About Corazon

Monday, April 18, 2016

Raging (Mor)Hormones: Mormonism Enters Its Teenage Years

"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things" (1 Corinthians 13:11).
My dad was my favorite superhero. He did no wrong, he said no wrong, he could leap tall buildings and fix my bike without breaking a sweat. Everything he said was the gospel, everything he did was the coolest and everything he liked became what I liked. He was the strongest, bravest and smartest guy I ever knew...

...and then I became a teenager.

I remember vividly the occasion when I first questioned/doubted my father. I had gone to work with him on a summer day when I had no school. We were discussing basketball over lunch. I had recently completed two basketball camps and was very excited about the upcoming season. While talking basketball I mentioned how I was certain that Michael Jordan was the greatest basketball player who had or would ever live. There was no doubt in my mind that I was right. After all, it's Michael Jordan I was talking about! My dad, however, was not sold (the year was 1991, so Jordan had not yet become the champion we know him to be today). Instead, my father suggested that Magic Johnson, who had achieved far more (at least at that point in time) was a far greater player than Jordan. I couldn't believe my ears. Blasphemy! This old man actually thinks that Magic Johnson could hold a candle to the great Air Jordan!?! Has he gone mad? To make a long story short, he and I disagreed on the matter. I recall thinking, for the very first time, "Maybe this old man doesn't know everything after all. In fact, maybe I know better!"

And so works the mind of all teenagers! Though I loved and revered my father to his dying day (heck, I still love and revere him, he will always be Superman to me), I, like all teenagers, occasionally succumbed to the delusion that I knew better than my parents (even though Michael was clearly better than Magic). As much as I worshipped my dad as a child, I have no doubt that he, like most fathers, wanted me to grow up and become my own man. To get there, I first had to be a teen.

The teenage stage of life may seem like an endurance challenge for parents, but in reality this is a critical period of development in which the birth of individuality comes to life for the very first time. Though saturated with hormones, peer pressure and delusions of grandeur, the teenage years are essential to the evolution of all humans.

When thinking about human growth and development patterns we usually apply such ideas to individuals; the children we raise/know. We rarely if ever consider collective or institutional development along these same developmental lines. This is unfortunate because like individuals, many institutions experience these same "growing pains" in which similar adolescent, teenage and adulthood stages can be observed over time. This is the purpose of my silly little blog post today. I intend to show how one institution (the Mormon Church to which I belong) is experiencing this same developmental pattern. Having gone through our own critical formative years as an adolescent, it is my contention that Mormonism is currently on the cusp of transitioning to its "teenage" stage. How we make that transition is likely going to determine what we look like as a mature adult faith.

I am a 9th generation member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons). As such, Mormonism has become as big a part of my DNA as the genetic material given to me by my mother and father. I have more polygamist ancestors than Hillary Clinton has missing emails! It is my heritage and I love it.

When it comes to Christian churches, the Mormon faith is extremely young. We have only been on the scene for a little under 200 years. That may seem like a lot but compared to more "mature" faiths, we are very much a new kid on the block. Unlike other religions like Catholicism and many branches of Protestantism, which have already gone though their own adolescence, teenage years and are now mature adult faiths, Mormonism has only barely kicked off the proverbial training wheels.

But we're growing up fast!

Our Adolescent Years

The Mormon religion was born in tough circumstances. As an infant faith, we endured the pains of persecution, migration and entrenchment. In some respects we could compare our earliest years to that of a child forced to grow up witnessing the death of a parent, along with repeated moves from one location to another. It was a tough childhood but eventually we emerged as a healthy and vibrant young faith.

