Archive for December, 2022

Billiards & Theology

December 29, 2022

Truth be told, billiards is a hobby that for me, usually doesn’t involve a lot of thought. Perhaps that’s why I’m not a world champion after playing for 30+ years. More often (especially if playing alone) it clears my head and I don’t think about much of anything else. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t possibilities for more useful intellectual and theological engagement with the game.

Earlier this week I headed out to one of my favorite locales with my colleague here in town, Matt. Although he readily admitted it had been a long time since he last played, he was eager to get out and I was happy to introduce him. As I was preparing to go I was WhatsApping with another long-time friend, peer, and colleague (in another country), JP. He was happy Matt and I were heading out and hoped it would be a good opportunity to build the relationship. But, he added, I should still show Matt no mercy when we played!

That got me thinking a bit.

In billiards (or any other competitive activity, I suspect), mercy is complicated. Mercy is, in fact, not always merciful. Showing mercy (deliberately missing shots or trying to otherwise throw the game so the other person feels more capable or hopeful) is actually unmerciful if the other person doesn’t have at least a nominal baseline ability to make a shot now and then. Showing mercy to someone with absolutely no skill at all only makes both people miserable by drawing out the game forever. Mercy is appropriate in a situation where there the other person has at least some ability, or some ability to improve on their current ability. Otherwise mercy becomes pointless and torturous to everyone involved.

So is all mercy like billiards mercy? Is God’s mercy like billiards mercy?

The Bible describes God as merciful (Exodus 34:6, Deuteronomy 4:31, Nehemiah 9:17, Luke 6:36, etc.) and I believe this is true. In his mercy He extends forgiveness and grace through the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension and promised return of his divine Son, Jesus the Christ. This grace is necessary because of the sin that separates us from God’s perfect holiness, a condition creation has endured since the Fall of Genesis 3. And it is in mercy that God’s perfect timing continues to play out, allowing his broken creation to continue experiencing redemption person-by-person through Jesus (Ephesians 1:3-10). There is a purpose to God’s timing and mercy. Otherwise continuing to experience the suffering of the world would be more than pointless, it would be cruel, even evil.

So what is it in us that makes God’s mercy merciful rather than simply torture?

The traditional – and wrong – answer is our good works in some way. Pelagius tried this route early on and it was roundly rejected by the Church and rightly so. If we contribute in any way to our own salvation, then the Son of God’s work on our behalf is only partial, imperfect. Passages like Romans 3 or 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 are strong in making sure we don’t mistake our efforts for something worthy of or deserving of God’s grace. Pelagius meant well, I assume. That’s the mark of a compelling heresy – it’s not trying to be heretical, it’s just trying to make sense to us in some way.

And as such, others attempted to rehabilitate his ideas. And frankly a lot of preachers I’ve heard are effectively Pelagiasts in barely mentioning Jesus at all in their sermons, never mentioning our sin in any specific, overt way, and focusing exclusively on exhorting their hearers to good works. Good works are important to talk about, but without any context to them, hearers presume it is these that impress God or lead him to bestow his mercy on us.

So it can’t be our good works, whether we define this in the narrow sense Pelagius tried to, as in our reaching out for/acceptance of God’s offer of grace in Jesus Christ, or in the wider sense of impressing God with our good works. JP and I agreed on that so it’s clearly the right answer. But if so, what might there be about us that makes the mercy of God merciful?

I suggest going all the way back to the beginning, to the imago dei of Genesis 1:27. The quality that makes us redeemable, that makes mercy actually merciful rather than sadistic torture, is not something generated by us but gifted to us by our Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Like everything else, it is received, not generated. Because God has created us in his image, we are redeemable. This is not something we can boast about, as Paul makes clear in Romans 4. It is something which God alone receives the glory for, and any boasting to be done should be done about him.

I’m still playing around with this theological noodling. Thoughts? Alternatives? Is the analogy flawed to begin with?

In any event, I didn’t show mercy, and we had a good time regardless. :-)

Pool Hall – Nine Ball Pool & Bar, Medan

December 23, 2022

Finding pool halls is an interesting thing. I rely on Google Maps and simple queries for billiard, billiards, billar, and other variations by language. Searching for pool brings a mixed result in some places where swimming pools are a thing. So it is that I discovered a new pool hall in Medan, Indonesia by accident when searching for another place with nine in the title.

Nine Ball Pool & Bar is on the far north side of town in a giant complex known as Cemara Asri (beautiful/lovely cypress/evergreen in Bahasa Indonesia). It was a 40-minute ride through town (at rush hour) to get there, and to say it was disappointing would be an understatement. I suppose in many ways though, it’s a blessing. It would be problematic to have a great pool hall located so far away from me!

First off, the use of the word bar in the title is misleading. This is not surprising in Southeast Asia where English words are often used without a full knowledge of their context. There is no bar here. Not even a counter. There is a small cooler with a few iced teas, Coca Colas, and approximately six bottles of Heineken. Don’t come too thirsty or you’ll clean out their inventory pretty quickly.

