Barrie Kirby: Joy in Mudville and other unlikely places
Ernest L. Thayer’s poem “Casey at the Bat” is the tale of a baseball game in a town called Mudville. The score is four to two at the last inning, with two outs and players on second and third base when the mighty Casey steps up to the plate. The crowd roars. Casey lets the first ball speed by him. He ignores the second pitch and takes a second strike. And then he gets serious. The poem reaches its climax as Casey swings at the third pitch.
Oh! Somewhere in the favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light.
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has Struck Out.
Dashed hopes. Shattered dreams. From time to time we all feel like we live in Mudville. Mighty Casey strikes out. Or we strike out. We realize that what we wanted so badly is not going to happen. And there is no joy in our Mudville. There is only disappointment.
The prophet Isaiah once said, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Isaiah was not talking about a tree. He was speaking about a king. Jesse was the father of David, Israel’s greatest king. But that was years ago. The people were about to be taken into exile in Babylon, and there would be no joy in that Mudville. The dynasty of David was going to be cut down like a tree giving way to a chain saw. But there would be life in that old stump yet. And Isaiah could see it.
Many years after the prophet Isaiah spoke, a Jew named Paul read Isaiah’s words. He saw those words fulfilled in another Jew named Jesus. He was the shoot that grew from the stump of Jesse, but he was different than the other branches had been. He did not care about power or prestige. The only crown he ever wore was made of thorns. This shoot of Jesse saw himself as a servant. He welcomed the downtrodden. He ate with the despised. He considered no one to be beneath him. No one was undeserving of his time or his love.
We know what happened to Jesus. This king was enthroned upon a cross. And there he died. The tree of Jesse seemed to be cut to the root again. But when all seemed lost, God’s salvation appeared. When human power was useless, God’s power intervened. God raised Jesus from the dead to reign in an eternal kingdom. And God gave the Holy Spirit so that all who believe he is the Christ may abound in hope and be filled with joy and peace.
Once I hired someone to paint our house. First he had to cut down a dogwood tree. The painter could not just prune the branches that rubbed against the window. The whole tree had to come down. He cut that dogwood down to a stump. But the roots of that stump ran deep. Out of that stump grew a shoot. And out of that shoot grew another dogwood tree.
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” Much in life is beyond human power and control. We cannot always accomplish everything we intend. Even the mighty Casey strikes out.
But the Lord God can cause a sawed-off stump to grow into a new tree. God can bring an exiled nation home. God can raise a dead man to new life. When things seem hopeless, God can do what we cannot do. May God give you joy in your Mudville, wherever that may be.
Barrie Miller Kirby is pastor of Spencer Presbyterian Church and author of ‘No Such Thing as a Cherokee Princess.’