During Lent, our three (3) small groups are telling first-person narratives from their own lives deriving from a weekly prompt that is based on the sermon from the preceding Sunday. This week the groups will be telling stories inspired by Simon of Cyrene who “stepped up” in the crowd to carry Jesus’ cross. The prompt for this week is: “Tell of a time in your life when you got involved in something.” The following is my own narrative inspired by that question.
“Has there ever been a church softball league?” It was an innocent enough question, I thought and not worthy of a long, drawn-out explanation. Besides I knew the answer. Of course there had been a church softball league. I was ending my first year in the ministry, fresh out of graduate school. Among the many stories told me as I got settled in that first call was how, “in the old days” there had been a co-ed church softball league. Being an ex-baseball player myself, I was certainly interested in putting a team together from First Christian. So at our monthly Ministerial Alliance meeting, I innocently asked the question. The ecumenical group always met in the back room at the local buffet – a converted roller rink known for its fried chicken, soft-serve ice cream station and dark brown and gold vinyl chairs. “Well… let me tell you about the church softball league,” the bearded Methodist (and longest-tenured) pastor said, leaning back in his chair and twirling a toothpick in his mouth. There had been a league at one point, he reported, but interest waned, primarily due to the commissioner getting burned out. The league quickly folded after that. “But… if someone were possibly interested in heading up the league again,” he looked at me wistfully, “it just might witness a resurrection.” And that is how I came to be the commissioner of the Centralia church softball league – for the next five years!!!
At our team leaders meeting that first year, the rep from First Presbyterian dominated the whole meeting time and nit-picked over every possible rule, only at the end of the meeting to tell us that he wasn’t going to be having a team in the league anyway. The second year, I absolutely knew that another church was getting ringers to play on their team in the tournament. But I couldn’t say much. Because as it just so happened, our team was really good. We had, as legitimate members of our church, a collection of terrific athletes, both men and women. So I, as the league commissioner, was in the awkward position of either a) handing out the champions’ trophy to our church; or b) filing a complaint (as a coach) against another church to myself (as commissioner), with the result that my team would have a better chance of winning.
We always played games on the fields at the western edge of town on Saturday evenings. One year, at the end of July, we were playing Zion Hill Baptist. I got there early and so did their coach – who like me, was also the pastor of the small country church north and east of Centralia. He was a short, roundish guy with silvery hair that was perfectly combed, muscular forearms, a perpetually tanned face and a big, warm smile. He was genuinely warm, affable, kind and I enjoyed his friendship. We met at home plate. The sun was beginning to set. A gentle breeze blew over the infield and long shadows stretched out behind us. The heat and humidity of the day was beginning to ease. Distant birds offered a chorus of back and forth melodies.
The pastor turned to me and said, completely out of the blue, “Michael… I just can’t wait to get to heaven! I mean, I can feel those streets of gold beneath my feet” (at which point he did a little jig right there in the batters box). I was taken off guard to say the least. Not only have I never been the kind of guy – or Christian – to open a conversation that way. But in that moment, as I took in the remains of that day, I thought about my young son, resting at home and not even a year old; and how the next day our family of three would be heading north for our annual vacation and I thought, “Nah… not me. I don’t think I’m quite ready to go yet. I rather look forward to living on earth, at least for awhile longer.”
I learned a lot from those 5 years – like how to put more stock into the opinions of those who are going to participate than in those who won’t; like how playing dual relationships (especially in the church) is always difficult; like how to be careful about the questions you ask in a non-profit organization, because you just might end up the commissioner of the softball league. But also, how you don’t have to share the same theology as someone, to respect them, appreciate them and enjoy their friendship.
Blessings – Michael