You might not believe it if you saw me now, but I used to be a serious athlete. When I was in second grade, I played t-ball. I wasn’t very good at the game. I was so terrible at batting that often I would strike out. Who strikes out in t-ball? The ball is right there in front of you and you don’t have to worry about curve balls, slow pitches, or anything. I would often swing at the ball and miss it altogether, even though it was just sitting there on top of the tee, right in front of me.
When I signed up for the t-ball team, I wanted to be the pitcher. Pitchers were cool. They were right in the middle of the action. I imagined myself pitching no hitter games as thousands cheered me on as the next American baseball prodigy. It never occurred to me that t-ball pitchers actually didn’t pitch the ball. In many ways, they were more of a target. I didn’t become the pitcher. My teammates told me that it was because I threw like a girl. When they first said this, I was really angry, but then one day I realized that I really did throw like a girl. I ended up in left field, which isn’t a very active position in t-ball.
Even though I wasn’t the pitcher, I swore to myself that I would work so hard that my coach, Coach Williams, would eventually admit his coaching mistake and make me the pitcher. I worked hard at every practice and did everything that he told me to do. I ran laps with the other players. I took turns trying to hit the ball at batting practice. I even caught the ball a few times when Coach Williams hit it to left field. Finally, I sat with the other players in the dugout and listened to my first pre-game pep talk. I don’t remember a word that Coach Williams said in his speech, but I do remember that he was sure that we would win if we all played our best. As he spoke, I determined that I would single-handedly work so hard that I would cause the entire team to win.
Earlier that day, I was pumped. Just to prove my team spirit, I wore my uniform to school. What I was most proud of was my blue baseball cap with a big “S” on the front. My team was the Sherwood Sharks. I never knew if the “S” stood for “Sherwood” or “Sharks” but I loved that hat. I pulled it so far down on top of my head that you couldn’t even see my eyebrows. All the kids laughed at me but I didn’t care. I wasn’t moving that cap off of my head for anything. Unfortunately, my teacher, Miss Browning, soon told me that I had better take it off unless I wanted to run laps to the principal’s office. She kept it for me for the rest of the day just to make sure that I wouldn’t somehow forget and put it back on my head. However, when she placed it on my head at the end of the school day, she smiled and whispered in my ear, “Hit a home run for me, John.”
“If I do, can I wear my cap in the classroom tomorrow?”
“No,” she smiled. “But we can both be happy about it.”
The next time I took off my cap was when I stood on the baseline with my fellow players and listened to a canned rendition of the national anthem. When it was finished, the umpire yelled, “Play ball!” I ran to my position in left field and waited patiently for the first fly ball to come my way. I was in for a long wait.
After a few minutes of zero left field action, I started to grow antsy. The time between batters seemed to last forever and my baseball cap was starting to feel tight around my skull. My determination to be a professional t-ball pitching star also waned as it began to sink into my brain that t-ball pitchers don’t actually pitch the ball. Also, the announcer took forever announcing each batter from the other team that stood to bat. Some of them hit the ball, but none of them made it out of the infield.
“This sure is taking a long time,” I sighed as I looked around me for some type of diversion that would keep me from my intense boredom. My search didn’t take long for perhaps twenty five feet behind me was an oak tree with large limbs that hung near to the ground.
“This is great!” I thought. “There’s a tree out here that I can play on. Nobody ever hits a ball to left field so there’s no reason for anyone to even look out this way. It’s so far that no one will ever notice, especially not Coach Williams. He wears glasses anyway and that must mean that he can’t see very well.” I took one more look at the infield. Everyone there seemed to be moving in slow motion. I threw down my glove and ran toward the tree. I grabbed a branch with both hands and swung my feet up and wrapped them around another branch. In my mind, I instantly became a prince in a middle ages kingdom fighting for his princess. As I hung from the branch, I cried out, “Don’t be alarmed, my dear Princess Alookabala! I, Prince Johann, will save you from the evil three headed dragon!”
My pretend world was soon shattered.
“Frady!” yelled Coach Williams from the infield. “What are you doing? Get the ball!” I turned just in time to see the ball quickly rolling toward me.
“Get the ball! What are you doing hanging from the tree?”
I dropped from the tree and placed my glove on the ground to stop the ball, but it hit a root and bounced right over my head.
“Behind you!” yelled the entire team. “Get the ball!”
I quickly turned and started chasing after the ball but tripped on another root and fell to the ground.
“I have to get that ball!” I screamed as I stood and ran in the direction where I thought the ball must have gone. Sure enough, I ran the wrong way.
“Frady, turn around!” Coach Williams yelled. “You’ll find it if you turn around.”
“Turn around?” I asked. “How will that help?”
“Turn around!” yelled every parent in the stands.
“Ok! I’ll turn around!” I yelled.
Furiously, I started spinning in circles with my arms stretched out until I actually fell to the ground from dizziness.
“Frady!” yelled Coach Williams. “Get up! Find the ball!”
“What was that kid doing spinning around, Williams?” screamed a man’s voice.
“Give it up, kid!” cried another voice from the bleachers.
Not seeing it anywhere, I gave up and sat down Indian style facing away from the infield and bleachers.
