Tuesday, April 12, 2011
Frankie was a guy that I met playing golf. His age was hard to tell, but I read him as being in his early 40's. He was tall and thin, with a goutee, and a leathery look making it clear that Frankie worked outside in the sun and wind. Frankie's golf clubs, and his golf swing were far more impressive than his ability to dress. Upon first glance, a veteran golfer would have thought that Frankie was a construction worker that aimed to drink more beers than there were holes on the course. He was wearing a tee shirt with rough looking khaki shorts. The hatchet tattoo on his calf took up most of his leg below his knee. His short white socks were ankle high, as expected for late 80's – early 90's fashion. While he talked of beer, I didn't see Frankie drink anything but Gatorade and water.
While Frankie had a rough look, it was downright enjoyable to play golf with him. He had a fairly smooth golf swing, and managed his game as well as any average golfer would. He said that he'd been playing golf for 6 years. Which, upon hearing, I had to amend my view; he was playing great for only having been playing such a short time. I'd been playing for 15 years and wasn't much better than Frankie, if I was better at all.
It was on the 13th hole, that God began to reveal Frankie to me a little bit…like any diamond in the rough, Frankie had much more below the surface than talking about drinking beer and hitting golf balls into the water. We were waiting for the group ahead of us to finishing playing the hole, which was taking a few minutes. So, our foursome (Frankie, his friend Mike, Rick the Hurricane Ike refugee, and myself) turned our conversation to the Tulsa area golf courses that we had played. We discussed which ones were fun to play, hard to play, not worth playing, and too busy to play. I came around to asking the question that was forefront in my mind, which was, "Have you guys ever played Southern Hills?" Southern Hills was a famous country club in south urban Tulsa that had been the home of several major PGA championships. Most recently the 2007 PGA Championship was held there. That's what Frankie referenced in his reply. "No, but I been there. Hell, I was standing about 5-6 feet from Tiger Woods. He couldn't a been any further from me to you." Frankie continued, "Yeah, I was drunker than a motherfucker, and I was on TV, could barely stand up. I was even on TV, and all my friends saw me…they told me that I looked like total shit."
This reply was expected from everything my mental stereotypical engine had expected. It was at this point that two very interesting and key things happened in our conversation. My Christian self-promotional system kicked in to high gear, and I was instantly elevated to Fankie's judge. I thought of how he had squandered the opportunity to be at a PGA Tour event by drinking too much. Drinking, in itself, doesn't bother me as a Christian, but as any responsible person would agree, drinking too much is a problem for anyone. So, I was busy trying to be nice as a Christian and only judge Frankie a tiny bit…which is what I think we Christians are really good at. We remember what Jesus told us about sin, and about judging people. Yet, it is really hard not to bring the morality hammer down on someone when his or her actions appear to be so in contradiction with what Jesus described as the proper way to live. Follow that thought immediately by the fact that I pictured myself struggling through my Christian journey, and I was sure I was doing a much better job than Frankie. It was at this moment; when Frankie opened his mouth again, and the second key aspect of this conversation hit me square in the face.
Frankie flowed right into the next sentence, "But, I didn't care, my wife had died a week earlier, and I really didn't care what the fuck other people thought".
I wouldn't have cared either. I ceased being a judge. I'm a grown man, as masculine as the next, most of the time. I've had my own cold looks into the face of death. It becomes instantly hard to hate, dislike, or judge a person once you get to know them, or get to know their story.
My whole view of this man before me changed in an instant. I have learned that when I have pictured something a certain way, and it has the capability of changing so drastically, so instantly, that it is generally God speaking to me in a clear way.
I had MIS-judged Frankie. I wasn't about to do it again. As we continued to play the next two holes, I silently thought about how hard it would be to lose my wife. Wow, I honestly couldn't fathom the concept. I approached Frankie on the tee box of the next hole (Hole 16 for those of you counting). I told Frankie that I had lost people in my life and that I understand how hard it is to lose a loved one…I ended by saying that I couldn't imagine losing my wife, and that I was sorry for his loss. Frankie further revealed the inner gem inside the rough exterior. We had made a connection. I had explained that I had lost my mother and father at a young age. Frankie had lost his mother when he was 10 years old. I could tell that his eyes misted as he said, "It's my ten year old daughter that I worry about, why the fuck did that have to happen to her, she didn't deserve that…" The truth is that Frankie didn't deserve that either. He continued, "My friends tell me that I can't just let her do whatever she wants…but, I love her to death and want her to have fun in life, it's already so serious for her. I know I'm hard on her, but I want her to grow up good."
One of my final memories of that round of golf was on the 18th hole. It had started to rain, and the wind was heavy at our backs. We had to decide to play the last hole in the rain, or head to the clubhouse. Frankie jumped up on the tee box and said, "Hey boys we got the wind, let's let her rip and see if we can drive the ball 400 yards". I looked back at him grabbing my driver and said, "Yeah, let's boom these bastards".
That comment on the tee was a God-sent gift for me. It was raining, but Frankie didn't even notice. It was raining pretty hard. But, all Frankie could see what the opportunity to do something every golfer loves…knock the ball forever down the fairway like the pro's do. Now, my job in this life seems to be to follow people wherever it is they want to go… and while I'm not drawing a solid conclusion, I believe that Frankie had found hope. He had ignored his current circumstances, which were negative, and focused on the opportunity to do something better than he'd done in the past. It was something stupid, like hitting a golf ball 400 yards…but you have to start somewhere.
As I reflected, months later, on my time with Frankie, I was drawn to the golf tournament where Frankie commented about being so close to Tiger Woods. Tiger is a figure of perfection in the golfing community, supreme excellence, one of extremely high value. Tiger is one of the great ones, (or was at the time). Yet, as Frankie's story burned deeper inside of me, I couldn't help but recognize the irony of this picture. One of the most famous concepts that Jesus discussed in His ministry was the turning upside down of the world order. The first would be last, He said, and the least of you shall be the greatest. So, as we picture these two men standing in such proximity. One completely focused on the great one, and the other completely focused on his golf game. I wonder which one was the greater of the two? Which one in God's eyes had the dazzling target of an open wound, too wounded, and drunk to even understand, at the time, what his life would be like as a single father? Which one of these two would Jesus consider the greatest? While I can't be sure, and certainly nothing against Tiger Woods, I do think that Jesus would have been standing right next to Frankie, and being proud to be doing so… I don't know, maybe he was…