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Six More Things I Learned about Church Life & Ministry from Baseball

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Baseball is the gift that keeps on giving. In a previous post, I detailed eight things that I have taken away from baseball that I think have impact on the Christian life and ministry. A recent game brought these other six things to light:

One: Sometimes you must step into a role you don’t expect and deal with discomfort for the sake of the team. It was the ninth inning. The opposing team had gone through their available pitchers for that game (it was a bad, bad game for them…but that’s a story for another day). Seated in the stands, the fans began to murmur–they couldn’t believe what they were seeing. The backup (yes, backup) catcher was coming in to, ahem, pitch. His first couple of pitches weren’t bad, but then there were the balls he flung into low-earth orbit and the succession of walks (and walked in runs) his pitching generated. The fans’ initial bemusement/sympathy turned quickly to hostility when it took a very looooong time to get out of the inning.

I thought, wow, what a guy! His coach had no other available options and he sent this guy in to pitch…and he went! He went out; he got put in one of the toughest situations a ballplayer can experience, and he did the best he could to serve the team. Now, I’m not saying that every game should go like that. And I am certainly not saying that the church should put people in at “positions” for which they are neither gifted or called. But I am saying that there are plenty of times in church life when something just has to get done and the perfectly gifted person is just not there. Step up, will you. Step in…the Coach needs you now while He positions another player to take the job on a regular basis. (“Put me in coach; I’m ready to play,” courtesy of John Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival.) “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

Two: Fair-weather fans are a thing. It’s interesting to me that there are lots more fans when a team is doing well than when the team is struggling. It happens that this year, my favorite team is doing pretty well so far, and it’s fun to watch them win. But I was at Fenway with a former parishioner once–enjoying a game–when he said something very interesting. He said he thought there were baseball fans (people who just loved the game), fans of a particular baseball team (people who loved their team), and fans of a particular team only when their team was doing well–fair weather fans. That’s what I’ve observed as well.

There are church fans–people who are engaged in the Christian life because that is where they find their joy and where they find grace for each day–good or bad. There are fans of a particular church–or something very specific about that church–and they will generally stick with that church as they put one foot in front of the other in their daily walk with Jesus. Then there are the fair-weather fans who define their church as “doing well” when everything on their expectation list is met exactly the way they’ve dictated that it should be. It’s not surprising that the fair-weather fans disappear when things don’t go their way. But it is another way that Kingdom work gets derailed. When we impose our preferences on the Body of Christ (or fume when our preferences are not honored), we handicap a local fellowship’s capacity to be the church. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3,4).

Three: Sometimes loud is just loud. “There he is! There he is!” screamed the fan, “there’s Big Papi!” Trouble is, it wasn’t Big Papi (#34, David Ortiz). It was just another big guy wearing the right uniform. Loud does not equal right. There are often voices in church life that are loud…loud in meetings…loud in conversation…just plain loud. The volume springs from conviction that they are right and that others, if they would only just listen, are wrong. In order to be heard, they increase the volume…or the backroom chit chat. Trouble is, like that loud fan at the baseball game, sometimes they’re loud while also being wrong. We must pay attention to the “still, small voice.” We look for “the least of these.” We measure both the truth and the grace in our communication as we seek to discern God’s way ahead. “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).

Four: Laughing when others fall is not cool. It was one of those silly, during the commercial break, stunts that they employ at Big League parks to keep the fans’ attention. The mustard guy was racing the ketchup guy and the relish guy. Twenty feet into the race, the mustard guy tripped and splatted to the ground in the outfield. The crowd’s unanimous response? Laughter. And, I admit, I laughed too. But then I thought, how much like the Body of Christ is that crowd. Someone is running the race the best they know how, and they tumble to the ground–sometimes the fall is their fault–sometimes it’s not. We laugh out loud (or we chuckle inwardly at their misfortune). Falling is hard. Getting back up, harder. We don’t need folks laughing at us when we fall, we need folks to come alongside (no matter the nature of the fall) and help us get back up. “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:1,2).

