I find baseball to provide some of the strongest analogies to pastoral ministry. The same lessons often apply to our doctors, nurses, social workers, chaplains, aides and volunteers at Hospice. They are equally evident in the faculty, staff, and administration of both our local public school district and the two universities I am privileged to serve. And they even show up at times in the presumably solitary work of a landscape photographer. But being a pastor is what I do most often, and often what I do even when I’m doing just about anything else. So that’s where you’ll find my thoughts in this post and the next.
In planning memorial services, family members often imagine that they will be able to sing songs, read poetry, offer eulogies, etc. Often they’re quite right. But over the years, the less-than-infrequent breakdowns in these plans have led me to ask that when they become overwhelmed and leave the lectern in tears, that they mark where they left off, and I’ll be glad to finish for them. This kind of discussion led to my friend Richard approaching me before his father’s memorial service began. He asked which arm I threw with, so that when he signaled for “The Reliever,” it would be with the appropriate hand patting the correct elbow.
As fans of the San Francisco Giants, the recent history of a couple of our relief pitchers seemed especially appropriate to the occasion. I didn’t share it then, but I’ve been mulling it over ever since. Here’s what came to mind.
May 5, 2014 – San Francisco relief pitcher, Jean Machi, is involved in three extraordinary defensive plays, and two even-more unusual offensive plays in the space of two innings (the 11th and 12th, after the Giants had rebounded from a six-run deficit, eventually winning 11-10; but we’ll get to that in a moment).
Twice, a batted ball tipped off the end of Machi’s glove. In one case it prevented second-baseman Brandon Hicks from beginning a double play. In the other, though, it prevented an extra-base hit instead of the single that resulted. But the strangest defensive “gem,” especially when viewed on slow-motion replay, resulted as second base umpire Gerry Davis appeared to lock his eyes on Machi to ensure that he aligned himself between the pitcher and second base—and was rewarded by being pegged with the throw that otherwise may have recorded yet another out or two.
Offensively, Machi fared better, but no less strangely. His attempt at a sacrifice bunt slowed to a halt along the third base line, perfectly perpendicular to the pitcher’s mound. Pittsburgh’s pitcher, Jared Hughes, reached for the ball, slipped slightly, and threw low to first base. In the replay, Machi clearly beats out the bunt for a single, whereas the low throw allows San Francisco’s Hunter Pence to score after rounding third. But not only was the bad throw considered an error in allowing Pence to score, Machi’s bunt single was ruled to have resulted from the same error. Base hits by pitchers are rare enough without losing any to the official scorer. Yet adding insult to injury moments later, when Machi (at a height of six feet even and weighing 255 pounds) stole second base, putting another runner in scoring position as the Giants attempted to stretch their lead in the top of the thirteenth inning, his efforts were again dismissed by the official scorer. Not a stolen base. Machi had advanced as a result of “defensive indifference.” Presumably because in Pittsburgh it doesn’t matter whether you’re trying to come back from one, two, or three runs down in the bottom of an extra inning.
Finally, and perhaps worst of all the inequities inflicted upon Machi, when the Pirates failed to score in the bottom of the thirteenth, giving Machi his league-leading record of five wins and no losses—tying him with four others, all starting pitchers—he earned the “good-natured” and “endearing” epithet as a “vulture.” He was collecting wins that, in the mind of other pitchers (and former-pitchers-turned-broadcasters—I’m looking at you, Mike Krukow), should rightly belong to starters; relievers, evidently, are only supposed to get “saves.”
So here are some of the parallels I found myself contemplating. Sometimes, as a pastor, your very best efforts fall fractions of an inch short, sometimes even keeping others from providing successful assistance. Sometimes, you have everything in place for success, and someone else aligns themselves to interfere. Even when you’re ready to sacrifice, your successes get labeled as resulting from others’ failures, or a lack of opposition, or even mere coincidence. And if your success is notable for any reason, you’re likely to be “good-naturedly” criticized for allowing it to appear as though you had anything to do with it.
Now, before I appear to be more cynical and bitter than I really am, I want to point out the experience of another Giants reliever, less than a week later.
May 11, 2014 – Leading by two runs in the bottom of the ninth, the Giants sent their Closer, Sergio Romo, to the mound. The two-run homer he gave up resulted in the starting pitcher being robbed of his win, and earned for Romo what would have been scored as a “blown save.” It would have been, of course, except that in the top of the tenth inning, the Giants scored three times to take, and then hold the lead. Among the results was this strange scoring anomaly: instead of a blown save, the statistic became “winning pitcher,” and it was conferred on, yes, Sergio Romo.
This is the lesson that best reminds me not to invest too much of my effort, or my self-image, in the statistics, results, reputation, and/or labels ascribed to me as a pastor. Sometimes you get credit for things you had nothing to do with. And sometimes you even get rewarded for circumstances in which your major contribution was failure. Further, like those ball players who, on any given day, find success or failure or anything in between—the most essential characteristic has to remain: a love of the game.
|2011 Family Photo Session|
As things turned out during the memorial service last Saturday, the starter got through all nine innings of his tribute to his father. Good thing, too. I’ve gotten to be friends with Richard, largely because of how much his father has meant to me and my family. He was a fellow-elder, board member, and worship team leader at the church I am privileged to serve. More than that, and before all that, he was a dear friend and brother in Christ. If I’d been called to pitch in relief of Richard, I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t then have had to pass the responsibility on to someone else as Closer. But we both made it through.
Before the ceremony, some noted how glad they were to see that I was officiating. They recounted how they and others had spoken fondly of previous services they’d attended. My response was the same each time. When you are commemorating a life well lived, all you have to do is clearly and authentically express who the person was, and you end up getting credit for having led a great memorial service, funeral, graveside, or celebration of life.
|2013 Glenburn Circle Bazaar|
Granted, we did ascribe a great deal of credit to Richard’s father, my friend, Bill Hudson. It was, after all, a celebration of his life-well-lived. But two things were also very clear. First, that some of the credit he deserved never ended up in a box score. There were more blessings than we even knew to count. Second, though, was the reality that many of the things with which we credited Bill had little to do with anything he actually did. Most were the outgrowth and result of who he was. And that, Bill would have told you, was entirely a result of Whose he was. Bill believed, and I agree, that any blessings we received through him originated with Jesus Christ and His indwelling presence in Bill’s life.
If the most essential characteristic of a successful ball player is his love of the game, then the most essential characteristic of my dear friend’s life was the love of Christ through him toward others—whoever might have gotten the credit for it.