I started playing tennis as a 12 year old. I spent summers at the public tennis courts in Yuma, Arizona, drinking water that tasted like felt. We would fill up tennis ball cans with cold water from a drinking fountain. That felt water was how we endured the 110+ degree heat.
0-6, 0-6, 0-6
Because I wasn’t up to my brothers’ level, I was often relegated to the backboard, which is basically a tall wooden wall you pummel with a tennis ball. Instead, it punishes you. A formidable opponent, the backboard never misses and always hits the ball back faster than you can.
Often I fantasized that I was Andre Agassi—I was growing the hair—and the backboard was Pete Sampras in the finals of the U.S. Open. I imagined a crowd of people cheering me on, when in reality I would lose to the backboard in the solitary confinement of a fenced-in court.
When I did improve enough that Steve and Brian let me hit with them, I imagined, older then, my girlfriend (who was also fabricated) watching me from the lawn outside the court. When Agassi and Sampras were on TV, the cameras always panned to their girlfriends in the player’s box.
I realized in high school that tennis matches are not well attended. Unlike football, basketball, baseball, and even wrestling, high school tennis is played in obscurity. So I was back to imagining a crowd applauding my groundstrokes and serves.
Cloudy with a chance …
I’ve been thinking about my short-lived tennis career, both the real one and the dreamed-up one, with Memorial Day approaching. The last Monday of May, we in the U.S. commemorate those who died while in military service. I am reminded of a passage in the book of Hebrews:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. –Hebrews 12:1-2 esv
The writer of Hebrews is encouraging us to run the race of faith like all those mentioned in the previous chapter—Noah, Joseph, Moses, Gideon, among others. But the idea here is not that we should be faithful lest they be disappointed, or that we should try to impress them, like my imaginary audience (and girlfriend). See, he’s speaking about witnesses to God, not of us. They are examples, not onlookers. They have proved by their testimony, their witness, that the life of faith is the only life to live.
I am reminded of a year ago when Roger Federer won a record 15th Grand Slam title at Wimbledon. This is an except from an article at wimbledon.org:
Roger Federer’s epic and historic victory in the men’s singles final brought the 123rd Championships to a fitting climax in the evening sunshine on Centre Court. After four and a quarter hours he finally overcame the American Andy Roddick in a 30-game fifth set, the longest in Wimbledon history, to claim a record 15th Grand Slam title. How appropriate it was that Pete Sampras, with whom Federer had shared the record following his success last month at the French Open, was a surprise visitor, joining other greats such as Rod Laver and Bjorn Borg in the Royal Box to see history made.
Because I never had much of an audience, I wonder how I might have reacted. Would they have been encouraging or debilitating?
Yesterday, Today, Forever
To have a whole gallery of such great people looking down on me (those mentioned in Hebrews 11, not Laver and Borg), would not motivate me but paralyze me. But I’m not called to please them. I’m not playing for the applause of others, whether alive or dead. But you see, nothing is more encouraging than the successful example of someone who has done it before. Seeing how God was with them encourages us to trust that he will also be with us. The same God who was their God is our God. The God of yesterday is the God of today and tomorrow. He has not weakened, or lost interest in his people, or lessened his love and care for them. We can run as well as they did. It has nothing to do with how we compare with them, but in how our God compares with theirs. Because we have the same God, he can do the same things through us if we trust him.
He commanded our ancestors to teach them to their children, so the next generation might know them—even the children not yet born—and they in turn will teach their own children. So each generation should set its hope anew on God, not forgetting his glorious miracles and obeying his commands. –Psalm 78:5-7 nlt
I want my children to know that God will be faithful wherever he takes them. For someday I’ll be among the cloud of witnesses watching them on Centre Court. They’ll know that God (and felt-tasting water) will help them endure.
Eventually, by the way, my delusion of a girlfriend watching me try to beat my brothers became a reality. Cue cameras on Cindy sprawled out on the lawn, more beautiful than any ever spotlighted in the player’s box.