Imperfect Parts

 

          I’d like to begin this morning with a poem about baseball. I know that there are a variety of feelings in the room about baseball – from the strongly positive to the thoroughly disinterested and perhaps even down to the specifically negative. Every professional sport carries with it honest moral questions about the compensation of and physical risk to its players, and baseball in particular has had more than its share of scandals. This poem, in particular, comes from 1910, almost four decades before the shamefully late racial integration of major league baseball. So if you don’t like baseball, or you don’t care about it, don’t worry – that’s okay. This won’t be the whole sermon, I promise.

          But because this brief poem is over a century old, and leans a bit on the specialized knowledge of a baseball fan, I’m going to try to make it as accessible as possible for our diverse gathering this morning through both illustration and explanation. The explanation will come afterward, but for the illustration I’m grateful for the help of several members of our church softball team, the Hale’s Angels. If I could ask the batters to come down in front, now. You’ll have to imagine the sanctuary as a baseball diamond for a moment. With home plate just in front of the altar, here, and first base over on the far left, there, and second base right in the middle, and over on the near right is where the short stop hangs out. So with those positions established, here is Franklin Pierce Adams’ famous poem, “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon”:

 

These are the saddest of possible words:

"Tinker to Evers to Chance."

Trio of bear cubs, and fleeter than birds,

Tinker and Evers and Chance.

Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,

Making a Giant hit into a double –

Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble:

"Tinker to Evers to Chance."

          Now as our players retake their seats – and thank you all very much for your assistance – let me provide that explanation I promised. The author was a Giants fan – they were still the New York Giants back then, before the team moved to San Francisco. And in this poem he laments their losses – again and again – to the Chicago Cubs, led by three infield stars famous for their double-plays: Joe Tinker, at short stop, Johnny Evers at second base, and Frank Chance at first. Those three spent a decade from 1902 to 1912 playing those positions together for the Cubs, during which time they won the National League title four times and the World Series twice. The word gonfalon, by the way, is a thoroughly out-of-date term for a small, thin flag good for waving in the wind – that is, a pennant. So here are the big, bad Cubs, wrecking the Giants fan’s hope of a title over and over again through a series of clockwork-like double-plays.

          Tinker, Evers, and Chance were famous players in their day, but this poem made them into a metaphor for teamwork and precise coordination – so that they’re names were still being invoked with that meaning long after their time on the field had ended. But though they played very well together, Tinker, Evers, and Chance did not actually get along very well. Evers and Chance competed against one another for the title of player-manager for the Cubs. It was Chance who took that office, which he held for seven years, only to be taken out of it, eventually, in favor of Evers. Evers himself only lasted as player-manager for a single season before being replaced himself.

          But the issues between Tinker and Evers went much deeper than those between Evers and Chance. By most reports, their quarrel started over a cab: before one particular away game, Evers took a taxi from the hotel to the field by himself, without Tinker or any of the other Cubs. Evers, however, said the taxi had nothing to do with it, and that his issue with Tinker started when the short stop threw the ball to him unnecessarily hard and injured his hand. In either case, the results are agreed to be the same: the two teammates got into an argument on the field in the middle of a game, which turned into a fist fight, and afterwards they both refused to speak to each other. For decades.

          The rhythm and precision of play described in Franklin Adams’ poem – the picture painted by a few simple words, “Tinker, to Evers, to Chance” – is a beautiful image. It’s so beautiful, in fact, that even a supporter for the opposing team can’t escape a certain degree of awe for it, even as it crushes the hopes of victory. That the trio of Tinker and Evers and Chance could play so well and so beautifully together at such a high level for such a long time, without particularly liking each other or being friends, and in fact while two of the three of them weren’t on speaking terms, is a testament to their skill and professionalism and to a certain type of teamwork. Many years after their time as players had ended, Evers said that he and Tinker both had their hard feelings against each other, “but we loved the Cubs. We wouldn't fight for each other, but we'd come close to killing people for our team. That was one of the answers to the Cubs' success.” And this, two, has added to the legend of these three baseball players a bit, making them an example of what can be accomplished when folks put aside their differences enough to focus on a specific, shared goal.

