The Workbench by Benjamin Pratt

tools-on-a-workbench

Tools on a workbench. Photo by Benjamín Núñez González, shared via Wikimedia Commons.

Advice from Henry David Thoreau about the importance of our work:
The fate of the country does not depend on … what kind of paper you drop into the ballot-box once a year—but on what kind of man you drop from your chamber into the street every morning.
And: How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.
And: Be not simply good—be good for something.

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EDITOR’s NOTE—At this remarkable milestone in world history—500 years from the start of the Reformation and 200 years from Thoreau’s birth—we invited popular author and columnist Benjamin Pratt to reflect on the challenges of his own life’s work as a pastor, counselor, writer, father, grandfather and talented woodworker. He calls his reflection simply: The Workbench.

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By BENJAMIN PRATT

luthers-desk-in-wartburg-germany

Martin Luther’s desk in Warburg, Germany. (Ben Pratt recently wrote about the 500th anniversary of Luther’s famous spark that set off the Reformation.)

There were two workbenches in my life.

Both brought me opportunity for purpose, creativity and satisfaction, even joy.

The first often left me weary and exhausted. The second, I never touched when I was tired. I liked my fingers too much.

The first workbench was the platform for my public life. It was always messy with papers, books, lists, notes, doodles, pens, clips and pencils. And the never-quiet phone for hearing needs, distributing concern, directing actions of service. I was a director of dissident music. The living and the dying converged upon this workbench for blessings, prayers, counsel and celebrations. Calls came from the glad, the newly weds, the newborn’s family, the lovelorn, lonely, brokenhearted, and the weak and dying.

In the midst of this clutter came letters of compliment and complaint, words of love and gratitude, and sometimes words of anger, despair or disdain. On this workbench were sketched sermons, bulletins and news briefs. Crafted here were notes of joy and hope, missives of comfort. From this workbench the Gospel was dispersed and the Bread of Life divided and shared with office, school, family.

At this workbench my soul, body and mind were occasionally sucked dry by too many people’s needs and not enough of me. I was lonely in the midst of the needy crowd. Fortunately, more often, my soul was filled with joy and nurtured with purpose and hope.

My second workbench was my private cloister.

It was messy also. It was always cluttered with chisels, rasps, shavings and sawdust. On dust-covered paper were sketches of projects, always something my mind could imagine more easily than my hands could produce. The challenge of creativity!

Precision and patience focused my eyes and hands as I crafted gifts for family and friends. The fragrances of walnut, cherry, oak and cedar wrapped me in cozy warmth like a freshly baked apple pie. These were times of solitude when body and mind were breathing a prayer of gratitude.

My life worked best when I kept these two workbenches in a delicate balance. Creative solitude (being alone with joy, not pain) was at the other end of the seesaw from my public life.

And now, as I have grown older, these workbenches remain in vivid memory, if not in tactile reach as my wife and I have downsized our home. It is the connection between the two that I treasure—and hope those I have loved and served through the years may remember fondly a Sunday message or a kind word that passed across one workbench—or a hand-crafted piece of furniture that passed across the other.

Two images perhaps. The real value, though, lies in seeing the connection. In my life, these workbenches truly were one. And, at their best, they were in balance as I labored over them. I was blessed and I was able to bless others.

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Care to read more?

Enjoy looking over Benjamin Pratt’s books in our ReadTheSpirit bookstore.

World Series spiritual recap: Did you watch the faces?

world-series-marquee-1

EDITOR’S NOTE: Over the years, many of our readers—and some of our contributing writers—tell us that America’s love affair with baseball is downright spiritual. In fact, author Rodney Curtis wrote a book on that theme: Hope’s Diamond, which was reviewed by another of our authors, Benjamin Pratt. Rodney and Benjamin are our resident shamans of the sport. So, as the Cubs won the series for the first time in more than a century, we invited Ben to do a spiritual recap. Here it is …

By BENJAMIN PRATT

world-series-fans-1Did you watch the faces?

One minute somber; the next radiating joy and excitement. Hands cupped, spired upward over mouth and nose, eyes fixed in reverent gaze, lips mouthing hope. Faith is reflected in eyes and faces that light up with joy—and then contrast with a somber, disgruntled doubtful stare. We might have seen such expressions at a campaign rally—or perhaps at a religious revival. Yet, there they were: Expressions of life’s highs and lows amidst the tangled web of Cubs’ and Indians’ fans at the World Series ball parks.

