"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

Thursday, March 31, 2011

"Why We Hate the Yankees" (Sunday, October 19, 2003)

“Hopes deferred maketh the heart sick,” the psalmist tells us. It breaks our hearts, this game. Especially here, in New England, in Red Sox nation, baseball becomes metaphor for life; more particularly, once again, it becomes testimony to the tragic side of life; a clear reflection of the first Noble Truth of Buddhism: All life is suffering.

How many games must this team finally play before they finally win the Big One? For how many generations must Red Sox fans hold on before they finally abandon all hope? When will whatever gods might be finally—finally—rescue us from the sins of commission (like Bucky Dent in ’78 or Buckner’s dribble in ’96 or Aaron Burr—I mean Aaron Boone—last Thursday night)? Or from the sins of omission (like Pesky’s hesitation at shortstop in ’46 or Grady Little’s failure to be a manager a couple of days ago), that doom us to reliving this Greek tragedy time after time?

Now, I really like baseball. I have been a Red Sox fan all of my life. I don’t remember 1946 (I’m not that old—yet), but I can remember the “Impossible Dream” team of 1967 like it was yesterday. (I’ve been thinking a lot about that team recently; this year’s Red Sox really reminded me of them in some ways.) I remember hurrying home from junior high school—literally running almost the whole distance along the railroad tracks in Woonsocket (and I’ve never been one to run much)—well over a mile—so I could get home in time to watch at least part of Game One of the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.

I remember in 1975, telling my father not to go to bed yet—even though it was late—even though the Cincinnati Reds led the Sox 3 games to 2 in the Series and even though the Reds were leading 6 to 3 in the bottom of the eighth. But he didn’t listen to me; he had to get up early for work the next morning; so he went to bed—and missed Bernie Carbo’s three-run homer that tied it—and even more— he missed Pudge Fiske’s 12th inning homer at 12:34 AM, just barely fair, into the nets atop the Green Monster in left field. Everybody remembers Fiske’s home run; fewer rememeber Carbo’s; but I even remember who the Red Sox winning pitcher was for Game 6 in ’75: Dick Drago. (Now that was a scary bullpen!)

And I remember 1986. Do I remember 1986… I remember the 5 to 2 lead against the Mets, going into the ninth… the announcement that Red Sox Second Baseman Marty Barrett had been named World Series MVP (not yet, I remember saying out loud in our living room in Maine, don’t say it yet)… then: disaster—three Mets runs, with two outs, to tie it, and then the dedication of the Bill Buckner tunnel, just inside the first base line, which gave the Mets the victory.

It all sounds heartachingly familiar, doesn’t it? Which is why—this past Thursday night-- October 16th, 2003, a night that will live in infamy—when the Yankees came to bat trailing 5 to 2, with Pedro Martinez on the mound—and the television announcer was gushing on and on about how “dominating” Pedro had been, and how he was one of the most “dominating” pitchers in the American League, and how this was the pinnacle of a brilliant and “dominating” career—I said, out loud in my living room on Bassick Circle—“Uh oh. Here we go again.”

And sure enough: we were sucked once again into the vortex of that maelstrom from which the Sox seem destined never to escape. We were fated to relive, once again, that bit of Red Sox history that keeps repeating, like an old film that gets caught in the projector and keeps showing the same sad scene over and over again.

Once the Yankees had tied the score, and the game went into extra innings, we knew what the end result would be, didn’t we? It was only a matter of time. In the 11th, the Yankees came to the plate, with Tim Wakefield on the mound. Wakefield had been brilliant in the Series up to this point, but he’s a knuckleballer, and a knuckleball is the rogue element of baseball: even the one who pitches it doesn’t really know, for sure, what it’s going to do. The leadoff batter was Aaron Burr-- I mean Aaron Boone. And talk about coincidence, his brother Bob Boone was one of the commentators in the booth—and he just gets done saying: “Well, I’m just having fun watching the game…” And Wakefield unleashed a knuckler to Boone (a lifetime .220 hitter, or something like that)—one stinking pitch—and bam!—Boone smashed it high into the New York night, high into the upper deck in left field. Game Over. Yankees win the Pennant. More hopes deferred. More defeat plucked from the jaws of victory. More legions of the sick at heart in Boston and surrounding communities.

