that promotion, get that raise, get that call-up or obtain all of my goals and dreams. When I say that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me it means that I have learned the secret of contentment; that true joy and peace and satisfaction in this life is found in a life that is lived with simple dependence on God and devoted service to him.

Perhaps the words of Sinclair Ferguson sum this up perfectly:

“Contentment is the direct fruit of having no higher ambition than to belong to the Lord at his disposal.”

 

God-Confidence in the Clutch

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The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines confidence as “full trust; belief in the power, trustworthiness, or reliability of a person or thing.” As professional athletes, confidence is often developed through the persistent challenging and testing of our athletic abilities. Over time, we reach a certain point where we aren’t afraid of stepping up to the plate when the game is on the line because we have been through this a thousand times before and proven that we possess the strength and ability to come through in the clutch. 

As those who belong to Christ, we are to possess a similar kind of confidence but a different source and foundation for this confidence. As Christians, our confidence in life does not rest in who we are and what we’ve done but rather in who God is and what He's done. Confidence in God is the key to truly experiencing His power and presence and the source of strength that we need to endure the times in life when our faith is tested. Therefore, the condition and strength of our God-confidence will always be directly related and affected by our perception and view of God.

In describing the faith of Abraham in Romans 4, the apostle Paul provides us with four big principles that describes what true confidence in God looks like. 

To begin with, true confidence in God is based on God’s Word. Despite his circumstances, Abraham was “fully convinced” that God was able and willing to do what God said He would do (v. 21). Most people find themselves struggling in faith and feeling let down by God because their faith is resting in 'their wants' rather than in God’s Word.

“Faith does not come up with things for God to do. Faith responds to what God wants done.” (Crawford Loritts from his book Unshaken) God is not in the genie business of granting wishes. God is in the sovereignty business of giving us His Word. Faith is not proposing our plans and expecting God to work for us. Faith is trusting God’s plan and experiencing God working through us.

The next principle that we see in this passage is that true confidence in God defies our circumstances. Abraham “believed against hope… He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.” (v. 18-19) Abraham’s faith wasn’t naive. He considered the reality of his circumstances and yet confidently decided, “I’m going to believe God anyway.” 

Many times, out of fear of coming across as foolish, we attempt to make our faith more logical and reasonable. However, sometimes God may be calling us to a level of faith that seems ridiculous to those around us. 

Abraham and Sarah had no logical reason to expect a child at their age and with their history of infertility. Our confidence in God does not deny the reality of our circumstances. God-confidence reasonably considers the present situation and yet still leads you to confidently determine that “My circumstances do not define what God wants done in my life.” 

The third principle that we see in this passage is that true confidence in God is anchored in God’s sovereign power. Abraham rested His faith in the fact that God was the one “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (v. 17). We might need to be reminded that the adversity Abraham and Sarah had found themselves enduring was a crisis designed by God. 

God is the Author of our own individual stories and where there is great need in our life there is opportunity to experience the power and presence of God in a real and tangible way. The circumstances that we find ourselves in and the power of God that defies them are statements made by God concerning His ability, sufficiency and power to come through for us in ways that we simply can’t come through for ourselves. The process of waiting for God to deliver in the clutch is always a part of God’s plan, and as we wait in faith and confidence for something to happen, more than likely we will discover that God often changes us before He changes our circumstances. 

And the fourth principle that we see in this passage is that true confidence in God must be tested and used. The more Abraham considered his circumstances and the more that he pressed into the promises and power of God, “he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God” (v. 20). 

God-confidence is not merely believing a body of truth. God-confidence is experiencing and living out that truth that you claim to believe. God-confidence is not necessarily grown in the friendly confines of Bible study and Christian fellowship. God-confidence is grown in the trenches of being forced to trust Him to get you through the troubles or trials that you are currently facing. 

Therefore, God-confidence is based on God’s Word. God-confidence defies our circumstances. God-confidence is anchored in God’s sovereign power. And true God-confidence must be tested and used.

May we not waste our time when we find ourselves waiting on God to deliver. As those who belong to Christ, may we realize that true confidence in God is developed through the persistent challenging and testing of that confidence. May we seek to attain a certain level of God-confidence that overcomes life’s circumstances because we have been through these things before, and we have reason to rest assured in our God who has proven Himself willing and able to perfectly come through in the clutch and deliver what He has promised to deliver.

