Start Where You Are
What do you think of when you see a baseball? Maybe you’re a big baseball fan and your favorite team is doing well so far this season, so when you see a baseball you might think of a World Series Championship. Or maybe you remember your first trip to the ballpark, where you scarfed down peanuts and Cracker Jacks while your dad explained the game. Or maybe you think about playing catch with your kids or taking them to Little League practice.
But for me, when I see a baseball, I think about something that used to be every little boy’s dream…including mine. Picture this: It's the bottom of the ninth in game seven of the World Series. There are two outs, and my team is down by three. The bases are loaded, and 50,000 fans are standing on their feet. The bright stadium lights shine down as the announcer calls out my name, "And now batting (batting, batting), Adam (Adam, Adam) Schell (Schell, Schell)."
I step into the batter's box and dig in with my back foot. It feels like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders as I choke up on the bat and get into my stance. In the blink of an eye, the count is full – three balls, two strikes. And it all comes down to one last pitch.
I stare down the pitcher standing sixty feet and six inches away. I know that all it takes is one pitch to become a hero and earn myself a cool nickname like Mr. October, and all it takes is one pitch for the other guy to become a scapegoat.
He goes into his windup, and the pitch comes sailing right down the middle of the plate. I grit my teeth and drive my left leg forward. My bat comes flying off my shoulder, and, even with 50,000 fans cheering, the only thing I can hear is the crack of the bat as it crosses home plate at the exact same instant as the ball.
Every eye in the stadium watches as the ball sails through the October sky. The centerfielder races toward the wall, knowing he is the only thing standing between the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. He leaps into the air with his glove outstretched, only to see the ball fly just out of reach. I've just hit a walk-off grand slam on the biggest stage of them all.
That's the dream I had when I was a kid, and I couldn't wait to make it a reality when my parents finally let me play Little League baseball. I can still remember exactly how I felt that spring. It was 1991, and my favorite team, the Cincinnati Reds, had just gone wire to wire and won the World Series the previous October. And I was completely convinced that I was going to be every bit as good as Eric Davis or Chris Sabo the second I took the field.
I had spent hours in the weeks leading up to my first practice scouring the sporting goods stores with my dad trying to find the perfect glove, bat, and cleats. So when I stepped on the field I felt like a million bucks.
After warming up and going through a few fielding drills, the coach let us know that it was time to bat. And from all the excitement in that group of third graders, you would've sworn we were about to step up to the plate in the World Series.
Now, I don't remember how long I had to wait...but I'm pretty sure it was just a few seconds short of eternity. But when it was finally my turn I knew I was about to send that ball sailing over the centerfield fence. I can still remember the coach lobbing that first pitch over the plate, and as I started to swing I was convinced that that ball was gone.
But instead of hearing the crack of the bat – or, more accurately, the ping you get from an aluminum bat – all I heard was a thud as the baseball landed in the catcher's mitt. But I didn't let it bother me that I had swung and missed the first pitch, after all even Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron couldn't hit them all.
What bothered me is that I missed the second pitch, and the third one, and the fourth one, and the fifth pitch, and every other pitch the coach threw to me that day. I can still remember choking back the tears as I walked back to the dugout because I realized then and there that I stunk at baseball.
And everyone joining us for worship today has felt the exact same way I did at one point or another, even if it had nothing to do with baseball. It could've happened to you the first time you climbed on a bike. You imagined yourself flying down the street as you popped a wheelie or two, but in reality, you weebled and wobbled the whole time your dad held onto the back of your bike seat and when he finally let go you fell down.
Or it could've happened to you the first time you tried to prepare a home-cooked meal. You imagined putting a gourmet spread on the table that even a Michelin-star chef would be proud of, but in the end, your dog wouldn't even eat what came out of the oven.
Or maybe it happened to you when you decided to undertake a home improvement project. You envisioned yourself enjoying the fresh air and saving a few bucks while you painted or sealed your back deck, but all you ended up doing was literally painting yourself into a corner.
It could’ve happened the first time you tried to crochet or the first time you tried to dance. It could’ve happened when you were learning to drive a car or learning to change a diaper. It could’ve happened a million different times while you were doing a million different things. But we’ve all had moments when we’ve been disappointed and discouraged that something didn’t come to us as quickly and easily as we expected.
And that’s even true of our faith. When you made the decision to follow Jesus, you may have thought that you’d take to your new faith like a duck to water. You may have imagined yourself jumping right into a regular devotional time – where you started or ended every day by reading God’s word and praying. Or you may have thought that you’d never miss another church service, and you’d remember everything the preacher and your Small Group leader taught you about God.
You thought you’d discover the answers to all of life’s hardest questions, and that you’d never struggle with uncertainty or doubt. You thought you’d joyfully serve the church on Sunday mornings, and you’d volunteer at soup kitchens during the week. You thought this whole Christianity thing would be easy…but, by now, you’ve probably realized that it’s not.
There are seasons in life when it’s hard to find time to read the Bible, and there are seasons when you can’t even find the words to pray. There are times when the last thing you want to do is wake up early on a Sunday morning just to make it to church on time, and there are times when you’re doing good to remember anything the preacher said during his sermon by the time you lay down for your Sunday afternoon nap.
There are plenty of questions that you still can’t answer, and that list seems to grow every single day. There are still periods of uncertainty and doubt, where you just can’t see God at work no matter how hard you look.
So what do you do when faith doesn’t come easily? What do you do when your faith won’t grow?
What do you do when your faith won’t grow?
