As a hospice chaplain, I often contemplate the purpose and power of prayer.
What is it that we are allowed to pray for? I’ve never had a patient make an absurd request of God. But I am weary of approaching God as a vending machine. When I gleefully ride my bicycle down steep hills neglecting my brakes, I am not allowed to pray for protection. An inappropriate petition to God, I think to myself.
After my San Francisco Giants make it to the post-season, I am visited by a familiar dilemma. Can we pray for our favorite team to win? Can we devote our spiritual energies to this game, to what is ultimately commercial entertainment? While departing from my patient’s house during the playoffs, I ask the family to pray for the Giants — and they balk. “Well, send them your good wishes,” I say, with shrugged shoulders and laughter.
There is life, there is death, and there is baseball.
If you ask me, I will be the first to bemoan the commodification of American baseball, to glorify an era of the game that has long past. But even now, in our post-steroid, multi-million dollar contract era, the game still has a hold on my family — especially this past October, the same October we found out Dad had cancer.
It was Dad who initiated me into the peanut-eating bliss of the slowest game on Earth. Our summers have been punctuated by the games we’ve watched together.
On Yom Kippur this year, our holiest day, we wondered how our team was doing as we petitioned for forgiveness. The game was still playing into the 18th inning when we finally broke our fast and turned our attention back to baseball, our earthly pleasure.
It’s not hard to compare a sporting event to a religious experience: the gathering of a large congregation with a singular purpose, following a strict set of rituals and rules, sharing in a collective, burning emotion. But it was the team members of both the Kansas City Royals and the San Francisco Giants who spoke of the seventh game of the World Series in religious terms; they said it was a blessing. It was a blessing to have one more vital opportunity to play this game, to be tested again, to postpone the pain and ecstasy of declaring a winner for one more night.
I felt anxious and irritable while watching that final game. The tension had mounted to an unbearable level. The 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates was the last time a road team had won Game 7 of the World Series. And my team was playing on the road, having lost the previous night 10-0 in embarrassing and demoralizing fashion. When they pulled ahead in the fourth inning, I became more optimistic. This had been a long road for us fans and required our total focus. I didn’t think we could handle the disappointment of a loss. Not when we’d come so close.
In the bottom of the ninth inning, we led by one run. With two outs, a Royals player threatening to tie the game from third base, and the go-ahead run at the plate, I laid aside my doubts and decided yes, we can pray for our team. Dad paced the small area between the TV and the couch, his chemotherapy infusion pump hanging from his side. “Maybe I shouldn’t watch the end,” he said. “I don’t think my heart can take it.”
Please Hashem, one more out. For Dad. This one is for Dad.
The prayer slipped out effortlessly. We watched the final minutes standing, waving our orange rally towels in disbelief. In that moment it seemed as though nothing else could be more urgent. Thank you, Holy One. Thank you for giving us meaningful distraction this October. We needed such joy.