The sinking sun had just begun to lay the first, faint brushstrokes of what would be a rose-hued masterpiece across the sky when I crossed the lawn and settled down in an Adirondack chair while waiting for the ringing of the triangle dinner bell. A few months earlier, an invitation was extended to a number of ministry leaders whose churches support Compassion International. The offer was to visit a ranch in Wyoming operated by the Refuge Foundation. The purpose of the trip was simple: to relax, recharge, recalibrate and reconnect with God. We spent days wading trout streams, riding horses along mountain ridges and enjoying prayer times, long walks and deep conversations that stretched well into the night around the firepit. In 17 years of full-time ministry, I can say that time was the most needed and the most valuable week I spent anywhere doing anything. One of our members said to me, “We should send you out there every year. You came back more alive than I have ever seen you.” My wife agreed.
On the last afternoon of the trip, I took a seat in one of the wooden chairs on the lawn and watched as some of the guests pitched horseshoes. Sitting in the chair beside mine, my friend Wess Stafford turned to me and said, “Do you play horseshoes?”
I responded, “I played often as a kid, and I still have my grandfather’s horseshoe set. But it has been a long while. You?”
Wess nodded. “I have a horseshoe pitch set up at my home. But the only time I ever play is when I have guests. You know the secret?”
“The secret to what? Playing horseshoes?”
“The secret to enjoying the game.”
“Can’t say that I do.”
Wess paused for a moment, then said, “Don’t practice.”
I thought for a few seconds. “Do you mean rely on some natural ability? Or are you saying, ‘Just don’t care about the outcome’? Because I was not born with some God-given bent to pitch horseshoes…and I kinda’ hate losing too.”
Wess continued, “I mean just that: don’t practice. I never practice. And I am not very good at all at horseshoes, but I also have no plans to get better.” (Talking with Wess sometimes feels like talking to a very tall, very kind Yoda.)
“Why would you not want to get better?”
“It’s simple really. When you practice something again and again, you get good at it. You can get very good at it. But do you know what happens when you get really good at a game, when you become highly advanced? Only the best want to play with you. Everyone else just wants to watch because they know you will beat them. But when you are not so good at a game, people have a chance to win fair and square. You don’t have to let them win; they just beat you. Assuming it is a game that you can afford to lose, you’ll enjoy never running out of people who want to play you a round or two. You create a perfect opportunity to spend time alongside them, cheer them on, ask them to give you pointers and celebrate their wins. Everyone needs a solid win now and then. When their win becomes your win, you have given them something of immense value, and you have ensured that they will want to play again and win again someday. Even if they lose in the future, they will know that it is possible to win again because they have won before. But the secret is this: never practice horseshoes.”
A staff member clanged the dinner bell, and we stood up to walk toward the lodge. The sun was setting on another day, but fresh wisdom dawned upon what it means to give, to lead and to encourage others.
I have yet to pick up another horseshoe.