Conquering First-Tee Jitters…

Back in the glory days of high school, I was a golfer. I still get out to the driving range from time to time, but nothing near what I used to do. In those days, I would be at the golf course nearly every day after school and on most weekends. If I couldn’t make it there, I would go out to my grandpa’s back yard and chip around until dark. It was all in the effort to prepare for tournaments and to get lower scores. Yet no matter how much practice I had had, nothing could take away the first tee jitters.

It’s how we golfers describe that feeling when everyone’s eyes are on you as you start the tournament round. Dreams of birdies, sand saves, and close approaches flash through your mind as you line up your first shot. So much potential energy ready to be unleashed in that little white ball. What raises the hair on your back, though, is the realization that that potential energy could equally be used for bad shots as well as those good shots you imagined.

Two days away from my first ever seminary class, I am beginning to feel those first tee jitters. It’s been two whole years since my last class, so I imagine I might not hit the ground running. I had hopes and dreams of sticking to a rigorous reading regiment as the summer closed so that I would not miss a beat once September 5th arrived. Yet none of the books I intended to read have been touched since then. I realized this two weeks ago and felt a rising panic shiver through my spine.

Have I remembered all that Dr. Falk taught me at U of O? Have I still the extreme discipline to read hundreds and hundreds of pages day after day after day? And do I still possess the cognitive functions to compose arguments rooted deeply in research? Such questions have sometimes left me feeling it’d be better if I walked away.

Such feelings are not unfounded, either; I’m working full time hours, I have a wonderful church family, and in some ways I feel more myself now than in any year prior. Life certainly is good. Yet Captain Jack Sparrow’s words echo in my mind, “Bring me that horizon.”

Unlike his adventures, my move to Portland is less of a physical journey and more of a spiritual journey (and involves significantly less rum). I’m plunging forward in the effort to test a four year-old feeling: Whether or not I should lead in ministry. Much of this journey is inward, searching out the unearthed parts of my heart – areas long scarred over, yet in need of God’s healing. And that is the part I fear; what God will do to me.

Yet I must never forget that when God does something to somebody, it’s always in the effort of doing something far greater for them. Take Abram, for example. When God called him away from his area of comfort, He took much away from him. But what he did for Abraham (notice the spelling change) was far greater than what he had left behind. And no, I’m not referring to people, places, and things. I’m talking about Abraham himself.

No, I don’t expect God to build a huge nation after me (but that’d be cool; yes, they’d be called the “Cushites”), but whatever He is intending to do will only cause me to grow with Him. Just as I feel more myself now than I ever have before, so I will feel in a year from now after having begun this journey. Yet it cannot happen if I don’t tee it up this Thursday night.

First tee jitters are never easy to deal with. But the only solace, the only comfort I could find that helped me swing that first swing was a target. It was something to aim at and let the ball fly. In most cases, I didn’t quite hit my target. But I also didn’t blow it (completely).

After the first tee has been dealt with, the rest of the round is usually much easier. No, the shots don’t get easier, but the feeling leading into each shot gets easier. One golfer I played with always rushed through the first tee. He hated the suspense of waiting around for the round to start, so when it was his turn, he’d tee up and fire away. He just wanted to get things going. It may not have been the best strategy, but the pressure never broke him. It was always the opposite.

What I guess I’m trying to say is that it when comes to major changes in our lives, the best thing we can do for ourselves is focus on something small and just go for it. Even if we don’t hit that small target, we at least got the ball rolling. After that point, it’s all about the next shot.

I will only find out if I’m capable of handling seminary by showing up two days from now. It means focusing on that first class just to get things going. Whatever happens after that can only be dealt with after that.

So tee it up and let it fly.

God bless.

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Why I Play Soccer…

Tonight there is an alumni soccer game going on Voris Field, the home of the Taft High Tigers. Since I’m not quite the spry young athlete I once was, I decided to start practicing a couple weeks ago. I had planned on running every day, doing foot drills every other day, and trying to play in a few pick-up games whenever I could. As it turned out, I ran like once and kicked a ball around twice… Not two separate days; two times in one day.

During the self-enforced practice, though, I met a guy named Muhammed from Saudi Arabia. We had both been waiting for the lacrosse camp to clear the turf fields at U of O and for all we could tell, we were going to be the only ones playing soccer that night. So we took some shots at each other and then chatted for a bit. He asked if I played much and I told him that I normally play football or baseball when I’m at the turf fields and then I asked him if he played much. He told me that in Saudi Arabia, everyone plays soccer. Some play basketball, he admitted, but no one played anything else. Soccer and basketball.

