Last week, I read The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America by Joe Posnanski. As you might have guessed, I picked it up because, well, it’s about baseball. And, yes, it was filled with great baseball stories. But I had no idea just how much I needed this book in this moment.
At the time the book was written in 2008, Buck O’Neil was one of the last living legends from baseball’s Negro Leagues, the pre-integration black baseball leagues. He played with and managed players like Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and ‘Cool Papa’ Bell. In his nineties now, Buck spent all his time traveling to schools, churches, and ballparks, telling stories and raising money for the Negro League Baseball Museum.
The writer who followed him for a year reported how stunned he was at O’Neil’s relentlessness. Here was a man in his nineties who was waking up at 5am, traveling, speaking, and working often until the end of a ballgame that night. And then he woke up the next day and did it all over again.
The author was also struck by the relentlessness of Buck’s positivity. Despite never getting the chance to play or manage in the Major Leagues, despite experiencing the dehumanization of segregation and abuse in his playing days, despite being shut out of baseball’s Hall of Fame year after year even though he’d devoted seventy-five years to the game, you simply couldn’t get a negative word out of Buck.
As we are living in the days after Pentecost—the season when we are reminded of the Church’s mission in the world—I can’t help but think of those earliest disciples in the book of Acts as being a little bit like Buck O’Neil. Like Buck, they were marked by their relentlessness. They criss-crossed the world, spreading the gospel far beyond Judea to Asia, Africa, and Europe. They were persecuted, abused, and imprisoned, but they kept on going. There is an urgency to their movement and energy—they carry a message and are sent on a mission that simply cannot wait.
And through it all, we see and hear the same relentless positivity. They are not driven by anger. They are not driven by bitterness or frustration. They are driven by the hope they profess.
As we consider the movement in our country, community, and our church to reckon with systemic racial injustice, I want to encourage us to root ourselves in the hope of Christ. There is a cheap hope that treats Jesus as some sort of Superman, who will swoop in one day and clean up all these messes. That sort of hope permits us to sit on the sidelines waiting for ‘someday’ to come. That isn’t the hope we see in the earliest disciples.
The hope we have, the hope that drives us, is not the hope of a someday Superman. Our hope is rooted in the truth that God has made us part of this story. By sending his son Jesus Christ to be one of us, by opening to us a new life by his resurrection, and by commissioning us with his Holy Spirit, we aren’t called to wait for hope—we are called to bear hope. We are called to proclaim hope. We are called to enact hope.
We say it every Sunday: we are called to join God in the restoration of all things. The ‘joining’ is our hope. The invitation is our hope. That the God of the universe is making all things new and because of Jesus we are able to be a part of that, instead of being stuck forever in our cycles of sin and self-destruction. That’s a hope that will make us relentless in our mission.
Buck O’Neil wasn’t blind to the injustices and indignities he had experienced. And he wasn’t blind to the long road ahead for racial reconciliation. He wasn’t naive. Instead, he made the difficult daily choice to remember his calling to bring hope to the world. I can imagine Buck nodding along with Paul: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me”, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair.”
It is my prayer that we might be energized afresh every morning by our calling. I pray that we might be sent out with a relentless hope. That when we are tempted to despair or resign ourselves to the impossibility of change, we would be strengthened again by the Holy Spirit with a ready eye and a willing heart to see how the hope of the gospel might transform our world.