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A Ball Game with Saint Pete: The confluence of Baseball and Faith

This is a re-written version of an article that I wrote last year and is part of my “Meeting Jesus and the Team at 7-11” series.  The original; was written shortly after my dad died last summer. Today I revised it while traveling to a Church clergy and Chaplain conference in Houston. Peace, Padre Steve+

A week after I met Jesus and the team at 7-11 I found out that I was selected to be promoted to the rank of Commander in the Navy Chaplain Corps.  While still in amazed wonderment about that meeting and what happened on the team’s road trip to Dyersville Iowa to play at the Field of Dreams I was caught up in the excitement of knowing that I was among 20 chaplains selected for promotion for the next fiscal year.  That night I went to worship at the Church of Baseball Harbor Park Parish despite being very tired from three busy overnight duty shifts over the preceding eight days at the hospital that I served at as a Chaplain.

The previous night had gone long as I had to deal with a number of serious situations.  We had young Petty Officer First Class named Kenneth die of cancer. Kenneth was one of those rare people with no guile. While he served in the Navy he was also an outstanding basketball player and played on the All-Navy Basketball team. He died after a struggle with cancer that had ravaged his formerly massive body, that of a basketball power forward until he looked like a concentration Camp victim at the end of the Second World War. The time with this young man and his family was filled with grace as three Chaplains as well as a number of hospital staff that had gotten to know them over the preceding three months gathered at their apartment outside the hospital gate where he had gone home to die.  It was his desire to spend a few days at home with family before dying and one of the last things that he was able to do was watch game seven of the NBA Championship game between the Lakers and the Celtics. The three Chaplains, a Roman Catholic, a Pentecostal and me a miscreant Old Catholic type all prayed at the bedside and stayed with the family and his body during the holy silence that pervaded the living room.

Later I would spend time with the family of an eighteen month old boy that had drowned and been resuscitated by EMS in down but was certain to die in the next day or two.  Then I did some follow up with a dear lady that was in the end stages of heart and kidney failure in our ICU. I’d known Corrie a sixty-five year old Filipina and her family over the past couple of years as she struggled to live, but today was different. Nothing more could be done. I was with her and the doctors as they discussed her condition and when she calmly let people know that if her heart stopped again not to try to bring her back. We talked and prayed afterward and she had asked if I would come up to help her write down her story.  Well that had not worked out but I did get to her bedside late making the sincerest of apologies and letting her know what had happened. Corrie was also one of those dear saints, a devout Catholic that loved God and her neighbors, she was concerned for the families of the other patients and not so concerned about herself. She had faith and was confident that Jesus would have her in heaven because as she said it was his grace and mercy that had allowed her to know him.  I listened to her, sang with her, prayed with her and chatted for almost an hour and a half before going to check on the parents of the little boy and my Pediatric ICU staff before trundling off to the Duty Chaplain Bunk room for a few hours of fitful sleep.  I thought of the people that I had dealt with during the day and how each in their own way had touched my life and saying a brief prayer I laid my head on the bricklike pillows and body down on the devil’s mattress, or the mattress from Hell fell asleep.

After going home I received the call from Derek our deputy chaplain at the hospital to congratulate me on my selection. I was thrilled and that evening I went to the Church of Baseball, Harbor Park Parish to see the Tides play the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, the AAA affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies.  It was a terribly hot and muggy night but the game was exciting and as is my custom I took a lot of pictures for my website as I try to write about every Tides game, hoping that someday when I grew up that I might be a baseball writer.  I guess that I am one now except no-one is paying me for it but such is life. As I moved about I spent some time with my buddies, Elliott, Chip and Art the Ushers and each time that I moved up or down from the home plate area where I reside down the first base or third base line to get shots from different angles I would visit with them, talking baseball, life and receiving their congratulations on my selection for promotion.  To them I am the irrepressible Padre Steve and we have a wonderful time together at each home game.

That night was like any night at the Church of Baseball until I noticed a burly man in a Yankees hat with a beard and pony tail coming down the stairs toward section 102. He was showing his ticket to Elliott the Usher, also know by some as Elliott the Enforcer he also has charge over section 100, the VIP section shared by scouts, players, families of team members and visiting VIPs.  That section is carefully monitored by the aforementioned “Enforcer” and the man, wearing a faded Yankees Jersey from what appeared to be from the 1930s with the number “3” on the back and a pair of large brown cargo shorts with sandals on his feet walked toward Elliott showing his ticket.

I recognized the man and since I was on the move anyway from the third base side toward first I went up to them.  Having met the man the previous week at 7-11 and knowing that he and the team loved baseball I had wondered of they might make their way back to Hampton Roads.

“Elliott, you gonna let a Yankee fan into section 100?” I smiled as I asked the question. Elliott and Pete both looked over at me, Elliott is about my height but Pete towered over us at a good 6 foot 3 inches outweighing each up us by at least a hundred pounds. Pete smiled.

“Steve from 7-11 right?”  Pete asked as he recognized me with Elliott looking on.

“That’s me” I cheerily answered. I liked Pete, there was something genuinely fun about him a blue collar guy that in addition to going and spreading the Good News also liked to be around regular people and have some fun, after all he had spend his early years as a fisherman and like any sailor was a little rough hewn in his manner.

Elliott looked at us and asked Pete “You know this guy?” to which Pete responded “I sure the heck do, he’s one of our people, you know a baseball fan and Padre to boot.”

