Feeding mind, body and spirit by ‘falling love with cooking again’

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Rediscover Creative Connections in the ‘Totality of Cooking’

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By MARTIN DAVIS
Author of 30 Days with America’s High School Coaches

Two summers ago, my friend Elisa Di Bendetto and I published a piece about our mutual love of minestrone headlined: Across Thousands of Miles, Friends Still Connect to Feed Our Families and Our World. And since that time, my friend and editor David Crumm has been asking for more about cooking and recipes people can try.

I’ve shied away from doing that because recipes and long discussions about dishes I love to make are interesting, but they ultimately fail to do something that I think our fast-food nation needs to learn to embrace.

Here’s a glimpse of a community market in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where I enjoy browsing the bounty from local farmers. (Photos with this story are courtesy of Martin Davis.)

In short, we need to fall in love with the totality of cooking again.

By totality of cooking, I mean not just the act of putting food together, but every step of the cooking process. This includes shopping for food, learning to appreciate the range of foods available, the art of preparing foods we may be unaccustomed to, the communal aspects of cooking, the act of cooking itself, and the pleasure that comes with sitting and eating together.

And yes, even clean-up.

The key to getting there rests in our embracing two things:

  • Shifting our view of cooking from a chore we have to do—to a creative enterprise that allows us to express ourselves and our love for those we serve.
  • Moving away from cooking by the rules (recipes), to embracing cooking techniques. Learning basic techniques gives us the freedom to use what we have, and feel less pressure about “messing up.”

These two ideas came together for me in a powerful way, recently.

First, I wrote an opinion piece for The Free Lance-Star, where I serve as opinion page editor, about a program in our community called Dr. Yum. (See the editorial here, and visit the Dr. Yum website here.) Its mission is simple: Turn people on to the value of fresh cooking. The person I interviewed described how viewing cooking as a creative venture changed everything for her in the kitchen.

And then this weekend, I returned to the farmers market in my community, which is coming into full bloom. Every week we go, I speak with local farmers who teach me new cooking techniques, or new tricks for using foods I never knew. They encourage me to take chances.

In our household, these two factors have combined. And the result is a cooking technique we often rely on: stir-frying. Best known as a Chinese style of cooking, stir-frying can go far beyond traditional Asian dishes and is limited only by your imagination.

In high-end Chinese restaurants, a sophisticated combination of sauces and spices create tantalizing dishes we’ve all come to love. But you don’t have to have a recipe to get started with stir-frying.

Pointers for Flavorful Stir Frying

So, if you are inspired by my introduction, let’s cut to the chase: Some tips for flavorful stir frying.

Here’s a common question: Do I need a wok? If you have one, great. It makes stirring the ingredients easier. Also, its large size helps diffuse the heat, reducing the chance of burning. But a large sauté pan will work just as well.

Here’s a quick glimpse at some of my “go to” ingredients when I get ready to stir fry.

What do I need in my cupboard?

If you don’t have them on hand already, I would invest in:

  • Soy Sauce, which is a good all-around sauce. It does pay to spend a few pennies more for a high-quality sauce.
  • Teriyaki Sauce. This sauce usually is inexpensive at the stores, but you also could make your own version at home. (See here.)
  • Sesame oil. Can be better for the high heats that stir fries require.
  • Rice Wine Vinegar. Adds a nice zing.
  • Corn Starch. For thickening or creating a light breading for chicken and pork.
  • Rice. I recommend buying a higher quality rice such as Basmati, Jasmine or a good wild rice. (See here for more on rice varieties.) It makes a world of difference in flavor and texture.
  • Ginger. It’s a staple in stir-frying. Consider pre-packaged ginger that you keep in the freezer. I find grating ginger root is a pain.

A Simple Equation

Remember this equation: Roots + Vegetables + Greens + Protein + Sauce = Tasty.

While you can put most anything in a stir fry, this general balance will make your dish shine.

And, here’s another tip: Try selecting ingredients with different colors to make dinner even more inviting.

A Trip to the Farmers’ Market

If you had a chance to accompany me to our Fredericksburg farmers’ market recently, you would find me choosing fresh broccoli (or broccolini), snap beans (I found a mixed basket of green, purple and white beans that looked wonderful), squash (I like to mix and match acorn, yellow and green squash), carrots (again I like a mix of carrot colors to brighten my dish), onions (purple unions are among nature’s under-appreciated delicacies), and bok choy (you can use the whole thing from green to white!).

And right there, I had my Root + Vegetables + Greens.

Now we’re down to the easy part: protein and sauce. Stir frying can make a little meat go a long, long way. We like to use kielbasa or other sausages. Chicken, of course, is great. And don’t forget pork. Want red meat? Have at it. You really can’t lose.

Cooking Tips

Now, just cook it up.

Begin by heating a tablespoon of oil in your pan. Use high heat. Stir-frying won’t work if you cook on low heat. So, mind what you’re doing! And don’t start until all your ingredients are cut up and ready to use.

Some tips:

  • Meat First—Cook your protein, then remove it from the wok.
  • Roots—Next, sauté your roots in the same pan you cooked the meat until the roots are tender.
  • Then, add some of the quicker-cooking vegetables, but save your greens for a moment.
  • Add your meat back to the stir fry.
  • Finish with those quick-cooking greens. Give the whole dish a stir or two.
  • Sauce—whatever you would like to add.
  • The actual cooking shouldn’t take more than 8 or 9 minutes if you’re using high heat.
  • Don’t leave the food unattended. It will burn. You must stir your dish constantly—hence the term, “stir” fry.

