Between having a grade school-aged niece and being a public address announcer for the University of Illinois, I've watched a lot of softball recently.
Though essentially the same sport, these two levels of competition couldn't be more different. And, to be fair, it makes sense. There's a whole lot of growing up that happens between first grade and college.
In first grade, as soon as the ball is hit, nine six year olds run after it...often tackling each other and pushing one another out of the way. They're more concerned with beating their own teammates to the ball than with getting the other team out.
Six year olds are also distracted by the littlest of things. The butterfly in left field. Their mom or dad in the stands. The worm under first base. They know there's a game going on...but, hey, that cloud looks like a duck!
Most six year olds haven't figured out the idea of "team" yet either. If it's not their turn to hit or catch or throw, they have little to no interest in the game. For them, softball is about personally having fun, not the success of the team as a whole.
At the college level, things are very different.
More than any other athletes I've seen, college softball players are encouraging. Throughout the game they are constantly cheering one another on...huddling between plays...and patting their teammates on the back.
Every single girl on the field is focused too. Nothing in the stands, nothing in the air, nothing in the grass is more important than her job as a catcher or shortstop or center fielder. Distractions are not an option.
Finally, each player is ready. Even if she hasn't fielded a ball all day, she knows that her time to shine could be just milliseconds away. The years of practice and training and sacrifice have prepared her for making a play when the opportunity arises.
I've been a Christian for more than twenty-five years, and it saddens me to think of how often I live out my faith like I'm a first grade softball player. I'm more concerned with beating up fellow Christians than impacting the world around me. I'm easily distracted from the things that God is calling me to say and do and be by completely meaningless stuff. I'm frequently interested in worship or study or service only when I'm having fun, or when I'm the center of attention.
Instead my goal should be to take my spiritual cues from the Illinois softball players that I get to see play each week. I want to be encouraging to my teammates (even when times are tough)...to be focused on what Christ has called me to do (even when distractions are tempting)...and to be ready to do my part when the opportunity arises (even when waiting is boring).
In softball, and in faith, maturity makes a huge difference.