Due to the hard knocks endured in our earliest formative years, Mormonism grew up somewhat paranoid, defensive, exclusive and alarmist. Even after finding a stable home in the West, the fear of further persecution (both real and perceived) caused us to distrust anything deemed "anti-Mormon" or "gentile" in nature. That which wasn't officially "church approved" was oftentimes considered alien, dangerous and toxic, and was subsequently dismissed without much debate. Like an abused dog, Mormonism learned to both hide in a corner and growl while showing its teeth at anything it considered unsafe. As Mormonism grew up, church leadership (like any good parent) hoped to ensure the further growth, protection and development of its young but increasing membership. As a result, leaders established a standardized set of rules, doctrines and teachings (through what has become known as Correlation), which served to codify, simplify and homogenize the Mormon message. The effort to standardize the Mormon faith proved extremely successful as members across the globe studied the same material from the same manuals. The member in Bolivia and in Utah read the same lesson from the same book on the same Sunday. In fact, Correlation became a source of pride for the young Mormon Church. It was common to hear a member proclaim, "No matter where I go, the gospel is the same." Here is a comical take on Correlation and it's impact on the church:

And like any blissful, loving child, Mormons happily gobbled up this easy to digest correlated message as if it had been produced by Gerber. The message was pure, easy to understand and not dependent on further detail/expansion. Correlated Mormonism had all the recommended daily nutrition needed for spiritual life. And even if we wanted more, our parents were always quick to remind us that milk came before meat. In short, Mormonism's youth was inundated with the message that the "church is perfect," "prophets cannot/will not lead you astray," and there is "popcorn popping on the apricot tree." Like a child who is told to eat his/her green beans, wash his/her face and be in bed before Santa comes, the youthful Latter-day Saint faith never had a reason to doubt its parents.

The Dreaded Teens!!!

As sweet as they are, children do not remain children for long. Everyone eventually outgrows their superhero capes and their Flintstone vitamins. Child-like innocence and acceptance is replaced with a healthy sense curiosity and even doubt about everything we see and experience. The days of quietly submitting to the authority of parents is replaced by a desire to assert one's growing sense of individuality.

The same is true of Mormonism. But instead of hormones like testosterone flooding the bloodstream, the church's veins are being bombarded by the chemicals of the information super highway...a.k.a. the dreaded Internet! As Mormonism has entered the 21st century it has been met with a plethora of historical, doctrinal, theological and cultural issues that it never had to deal with during its adolescence. Like a parent trying to educate his/her child about sex, college prospects, etc., Mormon leadership is currently assessing how best to address the mounting issues of doubt, disaffection, etc. As former Church Historian Marlin K Jensen stated:
[S]ince Kirtland, we never have had a period of, I’ll call it apostasy, like we’re having right now...we are trying to create an offering that will address these issues and be available for the public at large and to the church leaders, because many of them don’t have answers either. It can be very disappointing to church members.”
And it is here that we find the nucleus of the problem. The parent (church leadership) is wrestling with how best to address the growing doubts/concerns of their teenager (the member). Unfortunately this process also goes through growing pains. At times, church leadership has resorted to addressing its membership by referencing the old adolescent narrative. This warn out script that employs absolute unquestioning authority in place of inclusive dialogue and effective listening skills has sadly put many on the defensive. "Because I said so" and "Just do what you're told" work well with little children but not so much with a teenager.

It comes as no surprise that the devout within the faith see this change as fulfillment of prophecy. Jesus taught that even "the very elect" would fall away from the church (Matt. 24:24), and that some seeds would fall on the rocks and thorns and be "devoured" or "choked" (Matt 13). And while these arguments hold merit in many specific cases, I contend that it would be foolish for us to lie this down as a blanket explanation for the changes we are currently seeing.

In addition, the doubting membership, often afraid to express themselves, have developed a sense of betrayal (whether real or perceived) when it comes to the church. For many, discovering troubling issues has caused them to question just how trustworthy the current Mormon narrative is. Like a teenager whose pubescent hormones are beginning to swell, these doubts and concerns are gaining momentum. The religion they once esteemed to be perfect, flawless and above reproach, as seen through the eyes of a child, is now seen for what it ultimately is: flawed, imperfect and oftentimes in error. The child no longer believes the parent is Superman, as evidenced by some recent opposition to something as simple as sustaining leaders in General Conference

What we are left with is the perfect breeding ground for mutual frustration. Parent and teen alike are digging in their respective heels and refusing to budge. One feels disrespected, the other unvalued. The parent seeks to control while the teen resorts to defiance. Mom and Dad know they have the high ground of age and wisdom while the child knows it's just a matter of time until he/she is out the door.

