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  • annehope19

The Natural

Last weekend my USTA team played in a tournament to secure a place at Nationals. The strength of our team had me anticipating the tournament with excitement for months. We arrived in St. Louis to find the combination of temperature and humidity in the danger zone. With a dew point of 76, the tennis balls felt heavy, and the air felt thick as molasses. My skirt, shirt, and the bill of my visor dripped sweat steadily to the court, so much so that one of my opponents asked if it was starting to rain.

The first set passed, as expected, with victory. But as the second set began, the chills began to creep down my arms, my heart started racing, and the nausea threatened to erupt. By the end of the unsuccessful second set, I had added light-headedness and cramping to my symptoms. My partner asked the umpire for a medical time-out, and my teammates pumped me with electrolytes and even changed my shirt for me. I was a wilted leaf, trying to cool down enough to make it through a third set tiebreaker.

I told myself, “I can do this…my team needs me…just one point at a time.” I tried to concentrate on ANYTHING other than how I felt physically. So, I started thinking about the movie, “The Natural.” If you haven’t seen that movie with Robert Redford, it is both entertaining and inspiring. Redford stars as an aging baseball player, Roy Hobbs, who was at one time a boy wonder. Roy finally gets his shot at the big leagues and, almost singlehandedly, leads his team to the playoff game for the pennant.

As I sat there gathering strength to go back on the court, I found myself thinking of the climax of the film. It’s the bottom of the ninth inning with two outs, and it has come down to Roy’s turn at the plate. Roy steps into the batter’s box, takes the first pitch, and belts a long ball that appears to be a home run, but is, in fact, barely foul. As he returns to the plate, he finds his lucky bat has been shattered into pieces. This was the bat he had carved himself when he was a young lad from a tree hit by lightning. He had burned a lightning bolt into the side of the bat along with the words, “Wonder Boy.” The bat was a symbol of his natural giftedness, his prowess, his identity. But now his precious bat lay in pieces.

And such is life. It can shatter, crush, destroy, and humble you when you least expect it. Its fragility becomes frighteningly clear. Health deteriorates. A friend dies. A spouse leaves. A dream implodes. Covid happens. Your prowess fails. Things aren’t the way you imagined they were supposed to be.

The ragged edges of life always bring one to a crossroad. Will I quit? Will I give up? Can I go on? Can I persevere? Can I start again? Can I continue, even as the odds for failure mount? I remembered Roy Hobbs as he looked down at his splintered bat in humble surrender. Finally, he looked up and told the batboy, “Go pick me out a winner, Bobby.” Roy then steps up to the plate and belts a homerun to win the game.

As much as I wanted to “hit a home run,” I found my strength failing in that tiebreaker. I couldn’t will myself to feel better. Brokenness is not a pleasant feeling. It is not a valued attribute in our world that treasures self-reliance, prowess, youthful vigor, and got-it-togetherness. It was a lesson in humility that I did not want to learn. I was a weakened clay pot. My bat was broken.

Sometimes our “bat” is taken away. Sometimes we are tested and can no longer rely on what seemed so sure for so long. Sometimes identity fails, the security blanket burns, and giftedness takes a hike. The illusion of my self-sufficiency was stripped away.

The reality of my “frailness” in the moments after defeat and feeling like I had let my team down stuck with me for days. I don’t take defeat well! And that is probably not a good thing. I don’t like to think of myself as grass withering (Isaiah 40:7) or as a mist that appears for a while and then vanishes (James 4:14). Sometimes my worth and value get mixed up in the winning and losing and self-sufficiency.

It is then that I crawl back to reality. It is then I am forced to remind myself that my worth is not defined by my successes, my failures, or my self-sufficiency. My worth is defined in God. A life in God means a continual recognition of my need for and dependence on Him…a continued trust…a continued surrender.

I found last weekend that self-sufficiency is overrated. The precious gift of teammates who picked me up, literally changed my clothes and made me feel accepted and cared for was a great gift. As much as I hate to admit it, there will be times when I am not up to the task. There will be times I fail. But to know there are people there who care does, indeed, make a difference.

Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 wisely says, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor. If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.”

The hard thing about these verses is NOT in being the one that cheerfully helps. The challenging thing, at least for me, is being the one who receives that help. It’s hard to ask for help. It’s hard to be weak. It’s hard to take life’s bumps and bruises, admit to weakness, and show vulnerability. After all, as children we have been taught, “It is better to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35) But we must be careful not to infer from this that God loves givers more than receivers.

Are bonds strengthened more when everyone is self-sufficient? Or are bonds strengthened even more when we come to the rescue of one another? Whether it be in sickness or health, in poverty or abundance, in strength or weakness, it is important that we all learn to be better givers AND better receivers. Even if Roy had struck out at the plate, I’d like to think his teammates would have gathered around him just the same with a bond that had become strengthened. The ending, however, was made for the movies. Sometimes that happens, and more often it doesn’t. One thing I have learned. Man plans, and God laughs!

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Anne Hope is the award winning author of Bent Pages...a sharp, funny, and deeply

inspirational narrative.

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