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The Spirituality of Baseball

I post this essay each year around Opening Day, one of the sacred days in baseball, I hope you enjoy it again if this is an annual reading for you!

I love baseball. I know, I know… players are paid way too much money, some of them cheat big time, the owners can be ruthless and the whole idea of sports could be seen as an opiate for the masses. Although all of this makes me sad, it doesn’t deter me from pulling out my 1987 and 1991 Twins’ World Series celebration videos each March in anticipation of Opening Day. But how can baseball be spiritual?

For Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), the co-star in Bull Durham, her religious journey has culminated in declaring her commitment to the church of baseball.
“I believe in the Church of Baseball. I’ve tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. I’ve worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I heard that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn’t work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see, there’s no guilt in baseball, and it’s never boring… It’s a long season and you gotta trust. I’ve tried ’em all, I really have, and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball.”

While I don’t commit to baseball as a religion, I do see baseball as a spiritual experience. Of course, to be honest, I may feel that more strongly when my team wins, but not always. If they play well and there are a few great moments in the game but they still lose, I go home satisfied.

So what do I consider spiritual about baseball? First, the goal of the whole game is different from most other sports where there is a net, a hole or a hoop to put the ball in or through. In baseball the object is to hit the ball, but the goal is for the batter to come home, to get back to home plate. Somehow helping your teammates get back home holds more meaning for me, maybe because of my own longing to find my true home in my work, my faith and my relationships.

In baseball one of the major ways to help get your teammates back home, around the diamond to home plate, is to sacrifice for them. A sacrifice play means that you don’t get credit for it but it advances the runner. Walks, bunts and sacrifice flies (which are good hits but caught for an out, while advancing the runner) are all examples. So a key to this game is sacrifice. In my life, the most beloved people who I hold closest to my heart have sacrificed something for me or I for them. There is something about releasing your own need in order to help another, without martyrdom, that is deeply moving and life-giving for me.

Then there are the transcendent moments in baseball; the long ball that is headed over the fence for a home run until a player in the outfield leaps at the precise moment to connect with the ball and hold it majestically in his glove; the poetic double play in which the short stop tosses to the second baseman who then twists like a ballerina in mid-air throwing perfectly to first base; or the play at home plate when the runner slides ten feet–and a bit out of the baseline–while managing to brush the bag with his hand to avoid the catcher’s tag. All of these plays leave me smiling or gasping with appreciation and bring me back for more.

Baseball, for the most part, is a gentleman’s (or gentlewoman’s) game, a reflective sport. It is not primarily a beer bash or a status symbol. It’s not fast enough for the fast crowd. It is a slow game usually lasting about three hours, although there is no clock, so it goes on until it’s over. Few major sports are like that. The clock is the competition. So baseball invites you to relax, reflect, chat with friends, and just wile away the evening.

Besides the game itself, baseball, for me, represents some of what is best about America, in ways that other parts of our culture do not. For instance, the tickets are still within the means of most people so the average person can attend a game. Last year you could get four tickets, four hot dogs, and four cokes for twenty-five bucks. I love seeing fathers with their sons or daughters, who are wearing their baseball gloves, eagerly awaiting a foul ball. As they say; Priceless. And baseball teams are now the most integrated in sports, made up of players who are Latino, Black, White, and Asian. Jackie Robinson, the first black player, hired by Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945, made this all possible. Reading his story is a lesson in courage and heroism.

Baseball is a business like most sports, but when you’ve lived in a small market city, as I have, baseball is more like a family. We grow our players in a terrific minor league system and they become part of our extended clan. We don’t have as many big stars, although we do have some, but our team plays well together because they are all needed. Last year several of our players had home run records between twenty-five and thirty. Our clubhouse is known for its camaraderie partly because most everyone feels needed but also because our management encourages a team effort.

I could write about all the rituals of baseball or the spiritual experience of keeping score at games in which Cal Ripkin hit his 3000th hit, or Johan Santana got a record number of strike-outs. When history is being made keeping score is a ritual all of its own. But I want to end this essay with a story that goes beyond anything I have ever seen in sport and a story that could only happen in baseball.

