Sunday, May 17, 2015

Play Like It's October

The past few years the Kansas City Royals have been a fascinating clinic on changing how the game is played. What is it that has turned a consistent losing team into a fun to watch winner and contender? After catching bits and pieces of the Royals vs. Yankees series this weekend, I know at least part of the answer.

I spent enough time in the outfield during my ball-playing days to know that sometimes those lazy loopers just over the heads of the infielders can be a challenging judgment call for outfielders. An outfielder can choose to charge toward it in an attempt for a shoestring or diving catch, but that’s a risky proposition. If he failes to catch the ball, it can slip past his glove, get behind him, and the base runners can run forever.

Given that risk, many if not most outfielders, even in the Majors, will take the safe play and let the ball drop for a single, settling for minimal damage and hopefully reducing the risk of the opposition having a big inning.

In fact, that traditional approach is exactly the way I saw the New York Yankees play the outfield this weekend. As a student of the game I have seen this at all levels of baseball as a sort of unstated standard operating procedure. Baseball has a long, grinding season, after all, and why risk injury and energy on one play in one game in a 162 game season?

But then October happens. The playoffs and the World Series host some of the most exciting defensive plays of the season in large part because the talented athletes who make it that far turn it up a notch. Each and every game, each and every play, could spell the difference between a World Series ring and a plane ticket home.


And then I watched the Kansas City Royals play defense this weekend -- and not just this weekend. They are taking those chances on those lazy loopers, full out diving when necessary. Even with runners on base they risk an error on a fully stretched-out dive, and most often that extra effort results in a catch inches from the ground, a hat tip from the pitcher, and a batter throwing his hands up in frustration.

The Royals have been playing like it’s October. Why shouldn’t they? In the Majors every day does count, and that one game, that one play, could be the reason they make or miss the playoffs.


Clearly there is a life lesson here. In all you do, play like its October. You owe it to your teammates, and you owe it to yourself.

Friday, May 1, 2015

A Class Act

During this summer of 2007 I was reminded of the soul of baseball and why it connects with the American people in a special way.

I speak of the 2007 National Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony and specifically about Cal Ripken, Jr.’s remarks to the assembled tens of thousands on the grounds and multitudes more via ESPN Classic.  People can sense a class act, and they sensed it throughout Ripken’s career.  He only confirmed it on the dais in Cooperstown.

Said Ripken, “When I realized that I could use baseball to help make life better especially for the kids, baseball became a platform. By trying to set a good example, I could help influence young people in positive and productive ways. And some of this became apparent to me in my earliest playing days. So as my major league career unfolded, I started playing a little more attention to my actions. I remember when Kenny Singleton showed me a tape of me throwing my helmet down after a strikeout and all he said was, ‘How does that look?’ I remember learning about a family who saved their money to come to Baltimore to see me play. I got thrown out in the first inning and their little boy cried the whole game. I remember how I reacted with anger when dad was fired after an oh and six start, and after each of those events and others, I vowed to act better the next time. …

“As the years passed, it became clear to me that kids see it all, and it's not just some of your actions that influence, it's all of them. Whether we like it or not as big leaguers, we are role models. The only question is will it be positive or will it be negative.”


With apologies to Cal Ripken, Jr., I would add that if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, you are also a role model, and as the man said, “the only question is will it be positive or will it be negative.” You represent someone, and when people see you, they expect to see a reflection of the one you represent.   “Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus.” (Colossians 3:17)  Throwing one’s helmet does no honor to the game or to your calling.  We must be better than that, for people are watching.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Defeat to Victory

In our world people celebrate the birth of Christ as the big holiday of the year, but if you were to eliminate the his birth from the Bible, you would lose a mere two chapters from Matthew and two chapters from Luke, while the central Gospel message would remain completely intact.


Take away the death and resurrection of Christ, on the other hand, and you decimate the gospels and turn Paul and Acts into indecipherable babble. The miracle of a man once dead who is now alive is a strange idea on its own, but to a dedicated band of small believers who actually saw the risen Christ, it meant everything in the world even to the point of willing martyrdom. While it's true that this grand pivot of history gives us the hope of eternal life, it goes well beyond that.

