1 Thessalonians 5:11 says, “Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, just as you also are doing.” Paul is encouraging believers to lift up fellow believers. The actual Greek word for “encourage” means, “to call to one’s side” or better stated, “To come to one’s aid.” As I look back on my life there is a moment when this word became very real to me. It was through a college baseball coach named Tom Austin who demonstrated the virtue of encouragement.
At the age of ten, my mother and father signed me up for little league baseball. I had never played baseball before. I was entering a league where the ages ranged from 10-12 years old. Most of the kids that were playing in this league had started years earlier with tee-ball and coach pitch, so I was way behind the curve. I was not one of the best players on the field, and it showed. I struck out almost every time that I went up to bat, and without fail I would break out into inconsolable tears. Fear coursed through my veins and my palms began to sweat every time I stepped into the batter’s box. This fear even gripped me when I was out in the field as I prayed that no one would hit the ball in my direction. Suddenly, baseball was not fun anymore. It was a burden.
Towards the end of our season a red haired man with a red mustache and a green hat walked by our dugout and was handing out flyers in the stands to parents. His name was Tom Austin and he was the head baseball coach of the Methodist College Monarchs. He talked to my parents and I about coming to his baseball camp at the College. My parents told him about my struggles and he said that this camp would be able to help me. My parents were somehow able to come up with the money, so they signed me up.
Coach Austin was a take charge kind of guy. He was disciplined, assertive, and strangely by coaching standards, very compassionate. I remember in one instance as I approached the batter’s box to practice bunting, the staff could see the fear and trepidation on my face. Coach Austin showed me how to square up and hold the bat when bunting. After practicing it without a pitcher a few times I began getting the motions down. Coach Austin then wanted me to try it with live pitches. Words of encouragement poured from his mouth, and as the first pitch came those words gave me the strength to square up and I bunted the ball down the first base line. He and everyone began cheering. I was elated. He told me to get back up to bat and try it again. He was yelling out words of encouragement as I stepped up to the plate again. As the pitch came, I squared up and bunted the ball down the third base line. He and everyone else were cheering. I can’t remember Coach Austin’s exact words, but he said, “That was the best bunt I have seen in the camp.” Those words lifted me up and gave me courage. I could not wait to go up and bat again. That was the turning point at the camp for me. Whatever he or the other coaches would tell me to do, I listened and did it. I would take a ball to the chest so that it didn’t go past me and I no longer feared going up to bat. I was different inside.
The next year I played baseball I was much improved and if memory serves me correctly I stole over 20 bases that season. In time, I went on to play baseball in junior high in the ninth grade and won the Coach’s award. It was awarded to the player whom the coach thought most embodied school spirit, courage, heart and the ability to encourage his fellow teammates. I look back at Coach Austin and his camp and now realize that was a turning point for me. I would never be the same again. God showed me grace by bringing a man who encouraged (came to my aid) and taught me how to encourage others.