“So where do you know each other from?” I asked.

Elliott looked at Pete and Pete looked at me before Elliott answered. “I met Pete up at Fenway back in ’76 when the Red Sox went to the World Series.”

“Yeh, I was in town to see the Yankees play those bums and happened to sit by Elliott, for a Sox fan he’s a pretty good guy and unlike most of those weenies at Fenway he actually understands the game.”

“No kidding?”

“No kidding Padre, that’s how we met, just goes to show that if you really love the game even Red Sox and Yankees fans can sit together in peace, right Pete?”

“You know it Elliott, you know it.”

“So Pete where you sitting?”

“Section 100; row C on the end down there behind the radar gun.”

“Cool I’m right across the aisle in section 102 row B to your right, would you like to go down there with me? How’d you get section 100?”

“Dude, the boss has connections, when I asked him if I could go back and visit this ballpark when we were done in Dyersville he called Dave.”

“Dave? You mean Dave Rosenfield?” Dave is the long time General Manager of the Tides and I chat with him whenever I get the chance.

“Heck yeh Padre, the Boss knows all the GMs, talks to them often, even the minor league GMs. He likes to put in his two shekels with them in discussing prospects; you know that the boss keeps a keen eye on these players don’t you?”

“Well, I figured so, like he does the rest of us right?”

“It’s kind of like that but this is something that the Boss has a passion for, he died to save the world and the world does include baseball, does it not?”

“Well, that’s true, but even though I found out last week that the Boss and you guys liked baseball I didn’t know it was this serious.”

“Padre, this is baseball, it is serious and the Boss takes it seriously, even more serious than Selig, the Grand-Poobah of Major League Baseball.”

“He takes the game serious or Selig serious?” I smiled as I said this triggering a smile back as he replied removing his cap and wiping his brow of the sweat that the hot and humid Tidewater weather causes the human body to produce in mass quantities when not inside an air conditioned building, which Harbor Park, open to the elements as a baseball field should be is not. As he put his cap back on he quipped back to me “the game Padre, Selig he just humors, lets him think that he is in charge, there are times that he thinks about resurrecting A. Bartlett Giamatti.” Pete paused for a second looked up at the press box and continued “but whenever he talks about it he says that he doesn’t want the Dispensationalists to think that the Tribulation has started, the boss seems to think that it would not be helpful even if Giamatti would be better for the game than the Grand-Poobah Bud.”

“I guess that that would cause a bit of a stir if he did that can you imagine all the headlines on ESPN, the in depth interviews and of course the talk show circuit Pete?” I continued not giving Pete a chance to answer “It would be freaking amazing, could you see Giamatti being interviewed on Larry King Live and see if Larry asks him if he will lift the lifetime ban on Pete Rose? Or even better brings up the Congressional hearings on steroids in Baseball?”

“Yep Padre it would be a spectacle and would cause more problems than it would solve, hell Congress would probably want an investigation of how Giamatti came back from the dead and the liberals and conservatives would have hearings that would drag on endlessly and make themselves the center of attention every time a camera was in the room, thank God that Herod and Pilate didn’t have C-Span or the 24 hour news cycle.”

“And people would pretty much ignore the God thing in the story…” said Elliott.

“Well not really except that the Bosses’ involvement in raising someone like Giamatti from the dead so many years after he passed away, God rest his soul, like anything that the boss does would be used by politicians to advance their agenda and dare I say preachers to further their “ministries” or make money by selling books, audio CDs and DVDs that miss the point entirely.” Pete took off his hat and wiped his brow again “sure is hot and miserable in this place, makes me miss the Med, you know that Israel has pretty good weather, a bit dry and hot in the summer but no humidity.”

“I know, I’m originally from California and we had hot weather in the summer but no humidity.”

“Now California, that’s an interesting place, I love the West Coast road trips and that new stadium that the Giants play in that is great.”

“I like it too, it’s so much nicer than Candlestick.”

“Don’t get me going about Candlestick young man. Went out there once in July to see the Giants play the Mets in a double header….I think that it was in the mid-1970s, so guy named Halicki threw a no-hitter.

I looked a Pete funny. “Halicki’s no hitter?”

“Yeah, you heard of it?”

“Pete, I’ve been a Giants fan since I was a kid and I was there for that game.”

“No kidding?”

“No really dad took my me and my brother, it was cold as hell out there but it was so cool to actually see a no-hitter in person.”

“Ain’t that a hoot. Sure is a small universe partner.”

“That it is Pete that it is.”

“So what do you think of the new ballpark? I love the food there, did you have the garlic fries?”

“Yeh, it was the first place that I ever had them, Gordon Biersch has a stand there.”

“Those sure were good; I think when we got back in the bus for trip down to L.A. the next morning we all still smelled like garlic.”

“So Pete, you want something to eat or drink?” I asked figuring that it was a good chance to see what the big Yankees fan liked.

“Sure Padre, what have they got?”

“They don’t have the garlic fries but they have some pretty good chow, want to go up and look around?” Elliott looked at us and said to Pete “You’re not leaving already are you?”

“Hey Elliott, you know me would I leave a game before it was over?”

“Well you didn’t get here on time.”

“Elliott you know that’s not fair, I drove in from Iowa and that doggone Hampton Roads Bridge tunnel is for the birds, if I was the boss I would have Moses come in, part the waters and lay down another tunnel like with four lanes in each direction.”

