December 2010 A Kiss from Jesus John Strubel

One of the first things Kylie Miraldi learned as a student at San Jose State University was the meaning of dehydration. Miraldi the nutrition major had studied it in class. Miraldi the athlete had experienced the physical symptoms. But it was Miraldi the Christian who faced it in a spiritual showdown.

She had decided to apply at San Jose State following a campus visit in 2008, certain it was the college for her. She wanted to play Division-I volleyball, and she wanted to stay in California. The fact that a friend Miraldi had played volleyball with since she was 8 was also bound for SJSU provided further confirmation, so she thought.

 
Kylie Miraldi - #7
School:
San Jose State University
Height: 6-1
Year: Junior
Hometown: Grass Valley, Calif.

San Jose is a rich, vibrant cultural and historical city with entertainment, professional sports and palm trees for miles—a dream for any college kid. But trying to find a church—any church, any denomination—is another story. The statistic that ranked San Jose as one of the most unchurched cities in the United States over the last decade was one Miraldi had overlooked.

She was three hours away from Grass Valley, the place where she had grown up surrounded by family, friends and her church. The relationship she had built with Jesus Christ—the relationship she had become dependent upon under the guidance of Christian parents—was being challenged. Miraldi felt a million miles away from Him.

“I felt so thirsty for God,” said Miraldi, now a junior middle blocker for the Spartans, regarding her first semester. “I remember lying in my bed, crying and thinking, ‘If you’re thirsty, you’re already dehydrated.’ I’d been separated from Christians for far too long.”

By the time FCA Bay Area Representative Rigo Lopez arrived on campus Miraldi’s freshman year, she confessed she felt “devastated” about church. Lopez met Miraldi and invited her to the weekly FCA Huddle meeting on campus. There she connected with more FCA staff in the area, including FCA Area Director Clay Elliott.

“Kylie was 18 years old, confident but caring,” Elliott said. “I was very impressed by her maturity and her spirit as only a freshman. It was clear that she truly loved the Lord.”

By the end of the Huddle, Miraldi was the first to grab a clipboard and sign up. She left the meeting and shared the news with her father, who explained to her that FCA had been where he’d committed his life to Christ when he was in college.

Dean Miraldi was an athlete, too, having played seven seasons in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles (1981-84), Denver Broncos (1985) and then-Los Angeles Raiders (1987).

“He always kept Christ and sports together,” Miraldi said. “He became a Christian in college, but it was a long process. His faith really became his own when he was in the NFL. So, he’s experienced the highs and lows of what it’s like to play with and without Christ.”

Her mother, April, also understood the situation of being a Christian athlete, having played volleyball at Pepperdine and UCLA.

“They gave me a lot of responsibility and ownership of my faith at a young age and throughout high school in hopes that, when I left for college, it would already be my own faith,” Miraldi said. “More importantly, they made faith such an everyday part of our lives that we knew Christ was with us at all times.”

IDENTITY CRISIS
While her faith was knocked on its heels, Miraldi’s game was literally knocked off its feet when she suffered an Achilles injury which resulted in surgery and nine months on the shelf. Discouraged, she prayed, God, why me? Volleyball is such a passion of mine. What are You doing? Why are You taking it away?

“It took me a long time to accept this, but volleyball had become my god,” she said. “It was my identity. It was where I found a lot of my self-worth. So God took it away from me and brought me to my knees until there was nothing else to lean on but Him. It was a brutal experience, and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody, but, at the same time, I’d wish it on everybody because it was such an amazing turning point in my faith.”

Miraldi would need that hope and faith for what would come next.

While she was beginning to connect off the court, Miraldi’s Spartans were beginning to disconnect on it. After finishing third in the conference (13-18 overall, 7-9 conference) her freshman year, transfers and graduations left the team depleted and inexperienced.

“I was nervous coming into the year,” said Miraldi, who was named team captain as a sophomore. “I had been out all spring, and I remember at one point looking around me and realizing I had five freshmen on the court with me. They were all very talented and great players, but that year of experience from your freshman year to your sophomore year—there’s no way you can hurry that experience.”

The inexperience showed up in the standings as the Spartans lost their first 16 matches of the season. As the losses piled up and the frustration intensified, Miraldi kept telling herself, This is not my identity. This is not my self-worth. My faith is in Christ. He defines me. He gave me the ability to play.

“It became a pursuit of the ultimate goal of God’s glory,” she said. “I focused a lot on Who I was playing for and why. That got me through the season.”

Miraldi also focused on Colossians 3:23 (NIV): “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men…” It was a verse her father would share with her whenever she would compete. “Be a Colossians 3:23 player,” he would say. “Anoint the court with your sweat and give it to God in sacrifice.”

REDEFINITION
The Spartans finally snapped the streak two months into the season by beating Louisiana Tech in five sets. At halftime of the match Miraldi ran off the court and into the bathroom, where she remembers crying out in prayer: God, I can’t take another loss. I can’t take this anymore. Please, take this burden from me. Give us a win.

