27 June, 2008

Ishi, not Baali

I was at church, and we had a visiting pastor who quoted Hosea 2:16.

He said, "Ishi," as he read it, and I was all over that. I guessed pretty quickly what I thought it meant, and quickly BlackBerry'd myself an email message so I would remember to dictionary it when I got home. Sure enough. About 1 time in 6, the word means, "husband."

This is such an arresting passage I'm going to go ahead and quote the whole thing. I don't have any big conclusions from it, but that one word was so telling to me. God found Himself betrothed to a lover who whispered Ba'al's name in her sleep. She sought Ba'al out with all her free time. She gave him little presents and the flower of her youth.

And He was God.

He made Ba'al, and could "disappear" not just him, but everything over which he was supposed to be "god." YHWH could have manipulated the wife of His youth, or overpowered her. He could rightfully demand that she call Him, "Lord Omnipotentate, YHWH." She has spent so much time adoring Ba'al, an abusive god if ever there was one, that she has taken to reacting to her Lord as if He needed to awe her with His power. She has taken, not only to worshipping Ba'al, but to calling YHWH Baali as an act of tenderness.

He dreams she will call Him, "Ishi."

He rejoices when we name Him rightly, tenderly.

Hsa 2:14-20
Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak comfortably unto her. And I will give her her vineyards from thence, and the valley of Achor for a door of hope: and she shall sing there, as in the days of her youth, and as in the day when she came up out of the land of Egypt. And it shall be at that day, saith the LORD, [that] thou shalt call me Ishi; and shalt call me no more Baali. For I will take away the names of Baalim out of her mouth, and they shall no more be remembered by their name. And in that day will I make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, and with the fowls of heaven, and [with] the creeping things of the ground: and I will break the bow and the sword and the battle out of the earth, and will make them to lie down safely. And I will betroth thee unto me for ever; yea, I will betroth thee unto me in righteousness, and in judgment, and in lovingkindness, and in mercies. I will even betroth thee unto me in faithfulness: and thou shalt know the LORD.

22 June, 2008

Regarding my 10 years under Gene Edwards

In a small group meeting in my church, I mentioned that I had spent 10 years in a "cult." I then had to apologize for not having mentioned it before, and explain that this is not a fact one usually "leads" with when meeting new brothers and sisters.

About 2 months ago, I promised a sister in the Lord that I would republish a statement I made about 6 years ago regarding the leader of this little group.

Those two events finally pushed me over the edge to get off my duff and pull this little story back from the archives and publish it again here.

This article was written in specific answer to some question. I believe the question was something like, "Would you recommend I join Gene Edwards' church?" It's not tremendously detailed, but it covers the broad outlines of what happened. If you'd like a little more detail, you can look at this series of posts.