And there you have it, a quick meal that is nutritious and delicious. Serve over rice. To make a more complete dinner, I like to prepare egg rolls or spring rolls or dumplings that I buy frozen and heat.

A Final Word on Sauces

Once you get comfortable with these techniques, check out your local grocery store for jarred sauces. There are lots of options. Don’t be afraid to try them all. Also, check out cooking shows and cookbooks to expand your knowledge.

Start small. But start.

So there’s an easy way to start stir frying.

From there, let your creativity shine.

Enjoy!

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Care to read more?

ARE YOU INTRIGUED by this column from Martin Davis? You will also enjoy his book: 30 Days With America’s High School Coaches.

You can follow Martin’s work through his personal website, MartinDavisAuthor.com, which describes his career as an author, editor and journalist. On his front page, you’ll also find a link to his recent columns for the Fredericksburg, Virginia, Freelance Star.

Look around that website and sign up to receive free updates from Martin about new columns.

You’ll be glad you did!

 

 

The Glitz of the Super Bowl Left Me Wondering: Have we forgotten the true value of sport?

What is the value of a high school team? One might spend a moment peering back more than a century at the 1896 Indiana Soldier’s and Sailor’s Home football team. The visionary institution was founded in 1865 to provide a solid education and vocational training for orphans of Civil War veterans. Once those kids were given a good start, the Home’s mission expanded to care for all “at risk” kids. Among other remarkable accomplishments of the facility, the football team was integrated.

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By MARTIN DAVIS
Author of 30 Days with America’s High School Coaches

In the wake of the Super Bowl, one question continues to perplex journalists and academics alike:

How does the NFL–drowning in racism lawsuits, grossly overpriced tickets, merchandise, food and parking, player health issues, and the ongoing soap opera of team-owners-acting-badly–remain so popular?

How popular?

According to Variety, in 2021, 8 of the 10 most-watched TV shows were NFL games; so were 15 of the top 20. College football games also had two entrants on the top-20 list, meaning football accounted for all but three of most popular events people watched.

The answers to the question are as varied as the people who watch the sport. The league has perfect parity! No, it’s the unique pregame rituals! No, it’s that its something that people can watch together! No, football is “sewed into the psyche of America!”

… this could go on for several thousand words, but you get the idea.

Here’s the funny part, though. Among those who coach the sport at the high school level, the NFL isn’t necessarily all that popular.

I have no data sets to back that up. Just my, admittedly, limited experience coaching the sport—and my experience interviewing high school coaches nationwide for my book, 30 Days with America’s High School Coaches.

I, along with several coaches I’ve come to know over the years, are turned off by the sterility of the NFL game. It’s almost too perfect.

Take Super Bowl LVI in Los Angeles. The game was played in a gawdy—though undeniably stunning—$5 billion mecca. (The fact that it sits in Inglewood, one of LA’s poorer communities, is matter for another essay.)

The weather inside was perfect. The lighting was perfect. The freaking grass (artificial) was perfect. The fans were perfect (Hollywood moved to Inglewood for game day). The players were perfect. The uniforms were perfect. The halftime show was perfect. The camera angles? Yeah, perfect, too.

But all that perfection is rather akin to evangelical theology—all shine, no depth.

For evangelicals, all the salvation talk and dancing in the Lord isn’t enough when life’s most pressing issues face us. Just ask those who are leaving Willow Creek in drovers. (Actually, you don’t have to ask them—Willow Creek did and, to its great credit, published the results.)

Turns out that glitz can only take you so far. OK—glitz can take you really far.

But at the end of the day, it misses the bigger questions in life.

I can’t explain the NFL’s allure. I’m not that smart—or that interested, to be honest with you.

But I do have something of a handle on football’s allure. And it’s not the game. (OK—it’s the game a little bit—you don’t spend hours studying schemes and game film if the game itself doesn’t have some appeal.)

The allure of football—and I would argue any sport that requires a combination of skill, dedication, commitment, team work, and a willingness to sacrifice a lot to be able to play it—is what it asks of us.

Above all, it asks that we sacrifice everything for the other.

That’s what a surging number of NFL players are saying about their switch from playing at the highest level of professional football to coaching high school.

John Kitna, a former quarterback and now coach at Burleson High School in Texas said this of coaching his mostly underprivileged kids:

“It was just a realization that I wanted to help, do what I could do, to get them to college, to get the academic piece even if football wasn’t going to be their long-term thing. To help people chase dreams.”

At Milford Mills Academy in Baltimore, Maryland, Reggie White Jr coaches. He played in Super Bowl XXIX and had a solid NFL career. So why high school?

“I went to school here, this school system, we’re here in the Baltimore public schools, it’s family and that’s how I was treated by my coaches,” White said. “It made me want to be the person helping someone find their way, to achieve, get to college.”

That same line of thought resonates through most every person ESPN profiled in its piece about the 169 NFL coaches who now coach in high school.

That’s the part of the game that really matters. The part that most never see. Because honestly, for most people, it’s too darn hard.

It’s hard physically. It’s hard emotionally. It’s hard spiritually.

