If I am transparent, humility comes hard in my world. Pride can sneak in, I’m afraid.
You see, I am seen as a leader almost everywhere I go. It is irrelevant whether I deserve this respect or not. I am now the Professor in class. I am Doctor Brad or Counselor to many hurting. I am the Speaker at the conference. The Shepherd and Chief-Scholar to people at my church. Like it or not, my ego can be like an overinflated beach ball held underwater–it takes significant energy to keep it down. I am amazed. I know how dumb I can be, how flawed and broken. I know how insecure I can be sometimes on the inside. Even so, it seems I can always use a new dose of humility.
You may know, humility means literally to be brought low, to fall down. In a medieval context, it meant to bow low or prostrate oneself before a ruler. Imagine having to say, “Hail, my lord!” as you enter your next staff meeting by pressing your forehead to the carpet. (Some of you bosses are becoming hopeful. Stop it.) Humility in a biblical context means to see oneself in correct relationship to a holy, glorious God, and fall down in worship. It is a biblical virtue, an attitude or perspective to strive for. God supports the humble, but actively opposes the proud, we are told.
In our modern world, being humbled often carries the sense of being exposed, as in being shown to others as NOT so amazing. It happens when a skater or skier does a face plant while the cameras are running. It is seen in the lack of an Olympic medal for the favored athlete. In each of our lives, events occur which can, and should, keep us humble. This includes me. Seems God begins many days reminding Gabrielle to cut Dr. Brad another slice of humble pie.
Each January, I travel to a conference of other “successful” pastors. We talk about best practices and the key spiritual issues of our times. We try to strengthen and encourage one another. When I look around the room at this gathering, I know that all our churches are large by worldly standards. These folks around me are all superb communicators. Leaders of the highest caliber. Wise. Savvy. But not haughty. Real people, humble, and spiritually grounded. Good, good people.
Ever year, I feel the same thing, almost overpowering, “How the heck did I get here with them?” There is no satisfactory answer.
This year, many of us we went golfing together. Just to have fun and bond. Note to self: When someone offers to take you golfing, “just to have fun and bond,” it is clue to run away. The first lesson of golf in the manual, I have learned, right under the picture of the dude in a kilt playing at St. Andrew’s in Scotland, is this: “In golf, expect no good thing to happen.” Teach your children early that golf is a microcosm of the world, filled with darkness and evil hidden behind flowers and grass. A moment of exhilaration, followed by years of despair.
No one, I think, plays golf just for fun.
Still, our host, a dynamic pastor as gallant as Clark Gable, had graciously arranged a round at a swanky club. Not like the municipal golf courses I hack around on. This is a “fancy and dignified” old southern place. You know the kind. “Established in” printed on the sign and the hats. Perfect lawns and locker-rooms. Putting surfaces of green velvet. Flowers and water fountains. A patio fit for the Polo Grounds. Even the driving range had a perfect pyramid of golf balls. Yep, free; no machine to plunk quarters in. No, here you leave your jeans and your quarters behind. Tuck in your shirt. Sip your mint julep. No sweating. And certainly no burping.
On our round this year, the course was not allowing golf carts so as to better preserve the flora. I think a lot of flora, and I am all for preserving it. But my knees were both accommodating titanium from new transplants. I was dreading carrying my clubs. (Actually, I had put my clubs in my wife’s pink and tan bag, to save weight. Wimp.) Thankfully, pull carts were given to us. I pulled or pushed mine around for nine holes, trying hard to keep from either whining or crying. Brad, smile, and keep your shirt tucked in. Don’t let your mint julep tip over. At the turn, both knees were on fire. Clark Gable noticed, and somehow was both gentle and funny as he pulled some strings. “Brad, they’ve agreed to offer you a cart for the back nine. The only cart out today.” A liveried-in-white young worker brought me the cart.
I was so thankful that I was only slightly embarrassed. But as I climbed aboard, I noticed this was not the kind of cart we have at the city courses in Denver. Beyond folded towels, monogrammed golf-tees, and a cold bottle of water, this cart had more electronics than most jet fighters. LCD screens everywhere. GPS distance to the hole. Aerial views of the course. Wow. Air conditioning. Reruns of Gilligan’s Island. I looked for a gold-plated mint julep dispenser.