“Now that would be nice, do you think that he could do something with the Downtown too?” I asked as Pete and Elliott chuckled.

“Hey, Padre, let’s go up and get something to munch on, I’m hungry.”

“Sure Pete, what would you like?”

“What have they got?”

“Heck Pete about anything, well anything, they even have a real restaurant down in the Right Field corner.”

“So what do you like?”

“I don’t mind a Tides dog with chili and a beer.”

“Tides dog?”

“Yeah, just a grilled hot dog with chili sauce, of course they have the all-beef Jumbo Dog, but it’s a bit heavy for me.”

“So any of this Kosher?”

“Are you kidding, this is a ball Park Pete.”

“True, but one can hope.”

“Besides, Pete didn’t you get the vision from Jesus that all food was cool even if it wasn’t Kosher?”

“I know Padre but you gotta remember my background, I still fall into the old habits sometimes.”

“I know, even after Jesus told you that all things were clean old dour Paul had to correct you when you were hanging out with some Greeks.”

Pete looked down and shook his head once again wiping his brow, “I wish Luke hadn’t put that down in Acts, not really fair to me, but Luke was Paul’s man. Now it’s not like Paul didn’t have his faults too, ran off Barnabas and John Mark on one of his trips, but to his credit Luke put that down too” Pete wiped his brow again and continued “I guess that you could say that he was the first “fair and balanced” reporter.”

“Yeah, church politics and the writing of history huh?”

“You know it even then, but old Paul and I did patch things up when he got to Rome.”

We walked down the concourse to the far concession stand down the third base line where my buddy Gerry from Gordon Biersch works with his volunteer organization.

“Hey Gerry!”

“Hey Steve, how are you doing?” said Gerry who is about the same height and build as Pete.

“Gerry, I’d like you to meet Pete, he’s from out of town.”

“Really, where from?” asked Gerry.

“Oh here and there, right now travel around with my boss doing good stuff and getting in some baseball wherever we go.”

“Cool, so Pete are you a Yankee’s fan? I love the jersey”

“Pretty cool, huh? Babe Ruth’s number”

“Yeah, got it special, so what team do you root for?”

Gerry shook his head and gave a slight chuckle “well I’m a Reds and Indians fan, from Ohio.”

“So the Big Red Machine huh? They have a pretty team this year, lots of young talent and they are willing games in the last inning and the last a bat like something I’ve never seen” replied Pete “and I’ve been around quite a while.” Pete paused took a deep breath and continued. “I think that they have a a real shot at making the playoffs and taking the N.L. Central this year.”

“It’s been too long Pete, I’ve been around quite a while and I haven’t seen them play this well in a while.”

“I think some of the sports reporters and columnists are going to eat Cardinal on this one.” said Pete.

Gerry laughed out loud and blurted out “You mean crow don’t you?”

“Nope, Cardinal, like in St. Louis type.”

“That’s funny, what can I get for you guys?”

“A couple of Tides dogs with chili, right Pete?”

“Can I have a big order of fries too?”

“Sure Pete” replied a very cheerful Gerry since you’re from out of town they’re on me.” Gerry pulled his wallet out and told the cashier that he was getting the fries as I handed over the money for the Tides Dogs.

“Anything to drink Steve?”

“Gerry you know that I don’t drink the beer from this stand.”

“That’s true; we just have the Bud and Bud Lite here, you going across the way to get a Yuengling?”

“Is that good?” asked Pete. Before I could answer Gerry said “a lot better than what I have here.”

“It’s not Gordon Biersch but it’s alright” I replied. “Besides, Budweiser is like the wine that they were serving at Cana until the Boss dropped by.”

“That bad huh?” replied Pete as Gerry chimed in “you’re too much sometimes Steve, you talk to Pete like he was there or something” as I simply chucked, and said “Yeah, something like that.”

A lady brought our hot dogs to us and we went and got our beer from the kiosk opposite Gerry’s stand and we began to walk down to our seats once again greeting Elliott on the way down.

“Hey Padre, these are nice seats, you have to pay through the nose and have connections big time for seats like this at Yankee Stadium and the boss won’t cover that, he thinks it’s a bit extravagant and wouldn’t look good on the organization.”

“So he’s not a big fan of high prices that keep regular folks from getting great seats?”

“No, he’s like to see everyone get a chance to sit behind home plate in a big park like that at least once” as he looked at his ticket and sat down across the aisle from me.

“So Pete, so why do you keep calling me Padre? You can call me Steve.” I said as I took my first drink of my Yuengling Lager. Pete picked up his cup and said “cheers Padre” and lifted the cup to his lips drinking the amber lager. “Not bad, we didn’t have much beer back in the day, Judea and the Mediterranean was more of a wine place. There was some beer back then but it wasn’t that good, it took the Monks working for the organization in Germany to get it right” as he took another drink from the cup and wiped beer from his beard “nice beer, I’ll have to tell the boss about it.” Pete paused for a second and went on “good choice Padre.”

“There you go again you can call me Steve, I don’t mind Padre but if you let me call you Pete and not Pope Pete why don’t you just call me Steve?”

Pete looked and me and smiled. “Padre, that’s what you are, it’s who you are, remember that whole Sacrament of Holy Orders thing?”

