Book Review: The Biggest Win by Josh Cooley

I love football. I love the pageantry and the rivalries. I love the battle in the trenches and the suspense of a scoring drive in the final two-minutes of a game. It’s glorious.

But there’s a different kind of glory that can find its way into the athletic arena—the glory of discipleship. Pastor Josh Cooley writes, “Because of its nature, sports can open doors for discipleship that might not have existed otherwise. As an athlete, you likely spend significant time with others at practice, in the locker room, traveling to games, and at dining tables. Sports helps create relationships, common interests, and shared goals” (77). In his new devotional, The Biggest Win: Pro Football Players Tackle Faith (New Growth Press, 2018), Cooley explores particular ways that spiritual growth and athletics can intersect. In particular, he Cooley unpacks the intersection of faith and football.

And who does Cooley choose as his test case for sports discipleship? It’s the believers who played together as part of the 2018 Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles!

The Core Elements of Discipleship

The leaders who run the website, Discipleship.org, have identified essential discipleship components. While I don’t think Cooley intended to include each of them, I found each one clearly present in his devotional. Here’s five components of discipleship that the believers on the Eagles have embodied:that stood out to me as I read.

  • Jesus. Sports is a glory machine, but we all have a tendency to grab that glory for ourselves instead of humbly reflecting it back to the Savior and finding our identity in him. In chapter two, Cooley tells how Eagles safety and special teams ace Chris Maragos has learned humility through the mundane rhythms of family life. In chapter 3, he writes about how Nick Foles learned to root his identity in Christ when he experienced failure. This is ultimately what discipleship is about. Jesus is the original disciple-maker and centerpiece of our discipleship. The goal of our growth is to know, treasure, and humbly promote him.

  • Intentionality. Growing as a Christian disciple, just like growing as an athlete, requires intentional training. During the 2017 NFL season, discipleship for the Eagles believers involved a Monday night couples Bible study, a Thursday night players Bible study, Saturday night chapel services, and Sunday morning worship gatherings (before afternoon games). Planning and maintaining consistency with this regular discipleship plan required effort—even at times from a player who wasn’t active with the team. Cooley describes how one player ran logistics for an away game chapel even after a season ending injury: “Chris Maragos’ torn posterior cruciate ligament two months earlier might have ended his season, but it didn’t sideline his passion for ministering to his Christian brothers” (68).

  • Relationships. Discipleship happens best within the context of genuine life-on-life connections grounded in Christ-like love. We’re all tempted toward isolation. Carson Wentz calls it “island syndrome,” but growth in Christ is fueled by laying down our pride and being mutually accountable. Cooley writes, ““Discipleship doesn’t happen magically… It involves listening to others and having a humble, non-judgmental attitude. It involves prayerful encouragement when another believer is struggling with sin, doubt, or fear. It requires honesty and openness about your own shortcomings. True accountability involves God-honoring transparency, as you strive toward a common goal” (77).

  • The Bible. The Word of God is the manual for making disciples. And chapter 7 directly addresses the right handling of God’s word. In this chapter Cooley identified a key Scripture—Philippians 4:13—that is often mishandled by athletes and he took time to help readers understand it contextually. The chapter helps young athletes to be discerning about the ways Bible passages are normally talked about in an athletic culture. And it teaches simple principles for understanding Bible passages in their original context.

  • Journey. For every disciple, there’s a traceable, but sometimes disjointed, growth story from the new birth to spiritual maturity. The Holy Spirit leads us on this formative journey. Each of the believing players on the Eagles has been on this kind of discipleship journey. But, for Trey Burton, it’s been quite a ride: “Burton has gone from single-parent childhood, to high school star, to breaking hallowed college records, to frustrated player on the verge of quitting, to unexpected twenty-one-year-old father, to undrafted free agent, to Super Bowl champion” (105). Throughout this journey, Burton has rested on the unchanging promises of God’s character. And this faith has grown him into a man who multiplies his impact by fighting sex trafficking through the International Justice Mission (IJM). What a journey!