To watch the passion, the shift from faith to doubt, the formation of community, the miracles, the blessings and curses of these games is to experience the ineffable. You cannot define the ineffable, but you can experience it and know it profoundly. It is what we know when we are in awe of nature or beauty, or when we feel love for a child or mate or God.

Baseball parks are sacred places to some. Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs, is sometimes called the “Cathedral of Baseball.” It is treated like a shrine by some fans who have spread the cremains of loved ones there. Chicago funeral director, Brooke Benjamin, was quoted in the Chicago Sunday Times saying, “There are pounds and pounds of cremated remains at Wrigley.” One man even confessed to Benjamin that he had left a bit of his Dad at the ballpark. Sacred Ground!

Life is filled with blessings, curses, religion and baseball. Gay Talese put it aptly: “Like religion, the game of baseball is founded on aspirations rarely met. It generates far more failure than fulfillment.” Face it, if you get a hit one out of three times at bat you will be a league leader.

I have found no book that deals as brilliantly with the relationship of baseball and the religious experience as Baseball As A Road To God, by John Sexton, president of New York University, devout Roman Catholic—and baseball fan. In the formation of this book, Sexton was supported by Thomas Oliphant and Peter Schwartz; the foreword was written by another devoted baseball fan, Doris Kearns Goodwin. Sexton says, “If we open ourselves to the rhythms and intricacies of the game, if we sharpen our noticing capacity, if we allow the timelessness and intensity of the game’s most magnificent moments to shine through, the resulting heightened sensitivity might give us a sense of the ineffable, the transcendent.”

What more needs be said, except, “Wait’ll Next Year!”

Benjamin Pratt is a frequent contributor to ReadTheSpirit magazine and the author of several books, including Short Stuff from a Tall Guy.

Review: Adam Henig’s ‘Under One Roof’ will inspire you, too

Under One Roof by Adam Henig front cover

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Book Review by Benjamin Pratt

Jackie Robinson, fielded by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, was the first African American to play major league baseball. It was not until 1955 that the pin-striped New York Yankees integrated their team with catcher Elston Howard. While many teams fielded two, three and even four black starters, Howard was the only African American who played regularly for the Yankees at the end of the 1950s.

Integration came slowly to America’s favorite sport, even though it went well among players on the field.

Desegregation lasted longest, not on the playing field, but in housing for players at spring training. By 1961, thirteen of eighteen major league baseball teams trained in Florida. Florida cities thrived on sunshine and the economic boost of baseball-driven tourists. None more so than St. Petersburg, FL, which hosted two teams, the New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals.

Adam Henig eloquently tells the story of the integration struggles of St. Petersburg in his latest book, Under One Roof. The long history of this racially divided city and the exceptional efforts of Dr. Ralph Wimbish (1922-1967), a fearless fighter for equal opportunities in health, housing and education set the stage. Wimbish, the founder of the St. Petersburg Ambassadors Club, is credited with leading the integration of St. Pete’s lunch counters, theaters, public restrooms, swimming areas, schools and hospitals. His spacious, beautiful home, built on the racial dividing line in the city, was the place black celebrities visited and stayed in the segregated city.

Ralph and Bette Wimbish hosted Dizzie Gillespie, Alex Haley, Jesse Owens, Cab Calloway, Elston Howard, Althea Gibson since none of them could rent housing in the all-white local hotels.

Once teams integrated, Wimbish would escort black players around his community searching for housing during spring training. In 1961, he said, “Damn it, we’re not going to do this anymore.”

He had support from journalist Wendell Smith, a superb pitcher in his youth who was never signed because he was African American. Instead, Smith became a journalist with a cause: integration of the sport. On January 7, 1961, Smith published a column demanding baseball executives to stop supporting Jim Crow. “The time has come for big league owners to rebel against hotels which bar their Negro players during Spring training.” Some team executives, like Dodgers’ Branch Rickey and Sox’s owner, Bill Veeck, used their economic leverage to push justice forward. The Yankees cooperated but St. Louis, like so many other teams, did their best to avoid the issues.

This short, well-crafted book, reminds us how many justice issues are won or lost at the local level. It makes clear how significant are the vitality and power of specific players in the fight to bring forth justice. It also reveals the sad truth that the loss of a significant leader can change the course of the struggle. Ralph Wimbish died prematurely in 1967. In spite of the efforts of his wife Bette Wimbish to continue the work, the loss of Ralph resulted in many setbacks in St. Petersburg’s struggle for justice.

Care to read more?

ADAM HENIG also has contributed a column to ReadTheSpirit magazine about how he undertook the challenge of writing this new biography. (You’ll want to read Henig’s story, in part, because it includes a photo of Wimbish.)

