Friday, December 24, 2010

The Giant Present and the Old School of Sainthood

The Reverend Jonathan A. Voorhees
St. Joseph’s Chapel
Kent School
The Sunday after All Saints Day
7 November 2010

During the past week, we celebrated—sort of--All Saints’ Day on Monday, and All Souls’ Day, the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, on Tuesday.  You had to be paying close attention during the bonfire to know what was going on.  My pith helmet can be very distracting, not to mention the rumor of a holiday in the air.  Today we have a time change, so the disorientation continues. 
All Saints and All Souls are days when the Christian tradition comes to life as we remember those famous people, and those people we have forgotten, who came before us.  The celebration of All Saints’ Day on November 1 dates back as early as the 9th Century as a tradition in the Church, a tradition of remembrance that was begun in Ireland.  Though it is a celebration that has changed over the years, it is an observance that is infused with the mysticism of Celtic Christianity, Irish spirit and wisdom.  It is a day when the living and the dead lean towards each other in greatest intimacy—when we look for the thin places in our lives, the places where God is near, and the spiritual presence of the dead is palpable.  Today is about celebrating the people, both living and dead, who have shaped you as the person you are, and make you imagine the person you can be.  There are so many people out there who care for each of you, even if you have never thought of them as saints before.  Even beyond your parents, immediate family, and friends, there are many, many people--more than you think--who root for you to succeed.  And there will be people there to pick you up when you fall. 
Every human life has a cloud of witnesses; people who are on your side, both living and dead, who want the best for you; who want to see the very best come out of you.  This cloud of witnesses can be those who inspire you, and even those who scare you a little bit.  In the holidays this past week, All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day, we remember the cloud of witnesses who watch over each of us, especially those family members are no longer with us, those who are now with God. 