And everybody loses.

So how can be prevent mutual defeat? I'm no expert but I want to propose one simple skill that I believe both sides (the parent and teen/the believer and doubter) are missing.

We need to LISTEN to one another.

This probably seems like a no-brainer but if there was one key attribute in successfully raising teenagers (or successfully seeking a meaningful relationship with anyone) it would be listening. As Dr. Aletha Solter, an acclaimed Development Psychologist explains:
Teenagers frequently complain that their parents don't listen and don't understand. This lack of good communication can lead to a feeling of disconnection from parents, which can put teens at risk. Good listening involves reflecting back your teen's feelings so he feels fully heard. This is called "active listening" or "reflective listening."
Active listening and reflective listening are much more than simply hearing sound. It requires sincere interest and a willingness to understand somebody on their terms. In short, good listening requires us to check our egos, biases and even some of our beliefs at the door.

Too often effective listening is one of the first casualties in the battle between believers and skeptics. Both camps (the believer and the doubter) usually end up talking over and past one another. Each feels a deep need to have their opinions/beliefs recognized and legitimized. There is nothing wrong with that. Where we go wrong is when we perceive the "other guy's" position as being hostile to our own. This needs to stop. It's time to start listening to one another. Instead of expounding and exhorting we simply need to open our ears and shut our mouths.

In the wake of the Columbine High School shooting of 1999, parent, teachers and the media at large desperately looked for someone or something to blame for the travesty. What had caused Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, two teenage friends, to murder fifteen of their fellow classmates? As the debates raged on everything from video games to gun control was blamed for the tragedy. In addition, rock personality Marilyn Manson received plenty of scorn for his loud brand of music (Manson's music happened to be popular with both Harris and Klebold). In what is perhaps the most ironic twist of all, it was Manson who pinpointed what the real issue had likely been all along:

Could the Columbine tragedy have been prevented if a parent, a teacher, a fellow student had stopped and honestly listened to Harris and/or Klebold's concerns? We'll never know and I certainly don't want to Monday morning quarterback that terrible tragedy. With that being said, I think we can all agree that listening to one another, honestly and sincerely considering what is being said, even if we loathe it, can go a long way toward healing wounds and building bridges.

In his bestselling book, "Just Listen: Discovering the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone" author Mark Goulston states:
Managers, CEO's and salespeople often tell me, "Talking to so-and-so is like hitting a brick wall." When I hear those words, I reply: "Stop hitting the brick wall and look for the loose brick." Find that loose brick -- what the other person really needs from you -- and you can pull down the strongest barriers and connect people in ways you never thought possible.
This advice works not only with managers and CEO's but with parents and teenagers, believers and skeptics. If Mormonism ever hopes to emerge as a vibrant and healthy adult faith we will first have to learn how to listen to one another.

In conclusion, allow me to direct your attention to the world's greatest living listener. He is a man who assumed control of an organization that was literally drowning in scandal and corruption. His position is such that billions of people the world over hang on his every word. His name is Jorge Mario Bergoglio, but you probably know him better as Pope Francis:

In his short tenure as Pontiff, Francis has actually not said much. His contributions to the Catholic canon, along with his exhortations to members on specific points of doctrine are relatively small. Yet he is, without question, one of the most beloved popes in the history of Catholicism. Why? I contend it is because Francis LISTENS to people. He shares in their doubts, their concerns, their fears and their frustrations. He doesn't judge but instead serves as best he can. As a result, Catholicism's popularity has gone up, even in the wake of terrible child sex scandals and an ever increasing movement of secularization. Francis understands that it isn't doctrine or history that matter to people when the rubber of life meets the road of affliction. It is that caring, listening hand.

As Mormons we would be very wise to learn from this example. Too often we write off our "apostates" without so much as an afterthought. "They got what they deserved" is the standard salve used to justify our cankered hearts.