I kind of felt silly, I like being called Padre, beats the heck out of “the Reverend” or something like that but still having Saint Peter, the first Pope call me that was kind of humbling especially when he had no objection to being called Pete.  “I know that you’re right Pete, but still, you were like the first Pope you really outrank me.”

“Padre, I never paid any attention to “rank” as you call it when I was Pope. Back then it was not really a career or longevity enhancing job, no palace, no red shoes, even though Ben’s aren’t made by Prada like some people say and none of the big hats and stuff like that. If it was up to me the hats that clergy wear would be more practical, I like baseball hats, Matthew kind of likes a Fedora and a couple of the other guys like hats like that Indiana Jones character when the are not travelling as part of the team.”

“Really?” I asked quizzically.

“Oh yeah, back in those days we didn’t have much in the way of vestments and heck I wasn’t in charge of very much, a few priests and deacons and “parishes” if you could call them that pretty much house churches or places in the catacombs where we could celebrate a simple Eucharist and hope that the Roman police wouldn’t show up.  Heck we didn’t even cause anyone any trouble, just no one liked us. Romans called us “atheists” if you can believe that and guys that used to be friends in Judea had no problem turning us over to them whenever they could. Nope, being the Pope was not what it is now, no Popemobile or anything.”

“No Popemobile, that’s just wrong, not even a chariot?” I asked with a bit of humor in my voice.

Pete didn’t catch my attempt at humor and narrowing his eyes blurted out “are you kidding? We didn’t have didilly squat.” He paused and looked at me. “You know it actually offends me how the Church can surround a leader, any leader in that kind of in that sort of opulence, and to think that they named Saint Peter’s after me. Do I look like I would even hang around in a place like that? Judas might have liked it but I’d rather they named a ballpark after me.”

“Well it could be worse.”

“How?” Pete gave me a curious glance.

“We’ll it could be like the studio that the Terrible Blond Network uses, the one that looks like an ecclesiastic French brothel.”

“Oh Padre, don’t get me going on that subject, those people really piss off the boss, and to think of all the money they bilk out of folks.  He took another drink of his beer “not bad stuff and the dog is pretty good too for ballpark food.”

“Glad that you like it.”

“Thanks, you know there Padre I don’t think I would want to be Pope now, my successor Benedict has his hands full mainly because they try to run the place like a massive government all those bureaucrats and clergy functioning as diplomats and everything but being priests, and it’s not just the Roman part of the church. It’s like you said, those guys on TV talking about being happy healthy and wealthy as the crux of the Christian life haven’t got a clue.  Same with the folks that try to get away from the excesses of the prosperity Gospel heretics so much that they throw out the baby with the baptismal waters.”

Pete paused and I broke in. “Pretty messed up, if you ask me.”

Pete continued. “Yeh, it’s messed up all right but the Church has been messing up for 2000 years, I messed up pretty bad at times too.” He took another gulp of his beer and continued. “Nowdays though, it’s like 2000 years of getting stupid have really made an impact. Some of these churches seem to be afraid of even looking Christian, like that whole Willow Creek bunch, they don’t want to offend people, and then the stadium sized churches that seat more people than Harbor Park, and others that spend so much on things that look nice but really aren’t needed. I don’t think that any of them have a clue, no sense of decorum or real understanding of what the Boss was talking about.”

“You almost sound like Andrew Greeley.” I chuckled.

“I think that Padre Andrew has done a lot of good, he makes that Blackie Ryan fellow believable and the kind of priest that you would want to be around. I like his Bishop Blackie mysteries, always fun to read, and a lot about the grace of God in them too.”

“I know, they helped me get through Iraq and the past couple of years when I pretty much was an agnostic.”

“That suck Padre, people don’t like to admit how hard it is to believe sometimes. I remember back after the Boss got crucified. My world crashed around me. If he had waited longer than three days to get himself resurrected I might have completely lost my faith. I’m not surprised that you did but at least you are on the way back.”

“Thanks Pete, I hope so.”

“You know Padre, back in the day we had very little but did try to keep a sense of decorum and sense that Jesus was with us because he said that he was with us in the breaking of the bread.  I’ll tell you what it shocked the heck out of me when he started talking to us about “eating his flesh,” that my friend chased a lot of the hangers on away.  I don’t know why people that call themselves by the Bosses’ name have to make things so hard, and I’m not even talking dogma and doctrine just living the Christian life, you know that thing that the Boss said about the top two commandments, love God and love your neighbor.  For us that was mind blowing because a lot of the really religious folks in our day were all about rules that made life hard for regular people, just like today and you can be sure that the Sadducees and Pharisees wouldn’t be having a non-Kosher Tides dog and beer with you a Gentile military officer, no way” a brief pause and he continued “no offense intended.” He stopped and looked at me and I replied “none taken my friend.”

You remember the movie Bull Durham Padre?”

“Of course Pete, I watch it at least two or three times a year, it’s almost a religious thing.”

“You know where the manager gets mad at the players and said “It’s a simple game, you catch the ball, throw the ball and hit the ball?”

“Who wouldn’t?”

“Anyway, that’s a lot like the Christian life, it’s really not that difficult but we can make such a mess of it.”

Somehow the ball game seemed like it was background noise, Pete was really wrapped up in what he was saying and I knew that he meant every word. He smiled at me and continued.

