Sunday, August 29, 2004

The Mitt

You did not choose Me, but I chose you….John 15:16

It was twenty-eight years ago. These are the things I remember about fourth grade. There was the red dirt playground of Saint Williams, my first baseball mitt, Little League, and my father’s transfer to Taiwan, all that year. Each has finally wrought its conviction; each is just now finishing its work of grace.

Though it has been nearly thirty years I still remember some of my friends’ names. Thomas, who had seven brothers and sisters; Vincent, a light brown boy whose origin was an enigma to us all; Sammy, who was held back in first grade; Jack, who sneezed into his hand one day, snot ran from between his fingers and no one had a Kleenex. And Raymond. Raymond was ‘retarded’ as we were allowed to say back in the fifties.

Recess and P.E. were death for me in elementary school. I was the smallest kid in my classes. If not the smallest I was certainly the least feared. I had to participate in grade school sports during the Dark Ages before the discovery of the fragile self-image, before the light of child psychology was shed on playground dynamics. In those days the biggest, most popular and most powerful kids were usually appointed as team captains and the rest of us were alternately chosen by these gods of the playground to make up their teams. I was not endowed with athletic ability like most of my classmates. I remember standing in the red dust with the group between the team captains, listening to the cheers as one side or the other got a coveted talented, aggressive player, watching the teams fill and the center group dwindle down to the small, the fat, the goony, the bucktoothed and bespectacled misfits until only Raymond and I were left.

I usually stared at the ground too embarrassed to look up because they might see my fear of being the very last in the center; or sometimes I tried to act like I was not particularly concerned about the matter by grinning stupidly while the team captains argued over who HAD to take one or both of us this time. If either of us was ever actually chosen, I, at least, realized it was purely out of some nine-year-old’s version of pity (though I didn’t know that word then). Raymond, I still hope and pray, was oblivious to it all and just went where he was told to go.

It was that same year that my father bought me my first baseball glove and signed me up for Little League. We went to the Ben Franklin Five and Dime to shop for a mitt. I knew little about baseball. Though I’d never played it I knew I was not good at it. I had never even seen a real game. One thing I did know was that to have an autographed mitt meant a great increase in my likelihood of getting picked sooner by the gods of the game at P.E. If for no other reason, one of the cool guys who was already chosen would always want to borrow it from me and would use his influence to get me picked. Thus I never really used my mitt at recess. It would always end up on someone else’s hand in the infield and I would be assigned to the far outfield where few fourth graders could hit the ball. It was not a critical nor prestigious position to play but it beat getting picked last.

I am right-handed. It made sense to me therefore that I should have a right-handed glove, meaning one that fit on my right hand. My father tried to explain to me that a right-hander catches with his left hand so he can throw with his right, but I would have none of it. I knew the purpose of having a mitt is to catch a baseball. I knew that if I could not catch a baseball with it I would be laughed at. And I just knew I could not catch with my left hand. I would rather have been eternally, mittlessly, but safely, consigned to the outfield than to be humiliated by my ineptness with my new mitt. I never revealed my reasonings to my father, but I was so adamant he bought me the right-handed mitt I wanted. I soon found out he was right and after school, in the seclusion of our back yard, my father chased wild throws all over the yard as I struggled to learn to throw left-handed.

God only knows why I signed up for Little League that year. I went to tryouts with my right-handed mitt and a sense of impending doom. One of the coaches noticed immediately that I alternated between my right and left hands and asked me if I could pitch with both hands. To avoid the embarrassment of explaining my stupidity in picking out my glove I said yes, knowing full well I could not even throw well enough with my right hand to hit the dugout, much less get the ball over the plate with my left. I remember his face lighting up. “A switch pitcher!” he exclaimed to his assistant. I didn’t know what a “switch” anything was. All I remember is the fleeting elation of having someone impressed by me, of being considered for THE prize position on the team, and the terrible sinking feeling of knowing I would ultimately be found out. That week my father got orders and we were transferred to Taiwan. Though it meant leaving my friends it also meant I got to quit Little League, mercifully before my dark secret was discovered and I was completely humiliated before the team and my friends at school when the word got around.