Imagine for a moment the progress we would see if we as a church would sincerely listen to one another. If the church as a parent would cease the lecturing of the "teenage" member and choose instead to listen to their concerns without passing judgment, I believe we would see far fewer "teens" electing to leave the flock. Yes, it is much easier to preach, exhort, condemn, chastise and even excommunicate, but where is the growth? In the end everyone loses and everyone fails to progress. There is greater strength to be had when the parent and the teen work together in the spirit of mutual love and respect. As Jesus reminds us, "If ye are not one, ye are not mine."

It's time we shake off the adolescent mentality and embrace being a teenager! After all, who wants to remain forever a "Child of God?" I think he, like my earthly father, wants me to become my own man. It's time for us to work on becoming an "Adult of God."

But first, let's get through our teens...hopefully without too much acne! =)

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Why Baseball Should Replace Religion (Or at the Very Least, What Baseball Could Teach Religion)

I am a huge baseball fan.  In my opinion, there is nothing better than spending a summer's day with family and friends at the ballpark.  Just thinking about the game causes my senses to come alive. The sight of an immaculately manicured diamond, the smell of hotdogs and nachos sailing through the air, the sound of the umpire calling balls and strikes behind the plate, and, of course, the spiritual experience of joining 40,000 other fans in singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." 

The reason I love baseball so much is simple.  More than any other sport, baseball celebrates what is perhaps the most fundamental component of the human experience: failure. The mortal deficiencies and limitations of even the game's greatest athletes are revealed on the diamond for the whole world to see. Statistics...endless statistics...accumulated over a 162-game season (a larger sample size than any other professional sport) calculate in a scientific and mathematical way the indisputable faults and shortcomings of every player. The simple fact that the game’s greatest heroes, enshrined forever in Cooperstown (the Baseball Hall of Fame), were only able to get on base 30-40% of the time reveals this truth. Or the fact that only 23 pitchers in the game’s 100+ year history (over 200,000 games played), have thrown the illustrious “perfect game” serves to illustrate how baseball is ultimately a celebration of human imperfection.

Of course, we as humans aren't surprised when we discover the flaws of humanity.  We are all intrinsically aware of our own imperfection and the imperfection of all that is man-made.  Our science, our history, our customs, our creations all contain more than one or two mistakes.  Perhaps this is why we are able to collectively smile when he read the words of Alexander Pope who aptly wrote, "To err is human," or when we see a fellow being, in the wake of his/her own blunder, proclaim "I'm only human."

And though humanity is regularly able to accept the constant collective gaffes of our specie, there is one arena in which many make the silly assumption that absolute perfection can be found.  I speak of the arena we call religion.  For so many, even in the advanced 21st century, religion is that safe and certain place where everything makes perfect sense.  Religion is that strange and exotic locale where scripture, doctrine, leaders, beliefs, creeds, sermons, prophecies, revelations, disciples, fanatics, martyrs, and everything/everyone in between is finally made as flawless and pure as a game winning home run!

And speaking of home runs...

It is, in my estimation, appropriate that we juxtapose the seemingly "perfect" world of religion to the obvious human frailty we find in baseball.  Or put in another (perhaps blasphemous) way, I believe it is appropriate that we make a religion out of baseball.  After all, it seems to me that baseball better captures the true human experience than does religion.  But since it is unlikely that we as a society will choose to worship together at Yankee Stadium or Wrigley field, or partake of the sacrament that is peanuts and Cracker Jacks, perhaps baseball could simply provide a few pointers to the world of religion.

Here now, I give to the world the 9 “innings” (or suggestions) that religion can and should borrow from baseball.  I give them within the context of the Mormon faith, since that is my chosen religion, but these “innings” work equally well with any faith tradition.   

First Inning: Cheer for Your Team, but Don't Become "THAT FAN"

I love the Pittsburgh Pirates!  Ever since I was a kid I have cheered for my Bucs, even when the team endured sixteen consecutive losing seasons.  Hey, that's what a true fan does!  In recent years, however, my Pirates have been one of the best teams in all of baseball. The 2015 season was one of their best in franchise history.  Perhaps that is why it was so hard to see them lose the wild card playoff game to the Cubs. 

