Tue09162014

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God and golf: Where every shot, shank and duff are His will

Don’t let anyone tell you that they play the game of golf because they love it. This is a game that even the most proficient find exasperating. Only a few among the millions of its advocates consistently meet the standard of basic expectation – par.

The vast majority will spend hours upon hours, dollar upon dollar, swinging away at a 1.680-inch diameter ball, in some of the most beautiful settings on earth. Their motivations may be varied, but it can’t be because they love the game. This game wasn’t designed to be loved but endured!

Don’t confuse my rant with bitterness at my own frustration over the years playing golf. My golf angst is based on sound theology. Golf by design is a “Presbyterian game,” an opinion I hold with all due respect and affection for brothers and sisters of that persuasion. It’s not a bad thing that it is a “Presbyterian game.” On the contrary, it may be the best and only way to actually play this game.

The modern game of golf originated in Scotland long before the Protestant Reformation introduced Calvinism into the Christian mix. The first written reference to golf as we have come to know it was Scottish King James II’s 1457 ban of the game as an unwelcome distraction to learning archery.

The game fits perfectly with the radical concepts of predestination introduced into the Scottish Reformation by the eloquent revolutionary John Knox (1514-1572). After a short-lived banishment to Geneva, Switzerland, due to his fervent nationalism and violent opposition to the Roman Catholic Church, Knox assimilated John Calvin’s insistence that each and every moment in a person’s life, even his or her own religious commitment, is preordained by an omnipotent Divinity. Such faith requires the adherent to live out those moments in obedience and contrition to an all-controlling God.

There is no record of Knox playing golf, but it’s not hard to imagine that his disciples did with joy and abandon upon learning that God Almighty preordained each and every swing in golf, from solid hit to muff.

For disciples of the Methodist Reformers, John and Charles Wesley (1703-1791/1707-1788), who emphasized free will, such as myself, golf is nothing but one temptation after another. Rather than an all-controlling God, free will assumes a God that influences, powerfully to be sure, but ultimately leaves each and every moment to the choices of God’s creatures.

Thus a good golf drive can become a moment of self-aggrandizement or a bad one the occasion for self-loathing. The free-will advocate who takes up golf will find himself or herself constantly looking up to heaven imploring God’s intervention, or worse, staring down below – at one’s feet – wondering if the devil is making them play this bewildering game.

No, golf is best played by Presbyterians, not by denomination but mindset. There is freedom to enjoy golf only when you can rest assured that each and every missed shot, shank, hook, duff, bunker muff and lipped cup is God’s will. For Methodists, not by denomination but those who carry the free-will mindset, the game will drive you crazy!

It makes complete sense, at least to me, that not only was Scotland the home base for the Presbyterian evangelization of the world but along with it came golf, now a global sport.

I was reminded of these truths while taking my father out to play nine holes with my son for my dad’s Christmas present this year. My dad loves the game and has played it with devotion for years. He has been joined by a circle of buddies that share the same passion for the male version of affection: the jokes, the camaraderie, the silly bets, the pitcher of beer after the game as the occasion for storytelling. They endure the game each week, but they wouldn’t miss the friendship. Over the years as they have succumbed to illness, divorce or death, this circle has stood by each other for support and comfort, welcoming new members along the way.

Today my dad is thin and frail. It’s a huge physical effort for him to play nine holes. He can whack the ball approximately 30 yards at a time. Getting the ball out of the cup after a putt takes quite an effort. But he loves to be out there. We are convinced that such exercise has helped keep him as healthy and alert as he is at 86, which is a real blessing.

My dad doesn’t keep score anymore; that’s the Presbyterian side of him. But he does mutter frustrations that involved God’s name when he muffs it – that’s the Methodist side of him.

But as my son and I watched him and his golfing buddy laugh, cajole and tease each other over their game and 43-year history of friendship, we could both see why folks play this stupid game.

And it isn’t because they love it.

It’s because they love each other.

The Rev. Mark S. Bollwinkel is senior pastor of Los Altos United Methodist Church, 655 Magdalena Ave. For more information, visit www.laumc.org.

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