No doubt, you’ve heard the legend about Yogi Berra, the famous baseball player who commented on the end of a baseball game: “It ain’t over until the fat lady sings.”
It seems Yogi had been to an opera or two and knew they often conclude with the lead singer belting out an aria. In real life, it would be nice if we had a way of knowing when things are finished.
I’ve been to countless baseball games, and as a Texas Ranger fan, many of them have been lopsided defeats for my team. There were times when they were far behind early in the game and there was little hope of winning. However, except for one occasion, I always stayed until the final out. For me, the game wasn’t over until the final out in the ninth inning.
I’m in the ninth inning of my physical life. I don’t know if there are one or two outs, but I don’t have much hope of extra innings. Physical life ends for all of us at some point. I was born in 1950 and had my 72nd birthday last month. In my childhood thinking, I had the opinion I wouldn’t make it past the year 2000. It seemed like a major feat to a kid, since the year 2000 would be another century. Besides, I had polio as an infant and my body was not equipped for the long haul.
Since it is well past my expected date of demise, I can testify that my gratitude is great. I have experienced many good things in the past 22 extra years, things I never expected. However, I also have watched my always fragile body become even more frail, constantly having to adapt to doing simple things.
Please don’t hear me complaining! I am not. The three axioms of my life are simple: Life is hard, God is good, and we need to laugh more.
Let me describe my ninth inning. I don’t do this to solicit your sympathy. Those who know me well will attest that I don’t want sympathy. I want you to understand my situation so you can understand what is truly important in life.
My days consist of sitting in a wheelchair for 12 hours and sitting or lying in a bed for 12 hours. Breathing is difficult because of the effects of polio, so I require a bi-pap machine (a poor man’s ventilator) 24 hours a day. I identify myself as a quadriplegic, although I have a little use of my arms. If I get positioned correctly, I’m still a good typist. I currently have a catheter because of a bladder infection, but I suspect it will stay in long-term. I require help getting into and out of bed, getting dressed, bathing, wiping my eyes when they burn, putting on my glasses, and many other mundane chores. Life is hard and getting harder each day.
“It might be the ninth inning, but I still have a bat in my hands.”
Thankfully, my mind has not followed the same path as my body. It still works. In fact, I’ve learned more in the last decade than I did in the first six. I have been able to work enough to pay the bills. I have written/ghostwritten more than 30 published books and assisted more than 100 other writers in getting their manuscripts published. I continue to teach our small house church group and a Thursday night Zoom Bible study. Opportunities to encourage others in the faith have come frequently. It might be the ninth inning, but I still have a bat in my hands.
I have heard numerous baseball players talk about the ninth inning as the hardest part of the game, both for pitchers and hitters. Everything that happens is important and might be the difference between winning and losing. My game will be over soon, but I want to go out hitting a walk-off home run. I have played the game hard for 72 years and don’t want to lose it now. There is still much to do.
The primary thing I hope to accomplish in my ninth inning is to hold onto faith. Faith in God has been a constant companion for as long as I can remember. As a young man starting out to establish my own way in the world, I often phoned my father to seek his advice. After a while, I stopped calling because he always gave me the same advice: Trust God.
I realized that was all he had to give me, and it was more than enough. Even though life has been hard, God never has left me on my own. I could write a book on the special people and times when God has intervened to make my life possible.
The past week has been especially difficult. Sharon asked if I ever felt like blaming God for not making things easier. Her question resonated with me, and I went out on the back porch, where I do my best thinking. If I were trying to be spiritual, I would call it meditating, but there are too many distractions out there to meditate. As I thought about blaming God, a song I had not thought about for 20 or 30 years came to mind. If you grew up in church, the lyrics will be familiar to you:
O how marvelous! O how wonderful!
And my song shall ever be:
O how marvelous! O how wonderful!
Is my Savior’s love for me!
For me it was in the garden
He prayed: “Not my will, but thine.”
He had no tears for his own griefs,
But sweat drops of blood for mine.
After reflecting on Jesus “sweating drops of blood,” not for himself but for my grief, I then thought of his cry on the Cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” He was definitely in the bottom of the ninth inning, and there were two outs, and it felt like God had left him alone. I can now testify that it is tempting to give up on God. After all, this is God. Can’t God make my life easier? Does it have to be so hard to catch a breath, brush my teeth, or wipe my eyes?
“He was definitely in the bottom of the ninth inning, and there were two outs, and it felt like God had left him alone.”
The truth is God did not forsake him. It was at that moment that his task of living in a human body was finished. Three days later, he bounded out of the grave and fulfilled all that was required of his life. That’s why I can’t blame God for my hard life. There is more awaiting me as I complete all that is required of my life on earth.
