a parable from golf

Last week I was invited to be the after dinner speaker at a Christian Golf Society day. I was also invited to join them for a round of golf before the meal… the less said about that the better! Ahem.

After dinner I shared a few illusions with the golfers (including a few golf-related illusions) and showed them this very special golf ball.

This is the first (and so far only) golf ball to have started with me on the first tee of a round of golf, be used for the entire round of golf and finish by landing in the cup on the 18th green. It’s a very special golf ball.

Golf balls are cleverly designed for one main purpose. They are designed to travel from tee to fairway to green to cup. They have dimples on them to aid flight. The dimples are like the wings of a golf ball and (surprisingly perhaps) a dimpled golf ball will travel higher and further than a smooth one. It’s something to do with air pressure.

They also have a core inside the hard exterior. This core is like the engine. When (if) the club face connects with the ball the inner core is compressed and then expands to hurl itself off the club and travel faster and further than a solid ball would.

It’s very clever and different balls have different dimple arrangements and different cores in order to be easier to control or travel further.

However they all have the same purpose – to travel from tee to fairway to green to cup.

I have retired my special golf ball from active duty because I can’t bear the thought that it might get lost because (this may surprise you) I often lose golf balls. When I am searching for my lost ball I often find other balls that have been lost by other golfers. When a ball gets lost it does not stop being a golf ball, but it stops fulfilling its purpose – to travel from tee to fairway to green to cup.

Humans are like golf balls in that we also have been created for a purpose. That purpose is to know God. But like golf balls we too can get lost: lost because our attitudes, actions, thoughts and words take us from the ‘straight and narrow’. It doesn’t stop us from being human, but we’re not fulfilling our purpose because these things separate us from God.

The message of Jesus is that we don’t have to stay lost. He said that he came to find those who were lost and there’s a party thrown in heaven when that happens – even more than if a golfer finds a special ball he had lost.

Be blessed, be a blessing

the old joke I almost used on Sunday morning…*

golf holeA Minister decided he needed a day off (no, that’s not the joke). He woke up one morning, looked out on a beautiful day, and decided to play a round of golf (some of you are already at the punchline now). The only problem was that it was a Sunday.

He phoned his Church Secretary and pretended to have lost his voice. He croaked that he would not be able to take the service and received the sympathy of his Secretary. Then he put the phone down, picked up his clubs, put them in the car and joyfully drove off to the golf course.

Meanwhile, from above, two angels were watching. One, a novice, was seriously indignant: “Did you see that?” he blurted. “That Minister lied to his Church and is now off to play golf on a Sunday. We need to stop him!”

“Don’t worry,” said the other angel, a Wing Commander. “It will be sorted.”

The Minister arrived at the golf course and set himself up on the first tee. He swung at the ball, sliced it and it shot off to the right. It careened into a tree, rebounded onto the course and trundled happily up the fairway.

“Did you see that!” shouted the novice angel. “He lied to his Church, is playing golf on a Sunday, and now he’s hitting fluke shots.”

“Don’t worry,” said the Wing Commander. “It will be sorted.”

The Minister chipped onto the green and then sank a 15 foot putt for a birdie.

“Did you see that!” screamed the novice angel. “He lied to his Church, is playing golf on a Sunday, he’s hitting fluke shots and now he’s got a birdie!”

“Don’t worry,” said the Wing Commander. “It will be sorted.”

The next hole was a par three. The Minister lined up his tee shot, swung, and for once made a perfect connection. The ball sailed into the air, straight and true, and landed on the bottom tier of the green. It bounced a couple of times and then rolled up the slope towards the hole and stopped right on the very edge of the cup. Then, after a brief pause, the ball dropped into the hole for a hole in one.

“Did you see that!” fumed the novice angel, forgetting all about the serenity of heaven. “He lied to his Church, is playing golf on a Sunday, he’s hitting fluke shots to get a birdie, and now he’s hit a hole in one! He’s having the round of his life! He should not be getting away with this!”

“Don’t worry, it’s sorted” said the Wing Commander. “He may be having the round of his life, and he may have hit a hole in one, but who can he tell?”

