Field of Dreams

Well, apparently there is crying in baseball, contrary to Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own. Like every other Phillies fan around the globe this past Sunday night, I watched Game 5 of the National League Championship Series between the Philadelphia Phillies and the San Diego Padres. As you may have heard by now, the Phillies won that game 4–3, and in the process, they also won the pennant. I may have gotten a little choked up during the post-game celebration. Raise your hand if you did, too. Be honest.

Now, I realize baseball is not everybody’s cup of tea, so this post is a personal reflection that goes beyond the world of sports. It’s more about those occasional flashes of joy that make our journeys sparkle once in a while, and for which we can be both happy and grateful. It’s about “high hopes” and learning how to wait patiently until those hopes are realized. (Thank you, Harry Kalas). Until a few weeks ago, it had been over a decade since the Phillies were involved in any postseason play. Now we’re in it to win it.

Sunday night: The Phillies had just surrendered a one-run lead in the seventh inning to put themselves on the brink of having to go back to California for the rest of the series. Nobody wanted to play Game 6 on Monday night at Petco Park. Not only would that squander our home field advantage, but it would also drag us right into the crosshairs of the Padres’ best pitchers. So, “the Phitins” wanted to clinch a World Series berth right here. Right now. This inning. Easier said than done.

Standout catcher J. T. Realmuto started the bottom of the eighth with a single to left field against right-hander Robert Suarez. That turned out to be huge, given what was about to unfold. The tying run was now on base, and the go-ahead run was coming to the plate. But who would be the next man stepping into the batter’s box? None other than our star cleanup hitter and likely Hall-of-Famer, Bryce Harper. 

Everyone was thinking the same thing. A two-run bomb would put us back in the lead and on the verge of clinching. Harper certainly has the guns to do it (even to the opposite field), not to mention the drive, the talent, and the history to do so—but how much magic can we expect from one player? He had already done so much for the team in the postseason, along with Kyle Schwarber, Rhys Hoskins, Zach Wheeler, and several others. But #3 lives for moments like these, and this was his moment.

Harper showed good discipline at the plate, laying off Suarez’s bread-and-butter pitch out of the zone. He then threw a 2-2 sinker toward the outer half of the plate. The location was good from a pitcher’s perspective, but somehow—with his trademark “violent swing”—Harper muscled the ball over the outfield wall and into the left-center-field seats for a two-run shot to take the lead. If you didn’t get to see it, take a look:

Fans at Citizens Bank Park went ballistic. Viewers at home went ballistic. I went ballistic. It was storybook stuff to be sure, and no one could have written a better script. It’s what every little boy dreams about from the time he can swing a whiffle ball bat. This dramatic video clip will be shown for decades to come. 

It was another milestone in the history of the club—a team I’ve been cheering for since I was a little boy. That’s why I got choked up Sunday night. Not just because we held on in the top of the ninth to win the game, but because it brought back some truly precious memories. The last time we won the World Series was in 2008 against the Tampa Bay Rays. Before that it was in 1980 against the Kansas City Royals. Before that, it was—well, there was no before that. 

The Phillies have won the World Series only two times since becoming an MLB team in 1883. Back then they were known as the Quakers. They became the Phillies later in 1890. For most of those 139 years, it’s been phrustrating to be a phan. I’ve often said that the Phillies are always good enough to give you hope but bad enough to break your heart. That’s been the story for most of my life, with a few notable exceptions. 

Why then do I keep cheering for them? Three words—family, friends, and memories. My dad took me to Veterans Stadium for the first time when I was about six or seven years old. It’s a memory that finds deep lodging in my heart, even to this day. 

I remember holding my father’s hand walking out from under the shadowy concourse into the bright, shining seating area. The sun sprayed the radiant green AstroTurf with a brilliance that illuminated a perfectly manicured ball field, dazzling this little rookie into silence. I was in awe at the sight of it. And the sounds of it. And the smells of it. It somehow felt like I belonged there. At that moment I fell in love with baseball in general and the Phillies in particular. I’ve been a “Phanatic” ever since.