BENJAMIN PRATT is an author and columnist who, among other things, loves baseball. If you’d like to learn about some of his books, then please visit Ben’s author page.

Benjamin Pratt shares: The Holy Fool, A Parable

Grafitti by the illusive artist Banksy adorns a building August 29, 2008 in New Orleans, Louisiana. New works by the artist, whose paintings are also sold in galleries, have been popping up throughout New Orleans coinciding with the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

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‘An Anxious America.’ That was the front-page headline on Sunday’s New York Times, reporting on the relentless stream of violent tragedies this summer. Readers who are older may recall the agonizing summers of the late 1960s. Even as we mourn and worry, millions of us turn to the deep resources of faith. This week, we welcome back author and pastoral counselor Benjamin Pratt for a parable about a timeless religious image that many of our readers may recall. We have coupled this reflection by Benjamin with the ironic graffiti of Banksy.

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THE HOLY FOOL
A Parable

By BENJAMIN PRATT

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I was the one who pushed the old rocking chair onto the sidewalk in front of our family bakery. I meant it as a sign of hospitality in these scary, hostile times. Maybe I knew it was good business, too. Other smart business people put rocking chairs out front, don’t they? To be honest, I’m not even quite sure what possessed me to move that beat-up old rocker onto the street.

We’re always looking through the big front windows, keeping on our toes, looking for customers as they approach. And, let’s be honest—we’re watching the street, you know the street people and the kids especially. We never know what might happen.

You’ve read all the stories of shootings, killings, murders. We’ve read them. They’re all around us, aren’t they?

So, that morning, whatever possessed me—here’s what happened. I wiped the flour from my hands, walked back into the storage room where we like to take our breaks and grabbed that old wooden rocking chair that someone tried to spray-paint white but never quite finished. I pushed the chair through the bakery and out onto the sidewalk. It works for other businesses—if no one steals it.

So, we all watched.

We worked. We watched. And, to be honest, we kept our eyes peeled for trouble.

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Banksy rocking chairOdd!

No one even noticed the arrival. Later we talked about it. “I must’ve been in the storeroom.” “I was checking the ovens.” “Stocking the cookies.” “On my phone.”

And, this was odd, too! We just couldn’t figure it out, looking through the window: Man or woman? Black or white or Latino or Asian? Disturbingly unclear.

The guys started talking. “We don’t want to get started with loiterers!” “Hey, no homeless! No squatters! Remember last year with the stuff they built out back?” And the big question that just kept coming: “Who is that out there in the rocking chair!?!”

We’ve got customers to think about. This was one big distraction. OK, I’ll admit, it was turning into a headache we didn’t need. We kept our eyes peeled for trouble.

 

Finally, I paused, locked the cash register, glanced at the bat we keep beneath the counter, and just walked out there. I didn’t expect to see: Weeping! This … this person was sitting there crying. And when someone else walked by, I could hear the person in the chair say softly: “I’m sorry, so very sorry.”

Oh, boy! Oh, boy! What do I do now?

But nothing bad happened. Others passed. A teenager in a hoody—a kid I’ve kept my eye on—walked past and actually turned back at the words from the chair. I never expected to see that expression on the kid’s face! He was as stunned as I was.

All morning, as people passed, those words kept coming: “Sorry.” “So sorry.” “So very sorry.” Finally, I took some fresh bread and a cup of water outside to this … person.

And I got a quiet, comforting: “Thank you.”

Tears still flowed from tender eyes. As I turned to go back inside, the words followed, “I’m sorry, so very sorry.”

OK, I didn’t expect how much that would get to me. But it did.

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And this is really odd! No one caught the departure. We looked around and—gone! The chair was empty.

Nor did we see the arrival, again, early the next morning.

Here’s when we noticed! One of the guys called out, “Look at that!” We all turned to stare through the window. The kid in the hoody was sitting in this person’s lap.

Got that? The kid in the hoody was sitting in this person’s lap. They were rocking together.

And, there were others who followed—letting this person rock them in the chair.

The shocker? Tony, the cop who keeps an eye on our stretch of the street. He let himself be rocked! We saw it with our own eyes. And, then, Tony got up and helped this person up out of the old rocker. Tony sat down himself and did the rocking!

A line formed! We didn’t know what to do, except watch through the glass. People stopped in their tracks to check it out—and they let themselves be rocked.

Young. Old.

That’s when I remembered my grandmother—Russian Orthodox. Little icons and candles all over her apartment. Loved to talk about the saints. She had a favorite; I forget the name. “He was nothing to the world, a fool,” she would say, “but wise to the ways of God. A Holy Fool.”