And that’s what we’re talking about right now at Melbourne Heights. Last week, we started a new sermon series called “Grow,” where we’re talking about how we can grow our faith to become the people God calls us to be. So what do you do when your faith won’t grow?
To answer that question, we need to look at someone – or someones – who found themselves in a similar situation. We need to take a look at a group of people who expected something to come easily…only to realize it wouldn’t.
And I can think of no better example than the people of Israel about 600 years before the birth of Jesus. Now in case you’re not a historian or an avid reader of the major and minor prophets, let me tell you a little bit about what was going on during this time period.
It was one of the darkest periods in Israel’s history. The kingdom was in turmoil, as one commentator put it: “The Kingdom of Judah went through kings faster than Liz Taylor went through husbands.” Over the course of about twenty years, guys like Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah, all took their turns sitting on the throne. But that all came to an end in 586 BC.
That was when the kingdom was finally overrun by the Babylonian army. And let’s just say it isn’t pretty when an outside army invades. Jerusalem was conquered. The temple was looted and destroyed. Political leaders and important citizens were taken into captivity.
And these words, from Psalm 137, pretty well sum up the way everyone felt:
1 Alongside Babylon’s streams, there we sat down, crying because we remembered Zion.
2 We hung our lyres up in the trees there 3 because that’s where our captors asked us to sing; our tormentors requested songs of joy: “Sing us a song about Zion!” they said.
4 But how could we possibly sing the Lord’s song on foreign soil?
Psalm 137:1-4 (Common English Bible)
But in spite of their dire circumstances, the people of Judah remembered that they were God’s people. They remembered the covenant that God had made with their father Abraham – a covenant that had been passed down through Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph; a covenant that was fulfilled through Moses, Joshua, and the judges; a covenant that was realized under David and Solomon. So the people believed that God would end their exile quickly and easily.
And one of their prophets – a guy named Hananiah – was declaring from the temple that that’s exactly how things would be. He said:
2 “The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. 3 In two years I will restore to this place all of the temple equipment that Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar carted off to Babylon. 4 I will also restore to this place Judah’s King Jeconiah, Jehoiakim’s son, along with all the exiles from Judah who were deported to Babylon, for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon, declares the Lord.”
Jeremiah 28:2 (Common English Bible)
But the prophet Jeremiah – God’s true prophet during this time – calls Hananiah out as a liar. And instead of promising the people that everything will come easily for them, Jeremiah tells them this in Jeremiah 29. Let’s start in verse 1, which says:
1 The prophet Jeremiah sent a letter from Jerusalem to the few surviving elders among the exiles, to the priests and the prophets, and to all the people Nebuchadnezzar had taken to Babylon from Jerusalem.
And continuing on in verses 4 through 7:
4 The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. 7 Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare.
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7 (Common English Bible)
The people of Judah were living through some of their darkest days, and they wished that they didn’t have to struggle through it. They wanted relief to come quickly and easily. They want their relationship with God to be restored and to grow in an instant…but that wasn’t going to happen. So what does Jeremiah tell them to do?
Jeremiah tells them that instead of wishing for things to be easy; they should build houses, settle down, plant gardens, and to eat what they grew. He told them to get married, have kids, then help their kids get married.
But what does that mean exactly? Well, let’s think back to that question I asked a couple of minutes ago. What do you do when faith doesn’t come easily? What do you do when your faith just won’t grow?
Jeremiah tells the people of Judah that they have to start from where they are. Or, like one of my math professors in college used to tell us, “If you want to solve a problem, if you want to overcome a challenge, you must begin.”
That’s what Jeremiah is saying, too. If the people of Judah want to make it through their exile, return to Jerusalem, and grow closer to God; then they have to start living where they are.
That’s exactly the same lesson I learned on that baseball field over thirty years ago. When I walked onto that field, I thought I was a natural and that I’d be slugging home runs as soon as I stepped to the plate. But it didn’t work that way. I couldn’t have hit a baseball that first practice if you gave me a tennis racket. But as that first practice wound down, the coach told us, “I know where you are, I know where you can improve, so next time we’ll start getting better.”
And that’s exactly what happened. I started where I was, and I practiced. I practiced on the baseball field and in my backyard. I went to the batting cages and had my brothers lob me pitches for hours on end. And eventually, I started to hit the ball. A few seasons later, I was our team’s clean-up hitter and I lead the team in home runs – with two (and it doesn’t matter that they were both inside-the-park home runs).
And that’s how we have to be with our faith, too. We have to start where we are. Going back to the analogy that Jesus used in our scripture reading for last week – there’s a reason why he compared our faith to a mustard seed. A mustard seed is never going to grow unless you plant it somewhere. And your faith is never going to grow unless you start somewhere.
So if you want to grow closer to God, you have to start where you are.
If you want to grow closer to God, you have to start where you are.
If you struggle to find the words to pray, then start by saying, “Thank you” to God every day. If you’re not sure where to start reading the Bible, then you can download an app that will give you a verse of the day. Or if you’re looking to read the Bible more regularly, then start by reading one chapter a day.
If you can’t remember a sermon, then take some notes. If you don’t know how you can serve God in this church or in our community, then come and talk with me and we can find the right place for you to serve.
Whatever it is that you’re struggling with, whatever it is that’s keeping your faith from growing, make a commitment right now that you’ll start doing something right where you are that will change that.
And realize that just because I learned to swing a bat, it didn’t mean I was ready for the big leagues. It’s going to take time. It’s going to take practice. But if you practice your faith where you are, you will grow closer to God.