It’s 9:27 pm on May 11, 2017. Our kids are in bed and already dreaming. I’m also in bed slowly fading off to sleep when I hear a text message come through. I roll over and get my phone and read, “Matt someone that works with our team gave his life to the Lord today in my office…GOD IS SO GOOD….Thanks for all you’ve taught me. You’ve made a HUGE impact on my life.” I sit up with excitement and hand my phone to Crystal, my wife, and just sit there smiling as she reads the message.
As many of you know, we moved back to Starkville 8 years ago on faith knowing the Lord was leading us to MSU to disciple college students. We had no idea what doors God was going to open, but came back knowing this is where God wanted us. I had the opportunity to share some of that story in the first “Diamond Dawg Discipleship” story I wrote before our Super Regional series against Virginia in 2013, so I won’t go back into that now (just click on the link if you didn’t read the first story) but l’ll summarize with a quote by Phillip Yancey shared by my friend Will Rambo on twitter this week that said, “I have learned that faith means trusting in advance what will only make sense in reverse.” Looking back at all the Lord brought us through to get here 8 years ago and all the Lord has done since we've gotten to MSU it makes perfect sense now! He just wanted us to trust Him and continue to trust Him through the process. That truly is how faith works.
It’s been four years since that magical run all the way to the National Championship series and we find ourselves again on the eve of another Super Regional and Lord Willing another trip to Omaha! So what better time to share some of what the Lord’s been doing and how He is using His plan of discipleship to impact, not only lives here in Starkville, but throughout the SEC and across the Atlantic Ocean on a tiny island in the middle of the Caribbean called Eleuthera.
Before I go any further I think it’s best to define what I mean by discipleship. I simply mean sharing your life and God’s Word with someone for the purpose of helping them grow in their relationship with Christ. As Paul said in Colossians 1:28, "We proclaim Christ, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, so that we may present every man mature in Christ. For this purpose I labor, striving according to His power which mightily works in me." So Paul's purpose that he labored for wasn't just getting people to heaven, but helping them grow to maturity as a believer during their time on earth, which in my opinion, can only happen through discipleship.
For me, this usually starts with a meeting once a week to study God’s Word together. Many people ask me what curriculum I use, and while I’m not against books and curriculum and definitely use them from time to time, I’ve found that most people feel helpless to open the Bible and study on their own. So my goal is to just start with God’s Word and teach each person I meet with how to study the Bible for themselves…learning how to make careful observations of key words and repeated themes in each book, looking up the Greek and Hebrew definitions for the key words as well as cross-references in the same book and other books, and how to think critically, interpreting everything in the context of the individual book they are reading and the Bible as a whole.
Most importantly, we think about how to apply what we are learning specifically to our life, context and culture so we can be "doers of the Word, not just hearers." (James 1:22) So my time with the guys each week just includes a New Inductive Study Bible, a notebook, a set of colored pens and highlighters, my favorite website for definitions and cross-references, Blue Letter Bible and me just being as honest and real as I can about my struggles and victories. When Jesus prays for His disciples in John 17, he repeats the phrase, “I have given them Your Word” throughout the chapter. Then, in John 17:17 he says, “Sanctify them in truth, Your Word is Truth.” We must know the Word to be Sanctified by the Word and ultimately all of the written Word is about the Living Word, so we are just trying to know Jesus more.
Also I try to have everyone in our home on a regular basis, which is very hard to do, but it’s worth the effort and sacrifice. There is just so much value and personal connection that comes from being in someone’s home and around their family that can never happen during a weekly meeting. Any of us can act like we have it all together for a couple hours on Sunday morning or in a meeting at Starbucks once a week, but just spend some time with me at home and it’s pretty clear our life isn’t perfect, especially with six little kids!
And last but not least, I think a key part of discipleship is going out and sharing God’s love, God’s Word, and serving together. Jesus did teach in a lecture format from time to time, but so much of his time with His disciples was traveling to different places. There is just so much value in getting out of your comfort zone and going into different cultures and contexts that help you learn and grow, so we try to do several retreats and mission trips or projects each year with those we are discipling. After a recent trip to Israel I'm amazed at how much Jesus and his disciples traveled and how long it must have taken them to get to each place they went walking or riding a donkey! I'm sure just as much of their learning took place during conversations, interactions and experiences on these trips as it did when Jesus sat down and taught them.
So when I say discipleship, that's what it means to us.
One thing I didn’t realize when I started working with the MSU Baseball team 7 years ago is how much turnover there would be among the team. Over that period of time we’ve had 3 athletic directors, 2 head coaches, 10 different assistant coaches and over 100 different players. I now realize that's pretty normal for a college baseball team and really a college town in general. Honestly, I didn’t think much about the significance of it for God’s Kingdom until recently when I was reading the book of Acts.
As you read about Paul in the book of Acts you find him going from town to town sharing the good news about Jesus Christ and starting churches, staying in each town a few days to a few weeks. However, we read in Acts 19:9-10 that in one city he stayed for at least two years, and during his time here it tells us “all who lived in Asia heard the Word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.” So how was it that the the Word of the Lord made it out to all who lived in Asia while Paul was in Ephesus? Well it tells us during those two years he was at “The School of Tyrannus” teaching daily. We don’t know much about this school except that they gave Paul the freedom to reason and teach about Jesus. I’m not the smartest person in the world, but there seems to be two options for how everyone in Asia heard the Word of the Lord during this two year period. Either all of them came to this school to hear Paul teach or the people who Paul taught at this school went out all over Asia and shared God’s Word wherever they went. I’m going with the latter option. I don’t think they were necessarily missionaries like Paul, but just going on with their life and career and just sharing God’s Word with others wherever their life took them.
