Reflections on how Christians help each other to grow and mature in loving God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love their neighbor as themselves.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Practicing the Basics

by Steven W. Manskar

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus … Therefore … work out your own salvation; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure”
(Philippians 2:5, 12b-13).

     One of my favorite signs of spring is baseball spring training. After a five-month rest, the teams assemble every March to take up glove, bat, and ball to hone their throwing, catching, hitting and running skills. Spring training is a time to remember and practice the fundamentals of the game. Players and coaches know the teams that do the best at practicing the basics (hitting, running, catching, throwing, and thinking) are the teams that win championships and have the most fun.
     I once read a brief article in Sports Illustrated magazine with a producer for a major television network’s broadcasts of major league baseball games. If you watch baseball on television, you know that the managers, along with some of the coaches and players, wear microphones during the games. This allows the network to occasionally broadcast parts of on-field or dugout conversations. The producer’s job was to listen to those conversations. The interviewer asked, “What surprised you most as you listened to all those conversations?” Her reply fascinated me. She said, “The thing that surprised me most was how often the managers and coaches reminded the players to pay attention to the basics of the game.”
     Think about it. Major League players have played baseball nearly all their lives. And yet, they must be reminded to attend to the basics. This is because the basics are easily taken for granted and neglected. Coaches know that when the basics are neglected play gets sloppy and games are lost.
     Good coaches understand that becoming and being a baseball player happens through attending to the fundamental skills of the game. If you love the game, study and learn its strategy, practice the basics and listen to your coach, you will become a baseball player.
     Now, you may be wondering what all this has to do with discipleship. As I study and learn about Christian discipleship in the Wesleyan tradition, I have become convinced that it is very similar to playing baseball. There is a set of basic skills that must be learned and practiced. With discipline and practice persons grow in love, knowledge and ability to live into the goal of discipleship (Phil. 2:5). An athlete who engages in the discipline of baseball becomes a baseball player. A person who commits his or her life to the discipline of following Jesus Christ in the world becomes a Christian disciple.
     We know that not all people are gifted athletes. However, God has given every human being the gift of God’s own image (Genesis 1:27). This means that we are created to be like God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God’s triune nature is relational. God is a community of divine love. Therefore, to be created in the image of the triune God is to be created for relationship. This means we are created for love.
The gift that God shares with all of humankind is the capacity to love (1 Corinthians 13:1-13). God has given us the means to develop and grow into Christ’s way of loving and living in the world: grace. Flowing from that grace are the teachings (Matthew 5:1-7:29), commandments (Matthew 22:37-39; 28:19-20a; John 13:34-35), and promises (Matthew 18:18-20; 28:20b; John 14:1-3, 15-27) of Jesus Christ.
Grace is the power of God working in the world to draw all of humankind to God’s self. It is the power of God’s love that gives human beings the capacity and ability to love. Love is grace. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). It is God’s love, incarnate and active in the world in Jesus Christ, that awakens, equips, and empowers us to love as God loves. This love draws us to God and sends us into the world to love those whom God loves as God loves them.
The teachings, commandments and promises of Christ guide us into this way of life. They are like the rules of baseball in that they provide boundaries and direction for playing the game. Inside the boundaries of the rules there are infinite possibilities for how the game is played. The same is true of life lived in Christ.
The rules of baseball determine the basic skills and practices players must develop if they are to have fun and play the game well: throwing, catching, hitting, running, and thinking. They also establish that one must be part of a team in order to play the game. Baseball is not an individual endeavor. It is a team effort. The same is true of Christian faith.
The teachings, commandments and promises of Jesus determine the basic practices that must be taught and learned. They also establish that to be a Christian means being part of a community that promises to surround you with … love and forgiveness, to pray for you and to do all in their power to increase your faith, confirm your hope and perfect you in love (see The United Methodist Hymnal pages 35 and 38).
If we are to follow Jesus and love those whom he loves as he loves them, we need to learn and practice some basic disciplines: prayer, worship, the Lord’s Supper, reading and studying the Bible, participating in small groups for mutual accountability and support, fasting or abstinence, feeding the hungry and thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing those who have no clothes, caring for the sick, and visiting the prisoners. John Wesley called these basic practices works of piety and works of mercy. He understood that attending to these “means of grace” is “faith working by love” (Galatians 5:6). They are how Christians “work out their salvation” (Philippians 2:12-13).
These basic practices of faith are called “means of grace” because they are gifts given by God through which the Holy Spirit works in disciples to heal and form their character into the character of Christ. They are how disciples live into “having the mind of Christ” (Philippians 2:5).
One of the purposes of Covenant Discipleship groups is to help disciples learn and practices the basics of Christian faith and life. They do this with others who are seeking to grow in love of God and neighbor. Those who have more experience and maturity in discipleship share their experience with those who are less experienced. As disciples meet together weekly for mutual accountability and support for following Christ in the world they become more and more the persons God created them to be, in Christ. As Christians help one another practice the basics of following Jesus they become more confident and faithful witnesses to and channels of his love for the world.


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