“Canoeing the Mountains,” “Moneyball,” and Washing Your Hands

Click here to read the story and reading that go with this sermon.

Canoeing the mountains

Tod Bolsinger writes his entire book Canoeing the Mountains as an extended metaphor comparing the Corps of Discovery’s obstacles in finding a water route to the Pacific to a modern church leader’s not having the right tools for the task at hand and having to figure out a new way of doing things in real time.  Lewis and Clark were seeking the Northwest Passage, a water route to connect the eastern and western shores of North America. When they hit the rocky mountains their entire plan, even their entire purpose is thwarted. There is no water route. They will need to climb and descend one peak of the Rockies after another for hundreds of miles. That’s a long way to carry a canoe!  It took them a month and a half to carry the canoes 18 miles at one point, even though they tried to make wagons to help. If not for a lot of native help and guides they would have been lost in the mountains. At one point they barely survived, almost starving to death in the Bitteroots. They spend the winter on the pacific coast, but start the return trip too early before the snows completely melt and against the local Indian’s advice. They have to retreat and wait.  They do of course make it back and we now know their story of “canoeing the mountains.”

Hand Washing Guy

We’ve all been washing our hands a lot lately.  You’d think hand washing as a defense against disease and infection would be a long practiced , time honored tradition – but it’s not.  Hand washing as an established scientific general standard procedure to disinfect and sanitize is less than 200 years old.

In 1846 a Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelwies noticed that there were a lot of mothers dying in maternity wards from puerperal fever, a type of strep bacteria infection. In fact,  five times as many women died of this in the male doctor staffed maternity ward than they did in the birthing clinic run by female midwives. He wondered why?

He noticed differences in the clinics. The midwives had women give birth on their sides and the doctors had them deliver on their backs. So Semmelweis had the doctors switch to side deliveries, but it made no difference in the mortality rate. He tried a few things based on other differences  in the clinics, but nothing. Frustrated, he took a vacation. When he got back he learned a pathologist at the hospital had died of puerperal fever. Maybe it originated in the cadavers the pathologists worked on. He recommended everyone wash their hands not only with water but also with chlorine so that cadaver particles wouldn’t be passed onto the moms when their babies were delivered.  The puerperal fever infection rate dropped dramatically. He thought it was because the cadaver particles and smells, or miasma, weren’t being transferred. And for mandating this new hand washing rule and saving so many patients he was not praised, but received a boatload of resistance. Doctors were pissed off at him because they thought he was blaming them for the deaths and infections. They turned up their noses at his hand washing idea.  Eventually Semmelweis left medicine. He ended up in a mental asylum where he, ironicly, died of sepsis.


Billy Beane is the Vice President and minority owner of the Oakland A’s major league baseball team.  When he first became the team’s General Manager in the mid 1990s he was the first to have success building a team roster using the principles of Sabermetrics (SABR – or Society for American Baseball Research), an empirical analysis system used to evaluate baseball players based on objective statistical criteria.

Sabermetrics was developed by a man named Bill James, a night watchman at a baked beans factory.  Sabermetrics was developed to help fantasy baseball players evaluate the pros and pick the best ones for the game of fantasy baseball where you earn points based on the real life statistics of pro players. Baseball was always a game of statistics such as how many hits, home runs, runs batted in, or stolen bases a player had. Statistics such as how many batters a pitcher struck out and how many times a batter struck out.

Bill James discovered these were the wrong statistics to use to know if a player was actually any good.  What mattered, James reasoned, was winning games and to win games you needed the most runs. To score runs you need to get players on base. The team that is best at getting on base will score the most runs and win the most games.  Players get on base by hitting the ball safely and by getting a walk (when the pitcher throws four pitches that miss the strike zone – or four balls). Players who get on base a lot tend to score more often. It doesn’t matter if they get a hit or a walk.  Players who get big hits, such as doubles, triples, and home runs score even more runs because their hits tend to get them closer to home. The big statistic James came up to measure this is called On base plus Slugging or OPS.

Billy Bean decided to build his Oakland A’s teams full of players with a high OPS wihtout regard to their traditional statistics such as batting average, home runs, or runs batted. He had a financial reason for doing this. His Oakland A’s were one of the poorest teams in major league baseball. They couldn’t afford to buy the “best players” according to traditional evaluation of talent, so his team would need bargain players that everyone else under-valued. When Billy Beane started using Bill James’ analysis his Oakland A’s team started improving and in a few years were making the playoffs regularly.  Beane’s use of sabermetrics was called Moneyball by author Michael Lewis when he wrote a book about Beane’s new way of doing things. At first,  it wasn’t easy for Beane to get his own manager, coaches, and scouts to trust in this new method.  It wasn’t the way baseball had always evaluated players ; not the way they had always done it. Traditionally, coaches and scouts knew what a good player looked like: the form of the swing, how much power they showed when hitting the ball deep and high, how fast they could run..  Sabermetrics says these things don’t matter nearly as much as one fact – how often the player gets on base!

