The Winning Team

Ecclesiastes 7:3-4

In 2008, I watched as my beloved KU Jayhawks basketball team won their fifth national championship. Mario Chalmers sank a clutch three-point shot at the end of regulation against the heavily favored Memphis Tigers. Then in overtime, the Jayhawks put their foot on the accelerator and won the game 75-68.

Not surprisingly, I was elated when I watched Chalmers’ shot pass through the net, delighted that it didn’t rattle around and out like Kirk Heinrich’s similar opportunity five years earlier. But then, as the Tigers fell apart and the outcome became clear during the overtime, I had strange thoughts pass my mind. A couple of these valuable players were seniors and others, the heart of the team, would almost certainly jump to the NBA.

Before the victory was in the bag, I found myself getting down about the next season. That’s where my mind goes as I consider the proverbs in today’s slice of Ecclesiastes:

Grief is better than laughter,
for when a face is sad, a heart may be glad.
The heart of the wise is in a house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in a house of pleasure.

Ecclesiastes 7:3-4

Eeyore Has It Right

Perhaps nothing illustrates the truth of these verses better than sports. Just a few years ago, in 2015, all of Kansas City went berserk when the Royals won the World Series. Today, a scant four years later, that victory seems like a fantasy story as the current crew is steaming toward another 100-loss season.

How many times have we seen crowd shots at sporting events with screaming teen boys holding up an index finger: “We’re number one. Woo!” Never mind that their currently winning team is a perennial loser, mired in a lackluster conference, and almost guaranteed to lose the next contest. These fools are having a great time ignoring reality and hanging out in the house of pleasure.

Of course this transcends sports. Every birth is a necessary prelude to a death. Every rise to dominance comes before a decline and defeat. The zenith of every career suggests the inevitable end of the same. Even someone who triumphantly assumes the office of U.S. President has to know that in eight years the keys to the White House will be handed to someone else.

Aside from the pyramids, pretty much nothing that is built lasts. For us to exult in the well-built career, the well-weeded garden, or the well-coiffed hair as if any of them might last forever is foolish.

Getting in Tune

If all of what I’ve said here is correct, if every good thing under the sun is truly going to decline and decay, then what is the sensible follower of Jesus to do? Let me be clear that while I suggested above that Eeyore has it right, I do not advocate his attitude.

When I pin my hopes to my favorite sports teams, I’m doomed to disappointment far too often. When I depend on a house or a job or another person or anything else under the sun, I am guaranteeing that my happiness, if it comes at all, will be temporary.

That doesn’t mean that I need to go around moping and failing to enjoy the moment. If the Kansas City Chiefs win the Super Bowl next year, I’ll celebrate like a madman, but I’ll keep in mind that it is only for the one year and means very little. I’ll know that in the midst of all that “yes” is the seed and root of a great deal of “no.”

We need to set our sights on the team whose winning streak will never end, whose players will never decline or depart, whose player-coach is always the MVP. Anything else is just a moment.

If You’re Happy and You Know It

Dane Iorg looped a single to right field, driving in the tying run. Then Jim Sundberg slid into home, just beating the tag to win game six of the 1985 World Series. (St. Louis Cardinals fans are even now muttering the name of Don Denkinger, to which I say, “Get over it!”)

The next day, the day of game seven, local Kansas City TV promoted the decisive game’s broadcast by showing that replay as the Isley Brothers sang, “It makes me want to shout!” And here’s the reason I mention this. Every time I saw that little ad, I had a physical and an emotional reaction. I had watched the game live, almost jumping out of my skin. But then, all day the next day, I relived it and felt something powerful each time.

In our examination of Psalm 118:24, we’ve discovered that we’re supposed to do two things as we live in the day the Lord has made. We’re supposed to rejoice, and we’re supposed to be glad. Looking at those individually, we saw that they, while overlapping, are distinct ideas, but now I’d like to take a moment and consider them together.

The distinguishing factor in the verb translated “rejoice” seems to be movement. You may recall that this word can indicate strong positive or negative responses–although it’s usually positive. The key is that those responses involve movement. If you sit in your chair and politely clap in response to God’s day, then I don’t think you’re truly rejoicing.

On the other hand, the word translated “be glad” focuses mostly on a look on the face. This gladness cannot be contained inside the head. Instead it busts out onto the face. You can’t help but show it to the world. If you can glower straight ahead while “being glad” about God’s day, then you probably don’t get it.

Years ago, when I earned by doctorate, I drove from Lawrence, Kansas to my home in Independence, Missouri, a trip of about an hour. My giddiness, my joy, my sense of relief was so strong that I found myself crying out in joy at various points along highway 10. My face probably would have had passing drivers thinking me insane. It was a marvelous feeling.

More than likely, you have that memory of a time when you simply could not contain your joy. Perhaps it attended one of these statements:

  • Yes, I’ll marry you.
  • We’re going to have a baby.
  • It’s benign.
  • We’d like to offer you the job.
  • You’ve been selected to receive this year’s Nobel Prize.

Life, hopefully, has presented you with a handful of such moments, but how often do you feel that sort of joy, how often do you respond uncontrollably in body and face (and probably words) to something God has done? How often do you find yourself overcome by God’s amazing goodness, so overcome that anyone around you can see it?

