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A Church in the Park

February 2021

Proverbs 22:4, The reward for humility and fear of the LORD is riches and honor and life.

I awoke this morning to learn that one of my childhood heroes, Mr. Henry Louis Aaron, died peacefully in his sleep during the overnight hours. As a lifelong fan of the Atlanta Braves, I remember watching “Hammerin Hank” dig in against the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Al Downing on April 8, 1974. The crowd of 53,775 people in Atlanta Fulton County Stadium stood in anticipation during that 4th inning; a National audience subconsciously leaned-in toward their televisions as Downing’s windup commenced.

Ball one. The first pitch to Aaron was down and in the dirt, the kind of pitch a professional throws when sensing he is about to become part of history. Hank had been walked in his first at bat and the crowd sensed more of the same; raucous boos lifted across the sellout crowd. On the next pitch, the left-handed Downing crouched, cocked, and fired a slider. Hank’s eyes must have lit up, a mistake headed his way. “I don’t see pitches down the middle anymore – not even in batting practice.”

The slider hung over the plate a bit too long and Hank dispatched it some 385 feet over the left field wall for number 715, surpassing the legendary Babe Ruth’s homerun record. “I knew it was out of the ballpark,” Downing would later say. “It was a line drive. Hank was not a flyball hitter. The difference with Hank and other line drive hitters: His line drives just seemed to carry and carry and carry.”

Most childhood heroes’ long fade: yet Aaron’s legacy transcends time, if anything, more shined today in our remembrances of him. His was a life lived quietly, giving his best to baseball on and off the field. He said, “I just tried to play the game the way it was supposed to be played.” He served up grace and humility, leading with a quiet influence over a lifetime of service to humanity. In recent weeks, Aaron received the COVID-19 vaccine, speaking about wanting to reassure people of color, and to do his part to slow the virus’s spread.

On that evening in April, as Hank rounded second base at 9:10PM, two young and overly enthusiastic men sprung from the stands and ran towards Hank, eventually reaching him and celebrating alongside him, pounding him over and over again on the shoulders. Hank continued onward; all the while, Aaron’s bodyguard froze, unsure, pistol pulled from its holster and trained upon the men, watching every footfall. Such was the imminent danger to a humble man doing what he was born to do, what he loved, in the deep south. It was the thin line between adoration and hatred. No. 44 walked both sides.

One of my favorite quotes from Hank is this: “Well, the pitcher has got only a ball. I’ve got a bat. So, the percentage of weapons is in my favor, and I let the fellow with the ball do the fretting.”

I am not alone this morning in my memories of Hank Aaron. Our world aches for men, and women, of such stature, walking humbly, quietly going about their work. What we remember of Hank is, of course, lore. But it is also more than that, perhaps far greater influence and honor is given to him – and deservedly so – because of the manner in which he strode after he hung up the cleats. Remaining simple. Quiet. Humble.

Earlier today President Biden issued a statement from the White House, concluding with this: “As a nation, we will still chase the better version of ourselves that he set for us.” Audubon, my prayer is that we would be a people of which it may be said, He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. The testimony of such lives goes beyond our wisp-like moments. Even for heroes.

All of us can chose humility. Let’s allow the others do the fretting. The reward for humility and fear of the LORD is riches and honor and life.

Blessings to you, Pastor Jeff