In high school, like so many teenagers, I wanted to play football. I wanted to be a running back scoring countless touchdowns every game and have cute girls giving me their phone numbers. Instead, I stuck with soccer. Okay, it wasn’t so much me deciding to stick with soccer as it was my grandpa telling me he was never allowing me to play football, but even so, I kept playing “kick and chase.” I enjoyed it all the years I played, but even so, I wanted to play football.

Yet if I had done that, if I had dropped soccer altogether and pursued football (technically “American football”; “football” means “soccer” in most parts of the world), I wouldn’t have met Muhammed. I wouldn’t have had that unique opportunity to connect with someone outside my American lens – outside my realm of familiarity. Because it wasn’t football, baseball, or basketball (the three main sports in America) that enabled us to meet Muhammed. It was soccer.

It was a similar experience I had when I worked the Olympic Trials for Track & Field last summer; encountering different people, cultures, and ways of living than what I’m familiar with. Time after time I was at a loss when they told me what event their relative or friend was competing in or how far they could throw a javelin or what meters were. I couldn’t say much about my previous experience because there wasn’t any. But when I played soccer with Muhammed, we got to relate to one another for no other reason except soccer.

I don’t know what his beliefs are or if he’s politically minded or not. But I know that he and I have something in common because I played soccer in high school. This isn’t a post knocking football, baseball, basketball or any other prominent sport in the United States; it’s a post about connecting with someone beyond your own cultural understanding. Playing soccer – or at least learning about the game – has gone a long way in helping me step outside my comfort zones.

At my church, Emmaus Life, we’ve talked a lot about loving and caring for people with no strings attached; not having them become members of our church or submitting to our belief statements or signing off on the doctrines of our denomination or whatever. The life of Jesus – the real life that two disciples encountered on their way to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35) – goes beyond doctrines, belief statements, denominations, religious affiliations, political interests, or national identity. It goes beyond the mentality that one sport is better than another and instead invites newbies to play whatever game is being played, much like Muhammed inviting me to take shots at him while he played goalie.

Who knows if I ever see Muhammed again. What I do know, though, is that I am glad I played soccer in high school and that I need to keep playing this game as long as I can because it is a unique way of connecting with other people. I’ll still play football, basketball, baseball, golf, or really any game that involves scoring points. But with soccer comes a connecting platform to countless others. Playing it enables insight into the lives of others.

If you get the chance, kick a ball around and see what kind of people you meet. You might be surprised.

God bless.

(And yes I’m excited about living in Portland and attending Timbers games)

Preparing the Way…

Waking up three hours before work was not what I had in mind to start this week. It did, however, give me the prime opportunity to start a morning reading routine. Morning reading routines have often been all-or-nothing for me; either I get up really early and read a ton or I sleep in, not read anything, and almost show up late to work. Got to make life suspenseful, right?

Anyhow, I started reading Luke’s Gospel. I wish I could say it’s my favorite Gospel, but they are all my favorites. Luke’s unique elements, though, begin with the first chapter. Matthew is the only other Gospel with a birth narrative, but Luke has two birth narratives; one for Jesus and one for John the Baptist. Where one might expect Luke to start with the birth of the Savior of the World, he starts with his fore-runner, John.

What hits me about this back story to John the Baptist is his role in God’s story. Every Gospel reveals John’s task, but Luke has Gabriel, one of God’s most prominent angels, delivering the news to Zechariah, John’s father. If you aren’t familiar with the story, Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth believe they’ll never have children because it seemed to them that Elizabeth was barren. To their wonderful surprise, declares Gabriel, they’re going to have a son. Yet what is said about him is the most important thing:

“And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord,” (1:17).

Later in the same chapter, Zechariah regains his ability to speak and sings a song after John’s birth. He sings, “And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,” (1:76).

In Luke 3 Isaiah 40:3 is used to describe John, “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him,’” (3:4b). While all the Synoptic Gospels quote Isaiah 40:3, Luke emphasizes John the Baptist’s role in how God would rescue His people: He prepares the way. He gets things ready.

What I think God was asking me was what am I preparing? Or, to be more precise, how am I preparing?

Back in high school, I golfed a lot. I even skipped soccer during my junior year just so that I could play more golf. I wanted to do well for the upcoming season and the only way that would happen was if I practiced as much as possible. Back then, Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh, and Phil Mickelson were among the top five of the world’s best golfers. What did they all have in common besides a ridiculous ability to hit a golf ball? A ridiculous work ethic in preparing for each tournament.

It is no mystery that the best athletes in any sport are the ones who prepare the most. They’re like Vijay; the first on the driving range and the last to leave. Every swing, every shot, and every possible scenario is played out in practice so that when it comes time to compete, nothing will catch them off guard.

What would this look like spiritually? How do we prepare the way for God to work in our lives? Prayer, reading Scripture, meeting with fellow believers – all of those are helpful, but what else? Are we practicing what we preach? Are we actively seeking to share Jesus – not a pamphlet, business card, or tract about Him – with those around us?

It’s not a surprise that on the day I decide to start preparing for my day more effectively is the day God reminds me of the importance of preparation. Jesus needed John to prepare things for Him because maybe who He was and what He had to say was more than the people could bear. I think the same could be said for many today; they’re not ready to receive Him. So in essence, we’re the ones to warm people up for Christ; to get in a spot where they might be more ready, willing, and able to receive Him.

Yet this immediately raises another difficult task: Are we preparing ourselves for this task? Like I said above, are we practicing Jesus’ words, praying as often as possible, and sharing all we have with the church we’re a part of? In order to prepare others, we must be prepared already. In order to give Jesus to others, we must already have Him.

I’m not suggesting we all quit the day jobs and become missionaries; I’m simply saying we’re all missionaries wherever we are. So if that’s the case, how are we treating our coworkers? Are we loving the regular people in our lives – the baristas, bankers, and bosses? Are we already in the habit of embodying Jesus so that whether we’re aware of it or not we share Him with others? It is by no means an easy task, but it’s the task before each of us.

It might help to think through every aspect of your daily life and the people you come across. How are you treating them? Could you treat them better – showing more kindness, gentleness, patience, self control, etc.? When I consider how well or not well I’m preparing the way for God to work, I realize there is always room for improvement.

God bless.

Chasing Sunsets…

When I go home to Lincoln City, my number one priority is to make it home by sundown. I’ve lived in Eugene for the past six years and have seen some wonderful sunsets. But nothing compares to the sunsets from home.

And no, I’m not talking about Oregon coast sunsets in general; I’m talking about Lincoln City sunsets. Every time I see the distant sun rays reflecting off the scattered clouds as if the sky had caught fire, echoes of the past come alive. Salt in the air, cool breezes whipping through my jacket, and the soft roar of the ocean all mix together to send me back to my childhood – days when dreams were abundant and responsibilities few. It’s captivating.

Yes, when I was in Lincoln City this past weekend I had quite a few moments of nostalgia. And I know it isn’t a good idea to try and cling to the distant past, but what I felt this weekend was something more than a mere nostalgic moment. I felt as though I had left something unfinished. It was like the childhood me was trying to draw the attention of the present me to something very important – something in the core of my heart. It wasn’t until I reached the practice green at Salishan when I finally figured it out.

Tough, downhill shot.
My favorite viewpoint on the entire course…

In my six years of living in Eugene, I’ve golfed for very few days. Compared to the amount of golfing I did in high school, I’d say I’ve only golfed 1% of that in Eugene. For the most part I discovered a new passion, writing. But beyond that I just stopped making time for it. Yeah, it’s different when you no longer have a job at a golf course, but still, I could’ve gone out once every other week, but I chose not to.

I shot an 84 on Saturday at my favorite course of all time. But what made me miss it so much was the hour and a half I spent on the practice green after my round. It was getting dark out and it was difficult to really see the breaks of the green, but I chipped and putted anyway. I don’t get very many opportunities to be on my home course, so I was going to milk it up no matter what. And when putts dropped and I imagined crowds cheering like I did in high school (and like I’ve done with every sport I’ve ever played since I was in the 4th grade), I suddenly realized I have unfinished business with golf.

I don’t intend this to be a manifesto for how I’m going to golf more – although it’s kind of like that. I intend this to be a simple reminder of what kind of pursuit Jesus asks of us. Yes, I’m making this switch because I don’t think it was mere nostalgia that I felt last Saturday night.

“Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven,” – Matthew 18:3-4

God wants us to come to Him like little kids. Sure, this is no justification for slacking off on responsibilities, but at the same time, it means something very important: We’re supposed to dream.

When we read “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” we often think of simply having a child’s heart of faith. But when I think back to my early childhood, I know for a fact I did a lot of dreaming and imagining. If it wasn’t with my Legos and all my tanks, battleships, and fighter jets, it was with whatever sport I happened to be playing. From morning until night, I’d get my fill of the day in an imaginary world. If there’s one thing I really miss about being a kid, it’s that.

However, just because I’m 24 doesn’t mean I’m supposed to stop dreaming. Sure, student loans aren’t going to suddenly disappear and gas prices will continue to rise, but who says I can’t dream while I’m at work? Or, better yet, who says I can’t make a living off of dreaming? Job security and financial stability are important, but Jesus says there’s something way more important: living life like a child through faith, heart, and imagination.

Golf is now one of several passions. But that doesn’t mean I dream about playing in a U.S. Open any less than I used to. Going home this weekend taught me the importance of prioritizing. Just like how I made getting home by sundown my top priority, perhaps I should make pursuing my dreams and utilizing my imagination my top priority? Maybe, in the grand scheme of life, I need to chase sunsets more often?

God bless.

Casey Martin to the U.S. Open…

Have you ever been truly happy for someone else’s success? I really cannot remember the last time I was excited for someone else when their dreams were realized – or at the very least enabled. But when I was following Adam Jude’s live-tweeting from Emerald Valley yesterday, where Casey Martin was giving a clinic on how to qualify for a U.S. Open, I was tuned out to everything else. I wanted Casey to win just like I wanted Tiger to win in the old days.

Why? Well for one, I met him a couple times. He might vaguely remember me as this quiet kid hanging out with Ethan Holub once or twice. And there was this one time I was at the same party he was. Okay, it wasn’t a party; just a bunch of Christian guys having beers together. He was there. I was there. I think he looked in my direction.

Apart from kind of knowing the guy, though, I know his story full well. I know that in order for him to compete with the world’s best golfers, he had to sue the PGA Tour for not allowing him to use a cart. You see, Casey has a rare condition in his leg that causes him pain 24 hours a day – a condition for which there is no known cure. Years ago, the Tour didn’t allow him to use a cart to get from shot to shot (the rule was you had to walk the course with a caddie). His story caught so much attention then that even Rick Reilly backed him up saying, “Martin isn’t asking for any help playing the game. He’s only asking for a lift to his ball.” And seeing him still able to compete with the best golfers – let alone still walking on both of his legs when doctors said he’d probably lose one – is ridiculously awesome.

What I think makes this story even more amazing, though, is knowing that it isn’t a testament of Casey’s own will power, but rather of his faith in God. What this says to me is that even years after lawsuits and rules and regulations and traditions (and just a bunch of prominent people telling him he couldn’t), Casey still believes in God’s ability to write a powerful story of perseverance. Casey still hears God telling him that he can. And he’s still marching along as best he can to see it through.

Does that mean Casey’s going to win the U.S. Open? I don’t know. I think it’d be a real capstone to Casey’s testimony, but that’s my perspective. God’s perspective is usually something different. Maybe this Open-qualifying experience is only a taste of what’s in store for Casey? Maybe there’s a bigger dream God has for him that none of us – not even Casey – can really see right now? Maybe God still has unfinished business with Casey’s story? All I know – and I think the only thing we need to take from all of this – is that Casey is still dreaming of something God gave him. Casey is still pursuing with as much vigor as he was at 25. And he’s still not allowing anything – not even his own leg – to stop him.

When the U.S. Open rolls around next week, I’ll be excited to see Tiger. But I think I’ll really be cheering for Casey because to root for him is to root for God’s ability to write a magnificent story. I’m always a fan of that.

Tolkien and Origins of Golf…

In case you never knew or had forgotten, I used to love golf. Still do, but I’m finding it quite an expensive hobby. Anyhow, my pastor, Tony, often gives me a hard time for liking a “sissy” game. He used to wrestle for Oregon back in the day (way back in the day), so something like the game of golf – with its clubs, tees, and odd apparel – doesn’t quite associate as “sport” in his mind. No one to throw around, no one to steal a base from (he also loves baseball) – heck, it doesn’t even require two players. Being such a unique (or “irregular”) game, it’s often regarded as “not as cool.”

