Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Harper & LeGrand: Stories of Justice and Grace

Bryce Harper, picked number one by the Washington Nationals in the 2010 draft, was just called up to the big leagues on April 29.  I know this because the AAA affiliate of the Nationals is my hometown Syracuse Chiefs, where Harper began his season this year.  He is almost certain to become a significant MLB star, though there is some question over whether this 19 year old is ready for the bright lights of the majors just yet. In his 20 games with the Chiefs, he hit .250, with one home run, three RBIs, and 14 strikeouts.  These stats are underwhelming.

But, with injuries to the starting line up, the Nationals decided to call up Harper earlier than expected. How long he’ll stay is uncertain.  All agree that it will be contingent on his production.  As his Chiefs teammate, Mark Teahen said,  “He’s going to have to hit and produce because in the big leagues it’s all about production.’’

He had his first Sports Illustrated cover when he was 16 with the headline “Chosen One” (June 8, 2009). At 17 he was the number one draft pick.  Now at 19 he has a record setting contract for a position player, making $9.9 million over five years.  None of these are reason enough to keep him in Washington.  If he can’t pound the ball and play the field, he’ll be back in Syracuse.  This is a familiar formula.

And then, this anomaly.  Three days after Harper made his major league debut, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed Rutger’s defensive tackle, Eric LeGrand, as a free agent.  In the torrent of free agent signings following the NFL draft, most are hardly newsworthy.  Having scooped up the players with the most potential in the seven rounds of the draft, free agency is the realm of rolled dice and crossed fingers. 

But in this case, it was a sure bet, though not one you’d expect   The Buccaneers signed LeGrand knowing that he would never play a down of football for the team.  You see, Le Grand is a quadriplegic, having fractured two vertebrae in a game against Army on October 16, 2010.  At the time, Greg Schiano was the head coach of Rutgers.  Now he is the head coach of the Buccaneers. On signing him, Schiano explained, “This small gesture is the least we could do to recognize his character, spirit, and perseverance. The way Eric lives his life epitomizes what we are looking for in Buccaneer Men.”

And this is not what we expect.  Bryce Harper is the formula we’re familiar with. His longevity with the Nationals is directly tied to his competence as a ball player. You earn your spot on the team.  It’s about production.  You get what you deserve.  It’s a satisfying formula.  It’s a formula Eric LeGrande doesn’t fit, even remotely. And, ironically, there is delight in the unfairness of it all.  When justice rules the day, we feel satisfied.  But when grace takes the scepter, the needle pushes past satisfied to inspired.  These are the stories that stir our hearts, when effort is not enough and grace steps in to fill the void. 

I believe that the grand arc of history is the gospel, the story of God’s redemption of fallen mankind.  It is the metanarrative that holds all the disparate parts of history together.  It is, not coincidentally, a story that brings justice and grace together. Justice demands a penalty for sin.  There must be a reckoning for the shortcomings of men and women.  Perfect justice must address all infractions, from the smallest white lies to the gravest atrocities.  This is why hell is necessary.  We have broken the moral law and must pay the penalty.  But grace allows for another to take the judgment that I deserve. The penalty must be paid, but a substitute has volunteered to stand in my place.  This is why the cross is necessary.  “(Jesus) himself bore our sins in his body on the cross…by his wounds you have been healed” (I Peter 2:24).  In the gospel, our longing for justice is satisfied and our delight in grace is stirred.

I wonder if our reaction to these two stories tells us something about how we are made.  Woven into the fabric of our being are threads of justice and grace.  What is happening on a macro level in the gospel is continually reiterated on a micro level in our lives - stories of justice and grace.  These are the themes of the great epics, the blockbuster movies, the best selling novels.  We respond to these stories because we were designed for them.  Intellectually, we want a world that is fair, where everyone gets what they deserve.  Emotionally, we want a world that is gracious, where everyone gets a little more than they deserve.  Our heads will insist on justice while our hearts pull us toward grace.  Which is why we are satisfied with story of Bryce Harper and inspired by the story of Eric LeGrand.

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