Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Casey and the Ball! (a Contemporary Parable of Second Chances!

It was a powerful, non-verbal symbol recognized by every player on the old New York Yankees baseball club, during their successful 1956 season. When Manager Casey Stengel wanted to signal the identity of the person he had chosen to pitch for the next game, he would get to the locker room early and place a game ball inside the player’s spikes. As soon as the team checked-in to the dressing room and began to prepare for the game, one pitcher would learn in this way that he had been selected.

Indeed, on October 8, 1956, in Game Five of the World Series, when the Yanks were playing my boyhood favorite, their cross-town rivals, the Brooklyn Dodgers, the hurler selected by Casey that night learned his fate in just that way. Not even Casey knew that Don Larsen, the fellow who found the ball in his shoes that day, would pitch the only perfect game ever in a World Series contest and 1 of only 20 such games in major league baseball history! Larson took that ball from his shoes, rubbed it in the dirt, spat on his hands, warmed up and proceeded to face only 27 batters. Not 1 of them made it to first base!

Somehow lost in the back story of Larson’s perfect game is the reality that on his first trip to the World Series mound, in Game Two, he had a terrible night. When he entered the game, the Yankees were ahead 6-0. But Larson lasted only 2 innings, giving up 4 walks and allowing 4 runs before Casey had to pull him. He went to the showers that night convinced that his chance of playing in the 1956 World Series had ended in disgrace. Thanks largely to his ineffective hurling, the Yanks eventually lost the game they had almost sewed up before Larsen came in! After such a disastrous and brief stint, no one in baseball expected to hear from Don Larsen again.

If baseball is anything, it is a sport filled with symbolism & metaphor. In a powerful and non-verbal way, one man, Casey Stengel, signaled his confidence in another man, Don Larson, despite his earlier failure, by giving him both the ball and a big second chance. Larson would later acknowledge that it was precisely Casey’s willingness to trust him, despite his previous poor performance, that motivated him on that fateful baseball night in October, 1956.

It has been a long time since I played baseball. The Brooklyn Dodgers have long ago left town. Baseball is certainly a much different game, today. But, I’m convinced that our world, on and off the field of play, needs more people with discernment like Casey. We need those who can look beyond a fleeting fiasco to see permanent potential in the lives of others who, like all of us, occasionally botch up the game. In an ironic twist, it is usually true that second chances improve performance.

Do you know someone whose latent possibilities you can still see, despite the reality of their throwing a bad game?  What would it take for you to hang the game ball in their spikes?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

From My Veranda!

The soft rain slowly fell just beyond the edge of the balcony. Because of its larger size, the Greeks here refer to this blessed appendage which hangs out over the street, four stories below, as a veranda. How cool was my elevated seat at noon on this October day in Athens! How sweet the smell of gentle rain! How privileged was I to sit at leisure, eating hot ham sandwiches and chips and drinking from a tall glass of chilly milk, enhanced by a not stingy but just correct number of ice cubes! Life is good! My purposeful preoccupation with a computer keyboard and small screen was blessedly interrupted by this further evidence of what the French refer to as la vie, the life which is my privilege, these days.

And then …. And then, my relaxed concentration turned to those far less fortunate than I. And then, it occurred to me that the rain so welcomed by me on my veranda was not at all hailed by those in Athens who no longer have a proper home and sufficient shelter. Immigrants (historically the poor in Greece) and now an increasing number of Greeks are facing hunger and homelessness in ever-growing numbers. Those whom the current economic crisis has pushed closer to and beyond the edges of the normal human comfort zone must surely not be enjoying this petite shower as much as I am. Raindrops falling on their heads are neither refreshing nor are they the stuff of carefree song lyrics. For these, even a tiny bit of rain brings inconvenience at least and moves their precarious existence a step closer to personal and familial desperation.

That wonderfully hot ham sandwich repast, the aroma of which filled our apartment and spilled over on our veranda, would certainly seem a fantasy to those for whom any type of warm meal is now a distant and fading memory. When I poured that tall glass of milk from the container, I worried not that the carton was emptied, since my Alpha Beta (Άλφα-Βήτα) supermarket was just a few blocks away; on Friday, our weekly shopping day, I will surely purchase more milk. But, many of my fellow comrades on planet earth for whom the crisis has drained their savings will have no such opportunity to obtain this life sustaining liquid.