And that’s what makes it great.

In my own book, 30 Days with America’s High School Coaches, I dive deeper into the lives of high school coaches and the impact they have on their players, their teams, their schools, and their communities.

I can’t say for sure how many of them watch the NFL—or the professional equivalent in their game— but I suspect most watch some and very few are totally engrossed in it.

That’s because those who really understand sport and its value are too busy doing it to watch it.

Or they’re too busy taking the lessons they learned in sports and using those to help people in their communities in other ways.

At the end of the day, what makes the game great has nothing to do with the game at all.

It has everything to do with being fully human.

No wonder the game is so popular.

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Care to read more?

ARE YOU INTRIGUED by this column from Martin Davis? Then you will definitely enjoy his book: 30 Days With America’s High School Coaches.

You can follow Martin’s work through his personal website, MartinDavisAuthor.com, which describes his work as an author and editor. On that front page, you’ll also find a link to his recent columns for the Fredericksburg, Virginia, Freelance Star.

Look around that website and sign up to receive free updates from Martin about new columns.

You’ll be glad you did!

 

Martin Davis shows us how great high school coaches shape the lives of millions of young Americans

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By MARTIN DAVIS

I’ve never stood in a more sacred space than the sidelines at Riverbend High School on a Friday night. The epiphanous moment occurs just as the final note of the National Anthem wanes, players and coaches don helmets and headsets, and 22 young men move to the field for 48 minutes of unrelenting struggle.

No place to hide. No one to blame. It’s you and your men, vs. them and their men.

I love that moment …

… and I hate it.

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

I hate it because too many who follow sports believe that this moment is the apex of sports and represents athletic competition is all about. On the other hand, too many who dislike sports see in that moment the glorification of values they dislike or fear.

The truth is, that moment is special not because of what’s about to happen, but because of everything that led up to it. The countless hours that players and coaches spend together. It’s not sexy. It’s not always fun. And it involves more work than most people can begin to imagine.

But it’s this stuff outside of the epiphany that matters. And it’s the stuff that my new book is all about.

In the pages of 30 Days with America’s High School Coaches, sports fans in the stands who wish they could feel the energy in the huddle just before kick-off will meet Coach Marvin Nash. An up and coming coach in Texas High School football, he is a sight to behold on Friday nights. Who wouldn’t want to be him?

But who would know how to deal with the tragedies and struggles he’s faced. He has watched one player die of a brain tumor, and lost another player to suicide. He has taken stands on grades that have gotten other coaches fired.

“I get to know every player,” he says, “by name and by need.”

That’s what great coaches do.

Fans and readers will also meet Coach Allie Kinniard and former coach, now athletic director, Pam Bosser. These two resurrected a field hockey program, and in the process stared down administrators, ungrateful parents, and others who said they couldn’t. They fought tooth and nail for years just so the women at Lancaster High School in Ohio could grow as athletes, leaders and human beings.

And for those who feel sports are overvalued, you’ll rethink that position when you learn about the thousands of lives Coach Maurice Henriques has set on a firm path to reaching the stars—quite literally in one case, a young woman who earned a spot in NASA’s astronaut program.

Or, when you learn about to the hundreds of men and women Coach Barry Wortman has set on a path to a successful life in countless fields through the simple game of basketball—most of whom never progress beyond the JV level, if they even play at all.

In my career as a journalist, I’ve traveled the world looking at institutions, nonprofits, schools, clubs, and more all trying to do the same thing–give kids a chance at a better life. And I can attest, no one does it better than high school coaches.

That’s not hyperbole. Everyone obsessed with data will be pleased to learn that that decades of research back up the conclusions drawn from these stories.

Appreciating all that coaches do will help you understand the incredibly tight bond that forms between players and coaches, and the life-altering changes it sparks. You’ll also find that the very same tactics these coaches use can be used by anyone who works with high school-aged students.

It’s true—not everyone gets to experience that Friday night epiphany (or Saturday night, or Thursday night, or any night two high school teams face each other on America’s field, courts, and tracks). But everyone can come to a deeper appreciation of why this moment is as intense and pure as any moment in life. It’s a celebration of what’s to come, but a moment of appreciation for everything we’ve gone through together to get there. And it’s a testimony to growth that everyone in that group has gone through.

At the end of the day, anyone who works with high school kids is working toward the same end.

Whether you like sports or not, the lessons here will move you and make you a better mentor.

After all, when it comes to raising our children, we’re all on the same team.

Care to learn more?

Front Edge Publishing has created an 80-second video that captures the excitement we all feel surrounding this book’s launch, this week. Please, enjoy that video, share it with friends—and order a copy of this book that celebrates dozens of coaches nationwide.

In an era of isolation, a community of writers is a creative catalyst

The statue of the prophet Isaiah holds a pen in Rome’s Piazza Spagna, near the Spanish Steps. This photo is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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A Minister, a Psychotherapist and a Football Coach Walk into a Zoom room

By MARTIN DAVIS
Contributing Columnist

What is the value of a community of writers?

Click the cover to visit the Amazon book page for Martin Davis’s 30 Days with America’s High School Coaches.

During this past year of the pandemic, I have learned a great deal about such creative circles, thanks to an unusual friendship that has formed among myself and the authors of two other books in the same series as mine: Larry Buxton (30 Days with King David), and Duncan Newcomer (30 Days with Abraham Lincoln).

