Picking Up the Pieces

A puzzle piece being held up against a bright window

By Rev. Terry Davis

Delivered at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation on November 6, 2016

 Well, the hoopla is almost over. The yelling and screaming has, perhaps, calmed down a bit, but it’s clear that strong emotions are still there on both sides.

And, why wouldn’t there be? One-hundred and eight years is a long time to wait for a World Series championship. Yes, I’m talking about the Chicago Cubs . . . not that other competition we’ve been hearing so much about.

I plan to get to that. But first, the Cubs and the Indians.

It was hard not to get swept up in the World Series this year. I didn’t have a favorite going in . . . and so, perhaps unlike some of my friends, I could relax, watch the competition emerge and read the commentaries on Facebook and in the news. The last game was, however, was the nail-biter that one might hope for in a final championship . . . and Gail and I stayed up too late like perhaps many of you did on Wednesday night to participate in a little bit of American baseball history. 

While I like baseball and the World Series was fun, the truth is that I’m not a die-hard fan of the sport today. Perhaps that’s because I’ve done my time. I come from a long-line of baseball lovers, and, consequently, I’ve had a lot of exposure to the game over the years.

There’s my dad, for instance, who is a Yankees fan and who played hardball, then softball, for men’s leagues when I was growing up. I went to a LOT of his games.

Night after night, my mother, sisters and I sat on hard metal bleachers at various Maryland county ball fields, batting away summer moths and mosquitoes while my father batted balls and played shortstop.

There’s also my dad’s younger brother, my Uncle Louis, who was a teenager when I was little and who played high school and league baseball. We went to his games, too. Relentlessly. My grandparents would squeeze me and my sister, my great-grandmother, and a few cousins into my grandfather’s LTD Ford and we would head out to the ball park.

If it rained, we stayed crammed in the car and waited it out, fogging up the windows and eating the scrambled egg and pepper sandwiches that my grandmother had packed for lunch. 

And, then there’s my grandfather, who lived in a coal-mining town in northeastern Pennsylvania where he and my grandmother raised my dad, my aunt and uncle.

Grandpa was a die-hard Boston Red Sox fan. On summer nights, he would lie on the couch after dinner, where he’d listen to a Red Sox game through the earphone plugged into his transistor radio. And, at the exact same time, Grandpa would also watch the Red Sox’s long-time nemesis, the New York Yankees, play a game on TV.

If he started snoring, my bored sister and I would quietly approach the television set, thinking that this was our chance to change the channel to watch something else . . . only for Grandpa to rouse himself and say, “Don’t touch that dial! I was watching that!”

If all that baseball wasn’t enough, I spent most of my high school and college years dating a guy who went on to play professional baseball in Italy. I went to a lot of Ralph’s baseball games back then . . . a whole lot . . . cheering him on and getting the best suntans of my life.

And, then – finally – there was my college best friend Maureen, who was insane about the Atlanta Braves. When we graduated from Oglethorpe in 1982, she went to work for the Braves in their public relations department. Because of Maureen’s job, we were able to get excellent seats to all the home games . . . directly behind home plate.

That year, the Braves won the National League West Division for the first time since 1969. So, it was an exciting time to be at the Atlanta ball field and a Braves fan.

But, today . . . today, I’m mostly done. And, I wonder if all that early baseball finally wore me out.

It’s kind of the way I’m feeling today, two days before our presidential election and when we’ll also decide winners in congressional, state and local races. Perhaps like the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians’ journey to the World Series, we might say that it’s been a long and winding road to the political finish line. And, perhaps like the World Series, there have been plenty of things said and emotions shared about who’s the best and who should win.

But, perhaps, that’s where the similarities end.

Because, as Hannah pointed out in her reflection, politics – maybe more than baseball – can be a whole lot more divisive. And this year, opposing political views seem to have sparked more than lively conversations at the dinner table.

They’ve devolved into nasty Facebook comments, strained friendships and more.

And, perhaps, they’ve ignited new feelings of fear as we pass yard signs and see bumper stickers for candidates we can’t possibly imagine supporting.

Like many of you, I’m concerned about this year’s elections and what is at stake for our country and world. And, I’m also tired. I’m tired of the slugfest and ready to move onto more civil discourse. But, what will “moving on” look like? And, what will civil conversations look like when it’s clear that after Tuesday not everyone will get what they want?

After a harsh and bitter political campaign, how do we pick up the pieces? 

In a sermon I delivered a few months’ ago, I quoted writer and NPR host Krista Tippett, who said that she doubts that it’s possible to ever find common ground on some of our thorniest and most polarizing issues. Rather, she said we might serve ourselves and others well if we strive to honor our common life . . . a life that recognizes that we all share the same planet, we all need and want security, and that we all have a desire to feel as though our destinies are within our control.

As someone who believes in some kind of ultimate goodness, I think that this notion of honoring our common life can – and does – invite us to embrace those ultimate human virtues of love, forgiveness and acceptance. After all the yelling and screaming has calmed down, we’re invited once again to heal and connect, even though we may not be able to imagine today how that will ever be possible. 