Now, as I said, I really like baseball. And maybe I’m dwelling a bit too much on the tragedy of October 16th. To listen to so many of the callers on the sports radio talk shows (which I did in the days following Game Seven), you’d think that the family dog had died. “How are you doing?” the show’s host would ask each despondent caller, with unaccustomed sensitivity in his voice. “It’s hard,” one of them responded. “But I’m gonna be ok. How are you doing?” You’d think that we were in the midst of a genuine national tragedy or something.

I really like baseball, but there are fans much more fanatical than I am:
Bob and Ted had been friends since childhood, and they were both lifelong Red Sox fans. They loved going to games together at Fenway. It was, really, their church. But then, sadly, Ted died one night in his sleep, after staying up to watch the Red Sox beat the As in Oakland, on the West Coast.
Bob was pretty sad at first, of course. He missed his friend greatly, all the good times they’d had together. Fenway just wasn’t the same without Ted. What was worse that he’d never gotten to say good-bye, and that weighed heavily upon him.
But then, one night, a wonderful thing happened: Bob was visited in the night by Ted’s spirit. Ted appeared to him, as though he were alive, and told him that all would be well. The two friends talked for hours, and had a wonderful visit. Finally, it was time for Ted to go back. And as he left, Bob said he had just one more question—“Tell me Ted,” he said, “is there baseball in heaven?”
Suddenly, Ted’s face became very serious. “Well,” he said, “there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that yes—of course—there’s baseball in heaven. It’s like World Series time every day—wonderful games, all the time, forever, a season that never ends.”
“That sounds fantastic,” Bob exclaimed. “What could the bad news about baseball in heaven possibly be?”
“You’re pitching tomorrow night,” Ted responded.
Now, that’s tragedy.

Seriously, in the face of the genuine human tragedies this world of ours faces—war and famine; people displaced by the thousands; people losing their homes; people losing those they love—let’s keep some perspective about baseball. It’s only a game. The Red Sox lost, but life will go on. The Yankees may win the World Series (to the joy of New Yorkers who aren’t Mets fans) or the Marlins may win it all (to the joy of their ten fans in Miami). But even more importantly: the sun will rise and set tomorrow; we will be given chances to be kind to one another; we will witness great beauty; we will experience great joy; we will all know great sorrows. Some will be born, and others will die; and the great wheel of life will sweep on.

There is more than a bit of the Stoic in me (more than I might want to admit sometimes), and I can be philosophic about the Red Sox loss the other night (I really can). It was a great season; this was a team with great heart; they made so many amazing comebacks to get as far as they did.

It wasn’t, really, that they lost that makes this an especially bitter pill to swallow. It was how they lost, for one—and more: it was to whom they lost that wounds us most deeply.

Let me tell you a story:
On a tour of Florida, the Pope took a couple of days off to visit the coast for some sightseeing. He was cruising along the beach in the Popemobile when there was a frantic commotion just off shore. A helpless man, wearing a New York Yankees jersey, was struggling frantically to free himself from the jaws of a 25-foot shark.
As the Pope watched, horrified, a speedboat came racing up with three men wearing Boston Red Sox jerseys aboard. One quickly fired a harpoon into the shark's side. The other two reached out and pulled the bleeding, semi-conscious Yankee fan from the water. Then using (autographed Nomar) baseball bats, the three heroes in red beat the shark to death and hauled it into the boat also.
Immediately the Pope shouted and summoned them to the beach. "I give you my blessing for your brave actions," he told them. "I had heard that there was some bitter hatred between Red Sox and Yankee fans, but now I have seen with my own eyes that this is not the truth."
As the Pope drove off, the harpooner, who wasn’t a churchgoer, asked his buddies "Who was that guy?"
"It was the Pope," one replied. "He is in direct contact with God and has access to all of God's wisdom."
"Well," the harpooner said, "he may have access to God's wisdom, but he sure as heck doesn't know anything about shark fishing. How's the bait holding up?”
Why do we hate the Yankees?