Five: When you let go of the bat, someone can get hurt. The batter took a powerful cut at a 97-mph fastball and the bat slipped from his grip. The bat sailed toward the visitor side seats and would have been genuine trouble for someone, except that nets had recently been installed at the ball park. Fans’ initial, reflexive panic gave way to bemused relief as we realized the bat wasn’t going to hurt anyone. Someone yelled to the batter, “Hold on!” Indeed. We have tools in our hands and hearts…amongst those tools are the words we speak. When we use our words, we best hold on tight…we best wield them carefully. We best wield our words in ways that honor God’s Word…making sure that they don’t get away from us and hurt someone. Because, unlike that bat which could be retrieved without any ill effect, our hurtful words may forever linger in the hearts and minds of those who hear them. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29).

Six: Graciousness is always in order, even when the opposition comes to town. I have been to opposition ball parks. When I go to a game, I usually wear a shirt or a hat that reveals my team allegiance. In some opposition ball parks, the mere act of showing up in another team’s colors is tantamount to begging some fan of the other team to hit you in the face. In some opposition parks, the hostility is more latent, but you know it could surface at any time. Imagine my surprise at Kauffman Stadium where I was not only genuinely welcomed (despite my Red Sox gear) but was able to engage in light-hearted banter with some Royals fans. It was a genuine delight to be there to watch a game. And yes, winning was great (see how I threw that in–subtle, eh?), but the atmosphere in the ball park, amongst those others who truly loved baseball, made the experience all the more memorable.

In today’s culture we have genuine and deeply seated disagreements across the theological spectrum. Imagine a local mainline church pastor being told that he wasn’t welcome at an evangelical pastors’ lunch. “Not welcome?!?” How can that be? It makes my head hurt and discounts the graciousness we are called to display in the Body of Christ. “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil” (1 Peter 3:15-17).

© All Rights Reserved. Scripture Quotations from the NIV.


Eight Things I Learned about Church Life and Ministry from Baseball

One: Nobody bats 1.000.  In baseball, the very best offensive players only get it right about a third of the time; the rest of the time they are out (sometimes down and out).  In this Christian life, clinging to the solid truth that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) can mean that we have a better handle on our propensity for “striking out” and will, perhaps, be better able to cultivate a temperament suited to understanding, forgiveness, mercy, and grace.

Two: Comparing batting averages is a waste of time.  Baseball players don’t advance by comparing their stats to someone else’s.  Baseball players advance by focusing on their own game.  Besides, all comparisons do is fuel either pride or despair.  The Kingdom of God functions on neither.  In the Kingdom, we do best to look to our own standing before the King.  “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye” (Matthew 7:3).

Three: We don’t have to swing at every pitch.  Batters know that lots of different pitches will come their way.  They need to discern those pitches that have the best chance of connecting and going somewhere.  They do that based on their experience and their coaching from those wiser than they.  In church life and ministry, it seems that everyone is an expert–except that they’re not.  Do I believe that God can bring ideas to and through anyone by virtue of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit?  Absolutely!  Is that the way it happens (and has happened) throughout two millennia of church history?  Not regularly–God speaks to and through leaders and then expects those leaders to lead.  So, we lean into the wisdom of those called, gifted, and equipped for ministry leadership–checking their ideas against Scripture and testing the spirits.  But every idea that comes our way is not worthy of engagement.  “Test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1).