It happened in 2008 in a game between two women’s college teams, Western Oregon College and Central Washington University. Washington was up by two in the bottom of the ninth inning. Oregon had two on and two outs. The batter hit a home run to win the game but caught her foot on the first base bag and fell, unable to walk. According to the rules, neither her coach nor her teammates could help her run the bases so Oregon would have to forfeit the game. Until…two players from Western Washington went over to the player, lifted her to her feet and carried her around the bases, allowing her to touch each one and win the game. They had done for her what baseball is all about, carried her back home. It meant they lost the game. Now that’s a story of sacrifice if I’ve ever heard one. In my mind everyone won.

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2010. All rights reserved.
If you would like to see a seven minute documentary of this baseball game, go to
http://www.responsibilityproject.com/films/player/the-home-run/

Reflections on this essay
Which sports do you find interesting and why?

What parts of that sport do you find inspiring or spiritual?

What does that tap into in your life?

When have you experienced a transcendent moment in sports?

When have you experienced a gamesmanship moment that stuck with you?

Threatened with Resurrection

(Although I wrote this several years ago, it remains my favorite Easter message so I publish it each year. I hope it resonates with you as well. Happy Easter.)

 

I awoke early Easter Sunday morning expecting to feel joy and relief after a difficult Lent in which I was called to finally heal my divorce issues and be internally free. That healing has been a graced conclusion to a multi-year process of letting go of fear, resentment and vindication. In this healing I began to see my ex-husband as a gift in my life. I was letting go of my old hurts and entering into a whole new phase of my life; a life of love.

 

So I awoke expecting joy and instead I awoke with the title of an achingly inspiring poem in my heart. It is Julia Esquivel’s magnificent poem, “They Threatened Us With Resurrection.” Julia is an exiled poet, writing about people in Guatemala who disappeared in the political unrest there but who inspired others to move beyond the losses. I have had that poem and the idea of being threatened with resurrection at the back of my mind ever since I read about it in one of Parker Palmer’s books. But to awaken with this idea of being threatened with resurrection on Easter Sunday was more than coincidence. Something was going on in my inner world that needed tending.

 

In my prayer time I realized that I had a vague sense of uneasiness in letting go of my pain, which I had been doing gradually for several years. God had been so faithful to me in staying with me during this healing process and I was so grateful. As a result I developed a deeper level of intimacy with God, learned to trust God with my life, and was now living into a season of grace. This journey was my source of transformation; in it God brought me to my knees and then taught me how to stand up again with a heart of forgiveness.

 

I began to wonder if I was really afraid to move into this resurrection time because I might lose my intimacy with God if I was not in pain. I knew it was not healthy to wallow in pain or stay in an unhealed place, but how would I navigate this resurrection dilemma? Would I need to come up with more pain in order to be close to God or could I trust God for intimacy beyond pain? It did feel a bit threatening.

 

My spiritual director helped me by listening and then asking me if there were times I felt close to God when I was not in pain. I went inside and got quiet. Of course, there were times of intimacy with God when I wasn’t hurting. But I had lost track of them in this threatened place. I began remembering times I feel close to God when I was not in pain; my tears of deep emotion when I hear about people who sacrifice for others, when I am overcome by beauty, when I am honored to be with people in their times of transformation, when I am writing, when I pray, when I listen to a Tchaikovsky symphony. I felt a sense of relief spreading over me, relief that I do feel intimacy with God in times of calm or joy. That thought led me to a truth that God has been giving me recently in my prayer time but which I had also forgotten in my threatened state.

 

The truth from God is that joy emerges from pain that is well attended. When we do our inner work, joy is one of the outcomes. When we face into our fears God faces into them with us. When we forgive others for things that never should have happened we are free from the burdens of resentment and anger. When we disentangle from being enslaved by our chronic pain we heal. We let go of the heavy burdens so joy has room to grow.

 

Another deep truth emerged as I was pondering how joy emerges from pain. This one came from the Fra. Giovanni. “Our joys too; be not content with them as joys. They too, conceal diviner gifts.” This intriguing quote led me to ponder how a consideration of joy might usher in a whole life of resurrection.

 

I wanted a life of resurrection joy, not the happiness that comes and goes at a moment’s notice. I can feel happy when my athletic team wins or I can feel hopeless when I hear of another tragedy, but how can I feel joy in the midst of everything. I wanted to feel joy somewhere deeper and not have it disappear just because I was having a bad day. Joy, I think lives in a deeper place within us and has a permanent address. It is a life stance, a signature on the soul, a way of seeing God in all things. It emerges from transformation, from pain well attended. It leads to interior freedom and it comes from a life not threatened by its own resurrection.