I also remember my dad getting me a dish of vanilla ice cream poured into in a little red plastic Phillies helmet—my very first baseball souvenir (and one that may still be boxed away somewhere in my attic). We also got hot dogs, French fries, and Cracker Jacks that day, purchased from the vendors walking up and down the aisles hawking their treats. Dad was happy, and I was over the moon. I didn’t understand the game very well back then, but the Phillies won, and that resulted in a lot of loud cheering—something I had never experienced before at that level of intensity.

My family, friends, and I went to many more games over the years, and we got many more souvenirs. Of course, we watched more games on TV than we attended in person, but we always wanted to know how our Phillies were doing. We could catch the nightly news, or read the box scores and standings in the paper the next day if we missed a game on TV. (I had to share the tube with my dad since he was a Yankees fan. Obviously, I’m adopted.) My heroes back then were Mike Schmidt, Larry Bowa, Dave Cash, Pete Rose, Steve Carlton, Bob Boone (who autographed a baseball of mine), Greg Luzinski, Gary Maddox, and Bake McBride. 

I got to watch the second World Series victory in 2008 on the big screen with my church family. Several parishioners still remember the final out of that game—a strikeout by closer Brad Lidge—and they wrote us messages this week recalling that wonderful time of fellowship and celebration. Some of the kids were even at church in their pajamas that night.

Oddly enough, the Christian message is another good reason to stay with the Phillies through all their peaks and valleys. As Jesus sticks with those of us who keep striking out spiritually until we become more healthy, stable, and productive, so I can stick with the Phillies through tick and thin, regardless of their winning percentage. The theological word for that is “grace.” We all desperately need it, so we should all be willing to give it.

Having become a baseball junkie early on, I tried out for our middle school team and made the roster. By the start of my second year, I had worked myself into a starting position in the infield, and I loved every minute of it. Game days were always the best days, even when we lost. There’s nothing like going home tired, sweaty, and dirty after a game, knowing you did everything you could to help your team win. If you fielded well and got a hit or two, so much the better.

As life would have it, I was better at swimming than baseball, so that’s where I put my athletic energies in the years to come. I made it to the NCAA Division 1 Nationals, twice, and it wound up paying a big chunk of my college tuition, so that was the right call. But deep down, baseball was always my favorite sport. There’s just something about the game that captivated me as a little boy, and it’s never let go. Over time I learned that every pitch has a strategy, and every strategy has a counterstrategy. So, the issue is always one of anticipation and execution. Good teams do both well.

Back to this past Sunday. Right after preaching the morning service at our church, I came home and lost my voice. Laryngitis set in a few hours before the game, so, I couldn’t even yell for my team during that amazing come-from-behind, pennant-clinching victory. But I sure did grunt and snortle like a muffled rhinoceros a few times. 

Then there were the silent but exuberant gesticulations of this little boy in a man suit whenever the Phillies put runs on the board. Sonya now knows how Michal felt when David danced before the Lord (cf. 2 Samuel 6:14–20), though I didn’t actually do anything that could remotely be called dancing. I just lumbered around the living room like a drunk baboon looking for a lamppost to lean on. (I’ll blame it on the meds I was taking.) In the end, though, myriad expressions of delight found ways to ooze out of my body from other portals besides my pie hole.

What will happen in the 2022 World Series? I have no idea, and I make no predictions. Houston has a great team, and I have a personal no-trash-talk policy. Athletes at this level are so good, any team can beat any other team on any given day. It’s just a matter of who’s clicking and who’s finding their groove in the moment. I never expected the Phillies to get this far, and I suspect very few other people did, too. So, even if they come up short at the end of this round, I’ll still be proud of them.

