Sunday, September 15, 2013

Hazards and Fairways: The Sometime Grace of the Recovery Shot

15 September 2013
St. Joseph’s Chapel, Kent School

This morning I will be shedding one of my most tightly guarded secrets.  In twenty-one years of preaching--giving sermons and chapel talks, I have never preached on this subject.  Never, not once.  Even people who know me well have never heard me speak of this personal obsession.  It’s my little secret.  Here it is:  I am fascinated by the game of golf.  Where this passion began exactly I don’t know; but it has been coming on strong since the late 1990s.  Maybe it was when the novelist John Updike, one of my favorite authors, said that sports writing got better the smaller the ball.  The smaller the ball, the better the writing.  I was intrigued.  Baseball sports writing is good, but golf writing is even better, I’ve discovered.  The game appeals to my perfectionist side, but then it explodes this way of thinking, almost completely.  If you are swinging a golf club, you cannot be a perfectionist...without going crazy.  The golf swing has so many moving parts—it’s like trying to keep trying to keep fifty ping pong balls underwater all at once.  It’s so simple, and impossible, at the same time.    
When people ask me if I play, I always say no.  No, I don’t.  I’m just a friend of the game—a fan, a golf intellectual perhaps.  I look at the game from the perspective of a writer, like Updike; with detachment, appreciation, and a nose for irony.  But the truth is I secretly play.  My swing is awful, but it is mine.  It is a little like becoming really interested in someone because they don’t like you, or they have rejected you.  That’s golf for me, a fickle and capricious lady who tortures me.  For what it’s worth, I follow the men in the PGA tournaments, but I prefer the Ladies Tour.  Yes, I’ll say it, their clothes are fabulous, and they can really play. 
                        So what do I like about golf?  I already mentioned that I like the clothes, and this is true for both the men and women.  For me, it’s the way in which perfectionism and realism, the ideal and the real, collide in the most beautiful of settings.  A well made golf course is a work of art, and yet the artist is still nature herself.  But the real collision of the ideal and the real is in the mind of the golfer just before the swing.  The mental game is everything in golf.    
I took my daughter Beatrice, who is eleven years old, to her first tournament this summer, just before school started.  We went to the Barclays Tournament played at Liberty National Golf Course, a course along the New York Harbor, and just under the shadow of the Statue of Liberty.  We saw the tournament on both Saturday and Sunday.  I don't take Beatrice to a lot of sporting events. She gets bored with spectator sports—it’s a little tedious.  She has yet to attend at Mets game (too much human suffering there—it’s bad for children), though she likes MLS ok.  Beatrice loved the Barclays Tournament, in particular the choice to go wherever you want to go, and to watch whatever you want to watch.  There is so much to see: from people watching—lots of fashion choices to study--to the animals on the course in a peaceable kingdom.  Like many children, she was mesmerized by the errant shots. These are shots that go wildly off course, and often into the crowd.  This is also one of my favorite parts of the experience as well, the collision of perfectionism and realism, the moment when everything goes wrong.  Within ten minutes of arriving at the Barclays, a golfer hit a ball at least a hundred yards off course.  The ball landed in the food court, next to a pretzel stand.  I didn’t have to worry about my daughter being bored; she was hooked by the crazy physics of it all.
A professional golfer hitting a shot wildly out of bounds is schadenfreude for the crowd.  I used a word there: schadenfreude.  There is no direct English translation of the German, but the word means something like “pleasure (or glee) in response to the misfortune of others.”  One of the most disturbing human tendencies is the real pleasure we get from the mistakes of other people.  As the writer Gore Vidal once said:  It is not enough to succeed.  Others must fail.”  But in golf, schadenfreude goes in surprising directions; it changes shape, becomes something very different. 
Let’s go back to the errant shot that can give the crowd so much pleasure.  Let’s find where the little white ball actually landed. 
The crowd knows more about the shot than the player, as caddie and pro make their way to the gathering spectacle, the new station of life after the disastrous tee shot. The children are ecstatic, so happy—it’s like an Easter egg hunt, except you can’t touch the magical egg.  You’ll be stupefied if you touch it (Harry Potter reference there).  In many cases, the spectators help the golfer locate the ball if it’s in the woods or tall grass.  Is it pleasure the crowd is feeling?  Sure, you can see its gleeful ripples, but there is something else as well.  People deeply identify with the golfer.  There is humor, but there is also a swelling compassion.  Everyone knows all about mistakes; and here comes the so-called celebrity, reduced to the common man, having to join the peanut gallery.  No other sport has the player enter the crowd like the sport of golf, to play an actual shot.  Caddie, golfer, and marshals give stage direction to create a pocket for the shot, opening outward, towards the new target for the golfer.  The caddie, who is much like the medieval squire, dutifully marches off the new, unusual yardage in nobody's book. That is, he takes a walk to the flag, if that’s where the golfer is aiming, and he then walks back, carefully counting his steps.  It all takes time; it is not over fast.  Though the crowd loves the reduction, the humbling moment--the humiliation, they are all pulling for the amazing recovery.  The recovery shot is right after the shot out of bounds.  Sometimes the golfer ends up in better position than he or she would have been had nothing gone wrong.  Everyone is rooting for the golfer because everyone identifies with the mistake.  I saw Phil Mickelson early in the summer, at the Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, hit a ball straight off a tree trunk, after already being out of bounds. The crowd, the golfer, and I all had to scatter together to avoid the ricochet.  And we got to do it all over again, in nearly the same spot.  It made the crowd love Phil even more.  That guy hits some crazy shots.  And he is also crazy good.       
                        So, back at the Barclays, Beatrice will never forget the shot a golfer named Jason Kokrak hit a hundred yards off course.  It was her introduction to the sport.  From the pretzel and beer stands with hundreds of new friends around him, Kokrak then hit a recovery shot to within ten feet of the hole.  I had never heard of Jason Kokrak, and I watch golf every weekend.  I looked him up on the leaderboard after the hole.  Was he about to lose his tour card?  Was he on the edge of a nervous breakdown?  Was it time to find a new career, maybe selling real estate or life insurance?  Maybe go to divinity school?  Jason Kokrak was in the top twenty of the Barclays Playoff.  He was having a good day at the office.     
All of us are going to hit shots out of bounds.  I do it every day.  We make mistakes, sometimes big ones.  If you are not used to failing at something, you haven’t tried anything very hard.  But the disastrous shot doesn’t have to define you.  It doesn’t define your worth, or your abilities, or your future.  It’s actually when you join the human race.  But the very next moment—the recovery shot--may very well define your character forever.  How you respond to ordinary adversity is when your character is forged.     
            So what does the gospel of Jesus Christ have to say about recovery shots?  Here’s what Jesus has to say about the wayward sinner, and the mistakes we all make:
“’Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?’  ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’
‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully and find it?  When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’  ‘Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’”