 

For me the diviner gift of joy is what emerges in our lives when we drink sacred water from deeper wells and pass that water along to others. As we courageously live out our calling from God joy emerges and spreads. People feel calmer while in our presence even if they are in pain. They long for that calm themselves and it gives them hope. Sometimes we find ourselves gently laughing even in painful times and it casts a softer light on the circumstances, like a balm for the wound. Joy is apparent in people’s eyes and on their faces, even in their physical stance. It can’t be hidden or bluffed. Living it out with gratitude is a diviner gift.

 

During the time I was writing this essay I was teaching a class in which I had the opportunity to read a poem that helped to tell a painful but healed part of my divorce story, the very story that started me on this essay. In the hearing of my poem and story, one woman in class not only identified with me but felt a call to go deeper into her own healing as a result. Even though I knew it would be painful for her, I felt a deep joy knowing that she would be finding a different part of herself as a result. I could also feel the joy growing in her. She even glowed as she told her story to our small group. And she contacted a friend who she thought might also benefit from her experience. The diviner gifts of joy…When I see this amazing healing grace, how can I be threatened by resurrection?

 

Joy emerges from pain well attended…

 

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2010. All rights reserved.

The quote of Fra. Giovinni is from Prayers for Healing, edited by Maggie Oman, selection for April 20th.

 

Reflections on this essay

How have you been threatened with resurrection in your life?

 

What could you do to grow into that resurrection stance in life?

 

What stimulates joy for you?

How do you distinguish between happiness and joy?

 

How have you experienced joy as a diviner gift, seeing it pay forward?

 

 

Up From Our Graves

I am a bit anxious writing this essay because I have to admit that the main Christian belief about Christ’s death and resurrection does not resonate in my soul. Each Lent I face the same dilemma; that the sacrificial substitution of Jesus because of my sins, and the idea that Jesus is the lamb that was slaughtered in my place, brings up old feelings of guilt and shame, not of inspiration and love. The message I got as a child was that I was so bad, and filled with sin (even before I was born), that it was my fault that Jesus had to die. I’ve heard hundreds of people’s faith stories as a spiritual director and a healer, and I have come to believe that more people have left the church and faith as a result of externally inflicted guilt and shame than have entered it.

I’m not saying that this view of Jesus’ death is wrong or untrue, just that it has never drawn me closer to God, motivated me to live a different life, or helped me deal with my sins. This theology, which is predominant in the church, coupled with the fact that Maundy Thursday or Good Friday often fall on my Birthday, make it hard for me to celebrate, and help me understand why Lent is a trying season for me.

So with this dilemma, which I think I share with a lot of people, how can I experience the cross and the resurrection differently in order to respond more deeply? In my prayer time recently I felt God gently opening a new way for me, perhaps too simple for some people, but more relevant for my life.

The Cross: Letting Go to God

As I experience God’s deep love for me and I reframe my childhood image of God, I can see how close Jesus was to God, how much time he spent in prayer and how God worked through him; teaching, healing, feeding and transforming. Jesus gave his whole will over to God and trusted God for the bigger story of his life, the ultimate truth: God is pure love.

I hear Jesus encouraging me to let myself be so loved that I am able to let go to God too. Jesus invites me to offer myself to God and to let God hold me and soothe me, even in pain, as the angels did for Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane the night he was arrested. When I feel God’s love and involvement in my life, I feel I am called to a similar kind of self-offering, an emptying of myself to be what God chooses for me, to lay my burdens down before God and let God change me.

The next thing I hear Jesus asking of me is simply to be with him, to comfort him, to embrace his loss and my own, to face his pain and my own, to let myself be held and heard. Jesus asks me to trust that whatever is happening—no matter how it feels to me–God is still available to me and goes through it with me. Jesus last words from the cross were “Into your hands, I commend my spirit.”

Most challenging of all, Jesus invites me to die to the world and to be alive to God as he was—not to hide from God any more. This can mean so many things to each of us, but essentially it means releasing to God all that is in the way of our increased intimacy. Ultimately I think it means letting go of control.

Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book, God in Pain, says that letting go means chasing God instead of ourselves. She says, “We can do everything in our power to protect our lives the way they are—if we successfully prevent change, prevent conflict, prevent pain—then at the end we will find that we had no life at all. But if we hate our lives in this world, which as far as I am concerned can only mean if we hate the ways we cheapen our lives by chasing after comfort, safety, and superiority in this world—if we hate that enough to stop it and start chasing God instead—then there will be no end to the abundance in our lives.” (Pp.62-63).

Jesus is suggesting that in our self-offering, we give our whole selves, free from our particular encumbrances. That means “leaning in” to God and releasing our personal gods; security, ego, care taking, performing, perfecting, martyrdom, being right. I personally think this is why there is a three-day time-out between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. It takes time to process our journey with God and to be emptied so God can use us. For many of us those three days represent three years or thirteen years or thirty years!

So the main question Jesus asks us from the cross is this: what in you needs to die with me?

How do we know what we are being asked to release? We ask God to put us on this path to self-emptying and see what happens. We surround ourselves with supportive people to help us on this journey. And then we fasten our seat belts.

The Resurrection: Walking Hand and Hand with God

The meaning of the resurrection emerges from our self-emptying. Jesus is asking us to be ready for God to come to our graves and raise us up from them, from whatever we were chasing instead of God or whatever was controlling us. God is eager to bring us to a new way of being, to the fullness of ourselves, to whom we were created to be. God is also eager to give us God’s spirit and to live within us as we move about our daily lives, transformed, cleansed and calm, walking  hand in hand with God.

In order to rise from our inner graves we need to forgive ourselves and let God forgive us. Then we are free. Free to forgive others. Free to reach across boundaries and lines that may have frightened us before. Free to seek out new friends. Free to teach and serve without recognition. Free to care for others without rescuing them. Free to take risks to love more fully. Free to let God’s spirit loose within us. Free to become God’s incense in the world.

In Ezekiel 37, that famous chapter called the dry bones chapter, we find God asking the human if he thinks the dead bones can live. As the human watches the scene, the bones and sinews come back together. Muscles surround the bones. Skin forms. And God breathes life back into the body. When we allow God to raise us up from our graves and put our bones and sinews back together, breathing life into our deadness, we become whole again. We become an invaluable part of God’s economy by helping others to come back to life too. God breathes the spirit into us and places us in our own new land. This is how we know that God has spoken.
When we walk hand in hand with God we bring beauty and joy with us because we are filled to overflowing with God’s spirit. People will feel that spirit when we enter the room. We don’t bring chaos, drama, pity or self-loathing any more. We bring God’s calm and humor. It does not mean we have no problems but that we are now walking hand in hand with God who gives us the capacity to embrace our issues and not run from them.

So the main question Jesus asks us from the open grave is this: What in you needs to be resurrected with me now?

 

When I think of the cross as letting go to God and the resurrection as walking hand in hand with God I feel deeply loved but also challenged to give more of myself to God. I feel God counting on me to be available and faithful. I like that. It makes me feel worthwhile to God. This inspires and motivates me to draw closer to the One who created me for fullness of life in the first place.

Ó Janet O. Hagberg, 2013. All rights reserved.

Reflections on this essay

1.What is your view of Jesus’ death and resurrection? Where did you learn it and how has it changed for you over the years?

2. What in you needs to die with Christ?

3. What are you chasing instead of chasing God?

4.  What in you is crying out for resurrection?

5. How is God asking you to be faithful in the world?

6. What does joy look like in your life?

Thanks to my young friend, Jessica Sanborn, for this thoughtful essay from her own spiritual journey.

 

Repentance

This word conjures images of side-walk preachers and desert prophets. What have you done wrong lately? What do you need to repent from? To turn away from?

 

As a person who likes to follow rules, most often my answer would be: I think I’m good, thank you.

 

The angry cry to repent–to be sorry–to feel guilty . . . that doesn’t change me. I have a tendency to be sorry, to feel guilty. Those are some of my least attractive personality characteristics. Sorry and guilt aren’t transformative emotions for me.

 

Turning away from wrong may be a part of repentance. But it appears that “repent” actually means so much more.

 

It means to return from exile. To return home. To return to God.[i]

 

The call to repent is a call to your soul: “You are not where you are supposed to be. You are far from home. Come home! Come home!”

