At the end of February, the baseball world was saddened by the news that superstar and former MVP Josh Hamilton of the Los Angeles Angels had suffered a relapse of his drug and alcohol problems.
It is the latest chapter in a story that has a lot to tell us about what it means to be human and also what it means to be the Church.
In 1999, the Tampa Bay Rays made Hamilton the first pick of the MLB draft and for a good reason: His potential was enormous. He could hit for both a high average and with tremendous power. If that was not enough, he could throw the ball 97 miles an hour.
With this kind of ability, the only thing that could keep Josh Hamilton from greatness was Josh Hamilton. And that is exactly what happened. Hamilton failed six different drug tests while in the minor leagues and was finally suspended from 2004 to 2006. His potential seemed to have been wasted and his baseball career seemed to be over.
But it wasn’t. During that time away from baseball, Hamilton had a conversion experience which enabled him to get off drugs. As he told ESPN back then, “I’m proof that hope is never lost.” In 2007, the Cincinnati Reds took a chance on Hamilton, which paid off handsomely when he put up all-star caliber numbers over half a season.
Hamilton was then traded to the Texas Rangers where, for the next five seasons, he was one of the most feared hitters in all of baseball. After the 2012 season, he signed a five-year $125 million dollar contract with the Anaheim Angels.
His next two seasons didn’t go as well, mostly due to injury. He has not been able to put up the same level of numbers with the Angels that he had with the Rangers. Then came the relapse during this past off-season. Josh voluntarily reported what had happened to him to his team as well as MLB officials. I think the fact that he chose to bring this to their attention when he could have tried to hide it from them showed a great amount of character and courage.
Our first response to hearing this news should be to pray for Josh and his family. But I also think that Hamilton’s story should make us think about what it means to be the Church, especially when one of us fails.
It can be very easy to judge Josh Hamilton and his actions, but we don’t really know him. We don’t know exactly what he is struggling with. I do know that there is not a person alive who does not have their own personal demons and patterns of sin. The only real difference between my struggles with sin and Josh’s struggles is that Hamilton’s failures and struggles are made public and, thus, the stuff of potential humiliation, whereas mine tend to be more private and only the stuff of guilt and shame. I am speaking of myself here, but I think we can all make the connection with our own lives. I think we can all relate to this.
What Hamilton, myself, and all the rest of us need from the Church is a place that not only celebrates our triumphs, but also, and more importantly, comes alongside us when we fail.
We need the kind of place where we can feel safe enough to admit that, in the words of the late Brennan Manning, we had made a “big slobbering mess of our lives,” even after we had faith and came to have a relationship with Christ. We need a Church that takes the words of the Apostle Paul, “I am confident that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus,” to mean that until that day, grace should be shown towards all sinners.
When people look at the words of the Apostle’s Creed, do we see the Church as a place that there can be communion among sinners and forgiveness for all of the saints?
It can be really easy to sit on our religious high horse and judge the sins and failings of others, but are we willing to look into the mirror and realize that it could have just as easily been myself instead of that person? Until we can get to the point of viewing every person as a sinner and realize that each of us needs forgiveness, it will be very hard to find a way to forgive others for their sins.
The Church needs to be a safe zone where sinners can come and not have to worry about being judged by other believers. If a person feels judged, they will not be open to talk about their sins and seek forgiveness. Without the confession of our sins, there is no hope for forgiveness. If there is no hope for forgiveness, then what is the point of even having a church in the first place? The world is filled with places where people are being judged. The Church does not need to be another one of those places. The Church needs to be a place where all people are welcome. Since everyone sins, people in that church will not judge the sins of others, but help them by forgiving them and getting them on the right path to not repeating those sins. The Church needs to be a place where you can come and read from the Bible and learn about God, learn how to love others, and then take that love out into the world to share with others.
I pray that Josh Hamilton, as well as the rest of us, find such a place. We all need it desperately.