Front Edge Publishing Editor David Crumm brought us together. Then, over 2021, we began a dialog that has stretched far beyond the confines of the publishing house. The topics that we discuss in our weekly meetings are broad, ranging from the personal to the ethereal, from the writings and life of William Sloane Coffin to the beauty of a football playbook, and from the mythic power of biblical characters to the long shadow of Abraham Lincoln who led America’s Second Founding.

Mostly what happens is that we—admittedly three older white men who many would quickly stereotype as white, liberal cis males—grapple with the very broad gulfs that exist among us in an attempt to better understand one another.

A brief example from my perspective goes to show what we are teaching one another.

Regular readers know that I have a relationship with religion in general, and Christianity in particular, that can be generously described as troubled. Larry is a retired United Methodist minister. Over the past year, we’ve had discussions about faith that left both of us frustrated, irritated, and yes, at times, even hurt.

In our tensest moments, however, we also have come to a better understanding of our unique experiences. We have reached a point where a minister who truly believes that faith is a critical component to human life can understand how the trauma I’ve suffered in my experiences with faith has for many years made re-embracing faith impossible—while he holds onto his own faith. We both have deeper appreciations for the complex ways people wrestle with faith’s eternal, and ultimately unanswerable, issues.

Into this mix comes Duncan, a retired educator and psychotherapist who pushes me to understand the depths of my own personal struggles with religion, while appreciating the ways that coaching and working with youth has become a critical community for me that occasionally fills religious-like needs.

The results of these interactions are plentiful. The most important, I believe each of us would say, is how our friendship has helped us break down our stereotypes that we came to the table with when we first met, and allowed us to experience a fuller experience of what it is to be human through appreciating one another’s lives.

As I move into 2022, I owe a profound “thank you” to my two new, close friends Duncan and Larry.

In a world where more people than ever are writing to tell others what to think and do, I’ve had the good fortune to wrestle with two other men on a range of issues that have forced me not only to expand my ways of thinking, but have allowed me to write with a deeper knowledge of and appreciation for the people I hope to connect with.

We think this friendship is leading us toward engaging more fully with readers via words that better reflect the potential of shared community.

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Care to read more?

ARE YOU INTRIGUED by this column from Martin Davis? Right now, our publishing house is close to a nationwide launch of Martin’s book filled with uplifting stories about high school coaches and players nationwide. In his book, you will meet men and women, black and white, famous and unsung heroes alike.

His book will appear soon in our series of 30 Days With under the title: 30 Days With America’s High School Coaches.

You can follow Martin’s work through his personal website, MartinDavisAuthor.com, which describes his work as an author and editor, as well as his background as a veteran journalist for national publications.

Look around that website and sign up to receive free updates from Martin about new columns and podcasts. You’ll be glad you did!

And, Care to See One of Larry Buxton’s Short Videos on Leading with Spirit?

You’ve just “met” Larry in Martin’s column. We’re featuring one of Larry’s short videos, this week, in our Front Edge Publishing website. Please, take a moment to hear from Larry via this new video. It’s just a few minutes long—and you may want to share this message with friends, as well.

AND—if you are aware of like-minded writers who might like to connect with us, email us at [email protected]

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A Spiritual Revival in the Field of Dreams

Kevin Costner welcomes players to The Field of Dreams. If you missed it, I’ve got a link to the video of the opening moments of that broadcast, below.

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“Is this Heaven?”

I’m not sure how I would have answered that question, this week, because I’m not exactly sure what that word means—but the events surrounding that question sure felt as close to Heaven as I’ve felt in a while.

You need to understand: Baseball has been there for me at so many critical moments of my life, often surprising me with its power to revive my spirits.

Take this past Thursday, which began like most days. I got up at 6 as my wife and daughter prepared for school. By 7 I was outside walking my dog Dexter, and by 8 I was fixing his and my other two dogs’ breakfasts (Boiled eggs and sausage). I was at my desk working by 9. And at 2 I was off to the local high school for football practice.

There’s a comforting daily rhythm to my days. Even the music is routine, thanks to the Alexa playlist I’ve put together. I cook to Looking Glass singing “Brandy,” and I start work about the time Don McLean is playing the first chords to “American Pie.” I leave for football practice to the sound of Modern English singing “Melt with You.” It gets my blood pumping.

This daily routine is comforting, allowing me to move from one day to the next with a feeling of calm. It also numbs me–all of us–in ways that are not good. It shuts us away from the wonders that surround us, and the larger rhythms that define life.

On Thursday, August 12, 2021, however, a bit of wonder broke into my day. An event that will forever set this Thursday apart from all the other Thursdays in my life.

Field of Dreams

As I sat down Thursday night to eat the pizza we’d picked up from Sam’s, an institution in Fredericksburg that’s been here longer than the 20 years I’ve lived here, I tuned in to Fox to watch a baseball game.

That, too, is routine in my house. Most days from late April through October we have the Washington Nationals game playing on our family television. If we’re not at home when they’re playing, the game is on the radio in the car.

Thursday’s game was different in several ways, however. We tuned out the Nats to watch the White Sox play the Yankees in Dyersville, Iowa.

Even the uninitiated know that Dyersville isn’t a Major League City.

