Spring Training

Winter’s dreary days drag a gray blanket over the cold world. Spirits plunge along with thermometers’ mercury. Bare branches, brown grass, and pale skin long for the sultry stroke of sunshine. Instead, the chill of February rain makes winter blues fade to black.

Then four mystical, marvelous, miraculous words declare: “Pitchers and catchers report!”

The magical incantation causes Old Man Winter to vanish into thin air. Suddenly, the light pierces the clouds with golden streams of promise. Morning temperatures receive an early wakeup call from spring. Branches bud, lawns green, and the sun shines.

Winter does not officially end until March 21. However, an early harbinger of warmer days arrives with the advent of baseball’s Spring Training.

The American and National League teams practice in the sunny climes of Florida and Arizona in preparation for Opening Day. Pitchers and catchers arrive first to warm up their arms after the off-season hiatus.

John Fogarty, former lead singer of Creedence Clearwater Revival, wrote a baseball anthem entitled Centerfield.  The rock beat declares:

Well, beat the drum and hold the phone—the sun came out today!

We’re born again, there’s new grass on the field.

A-rounding third and headed for home, it’s a brown-eyed handsome man;

Anyone can understand the way I feel.

Then the chorus expresses a sentiment that any child of the game intuitively understands:

Oh, put me in coach, I’m ready to play today.

Put me in coach, I’m ready to play today.

Look at me, I can be, centerfield!

The calendar says its mid-February, but I smell worn leather, cut grass, and hotdogs. The Boys of Summer are back, and spring cannot be far behind!

Author’s note: I wrote this blog several weeks ago when I assumed that owners and players would act like adults and reach an agreement. I obviously overestimated the parties’ abilities to negotiate in good faith. I hope that the words “Play ball” echo in the air soon.

Offering Alternatives

Northside Church quit passing offering plates during the pandemic. Studies later revealed that COVID-19 spreads mainly through airborne particles; but the virus can survive on surfaces for hours. Therefore, the worship team delayed the reinstitution of the venerable offering plate.  

Congregants learned to give in other ways. The church emphasized online donations, automatic bank transfers, and electronic checks. People used their omnipresent phones for text giving. We placed lock boxes in the lobbies for those who brought donations to church. Members gave generously in a wide variety of ways, and Northside finished the past two years with financial surpluses.  

This winter we plan to reintroduce passing offering plates in worship. Most people will continue to give digitally, and we encourage the practice. The physical act of collecting an offering transcends the financial. The practice reminds believers that our tithes and offerings serve as tokens of discipleship.

Northside encourages children to attend worship with their families and church family. Boys and girls LOVE the offering and beg their parents for cash. They relish the opportunity to drop coins and bills into the plates. The students grasp the plate firmly and pass it reluctantly. They are learning what it means to be stewards of God’s riches.

Christians have discovered new ways to give, and offering plates may seem passé. However, worship ritual shapes personal faith. The church recognizes the giver’s need to give and the church’s need to receive. God’s children of all ages learn how to love the Lord with heart, soul, mind, strength, AND money.

Coin Collecting

Ronnie Lichens and I attended Wadsworth Elementary together. He played baseball for the dreaded White Sox, and I belonged to the Red Sox. Despite our on-field rivalry, we became good friends.

Ronnie introduced me to the world of coin collecting. He displayed his collection in blue folders with precut slots. Reference books cataloged the value of the different coins. He talked about dates, engravings, mint stamps, double casts, wheatie pennies, and Indian head nickels.

I began my own collection, starting small and building slowly. I bought Whitman trifold folders with slots marked for the appropriate coins. Ordinary change became filled with extraordinary possibilities.

Like most boyhood enthusiasms, my new hobby lasted about a year before other pursuits garnered my attention. The half-finished coin collection got shoved into the back of drawers and closets.

Today I still possess a handful of the older coins preserved in plastic tubes. I have no clue about their monetary worth. The memories, on the other hand, remain invaluable. The notion that something possessed worth beyond its face value appealed to me. Even as a child, I intuitively sensed this discovery held some greater, universal truth.

Only later would my theological understanding of God mature to a point that I understood this important lesson. We view others through human eyes, and oftentimes we sinfully dismiss people as empty of worth and value. God views each of us through the eyes of love. The Lord deems us worth the greatest price of all: God’s Son.

Others may judge us by our looks, intelligence, talents, or assets. The world assigns a price tag to our value. In our Heavenly Father’s eyes, however, we are a rare and matchless find.

We are priceless.

Groundhog Day

Each year the United States and Canada observe Groundhog Day on February 2. The rather bizarre holiday stars its namesake: the lowly groundhog.

According to legend, the large ground squirrel possesses mysterious, prognosticating abilities. If the rodent sees his shadow, then he retreats into his burrow in fear, predicting six more weeks of winter. If cloudy weather prevents the furred forecaster from seeing his shadow, then he leaves his lair, signifying the advent of spring.

Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania hosts the most renowned Groundhog observance in America. The resident rodent known as “Punxsutawney Phil” presides over the affair.  Over 40,000 pilgrims gather for the annual festivities.

Not to be outdone, Atlanta’s General Beauregard Lee resides at the Yellow River Game Ranch in Lilburn, Georgia. The distant-cousin-of-a rat has received two—count them, TWO—honorary doctoral degrees from local institutions. The University of Georgia awarded him a “DWP: Doctor of Weather Prognostication.” Georgia State University honored the General with a “Doctor of Southern Groundology.”

 Authorities disagree about the accuracy of Groundhog Day’s prognostications. Rodent supporters claim that groundhogs possess a 75% to 90% accuracy degree—far exceeding the success rate of their TV colleagues. The folk at the Yellow River Game Ranch assert that General Lee boasts an astonishing 94% success rate.

The National Climatic Data Center reports a more down-to-earth average of 39% accuracy for groundhogs nationwide. One scientist laconically observed that regardless of predictions, spring ALWAYS arrives on March 20 or 21—about six weeks after Groundhog’s Day.

Bill Murray starred in a 1993 movie entitled Groundhog Day. He played an egocentric weather reporter named Phil Connors. His producer assigned the weatherman to cover Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.

Inexplicably, Connors finds himself repeating the same day over and over again. After a series of misdeeds and misadventures, Phil recognizes that fate has granted him the opportunity to change his life. The movie ends when he . . . well, you need to watch it for yourself!

January 1st inspires people to make New Year’s resolutions. Many of us need a second chance at a second chance. If 01-01 didn’t work for you, then try 02-02. Regardless of sunshine or shadows, it’s never too early or too late to claim God’s power to start anew.