When Life Throws Us a Curveball

I never got to play baseball (as I have mentioned previously). It wasn’t conducive to life on a dairy farm. So, I never learned how to field ground-balls or hit fastballs and curveballs. My college roommate was a really good fast-pitch softball pitcher. I asked him how good. Russ’ response: “You’d never be able to get a hit off me. In fact, I bet you never even get a piece of the ball.” Game on! How fast could he possibly be?

I was soon to discover that speed wasn’t his strength. It was his curveball. I stepped to the plate ready for a fastball. But Russ threw me a curveball. Keep in mind that as a batter, I’d never seen a curveball in my life. I swear it moved 3-4′ left to right as it came to the plate. Since I hadn’t ever seen a curveball, my instinct was to get out of the way of the ball that I was sure was headed right for me. I took one step forward and, thud, the 80 mph ball hit me square in the thigh.

Fast forward to March 2020 – life has certainly thrown us a curveball! A curveball, indeed! A mere three months ago, an animal novel virus mutated and infected a human. Now, a few mutations later, we are experiencing a pandemic that has disrupted life as we know (knew) it.

I have often wondered what attracted first century followers to Jesus. I suspect one of the attractions was the way he lived life. He lived and ministered during a time of tumult and uncertainty – religiously, politically, and economically. He lived amidst urgency. Thousands flocked to him for healing and comfort – many more than he could accommodate. Yet he never appeared frantic or overwhelmed.*

Recall Jesus sleeping in the stern of the small fishing boat that was about to be swamped by a storm (Mark 4:37-40), causing his friends to ask, “Who is this guy?” He possessed a peace that transcended normal understanding – a peace which people desired. He passed that peace onto his followers, anticipating they could live likewise – “Peace be unto you. As the father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21) with the charge to develop other disciples (see Matthew 28). So, how do we, as subsequent Disciples/Christ-followers/apprentices, do life during a life-disrupting pandemic?

Two of my grandson’s play baseball through the MN Blizzard Baseball Academy. Since I have accompanied them to various out-of-town tournaments, I receive some of the same Blizzard emails that my grandsons receive. This week Adam Barta, the owner of the MN Blizzard, sent an email to the kids with some reminders of who they are as young leaders and how they can live well during this time of uncertainty. I want to share a few of his thoughts, based on the Blizzard Academy’s Big 5:

  1. We’ll control our attitude, our effort and our preparation. Playing catch with our family isn’t cancelled.  Learning the game isn’t cancelled.  Working out, eating right and getting a good night’s sleep isn’t cancelled.  Talking to your friends isn’t cancelled.  Life isn’t cancelled.  It just threw us a nasty curveball on an 0-2 count and we will keep fouling it off.
  2. We’ll keep the faith! Keep the faith that everyone will do their part in this crap situation.  It takes a team to win a game and we are ALL teammates now.  We are down 10-0 in the first inning.  We’ll all keep playing hard the rest of the game, keep clawing our way back and walk this thing off in the bottom of the 9th.  And ‘yes’, this is the only time we can talk smack to the opponent – The Coronavirus.
  3. Your CHARACTER is what you are doing when no one is watching and how you deal with adversity.  This is not the time to play the ‘too bad, so sad” card.  Everyone can handle hitting a bases clearing double and striking out someone with the bases loaded.  How you going to handle striking out in a big situation?  Throw your helmet or suck it up and get ready to play defense.
  4. Synergism – The total is greater than the sum of it’s parts. We cannot win a game or this situation alone.  Nor do we have to.  Everyone is going to do their part – including the Blizzard.  We are going to be great, not good.
  5.  Kaizen – Getting better in small increments every day. This is going to give us all a chance to get better at something else whether it be a better brother, better worker, better anything.  We’ll get better for this.  Sometimes it may not feel like that on the front end, but we will on the back end.

I can imagine Jesus giving his followers a similar talk as he prepared them to spread the message of the Good News of God’s Kingdom having broken into history, an adversarial history at that. He at no point suggested it would be without trouble. In fact he warned them that there would likely be trouble and no one would be immune. He also told them that he would be with them in the middle of it all: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). Keep the faith. Keep fouling off those curveballs.

* Look for an upcoming post entitled “Uncharted Waters.”

Adam Barta (far left) and grandson Oran (front row, third player from the left)
Grandson Jackson and Satchel Paige

He Picked Me!

