Celebrating Spiritual Oaks

With the hectic schedule of spring, I almost missed the fortieth anniversary of one of the most unbelievable events to occur in my lifetime—and along with it a spiritual discipline that is in danger of extinction.

Forty years ago this month, Henry Aaron hit is 715th home run to pass Babe Ruth on the all-time list despite racial slurs and death threats from those who, at the far edge of the civil rights era, still clung to the principle of African American inferiority.

Even for the most colorblind of pure baseball fans, Aaron’s feat was hard to fathom. The Babe was one of the most colorful figures in American pop-culture. He hit 60 home runs in 1927—more than any other team in the league. He promised home runs for sick kids during hospital visits. In one of the most hotly debated moments in baseball lore, he allegedly called his shot in a 1932 World Series game. Babe Ruth was—and in some ways remains—larger than life.

Contrast that with Hank Aaron. A quiet man who shied away from attention and controversy, He did not court stardom like Ruth. He stayed in the background among his own peers, lacking the flash of Willie Mays or the emotional displays of Mickey Mantle. Aaron never hit more than 47 home runs in a season. His totals seemed to sneak up on the baseball world, which made his overshadowing of the Babe all the more difficult for some fans to take.

Consistency, it seems, is rarely the path to popularity.

When applied to baseball, this principle means little. It is, after all, only a game. But when we apply it to Christian leadership, some sinister properties begin to emerge.

In my tribe of United Methodist clergy, the pressure to be a superstar is enormous. Our administrative leaders have become increasingly enamored with numbers over the past few years—particularly those that indicate an uptick in religious market share. “Growth” as defined by professions of faith and worship attendance is the altar at which we pastors pray as we consider our next appointments. Although its application is often arbitrary, the stated principle is clear: unless you can produce numbers that trend upward, you are not worth much as a pastor.

On one hand, I understand the thinking behind this. A big part of our job is to open doors through which people can encounter Jesus. I have known clergy who are unskilled or just plain lazy in that effort, and the cry for greater accountability often points to those few.

But a larger number of my coworkers spill more than a little blood in the pursuit of faithfulness. They work for less than money than those with similar education. They sacrifice daily for the sake of the mission. Many of them have been doing so for years and continue to do so, despite the dearth of encouragement that has accompanied the rise in the cult of growth.

How do we value such people, who sow the seeds of God’s love despite the rocks and weeds and birds that stand in the way of a visible harvest? Perhaps, as an institution, we don’t.

But we should.

A few years ago, I heard Richard Foster speak about maturing as a Christian. He brushed aside the quick programmatic approaches that are the backbone of many congregations.

“It takes 8 weeks to grow a squash,” he said. “It takes 80 years to grow an oak. But which one would you rather be?”

The interviews with Henry Aaron last week focused mostly on the moment of April 8, 1974, when he hit an Al Downing pitch out of the park for his 715th home run. But that moment would never have happened without years of hard work and consistent play. Such an oak as Hammerin’ Hank didn’t grow overnight.

Neither does a lasting follower of Jesus.

So while the world—and too often the contemporary church—continues to flit about from superstar to superstar, this seems like a good time to celebrate the less spectacular among us. It’s a good time to say thank you to those whose mark is not momentary success, but sustained excellence. Such are the people who make spiritual oaks possible.

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