Monday, April 22, 2013

The limits of sports, revisited

Some time back I dashed off a little piece about how sports, for as much as I enjoy them (and yes, baseball in particular), aren't really that great a vehicle for some of the things we ask them to do in modern society.  Recent events have provided motivation to revisit the idea.
At the time of that post, the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State was unfolding in all its grisly horror.  Since then, Penn State has actually played a football season without Joe Paterno coaching, and it wasn't quite as awful as predicted.  I make no claim to know what that means.  In the meantime, the infighting and recriminations about the scandal, the NCAA's handling of that scandal, and university's comportment through it all continues, though much farther from the glare of public attention.
The Miami Marlins, formerly the Florida Marlins, committed the faux pas of engaging in a "fire sale" of all their viable major league talent (except for one guy) within too short a time of fleecing the citizens of Miami-Dade for gobs of money to build a new stadium.  There will be legal recriminations yet, I suspect, but MLB will do nothing, because the Marlins owner is one of their chosen own, and MLB is pretty poor at policing their own.
College athletics gives us its usual assortment of mixed signals.  College football is basically an industry at this point, with the "college" part less and less relevant as (in my humble opinion; this is pure speculation, I admit freely) the top programs get better and better at covering their tracks in terms of keeping their best athletes eligible by hook or by crook.  College basketball offered up the gruesome spectacle of a horrific injury suffered by a Louisville Cardinals player during the tournament, and subsequent questions about who exactly was responsible for the medical treatment that followed (Kevin Ware, I can relate to that part).  And good God, no, I'm not linking to any video of that.  I have not seen it and I don't expect you to do so for my sake.
Of course, it was a week ago that the questions of the limits of sports began to forward themselves again.  The Boston Marathon, as much civic festival as prestigious race, was disrupted by a criminal and terrorist act, with three deaths and numerous injuries.  The immediate aftermath became the vehicle by which we saw an awful lot of human good; first responders and volunteers rushing toward the explosions, marathoners finishing the race only to keep running to a hospital to give blood (as if they weren't already physically depleted themselves).  The race itself was called off, and to my knowledge I never saw any mention of who finished first.
One was hard-pressed not to recall the aftermath of recent tragedies (only a couple of weeks before baseball had opened its seasons with commemorations of the murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School) and the ways in which sports teams tried to fit into the community's response to them.  The Boston Red Sox, as is traditional on Patriots' Day/marathon day, had already played that morning and were headed on a road trip when the explosions happened.  Their return home Friday night was postponed (the first time the words "local manhunt" had ever appeared in a sports score summary, I'm guessing).  The next day, honorably but predictably, turned into an honoring of first responders and others involved in the response to the bombings and the manhunt that finally got its man boy in the overnight hours recently past.  A young outfielder hit a dramatic home run and the home team won, and everybody went home happy for a Sox win and for being able to move about most of Boston freely.
Then the next day the Sox got swept in a doubleheader by the Kansas City Royals.  Did that hurt the healing process?  I mean, the freaking Royals, people.
I do not want to belittle such things in the wake of tragic/horrific events; I do wish to ask us as a society not to overstate them.  "Respite" is a perfectly appropriate word and an honorable thing to offer; "healing" is not appropriate and not within the capacity of a sporting event to do.  Red Sox outfielder Jonny Gomes's use of a bat honoring those killed in the bombing or manhunt was a spectacularly decent thing to do; it did not, however, bring healing or "closure" or any circumvention of the grieving process that the families of those victims will still face.  A moment's respite?  Sure, and this is a good and decent thing to do.  It is not, however, a solution or an end to anything, and to act as though it is only does harm to the victims such a deed is meant to honor.
Sports is hardly alone; no one event, no one venue or pursuit or proclamation will ever be sufficient for "healing" or "closure."  No one will be "healed" or "achieve" closure by the fact that Tamerlan Tsarnev was killed in the manhunt, or by his kid brother's trial or sentencing.  That's not how the human psyche works, and those who claim to get "closure" from that kind of thing are probably left at several arm's distances and not touched with Dr. Seuss's thirty-nine-and-a-half-foot pole.  Grieving takes time.  Those who will not give it that time are frankly damaging themselves and those around them.  To expect that anybody will get closure in the face of terror and loss is damnable.  Don't do it.  Just don't.
End of rant.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


I have been grateful for the opportunity to be back in Kansas for a few days.  Sure, its governor and legislature may be competing with Virginia's to see which can embarrass me most, but it still feels like home in Lawrence even though we only lived there four years.

But I was also happy, as it turned out, that the presbytery meeting at which I was considered as a candidate for ordination (for which I was approved, thankyouverymuch) was in Manhattan.  For one, it gave me the chance to do a little humor by wearing a purplish dress shirt and claiming it was in the name of "peacemaking," and for the other, it brought me a little closer to some of my favorite land on the face of this country.

