Yesterday Opening Day.
We’ll forget the fact that three games had been played before yesterday. Thursday was the day baseball fans traditionally point to as the “true” beginning of the season. Opening Day is and has always been about smelling the grass, reliving childhood memories, and believing that your team can win it all – even if you are a Cubs fan.
Yesterday, I attended my first Opening Day. A good friend and I went to Cincinnati for the Reds’ opening tilt against the struggling Marlins. (It’s odd to say that the Marlins are struggling, but through two games this season they have already given up more than 20 hits to the Cardinals and Reds.) Being in the stands allows you to experience all that Opening Day has to offer. It is a very traditional and special time in the life of sports fans, even if the temperatures were a little too cold for my desire in the shade. (Yes, I should have worn a coat.)
As a pastor and a baseball fan I cannot help but notice how baseball and the church are very similar. Of course, I’m not proposing we worship the game of baseball. That would be foolish and against true worship of the Triune God. Yet, there are some characteristics that both share which, I believe, helps us to understand the church as both an institution and a movement.
Both have traditions and rich pageantry that defines its biggest events. There is nothing more beautiful in sports than Opening Day in baseball. Football has tried to capture the simplicity and splendor in recent years, but it’s not the same. Opening Day is a celebration of an entire community, especially in a city like Cincinnati. It brings together all aspects of community life around a game that many of us played as children and still follow today. The church is like that as well. Our major events are filled with a rich liturgy and focus that have been handed down to us through many generations. There is something humbling to know that on Sunday we will say the same prayers, read the same passages of Scripture, and recite the same creeds that our brothers and sisters in the faith have done for centuries. In the church, we stand on the witness of God’s truth and love of those who have gone before us. It is humbling and encouraging, especially as we approach Easter morning.
Both have had controversies which have hurt people. Baseball has been hurt by steroid use and how it impacted cherished records, such as the season and career home run records, and extended careers. In a game built on honoring numbers, baseball has had a fair number of detractors who believe the sport has lost its focus and its inner core. In fact, there are many who will not watch baseball because of the steroid era and what it did to the sport’s records. The same is true of the church. We have had our own scandals. I am especially referencing the sexual abuse scandals that have impacted every denomination and faith tradition. These are violations of trust and are hurtful to all involved. Abuses can affect how someone views something or someone, and this is especially true with a person’s relationship with God. We in the church have to own this and take better care of protecting ourselves, our families, and our flock to make sure these abuses do not occur.
Both have strong numbers of support, even though people claim they are not “relevant.” Yesterday, a record crowd was on hand to watch the Reds take on the Marlins. Last year, more than 3.6 million saw the Phillies play. Even the Marlins were able to pull off 1.5 million visitors in 2011. In an age in which many commentators claim that baseball is a relic of the past and does not fit the entertainment needs of our fast-paced culture, baseball is still a popular sport. That fact cannot be argued or disputed. As well, many claim the church is not relevant in our skeptical age that we live in. They say that the problems of the world prove God does not exist. Yet, the church is growing. Across the world, there is a movement of the Holy Spirit that is alive and people are coming to faith in new and exciting ways. We in the North American church can learn a lot about what our brothers and sisters are doing in Africa and Asia in spreading the Gospel.
Both have people desiring change in order to “catch up with the times.” In recent years, many have desired vast changes in order to improve baseball. Some of these changes have included instant replay, a play clock between pitches, and changes to the playoff structure. All of these changes have been advocated in order to make baseball current with new realities and new changes to our culture. Baseball has taken on some (limited instant replay and changes to the playoff structure), but has avoided changes that would be detrimental to the game. At the same time, many have argued for changes in the church. Some of the changes are well needed, such as changes to our structures to make us more accountable and flexible with current realities. While others changes are advocated in ways that sets one group against another. The church should be willing to change and adapt its practices, but not its truth. If there are things the church can do to make us more engaging with the culture and communities we seek to reach then we should do that. However, if these changes are contradictory to Scripture and the message of the Gospel they should be avoided.