Well, in the past 8 years that’s a picture of what’s been happening here at MSU. I’ve been here teaching and making disciples and those I’ve poured into are going out sharing God’s love and God’s Word with those around them. Out to where you may ask? Kendall Gravemen is in Oakland, California; Ben Bracewell is in Midland, TX; Luis Pollerena is in Cincinnati, Ohio; Ross Mitchell is in Jackson, MS; Chad Girodo is in Buffalo, New York; Caleb Reed is in Fairhope, AL; Jonathan Holder is in New York; Nick Mingione is in Lexington, Kentucky; Butch Thompson is in Auburn, Alabama…I could keep going but I think you get the idea.
Paul said in 2 Timothy 2:2, “The things your learned from me…entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” Paul taught Timothy, Timothy was to teach faithful men, those faithful men were to teach others…4 generations in that one verse. That verse was first pointed out to me by Tim Cole, the man who discipled me for 6 years in St. Petersburg, FL, so it’s really neat when I think about all that I was taught by Pastor Cole, now I'm getting to teach faithful men here at MSU, and them teaching others wherever they go out!
Oh and Eleuthera, that little island in the Caribbean… Four years ago, we took the first group that included MSU baseball players there. We did work projects each morning and baseball camps each afternoon, loving on kids and sharing testimonies and growing together in God’s Word. It’s been amazing to see the relationships that have developed there as players like Kendall Graveman, Ben Bracewell, and Nathaniel Lowe come back each year to invest into the kids there. This year we had one of the University of Kentucky players, Storm Wilson and his girlfriend Morgan Riggs join us and we hope to have more Kentucky players and some Auburn players from Coach Thompson’s team join us this year.
Four years ago, a 15 year old boy began coming to our baseball camps and hanging out with Kendall, Ben, Ross and some of the other guys. It was clear he was a really good athlete, but in Eleuthera there is very little chance that you would ever have the opportunity to go to college in the U.S. or play sports past high school. Well last month, Micah, now 19, spent a week with me in Mississippi and I reached out to former MSU player Trent Waddell, who is now an assistant coach at EMCC and asked if he would give Micah a tryout. It became clear during his tryout that his talent level was above average and both coaches said he would be a difference maker on their team! So we are in the process of getting him enrolled in EMCC and trying to figure out the finances to get him over here for school. This week I received handwritten letters of recommendation from Kendall and Ben and hope to have a meeting soon with the school president to see if a scholarship is possible.
With more and more people asking about Eleuthera and discipleship we started hosting a few church groups down there each summer to learn more about discipleship and how to study the Bible on your own, while serving and having the opportunity to enjoy some of the most beautiful places in God’s creation your eyes will ever see. All of this coupled with the purpose to train and equip them to go back and get more discipleship going at their church.
Also, last year I starting working with a ministry called LIGHTBEARERS that builds apartment complexes in college towns to provide a context for life on life discipleship, while partnering with local churches to have a different pastor come each week and teach an institute class for the students and help us find mentors in their church for each student to meet with weekly, all while using the students rent money to fund missions overseas. And wouldn’t you know that an MSU baseball supporter that I met in the Left Field Lounge heard about Lightbearers and donated 10 acres of land 3 miles from campus to build the apartments on. I truly believe this ministry will be similar to the “School at Tyrannus” teaching, discipling, equipping and sending students out all over the world.
How can you be a part of all this? The first way is to pray for us. I can’t tell you how many people I run into who tell me they pray for us and our ministry on a regular basis, and I know they genuinely mean it and are doing it. So please be praying for myself and our family, for us to keep our eyes and our mind set on Christ and the things He has called us to both with our family and our ministry on campus.
The second way is that you could partner with us financially. Paul thanked the Philippians in chapter 1 for their financial support of him, which he calls “their participation in the gospel” and in chapter 4 he tells them he doesn’t seek the money they give him, but the “profit that increases to their account.” Paul knew that their giving was an eternal investment that God would greatly reward them for one day. It's clear the Lord has called us and positioned us in a unique way to make disciples and further His Kingdom across the U.S. and the World here at MSU. We have only been able to do what we do because of faithful supporters who believe in what we do, which we are so thankful for! As our family and ministry grows, we are praying for Him to lead others to be a part of God's work through us here in Starkville. As you can see, it will be a wise eternal investment! If the Lord leads you to give to our personal support, to the work in the Bahamas, or to help us build the Lightbearers apartments here in Starkville, I’d love to visit with you and share more, so just send me a message. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
So when I get a text message as I’m going to sleep from first year Kentucky head coach, Nick Mingione (who also has his team playing in aSuper Regional this week and was voted SEC Coach of the Year!) telling me about someone from his team coming to Christ and thanking me for all I’ve taught him I can’t help but smile as I think about God’s plan of discipleship and His Word going out! Yes God is good! So I'll add a bit to Vic Shaefer's famous line for this weekend's games...Praise the Lord and Go DAWGS and CATS!