Four: Especially never swing at a pitch in the dirt.  Batters are sometimes fooled by a pitch that looks like it will be in the sweet spot but then trails away (often bouncing in the dirt near the plate).  Sometimes the pitch is so “off” that the batter can tell it’s going to be in the dirt from the time it leaves the pitcher’s hand.  Two things happen when you swing at a pitch in the dirt: (1) you look stupid and, (2) you end up covered in dirt.  In ministry, the sheep will sometimes throw a pitch in the dirt–a snarl, a cutting remark, a baseless accusation, a tome of complaint, a general disdain.  Sometimes they’ll do it accidentally; oftentimes purposefully.  When we swing at those “pitches,” we end up covered in dirt and looking stupid.  It is so tempting to engage the defensive machine and blast back…perhaps “charging the mound” in indignation.  It is the wise person who knows when to simply let the pitch go by.  “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).

Five: It’s at least a nine-inning game and it takes as long as it takes.  Fans sometimes chafe at extra-inning games or pitchers who take their time between pitches.  Sure, some of that pitching motion is strategy, an attempt to throw off batters’ timing.  But much of it is simply the rhythm of the game–integral to the test of endurance that is baseball.  It’s at least a nine-inning game and there are 162 of them in the regular season.  A team’s prospects at the beginning of any one game or at the beginning of any one season are not always predictors of the final outcome.  I once watched a 16-inning battle at Fenway Park that saw the lead switch several times before the home team finally nailed it in the bottom of the sixteenth inning.  People seated next to me left in the eighth inning because they thought the game was over.  Ha!  In church life we must get used to the reality of endurance that is simply the rhythm of the Christian endeavor.  “…the one who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:22).

Six: Sometimes you have to sacrifice for the team.  Many a superior hitter goes to the plate with instructions from the coach to try to get put out–to hit the ball somewhere they know it will likely be caught but which allows the runner(s) to advance into scoring position.  Church life is full of these moments.  Moments when we can choose to “swing away” and attempt to grab personal glory or when we can choose to make the “sacrifice” that offers the “team” the best prospects for Kingdom impact. “Now, to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7).

Seven: Getting to play in the minors is better than being in the stands at the majors.  Ask any player which they would rather do:  play or watch.  The answer?  Invariably, they want to play.  Too many in the Christian life these days are attracted to the bigger and the better–but all they want to do is watch.  Playing is always better–even if it’s only in the pickup game down the street.  “I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full,” Jesus said (John 10:10).  Nobody thinks (well, at least I don’t) that the “full life” is characterized by flattened and scarred backsides caused by sitting and watching others mixing it up on the field.

Eight: You need to be in shape to play the game.  Who thinks out-of-shape players will do well?  No one.  Everybody knows that players who are in shape will fare better: fewer injuries, more stamina, that extra “something” that makes plays and wins games.  The Christian life is joyfully rigorous and requires that we be in tip top spiritual shape: regular devotions, fervent prayers, supportive fellowship, genuine accountability.  Without those things we will not be “suited up” for the game and will falter when adversity comes our way.  “Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand” (Ephesians 6:13).

© All Rights Reserved.  Scripture Quotations from the NIV.


30 Days to Spring Training or What’s Wrong with Christian Free Agency?

Coming off last year’s World Series win for the Boston Red Sox, it’s a sure thing that Red Sox Nation is eagerly anticipating (nay…salivating for) the annual signals that America’s Pastime will resume.  Thirty days from today, pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training.

Plus…it’s been (already) enough of a miserable winter that any sign of spring approaching is most welcome.

Of course, given the vagaries and complexities of modern baseball, the 2014 team will not be identical to the 2013 team.  Some of the names that we got used to during last year’s playoff run will, sigh, be playing for other teams [Jacobi is off to the Bronx…though he did leave with class].

One of the highlights of last season’s really fun run was Boston Designated Hitter, David Ortiz (Big Papi).  He had an incredible .959 On-Base Plus Slugging Percentage (OPS) and led the team in his inimitable style.  That style included the tide-turning pep talk to his posse during game four of the World Series.  Baseball writer Kevin Paul Dupont called it Ortiz’s “Fall Classic carpe diem” and the “series’ seminal moment.”  That’s our Big Papi, wading in unscripted to engage Fenway’s baseball boys with his own brand of insight and determination.

National audiences had previously seen this when, post the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings at the very beginning of the baseball season, Ortiz dared anyone else to mess with “our f_____ng city.”  Did I wince (well, simultaneously wince and smirk) at the choice expletive?  Yes.  Did I resonate with the voice of determination?  Absolutely.  That same determination led Ortiz to challenge his teammates to be the team they had been all season long and bring the World Series title home to Boston.  They did.

David Ortiz is apparently, at this writing, in talks to extend his contract with the Red Sox.  I don’t have any special insight; I just know what I’ve read.  He wants to stay another year and I think the team wants him to stay another year.

After the 2014 season, Big Papi will become a baseball Free Agent.  He will have more room to maneuver with respect to his contract negotiations, but he will also be on the edge of player viability.  He doesn’t seem to be slowing down but you never know.

Besides the fact that I love to watch the Red Sox boys play (hence the Big Papi preamble), I am fascinated by this notion of Free Agency…the movement of talented (and sometimes not so talented) players between teams.  In baseball’s yesteryear, players were often married to the same team (for better or for worse) for their entire career.  Now team rosters are much more fluid from year to year–that fluidity a byproduct of Free Agency. 

As a Christian I am also fascinated by the Church’s own version of Free Agency.  Players (a.k.a. church members) who regularly migrate from place to place (church to church) in search of that perfect place that dispenses perfect ministry that perfectly matches their needs (desires, whims, preferences…insert your own noun).  

While recognizing that there is no such thing as a perfect church, I am puzzled by the seeming fragility of contemporary church connections–a fragility that rests on this notion of Free Agency.  Of course, I suppose it is largely a blessing that there are so many “options” for believers for worship and service.  But, there it is, the tendency to think more in consumerist North American terms than biblical terms: options. 

I pastored a church in Colorado for several years.  By “steeple envy” standards we did alright.  We may even have done well by God’s standards.  All that to say, we weren’t the “coolest” place in town but we were in the “top tier” [I know…worldly standards misapplied to Kingdom endeavors] of places to be “checked out” by the town’s new arrivals and by those who were somehow disenchanted with the place in which they worshipped. 

In that resort community, during my eleven or twelve years there, I was regularly amazed at the number of people who had been “called” to plant churches amongst the sun and winter frolicking destinarians (yes, I made up a word).  At the time, by my count, there were about 25 evangelically minded churches in a town of (then) 6,500 in a county of (then) 14,000.  If you spent a year at each church, you could move from place to place to place for a quarter of a century before having to start over.  By then, presumably, the church(es) fostering the disenchantment would have been able to get their act(s) together…or not.

Then came the archetypal Christian Free Agent.  She was in her 60s; she was grumpy; she had a mild-mannered (rarely heard) husband and she (one sunny winter’s day) alighted in our worship center.  She engaged pretty well and was initially upbeat, but after five or six months came a litany of “concerns.”  Upon further exploration with her it seemed that the church had failed to meet her expectations on several fronts. 

I was younger and dumber and less full of the kind of grace, tact, and diplomacy (and warmth and fuzziness) for which I am known today (sarcasm is hard to render blogwise).  I finally said, “Junia [that’s not her real name and perhaps me using that name is one of the reasons she huffed so…not really…I actually used her real name when I spoke with her, but I have changed the name to protect the guilty…and dodge litigation]…Junia,” I said, “You’ve been to eight churches in the last ten years [I am not making that up].  Is it at all possible that perhaps there might be an issue with you that has nothing to do with any of those churches?” 

Her husband slunk out of the room like a dog who had messed the carpet.  If I had been smarter, I would have left with him.  What followed was an explosive airburst not seen since the first hydrogen bomb (“Mike”) was tested at the Enewetak Atol in 1952.  Well…it probably wasn’t that bad…it just seemed that way.  Leaving her house that evening, shaking the fallout from my brain, I again pondered the fragility of church connections and the multiplicity of options available to those in the Body of Christ who largely think of themselves in “Free Agent” terms.

