Sunday, March 12, 2006
The summer of 1996 was the bridge between my sophomore and junior years of high school. I was not yet 17, had just learned to drive and had not yet learned to feel the pressures of university study or job searching. Armed with this time to spare and the freedom brought by being able to transport one’s self, I chose to spend nearly an entire season at the tennis courts in Paris, Tenn., a short drive from my home.
I played almost nightly, partly because I genuinely love the game for its full-body exercise, its strategy and the one-on-one contest of skills it promotes. I also played because there are few ideals young boys strive harder to achieve than that of the star athlete. As a particularly lanky (6’1 and 150 pounds, to be exact) young man with unexceptional foot speed and an uninspiring vertical leap, tennis seemed my best bet.
During sophomore year I had been the fourth-best player for the Henry County High School tennis team, and had won 11 out of 13 matches I played during our spring season competing against other schools. While everyone at HCHS who knew me was aware of my on-court prowess, fourth-best seemed too low a bar. Starting the weekend after my classes ended, there were few nights I couldn’t be seen practicing with my father, seeking a more bankable backhand, a more forceful forehand and a more solid serve.
The other regular players in Paris watched me during the summer and commented on my dedication. “You’re coming along pretty well” and “You’ve made real progress this year” were oft-heard remarks, but there was no way to really tell how much better I had become until I played a match against an opponent who’d previously bested me. That test came in August during Paris’ annual city tournament. As it so happened, I was slotted to play against Daniel Barnheiser in the first round.
Daniel had narrowly beaten me the year before. Our team’s top two players, Clayton Richardson and Chad Wilson, were both older and more experienced than me, so losing to them felt familiar. However, Daniel was a year younger than me, and losing to a freshman, however close the score had been, was a blow to my confidence at the time.
Daniel seemed to have everything I did not: many female friends, naturally tan skin and dark slick hair. Mom told me that he resembled the singer Rick Nelson, a teen heartthrob in her youth. He was a natural athlete who also played soccer well, and his rapidly-moving feet spirited him to many shots on the tennis court that would have passed other players by.
'He’s good at so many things already, why can’t I be better than him at just tennis?' I often thought during that year.
When we stepped onto the court the evening of our match, I asked him if he’d played much during the summer. “No,” he said in a nonchalant voice indicating he’d had better things to do; things involving girls and others our age, rather than hitting an incalculable number of tennis balls back to his dad.
Daniel started strong; his athletic shot-making and a few early misfires from my end of the court gave him a 3-0 lead at the start of the match. I found myself wondering if any amount of practice was going to fashion me into a player capable of winning important matches.
However, in the fourth game my shots began to land in consistently. I was not serving 100-mph bombs like Pete Sampras or crushing forehands like Andre Agassi, but at the high school level the winner is usually the player who misses the least. Soon Daniel found himself in a dilemma: if he stayed back at the baseline I was going to miss fewer shots than him, and if he tried to come forward to the net to end the points I would be able to lob the ball over his head or hit it past him with my improved accuracy.
His rust eventually showed as he began to take more risks, attempting to power the ball by me. It worked sometimes; he occasionally struck forehands landing inside the lines that I could only watch as they went by. But, sometimes just after one of these flashes of brilliance, another of his shots would hit the fence behind me before bouncing. After losing the first three games to Daniel I only lost five more the whole match. The final score was 7-5, 6-3 in my favor, much to the disappointment of the female cheering section who’d come to watch him play.
An indication of my performance took place halfway through the second set, after I had established a comfortable lead. I took a bigger than average swing on a softly bouncing ball and crushed it. It landed about three yards too long. Daniel responded by saying “It’s about time you missed one!”
Everyone faces a time when they question their own talents and whether they can achieve something they’ll be proud of. This is just as true in the life of a Christian witness as it is on the playing field. You may see people with musical gifts, those who preach confidently in front of large crowds or who can talk about Jesus in small groups with gregariousness that an insurance salesman would covet and wonder, 'What do I have to offer?'
Like athletes, everyone who seeks to work for God needs “practice” in the form of daily prayer and Bible study. God may reveal the gift in you that draws hundreds of new converts; maybe you’ll only draw one. But you won’t lure anyone to Christ if you’re counting on your talents alone.
As the minister Oswald Chambers said, “The thing that really testifies for God and for the people of God in the long run is steady perseverance, even when the work cannot be seen by others. And the only way to live an undefeated life is to live looking to God.”
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