Most of you got to the punch line well before you read it. And I get the feeling that this happens a lot with Christians. Not so much with jokes but with sermons and Bible Studies and the like. We know that the answer will be often one or more of ‘follow Jesus, share your faith, pray, and / or read the Bible’. That may be true at a superficial level, but in my experience it’s as I do those things that I find new experiences every time. Sometimes God takes the familiar things and applies them in new ways. Sometimes I need to be reminded about the familiar things and reapply them to my life. And then there are the ‘wow’ moments when I discover something new or am reminded of something I had forgotten.

If that joke was familiar to you the chances are you would not have remembered it until I told it. If it was new to you the chances are you would not have come across it anywhere else today. It may seem mundane to say ‘follow Jesus, share your faith, pray, and / or read the Bible’ but in doing those things we find the amazing, the exciting, the surprising.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

*I decided against telling the joke on Sunday, but I like it so much that I thought you deserved to read it today!

confessions of a golfist

 

If you look carefully you will see a ball near the pin. That was mine - shortly before I putted it for one of the rarest birdies on the planet!
If you look carefully you will see a ball near the pin. That was mine on a previous round of golf – shortly before I putted it for one of the rarest birdies on the planet!

I have a confession to make. I am a golfist. (No, not a ‘goldfish’, a ‘golfist’). I have been playing for a couple of years now, introduced by one of our church members, and while I am still not very good I do enjoy it. In order to try to minimise the slices, hooks and other mis-hits I try to visit a local driving range so I can keep practicing when I don’t have time for a complete round of golf.

Recently two things have happened that were significant. One is a landmark that I consider to be a major achievement. I played 18 holes of golf and finished with the same golf ball with which I teed off from the first hole. It hid a few times but I always found it! That is a first for me. I feel as if I ought to retire that ball from active service and mount it on some sort of plinth.

The second happened on Saturday at the driving range. I was using the driver (that’s the big hitty one) and hit a fairly decent drive. But as the club head swung through the ball (to use the correct terminology) instead of a ‘ping’ there was a ‘thunk’. I looked at the club and saw that the head had a massive crack in it that ran right across the top. (That’s not supposed to be there, in case you didn’t know).

The driver was part of a whole set of clubs, and as the clubs were only a year old I took it back to the shop where I bought them. I was seriously impressed with the customer service. Without a quibble (admittedly the evidence was right in front of them – a massive crack in a newish golf club) the shop said that they would send it back to the manufacturer and get a replacement. When I pointed out that it was only about a month before that I had bought a new grip (slightly thicker) for the club they said that they would put one on the replacement.

Yesterday morning I had a call from the shop to say that the manufacturer wanted me to return all of the clubs in the set. It seems that they want to do some sort of quality tests on them. They will send a new set of clubs to replace this set. When I pointed out to the shop that I had actually paid for new, thicker grips on all of the clubs they said that they would mention this to the manufacturer and now the manufacturer is also going to send a new set of grips.

That’s what I call good customer service. I must remember to thank them (Nevada Bob’s and Wilson). At this stage you may be speculating about what reflection I am going to make…

Is it something about churches improving their customer service?

Nope.

Is it something about Christians being properly equipped or fit for purpose?

Nope.

Is it Henry, the mild mannered janitor?*

Ahem. [tries again]

Is it about that ball which survived 18 holes of my golfing?

Could be!

You see as proud as I am of that round of golf if I retired the ball at this point it would no longer be fulfilling its purpose as a golf ball. It would become an exhibit in a museum (albeit one that only I would want to visit). The ball was designed to be played with. It was designed to travel from the top of a tee to the bottom of a little hole, propelled by a big hitty stick on other slightly less hitty sticks.

We need to celebrate our achievements. We need to learn from and be encouraged by history. But let’s not live in the past. Let’s not look back to the ‘good old days’ but enjoy what we have now and look forward to what God has in store for us next. Let’s allow Jesus to use us again and again and again. And the good news is he will never lose us!

Be blessed, be a blessing

*Sorry, that only makes even the slightest sense if you have ever watched the intro to the cartoon ‘Hong Kong Phooey’!

golf grace

golf hole
How come it’s so difficult to get the little ball into that hole?

