I love to golf. I rarely get to. Its expensive, it takes a lot of time…and I’m a hideously bad golfer. But afternoons in the Phoenix summer allow me to eliminate one of the obstacles. The crippling heat empties the courses. You can usually find deals where they nearly pay you to play…and throw in a sleeve of golf balls.

Conversations at the pro shop can go something like this:

Me: “Could I play a round by myself?”

Club house pro: “You could play a round and not see another human being the entire time.”

Me: “I’d like to play a round then.”

Club house pro: “Are you sure? Its 118 out there. They won’t let planes take off at 121.”

Me: “I don’t mind the heat. How much is it to play a round?”

Club house pro: “How much would you like to spend?”

Me: “I wish I didn’t have to pay anything.”

Club house pro: “That sounds fair.”

Me: “I’m joking. How much?”

Club house pro: “Look, tip the cart guy and lets call it even.”

…and so it goes.

Apart from a handful of humans, I’d rather play golf by myself. And my son Caleb, Bill Thrall, Tim Morari, Steve Larson and Bubba Watson were not free that day off, so I decided to spend the afternoon golfing by myself, in the desert, at 110 in the shade.

When I’m playing well, I can imagine somehow suddenly I have become a great golfer and am now, at age 59, paired with Tiger, in the final group, on the final day of the Masters. All my worries, sadness and pressure disappear and I am transported into the moment, with adoring fans and stunned announcers analyzing my every move. I am clever, and funny under intense pressure. I am dressed so hip and cool, in linen and cotton. I am accessible to the fans, and run to the gallery ropes often to celebrate with them after sinking long putts.

When I’m not playing well, I cheat. I give myself second shots after a misshit. Then I try to convince my memory that the bad shot never happened. I patch together a selective round, sort of a greatest hits album, where only the good shots are remembered. It’s nutty. I’m not willing to record the score or claim a round I play alone. Because when I come to my senses, I can’t live with giving myself a 62 when my actual scores are usually in the mid 90s.

When I’m playing really poorly, I start thinking bad things about myself…I begin to degrade myself as a human being for my poor iron play. I know few things like golf that can turn honest lack of skill into a character issue. “You shouldn’t even play golf anymore. Sell your clubs. What is wrong with you? How can you spend this many decades flailing at a game you never improve at? You’re pitiful. It’s like the rest of your life. You just don’t get things. There’s something horribly wrong with you. I wonder if everyone knows this about you and just aren’t telling you out of politeness. You choke every time you have a chance to do something great. …And what are you doing out here by yourself, anyways? What’s wrong with you? I’ll bet those deviants crouching atop buildings with high-powered rifles, started out playing golf alone. Go home. Would it be so wrong for you to do something constructive on your day off? You’ve got emails backed up from before Nixon took office. Look around you. See those houses lining the fairway? People are watching you with binoculars-laughing and mocking. They’re phoning their friends a few holes further down the course, giving them the heads up to watch for the old guy who hits the ball sideways. Go home. You have no business on this course.”

Perhaps I exaggerate. But not much.

Now, I understand this must not bring much inspiration or hope for those wanting to risk believing their identity in Christ, to have a loud advocate of such identity be so messed up. But there you are. I wish I could tell you that I was all-better ever since I began helping to write all this stuff and speak these truths. But that voice I described, it was there just days ago.

If you’re still reading, here’s what I can tell you that might give some hope.

The beauty is I no longer have to stuff it and move on. I no longer believe those lies for as long. The beauty is I can write about it and not pretend like this isn’t true about me. I can even laugh about it while I’m doing it. The beauty is I now know it is not God or even the most real me who is trying to tear me down. And I’m learning to predict that lying voice to show up more often when I am afraid, or sad, or embarrassed. The beauty is that I know I am not, in any manner, the man it accuses me to be. Even moments later, I can expose it and can go back to my hacking in contentment. Maybe the greatest beauty is that God is taking the worst of it and shaping it into eventual good, even during my backswing.

Don’t ever let anyone convince you that the shame story should suddenly just disappear because you read a book, or understand a verse. Even though Jesus purchased for me an entirely brand new, shame free identity at the cross, believing that takes a bit of, well, believing. The shame story dies a hard and slow death for most of us. The difference between accepting a theology and experiencing a way of life is pretty immense. It takes time trying these new truths out in old haunts and getting tired enough of getting the same old results to turn and believe the new.

That voice seems real. Like the practiced memory of events that no longer exist. But ten thousand times more real, is the presently unseen Jesus, in the cart with me. And He is with me the entire round. I can predict His words and demeanor, from how He enjoyed and interacted with the disciples even before the Cross freed the full expression of His infused presence. He might say to me, right in the middle of five swings slicing their way into neighboring homes: “Do you have any idea how much I enjoy being out here with you? How I love riding this course with you? How glad I am that I created you exactly as I did. You are indeed a hideous golfer. And I’ve been up ahead. You will not be getting any better. Soon, you won’t be getting in as much trouble off the tee, but only because you won’t be able to hit the ball as far. But you are one of my favorite 23 handicappers in the three mile area surrounding this course!” And I would look over at Him to see the smile of the Friend I have always wanted, and wanted to be.

Then He would lean back in the cart and we would ride. First we would chat and laugh and make golf small talk. Then, maybe several holes later, I would begin to talk about things that most matter; about all He and I have been through together. I’m now driving with tears in my eyes as I talk about how much harder this life has been than I thought it would be. All the while He is leaning back with His hands behind his head and his golf shoes hanging out the front of the cart, whispering for me to keep talking…that He has all day. Soon He too is grieving out loud with me. Tears are in His eyes. Then it gets quiet. No lecture, no moral of the story. Just my God and me riding, with only the sound of tires on Bermuda, as sun begins to mix with dusk.

I get out of the cart to play a shot and maybe He calls out, “Smooth tempo, kid. You’ve so got this.” And, in spite of how bad my swing is, I uncoil on a three iron shot, reminiscent of one I can still recall, that He conjured up for me back in the 80s. For a moment, my swing all comes together, the ball compresses, and effortlessly rises high into the sky. It holds there, majestic and true, before sitting down like an overweight older man, after a full night of dancing, eight feet from the pin.

He slaps His knee and whoops, “There! That’s what I’m talking about!”

I get back in the cart and we coast the two hundred plus yards to the green, each smiling without saying a word. This is my God. He is not stiffly religious and intense. He carries a presence and demeanor and ease, even greater than what I have always hoped a friend would be when I needed him most. And because of His love, because of the Cross and Resurrection, His attitude towards me never changes, no matter what traps or swamps I find myself trying to fish my life out from.

And as I begin to find that voice and trust that reality, the false voice loses more memory. And I can get back to enjoying golf, or whatever I do by myself, with great joy, peace and contentment. Christ is here. Christ is here…Oh, happy day. Even after a double-digit par three score.

Oh darkness, oh sin, oh evil, oh lies, oh shame, oh failure…where is your sting!

John, one of the three amigos, part of the ever-increasing tribe of grace.