Walter Brueggemann: Strike! Best Pitches of Christian Life

With a loan from my friend, Allen Horstman, I have been reading a most remarkable book, K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches by Tyler Kepner. Every baseball fan will know and take the cue that “K” is the proper entry on a scorecard for a strikeout. The book is organized in ten chapters, each one concerning a particular baseball pitch, e.g., fast ball, curve, slider, knuckle ball, etc. Each chapter is a leisurely, gossipy discussion of a particular pitch, who threw it best, how each pitcher learned it, and what the pitch caused to happen to the pitcher who threw it.

What surprised me most about the book is the report of a congenial, convivial network of pitchers. Not only did they compete fiercely with each other, but they also observed each other, learned from each other, and taught each other, sharing their “secrets” of success. There is also generous instruction from senior and retired players and managerial types. It is a truism that every pitcher must have at least three effective pitches, two plus a good fastball. And if one of those pitches fails, then the pitcher must compensate and adjust, and experiment with a new pitch. The book in particular calls attention to three teachers who helped pitchers develop new pitches:

...Fred Martin, for a time a member of my beloved St. Louis Cardinals, in his retirement taught Bruce Sutter, Roger Craig, and Donnie Moore the art of the splitter. The chapter details the remarkable success of Sutter on his way to the Hall of Fame.

...Johnny Podres was a master of the change-up and taught it successfully to Curt Shilling, Bobby Ojeda, and Frank Viola.

...Perhaps most important is Johnny Sain, a serious student of the game. He taught the slider to John Smoltz, Tommy John, and a series of other players. There is even a photo of “the great Johnny Sain” teaching from the mound, surrounded by Tiger pitchers including Johnny Podres.

The book evidences a network of practical mutual assistance, functioning to help different members of the network to better their skills and gain effectiveness in their work. Thus I am able to imagine an ongoing conversation in the dugout before, during, and after the game, especially among pitchers on their off-days when they have time for such helpful talk.

Given that characterization of the conversation in the dugout, it occurred to me that it might be a useful formulation that accurately describes a well-functioning congregation: A network of practical mutual assistance, functioning to help different members of the network to better their skills and gain effectiveness in their work. By way of transfer from baseball to congregational life, I have often reiterated my conviction that the three most elemental practices of the Christian life are:

One: Generosity

Two: Hospitality

Three: Forgiveness

One could quibble with that list, but assume it for now.

What if we think about these three “best pitches” of the Christian life, with a network helping us to improve our skills at these aspects of our “proper work”?

This would suggest that the congregation is in the process of nurturing, sustaining, and encouraging such intentional growth. So consider:

Generosity as the fast ball of faith. It is a given in baseball that a good pitcher must have a good fast ball above all else. Everything else depends on a good fast ball. Thus I suggest that for a faithful Christian life, everything begins with and depends upon generosity, the capacity and willingness to share resources with the neighborhood in the hope of contributing to the wellbeing of the whole. Such generosity surely includes good “stewardship” for the wellbeing of the congregation, but it also includes contributions to the body politic that takes the form of generous charity, and generous tax-supported policies that enhance the neighborhood and attend to those who lack adequate resources.

Hospitality as the curve ball of faith. A central feature of a good curve ball is that it surprises the batter. Such a pitch requires just the right twist, the snap of the wrist in order that the batter will be surprised; such a pitch depends to some great extent on deception. Hospitality in a society marked by anxiety and fear is always a surprise, given our systemic fear of the other. Church faith depends upon such hospitality, the welcome for the stranger, and openness to the other who is unlike us. Recently our newspaper reported (from the AP) about inhabitants in the Alps at the border of Italy and France who welcome Moroccan immigrants who risk their lives at the crossing. It is reported that in the Alps there is,

a network of hundreds of volunteers who run migrant shelters, clothe those in need for the hazardous crossing and trek in the cold….Armed with thermoses of hot tea and the belief that their own humanity would be diminished if they left pregnant women, children and men young and old to fend for themselves, the Alpine helpers are a counter-argument to populist politicians (“Freezing in the Alps, Migrants Find Warm Hearts and ComfortRecord-Eagle 12/22/2021, A6).

Such hospitality is always a surprise because it boldly contradicts our ready propensity to exclusion in fear. Faith acts out the counter-argument!

Forgiveness as the spit ball of faith. The spit ball is outlawed in baseball. Nonetheless certain identifiable pitchers, notably Gaylord Perry, threw it and enjoyed the widespread impression that they were throwing it. I suggest that forgiveness is as illegitimate as a spit ball in our society. Within predatory capitalism, forgiveness is indeed banned and illegal, because forgiveness of a serious kind would disrupt and eventually dismantle an economy of predatory greed. Forgiveness breaks the destructive cycle of quid pro quo that always champions austerity toward the disadvantaged. Forgiveness of debts is so dangerous because it undermines the grip of fear and the leverage of guilt wherein some are kept perpetually in hock to others. But faith does not mind such “civil disobedience” in the service of “love of neighbor.”

So imagine Christians in a congregation in an ongoing dugout conversation about these best pitches of faith, and how to improve our skill and capacity with them, how to be more effective in generosity, how to be bolder in hospitality, and how to be more subversive in forgiveness.

...How to pitch generosity that need hold nothing back;
...How to pitch hospitality that welcomes without fear,
...How to pitch forgiveness that breaks the vicious cycles of retaliation.

This triad might be the basis for a curriculum in the congregation for the nurture of the young, for initiation of young adults who have never thought about such matters, and for other members who have long known this and forgotten. The substance for such a congregational curriculum might go like this.

Simply identify the best witnesses for each of these pitches.

Identify the most generous members of the network, not the ones who give the most, but the ones who give most readily and most freely. Identify the members of the network who best practice welcome of strangers, who may do so in unnoticed ways. Identify the members of the network who have been most forgiven and who have received new life from forgiveness.

Good education is narrative work.  Let the stories be told.

Let the congregation be on the receiving end of such truth-telling. Let the congregation celebrate these narratives that defy the old rules of parsimony, exclusion, and score-keeping. The stories are contagious. Hearing such stories is sure to evoke other possibilities and permit risk-taking in fresh forms.

I had one other impression from Kepner’s book. The pitchers and coaches of pitchers engage in long term practice. It might indeed take a year to perfect a new pitch. The embrace of a life of generosity, hospitality, and forgiveness is a long-term project. One reason it is long term work is that in our society we have so much to unlearn.

The unlearning and the re-learning is not a head trip. It is actual practice, the very doing of these actions and, consequently, the amazing capacity of watching the neighborhood being transformed before our very eyes.

When a new pitch works, everyone notices; when a fast ball pops, or when a curve breaks, or when a spit ball affronts, everyone in the dugout notices. Games turn out differently. And the cloud of witnesses in the stands joins in the elation.

God’s baseball time:  “A thousand ages in thy sight are like a season gone.”


Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann is surely one of the most influential Bible interpreters of our time. He is the author of over one hundred books and numerous scholarly articles. He continues to be a highly sought-after speaker.


Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

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