I recently took part in a golf tournament. Well, ‘tournament’ might be a bit of an exaggeration. There were seven ‘threes’ and as well as playing for individual glory there was also a team competition between the ‘threes’. I was delighted that our team came second!

This is not, I hasten to add, because I am a great golfer. I don’t have a handicap and can’t guarantee where the ball will go once I have swung the club at it. But I enjoy playing and (despite being drenched by a monsoon) had a great afternoon. I thing I contributed 5 or 6 points to our team’s total. That sounds less impressive when you think that our team total was over 60 points! But we came second by one point and that winning point could have been mine!

I was so blessed by the encouragement and friendship of my playing partners. They did not give up on me even when I hit the ball way into the rough and encouraged me if I hit a good shot. And I was so blessed that they shared the blessing of coming second with me as if I had contributed half of the points rather than under 10% of them! That’s grace in action.

It did remind me of Jesus’ parable of the workers in a vineyard who all received the same wage regardless of how long they had worked. That too is an illustration of God’s grace – he does not give according to what we deserve, he gives according to his generosity, mercy and love. He gives his forgiveness, fresh starts, encouragement, strength, presence, support, comfort and so much more without limit, without grudging and without preconditions.

Grace indeed!

Be blessed, be a blessing.

On the subject of grace, I used to play for a church football team in a local league. Most of the lads were not Christians, but it was our tradition to pray before a match. On one occasion there weren’t any Christians available but the lads still felt that they ought to pray so one of them prayed the only prayer he could remember – grace from school:

“For what we are about to receive may the Lord make us truly thankful. Amen.”

The team got hammered 9-0. They saw the funny side of it!

ooohs

On Sunday morning we played a game in our all age Mothering Sunday service. It is a relatively simple game that makes the participants look a bit silly (see the picture). The idea is that you put the basket arrangement on your head and attempt to fling the balls into it. On Sunday morning we did a mother vs child version.

Other than to have a bit of fun point of the game was that whilst we all aim to do the best we can we don’t always manage to ‘hit the target’. That is true of parents as much as anyone else and the wonderful thing is that God’s grace and forgiveness are available for us all, and he gives us his Spirit to help us to hit the target more frequently.

(We reflected on the supermum in Proverbs 31 and how none of us could ever live up to that. In addition to sometimes missing the target we also should rejoice and celebrate when we hit it. Rather than seeing the biblical standards of perfection as being something unattainable we can see them as God’s ambition for us: asking for his help to try and be more like the people he has created us to be, asking for and receiving a fresh start when we fail, and rejoicing when God helps us to succeed.)

When the mother and son were playing the game on Sunday the congregation cheered when they managed to get a ball into the basket and there were groans and ‘ooohs’ when they missed. Often as Christians we are better at the groans and ‘ooohs’ then we are at the cheers. We weep with those who weep and neglect to rejoice with those who rejoice.

As well as personally rejoicing when we manage to live in the way that pleases God we can also encourage one another. Perhaps it is our natural humility that makes us not want to tell other people when we have done well but if we can see something to encourage in somebody else, let’s not hesitate to do so.

Be blessed, be a blessing

Game related joke:

Two friends went out to play golf and were about to tee off, when one fellow noticed that his partner had but one golf ball.

“Don’t you have at least one other golf ball?”, he asked. The other guy replied that no, he only needed the one.

“Are you sure?”, the friend persisted. “What happens if you lose that ball?”

The other guy replied, “This is a very special golf ball. I won’t lose it so I don’t need another one.”

Well,” the friend asked, “what happens if you miss your shot and the ball goes in the lake?”

“That’s okay,” he replied, “this special golf ball floats. I’ll be able to retrieve it.”

“Well what happens if you hit it into the trees and it gets lost among the bushes and shrubs?”

The other guy replied, “That’s okay too. You see, this special golf ball has a homing beacon. I’ll be able to get it back — no problem.”

Exasperated, the friend asks, “Okay. Let’s say our game goes late, the sun goes down, and you hit your ball into a sand trap. What are you going to do then?”

“No problem,” says the other guy, “you see, this ball is florescent. I’ll be able to see it in the dark.”

Finally satisfied that he needs only the one golf ball, the friend asks, “Hey, where did you get a golf ball like that anyway?”