This is not to say that some churches sometimes aren’t egregious in their wounding of the gathered saints.  This is not to say that some solid saints haven’t gone the extra mile (or hundred miles) to try and redeem church circumstances such that they can remain and thrive.  Sadly, the church sometimes grossly disappoints, dissatisfies, and disheartens, thwarting even the most committed Christ follower’s attempts to make a go of it. 

It is to say that, in my view, the threshold for moving on to “another team” in our Christian Free Agency system is much too low.  It is to say that a distorted view of “freedom in Christ” tends to minimize the biblical call for perseverance, restoration, forgiveness, and plain old “hanging in there.”  The Bible commends persistence through difficulties and the beauty of brethren and sisteren dwelling in a unity based, not on preference satisfaction, but on commitment to Christ and each other, even when we disappoint.

“Do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature,” the Apostle Paul said, “Instead, serve one another humbly in love” (Galatians 5:13). 

© All rights reserved.  Scripture from the NIV, Zondervan.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Look, Mom, No Hands! (or Feet) & Other Focus Issues

​It was a summer when I was in Junior High School.  They called it Jr. High and not “Middle School” back then (which, by the way, is just a ridiculous way to describe an educational era, but that’s a topic for another day).  I was riding bikes with a friend.  We had old clunkers (long before they were fashionable):  big, white-walled tires, one gear, rear pedal brakes, wide handle bars, striped fenders, and a bell).  These are sold as “classic” models these days; back then they were decidedly not classic (nor even fashionable–certainly not “awesome” or “epic” or “legit”; nay, not even “cool”).

Anyway…we were heading down a long steep hill on a street in an old mill town in Western Massachusetts.  As we were heading down the hill, we were doing various things that I later told my own children to never try…weaving in and out of traffic; off and on the shoulder of the road.  And, in those primeval times, there were no bicycle helmets, fewer seat belts, and even fewer motorcycle helmets.

Anyway (again)…as we headed down the hill, my friend (whose name has been redacted to spare him mocking by his own progeny) decided to really show off.  [Now, showing off presumes there is some audience for the display–usually, for junior high boys, the desired audience is junior high girls; since there were none of those within sight I later wondered exactly for whom we were “showing off.”] 

My friend decided to demonstrate the time-honored “no hands” technique.  He did it really well and managed to maintain course, heading, bearing, and speed all the while.  I was impressed enough to give the “no hands” technique a go myself.  And, I am still very proud to say, I did it with equal aplomb.  But, not to be glossed over in junior high history annals as a mere follower, I decided to augment my “no hands” technique with the rarely seen (and legendary–we’re talking Knights of the Round Table or Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. legendary) “no feet” technique.  So, I temporarily placed my hands back on the handle bars one at a time while I placed my feet up over the handle bars (I had to lift my left leg up over the bicycle’s bell–a tricky move which induced some unwanted bicycle wobble) and brought them into the center of the handle bars so that they were securely in place on the handle bars…feet neatly touching and resting right over the bike’s top tube.

Once my feet and legs were in place, I lifted both hands from the handlebars and “presto” I was riding “no hands” and “no feet.”  I looked over at my friend, wind whipping through my hair, a look of conquest on my face and said, “Look!  No hands or feet!!” in that triumphant tone known well in junior high school boy circles. 

[I did catch a momentary glance of what I later realized was “mouth agape” disbelief (you know, the cartoon kind–the jaw plummets to the ground and the entire mouth is left open like the entrance to some great cave) on the part of a passing car’s driver.]

However…my feelings of bicycling superiority and, yea, even near manly majesty, were quickly replaced by the sensation (at first ignored) that my entire bicycling enterprise was slowly listing to the right.  Then, realization and gravity both firmly set in.  Gravity, in particular, took hold in its insistent kind of way and we (that is, me and my bike…which, though chagrined at being ridden by such an idiot, was nonetheless gamely going down for the count with me) continued the glacially paced tipping to our right side.

