I have become a ‘fair weather fan’ when it comes to my beloved Red Sox. I can simply no longer watch their games. They are currently sitting in last place in the American League, due in no small part to the facts that they have no pitching, they are struggling to hit the ball and they lead the league in errors. But it is not their record that is making this season unbearable; it is their apparent lack of heart on the part of the players. I can only assume this malaise is evident due to the pandemic protocols – no fans in the stands, no player on-field interactions, and social distancing in the dugout – that has robbed “America’s Pastime”, at least in Boston, of its magic.
There is something special about social interaction that cannot be captured on a Zoom call or over the phone. As much as I hate to admit it, we require human contact in order to thrive. I wonder if things would be different were the veterans on the Red Sox allowed to embrace the younger players to encourage them, especially as things are going from bad to worse. On a larger scale, are we, as a culture and as a planet, suffering to a greater degree because we cannot, literally and figuratively, shoulder one another’s load? Do we, as a people, really need a hug?
Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. 1 Thessalonians 5:11 (NIV)
This, unfortunately, is a lost season for the Red Sox. However, it need not be the same for us. I am confident that we are able to reclaim much of what has been taken by this virus and its consequences. My suggestion for reclamation is that we rediscover the power of prayer. What has prayer got to do with being physically present with one another? I am glad you asked.
First, the language of prayer conveys physical presence. When we pray, we are lifting one another toward God. Offering up biblical prayers, like the Lord’s Prayer, evoke a real bonding of hearts and minds with one another and with God. We are together when we pray.
Second, the discipline of prayer develops intimacy. We listen more and share more when we intercede for one another. We are willing to expose our hopes and our hurts more freely in the context of prayer. We are tender when we pray.
Third, the practice of prayer offers avenues of reconnection. When I pray for you, I become invested in the ‘rest of the story’ and become eager to see how things turn out. When I pray, I am more likely to follow through and resume the conversation. We are touching base when we pray.
Finally, the reality of prayer draws us away from the problems and draws us toward the provider. Prayer enables us, together, to recognize that we haven’t got the answers to some of the toughest questions, and to recognize that we all, irrespective of demographics, needs God’s intervention. We are trusting when we pray.
While we cannot embrace one another just yet, we can engage in prayer with and for one another. That is no small thing.
Today, 300 days after the final game of the 2019 season and 120 days later than originally scheduled, is Opening Day for the Boston Red Sox. Much of what we experienced as sports fans in September will be different tonight: there will be a new field manager (Alex Cora was ‘let go’ after his ties to Houston’s cheating scandal), a new general manager (Dave Dombrowski was ‘let go’ after a lackluster season), new pitchers (3 of the 5 top starters from 2019 are either injured or gone) and a new center fielder (MVP winner Mookie Betts is now a Dodger). Off-field, things will be different as well: no fans in the stands, commentators broadcasting from off-sight studios, piped-in crowd noise, and a ban on player celebrations and arguing with umpires. Still, our national pastime is resuming and I, for one, am delighted that some things are getting back to (a new) normal.
I was asked, the other day, if I would watch the Red Sox this year, knowing that there are no reasonable expectations of a post-season and little hope of a winning season, even in its abbreviated form. I responded that I would watch and hope for the best. After all, anything can happen. The team could over-perform or one of the prospects could catch fire. Perhaps by Labor Day my optimism will wane, but for now I am anticipating big things.
In a way, what is happening at Fenway is playing out every Sunday morning at many churches around the world. Some of the players have changed (having moved to other teams), the product on the field is a little different (with less personal interaction) and most, if not all, of the seats are empty. The pandemic has changed the way we ‘do church’ and experience church: most of us are participating through the filter of digital distance, surrounded by the comforts of home with the ability to pause, mute and multitask. Like watching professional baseball, where we might be tempted to consume a product and drop out if we are dissatisfied with the outcome, sometimes our digital participation with worship is more about our available options than our openness to the Spirit.
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 1 Corinthians 10:31 (ESV)
Whether it is viewing the new baseball season or streaming a worship service or having a romantic date night, no one knows when this current reality will return to the ways of the past. What we can do, in this present circumstance, is elevate our digital activities to reflect some pre-March practices. Dress up for the experience before you turn on the device, turn off your phone and commit fully to what you are experiencing. If you were going to Fenway, the movies or the church, what would you do to prepare? Do that. What would you bring? Bring them. When would you leave the event? Don’t leave until then. Treat the new patterns as you would normally, for they are the new normal.
I would love to go to Fenway this summer. I would love to go to the movies with my wife. I would love to see the church full on a Sunday morning. God, today, seems to have other plans. However, whatever we do, we can do what we can to glorify God by the way we do it.
