I played golf with my father-in-law last week. It was the third time I've played in my life, and the first time in fifteen years. My first two experiences were miserable. At that point in my life, I was still pretty proud of my self-perceived athletic ability (since I had yet to experience the forced humility that my lack of success in college basketball would bring), and those first encounters with a game at which I was totally inept were extremely frustrating.
Last week's experience certainly doesn't qualify as miserable, but a huge gap remains between how much I think I might enjoy golf and how much joy I actually get from the experience of it. When I see pictures of golf courses, I can easily catch myself thinking that I should be very into this sport. I love being outside, and golf courses are very nice places to be. It's a game that appears to go at a relaxed pace, and at this point in my life I'm much more drawn to sports that are popular with the geriatric population than I am to those that involve constant running and jumping. So I was genuinely looking forward to it when my father-in-law invited me to play. But why don't I enjoy that sport more?
The answer is simple: I stink at golf. I wasn't surprised by the number of balls that went flying in a direction more than 60 degrees away from where I intended them to go, nor by the number of putts that missed by at least 15 feet, nor by how many towering drives of 60-80 yards I was able to crush. No, what surprised me most was how many times I completely missed the ball. I never thought about a "swing-and-a-miss" as a possibility in golf, but it is. Apparently even making contact with the ball requires some degree of skill which I have yet to really develop.
If you're a golfer, you don't want to play with me. I don't have my own clubs, so I'll have to borrow yours, but I'm likely to lose one of them on the course. (Don't worry, Barry, I realized I'd left your 7 on the previous green and went back to get it.) I don't have any golf balls, so will have to use some of yours and will definitely lose some of them. (Rather than keeping my score, I eventually began judging my success by whether or not I lost a ball on each hole.) But on the other hand, if you're okay with the material loss involved with playing with me, the positive thing is that it will provide a boost to your confidence, because you will look really good with me as your partner.
Thankfully, some redemption of the experience came when I began to notice some parallels between my golf experience and spiritual formation:
- It's incorrect to say that I have no golf skills; the more accurate statement is that the golf skills I have are very poor. You have some golf skills too- it's just a question of whether they are good or bad. This is the same with our spiritual formation, because spiritual formation in itself is neither positive nor negative, but just a reality of human existence. We are all in the process of becoming one kind of person or another. The question is more about whether the spiritual formation we have received and are choosing is good (spiritual transformation) or bad (spiritual malformation).
It's understandable that every month and year that passes without playing any golf, my already poor golf skills become worse. My body practices doing other things than swinging those clubs. The same is true with our spiritual lives, because it is never the case that we stay the exact same kind of person that we were yesterday. We make decisions each day that shape us (form us), either into a more spiritually transformed person or a more spiritually malformed person. We will be well off to recognize this, pay attention to it, and plan accordingly.
- While I was on the golf course last week, my main insight was the incredible amount of work it would take to become proficient at that sport, and how I have invested none of it. Being a good golfer (not necessarily measured by my competition against others, but more by the degree to which parts of the game become easy, natural, and enjoyable) would require a lot of practice. Somehow, though, in the spiritual life, we hear Jesus say something which is Christianity's equivalent of Jack Nicklaus-type skills, like "bless those who persecute you," and think that we should be able to do them as beginners and from then on whenever we want.
But it doesn't take long to realize that life doesn't work that way. Throwing an emphatic "In Jesus' Name!" onto our request to God to give us patience, humility, joy, or peace does not bring the result we desired. No, the Christian life also requires a lot of practice. However, if I practice well, I will eventually become good at the things Jesus taught us to do. Again, my proficiency at them is not measured in a competitive way against others, but rather in terms of how I handle the things of life that come at me. The best students of the way of Jesus through the centuries attest to the experience of parts of life becoming easy, natural, and enjoyable, which apart from his way were only frustration. It was, after all, the Teacher (who would later be crucified and rise from the dead) who told us that in learning to live his way, we would find rest for our souls, because his yoke is easy and his burden is light.
- The practice pays off. My father-in-law said that one of his favorite things about golf is that, regardless of how you may play the other 17 holes, there's always the possibility that you'll play this hole better than Tiger Woods, or any of the best players in the world. (It was after he said this that I discovered how this statement assumed I at least had the level of skill required to actually make contact with the ball.) But for someone who practices, he's exactly right.
And no matter how much I make mistakes in my pursuit of God and his kind of life in this world, there's always the possibility that as I practice living his way and opening myself to his grace day after day, that I will be able to genuinely act like Jesus in this situation that comes my way today. Everything adds up, and the practice pays off.
I will not practice golf today, nor probably any other day until my father-in-law invites me to play again. And, as a result, when we do play I will still be a very poor golfer. But in the meantime, I will continue to practice living Jesus' way, so that the next time I'm on a golf course I will hopefully have much more of an awareness of God's presence while enjoying the time outdoors and much less of a desire to shatter my friend's clubs into pieces
in Jesus' name!