I love these examples of notable sports figures modeling the key components of discipleship. Discipleship doesn’t require sports, but sports can be an incredible avenue within which a believer can train in the core elements of discipleship. Cooley writes, “Sports can’t save anyone; only Jesus can. But sports can help create opportunities and open doors that were once closed” (128).

If you’re working with a group of young athletes in a local church, or with Athletes in Action or the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, this book is a great introduction to the basics of Christian growth. Every chapter includes pointed applications and discussion questions to use if you’re reading with a group. I highly recommend it!

For more from Josh Cooley, check out this article he wrote for GCF entitled, “Credentials.”

Family Friday Links 4.15.16

Here is our weekly list of things we've been reading online:

Kevin DeYoung had a post on parenting and avoiding the big "freak out". He says, "There are things every Christian parent should work hard to have in place. They just don’t have to do with how much ice cream the kids eat and whether you can breastfeed on roller skates. Work hard for the things that matter."  Parents, be encouraged by this post.

Jim Eliff wrote a post about kids sports and church. He wrote, "When the team says, “We need you,” we sacrifice to do it. But when it crosses the time allotted to spiritual edification and worship, the Ruler of the universe is often sent to the bench. In the process, we teach our children that devotion to sports is more important than both devotion to God and loyalty to our spiritual family." Parents, be aware of the choices, and sacrifices you make.

NavPress has a post up on teaching kids about sex. It reads, "As Christian parents we can do much more than merely pass on information about reproduction. We have the opportunity of shaping the sexual character of our children. " Parents, this is a helpful list with helpful resources.

Psychology Today had a post linking kids "screen-time" to their moods (mostly anger, depression, and/or lazy). The author writes, "Time and again, I’ve realized that regardless of whether there exists any “true” underlying diagnoses, successfully treating a child with mood dysregulation today requires methodically eliminating all electronics use for several weeks—an “electronics fast”—to allow the nervous system to “reset.” Parents, we need to be more aware of the effects that screen time is having on our kids.

What have you been reading online lately? Leave us a link in the comment section to check out.

Credentials

I will always remember the first time I exploited my press credentials.

In 1997, I was a greenhorn sports editor at The Prince George’s Sentinel, a weekly, tabloid-sized newspaper in Seabrook, Maryland. It was a one-man, part-time gig where I was responsible for one, maybe two, pages of sports per week. On the ladder of sports journalism, this was the bottom rung.

Being a small weekly, the Sentinel’s bread-and-butter coverage was local community events like high school football and Saturday morning swim leagues. Yet when I saw the NBA’s Washington Bullets (now Wizards) were hosting the Chicago Bulls on Feb. 21, 1997, I quickly got credentials for the game. I couldn’t resist the chance to see history’s greatest basketball player in person.

Apparently, 18,756 fans had a similar idea that night. Like me, they had come to witness Michael Jordan.

At that point, Jordan, 34, was still near the height of his prolific powers, averaging about 30 points a game and closing in on the fifth of his six NBA championships. He was his typically dominant self that game, scoring a nonchalant 36 points in a 103-99 Bulls victory.

As soon as the game ended, I made a beeline to the visitor’s locker room. Rookie mistake. When I arrived, a three-deep throng of reporters was already camped out at the locker of His Airness even though he was still showering.

I decided to skip the mob scene and try to catch Jordan for a question or two alone after the media horde dispersed. Just think … an exclusive, one-on-one interview with MJ! Shortly afterward, I saw Jordan leaving his locker and quickly went into hot pursuit. My heart was racing as I trailed him. Will he allow me a couple questions? Will he shoo me away like a gnat?

As he passed through a doorway, suddenly a very large man with a very stern scowl appeared out of nowhere, blocking my path. He crossed his very large arms menacingly and, without saying a word, shook his head. Interview opportunity over. Access denied.

It’s hard to gain access to sports’ biggest superstars. Sometimes, not even a press pass and youthful gumption are enough.