          Now at the start of a new year together as a congregation – a spiritual community made up of many different people, striving to live and work together, making a shared effort with a shared goal and because of that sometimes coming into conflict with each other – it seems wise to reflect a bit on what the terms of our teamwork are and ought to be. In the Gospels, the stories of the Teacher Jesus, he is often quoted teaching in parables in order to explain his central concept of the Kingdom of Heaven. Most of these, in the English translation, begin with the phrase, “the Kingdom of Heaven is like…” A treasure hidden in a field. A merchant searching for fine pearls. A mustard seed. Fill in the blank. But the ancient Greek term in these statements usually translated as “is like” could more accurately be rendered as “may be compared to” which leaves a great deal more space for a complex relationship, rather than a direct and simple illustration. So what I want to tell you this morning is this: baseball is a popular metaphor for life, and the beautiful rhythmic cooperation of Tinker to Evers to Chance has a bearing on our life in spiritual community. We should hope for and work for ways in which we can attain such an elegant flow together: supporting each other’s efforts, each playing our respective parts in anticipation of good faith and strong effort from the other members of the team. In baseball, as in our own collective project, no one person deserves all the credit for a single play; it is impossible to accomplish much of anything without a team.

          But while baseball may be compared to congregational life, it is not a direct and simple correlation to it, and among the most important differences is this: well-paid professional athletes might be able to win games without getting along with each other, but that sort of stalemate does not apply here. Our relationships have to go deeper than that, because our need for each other is greater than that, and our purpose together is higher than that. That does not mean that there can never be any disagreement between us – good thing, because there always will be such – but that does mean that a baseline of loving mutuality has to be built and rebuilt, again and again. There must be agreement between us about what we can expect from each other – one that is strong enough to hold each of us even if we lose hold of each other.

The author and naturalist Barry Lopez tells a story about this sort of agreement, set in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. He writes:

          “One time...before there were any people walking around this valley there were bear people. They had an agreement with the salmon....The salmon would come upriver every fall and the bears would acknowledge this and take what they needed. This is the way it was with everything. Everyone lived by certain agreements and courtesies. But the salmon people and the bear people had made no agreement with the river. It had been overlooked. No one thought it was even necessary. Well, it was. One fall the river pulled itself back into the shore trees and wouldn't let the salmon enter from the ocean. Whenever they would try, the river would pull back and leave the salmon stranded on the beach. There was a long argument, a lot of talk. Finally the river let the salmon enter. But when the salmon got up into this country where the bears lived the river began to run in two directions at once, north on one side, south on the other, roaring, heaving, white water, and rolling big boulders up on the banks. Then the river was suddenly still. The salmon were afraid to move. The bears were standing behind the trees, looking out. The river said in the middle of all this silence that there had to be an agreement. No one could just do something, whatever they wanted. You couldn't just take someone for granted.

So for several days they spoke about it. The salmon said who they were and where they came from, and the bears spoke about what they did, what powers they had been given, and the river spoke about its agreement with the rain and the wind and the crayfish and so on. Everybody said what they needed and what they would give away. Then a very odd thing happened—the river said it loved the salmon. No one had ever said anything like this before. No one had taken this chance. It was an honesty that pleased everyone. It made for a very deep agreement among them.

          Well they were able to reach an understanding about their obligations to each other and everyone went (their) way. This remains unchanged. Time has nothing to do with this. This is not a story. When you feel the river shuddering against your legs, you are feeling the presence of all these agreements.”

          Our congregation’s Board of Trustees has named the project of discerning, articulating, and collectively embracing the agreement of right relationship between us as a central priority for this year. That work is something we’ll need to do together, with care and patience and trust in our process of congregational decision-making. As we are embarking on this year, I enjoin us all to make ample space in our minds and our hearts for this question: what ought we to expect from each other. Towards that end, I want to invite you now into a moment of shared meditation. Please still your body and your mind a bit more, if you can, and close your eyes, if you feel comfortable doing so.

          It is said that you can build a perfect machine out of imperfect parts. And however debatable the perfection of our particular machine is, or even whether a machine is an acceptable metaphor for a collective made up of human souls, it is fair to say that we are all imperfect. Yet, in this moment, please hear this very clearly: you belong here. You have a place and a purpose here. You are needed here. No matter whether this is your first day here or your thousandth, no matter whether you intend to remain or not, in this moment you belong exactly in the place where you are. Without your presence this room and this time could not be the same – the air itself would be different without your being here. How we are and what we are, together, right now requires your existence. Please take the time to open yourself to that feeling and to really experience it: belonging. Having purpose. Being needed.