Brad, you are SO out of your league here, I remember thinking. But I headed off on my new white charger, tall in the saddle with my pink and tan bag, to the next tee. Over the next few holes, my humbling began in earnest. You see, this technological cart only allowed me to drive where it wanted to go. If I crossed some “imaginary” line, the GPS system would stop the cart. A monitor would beep and scold in large font, “Back up!” I would then have to nurse the cart backwards at one mph until the invisible line was re-crossed. Then the cart, like a third grade teacher, would tell me, “You may proceed.” I guess that on most days, there are signs out for the golf carts. “Stay on path.” “Stop carts here.” “No carts on bridge.” But when you’re the only cart that day, no one bothers to put up signs on the imaginary lines.
Get this. Only the cart knows where the lines are.
You should shiver. It’s like in Stranger Things, when a science-gone-bad film meets a murder mystery running headlong into a horror film. And I am playing the part of the dumb brunette who is–ignoring the chainsaw sounds in the background–either sitting alone by the dark pool or opening the closet in the basement. Cue the screeching violins.
Honestly, it became more of a street fight than a golf game. Me against the cart. Forget keeping your head down, or keeping your shirt in. This was war. Forward. Stop. “Back up!” Backward. Forward. Stop. Hit the ball somewhere. Stop. “Back up!” This cart is demon-possessed.
Finally, on one hole I crossed a small bridge to get closer to the green. I made a turn, and then the engine died again. “Back up!” the cart informed me with disdain. I tried backing up a few feet, but then I noticed at the last second that I was backing over the bank into a lake. “Back up!” “Back up!” The lake water was gray-brown, and I couldn’t see the bottom. Foolishly, I asked the cart out loud, “Do you float?” But it ignored me: “Back up!” “Back up!” “Back up!”
At this moment, something became crystal clear to me. This cart was trying to kill me. It wanted desperately for me to obey, to back up another foot, then over the ledge. With barely a splash I would slide into the mirky lake. Watered-down with mint julep and constrained by my neatly tucked shirt, it would be straight to the bottom. After noticing a few monogrammed golf-tees floating on the surface, a scuba rescue team would be called in. My body, showing bloody hands from banging on the monitor screen, would be found. The papers would report that, “in an odd, unfortunate way, a golfer died when he foolishly backed into a lake and the gas pedal got entangled around his foot.”
More screeching violins. But I have watched the movies. Never open the basement closet. Avoid empty amusement parks. Drive past the broken down hotel in the rainstorm. Listen for chain saws. It was clear: this demonic cart was trying to drown me. Yeah. So much for fun and bonding. But I would not surrender to the cart.
Here’s where real humility came dancing into the story. I could not go forward. I could not go backward, not without dying like the skinny dipper in Jaws. I was stuck. Time paused. Next to the green velvet, the golf round shut down. Only silence, and the beating of my heart.
It was then that my compadres in ministry came waltzing up. Not just from my foursome. But from the group behind. Watching my saga, they walked the distance to the only golf cart on the course. By-the-way, did I mention we were now in full view of the sprawling mansion they call a clubhouse? Humility is so often public.
Clark Gable asked, “What seems to be the problem?” Kind. So gentle in his asking. So perfect, with his shirt tucked in. The other pastors, like good leaders should, chimed in, “Need some help, Brad?” They pressed in around the cart. The only cart. My cart, for the one with the weak knees and mind.
In truth, you cannot just blame the cart. Sounds really lame. Why did this need to happen in front of these guys? These guys? I felt like the kid who just threw up on the school nurse. Made me want to dive into the lake. Mud-dwelling, horror-monster-living, deep dive. It was embarrassing. I felt so, so–useless. Incompetent. Stuck. All my insecurities came flooding back, reminding me of huge white-headed pimples and standing alone at the middle school dance.
And then, I think I heard God speak to me. “You really need this, Professor.”
A voice deep in my soul said, “This is the truth about you, Doctor. Not the whole truth, but the truth none-the-less. Feel it. Relish it. Remember it. You often fall down on your face. You are broken, incompetent, and stuck. But I am the Releaser of the stuck. I am the Lover of the broken. I am the Savior of the incompetent. You are valuable because I choose you, and because I use you, and because I love you.”
I learned the gospel again that day. We are all in need of a Savior.
My friends, coached by a fisherman-pastor from Kansas City, had to lift the cart and drag it back to the bridge. They did it without complaining, and not one of them teased me about it. I was not shamed, not at all. They were the heroes. I was the one humbled. And that is a good thing. Something I need on a regular basis.
I am scheduled to go back to this pastor’s conference next January. I think I will play golf, if they’ll have me. But this time, I’ll do it just for fun and bonding. No cart, please. I’ll walk.