In the end, the best of our sports heroes are just human. They have good days and bad days. They have moments of great accomplishment and moments of great disappointment. They have seasons of good health and seasons of nagging injuries. They have big dreams and big hopes, just like the rest of us. Let’s let them be human and have some fun together, regardless of the outcome.

One dream I’ve had for a long time is to see the Phillies play in a World Series game—in Philadelphia, the city of my birth. I am blessed beyond measure to share with you that this longstanding dream will finally come true.

As of now, it looks like I’ll be going to Game 3 (Monday, October 31) or Game 4 (Tuesday, November 1). Look for me on TV. I’ll be wearing red and white. And if I get my voice back, I’ll be cheering as loud as everybody else, too.

I plan to buy myself a little red plastic Phillies cap filled with vanilla ice cream (yes, they still sell them!), and I’ll think of my dad while I’m eating it. I’ll no doubt revel in the magical atmosphere again, just like I did my first trip to the ballpark. Just like I did on Opening Day this year, which was another first for me. Yes, I was there when Kyle Schwarber started the season off with a first-at-bat home run, something now known as a “Schwarbomb.”

And, like everybody else, I’ll be waving my red “rally towel” for the Phillies, grateful beyond measure that my father introduced me to this wonderful sport all those years ago. While I’m there, I’ll be keeping the seat warm for little Samuel. Maybe someday day he’ll want some ice cream in a red helmet, too.

God’s Love in Slow Motion: A Few Odds & Ends before Holy Week Begins

Holy Week can be one of the most significant times in a believer’s worship year. During these days, we clear our calendar to focus exclusively on the events of Jesus’s suffering, death, and resurrection, which are at the heart of our faith. Our attention during this special week is directed toward the person and work of Christ as:

  • the triumphant yet humble King (Palm Sunday);
  • the servant of God and mediator of the new covenant (Maundy Thursday);
  • the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (Good Friday); and
  • Christus Victor—the risen Savior of the human race (Easter Sunday).

Holy Week itself grew out of the simple observation that 28 of the 89 chapters in the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John)—32 percent—are devoted to the period of time between the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem and his ascension into heaven. Yet this period is less than 1 percent of Jesus’ entire three and a half years of public ministry. 

In terms of literary style, then, such space allocation suggests that while the birth, life, teachings, and miracles of Jesus were important to the authors, it was the passion of Christ and his resurrection from the dead that were centrally important to their purpose in writing. It’s almost as if each of the four Gospels is a Passion Narrative with an extended introduction!

By way of analogy, modern writers and filmmakers often arrange for the action of their stories to slow down when they reach their most critical moments, using techniques such as freeze frame, slow motion, and extended coverage. The technique of slow motion is used, for example, in the important race scenes in the movie Chariots of Fire, where the director captures and accentuates each runner’s agonized expression before the finish line. The impact is significant. 

The amount of application of such techniques in storytelling is proportional to the importance of any given scene to the larger work. It’s no exaggeration, then, to say that the Passion Narratives present to us the incomparable love of God in slow motion. Believers seek to revel in that love during Holy Week, changing up our routines and realigning our schedules to Gospel-centered considerations.

As such, I won’t be posting chuckles and other items along those lines during the coming week. Anything appearing here will be topics and themes associated with Holy Week. Therefore, below are a few odds and ends before I sign off for a bit.

First, Samuel’s nephrology appointment is this coming Tuesday. Hopefully, we’ll get to see if his kidneys are improving and learn if any advanced treatments will be necessary. Thanks for praying!

Samuel at 4.5 months.
A piano player in the making?

Second, we found out earlier today the gender of Samuel’s new cousin. There’s a little girl on the way! My nephew’s wife is scheduled to have her baby in August, and we’re all over the moon.

SamJam and Aunt Rachel, who will give him a cousin in August.
Bethany and Samuel; Rachel and ?; and Amy and Jamie.

