I am a big believer in shaking things up and approaching ideas through an unexpected perspective. Like the billboard I saw in Minnesota: It read, at the top, "Minnesota Cremation Society." In the middle was a photo of a casket, and underneath, it read, "Think outside the box." This year, let's bring a fresh approach to Easter by using an unexpected perspective: Major League Baseball.
Baseball and Easter are a perfect match. This year, Opening Day falls just a week after Easter Sunday. But beyond the calendrical coincidence, many people have referred to baseball as a religion. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously called baseball "the faith of fifty million people." And who could forget Susan Sarandon's opening lines in the movie Bull Durham? "I believe in the church of baseball . . . For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary, and there are 108 stitches in a baseball."
My personal favorite observation is the great wisdom from the comedian George Carlin. George talked about the spiritual side of baseball by comparing it to the war-like nature of football. "In football, the object is for the quarterback, otherwise known as the field general, to ... hit his receivers with deadly accuracy ... With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory ... In baseball, the object is to go home and to be safe."
Baseball has much to teach us about Easter. For example, in baseball, and Easter, there is always a jeering crowd. We all know this from Good Friday. We also know it in our own lives. There will always be people in this world who prefer jealousy over joy, people who would rather tear us down than build us up, and people who would rather destroy than delight in something great. I'm reminded of the old saying, "Beware of the masses, for sometimes the 'm' falls off."
What's the lesson? Don't let the crowd shake your confidence. Keep your eye on the ball. And as Jesus did on Good Friday, stay the course. The author Seth Godin explained it this way: "If you try to delight the undelightable, you've made yourself miserable for no reason." There is another Easter lesson from baseball: we do not play alone. In baseball and in life, we are always surrounded by our team. "For He Himself has said, 'I will never leave you nor forsake you'" (Hebrews 13:5). It's just that, sometimes, we miss it.
There is a story about the Yankees broadcaster Phil Rizzuto. One day, his colleague looked at Phil's scorecard in the booth and saw a notation, "WW," which he didn't recognize. He asked Phil, "What is this?" And Phil replied, "Oh, wasn't watching." Sometimes, we forget about the power of the team--the risen Christ who plays with us, around us, and for us.
Hollywood director Billy Wilder once said, "You're as good as the best thing you've ever done." I like that quote, but I think it should be tweaked: "You're as good as the best thing your team has ever done." Former New York University President John Sexton offers this insight from his book, Baseball as a Road to God: Seeing Beyond the Game. "The similarities between baseball and religion abound. The ballpark as cathedral; saints and sinners; the curses and blessings. But then what I'm arguing is beyond that surface level, there's a fundamental similarity between baseball and religion which goes to the capacity of baseball to cause human beings, in a context they don't think of as religious, to break the plane of ordinary existence into the plane of extraordinary existence."
Amen to that. Being part of a team--a community--can elevate us to heights beyond our individual existence. It is, in short, transformational. As it says in Ecclesiastes, "Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow ... And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him--a threefold cord is not quickly broken."
A quote by my favorite author Anne Lamott inspires a third spiritual lesson from baseball: "Grace bats last." In baseball, people would say, "Grace bats cleanup." The cleanup batter is always the fourth one in the lineup. The aim is to get the first three batters on base; then, with the bases loaded, the strongest hitter steps up.
We all know that feeling where we have trained, fought, worked, and sweated, yet we reach the point where we can do no more. The crowd is jeering. We are being pitched nothing but curve balls and sliders. Nothing short of a miracle will do.
Late in his career, Babe Ruth stepped up to the plate in game three of the 1932 World Series. The Chicago crowd went crazy, yelling insults, and even throwing lemons onto the field. Everyone wanted to take him down.
Standing in the batter's box and taking the full force of the insults, Babe suddenly called time out. He stepped out of the box and pointed his bat toward center field as if he were calling his shot and saying to everyone there, "Nothing you can do can touch me."
After a moment, he stepped back in the box, and the pitcher, Charles Root, wound up and flung his best curve ball at him. Babe connected with an earthquake-like crack, and the ball soared deep into center field, just where he had predicted. It was the longest home run in Wrigley Field history.
There has never been a time in our world where we have needed that miracle hitter more. Consider the current headlines: the global refugee crisis, flood and tornado victims, rampant gun violence, the widening gap between the haves and have nots, and the racist and religious hatred spewing from everyone, most notably some of our presidential candidates.
When we're surrounded by doubters, the bases are loaded, and we find ourselves facing curve balls and sliders, know that we have a miracle hitter who will step in and brings us safely home. We have Jesus--who died, fought death, and emerged from that tomb bringing with him the miracle of life. Most of all, remember this: you are not alone, and the jeering crowd can't touch you because you are part of a team where grace bats last.
Bible Study Question:
1. Where do you hear the jeering crowds?
2. When do you feel most alone?
3. What miracle do you await?
For Further Reading:
"Baseball and Religion" Religion and Ethics Newseeekly. 26 April 2013
Samuel G. Freedman. "Baseball Has Its Worshipers, and at NYU, You Get Credit." New York Times. 21 April 2012
Daniel Burke. "Baseball Can Often Play Into Religious Teachings." Chron.com. 15 April 2010.
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Arno Michaelis has a change of heart after being shown kindness.