A tarnished reputation is difficult to overcome. Just ask the Boston Red Sox or the New England Patriots. Along with Lance Armstrong, Rosie Ruiz and Tonya Harding, they have found themselves labeled as cheaters within our current zeitgeist. Just this week, the Red Sox field manager, Alex Cora mutually agreed to part ways after Cora’s name was linked with an elaborate sign-stealing scandal while he served as bench coach with the Houston Astros. This follows a report a few weeks ago that the Patriots were found recording the sidelines of an opposing teams during an NFL game (12 years after being punished for gaining an advantage by acting the same way). The home teams are a bunch of cheaters, calling into question the legitimacy of their championship titles.
Would the Patriots have won all those Super Bowls without that unfair advantage of knowing plays the opposition was planning before they were executed or modifying the air pressure of footballs? Would the Red Sox have won the World Series in 2018 had they not stolen signs and known the pitches they were facing before they were thrown? Sadly, sports fans in Boston can never know for sure. History is now tainted. Reputations are now tarnished. The critics are justified in questioning the integrity of the coaches and key players. The city’s sports heroes will be subject to the consequences of dishonesty for the foreseeable future.
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Luke 19:8 (NIV)
Not surprisingly, the Bible has an ample supply of examples illustrating that cheating is wrong, whether it be swapping out an inferior sacrifice for a suitable one or moving a boundary line or tipping the scales to gain a small advantage. I would argue that Zacchaeus is a prime specimen of the ‘cheater’. Perhaps he contended that everyone was doing it, that it was acceptable to skim a bit off the top of all those tax payments he had received. But that rationale did not mean it was the right thing to do. God’s design and order for human interaction dictates our fair and equitable engagement with others.
In this way, Zacchaeus’s life story becomes a cautionary tale; if you cheat people you will be hated by nearly everyone around you. But Zacchaeus’s response to grace also becomes a template for all of us with a less-than-stellar reputation; after being confronted with his wrong-doing, he acted in repentance, showed regret and offered restitution. Almost immediately after witnessing the love of Christ, he changes the trajectory of his life; after years of focusing on selfish gain, he gives half of his accumulated wealth to others. Then he characterizes himself as a cheater, owning and admitting his sin. Finally, he compensates those he cheated sacrificially.
So, how does one overcome a tarnished reputation? Follow the biblical example of the wee and greedy tax collector. Admit your sin, change your priorities and repay what has been taken away. I hope we all can learn from the public fall from grace of our professional sports teams.
The Red Sox are rebuilding, again. On Monday, they exited the playoffs with a season-ending loss at the hands of the Houston Astros. On Wednesday, the organization and the field manager parted ways, effectively ushering the hometown team into a season of transition and change. Rumors have already begun about trades and free-agent signings; only time will tell who will stay, who will go and who will join the team. Despite their recent successes (winning the American League East Division title for the last two seasons and winning the World Series five seasons ago), the team’s inability to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs was unacceptable. The front office personnel at Fenway Park has decided that the answer to “what have you done for me lately?” is “not enough”.
I am thankful the God does not have the same business plan as the Red Sox. I am grateful that a few seasons with less-than-optimal results (despite a modicum of success) does not disqualify me from being part of His team. I rejoice that when my production or power has waned, He will not replace me with someone who could do better. As opposed to a sport where, in 2017, a batter is nearly as likely to strike out (21.6% of all plate appearances) as get a hit (22.8% of all plate appearances), it is remarkable that the Lord allows us to miss the mark so frequently without relegating us to the bench.
…as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. Psalm 103:12
While most of us have never played baseball professionally, we all have our list of failures. We all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God. We all have stepped out of bounds and trespassed against one another. We all have made mistakes, lapses in judgement, erred and fouled up. We all have reasons why our dismissal would be warranted. We all have places in our track record where our disappointments greatly outnumber our successes. What does God offer us when we are in the midst of these less-than memorable moments? He offers us yet another chance to get it right.
The struggles of life and the challenges of baseball are surprisingly similar. I have never faced a 100mph fastball, but I imagine that making contact with the curveballs of life is equally difficult (considering how often I have swung and missed them). I have struck out relationally, flied out morally, grounded out conversationally, and fouled out professionally. I have never stood in front of the Green Monster at Fenway, but I have misplayed routine interactions and lost my focus while fielding temptations. Through it all, God has encouraged and corrected me, discipled and guided me, so that I would do better the next time.
The results of following the Red Sox and following Christ could not be more different. As a lifelong Red Sox fan, I am used to saying, “wait until next year” – when (hopefully) the big bat arrives, when the ace pitcher performs and when they win the pennant. As a Christian, I am used to saying, “forgive me” (as I strike out, underperform and fail) – which results in (certainly) His restoration of my soul and refreshment of my spirit. I will take God’s comfort over a hometown championship any day.
