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Mariano Rivera and Me

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The Most Valuable Player in last night’s Major League Baseball All-Star Game was Mariano Rivera, a 43 year old pitcher for the New York Yankees.  He pitched one inning – the eighth – and got his three outs without giving up a hit or a walk.  For him it was just another day at the office.

But there was more going on last night than an older player getting his outs.

When Rivera went out to the mound before the inning started – for his warm-up throws – his team-mates did something they never otherwise do.  They stayed in the dugout – and cheered along with the 43,000 or so fans who were there.  They wanted him (and him alone) to receive the ovation they believed he deserved.

Rivera is retiring at the end of the season, and he’s using the season as a kind of farewell tour.  He was drafted at 19 years old and has been pitching pretty much since then, missing only the last half of the 1992 season to elbow surgery.  And with more than 20 saves in the first half of the season, Rivera remarkably is pitching as well as he ever has.

Here’s the really interesting thing about him: he’s universally loved within the league – players, coaches, managers, even front office staff and other ballpark employees.

I should point out that I personally don’t like the Yankees and never have.  I’m a lifelong Tigers’ fan and will always despise the Yankees (and their insufferable fans).  But it’s hard not to like Rivera (except when he’s pitching against the Tigers).

New York magazine published a profile of Rivera last month, and the profile disclosed something about Rivera that many fans do not know.  He’s a Christian.  And not just an occasional church attender, but someone who treats his faith as the most important part of his life.  “Everything I have and everything I became is because of the strength of the Lord,” he said to the reporter.

Christian athletes of course are nothing new.  Every sport has them – Tim Tebow in professional football (barely), Jeremy Lin in professional basketball, and so on.  But these days Christian athletes are often tolerated more than loved.  Tebow, for example, was such a polarizing presence on the New York Jets last year that for a while no team wanted him for the coming season.

So, what sets Rivera apart?  Part of it is that he’s earned the respect he’s getting by being around so long, so dedicated to his sport, and – well – so good.  At this point people are willing to listen to anything he says.

But I think there’s more, and this is something other athletes – and Christians in general – could pay attention to: He’s humble.  For someone who has achieved so much, this trait is especially striking, but I suspect he was humble when he was a nobody.  His humility makes his faith seem sincere and genuine and believable.

Even that New York magazine reporter was in awe – not because she was interviewing a sports celebrity, but because that sports celebrity was not all that impressed with himself.  As Rivera put it, “God put [my baseball talent] in me, for me to use it.  To bring glory, not to Mariano Rivera, but to the Lord.”

There’s one Yankee I admire.

(Photo credit: As with many of the photos I use on the blog, I found this one in a search of Google images.  However, an alert reader has pointed out that Rivera is a right-hander, and the photo clearly shows him throwing left.  He’s a great pitcher, but he probably doesn’t throw from both sides.  So, I’ll assume this photo was flipped.  Back in my college newspaper days, we used to flip photos so that, for example, a person wouldn’t be looking off the page.  I’ll assume something like that happened here. Good eye, Jim!)

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High School Mission Trip

high school mission trip Putnam County

The first days back from a high school mission trip are ordinarily tired ones.  It’s a time to catch up on sleep – and return to a healthy diet.

I can’t ever remember craving a leafy green vegetable as much as I did yesterday.

Working in the Florida gulf coast heat is one thing, but being responsible for 25 high school youth 24-hours a day for five consecutive days is another.  There is no down time.  It’s hard work.

So, I’m back home, and I’m tired.  And I’m achy from sleeping on the floor.  But I’m happy too.  I’m thinking our church has some great kids.

When I was in high school – back when the earth was still cooling – I don’t remember being nearly as sincere and earnest as these kids are.  Last week we divided into small groups after the evening programs, and I was frankly a little scared that first night about what was going to happen.

When I was their age, I was sarcastic and not very willing to engage with the topic, whatever it was.  I think the other kids back in those days were pretty much the same way I was.  But times have changed.  The kids from my church engaged during our small group time with sincere and thoughtful responses.  They wanted to talk.  And they listened (or pretended to listen) when I talked.

I’m not much of a youth leader.  I’ll admit that.  I’ve worked with some outstanding youth leaders over the years, and I’ve admired their gifts.  But I’m not one of them.  I tend to be soft hearted and a push over, and as you can imagine kids can size up that situation pretty fast – and take advantage of it.

