THE LAST OUT

By John Thomas Tuft

The summer after my first year of seminary I was hired to be the chaplain of a state park camping ground. The first year of seminary is like any first year of graduate level training and education: a testing time, a weeding out of who can handle the subject matter, the demands of the workload where a ‘C’ is a question mark hovering over failure, the personalities of the professors and fellow students, along with the infernal internal struggle of what the hell am I doing here? A summer spent enjoying the easy-going atmosphere of Pymatuning Lake in northwest Pennsylvania seemed like just the ticket. My wife and I packed up the fire engine red 1969 Pontiac LeMans SE with the wide tires and powerful V8 engine, 0 to 60 in just…sorry, I need a moment…where was I?… with clothes, and two bikes on a bike rack clinging to the rear bumper and headed off into the summer, Presbyterian polity and the exegetics of the Book of Judges be damned.

One part of the time I eagerly anticipated was being a member of the park’s softball team in the local church league. In the old trailer with the broken windows sitting in the middle of a field that we called home, I put on my bright yellow Pymatuning Carp tee shirt and green cap, jumped into Wonder Car and headed off to play, my well-worn fielder’s glove in the seat next to me. My fellow teammates were college aged laborers doing park maintenance for the summer who considered Seminary Guy with some skepticism. In a land of cornfields, ice cream socials and softball for the summer, the regulation ballfields were scattered around the countryside. My highlights included a most satisfying line drive over the centerfielder’s head that rolled all the way to the lakeside, blocking the plate as the catcher with a runner trying to score, and playing a decent first base.

But this isn’t a story of highlights. It’s a story of Steve Blass syndrome. Steve Blass was a major league pitcher, a good one, for the Pittsburgh Pirates, who inexplicably lost his ability to get the ball over the plate. It just happened. Nothing helped to correct it. The Pymatuning Carp made it to the championship game for the summer. Our coach put me in left field. I inexplicably lost my ability to judge a fly ball. It simply evaporated. I could see the ball come off the bat, but I could not judge where it was going to land. Pretty soon every batter was trying to hit the ball to left field. Because Seminary Guy wasn’t catching anything. Nothing. Nada. They flew over my head, dropped in front of me, skipped past me. Center fielder college kid started shading toward me, trying to help me out. Nothing helped. I finally begged the coach to take me out of the game. “Seminary Guy,” he said, “I’m not going to do that. When you want to be in the game, you play until the last out. You played hard all summer. Now play through the last out.”

Someone whom I care about, a lot, and respect, a lot, used to be a Special Education teacher who worked with the most difficult and impossible cases. Children with profound ailments, physical and intellectual disabilities grouped in classrooms in public schools. One of her students was a young boy of six. His mother was in active drug addiction during her pregnancy. After he was born, both his mother and grandmother tried to actively harm him, resulting in irreversible brain trauma. His life was hopelessly horrible. Undeterred, this teacher worked with him every day. Other teachers questioned putting in much effort or treating him beyond infantilizing him. She persisted in working toward the drawing out of a grunt of recognition or the grace of a smile. She read real books to him like Treasure Island and the Narnia stories. And quite often, she confessed, she would come home and simply sit and cry. At all the loss in this child’s life. All the hopeless horribleness. At what would make two women who were entrusted with his care want to make him go away. Then, the next day, she would get up and go right back to it. To play through the last out.

She is very much a non-believer in the matters of Biblical faith. But she has been around the church for a great deal of her life. I told her about the latest Presbyterian controversy, some seminary students being angry about their ordination exam covering a passage from Judges about the hopeless horribleness that can happen in life. That it triggered some previous trauma responses in them, and they want an apology for the exam being insensitive to their trauma. She was incredulous. “Is it in your book? The Bible?” I told her it is. She thought for a while. “They want to be ministers but they made this about themselves and their trauma? It got hard, or uncomfortable, and the wannabe ministers said don’t make us deal with this?” I said that was one way to look at it. She thought long and hard. “What if the man who did those horrible things was in prison? Would they go minister to him, the traumatizer? The thief, the killer? The child abuser? Isn’t that where the church is supposed to be, too?”

I honestly don’t know. Playing through the last out may not be the church’s way. Then again…

Words are magic and writers are wizards.