Before there were legendary wide receivers such as Jerry Rice, Michael Irvin, and Randy Moss, there was the man with perhaps the greatest hands and route-running ability in the pre-merger era of the NFL and AFL—Raymond Berry of the Baltimore Colts. Berry was the favorite receiving target of the great Johnny Unitas, and he is now enshrined in the NFL Hall of Fame. An underrated and truly remarkable statistic from Berry's 13 year career is that he only fumbled once.
That is not a typo. Raymond Berry played in 154 professional football games, caught the ball 631 times, and fumbled only one time.
I had the opportunity several years ago to sit down with Berry and interview him about his career. The pressing question on my mind was how he was so skilled at handling the football and not turning it over. His answer was not what I expected. "When I was playing at SMU I fumbled in the 4th quarter against Texas and it cost us the game, I made a commitment that day that I would never fumble again."
He went on to tell me that he still refutes to this day that his one NFL fumble was actually a fumble. Berry, now over seventy years old, then stood up and took the ball he fumbled off the shelf, placed it in his hands, and asked me to try and slap it out of his hands. I tried. He yelled at me to slap harder. I gave it a second try, and the ball still didn't budge.
On the drive home after spending a great day with this football legend, I thought about what was at the time a recent tragic event: a moral failure of a pastor in my city. A series of sinful lifestyle choices that the elders of this particular church believed disqualified him from pastoral ministry. This was a fairly influential pastor in our town and word traveled quickly about the events and his removal from leadership. Usually, my first instinct would have been a judgmental attitude in my heart about his poor decisions, but by the grace of God, I had a different, more immediate thought:
"That could happen to me.”
There were no current habitual sins or vulnerable situations that were alarming or present in my life, but the words from Paul to the Corinthian Church warning about Israel's history still occupied my mind: "So, whoever thinks he stands must be careful not to fall" (1 Corinthians 10:12 HCSB). What happened to that pastor could happen to me in an instant. Raymond Berry and I spent the day talking football, but he taught me an even bigger lesson, maybe without even realizing it.
"What if I was as serious about not fumbling as Raymond Berry?" Those were the exact words that ran through my mind, and continue to stick with me to this day. I don't want to find myself one day as another illustration in a Paul Tripp book. I want to serve faithfully as a pastor in the present, and finish well when my time comes to step away.
There is one major difference in my desire to not fumble and Berry's successful career: a past mistake might motivate a football player, but it won't do much for my sinful nature. My only hope is to fix my eyes, mind, and heart on the One who cannot and will not ever fumble me out of his hands.
Concerning the Church, the followers of Christ, Jesus declared, "...No one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:29 HCSB). If I am even slightly understanding the magnitude of that loving promise, full of grace, it will stir my affections out of adoration for the one who keeps me. The One who began a good work in me when I first received the faith to believe, will be faithful to complete that work. He is the initiator, sustainer, and finisher of my salvation, and that should compel me to hold onto the ball of my personal character and integrity. If my inheritance in Christ cannot be taken out of His hands, why should Satan be able to take the local church ministry away? As he prowls around like a roaring lion, I am secure because of my Shepherd.
My time with Berry compelled me to reach out to a local pastor from a PCA church in our city. He is in his mid-60s, has a great marriage, a relationship with his kids, and has faithfully been in local church ministry for over 40 years. While I have tremendous mentors in the ministry that talk to me about preaching, theology, and church leadership, I needed someone local. I needed another pastor who could look me in the eyes, be unimpressed with the size of my church, and ask me real questions.
Thankfully, a pastor by the name of Bob Evans agreed to meet with me regularly, and the last two years of spending time with this man one year away from retiring, who is finishing well, has been something I treasure. I am not suggesting that having a mentor is the secret sauce to enduring in the ministry, but it is certainly one of the ingredients. Pastor Bob asks me questions nobody else will. He has seen it all, so he doesn't care that I pastor a large church; he cares about me. God has blessed us with a tremendous opportunity at City Church, and while we know we will remain in the hands of Christ, we also want to remain in local Church ministry. May we all take fumbling more seriously than a NFL Hall of Famer. Besides, we have so much more at stake.