Sunday 7 August 2016

Field of dreams: a sermon on baseball and redeeming the past

I’m a psychoanalyst’s dream: I rarely have sweet ones. Usually something of a nightmare. Two in particular I’ve been having for over 50 years. In one I’m being chased by a Tyrannosaurus Rex: very Jurassic Park. The other concerns a baseball game, the 1965 Suffolk County Final, my own Huntington High School versus West Babylon High School. The score is tied and the game is now well into extra innings. It’s a swelteringly hot day, and the umpires almost decide to call it a draw lest we youngsters drop from dehydration, but they decide to let the game continue one more inning. With a runner on third base but two outs (three outs to an inning), I come up to bat against an all-star pitcher with an evil fast ball. I take (don’t swing at) the first two pitches, curve balls, because they’re out of the strike zone. Now he’s got to come in with the third, and it’s got to be his best pitch, and I’m ready for it. Sure enough, it’s a fastball, belt-high and right over the plate. I swing the bat. Crack! The ball soars into center field. Never have I hit a ball so well or so far. The crowd rises to its feet. The runner on third base trots home and watches. I round first base and also watch, for surely the centerfielder will never reach the ball in time, and we will score the run we need to win the game. But he’s off like a jackrabbit and at the last moment he leaps, stretches, and tumbles to the ground, rising triumphantly with the ball lodged firmly in the webbing of his glove. I am in despair. I wake in a sweat. But not only because I came within an inch of winning the game, but because I know what happened next – can never forget what happened next – in West Babylon’s last turn at bat: I made the error which let in the run which lost us the title. From nearly hero to bleating goat in a matter of minutes.

I know, I know, it’s only a game. But it’s also a metaphor for a fundamental fact of life: there are no what Americans call do-overs; what’s done is done and cannot be undone. You can’t rewind the tape, edit it, and then fast-forward to the present. As the poet (T. S. Eliot) says:
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
But the world isn’t speculative, it’s concrete and unforgiving, and failure is a weight you just have to bear like Sisyphus with his irremovable load (but probably without his imperturbable smile). Or is it? And do you?

Let me tell you another baseball story, Field of Dreams (starring Kevin Costner), perhaps the most magical film of the merciless 1980s. Ray Kinsella is a novice Iowa farmer with a wife and small daughter, struggling to make ends meet. One evening, alone in his cornfield, a voice whispers from the heavens: “If you build it, he will come.” Build what? Who will come? In the days ahead Ray continues to hear the voice, and finally he sees a glorious vision of a baseball diamond set in the field. Now Ray knows what he must do. To the astonishment and derision of his neighbours, he destroys valuable cropland to build a baseball field, the “field of dreams”. The “he” – at least the initial “he” – who “will come” turns out to be “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, from the infamous Chicago “Black” Sox, who was accused of taking a bribe in the 1919 World Series and was subsequently banned from the game. Now, on the “field of dreams” that Ray built, this disgraced man gets another chance to play ball.

But Ray soon learns that it’s not just for Shoeless Joe that he has been called to be an agent of grace. For the voice speaks to him again and sends him on a journey east to “ease his pain”, the pain, it transpires, of Terence Mann, a once famous but now neglected and embittered writer, who as a child dreamed of playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Ray finds Mann in Boston, takes him to a Red Sox game at Fenway Park, during which he hears yet another voice telling him to “go the distance”, the “distance” of meeting another might-have-been, an old GP, Archibald Graham, who played just one game in the Big Leagues. Doc Graham doesn’t return to the farm with Ray and Mann, but on the way they do pick up a young hitchhiker named, in this enchanted world, Archie Graham, who is still dreaming.