Dyersville, however, has come to play as large a role in America’s baseball mythology, however, as has Cooperstown–the heralded town where baseball was born (it wasn’t born there, but it’s still a great place to visit). Dyersville is where 30 years ago Kevin Costner and his Hollywood crew took a novel by W.P. Kinsella and turned it into the now-classic movie Field of Dreams.

There were the predictable made-for-television theatrics Thursday night. Kevin Costner walked out of the center-field corn toward second base and stood. Then, in small groups the members of the White Sox and Yankees made their way out to him and shook his hand.

Then Costner took to the microphone and asked, “Is this Heaven?” to which the crowd of 8,000 folks lustily cheered.

“I don’t think I heard you,” Costner said, repeating his question: “Is this Heaven?”

The response was thunderous: “Yeah!!!”

For an emotional baseball softie who choked up watching the movie–several times–in theaters 30 years ago, it brought back a lot of fond memories. For the uninitiated, I’m sure it was probably as corny as the corn field the game was played in.

There was nothing corny about the game, however. In the top of the 9th, trailing 7-4, the Yankees hit two two-run homers – one by Aaron Judge, who had homered early in the game to give the Yankees a 3-1 lead; and the other by Giancarlo Stanton, who to that point had been 0 for 4 on the night.

It looked like that the Yankees would ruin it for the home-team White Sox, the team that also had a starring place in the movie. But in the bottom of the 9th, Seby Zavala walked, and Tim Anderson hit a massive blow to the corn in right field to give the Sox a walk-off, 9-8 victory.

[You can find the box score, video clips, and in-depth interviews about the Field of Dreams game at MLB.com]

It was as good an ending to a baseball game as I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen something in the vicinity of 5,000 Major League games in my life.

ONE OF MY FAVORITE SNAPSHOTS is this 1990 photo of me running the bases at The Field of Dreams.

There When You Need It

The recently retired, legendary sports writer for the Washington Post, Tom Boswell, once said of baseball that there’s something that’s available to people during the baseball season that isn’t there the rest of the year. “It’s not that you have to watch the game,” he said, “but it’s there if you need it.”

Baseball has been there for me at many critical times in my life. Indeed, my life is marked by it. In April 1974 I walked–ran, really–home from school to catch the great Henry Aaron hit his record-tying 714th home run in Cincinnati to tie Babe Ruth for the Home Run King crown. I can’t remember most trips home from school. That one, however, will always stay with me.

There was the afternoon in 1976 when I sat in my grandfather’s house watching Mark “The Bird” Fidrych pitch during his rookie season. My grandfather, pipe in hand, telling me stories about the great pitchers he had seen and read about growing up in the ‘20s and ‘30s. My grandfather died in 1989, while I was in graduate school in Chicago. I finished my thesis early and drove to North Carolina for the funeral. I spent the night in Cincinnati and attended a game between the Reds and the Giants. I could think of no other place to be. It was a 13-inning marathon that the Reds won. For that night, he was with me one last time.

The game was there for me in August 1990, when my wife and a close friend from graduate school made the trip to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and watched Nolan Ryan win his 300th game. A feat that until then had only been accomplished 20 times in Major League history. I remember every moment of that game like it was yesterday. Mostly I remember the evening my wife, our friend Dan, and I had together.

It was there for me in 1994. The game itself was not in a great place that summer. Tensions between the owners and players was high, and eventually there would be a strike that led to the cancellation of the World Series. For four hours that summer night, however, none of that mattered. My wife and I had had our first child that May. Together we watched the All-Star game, taping it for him, and celebrating with glee as the National League (our favorite) finally took one. The late, great Tony Gwynn scoring from first base off a Moises Alou double to win the game in the 10th inning.

ANOTHER OF MY FAVORITE SNAPSHOTS is me with my 4-year-old son Andrew on my shoulders outside Orioles Park in Baltimore in 1998.

My forthcoming book is dedicated to my oldest son, Andrew, who helped me see the game anew. While the country turned on the players and the game during the strike, the memory of that All-Star Game, and the

Baseball As Religion?

I do not attend church or affiliate with a religious tradition–regular readers of my columns are well-aware of that fact. Some believe that baseball (or sport) has become my religion. That assumption would be as wrong as the assumption that I see no value in faith.

The animating question for me about faith has always been, what purpose does it serve?

I was raised in a tradition that framed faith solely as something to ensure a good life after this life. That was why we had faith. That was all that faith really mattered for.

I’ve been part of traditions where faith was the animating factor for political agendas, left and right.

All of these have proven deeply disappointing and shallow to me.

Baseball is not a religion for me. But baseball has something to teach religion. Baseball is a constant in my days. I don’t always need it, but it’s there when I do. And there are games, moments, that serve as markers for me. Markers that turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.

Days that allow me to see, and remind me of, the wonder that is life itself.

No judgment. No requirement to convert. No guilt.

Just a moment that opens my eyes to the wonder around me.

When religion can offer that, I’ll be in the cheap seats. Beer and dog in hand, keeping score and basking in the moment.

I’ll save the seat next to me for you.

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Care to Watch?

Here’s the YouTube video posted after the event, showing the dramatic opening minutes of that broadcast:

 

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Care to read more?