Leaving Gene Edwards

By the time I started college, I had decided to spend my life as an itinerant minister of the gospel. The two things I knew were that no minister of the gospel should earn a salary, and that I didn’t want to take over anyone’s church. Instead, I would move from church to church, helping as I could, when I could.
Yes, I was full of the arrogance and idealism of youth, but I also knew something of my ignorance. I knew that it would be decades before I could be of use to any church, and that I needed someone to teach me. I began looking for an old man to train me in what it meant to be a worker in the church.
My quest for a new type of church led me to Gene Edwards’ books. I loved every word, and practically memorized every one. I had found the man who could teach me what the church should be. Amy and I married with the understanding that as soon as possible, we would move to be a part of one of Gene’s churches.
I had written Gene some time earlier to request permission to move to his church in Portland, Maine. Gene had recommended that I wait, and move to a church that he planned to plant in Atlanta. I could not have been more excited. Gene always wrote about how important it was to be in a church from the beginning. This would be my chance.
Gene wanted us to avoid Portland. It turns out that Portland was in its death throes. Gene explained to us that half of that church was experiencing church life for the first time, but that the other half had been a part of his earlier experiment in California. The older members seemed to be tearing the church apart due to secret bitterness against Gene. It should have been a clue to me, but I was too excited that the Lord had answered my prayers for a mentor.
We didn't expect to find a "perfect church" in Atlanta, but we sure did expect an exciting ride.
We could not have been happier those first few years. We fell in love with our new brothers and sisters, and practically wore out each other's living rooms. We spent hours together eating, singing, and dreaming. Life in the church was everything I’d ever imagined. We described the church as a piece of heaven come to earth, and we meant every word. We fought more than we could tell, and hurt each other too frequently, but we loved each other, and were loved just as much.
In the end, we left Gene and his church, and we would never go back. We still love the memories and maintain relationships with people who accept our departure, but Gene’s church was not heaven after all. In retrospect, the church in Atlanta looked suspiciously like a frat house, commune, or any other group of college kids thrown together by any fate. It was fun, but I suspect the excitement was just youth.
I believe the problem in Atlanta, and in all Gene’s churches, lies in the vision of the worker.
Gene started a 40-year countdown on his ministry in 1987. In 2027 he wanted us to look back on his ministry, after he was long gone, to honestly evaluate whether his time had been well spent on this earth. He told us that there would be no way to honestly judge his work until it had survived forty years worth of crises. I half agree with him. There is no way to judge a man’s work a success without seeing it survive forty years. I believe, though, that we can and must judge his work a failure today.
Gene Edwards proposes two standards by which a worker in God’s kingdom should be judged. The first is by his ethical standard, and the second is by the health of his churches. I believe Gene’s work fails both standards. To be fair, Gene believes that he is doing exceptionally well in both areas, and that he is doing so against incredible odds. His followers agree with him, and will defend his record without reserve.
Gene teaches that the foundation of a worker’s ethics should be that the worker would consciously lose whenever one of his churches is in crisis. I believe that this standard is false. Moreover, I watched Gene neglect even to try to meet it. What I saw him do under pressure was the exact opposite of what he preached. In situation after situation he manipulated the church from the outside, and micromanaged the outcome of crisis after crisis. He chose a spy or two in each church (sometimes overtly and sometime covertly) and used that person to pull the strings of our lives. At first, we were amazed at how much he knew about what was going on in the church. Within a year or two though, we had figured out what was happening. By the third or fourth year his ways were old news.
Gene's churches never had true, independent elders while I was there. Instead, we had "contacts". The brother or (more often) sister who reported our actions to Gene and brought instructions from him had an aura of prestige, but no real authority. Gene changed contacts pretty frequently, such that they could never grow into de-facto leaders. Instead, all the brothers ran the church together via “brothers’ meetings”. Gene told us that this method was not biblical, but that it was necessary to keep the egos of 20th century Americans in check.
Gene teaches that elders will spring up organically within the church. He also claims that those elders are his head covering. In my brief tenures as contact/elder, and in my observation of others in that role, I never knew anyone to exert headship over Gene at any level except once. That once, Gene declared that brother a mortal enemy, shunned him for the next seven years, and never allowed that brother into any position of responsibility again. I believe that this action is a natural outflow of Gene’s theology, and I'm sure that he would defend it as safest for the church.
The job of the brothers was to implement Gene’s plans. Gene does not like to manage details, and it was the job of the brothers to flesh out his plans and make them happen. Gene alone set the spiritual agenda of the church, and any deviation from that plan was sure to anger him. I know that this is a far cry from the version of the church that Gene preaches, but it is what I watched for ten years.
I was eventually forced to the opinion that Gene ministers in a fundamentally dishonest way. He told us that he was the most honest man we would ever meet, and for years I took his claim at face value. With stunning regularity, though, he put my trust to the test with actions that seemed to give lie to his words. I made excuses for him again and again, and struggled to understand each of his actions in the light of his conflicting claims. For years I found ways to believe him, but it was an exhausting way to follow the Lord.
The house of cards fell for me over the course of a dismal year in which I watched him tear apart the church in St. Cloud. He bragged about his boldness and ethics, then explained to us how thankful they should be that he been so spiritual in their dismemberment. There was no excuse for the things I watched him do that year. Finally, I had been forced to look at his actions, rather than at his words. Looking back over the previous years, I saw everything he'd said and done, and everything I’d chosen to believe, in a new and heartbreaking light. Gene’s years of explanations and excuses were all torn away, and the reality of everything I’d supported came crashing home.
I had watched Gene plant a handful of churches, and I had watched each of those churches die, sometimes more than once. I had listened to Gene explain how in each of those cases, it was the church’s fault. They had ignored his warnings, and failed to do what he lovingly suggested they needed to do to thrive. Looking back, his excuses were the same in every case, going all the way back to Portland. I cannot know what happened there, but I sure recognize the excuses.
I knew several of the churches that grew and died under Gene’s ministry. I watched them weep as Gene dealt with perceived enemies in their ranks, and listened as they begged to know why Gene was being so cruel to them. My loyalty lay more with Gene than with my own eyes, though, so I allowed those saints to believe that they were bringing all this pain down on themselves. I was wrong. I should have known enough even then to conclude that Gene was lying to these people, but I was too indoctrinated to see the truth.
Whether you agree with my assessment or not, nothing can excuse Gene’s track record. The second standard to which Gene holds the worker is the health of the churches he plants, and there are no survivors. (Several crawled back from the grave and he called them resurrected, but I would call them zombified. I lived through one such rebirth, and the second church was only half-alive while he was not there to breathe life into it.)
Gene blames all that death on the brothers and sisters who gave their lives to those churches, and to him. I would listen as Gene praised brothers and sisters to the highest heaven. A year later I would listen again as he claimed to have known all along that these same brothers and sisters were troublemakers. I watched it happen in every church, and to saints whom I know had done nothing wrong.
I was forced to realize that the problem was with Gene, and had no option but to leave him. Leaving him, though, opened another can of worms. I had to decide whether Gene’s theology was right or wrong. Should I leave just him, or his theology too? Should I keep trying to practice what he preached, or had we been pursuing the wrong goals for those ten years?
There are brilliancies in Gene’s theology, and he is a wonderful speaker. His standard for church ethics is quite elegant (if the world believes it is wrong, it’s wrong, else wise it’s probably just someone hunting brownie points with God). His teaching of the Lord’s Supper is truly beautiful (it should be a high celebration and a joyful feast, rather than an introspective wake). He also preaches that salvation is not the prime force behind history (the relationship between the Father and the Son is the central motivator for all of redemption).
Still, the core of anyone’s theology is a hard thing to nail down, and I was most concerned with Gene’s theology of the church. Gene preaches that each church should be autonomous, but his actions belie his words. Practically speaking, Gene’s several churches share one leader. The church planter makes every significant spiritual decision for the church. Gene taught us that the wisdom to handle the weightier matters would grow up in the church, but it never did. Gene handled all the weighty matters himself, or through his trained men, and we in the church were simply required to keep our mouths shut.
The two defining characteristics of Gene’s churches are both direct fruits of his theology. The first is their church planters, with their ultimate authority. The second is their brothers’ meetings, with their displacement of eldership. Inevitably, the churches became men’s clubs.
This atmosphere has had some painful outcomes. Gene told us, during the conference in which he planted our church, that the church and the family are natural enemies, and that neither can flourish, except at the expense of the other. When asked to clarify that statement, he told us that the family must not be allowed to steal from the church. Over the next 10 years, I watched, applauded, and participated as time and again our church stole from its families. There is nothing that I regret more than the pain our church caused families, and I believe that most people who have been mothers and fathers within Gene’s churches would agree.
In the end, Amy and I left Gene's movement for a number of reasons, but mostly we left because of Gene. We had our share of troubles with the saints, but those could usually be worked out. We fled that man's ministry. We adored those first few years in the church, and there are a hundred things to remember fondly, but leaving Gene Edwards is the best decision we ever made.
Whether you chose to follow Gene Edwards, or to move on without him, may the Lord bless you, and the body of which you are a part.