          Now, if you would, please open your eyes, and look around at the other people in this sanctuary. Take in their faces a bit, and consider: in light of what it feels like to belong, what should you expect from these other people in order to recognize and to magnify that belonging in you? What should they expect from you in order to recognize and magnify that belonging in them? Each of us will have our own answers. For myself, I can say that a great deal of it is about listening with the intent to hear: doing my best to hear what others are trying to say, and needing the same consideration back in return. Speaking in a way that considers deeply how my words may be received, making amends when I speak without kindness, and extending grace and understanding when I feel my meaning has not been heard. Likewise with action: expecting kindness from others, offering kindness to others, and practicing the humility to make amends when I fall short and to be open to the same sort of reconciliation when I am wounded.

          At the same time, the feeling of belonging is very delicate and personal, and I am mindful of the ways in which communities, especially religious ones, have a painful history of coercing forgiveness and cheap grace from those who have been harmed in order to maintain a stultifying peace. So the expectation, it seems to me, must be that the way to forgiveness should always be open. Not that it is required when harm goes unaddressed. What we expect from ourselves and each other must be held in balance with the justice we are committed to pursue and to work for in the wider world, and in all of the communities of which we are a part. These values aren’t in conflict, but the one helps to illuminate the other, and raise each to a higher standard than they could reach in isolation.

          A few years ago, at the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly, I heard a talk by Bryan Stevenson, the lawyer and social activist. Then, as in other venues, he offered his four-point plan for working towards justice. I find it a worthy framework for external work – for going out into the world to help make more justice there. But I offer it to you hear as a framework for more internal work – for how we might relate to each other in a spiritual community of strength and depth. Because those two apparently different projects are so deeply inter-related as to be ultimately the same.

          Bryan Stevenson begins from the reality that people are suffering. It must be said and understood that particular people and groups of people suffer more than others, and this is the reason why we cannot limit ourselves only to focusing on the internal work of community – we must go to where the hurt is deepest. But it is also unassailably true that all people know suffering in their lives. And when we keep that truth in mind and at heart in our interactions with each other, it opens us up to greater possibilities for understanding. The four points, then, are:

          First, get proximate. Go to where the hurt is, and be with people in their suffering. Do not look to your neighbor as an abstraction, an inconvenience, or a stranger. Get close enough to actually relate, to begin to know something about each other.

          Second, change the narrative. Our world is shaped by the stories we tell, and most of those stories divide us. They form the chief barriers to our knowing each other. In order to build or rebuild relationship, we have to be willing to do the work to change the narrative.

Third, be willing to be uncomfortable. This isn’t so much a step as a required quality for the previous two action items. Because getting proximate to people you don’t know or already feel distanced from, and changing the story you tell yourself about them or that others are telling on them, will absolutely be uncomfortable.

          Finally, maintain hope, while confronting hard facts. The injustice and inequity present in the world is profound. And even in a single spiritual community, which tends to attract relatively similar hearts and minds, and hopefully offers some comfort, at least on occasion, there will still be conflict, disappointment, and feelings of sorrow and grief. So an essential part of the work we do together is helping each other find hope even in moments of pain or despair. If you stay in community long enough, it will break your heart. What makes it worth joining and staying in the first place, is that it can be strong enough and nurturing enough to make it necessary and worthwhile, even with that heartbreak.

          Unlike a professional baseball team, this congregation has no single owner or manager – if I were to analogize myself to a role, for instance, it would be as the third-base coach. We have no direct competitors that we routinely face-off against – as combative as the pubic square and the spiritual marketplace might feel, at times. And there is no set standing on which we are ranked, such that we can simply tally wins and losses and know our place in some celestial order. Instead, we are mixed and varied group of many different identities and personalities. But we are still, in some sense, a team: that is, in the senses of having a common cause, of depending on each other, and, at our best, of having fun together. My friends – my teammates – may we each be blessed for and by the work of our team together this year.