“Of course Padre there are all of those churches that are more interested in promoting certain social agendas from all over the political spectrum than focusing on the top two commandments. They make themselves look like pawns of the politicians rather than the Bosses’ Church.  I tell you Padre there are times that the Boss really does get frustrated with what some of his people do in his name; I think that’s why he spends so much time at ball parks now.” Pete paused for a moment, took another gulp of his beer, wiped his beard and looked at me as he took a deep breath and sighed looking out at the diamond where left hander Troy Patton was pitching well for the Tides and the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs were imploding defensively as the Tides hitters were pounding out hit after hit.

“The Tides, an Orioles farm team huh?”

“Yep, that they are Pete.”

“Well I tell you the O’s are having problems but as a Yankees fan I’m kind of glad because when they get well they will be a pain in the ass to the Yankees, all they need is a first rate manager to get the kids to pull things together and to get that owner of theirs, Angelos is it, to spend some money to get some solid all star caliber veterans to build around and to help nurture these guys along. They do have the young talent, just need the leadership to make it happen, they need another Earl Weaver type of manager to do the job.”

“I’d like to see Bobby Valentine or Buck Showalter.”

“I don’t think Valentine is the man, but if the O’s can get Showalter things will change in a hurry.”

“I hope that they get someone like that, anything’s got to be better than the leadership that they have had for so long.”

It was amazing to me how Pete went from what he viewed as the problems of the modern church back to baseball so quickly and I realized that he needed this.

About this time Tides outfielder Jeff Salazar smashed a pitch over the right field wall bringing the crow to its feet including Pete who was applauding loudly and as Salazar crossed the plate looked at me and said “high five” before his massive hand slapped my pip squeak hand causing it to sting just a bit. As the crowd continued to cheer Pete reached in his pocket and pulled out a cell phone and looking at me said “just a second, it’s the Boss.”  He put the flip phone to his ear and I tried to listen in just a bit. “Yeah Skip, its Pete, what do you need?” I could not hear what was being said on the other end of the phone just Pete’s responses which were punctuated by his head nodding up and down and words like “yes, okay and sure.”  I still have no idea what they were talking about but it looked serious. Pete then said “I’ll get on it Skip, take care, later.”

Pete looked at me. “The Boss sends his congratulations on getting selected to promotion. You know that he really liked the military people that he met, the professional soldiers like the Centurion and that it was a military guy, Cornelius the Centurion and his family that was the first Gentile family that I got to spend some time with, they were really great folks.”

“Wow, that’s pretty cool coming from the Boss himself.” I said.

“The Boss also told me to tell you not to let it go to your head and to make sure that you keep it real.”

“I think that I can do that Pete, after all I wasn’t always a Priest or Chaplain, just a Navy Chief’s kid that has been in the military for a long time.”

Pete looked at me and by the look on his face I knew that he was not done talking. “Padre, the Boss wanted me to let you know that he cares for your dad and for you not to worry about him.”

“Why should I worry, he’s got Alzheimer’s now and doesn’t know me but he’s been medically stable for a good amount of time and last time I talked to my mom she said that he didn’t look too bad the last time that she visited him.” I looked at Pete as he was finishing his beer.

“The Boss just told me to let you know that he loves your dad and cares about him.” The look in his eye was far away. “I remember my dad, a fisherman like me, he was already gone by the time the Boss came into my life, and he just passed away in his sleep one night after a long night and day on the boats on the Sea of Galilee.”

“Sounds like you miss your dad.”

“I do Padre, but I tell you what, we’ll have to do this again. The boss told me that he needs me to come up and see him up in D.C. it seems that he wants some of the team to meet him there conduct some business and take in a National’s game, sure hope that he gets us tickets to see Strasburg.”

“That would be cool, think that I can come?”

“No not this time Padre, but I’ll talk to the Boss for you to join us somewhere on the road, or maybe even back in time. Besides you’re going to have a lot to do soon.”

Pete got up from his seat and patted me on the back. “Take care Padre, be safe on your way home.”

“Pete you take care too.” Pete turned and began to walk up the steps where he shook Elliott’s hand before he left.  Shortly after Pete left I went to Elliott and Elliott said to me. “Padre you have some interesting friends, you have some interesting friends.”

“I know my friend, funny how you knew Pete too.”

“What can I say?” replied Elliott as Pete got to the concourse, shook hands with Dave, said a few words and headed out of the ball park.

“Seems like Pete knows a lot of people huh?” I said as I looked back at Elliott.

“He gets around there Padre, he gets around.”

 

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Love Poverty and War…Suffering and Death… Christian Theology meets Reality in the Intersections of Life

“An antique saying has it that a man’s life is incomplete unless or until he has tasted love, poverty, and war.”  Christopher Hitchens

“You have not done Christian Theology until you have dealt with suffering and death” Yandall Woodfin

I deal with life in the intersection where theology has to deal with uncomfortable and often troubling questions.  When I first heard my Philosophy of Religion Professor at Southwestern Baptist make the statement that “you have not done Christian Theology until you have dealt with suffering and death” I was somewhat offended.  This was back in 1989 when I was still somewhat idealistic and believed what really popular preachers on radio and mega-churches said.  Now I can never say that I was completely in agreement with the “name it claim it, grab it stab it, God owes me and will bless me because I did…” pop-theology of the theological lightweights masquerading as teachers, preachers and prophets.  While I did not espouse it the view was prevalent in the churches that I was part of, in fact I choose Southwestern Baptist as a school because it did not tow that party line.  I just never expected my professors across the board in the School of Theology to be as nuanced and balanced as Dr. Woodfin and the others who helped give me my theological formation.