There are eight-foot tables here, about five of them. None of them appear to be in very good shape – warped bumpers, worn felt, etc. The cues are pretty typical for a place that doesn’t take care of the tables – they’re pieces of wood and have tips on them but their condition is rough to say the least. Worse, although there were four-five air conditioning units in the place none of them were on, so it was Southeast Asian hot and humid. There was one other table in use when I arrived.

There aren’t many places to play pool on the north side of town so it’s a shame this one is lackluster. On the plus side, on the ride home we passed another pool hall I’ll have to check out, which should only be about a 20-minute drive away. No danger to switching my preferred haunts for now!

Pool Hall – 時代撞球飛鏢概念館 , Chiayi City, Taiwan

December 7, 2022

If Google Translate is to be believed (and that’s always an open question), the name of this place translates to Times Billiard Darts Concept Hall. Which to be fair is a pretty accurate description of this place, literally. It’s a 24-hour pool hall, with plenty of bright lighting and close to a dozen tables on the first floor – I didn’t get a chance to check out the upstairs. Tables and cues are in good condition and it was pretty busy on a late Tuesday afternoon.

Staff was friendly and bemused. No English spoken beyond what Google Translate could provide, but also no real need for it. Playing pool is not complicated in terms of indicating what you want (it ought to be pretty obvious!) in terms of a table. Food and drink was limited to cans of pop – didn’t see any food options. I think they provided tea & cups at each table but I didn’t try it.

Definitely a good place to play pool in Chiayi City, and not simply for being one of perhaps only two options. I tried to find a second pool hall and was unsuccessful (even after going to the fifth floor of what turned out to be a residential apartment building – I think). Maybe on future visits I’ll be able to find it. For now, this is the go-to place.

Pool Hall – Forte Billiard, Singapore

December 6, 2022

This is another pool club located on the second floor of a mall, not too far from Clique. And it was pretty similar. A lot of tables and virtually no one playing mid-afternoon on a Saturday. Here there were more snooker tables than pool tables. Tables were in good condition, cues were decent. Staff was busy on a mobile phone and not very attentive, but there wasn’t much to attend to other than checking tables in and out. No food or drinks that I saw, and at most it would be a vending machine. There are restaurants elsewhere in the mall that I presume you could bring food or drink in from.

The ambiance here didn’t please me as much as Clique, but that’s a somewhat arbitrary judgment. As I was leaving a mother came in with her two pre-teen sons and was teaching them. It’s a good place for that sort of thing. Clean, brightly lit, and equipment in good condition.

Pool Hall – Clique Billiards, Singapore

December 5, 2022

I’m grateful there are pool clubs that are (relatively) sanitary and brightly lit and don’t serve alcohol. I’m glad these places exist so families can play pool together and kids can learn the game. But I don’t particularly care to play in them myself. There’s no shortage of tables to be sure, they’re in great condition with clean, new felt. Cues could have better tips but are somewhat straight. Staff is friendly and attentive, at least as much so as speaking a different language allows. It’s located on the third level of what appears to be a mall/family activity center.

The place advertises snacks and drinks but this appears to consist of Indomie and a few sodas. There were a handful of other people playing mid-afternoon, with a dozen 9-foot tables to choose from as well as 2-3 snooker tables. Definitely a great place to bring the kids and teach them the game!

Pool Hall – Chevy’s Bar & Bistro, Singapore

December 4, 2022

You wouldn’t know this bar/restaurant had a pool table unless you took the time to walk in and all the way back in the narrow, cramped, and dimly red-lit atmosphere. Which I did. And there, glorious, was a bar table. The place was hopping on a Friday night, but I was able to find one of the last seats at the bar. From there I had time to survey the action on the table. A quartet of fellows was playing and one guy was beating them all. Their accents were likely Aussie, but might have been New Zealand – my ear isn’t good enough to distinguish yet. I put my name up and waited my turn.

Then I beat them all.

That got their attention – and their respect. I learned a bit about their lives as transplants to Singapore working in various businesses. They’ve shot pool together for years and competed together as a team in some sort of SE Asian tournament similar to the BCA Championship I competed in back in the States. But Covid had taken them from being teammates to being brothers, and their close bonds with one another were palpable and beautiful.

Once established as a serious pool player I was accepted into the merry band and we spent the rest of the night shooting pool together.

Chevy’s is not a pool hall or even a pool bar. It’s a bar with a pool table. It’s serviceable, as are the cues. It’s located in a hip area of Singapore one street over from the hip and kinda Bohemian vibe of Haji Street. There are dozens of little bars, clubs and restaurants (as well as at least that many shops) in the general area. I picked Chevy’s at random and am grateful I did. The staff is friendly and quick with both food and drinks. Plus, the music was a constant stream of classic Western rock and roll, something I haven’t heard much of in months.

There’s a good rotation of folks that play there, including competitively. I will DEFINITELY be returning on future visits to Singapore, hoping to improve not just my game but the possibility of unlikely friendships in a part of the world I’ve only heard about all my life.