Life's difficulties can come in many forms: illness, loss, prejudice, pain... and assembling furniture from Ikea. Anyone who has attempted to put together anything from this wonderfully creative, yet maddening, merchant understands the frustration. The box arrives with a zillion pieces and, the best part, instructions in Swedish. After hours of deciphering the directions and gathering together the countless tiny parts, inevitably you discover that a piece is missing. Somewhere in the unpacking of the zillion elements, you have dropped a small part under the refrigerator or behind the radiator. And it's never just a missing piece, it's usually the missing piece: the key part that transforms the pile of random plastic into the one-of-a-kind, fabulous piece it was meant to be.
The Ikea experience is not so different from life. Each of us is a unique creation with intricate gifts and abilities. While we were given those gifts at birth (shipped with all the parts so to speak), in the living and unpacking of life, we tend to drop a key piece. And as with Ikea furniture, without it we can never live as we were meant to.
In our scripture this week, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22, we are reminded of life's key piece through the story of Jesus' baptism. The moment Jesus emerges from the water, a voice descends from heaven and declares: "You are my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased." Such beautiful words. And yet, perhaps more powerful than the words themselves is their timing. The Spirit offered this blessing to Jesus before he had done anything: he hadn't preached; he hadn't performed any miracles; he hadn't raised the dead, healed the blind, or even transformed the wedding wine at Cana. The words were bestowed on him not for what he had done, but for who he was: a beloved child of God.
Each of us gets this same unconditional blessing at birth. As Jeremiah 1:5 explains, "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you; and before you were born, I consecrated you." The problem is that the farther we get from our birth, the more we tend to forget that blessing. Over the years, life beats us down with hurt, disappointment, grief, anger, each one breaking us down, tearing us down until those critical words, "You are my beloved," are muffled out. Our greatest blessing--our critical piece--goes missing.
After that, it's a slippery slope. Without the words of the blessing in our ears, all we hear are the negative, critical voices of the world. We start to believe that we are not beloved, but unloved. And when we feel unloved, we become fearful. We lash out, we judge, we harm. Worst of all, when we forget who we are, we forget our human connection. We begin to believe we are different, separate, better. It's like the old saying: "If you don't know who you are, you act like who you ain't."
We see it in the headlines every day. We deny opportunity, we judge and deride, we murder ... because we've forgotten that notwithstanding the color of someone's skin, we all have a common birth blessing. As the author Kelly Brown Douglas explained in her book Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, if we asked Jesus, "'Lord, where did we see you dying and on the cross?' Jesus would answer, 'On a Florida sidewalk, at a Florida gas station, on a Michigan porch, on a street in North Carolina. As you did it to one of these young black bodies, you did it to me.'"
When we have a missing piece, we hold our "truth" in a death grip, we circle the wagons of tradition and sink into the comfortable bliss of ignorance. We do things like judge an entire religious tradition based on the actions of a few extremists. The New York Times has reported that hate crimes against Muslim Americans and mosques have tripled since the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, including assaults on hijab-wearing students, a shooting of a Muslim cabdriver in Pittsburgh by a passenger who angrily questioned him about ISIS and mocked the Prophet Mohammad, and, in Anaheim, a bullet-ridden copy of the Koran left outside an Islamic clothing store. Our sense of human connection has deteriorated so badly that we not only unfairly harm our Muslim brothers and sisters; out of our ignorance, we erroneously lash out at other traditions that, thanks to a beard or a turban, we think are Muslim.
And many of these crimes are perpetrated by Christians. Perhaps we should all spend some time with Dave Burchett's book When Bad Christians Happen to Good People, especially Chapter 3, entitled "WJSHTOT (Would Jesus Spend His Time on This?)" Christians do not hold the monopoly on truth, nor on the Golden Rule (which we obviously don't follow so well). Consider the Muslim Hadith: "You will not enter Paradise until you believe and you will not believe until you love each other. Shall I show you something that, if you did, you would love each other? Spread peace between yourselves." (Sahih Muslim 54)
All of us--Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, black/white, gay/straight, Republican/Democrat--were born beloved children of God. As Genesis teaches: God created humankind in God's image, and God declared everything "very good" (Genesis 1).
It is our greatest call as human beings to remind ourselves and each other that we are beloved children of God--ones in whom God is well pleased. It is whispered in our hearts before we are born into this life and it is whispered to us as we leave. We simply need to remember. We need to return to the source. We need to strive--every day of our lives--to find the missing piece.
Bible Study Questions
1. Are you able to hear praise? Accept love? If the spirit spoke to you now and said, "You are my beloved in whom I am well pleased," would you be able to hear it?
2. Have you ever found yourself judging others because you are scared of them? Because you don't understand them?
3. Think of someone you have judged unfairly and identify three things you have in common. For example, what are their hopes and dreams? What are their worries? Do they have a family and or children? Do they find comfort in a connection to God?
For Further Reading
Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God
Rev. Peter Wallace, The Passionate Jesus: What We Can Learn from Jesus about Love, Fear, Grief, Joy and Living Authentically
Reba Riley, ISIS is to Islam what the KKK is to Christianity, Patheos, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rebariley/2015/11/isis-is-to-islam-what-the-kkk-is-to-christianity/
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