The Meaning of the Cross to the Romans

Theologian N.T. Wright in his book Surprised by Hope points out that the Roman occupiers of the day used the cross as a means of asserting its authority over its subjects' lives. In the end any civil authority's ultimate means of control is the control over who lives and who dies. When the Romans crucified someone, it was their way of telling their subject peoples, "We're in control here, and you're not. Nobody - no would-be Messiah, no supposed King of the Jews - will be allowed to usurp our authority, and if they attempt to do so, we will kill them in the most gruesome manner possible." By placing the placard "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" on the cross of Christ, the Romans were reminding the people that Rome was their ultimate master and lord, and that they should rely on no other. When the rabble, egged on by the Sadducees, shouted, "We have no king but Caesar," they were rejecting God and accepting the authority of a tyrant.

Not only did Jesus through his death and resurrection save us from sin and give us the hope for eternal life, he also demonstrated that nobody - no powerful empire, no self-proclaimed god - is greater than the true God who had not only overcome the world, but was coming to take it back.

So in an amazing plot twist, a symbol of despotic control and despair over the lives of many has come to be a symbol of freedom and hope. It reminds us that no matter how evil and hopeless the world may sometimes look, God has some surprises waiting that will make things right. 

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”


Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A Policy of Fools Who Claim to Be Wise?

A screwed up place, the Middle East is, where Muslims are killing Muslims, the White House is supporting Saudis who are attacking Iranian proxies, but are supporting the Iranian proxies against Sunni terrorists in Iraq.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is doing all it can to delegitimize its strongest and most loyal ally in the region, Israel, while giving away the store to the terrorist state of Iran whose habitual chant is "Death to America".

This is all a reminder of what we read in Paul's letter to the Romans. The followers of Christ in the capital of a godless empire could see daily the Byzantine antics of despots in action, and they no doubt knew what Paul was describing when he wrote about "godlessness", "unrighteousness", and "those who suppress the truth" (Romans 1:18).

They knew what he meant when he called their thinking "nonsense" and their senseless minds "darkened", and how, "claiming to be wise, they became fools."

They knew what Paul meant when he said that God had delivered them to their own lusts, degrading themselves and even applauding those who practice such things.

Maybe, as some have posited, the strategy of supporting both sides in the Middle East while marginalizing Israel is a clever way of keeping terrorists occupied in killing each other off. Others say there is no strategy at all, and whatever the U.S. is doing there is based on the expediency of the moment.

Indeed there is an instance recorded in I Chronicles 30 where, in the days of King Jehoshaphat, the people of Judah were besieged by a coalition of enemies, but in the end the enemies turned their swords on each other. Some do see a parallel here.

But there is another parallel event that happened not too many years ago. When Neville Chamberlain returned to London waving a piece of paper with Herr Hitler's autograph on it and proclaiming "peace in out time", his vision of peace was not how we might envision peace. Chamberlain had ulterior motives. Knowing that Hitler, like the Tories in Britain, despised Stalin's Bolsheviks, he was attempting to push Hitler closer geographically to Russia in the hope that they would declare war on each other and kill each other off. Imagine his consternation when Hitler signed a non-aggression pact with Stalin that contain secret protocols dividing eastern Europe between them and then, with his eastern flank secure, attacked westward.

Whether U.S. foreign policy is a reflection of incompetence or subterfuge -- or both -- it seems to be an instance of fools professing to be wise, with their foolishness either a product or a cause of reprobate minds.


Saturday, February 21, 2015

Handed Over to the Tormentors?

In Matthew 18 Jesus teaches a lesson about forgiveness with an interesting twist. This is a tale forgiveness that is not paid forward, and ends with the rich man, who represents God, condemning the unforgiving soul to be handed over to tormentors.

This strikes us as a bit harsh for a loving God, but Jesus was actually teaching a fact of psychological health validated by modern psychology. To illustrate this point I want to relate the story of Louie Zamperini, made famous through Lauren Hillenbrand’s biography Unbroken and lately in a movie of the same title directed by Angelina Jolie.

Zamperini was a member of the 1936 U.S. Olympic team and achieved some worldwide notoriety due to his performance. A few years later, after Pearl Harbor, he was a bombardier in the Army Air Force in the Pacific Theater. His plane went down while on a search mission, and he spent the next 47 days in a raft in shark-infested waters, drifting westward with the current toward Japanese occupied territory.