So, when I go along on these trips, I like to take a secondary role, with lots of one-to-one conversations and relationship building.  I know where just about all of our kids are thinking about going to college and what they’d like to major in when they get there.  I know where all of them were born and where they grew up.  I know what high schools they attend and whether or not they like their school.  I even know a surprising amount about their homes and families – and about the relationships there.

While painting a large wall last week I learned that one of our girls, who came to our church because her father is incarcerated and because our church has an active support system for families with incarcerated moms and dads, is planning to join the Army after high school and become a nurse.  She’s got her future planned.  When she graduates from college she expects to be a lieutenant in the U.S. Army.

I’ve taken an interest in her since our first mission trip together two years ago.  A few months ago I had the privilege of baptizing her.  And now I get to encourage her as she pursues her goals.  It’s not going to be easy, given her current circumstances, but she’s one of the hardest-working high school students I’ve ever met.  And if anyone can accomplish an ambitious goal, she can.

Yes, I’m tired, but I’m happy too.

(Photo credit: I don’t have any photos from this year’s trip, but here’s the gang from two years ago – in Putnam County, Florida.)

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Any surprises?

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“Have there been any surprises in your 30-plus years of ministry?” someone asked me this week.

“That’s a good question,” I said, looking thoughtful, using the time-honored method of stalling for time to think of an answer.  “I don’t think anyone has ever asked me that before,” I said, still stalling.

“Why is this such a difficult question?” I thought to myself.  “Haven’t I been surprised during my ministry?  Aren’t I surprised each day?”

I have heard a great deal in my office over the years.  People have revealed personal details about their lives that I never expected to hear, that I never wanted hear.  They have spoken about heartbreak and cruelty.

Members of churches I have served over the years have been lied to, betrayed, and hurt in unspeakable ways.  Some of them have endured so much evil that I wonder how they are able to go on.

But was any of that surprising?  In a word, no.  I listened to them, and I tried to absorb the meaning of what they were telling me, but was I surprised?  I have to say no.  Surprised – maybe – that they were telling me, surprised that they were trusting this information to me.  But surprised that such things happen? No.

If anything, I’ve come to expect to hear those stories.  I’ve learned that when someone sits in my office the story I will hear will more than likely break my heart.  But it won’t surprise me.

I suppose the times in my ministry when I’ve been most surprised – and I’m surprised in a way to type this – have been those times when I’ve heard stories of thoughtfulness and caring, when I witness acts of kindness and sympathy, when I see someone speak up in a situation of injustice.

Then, I’m surprised.  And usually moved to tears.

In a church I served several years ago, I announced one Sunday morning that a spike in fuel prices had resulted in an extraordinarily large heating bill for the month.  I was sure no one knew what the church paid in utility bills each month, so I decided to let them know how a single bill had affected our budget.

Later that day a man came to my office with a check in his hand.  It was made out for the exact amount of the utility bill.  He said, “I want the church to have this because I don’t want any of our fine ministries to suffer.”

I said, “Thank you,” and he left.  And after he had gone, I slumped in my chair and cried.  My shoulders heaved.  It had never occurred to me that anyone would think to do such a thing.

I was as surprised – and pleased – as I have ever been.

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Pablo Casals and Me

if it ain't broke

So, there was a lot of email response to my recent “Blog News” post.

Mostly the responses urged me not to change anything – not to listen to busy bodies who gave me advice about my blog. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” was the concerned response from several people.

Thanks, everyone. I get it. But two points. One, I asked for the advice. It wasn’t as though people came to me and told me how my blog could be better. I went to them – and I’m still going to them.

Which leads to my second point. Trying to be better isn’t the same thing as fixing what ain’t broke.

Reminds me of the old Pablo Casals story. Someone noticed that the great cellist, then in his 90s, was practicing on his cello with great concentration. “Why do you bother?” someone asked. And Casals – this may be an apocryphal story, but I like it – said, “Because I’m noticing improvement.”

Of course. What Casals and I (and probably a few others down through history) believe is that it’s important to keep trying to be better.

Isn’t anyone impressed that I signed up with “Bloggers Helping Bloggers”? Doesn’t it sound like a grand humanitarian organization – like “Doctors Without Borders”? Okay, maybe not, but it sounds promising, and maybe I’ll get some really cool ideas.

Again, thanks so much for the feedback. And thanks for liking the blog as it is. I should have known that most of my readers who are church members would be opposed to change … on principle.

(Photo credit: Any first-year Latin student should be able to translate that one.)

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