A Whole New Ballgame
Batter up! It's baseball season! September 11 is United Methodist Day at the Giants, and the Giants are providing suspense as we near the end of the season. Last week, Fred and Helen Grubb took Ellie and me to an A's game in Oakland. (sing) It has been said that baseball reveals our national character. What ballet is to Russia, what opera is to Italy, baseball is to America.
I wonder if native Californians can really appreciate how baseball gets into the blood of us folks from winter country. Minnesota winters are months of snow and blizzards. I remember one winter when I shoveled a path from the parsonage to the church office, and the sides of the "tunnel" reached above my head. Winter is below-zero weather, overshoes, gloves, icicles hanging from the roof, shoveling snow, getting stuck in snow drifts, slipping on the ice, and making 360 degree turns in the middle of the highway (which I once did!).
Winter! What a relief when spring and summer come! The snow melts, the ground dries, trees turn green, flowers start to bloom, the accumulated cow manure is hauled to the fields--ah, spring!--and baseball. The crack of the ball on the bat, the warm sun on the face. I wonder how they can play baseball inside buildings! What would Giants baseball be without the fog over Candlestick?
In rural Minnesota, in Lake Woebegone country where I'm from, we lived for Sunday afternoon baseball. Every little town fielded a team, and Sunday afternoons we would either host a team or travel to a nearby town to play their team. Of course, the Baptists could neither play nor cheer on Sundays! There are advantages to being Methodist!
When we moved to California, we stayed with the American League, but transferred our loyalty from the Minnesota Twins to the Oakland A's when they won the World Series in 1972. I can still see the replay of Joe Rudi jumping high in the air to catch the fly ball that ended the World Series. When the A's returned to Oakland after winning the series, Ellie and I bundled up the boys--ages 11, 9, and 5--drove to Fremont, and got on BART. It was our first ride on BART, as well as our first time to see a world championship baseball team, and what an excursion we had! We had not anticipated the crowd. The street was packed. There was barely room for the team to walk down the street. We were jammed in, wondering how we would breathe.
And the ride home was horrendous! We joined the thousands trying to get on BART. The train stopped, the door opened, and people pushed and shoved to board. I pushed Jack and Tim ahead, with five-year-old Craig behind me, and the door began to shut, with Craig still outside. I panicked, yanked him on board, and we stood, packed in like sardines. Then Craig began to shout, "My shoe came off." His mother scrambled down on her knees, searched between ankles, and luckily found the shoe before we exited. Our family still loves baseball!
The genius of baseball is that it's a prototype of life. Baseball is even mentioned in the Bible. You thought baseball was an American invention? Read Geneses 1:1, the first verse of the Bible, "In the big inning, God created the heavens and the earth!" At any rate, baseball is a parable of the Christian life. In baseball, as in life, perfection is not required or even expected. You are not expected to hit every time you come up to bat. You are not expected to pitch perfect games. You are not expected to always catch the ball. In fact, in baseball, the best is really never very good. The finest hitters in the game are successful only one time in three at bats; the good infielder makes an error one game in four; a pitcher who wins twelve games but loses ten still finds a place in the starting rotation; and all games are stained with foul balls, wild pitches, dropped flies, and getting caught off base. Relax! Perfection is not required of baseball players, Christians, or churches.
Secondly, baseball teaches us errors are a part of life. One of my favorite poems is Casey at the Bat, by Ernest Thayer, set in Mudville, which I understand is the original name for Stockton. Casey is the hero of the town, the home-run hitter, who got his big chance when the score was 4-6. In the ninth inning, with two out, and two men on base, Casey walked to the plate.
There was ease in Casey's manner as he stepped into his place,
There was pride in Casey's bearing and a smile on Casey's face,
And when responding to the cheers he lightly doffed his hat,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt, 'twas Casey at the bat.
Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt
Five thousand tongues applauded as he wiped them on his shirt;
(But then!...to the last stanza)
Oh! Somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville--mighty Casey has STRUCK OUT.
In baseball the errors are recorded, counted and held against you. Strikeouts are taken off your batting average. Fielding errors are emblazoned on the scoreboard for the world to see! But, when you become a Christian and decide to live your life in the faith community called the church, it's a whole new ballgame! The Christian life is a whole new ballgame where you are not judged by your strikeouts; you are not judged by your errors; you are not judged by your mistakes; because you are justified by faith.
Paul wrote to the Romans in 5:1,8,11, "Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ...God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us...we rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received our reconciliation." Contrary to baseball, in the Christian life, the errors are not held against you. You do not stand before God with a box score in hand. Your entry into eternal life, into God's kingdom, is not conditional on getting more hits than strikeouts or put outs, or on making more successful plays than errors. Because of God's grace, your errors need not devastate you nor inhibit you. You can take them in stride as does a good baseball player. You can learn from your errors and try again.
But, your worth as a person, your standing before God, your participation in the faith community called the church, is not dependent on how well you do or don't do. I tell you forcefully this morning we do not win eternal life. We do not earn eternal bliss. Neither by our struggle, nor by our labor, do we merit eternal grace. I don't know about you, but if I had to earn eternal life, if I had to get up every morning with my worth and my meaning based on how I did or didn't do, I wouldn't make it. If you are depending on your good life to get you into heaven, forget it! You won't make it. Just compare yourself with Jesus and you will see how far you slip! No, we don't earn eternal grace. The grace of God is a gift. Your salvation is a gift. Your relationship with God is a gift. You are a beautiful, important, significant person, not because you deserve to be; but because God made you to be you, and God loves you. You are justified by faith, faith in God's grace, faith in God's love of you. It's a whole new ballgame!
Third, contrary to baseball, in the new ballgame of the Christian life, there are no losers, only winners. In baseball, there are winners and losers. In fact, a team becomes a winner only by making the other team a loser. In the Christian life, you are a winner, without making someone else a loser. Because of God's grace, we are all winners. It's a whole new ballgame.
Fourth, in a baseball game, there are the players and the spectators. In the church, there are only players. Jesus is the coach, telling us to run for first, go on to steal second, dash to third, and slide into home. You and I are the team. You and I are called to do more than go to church. We are called to be the church. We are called to do more than go to the game and sit in the stands. We are called to play the game. We are the team.
And the church team, as a good baseball team, helps one another. There are no stars. A pitcher is only as good as the fielding team behind him. As team mates, we help each other win the game of life. We compensate for one another's weaknesses. We support each other, stand up for one another, and build each other up. We rejoice in each other's victories, and do not sulk in jealousy. We do not judge one another on the basis of errors or performance, but we accept one another as team mates through God's grace.
It's a whole new ballgame. Perfection is not required. Errors are part of life, but errors are not counted against you. There are no losers and winners, only winners, and we are all on the team. There are no spectators. It's a whole new ballgame. Batter up!
© 1993 Douglas I. Norris