As Tod Bolsinger points out in his book, Lewis and Clark’s journey once they hit the rockies is nothing like the journey behind them getting to the rockies. Much it is overland and in terrain they’ve never experienced in their entire lives. There was no range of mountains like the Rockies in the east. They did the best they could with what they had.   Much like we are going to have to do now in many areas of our lives. This pandemic will end, but things will not return to the way they were and it becomes increasingly evident that much like Lewis and Clark fund out, the journey ahead of us, in many ways, will be nothing like the journey behind us.

We are learning that the veneer covering up the massive inadequacies of our cultural, political, and economic systems is so thin it is transparent.  Our economy has ground to a halt in a couple of weeks. The underemployed, under insured, undervalued people of America have so little it’s rapidly turning into nothing before our eyes.   We don’t have the tools we need for a time such as this. We are canoeing the mountains. We don’t need a capitalist economy that puts profit before people’s lives. We don’t need health insurance companies that put profit before people’s lives. We need guaranteed basic income. We need health care as a basic human right.  There are new ideas available to us, but we don’t use them. Those who have new ideas and leaders who would try new solutions are ignored by the powerful and profit hoarding as Semmelweis’s medical students and doctors ignored the advice to wash their hands.

Doctors weren’t using  the right tool for the job, they were given the right tool and turned their back on it!!!  “Nonsense” they said, “How could washing or not washing my hands affect – or infect – my patients.  It’s truly maddening to watch things remain worse than they have to be because old men are too proud to admit they didn’t know the answer, or try something they themselves didn’t think of, or ignore a solution because that’s not the way it’s always been done.

This refusal to use the correct tool for the job and thereby condemn to failure what can easily be more successfull is causing us all anxiety as we watch our federal government blunder their way through a national emergency as if unaware or unconcerned that this is a matter of life and death; their lack of intelligence and lack of competence  condeming more and more people to suffer needlessly.


A decade after Billy Beane started using sabermetrics, two other poor teams, Florida Marlins and Tampa Bay Rays, made it to the world series using his methods –  and the Marlins won! Now baseball considers sabermetrics as the best practice. Everyone uses it now to evaluate players and the cost benefit of one player versus another in terms of salary and contracts.  BUT when Bill James first published these ideas no one listened, and then when Billy Beane started using them no one believed it would work. And now it’s just the “new normal.”

Three weeks ago there were many of you who didn’t know what the video conferencing app Zoom was, never-mind how to use it.   Six months ago neither congregation I serve video recorded the sermons each week, never mind live stream them. Now, this is the new normal.

All of us right now are canoeing the mountains, trying to learn Moneyball on the fly, and getting better at washing our hands.  The way we’ve always done it has ground to a halt. The tools we arrived here with aren’t necessarily the best ones to have going forward.  They way we do things going forward is going to be different from how we did them before the corona virus showed up.

At home, at work, at school, and at church we’ve hit the rocky mountains. BUT – we don’t need to carry the rafts and canoes on our backs until the river flows again. We may be in the mountains for a while. We can build new canoes and rafts when we need them.

But right now we need to combat social distancing with distance socializing, we need to be more intentional in creating community and staying in touch than we were before.  We need to use technology not as mere entertainment, but an intentional tool for maintaining relationships, learning, and worshipping. We need to learn that in using technology intentionally we can’t forget to exercise, go outside , and get off the screens.

In our isolation we will re-learn the need we have for each other.  The very lives of others are in our hands, not just during Covid1-9 outbreaks, but each day.  We quite actually ARE our brother’s and sister’s keeper. How we behave impacts whether or not others live or die. This is true every day  in decisions we make about how to live, our political choices, whether or not we use our privilege to dismantle white supremacy culture , heteronormative patriarchy,  and income inequality. Whether or not we take climate change seriously and work to save the life of the planet we live on.

We are learning that we need to be able to risk doing things differently such going to school at home, working online, having church coffee hour on Zoom.  In church, we are learning the importance of having easy and obvious online access to sign up for our email newsletter, and to make donations via credit card, as well as to care for each other via phone calls and video conferences.

Going forward we need the creativity and courage of Lewis and Clark and Semmelweis and Beane.  They all could have made different choices. The Corps of Discovery could have turned back at the Rockies. Semmelweist could have not tried to promote hand washing, Beane could have not rocked the boat with his own coaches and scouts.  They risked failing – and in a way Semmeweis did – and yet they each made profound and lasting impacts on our culture.

We need to trust ourselves to be as creative and willing to fail in order to succeed as they were as we try new ways of being church and  being community during this time. We need to watch our own behavior and be less like Beane’s coaches and Semmelweis’s staff doctors and more like Lewis and Clark’s company that learned haltingly to trust the wisdom of a woman of color, to be forigiving of their leaders when decisions proved to be poor ones and rally round them as they organized another try and a different approach. For like Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery,  we are relying on each other for our very surival and we are all in this together.

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