Leo Durocher once wrote, “Baseball is like church. Many attend, few understand.” I would add that baseball, like church, involves a community that you have to be a part of in order to gain understanding. To appreciate the beauty of the game of baseball, you have to learn to sit with it. You have to learn patience. You must learn its intricacies and be able to appreciate the subtlety of the techniques deployed by coaches and managers. You have to listen to other people as they talk about the game and begin to see things you didn’t see before. Likewise, to begin to understand our faith, you have to sit in God’s presence in prayer. You have to learn patience. You must begin to read scripture, attend worship, and learn the intricacies of our faith. You have to listen to other people as they talk about their experience with God, and begin to understand the mysteries of the Bible, prayer, worship, and the sacraments.
Unfortunately, it is often the case that neither baseball nor church plays out in this way.
Both of my sons are now baseball players. My older son, Luke, plays on a select team called the Dirtbags. My younger son, Sean, began playing today in the “Miracle League,” a league for children with disabilities. (Sean has Down Syndrome.) Luke loves baseball. It is the only sport he’s interested in playing. Sean, come to find out, loves it too, though this may be because it affords him the opportunity to be like his big brother.
Baseball can bring out the best in people. The coaches of Luke’s team are a great bunch of guys. Even though he plays in a competitive select league, the coaches put the kids first. They care about them. They ride them pretty hard, but with the idea of pushing them on to their full potential. These kids are learning character. They’re learning grit, the kind of grit that gets you through the hard times in life. They’re learning teamwork and how important it is for other people to be able to depend on you. And they’re playing a game that they love, enjoying life and building friendships.
In Sean’s league, the Miracle League, baseball is simply a manifestation of the best that has already come out in these people. Those who run the league are people who are willing to give of themselves. They care about others. They’re kind. The local high school baseball team was out today, and as I watched them work with these kids with disabilities, I was encouraged by the kind of character that must be developing in the high-school kids. The organizers of the Miracle League are not only engaging in acts of loving kindness, but teaching others to do the same.
Baseball can also bring out the worst in people. I’ve seen coaches (not my son’s coaches, thankfully) throw temper tantrums–in front of the kids–that could rival even the most aggrieved of two-year-olds. One would think the prophets of Baal were trying to call down fire from heaven. I’ve witnessed attempts to cheat. I’ve seen parents who clearly can’t distinguish between their own egos and their kids’ performance in sports. Win at all costs. Never mind the rules. The other guy can go to hell. You’d better win, or you’re nothing but a loser.
Can’t church be like this as well? Have you seen the church bring out the worst in people? I certainly have. There are people for whom the church is simply a means to an end. It is a way to gain influence and control. Its structures are tools in the political toolbox. Win at all costs. Never mind the rules. The other guy can go to hell. You’d better win, or you might lose control.
I have to give credit to Jason Vickers for this insight: the aspect of evolutionary science that is most offensive to Christians isn’t the idea that the biblical creation stories are not to be taken literally. It is rather the concept of “survival of the fittest.” This idea, which one can find lived out in both baseball and the body of Christ, is antithetical to the gospel. Human beings were put on this earth as stewards of creation, and that includes being stewards of one another. When God came to us in Christ, he taught us more about what this looks like:
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?”Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’ (Matthew 25:34-46.
The analogy between baseball and the church of course breaks down. The God of the church demands our absolute allegiance, our whole lives. The god of baseball may try to do this, but it has no legitimate claim. In fact, neither does the god of football, or debate team, or ballet, or business, or money, or academics. False gods will demand our allegiance, but only the the living God can make such a claim legitimately. If we get our allegiances right we’ll begin to see the true beauty in the church, in baseball, in all that we do.