“Maybe that’s not what I should have been praying for, but that’s just how I felt, and my human nature came out,” she said. The match went back and forth before the Spartans wiggled past La. Tech. In the win, Miraldi recorded a career-best 16 kills.

“That was just such a kiss from Jesus,” she said.

After the win, the season went back in reverse. The Spartans lost their final 11 matches and finished 1-27 (1-15 conference).

“I don’t think I lost 27 matches in all four years of high school combined,” she said. “It was devastating. Losing was not something I was accustomed to, and I refused to grow used to it.”

The outcome resulted in school records for fewest matches won in a single season (one) and fewest games won (18 of 101). But Miraldi battled to remain strong as a captain, teammate and competitor.

 
Miraldi not only is part of the FCA Huddle at San Jose State University (top), she also speaks on behalf of the ministry at events such as the 2009 Frank Glazier Mega Clinic.
“It took a lot of venting to my sisters and my family, who were all so supportive,” she said. “Clay and Kelly Elliott from FCA really helped, too. Kelly has been a great mentor to me. She always reminded me of the things that are important in life. While athletics are important, it’s about being good stewards of the things given to us that ultimately matters and how we shine Jesus through our actions and our play.”

The long, frustrating season ended with a thud on November 21, 2009.

“As hard as it was, the lessons I learned, the friends I made, and the dependency I developed upon Christ redefined and sharpened me,” Miraldi said. “I’m stronger because of it.”

This fall marked a new season, a fresh start and a clean slate. The injuries and the losses were behind Miraldi and her Spartan teammates—until the first tournament of 2010.

In that first tournament of the season, Miraldi landed on her ankle and suffered a dislocation. She looked down and saw her foot at a 90-degree angle, so she reached down and “popped it back into place.”

“God likes to knock me off my feet,” she added.

Doctors told her an MRI was unnecessary. The healing process would take time. At best, Miraldi could expect to return at midseason.

Later that night at an FCA Huddle, the group prayed for Miraldi. A couple days later another friend stopped by her room and prayed over her injured ankle. The following day, the San Jose State athletic trainer requested an MRI for Miraldi’s medical records.

Miraldi walked in as two doctors and the team’s athletic trainer stared at the X-ray. The ligaments and tendons were attached. She was back on the court in two weeks.

MIND, BODY AND SOULS
Regardless of what happens on the court, Miraldi is winning off of it—winning souls for the Kingdom. According to Elliott, only a handful of athletes were attending FCA when Miraldi arrived at San Jose State. Now, the group has grown to almost 40.

“I attribute a lot of that to her leadership,” Elliott said. “The Spirit of the Lord is in this young lady. She is known around the team and around the campus as a Christian, and she knows it. She has a genuine depth in her faith walk, and she is very steady on and off the court.”

Miraldi, always the captain and always humble, deflected the attention, giving the credit to her group. “FCA has been the backbone of my faith throughout my time at State,” she said. “Without FCA I’d probably still be a little bit of a mess.”

That deserves a kiss—maybe a hug, too—from Jesus.

BRINGING IT HOME

As athletes and coaches, it’s easy for us to base our identity on our sport. We think that our personal worth and value are determined by our stats or the scoreboard. If we’re doing well on the court, we’re worthwhile people. If we’re doing poorly, we’re worthless.

For Kylie Miraldi, volleyball became her god. It took injury and time away from the court to realize that she was misplacing her identity. Only when the sport was out of her life was she able to see that she was valued beyond what she could do in front of a net.

What Miraldi found was what God wants us all to find: the truth that we are valuable to Him regardless of athletic achievement. He loves us simply because He created us. He loves us because He is the definition of love itself. As humans, we don’t easily understand that kind of unconditional love because our own emotions are often performance-based. It’s hard to believe that anyone would love us just the same regardless of achievement or effort. But, thankfully, God does.

Take a look at Romans 5:8 (NIV): “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” It’s the most peace-giving truth we’ll ever understand—that, even in our own imperfections and shortcomings, God still sent His Son, Jesus, to die for us on the cross and pay the penalty for our sins. Talk about love!

But that’s not all. Once we confess our sins and acknowledge His death as the atoning sacrifice for them, He invites us to begin a relationship with Him and learn what it means to live in His unconditional love. We can know we are valued and cherished for who we are as God’s creations—not for how good we are on the court.

Are you tired of trying to earn love and approval based on your athletic performance? Great news! You no longer have to! Rest in the fact that God loves you just as you are—so much so that He died for you. Accept His offer of grace through Jesus Christ by receiving Him as Savior and Lord. Call out to Him in prayer, then begin walking in lasting victory as a dearly loved child of God.

For more information on what it means to accept Christ and begin a personal relationship with Him, visit morethanwinning.org or call FCA’s National Support Center at 1-800-289-0909.

--For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. To subscribe to STV, click here.

Photos courtesy of Terrell Lloyd/San Jose State Athletics