My phone vibrates so I look at the screen and see a new message from Ross Mitchell, MSU's 12-0 All American pitcher, "Hey is there a verse in the Bible that talks about taking time to study the Bible in depth and not just seeing how fast you can read the whole thing?" Right before school started this year seniors Luis Pollerena and Kendall Graveman would meet in the locker room and pray in front of each locker for the person who would soon be sitting in that locker. If you've been to a game maybe you have heard Chris Tomlin's "God of Angel Armies" playing on the loud speakers when Trey Porter comes up to bat. Two weeks ago during the South Carolina series, senior Mitch Slauter, who put his faith in Christ earlier in the year, was baptized in Chadwick Lake, directly behind the baseball field, in front of family, friends, teammates, and coaches. Every morning last week leading up to Friday's regional game 10-15 guys would meet before practice to study the Book of Phillippians and pray for the team and the upcoming games. Some of the topics of discussion were taking advantage of this weekends circumstances to further the gospel the way Paul did when he was in prison (Phil 1:12-13), conducting ourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel (Phil 1:27), doing nothing from selfishness, staying humble, and putting others before ourselves (Phil 2:3), being an obedient servant like Christ (Phil 2:7-8), doing all things without complaining or arguing (Phil 2:!4), not being made righteous by any work we have done, but only through faith in Christ (Phil 3:9), forgetting what's behind and pressing on toward the upward goal (Phil 3:13-14), not being anxious about anything, praying about everything and thinking on the right things (Phil 4:6-8). And while everyone saw pitchers Ben Bracewell and Chad Girodo dominate on the mound in the regional championship game, what they haven't seen is the time we have spent together studying the Bible nearly every week over the past 3 years and all of the conversations we have had and the verses we have looked at about having to persevere and trust God through the injuries, bad outings, and lack of playing time both of them have experienced. As Job said, "Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?" (Job 2:10) All of us have times of good and adversity but it has been my experience that these 18-22 year olds who are playing a boy's game that had no pressure when they started years ago now turns their college days into a roller coaster of highs and lows. And in my opinion just like a boat needs an anchor to stay firm through a storm these guys need a firm anchor, a solid rock that can keep them focused and firm. And for many of the players they have learned the words of the old hymn to be true…"On Christ the solid rock I stand all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand."
My name is Matt Jolley and I have had the privilege of serving as the MSU Baseball team chaplain for the past 4 years. This story is not about me, but God and what He is doing and continuing to in the lives of the MSU players and coaches. While thousands are witnessing the story that is being written on the field, there is an even greater story that is being written off the field and I would like to share some of it with you. I'd like to start with how my role with the team got started and how God has worked out all the details to bring about what He had planned. I trust that it will both challenge and encourage you wherever you are in your walk with the Lord.
Five years ago my wife and I moved back to Starkville from St. Petersburg, Florida where I had been the director of a youth ministry called K-Life and served as a chaplain in the Tampa Bay Rays organization, working mostly with their minor league players who were going through spring training and extended spring training. When I graduated from MSU in 2001 I knew that I would be back to do ministry on campus at some point and after 1 year in Missouri and 6 years in Florida we felt the Lord was leading us back to Starkville. What we went through in the process of moving back up here is another story for another time, but suffice it to say it took longer than we were expecting and during the time between my job ending and our house selling we had to basically sell everything we had to pay the bills. We also had to turn in our one car we had leased and ride bikes everywhere we went and pull our 9 month old daughter in a bike trailer for a few months! Our house finally sold in February 2009, eight months after we had originally hoped, but all in God's perfect timing. We had no plans, no where to live, very little money and knew only 1 student on campus at the time. It definitely was a leap of faith, but one that we both had complete peace that the Lord was leading us to do. We moved in temporarily to a mobile home my parents owned about 1 hour from Starkville and I started driving over to campus and spending a couple of nights with the one guy I knew and just started meeting people and sharing what God had put on our heart to do on campus at MSU….discipleship.
One of Jesus' last commands in Matthew 28:19 was to"go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that I commanded you." Although I grew up in church I had never heard of discipleship or seen it modeled until the summer after my junior year of college. I was working at a Christian athletic camp in Missouri called Kanakuk and that summer I had an older man meet with me and a few other guys every week. He started teaching me how to study the Bible on my own, challenged me to memorize scripture, gave me accountability with my struggles without making me feel condemned, encouraged me to stay focused on the Lord, and just spent time hanging out with us. I grew spiritually so much that summer and at the end of it he said this is called discipleship and this is what Jesus did with His 12 disciples and commanded believers to be doing today. I came back to Mississippi State after the summer so excited and asked around to try to find someone who could continue discipling me, but no one seemed to understand what I was asking for. Everyone pointed me to a Bible study group, but none of them were like what I had experienced that summer. After graduating from MSU and spending a year in Missouri going through a Bible training program called the Kanakuk Institute, I took the job as the director of St. Petersburg K-Life, packed up all my stuff and headed south. And although Florida is the most southern state I found out quickly it is not the south! My one prayer when I moved to Florida was that God would put someone in my life who could disciple me the way I had when I was at camp. The first week I was there I met a local pastor and he asked me if I was interested in being discipled and I knew immediately my prayer had been answered. For six years I met every week with Pastor Tim Cole, who continued to pour his life into mine and teach me God's word and model it for me with his life. My wife and I spent countless hours with Pastor Cole and his wife Michele being taught by them, getting counseling from them and probably most impacting being in their home on a regular basis seeing the way they made God's Word the center of their marriage and their parenting. Our relationship with them really was the model of ministry that we wanted to do in Starkville. So when we started making plans to come back we decided that we didn't join another campus ministry because we wanted to be completely free to do what the Lord had put on our heart and to go into whatever door He opened. So we moved back and started our ministry on campus and prayed for God to open all the doors He wanted open and close the ones He wanted closed. From the first day we have been here He has continued to do just that and provide for our every need!
