Thursday, July 31, 2014

It's All About the Fundamentals—Part II: Practicing Life With God

Spiritual growth has a lot in common with baseball—or any other activity we do involving our bodies. While we may learn something about an activity by watching others and taking notes, we only truly learn how to do something when we do it ourselves.   We need to find “coaches” who can come alongside us and provide guidance for us on our spiritual journey.  We can also learn reliable and repeatable patterns and practices (sometimes called spiritual disciplines) that help create space for God to work in our lives on a regular basis.   We could think of these activities as batting practice for the spiritual life.  Just like the baseball players, we need to practice these activities over and over again until they become routine to us—until doing it the wrong way is what feels unnatural.  My son attended a baseball clinic recently, and a couple times while demonstrating to the group, I heard the coach say, “I have a hard time doing this the wrong way.”  In other words, he has practiced the right way to swing so much that he finds it hard to demonstrate incorrectly. Could we imagine our spiritual life reaching that point? 
These are practices we can do with our bodies
that help create space for God to act in our lives.

In the life of Jesus we see a perfect example of living a divine life through a human body.  Like Coach Nick at Brady's clinic, Jesus had passion, but in his case, it wasn’t just for the game of baseball, but for the human race and all of creation.  Ultimately it was that passionate desire for you, me, and all of creation to be “put right” and set free to become all that God intended us to be that led him to give his life on the cross.  If Christ had that kind of passion and love for the world, we can too. 

Over and over again in his letters, Paul asserts that Christ is in us and we are in Christ, which implies that what Jesus did as a human being is possible for us.

Practically speaking, however, it can seem difficult, if not impossible, to do even a fraction of what Jesus did. To walk in the way of Jesus’s unconditional love and grace for all people seems completely counter to what comes naturally to us as human beings.  It’s hard to practice this way of living day after day when the world seems to war against it—sometimes literally.   

Ultimately we have to choose in which school we wish to enroll: the School of the World or the School of Jesus?   Many of us try to straddle the fence and dabble in both schools, but that usually doesn’t work well. The techniques each school teaches will inevitably contradict each other and we will become confused and frustrated at our lack of progress.  Once we intentionally choose to focus on the School of Jesus, however, we can begin to make progress in our spiritual growth. 

Like Coach Nick, Jesus has a well-earned reputation as a good ”coach”.  In fact, he is the best instructor for living life with God that I know. His school teaches the rigorous Kingdom-life curriculum—a counter-cultural way not for the feint of heart.  Also like Coach Nick with his players during practice, Jesus demands our utmost concentration and effort when we are in class.  Anything that distracts us must be put aside; we must be committed to the training we have started—Luke 14:25-33.  His is a hard teaching, and it’s not for everyone—John 6:60.  However, former students, such as Peter, Paul, and so many others that have set at his feet through the centuries, swear by him.   They promise us that if we stick with him, even when the going gets tough, he will show how we ought to live.  

Just as a change to how we swing a baseball bat seems strange at first, it won’t seem natural to respond as Jesus would at the beginning.  Our body (including our mind and spirit) has not yet been trained to do it, so we will feel awkward and clumsy trying to do what Jesus did. With practice, however, responding, as Jesus would if he were me, becomes easier—more natural. 

Imagine what a difference it might make if more of us committed to the School of Jesus—not just for a week, a semester, or even a four-year degree, but for a lifetime.  Every follower of Jesus must continue to learn; every day is an opportunity to practice living life with God—a Kingdom-living clinic if you will.  Imagine the burdens that could be lifted and the power that could be released if more of us had our eyes and ears opened to see life that way.  Everything we live through—the good, the bad, and all the ordinary days in between—trains us for reigning in God’s Kingdom both now and eternally.  Surely, learning to see life that way could make a difference in some of the seemingly intractable personal and global crises we face in our families, churches, communities, and world.  Who knows, it might even literally transform the world.

Monday, July 28, 2014

It's All About the Fundamentals — Part I: Practicing Our Swing

Coach Nick's nephews coaching Brady on his swing.
Nick called them the "Wonder Twins".
Brady participated in a baseball clinic recently. Coach Nick Mammano, who is well known in our league, led the clinic.  He has a passion and love both for the game of baseball and the kids he coaches that runs in his family—and is contagious.  This was a great opportunity for Brady to work on the fundamentals of his game in preparation for moving up to the next level of competition. 

The key to success in baseball, or any other endeavor involving our body, is learning to control the body so it does what we need it to do when we need to do it.   

During the clinic, Nick and his assistant coaches taught the students the fundamentals of hitting, catching, fielding, etc.  Power for a baseball swing comes from the hips and mid-torso, so Nick broke it down into three repeatable steps.  The drills helped the kids focus on rotating their hips when swinging, while keeping the rest of the body fairly still.  As the students focused on repeating the steps one, two, and three, their bodies were slowly learning to hold the bat properly and move the way they needed to.  The idea is that over time, those movements will be impressed upon their muscle memory, which will improve the mechanics of their swing and make them better hitters. 

Brady with Coach Gary at the tee [background].  
The older gentlemen is Nick's dad—Pops—who also had much
baseball wisdom to impart to the students.
Of course the kids don’t always get that at first. Some of them got frustrated at having to constantly repeat all the steps over and over, instead of just “swinging for the fences”.  They have to practice movements that seem uncomfortable and unnatural—even unnecessary.  (Think of Daniel-san training under Miyagi in the original Karate Kid movie.) Brady and the other participants got many chances to practice what Nick had preached to them—soft toss, live pitching, hitting drills.  

As shown in the photos, over and over again, the students swung, and each time a coach was there to offer input, suggestions, and, as needed, corrections.






Coach Nick teaching proper batting technique.
I think part what makes Nick such a good coach is that he has the ability to teach his players what he would do if he were them.  (Many are skilled but not as many can impart that skill to others.)  At the end of the evening, after the kids had worked hard for two hours, Nick thanked them for hanging in there, commended them for the progress they made, and then he made a statement that stuck with me.  He said to them, “I am not trying to teach you to hit like me.  You will never hit just like me.  I want to teach you to hit like you.”  In other words, he wants them to be the best hitter they are capable of becoming.

During the clinic, I watched Nick (and the other coaches) work with Brady and the other kids, patiently explaining and demonstrating the steps, sometimes literally guiding their bodies to help them understand the proper mechanics, and exhorting them to go through the same motion every single time they swing the bat.  However, Nick told the kids at the end of the clinic that even the best coach can only take them so far.  If really want to be able do what Nick would do if he were them, they are going to have to practice—a lot!  The mechanics he is teaching them have to become as familiar to the students as they are to the coaches—and that only happens after hours and hours of practice. 

When the hitter steps to the plate during a game, they are pretty much on their own.   The coach cannot and should not say much at that point.  As they enter the batter’s box to face the opposing pitcher, the spotlight is squarely on them.  As the ball races toward them, they do not have time to think about the mechanics of their swing.  No, in that moment the batter simply reacts to the pitch, drawing upon what is already embodied in them—from all those hours of practice—and swings... Contact!  A base hit!  Maybe even two?!  Standing at first or second base, brushing the dirt off, with just a moment ot reflect, perhaps they will realize the value of all those hitting drills Coach Nick did with them during the clinic.  One can always hope… J

In Part II, we'll look at what baseball and spiritual life have in common.