I have never have really been into the sport of golf. To say that is all too obvious to those who know me well. In fact, once as a pastor long, long ago I had one of my parishioners give me a set of Big Bertha clubs that I later gave away without batting an eye. I guess I really didn’t see the significance of those clubs, nor how in the world I could ever become a guy who spent his leisure moments swatting away at those balls on a plush green course, or of having golf-sized dreams of that great retirement golf course in the sky awaiting me in the not too far distance. In fact, I guess I kind of have a George Carlin take on the sport of golf (Google it). For my good golfer friends of mine, please don’t take offense to that once you do Google itJ Nonetheless, in a nutshell, I guess it goes without saying that not everyone has come to appreciate the sport the way men and women the world over seem to do and that especially includes me. I must say however that though I have not come to make golf something that I enjoy playing or watching, or devoting any of my time to, I do appreciate one particular phrase that comes from the game of golf. The phrase is called “The Back 9”; and of course quite simply to the golf enthusiast–it is the last 9 holes of an 18-hole game of golf.
Interestingly, I have actually used this phrase quite a bit in the last year in anticipation (or perhaps in consternation) about turning the big 50! In fact, I’ve thought about it quite a lot as I awaited that big day that happened just last week, and specifically I have used it when talking to people and getting both them and I to think about what “living on the back 9” should mean for us all. Typically when I do that I often get a blank stare, the “deer in the headlights” look, or a disinterested and “Oh gee I’ve run out of time” smile as they either move along or hurriedly bid me to move to a topic of greater interest and value. I will have to say nonetheless that I increasingly find this greatly disturbing to note that not many of those close to age 50 or beyond give much thought to this phrase and what it means, or what it should mean to them anymore. This troubles me a bit, echoing the obvious reality that we live in a society seemingly still enamored with the illusive and very deceptive American dream (or nightmare). I’ll get back to that in a moment.
Oh yeah I almost forgot. My 50th birthday party was a lot of fun I must say. I had much too much to eat, way too much wine and Grand Marnier; and yet the time spent with family and friends was priceless and indeed very tender. It is of course that of which I believe as people, yet even more so as Christian people, we should allow to get us to begin thinking a lot more about our “back 9”, which I believe should cause us to ponder a great deal more about how we should finish this game of life of which we are apart.
But getting back to the American dream. Most of us in America, and I would dare say all of us, have to some degree been touched by this pervasive worldview and have spent no shortage of time from the cradle to the grave being told we must have it and must figure out how we are to get a piece of it. It has become to us the sole quest in life—that of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which is of course the American tag line or slogan of sorts. A slogan that has come to mean in some sort of way a life of ease, with an abundance of things and power that make life just a wee bit easier–so we think. In fact, both rich and poor alike are affected by it either positively or negatively, and I would suggest whether you are rich or poor both of those experiences await us without prejudice should we live long enough and are fortunate enough to learn from it.
For instance, since I have had the great privilege (or curse) of making some money in this life—and losing it, that the obsession with money is a fair-weather friend at best and a robber of precious lives at worst. Money indeed comes and goes with the wind and does not deliver near what it promises. In fact, most who have made some money, or who far beyond me would even call themselves rich by the American standard are so preoccupied with money, that from the time of our initial quest for it and on to the accumulation of more and more it tends to both consume and possess us albeit by stealth. Like the ring of power, money desires “my precious” to have us in it’s clutches for the major part of our existence in this American life. In fact, from the time we acquire it most of our time is then spent either on how to make more (multiple streams of income), or wrestling over how we can keep it.
The poor of course are no less affected by this fruitless expedition. In fact, the poor wish for the same things the rich do. Though the more political of us might be tempted to say that perhaps they don’t want it bad enough (which is why they are poor), or are not willing to work as hard as the next guy for it, the more enlightened and objective of us realize that it’s not always that simple. The truth is that American capitalistic systems that are in place gives many of us the opportunity to achieve truly great things “beyond our raising”, yet the truth correspondingly is that no matter how hard many try–geography, family, education, circumstances and things beyond our control will always keep the realization of it “a day late and a dollar short” to many. In light of that, the poor struggle for the “pot of gold” through pulling up their own bootstraps not unlike the rich, or notwithstanding in a last desperation of a winning lottery ticket, falsely clinging on to the belief, much like the rich, that if they can but obtain it just once then the American dream will finally be theirs for the taking. And though I have found money to be useful in terms of having more choices and on a surface level making life and my family’s life a little enhanced and more care-free. and that which has enabled me to help a lot of people, it’s constant hold on us is doing something I’m afraid that is a dire impediment to the life of faith in Jesus Christ. It is that to which I want to briefly spend the rest of our time together today unpacking.
