More Lessons from the Ball Game

Apparently, I have lost my sense of humor. Apparently, it is okay… and not just okay but perfectly acceptable… to repeatedly tell a player how badly he “sucks.” My ninth grade science teacher would have been appalled at the flagrant use of the word “suck.” Mr. Bedillion, rest his soul, always took issue with his students saying so-and-so sucked. “Sucked what?” he would ask with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. But I digress.

The day started out lovely. The temperature was nearly perfect and the cottony clouds in the sky above made delicate patterns through the brilliant blue sky. I actually listened with interest to the starting line-up and felt a bit a part of the camaraderie in the stadium. Then, the fans around me started booing a player on the opposite team. Like whole stadium booing. I asked hubby what was the offense. Manny Machado apparently took issue a few games back with a play made by the Oakland A’s Josh Donaldson. Machado was thrown out of the game and even had to sit out a number of following games for his poor behavioral performance.

And the fans at the Oakland stadium decided not to let him live it down. Repeatedly, and by repeatedly I mean every five minutes, they started a chant that was some variant of “Machado, you suck.” Yes, they took down his grandmother verbally and booed everything he did.

It was disgusting. Especially because it grew louder and louder each time. And the kids around us were asking, “Why, why are they being so mean?” Leave it to the kids to get it.

Because booing another person is just mean. I don’t care what they’ve done.

We live in a society ever-ready to point out the bully. And often, rightly so. But in a sports stadium, bullying is acceptable. There’s power in the mob and the mob bully is the most powerful bully there is. That still doesn’t exonerate the bully’s behavior.

The mob. It sickened me to watch the first hecklers, for sure, but then to see other people, turning, laughing and joining in, even egging on the original instigators. For me, it was like being in a jeering fun house where all the mirrors reflect back the same evil joker’s face. Ugly en masse.

My kids could see I was getting really upset with the heckling. And trying to set a positive example, each time the chant got going, I countered with a more positive, “Let’s go A’s.” Because that is why we came to the stadium, today, right? To cheer on our team, to encourage them toward victory, to enjoy ourselves? Or did we come to tear down another person? That is not good sportsmanship.

As if us fans have never made a mistake, have never done something we regretted later. As if any one of us was on the field the day of the offense. What right do we have, ever, to ridicule another because they made a mistake?

There was a woman once, in a very dry, dusty place. She was caught in the act of adultery. She lived in a place and a time where and when the law said that she should be stoned to death for this. The mob followed the leaders and led her to the local temple where a wise teacher sat. “Our law says to stone her,” the mob cried. “What do you say?”

The teacher knelt down and began drawing in the dust with his finger. Stalling, perhaps, taking the air out of the mob, probably, weighing his words, reading the heart of the woman, quietly communing with God, definitely.

Finally, he raised his head and gave the ok with one stipulation. Only a man who had never sinned could throw the first stone.

Anxious looks are followed by heads bowing, chins resting on chests, sighs, eyes lost in memories of the past. “There was that time when…” and “I know I shouldn’t have done that…” and “I hope no one ever finds out about that…” and the incriminating past was howling in everyone’s ears. And they dropped their stones and shuffled away while the teacher continued his drawing in the dirt.

When he finally looked up, only the adulterous woman remained. “Where have they gone?” he asked her. “Where are your accusers? Didn’t anyone throw a stone?”

Alone, and yet now surrounded by the realization that she is not alone in her sin, she shook her head. They took their pointing fingers and went home. They took their boos and their heckles, and shamed by them, they went home.

The teacher, standing and dusting off his knees, touched the woman’s shoulder, looked her in the eye, and he who could have thrown the first stone, he who really was sinless, said, “Then I don’t condemn you either” (John 8).

At the beginning of the game, we went through the tradition of singing the National Anthem. I love the words of the song, the imagery it paints, and I remarked today as I often do that the crowd goes wild when the phrase “land of the free” is sung. Why does the crowd rally to that? We love our freedom! We’re a nation of people who believe in freedom… and our rights and our entitlements. But today it struck me that no one really cheered for the following phrase “And the home of the brave.” As I surveyed the faces around me, I was struck by how quickly everyone went back to gorging on hot dogs and popcorn and peanuts and nachos filling an entire helmet. And I wondered if we are really a brave people any more.