So, here I am twenty-eight years later, reading the parables of Jesus Christ and realizing that, just as my pain about the playground and my mitt speaks to all of us and our own most secret pain, so the gospel holds our hope for us all.

I read in the parables how God goes out into the streets and alleys and calls out the last, the least, the lost, the helpless, the hopeless and the worthless to play on his team, which wins because of him and is not hindered by the lack of talent in those he chooses (Luke 14:15-24). I read how God chooses the last ones left and makes them the first string of the All Star team (Luke 14: 7-11). I read how he takes the rejects, the skinny ones with thick glasses, the oblivious and the ones standing idly on the sidelines, their shirt-tails out, with lunch on their fronts, and inducts them into the Hall of Fame for just standing in the outfield for the last inning (Matthew 20:1-16, all my paraphrases).

I read the gospels and I saw Jesus with the sinners. As much as it hurt to finally admit it, I understood that I really was, I really am, the last, the worthless, the least. I realized that to deny that painful reality is to deny his grace. I finally understood that my only hope is in the truth of the gospel, that the only ones chosen are those who know they are not worthy of being chosen. I stood off in the distance, I fell on my face before him saying, “God, please choose me; be merciful to me, the sinner.”

Twenty-eight years later I understand the gospel and realize too that the Little League and my mitt speak of the killing flaw in my humanity, truly all humanity: It is to seek acceptance through lies and illusions of competence and trumped up abilities. This is woven into the very fabric of our beings. How often I have put on pretenses, overstated my qualifications, my experience, my credentials, inflated a resume, covered up a failure, or tried to make an impression on someone only to lie awake with a knot of dread in the pit of my stomach at being found out.

And we must think about what illusions we might be holding up before God. Do we stand before him and declare, “I am not like the sinners, God. I pray, I fast, I tithe”? Do we come to the Father and say, “I am not like your prodigal sons. I work hard in your house, I do not waste your blessings on worldly pleasures”? What value, what worth, what talent, what competence, what knowledge do we hold up before him as if to make ourselves acceptable to him? We often come to God as if we are trying to qualify somehow for his love and choice of us, like it is a position on his team. (The proper doctrinal mitt or moral bat will get you chosen – this is what it comes down to for most religion.) But at the moments we are able to be honest with ourselves, we tremble at being found out for what we really are: a goony, lonely kid fearful of rejection, with no talent and a wrong-handed mitt.

But we have been found out. God knows. And Jesus calls out our names anyway. You see, he too stood one day, with just two of them left, and the crowd chose the other, Barabbas, not him. There was no one to stick up for him. He was tossed back and forth between Pilate and Herod, the team captains, who argued over who had to take him. He was finally left dead least, hanging between heaven and earth, rejected by both, and he died in the outfield with two other slobbering, rejected misfits.

But by the authority of His resurrection He’s the team captain.

He looks into the downcast, awkwardly grinning faces of the skinny, hopeless, worthless misfits who have no autographed mitts, who are hoping against hope to be picked and not left standing rejected, finally and completely alone, and he knows how they feel. I tell you the truth: as long as he is the one choosing up sides he will never let Raymond, or me, or you, ever be picked last again.


Philippa said...

s-p, I check your blog everyday without fail to see what word you of instruction, one of humor, one of personal update, one of pain. Never is any post without Grace. Thanks.

BTW, hope the tooth thing turned out okay.

Anonymous said...

nice site - made me think of the good old days when I was the team captain and how little I actually knew.

Elizabeth Mahlou said...

What a wonderful post. So many insights that it is difficult to know where to start reflecting.

Ashley Siferd said...

Wow Steve. This helps more than you could ever know. Thanks so much for sharing and writing down your thoughts.