But that’s still not the end of Ray’s journey of faith, for one other figure finally appears on the “field of dreams”: Ray’s own father, though now dead, as a young man. John had wanted Ray to live out his own dream of becoming a baseball star, but their relationship had soured after Ray vilified Shoeless Joe, one of his father’s heroes. Ray now sees his dad sympathetically as a complex composite human being, both sinning and sinned against, and sees himself as that man, everyman, too. In a moving final scene, father and son are reconciled, as we now realise that John is the ultimate “he” who “will come” for Ray to “ease his pain”. Cue an iconic American cameo: father and son playing a game of catch on the “field of dreams”.

Well, for Brits who think that baseball is glorified rounders when cricket is baseball on Valium, perhaps you’re thinking what’s the big deal? What’s the matter with Kim this morning? What’s with the nostalgia? Is he homesick? Yes, I’m homesick. But not really for the Huntington Blue Devils, or for the Major Leaguer I never was, or even for my late and lovely dad who played catch with me. No, but for the home, the poet (T. S. Eliot again) observes, we all start from, leave, and long to return to. Banished from the Garden, exiled from the Promised Land – these are the archetypal biblical images: we are all exiles and strangers, wayfarers and pilgrims, lost and searching, homeless and homesick, longing for homecoming, paradise regained. We all, deep down, have a sense that somewhere, sometime, something went wrong – we went wrong – and if only we could go back, get another chance, we’d get it right, or right the wrong, and all manner of things would be well.

Perhaps, as in Ray’s case, it was a relationship that broke down, with a parent, lover, or friend. Or perhaps, as in the case of Terence Mann, it was a painful rejection that made us withdraw from the world, nursing our wounds. Or perhaps, like Shoeless Joe Jackson, it was some mistake we made for which we’ve never been forgiven – or perhaps for which we’ve never forgiven ourselves. Oh to be able to go back and restore the relationship, to follow the road not taken, to receive mercy, to make amends! Is it true that alienation, defeat, failure, disgrace, finally confirmed by death, have the final word? Are second chances only the stuff of cinematic fairy tales? Is the past irredeemable?

It is interesting that in Field of Dreams there is no mention of God or Christ. Indeed at the time of its release, a Scottish church leader read the film simply as a “monument to obsession”. Well, I guess his neighbours called Abraham obsessive when he heard the call of God to “Go!”, and he went. And I guess their friends called Peter and Andrew obsessive when they heard the call of Jesus to “Follow!”, and they went. Perhaps you yourself have been thought obsessive if you’ve had a flash of insight or recognition and felt the quickening of your spirit compelling you to do something that to all the world looks daft or insane, but you just knew you had to do it because it gave you the chance to recover something precious you’d lost, or to find the one thing needful for your life to make sense. For this particular obsessive and dreamer – obsessed with the Nazarene, dreaming of the kingdom – the film stands as an unforgettable parable, a celluloid sacrament, that taps into the deep hole in our hearts, which we need to discover and acknowledge, which the gospel tells us need not remain empty but, by faith, can be filled with redeeming grace, so that our restless hearts can find their rest in God.

We usually think that we live our lives forwards, towards the future, but the Christian life is also lived backwards, towards the past. Whatever mess we may have made of it, however distressing our memory of it, by grace both mess and memory can be transformed, such that we can review the whole of our lives without bitterness or despair. St Augustine, in his ruthlessly self-critical autobiography the Confessions, is our teacher. “In the act of remembering his own life, he discovers the ever-present grace of God – a grace that was never apparent at the time … but has now become the meaning of everything that happened”; discovers that because “God dwells in memory, the past is not fixed and finished. It can be converted. It can be attuned to God’s presence” (Ben Myers). We can look back and see a trajectory, a tipping point, a revelation. Everything falls into place, works for good.

No, neither guilt nor shame, neither failure nor defeat, not even death itself have the final word in our lives. Because God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, my past and my present – what my past is doing now – have a future. Crane your faith: can you see it? The day dawning on the “field of dreams” we call the new creation, when (so to speak!) the ball drops safely, the runner scores, and – thanks be to God! – victory is ours through him who loves us.

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