When the heckling started, bravery seemed lost. True bravery is forgiving. True bravery is welcoming a brother, loving another, embracing instead of condemning. I can safely and bravely say that from this side of the computer screen. I realize that is a tempered bravery, a less-than-bold bravery. Ugh.

I started crying on the way home from the game. “Why, Mama? Why are you crying? Are you so mad?” the kids asked. “No.” I answered. “I’m heartbroken.” Heartbroken that I still live in a world that is broken, where the mob rules, where people can’t be decent to each other, where booing and heckling a brother is “just part of the game.” I’m heartbroken that this is the world for my kids. And if nothing else, I’m going to be brave enough to teach my kids that this is not how Christ would have it.

You know, for years, I wondered why people made posters with John 3:16 printed on them and took them to ball games. For the first time, I realize that a sports stadium is actually the best possible place for such a message. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son so that he who believes may have eternal life.” And with that kind of assurance, one can be brave enough to look in the mirror and drop the stone in hand.

Beautiful Things

“I don’t see anyone in here wearing a mini electric chair or needle full of a lethal injection hanging from their neck. That would be the moral equivalent for those of you wearing crosses today,” he said.

Yes, the point was valid. As an instrument of torture, the cross was horrendous, humiliating, inhumane.

Rome had perfected public punishment in this particular instrument.

I fingered the cross hanging from my neck, it’s edges so familiar to my fingers as I traced the heart laid over the top. My cross, marked with Isaiah 40: 31, marking my life as Christ’s, the sign of the mark made on my life when Jesus chose me and I chose back, marking a public declaration of where my true love lies. My cross so beautiful, so much a part of me, so much more than jewelry. I’m not the tattooing type. So I wear the jewelry.

And the message on the back: “But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength. They will soar high on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.” Perfect promise perfectly captured.

No, for me the cross is beautiful and as he talked more about the ugliness of the cross, my heart cried no. Jesus died and made the cross beautiful, elegant, a visible emblem of hard work with enormous pay out, of elemental love and sacrifice, of eternal salvation. I can look on the cross now and see nothing but beauty; I can look beyond the instrument of torture to see the instrument of grace. It isn’t even a stretch.

In fact, the beauty of the gift of salvation so far outweighs the ugly, that I often forget the hideous, humiliating, inhumanity of the thing around my neck.

Not long ago, I paused over my cluttered desk and I looked up into the corner at my wall of love. Drawings my kids have offered as tokens of love array the space. It’s good to look these over sometimes. When offered, I adored them, oohhed and ahhhed over them, complimented the work that went into them and the talent showing through each picture. I hung them on the wall to show my appreciation, but I closed a door inwardly, not accepting the words offered as possibly true for me. As if my kids were actually addressing the mother of their dreams, not the flesh and blood person in front of them. Then, I went to the sink and brushed my teeth, hardly glancing in the mirror, and wondered why I have a difficult time accepting these words from my children.IMG_5673 IMG_5672 IMG_5674 IMG_5671

And as I fingered my cross this morning, these musings came back.

The work on the cross was bloody, ugly, horrendous agony. But the result was beautiful. Salvation, death conquered, law reduced, God lifting the veil that separated Him from us and inviting us directly to come to Him.

Repeatedly scripture tells us that through Christ’s death on the cross we are made new. The prophet Isaiah (43:19) announces God’s will,

 

“For I am about to do something new. See, I have already begun! Do you not see it? I will make a pathway through the wilderness. I will create rivers in the dry wasteland.”

 

2 Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.”

 

Romans 6: 3-7 says, “Or have you forgotten that when we were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism, we joined him in his death? 4 For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives.
5 Since we have been united with him in his death, we will also be raised to life as he was. 6 We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin. 7 For when we died with Christ we were set free from the power of sin.”

 

And in Revelation 21, God proclaims, “Look, I am making everything new!”

 

Me and you, made new.

When we come to Christ, it is as if we are taking off the old, ugly, worn-out clothes of our life and putting on a coat of beauty and grace and forgiveness and freedom. Like when I shed the clothes I’ve been painting in, shower and dress for an evening out… that kind of new. Sort of. That changes the external. But Christ’s changes are from the inside out… eventually. Living free… free from the fear of death, free from the ancient’s law of ceremonial clean and unclean, free from eternal judgment.