Once while driving from Kansas City to Salina for a concert (yes, that sounds backwards, but it was an American music concert), I was struck by a particular moment when light and landscape combined to overwhelm me.  I was, unbeknownst to me, passing through the Flint Hills, essentially the last bit of hilly terrain before the flatness of western Kansas takes over.  The time of year and time of day conspired to dazzle me with shimmering golden color washing, oh so briefly, over the landscape.  I actually had to pull off I-70 to take it in.

Today the sky offered no sunlight, and I was in a slightly different place; this particular patch of land is part of the Konza Prairie, a fringe of the Flint Hills set aside as a research preserve.  The research encompasses factors from the biodiversity of the region to the long-term effects of such phenomena as fire, drought, or animal grazing.

Sadly, there were no bison in evidence today.

For this native easterner, this particular region keeps touching something in me that just doesn't respond to the kind of nature one gets back east, with the possible exception of the Okeefenokee Swamp or something similar; something that has resisted the encroachments of humanity to a degree that the land around it has not.  It also works differently than larger, more obvious features like the Mississippi or Missouri Rivers or the Grand Canyon.  The Konza Prairie and the Flint Hills are subtle; they don't trumpet their majestic grandeur like some natural entitlement.  You have to let it soak in.

No one would suggest these are majestic mountains, but these hills and ravines were enough to thwart the plows that broke the plains.  They also harbor over six hundred different varieties of plant life and an array of animal types including the aforementioned bison.

I think what keeps striking me about this patch of scraggly prairie is its rawness.  The east is all polish and spoilage.  Even the historic sites that dot more or less the entire state of Virginia represent something that got tamed, domesticated, spoiled.  On the other hand, the sheer grandiosity of Grand Canyons or Rocky Mountains is nature gotten cocky, the ecological version of the braggart who won't shut up about how cool or how awesome he is.  Not so the prairie; it is a test of your ability to be still and listen, to shut your mouth and open your eyes and let nature be subtle and surprising; a test of your ability or willingness to see beauty in something raw and scraggly and unprepossessing, and yet possessed of a wealth of hidden treasure.

It would be supremely arrogant of me to pretend this bit of rambling and these bad iPhone pictures will convince anyone of anything.  I can only offer it as just one corner of the appeal this region has and will continue to have for me.  There are a lot of factors that have conspired to draw me to this northern corner of a state I only lived in for four years and which yet feels strongly home-like.  There are many people and other places that play a large and central part in that.  (But to be honest, trying to explain the appeal of funky, fun, stick-out-like-a-blue-thumb Lawrence would take a whole series of entries here.)  This particular patch of land a good solid hour and a half west of Lawrence fits into the picture somehow, and I'm glad today's business took me back to it, if only for a few minutes from a viewing stand on a windy, chilly Kansas afternoon.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

A quickie: "Customer in training"???

OK, I'm back in Lawrence and needed to pick up a couple of things at the local supermarket.  I go back to the one we used most commonly when we lived here.  The remodeling that was just starting when we lived here is now complete, obviously, and the store is quite striking.

But I saw these as I was leaving after checking out:

My first thought was "ha, cute."

My second was that this is possibly the most disturbing thing I've seen in ages.  Disturbing because it just might be entirely too true.

Is it just me?  Am I being too over-the-top here?  Or does anybody else find it a troubling thing?

I'm not saying the store meant to be disturbing, but still.  Is that all our children are?

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Homily for a "practice baptism"

In one of my classes this term our job has been, partly, to get experience in the various practical aspects of the sacrament of baptism, from the prayers around the event to the actual moment of baptism itself.  The culmination of this practice comes now, as the semester ends, with each of us charged to carry out a full-fledged baptismal service, from prayer for illumination and sermon to the baptismal act itself.
Normally the subject of these baptismal practice runs is Eva, who's a real doll.  I mean that literally; "Eva" is a doll.  Fortunately, however, a friend of ours (associate pastor at the church we've been attending) was incredibly kind/gracious/brave/crazy to allow me to "baptize" her four-month-year-old son.  The nature of the exercise required a very short sermon (hence the term "homily"), five to seven minutes only.
Here's what I came up with, on Romans 6:1-11.  Having real people to include seemed to me to be very helpful, though you might disagree.  Make of it what you will.


