Have Fun Out There: On Golf and the Sermon on the Mount

With the Masters golf tournament starting today, I was reminded of a post from 2011 (below and slightly edited) when I compared obeying the Sermon on the Mount to playing the game of golf. As you watch the Masters this weekend, ponder the following:
I was out at the prison leading our weekly Bible study. I'd just finished reading the entire Sermon on the Mount--the Gospel according to St. Matthew, chapters five through seven. After finishing, one the inmates raises his hand.

"Is this attainable?" he asks.

The question gave me pause because just the day before we had been talking about the Sermon on the Mount in our Sunday School class. The argument the teacher made in our class was that the Sermon was unattainable. He made the argument Martin Luther popularized, that the Sermon is intended to humble us, to show us how salvation by works is impossible.

So, is the Sermon on the Mount attainable?

I guess it all depends upon what we mean by "attainable." When I look at various parts of the sermon, even the hardest parts like turning the other cheek and loving our enemies, I am pretty certain people have attained these standards. Christian history is full of biographies of saints who have loved enemies and turned the other cheek.

The point being, in any given moment of any given day I think the Sermon on the Mount is attainable.

Given that assessment, the question might move on to issues of sustainability and maintenance. Is it possible to sustain, decade after decade, a faultless adherence to the Sermon on the Mount?

I think the Sermon on the Mount contains the answer to that question in the Lord's Prayer: "Forgive us our sins."

So we are walking a fine line here. On the one hand, you don't want to say that the Sermon is unattainable, because clearly it is attainable. We really should try to attain to the ideals set out in the Sermon. And, with the help of God, we actually can attain these things.

But on the other hand, the Sermon is so imposing we know we are surely going to fail. A lot.

So how are we to thread the needle?

Well, this might be the worst metaphor you'll ever hear, but I'd like to compare the Sermon on the Mount to golf.

I don't golf a lot. But when I'm visiting my family I golf with my Dad. He's very good. I'm...less good.

If you don't know anything about golf all you need to know for our purposes is this: Golf is hard. It's a frustrating and infuriating game. Hence Mark Twain's quip: "Golf is a good walk spoiled." If you've ever played golf you know exactly what Twain was talking about.

There were times, particularly in my early years with the game, where I felt that golf was a form of Calvinistic self-loathing or Catholic self-mortification. I felt that you could either whip yourself for your sins or go golfing. The two seemed equivalent, spiritually speaking. And there have been times on the golf course when I would have preferred whipping myself rather than looking for another lost ball because I keep slicing my drives into the woods.

The point here is that golf is attainable on any given shot but, due to its difficulty, not sustainable. Even the pros make double bogeys. In 2011, Rory McIlroy was leading the Masters before going into the final round. He shot an 80. Watching Rory on the 10th hole of his final round I thought, "Hey, that's where I end up on golf courses! In someone's backyard." Five years later, in 2016, Jordan Spieth blew up. And don't get me started on Greg Norman in 1996.

The point is, golf is so hard even the pros melt down.

In this, I think golf is kind of like the Sermon on the Mount. Attainable on any given shot, any given hole, any given round. But too hard to be sustainable. There will be bogeys and double bogeys. (Or, if you're me, a whole lot worse.)

And given this degree of difficulty and likelihood of failure you often see golfers come unglued on the course. I've seen golfers curse, throw clubs, break clubs, throw clubs into ponds. Or just give up and drive off the course. Some, out of frustration, give up the game.

Similar things, I think, can happen with the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon is so hard we can become demoralized and self-loathing. And this can lead to quitting and giving up.

I've wrestled with these sorts of reactions in my golf game and in my Christian walk. In my early years with golf I got angry a lot. But as I've matured I've learned to keep my cool, even when I get an eight on a par three (this happened last week). I've learned to focus on the process rather than the outcome. And because of this I've improved a lot over the years.

In short, despite golf's difficulty and my repeated failures, I've found joy in the game of golf. I'm happy on a golf course. Even when my score is bad.

I'm looking for something similar in my relationship with the Sermon on the Mount. If I approach the Sermon with a grim Puritan rigor I don't think I'm going to be very pleasant to be around. I'll wind up wrapping a Beatitude, like a seven iron, around a pine tree. But if I can find joy in the climb then I think I can make progress over time. The key to becoming a skilled Christian is to practice the faith with joy. Even in failure. The alternative is guilt, shame, and anger. Which leads to giving up on the game. Our journey of faith then becomes a good walk spoiled.

So pick up your clubs and take up the Beatitudes. Be prepared to succeed. You can actually, on any given hole and in any given interaction, attain the state of perfection. You can make a par and you can act like Jesus. The Sermon or a drive in the fairway really is attainable. Mere mortals can pull it off.

Still, you're going to fail a lot. So be prepared for that as well. Because how you react to the failure will in large part determine if you keep coming back, and if you'll get better and more skilled as time goes on.

So, blessed are the merciful, and this putt breaks a little to the left.

Either way. Have fun out there.

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