Such is the case with being a sports fan.  Rarely does your team ever win it all.  You must learn to be content with coming in second, or third, or dead last.  It's quite common that larger market teams with deeper pockets (the Red Sox, Dodgers or those evil Yankees) find themselves at the top of the standings more often than smaller market teams.  It's a reality all baseball fans must accept. 

In addition, any well adjusted fan knows the value of cheering for other teams. As a Colorado native, my family has embraced the Rockies, even though their 2015 campaign was unremarkable. Despite their losing ways, attending Rockies games was an absolute joy for my family.  By appreciating other teams, one is able to gain a greater appreciation of the game itself.  It's the annoying, jackass fan who refuses to ever see the good in any other team. 

The same can be said of the "game" of religion. 

When it comes to religion my team is Mormonism, and like the Pirates, Mormons are a "small market" franchise.  We simply aren't that big.  Nevertheless, Mormonism has been the team of my fathers for several generations and it has served my family quite well.  It is good to be proud of your religion and to cheer it on towards victory.  Being passionate about one's faith is a good thing. 

The problem, however, arises when member(s) of a particular religious "team" succumb to the delusion that their team is best.  Sadly, I have known many Mormons, who insist that we as a church never lose a game, never miss a play, and always emerge as champions in every possible way. They believe that the only REAL game in town is the Mormon game. They refuse to recognize the solid play of other teams who, in many cases, have made plays and earned wins that Mormonism couldn't even dream of.  In reality, Mormonism is a small market team and we rarely win the pennant.    

This flaw, of course, is not unique to Mormonism.  All religious teams have fans who insist that their team is best.  This is unfortunate because it causes us to lose sight of the game as a whole. As I mentioned above, the Colorado Rockies had a terrible season, yet it was easily the most enjoyable year of baseball my family has ever experienced.  Sometimes the love of the game should come before loyalty to a team.      

Second Inning: Recognize the Talent on Other Teams

My family attended a lot of baseball games last year. We were fortunate enough to see a number of exciting MLB players to include Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Sonny Gray, Nolan Arenado, Andrew McCutchen and many others. Right now, the talent pool in baseball is higher than it has been in decades.

When I was a kid, I used to play a computer game called "Major League Manager."  The game included rosters of teams going all the way back to baseball's inception.  At first, I would pick one team (usually the Pirates) and try my best to lead them to the World Series.  Sadly I failed more than I succeeded.  As a result, I eventually decided to cheat by "forcing" other teams to make ridiculous trades that benefited my team.  I finally emerged with a dream team that went on to win all 162 games and easily cruise to a World Series championship.

But something unexpected happened.  The game became boring.  After all, it was easy to win when my roster included Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Lou Gehrig, Johnny Bench and every other great player.  Eventually I went back to the old way and even challenged myself to lead a crappy team as far as I could. 

In the world of religion, we are sometimes persuaded to believe that our team's players are superior to those of any other team.  Our "dream team" can and should dominate every season, every game, every inning and every at bat.  We never lose.  The thought of fielding a roster that doesn't include the best players at every position is simply absurd.

Doesn't this perspective also seem boring?

Sometimes other teams have better rosters.  As a Mormon, I will happily concede that I wish my team had a Pope Francis, a Dalai Lama, a Malala Yousafzai or even a Joel Osteen.  This isn't to say that I dislike the Mormon roster.  I'm simply saying that I appreciate the talent (and yes, in many ways it's superior talent) that exists outside of Mormonism.  Sometimes we can be too blinded by the "Prophet, Seer and Revelator" titles to believe that any team could possibly have better players.  It is good that we recognize the talent all around us and that we cheer for them when they succeed.  Your team is not always going to have the league MVP.   