For instance, let’s look at the word “faith”. It is of course that of which we are initially indeed “saved” by (Eph. 2:8,9), that of which is the hallmark of Christian’s ongoing walk with Christ (Col. 2:6,7), and that which will keep us unstained from the world and bring us safely home when all is said and done (I John 5:4). Those who claim the name of Christ in any sort of even half-devoted fashion know this, and it is indeed elementary in their thinking from the very first days of embracing Christ as the reason of their existence and overall purpose and focus in life. The troubling part at least for me is what does my faith mean outside of that applied to my everyday life and decision making for everyone, but particularly now that I am walking down the course and picking up the right club for completion of my own “back 9”?
To be more pointed and for our thoughtful reflection here, the scriptures tell us also that faith “is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). The write of Hebrews takes it even a step further in Heb. 11:6 when he says that “without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him”. So then, when we look at faith by this definition, especially while walking the back 9 of life, what does it mean for us now? To be honest, the American dream paints the picture somewhat like this: you make a lot of money, put your kids through college, buy your dream home and maybe a vacation home to boot, retire at 65 or much sooner, and then recline in a life of comfort and security doing the things we’ve always wanted to do. And even though we know that after these things the reality of death lurks around the corner, we somehow don’t spend near as much time meditating on that reality; and many quite sadly, even the elderly among us, are still oblivious to the fact that their final destiny awaits where they will carry none of these things with them. Nor will we carry the friends, family and loved ones we’ve spent a great deal of time with and lived for with us to our destination. We come into this world alone and we will check out just the same until our rendezvous with the creator on the other side. Yet many who do at least think from time to time of living in light of enjoying a 50th birthday party with friends and family I mentioned earlier and savoring various times throughout life such as these, still seem to only scratch the surface as to the significance of their brief stint here and what it is to suggest for how they live their lives until their mortal body is merely food for worms!
For those who bypass the life of God in Christ but who do think about life on the “back 9” and what it is to mean to them and others in terms of the epitaph they wish to write in advance, other also very important things occupy their thoughts—things in fact that should also engage the thoughts of Christians as well. Things such as “making a difference”, “giving back” or becoming great philanthropists of worthy causes with our name, labor and money attached to them We do this in Achilles like passion, thus ensuring that everyone will remember our name. I’ve been giving these and many other things a lot of thought actually for some time now after being broken quite significantly in my own illusive quest of my piece of the American dream and to find some meaning in this madness of this American life. To say it is constantly in my thoughts is an understatement. The “back 9” has now come “front and center” as I am now officially “over the Hill” and that reality is the sobering thought that I truly wish to drive me in my remaining 9 holes of this life that I’ve been given for but a transitory moment. I wish to play it and I wish to play it well, yet I wish to do so in a much more ambitious stab at life-defining faith that looks a lot more like Jesus, and good bit less than what Christian faith hijacked by American values and culture has increasingly come to mean.
For instance, how do we live lives of faith that take into consideration some of the realities that are a part of this American life on the back 9 (security, retirement, and a nest egg that might last as long as we do) juxtaposed between what it means to live a life of faith that smells a lot more like Jesus than most of our friends, family and Christian brethren would tell us? To answer that question is something I’m just beginning to attempt to do, so for those perhaps looking for some glimpse of an answer from this cracked up American life, you may still come up with more questions than answers and the proverbial short end of the stick. Nonetheless, in conclusion, I hope to leave you something worthy of your consideration and with at least a more worthy “back 9” step in the right direction if you are also one who perhaps calls themselves Christians inside of the ever increasing insanity that is this American dream life.
It should be no great secret that throughout the scriptures, those who are marked as having tremendous faith did great and mighty things as a result–and most of them had broken halos just like the lot of us. If for instance we look at people such has Abraham, Noah and Moses highlighted in the Old Testament and then again in the New Testament in Hebrews 11, we should at least notice something about them that is drastically different than our own. In fact, if we just stop with these three characters we see that Abraham took off not even knowing where he was going, gave the best of the available property and goods to his nephew lot, and was one who was willing to sacrifice his only son because of the faith he had in a God that had promised him that his son would one day be an heir to multitudes as numerous as the sand in the seashore. When I think of Abraham’s faith, I feel as if I’m simply in the middle of some Charlton Heston movie, where he plays Abraham this time instead of Moses and it is so entertaining, so real and yet I’m awfully glad when the curtain closes and I’m back to the real world where only “practical” faith rooted in the things we can see, feel and touch is required of me. I concede to the very relieving notion that Abraham was a superhero and I’m not, and well…that settles it. Meanwhile I make sure I know exactly where I’m going before I do anything for God, certainly could justify keeping the best for myself for my families sake of course, and the thought of giving up my only son is chalked up as a mere O.T. example and not something I will ever be confronted with or asked to wrestle with in anyway. And as for Noah, who built an enormous boat and preached repentance telling people it was going to rain when as of yet it never had, I wrestle with whether or not I could do the same. Or to break it down to where I live and perhaps you as well, in my everyday life I think about how often I fail at merely standing up for what I do believe passionately and authentically in a world that increasingly looks at all Christians as weird Noah’s and are those who have resigned to the response that there truly is no sign that God is on His way at all (II Pet. 3:4-7). And as far as Moses is concerned, one we are told was the greatest among God’s prophets; I can’t even live in the same neighborhood. He would have to ante up big bucks just to mail me a postcard! And furthermore, his exploits and profound faith in God that led him to say no to the pleasures of sin for a season and rather suffer with the people of God is a theology class I continually take and can never seem to get a consistent passing grade. I resign to myself, if this is the faith we are to have, even mustard-seed faith in a big God, why are so few of us any closer to it and doesn’t it matter profoundly if we do not?
Of course if we then move on to the New Testament, and for the purpose of a much shorter blog skip the rest of the Old Testament giants of the faith, we have the historical record of 11 of the original 12 apostles who died for the faith– the 12th of which (John) was exiled to a remote island and then died as an old feeble man in Ephesus. And of course as if that wasn’t enough, we then we have scriptures that almost sound foreign to my American ears in terms of their weight and viability to me. We are told for instance to seek first the Kingdom and all the things on earth we need will be a given (Matthew 6:33). We are bid to store up treasures in heaven rather than the preoccupation with 401K’s, Roth IRA’s and family estates here, and his suggestion to the richest of the bunch was to give it all away, give it to the poor and then follow him (Matt. 18:16-22). A thought most of us would just as soon control, alt and delete! We are also told to take no thought as to what we are going to eat, wear or what kind of house we’ll live in because God knows we need them and has got it all covered (Matthew 6: 25-32). We are also told by Jesus that a man’s life does not consist of the abundance of his possessions (Luke 12:15), that faith moves mountains (Matt. 17:20), the things that are unseen are eternal while the things we see are merely temporal (2 Cor. 4:18), and that the fervent prayers of faith by righteous men can do amazing things (James 5:14-18). These of course are just mere drops in an exhaustive scriptural bucket that repeatedly challenges God’s people to live lives of radical faith in whatever time they have been called upon to live in.
And then here we are, both you and I. Have you looked around lately, and have you noticed that the western world is not paying people of faith much attention anymore and really neither are we paying attention to the fact that we are most of the time impostors of people of faith for people to behold? I mean do we at least some times wonder why as we sip latte’s on Sunday mornings in our faded jeans listening to a rather predictable and irrelevant show that we walk out the door and continue to live lives of Christian mediocrity that effects no one including ourselves? And is it just me, or do you not wonder why there is such a detachment from the way we are called to live and the way we actually do? Are you and I really surprised then at the mass exodus of our own sons and daughters from authentic faith who really have lived through our Christian B movie reel (yawn) and wonder what all the fuss really is all about?
Well I said at the outset that I wouldn’t solve this dilemma. In fact, I’m sure I just exacerbated the issue that has already been debated for far too long and not an awful lot done about it at least in my neck of the woods. It makes for good reading though and it will get some Amens and hallelujahs and perhaps cause us to put an extra percent or two in the offering plate on Sunday or $20.00 to digest what we already knew at the local Christian bookstore. I must say however that I’m increasingly becoming not only unsatisfied with those around me’s numbness to it, but more importantly I’m becomingly increasingly nauseated at my own unresponsiveness. Somehow I know living on the “back 9” means me living a life of faith that is comprised of risks, off of primrose paths, with some sort of a cross to carry and learning how to live with little and plenty perhaps over and over in the same lifetime. In addition, I believe it must cause you and I to question everything that we hold as our holy grail in life when it comes to the acquiring and keeping of the home, the white picket fence, college education for the kids and a good comfortable job or career, living happily ever after and substituting living spiritually for merely buying Christian trinkets that give mostly just ourselves the illusion that we actually are Christians following on the narrow path. The truth is, I’m all for a “back 9” church full of losers just like me who know something is rotten in Denmark and in their own lives when it comes to their lack faith in Christ, and who know they must do something about it at this final hour. For sure I’m all for one, it’s just that I honestly don’t really know where to begin looking, and like Bono, I’ve become somewhat cynical that I’ll ever find what I’m looking for.