The decision-making process has always fascinated me. It involves weighing all of your options, getting advice from trusted friends, prayer, and when it all clicks, a knowing sweeps through your gut. That’s what happened to me in 1986.
I quit college in 1985, without any real plans for the long-term future. Sounds like a kid, doesn’t it? But in the short term, I wanted to see how far I could go in the game of tennis. I wasn’t the best player on my high school team, and in college, we played on the fastest surface known to man – which didn’t help me since I’ve never been fleet of foot, so I wasn’t able to get my ranking high enough to amount to anything, but I still couldn’t quench my desire to see what I could do. And I always believed that I could out work most people.
So, in 1986, I got into the best shape of my life by playing tennis for three or four hours every day, and then I signed up to compete in several tournaments in the Midwest. I played okay in most of them, but I don’t think I ever advanced past the second round.
One of those tournaments was in St. Louis, which worked out well since my dad lived there. It was indoors and Dad watched the match from up above, snapping photos. It felt both odd and exhilarating to be chasing a dream in front of him.
The guy I was playing in the first round was striking the ball well. His shots were flat and hard and didn’t give me a lot of time to get into a good position for my shots. My only chance was to step inside the court against his serve and become the aggressor, using the pace of his shots against him. Meanwhile, I kicked up my serve and volley efforts a notch. The strategy worked pretty well and it slowed him down. The first set went into a tiebreak and I lost it. But I still felt like I could pull it out in three sets.
The second set progressed much like the first – lots of good rallies and lots of winners on both sides. We ended up in another tiebreak and he won. The match was over. I felt good about the way I’d played. In fact, I didn’t think I could have played any better. He was just better on a couple of the big points in each tiebreak, but when you are already playing your best tennis, it’s hard to imagine playing at an even higher level.
After the match, a knowing swept over me. I was a good tennis player who would never be great. I won a tournament in college, but the reality was, I wasn’t good enough to go deep enough in any tournament after that. Tennis was going to become something I loved to play, but nothing more.
My story is similar to what happens to most people who pursue something they love. Most of us aren’t good enough to take it to the next level. But that doesn’t mean we should walk away. I didn’t. I couldn’t. I played in a few more tournaments and I continued to play recreationally. I read books and magazines about the game. And I studied it on television.
I’m fifty-four now and very little has changed, except my waistline. I still love everything about the game, from the cordial spirit of competition to the way I feel when I hit a good shot. But more than anything, the tennis court has always been an equalizer for me, and I think that’s why I love it most. I have instincts on the court that I don’t have anywhere else, which allows me to overcome my rather large size and otherwise slow-footedness. As such, tennis helps me feel normal.
When Andre Agassi was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2011, he gave one of the most dynamic and life-altering speeches you will ever hear. I recommend it to all of my friends who have children.
“Tennis has not only given me much; it has taught me much,” he said. “It’s no accident that tennis uses the language of life: service, advantage, break, fault, love. The lessons of tennis are the lessons of maturity.
“In tennis, you prepare and you prepare and then one day your preparation seems futile. Nothing’s working and the other guy’s got your number, cold. So you improvise.
“In tennis, you learn what I do instantly affects what you do and vice versa. Tennis makes you perceptive, proactive, reactive – all at the same time.
“Tennis teaches you the subtlety of human interaction – the curse and blessing of cause and effect. After you play tennis for a living, you never forget that we are all connected.”
Shortly thereafter, he makes this observation.
“Tennis is a lonely sport – probably the most lonely. You are out there with no team, no coach, and no place to hide. That’s why tennis players not only talk to themselves but answer. And yet all that loneliness eventually teaches you to stand alone.”
Tennis not only taught me to stand alone, but it gave me the confidence and courage to do so. I’m not an out-of-shape middle-aged guy on the tennis court. I’m someone who belongs there – someone who has touch at the net and good enough feel to hit a topspin lob over your head if you approach the net.
Even though I don’t play the game much anymore because of a problem with one of my legs, I’m still involved in it. It almost gives me as much joy to read about it and watch it as it did to play it. Yeah, in a way I’m living vicariously now, but at any given moment, my mind can flash back to my playing days and everything just feels right.
This essay appears in Sacred Grounds: First Loves, First Experiences, and First Favorites.
I heard a sermon recently during which the preacher showed us a slide of his Mount Rushmore – four pictures of people who were instrumental to his spiritual growth.
As is often the case with writers who hear something inspirational, I scrambled for a piece of paper.
In chronological order, here’s my Mount Rushmore.
Marlin Maddoux was a Christian radio show host I stumbled across during the Persian Gulf War as I was searching for news about the war. He had a talk show called Point of View in which he discussed the issues of the day from the Christian worldview. I’d never heard of such a thing. But soon, I found myself listening every afternoon and learned that the gospel was comprehensive. It began to shape my thinking.
Larry Burkett had a show that came on after Maddoux’s. I’ll never forget the spiritual impact he made on my life one day in the early 1990s. I’d been feeling drawn to Christ but hadn’t gone all-in yet. And since I had nobody to talk to, Christian radio – and Burkett’s program specifically – became the voice I needed. Burkett received a call one day from a single mom who couldn’t afford to fix the brakes on her car. Larry advised her to give her church an opportunity to meet her need, but if they couldn’t or wouldn’t, he told her he would. That was the moment Christianity became genuine to me, and I’ll never forget it.