That’s when it hit me: God’s out there. On my sidewalk. God’s out there.

Somewhere in all that rocking—in that beat-up chair we got from grandma’s apartment upstairs after she passed. Yeah, it was foolishness. Holy foolishness.

I just kept remembering. I remembered being rocked.

Being rocked. In that chair.

Hey, maybe I was dreaming. But my guys at the bakery never cracked jokes that day. They did their work. There was silence—all eyes on the window. I didn’t dare ask them, but maybe they were remembering something, too.

Call me a fool, but that’s my story.

Yeah, call me a fool.

I don’t mind at all.

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Banksy Girl-and-Balloon-London-2002 (1)

 

Honoring My Father… Just as He Was

Benjamin Pratts father in his 20s

My father in his 20s.

Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. Exodus 20:12

By BENJAMIN PRATT

I am exactly the same age my father was when he died in 1985.

There is something quite poignant and sobering about facing this life marker. I suspect it is reason enough to explain my recent pondering of life with my father—the sweet and bitter, the tough and tender, the proud and shameful.

“My mother told me never to go near the water until I learned how to swim.” That was my father’s humorous, yet character-revealing, risk-averse response each time I asked him to go swimming with us in Lake Erie. Or maybe it was wisdom, considering how polluted Lake Erie was at the time.

He loved to laugh, tell and hear funny stories and drop in one- liners. As he aged his favorite line was, “I get stiff in all the wrong places.”

My father covered his pain with humor, tender presence and hard manual work. The woman he dearly loved became chronically ill with my birth. We watched her steady, painful decline as if we were sitting on a thin limb that might break any moment—helpless, tenuous, restless. My father was a tender man who absorbed my mother’s rants as pain and loss consumed her vitality, bent her frame and distorted all her joints. He taught me compassionate presence in the face of limitations and frailty.

As the worm turns, Dad would not have been considered a successful man. As an auto mechanic he never made enough money for us to have our own home until I was in high school. Instead, we lived with grandparents.

Growing up on a farm he never completed a high school education. Yet, I remember many nights he schooled me in math until solid geometry defeated both of us.

Benjamin Pratts father coaching his little league team in the early 1950s

Dad, upper right, coached my team in the early 1950s.

He taught me the fine art of pitching baseballs—throw the ball from my full height and bring the pitch in just above the knees, or swing the ball from a sweeping sidearm that swoops in low across the plate. He was a patient, persistent coach, never yelling but always guiding.

We loved each other but rarely displayed physical warmth. I was and am proud of him.

We visited my mother’s grave a year after her death in 1980. We stood quietly together for some time when he softly said, “You’ve noticed that one side of this cemetery is filled with large, ornate tombstones. Your mother and I have markers that are flush with the ground. We chose this side because everyone is equal over here.”

Perhaps my most significant learning came after a scene that still haunts me. I was probably in the ninth grade at the time. The newspaper boy knocked on the door of my grandparents’ house to collect for the daily paper he delivered each morning, a total for the month of $2.35. I had answered the door and called my father to come. My father rifled through his pocket and found only a small amount of change. He turned to me and asked to borrow the money. I made a very smart mouthed comment about his need to pay me back since I had made the money mowing yards. His face was in pain as I left the room to get the money. He never scolded me. Maybe his shame was even greater than mine. I ached for days about what I had said. His silence stunned and taught me a lesson I may not have learned any other way.

Benjamin Pratt towers over his parents as he graduates from Grove City College in 1963

I towered over my parents when they came to my graduation from Grove City College in 1963.

Somehow I made the choice to accept this man I loved just as he was. I didn’t need or want him to be more than, at the core, he was. I look back and thrill with gratitude that I didn’t get locked into a struggle to make him someone else.

This feels like the completion of love, the acceptance of the other as the person he was. Professionally, I spent a lot of time counseling people who expended enormous energy trying to remake their parents, their spouse, their children, rather than accepting them with their gifts, graces and limitations.

As I cross this threshold of age at which my father died, I am grateful for the gifts this humble man gave me.

I’m reminded of Reinhold Niebuhr’s prayer. Perhaps you may want to share it, as well, this week.

Father, give us courage to change what must be altered,
serenity to accept what cannot be helped,
and the insight to know the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

Amen.

 

 

Generation to generation, pitching baseballs and values

Benjamin Pratt playing Little League baseball at age 10By BENJAMIN PRATT

“PLAY BALL!”

The clarion call proclaims spring in sand lots, city streets, country roads, mega-stadiums and, of course, back yards.

