I came very close to running into one of my pro-golf heroes yesterday. In fact, I almost walked right into his backswing.
It wasn’t my fault, exactly: In this case, Ernie Els wasn’t where he was supposed to be. He’d hooked his drive into the rough on #15 at the Ascension Charity Classic – well wide of the ropes that are designed to separate spectators and players along the course.
Meanwhile, as I hustled along the cart path – dodging other fans and looking right, to catch a glimpse of the players on the fairway – I very nearly plowed into the volunteer marshal who’d positioned himself to the left, just off the path, between me and Ernie.
A bit of good fortune, that.
Otherwise, it could have morphed into an embarrassing way to meet The Big Easy. And potentially dangerous, too – because even as a PGA Champions Tour player, Ernie can still generate plenty of clubhead speed.
A moment later, I had still more reason to savor my close encounter with the Hall of Famer…when I overheard some of his pleasant banter with a couple of other spectators. He was quite gracious, thanking them for attending the event – before adding with a smile: “Wish I was playing better for you all.”
That’s not the sort of thing I’ve come to expect when attending pro golf events. Typically, the players are hyper-focused, with little inclination for chit-chat. But perhaps such civility comes with age – or with recognizing that the putts just haven’t been falling, so this is not likely to be your week. (Indeed, Ernie finished the tourney at -2, tied for 33rd)
Whatever the reason, I found myself reflecting on the nature of celebrity in our culture. While I was surprised (and delighted) by Ernie’s self-deprecating humor, I think I would have readily overlooked it had he been churlish instead. But that’s a bit odd, isn’t it – how “our” rich-and-famous tend to get a pass if they happen to behave poorly? How quickly we’re inclined to forgive and forget? Perhaps this tendency reveals a character defect of our own – a deep-seated and irrational aspiration to be just like them.
Coincidentally, Jesus also seems to have celebrity on his mind, in the gospel we hear for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time.
Along the way [Jesus] asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”
They said in reply, “John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others one of the prophets.”
The thing is, there’s no trophy awarded for the kind of recognition that Jesus has in mind. Just the opposite, in fact:
He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days. He spoke this openly.
Jesus minces no words: to be the Christ means embracing the cross. And in making this point, Jesus winds up in a place that I wouldn’t necessarily expect to find him: “Look for me to save you, not with feats of strength,” he seems to say, “but through patient endurance of humiliation.”
And thus, Jesus frames the key challenge of discipleship: Can I willingly choose to follow the example of such a Powerless One? Can I learn to think as God does, not as human beings do?
Let us pause now…to recall that we are in the presence of the Holy & Merciful One.