Now, of course, let me assure you that I have tried, more often than not, to live out my dear mother’s admonishment to me not to “hate” anyone, and that if you don’t have something good to say about someone, that you shouldn’t say anything. If 99% of the cases I have tried to practice what she preached (and what she practices far better than I). The exceptions have usually revolved around the representatives of a particular political party—and a particular baseball team. I do not claim that this is right. It is just who I am.

We hate the Yankees because they always seem to win. And we don’t. The Yankees have won 26 World Series since 1919; the Red Sox—zero. Zed. Nada. Neechevo. Nihil.

Something in our sense of equity and balance and even justice recoils at that statistic. It just shouldn’t be that way… We should have our chance, too.

Of course, the Red Sox have had their chance. Most notably, this past week. But who is it, usually (not always, but all too often) who slams the door on the Red Sox’ chances? The Yankees of course! Losing is one thing; sad, painful, but transitory. Losing to the Yankees is a Greek tragedy, carving deep wounds into the New England psyche, conjuring up demons of all the wounds we have ever known. Had the Red Sox lost to Oakland in the Division Playoff it would have been no gran causa—no big deal. We wouldn’t be talking about it in church today. It would have been baseball, not calamity. Say the Red Sox had lost in Game Seven of that dream series to the Chicago Cubs that everyone wanted (except the fans in New York and those 10 stalwarts in Miami), that wouldn’t be tragedy. No, it would have been divine justice, squared—and we’d just know that our chance would be next. (For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about: the Red Sox last won a World Series in 1919; Cubs fans have had to wait since 1908 for their team to win, and the Cubs haven’t even played in one since 1945).

But it’s “always” the Yankees (it seems) who keep us from reaching our heart’s desire—who hold us back from our dreams—who make us fail to reach our full potential and assume our rightful place.

The Yankees have come to seen in the eyes of many of us as a cold, hard machine, without the warmth or the heart of “our” Red Sox. I swear, as I was watching this past series, I kept mixing up the Yankees players and coaches with the characters from Star Wars. I’d look at Joe Torre, the Yankee manager, and I’d see Darth Vader (I’m not kidding). Whenever I saw Derrick Jeter, I saw the serpent from the Garden of Eden—and I haven’t had a drink for a long time!

The Yankees were just too good—too perfect (or at least thought they were)-- as good a team as $ 164 million dollars a year could buy. And it would be “our” homespun, down-to-earth Red Sox (with a payroll of “only” $ 93 million a year) who would teach them a thing or two about humility—and justice—and the American way!

To many of us, the Yankees exude “privilege”—not “white” privilege necessarily anymore-- although their record in crossing baseball’s color line was no better than that of the Red Sox, which was pretty dismal: Do you know that the Sox had the chance to acquire Jackie Robinson three years before the Brooklyn Dodgers did —but didn’t, just because he was black? Jackie Robinson playing for the Red Sox in the ’47 Series—who knows what might have happened? It very well would have been bye-bye “curse of the Bambino” if he had. Watching the Yankees-Red Sox game the other night, the cameras kept panning to all the celebrities in the stands—all Yankees fans (this was in New York, after all): former Mayor Giuliani, and Mayor Bloomberg, and Governor Pataki (they’re both Republicans and Yankees fans—you can imagine where they are on my list); then all the movie stars and glitterati. So I thought to myself: We will bring these “beautiful people” down a peg or two tonight.

But then, it didn’t happen.

The Yankees won. The world was still unjust. The gods of baseball mock us once again. And at 12:03, I turned off the tv, brushed my teeth, went upstairs to bed, and was sound asleep by 12:15, muttering to myself that some things will never change.

