Sunday, February 21, 2010

Needed: Sandlot Spirituality

Ever seen the movie "The Sandlot"? The 1993 film is the story of Scotty Smalls and his first summer in suburban L.A., circa 1962. At first, Smalls struggles to fit in to his new neighborhood. But, one day, he joins some local kids in an improvised game of baseball played "sandlot" style. Sandlot ball is a lot different than organized Little League baseball, dominated as it is by grownups, vigilant umpires and regulation uniforms, equipment and fields. Before long, however, Scotty learns that sandlot ball has its own attractions.

Maybe the best thing about sandlot baseball is that the kids play without grownups. They organize themselves, practice whenever they want to or can, and improvise around the challenges that go with playing on an ungroomed, roughshod field. They even figure out their own ways to deal with "the beast" -- a dangerous and fearsome dog as large as a Buick that threatens to gobble up anyone or anything that enters its domain just over the outfield fence.

The first time Scotty plays sandlot ball with his new friends he learns a most important lesson: new players must earn the respect of their teammates. You don't make the team because your parents signed the paperwork and paid the entry fee. You make the team because you figure out how to make your own contribution to the overall group. Scotty figures this out during the very first trial run at playing sandlot ball with the other boys. A mistake and the ridicule that follows causes him to leave the field in shame. But Benny Rodriguez, the best player in the hood, lends his respect and his help to Scotty so that he is able to return to the team and take his own place among his peers.

One of the key points of tension in the film is when the boys' arch-rivals, The Tigers, show up to mock the sandlot players which results in a showdown game at The Tigers manicured field. Legitimacy will be determined by skill, teamwork and commitment and not by who has the nicer surroundings.

Looking back, I could say that my own Christian experience was formed by "sandlot spirituality". Our rag tag band of young believers were decidedly "un-pro" in our look, our method and our organization. Like the "Sandlot" kids, we were left to figure out a good many things about how to follow Jesus, serve His cause, glorify His Father and respond to His Spirit. And, oh, the mistakes we made! But when I think about the things that were formed in me during my "sandlot" days as a Jesus-follower, I would never trade the sheer love of the game I learned for the lure of "church success" as defined by the church establishment.

Frankly, I'm a little concerned about what today's aspiring young church leaders are told about legitimacy in ministry. I'm concerned about the messages -- intentional and unintentional -- that are telegraphed to them about what it takes to be "legit" in ministry, in church planting or in personal spiritual development. It seems to me that some of these "grownups" need to leave the kids alone -- let them make their own mistakes, hone their own instincts and enjoy their own successes -- while offering to mentor them rather than squeeze them into their mold. Having played a few years in the "big leagues" myself, I am looking for a few associations with some young spiritual entrepreneurs who just want to follow Jesus in the everyday places and take their own chances with the gifts, talents and callings they feel inside.

At the end of "The Sandlot" movie, we see the grown up Scotty Smalls in the radio booth where he is an announcer for the LA Dodgers. On the field below, Benny "The Jet" Rodriguez, his childhood friend and mentor, steals home plate in a fantastic move. The quick "thumbs up" Benny flashes at Smalls reminds them both that the bond they forged on the sandlot is a bond that lasts a lifetime.

Here's to sandlot spirituality and the players it produces!


Can Opener Boy said...

Neat thoughts Bill. Thanks for sharing. It raises some questions for me which I have been wrestling with of late.

To follow your analogy, I'm wondering about the grownups. I agree that if the kids really are a sandlot team, then the grownups ought to leave them alone. But I also see some legitimacy to the grownups having a say in things if they are the ones buying the uniforms -- or, specifically, if they are the ones whose names appear on the uniforms. I.e., if Joe's Diner sponsors the team, provides the uniforms, provides coaching and the occasional pizza dinner for the team, then doesn't Joe's Diner get to have a say in how the team plays? The team is, after all, representing Joe's Diner when it puts on that uniform.

...but to step away from the analogy and speak more plainly, I wonder if a denomination has "covering" for a "church plant" then how much say *should* they have? Or, if the gathering of Jesus-followers really does want to be a "sandlot team", then what do they give up (and what do they gain?) by individuating and no longer "playing for" the "Sponsor"?

As I said, these are questions I have been wrestling with lately. I'd value further conversation here or in eMail if you're game.

Can Opener Boy said...

quick comment to catch the eMail stream of follow-up comments. =O)