Our small church, Wiser Lake Chapel, once belonged to a summer co-ed softball league, along with 8 other churches and a few local businesses. This was a traditional Thursday evening summer activity for the past generation or longer. Couples met for the first time on the ball fields and eventually married. Babies attended games in back packs and strollers and eventually were catching at home plate. Relatives going to different churches found themselves on opposing teams yelling good natured insults. There were a few bopped heads, abrasions, sprained fingers and one broken leg as part of the deal. Hot dog roasts and ice cream sundaes were the after-game rewards.
Yet nothing was quite as wonderful as how a team recreated itself year after year. It was thrown together by our coach Brenda in a mere two weeks prior to the season starting, with the youngest members needing to be at least age 14 with no upper age limit; we’ve had our share of 70+ year olds on the team over the years. Some ball players were raw beginners having never played catch or swung a bat outside of school PE class, and others have extensive history of varsity fastpitch in school or other community league play so meant business when they strolled out on the diamond. It was the ultimate diverse talent pool.
A different dynamic exists in church league softball compared to Little League, Pony League, minors or majors when you watch or play. Sure, there are slow pitch teams that will stock their ranks with “invitation-only” players, reserving the best and most athletic so there is a real chance at the trophy at the end of the summer. Churches like ours, a mere 150 people average weekly Sunday attendance, had a “come one, come all” attitude, just to make sure we avoided forfeiting by not having enough players week after week. We always did have enough. In fact we had more players than we could find positions for. And we had a whole bleacher full of fans, dedicated to cheering and clapping for anything and everything our players did, whether it was a pop-up foul ball, a strike out swing, a missed catch, or an actual hit. We loved it all and wanted our players to know they were loved too, no matter what they did or what happened.
I think that was why the players and fans came back to play week after week, though we hadn’t won a game in years. We rooted and hollered for each other, got great teaching and encouragement from our fantastic coach, and the players’ skills did improve year to year despite months of inactivity. We had a whole line up of pre-14 year olds eager to grow old enough to play, just so they could be a part of the action.
Why did it not matter that we didn’t win games? We were winning hearts, not runs. We were showing our youngsters that the spirit of play is what it is all about, not about the trophy at the end. We were teaching encouragement in the face of errors, smiles despite failure, joy in the fellowship of people who love each other–spending an evening together week after week.
We are family; family picks you up and dusts you off when you’ve fallen flat on your face during your slide to base while still being called “out.”
Most of all, I see this as a small piece of God’s kingdom in action. Although we no longer gather for church league baseball — the competition got too fierce and the rules too tight — we do gather for a pick-up game now and then, just to remind ourselves of who we are and what we are about:
Our coach models Jesus’ acceptance of all at the table, and embodies the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self control.
Our players are the eager, the ambivalent, the accurate, the flawed, the strong, the weak, the fast, the slow: chosen for the game even if they were completely inadequate to the task at hand, volunteering to be part of each moment as painful as it can sometimes be.
The cheering from the bleachers comes as if from heaven itself:
Do not be afraid. Good will to all. We are well pleased. Amen!
We’re sliding to home plate, running as hard as we can, diving for safety, covered in the dust and mire and blood of living/dying and will never, ever be called “out”.
Let’s play ball.