Third, I had a blast at the Phillies’ game yesterday. I went with a theology prof who loves the game of baseball as much as I do (even as we lament the politicizing of professional sports in this country). Neither of us had ever been to Opening Day before, so that was a real treat for both of us, especially since the weather was perfect and the Phillies won. Below are some snaps of the opening ceremonies.

Opening Day 2022 at Citizens Bank Park.
My baseball and theology buddy, Ken.
Batting practice comes to an end.
A paratrooper descends into the ballpark.
Thankfully, a safe landing.
Even the Phillie Phanatic parachuted into the park!
The staff and players are introduced for the new MLB season.
The massive flag for the national anthem.

Finally, the Dutch Apple’s production of Singing in the Rain was very well done and well worth seeing. We went today with a family friend who likewise loves the arts. 

The Dutch Apple dinner theater in Lancaster.

Blessings to all—whether you observe Holy Week or not!

A Million Dreams Are Keeping Me Awake

Just a little bit of this and that as I take a brief break from the books.

1. Fall is magical. As Khalil Gibran has said, “Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky.” In a similar vein, Ralph Waldo Emerson has said, “The earth laughs in flowers.” (See what I did there? Vein…) 🙂  Anyway, the crisp colors and beauty of this season always refresh my soul.

2. Speaking of laughter, six-year-olds laugh an average of 300 times a day. Adults only laugh 15-100 times a day. Be six again. (O.k., feel free to accuse me of being silly—but only after you read Proverbs 17:22. Life is too short to be curmudgeonly all the time.)

3. Martin Niemöller’s robe and preaching collar are now the property of the seminary where I work. I hope to do a short post on that in the near future. Niemöller is not really a household name, but he should be. (“They came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew….”) See, I can be un-silly, too.

4. “I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.” So said C. S. Lewis. Amen to that! Which books do you find yourself re-reading? Oh, you don’t read? As the adage goes (often misattributed to Mark Twain), “A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t.”

5. The Phillies are just two games back. Why do they always get close enough to give us hope but linger far enough behind to break our hearts? Fortunately, it doesn’t sting as much as it used to. While I thoroughly enjoy the game of baseball, I’m no longer a fan of professional sports.

6. On a happier note, SamJam (Samuel James) is just two months away from coming into view. I suppose I’ll be more of a puddle than usual this Christmas, getting to hold a newborn and all. This little guy is just the third blood relative I will have gotten to meet on the planet. What an honor!

7. Speaking of Christmas, I probably won’t be able to write too many original posts this year on the Incarnation—one of the richest, deepest, most profound subjects we could ever ponder. So, I’m thinking of doing some re-posts of the more popular ones I’ve done over the past few years. Since that almost feels like cheating, I’m hoping to write at least one original post this year. 

8. My Advent series this year will focus on the history and theology of the carol “O Holy Night.” I did my own translation of it several years ago and discovered that the English version is way off the original French. Nevertheless, the lyrics are still poignant, and the tune is hauntingly beautiful. My favorite line is, “Till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.” This concept is the next unit for two of the seven classes I’m teaching this semester. The Scripture pulsates with the sentiment, though we often try to obscure it. As Karen Salmansohn put it, “When you realize how much you’re worth, you’ll stop giving people discounts.”

9. Finally, here are two songs for your weekend pleasure. The first is Disturb’s cover of “The Sound of Silence,” a song about incommunicability. It’s really a lament about individuals who are physically close to each other but still separated by their inability to communicate. They speak without expressing any substantive content, and they hear without really listening. The realm of silence, into which the noisy nothings of this world often crash, is painful to the author.

The second song is much brighter. It’s the One Voice Children’s Choir performing “A Million Dreams” from The Greatest Showman. I love this group of young people, and I find the musical itself quite entertaining. In fact, my son and I have talked about doing a Friday night sing-along of the whole show. (All recording devices will be confiscated before we push play on the DVD!)

Thanks for reading. And have a lovely weekend!

P.S., Hurricane “Sam” is headed to the East Coast. Yeah, we knew that. (See #6 above.) 🙂