I am going to talk about two sports today on this Sunday after All Saints Day.  First I must do a baseball wrap-up, a little Sportscenter.  Then I’m moving on to hoops.  After a one year sabbatical studying Zen, I am back as the JV basketball coach, but we’ll get to basketball in just a moment.  First, how many Red Sox fans are in attendance today?  How many Yankee fans?  I have nothing against the Yankees.  You have a wonderfully proud and arrogant tradition, and you sleep and dream on a bed filled with money.  I’m also a huge fan of Joe DiMaggio.  I love joltin’ Joe.  But you won’t understand as well what I have to say this morning.  Red Sox fans, huddle up.  Do you remember the dark days before 2004?  Remember the curse of the Bambino?  The best quote that captures the Babylonian Exile before the first Boston World Series Championship comes from Marty Nolan, a long time Boston sportswriter: “The Red Sox killed my father, and now they’re coming after me.”  Doesn’t that just capture the angst, the Job-like suffering?  Well, my father and I knew much suffering too--because we’ve been rooting for the San Francisco Giants all our lives, and the Giants never won a World Series.  The New York Giants won a few, but the last was in 1954.  But my team, our team, was 0 for San Francisco.  Zero, nada, nothing, bagel, doughnut (cheerios?).  I once had a dream that the Giants would win the World Series.  I had the dream in 1989, in college, and the Giants even went to the World Series that fall.  But then there was an actual earthquake, right before the third game, and they were swept by the Oakland A’s.  Even God seemed to be against the Giants, and the earthquake happened on my brother’s birthday, October 17th.  The stars were lined up against us; it was an athletic apocalypse.    
But what about my dream? 
My dream came true twenty-one years later, which was nineteen years too late for my father, as it turned out.  He died in 1991.  When the Red Sox won the World Series for the first time, after eighty-six years, many Red Sox fans went first to the graveyards to talk to fathers and mothers, to grandfathers and grandmothers, to the countless faithful who had cheered for the home team at Fenway.  People wanted to share the joy with the dead; they poured champagne on the graves of loved ones.  It was an instinct.  It was pure soul at the same time.  It was, in fact, what All Saints Day, is all about.  It’s a day when the living and the dead lean towards each other, and cry together, celebrate together, and love each other again.  You share your joy with the dead, because you have so much of it.  The dead are laughing and crying and hugging right along with us.  The only thing separating us is a Loving God who brings us all together as children of God in the first place.  This is the thinnest place in the universe; there is perfect union in God. 
Ok.  If you don’t know what happened on Monday night, the day of All Saints itself, well, it’s time to turn off your video games—you’ve played enough Halo.  My San Francisco Giants—my father’s Giants, our big fellows--finally won the World Series.  This one is so sweet, sweet as apple pie.  This one is for you, dad.  Happy Sunday after All Saints.  Happy All Souls.    
As much as I would like to bask in the glow—as much as I would like to fear the beard (that’s how we talk in San Francisco, that’s how we roll), time hurries on.  Basketball tryouts are in one week.  Today I would especially like to celebrate the life of someone who died just a little over four years ago.  I believe his life and example bring together many of the most important elements of the ancient celebrations of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.   Arnold “Red” Auerbach (1917-2006) was arguably the greatest influence on American basketball and the development of the National Basketball Association.  In his lifelong passion of basketball, Auerbach touched and shaped American society in ways that we are still experiencing.  Auerbach won a record nine NBA championships as coach of the Boston Celtics; then he won five more as the general manager of the Celtics.  Yet he never forgot his roots in Washington DC, and the independent school that gave him his first coaching job: St Albans School in Northwest Washington.  He had a lifelong relationship with St. Albans, and Red came back to speak at his old school on many occasions.  When he gave a talk, it invariably began: “Let me tell you a story…”  When it came to hoops--prep, college, and pro--Red Auerbach was the ultimate old school coach.  Red was the Socrates of basketball.
Besides the unprecedented success, what did he do that was so special?  In an all white professional basketball league, and in an often racially insensitive community in Boston, Red Auerbach broke from the coaching ranks of conformity and blatant racism.  He drafted the first African American to ever play in the National Basketball Association: Bill Russell, from the University of San Francisco.  Incidentally, Bill Russell played ping pong against my father at USF on a number of occasions.  Russell won every match, and my father was a notorious cheater.  Auerbach didn’t stop with drafting Russell.  As a matter of fact, what made Red Auerbach great was that he never stopped doing anything in his life.  His passion for basketball and for people drove him all of his eighty-nine years.  He was always getting the ball up the floor, metaphorically, leading the fast break, and looking for the open man.  Auerbach was also the first coach to field an all African American starting five, a shock not just to Boston but to the rest of the country.  You can’t do that.  Why not?  Red didn’t really explain himself, or claim any particular credit for how his example might be changing the fabric of American culture, which it was.  He just kept on collecting championships, and he kept up on smoking cigars. 
When it came time to step aside as coach to move into his new full-time role as general manager, Red named Bill Russell as his successor.  Again, Russell was the first—the first African American ever to coach a professional basketball game.  In the true sense of being old school, Russell was a player coach.  Red Auerbach wasn’t color blind.  His wisdom went deeper, and he knew that race did matter greatly in America; which is why he made the choices he did in his life.  He didn’t think that blacks and whites were the same, but he seemed to know quite deeply that we were, and are, all children of God.  The first images of whites and blacks celebrating achievements together in basketball, in joy and tender physical intimacy, human bodies draped on each other in pure joy, go back to Coach Red Auerbach.
Coach found his passion in life early, and he stuck with it until his death.  A passion is something that fills your time on earth with meaning.  It fills the time, it doesn’t pass the time.  It is a special activity that teaches you how to be in the moment, to live in the here and now.  The meaning of your life depends upon you finding your passion.  Red Auerbach didn’t simply share his passion; he gave it away.  Though he was at ease in the spotlight, he was completely comfortable when the spotlight left him (unlike many players and coaches today).  He was always at home in his own skin, and his ease with those of different backgrounds and races was light years ahead of his time.  By sharing his passion for basketball every day, the Jewish Irishman from Washington changed his time and ours.  He was absolutely unconventional.  Red was both arrogant and deeply humble; wise but self-effacing; both kind and fiercely loyal; open and accessible, yet cunning as a fox.  Along with his penchant for the cigar (he smoked ten of them a day), the only kind of food he ate was Chinese food.  His favorite breakfast was leftover Chinese food in his hotel room and a Diet Coke.
In the example of Red Auerbach, we remember today one of the most important things about All Saints’ Day: There is no common or conventional definition of sainthood.  It is open to all of us.  Sainthood is fundamentally unconventional and personal.  In fact, the real saints, in each of our cloud of witnesses, are often the most unconventional people we have ever met.  The religious writer Frederick Buechner, the former chaplain of Exeter, describes All Saints’ Day wonderfully in these words:
“On All Saints’ Day it is not just the saints of the Church that we should remember in our prayers, but all the foolish ones and wise ones, the shy ones and the overbearing ones, the broken ones and the whole ones, the despots…and the crackpots of our lives who, in one way or another, have been our particular fathers and mothers and saints, and whom we loved without knowing we loved them and by whom we were helped to whatever little we may have, or ever hope to have, of some kind of seedy sainthood of our own.”

Saints are the places of unusual sanctity in our world, the thin places where the love of God shines through our hearts.  Sainthood cannot be studied on the outside—or celebrated yearly at a distance.  It’s about what you do every day of your life, with a breakfast of Kung Pao chicken and pot stickers to start your day, and an old man’s cigar smoke ascending to the rafters like church incense.  Attune you life, personally and unconventionally, to what is truly holy in our world.  Make spiritual music with the choices in your life, and we shall overcome.  Be famous before God, unconventionally, and the world will, some day, one golden day, follow your example.

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