Bocce Balls at the Beach

Old books. Old photos. Old toys. Why do we hold on to all those old things? Do we stockpile stuff with the unlikely possibility that one day we will have need of them? Perhaps. But it’s more likely they have sentimental value. They link us to pleasant memories from our past.

For more than 30 years the old bocce ball set accompanied us on every family vacation at the coast. But do you notice something terribly wrong in the photo? There is one red ball missing. Now, I may chunk the old set for a new one, but never will the memory be lost of the summer we did not heed the voice of a little child calling, “It’s in the ocean. The ocean has it. It’s washing away…”

For many years the idea of a family vacation meant that me, “Daddy,” would book an engagement at a prison in the mountains or the beach, so we could have free lodging while I was ministering and I’d divide my time between the ministry and the family, which was totally unfair. But when a friend, Paul Trollinger, out to destroy my “poverty mentality,” offered his beach house at Holden Beach, NC––free of charge––on one condition: “My brother,” Paul spoke with authority, “You can take your whole family down to the coast and it won’t cost you a dime, but on one condition: No ministry. No piano. Only your Bible if you like, but you are to rest. Play. And enjoy God and your family!” I took him up on it and thus began a tradition that’s now 34 years old. It was something I’d never known: A true, family vacation.

Now, I must confess, that taking a whole week off just to be with the family, falls short of a “purpose driven life,” when the purpose is to just have fun! But I began to slowly see how much I needed my family and my family needed me when Dustie, my oldest daughter, once said to her mother, “You know. I’d never like to do what daddy does, cause he goes out and ministers to everybody else’s kids and when he comes home exhausted, we get the left overs.” That was the beginning of a startling realization that I was a religious workaholic. OUCH! Even now that’s hard to confess. But as a friend said, “You have to own a thing before you can be free from it.” I owned up to my great need to be there with my family and do fun stuff! That’s when I discovered this wonderful game that you can play in the sand called, “Bocce Ball.” I bought a set. A good one, expensive too. And we kept up with it, carefully placing each piece in an old leather bag and it became one of the first things I packed every time we took off to coastal Carolina for time out from what I thought was most important, to engage in what is really most important: Giving my best self for the family––not just leftovers.

Recently, on our second day on the beach, one of my children asked if I brought the bocce balls with me. I answered, “Nope. Left them at the cottage. I will be right back.” I hopped into my truck and got them straight away.

When I picked up the old leather bag I realized how long we’d had the game, but when I dumped them out into the sand while the family paired up to make teams, I saw how weathered the balls had become and wondered if it was time for new set. I immediately dismissed that idea because no one cared what they looked like. Quickly my grandchildren were into the game and began the traditional argument of “But I went first last time,” meaning that you really wanted to be the last to roll the ball closest to the “peanut,” that’s what we called the little “no color” ball that was the object you wanted to get your ball closest to for points.

bocce2For hours each day we played, and each day the competition level grew. I wondered where did they all become so competitive. Surely it was their mother! I knew the answer was myself. And so it was, in the heat of the revelry, while we were measuring a really close call, one of the balls began to slowly roll unseen down the hard sand toward the strong surf. We did not even see it as we re-measured who was going to get the point on that round. But neither did we pay attention to Caspian, my grandson, who shouted out, “The ball is rolling into the ocean. Quick, it’s going into the sea. Hurry, the ball is going to get washed away.”

Three times he called out. Three times he warned that the ocean was about to swallow up our ball. And three times we paid him no attention. That is until we counted out the balls for the next round and realized we were short one red one. Suddenly I realized I had paid no attention to a little child’s voice crying, “It’s going into the ocean.”

Soon we were all frantically searching for the lost ball with our feet, while the strong surf seemed to mock us, laughingly crashing us into its sandy bottom.

We never found the ball. It was lost.

Everyone tried to console me that the set was old and we needed a new one anyway. No big deal. But it was a big deal. And it was more than losing a sentimental thing. It was that I did not listen to my own grandchild.

We never played again, but came home putting the past behind Everyone but me. For how could I have gotten so caught up in the game that I forgot what I’ve built my whole life on for the past 45 years: “In everything God has a voice. I can hear Him in everything and miss Him in anything.”

Francis Frangipane in his book, The Three Battlegrounds, shares that what we call memory is actually our own souls looking back into the past, but then he warns, “With few exceptions, the events that we remember most have shaped us the most.” Might I add, for good or for bad. He concludes:

“We are what the past has made us.”

But God has also warned in Luke 9:62, Philippians 3:13, and in Hebrews 11:15, “Forget… what lays behind.” Now how is that possible? With man that is impossible but with God all things are possible. Here is the good news about our past failures, our lost opportunities, our terrible blunders that we seem to never forget as they repeatedly beat us with condemnation: Though the events of our life cannot be reversed, our reactions to those events can be changed. Changed forever.

Frangipane writes: “As our reactions change, we change… we cannot alter the past, but we can put our past on the ‘altar’ as an act of worship. A worshipping heart truly allows God to restore the soul.”

Shucks. I don’t know whether I will buy a new bocce ball set or not, but I do know that I will always have a sentimental place in my heart for that old leather bag full of old beat up balls, minus one—the one buried in the Atlantic ocean—and the one buried in my heart that will always remind me of the time I did not listen to my precious Caspian. But rather than beat myself up with condemnation, I place my grandson and the one lost bocce ball at the alar before God, and believe that God alone is able and willing to take my mess ups and create something beautiful out of them. That’s because He is a redeeming God. And now, deeper and more meaningful than ever is that great quote from Scripture:

“And a little child shall lead them…” Isaiah 11:6

kenandlinda copyOn May 15th 1970, Ken Helser said no to music and yes to Jesus.  He was inducted into the seminary of life where the Bible was his textbook, the Holy Spirit his professor, and life the laboratory of testing. Ken had a dream for a piece of land where young people could come for camps and retreats.  In 1986, with faith and vision, Ken and Linda watched as the Lord provided enough money for them to purchase 52 acres of land across from their home on Beckerdite Road. The land became known as A Place for the Heart.