Gungor sings it this way:

All this pain
I wonder if I’ll ever find my way
I wonder if my life could really change at all
All this earth
Could all that is lost ever be found
Could a garden come up from this ground at all

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

All around
Hope is springing up from this old ground
Out of chaos life is being found in You

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust
You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us

And as we sang these words this morning, I thought of the cross, of Christ’s death making it beautiful. Of how His act took the awful and made it artistic, of how His love took the twisted and the maimed and straightened it and healed it, of how gnarled and blood-soaked became lily-fresh.

But me. God tapped me on the shoulder and said, “You too.” Like the cross, Christ takes my life and the ugly and the horrid and the horrendous and the inhumane, all the broken, gnarled, twisted, blood-soaked splinters of my cross-life and turns them toward redemption. He tapped me on the shoulder this morning and said, “I’m doing this to you, too. Taking your dust and growing a garden.”

And I realized that I have to accept that I can be beautiful. That I am already beautiful through Christ. That the words my children picture for me are true. This. Is. Truth. Truth I need to pickle in, not just accept but relish and believe. If Christ can change the most horrific method of torture into a thing of beauty… now worn by millions of people, then what can He do with me?

My dear Prosy, my Ugandan “daughter,” how He has taken the broken bits of that life of horror and redeemed them, saved her, made beauty where there was dust and ash. All the lives now at Village of Hope Uganda… for them all He has made beautiful things.

In the heights of hubris, I’ve closed the doors to this, just as I’ve closed the door to the words of my children, preferring, clinging to, embracing the lies I’ve heard from other parts of the world. As if those lies of “you’re nothing” and “you’re so broken you can’t be fixed” are the final assessment and the final horror of life. If I accept the lies as the final answer, then I am also turning my back on hope, on the greatest gift ever offered.

It’s time to fling wide those doors. Just as Christ flung wide His arms on the cross and took the pain for my gain, it is time to fling wide my arms and embrace His words for me. It’s time for beautiful things.

Hunger Games

Tis the season of the curveball. Okay, not so much for my little guy who is just getting the hang of the whole hitting off of pitches rather than a tee. But baseball is in full swing!

And so are the springtime distractions. There are gardens to till, flowers to plant, vegetables to start, leaves to rake, fertilizer to be spread, and plants to be loved. The activities at school are racheting up as are the after-school activities. Getting ready for concerts, performances, games, the culmination of weeks of practice. Fundraising events, spring parties… it’s like the world is awakening from its winter hibernation and the perennial quest for … what?… has begun.

Heading into this weekend, I was feeling pretty good about life. Like maybe just maybe I’d have some quiet time to pull aspects of life together, get things done, relax and enjoy my family.

Yeah. Not so much.

Clara brought home The Hunger Games (book one) with the intent of reading it over the weekend. I’m enough in the loop to know that this series has caused controversy and many debates over its appropriateness for certain age levels. So red lights started going off all over my body when she presented her plan for the weekend. Nope. Not until I read it first. Which I did. Cover to cover in 24 hours time… in between a ceramics painting party, a work event for hubby, and the required meals of my family. I felt like I’d been hit by a train by the time I was through.

And the verdict was that this weekend was not the right time for my 10 year old to read this book.

The grand debate here is how much do we shield our children from and to how much do we expose them? When is the right time for them to start to learn about lust (because Katniss is developing lustful feelings for Peeta), the political power games people play, the insidiousness of the entertainment industry, the vacuousness of certain people, and the pure evil that the human heart can harbor.

I thought I was being generous by letting her read the Harry Potter series!

But seriously, there is a vivid difference between the Hunger Games and Harry Potter. (Caveat… I haven’t read books 2 and 3 so I’m operating solely on my knowledge of book 1). In Harry Potter, Harry is battling in an epic way the physical manifestation of evil in the person of Voldemort. Harry is a loveable, laughable endearing teenage boy, full of foibles and questions about his past and his future. But even when he goes half-heartedly, he goes out to fight evil marked with the lightning bolt of love and armed with loving friends. Katniss has glimpses of humanity, but for the most part, her actions and emotions are primeval, instinct-driven, and she is motivated not to right the world but to survive by playing the game better than anyone else. She is a product of her society and that is the only reason I can find to feel any sympathy for her. When she flaunts the Gamemasters, she does so not out of any great understanding of the system, but out of a survival instinct and intense hatred for the way the system has robbed her.

Philippians 4:8 kept coming to mind as I read: And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.