When the fall 2009 semester started I walked over to the MSU Baseball office and asked to meet with Coach Cohen. I was taken back to his office where I introduced myself and shared with him what I had done with the Rays organization and asked him if anyone was working with the team in that capacity. He took me to meet Coach Butch Thompson and Nick Mingione and I shared some more with them and while they really wanted me involved with the team they had to decline my offer because the FCA director at the time. Josh Gilreath, was working with the team. I was a little disappointed but knew that God had closed this door for now and so I just continued to meet students on campus and focus my time with them. Six months later, right after the start of the 2010 baseball season Coach Thompson called me and asked me if I could come by his office. Later that same day, Josh called me and asked me if I was still interested in working with the baseball team because he had taken a job with Pinelake Church in Starkville and wouldn't have the time to do it anymore. So that Sunday morning I found myself leading the team chapel and from that very day I have made it clear that God has a plan and purpose for us to grow and mature in our relationship with Him and it is called discipleship. I told the guys that while I was happy to lead a chapel on Sunday mornings what I really wanted to do was spend time each week investing into their lives and teaching them God's Word and how to study it for themselves. That first year one of the players asked if we could start meeting. The next year four of the guys wanted to meet, the next year eight, and this year I have been meeting with sixteen guys on the team pretty much every week. They bring their Bibles, pens, highlighters, and notebook and we study God's Word together and talk about how to make it practical in our lives and how it applies to different areas of our lives, including baseball. I give them an assignment to work on during the week and we go over it when we meet. We also spend time talking about their struggles and looking at verses they can memorize to fight against temptation the way the Jesus did in Matthew 4. We spend time together hunting and fishing and most importantly I have the guys over to my house to be around my family as much as I can to try and model to them what Pastor Cole did for me... a home centered on God's Word. I am not perfect, but I do my best to be genuine and transparent with them about everything in my life. They are not perfect either and just like everyone they have their struggles. But they are growing and maturing in their relationship with the Lord and while it was exciting to see them win the regional on Monday night it was not nearly as exciting as the victories I see happening in their heart as they get into God's Word for themselves and grow deeper in their relationship with the Lord.
I really wish everyone could see what God is doing first hand like I do, but since you can't I couldn't help but share some of this with you. There are a lot more stories that could be told about God working on this team that I will save for another time, but I will say that I don't think any of this would have happened without the complete support and encouragement of the MSU coaching and support staff. They have made my role with the team so much easier and my relationship with each of them is a blessing. We have a coaches Bible study each week where we get into the Word together and pray for each other and the guys on the team. I know as coaches they will always have fans and critics for what they do on the field, but off the field they are helping to create an atmosphere of growth and excellence in every area of these players lives. They know that many of them want to grow spiritually so they do all they can to make that possible for those who want it. And for those on the team who have no interest in growing spiritually, the players and the coaches have created an atmosphere of love and respect for each other so there has never been an issue of anyone feeling judged or condemned if they chose a different path at this point in their lives. As I shared in our team chapel last Sunday...the greatest gospel we preach is with our lives, so we should seek to live in a manner worthy of the gospel and pray that our lives would draw them toward Christ and not push them away.
And perhaps I am the most excited about next
Christmas break when I will be taking some of the players and coaches on
a mission trip to Eleuthera, an island in the Bahamas, where we will be
putting on baseball camps, sharing our testimonies , doing Bible
studies and taking down much needed baseball gear to give out to kids
who love the game of baseball more than anything, yet many of which
don't even have their own glove. I'm sure it will make them more
thankful for all they have here in America and challenge them to become
more like Christ who didn't come to be served but to serve and to give
His life for others! Oh and as far as an answer to Ross Mitchell's text
about studying the Bible…I replied with James 1:25, " But one who looks
intently into the perfect law, the law that gives liberty, and abides
by it, not forgetting what he hears, but doing it, this man will be
blessed in what he does." I don't believe a health, wealth, and
prosperity gospel but I do believe that these guys and this team are
being blessed because of their time spent studying God's Word and
seeking to live it out in their individual lives on and off the field.
Please pray for God's Word to continue to grow in the hearts of
everyone involved on this team and for His will to be done in their
lives, on and off the field!