Like a lot of you, I suppose, I was disappointed that the Petaluma National All-Stars were defeated in yesterday’s National Tournament final of the Little League World Series. When the last out was made, I looked at my daughter, whose classmate Beckham is the younger brother of pitcher and left fielder Quinton Gago. She frowned and snapped her fingers and said, “darn it!” and I shared her feeling. But a moment later, I started thinking about what an incredible ride it has been for those kids, and their families, and for their whole home town. If they had won, we would be celebrating the victory, and preparing for another game against Japan this afternoon and the possibility of ultimate triumph. But because they didn’t, the real value of what they accomplished stands out all the more. The things that really mattered about the 2012 Petaluma National All-Stars— the teamwork and camaraderie, the athletic feats, the opportunity to play against the very best teams in the country and beat all but one of them, the love and joy and civic pride that they inspired back home—these are the things that will have a lasting impact on those boys’ lives, not whether they won or lost the final game.
Sometimes life’s best lessons are the lessons of defeat. I myself came of age in the 10980s in a world that seemed to me hell-bent on destroying itself. And I tried everything I could to get some kind of upper hand in the situation. I tried drinking and drugs and rock and rock-and-roll, with predictably poor results. I tried achievement, putting in time at an elite private East Coast college until my sophomore year when I had a dream one night that I was standing at the foot of an enormous escalator. I knew I was supposed to step onto it, and that once I did there would be no coming back down and no turning right or left, only a smooth, non-stop ride straight to the top, and that at the top was…death.
I tried American electoral politics, and I found it to be a cynical game for opportunists. I tried left-wing Internationalism, traveling to Nicaragua in the midst of the civil war with a volunteer construction brigade, where we met with a slick, handsome, and charismatic young Sandinista Party official who gave a well-rehearsed speech playing on our anger at our government and especially our hatred of Ronald Reagan. Many of the folks in the group were eating out of his hand, nodding and applauding, but I remember thinking that here was the same old devil in another guise.
I decided that the disease of the world was in my self, and so I went to the Zen Buddhists, to sit down without moving and look myself straight in the eye. I learned a lot of valuable lessons there, and none more so than the knowledge that all the Japanese temple ritual and hours of cross-legged sitting could be a pretty, new covering for the deep psychic structures of bad religion—shame, self-righteousness, the desire to escape the world, and the longing to be taken care of by a paternalistic authority figure. And so there I was at last, almost in spite of myself, with nowhere to go but Jesus.
“Do you also wish to go away?” he asks, and Peter answers “Lord, to whom can we go?” This little exchange encapsulates a whole story of admitting that you are beaten, and nothing can help you now but unconditional love. It may be possible to become a Christian believing that it will be the way to a quick victory over the world, but I’m not sure how you could maintain a lively faith for long on that basis. There is in the gospel a profound realism about the world, a realism that is sometimes mistaken for pessimism. And this pessimism is sometimes twisted into triumphalism, as if the mission of God in Christ is to destroy the earth, and all our human bodies, to save a few pure souls for heaven. When, in fact, Christ comes out of God’s unconditional love for the world, to offer it the free gift of its own true life, which is wisdom, and compassion, and glory.
But these are my words. The words of Jesus, the words that are Spirit and Life, are “Eat my flesh and drink my blood.” These are realistic words, words that ground the work of saving the world in the human body and its vulnerability to defeat. They point the way to a world to come that is not the endless repetition of the struggle for selfish advantage, nor is it final victory in that struggle. And many of Jesus’ disciples decide to abandon him rather than walk that way. The desertion of these disciples, like the talk about flesh and blood, is the Gospel of John’s subtle way of foreshadowing the cross. Abiding in Jesus, allowing him to abide in us, involves being realistic about the world, and admitting that it has us where it wants us. It means choosing a wholehearted engagement in the cause of life, knowing that life includes suffering.
I was at Zephyr Graphics over by Pinky’s Pizza on Friday, picking up a Soccer League jersey for my daughter, and I almost couldn’t get one because they were so swamped with sales of Petaluma National gear. I got into a three-way conversation with the cashier and a woman who was buying a stack of t-shirts for her family and they were sharing about how much more satisfying it was to root for the Little League team than for the professionals. I’ve been at least a casual San Francisco Giants fan for many years, but when I think about the millionaire players and the billionaire owners, and the corporate sponsors and $30 for a ticket and $10 for a beer and how the layout of the stadium is a microcosm of the class system in America, and the poor are left out entirely, I have to agree with them. There was an admission of defeat in that observation, a defeat far worse than anything the Little Leaguers will ever experience on the field. It was the knowledge that they will come of age in a world that is able to corrupt even something as good and beautiful as baseball.
But as wounding as that knowledge is, following Jesus means that it doesn’t lead us to cynicism or despair. We do not condemn the world, no matter how painful it becomes, because in spite of everything it still belongs to God, and God in Christ has embraced it from within. He has given his flesh and blood so that it might not perish, but live. To follow Jesus means to live by that gift, the gift of God’s compassion for all who suffer from the world as it is, which is to say, every sentient being.
But the gift is not only compassion for suffering—it is also power for liberation. Following Jesus means not only that we give up trying to conquer the world and turn at last to receive the gift of life in its simplicity. It also means that we join with him in struggle on life’s behalf. As St. Paul says, this is not a struggle against flesh and blood. It is a struggle with the spirit of pride and domination, who seeks its own hollow triumph at the cost of the destruction of the world. The one thing this spirit cannot bear to see is its own hopelessness, and it will go to any lengths to keep us hooked on the false image of its power. That is why it keeps after us, keeps trying to trick us into betraying our own life and bending it to our own will. And that is why we keep returning again and again to eat the flesh of Jesus and drink his blood. That is why, having exhausted all other options, we feed week-by-week on the humility of Christ. Children of earth, we eat bread and drink wine and in that God’s compassionate love and God’s liberating power are real and present in us and for us, and that is life’s victory.