In what may be a futile effort to convince myself that spring has arrived, I’ve lately been watching Ken Burns’ heralded 1994 PBS documentary Baseball. Its archival photos and film footage, period music, and priceless anecdotes evoke summers past, and make it an easy way to while away an hour of a snowy spring evening.
One of the recurring themes of the series is that of parent-child relationships that are fraught with abuse and violence. The narrator describes a player’s painful childhood experiences, leaving us unsurprised to hear, only a few minutes later, about the addictions, violent tendencies, and dysfunctions of their adult years.
One of the early starts of the Major Leagues, John McGraw played for the Baltimore Orioles in the late 19th century, and managed the New York Giants for thirty years in the 20th. His abusive, bitter father was so unbearable that young John ran away at age 12. Throughout his playing career, McGraw carried a fierce temper and occasionally dirty play wherever he went.
Ty Cobb’s mother shot his father dead when Cobb was eighteen years old, an event that seems to have at least played some part in the legendary volatility and simmering rage of the famed hitter who still holds the record for career batting average. Recent biographers question many of the stories of Cobb’s violence and hateful attitude (many of which are highlighted in Burns’ documentary), but even in his own life Cobb acknowledged the reputation he had garnered: “In legend I am a sadistic, slashing, swashbuckling despot who waged war in the guise of sport.” Even if writer Daniel Okrent’s judgment in Baseball that Cobb was “on the whole…an embarrassment to the game” is, as it turns out, somewhat overstated, no one doubts that Cobb was not the most pleasant man ever to put on spikes.
Babe Ruth was sent by his parents to a reform school-cum-orphanage as a boy and they all but gave up on him, declaring him “incorrigible.” Ruth spent much of his career acting like an overgrown boy: drinking, indulging himself, and living as irresponsibly as possible, despite having become the best-known sports figure of his time, an adored hero to children and their parents all across the country.
This parent-child dysfunction is such a theme of the series that there’s no sense of surprise whenever another man’s story begins with trouble at home and ends with self-destructive behaviour as an adult. But having recently spent time studying the biblical metaphor of the family of God as an image for the followers of Jesus, the contrast couldn’t be more striking. What I find myself thinking is what good news it is that when God draws us to himself through Jesus he makes us his children (John 1:12) and joins us together as a family. That family is what so many people desperately need.
When the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy, the young pastor whom he called his “son in the faith,” he advised him about how to treat the people in his church: “Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity” (1 Timothy 5:1-2). In other words, act like a healthy family would, because what you are is a family.
Some of us are blessed to have grown up in loving families, and the church is like an extended family for which we can give sincere thanks. But some families are like those of McGraw, Cobb, and Ruth, with painful pasts and providing little support. In those cases, coming to Jesus means not only finding the gospel with its promises of forgiveness, freedom, and final hope, but also, for maybe the first time, belonging to a family. One of life’s great joys, then, is to know the truth behind the words Jesus spoke one day when some people told him his family was looking for him: “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:35). Jesus invites us to join God’s family. He will never let us down.