“Get that kid off the field!” I heard a man yell.
“What’s he doing out there!” screamed a woman. “He sat down during the game.”
I was so ashamed. I sat there in my dizziness and waited for someone to rescue me.
“This ain’t a sandbox, kid!” yelled an angry man.
At that moment, the dizziness wore off just a bit and I noticed that the ball was sitting right in front of me. Frantically, I jumped to my feet, picked it up and turned to throw the ball, but stopped when I realized that Coach Williams was standing right beside me.
“Don’t even bother throwing the ball, Frady?” he said, towering over me. “What are you doing out here?”
My mind went blank.
“Answer me!” he commanded.
I thought about telling him about how I was suddenly Prince Johann saving Princess Alookabala from the three headed dragon, but I didn’t think he would understand.
“I, uh, don’t know, Coach.” I answered timidly.
“Well, I know,” he snapped. “We’re in the middle of a very important t-ball game and you’re out here swinging on trees, mumbling to yourself, sitting down, spinning like a top, not even paying attention to what’s going on around you. What do you have to say for yourself?”
“I don’t know,” I answered, beginning to tear up.
“Well, I know!” he snarled. “Get your glove. You’re going to warm the bench for the rest of the game.”
The walk to the dugout lasted for an eternity. My teammates glared at me. Adults in the bleachers shook their heads.
One of the dads even yelled out, “Williams, you ought to just kick that kid off the team! He was swinging in the trees, for Pete’s sake!”
When I finally made it to the dugout, no one would let me sit by them. So, I walked to the far end of the dugout and I leaned against the wall behind me and cried hard. I threw down my glove and whispered, “I hate t-ball.”
I played two years of t-ball and then two more years of baseball. I hated almost every minute of it. I did improve a little. I eventually stopped throwing like a girl and never again did I swing on a tree during an actual game.
I don’t know why I continued to play. I think I was trying to earn respect for myself through improving my sports skills. I never got it. My teammates continued to glare at me, coaches continued to lecture me, and other kid’s parents continued to suggest loudly that I be kicked off of the team. No one, ever, told me that I was a good t-ball, baseball, or any other kind of ball player.
As I look back, I realize that in a similar fashion that I’ve worked hard all of my life to achieve respect. First, it was sports. I played t-ball and flag football, then I played baseball and football. After that, I tried basketball and soccer. Then, when I realized that sports weren’t for me, I joined the Boy Scouts and earned more badges than anyone else in my den. Next, I threw myself into my school subjects, hoping to find satisfaction. It didn’t come so I began learning to play the piano and I seriously started singing. Before long came band and drama and school clubs and honor societies and college scholarships. It never stopped. I continued to earn respect for myself so that never again would I be sitting in the dugout listening to someone yelling at me to give it up. Never again did I want to hear my coach or teacher or leader or conductor or friend or family member yell out, “Frady! What are you doing? Go get the ball! Why are you hanging in the trees? Why are you spinning around?” I would win their respect by outdoing everybody in everything.
And then I met Jesus Christ. He loved me unconditionally no matter if I excelled at anything. He accepted me whether I played left field, played in the trees, or sat in the dugout. He didn’t care about my abilities. He only cared about me. As a matter of fact, He loved me. I thought that was cool and I made Him my Lord and Savior.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t leave it alone. I decided that the best way to “repay” God for loving me unconditionally was to give Him other reasons to love me. I quickly got involved in every church activity that I could find in my own church and in others. I sang in the choir. I went on visitation. I wore neon Christian t-shirts to school (it was the 80’s), I sang solos in our church and in other churches, I went on mission trips, I wanted to do it all.
I took what should have been all about Him and made it all about me.
Oh, I thought that what I was doing was all about Him because I was serving Him. I was singing about Him. I was learning about Him. I was visiting for Him. I was working for Him. I was wearing t-shirts that portrayed and said cool things about Him! I was telling people about Him! But, really, deep down, it was all about me. I feel really ashamed about that as I write that now.
I was like Martha preparing the meal for Jesus. She was working so hard that she wasn’t getting to spend any time with Jesus. I’m sure that as Martha was preparing the meal for the Lord that she was thinking, “Okay. I’ve got to make this meal for Jesus and His disciples. Would He best like my unleavened bread or my fig preserve sandwich spread? I’ll just have to make them both. Then, when Jesus tastes them, He will turn to me and say, ‘Martha, you make the best unleavened bread fig preserves sandwiches I’ve ever tasted. Why don’t you sit on my right side when My kingdom comes?’”
But Jesus didn’t say that to Martha. “The Master said, ‘Martha, dear Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing. One thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it—it’s the main course, and won’t be taken from her.’” (Luke 10:41-42, MSG) Jesus was saying that although active, practical service to God is essential and good; our first and most important task is a love and devotion that expresses itself in worship, prayer, and fellowship with Jesus.
Now, after several decades, I hear Jesus calling to me from outside of the whirlwind of my own making. He’s asking me, “Why are you so caught up in this game? Where’s the John who forsake his outfield position in order to swing in a tree? That’s who I made you to be. Spend time with me and let me remind you of who you are.”