Tuesday, January 14, 2014

From the Manger to the Meadowlands

This morning I’d like to continue our theological exploration--of the idea that the presence of God may be found in the unexpected place or person, often the last place you would look.  Despite the fact that the story of Jesus’ birth in the manger is now one of the most cherished of the gospel stories, it was an event that would have been easy to miss at the time.  This devotion to the Christ child has certainly increased with the movie Talledega Nights and the character of Ricky Bobby who likes little baby Jesus best of all, and prays to him.  “He grew up…he was a man,” his father in-law complains.  But it’s all for naught with Ricky Bobby.

 “Dear Lord baby Jesus, lyin' there in your ghost manger, just lookin' at your Baby Einstein developmental videos, learnin' 'bout shapes and colors.”

Ricky Bobby then goes on to thank God for his smokin’ hot wife and his sons Walker and Texas Ranger. 

This chapel talk is about two people, two very unconventional characters—and not Ricky Bobby (I’ll save him for another day).  The first is Robert Sullivan.  Robert Sullivan is an explorer and writer, but not the usual kind.  His specialty is the Meadowlands.  Yes, that’s right, the Meadowlands in New Jersey: a former glacial lake that has been receding for the last 10,000 years, becoming the swampland you know now--and at one time the largest garbage dump in the world.  You’ve driven past it on the way to somewhere more important: Newark Airport possibly, maybe a discount mall, or you went there for a Giants or Jets game.  The Super Bowl this year will be at the Meadowlands, but no one will mention the wilderness around Met Life Stadium, before or during the game.  It’s like it doesn’t exist.  Robert Sullivan is obsessed with the Meadowlands, and I met him just about fifteen years ago in Portland, Oregon.  Like Henry David Thoreau, he wanted to get back to nature, but he chose the most unlikely spot in the United States, maybe the world.  The comparison with Thoreau, however ironic in talking about an EPA waste site, became absolutely just when Sullivan found that the Meadowlands did, in fact, have a Walden Pond.  It’s just that no one ever went there; no one even looks at the map of the expansive swampland.  So Sullivan decided to go on his own Thoreau wilderness adventure, exploring the Meadowlands for weeks at a time in a small canoe.

Here is Sullivan’s adventure and vision in his own words in his book The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures on the Edge of a City.

“Sometimes, I sit on the top of Snake Hill until dusk, and I spread out my maps and marvel.
I marvel that I am in the middle of a thirty-two-square-mile wilderness, part natural, part industrial, that is five miles from the Empire State Building and a little bit bigger than Manhattan.

I marvel that the land before me was called ‘a swampy, mosquito-infested jungle…where rusting auto bodies, demolition rubble, industrial oil slicks and cattails merge in an unholy, stinking union,’ by authors of a 1978 federal report, and that now it is a good place to see a black-crowned night heron or a pied-billed grebe or eighteen species of ladybugs, even if some of the waters these creatures fly over can oftentimes be the color of antifreeze.

I marvel that on the edges of the Meadowlands there are places that are stuffed with people (some blocks in Union City have the highest population density in the United States) but that in the middle of the Meadowlands there are acres and acres of land where there aren’t people at all…

On the top of Snake Hill, I am on mysterious ground that is not guidebooked and that reads like a dead language…I am in the middle of a place that forces of progress have perennially targeted but have never managed to completely control, a place that people rush past on their way to the rest of America, a place they spit at with their exhaust pipes.  There, with the sun burning through smog and lighting up the reeds, with eight lanes of traffic providing backup, I sing the Meadowlands.  I am the dot on the Meadowlands’ exclamation point.”

To go out in a search for peace and enlightenment in the Meadowlands of New Jersey is absurd—it’s completely crazy (which is exactly what Sullivan’s wife thought by the way).  But that’s what Robert Sullivan did, and that’s what he found.  All of the madness of our culture and world was right on the edge of a wilderness, almost totally unexplored.  That boggled Sullivan’s mind.  He found peace, renewal, and the unbelievable power of nature still pulsing in the Meadowlands, even as man’s so-called ingenuity is destroying our natural environment.  Mother Nature is still a very powerful lady.  Sullivan is a wise man of our time, finding renewal, inspiration, and peace in the last place anyone would look.  It’s as crazy as going on a vision quest at Kent in the middle of winter, but a new spring is being born with every step you take right now.
My second wise man this morning is a guy named Billy Beane.  That name may not ring any bells, but the movie Moneyball just might.  Billy Beane is the General Manager of the Oakland Athletics.  As Sullivan went looking for wisdom in nature, Beane went looking for a deeper insight into human nature by rejecting all conventional thinking about what is really happening in the game of baseball—and how best to evaluate players for a professional baseball team that didn’t really have money to spend.  Moneyball the movie had wonderful performances by Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, as the general manager and assistant general manager who embrace a completely new philosophy.  Moneyball the book by Michael Lewis is about the 2002 Oakland A’s, and the movie and the book are about their radical philosophy.  Despite being a small market team, with dramatically smaller revenue than teams like the Yankees and Red Sox, the Oakland A’s are consistently in the baseball playoffs. 