My father told stories of pitching semi-pro ball in the hills of West Virginia where a dirt road threaded between home plate and the pitching mound. Play had to stop when a car came along. The same field had a knoll in center field that often kept the left and right fielders from seeing each other.

My daddy told me more than once he wanted me to play pro ball.

Actually, I was pretty darn good. I batted switch hitter in Little League with a .500 average. As a teen, I could throw a ball from center field that never went more than 10 feet off the ground, one bounce, into the catcher’s mitt, with the Ump’s cry, “You’re out,” to the runner’s surprise.

Memories of my youth!

Then, my eyes went bad. Dreams faded.

My field of dreams still gives me pleasure. My mind tells me of possibilities while my body reminds me of my limitations.

So, on a recent spring day my mind and heart yearned with anticipation as I said to my grandson, “Let’s play catch in the back yard.” He raced to get the ball and gloves. He humored me as my pitches were more balls than strikes to our fantasy batter in the bottom of the 9th with the score tied and the bases loaded.

Then, he lobbed the ball back with encouraging words: “Come on, Poppy! You can get ‘em out!” The throw was high, my glove went up to catch the routine ball that sped by, missing the glove, but not my head. Next thing I knew I was down on my knee, he was racing toward me, concern and worry flowing from his tongue and eyes.

Three days later, when my jaw still creaked with discomfort and the pain was pin-pointed above my ear, I noticed how quiet my usually loquacious grandson had become. I asked him, “So, what’s up? You seem caught up in your thoughts.”

“Nothing much,” he mumbled.

“So, is that ‘Nothing much’ like your mind has gone to zero and feels deadly dull? Or, is that ‘Nothing much’ because you can’t wrap your mind and heart around the potential deadly consequences of throwing a baseball that hit your Popster in the noggin?”

He wryly looked at me and said, “It’s hard to hide some things from you. I’ve been feeling guilty about throwing the ball that hit your head and thinking about how awful it could be. You could have had a concussion or even died and it would have been my fault.”

“That’s heavy! Not so much because you are wrestling with the potential consequences—but because you made the giant leap to assume responsibility for the whole event.”

He nodded.

“But,” I said, “you weren’t responsible for everything. Fact—you didn’t throw the ball to intentionally hit my head, like some pitchers have actually done. That would be a legitimate reason for real guilt. Fact—I failed to catch a perfectly good throw that in my youth I could have done without looking. Fact—Once you threw that ball, it was literally and figuratively out of your hands.”

I called it like a good ump: “No Fault! You aren’t a Superman who can turn the clock back and take the pitch back. A lot of folks heap guilt on themselves rather than accepting their limitations, their lack of power to prevent things from happening. This happens often when we don’t want someone we love to age and die. It’s easier to feel guilt than to feel and acknowledge our limitations.”

I realized this was a lot to unload on him. “Am I making any sense to you?” I asked.

“Yes, I think so. You want me to understand that since I didn’t throw the ball with the intent to hurt you—it’s not a moral issue. I’m not guilty. The other thing I’m hearing is the guilty feeling keeps me from facing my scary and sad feelings about losing you someday.”

“I think you just pitched a strike!” I said. “And, I do want to play catch with you again.”

He jumped up. I sat up straighter—and felt the ache. “Ahhh,” I said, “but not just yet.”

Play ball! … with ‘Hope’s Diamond’

Rodney Curtis cover of Hopes Diamond

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

REVIEW by BENJAMIN PRATT

Play Ball! 

Laugh Out Loud!

Who would put these two together in a colorful, fanciful, uplifting novel? No one better that Rodney Curtis whose own journey with cancer he recorded in A “Cute” Leukemia.

Rodney’s latest is a LOL, magically provocative, imaginative novel that begins mid-winter in the suburban wasteland of “snot freezing,” ice-laden Detroit, a city existing on a diet of decline and devastation. Willie Palmer, former great shortstop of the Detroit Bengals, is now the beleaguered, most-losing manager of the most-losing team in baseball. Palmer’s greatest asset is his dog Sparky whose humane wisdom and divining-rod nose sniffs out a pitcher whose fastballs exceed the speed of Fister and Scherzer combined.

So what do you pay a pitching giant like this in our day when greed is valued more than grass? You will only learn as you laugh your way through this fanciful tale.

So, go grab your favorite beverage, find a soft spring-time patch of grass where you can wiggle your toes and dream your dreams by reading Hope’s Diamond.

LOL!

ROG-LYAO!

Believe in a HOFD!

Live with HOPE!

PLAY BALL!