Lessons of Summer
That’s Golf! That’s Life! Click here for audio
Philippians 4:8-13, Luke 12:1-3
Pastor Marty Raths
This summer Donna and I are preaching about the theme Lessons of Summer. We are drawing out life and faith lessons from common summer activities. And as an aging athlete, I felt led to preach about two sports that are very much a part of our experience of summer. The week after next I am going to be preaching about what has long been our nation’s favorite summer sport baseball, and this week I am going to preach about what many consider to be the most challenging and character testing of sports golf.
Now there are a lot of lessons to be learned from the game of golf. In fact with golf I can imagine doing an entire sermon series, as a lot of comments have been made about the game of golf through the years, and some of them are humorous:
No matter how bad you are playing, it is always possible to play worse.
Sure I have a handicap. My woods, my irons, and my putter.
For me, the worst part of playing golf, by far, has always been hitting the ball.
A “gimme” can best be defined as an agreement between two golfers, neither of whom can putt very well.
Some of the humor is combined with references to the laws of nature:
Hazards attract, fairways repel.
When asked once why he was using a new putter, professional golfer Craig Stadler responded, “I am using a new putter because the last one didn’t float very well.”
Some of the humor is even combined with references to the faith:
The meek may inherit the earth, but they’ll never reach the green in two.
If I hit it right, it is a slice. If I hit it left, it is a hook. If I hit it straight, it is a miracle.
The only time my prayers are not answered is on the golf course. Billy Graham
Other comments are more serious, but just as wise:
As you walk down the fairway of life you must smell the roses, for none of us gets to play more than one round. Ben Hogan
Of all the hazards, fear is the worst. Sam Snead
Golf is the closest game to the game we call life . . . Bobby Jones
As I started to think about all the lessons to be gleaned from the game of golf, many came to mind, but I settled on three of them. And this is the first one. I am not altogether sure about this because I am not familiar with every game, but as far as I know golf is the only game that is played, whether it is a casual round with friends or the US Open, without umpires or referees. Golf depends first and foremost upon an honor system among the players.
Bobby Jones is among that small pantheon that includes the greatest golfers, Walter Hagen, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods . . . But he is known as much for his fair play as he is for his golf skills. Early in his career, he was in a playoff at the 1925 US Open. During the match, his ball ended up in the rough, and as he was setting up to play his next shot, his club caused a slight movement of the ball. He immediately turned to the marshals and called a penalty on himself. The marshals discussed it among themselves, and then they questioned some of the gallery to see whether anyone had actually seen Jones’s ball move. Since no one else had seen it move, the marshals decided that the decision was Jones’s to make, and without hesitation he called a two-stroke penalty on himself, only to end up losing the tournament by one stroke. Afterwards, when he was praised for his decision, he replied, “You may as well praise me for not robbing a bank.”
Golf is an honor system, and so is life most of the time, and that is why Jesus spoke often about the virtue of integrity. In the passage from Luke Jesus warns us about the dangers of hypocrisy, of saying one thing and doing another, of presenting a public self that is at odds with our private self, of doing certain things in the darkness of secrecy that we would never want others to see in the light of day.
But in the end our motivation should not be just the possibility of public exposure. Integrity is more than that. Integrity acts not out of the fear of exposure, but out of a desire to do what is right. So it does what is right, what is good and kind and generous, even when no one is watching, especially when no one is watching. Echoing what Jesus said, many others have said that the truest test of our character is what we do in the dark, meaning when no one else is watching us. Or what we are willing to do when no one else has seen, like when we have moved the ball in the final round of a US Open. Like Bobby Jones do we call the penalty on ourselves or not? Are darkness and light the same to us, or do we live one way in the dark and another in the light? As the game of golf is meant to be played, do we live our lives with honesty and integrity or not?
There is another chapter in the life of Bobby Jones, one that comes later on. At the age of 46 he was diagnosed with a degenerative nerve disorder that ended his golf career and eventually confined him to a wheelchair. Story has it that someone once remarked to him how unfortunate it was that he was stricken with such a debilitating disease, and his response has become widely known in the world of golf and beyond. When I quoted Bobby Jones earlier saying, “Golf is the closest game to the game we call life . . . “ I did not give the entire quote. In response to this remark Jones went on to say “. . . You get bad breaks from good shots; you get good breaks from bad shots – but you have to play the ball where it lies.”