In Moneyball, Lewis explores the out of the box thinking of Beane.  In the movie, Brad Pitt portrays Beane as neurotic, tormented, and inspired—he is on fire, all at the same time.  So how did the A’s compete with a payroll that was generally one-third the size of large market teams?  Beane and his Ivy League assistant have a completely different approach, one that turns baseball orthodoxy upside down.  Their philosophy is a kind of baseball meets AP Statistics and Computer Science.  The first assumption of this unorthodox philosophy is that we really don’t know what we’re watching when we watch a baseball game.  One game is an insignificant statistical sample.  Our instincts and observations are actually wrong.  Beane puts into action a statistical model that highlights different statistics than the usual ones.  He emphasizes on base percentage, slugging percentage, and especially walks—always going deeper into the count; then he goes out to find the players who produce best in the new statistical vision.  Kevin Youkilis, formerly of the Red Sox, fits the Moneyball philosophy perfectly.  At that time, Youkilis is playing for the Pawtucket minor league team, and the Red Sox become suspicious when the A’s are interested in their player, one whom they don’t particularly value.  So, the A’s have to look for the hidden treasures, the players that other teams have overlooked, or thrown away, or failed to find in the first place.  They’re out there.  Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill become the dumpster divers of baseball.  They can’t afford to go after the superstars and free agents; the sabermetrics, the new statistics, then point to the castoffs, misfits, or the people who have never been given a chance before.  The A’s front office compares itself to card counters at a casino.  As they implement their new philosophy, the baseball establishment laughs at them.  But people are also very threatened by the new approach; they want it to fail.  They need it to fail.  It is amazing to watch the uproar when fearless non-conformists refuse to follow the pack.  It makes you question why we believe the pack, any pack, is heading the right direction in the first place. 

The new baseball philosophy also seems to be subtly changing the life philosophy of Billy Beane.  He realizes money is not the most important thing in his life.  As he looks for the unappreciated qualities in ballplayers, he embraces an unappreciated character in himself.  Moreover, he finds a deeper sense of his life values…in the undervalued.  His daring and audacity become strangely mixed with humor and compassion, both for himself and others.  He is fighting a battle, successfully, where money, for the first time, doesn’t rule the world.  He wins on the cheap.  Beane is fighting the good fight, like Robin Hood of yore.  At the end of the 2002 season, the Boston Red Sox want to steal him away from the Oakland A’s.  He is the hottest general manager in baseball.  The Red Sox offer him the richest contract for a general manager in the history of all professional sports.  But he turns down the offer of $12,500,000 to stay with the little Oakland A’s, and to be near his daughter in California.  He signs an extension with the A’s and makes around a $1,000,000 a year, before taxes.  (This is just slightly more than me.)  

The game, the life, that everyone else is watching may not be the true reality.  We need to go deeper.  When he was your age, Billy Beane was drafted in the first round by the New York Mets.  He was offered a large contract and signing bonus as a high school senior.  But he also had a full scholarship to Stanford University.  Everyone told him to go for the money; that’s the way the world works.  He has regretted the decision not to go to Stanford for all of his adult life.  Billy Beane made a promise to himself never to make a decision based on money ever again.  And he has kept it.
In the new Moneyball philosophy this morning, what is the undervalued part of your character that needs to come out?  What is overvalued in how the world sees you?  How can you find God in the unexpected places of your life?  Where is your Meadowlands?  It may be right next to glamorous Manhattan, but you don’t even look in its direction.
What is important to you about your own identity is not necessarily what is important to God.  God doesn’t care about the prep school or college sticker on your car (though he/she does root for Kent, and not Taft, and certainly not Hotchkiss).  God doesn’t care about how much money you have.  The gods of wealth, success, and beauty that we chase every day will not only disappoint us when we attain them.  They also shape how we see, or fail to see, each other right now as true individuals, as children of God.  They shape how we judge another person’s character: especially the one who is different from you in the area of race, class, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, or any other category or label that separates us. 

And what you overcome is more important than what you achieve.
You get to spend the rest of the year, and the rest of your life, finding your answers, seeing how you want to play this game called Moneyball, which doesn’t have to be about money at all… or baseball for that matter.  But it can certainly include little baby Jesus.  You can play it by your own philosophy, not someone else’s.  This chapel talk was about two wise men from our time.  Maybe you’ll be the third one – the wise man or wise woman with your life decisions and philosophy, and the future to come.  Our human instinct will always tell us to land on the safe ground--the familiar landing of our own comfortable identity and habits, the quick labels of who we were in the past.  Don’t just be willing to land where you have been before.  Take a leap of faith instead in 2014.

Your leap of faith this year may just be the moment when you finally learn to fly.
Shake and bake.

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