The second thing I want to accomplish is to finish a task begun more than 45 years ago. Our first son was born, and I was tasked with the responsibility of teaching him about everything. Don’t misunderstand; I didn’t do it by myself, not even close. There was much help along the way. In fact, his mother has taught him much more than I have. Yet, it was my responsibility to teach him how to live. The same is true for the other two boys who followed.
Together we have loved, laughed, learned, lost and labored. Along with the help of God, Sharon, family, one another and thousands of other people, the boys have discovered what life is all about. Each is successful in their faith, with their families, among their friends and the financial stability important to living. I know they bring as much joy to God as they have brought to me.
I have repeatedly told them stories, and most of them they know by heart. But just like I never tire of telling them, they never complain about hearing them. I have worked hard to do more than tell them how to live; I have attempted to show them how to live. I want them to know I’m far from perfect, but I also want them to know how to live in an imperfect world. They get it.
Yet, there is one more thing I feel compelled to teach them. It’s something I never could teach them before because I didn’t have any experience. I want to teach them how to handle the ninth inning.
Recently a college friend who was a charter member of our Thursday Bible study group reported he wasn’t feeling well and had a doctor’s appointment. I was concerned and called to check on him a few days later. Butch told me he was much worse and unable to get a doctor’s appointment for a couple of weeks (the greatness of our health care system). I heard from his wife early the next week that he was in the hospital with a cancer diagnosis. Sparing the details, let me just say Butch’s health deteriorated rapidly.
I couldn’t visit Butch personally because he was in Alaska but kept in touch as his family moved him to Central Texas, enrolled him in hospice and stayed with him until he died. The whole process, from feeling ill until death, was about two months. Too quick!
Butch was an exceptional follower of Jesus and taught me much about life. However, I regret that because of the miles between us and the brevity of time, I missed out on watching his ninth inning. I know he could have taught me much. I don’t want anyone in my life to regret that I failed to let them hear the fat lady sing, as Yogi Berra would say.
One of my favorite authors who has taught me much about life, both temporal and eternal, wrote these words: “The beautiful body and life that Jesus surrendered on the Cross were willingly surrendered not because they were bad or unworthy, but because they were no longer necessary or helpful to the final task. The hard mining operation of sifting through the slag and refuse that once appeared so important is eventually done. It was once important but it no longer is. ‘There is a time for everything’ as Ecclesiastes so wisely says.”
“It is clearer each moment that God is good.”
According to Richard Rohr, I have spent more than 72 years “sifting through the slag and refuse” of life to get to the good stuff. That’s where I am now, enjoying the good stuff. Oh, my body is still weak, breathing still difficult, more aches and discomforts every day, but it is clearer each moment that God is good. I have no complaints. No regrets. I still have a couple of concerns, but God and I are working on them every day, and He assures me that He can manage without me.
If you haven’t yet seen the movie Father Stu, turn on Netflix tonight and watch it. It’s not what you expect it to be, and don’t be dissuaded by the initial scenes. Mark Wahlberg, in the role of Catholic priest Father Stu, suffers from a crippling disease that leads to an early death. He follows God the best he knows, yet nothing seems to resolve his condition or need. In the closing scenes, Father Stu shares what he had learned: “The experience of suffering is the fullest expression of God’s love. It is a chance to be closer to Christ.”
I hesitate to share this because I don’t want to make anyone jealous. You can be assured I’m experiencing the fullest expression of God’s love in my ninth inning. Nothing else can compare to this opportunity to be closer to Christ.
Honestly, I hope my ninth inning is long, but it doesn’t matter; I’ve already won the game. I’m going to play it out as long as it lasts without complaint or regret. I will strive to enjoy or at least appreciate every experience. Embrace every encounter. Value every conversation. Relish every emotion. But most of all, express my gratitude for God’s love.
For decades, I have had a simple prayer I recite whenever I find myself in an impossible situation. I have found myself praying it more often in the last few months, and God has answered it every time without exception. Whenever my fragile body doesn’t do what my brain instructs and leaves me in a bind, I say, “OK, Lord, it’s me and you!”
After expressing that thought to God, I roll up my sleeves and give it my best, and do you know what happens? God does God’s part. God never has failed. My ninth inning has been filled with many “impossible situations,” but God has always done his part.
If you happen to be a part of my ninth inning, my hope is I can provide some help or encouragement for your own personal ninth inning whenever it happens. I’m not perfect; I will fail and disappoint, but I’m not giving up until the fat lady sings. When she does, I expect it to be the most beautiful song ever sung.
Terry Austin says from his first day of life he was taught to love the church. He has lived out that passion in various ways as a pastor, church consultant, author and critic. He is currently a full-time writer and book publisher and actively engaged with house churches.