My Uncle Warren (yes, that was his first name; I know it’s confusing) was a faithful Sunday school teacher in a small church my grandmother helped to found many decades ago. I wandered into that building one Sunday many years ago, feeling out of sorts theologically. He took me under his wing, answered my questions and gave me room to process. Even though I wasn’t in his class long, he left a lasting impression.
Dennis was a Sunday school teacher who recognized me as a fledgling Christian who needed further guidance and direction. He was patient with me. On several occasions, he invited me into his home to answer my questions, never pushing too hard or expecting anything from me. I’ll be forever indebted to him.
I’d love to hear who is on your Mount Rushmore. Leave a comment and let me know who is on it and why.
Last weekend didn’t go as planned.
I was supposed to meet a friend in Kansas City to catch a baseball game with him. But he was hospitalized unexpectedly, and I didn’t find out until after I had arrived. I decided to stay and make the most of the weekend anyway.
My hotel room had some minor issues, but that’s to be expected. And it was in a sketchy part of town. But I’m big, so people tend not to mess with me.
This might sound like it had all the makings of a disastrous weekend. But it wasn’t.
I watched a little TV, then turned it off. The silence was healing. I stopped by a fish restaurant – a little hole-in-the-wall sort of place – and chatted with a woman who worked there.
“You look familiar,” she said.
I didn’t tell her I was from out of town. I figured that there was a one in a million chance that she’d read one of my books but I didn’t mention that I’m a writer.
The fish was fantastic, even if it was deep fried and probably not the healthiest of choices. Hey, I was on vacation!
I woke up early the next day to a text from a friend. She was on vacation with her family and stopped for a minute to ask how I was doing. That meant something to me.
I sipped my coffee and read the final couple of chapters of Exodus. Neither contain any “life verses” but that doesn’t mean they weren’t life-giving to me at that moment. I read the Intro to Leviticus and stumbled across this nugget: “The various ritual laws and sacrifices make it inescapably clear that God delights to make a way for his sinfully impure people to approach him.” That sentence stuck with me – and will for some time.
Through the magic of technology, I watched my church service via livestream and fired off a thank-you text to the man who sacrifices so much time every week to make it happen.
Then I attended the baseball game, wishing my friend were with me but knowing we’ll have other games. I was far more concerned about his health.
I ended up sitting next to a young couple during the game and we chatted briefly. They were from Iowa, so they had to give me a little good-natured teasing about them beating Nebraska in football the last few years, then we talked a little baseball.
What was supposed to be a catch-up weekend with a friend, ended up being a solo retreat – one that I think I needed more than I realized. I had enough interactions with people to make me feel like I wasn’t alone, while also having enough alone time to come back feeling relaxed and ready to go.
I’ve learned to roll with the punches. I get more out of the unexpected that way.
Last November, COVID-19 stripped me of my ability to taste and smell. Even now, all these months later, I don’t have half the capacity of either sense. But it’s funny what the mind can do. I can remember what things taste like, so when I take a swig of coffee, I’m sort of living vicariously – through my former ability to taste, and I get a hint of the taste I’m expecting.
And for now, that’s enough. One day, both senses will be fully restored, and I’ll be even more appreciative.
As I thought about that this past week during an email exchange with a friend, it reminded me of the many tastes of heaven we get here on earth.
Worship services give us a taste of heaven as we set aside the cares of this world to focus on the eternal.
Nature gives us a taste of heaven, giving us the opportunity to reflect on the Creator.
Marriage gives us a taste of heaven as two become one.
Childbirth gives us a taste of heaven, giving us hope.
Adoption gives us a taste of heaven, especially since all believers are adopted into the kingdom.
Friendship gives us a taste of heaven as we live sacrificially for one another.
Breaking bread with each other gives us a taste of heaven as we wait for Christ’s return.
These are all marvelous reminders of what’s to come for the believer. They fall short on this side of eternity but for now, they are enough.
“You’ve lost part of your tooth. You’ll need a crown.”
My recent trip to the dentist was yet another reminder that my outer man is wasting away. Other such current reminders include sore legs and hips from increasing my step count each day, a bad leg that resulted from blood-clot complications years ago, a lack of ability to smell and taste as a result of COVID-19 back in November, a messed up nose due to a basketball injury and a whole host of other things.
As difficult as it is to get older (I'm just a few months away from senior discounts; score!), I appreciate each ache. It means I’m alive. And it means I've lived.
As Christians, we often say we're just passing through this world – on our way to something far better. And that is absolutely true. But while we're here, we can live with joy. In fact, J. C. Ryle once said, "The true Christian is the only happy man, because he has sources of happiness entirely independent of this world."
A such, I embrace right here, right now.
Meanwhile, the time is short, as the apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 7:29. All the more reason to love God and one another in this very moment.
My aches and pains remind me that I have work to do and that I had better get to it. Letters to write. Prayers to pray. Conversations to have. And friendships to develop.
If you want some food for thought, read this sermon by Spurgeon about time being short. I've sent it to my e-reader because I want to reread it often.