In the Zone: God’s Grace in the Everyday

Dr. Jay Elliott
July 28, 2013 

 

I’ve chosen the Beatitudes as the text today because the larger idea in these verses is about how good it is to be in the flow of providence, that we are blessed because we exist, no matter what, and there are times when we feel that reality deeply.  When athletes talk about “entering a zone”—a moment when everything seems to click, when they seem to be performing almost unconsciously at their highest level—they are feeling something analogous to this reality.  But this “zone,” it appears to me, is not limited to sports alone; it can translate to the everyday as those moments when we feel God’s grace in our lives.  Like that rarefied moment of athletic excellence, those moments of grace are immensely satisfying, when we seem to be performing our humanity almost unconsciously at the highest level, when we are feeling the reality of the Beatitudes most profoundly.  But, I submit, that reality cannot be predicted or earned or captured on demand.  All we can do is prepare for it—practice the principles of the Beatitudes, as it were—in order to be able to seize that moment if and when it arrives.  God’s grace is unpredictable in the everyday—yet its potential is everywhere and timeless.

 

Let me illustrate something of what I mean with the concluding paragraphs of a story I published some years ago—a baseball story, of course!  Many of you know that I am a certified umpire—some of you have even watched me work your sons’ games—and I used an umpiring experience I had as the basis for this fictional narrative.  It involves a winning run scoring on a triple play.  That is a baseball rarity, but rarity is not part of the grace I’m trying to illustrate in this story.  Rather, it’s my first-person narrator’s sudden immersion as the home plate umpire into an unlooked-for “zone” that he doesn’t quite understand.  “Tony” is a senior umpire who is calling the bases for this game; he’s been a kind of baseball mentor for my narrator throughout the season.  “Brownsville Tech” has barely made it into the State Tournament and is playing “Central High” in the initial round of the playoffs.  Heavily favored, Central wins in the bottom of the seventh by scoring the winning run while hitting into a triple play.  Here’s the conclusion:

 

So that’s how the season ended for Brownsville.  And for Central, they never seemed to get it together after that and lost their first game in the State Tourney to a number 8 seed.  But it’s not over for me.  I’ll never forget that feeling of being in a “zone” where every call, every decision, especially the last one, was right.  It’s like I was caught up in something bigger than me, bigger than the teams or the game, some big force.  I wasn’t me during that game.  I was hardly even aware of me.  I’m not that decisive or that right all the time, believe me.  Something was using me to teach something else to the kids, to the coaches, the scribes and all the folks at that game—humility maybe.  

When I said this to Tony later, he looked at me for a minute.  “You know our Association meetings?” he asked.  “You know how Big Freddy and Sam and a few others are always talking about games with ‘I called this’ and ‘I said that to the stupid coach’ and ‘this was the ruling I made?’”  I nodded.  “Those are the guys doing this in their spare time for their egos.  But the really good ones, like Dave and Wayne and Richie—you never hear them talk like that.  Everyone has good, clear mechanics—else they wouldn’t be allowed to stay in the Association; but the good ones feel what you just said.  They know that they don’t really matter; if the game is really fitting together, something else is controlling it—chance, or providence, perhaps.  It’s being totally absorbed into the flow of the moment.”  He gave a little grin.  “I call it joy.  That’s the ‘zone’ you’re talking about.  Sometimes—rarely, but sometimes—if you’re really on, you can catch that zone—you can’t ever create it, it just happens, it’s like a gift that you’ve got to be ready for—and then all the rest of it—the arguments, the missed calls, the mistakes of other games—are worth it.”  He stared over my shoulder.  “It’s like so many things,” he mused.  “We do our best work when we get out of our own way.”  He looked at me again.  “You’ll be a good one.  Keep doin’ games, as many as you can, and you’ll get better and better.  Maybe you’ll find that zone again.”

 

Now, if we consider Tony to be the minister—Reverend Sarah, perhaps—and the narrator to be the somewhat mystified congregant—me, for instance—then what Tony is describing as “joy” is the response to what I consider a metaphor for God’s grace.  The zone that both acknowledge is that moment of selflessness, of humility, of merging with something else beyond our individual power, of participating in that flow of providence described by the Beatitudes—something similar to God’s grace, if not grace itself.

I use the example of my fictional umpire to illustrate the everyday-ness of this flow.  It is something that’s available to us all—if we prepare for it by living useful and generous, forgiving, loving lives.  We can’t earn it as a quid pro quo, and we can’t stand around, wishing and hoping that grace will somehow strike us:  “Hey, God, hit me with some grace now; I’m standing here awaitin’.”  That won’t work. My umpire has to know what he’s doing; has to know the proper mechanics of calling balls and strikes, has to call a consistent strike zone as a precondition to participate in that flow.  

And that brings me to a second point in which baseball becomes a vehicle for spiritual growth.  John Sexton, the president of NYU, has just published a book entitled Baseball as a Road to God:  Seeing Beyond the Game, in which he observes that baseball, the only game without a clock, requires concentrated attention from the dedicated fan and teaches us to “live slow and notice.” While my umpire is not “living slow” necessarily, I’ve tried to suggest that, while in his zone, he feels time slowing down, and certainly he has to notice the action with a close and constant focus.  It is that slowing down and noticing that puts us in the place to receive grace, and it can arrive at any moment and at any place.  

I like the fact that my senior umpire calls the experience of grace, “joy.”  Because that’s what it is.  Joy in living and loving God’s way, the way of Christ; joy in the giving because, as the Prayer of St. Francis says, it is in giving that we receive.  And that joy is there for all of us—not to grab for or even to earn, but to gratefully accept as God’s gift to our everyday lives.

Blessed are we to be able to enter this flow of grace. And graceful living is something we can put into action.  P. Jacob’s adaptation of the Beatitudes, which is the Thought for Today in your bulletin, suggests that Christ’s way of living involves living slow and noticing.  Jacob tells us that free hearts, the expression of one’s own voice, patience and tolerance, struggle for justice, forgiveness, transparent honesty and, above all, love are the way of Christ.  It is a gospel of good news; unpredictable as it might be, the gift of grace ever surrounds us with peace and mercy.

 

THOUGHT FOR THE WEEK:    

 

Blessed are the poor…

not the penniless

but those whose hearts are free.

Blessed are those who mourn…

not those who whimper

but those who raise their voices.

Blessed are the meek…

not the soft

but those who are patient and tolerant.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice…

not those who whine

but those who struggle.

Blessed are the merciful…

not those who forget

but those who forgive.

Blessed are the pure in heart…

not those who act like angels

but those whose life is transparent.

Blessed are the peacemakers…

not those who shun conflict

but those who face it squarely.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for justice…

not because they suffer

but because they love.

 

P. Jacob, Santiago, Chile