Once in a Hundred Years
They only come around
once in a hundred years
They are cosmic, seismic, pandemic, epic in scale
Floods, earthquakes, diseases—
Only one team will end up winning
the last game of the year.
The rest of the fans are left waiting
with a tear in their beer.
that’s what we call them.
Next Spring we expectantly wait
the first pitch of the year,
which signals the season’s already over,
and left waiting for another hundred years.
I have not made it a secret that I have been a life-long baseball fan and, more specifically, a Chicago Cubs fan. It is my beloved sport and my beloved team. I remember one morning soon after our family started attending Florence, Nina asked if we had had any spiritual experiences during the former week. It so happened that the Cubs had just won their first World Series in over one hundred years—one hundred and eight to be exact—and it was very much a spiritual experience for me as much of my life up to that point had ridden the ebb and flows, the highs and the lows of the Cub’s fortunes.
I grew up loving a different brand of baseball than is being played these days. I loved the strategies buried in the game that included hit-and-runs, stealing—neither of which were crimes unless you got caught—bunting—both to sacrifice and for hits—the crafty pitcher who could keep the hitter off balance, and of course, the heavy hitter who could from time-to-time square up a pitch and send the ball over the left field fence for a home run.
Today’s game looks much different than the game I grew up loving. The game in many ways has been reduced to the pitcher who can throw the ball over one hundred miles-an-hour, either striking out or walking the batter, and the batter who can occasionally catch up to the ball, sending it four hundred feet into the crowd for a home run. This has not been unintentional. Baseball is the only game in which knocking the ball out of the playing field is rewarded, making it America’s favorite pastime, at least in past times. So, over the years, baseball executives, in hopes of satiating the desire to see the ball get knocked out of the park more often, resorted to winding the ball tighter and tighter. Athletes have also become stronger and stronger. This allows the ball to fly farther and farther, resulting in more home runs and less strategy and finesse on the part of players in the field and on the base pads.
However, this year, Major League Baseball, in a move to turn back the clock, announced that they are rethinking this trend and will be throwing a ball into play that is wound less tightly than those being used over the past few years, resulting in a ball that will on average fly four feet less, meaning the ball will land in a few more mitts for outs than in the bleachers for runs.
Now I know you didn’t come to church this morning to get a preview of the 2021 Major League Baseball season, but I bring it up for a reason. We have been looking at the world we live in from an ecological perspective, meaning the way that things are interconnected and affect each other. In other words, if you change one thing in the mix, it has an effect on everything else connected to it. There is an ecology of baseball: the mitt, the bat, the players, the coaches, the owners, the executives, the field, the fans, the weather, and the ball. Changing one of those patrts can change the game. For example, changing the way the ball is made in the factory will change the way the game is played on the field.
All things, not just baseball or the environment, have interconnections and are interconnected. We could say that there is an ecology of languages in the world. We might say there is an ecology of religions. We could definitely say that there is an ecology of the church, even an ecology of Florence: people, personalities, places, communities, structures, and we could probably list more items. When one of those elements change or something new is introduced it affects the entire system, its impact is felt throughout the church community and we are made to adapt if we are to survive. Florence looks very different than it did just twenty years ago, but that’s okay.
This past year, a once-in-a-hundred-years pandemic has rattled the very structures of our existence together. We have been left figuring out how to function and thrive as a congregation. It has rattled and exposed, not only for Florence, but for the church as a whole, some of things that we value and some areas where we are lacking. It is a perfect example of the way in which the cracks in a much larger system of relationships that we call globalism has had a trickle-down effect on a tiny group in the cornfields in the Midwest of North America. We may come to realize that global warming and climate change were more responsible for the global pandemic than might have been surmised at first blush. Global problems affect local communities.
In the scripture that Faith read this morning, the author of Psalm 19 suggests that the non-human world has something to teach the human world if we only take the time to listen and learn. The writer exclaims:
Day to day [the heavens] pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world (vs. 2, 3).
That sounds like a global language to me. It’s not that God is not speaking; it’s maybe because we haven’t learned to listen. The issue in these verses is not about the amount of scientific knowledge within the reach of the fingertips of our senses, but about the way the world is held together by and through the creator. Even the Apostle Paul had a sense of the world’s connectedness when he wrote to the church in Ephesus that there is “one God who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:5), and to the Colossians when he wrote of Christ that “all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things and in him all things are held together” (Colossians 1:16,17).
. . . God has pitched a tent for the sun.
It is like bridegroom coming out of its chamber,
like a champion [there’s our champion] rejoicing to run its course.
It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is deprived of its warmth (vs. 4,5).
What could be more symbolic of the world’s connectedness than the sun? No one can escape its effects, for better or for worse (after all, it is like a bridegroom). What can we learn about Florence by listening to the voice of the world around us?