Aren’t you glad it isn’t like that with God? The Lord God Almighty isn’t an aloof, far-off deity who is too important to be bothered. For believers, he is a loving Heavenly Father (Matthew 6:9) who desires close, personal fellowship with his creation. We see this throughout Scripture as he continually interacts with his people in many different ways.

But how is this possible? How can sinful rebels enter into God’s presence? How can we gain personal access to a holy God? Hebrews 4:14-16 provides the answer. Jesus, our “great high priest who has passed through the heavens,” has bridged the gap between heaven and earth by his sinless sacrifice.

Hebrews 4:16 gives the payoff: “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” At any moment of any day, Christians can confidently approach God’s throne in prayerful praise and supplication. This is astounding! I couldn’t grab 30 seconds alone with Michael Jordan, but as a redeemed child of God, I possess unfettered access to the sovereign Creator of the universe. He is near (Philippians 4:5) and accessible. He wants to dwell with us forever, and one day, we will see him face to face (Revelation 22:4).

Let this truth saturate your soul. Then teach it to your children. Remind them that there’s a God in heaven who desires to save them, bless them and dwell inside them through his Spirit. Show them the way to this remarkable reality by telling them, once again, about the Savior.

By his finished work on the cross, Jesus provides us the credentials to gain access to God!

March Madness and the Gospel

It's that time of year when work stops for basketball. In the state of Kentucky where I live we have two sweet 16 teams and one hoping to go 40-0 and win the title. It's gotten me thinking. How are we to think about sports events like this as Christians? How can we help our kids - especially young boys who are talking about this with their friends all week at school - think about March Madness in light of the gospel?

Yes, it's that time of the year where dads everywhere are glued to the television watching every dramatic basketball moment unfold.  It’s also a time where many dads zone off into TV land and don't return to real life for hours. But for dads who have the privilege of having kids old enough to enjoy sports – this can be some great quality time.  The Scripture tells us to “let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” A couple of years back during the tournament, I texted a couple of my friends who are high school ball coaches here in Louisville. They sent back some pretty incredible tips for enjoying March Madness with your family and neighbors. Here they are: 

1. God gives us moments like this to enjoy, so enjoy! Anything in the world that we get excited about or take delight in originated with him, so let’s celebrate the competition, and, in doing so, celebrate him (James 1:17).

2. Point out examples of strength and courage. An athletic contest provides tons of opportunities to talk with our kids about courage and strength in the midst of adversity. We can have courage because we have a strong God who goes with us into the most difficult moments (Joshua 1:9).

3. Point out examples of unselfish play. When stars like Jahlil Okafor or Willie Cauley-Stein look for the dish instead of being a ball hog and taking it themselves, point this out to your kids. Unselfish play provides an opportunity to talk about working for God rather than men and putting others ahead of ourselves (Philippians 2).

4. God wants us to enjoy the game, but he wants our happiness to be anchored in him. Basketball fortunes change with the bounce of a ball, the choices of an 18-year-old, or the randomness of a whistle. If you’ve chosen sides, there is (at least) a 50/50 chance that your team’s winning ways will change. But God never changes (1 Timothy 6:17).

5. Ask the question, “How devastated will you feel if the game doesn’t go your way?” If it will ruin your whole week, it’s a good indication you’re turning a good thing into an ultimate thing. Ask a gracious God to help you with this. Allow him to engage you in a wrestling match with your heart. Ask him to become a bigger delight to you than he presently is.

6. Love your enemies. This is just a game. If the game cripples your ability to relate to others (particularly others rooting for the other team), that’s another good indication you’re turning a good thing into an ultimate thing.

7. Finally, use the game as an excuse to show gospel hospitality by inviting in and getting to know your neighbors. If you haven’t noticed, this is a major cultural event. It’s a great opportunity to show some neighborly love to friends who don’t know Christ (1 Corinthians 9:20). Throw and party and invite your neighbor over.

What are you doing to enjoy the games this year and share it with your family and friends? Leave a comment below.