We used to sing a song:

If you’re happy and you know it, then your face will surely show it. If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands!

That’s a kid’s song, but the implication for adults is serious. If you’re happy and you don’t show it, then maybe you’re not really that happy.

 

Let’s Join the Baseball Bandwagon!

The Kansas City Royals are going to win the World Series in 2019! They won their opener yesterday (Thursday). At this rate, they’ll win 162 games this season. Let’s get excited. Let’s buy tickets while they’re still available. Let’s.

The second half of Psalm 118:24 contains a statement of intent or expectation:

. . . let us rejoice and be glad in it.

If we were to speak that idea in conversation, we’d almost certainly use the contraction “let’s.” Let’s eat. Let’s go to the movies. Let’s celebrate! Let’s get out of here. These all sound like good uses of “let’s,” but is that the sort of thing going on here?

If you read this clause in a number of different translations, you’ll find that it is almost exclusively rendered in one of two ways: “let us” or “we will.” As much as I generally appreciate the CSB, which I quoted above, I think the translators missed the mark in this case.

Think about it. What does “let us” mean? “Allow us”? Generally when we say it, like when we say “let’s eat,” we’re trying to recruit another person or persons to eat with us. I suppose that could be what’s going on here. Rather than hungry, the Psalmist is sensing the provision of God and thus recruits others to rejoice with him. Okay, but let’s try this another way.

In the KJV and a number of other translations, the phrase here is “we will.” It’s possible, if you are of a certain age or (especially) were taught English by an exceptionally old-school teacher, then you learned to conjugate that auxiliary verb “will” like this:

  • I shall; we shall
  • You will; You (all) will
  • He, she, it will; They will

Nobody talks or writes like that any more, but a hundred years ago you would have likely been taught that way. Certainly, in 1611, when the KJV appeared, they were taught that way.

The oddity of that approach to “will” is that when you’re not simply stating something that will happen in the future but stating a settled purpose or a command, you reverse the word. Therefore, you’d say “You will have a birthday next week” but “You shall clean up your room.” Or you might say “I shall eat breakfast” but “I will lose thirty pounds!” (My italics are simply for emphasis.)

When those four-hundred-year-ago translators said “We will rejoice,” they were not saying, “Hey, let’s all get together and rejoice!” or “I have rejoicing scheduled on my day planner.” They were saying either “We have no choice but to rejoice” or “We need to make a point of rejoicing.”

The Psalmist says “let us rejoice” or, better in my opinion, “we will rejoice,” and he’s not urging action based on a whim. It’s not the rejoicing that we might–might–do when the home team starts the season well. Instead, it’s more like the compulsion that put hundreds of thousands of Kansas Citians in the streets when the Royals won the World Series in 2015. We couldn’t not rejoice.

Although I eagerly joined that mob in 2015, I recognized then that I should feel an even stronger compulsion to rejoice because of what God does every day. So let’s rejoice!

 

A Shortstop’s Kind of Readiness

I’ve just suffered through one of the worst seasons that the Kansas City Royals have ever played. The team that won the World Series in 2015, lost 104 games, topped (bottomed?) only by 106 losses in 2005. As painful as their season proved, they showed signs of hope with some promising young players.

Watch baseball for very long and you’ll see that there are players who are in the lineup mostly for their fielding and some mostly for their bats. When you see a powerful hitter who plays in the field like he’s competing in a sack race, that player will normally be positioned in right field, the spot where he’s least likely to do much damage.

On the other hand, a shortstop who cannot field is a terrific liability. Sure, you’d like him to be able to hit, but he absolutely must be able to range around the left side of the infield, snag balls hit his direction, and make long, accurate throws to first base. Without that talent, the team is sunk.

Any shortstop worthy of playing professional baseball wants the ball to come his way in critical moments. With the game on the line, he should be not just thinking, “What do I do when the ball is hit to me?” but also, “Hit it here. Hit it here. I dare you.”

On the other hand, that right fielder, the one who wouldn’t be on the team if he couldn’t smash the ball with his bat, might be excused for standing out there at the crossroads between victory and defeat, whispering, “Don’t hit here. Please don’t hit it here!”

Which player do you more resemble in the ballgame of Christian service? Are you the shortstop, eagerly wishing for the chance to start a game-winning double play or the right fielder hoping beyond hope that the ball goes somewhere, anywhere else?

Esther initially wanted to hide in the outfield. When encouraged to bring the Jews’ problems to the king, she tried to get off the hook. In Esther 4:14, Mordecai lays it on the line for her. Unlike in baseball, God’s tasks will get done if we don’t do them. But if we fail, if we try to avoid the play, then the glory will go to someone else.

In 1985, when my Royals won their first World Series, the right fielder, Daryl Motley, caught the twenty-seventh out in game seven, clinching the series. I’ve remembered that for thirty-three years. My guess is that I’ll remember it for another several decades.

While we might be frightened to see the ball coming our way, we need to overcome fear and get ourselves into the game. A bad season for a baseball team is no big deal. A bad season for the church is regrettable. And the individual Christian often gets only one significant season to play.