It is clear from Jesus that God loves recovery shots.  To repent is literally to turn around; to choose a new target of wisdom and morality, to go for the right flag.  God cares for us most deeply when we are out of bounds, when we have run off the map of how we think our lives are supposed to go.  Anybody can handle success.  How you handle a big mistake or a major personal failure are the moments when you discover your faith, and the size of your heart.  Courage is fear turned inside out, and the recovery shot may be the most remarkable shot you have ever hit.  You will find, in some cases, that you are in a better position than you would have been had you never made a mistake.  This is the moment of grace; and we get a chance to participate with God’s grace and become stronger at the most painful or embarrassing moments on the course of life.  Jesus says there is greatest joy in heaven when one person does this.  This is because the recovery shots are the moments when we develop compassion for other people.  We get out of our own heads and really learn to love each other.  It is the moment when we reverse the schadenfreude of Gore Vidal’s quotation.
“It is not enough that I succeed.  Others must succeed too.” 
            This is Kent after one week of school in our river valley.  People are hitting shots out of bounds every day.  Tee shots sail into the river, or off the chapel.  They land behind dormitories, or roll past the mail room into the student center.  Oops, that one’s going in Macedonia Creek.  It’s in the hazard.  You’re going to have to take a drop.  The disaster does not define you, the gospel tells us.  But the recovery shot, the one that God is watching closely, can change your life; and it can land right by the hole, making you richer for the wayward journey.  It can be a great show here at Kent, watching other people make mistakes.  Or: your own recovery shot can change how you see yourself and everyone around you, and their fundamental worth as children of God.  It is not enough anymore that I must succeed.  Others must succeed too.  Have a great second week.  I’ll see you on the fairway. 

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