We’re fast approaching Memorial Day, the beginning of summer for many. And of all the things we associate with summer, baseball, whether we are fans of it or not, has to be among the top of the list. Most of us know the basics of baseball. The offensive team bats, tries to hit the ball, and when a player does that, he advances according the number of bases he can muster until the defensive team brings the ball close to a base where the runner could be called out. He stops running and the next batter comes up.
The defensive team, then, is determined to field whatever ball is hit and put the player out. In order to do this, they have to cover the bases the hitter from the other team will run. So, among the players on the defensive team are guys that cover first base, second base, and third base. There’s one called a shortstop that hovers somewhere out there kind of between second and third base. And there’s the catcher, of course, who’s covering home plate. The pitcher and the three fielders round out the defensive team. They all work together to make sure the bases are covered in order to put a runner from the other team out. After three outs, they get their turn to bat.
Now, if that were all there is to baseball, it would be a pretty boring game (as it is to most of us anyway). But there is additional strategy to be played out. Those guys covering the bases, and out in the field, are “studied up” so they know where a batter from the opposing team tends to hit a ball. They move around accordingly, trying to anticipate where the ball might land. They also have to strategize where they will throw the ball – to what base – depending on how many of the opposing team are on base. Will they try to make a play at third base because someone is currently on second? Or will their first play be at first base to catch the batter? They watch for the posture of the batter too. Is he poised to bunt the ball, placing it closer infield and allowing his teammates to advance? If so, they’ll want to be ready to move up to stop that play. And they have to “read” the actions of opposing players. They have to anticipate what those on base intend to do by the distance they are willing to get off the base in order to advance to the next one, all the while jeopardizing their position.
I think it’s also interesting that baseball is the only sport where the defensive team has control of the ball. In football, when Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is putting a pass in the air, he’s on the offensive team. But in baseball, when the Chicago Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta puts his ball into the air, he’s on the defensive team.
Obviously, the main objective for either team in baseball is to score more runs and win the game. In order to do that, one of the main goals is to make sure the bases are covered to prevent the other team from scoring.
Keeping the bases covered was at the heart of what the Ancient Greeks were doing when it came to worshipping. They had this god and that god. Some worshipped several gods to keep their bases covered. These gods were idols, statues, figments of peoples’ imaginations. Sometimes they were the moon, the stars and sun. And, just in case, just to make sure they had their bases covered, the Athenians had erected a statue, an altar to an “unknown god.” That is, just in case the gods they had accepted weren’t really the right gods or even gods at all, they wanted to make certain that if a more powerful god showed up that he wouldn’t be offended by being left out. So they built this altar to honor him.
It is a matter of history that a follower of Jesus, Paul, entered the city. Paul was not known to be some great theologian, but he had a knack for reading people. Every time he went into a new place, he had to learn how to communicate with the people there. They didn’t all speak the same language. They didn’t have the same customs. Some of them were Jews as he was but a lot of them were not. What Paul was really good at was studying the other team. He could apparently in a relatively short time, analyze a community or a city and figure out how to best share his story with people who either did not want to hear or people who had never heard that story at all.
The story about his speech in Athens is really an excellent example of that. Paul was really in foreign territory here. As he walked the streets of Athens and engaged people in conversation, Paul must have listened just as much or more than he actually spoke. He listened to what people said they believed about their gods and why. When he came upon this altar to the unknown god, he didn’t just take a brief glimpse and keep going. He stopped and he read the inscription on it. Paul really worked at knowing the people to whom he was and would be speaking.
So while the Athenians were busy covering their bases by honoring every god they could conjure up, Paul was preparing for his own opportunity to defend his bases as well.
Paul apparently learned (as we have from history) that the people in Athens were always open to new ideas. The Greeks loved to engage in philosophical conversations. So as he forged ahead into this unknown territory for him, he set an example for all of us today. Paul knew he would probably offend some people. But because he was respectful of even the pagan beliefs, because he took the time to understand the people to whom he was speaking, because he recognized that these were God’s children just as much as he was, Paul was able to communicate with them in a way that opened their hearts and minds to hearing God. Paul covered his bases by knowing the team he would be going up against. He knew they would be open to other religions so that, at least, he would be given a hearing.
As long as Paul had done his homework about the people to whom he would be speaking, as long as he was respectful in addressing them, and as long as Paul held on to his faith, he knew he would be given the words to share with the Greeks.
Now, it’s important for us to also acknowledge that Paul never sold out, never undermined, never compromised his beliefs, his faith. Rather than giving in to what would have been incredible pressure to back away from these deep thinkers and probable scoffers, Paul stood firm.
I remember a conversation with a state leader in South Dakota when the Legislature was considering whether schools should be required to offer foreign languages to elementary and high school students. “Absolutely not!” he pronounced. “All those other people can learn English!”
Now, many will agree with that philosophy. Those who have traveled at all in Europe know that many, many people do speak English. Those who don’t speak French or German or Spanish or Italian would really be lost if so many of our European friends did not speak English. But when we visit those places, even though we may find people who can interpret for us, our lack of knowledge of their languages prevents us from understanding their culture. If we cannot fluently speak the language they speak, we are limited to our own understanding based on the English language.
But today, it’s not just a matter of understanding a culture of people in Europe or Africa or Asia, it is a matter of understanding a culture right here in the United States. When I moved from Missouri to South Dakota and many years later from South Dakota to Wisconsin, I was introduced to an entirely different culture in those places. Yes, the vast majority of them speak English, but the way they think, the way they get and process information, the way they honor traditions and the traditions themselves were foreign to me. Likewise, moving from church to church as a pastor, I had to learn the traditions for each congregation even if they were in the same denomination. I had to take a lesson from Paul as I entered into each new world. I had to listen just as much or more than I preached. I had to be respectful of those who think and believe differently than I do. I had to be understanding of the culture. I had to cover my bases. I learned quickly that people were not going to change to my way of thinking or accommodate the way I grew up. Somehow, I had to become part of them while still remaining true to myself and what I believed to be true and right.
The one mistake I made and which I immensely regret was working so hard to lose my Missouri accent when I moved to South Dakota. No kidding; I used to sit in my dorm room and practice saying, “How now brown cow?” without a twang. I accomplished it. And I fit in. People were more open to me because they assumed I was just one of them. Perhaps it was necessary when I was so young and trying to learn the ways of the world. Now I just miss my accent and I celebrate every time I return to Missouri and hear it again.
Whenever we balk at changes in the world; whenever we look at how people outside of our family live and believe and we find ourselves in judgment of them, we have to remember that we are not here or there to force our beliefs on anyone. Rather, we are to listen, to understand, and then share our ideas, our beliefs, our traditions. Because the culture has changed even in those places we have lived our entire lives, because traditions are not as important for some as they are for many of us, we cannot afford to get angry or take our ball and go home. Rather, what we are to do is what Paul did: size up the other team; figure how what’s important to them; listen to their needs and their fears. In so doing, we’ll learn how best to cover our bases in order to defend our beliefs whether they are religious or political.
We need to cover our bases. The point is not to be individual winners in a shouting contest or in the passing of judgment. We have control of the ball. But we obviously need to be more open to the needs of others in order to make the most of our nine innings. That’s playing offense defensively.
22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’ – Acts 3:22-28Share here: