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Love the Fairway
Focus leads to the Promised Land
Golf is a staggeringly beautiful and brutally frustrating sport. It is one of the few we can play into our latest years, and it is consistently ranked as the most addictive sport. When a person gets the golf bug, it can be all-consuming.
“One clue to golf's addictive nature is the number of celebrities who credit the game with helping them kick more serious addictions, as if it were a kind of clinically proven methadone.
Actor Dennis Quaid told me several years ago that without his golf obsession he never would have been able to quit using cocaine. Rocker Alice Cooper, who used to drink a quart of whiskey and half a case of beer a day, found his salvation by cultivating a 36-hole-a-day golf habit. And former New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor has said that golf literally saved his life by helping him kick drugs.”
“The Science of Golf Addiction,” The Wall Street Journal, 2007
What makes it so addictive? We could point to the beauty, the quiet, the camaraderie of golfing together, or others. But, golf’s addictive power rests primarily in one simple fact: We never master golf. Just when we think we have, it masters us, and to the driving range we head. Even when our game dramatically improves, that improvement proves temporary. Then there is the fact that even the best players hit the ball into the lake, trees, and sand. They do so much more rarely than I do, but they do.
Playing golf is about the body, and the mind. One legendary golfer said:
“You swing your best when you have the fewest things to think about.”
It’s true. The more you are thinking, the harder you try, the worse you shoot. It’s the natural law of golf.
Stay in the Fairway
The difference between a professional golfer and a hacker is relatively simple. One plays golf well. The other does not. How do we tell that? Close your eyes and listen. You can hear the hacker. Chunks of turf flying, expletives, the knocking of a ball in the trees, a list of excuses. The professional does one thing that’s critical to playing well: They keep the ball in the fairway—that expanse of short grass down the middle. It represents, usually, the shortest and easiest path to the pin.
Pros stay in the fairway. The more you hit the ball from the fairway, the better you are playing. The more you are hitting from the rough, sand, shoreline, or woods, the worse you are playing the the more difficult it is to hit the next shot.
It’s the same in ministry.
In ministry, the fairway consists of the core Gospel, core mission of the Church, and core disciplines like prayer, worship, service, Scripture reading, etc. These are defined as the fairway by two thousand years of church history. What then, is out of the fairway? Issues of the day, overtly political topics, ministry as a means to something other than communion with God and life in His Kingdom.
The difference is observable in how churches pivot/don’t pivot their sermon series and missional endeavors to match what is happening in the world at the moment. I would suggest pivoting radically or frequently is an anxious response, and swinging when you are tense leads to bad things—away from the fairway.
Being responsive is fine. During the Pandemic, we continued to preach and serve as we had before, tailoring only the delivery for lockdowns and virtual life. We preached books of the Bible, using more illustrations from church history and places that tied the church to what has remained constant with time. We could illustrate in ways that recognized where we were culturally, without leading the church out of the fairway, because COVID would end, and we would then be in the trees. We would have oriented people’s hearts around the temporal and highly divisive. Cut your pastor a break. It’s impossible to describe what life as a pastor was like back then—especially the criticism regardless of response.
All of us did the best we could back then. We had never dealt with anything like that—so I’m not trying to be critical of anyone. I’m just offering a recent illustration of fairway abandonment. It could be seen in churches that stopped what they were doing to preach series that addressed the points of anxiety Covid created, rather than providing a sense of constancy, focus, and non-anxious leadership. This could be said of those preaching new end-times series’ that began on October 8 due to war in the Middle East. The result is usually more anxiety in the church, the pastor, and sometimes even the surrounding communities.
Ministries that excel stay in the fairway. That is, they have a clear sense of focus on where God wants them to go, and that leads them to clear focus on what they believe and what they do. People will try to distract them with pet projects, political issues du jour, perhaps mocking or the weaponization of money or membership. Still, they keep the ball in the fairway. They understand who they are, what they believe, and what they are about. Smooth swing, relaxed body, clear vision. That’s how the game is played…well.
When they find themselves in the trees, they punch the ball back into the fairway rather than swinging wildly in bad turf—continuing on the fool’s path. They know the fairway has smooth, flat grass with a clear view of where they are trying to go. The rough terrain out of the fairway means not only did you hit a bad shot—you are more likely to hit a bad shot next. How do you know when you are in the trees? You’ll know. It’s outside of the fairway.
If you are currently in the trees, punch out into the fairway. The fairway is the historic Christian faith. It is the means, not the destination. If you are in the fairway, keep going, and avoid the rough.
Your ultimate destination is that stick in the middle of the green. It looks like a cross.
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