October 17th, 2008
Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer...Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown. (Revelation 2:10)
The Red Sox were done.
They might still be done. Might be done by the time you read this, in fact. But by all rights, they should have been done Thursday night.
They were down 7-0 to the Tampa Bay Rays, and down 3 games to 1 in their best-of-7 American League Championship Series. What that means, if you’re arithmetically- or baseball-challenged, is that Tampa was going to win the game and go to the World Series. When the Rays’ B.J. Upton doubled to deep left field in the top of the seventh to score two runs, the fans at Boston’s Fenway Park started to head for the exits.
The Red Sox were done.
You have to understand their pessimism. There might actually have been a few fans there who knew that the last team to come back from such a large deficit in the playoffs was the A’s – but back then they were still the Athletics and played in Philadelphia. That was in 1929. (Incidentally, the team they rallied against in that game was the Cubs. Figures.)
Some of those fans probably regretted leaving. A lot of them are probably lying today to friends, family, and co-workers, claiming that they never doubted, never left their seats. That’s because, there in the bottom of the seventh, Dustin Pedroia singled home a run. Then David Ortiz homered – only his second hit of the series – to score 3 more. Now it’s 7-4, and things are a little more interesting.
Bottom of the eighth. J.D. Drew homers with Jason Bay on. Just like that, it’s 7-6 and Fenway Park is, in the words of Red Sox manager Terry Francona, “coming unglued.” And then Coco Crisp (yeah, that’s really his name) hits a single that scores Mark Kotsay, and now unglued isn’t the word for it. The Red Sox were done, and now it’s 7-7.
Bottom of the ninth, two outs. Kevin Youkilis beats out an infield single and winds up at second on a throwing error. The next batter is J.D. Drew, who bangs a double into right field and over the wall on one hop to score Youkilis and win the game, 8-7. The Red Sox were done, and suddenly they’ve won. They were lost, and are found. They were dead, and are alive again.
The biblical allusion, you might have guessed, is intentional.
There’ll be all sorts of analysis in the next day or two – more, if the Sox go on to the World Series – of just what they did that enabled them to get back into the game and save themselves from elimination. At the risk of oversimplification, though, it really comes down to this: they played their positions, they took their turns at bat, and some things just started to go right. There’s really not a game plan for the position they were in, no major strategy changes, no baseball calculus that guarantees a three-inning, 8-run comeback. You just keep playing, keep pitching, keep throwing, keep catching, keep swinging a bat. And while you do that, sometimes in a baseball game something happens and everything changes.
We live in anxious times. “Biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression,” we hear. Unemployment. An expensive, heartbreaking war. And that doesn’t even include all the stuff you carry on your shoulders personally: the health problems, family problems, work stress, school demands and so on that everyone seems to bear to one degree or another.
At times like these, it’s important that we not get so focused on the way things are that we can’t continue to imagine the way things might be. The difference, I guess, between staying on the field and taking your cuts versus heading for the exits with your shoulders slumped is that if you’re in the game at all, you have to stay on the field. There are no guarantees that everything will change for the better if we just hang in there and keep swinging, of course. But there’s that possibility, hanging out there like a bad curve ball. Stand in long enough, and eventually you’ll get a pitch you can hit.
Sometimes, of course, standing in long enough means past the point where anyone else would think that there was a chance. “Be faithful, and I will give you life” – I think I’d prefer it if Jesus had left it at that, if you want to know the truth. “Be faithful” – that’s harmless enough. That’s about going to church and saying my prayers and being nice to people, isn’t it?
No, it’s not. It’s about suffering, and not giving in to fear. Not the absence of fear – Jesus himself didn’t meet that standard – but recognizing that being afraid of something doesn’t have to be the same thing as shrinking from it. The promise Jesus makes is for people who will put their trust in him even if it literally kills them. And the reality is, of course, that everyone who has ever trusted Jesus before you is dead. No one survives the experience.
So the more I think about it, the more I like the promise as it is: “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.” That’s real, isn’t it? It takes seriously the gravity of the struggles we face, the toll it takes on us to live in this world. It takes seriously that there really are people and forces out there who would hurt us, if they can. It’s a promise that grapples with human mortality, a promise for hospitals and funeral homes. It’s for battlefields and prison cells, for killing fields in places like Somalia and blighted urban neighborhoods closer to home. It’s a promise that even though Jesus’ vision of love and justice and holiness sometimes looks a little thin and unsubstantial next to the reality of the world around us, faithfulness to him is where our hope lies.
It’s a promise that we are not done, not by a long shot, if we will just hold on to our trust in him. The outcome is sure. The victors’ names are already announced, and their trophies of eternal life will soon be in their hands.
So things are tough. Uncertain. Difficult. Jesus never promises that it won’t get worse before it gets better. But he does promise that it gets better. Maybe he doesn’t spare us the struggle so that we’ll enjoy the victory that much more. I don’t know. But I know the promise he makes is one that he lived. He was faithful to death, and his Father gave him life. And it’s his intention to share it with all his faithful people.
So hang in. Keep doing what he tells you, what you know to be right. Love God, and love your neighbor, and take your life’s energy from that source. And when you’ve gone as far as you can, he’ll step in and take you the rest of the way.
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