On October 12, 2021, in game four of the National League Division Series (NLDS) between his Atlanta Braves and the Milwaukee Brewers, Freddie Freeman launched a go-ahead home run in the eighth inning. Freeman’s home run would be the deciding factor, putting his team on top 5-4 for the game, and clinching the series three games to one.  His Braves would advance to play the Los Angeles Dodgers several days latter in the National League Championship Series (NLCS), with a trip to the World Series on the line.  The homer only further cemented Freeman’s status as a fan favorite, with chants of MVFree (a play on MVP, Most Valuable Player) echoing through the stadium.  Freeman had indeed won the National League MVP Award following the 2020 season.  In the first two games of the NLCS, Freeman would strike out seven consecutive times, before finally making contact and flying out to left.  From game-winning, series-clinching home run, to a guy who looked lost at the plate.  What had happened?  Aside from simply enjoying sports, one of the many reasons I watch is because sports provide so many parallels to life, specifically the spiritual life.  Just as an athlete can go from a city’s hero to apparent ineptitude in just a few days’ time, we to can go from feeling on top of the world spiritually to scuffling and feeling lost.  Why does this happen, and how do we fix it?

As a baseball fan, I am well aware of how hard the game of baseball can be.  I have heard it said by some that hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports.  If over the course of your career you got a hit every third at-bat, they would put you in the Hall of Fame.  In what other sport does a 33% success rate make you elite?  As a Braves fan who has watched Freddie Freeman for a decade now, I am also aware of the attention he devotes to the craft of hitting.  I have heard him say on multiple occasions that when he starts struggling, it is usually because he has gotten away from some fundamental part of his swing.  As a Christian, and minister, I understand how challenging it is to live as a Christ-follower.  Like a ballplayer who feels lost at the plate, we sometimes feel as if everything is out of whack spiritually.  One minute our Christian walk feels like we’ve hit a game winning home run.  The next, we feel like all we do is strike out. 

Like Freddie during his most recent postseason struggles, I wonder if it does not behoove us to get back to the basics when we feel like we are in a slump spiritually.  Sometimes we develop sensory overload when it comes to trying to follow Jesus.  We overthink things to the extent that we suffer paralysis from analysis.  One time the Sadducees were peppering Jesus with questions about all types of stuff.  It devolved into something like a religious debate.  We read that a scribe, wanting to get to the heart of the matter, put the big question on his mind to Jesus point blank:

28 One of the scribes came up and heard them arguing, and recognizing that He had answered them well, asked Him, “What commandment is the foremost of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The foremost is, ‘Hear, Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one; 30 and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32 And the scribe said to Him, “Well said, Teacher; You have truly stated that He is One, and there is no other besides Him; 33 and to love Him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 When Jesus saw that he had answered intelligently, He said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And then, no one dared any longer to question Him. (Mark 12:28-34 NASB)       

Jesus takes 613 commandments and distills them into two major obligations.  Love God with all we have, and love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves.  Everything that God asks of us falls into one of these two broad categories- loving God, or loving others.  I have found in my own life that when I begin to go astray it is because I have neglected one, or both, of these simple commands. 

            In telling us to love God, Jesus quotes one of Israel’s foundational texts, known as the Shema.  Located in the midst of Moses’ instructions to Israel prior to entering the Promised Land, the Shema is found in Deuteronomy 6: “Hear, Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!  And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5 NASB)  It was God who had created Israel, building them up into a nation out of the seemingly impossible beginnings of a 100 year-old man and 90 year-old woman.  It was God who had redeemed Israel, rescuing from a life of slavery and hardship under the pharaohs of Egypt.  It is because God was their creator and sustainer, that Israel is called to love God whole-heartedly above all other things.  God, and God alone, must be their priority.  Similarly, God has created us.  God has redeemed us.  Not from physical slavery in Egypt, but from being enslaved to the power of sin and death.  Indeed, Paul uses exodus-like language when describing to the Christians in Colossae the work of Christ on our behalf: “For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (Colossians 1:13-14 NASB)  This means that like Israel, we are obligated to make God our priority.  This is not only because God is the rightful recipient of our praise and devotion, but because we cannot properly love others without first loving God.  This brings us to Jesus second command, which he says is much like the first. 

            My dad was a big fan of BOGOs (buy one, get one free).  Here, Jesus gives the scribe two commands for the price of one.  Why include the second command of loving our neighbor as ourselves, when the scribe asked for foremost command?  The second command Jesus cites isn’t even connected textually to the first.  In fact, it is in an entirely different book (though still found in the Torah).  We find in Leviticus 19 a hodgepodge of commandment.  Yet, these commandments are all linked by the summary statement, “I am the LORD,” or “I am the Lord, your God.”  In other words, obeying these random commandments will be expressions of the fact that God is Israel’s Lord, and signal to the world who this God is.  And so Jesus quotes from this verse,  You shall not take vengeance, nor hold any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:18 NASB)  Though he does not cite it all, the scribe and Sadducees would have known precisely the context of the passage.  Part of honoring God is loving those around us, even when it is difficult to do so.  First of all, other people, even when they make us mad, are still made in the image of God.  Second, God chose to love us rather than seek vengeance.  Paul highlights this aspect of God’s character when he writes: But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8 NASB)  By choosing love and forgiveness we are recognizing the image of God in others, while also seeking to radiate that image through our own actions and attitudes. 

            Could it really be that simple?  Yes.  Love God, love others, and everything else takes care of itself.  Yet, simple does not equate to easy.  Loving God can be difficult when our own desires and the temptations of the world are constantly battering us, holding out the lie that we should be the lord of our own life.  Loving others can be difficult, especially when others act in ways that make them less lovable.  It is something we have to work at, with the help of the Holy Spirit.  Living for God and following Christ in this world is much like any skill we develop over time.  The more effort we put into it, the better we become at it.  That doesn’t mean we will be perfect.  In fact, there will be times when we hit slumps.  In that way, our spiritual walk is a lot like hitting a baseball.  Sometimes you just have to get back to the basics. 

            Speaking of hitting… After that horrendous 0 for 8 beginning to the NLCS, Freddie Freeman took advantage of the off day as they travelled to Los Angeles for game 3.  After refocusing on his fundamentals, he came out and went 3 for 4 with a walk, and a run scored.  Could this really be the same player who had struck out seven times in just two games?  It’s amazing what happens when we remember the fundamentals of what we are called to do…of who we are called to be.   In a slump spiritually?  Maybe its time to get back to the basics and remember that it is as simple as loving God, and loving others.        


      Justin Simmons is minister of the Glenmora Church of Christ in Glenmora, LA.