By Patrick Gahan
“Tune out the crowd noise,” or you will be frozen in place. That’s the advice coaches give to Major League Baseball pitchers. As we round the bend toward October and the stands swell in some places to 50,000 or better, the crowd noise can be deafening, the cutting criticisms can rain down with gale force winds, and the Jumbotron flashes your every mistake in giant color images — again and again. No matter if the pitcher has thrown one stellar game after another, the crowd can de brutal and deafening. If the pitcher can’t “tune it out,” he won’t throw another strike or, worse still, he’ll be frozen on the mound.
Forget the Jumbotron, the stadium, and baseball altogether, Jesus was besieged by crowd noise. Having just completed a massive healing revival in one of the coastal towns (Mark 6:53-56), he is now surrounded by critics determined to chip away at his game.
“Why do your followers not undergo careful ceremonial hand washing before they eat? Don’t you know that you are giving our religion a black eye with your disregard for protocol?” Exasperated, Jesus retorts, “You carefully execute human-manufactured rules, while disregarding the deeper commands of God. Get this through your head, it’s not the surface stuff that defines a person. No, it’s what comes out of him or her. Pay a lot more attention to the human heart and a lot less to dirty fingers, and you may just learn something.” (Mark 7:5-23)
The crowd noise can be deafening, and the crowd is always concerned with shallow externals. This hit me particularly hard at Friday Bible Study, our first without our beloved host, Tom Frost, while pondering Hebrews 7:16, where it states, “Christ is our true priest because of his indestructible life.” To this Tom Hardin chimed in, “Christ transforms the inner person.” I did not get it at first, but later that day, I understood my friend: Christ, whose resurrection proves he is indestructible, is intent on transforming our inner person, that indestructible part of ourselves. The banter of the crowd may chip away at us, but they cannot get to the core of us. Once we humble ourselves before Christ’s cross, drop our masks of false posturing, and give in to his love, he will not only save us, but inhabit us. We will be a force for God’s goodness, because it really is what comes out of a man or woman that matters.
With that in mind, I want to look more at this sage baseball advice to ascertain how we may grow stronger in our inner person and become more like Christ, who inhabits us. Bob Tewksbury, ace pitcher for the Yankees, Cardinals, and, yes, the Texas Rangers, has said it is a mistake to imagine great pitchers or any athletes, for that matter, are carried along by their raw talent. Games are won due to a player’s inside game, he insists. As the great Scottish Olympic sprinter and martyred missionary Eric Liddell declared, “Where does the strength come from to see the race to its end? — from within.”
After tuning out the destructive crowd noise, the baseball greats counsel that a player “make productive outs.” In a world obsessed with success, and immediate success at that, the idea of getting “out” at all sounds repugnant. However, baseball players on average get out seven of every ten times at bat. Think about it: 70 percent of the time they fail. Bobby Kingsbury, former Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder, contends with that many at bats and that many failures, you have lots of room to learn and grow. You do not need to keep on failing the same way. Is that not true of our life in Christ? Sure, we know what’s right and we want to do it, but so often we do not. St. Paul himself stated the obvious in his Letter to the Romans (Romans 7:15-20).
Speaking of fallen saints, Peter should be the poster child. Making brave but largely empty pronouncements, violently taking up the sword, turning his back on new believers unlike himself, and — lest we forget — publicly denouncing and denying Christ three times (Matthew 26:35; John 18:10; Galatians 2:11-13; Mark 14:66-72). Peter must have cringed each time he recalled those failures, and yet when the resurrected Christ visits Peter beside the Sea of Galilee, he only wants to know if Peter will surrender to his love (John 21:15-25). Once he does, Peter’s failures are transformed into the inner strength to take on the Roman Empire with the same love that conquered him.
Thirdly, savvy baseball coaches instruct their players to “take a two-strike approach to life.” Geoff Miller, batting coach for the Philadelphia Phillies, tutors his players: If you’re down two strikes, you will rarely get the pitch you want, so make the best of what you get. Try to at least get a piece of the ball and get on base or hit a deep fly to advance the runners.
Again, this makes perfect sense in Gospel terms. Recall that Paul, the great nomadic missionary, who traveled in excess of 10,000 miles in the First Century, was imprisoned for the last four years of his life — two in Caesarea and two more in Rome. What did this hobbled, wandering apostle do with the two strikes he was pitched? He witnessed to paupers and princes and everyone in between. The Acts of the Apostles abruptly ends with these words: “Paul welcomed all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ quite openly and unhindered” (Acts 28:30-31). Oh yes, and one more thing, he wrote four little books — Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon — works that have changed the course of human history. Two strikes, indeed!
Finally, the baseball greats urge players “to remember to love the game.” Coach Geoff Miller weighs in again to state that Major League Baseball players can live into a terrible paradox: They can take a game they love and turn it into a job. We Christians are experts at doing just that. We forget the joy of our salvation and communion with Jesus and become stale practitioners. When we fall for that, we become just like those Pharisees who bedeviled Jesus with all their noise about clean hands. Tom Hardin is right: we are those who have undergone a heart transplant. Our critical, dry, brittle, unbending, unexpansive heart has been taken out and we have been given one with which to love sacrificially, like our Savior loves.
Looked at that way, we are all like Zacchaeus. He was little in stature, but worse than that he was just a little, shriveled man, wealthy, but drying up inside with his rabid self-preservation. He heard Jesus was passing through his town of Jericho, and in order to see Jesus, but mostly to escape the crowd that detested him, he climbed a tree that sat along Jesus’ path. He just wanted to catch sight of the Savior. He never in his wildest dreams thought Jesus would pay any mind to him. But passing beneath him, Jesus stopped and summoned the little man: “Zacchaeus, come down out of that tree. I am going to eat supper with you tonight.” You can bet this shut up the crown — talk about a little man with dirty hands! And even before they arrived at Zacchaeus’s home, he avowed, “I’m giving away half of dollar I own, and if I have let anyone down, I will pay them four times over for the injury they suffered” (Luke 19:1-10). The little man was little no more once the love of Christ took up residence in him.
The same is true for you and me. Perhaps we feel little ourselves, shrunken caricatures of the persons we once thought we’d be. Then again, maybe we’ve listened too long to the siren voices of the naysayers telling us we’re of no account. Have we failed and now can’t get up? Or is the problem that we forgot that Christ’s sacrificial love once transformed us and made us the person we always dreamed we’d be? I’d say it’s time get off that limb we’ve climbed out on and “play ball.”
The Rev. Patrick Gahan is rector of Christ Episcopal Church in San Antonio.