Our church belongs to a summer co-ed softball league, along with 8 other churches and a few local businesses. This has been a traditional Thursday evening summer activity for the past generation or longer. Couples have met for the first time on the ball fields and eventually marry. Babies have attended games in back packs and strollers and now are catching at home plate. Relatives going to different churches find themselves on opposing teams yelling good natured insults. There are a few bopped heads, abrasions, sprained fingers and broken legs as part of the deal. Hot dog roasts and ice cream sundaes are the after game rewards.
Yet nothing is quite as wonderful as how a team recreates itself year after year. It is 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 are 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 mean business when they stride out on the diamond. It is 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, have a “come one, come all” attitude, just to make sure we avoid forfeiting by not having enough players week after week. We always do have enough. In fact we have more players than we can sometimes find positions for. And we have a whole bleacher full of fans, dedicated to cheering and clapping for anything and everything our players do, whether it is a pop-up foul ball, a strike out swing, a missed catch, or an actual hit. We love it all and want our players to know they are loved too, no matter what they do or what happens.
I think that is why the players and fans come back to play week after week, though we haven’t won a game in years. We root and holler for each other, get great teaching and encouragement from our fantastic coach, and the players’ skills do improve year to year despite months of inactivity. We have a whole line up of pre-14 year olds eager to grow old enough to play, just so they can be a part of the action.
Why does it not matter that we don’t win games? We are winning hearts, not runs. We are showing our youngsters that the spirit of play is what it is all about, not about the trophy at the end. We are 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.
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 are 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.