But then, the other day, yesterday I think it was, after the initial shock had worn off, I had a revelation of sorts.

I was thinking about my father, of whom I often think, especially, during the baseball season, especially during the playoffs and the Series. He was a dedicated Red Sox fans for all of his 76 years, but because he had the misfortune of being born in 1921 and dying in 1997, he never once saw the Sox win a World Series. (I am beginning to worry about the parameters of my own life in this regard.) The Sox sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees the year before my father was born, so through all his life, the so-called “Curse of the Bambino” held sway.

My father was a good man, a hardworking man, who worked in the mills in Woonsocket most of his life, and led a largely unremarkable life. But one of his loves was the Red Sox (even though he went to bed too early in ’75). And he taught me well, and like my love for reading and certain other traits, good and bad, that love of the Red Sox he bequeathed to me.

He was born in Rhode Island, in Woonsocket. But you know, I thought the other day, had he been born in New York, he probably would have been a Yankees fan. So I probably would be now, too. I would have been exulting the other night at yet another magnificent and exciting Yankees victory.

For the bottom line, of course, is that my dear mother is right: We shouldn’t hate anyone. For we could be them, had this strange concoction of fate and history which each of us is been shaken a little differently by that Great Bartender in the sky.

We could be them, and they could be us. And until we learn to share each other’s pain and rejoice in each other’s victory, there will be no hope for us or for our human race.

There is no “curse” on the Red Sox. There are good plays and bad ones; good decisions and bad decisions; and there is just luck, sometime good, sometimes bad.

There are just all those amazing stories of heroic exploits—and stupid decisions—and victories unimaginable—and defeats unbelievable. So another baseball season for the Sox fades into the realm of myth…

And there are these silly diversions—like baseball—which make us human—and keep us human, with all the glory and splendor, and heartache and absurdity which that sacred title implies.

May God grant us the wisdom, in our own lives, to tell a ball from a strike, and to remain true to our path, as we make our own way around the bases of our lives and back home again.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Things That Failure Teaches (Sunday, March 27, 2011)

            Most of you probably don’t remember the children’s story from last Sunday. (Don’t feel bad if you don’t. Sometimes, even I have to look up what I preached on the week before, and certainly two or three weeks before.) But last Sunday’s children’s story stayed with me. So much so, that I decided to change the worship schedule for this week, and preach a whole sermon on the topic. Lucky you!

            The topic was “failure”; more particularly, famous people—tops in their fields, really—who had failed the first, or second, or in Thomas Edison’s case, the first 999 times—when they attempted that Big Accomplishment for which they would later become famous. We heard about Lincoln, and how he failed at almost everything he attempted before he became President. We heard about Freud was booed off the stage the first time he gave a public address about his ideas; about how Albert Einstein was labeled as “sub normal” by his parents and teaches, and even flunked math; about how R.H. Macy failed running a store five times before he opened shop in New York City; about how Michael Jordan got cut from the team in high school.

            All these examples—and many, many more—pages of them—are from a website called “But They Did Not Give Up”, which I found just fascinating. Let me cite a few more examples for you:
            We remember Babe Ruth as a great home run hitter; for many years, his 714 home runs stood unchallenged in the record book. But so did his record 1330 strikeouts—the most by anyone for decade after decade. And who broke Babe Ruth’s record for the most home runs in one season? Mark McGwire. And who broke the Babe’s record for most strikeouts in a season? Mark McGwire.

            In his first professional race, the cyclist Lance Armstrong finished—you guessed it—last. Johnny Unitas’s first pass in the NFL was intercepted. After Fred Astaire’s first screen test, the testing director sent MGM a memo that said, “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.” When the lovely Julie Andrews took her first screen test (again for MGM) the final determination was that she was “not photogenic enough for film.” After his first audition, Sidney Poitier was told by the casting director (I don’t know if it was at MGM): “Why don’t you stop wasting time and go out and become a dishwasher or something?” When Lucille Ball was studying to become an actress, she was told by the head instructor at the John Murray Anderson Drama School, “Try any other profession. You’re no actress.”
            It reminds me of what the administrator of the Cordon Bleu in Paris told Julia Child when she began studying there after World War Two: “Madame Sheeld, you will never be a real French cook.” The first time Julia tried to chop onions, she cut her finger, dropped the knife, let the onion slip out of her hands, off the table, and onto the floor—while all around her the other students (all men, by the way) chop, chop, chopped through their onions with carefree abandon.
            So, what did Madame Child do?