This is the second of the lessons. In golf, and in life, we have to play the ball where it lies. The present is what it is, and present circumstances are what they are. We may wish our lives were otherwise, but no amount of wishing will change the present moment. It is what it is, so we have to play the ball where it lies.
I think this is part of what Paul was trying to say in his letter to the faithful in Philippi. “For I have learned,” Paul writes, “to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
Paul is talking about having a basic sense of realism and contentment about life in the only place where it is lived, in the present, in the here and now. But we can overwhelm the present with regrets about the past, and worries about the future. We can squander away the present by wishing, always wishing, that it were somehow different. Meanwhile, life just keeps passing us by because we are never fully present to the here and now.
Now at this point I do have to mention the fact that golfers have a wide range of abilities, and depending upon how well we play, we may glean some different lessons from the game. Professionals may glean some lessons that the rest of us do not. And even among those of us who are not professionals, there is a wide range of abilities. So there may be some lessons to glean if we play the game well, and other lessons that the rest of us may glean, and when it comes to golf, I count myself among the rest of us.
And for a time in my life Paul’s sense of realism and contentment about the present were not a part of my golf game. The problem was that, when I was younger, I was a good athlete, and very, very competitive. So when I played golf in my 20s and 30s, and even though I only played a few times each summer, I naturally expected to play really well. Like I said realism and contentment were not a part of my game. So when I played, I would become frustrated with my play, which certainly did not help my game any. Another struggling golfer like me once made the astute observation, “Just because you miss a short putt does not mean you have to hit your next drive out of bounds,” which about summed up my game at that time in my life.
But then I had an epiphany, and it brought me to a crossroads. I told myself that it was utterly unrealistic to expect to play golf really well, if I was only going to play a few times a summer. Golf requires far too many practiced skills to expect that. So I had a choice to make. Either I could play the ball where it lay in my life, meaning with a realistic expectation about how well I could play, and accepting that, then I could simply play the game, enjoy the game, enjoy the course, enjoy the occasional good shot, and especially enjoy the company of my playing partners. Either I could do that, or I could quit playing. Otherwise, it simply was not worth the frustration.
I chose the former, and I have never regretted it. I now enjoy the few times I play because I have come to a place of realism and contentment about my golf game. I play the ball where it lies in my life, given my very real limitations as a golfer, and Paul encourages us to do the same in all the other more important parts of our lives. Otherwise, if we are constantly at odds with our present life, constantly dissatisfied with our present life circumstances, life is going to leave us frustrated, angry, resentful, anxious, disappointed.
So in golf, and in life, we have to play the ball where it lies. But that does not mean that we have to stay there, keeping the same sort of lie, going from rough to rough, or from hazard to hazard. Surely one of the secrets to a good and faithful life is figuring out how best to live in the present, how best to live with our lie, and then how best to hit the next shot.
And that brings us to the third of the lessons. I do not believe that Paul is encouraging us to live a life of passivity, of just accepting whatever happens to us, of settling for whatever lie our life may happen to have at the present moment. This is this same man who never wearied of talking about the transformative power of our life in Christ, and about the possibility that we, and all things, can be made new by the grace of God.
In golf, the most important shot is always the next one. No matter how bad our last shot, no matter how bad our present lie, the challenge is to hit the next best shot that we can. The same is true in life. In golf the challenge is to make the next best shot, and in life the challenge is to take the next right step, the next faithful step, the next loving step. As far as I know, Bobby Jones never said this, but he certainly lived it. Play the ball where it lies, to be sure, because we really have no other choice, not if we are going to live well, and realistically, and faithfully. But then do our best to land our next shot in the fairway or on the green.
As I said before, I am an aging athlete, and of all the sports that I have played, golf seems to have taught me the most about life. When I have been playing, there have been many times when I have found myself saying to myself in as many words, “That’s golf! That’s life!” Golf is in so many ways a reflection of life and faith, of the importance of honesty and integrity, of acknowledging the present realities of our life, but then of doing what we can to change those realities so that we can become even better people and tomorrow can become even better than today.
Or, as another wise commentator said about the game of golf, “One of the fascinating things about golf is how it reflects the cycle of life. No matter what you shoot one day, the next day you have to go back out to the first tee and begin all over again trying to be the best player you can be.” That is golf. And that is life.