In seminary I developed a very good theological understanding and life hermeneutic that was far closer to Anglicanism or the reformers of the Second Vatican Council.  In fact it was theologians like Hans Kung, Yves Congar and Alistair McGrath as well as Jurgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg who helped me in that.  Additionally the writings of Dietrich Bonheoffer, Emil Brunner and Henri Nouwen were influential as I developed my theological and spiritual life.  I was also thrust into the world of the Ante-Nicene Fathers of the Church, spending a semester of Systematic Theology studying and writing about Polycarp of Smyrna.  It was studying these contemporary theologians as well as the Church Fathers that I discovered Christian Theology at the intersection and it was Dr. Woodfin’s remark that caused me to really question the modern “theologians of glory.”  It is plainly obvious that this was in the day before the Baptist Taliban under Mullah Paige Patterson took the place over.  That was the time when it was a world class seminary and not just a pretty good Bible school.

It was the fact that even though I was in seminary life was really sucky.  Nothing went right.  Instead of the obvious “blessing of God” it seemed that we were cursed.  We had lost our home, cars, and were destitute.  I was working two and three jobs while Judy was sick and unable to work.  We lived in a hell hole on the east side of Fort Worth Texas, frequently featured on the TV show COPS.   One night in desperation I called the Terrible Blonde Network (TBN) for prayer.  For my trouble I was told that it was obvious that God was not calling me to ministry otherwise he would be blessing us.  That was a watershed experience and I rejected that idea on the spot.  It made me mad as hell that a well meaning but ignorant volunteer prayer partner would judge me in such a way.  When I went to work later at a TV ministry doing counseling, especially to broken pastors I never forgot that experience.  I realized that what the lady said and what many people that I knew espoused was God-babble bullshit.  The pastors that I talked to every week were suffering, often at the hands of the alleged people of God and even other ministers.  It was obscene.

So anyway, back to the subject of this article…yes I chased a rabbit there and it was intentional.  I had a New Testament Professor whose “rabbits” were often pastoral and theological gems.  That may not be a gem but it was a rabbit worth chasing.

Hitchens, a pretty strident atheist has some pretty good observations about how some religious people including modern Christian icons have been pretty poor examples.  Now he can be biased but his bias is balanced by the Orthodoxy espoused by his brother Peter.  Hitchens’ comment based on the writings of antiquity is quite true.  Until a man or for that matter a woman has experience love, poverty and war their life experience is incomplete.  As a personal testimony, I can say “AMEN!” I know this to be true.  I am married to the love of my life and our marriage has endured suffering, sickness, death, poverty and war.  We have in baseball terminology “hit for the cycle.”  While I have understood this I had never seen it in writing until I saw Hitchens’ book.  The theme of love, poverty and war is rich in ancient writings including the Bible.  It is also thematic in many cultural rituals around the world.  The warrior who loves his family endures poverty; usually famine or plague induced and then goes out to fight invaders.  If they win they come home to their loved ones victors who have protected home and hearth.  It is much like the movie Braveheart where William Wallace leads a campaign against the English who have invaded Scotland.  If they lose, there is the strong possibility that they will be slaughtered and their families enslaved.  The annals of the Punic Wars are rich in this theme as is the life of King David who knows love, poverty based on being a fugitive on more than one occasion and his life as a warrior.

I think this is true in the modern era as well.  Western culture based on consumerism and material wealth has been insulated from the depths of abject poverty, one only need place a poverty and famine stricken resident of almost any third world country who is deposited in a poor American city or town and ask him if he sees poverty.  If he does it will not be material poverty but one where love and community are missing.  If he goes up the street to the well off part of town he may be dazzled by the opulence but appalled by the loneliness of many people.  Western nations following the end of the Second World War and the recovery from it have not known the depths of poverty.  This may be changing now unless we can pull our economy out of the abyss that it seems perched upon, but even still at least so far the last couple of generations in the west have not known poverty as a whole.

Likewise the question of the experience of war for the modern person is one that is not experiential.  War in the west is now fought largely by military professionals while most of the nation’s population lives in the shadow and protection of their military prowess.  At one time with the draft war was experienced by all parts of the population in the west.  Today it is not and with that lack of experience there is a void, men and women have not discovered either how to live for something or die for something bigger than themselves.  One of the things that chafes my hide is when I hear ministers who have never served a day in uniform don a set of BDUs or Dessert Camouflage and preach a sermon on spiritual warfare. Sorry, that is a sham and the big TV guys who have done this should apologize to men and women who have been in combat and in harm’s way.  I once had a bishop in my church, who is no longer in his communion do an article about spiritual warfare trying to apply “principles” of Carl Von Clausewitz about war without ever really reading or understanding Clausewitz.  The treasure of Clausewitz is in his “principles” but in his understanding of the human condition brought about by his Lutheran faith, the Enlightenment and his experience of Prussia’s defeat and occupation by Napoleon followed by her recovery.  I was appalled by what my ex-bishop wrote and embarrassed for the church should any real soldier or military leader pick it up and read it.  Things like these show how little many religious leaders, or for that matter political leaders understand the human condition, life, love and war.