And my years of teaching English and the debate over what is the purpose of literature reared up. Is literature to hold a mirror up to our faces and show us what we are? Or is it to lift man out of the muck and give him hope for humanity? William Faulkner in his 1949 Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech says it this way, “Ladies and gentlemen,
I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work – a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before. So this award is only mine in trust. It will not be difficult to find a dedication for the money part of it commensurate with the purpose and significance of its origin. But I would like to do the same with the acclaim too, by using this moment as a pinnacle from which I might be listened to by the young men and women already dedicated to the same anguish and travail, among whom is already that one who will some day stand here where I am standing.

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.
I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”

I tend to agree. We need all the props and pillars we can gather to shore us up here in this shaky ground we call life.

Does Hunger Games do this? Not in book one. I walked away disgusted. I wanted open, knowledged rebellion. I got backtracking and backstabbing. Like the Ancient Booer in The Princess Bride, I felt like saying to Katniss, “Your true love lives…. True Love saved her in the Fire Swamp, and she treated it like garbage. And that’s what she is, the Queen of Refuse. So bow down to her if you want, bow to her. Bow to the Queen of Slime, the Queen of Filth, the Queen of Putrescence. Boo. Boo. Rubbish. Filth. Slime. Muck. Boo. Boo. Boo.”

I wanted redemption, a character I could cheer for, the savage from Brave New World, ideas that were lofty and worthy and selfless. What I saw was a character motivated by survival and her burgeoning sensuality. Period.

But I’m having trouble leaving it at that. It’s difficult to walk away and completely dismiss this book, this character.

Because there are so many people in the world like Katniss who have no moral compass, who operate out of the need to survive and the need to meet the ever-increasing demands of their sensuality. Which is probably where Suzanne Collins is going with this.

And there’s this desire to wrap them in loving arms and say to them, “There is healing for this.” It isn’t a skin buff, shower, and manicure. It’s a soul garden replant, weeding and tilling and watering and feeding that looks and feels like redemption.

Sometimes I think I’m getting to be an old fuddy-duddy. But I’m seeing things in new lights these days. I remember a day when I moved in the world much like Katniss, not with 23 other children hunting me down per say, but moving through the world meeting the body’s needs and not much else. I believed in God and claimed to believe in the redeeming power of the cross and of Jesus on that cross. I developed strong head knowledge of parts of the Bible because that is what a good church-goer does. I even supported the missional work of the church, not necessarily because I thought it was a good idea for people in third worlds to know about Christ as much as I thought they needed a good meal or maybe a shot at some medicine or education typically not available to them.

But joy? Me sharing the gospel? Jesus dying on the cross for me personally? Yeah, none of that was mine to claim. Just get through another day.

Heck, I still have days like that. Where busyness crowds out the stillness and communion I need to connect with my God.

But somewhere along the way, God’s knocking finally resonated. And He said to me, “You are my princess. I love you the way you are. I would have died just for you, just like I promised Abraham I wouldn’t destroy Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of 10 righteous.” He released me from the labels of the world, gave me new purpose and direction, and gratitude is becoming a way of life. I’m beginning to understand what it means to crave reading Scripture. This is the healing I needed and the healing that God offers all the children/people of the world. It is a feeding of the hungry soul.

You know, Jesus talked a lot about being the bread of life, the living water that quenches the soul thirst. I used to think that was a clever little metaphor he had going on. We all need bread and water, so of course we all need him.

But it’s more than that. It speaks to our need to find meaning and peace and resolution. The world is constantly offering us ways to fill those needs. If you eat at this restaurant, buy these clothes, use this fabric softener, own this car, view these shows, listen to this music, wear these jewels, shop at this store, if… then… amazing happiness will follow you all the days of your life.

And we “buy” into it only to find that we’re craving more and more of the world’s “food” because what we just bought… the clothes, the food, the car, the house, the floor cleaner… lacks the protein, the sticking power to stay our hunger pangs for very long. Like gluttons, we gorge on more and more of the sugary stuff of life, the fake, processed, unnatural. When what we really need is the word of God. This fills the belly with meaning and purpose, a life driven by gratitude, reacting out of joy, overflowing with generosity. And it lasts.

Wanna talk about Hunger Games? We’re all playing the hunger games… searching for ways to game our hunger. When the food we really need has already been gifted in the silver parachute of Christ on a cross. Eat and be filled.