The Little Girl who Celebrates Gutter Balls

I love miracles.  I love the way God weaves them, both big and small into the fabric of our everyday lives.  I love that no matter how small they may seem in the course of our day, they cast a shimmering reflection of God’s magnificence that causes us to stop, look heavenward and marvel at the immensity of God’s innovation, love and playfulness.  I love miracles, so I look for them everywhere.

 Of course, I’ve got an example.  As I sit here this Sunday morning and write, I’m humbled and awestruck by the innocent wisdom of a 4 year old girl who celebrates gutter balls.  It’s true, I’m talking about Mollie.  Yesterday, on a whim, Mel and I took Mollie bowling for the first time.  Though I’m not a frequent bowler, the sport has an anchor deep in my life.  I remember spending a great deal of time in bowling alleys as a kid.  Dad was an avid bowler, as was Grandpa Snyder—at least as far as I can recall.  Bowling alleys were places draped in an abundance of sound and action:  The rumble of the bowling ball on the alley, the frenzied crash of pins, the buzz and ringing of a pinball machine tucked in some corner.  They were all sounds of my childhood and things you just don’t hear anywhere else.

 Bowling has changed.  Hand scrawled scorecards have been replaced by computerized scoring projected on large screen TV’s, amid an animated jumble of dancing pins, snarling balls and frequent rebuff or praise depending on performance.  Gone is the noxious haze pooling at the ceiling from burning cigarettes.  Gone are rows of inky black balls, slick and worn, which are differentiated only by a number designating weight stamped onto them.  In their place are dancing lights, glowing, multicolored pins, a cacophony of popular songs and bright, pastel colored balls in pink, blue, green and purple.  But the base experience, the tremendous, sensory delights are still there.  And even at 51 years old, I’m caught up in the experience and it’s nearly overwhelming.

 But back to miracles:  Bowling alleys may seem odd places to find them, but trust me, they’re there.  Where kids and families gather, where smiles are exchanged, where playful words are bartered for laughter and joy, that’s fertile ground for miracles.  Then there’s the accomodations that have been made to make bowling accessible for children.  For little kids, they now have something called “ramps”—portable plastic chutes in bright colors and molded to look like dinosaurs, lizards and birds.  Ramps allow the kids to aim the ball, give it a push and send it down the alley without the obligatory, walk, swing and release that most of us have to endure.  That’s not the miracle that I’m referring to, but there is probably one to be celebrated in there somewhere. 

 So, on this occasion, we dutifully secured a bright blue dinosaur chute for Mollie, positioned to send the ball right down the middle of the lane.  As she sent the first ball with a push down the chute and toward the other end of the lane, I thought of that delightful sound of pins falling.  I guess some troublesome physical law must be at work on bowling lanes that causes a ball placed straight down the middle to veer toward the side because the ball dropped with a thump into the gutter. 

 I’ll be honest that I was a little heartbroken for her.  Her first ball, and “wham!” a gutter ball.  My initial reaction was placating, “Oh, that’s ok, Baby…I didn’t aim well.”  I turned prepared to embrace a sad little girl, but instead saw Mollie jumping back toward Mel, hands high above her head as she exclaimed, “I did it!  I did it!”  No circus clown ever smiled that big and wide. 

 I know what you’re thinking, “What a wonderful miracle indeed:  A little girl so overcome with joy about the experience that she failed to get caught up in failure of the first ball.”  It’s cute, to be sure, and I think happiness is always miraculous; but again, that’s not the miracle I’m focused on here.

 As the game unfolded, Mollie’s balls hit the mark, or they don’t; they charge deep into the pyramid of pins, causing them to collide, tumble and bounce.  And they dropped, almost urgently into the gutter.  On the buzzing TV screen straddling the lane, her score edged up, and stalled here and there.  Gutter balls.  My heart ached with each one.  But not Mollie.  Her joy was undaunted by something as irrelevant as the score.  Each and every ball, regardless of it’s result at the end of the lane, ended in the same joyful celebration.  Mollie jumped and danceed.  She smiled ear to ear, and raced to my arms where we hugged, exchanged high fives, and offered praise.  What she was celebrating wasn’t immediately clear, and Mel and I exchanged knowing glances, aware that she didn’t really “get” the point of the game.

 But then something truly miraculous happened:  Soon my gutter balls didn’t seem so painful.  Yes, it’s true, I threw a few of them as well.  How many pins fell or didn’t became less important, and my own apologies, pleadings and excuses were lost to the cheers, joy and embrace of a little girl who celebrates gutter balls, both mine and hers.

 That Mollie could spend time unfettered by pride and vanity, and find such joy in the process of bowling, with no concern for the outcome is very cool, and you could easily argue that it’s a miracle.  But the true miracle, the one that caused me to write these thoughts down, is that the perfection of her celebration, her God given elation and joy of “doing” was so powerful and pure that it eclipsed my own hang ups, exposed my worldly and left me with a deep feeling of appreciation and praise.  It was if she drew rainbows on my heart.

 How can it be that Mollie, with all her sass and childlike vision, can hit upon the one thing about living that most of us forget:  That the best parts of any pursuit, be it recreational or otherwise, are in the doing.  I guess it’s just a truly sad reality that as we grow, we get so caught up in the world that we erect idols to our own pride:  Performance, success…perfection.  In doing so, we fail to do the most fundamental act of worship:  To praise God for the process of being alive—that lifelong dance of exploration, movement, thought, song and celebration.  And yes, even the tears.  It’s in the “doing” that we spend most of our time on this earth, not the reaping of results.  I think that’s where we should offer the majority of our celebration and worship.

And so, now I celebrate gutter balls.  God told Mollie, and she showed me.