{Lent 2017 continues, with a seemingly endless supply of mugs which prompt wordy reflections for the pleasure of writing each day. All these mugs are found in the Kellam kitchen cupboard. None has been stolen.}SONY DSC

My early days at seminary included walking a few blocks to Parker Field to watch the Richmond Braves play AAA baseball. The team and I arrived in Richmond the same year. I had grown up watching the Binghamton Triplets, a Class A affiliate of the New York Yankees, so AAA was that much nearer watching a major league team. I didn’t go to games in Richmond regularly though, until my administrative assistant gave me a season ticket for Christmas one year.

By that time, the old Parker Field had been demolished and replaced with a new ballpark named “The Diamond.” My season ticket was for Box 112, Row A, Seat 1. The usher for that section called me the “Sauce Man” (A-1…get it?). I guess I had that season ticket for three years before we moved out of state.

When we got to Vermont, we’d drive 90 minutes west to Burlington to sit in the oldest active baseball stadium in the country (dubbed “Centennial Field” ages ago) to watch the Vermont Expos, a short season Class A team. I voiced their radio spots one year, but when I showed up at the park for my first game that season, after driving those miles, the stadium was sold out, and I stewed all the way home. (Just ask Joan.)

These days, I try to get to watch young up-and-coming Mets players at the minor league stadium in Binghamton, intending to go once each home stand. The Eastern league has its rookies, yes, but the occasional rehab assignment brings guys from the big leagues here a few games each summer.

I have to admit, unlike my next door neighbor who played some minor league ball, I never played baseball. Nor any other sport for that matter. And unlike other sports fans, I don’t wear some star’s jersey, and I don’t watch much baseball on TV. Good grief, that’s a long time to sit in the recliner and stay awake. But I do like those minor league games just a 25 minute drive and an $8 ticket away. 

As I watch these youngsters play and learn and play and learn the game (which is what this level is for) I look at the coaches and appreciate their dedication to the future of the game. And their patience. Certainly, too, their own athletic skills. The manager (head coach) gets most of the press, but pitching coaches get their share of exposure, walking to the mound a few times in each game to speak with, counsel with, or chastise the pitcher. In other words, to coach. Batting coaches don’t have the visibility, but they’d better be effective if players hope to score any runs.

Back in Richmond, the managers had names true fans would recognize: Tommy Aaron, Eddie Haas, Jim Beauchamp, Phil Niekro, Chris Chambliss, and Grady Little. One of my favorites was Roy Majtyka who led us to a league championship. Full of fire, that guy. Notice: I said he led US. We fans think we own the team. And that we know better than the managers and coaches too. We are good at second guessing. Our ticket gives us the right to cheer our manager on as he argues with umps, and to boo the guy if he waits too long to remove a pitcher. But the fact is that it’s the coaches that, as a professional team, mold our young talents into guys who know how to play the game. Some of those guys will be selling aluminum siding in a couple of years. A handful will become millionaires, prospects for Cooperstown.

There is no easy way to segue here, but I crunch the gears by shifting to another kind of coaching. While the term is practically a trade mark of athletics, there are coaches beyond the arena, the field, and the gym. We have coaches in churches now. And they are not teaching little kids to dribble in the church gym. They are spiritual coaches. Or, church leaders, both clergy and laity, who are being trained to “coach” other leaders, to guide and equip and inspire those church members to strengthen the life and ministry of their faith communities. I just did a quick internet search for “church coaching” and found site after site for coaching church planters, clergy-coaching, coaching  effective youth leaders, and on and on.

I guess we used to call it “leadership training.” but with athletics having such a powerful hold on people (and unfortunately on Sabbath days as well), the term “coaching” is more appealing. It certainly “sells” more than “mentoring” or “training.” Some pastors I know enjoy the guidance of a “spiritual director.” But some of those directors are calling themselves spiritual coaches now. Frankly, as I peruse the websites of those who have made a commercial business of church coaching, I don’t see much, if anything, that distinguishes the benefits of coaching from, say, shepherding, or mentoring. Might we be talking just terminology here?

The Lord is my Coach; I shall need no other. Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you coaches of men and women.” Or, as the Apostle Paul wrote, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be coached by the Spirit.” I can see this playing out (no pun intended) in seminaries as professor-coaches create an atmosphere of teaching/learning in which student/players can move professionally from the minor leagues (small rural parishes in Class A communities) to the majors (formerly called “big steeple churches”). Whether one plays for the Protestant League or the Catholic League, the competition will be fierce for the best, most talented and experienced players.

I don’t mean to sound cynical or sarcastic. I write with a bit of a smile, not a sneer. It’s the same way I approached two books on the shelf right behind me. Excuse me as I reach back, and…yes, got ’em. One book is James Penrice’s Crossing Home: the Spiritual Lessons of Baseball. (I see that it was given to me by the same generous person who gave me my R-Braves season tickets. She sure know how to assure job security!) The other volume is And God Said, “Play Ball!” — subtitled, “Amusing and Thought-Provoking Parallels Between the Bible and Baseball.” The author is Gary Graf. Both books are fun, both deal with leaps from baseball to Biblical faith, and both pretty much ignore coaches! Players, umps, and fans get the ink, but managers and coaches? Not so much.

Yet, take away the nomenclature, ignore the newfangled “coaching” terminology, and no one can deny the importance of our spiritual mentors, those whose lives witnessed to deep faith, and whose words guided our understanding of the rules of the game: grace, forgiveness, hospitality, peacemaking. Since Jesus called his first team, ragged as their first efforts were, those who lived the faith best took on the roles of leadership that drew us in, not as mere fans, but as active, dedicated players.

Sport is not my religion. But I can sport about it anyway, right? Right, Coach?

Let us hope that at the last, at the end of our season, we will all be called up.