Third Inning: Your Team is Going to Lose

As I said at the beginning of this post, the greatest players in the history of baseball failed more than they succeeded.  My dad’s baseball hero growing up was none other than Mickey Mantle.  In his 18-year career, Mantle managed to hit 536 home runs, earn 3 MVP awards and win 7 World Series titles.  With accolades like this, one could easily forget that Mantle also struck out 1710 times and hit below .300 in nearly half of the seasons he played.  Simply put, even the very best to ever play this game failed, sometimes in spectacular fashion.

It's hard to admit failure, especially when the implications are connected to our relationship with the divine.  Reality, however, makes things plain to us.  If we are being honest, all of us will admit that every single religious tradition on earth has, on multiple occasions, struck out when the game was on the line.  In my own faith, I can think of several examples when leaders failed to make the right decision and thus lost the game.  Refusing to grant Black members the priesthood until 1978 was a massive blunder for the Mormon faith.  Try as we might to justify the reason for this idiotic delay (14 years after Civil Rights legislation), the fact remains that racist policies got in the way of our being able to see the ball clearly.  As a result, we as a church struck out and lost the game.  I could go on and provide multiple examples of where my faith (and every faith for that matter) has struck out but you get my point.  We all need to admit where we have gone wrong in our respective faith traditions.  Failing to do so will only result in more losses. The greatest teams/players learn from their past mistakes.    

Fourth Inning: Scandals Will Abound

In 1919, the Chicago White Sox were the premiere team in all of baseball.  Their roster included the likes of Buck Weaver, Lefty Williams, Eddie Cicotte (whose knuckleball was considered devastating even by today’s standards) and the great Shoeless Joe Jackson.  Together, the White Sox went on to dominate the American League and were favorites to win the World Series.  Fate, however, had different plans, as eight White Sox players conspired to intentionally throw the World Series in what became known as the “Black Sox Scandal.”  Almost a century later, dozens of elite players, to include the likes of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Roger Clemens would tarnish the game by using performance enhancing drugs.  As a result, the “Steroid Era” of baseball saw some of the game’s most cherished records tainted with disgrace. 

People make mistakes.  Sometimes we make massive mistakes.  Even the best of us when faced with tribulation or greed will succumb to temptation.  Sometimes those who allegedly speak for God have made such blunders.  King David, the Apostle Peter and Jonah of the Bible certainly come to mind.  In my own faith tradition, scandals such as the Mountain Meadows Massacre or even the controversial practice of polygamy have raised legitimate concerns and questions.   

Scandal is, oftentimes, the undoing of a person’s faith.  After the Black Sox Scandal, baseball experienced a substantial loss in fan support.  The same can be said about the steroid era or the 1994 player strike. In the wake of those scandals, however, baseball saw some of its greatest heroes rise up to save the game and remind us all of why we loved the sport to begin with.  After the disgrace of the Black Sox we saw the rise of Babe Ruth, who changed the game forever.  In addition, fans who had grown tired of billionaire owners arguing with millionaire players during the 1994 strike had their faith renewed by the relentless play of Cal Ripken, whose streak of 2,632 consecutive games played reinvigorated the "never say die" American mentality.

Religious leaders, like baseball owners and players, sometimes create scandal.  They become entitled, egotistical and lose touch with their "fans."  Hey, they're human too.  It was Moses' hubris that prevented him from being able to enter the Promised Land, just as Judas Iscariot's betrayal (and subsequent guilt) of Jesus caused him to commit suicide.  But in the wake of those scandals the world was given Joshua and the Apostle Paul!  Scandals, like the darkness before the dawn, sometimes appear hopeless, but new light is always around the bend.    

Fifth Inning: Cherish Your Shrines, Your Customs and Your Rituals

Baseball is nothing if not beautiful.  There is symmetry to the game that isn’t found in any other sport. At the risk of sounding blasphemous, it is a “sacred” experience when you first walk into a ballpark.  Some of my fondest memories of my children include seeing the awe and wonder on their little faces as they first gazed upon the beauty and majesty of Coors Field.  Every single Major League ballpark is a veritable temple meant to honor the game’s special status as America’s pastime.  The uniqueness of each stadium is a tribute to that team and city’s history and culture.  For example, Coors Field, home of the Colorado Rockies, captures the state’s rugged “purple mountains majesty” in the same way that At&T Park honors the breathtaking beauty of the San Francisco Bay area.     

