I have never lived in Georgia. But I find myself with Georgia on my mind these days. I have no family in Georgia. I’ve seen a lot of Georgia, but mostly from the interstate. Georgia remains mostly foreign to me, and yet, as Ray Charles sings, “just an old sweet song, keeps Georgia on my mind.” You see, my roots extend deep into the heart of Georgia, by way of baseball. Georgia is on my mind, or more specifically, a team in Georgia. The Atlanta Braves.
The year was 1991. It was the summer before I would start fifth grade. My dad was a youth minister and something he would always do on youth trips is work in a major league baseball game. The only team anywhere close was the Atlanta Braves. So the van would always stop in Atlanta, either on the way to our destination or on the way home. That summer was no different. The Braves got worked into the trips. Except something was different. In 1990, the Atlanta Braves finished dead last in the National League standings (an abysmal 65-97). They were terrible. But in 1991, things were different. Behind 20-game winner Tom Glavine and two other young guns (John Smoltz and Steve Avery), the Braves won the National League West Division and a spot in the playoffs. “From Worst to First” the newspaper headlines read. There was an undeniable buzz surrounding the team.
Towards the end of the season, my dad received a packet in the mail. It was an application to buy Braves playoff tickets. Since he had purchased so many tickets over the past few years taking his youth group to games, the Braves gave him an opportunity to buy playoff tickets. And he jumped on the opportunity. He sold the championship series tickets to another family in our church and kept the World Series tickets. One for me and one for him. We watched the National League Championship series with great anticipation and hope. And in seven games, the Braves defeated the Pittsburg Pirates for a spot opposite the Minnesota Twins in the World Series. I was going to the World Series and I was going with my dad.
I remember reveling in the jealously I was sure my classmates were experiencing as Mrs. Bonicorsi explained to them my absence from school. How many of their dads had pulled them out of school for a week to go to the World Series? None. I was the only one. And I loved it. I loved the uniqueness of what we were about to do. This was our thing and no one could take that.
For Games 3-5, we sat in left field (behind Lonnie Smith) in old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and tomahawk chopped the Braves to victory. After the Braves lost Games 1 and 2 in Minnesota, they won three straight, with an absolute route in Game 5. We were certain of a Braves victory. But it would not be. Games 6 and 7 belonged to the Twins, with Game 7 being probably one of the greatest pitching duels in Major League history. Although my team lost, my fandom was cemented. And so was the fandom of my family. We were Braves fans with our roots firmly planted in the Georgia clay.
The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob. This refrain is constant in Scriptures. And it serves as a call to remember. When Moses stood before the burning bush, YHWH invoked the phrase. “I AM is sending you. The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” As Joshua neared death, he reminded the people that it was the God of their fathers that gave them this land flowing with milk and honey. When David was passing the throne to Solomon, it was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to whom he prayed as preparation for the temple began. When the people wandered and began serving Baal, it was Elijah who reminded them that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was God is Israel. During the time of Nehemiah, when the people returned to God, they confessed their sins and recounted God’s dealings with Israel. It was the God of their fathers they sought. Jesus himself invokes the phrase when he silenced the Sadducees. And Luke records Peter using the phrase in his second public witness of Jesus’ resurrection. It was the God of Abraham that glorified and raised Jesus from the dead. These calls to remember were (and are) calls to return. The phrase served as a root that grounded the people of Israel. It reminded them where they came from and that they were apart of something bigger than themselves. And that’s what roots are meant to do. They are meant to ground and give a sense of belonging. They remind us that the things we enjoy come not necessarily because of our own labors. We have a history. We stand upon the shoulders of others. Because of roots, we see that life is not all about us; that we are small in the grand scheme of the cosmos. Roots matter. Even in the small things.
“Pride goes before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18).
In my experience, a marker of folly, a signpost for the way of the fool, is the loss or abandonment of roots. Roots need care and cultivation. And the moment a man believes he is an island, the moment of folly is not far off. The moment that roots fade into the background, foolishness is not far off. And while this has been my experience, the Scriptures also confirm this truth. God stuffed the Book of Proverbs full of commands to both parents and children about the importance of roots (the concept, not necessarily the word). Over and over, the way of wisdom is contrasted with the way of folly. And the contrast usually falls on embracing or rejecting roots.
“Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching” (Proverbs 1:8 ESV).
“My son, keep your father’s commandment, and forsake not your mother’s teaching.” (Proverbs 6:20 ESV).
“Listen to your father who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old.” (Proverbs 23:22 ESV)
“The eye that mocks a father and scorns to obey a mother will be picked out by the ravens of the valley and eaten by the vultures.” (Proverbs 30:17 ESV)
While few in number, these examples represent a consistent theme in Scripture. Why is this? Why does Scripture consistently call on us to remember our roots and warn us if we do not? Because we have a history, a story, and a promise. We belong to something much grander and more glorious than we could ever imagine or muster with our small lives. And danger lurks around every corner and flip of the channel. We cannot become inoculated and move on. No. Roots need care and cultivation. Neglected roots become shriveled roots. And shriveled roots lead only one place and it’s where ever the wind is ablowin’. “The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away (Psalm 1:4 ESV).”
