Friday Deep: Phenom

Posted on May 11, 2010

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As a 7 year old baseball player I was so good I think I fooled my dad into thinking I might go pro one day.  Granted, it was machine-pitch baseball at that age, and there’s only so much stock you can put in a stat line like “5-5 with 4 RBI, three doubles, two triples, 5 runs scored” when several of the other players have their gloves on the wrong hand and the center fielder is crying because he has separation anxiety. Still, I stand by what I said: as a 7 year old baseball player, I was the total package.  A 5-tool player, as the scouts say.   The consensus no. 1 pick in any ‘9 and under, “My Mom Says I Have To Play This Because Lacrosse Is Too Dangerous” Fantasy Baseball League.’  A budding superstar, destined for big league glory, with one, slight problem- I peaked at 7.  That was as good as I ever got.

The other kids got better after that year.  They got bigger, and I did not- I was eventually viewable from 30 feet only if you happened to have the Hubble telescope handy.  They bought super-advanced TPX baseball bats that were the equivalent of strapping a rocket launcher into batting gloves.  They went to highly prestigious baseball camps led by guys with names like “Keith Bambruiso” and “Lew ‘the Ostrich’ Palmer”.   I played wiffle ball in the neighborhood and chewed Bazooka Joe, unaware that my status as a 7 year old legend was under siege.   I never had a chance.   I turned 8, and then 9, and then 10, and became progressively less dominant with each number.  By 13 years ols, my days as a phenom were done.  Past tense.  No more dreams of Wrigley Field glory.  I think Dad took it pretty well.

By contrast, Bryce Harper currently is a phenom.  Just ask Sports Illustrated, which recently put Harper on their cover.  Harper is a 17 year-old catcher who is also the presumptive number 1 draft pick of the Washington Nationals in the upcoming pro baseball draft.  He hits 500 foot home runs, guns out baserunners, and owns a .600 batting average.  He was so bored of high school baseball that he got his GED so that he could play in college as a 16 year old.  Scouts embarrass themselves talking about him.  Many agree that he is more talented than Ken Griffey, Jr. and Alex Rodriguez at that age.  When he is drafted, he will likely sign for more money than any rookie in history.  Which means that as a 17 year old, Bryce Harper is so good right now that he will pocket close to 10 million dollars cash before ever playing an inning of pro baseball.  He’s a phenom.

By practically anyone’s standards, Bryce Harper is having a better life than I am.  He’s better at what he does, stands to earn more doing it, and has received greater recognition than I ever will.  It’s a no-brainer.  I am 27 and regular, he is 17 and cosmically gifted.  If we were holding a “Do Not Envy Bryce Harper” contest right this second, I would be in last place, just behind his twin brother Schmice, who is just slightly above average at ‘Guess Who?’.

Bryce Harper is a phenom, and I’m not.  Our life trajectories are very different, and I care about that.  He’s got it all right now, why don’t I?  Why should I wait?  I don’t want to be successful sometime in the future, I want to be successful yesterday, with a whole wheelbarrow full of cash.  I want the props and accolades to roll off me like gravy over potatoes.  I want.  I want.  Me.  Now.  Ugh.

Naturally God doesn’t care about any of this.  When God promised to make Abraham the father of many nations, he led him out of Ur and into the wilderness, and left him there for a decade and more before giving them his son, Isaac.  God promised David that he would be king of Israel, and then let him live in caves for many years while the original king chased him around trying to kill him.  The apostle Paul spent most of his youth trying to kill Christians before a mid-life conversion.  Joseph spent much of his adulthood in Egypt before God made good on his promise to bless Joseph.  I’m noticing a pattern- clearly, for as much as we care about it, God is not too wrapped up in how one life looks compared to everyone else’s.

God doesn’t promise that everyone’s life story will be equally compelling from the world’s point of view.  Not all pastors become Mark Driscoll, not all evangelists become Billy Graham, and not all 7 year old Little Leaguers become Bryce Harper.  When the Bible says that God is the potter and we’re the clay, it’s not just telling us that God’s into stoneware.  He has a pattern to conform us to- his son, Jesus- and a part for us in his redemption story for the world, one that may not generate all the hype or heat that the world uses to decide who’s valuable and who’s not.

The international superstar preacher is a lump of clay, just like the itinerant Paraguayan farmer- they’re both the same in the eyes of God.  With that knowledge we’re free to give up our envy that says that God must love some more than others- the more successful, the more sensational, the more attractive- even the more courageous or loving or humble.  They’re drippy globs on the potter’s wheel just like we are, all of us destined for some shape we can’t even dream about.  This is our one common trait- failures and phenoms alike.

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