On the 47th day he was picked up at sea by a Japanese ship and was transferred to a POW camp where he faced beatings and indignations the likes of which are too grotesque to explain here. 

Of particular interest to us is a camp commander whom the POWs nicknamed “The Bird”.  At the end of the war The Bird’s name was on the 40 most-wanted list for war crimes in the Pacific Theater. His mission was to break as many of the POWs as he could, stealing from them as much of their dignity and humanity as possible. His word was law without appeal, and he had the power of life and death over every inmate. He was especially bent upon destroying the former Olympic runner Louie Zamperini.

In Zamperini’s dreams he fantasized lashing out at the Bird, including beating him and strangling him to death.  These feeling of outrage and hate stayed in Zamperini’s head for years after his liberation and return to Southern California. The Bird was a constant fixture in his dreams and nightmares.  Long after the war the lingering effects of psychological abuse allowed the Bird to torment Louie’s psyche across the years and the 5,500 miles that separated them.

One night Louie was wrestling with this phantom Bird in his head. In his nightmare Louie overcomes the Bird and he is strangling the Bird to death, and as he squeezes his hands around his enemy’s neck, he awakens from his dream to find that he is strangling his wife.

You see how unforgiveness can torment your soul.

It’s in the midst of this turmoil that Billy Graham has his first major crusade, and it happens to be in Los Angeles, where Louie and his wife live. She convinces him to go.

After just a few nights Louie has a religious experience, goes home, dumps all his booze down the drain and destroys all his cigarettes. But there is something else he knows he must do.

He goes to Japan.

The former prison guards at this time are for the most part still in custody, and Louie especially wants to see the Bird.

It is here where we see the promise of the Proverb fulfilled. Proverbs 25:21.  If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him water to drink.

Louie greeted the former guards, his former enemies, now inmates themselves, as friends. He forgave them. But there was one who refused to meet with him. It was The Bird. The Bird would not accept his forgiveness nor even admit that he had done anything wrong.  But Louie, instead of brooding over it, felt sorrow and sadness over a lost soul. He had let his hate and anger go.

Thus the Bird lost his grip on Louie’s psyche and his life. The nightmares went away forever.

When Jesus said that an unforgiving spirit allows you to be handed over to the tormentors, he wasn’t talking about a band of demons with flamethrowers. He was talking about the torment of mind that grips us when we gunnysack our hate and anger and feed on it. If we allow The Birds in our lives to get into our heads and stay there, they will continue to torment us just as Jesus said they would until we let go. When Jesus tells us to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”, it might just happen that it will bring about a change in their lives. But if not, it will surely bring about a change in yours.

One night Louie was wrestling with this phantom Bird in his head. In his nightmare Louie overcomes the Bird and he is strangling the Bird to death, and as he squeezes his hands around his enemy’s neck, he awakens from his dream to find that he is strangling his wife.

You see how unforgiveness can torment your soul.

It’s in the midst of this turmoil that Billy Graham has his first major crusade, and it happens to be in Los Angeles, where Louie and his wife live. She convinces him to go.

After just a few nights Louie has a religious experience, goes home, dumps all his booze down the drain and destroys all his cigarettes. But there is something else he knows he must do.

He goes to Japan.

The former prison guards at this time are for the most part still in custody, and Louie especially wants to see the Bird.

It is here where we see the promise of the Proverb fulfilled. Proverbs 25:21.  If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him water to drink.

Louie greeted the former guards, his former enemies, now inmates themselves, as friends. He forgave them. But there was one who refused to meet with him. It was The Bird. The Bird would not accept his forgiveness nor even admit that he had done anything wrong.  But Louie, instead of brooding over it, felt sorrow and sadness over a lost soul. He had let his hate and anger go.

Thus the Bird lost his grip on Louie’s psyche and his life. The nightmares went away forever.