Dr. Woodfin was more right right than about anyone I have ever heard when he that we have not done Christian Theology until we have dealt with suffering and death. When you see innocents killed, children suffering from famine, war and disease.  When you have seen the bodies of young men and women who have died senseless deaths and when you have looked at a mother who has lost a child you begin to understand.  You begin to see the Cross.  An innocent man executed, a guilty man go free.  When you see friends and companions abandon their teacher and friend, a governor who knows a man is innocent be put to a brutal and agonizing death,  and a mother looking up at a cross where her son hangs and cries “My God my God, why have you forsaken me?” When you see these things you have to deal with the reality of where the Christian faith intersects the cold reality of our world.  It is as Alistair McGrath calls it, “life under the cross.”

I dare any of our modern digital era “theologians of glory” to enter this world, but most will not.  In fact they will continue to sell the sad sack of theological excrement that they call the Gospel to adoring crowds who will eventually discover that they have been sold a lie.  Many leave the faith while others take their place looking for “their” promised miracle, “their” blessing and their health, wealth and fortune.  Like the Catholic indulgence sellers of Martin Luther’s era, such “ministers” are blight on the Christian faith and for all of their “success” power and popularity have done more harm to the faith than benefit.  John Tetzel, Luther’s protagonist would tell people when collecting indulgences “A penny in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs.”  Today’s modern peddlers of pious poop promise “your prosperity grows when into our ministry you sow” or a “vow you make today God is bound to repay.”

Having seen this in real life when people buy the lie and end up devastated when “God” doesn’t come through for them, or when a well meaning but ignorant person tells them some horse shit about how God is not blessing them because….I want to scream.  I once had a pastor in a large evangelical and charismatic church which believed in “signs and wonders” tell the congregation about a conversation that he had with a parishioner who had been in the hospital and not been visited by him or the staff.  The parishioner, who gave a sizable amount of money to the church asked” “How sick do I have to be to get a hospital visit from you?”  The pastor, a nice guy laughed as he recounted his response.  “You don’t want to be that sick.”  The congregation laughed and I about cried as I was immersed in daily tragedy and trauma and Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas.  I knew too many people be abandoned by their pastors in a city consumed with powerful pastors as churches to believe that they were a priority for those suffering.

The truth is that many pastors and for that matter many people want to avoid dealing with suffering and death at any cost. Whole industries are built around the worship of youth and beauty and a culture, including the churches lift their heads to the sky for God’s blessing while avoiding the suffering around them.  There are pastors and parishioners who by the boatload have been thrown from the “Barque of the Church” because they either failed or did not have enough “faith”

Such is not the Gospel nor is it Christian in any way shape or form.  It is no wonder that so many have abandoned the faith when all they see on TV are the modern digital theologians of glory who bask in fame and fortune while adding to the rejection, alienation and despair of those who believed them to actually be telling the truth.

Love, poverty and war, suffering and death, where the Christian faith meets these in the intersection is where new life can begin for it is only through the agony of the Cross that we know the resurrection.

Peace, Steve+

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I like Jesus very much, but He no help with Curveball

pedrocerrano

“Ahh, Jesus, I like him very much, but He no help with curveball.” – Serrano (Denis Major League)

Note:  This is one of those particularly passionate posts brought about by hearing about the abuse of a friend by his church and remembering things that happened to me and other friends at the hands of supposedly Christian leaders, ministries and organizations.  So I probably hit a little harder than usual. Please excuse this, it is an old wound that got opened up again this week as I saw good Christian people lose a baby and a friend be maligned by ministers in his church.

I think I agree with Serrano in Major League.  I like Jesus very much but He no help with curveball. I believe that God loves and cares for us but I do not believe that God servers at our command.  I also strongly believe that Jesus died to redeem us and that we need to have some kind of walk with God.  I know that I am too much of a screw up to get by without the grace of God and God’s mercy.   Hopefully we  follow as best we can God’s will for our lives and obey the commands to “love God and love our neighbor.”  Patently, while not Rocket Surgery, this can be surprisingly difficult as all of us to some degree or another.  I and I’m sure most who read this complicate the matter by narcissistically assuming that if we ask God something for any reason that God owes us.  We  are often taught that is we pray the right prayer, serve on the right boards in church, figure out what miraculous spiritual gifts that we assume the Holy Spirit has given to us, gave a certain amount of money, vote for the right political candidate, support the right cause, ad infinitum, ad nauseum that God is obligated to do what we want. The mandatory and obligatory tithe from the Old Testament Law is frequently used by Christians as a means to determine how much we have earned God’s blessing, by our obedience of course, among other things.  There are plenty of other means by which Christians are held in bondage but this is common and unfortunately too often there is no accountabilty by ministers and minstries across the ecclesiastical spectrum for the sums that they recieve from those who support them.