In general, one’s college years formulate and shape the direction of the rest of your life. Career, spouse, habits and friends all seem to crystallize during this formative time. This was no different for me (although I did not meet my wife until after college). However, I would add one more descriptor to my college years: revealing. For too long, the real me lived behind a façade. An artfully crafted mask hid my true nature from sight. Outwardly, I had it all together. Inwardly, chaos ruled my heart. I spent most of my time managing the carefully crafted image I had built over the years. Fortunately, God refused the mocking rebellion of one on whom He had set His affections. While I possessed a form of godliness, I denied its power. Enslaved to a wicked, unregenerate heart, I struggled beneath the weight of guilt and fear. But praise be to God, for freedom came. And it came with power! But, I am getting ahead of myself. Before freedom, came submission. Humility always precedes glory. What college revealed in me was a proud heart; a heart so proud at my ability to fool others into thinking I lived an upright life. But I could not fool God. He observed every moment of reckless living. He watched as I sat among scoffers, and walked among the wicked and stood with sinners. Yet, despite knowing me as a scoffer, grace flowed from His heart to mine. Humility broke down the doors of my proud heart and invaded my soul. He revealed my sin. He made known my secrets. He broke me. And like Isaiah, I was undone. With time to reflect, I can pinpoint my rebellion. I lost my roots. Church became an afterthought. The Bible lacked excitement. Baseball and the Braves lost significance (I even quit baseball my senior year. Oh, how I regret that). Relationships with family and friends chilled to a bitter cold. I achieved my darkest moments of aimlessness and loneliness all by scorning my roots.
By God’s grace, my roots still remained somewhat intact. Though weak, they held on. Again, by God’s grace, I began to return to my roots once I returned home from college. I went looking for better friends. I started attending a Bible study and church. But there was still no life, no power. That would come later. I also picked up my interest in baseball again, but not the Braves. One thing that had carried over was my hatred for the New York Yankees (and it remains to this day). They beat the Braves in the 1996 World Series (denying the Braves back-to-back championships) and 1999 World Series. For the life of me, I will never understand why Wohlers threw Jim Leyritz that slider in 1996! But I digress. In 2003, I began to take an interest in the Red Sox, the arch-rivals of the Yankees, which made it feel quite natural. In 2004, the Red Sox won the World Series. They did it again in 2007. By now, I was calling myself a Red Sox fan. And unashamedly so. During this time, my relationship with my family continued to remain chilled to the point of bitter cold. And while I was returning to my roots in one way, I continued to scorn them in another. As I look back, I think my choice of baseball team was the fruit of that scorn. We were a Braves family and had been for over a decade. Yet, here I am rooting for another team (and an American League team at that!). While I am sure my dad never took that personally, I am sure that some sense of loss lingered. Our thing had ceased to be our thing.
This past Christmas tops my list of surreal moments. Three days before the 25th, my wife told me that fatherhood had begun. She was pregnant. Oh what joy we experienced that cold December morning. We could not have received a better gift. During the season in which we celebrate the advent of our Lord Jesus, we receive good news about a new life that will enter our world. We shared the news with family and a few friends and celebrated with great joy. God is good and we cannot wait for our little man to arrive in August.
As time nears for Callen (his name means “warrior”) to arrive, the impending reality of all that I am responsible for looms large. He will depend on me for life, for sustenance, clothing, shelter, love and for me to teach him all manner of things. I will also be responsible for giving him roots and a sense of identity. As his mother and I train him in the Lord, we will be grounding him in a story, one bigger than himself. A story that extends back to creation, through the cross and forward to the consummation of the Kingdom of God. But that is not the only story we will ground him in. In fact, it must not be the only story. My pastor relayed a story to me about a time he and some other pastors spent with Sinclair Ferguson. One person asked Dr. Ferguson what advice he would give on parenting. You might expect this great theologian to give a deep response about training children in the fear of the Lord. However, he simply responded, with that thick Scottish accent, “Tie more than one string to your children.” What he meant by that is, give your children roots in multiple stories. Obviously, the story of the Kingdom of God is priority one. But you have other stories, other interests. Ingrain those in your children as well, so that there is always one avenue of communication, one common context that you share with your children. In the event that your child severs the root to God, you still have ways to speak into their life through the smaller stories that you share. These smaller stories help provide context for the larger story. Thus, I’ve got Georgia on my mind.
As I think about Callen and how I will seek to create Gospel-context in his life, the thought of raising him as anything but a Braves fan seems wrong. My Red Sox fandom was rootless. It grew up during a time when I was rejecting my family and my God. I think back to the 1991 World Series. I think about me and my dad driving north on I-75. I think about the cost that my dad endured to give that root for me. It seems to me, a dishonoring of my father if I were to raise Callen as a Red Sox fan. I am not an island. I am a son. I have a history. While you may struggle to understand, in my mind and heart, obedience to the Scriptures is at stake. So I am compelled to raise Callen as a Braves fan (but also excited to do so). I am compelled because the Braves represent a history I can tell him about; show him pictures and souvenirs of and ingrain a love for. And more importantly, it is a Gospel-context. As I relay to him stories of my Braves fandom, there will be opportunity to tell other stories, grander stories, stories about the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the God of his fathers and his father.
So I’ve got Georgia on my mind. Georgia, the whole day through. That old sweet song, keeps Georgia on my mind. Other arms may reach out to me. But the road leads back to Georgia. Back to home. Back to my roots. And I pray the same is true for my son.