Well, Tony, here’s a nice little story for you.

It comes from Tolkien’s The Hobbit. I’ve barely begun to read it (just made it through the first chapter), but I’ve enjoyed the fantasy folklore thus far. One story in particular is about an overgrown hobbit named Bullroarer:

“He charged the ranks of the goblins of Mount Gram in the Battle of the Green Fields, and knocked their king Golfimbul’s head clean off with a wooden club. It sailed a hundred yards through the air and went down a rabbit-hole, and in this way the battle was won and the game of Golf invented at the same moment.”

Not so sissy now, is it, Tony? I find no enchanting stories about grappling goblins in onesies and pinning them to the ground to win a battle…

Just sayin’…

Work With What Ya Got…

Toward the tail end of last summer, I worried quite a bit about finding a job and making a living. At the time, I only had one job as a pizza cook and since it was summertime, I was only working roughly 10-15 hours a week at minimum wage. It worked out to about $360 a month, which is nowhere near enough to pay the typical rent in Eugene. Thankfully, though, I was living with a friend… for free.

Since then I’ve acquired a second job and have been able to work both for a total of somewhere between 30 and 40 hours a week. It’s enough to get by, for sure. What has kind of been bugging me lately, though, is the fact that I didn’t need a college degree to get these jobs. I was hired for work experience and not degree knowledge. It’s kind of a drag when you consider the ridiculous amount of student loan debt I now have. It almost makes you wonder if going to college was a benefit at all.

Keyword: almost.

If I had not gone to college, I would still be in Lincoln City working the two jobs I had back in high school and not really striving for anything more. I probably wouldn’t be writing and I know for a fact I wouldn’t have as many books as I do. But I also wouldn’t have gone on the journey with God that I did. Going to college caused me to think for myself and take responsibility for things like rent and phone bills and electricity bills and food. But on the spiritual side of things, faith was no longer a surface level image I carried from Sunday morning to Sunday morning. It’s real. It’s tangible. It’s my own.

When I think about the reason I came to college, I used to think it was to get a better job – and that’s still partially true. But now that I’ve been out of college for eight months, I realize it was because God called me on a journey. And that journey has led me here: An English grad who’s in love with reading and writing. I wasn’t this way before; back in high school I was the golfer. After every day of school, I’d go to a driving range and hit several buckets of balls. Afterward I would head over to the putting greens to spend another 2 or 3 hours working on my putting stroke. And yet I haven’t touched my clubs since last July.

What am I going to do about the $40 million of student loan debt, though? (No, it’s not $40 million, but it sure does feel like it.) That’s a very good question – one that’s been on my mind for the past couple of weeks. Yeah, going to college and experiencing God’s work outside of my old comfort zones is great and all, but I’ve got a really high tab to pay and two part time jobs won’t cut it. And yet, it’s my experience in journeying with God that has taught me the most important thing: He’s going to take care of me.

I get this inspiration from Proverbs 12:11, “Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows worthless pursuits lacks sense.” I emphasize the words “works his land” because I think something quite simple is revealed here – something that teaches us about how God works. You see, this Proverb doesn’t say, “Whoever works land that he attains”; it’s talking about land that one already has. I think this means, then, that God wants us to work with what we’ve got and He’ll take care of the rest.

I’m no farmer, but I imagine the work farmers do is extremely difficult. And I think God wants us to be aware of the hard work we have to put into cultivating what we already have. I think He wants us to throw aside all the distractions of our day, all the fantasies of being rich and famous, and put our hands to the plow to cultivate what we’ve already been given. Or, as we golfers like to say, “Play it as it lies.” It’s our way of saying you have to work with what you’ve got; you may never have the ideal playing conditions.

What does this mean for me, my college degree, and my two part-time jobs? It means I keep showing up to work, working hard, and writing whenever I can. It means continually exercising every skill I’ve ever attained on the off chance that I’ll need it for whatever lies ahead. In golf, it doesn’t mean anything to have a great putting game if you never reach the green. Likewise, I can’t just exercise my writing skills and throw away my cooking skills or my customer service skills or my skills with retail items. I have to improve them all. I have to work my entire land.

“I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” – Philippians 4:12-13

God bless.