What I find fascinating is how much many people assume that God is involved in the minute to minute details of their lives.  It is as if some supercalifragilisticexpialidocious narcissistic form of hyper-Calvinism, baptized in Pentecostal fires has overtaken the faith. In fact I believe that we in the west, particularly the United States have gone to ludicrous speed in pursuit of self absorbed faith in which we use God as a cosmic vending machine of individual blessing.  Evidence of this belief abounds in what is blatantly misidentified as ”worship” songs in which our needs, our desires and our love for God are magnified above God’s Holiness and condescension to become incarnate of the Virgin Mary and become Man.  Somehow I think that we have the paradigm upside down.  Do I believe that God loves us?  I patently do.  I know for a fact that I can never love God or serve God as much as God loves and cares for me, but I base this on God becoming incarnate in Jesus, the Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate was crucified, died and buried, descended to the dead, who rose again on the third day, ascended into heaven and will come to judge the living and the dead, whose kingdom has no end.  So yes, indeed, even to death I will believe this.  However, this does not mean that I believe that if I do the right stuff that God is obligated to do things for me.  Likewise I do not believe that God really cares a whit if I ever hit a curveball. He speaks to me through baseball but only through hard work and the coaching of my dad was I a decent utility player.  When I told my dad when I visited him in the nursing home that he didn’t teach me how to hit, he told me that “you have to have the natural ability, lots of people can’t hit.”  Despite his advanced Alzheimer’s disease dad understood that no amount of instruction or even prayer was going to make me a good hitter.

Unfortunately this is often the faith as marketed by alleged Christian “ministries,” churches and retail establishments.  All you do is have to go down to whatever “Christian” bookstore chain has a outlet in your town.  I remember a day when actual Bible studies that dealt with God and not us were available in Christian bookstores.  Now if you actually like me, have walked around one of these places of edification you will fill racks upon racks of “Christian” fiction, often romance novels without any hint of sex or sensuality, which is a shame since the Bible doesn’t leave it out;  variations on the theme of what happens to the poor suckers who  forget to pray the prayer to get saved in time before the rapture when the slick Anti-Christ comes after them.  Likewise they are filled with all manner of “Jesus junk” usually made in China because the alleged Christians running the company care more about the almighty dollar than they do caring for workers in their own country.  Allegedly Christian television networks and ministries consume hundreds of millions of dollars in money, given by people who actually believe that the people running them are actually hearing from God, This money could actually be used to plant churches, do mission work, care for the poor and sick  and also pay Christian workers a living wage.  I have lost count of the number of friends who have sacrificed everything including their lives to support ministries which threw them away when they were spent.  I have seen workers in Christian ministries have to rely on charity because they were not paid enough while the “Christian leaders” that they worked for lived in luxury on the donations which came from the toil, labor and love of people who trusted them.  The litany of the names some of these people reads like a sorry story out of Inside Edition.  Peter Popoff, Creflo Dollar, Larry Lea, Bob Tilton, Benny Hinn, yes Benny, while others have turned themselves into almost purely political power players.  I could go on, but to what purpose?  My point is that many ministries, and not just the big ones, will hold their workers in near servitude and attempt to manipulate intimate details of their lives.

I find the message of many of these alleged “ministries” or ministers to be in absolute contradiction to the Gospel, which if I recall was to set us free from the bondage of sin, death and the Law.  In fact if I recall Jesus didn’t go beating on politicians, tax collectors, prostitutes, and a host of other undesirables, but instead went after judgmental, legalistic and self serving religious leaders who abused their power and position.  I have seen in person such people curry the favor of the rich and neglect the poor. I have seen people, including faithful Christian workers be ostracized and abandoned when they experienced circumstances and tragedy that do not fit the narcissistic prosperity gospel theology of their churches or ministries. Even worse is what happens when one of the lesser people falls into “sin.” Especially sexual sins while things like greed, gluttony, dishonest business dealings and a host of other things are ignored.  It is onerous when the Church refuses to take care of its own.  To save embarrassment of people who might read this I will not go into specifics only to say I have seen this happen and even experienced it myself.

The unfortunate underside of this is the effect that the theology has on the people who buy it hook line and sinker.  Such people are victims of predators dressed as ministers.  I’m sure that even if the ministries that they serve do not honor or care for them that God will still honor their work and sacrifice, if not in this life the next.  Yet, it is criminal for church leaders, ministers and heads of supposedly “Christian” organizations and ministries” to leave faithful servants of God in the lurch when things don’t fit their theology.  When we were in absolute crisis in 1989, wife sick, house and car lost, and all coming apart while in my second year of seminary I hit the wall.  I decided to call the prayer line of the Terrible Blonde Network.  I was desperate and hurting as I saw all I had sacrificed for going down the toilet.  When I told the female “prayer partner” my story and asked for prayer she said something that I will ever forget.  It is etched in my mind to this day.  In a sickening sweet voice, this woman who did not know me from Tommy Lasorda, or Adam for that manner said: “Well it’s obvious that God can’t be calling you into ministry otherwise he would be blessing you.”  I was stunned, but something rose up in my heart that said that she and those who thought like her espoused a theology from the pit of Hell.  I told her that I didn’t need her prayer and that I would be content to suffer as the saints before me.

Now do I believe that God cares about details?  Yes. Do I believe that God loves each of us with an undying and everlasting faithful love?  Yes.  Do I believe that he is obligated to do anything for me other than the gracious love that he bestows every day? No. Do I think or presume that God must do things my way because I have somehow got the formula of some preacher’s personal interpretation of a few Bible verses right?  No way.  It is unscriptural, is not supported by the testimony of 2000 years of the church and is nothing more than the deception and abuse of good people who really want to serve God.

I pray and trust that someday Christian leaders and churches will have the integrity and character to care for people, especially those that serve in subordinate positions.

Do I think that Jesus needs to help me hit a curve ball?  I think so, but I think that this might be unreasonable on my part, and so far he hasn’t.  Thus, if I want to hit the curve ball, I’ll have to do it myself.

Peace, Steve+

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