What must a man of privilege do in the face of such crying need and economic disparity? Must I curse the conscience that brings the poor to my mind when I am enjoying life? Am I to ignore the plight of those who, often through no fault of their own, are in distress? Shall I shut my ears to the pleas of poor children who long for bread to eat and milk to drink? Or, shall I repent of my wealth, sell all that I have, depart from my vaunted veranda and go to live among the homeless on the streets of Athens? I am, after all, in this city because I care for the less-fortunate!
To conclude my meal, I pray and solemnly will to redouble my efforts to be the presence of Christ among the needy. I promise to take the energy and nourishment provided by ham sandwiches and milk and head out to help to feed Athens’ growing hungry, regardless of race, religion or background. I commit never to take for granted a day’s meal and always to offer as much of me as possible to help the helpless. I choose to eat less, so that others may eat more and to give more of my resources, so that those who have less may have actually more.

Oh God, may I never lose the dry, nourishing veranda view! For the sake of those who are wet and undernourished, I pray!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Lathos Intolerance!

One of the first phrases I learned in the study of the contemporary Greek language is lipame – Greek short-hand for I am sorry! As a stumbling practitioner of modern Greek, I learned this word rather quickly and easily, because I constantly make mistakes. Another, related word I learned the easy way (or the hard way, depending on your point of view) is the Greek word, lathos, meaning mistake. Because I often make grammatical and linguistic blunders and occasionally also make cultural errors in this Greek setting, I am often required to say, Lipame! Lathos mou! - I am sorry! My mistake!

While Greek friends are usually willing to overlook my poor pronunciation, improper word endings and inappropriate usage of tenses, internally, I have a low level of tolerance for these linguistic miscues. Somewhere along the line, I must have accepted, without giving it much consideration, the notion that my language fluency should be perfect. Unless I intentionally decide to give myself the benefit of the doubt, cut myself some slack and lighten-up, I can be harsh toward myself in this regard. I find it somewhat ironic that I give myself so much critical grief due to a notion of perfection which I have apparently uncritically accepted into my own internal mentality.
This idea surfaced again recently, when I was telling my advanced English language conversation students not to be so hard on themselves. Speaking to these adult language learners who come to class after a hard day of underpaid, manual labor, I suggested that their first goal should not be the development of perfect fluency, but, instead, to come to understand the English language well and to make themselves understood by others. Recently, I was counseling a new arrival in the United States who, despite the fact that he already speaks several languages, is anxious about his somewhat limited fluency in the English vernacular. I reminded him that, even with his struggles with this new tongue, he is already perfectly able to make himself understood, even though in a less than perfect manner.

While some may deem this a low diving board approach to adult language learning, my sense is that it is a reasonable approach to the imperfections which we all demonstrate – especially when it comes to language usage. But, every time I speak this way to aspiring language learners, I can see the eyes begin to roll. In language learning, we all seem to have what the Greeks might refer to as lathos intolerance!
But, intolerance of our incompleteness is not restricted to language learning. Most of us are similarly biased against our limitations in many other areas of life. After decades of dealing with struggling university students who may or may not have been making the dean’s list, I can report that I spent more time counseling the high achievers who missed the A+ by a few points than I did with underachievers who could not make a 2.0 GPA! Virtually every stunningly attractive coed with whom I engaged in meaningful conversation over the years always felt that she was, in some respects ugly, no matter how many beauty contests and class beauty awards she had won. I have known astoundingly successful professional people whose curriculum vitae would have made anybody envious, but who often express the sorrow that they have not achieved well. I know folks whose moral record is stellar, but who can never forget or forgive themselves for a mistake made years ago.

I have a suspicion that this lathos intolerance, if you will allow me a less-than-perfect usage of both the English and the Greek languages, has been driven into our psyches from our earliest experiences in education, sports, religion and even our families by our elders who struggle with their own incompleteness;  but, I could be wrong on that! Regardless of its origin, I wonder how much potential benefit and growth you and I have bypassed by our failure (if I may use the word) to claim the learnings associated with our failures! When our mistakes only cause us embarrassment and self-depreciation and cannot be owned, mined or harvested for our benefit, we are short-changing ourselves of potential added value!
I am not here to celebrate mediocrity and am certain that all of us could and should do better in many aspects of our lives; but sometimes I need to be reminded that only God is perfect and I am not – nor was I ever, since the fall of mankind, intended to be! Indeed, if the Bible teaches us anything at all, it is that we have all “fallen short,” (Romans 3:23), every one of us has “missed the mark” (sin, hamartia in Greek – 1 John 3:4). What is more, although our God is a holy and righteous God, it is his loving, gracious willingness to accept us, despite our mistakes, that is the basis for any salvation which we have any chance of receiving – in this world or the next.

If you happen to disagree with my words here, you should feel free to write this up as my mistake and accept in advance my words: Lathos mou! Lipame!