Baseball is also saturated in custom and ritual.  Players, coaches, fans and umpires all recognize the silly superstitions, funny customs and distinctive traditions that all make the game what it is today.  Whether it be fans sporting their rally caps, players dressed in their “lucky socks” or a team’s unique tradition during the seventh inning stretch, every true baseball fan recognizes the importance of the game’s many rituals.   

The world of religion is no different.  Every faith has its customs, traditions, holidays, and ritual practices.  They are to be celebrated, not laughed to scorn.  Sure, they are the imperfect human representation of a spiritual idea, and as such may seem strange or awkward, but ultimately they are the pillars of that faith’s ballpark.  Mormonism would be a shallow shell without its temples, sacraments and ordinances, just as Fenway Park would lose its distinctiveness without the “Green Monster.” Ritual is how we make the ordinary extraordinary. 

Sixth Inning: Play (and More Importantly, Love) Your Position

When I was a child and first began to play little league baseball, I wanted to follow in the footsteps of either Johnny Bench, the greatest catcher to ever play, or Honus Wagner, the “Flying Dutchman” shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates.  In short, I wanted to play either catcher or shortstop.  There was only one problem: I am left-handed.  When my coach informed me that virtually all in-field positions (with the exception of first base, third base on occasion and pitcher) are typically manned with right-handed players my heart sank.  Never once was I given the opportunity to play catcher or shortstop.  Instead, being the only lefty on my team, my coach decided to make me a pitcher.  After all, we southpaws can be hard to read.  Long story short, my coach’s foresight changed forever my perception of the game.  Lefties may not get the opportunity to play shortstop or catcher, but we do make for crafty pitchers!  And it has been quality pitching that I admire most about baseball.  Whether I’m watching a Clayton Kershaw curveball, an Ardolis Chapman fastball (106 mph, by the way) or a David Price slider (all of whom are lefty pitchers), it is the hurlers on the mound that I admire most.

Each of us possesses special gifts and talents that allow us to play certain positions in life. Some people have a natural sensitivity to matters of faith and spirit, while others take a more cerebral approach.  Some people are natural born leaders while others like to quietly serve on the sidelines. Regardless of the gifts/talents we have been given, it is critical that we learn to love that particular "position."      

Seventh Inning: Celebrate Those Glory Moments

Baseball is unique because the pace and rhythm of the game allow for conversation, reflection and down time.  This is why so many who detest the game label it as being boring (even though they are dead-ass wrong).  But when special moments occur in professional sports, none are more celebrated or remembered than those glory moments found in baseball.  Images of Bill Mazeroski's magical 9th inning home run in the 1960 World Series (especially for us Pirates fans), Lou Gehrig's 1939 farewell speech, or the moment when a Black man wearing the #42 trotted out to First Base for the Dodgers, are images that endure for every generation of baseball fans.  For example, here is one baseball memory that I will not soon forget:

I saw this live and will never forget it.  A man, born with only one hand, achieving something very few would ever consider possible...a NO-HITTER!!! 

But for all the glory moments baseball has to offer, the fact of the matter is most at bats end in an out, most games go down in the books as unremarkable and most players will never come close to the Hall of Fame. For all its glory and hype, baseball can be a relatively uneventful game.    

Such is the game of life.  Most days are "average," most encounters are "typical" and most moments are "mundane."  We tend to mark our lives by those rare and special occasions when the ordinary becomes extraordinary. 

One of the holiest moments within the Mormon faith occurs when a new temple is being dedicated.  Temples have a central role to play in Mormonism, so the dedication of a new temple is anything but ordinary.  In fact, Mormon history records the dedication of the Kirtland Temple (the first temple ever dedicated by early Mormons) as being a Pentecostal moment in which witnesses reported angels allegedly appearing, heavenly choirs singing and rushing of winds filling the halls of the new temple.  A few years later, the Nauvoo Temple was dedicated, with many of the same witnesses attending that event as well.  Their reports, however, were quite different from the Kirtland account.  Witnesses to the Nauvoo dedication reported.......NOTHING!  No angels, no choirs, seemingly no divine intervention of any kind.

There is something to be learned from this.  All of us crave the Kirtland experience but usually end up receiving the Nauvoo moments.  We'd all love to attend a no-hitter or game 7 of the World Series, but we usually end up attending an average ball game. It is rare when we are able to play witness to the miraculous, which is why we must learn to cherish them when they do occur.    

Ladies and gentlemen, the 7th INNING STRETCH!!!!!

Eighth Inning: Support Your Teammates

In 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers made history by adding a new first basemen to their roster.  His name: Jackie Robinson.  As we all know, it was Robinson who managed to break the ugly color barrier that had stained baseball for nearly a century.  What many don't know is that Robinson faced terrible persecution and hostility from fans, players and even teammates.  

But one man, whose family history was saturated with racist beliefs towards Blacks, chose to stand with Robinson.  Dodgers star shortstop, Pee Wee Reese, became a vocal supporter and friend of Jackie Robinson. In fact, Reese later claimed that the first time he met Robinson was also the first time he had ever shaken hands with a Black man. The two men became life-long friends and helped to pave the way for the desegregation of baseball. 

All of us have prejudices and biases of one form or another.  They are inevitable and sometimes very hard to recognize and then remove from our lives.  In the Mormon faith, prejudice is, unfortunately, all too common, even amongst the very best of members. Sometimes we can be far too judgemental of those who don't fit what we consider to be the typical "Mormon mold."  Everyone from single parents, new converts not dressed in a suit and tie and even [GASP] Democrats are sometimes marginalized in our congregations.  This is terribly unfortunate because a church's greatest strength (like that of a baseball team) is to be had in the unity found in the "clubhouse."  You can have all the talent in the world, but if you can't stand behind your teammates you are destined to fall apart.  Or as Jesus reminds us, "If ye are not one, ye are not mine."

Ninth Inning: Enjoy the Game!
Ultimately baseball is just a game.  There isn't much about it that is philosophical or of intrinsic value to humanity.  Those lucky enough to play the game professionally make ridiculous amounts of money simply because they can throw, catch and hit better than the rest of us.  But baseball doesn't feed the hungry, liberate the captive or educate the illiterate.  It's just a game.

Sometimes we can feel the same way in our own respective lives.  We each go to work, raise children, attend school/church, and do our best each and every day.  But our efforts don't typically feed the hungry, liberate the captive or educate the illiterate.  With 7 billion of us on the Earth, we can easily feel like a very tiny fish in an extremely large pond.

And though it is great when we or others are able to help make humanity better, sometimes we forget that the biggest changes come because of the smallest of efforts.  The most profound verse that I have ever read from the Book of Mormon is 2 Nephi 2:25, which states very simply, "Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy."  In other words, the purpose of our life is to find happiness.  Of course, this doesn't mean that our pursuit of happiness should come at the cost of helping others.  But what it does mean is happiness is readily available to us because of the grace of God.  For whatever else God may be, ultimately God is happiness, and this is PRECISELY what makes baseball so great.  Perhaps this is the greatest lesson baseball can teach religion.  After all the doctrine, scripture, preaching, etc., the real question is, "Does your religion make you happy?"  If so, all of the problems and doubts can be damned!

It was Adam's (and Eve's) FAILURE that allowed joy to enter the world, and it is baseball's magnification of human failure that makes it the greatest game ever invented. Without our failures, we humans would be boring, predictable and without that joy God wants for us.  This is why baseball ultimately deserves to be considered a religion.  Nothing on earth better captures our imperfections and constant struggles.  Here's hoping my religion, and all religions, will accept baseball and its lessons, which are sometimes the greatest of sermons.       

As Sister Wynona Carr reminds us, "Life is a Ball Game."