ARE YOU INSPIRED by this column from journalist Martin Davis? Right now, Martin and our editors are completing on a book filled with uplifting stories about high school coaches and players nationwide—men and women, black and white, famous and unsung heroes alike.

His book will appear soon in our series of 30 Days With under the title: 30 Days With America’s High School Coaches.

You can follow Martin’s work through his personal website, MartinDavisAuthor.com, which describes his work as an author and editor, as well as his background as a veteran journalist for national publications.

Look around that website and sign up to receive free updates from Martin about new columns and podcasts. You’ll be glad you did!

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Martin Davis: What does it mean that American evangelicals are in decline?

TWO MEN OUT: In this photo, President Trump spoke at the 2017 commencement ceremony at the religiously conservative Liberty University led at the time by Jerry Falwell Jr. In August 2020, Falwell was forced to resign after a series of scandals involving sex and alcohol.

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EDITOR’s NOTE: One of the most striking series of headlines about religion in July 2021 concerns the decline in self-identified evangelicals in America, triggered by new data from the Public Religion Research Institute. Headlines included The Washington Post: The Rapid Decline of White Evangelical America? and in The New York Times: The Christian Right Is in Decline, and It’s Taking America With It and in New York magazine: White Evangelicals Now Outnumbered by Mainline Protestants in U.S.—and finally from CNN: America is no longer as evangelical as it was—and here’s why, written by the esteemed scholar Diana Butler Bass. That’s why we asked for this column by our own resident writer who focuses on America’s growing ambivalence toward traditional religious identifications. To help put this news in context, here are the perspective of journalist and author Martin Davis.

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By MARTIN DAVIS
Contributing Columnist

A number of years ago I began asking folks who attended church a simple question: “What does it mean to be Baptist?”

Or, Presbyterian? Or Methodist? I adapted my question to the person’s affiliation. However, more times than not, people had no idea. They attended the churches they were at not because they came to a decision about what they believed then sought out a community that reflected those beliefs. Rather, they attend because their children got invited, or the church was near their house, or they had friends who attended and invited them, or they liked the sermons (See Pew Forum research on this question).

Almost never would a Baptist talk to me about the importance of missions, or the centrality of the Bible in their belief. Presbyterians mostly had no idea how their system of governance differed from Congregational or Episcopal communities. And while they knew the name John Calvin, almost none had ever read much of his work or wrestled with what his message means today.

As one person succinctly said to me: “Look, I just attend a Baptist church; that doesn’t make me Baptist.”

So when the Public Religion Research Institute, headed by Robert P. Jones, released research in July 2021 announcing that “Since 2006, white evangelical Protestants have experienced the most precipitous drop in affiliation, shrinking from 23% of Americans in 2006 to 14% in 2020”—I was more than a bit suspicious.

First, the survey is based on self-identification, not actual records of church affiliation. And as suggested above, this can yield some perplexing findings.

Second, PRRI’s findings don’t square with other major studies of religion in America. Notably, Pew Research Center data shows only a minor drop in evangelicals. The General Social Survey and the Cooperative Congressional Election Study also show no such decline. (The Washington Post story linked above ends with a question mark in its headline and contains a nice summary of the conflicting data.)

What to make of this conflicting information?

First, recognize all of this data for what it is—a snap shot in time taken with one particular camera using a particular lens. This doesn’t make the information wrong or mean that the people conducting the surveys are up to no good. But the way you ask questions matters. And who you ask matters.

Second, it raises a more-important question: Who are these dwindling numbers of evangelicals, and what’s happening to those who no longer claim that name? Are they moving to mainline churches?

“The survey doesn’t provide precise explanations regarding the shift among white Christians,” Ed Kilgore relates in his New York magazine piece. “But [Jones] pointed to ‘circumstantial evidence’ that suggests ‘over the last two years in particular, white mainline Protestants seem to have absorbed at least some folks leaving white evangelical and other churches who may have otherwise landed in the religiously unaffiliated camp.’”

Or is it possible that these people who once identified as evangelical but no longer do are still attending the same houses of worship they always have? Perhaps they just don’t want to be associated with the term “evangelical” because of the Dumpster fire that was the Trump presidency and his unholy alliance with conservative Christians.

It will take more than a while–and a lot more studies–to sort all this out.

More Than Cultural Change

There’s a deeper concern in the general tone of the reporting this month. It’s as if many Americans would like to simply wish an entire group of people—so-called evangelicals—would simply fade away. There’s a hope among many Americans that the shrinkage of evangelical communities might somehow resolve some of our public conflicts and social ills. And that’s simply wrong headed.

However Americans choose to describe the religious part of their lives, the animating ideas that have long been associated with the word “evangelical” still are deeply embedded in our culture.

To highlight just one example: Racism still is part of American life. Although many Americans tended to associate racism with political conservatism and evangelical affiliations, racism runs from top to bottom in our culture and, more importantly, in our civic and corporate structures.

Another example: The yawning chasm between the haves and the have nots is a massive issue that will not be solved by books like Hillbilly Elegy, which wrongly places all the problems that poor Americans have squarely on their shoulders. The book’s overriding solution–just grow up and accept responsibility for your life–could only be expressed by someone who escaped poverty with little empathy for those left behind.

There are many more examples that probably are rolling through your mind right now.