The other guy replies, “I found it.”

insurance

I had a leaflet arrive along with an order that I received yesterday. It was for ‘Specialist Golf Insurance’. For just £29.99 per year my golf could be insured. I was intrigued by the concept of ‘Specialist Golf Insurance’ so did not bin the leaflet immediately. I wanted to see what would be covered…

There is a ‘new for old’ policy for golf equipment that is stolen, lost or damaged.

It covers personal liability for up to £5million (in case I get sued for a wayward shot?)

It covers personal accidents (presumably from all the scratches I get rummaging around in the bushes looking for wayward balls that are not stopped by hitting people).

There is cover for accidental damage to Third Party Property (presumably windows damaged by wayward shots that miss the people and the bushes).

There is cover for dental treatment. Yes, you did read that right: dental treatment. I assume that’s for when you hit a wayward shot against a tree and it pings back and breaks your teeth, Tom and Jerry style.

There is an amount to cover hiring golf equipment if you have suffered loss or theft.

And there’s an amount to cover repaying some of your Club Subscription, presumably if you are recovering from the dental treatment mentioned above.

There is one more aspect to the cover, which I love.

There is £150 available for if you score a hole in one, to cover the bar bill. (It is traditional to buy everyone a drink in the bar after you have scored a hole in one).

I love the idea of insuring against such a brilliant thing happening. Personally I can’t imagine ever hitting a green in one, never mind getting the ball in the hole with just one shot, but it does happen and if you take out this insurance you will be protected from a hefty bar bill.

I wonder if the Baptist Insurance Company should offer the following extras on their policies for churches.

Insuring against someone coming to faith: provides a sum of money to have a party in the church when someone becomes a Christian.

Insuring against baptisms: provides money for towels, increased water useage and mopping up afterwards.

Insuring against new members: buys membership cards, additional printing of minutes and agendas for meetings and any additional printing, pays for an extra cushion for the hard pews.

Insuring against God moving in the church: pays for tissues (tears of joy or sadness), sedation for Ministers (when someone says that the sermon spoke to them), replacing burnt dinners because the service went on longer, therapy for children’s group leaders who have longer with the little darlings than expected.

I hope you realise my tongue is firmly in my cheek as I wrote the above, but the idea of insuring against good news got me thinking silly thoughts.

How about we think of all the good things that God is doing at the moment and instead of insuring against them we thank God for them, encourage one another with them and tell people beyond the church about them?

Be blessed, be a blessing.

(I have not currently taken out the insurance)

swing low sweet golf club

I am attempting to become a golfist. I have been taking some group lessons at a nearby golf course and have found that I am more confident and understand what I’m supposed to be doing far better than before. The professional who was teaching us began by explaining what the golf club is designed to do and what the ball is ‘expecting’ the golf club to do to it. He then explained the different ways in which golfists manage not to deliver the golf club to the ball in the required manner so that we understand what went wrong when all flies off in the wrong direction or doesn’t take off.

In theory golf is a simple game.

I am fairly confident that now I understand why my shots are that. The problem is in trying not only not to do the things which make a bad shot that at the same time trying to do the things which make for a good shot.

In practise golf is a very complicated game.

One of the tips that the professional gave us was designed to help us not to unload the power of the golf swing before it swings through the ball. That might mean something to any golfists reading this bloggerel, but don’t worry if it means nothing to you. In order to help us with this suggested that we part-fill a water bottle with water and try to keep the water in the correct end of the bottle until the right moment of release. I think I can manage that. The problem is that the golf club does not look or feel anything like a water bottle!

Still, practice makes perfect – or at least less imperfect.

there are all sorts of gadgets and aids offered to golfists to help them to improve, but unless you practice you won’t improve. And therein lies the lesson for us all. There are countless self-help books and plenty of gurus around willing to offer us advice for life. Some of them may be helpful, others less so. Much of the Old Testament, and indeed much of Church teaching throughout the centuries has been like the early lessons from our golf professional. We are told what is expected of us and how and why things go wrong. But that is not always helpful: the best thing we can do is to do the simple things well. Jesus tried to make it as simple as possible for us: ‘follow me’.