When Jesus said that an unforgiving spirit allows you to be handed over to the tormentors, he wasn’t talking about a band of demons with flamethrowers. He was talking about the torment of mind that grips us when we gunnysack our hate and anger and feed on it. If we allow The Birds in our lives to get into our heads and stay there, they will continue to torment us just as Jesus said they would until we let go. When Jesus tells us to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”, it might just happen that it will bring about a change in their lives. But if not, it will surely bring about a change in yours.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Last Man Standing: A Meditation

A long life might be considered a blessing, but then I look at my Dad. He’s almost 92 years old, and in a way he’s the last man standing.  He’s the only one left from his World War II unit. None of his old buddies are still alive.

I thought about this when I contemplated how many of my friends who, just over the last few years, have either passed or have suffered from chronic ailments of one sort or another. Solomon was on to something when he wrote, “Better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man.  The living will take it to heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:2). While we might not like to think about such things, wisdom that comes from the experience of life will shake us from the frivolity of our youth.

As one who has longevity genes in my DNA, I have been forced to think about what it might be like to be the last man standing. Would it be a lonely time or a fulfilling time? Will it be a blessing to others or a burden? During the years that intervene between now and then, what should I do to make those years most profitable? Some ideas:

1. Walk alongside your contemporaries through good times and bad. Comfort them, listen to them, party with them, rejoice with them. Learn to be strong as you walk through the valley of the shadow of death with them.

2.  Develop friendships – real friendships – with those from the generations behind you. Be the type of person they want to be around. Keep your sense of humor, a childlike sense of wonder. If you become the last man standing, they will never let you be lonely.
3. Mentor those who are in the generations behind you. To do this you must first develop friendships. (See number 2). When they realize you are past the point in life where you are trying to claw your way to the top, they will begin to avail themselves of the opportunity to learn from the voice of experience.

4. Give back to the country and the community that made your success possible. When it comes time to retire, don’t. Leave your paid position if you wish, but stay involved in the affairs of life. Place yourself in the public square, whether through volunteer work, or local politics, or even random acts of kindness.

I have saved for last what really should be close to first. You might have dedicated yourself to a life of giving regarding your friends. Before you do so, rededicate yourself to your family.


And then there is what should be first. With this everything you do will have deeper meaning and deeper impact.  While Ronald Reagan convalesced from the gunshot wound suffered just weeks after his inauguration, a clergyman offered that “the hand of God was upon you.” Reagan responded, “I know. I have decided what time I have left is for Him.” Go back and read the list again with Mr. Reagan’s thought in mind. Doesn’t it give them all more meaning. especially if you are the last man standing?

Sunday, January 25, 2015

In All Things Be Thankful

Considering all the negatively in the world, thankfulness can be hard to come by.  I am intrigued by Paul’s admonishment to “give thanks in all circumstances” (I Thessalonians 5:8 NIV).

Did he really mean “in all circumstances”, regardless of the pain, or the suffering, or the injustice brought upon us? Admittedly, this is a hard proposition to defend, but Paul did make similar statements elsewhere, even when he was in prison (Ephesians 5:20, Colossians 3:15-17, Philippians 4:6).

Personally, I can think of many circumstances when thankfulness was the farthest thing from my mind. Yet it is in such times that we need thankfulness the most.

In his novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Alexander Solzhenitsyn describes a typical day in a Soviet Gulag. Understand that Mr. Solzhenitsyn spent many years of his life in such camps. In his novel he follows the character Shukov and the many frustrations this man faced. The book ends with Shukhov hitting his bunk. Here is what he is said to be thinking as he drifts into sleep:

“Shukov went to sleep, and he was very happy. He’d had a lot of luck today. They hadn’t put him in the cooler. The gang hadn’t been chased out of the Socialist Community Development. He’d finagled an extra bowl of mush at noon. The boss had gotten them good rates for their work. He’s felt good making that wall. They hadn’t found that piece of steel in the frisk. Caesar had paid him off in the evening. He’d bought some tobacco. And he’d gotten over that sickness. Nothing had spoiled the day, and it had almost been happy.”


I suggest forming a habit. Start a thankfulness list. Every day, before you start your day, find one thing to be thankful for. Write it in a journal. Every evening, look back on the day and remember something good that happened. Write that in your journal too. You’ll be surprised how your burdens will seem easier and how envy fades away. You might not be able to change the way the world is or how the world is treating you, but this little exercise can change your attitude even when you suffer from circumstances you can't control.