“Why, even the hairs on your head are numbered.” Luke 12:7
Early in my daughter’s softball career she had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad coach. Figuring I couldn’t do worse, I signed up and quickly became a world-class coach, until my daughter fired me. “Hey, dad, you think someone else could coach me next year? I just want a someone new.” It sounded a whole lot like a high-school break up – “It’s not you, it’s me.” So, Ouch. Ironically, I was just getting to a point where I could give signals to my batters without everyone thinking I was having a seizure. The single most important lesson I learned as a coach is that when they make a mistake, it’s not an opportunity to teach the mechanics of trapping a grounder: “HEY, CLEMENTINE, KEEP YOUR GLOVE DOWN,” is completely ineffective, because when Clementine misses a grounder she is thinking: “I’m a loser. Everyone hates me. Bethany won’t invite me to her party.” The trick, and it’s quite a trick, is keeping them “up” and “in the game” when they muff a play. So, I learned to open every season with the following Dr. Phil-esque training. Pretty much verbatim:
“Hey, girls, how many of you have made a mistake in a game?” After what seems like interminable feet shuffling, and a bit of cajoling – “C’MON. Really? No one?” – everyone finally raises their hand, uncomfortable.
“Wanna know a secret? You’ll make more mistakes. That’s a promise.” Now they’re just bummed.
“You know what to do after you’ve made a mistake? The next right thing . . . Do the next right thing!”
This is actually a Narcotics Anonymous theme which, in hindsight, may have been a bit strong for such a young audience. I saw a lot of blank stares from the girls, at first. Notably, all the parents would reflexively nod their heads and “Pops,” a grizzled, tattooed, former Marine really latched on. Every time I saw Pops, he’d growl, “Do the next right thing, baby. Do the next right thing.” So, I hammered the idea into the team as often as I could, because it’s a great lesson, and I’ll be darned if it isn’t a lesson I desperately need to learn. Easy pop-up dropped? “Do the next right thing.” Strike out? “Do the next right thing.” Lose the game forgetting to run home because you’re making sure your socks are the same height? “Do the next right thing,” which, at that point, included eating ice-cream and giggling.
My daughter was a good player. Actually, she was quite good, almost literally un-passable at third. Her batting, on the other hand, was streaky. Whippet-fast and moose-strong at the plate, when she connected with the ball it was an event. But, one year, in the final inning of a playoff game, there were two outs and our team was losing by a run. She was up. She swung at the first pitch and missed, and then got all jammed up in her head and watched two pitches go by, both strikes. Watched strikes, particularly watched 3rd strikes, are horribly horrible. Game lost. In her mind, she is a complete and utter failure as a human being. But, to my surprise and pleasure, the next time she got up to bat she swung at the first pitch and just kept swinging. Maybe it’s just a Dad thing, but I couldn’t have been more proud, and I knew that the life lesson – keep swinging – would be of real value later in life, and it has been. (She probably doesn’t remember it this way. I’m sure she was just ticked-off and had my voice bouncing around her head: “Hey, swing the #^$# bat.” Regardless, the lesson stands.)
In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the travelers come to an island cursed by a spell of invisibility. Lucy must read from the wizard’s book to release the island from its curse. In the process, she happens upon a spell that allows her to hear what others think of her. Against her better judgment, she listens while two friends talk poorly of her. Later, she says, to Aslan, “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget what I heard her say.” To which Aslan says simply, “No, you won’t.”
“Oh dear,” said Lucy. “Have I spoiled everything? Do you mean we would have gone on being friends if it hadn’t been for this – and been really great friends. – and now we never shall.”
“Child,” said Aslan, “did I not explain to you once before that no one is ever told what would have happened?” (italics in the original.)
Lewis rarely has Aslan speak in italics without meaning something, and it didn’t seem all that important until I started noodling on the lessons of missed grounders and doing the next right thing and it finally occurred to me that this was all about the idea of sovereignty. I suppose if I dig way down I have to admit that I see God’s sovereignty as sort of a divine insurance policy to which I appeal when I drive my life into a slough of idiocy. But that isn’t anywhere near the biblical understanding of sovereignty, which extends over all time and space: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” (Abraham Kuyper) Either God’s sovereignty is part of every moment and atom of my life, or it means nothing at all. Either we release ourselves into this sovereignty by faith, or we wallow in the “what might have beens.”
I don’t coach anymore. I do try to coach my children, too often I am sure. Still, that one lesson seems worth repeating: Our best and faithful option when we get jammed up in life is always and only to do the next right thing. Keep swinging. Don’t get caught up in the ‘what might have beens’ in an effort to grab hold of something firm. You can’t weave faith into a blanket of certainty and lay it out over the mud-puddles of your future. Later in life, you may find yourself looking back on life, wondering what happened to the past decade, seemingly trapped by the soul and faith crushing mundane tasks of a Wednesday afternoon. Missed grounders turn into failed marriages or jobs that seem no part of God’s kingdom work. Particularly then, “Do the next right thing.” It is the only horizon really open to us – unless, like Napoleon in The Great Divorce forever ruminating on his loss at Waterloo, we become mere fretters and what-if-ers, unable to move toward a place where “our deep gladness meets the world’s hunger.”