Every time we try to overcomplicate things or look elsewhere for advice or support we should remind ourselves that in theory life is simple: follow the advice of the author of life and follow him.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

Excuses for bad golf shots:

A fly landed on my ball right when I hit.
A squirrel picked up my ball and put it in the bunker.
After that last shot, I’m just too embarrassed to try and hit the ball.
All the golf schools I liked were too expensive – so I self-taught.
Please quit breathing when I swing.
Fore!
From three hundred yards out it looks like the green sloped away. I should have laid up.
Golf is about etiquette, not playing well.
Golf isn’t fun if it’s competitive, so I don’t try hard.
Ever since I made a hole-in-one, I can’t concentrate.

becoming a golfist

Today I played 9 holes of golf with a very patient friend from our church. I really enjoyed myself and, with his help (thanks John) I improved to the point where I hit par on one hole  and bogies* on several others.

As I sliced the ball out of bounds, into a pond, across a pond Barnes Wallis-style (really!), into a bunker and in other unintended directions it did occur to me that hitting a ball with a stick should not be that difficult. But there are so many variables to get right simultaneously: grip, stance, swing length, club choice, head stillness, arm straightness, straightness of pull back, distance from ball, width of stance, straightness of back, turn of shoulders… that it is perhaps more of a miracle when the ball goes in the direction intended for the distance intended with the amount of loft intended – particularly for non-multi-tasking blokes.

Those rare moments when it does go right are wonderful, though, and make the rest of it worthwhile.

It strikes me that church is a bit like that: there are so many variables (often called churchgoers / members / ministers) that it is a miracle that it ever goes well. And that’s the point. It should not work as well as it does, but the fact that it does is evidence that God’s at work. When we try in our own strength it’s like trying to hit a golf ball with your eyes closed and one hand tied behind your back, standing on one leg. It’s possible, but nowhere near as good as if we do it right. God’s Spirit helps us to love one another, to accept and forgive one another, to bless and encourage one another, to speak through and to one another. He’s more than a coach (although he does some of that in his spare time) – he is the one who makes it happen.

Heaven preserve us from trying on our own.

Be blessed, be a blessing

Excuses for a bad golf shot…

A fly landed on my ball right just as I hit it.
A squirrel picked up my ball and put it in the bunker.
A squirrel pushed my ball into the water, the good-for-nothing fluffy-tailed tree rats.
After that last shot, I’m just too embarrassed to try and hit the ball.
All the golf schools I liked were too expensive – so I self-taught.
Damn it, have you no etiquette? Please quit breathing when I swing.
Didn’t you hear that sound in the woods during my swing? It sounded like a duck. What’s that smell?
Ever since I made a hole-in-one, I can’t concentrate.
Golf is about etiquette, not playing well.
Golf isn’t fun if it’s competitive, so I don’t try hard.

*juvenile male sniggering commences at mention of ‘bogies’ and continues when looking at a Danish friend’s post on Facebook (in Danish) (Hi Lise) that included the word ‘snot’. Disappointment and anticlimax when I discover that ‘snot’ is the Danish word for ‘snot’.

of course

Today I spent the morning on a course with Jon Stannard, the new National Director of Viz A Viz Ministries. It was a good course and we covered a lot of ground. It was rough in places, particularly at the start, but perseverance saw us complete it and enjoy a good cup of coffee and some sponge cake at the end. We were putting some green issues together, and attempted to drive churches forward in evangelism. Some chips were enjoyed and on the whole it was above par.

In case you have not realised, it was a golf course. (yes, I know the first paragraph is very cheesy).

But it was also a good opportunity to talk. Mark Twain suggested that golf is a “good walk spoiled” but I have discovered it is a good talk uncoiled – time to chat, to laugh, to encourage, to search (lots in my case), to share and to be unencumbered by other concerns and uninterrupted by all the things and people waiting for you. There is time and space to unwind, relax and to enjoy God’s world (especially longer grass) in the company of a friend.

