by Tom Gibson, IL Saints Softball Coach
I wish I had a more epic story about how I have spent the last 12 months. I wish I could tell you a tale of how I spent my year of social distancing at a forgotten village in the Himalayas being trained by Liam Neeson, John MacArthur, and Jedi Ghost Don Zimmer. Once the pandemic was over, I would be ready to be the best prison minister, missionary athlete, and vigilante of all time. Unfortunately, I don’t have anything quite that interesting.
But even in the pandemic, God chose to encourage me as a missionary athlete. One of the highlights of my past year was attending my church’s annual missions conference. This conference always rekindles a spark in my heart for what we do in prison. This year, more than others, it made me really, really miss a normal Saints season. Here are some of my major takeaways from our missions conference.
I Underappreciated Spending a Day in Prison
A visiting missionary to Bradley University had a term for time spent discipling college students – he called it Life-on-Life time. This involved his living room being filled with college students who piled their shoes up at his front door, ate all of the food in his kitchen, and learned the Bible together with him in his living room. As he showed the slides of them spending time ministering this way, my heart sank and missed spending a day in prison. I missed the games, but I really missed the conversations in the grass by the softball fields, sitting across from inmates during a prison meal, and praying with guys who may have heard the Gospel for the first time. Life-on-Life time as I know it!
God’s Word Changes Hearts
Another missionary was a young lady who is translating the Bible into the different Nigerian languages. She talked about what it meant for people to hear God’s Word in their own native language; how people’s eyes would light up or even fill with tears when they finally heard the Bible in their own language. Hebrews 4:12 tells us, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” I reflected on what a privilege it is to preach the Word to the inmates that we see. My teammates and I have also seen eyes light up and men start to cry when the Word pierces their heart and strikes at the core of who they are! There are several things I miss about our visits, but I really miss sharing the life changing news of the Gospel out on the prison yard.
Confessions of a Useless Missionary
One of the things that struck me the most was something that one of the missionaries said in passing. He talked about all of the mistakes that he had made over 20 years in ministry and jokingly said that he could write a book called, “Confessions of a Useless Missionary.” We discussed how God extends grace and works through us, despite our sin nature and imperfections. This hit home for me as I have made more mistakes as a missionary athlete and as a coach than I ever care to admit. I keep a small journal on my phone, with the title of one section being “Things I would tell myself if I could go back to 2011.” One of my entries is: “It takes 10 years to get 10 years of experience.” Since launching the IL team in 2011, I have spent a few Saturday evenings discouraged after a prison visit; about something I may have said incorrectly when sharing the Gospel, of not having the right answer for an inmate’s question at the correct moment, or with struggling over some aspect of trying to lead our team. This missionary’s conversation was an encouragement to me.
2 Corinthians 12:9 tells us, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.” If we didn’t make any mistakes or didn’t have any discouragement, we would be tempted to take all of the glory for ourselves and not give it to God. This missions conference showed me that God is still at work and that the Gospel is still going out. I have never had a better appreciation for missions and I can’t wait for our first Saturday visit, whenever that may be!