On Monday afternoon, the Boston Red Sox will begin the process of repeating as World Champions. After 5 months of waiting for the season to begin, our hometown baseball team will take the field in defense of their World Series trophy. The Sox, due to their success last year, is at a distinct disadvantage this year: every other team in Major League Baseball would like nothing less than defeating the champs. In addition to that, every team, including the Sox, have had their records wiped clean; everyone starts the season on an even footing with no wins and no losses.
Athletic competition is merciless. This was demonstrated last month at both the Winter Olympics and the Super Bowl. Gold medalists must compete and if they have a bad day on the ice, in the half-pipe or on the slopes they are no longer gold medalists. And just because you enter the stadium with football’s most potent offense and have secured a number of the NFL’s scoring records doesn’t guarantee you will leave with the Lombardi Trophy. Unfortunately, for the athlete the competition is new every season and one is not able to rest upon past successes.
Imagine that there was a contest where, upon the final victory, the competition ceased and the final records were secured for all time. What if there were no more boxing matches, basketball games, swim meets or marathons and whoever is the current champion maintains the title forever. Now imagine you are that contestant, the competitor who secures the final win. There would be such joy in knowing that the victory can never be taken away and that you will henceforth be known as the victor. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
Whatever your athletic ability, or intellectual power for that matter, God has afforded you a victory against a formidable foe. From the beginning of all time death has been our enemy and each and every human being, when challenged by death, has lost the battle. Every human being, that is, until Christ.
In about three weeks we will celebrate Easter, the date on the Christian calendar where we rejoice in the sudden and certain victory of our Savior over death. Like many epic battles, it looked like it could have gone either way: the aggressive offense of the Devil in the early moment s of the game, the apparent lack of a defensive game by Jesus, a team defection in the second half, and the killer blow as the clock was winding down. Satan started the celebration before the final bell rang, savoring his apparent win. It was at that moment that the champion, Jesus Christ, rose up and claimed the final and lasting victory – and we, the bench players who never needed to do anything more than dress for the game, were awarded the victory with Him.
“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians 15:55–57 (NIV)
Hallelujah and Happy Easter! I encourage you to participate in the “holy rolling” rally on Sunday, April 20th.
On Wednesday night the Boston Red Sox won their third World Championship in the last ten seasons. What made this achievement so remarkable was the journey that the team and its player took over the last 26 months. The road to this unlikely World Series title began in September of 2011 when the Red Sox finished that season losing 18 of its last 24 games – erasing a 9-game lead in the wildcard race and missing the playoffs by losing their last game. The coach was fired and the general manager moved on before the 2012 season, which saw the Red Sox flounder to a 69-93 season and, in the process trade away a great deal of talent.
Then came 2013, when a gang of free agents and rookies came in and complemented the remnants of the gang know for “chicken and beer” – the cliché used to explain the 2011 collapse. Another new coach was hired and expectations were, rightfully so, low. The only thing was that the Red Sox began to win – single run games, extra inning games, come-from-behind games, pitchers duels and slugfests – and win consistently. They earned the best record in the major leagues and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs (thanks in no small part to the closer Sox fans love to hate, Mariano Rivera). They beat the Tampa Bay Rays, the Detroit Tigers and (on Wednesday) the St. Louis Cardinals to become World Champions.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us….” Hebrews 12:1 (NIV)
There are times when we need to ‘forget’ the past and focus on the present. In the case of the Red Sox, this is perhaps best demonstrated by the play of one player – John Lackey. He came to the Red Sox on 2010 and had a decent season, only to suffer injury and pitch poorly in 2011. It was so bad that he was rumored to have been drinking beer and eating fried chicken in the clubhouse during games that he wasn’t pitching. After missing the entire season in 2012 due to surgery, Lackey came back and pitched admirably during the past season and exceptionally during the playoffs. He even pitched the clinching game on Wednesday night.
Perhaps there are critical people surrounding you, reminding you of all the mistakes you’ve made and all the ways you’ve disappointed. Perhaps there are expectations you or others established that you’ve been unable to reach in the past. Perhaps your path has been marked by failure at every turn. As the author of Hebrews recommends, at those times remember the Old Testament pillars of faith, men and women who were not perfect (and some who were far from it) but men and women who God used. He knows our past history and our present hurdles and, just as He did in days of old, He is calling us to keep running the course He’s designed for us. When we heave our hindrances and slip free of the entangling sin all about us, we can reach the places He’s created us to see. Just ask the 2013 World Champion Boston Red Sox.