Francis Chan put hands over his face and agonized about whether to speak the unspeakable to a traditionally proud and spiritually cloistered group that appeared from his stage perch decidedly gray, liver-spotted hands enshrouding the candle lit flame that once was a raging bonfire. He was speaking to me and to my elders and leaders in Churches of Christ. His message was the empowerment of younger people, the enabling of their talents, the unleashing of their spirit in the Church and having the wisdom and discernment to know when to get out of the way and let God’s will and Spirit have it’s way. And so I’ve been thinking a lot about that. Brother Chan also spoke of testing everything with the Word and about humility. Humility that goes both ways. For those who are older, humility soaked in the marinating caldron of time and experience, humility that understands for all that experience, we know so little compared to God. For those young and impulsive and filled with unadulterated bull-in-a-china-shop holy intention, humility as expressed in the submissive acknowledgement that those older folks have lived and died and sacrificed far more than those seeking to uproot the moorings of tradition. And all this tempered by the understanding that our own pride, our fleshly nature often blinds us to the providential work of God moving in His Kingdom. Francis moved me to think of my life…how I’m spending the time that comprises my life. So I began to think of how I’ve been blessed by elders who’ve taught me with the blessing of encouraging words and belief…even when I had little faith in myself. I want to tell you about Sidney Roper, forty years my senior, a man who believed in me. One day, I hope to pass his gift along to other young men as a blessing, the unleashing power of divinely infused affirmation. I’m not getting any younger so I’m repenting, and my penance begins with the telling of this story.
Some folks know this about me. I played professional golf long enough to have a cup of coffee with Fred Couples, Mark O’Meara and Hal Sutton…and if I smoked, a pack of cigarettes with John Daly. I played with John in the Arkansas Amateur and he only flicked his cigarette to the ground when it was his turn to play a shot. Amazing to watch how well he played with so little intention. Anyway, I competed and played against them all. I’m easily the least famous of this group and proud of that fact. I’m somewhat an introvert and if not for the encouragement of my Dad and Sidney Roper, I could never have imagined teeing it up against the likes of players of that talent. But it’s not so much the middle or end of the round in golf that stretches me…it’s the beginning. The tee shot at the 1st hole is the most difficult shot in tournament golf. Gallery eyes fixed on me, breathtaking silence roaring in my ears like the ocean in seashells. Just don’t whiff it, get it down there somewhere, keep it on the golf course…towards the green preferably. And so one of my images of faith in myself is wrapped inside the drama of two 1st hole tee shots at the United States Amateur in Cleveland, Ohio in 1979.
Sidney Roper was the preacher at the Sixth and Dewey Church of Christ from 1958-1969. I was born into that faith community on July 25th, 1959 and Sidney was my first picture of a God messenger, a keeper of the faith and preacher of the Word. The Sixth and Dewey church building was a cream-colored brick structure with glass block windows banked at angles on the outside edges of the sanctuary and white oak pews without seat pads. I was afraid of Sidney…although at three I was afraid of any dog and most people…but he intimidated me more than most because he was wearing a suit and people sought him out. There was an aura of unapproachable adult churchiness that I feared. His fame, everyone lined up to speak to him after sermons, his ceaseless energy and the way his eyes looked into mine far too long was beyond my three-year old understanding of sociological affirmation. So I skirted the sermon greeting line running outside to climb on the ledge next to the block windows. I was just a kid. What was he seeking to affirm with too much energy and eye contact?
But as a kid, he not only included me, he welcomed me, into another sanctuary…at least it was a sanctuary for him and for me also…a golf course. And so with a club under my arm I would follow my Dad and Sidney around golf courses, beginning with the nine-hole course in Nowata, Oklahoma where the green fee was purchased in the grocery store on the highway just north of the course since there was no clubhouse at the time. I learned the game and I also learned other things like putt out every putt…there are no gimmies in golf…and how to put a whole bag of Planter’s peanuts into a fountain Coca-Cola slurping it all in one step. He always seemed full of vim and vigor and if he felt himself waning he’d go for the Coke and peanuts. He thought I was the best young golfer he’d seen and I didn’t believe him but listened mutely to his praises. It wasn’t long before I beat this man who could hit a Titleist out of sight…and he loved it and would keep telling me, you need to try out for the U.S. Amateur. But I was only eight years old so I said maybe next year. Every year he’d say “You need to try out for the U.S. Amateur” and he’d tell me about growing up in Texas, caddying for spending money and how when I made it to the U.S. Amateur, he would be my caddy. The summer of my fourteenth birthday, I shot a 74 and began to believe his words. Maybe I could play on the national stage of the U.S. Amateur.
In 1979, at the age of nineteen, I entered the U.S. Amateur and played a qualifier against other college golfers from OU & OSU and Oral Roberts University. We played at Southern Hills Country Club. I qualified for that National Amateur as Sidney and Dad followed me around the course. We then loaded into a Winnebago the following week, Mom, Dad, George Johnson, Sidney and Sue Roper and we traveled to Cleveland, Ohio…Canterbury Country Club. I remember walking in to register at the Club and afterwards a man took me to the locker room and showed me where I could change shoes and get ready to play during my stay and then he asked me to sign the U.S. Amateur program that had my name on it…my first autograph. He said you never know who would someday be famous so he just asked all the players to sign as they came through. I never became famous, but many in that field did become famous golfers…John Cook, Mark O’Meara, Hal Sutton…all players who would go on to compete on the PGA Tour and win several of golf’s Major Titles. (To Be Continued in Part 2)