            In a scene beautifully captured by Meryl Streep in the movie Julie and Julia, Julia Child went back to her apartment in Paris (after stopping at the market first, I suppose) and began to chop onions furiously—dozens and dozens of them—for hours, until her eyes filled with tears, and the air reeked of onion juice, and she had become an onion chopper par excellence.
            That’s what all of these men and women did, in fact, each in their own way, each in their own field. Babe Ruth got up to bat again. Johnny Unitas threw another pass. Lance Armstrong got back on his bike. Julie Andrews—and Sidney Poitier—and Lucille Ball—looked for another chance to get in front of the camera. And Fred Astaire kept dancing… and dancing… and dancing. And no one has danced like him since.

            But of course, even after she had graduated from the Cordon Bleu, and had become a “real cook”, and had co-authored a cookbook destined to change the way Americans cooked (and ate), Julia had to wait through rejection slip after rejection slip (from a good half dozen publishers) before her book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, was accepted by Knopf. (Years ago, when I was minister in Hartland, Vermont, one of my parishioners had been an editor for Houghton Mifflin, and had actually been on the review committee there that rejected Julia’s book. He said he lived in fear that his obituary would be headlined “On committee that rejected Julia Child manuscript”.)
            Now, are there common denominators here that all these examples offer? Are there important lessons that these famous failures teach us? I think there are a few.
            The first lesson is the most obvious, I suppose; it’s about perseverance. Try, try again, and all that. It may even seem trite to say it. But we can’t deny its truth, can we? I would bet that relatively few people, embarking upon a significant endeavor in their lives, succeed the first time around. Immediate success is usually considered something of a fluke, and there is often a tragic dimension to the lives of those for whom success has come too easily, or who peak too soon or too young in their lives. There are very few writers like Harper lee, who write the Great American Novel on their first attempt. But then again, Harper Lee never wrote another book after To Kill a Mockingbird. Thankfully (perhaps?) that isn’t the case for most of us. Most of us don’t become “boy wonders” (or “girl wonders”) by the time we’re 21. There’s something deep in our human natures, I think, that leads us on “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Most of us, I think—and most people who do become renowned at what they do—are more like the great musician Pablo Cassals—always striving, always seeking, always honing his craft, always thinking he could get it just a little bit better. When he reached 95, a reporter asked him, “Mr. Casals, you’re 95 years old and the greatest cellist who ever lived. Why do you still practice six hours a day?” Cassals replied, “Because I think I’m finally making progress.”

            Failure keeps us on the road toward becoming who we can truly be. Not a great cellist like Cassals, necessarily. Not even necessarily rich and famous at what we do. But always growing, always evolving, always deepening and expanding who we are. That’s our chief human calling, I think: to evolve, to deepen, to strive.
            Does that mean that if we try something and fail—then try again—that we’re bound to succeed, sooner or later? Not at all. In any human enterprise, there is no pre-ordained guarantee of success. Sometimes, failure gives us nothing more than a good, solid reality check. Sometimes, we set our sights too high. Sometimes, our goals just aren’t reasonable. Sometimes, the picture we have of ourselves and of our personal talents just aren’t in line with reality. Failure can teach us that. When things come crashing down all around us, we have the opportunity to stop and ask who it is we really are. As Robert Frost wrote:
                        The tree the tempest with a crash of wood
                        Throws down across our path is not to bar
                        Our passage to our journey’s end for good
                        But just to ask who we think we are.   
            When God closes a door, he opens a window, the little expression goes. Failure can free us; it can liberate us from the false expectations others pile on us, or that we pile on ourselves.
            Enrico Caruso’s music teacher said he had no voice to speak of, let alone to sing with. His parents wanted him to become an engineer. Bruce Springsteen’s father wanted him to become a lawyer. Something tells me that, if they had listened to those who “knew better” Caruso wouldn’t have been a very good engineer; and Springsteen as a New Jersey lawyer? I don’t think so.
            But as J.K. Rowling (who, as we heard last week, had her first Harry Potter book rejected by “only” twelve publishers) said at Harvard: “Failure set me free because my greatest fear had already been realized and, here I was, still alive… Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”