Circa Spring 1958. I was in third grade at Handke Elementary. We took Bus #5 from the farm to school. The bus driver actually made two trips each morning. The neighbor kids up the road were the last to get on the bus for the first trip, we were the first for the second route. The first route riders arrived at school about 20-25 minutes before start time. The second route got us to school just as the first bell rang.

When I arrived at school, the town kids would be coming in from the playground after playing some pick-up baseball. I wanted to play ball all my life, but farm chores negated that opportunity. Maybe there was a way I could get in on the pick-up games. I negotiated with the bus driver that if I was at the road when he came by the first time, he would pick me up allowing me to get early for some baseball. Life was good! Sort of. By the time I got to the playground, teams were already picked and the captains argued over who had to take me. Because the others played ball together all summer, they knew each other’s abilities. I was an unknown and lived with those feelings of being “picked last.”

One day Tim Thompson showed up. Tim, I discovered, was a pretty big deal. He was in eighth grade and apparently was a really good ball player. The town kids urged Tim to play, but they couldn’t decide which team should get him. So Tim solved the problem. He said, “Let me pick one player and we will take on all the rest of you. However, we get to bat first.” Of course all the town kids huddled around him, yelling, “Pick me! Pick me!” Tim looked around and…

…he picked me – the most unlikely candidate! So it was Tim and me against nine. He asked if I could hit. I said, “Yes.” He said, “Good. Just get on base and I’ll get you home!” And that’s what we did. I got on base and Tim hit a home run – again and again. I don’t think the other team ever got to bat! I felt valued (and a bit vindicated).

Jesus tended to invite people to follow him who were not likely candidates. Israel’s first-century education system was religiously focused.  The boys (sorry girls) started school at about age six.  For the next 3-4 years they memorized the Torah – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.  By age 10, those with natural abilities to memorize and understand the scriptures began to distance themselves from the others.  They were invited to continue their education.  The others?  They were sent back home to learn the trades of their fathers.  They were cut by the system – kinda like American sports.

Those that continued a formal education spent the next four years memorizing the rest of the Hebrew scriptures.  During this time, the students also began learning the questions that surrounded the scriptures.  By age 14-15, only the best of the best students remained.  The rest were home, learning the trade of their fathers.  Those remaining would then apply to a well-known rabbi (teacher) to become one of that rabbi’s disciples (student/learner). If selected, the rabbi would invite the student to “follow me.” The goal of the student, now a disciple, wasn’t just to learn from the rabbi, but to actually become like him and participate in his mission. 

Jesus was apparently a rabbi.  People called him one, so at the very least he was perceived as a rabbi.  Jesus lived around the lake Galilee region, probably in the fishing village of Capernaum.  It was a small town so it would be safe to say he knew and was known by a majority of its residents.  I’m guessing the locals were fully aware that their resident rabbi wasn’t like the rest, though they couldn’t quite put their finger on why he was different.

One day Jesus was out walking along the beach. He saw two brothers, the local fishermen Simon (Peter) and Andrew. He called out to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.” Farther down the beach, Jesus encountered James and John who were fishing with their father. They received the same invitation. All four RSVP’d immediately, dropping their careers to follow Jesus. There is enough here for several blog postings, but we will briefly consider a few things…

  • Jesus was probably not a stranger to the four fishermen. As Jesus demonstrated throughout his ministry, he was relationally invested in the people around him. We can certainly surmise that Jesus knew these guys, maybe quite well. Likely they were his source of fresh fish.
  • The four guys were probably well aware of Jesus as a teacher (rabbi) who taught and said things differently than they had heard from other teachers. They were hearing about God and his kingdom in new ways. Maybe what Jesus said sounded right to them.
  • This rabbi invited these most unlikely candidates to follow him! They were, after all, no longer going to school. They had been cut and were working their fathers’ trade. Yet Jesus said, “Follow me.”

Given this, why wouldn’t they have walked away from their careers to follow the radical rabbi, Jesus – to become like him and share in his mission? We cannot, we should not take lightly Jesus’ call on us to follow Him, even if we feel like unlikely candidates – especially if we feel like unlikely candidates. Nor should we take lightly his call on those around us who seem like unlikely candidates.

“In the same way the Father sent Me, I am now sending you” (John 20:21)