In 1979, the ornithologist Betty Anne Schreiber and her husband started a research project studying seabirds nesting off the coast of Peru in the Pacific Ocean. In 1982 they noticed that the birds abandoned their chicks to die and migrated elsewhere due to an extreme, once-in- four-hundred-years southern shift of the El Niño weather pattern which warms the ocean temperatures. This was not too surprising. What was surprising was what they discovered over the next several decades. They noticed that the fish and birds were able to detect and flee the shifting weather patterns months before meteorologists picked up anything with their sensitive weather instruments. I suppose if Schreiber were a poet and not a scientist, she might say something about how the “voices” of Blue-Footed Boobies crying out that a storm is on its way speak to the world’s interconnectedness.
The Psalmist is not a scientist. The Psalmist is not worried about taxonomy, that is putting everything in its proper category and understanding each species’ behavior, although that is important. What the Psalmist is concerned about is the way that the whole world is held together and connected. And if connected, then perhaps we need to consider how to care for the world we are connected to.
In “The Sound of Silverbells,” the chapter we read this week from Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer tells of her experience of taking a group of pre-med students from deep in the Bible Belt on a field excursion in the Smoky Mountains of the Carolinas to teach them the legitimacy of evolution. She thought that by showing her students the way in which individual species had adapted to their particular environments, there would be no denying the wonder of biodiversity found at the different stages in the rising elevation on the mountain. The students seemed unfazed by her evangelical fervor to convert them. Instead, they turned the tables on her.
As they were making their way down the side of the mountain at the end of their trip, they encountered a stand of Silverbell trees that were shedding their spring petals. In the midst of their wonderment and awe, one of the students quietly began to sing the first stanza of “Amazing Grace.” Slowly the other students began adding their harmonies to the song, and suddenly Kimmerer realized that the students truly had grasped the harmony of nature in a way she had overlooked. The “voices” of the Silverbells and Hermit Thrushes had spoken louder than what she could.
Kimmerer goes on to write, “The land is the real teacher. All we need as students is mindfulness. Paying attention is a form of reciprocity with the living world, receiving gifts with open eyes and open hearts” (p. 222). We owe it to ourselves to stop long enough to listen to the voice of the world around us, whether the voice of Blue-Footed Boobies, the voice of El Niño, the voice of the Sun, the voice of Hermit Thrushes, the voice of Silverbells, or the voice of COVID-19. Each of them has something to teach us about the laws of God, the way the world is held together: globally, regionally, locally, and individually. The voices can even teach us about the way the church is held together—and where its structures are susceptible to fractures and instability.
During COVID-19, we have found it much easier to curse the crisis than to listen to its voice. We have created our own theories about its origins and its purpose. In our haste to free ourselves from the shrillness of its voice, we have closed our hearts and ears to the things COVID has to tell us. I hesitate to call the pandemic a friend; maybe a prophet along the lines of those found in the Old Testament might be a more accurate comparison. But we have been slow to listen.
COVID-19 has exposed cracks in the system, even at Florence, yes, even at Florence. None of us were meant for isolation. Yet, in spite of our yearning to live in meaningful community with each other, we have discovered that too often many are left feeling lonely. We have discovered that we are not the same congregation we were fifteen or twenty years ago. We have discovered that we have new technologies available that, while not replacing face-to-face contact, allow us to stay connected when we are unable to be together in person. We have discovered that the out-of-doors provide many wonderful gathering places. And we have discovered that the structures that have held us together, both physically and organizationally, are fraught with cracks that need repair.
None of us would have chosen or wished this once-in-a-hundred-years pandemic for anyone, especially those who have lost their loved ones. What would our response have been a year ago if we had been told that in the United States alone, we would lose a half million of our loved ones? Surely, we would have been in disbelief. Our hearts should be gripped by grief. But if our grief closes our hearts to the voice of the pandemic, then those lives will have been lost in vain.
When Donald agreed to take on the role of congregational chair, he did so with the desire to help us as a congregation listen for and learn from the voices telling us about the way we are held together. Who are we? How have we changed? Who do we want to become? What do we do well? Where are the cracks? How do we need to rewind the baseball so that we can continue to play the game in a meaningful way?
Florence is a beloved community. Over the next several months, Donald and I will be meeting with groups from Florence to talk about these kinds of questions. We will need your help in knowing the right questions to ask and the voices we need to be listening to. What needs to be thrown into the mix to help us thrive in the coming years? How can we structure and organize our community in a way that captures and unleashes who we are? Each of us will be needed in this process and we invite you to offer further suggestions you may have as we move forward in this process. I ask each of you to prayerfully and thoughtfully consider your role in this process of reimagining what Florence might look like in the coming years. What kind of ball do we want to throw into the mix? What do we want the game to look like? What kind of players do we have? What kind of field are we playing on? Let’s not wait for another hundred years.