I always try to act surprised, but when my children give me a gift, I can usually guess what it is. This Father’s Day proved to be no exception.
My suspicions were first aroused when Jack made the following off-handed remark: “I told Mom that we could take your old glove to Goodwill.” “Goodwill!?!” I said to myself. “Why does he want to take my glove to Goodwill?” Then it dawned on me: Father’s Day was coming, and the rest of the family had been talking about getting me a new baseball glove.
Well it was about time! I had been using the same old glove since college, and I had been dropping hints about needing a new one for several years. “Hey, the stitching on this thing is starting to unravel,” I would say. “Look how the palm is getting all dry and crunchy.” “You know, one of these days a fastball is going to rip right through this pocket and hit me in the face.”
And so, with a little fatherly encouragement, a benevolent conspiracy was born: “Let’s get Dad a new glove.” Of course, some conspiracies are more secret than others, and as a general rule, ones that involve four-year olds fall into the latter category. “Do you want to know what we’re getting you for Father’s Day, Dad?”
“No, I don’t, and don’t say another word, Jack. You’ll ruin the surprise,” I would say.
“Okay, but if you want a hint, it’s a piece of baseball equipment!”
Needless to say, this line of conversation aroused the ire of Jack’s older brother. “It’s okay, Josh,” I said. “Calm down. I know what you guys are planning to do. I always know.”
“But, Dad, how did you know?”
“Well, let’s just say that when somebody we all know and love starts talking about taking my old glove to Goodwill, it isn’t all that hard to figure out.”
What none of them knew was how pleased I really was, and why. To begin with, it’s always good to get a new baseball glove. To trace the pattern of the stitching; to feel the soft touch of the webbing, to read the specialized vocabulary stamped on the glove (“Hand Formed Pocket;” “Genuine U.S. Steerhide;” “The Catching Point”)–these are some of the rare joys of owning a new glove.
Then there is the intoxicating aroma of new leather. If you watch a major league baseball game on television, and see a meeting at the pitcher’s mound, you will observe the pitcher holding his glove over his face while he is talking to the catcher. Supposedly baseball players do this to keep the opposing team from knowing what they are saying. But I can’t help but think that the pitcher is taking a few whiffs of his glove, for courage.
All of that would be reason enough to enjoy a brand new glove. But for me there is more, because the first present I ever remember giving my dad was a brand new baseball glove, for Father’s Day, when I was about four years old. Some of my happiest memories from childhood, and some of my best experiences as a dad, surround fathers playing catch with sons.
To be clear, there is nothing uniquely sacred about baseball. Of course there are many other and many more important ways for fathers to develop a close relationship with their sons. And of course fathers can also play sports with their daughters, which is something I have spoken about on another occasion (see “Growing Strong Daughters”). But for me, there has been something important–and even deeply spiritual–about the times I have spent playing father-and-son catch.
When a father plays catch with his son–as I do with my boys in the street out in front of our Philadelphia row house–the father and the son stand face to face, and man to man. There is an exchange between them, a relay of communication. The father throws to his son, and the son throws back to his father. The baseball goes back and forth, establishing a connection. Often this is accompanied by conversation, by verbal communication. Father and son talk about baseball, about the events of the day, about life. And maybe sometimes they talk about what the father is getting for Father’s Day, especially if the son is too young to play catch without thinking about that brand new baseball glove!
The game of catch changes over the years. It takes a while to learn how to use a baseball glove, and for the first several years a lot of balls get dropped. A father has to accommodate to his son’s skill level, and the only way to improve is to play more catch. But eventually the ball zips back and forth between them. The son becomes a player in his own right, until the day comes when the father has to start easing up a little, because he knows that if he throws hard, his son will throw harder than he can. (Just for the record, that is not the case in the Ryken family, at least not yet).
Playing catch seems more precious to me this summer than ever, because I am still having trouble with a partially torn rotator cuff. I can catch, but I can’t really throw, and in my disability I desperately miss the easy exchange of seasons past. I also miss the times when I used to play catch with my dad–golden summer evenings when the dew was on the grass and the cicadas were singing in the elm trees.
Father playing catch with sons. This simple exchange gives us a little glimpse of the Scripture means when it says “the Father himself loves you” (John 16:27). Yes, the Father himself loves you, the way a father loves to play catch with his son. God leans back and fires you his grace, especially through Christ. You reach out to catch it by faith, and even if you bobble the ball, eventually it ends up in your possession. And when you take his grace firmly in hand, you throw back worship and praise. As this saving exchange goes back and forth, it brings joy to the sons of God, and to the Father who loves them.
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