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April 30, 2024

Loving through failure

By Emily Lund

Director of Communications, Leadership Education at Duke Divinity

Emily Lund joined Leadership Education at Duke Divinity as a Communications Specialist in August 2020. She previously served as an assistant editor for various brands at Christianity Today, including Church Law & Tax and CT Pastors. She holds a Master of Theological Studies degree from Duke Divinity School and a bachelor’s degree in English from George Fox University.

iStock / Randy Mir

There are life lessons in being a loyal fan of a team, whatever their win-loss record, writes the director of communications for Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

For a long time, my baseball team held a significant record in professional sports, but it wasn’t a fun one.

My beloved, beleaguered Seattle Mariners did not make it to the playoffs for 21 years — from 2001 to 2022. It was the longest active playoff drought in American professional sports.

And yet the voices of Mariners radio announcers, trips up to the ballpark and echoes of “maybe this year” filled my growing-up years. We cheered on our stars, from Ken Griffey Jr. to Ichiro to Felix Hernandez, without ever seeing them win that much. Blame it on bad management, bad player investments, a cheapskate mentality among Mariners ownership. Google “long-suffering” and you might just see the Mariner Moose mascot trying to hype up a crowd.

Then came 2022 and the walk-off home run that sent us into the postseason for so much longer than we thought we’d be there. After a heartbreaking second-round exit (never talk to me about the Houston Astros), we Washingtonians entered the 2023 season full of the thing we’d hardly dared let stir for all those years: hope.

We missed the playoffs by one game.

Now it’s spring again. Baseball is back, and as of this writing, my Mariners have lost more games than they’ve won. Yes, it’s early, but my family is already having conversations about how much, exactly, we should be giving of our time and energy to this team.

After all, baseball games are long, even with the introduction of the pitch clock and other rule changes designed to make the sport more engaging to a wider audience. And not only are the individual games long; there are 162 games in the regular Major League Baseball season. Your team plays nearly every day from April through September.

We Mariners fans maybe feel a bit spoiled now, having enjoyed the sweet taste of success. So if failure is looking highly likely, why turn on the TV or the radio any more than is necessary to avoid accusations of being a fair weather fan?

Is there a limit to how much you should love something that might be a lost cause?

Yes, I know, baseball is a game. It’s grown men swinging at a ball with a wooden stick. At the same time, it is so much more.

I believe there’s a reason sports metaphors show up so often in sermons, lectures and the like. These silly games teach us something about the human spirit, and following these silly teams can too. In my case, it’s led me to some gnarly questions about what is worth our devotion. Is it OK to follow the losers?

In sports, the definition of losing and winning is straightforward: the winner is whoever has the most points at the end of the fourth quarter, the second half, the ninth inning, regulation time. The fastest time for the racer, the highest leap for the jumper wins the prize. We can check a team’s record and make instant judgments about their chances of success.

Defining “winning” in much of life apart from sports, however, isn’t quite as straightforward. Those of us who follow Jesus inhabit a faith tradition that asks us to look at the normal order of things upside down: the last shall be first, the meek shall inherit the earth, and so on. What we value can be countercultural.

I recently got to sit in on a conversation with the Rev. Dr. Edgardo Colón-Emeric, the dean of Duke Divinity School. In response to a question regarding churches that are struggling or shutting down, he remarked that failure is something that we, as Christians, should not be afraid of, because “failure is at the heart of the Christian story.”

He offered a couple of examples of this confounding heart: the comments made on the Emmaus walk (“we thought he would be the one to deliver Israel”), how the resurrection didn’t take away Jesus’ wounds.

Christianity is not meant to be showy, glamorous, triumphalist. Instead, as Colon-Emeric said, it has a built-in fragility to it, a fragility that is part of our identity. The assumption that a church’s closing means the end of that church’s story is far from true. God is still up to many things.

Can we still hope that churches stay open? Of course. Can I still hope my team can turn things around in time for some meaningful October baseball? I absolutely will. There’s a certain lovely faithfulness in being unafraid that something we love might fail.

Is there a limit to how much you should love something that might be a lost cause?

Faith & Leadership

This was first published in Faith & Leadership, the online learning resource for Christian leaders and their institutions from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

The Thriving in Ministry Coordination Program is a service of Leadership Education, which designs educational offerings, develops intellectual resources and facilitates networks of institutions.