Bubba Ray played first base. Seriously, that was his name. His birth certificate might have read “Keith” Ray, but no one called him by that name – no one except his mama. We all called him Bubba.
Brian Childs played second base. My cousin, Jason Bearden, played shortstop. And I played third. So completed the illustrious infield of the Little League team hailing from Red Bud, Georgia, population less than four digits – even if you counted the cows.
Illustrious, as you might imagine, is far too strong a descriptor of our typical performance on the baseball diamond. We weren’t very good, but we always had a good time (except for that one hot June Saturday when a few of us decided the top of the third inning was a good opportunity to first try dipping Skoal, but I digress).
Brian Childs, the aforementioned second baseman, somehow convinced his father, Jerry, to be our coach.* He was, and remains to this day, one of the most patient, gentle, and finest of men I have ever met. He would work hard and long all day as a lineman for Southern Bell, and then come to the baseball field to coach and otherwise herd a pack of rowdy eleven-year-olds.
Whether he did this out of love or compulsion I do not know, but in my book he is a saint and always will be. He taught us how to field, to throw, to catch, run and hit. But more so, he taught us how to live. Persistence, self-control, equality, fairness: These were all his trade tools, and he passed these on to us with hardly having to speak a word.
But there is a phrase that Coach Jerry used from time to time that stuck in my Little League memory. When our team would fall behind, which happened a lot I’m afraid, he would tell us, “Quit chasing the runs.” Or to put it another way, he would say, “Boys, just play the game.”
Falling behind as often as we did, we would start watching the growing deficit on the scoreboard, and watching that scoreboard led to all manner of troubles. We pressed and tried too hard. We put undue demands on one another. We swung our bats like we could catch up with a single swing or in a single inning.
Meanwhile Coach Jerry was patiently telling us to simply play. “Remember what you learned in practice. Stick with the basics. Do what you were taught to do. Quit watching the scoreboard and the runs will come.”
I thought of Jerry’s words this week, because it has been one of those weeks for some of the people in my life. One friend is facing the end of her marriage. Another friend has a health crisis on his hands. Another is enduring bankruptcy proceedings, and another is without a job.
As all this stuff gets uncorked, and as the pressure mounts, we want to fix it with one swift swing of the bat. But that’s impossible. It is a fool’s errand to “chase the runs” instead of just living, best we can, one day at a time.
Eugene Peterson’s translation of Jesus’ words from Matthew 11 get right at it, words that could have been accented with Jerry Childs’ slow southern drawl. Jesus said, “Are you tired and worn out? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life…walk and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.”
There it is: “The unforced rhythms of grace.” How do we live when life is beating us down, when the scoreboard is skewed in an unfavorable direction? We go back and do what Jesus taught us to do. We watch and imitate him. We patiently do what we can, one day at a time.
We quit chasing the runs and watching the scoreboard, hoping and praying the tide will turn as we trust the rhythm of God’s grace and play the game in front us. One day, one pitch, and one swing at a time.
*Coach Jerry Childs died shortly after this original column went to press in 2010.