 

Oh. I do understand that.

 

The call to come home resounds in my heart.

 

The journey of coming home is changing me.

 

* * *

 

It is so easy to get lost.

 

You can be someone who grew up in church, stayed there, followed all of the rules, and still be far from home. You can look like you have things all together and still be lost.

 

For me, lost happened in just one moment–

when faith severed its connection to my heart and took up residence in my mind.

 

Instead of listening to my heart,

I reasoned in my head.

 

I denied the power and truth in my heart’s responses

as mere physiological reactions to emotion.

 

The farther I traveled from heart, the harder it was to hear anything other than the noise in my head.

 

Heady faith can only take you so far.

 

Without the heart to guide it and warm it, faith becomes cold and hard.

 

Lost in my head, God’s love seemed more like a childhood story, something others claimed to know. But I couldn’t feel it. And without love, faith is nothing.

 

With just my head to guide me, I made “good” and “sensible” choices. But I was pouring my energy into work that was draining my soul. I was not doing what I was born to do. I did not know what that was.

 

I was lost from my heart and from God. I was not where I was supposed to be.

 

* * *

Jesus told a few repentance stories, stories of coming home. The most famous coming- home story would be that of the prodigal son. We are familiar with the image of the Father anxiously watching for his son, running to meet him, celebrating his return. It’s beautiful. I still don’t identify very much with the prodigal son– he was much too wild for me. But there are many that need to hear his story. Who need to hear that God is so very excited to see you coming down the road, stumbling toward home. That God runs to meet and embrace you. There is nothing so terrible that you could do that could separate you from this God’s love.

 

Repentance, for me, was more like Jesus’ story of the lost sheep. Out of a flock of 100, one sheep wandered away. It might not even have known that it was lost. Its wandering away wasn’t necessarily a moral shortcoming. It just got lost. It was not where it was supposed to be. The sheep’s owner left the 99 sheep looking for the lost one. Their reunification was joyful and happy. The shepherd scooped up that lost lamb into his arms and brought it home rejoicing. There is no shame in this meeting. Only joy.

 

 

I got lost without knowing it. I think I was also found without realizing what was happening. I didn’t hear a call to repent. I don’t remember hearing a sermon that pointed out my errors. I don’t recall making a conscious effort to change my life, to turn it around. But looking back, I realize that repentance is what happened to me. God came calling, searching for me. This falling into repentance is pure grace.

 

I am thankful that we have a God who longs to have us where we belong. Who searches for us, calls to us, and comes to find us to bring us home. I’m thankful that God is happy to find us. It feels so good to be found.

 

So what do we do when we realize that we are not where we are supposed to be? When we think we may be hearing God’s call to come home? For me, that first required taking a cue from Samuel when he heard God calling. Like me, he didn’t recognize God’s voice right away. But with some help, he learned to stop and answer, “Here I am.”

 

“Here I am.” I want to be found. I need help finding my way home. I’m not sure I even know what home is. “Here I am, God.”

 

 

Next, I needed to let go of the things that didn’t fit right. Repentance usually requires leaving something. You need to leave where you are not supposed to be in order to come home. I’m assuming that place is different for every person.

 

 

I needed to leave church to find my way home. I needed to leave my job in order to find my way home. I needed to leave fear in order to find my way home. I needed to leave my head and open up my heart in order to find my way home.

 

(I don’t want to take too much credit for making brave decisions to let go of things. I knew deep down that I didn’t belong, but I didn’t trust that choice. I waited and waited. The panic attacks let me know that it was the right time to make the change. Pure grace.)

 

***

 

Coming home is not a once for all deal. I don’t know that home is necessarily a destination. I think it is a journey, a way of being. And sometimes we get ourselves a little bit lost on the way. It is easy to do. But there is always joy in the finding.

 

ÓJessica Sanborn, 2014. All rights reserved.

 

Quote “To return home. To return to God” is from Marcus Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks for absorbing God’s love in the image of fire for the last several weeks. Now we turn to Lent and Easter for just three weeks. I start with a guest blogger who has a fresh take on repentance and then I’ll send out a few of my favorite essays on Easter. Enjoy the spring.

And thanks for your willingness to journey with me on this blog. I deeply appreciate you.

Janet

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