Such is true of all experience in life, however bad it might seem at the time: if it doesn’t kill us, it teaches us something. Few experiences are worth as much wisdom per minute as failure is-- if it doesn’t kill us, and if we don’t allow it to define who we really are.
            Failure is something we do; it is not something we are. Between those two ways of looking at failure lies a Grand Canyon of human experience. Our failures are important elements that go into making up the whole package of our beings. They are not, however, our beings. We only become “Losers!” if we choose to define ourselves in terms of our failures, and not in terms of what we learn from them.
            So, failure can teach us the absurdity of trying again and again, and failing again and again—of futilely banging our head against the wall over and over in pursuit of unrealistic and unreachable goals. Failure can teach us how absurd that is. And yet…
            What if Thomas Edison has stopped after Failure # 995. What if he’d said, “This light bulb thing isn’t ever going to work,” and had gone home and lit a candle and had supper? What if J.K.Rowling had not sent that manuscript about a boy wizard with a scar across his brow to the 13th publisher?
            Failure, as many things in life, is often about discernment, about knowing ourselves, and really trying to hear what that Inner Voice is saying. It’s about sorting and sifting through the varied strands of our existence and coming just a little closer to knowing why we’re here. “We live our lives only in fragments,” the great theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said. But when we discern deeper meaning in one of those fragments, we come face to face with God. Likewise, when we discern that “big idea” which is ours, we cling to it with all heart and soul, though in the eyes of the world it seems absurd.

At the end of last season, a writer named Christopher Hayes from Chicago posted a blog with the impressive title “A Brief Description of the Spiritual Lessons Gleaned from the Cubs’ Failure to Win the World Series for the 99th Consecutive Year”. The article was actually much shorter than the title. It read, in full: “The Buddha was right. Attachment is suffering.”
            Failure reminds us not to be too attached to any specific outcomes in our endeavors. Because the important thing for us men and women, on this tortuous, demanding, exhilarating. magnificent, tragic, heroic never-ending human journey is the endeavor, and not necessarily the short term result. (Which is not to say that we don’t want to win, and we don’t want to succeed, and we don’t our efforts to bear fruit. Because we do. That’s human nature, too.)
But the older I get, the more I believe that in the short run (and that means the 70 or 80 or whatever years most of us have on this planet), our goals are reached (maybe) half the time. And the good guys win only 50% of the time—at most. That is sometimes tragic, but it’s also enormously empowering and freeing, because that gives us something for which to strive, for which to seek, and occasionally even to find, and never to yield before forces of despair and discouragement.
Creation’s Lord, we give Thee thanks
That this Thy world is incomplete;
That battle calls our marshaled ranks;
That work awaits our hands and feet.

For ultimately, what we label as “success” or “failure” has less to do with fame and renown and riches in the eyes of the world, and more with how we see ourselves in those fragmentary epiphanies of which Bonhoeffer wrote.
It is our failures which humanize us. They teach us the importance of humor and not taking ourselves too seriously. They help us to build that bridge of compassion with all those other imperfect, fallible beings with whom we share this world. They bring in to clearer relief the man or the woman each of us truly is. They lead us ever onward to the greater things that are ours to do—toward that greater soul who we are called to be.  
Since what we choose is what we are,
And what we love we yet shall be,
The goal may ever shine afar—
The will to win it—
and the willingness to fail at it— makes us free.