The ancient Hebrew story of Joseph and his brothers that Dana shared shines a light on the possibility that we can do just that . . . even with people who wanted the very worst for us. Hannah’s hope is that the awfulness of this political campaign won’t drive a wedge between her and the people she loves. And, in my own life, Gail and I will hopefully – like Hannah – spend a Thanksgiving dinner with family whose political views are very different than ours, but whom we love – and they us – for many other and more important reasons.

When I think of the need for love, forgiveness and acceptance in the days ahead, I’m also aware that somehow these virtues often seem to be kicked to the curb when it comes to politics. As an example, Gail and I watched the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Dinner on TV a few weeks ago. This is an annual fundraiser hosted by the Catholic archbishop of New York to support the neediest children in the New York archdiocese. It’s generally the last event where the two presidential candidates share a stage before the election, and it raises millions of dollars.

Candidates have traditionally given humorous speeches poking fun at themselves and their opponents, making the event similar to a roast. However, Gail and I found ourselves squirming and cringing as both candidates took sarcastic and unkind jabs at one another.

It’s said if you’re going to play the political game, that this kind of behavior goes with the turf. But, in thinking about this game, I was reminded again of that other high-stakes game – the World Series – where two teams played hard, and one won and the other lost. It was a fierce competition, to be sure, but there also seemed to be a different tone to it all.

Before the first game of the championship began, the Cubs franchise tweeted this shout-out to the Indians: “@Indians, Hey, before things get all serious on [us] here, congratulations and good luck this series!”

And, the Indians tweeted back with, “@Cubs same to you friends!” and then humorously added “but what does ‘serious’ mean?”

Shortly after their loss, the Indians kept the respectful banter going by tweeting, “Through everything, our guys never gave up. But our storybook season falls just short. Congrats to Chicago. #RallyTogether.”

I know that baseball and politics are two very different things. Yet, these exchanges between the Cubs and the Indians made me wonder, when it comes to our politics, why we might not at least try to be good sports.

Sportsmanship is one of those virtues that we learn on the playground and, later, in our swimming and soccer matches. One definition describes sportsmanship as ethical, appropriate, polite and fair behavior while participating in a game or athletic event. This definition says nothing about loving one’s opponents, or even liking them. Rather, the emphasis is on being a fair player and a gracious loser.

 Sportsmanship is about conducting ourselves on and off the field in a manner that demonstrates mutual respect and eloquently frames winning and losing within the context of a greater purpose and greater good.

While baseball doesn’t have an award for sportsmanship, the Olympic Games does. It’s called the De Coubertin Medal and it’s awarded to athletes, former athletes, sports promoters, sporting officials and others who exemplify the spirit of sportsmanship in Olympic events or through exceptional service to the Olympic movement.

 The first recipient was Luz Long, a German long-jumper who competed in the 1936 Summer Olympic Games in Berlin. He was noted for winning the silver in this event . . . and also for giving advice to his U.S. competitor, Jesse Owens, who went on to win the gold medal in the event as a result of Long’s suggestions . . . and who, as an African American athlete, “crushed Hitler’s myth of Aryan [physical] supremacy.”

According to Jesse Owens, after watching him foul his first two jumps, Luz Long approached him during the competition and told him to try jumping from a spot several inches from behind the take-off board:

Since Owens routinely made distances far greater than the minimum required to advance [in the Olympic Games], Long surmised that Owens would be able to advance safely to the next round without risking a foul trying to push for a greater distance . . . On his third qualifying jump, Owens was calm and jumped with at least four inches to spare, easily qualifying for the finals . . . Owens went on to win the gold medal in the long jump, with Long winning the silver. [Afterwards], Long was the first to congratulate Owens: they posed together for photos and walked arm-in-arm to the dressing room.

Jesse Owens said of that experience with Luz Long, “It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler . . . You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn’t be a plating on the 24-karat friendship that I felt for Luz Long at that moment.”

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It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, but how you play the game. I imagine many of us may remember those words of advice from a parent or coach. This saying came to mind when I read about the Long-Owens story . . . and when I learned about the Cubs-Indians tweets.

And, as I think about how you and I might begin to up the pieces after this election . . . or how we can possibly come together any time when the vision of a common life has been trampled or lost . . . I wonder whether a good beginning might simply be to strive to be good sports.

We don’t have to try to forgive, accept, or love those on the other side of our issues – although it seems like, by striving to do so, we’d be throwing Miracle Grow on our spiritual growth. To be a good sport means we can be gracious losers . . . and dispense with the gloating if we’re winners.

Because to really win in a world where we depend on one another for peace and prosperity, we really can’t afford to have anyone walk away a loser. We must find a way for all of us to have a place the table – Thanksgiving and otherwise.

So, hey, before things get all serious on us here . . . let’s not go past the point of no return. Let’s start our healing journey by finding a way to be a good sport. The days ahead are going to be our own spiritual and moral World Series. And the world is depending on us to rise to the occasion with dignity, kindness and grace.

May we do so . . . and may it be so. Amen.