John Howell McGuire wouldn’t stand a chance.
I know, I know.  That’s a horrible thing to say.  After all, look at him.  He’s soooo cute.  Especially when he gets that happy little gurgling smile going that he does…how could you think anything like that, pastor? 
Well, it’s true.  He is cute. 
But still, he wouldn’t stand a chance.  Not any more than any of us ever would have stood a chance.
Somehow or another, whether we know it or not, we would all fall into it.  We wouldn’t be able to escape it.  No matter if, like Paul later in Romans, we found ourselves doing wrong at the very time we most want to do right, or if we slipped into it unawares, we’d all fall into that condition called sin.  We’d be caught in its snare, entangled in its web, and we wouldn’t stand a chance.  John Howell, as cute as he is, is no different from any of us in this regard.  One of these days, he too would be caught up in that snare and be imprisoned in that condition of sin.  He wouldn’t stand a chance.
A beautiful word, in this case, “except.”  Except for the love of God, for the unrelenting persistence of Jesus, except for that beautiful and mystifying and totally undeserved and unexpected thing called grace.  Grace, that beautiful and lovely thing that took that terrible turn through a cross into a grave, where it was sealed up and shut away and supposed to be dead forever, only to burst out of that tomb and obliterate any bond that death and sin ever could claim on us. 
Because of that grace we don’t live in sin.  It’s true, we do fall, at times.  John Howell will fall, too, at times, just like we all do.  But just as for us, that fall will not be John Howell’s doom.  It won’t condemn him forever to bondage to sin and death, just as it does not do so for us. 
Because of that grace we live in Christ.  Living in Christ means that we live through that awful cross-death and tomb and burst out of that tomb and live into new life, resurrection-tested and resurrection-approved life.  It may not stand that sin is completely dead to us, but living in Christ means being dead to sin, no longer bossed about by its power over us, no longer enslaved to the passions and miseries of that old self that Paul reminds us was crucified with Christ in that awful cross-death.  That self is destroyed; we live new selves now. 
It gets a little twisty as Paul explains it in our text.  Talk of being united with Christ in a death like Christ’s and united with Christ in a resurrection like Christ’s, dying and rising and being dead to sin and living to God, in Christ; it can begin to feel like a theological tongue-twister.
Fortunately, the tongue-twister comes to us in a package we can perhaps begin to understand a little better, with a little more clarity.  That thorny business about dying and rising is imparted to us, displayed to us in the act of grace called baptism.  When an adult stands before us at this font, or a parent like Elizabeth brings a child like John Howell before this congregation, we are taught again, reminded again of the unbelievable act of grace that Christ enacted for us, dying for us so that we could die with him, rising for us so that we could rise with him into that new resurrected life, bondage to sin no longer included.  We are graced by being reminded of God’s grace to all of us in the act of baptizing John Howell here.
It’s not a magic act.  The water came from the tap.  There isn’t a magic spell that turns it into anything else but ordinary water.  And yet in that ordinary water, and words that are very human words even as they speak of thoroughly superhuman grace, God shows to us yet again how God has loved us beyond our capacity to measure or comprehend. 
This act of baptizing also seals John Howell into this little corner of the body of Christ.  It seals us, this congregation, to the task of nurturing and supporting this little man as he grows up into someone who will understand these things, even the ones that are thorny at times, because he sees them demonstrated not just in the waters of baptism but also in the bread and cup of the Eucharist, in the Sunday school lessons we teach him, in Sunday night pizza and choir and youth group, in the grace and goodwill and forbearance we show to each other, in the ways we minister to those inside and outside the walls of this chapel. 
One of these days, God willing, John Howell will come before us as a young man taking these things onto himself, being confirmed in his faith.  For now we seal to ourselves the task of nurturing him in this grace, of upholding Elizabeth in her task of raising him in this grace, this beautiful and strange and mysterious and undeserved and maybe even a little frightening thing, this thing that means that he, like all of us, stands a chance.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The obstacle course

I'm not the kind of hyper-popular blogger who is missed by thousands when I go missing for more than a week.  I know that and I'm o.k. with that.  Still, for the faithful few who do keep up with this blog, I do try not to let too much time lag between entries.

So it's been a couple of weeks since last I blogged.  I got to enjoy our vacation with my wife's folks, including a couple of spring training games.  I even got to operate the radar gun used to measure pitch speeds by one scout.  Need proof?  Look here.

I only hope I didn't ruin some pitcher's prospects by screwing up the gun's reading.  Baseball careers are fragile things, especially for pitchers.

I had and have to remind myself that I needed that break.  It's hard especially to remember that right now, as the end-of-semester crunch becomes more and more present, with papers to write, projects to prepare, trips for non-vacation purposes (including my first trip back to Kansas since moving) including the ordination process and its next step for me, and of course the continuing fact of being treated for that pesky cancer.  Whichever poet penned that line about April being the cruelest month is starting to sound prophetic.

Chemo is still a draining thing, but a day or two of fatigue and some tingling fingers are hardly the kind of side effects I feel highly compelled to complain about, compared to what others have gone through.  It isn't how I planned to spend my middle year, mind you, but I do know I'm fortunate compared to many who have been far more wracked by their treatment than I.

I'm reminded again that I've been fortunate to be surrounded by an array of incredibly supportive and caring people.  Many of them are also pretty stunning ministers-to-be, like this one.  If your idea of the future of the church hinges on preserving existing institutions or maintaining social or cultural status, you're probably down and out about it; when I look at the people who are going to be part of helping shape and guide that future, I feel a lot better.

What role I play in that is still a part of the process unfolding.  I can't know which direction things will go; I still feel a strong pull towards the doing of worship and liturgy, but there are other things that start to make sense to me as well.  Too soon to talk about them here, but it might be a topic for future blogs.  We'll see.

In the meantime, the cruelest month awaits, the gauntlet is thrown down, the obstacle course demands that I run it.  And if it turns out to be a couple of weeks before the next entry I beg your indulgence.