I can only think that it was those super wide, white-walled tires that kept us up for as long as we were up.  And then, just as we (my bike and I) were nearly parallel to the ground, I had two near simultaneous thoughts:  (1) I was going to die and, (2) how was I going to explain my crumpled bike to my parents?  

[Those of you with more wits than I could corral at that moment will realize that if (1) came about, then (2) would clearly not be my problem.  But then junior high boys caught up in misadventure rarely muster anything remotely resembling keen intellect–Harry Potter notwithstanding.]

Finally we (my trusty bike and I) came into contact with the asphalt; we were probably going at least 40 miles an hour (I don’t know for sure; we didn’t have speedometers on our bikes in those days; we just relied on keeping up with the cars to gauge our speed.)  Once in contact with the asphalt we slid for several yards before coming to an abrupt halt caused by a close encounter of the concrete curb kind. 

And–I was not dead!  [I did have an abrasion the size of Fenway Park (Did you see how I snuck baseball in there?  Clever, huh!) down the entire length of my right arm.]  More importantly though…my bike was not crumpled!!  The handle bars would require some crude adjustment to once again be perpendicular to the rest of the bike and the right pedal had somehow been folded into a very cool “V” shape.  But all of that could be explained away using typical junior high school boy (JHB) syntax. 

[Parent, “Why are your handle bars and pedal messed up?”  JHB, “Ummm…are they?  I ummm…don’t know.  Maybe (insert name of any friend away on vacation here in valiant attempt to thwart fact checking) did it?”  Parent, “Isn’t (reinsert previous name here) out of town?”  JHB, “I dunno…is he?”  You can play this game forever; you just keep inserting different names until said parent assesses that the observed bicycle damage is not in the catastrophic range and loses interest.  Parent will then move on to, “What happened to your arm?”  JHB, “My arm, ummm slid hard into second?”  Parent, “Where’s your glove?”  JHB, “Ummm…I dunno…must be around here somewhere.”]

So I survived that moment of junior high stupidity.  As I’ve reflected on that experience over the years, I’ve thought several things.  Two primary things stick out:  (1) How could I be so utterly stupid?  But then, since I was a JHB, “stupid” was pretty much the default “operating system” for my life.  But, (2–which only eventually came to me) was, how important it is to keep one’s focus on the main thing.  In that case, showing off with stupid stunts was not the main thing (especially since there were no junior high school girls around); riding the bike was the main thing. 

God is good; I was not killed (and my bike was not crumpled beyond repair).  But less distraction than I experienced that day has been enough to derail the most significant of endeavors.  And that’s a shame–particularly in the Body of Christ.

I suppose this memory hits me at this time of year when I look around and see the so many (and so many well-intended) distractions of the Christmas Season.  How far we have come from the amazement of simple shepherds encountering the Baby Jesus for the very first time.  Wrapping (and rapping) and lights and K-Mart Joe Boxer commercials and Santa and Rudolph and the latest Hunger Games movie release and wars and rumors of wars and, well…you get the point, all have the potential to keep us from focus on the main thing–the main person:  Jesus.

“For me to live is Christ,” the Apostle Paul said.  “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life,” the Apostle Peter said.  If we lived 364 days with Paul’s motto in mind and we lived 364 days with Peter’s realization in mind, I think we would be less distracted and more focused as the 365th day (Christmas) approached.  We would be less prone to “fall off our bikes” doing stupid stunts and more likely to see past the distractions and discover the living Lord Jesus just there…behind the hustle, the bustle, and the tussles.  Jesus:  calling us to Himself; encouraging us to be laser sharp in our focus on Him…His will and His ways and His work. 

© All rights reserved.  Scripture from the NIV, Zondervan.


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