"Suppose you are walking in a forest, talking with God, and you hear the tap, tap, tap of a woodpecker. You break off the trail and off your talk with God to look for the woodpeckerhave you stopped praying? Not if by seeking the woodpecker you are 'considering the ravens.' If Jesus asks us to consider the ravens as a way of striving for the Kingdom, isn't straining to see a woodpecker a kind of striving after the Kingdom?" from Long Wandering Prayer
Go long, or go home." That's what my friends and I say about our favorite golf course. It's cheap and beautiful, but you have to hit the ball a long way to get around strung-out doglegs cut into woods so thick I won't go in for a ball without a bag of breadcrumbs and a chain saw.
"Go long, or go home" in my prayer life means "Pray long, or you might as well quit the ministry." When the lion Busywork crouches in my study, roaring sticky notes, smelling like a deadline, licking up my time, I defy him to get between me and my time with Christ. I pray many hours every week, no matter what the circumstances in my church.
That's why I golf so much.
My wife, Debbie, is a psychologist. She tells me that inconsistent positive reinforcement is the most powerful inducement to repeated behavior. Give a dog a treat every time he rings the bell and he will stop ringing the bell. Give the dog a treat unpredictably, and the dog will ring the bell until the Cubs win the World Series and keep on until they win again.
Inconsistent reinforcement keeps us coming back for more; in gambling we call it addiction, in golf we call it obsession. So I hit three great drives in a row; I can't stay out of the trees for the rest of the day. A great putt on 18 and my friend says, "That'll keep you coming back." And it does.
When I want to pray and golf, I arrive at the course early enough to golf alone. My favorite course is an hour north of Cincinnati, nestled in a large, rural, wooded state park. It is uncrowded and lacks city noise.
Splicing golf into prayer is, I suppose, a form of operant conditioning. After all, I'm not praying whether I like it or not. In neutral circumstances, prayer can be a pure act of will. But I'm out to pray and golf. I'll pray longer because of the great putt on 18 last time out.
Brag about that at a prayer conference! The putt? No, the fact that the putt gets me out to pray longer. Jesus and I talk while I take soil samples. The result is indisputable: when I golf as I pray over my sermon, I pray longer and I preach better. A lot better. The longer I pray, the less I worry about my motives.
But this story is about a woodpecker.
God's wild kingdom
On a shivery February day I drove an hour north of Cincinnati to my favorite course. Between my doorstep and the clubhouse, the temperature dropped from 35 to 28 degrees, and the wind increased from 10 to 20 miles an hour. No golfing today.
In Montana I waded, fly-fished and prayed in zero-degree weather. One time I was wading in a remote area in 10-degree weather. The wind gust must have been at least 30 miles an hour, because it blew the water off the surface of the river onto my chest waders, freezing instantly.
The ice began encasing me, and it made me think that if I lost my footing and tumbled down the river, I would die of hypothermia, especially since my car's heater didn't work. Since our oldest of three was just starting college and who would pay for it and on and on, I waded back to the car. Walking the one hundred feet from the river to my car, the laces on my wading boots froze solid. I thawed them out with hot coffee from a Thermos. I didn't fish long, so I went home and I didn't pray long.