Golf is not the only way in which we can do this, but I am rapidly coming to the conclusion that such occasions are essential for my own personal health and sanity. Unless I deliberately spend time with others, enjoying being with them and relaxing, I am in danger of failing to obey the commandment to have sabbath rest, a foundational principle for human existence. All work and no play does not make me a dull boy, it makes me a candidate for burnout. Sabbath rest (especially for ministers) is not often Sunday. It is sometimes alone, but it may also be with others who re-energise us. I had such an experience last week with a friend who took me out for breakfast (thank you SO much Dave!).

So where’s your ‘golf course’? A pub? A coffee shop? A sofa watching TV? A walk in the countryside? A swimming pool? A comedy club? A cinema? A restaurant? Performing magic tricks? Sharing a hobby / interest with others? Playing games? [insert your own ‘golf course’ here].

When was the last time you had a round of golf there? Who was with you? Do you realise that God blessed you through them?

I have to remind myself that God has made me as a human being and that sometimes I need to be a being in order that I am more fully human. This is not primarily so I can be a better do-er. It is so I can become more like the best ‘me’ that God has created me to become.

And…. relax!

Be blessed, be a blessing

Negotiations between union members and their employer were at an impasse. The union denied that their workers were flagrantly abusing their contract’s sick-leave provisions.

One morning at the bargaining table, the company’s chief negotiator held aloft the morning edition of the newspaper, “This man,” he announced, “called in sick yesterday!”

There on the sports page, was a photo of the supposedly ill employee, who had just won a local golf tournament with an excellent score.

The silence in the room was broken by a union negotiator. “Wow,” he said. “Just think of what score he could have had if he hadn’t been sick!”

God’s whisper

A member of our church lent me a book recently. Then, at a Ministers’ meeting, a fellow Baptist Minister shared that he had read this book and found it very helpful. I have often found that when ‘coincidences’ like that happen God is trying to get my attention. So I listened. I continued reading the book.

The book is Wayne Cordeiro’s Leading on Empty. It is an honest and practical book about Christian leadership and the possibility (or likelihood) of burnout. It is written from the author’s own experience of depression and how God brought him through it. He offers some very sensible and helpful advice about what we need to do to take care of ourselves as Christian leaders.

While I was reading the book I was trying to see what resonated with my own experience and personality. I noticed a tendency towards not saying ‘no’. I noticed a sense of frustration when things are not as good as they could be (see yesterday for an example!). I noticed a tendency towards not delegating well.

A couple of weeks ago, while still in the middle of the book, I went to a scheduled hospital appointment to see how my brain implant (see here for an example) is doing. As part of this I have to fill in a series of questionnaires about the impact on my life of the headaches from which I suffer. One of those is assessing the tendency towards depressive illness. Because of reading the book I took more note of my answers than I usually do. I scored 3 out of about 30 (which is good). But I noticed for the first time that the three places where I scored 1 were clues about my own well-being and perhaps were warning signals about areas of my life that I need to take care of.

So I am trying to take care. I am seeking time and space in my diary to relax and be refreshed. (One of the ways I am doing this is by taking up golf – a long, zigzaging walk, some gardening in the undergrowth and 18 moments of relief when the ball finally disappears into the little hole.) I am trying to make sure that I am not out every night of the week. I am aiming to sleep better. And I am going to continue my blogging, which is a way in which I am able to reflect on who I am and my relationship with God.

You may have noticed that God has been rather quiet in the text above. That’s because he has been whispering to me through it all.

What’s he been whispering?

“You’re worth it.”

Be blessed, be a blessing

In my attempts to become a golfist I have been visiting the local driving range once a week. Last time I went I set up in my little stall and got a basket of balls. I was enjoying myself hitting them with different clubs that I have been lent. (No, not clubbing them in the basket, hitting them one at a time off the tee!)

I decided to try and hit some with the driver. I put the ball on the tee. Relax, check grip, check stance, head in the right position, head still, swing back and swing through the ball…

whack!

I managed to hit underneath the ball and it shot upwards. I was under a shelter with a metal roof and the ball pinged loudly off the roof and started ricocheting around inside like it was a pinball machine. People were diving for cover all over the place.

I sheepishly apologised and went to retrieve my ball with a very red face while trying to suppress the laughter.

Thankfully the two people behind me started laughing and were helpless with laughter for a few minutes.

That made me feel better. Honestly. At least my failure had blessed someone – they weren’t as bad as me!