Willie wanted to play baseball since he was six and went to Atlanta to watch the Braves and Dodgers battle it out. Both teams were at the top of their game and fighting over who would represent the National League in the World Series. Willie was hooked and suddenly the idea of Little League took on a whole new meaning in his life. He loved the game and it turned out he had some real talent and potential. In his early years he began to live and breathe the game.
Willie decided early on he wanted to play the game professionally. I think he just wanted to be able to play for as long as he was able. In high school, he could often be found in batting cages, practicing, learning, growing and improving his game. He twice helped lead his team to the state playoffs, and in his senior year he batted in more runs and stole more bases than anyone else, ever.
After high school, he had a chance to go to a very good college with all kinds of scholarships. You see, he was very athletic and an excellent football player and many were pushing him in that direction. He could have played football at a top rated school, but to be sure, baseball was his love. It was what he wanted, and right from high school he was offered a contract to play for a very minor league team in the middle of nowhere.
Willie did not struggle nearly as hard as his parents. He took the contract and moved with his girl to the middle of nowhere. And he showed up at the bal stadium with a great sense of accomplishment. He was a professional baseball player. He was where he always wanted to be. He achieved his goal, so what did he do then?
Did he sit back and as they say rest on his laurels? Did he get lazy in his effort and sloppy in his game and play mediocre ball for a time? No, of course not. That was when the work really began.
He was on time, worked all the drills, found new ways to improve his game, and listened to his coaches. He did his best and played every game like it was a championship game, and as a result he had a long and satisfying career in the Majors. He played the game as long as he was able, and he was happy.
Back in college, I met a young woman, Lisa, who was excited by marketing. Not my thing, but she was excited by it and excited by the prospects for her future. She had little exposure to marketing in high school, only now that she was in college she came to realize it was what she really enjoyed and wanted to do. She had an internship between her junior and senior years with a big corporation, worked for the head of the marketing department and even met the big boss once. She loved it.
Lisa told me that in a moment of sharing she told the marketing vice president that she would really like to have his job some day. He was much older, of course, and already thinking about retirement so he had no problem encouraging the young woman. Of course, when Lisa graduated, she did not immediately get offered that job.
She went to work for a much smaller company and worked her way up to head of their marketing department while she finished her MBA. Then she began some lateral moves to bigger companies, and to head their marketing departments, or in the last case to assistant to a vice president who was going to retire in two years and move her into his spot.
Things were going well, not the least because she never lost touch with the gentleman she interned with. After fifteen years, he finally retired and recommended her for his position. Lisa met the big boss again and was pleased to discover he remembered her. He offered her the job and at the age of thirty-five she became one of the youngest vice presidents of that company, ever.
She thus got the job she aimed at since college. She achieved her goal. So what did she do? Did she start coming in late and put her feet up on the desk and make the people under her do all the work while she took the credit? No, of course not. She worked harder than ever to be sure everything went well. She worked the job with all her might, and was happy.
In time, Lisa got a seat on the Board of Directors. For a brief time she became the big boss, and then went on to sit on the board of several corporations and briefly considered running for political office. But that is another story.
The point is for both Willie and Lisa, reaching their goal was in truth the beginning of the story, not the end of the story. That was when the real work began. That was when they got to do that thing which made it their goal in the first place. That was when they were happy and could feel good about themselves. In a sense, that was when life started for them both.
But then there is the story of Brian. He was never interested in school. He got into drinking and drugs at a very early age. He hung around with the worst sorts of people, the worst kinds of role models. Oh, he learned how to be cool and slick – street smart they call it. But he never learned how to be truly smart, and he was not interested in learning.
Brian dropped out of school at sixteen and believed life would be easier if he just took what he wanted. Other people he called fools. Working people he thought of as dupes stuck in a system that made no sense. He felt no guilt or remorse over taking their things for his own needs and pleasure. He even stole some identities and spent the money on himself, his drinking and drugs and prostitutes.
Of course, the day came when he got caught. It was not even a major infraction – hardly the worst thing he did. He was just liberating a television set from a neighbor’s house. He did not spend much time in jail. The lawyer got him out almost immediately, but then something happened – something broke in his mind.
Depression struck. He stayed home – with his grandma and moped day after day. His drinking got worse – he was an alcoholic. He endangered his life with all the drugs. He had contracted terrible diseases sleeping around. All he could do was sit on the couch and watch sports and be depressed.
Grandma hated to see him like this. The one thing she required for his rent was that he take her to church on Sunday. This he did, though he hated it – at first. Fortunately for him, the people in this particular congregation were warm, friendly and welcoming, the way Christians are supposed to be, and in time he actually began to listen and pay attention to what was going on.
To shorten this story I will simply say that in time he came to believe. He bowed his head and believed in Jesus Christ and was saved. And what did he do? He went back to his house and continued to drink and do drugs and go out and party all night, and in time he took up stealing again. Why? Well, it was what he knew, and what he heard in church helped him not one bit.
What his church told him was God loved him just the way he was. He did not have to change, and indeed there was nothing he could do that would make any difference to God. As long as he believed in Jesus he was assured of going to heaven. It was all grace, all the mercy of God and anything he did in the way of works was like filthy rags to God. He got the message that God did not expect anything from him but belief in Jesus. And he died of a drug overdose.
He never knew that salvation was the beginning of the story, not the end. He was never taught that salvation was when the work began. He thought being saved and believing in Jesus was when the work ended and whatever he did after he believed did not matter. He never heard or understood the words of Jesus when he said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”