The bottom line is: The people who have been called evangelicals, and the larger conservative world they populate, are not going away. If, as PRRI claims, evangelicals are in sharp decline, then how does one explain Donald Trump getting 77 million votes in 2020?

So What Do We Do?

So, perhaps evangelicals aren’t dying. Perhaps there’s just a fashionable change in labeling. There’s no question that millions of Americans see themselves along a whole series of political and cultural barricades. For those of us who appreciate the progressive values of American justice, concern for the less fortunate and embrace of diversity, the question becomes: How can we find a way forward?

I believe we are in for more political and social struggles, not unlike the fight that leaders in the Civil Rights movement waged throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

President Reagan meeting in the Oval Office with Jerry Falwell, Sr., in 1983. Falwell was the founding pastor of the Thomas Road Baptist Church, a megachurch in Lynchburg, Virginia. He founded Lynchburg Christian Academy (now Liberty Christian Academy) in 1967, founded Liberty University in 1971 and co-founded the Moral Majority in 1979. He died suddenly of cardiac arrhythmia in his office at Liberty University at the age of 73 in 2007.

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Since the rise of the Religious Right under Jerry Falwell in the 1970s, evangelicals have refused to evolve away from the position that there is only one way to truth—their way. In fact, since that time the evangelical insistence that they hold The Truth has only grown more insistent. We see it in movements like dominionism, which is a move to subsume all aspects of American life under an extreme evangelical rubric. (Here’s an excellent story about one such community in Fort Worth, Texas.)

We see it in our political system, when a womanizing, foul-mouthed, intellectually-deficient man-child becomes the great beacon for the group pollsters describe as White Evangelicals. And we see it in governments in Texas, Mississippi, Missouri, South Carolina, Georgia, Indiana, and others, where Republican-led state legislatures use the Bible to defend denying people the vote, punishing the poor, depriving children of nutrition, and punishing people who–heaven forbid–have sex outside of marriage.

There is no working with or talking to many of these individuals. I can write that line, because I came from that world. And I left that world. And I had my life nearly destroyed along the way.

My story isn’t important. I have finally put that part of my life in the rear-view mirror. I’ve never taken my eye off what I left behind, however. And I am convinced that it is gaining ground again–even if the numbers of self-identified adherents are down. Even in decline, their power is far out of proportion to their numbers.

It is time that we claim and raise the voice of our own Silent Majority: people of no religious affiliation like myself that now account for 1 out of 4 people in this country, plus religious liberals and people of faith who simply are just decent people. One deep concern we share is the rise of an evangelicalism that can become more nihilistic even as it declines in numbers.

We need to encourage national conversations about what it truly means to embrace American values.

Values that unify us as Americans

Four come to my mind.

A commitment to freedom lived in a respectful community. For too many on the extreme right of the evangelical world, religious freedom means the freedom to do whatever they want, and to deny those same freedoms to others. We must insist that our freedoms are not grounded in any one religious group or theological position. Our freedoms are grounded in the Enlightenment, which gave birth to the US Constitution, guided the thinking of our Founding Fathers and Mothers, and stresses that every individual is a person of worth. These ideals flummoxed our nation’s leaders in the earliest days. Washington and Jefferson and Madison all struggled with the dissonance between the ideals they espoused in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence—and slavery. That dissonance has never gone away. Progressives today are stifling our ability to create a broader discussion around freedom and community by continually taking the culture-war bait that evangelicals keeping throwing out. It’s time to quit defensively responding and force the debate about the reality that freedom must be lived out in community.

A commitment to facts. When KellyAnne Conway insisted from inside the White House that there were “alternative facts,” she made public what people who have followed evangelicalism have long known. The worst of evangelical tendencies is a refusal to deal with facts in a reasonable way—and a rejection of objective knowledge and science that is inconvenient to their creed. We must insist that being part of this nation means accepting as reality what is testable and knowable.

A commitment to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The evangelical movement has long rejected this core tenet of American society. That dates at least as far back as so-called Progressive movements like Temperance that were thinly veiled bigotry against poor immigrants. Those of us among the Silent Majority I am describing must also guard our own actions against similarly demonizing poor communities. What we need is honest, balanced, hospitable engagement and conversation. The danger is a slide toward a Balkanization of our nation. I know that I am not alone among community leaders nationwide who are working, even now, on new structures to cross our chasms and re-engage in the American values that can continue to unite us.

A commitment to peace. The reality now is that a significant portion of radical evangelicals accept that they will have to launch a violent overthrow of the current system. This is no idle threat as we all witnessed on January 6, 2021. The temptation is to suppress and fight back. Or simply wish these people away. That will not win the day. We must rise up, nonviolently, and stare this evil squarely in the face.

Understand the Moment

It is important that we truly grasp what is happening around us, and the very real threat that we all face. We cannot afford to gloat in the wake of one study that shows the threat to the way of life that we enjoy is shrinking in numbers. Shrinking, maybe, but power is not now, nor has it ever been, distributed equally. And far too much of it rests in the hands of extremists.

But don’t take my word for it. Listen to how Michelle Goldfarb summarizes where we are at in her current New York Times Op-Ed piece:

“I was frightened by the religious right in its triumphant phase. But it turns out that the movement is just as dangerous in decline. Maybe more so. It didn’t take long for the cocky optimism of Generation Joshua to give way to the nihilism of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists. If they can’t own the country, they’re ready to defile it.”

