Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Law of Averages

I have always loved baseball. My parents took me to see the Atlanta Braves at Fulton County Stadium back when they were even worse than they are this year. On summer nights, if we were driving anywhere in the southeast, we would scan the AM dial, searching for the clear sound of Skip Caray’s nasal voice and the sarcastic remarks he was sure to make. When I visited my grandparents’ house for a week each summer, I would lie in the bed next to my Grandpa and fall asleep while the Braves tried to eke out a win on the radio. As I got older, I fell in love with the Chicago Cubs and watched their afternoon broadcasts on WGN. After my junior year of college, I managed to secure a job on the ground crew at Wrigley Field. Still today, when I watch the Cubs play, I dream of heading to Chicago for another summer, riding each day into Wrigleyville on the Red Line to spend an afternoon in one of baseball’s holiest temples.

There are countless beautiful things about America’s pastime, but many of its enduring characteristics come from its incomparably long 162-game season. In college football, teams play only a dozen regular-season games, which means that every game is critical. Conversely, a baseball team endures a season that stretches on night after night for months and months, which means that a team can lose as many as six or seven or eight in a row and still contend for a World Series title. A championship team needs to be at its best more often than not, but, given enough games, the best teams usually end up on top. Sure, even the worst teams will win some spectacular games, giving their fans a thrill, but, teams that are in a long-term rebuilding phase are not likely to impress their fan base for very long. (Sorry, Braves fans.)

Similarly, a team that starts a season on a real hot streak may attain an unsustainable winning percentage of .750 for the first month of play, but eventually it will fall back from that meteoric pace and settle into a more realistic winning rate around .650 or, perhaps even .700. (The record for the most wins in a season is 116, which equals a winning percentage of .716.) A few years ago, Braves’ third baseman Chipper Jones flirted midseason with a batting average of .400, but the law of averages caught up with the career-.306-hitter, and he finished the 2008 season with a respectable .368 average (the 193rd best season of all time). Over the course of a season, the difference between batting .368 and .400 is only four additional hits per one hundred at-bats, which sounds easy enough, but baseball is a long game. There may be moments of real surprise, but, over time, the truth always comes out.

Doesn’t the same principle hold true in other aspects of our lives? A marriage built exclusively on a fiery romance is likely to fizzle out when both partners stop pretending to be the Romeo and Juliet they never were in the first place. The job you have hated for years can actually seem rewarding when you finish a big project or get back from a long vacation, but, eventually, you are as ready to quit as you have ever been. Ever kept a New Year’s resolution longer than a few weeks? Ever promised the preacher that you and your family are “definitely going to start coming to church again?” Ever told God that you are “going to try harder to be a good Christian” and that you “really mean it this time?”

Our journey with God is a long one. It begins even before we are born, when he knows us from our mother’s womb, and continues through this life and into the next. We cannot measure faithfulness in months or even years. Faithfulness is a decades-long process of learning and growing and sustaining. Each of us has a lifetime to deepen our spiritual practices, and habitual changes—like batting averages—do not take shape overnight. So how do we become the Christian that we want to be? How does a .275 hitter climb up to .300? One swing at a time.

Start with where you are. Quit pretending that you are something that you are not. What does your spiritual life look like right now? Unlike baseball players, no one keeps track of our statistics, so you must evaluate the quality of your own spiritual life. What is giving you joy? What causes you anxiety? What draws you closer to God? What makes God feel more distant? Again, start wherever you are, and then consider one small thing that you might do to change a weekly routine. Maybe it is as simple as five minutes of silence each day in the car before you head into work. Maybe it is as easy as reading a psalm before you hop in the shower. Whatever it is, pick something meaningful but simple—the kind of practice that within a week or two you could begin to do almost without thinking about it.
You may feel the urge to do more, but don’t try to do everything at once. Mountain-top experiences usually fade away. That kind of change, if enacted all at once, is nearly impossible to sustain. You cannot become Mother Teresa overnight, but five years of steady, incremental changes can be transformative. Think of your relationship with God in the longest terms. Yes, each day matters, but there are many, many days in a lifetime. Do not miss the opportunity to grow in your faith, but recognize that meaningful growth begins with small steps. We must shape our spiritual lives in tiny increments and watch how those minute steps accumulate in the long game.

This post is also the cover article from The View, the weekly parish newsletter for St. John's, Decatur. To read the rest of the newsletter and learn more about St. John's, click here.

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