 

The Ride of Professional Baseball

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The game of baseball is a temporary train ride where the conductor orders most of the passengers off the train before they reach their desired destination. 

I spent over twenty years of my life as a passenger on this train, but a few weeks ago, it became apparent to me that it was time to get off. Baseball has been the air that I breathe, and the Major Leagues was always the desired destination. But just this past spring, after one last outing on Field 3 at the Orioles complex in Sarasota, FL., my life as an active player came to an end. 

Over the last couple weeks, I have been reflecting upon my professional career and the long road that has led up to this turning point in my life. And it has been during this time that I have perhaps stumbled upon an invaluable secret that so many players seem to miss along the way.

The game’s most valuable gift to you is found in the ride; not the destination.

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So many of us are so frustrated with where the game told us to "Get off" that we never take the time to focus on what the game gave us along the way. 

Although it was not a smooth ride, I am grateful for what the game of baseball has graciously given me. The game has taken me around the world — literally! I have forged lifelong friendships with people from all different cultures, religions and countries throughout the world. 

I have been given the humble gift of competing and playing the game that I love in front of thousands of people on the weekends but also the humor of playing in front of less than a hundred people during the week — my fellow minor leaguers know what I’m talking about. There’s nothing quite like the irony of playing a team called the Intimidators in front of a not-so-intimidating crowd of twelve people in Kannapolis, NC. (true story).

Baseball has also given me the gift of Unlimited Potential (unsolicited) All jokes aside, I could never write an honest reflection of what baseball has given me without mentioning the great men who have been so intimately involved in shepherding me and shaping me. These men who know my story best are well aware of the trials and setbacks that I suffered during my playing career. However, these trials became the very thing that God used to soften my heart and open my eyes to the wonders of how He works. I have come to a place in life where I can honestly rejoice in my suffering. 

 

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A New Destination

I gave my life to Christ during the 2014 season shortly after my first back operation. That definitive decision to lay down my identity as a professional baseball player and to embrace my identity as a new man in Jesus Christ changed my purpose in life forever. 

The desired destination in the game was no longer my greatest desire in life.

Life surrendered to Christ as Lord created a foundation and a future far bigger than any prior dream to reach the Major Leagues. No longer was my “Why?” focused on building Matt Taylor’s Kingdom; instead my “Why?” became a focus on what God wanted to do with my life. I began to seek relationships with my teammates and peers in a manner like I had never done before. The field, clubhouse, training room and the road became practical places to radically love, serve, encourage and believe in others.

 

What the Trials have Taught Me

We will all go through various trials in life, and it is naïve for us to ever assume otherwise. One of the greatest pieces of advice that I have ever received on enduring the trials that will come was from Levi Lusko’s book titled, Through the Eyes of a Lion. In the book, he gives some eye-opening details into the great trial of losing his young daughter, and it was this quote that has spoken to me so loud and clear:

“It is also crucial that you don’t wait for a crisis before you get these sorts of rhythms in place. You must train for the trial you’re not yet in. The worst time to try to get ready for a marathon is when you are running one. We made the decision as a family to plant ourselves in the house of the Lord before the bottom dropped out, and as a result, we had the root systems in place when we needed them the most.”

The most important thing that the ride in this game has taught me is learning to ask the question, 

“On what is my foundation is built? What is my identity rooted in? And is my foundation and identity found in something that can be taken away in just ONE moment or ONE pitch?” 

 

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I have written this with love for everyone who reads it. At some point along the way, the proverbial trails of life will ultimately come upon all of us. At some point in life we will arrive at a turning point. Are we building our foundation on the ever-present God who created heaven and earth and moves the mountains or are we putting all of our hope in something that can be stripped away at any second? 

For most of my life my foundation has been rooted in a game which could be removed from me at any point. My faith and hope has been placed in something that was neither eternal nor secure. However, it was the ride in the game that helped reveal that to me. 

Thank you baseball for helping me discover a passion and a radical love like no other, but more importantly thank you Jesus Christ for revealing to me that you are the stable foundation to build my identity upon. Life with you is eternal and secure. You are the cornerstone of my life, and I am forever grateful that God’s brilliant wisdom and powerful sovereignty used the most beautiful game in the world to change my heart and my future.

 

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