Evangelicals have driven the discussion far too long in the country. We must take charge of the discussion, and quit hoping things will get better without the active engagement by all of us.

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Care to read more?

MARTIN ALSO REMINDS US that there are major questions about the validity of American polling that have been raised by everyone involved with such research—from the pollsters themselves to the journalists, scholars and community leaders who rely on this kind of data. He says, “I recommend that people also read this Washington Post story about the very real problems with polling and why we should always be skeptical of the numbers we are seeing. I love the conclusion, which I agree with fully.”

The conclusion of the Post story says:

Instead, polls should serve as a rough guide to public opinion. They’re the only way to ask the country a question and get a timely, meaningful response. We should be cognizant of polling’s problems and shortcomings—at least until someone comes up with a better way to discover what Americans think.

Care to read even more?

Right now, Martin and our editors are completing a book filled with uplifting stories about high school coaches and players nationwide—men and women, black and white, famous and unsung heroes alike. His book will appear soon in our series of 30 Days With under the title: 30 Days With America’s High School Coaches.

You can follow Martin’s work through his personal website, MartinDavisAuthor.com, which describes his work as an author and editor, as well as his background as a veteran journalist for national publications.

Look around that website and sign up to receive free updates from Martin about new columns and podcasts. You’ll be glad you did!

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Martin Davis: Pawsing in memoriam for Penny

By MARTIN DAVIS
Contributing Columnist

Had she been a tiger, I’d have died a thousand deaths.

Penny slipped into and out of my days stealthily. She would arrive with a rush of air as she leapt to the space I occupied. Her small, white-booted paws landing true, without concussion.

In braver moments, she would invite me into a conversation by giving my leg a gentle head bump, or rubbing her head against my foot. And some days, she’d offer a chattering cackle. Just to remind me she was, in fact, around.

Many days she’d just lie still, amongst a stack of just-washed bath towels in the linen closet. Waiting for someone to open the door, insert a hand, and find it batted back by a paw.

At night, just as my mind was shifting from wake to sleep, she’d step lightly across my night stand, onto my bed, and under the covers. There, my hand would pull her close and stroke her nose, until all around me I knew only silence and darkness and the images my mind conjured.

Aloof. Stand-offish. I suppose I understand how those who’ve never fully given their homes to a cat can imagine these felines as arrogant, self-righteous, retaining professional distance just in case their inner-tiger emerges.

Writers are often accused of the same behaviors. And I suppose that’s why Penny and I bonded.

The life of the writer is by definition isolated. When we are in and among others, we are observers, listeners, wallflowers. Just as happy to stand in a corner and watch two people circle, talk, raise their hands to make a point or express frustration or celebration, move closer and further apart. Storing it all away for that novel or story that’s always hiding in our conscious.

We spend days locked away, surrounded by notes and coffee and left-over dishes searching for that perfect turn of phrase to catch a moment.

Writers don’t talk about their work when it’s in progress. We occupy another space and time when working. It’s a place filled with creativity, and fraught with traps.

Penny understood my moods and moments. Every day during COVID, and the days prior when I would work remotely or do my creative work at night, she would join me on my fold-out white table. And into a white milk cart she would crawl, sit, and stare. Feeling every word that I was trying to draw out.

She understood what it is to spend your life observing, then making sense of what you see and what you know.

She knew not to try and drag it from me. Writing, like so many creative practices, comes when it comes. We can’t force it, no matter how we try.

Daily she sat there. Patiently watching. Sharing in the deep moments of silence and quiet that define my days.

When the frustrations became too great, she would nudge my computer screen, inviting my fingers to scratch her head. And when the success came, she was always there to remind me that the writing life isn’t about this accolade or that publication, but the act of daily capturing what it is to be alive. And to record, as best we can, the beauty and depths of the mundane.

She wasn’t a tiger. She was Poe’s Raven; Melville’s whale; Steinbeck’s Charlie; Morrison’s caged bird.

She was a smallish charcoal gray short-hair, with white on her breast and paws.

And from her perch along with me breathed life into tens of thousands of words.

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An afterword

Editor’s Note: For all those of us who have lost a beloved furry companion, Martin’s column is perfect as written. We did ask Martin to add an “afterword” for readers wanting to know just a little more about Penny’s passing. Martin sent back this: “Regular readers know me as the guy who writes from the perspective of those who practice no religion. In fact, I like to describe my vocation in such columns as exploring the extraordinary spiritual wonders in everyday life without preconceived notions defining them. I appreciate awe. I marvel at the natural world. I am happy simply to live these experiences. Death does nothing to change this. We take comfort in the pleasure of having walked this life together. Even when it’s our pets. My cat Penny died suddenly three weeks ago. She was only 8.”

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Care to read more?

ARE YOU INSPIRED by this column from journalist Martin Davis? Right now, Martin and our editors are completing on a book filled with uplifting stories about high school coaches and players nationwide—men and women, black and white, famous and unsung heroes alike.

His book will appear soon in our series of 30 Days With under the title: 30 Days With America’s High School Coaches.

You can follow Martin’s work through his personal website, MartinDavisAuthor.com, which describes his work as an author and editor, as well as his background as a veteran journalist for national publications.

Look around that website and sign up to receive free updates from Martin about new columns and podcasts. You’ll be glad you did!

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