19 June, 2008

An Apologetic Moment

I don't care much for apologetics. It seems a silly thing to me to try to prove God exists when the issue is one of judgement and repentance. Preach the word and trust that the spark inside a man will declare God's reality more loudly than any bacterial flagellum.

That said, an apologetic article in Touchstone Magazine caught my eye last week. The author was attempting to prove that it was the atheists who were really stepping out on faith by not believing in God. The absence of proof is not the proof of absence and all that, you know. I don't have the article in front of me, so I cannot quote it. Sorry.

Man, he pointed out, really ought to have a hard time conceiving of God's reasonings. It doesn't make sense for us to grasp God's thoughts. If God were to decide to hide Himself from all but those who truly sought Him, the fact that it made sense to Him would be all the justification He'd require. We would have to adapt to His reasons, and not the other way around.

From there, I got to thinking about how ants and humans interact. They don't. They just interfere with each other. We keep accidently stepping on them, and they keep taking inappropriate notice of our picnics and kitchen counters. And so it's almost hard to prove to an ant that we're even real. They see our acts, the things we create, but they don't really see us. They could even invent a bunch of bizarre rationalizations for why a field became a strip mall, if they cared to put their little hive-minds to it.

But the analogy does not hold, because of scale. We're too close to ants in scale. Ants could interact with us if we only spoke in pheronomes instead of words. And really, they see us just fine when we plop a finger down in their paths.

Which led me to think of microbes. At that difference in scale, I found a much better analogy. Microbes literally don't know we exist. They share the world with us, and we can affect their lives with heat and pharmaceuticals and light, but we cannot step on them and they cannot steal our food. We live in different worlds, even as we share the same world. We can ferment milk to feed the microbes we like, or incinerate our meat to off a bunch of microbes we don't like, but we're never going to amuse ourselves by making a moat around a microbe-hill.

And that seemed a lot more like our relationship to God. The scale of our relationship is just more massively different than any other relationship I can describe.

But why stop imagining just there? :-)

More than merely being generic microbes, we are cells. Each of us is different, and we were meant to colonize with each other. We are meant to come together, with all our uniqueness in full bloom. Then, when we are all assembled, we will be a body - a body capable of interacting with God as peer-to-peer, at His scale.

As long as we live alone, we are nothing. We are not even viable tissue when we are alone. But together, here in this womb we call Earth, we are growing and changing. Little fingers are becoming distinct and a heart is beating. We are confused, because we see only the cells nearest to us (and how oddly misshapen they are!), but God sees things at His scale, even if He entered ours once and now understands it. He sees what we each are becoming, but He also sees what He is making us together, and He is patient in ways we cannot imagine. He'll wait until His perfect goal for us is fully realized.

One day the sons of God will be revealed.

16 June, 2008

That Sinking Feeling

Wow. Unanimity. What's that?!


I'm actually a little surprised that everyone agrees that "the answers" are not all in scripture. It's as if I'd figured out that the Earth is round ... yesterday. Being me, I'd let everyone know of my discovery by making some bold statement about how I was willing to sail past the sunset, confident that I'd return alive. Everyone else would look up from their newspapers and say, "Yeah. It'd be fun to sail past China and under the two great capes, Horn and Good Hope. Enjoy your trip!"

Fortunately, here in blog land, none of you could see my jaw drop. :-)

Well, and I'm still not used to people agreeing with me about much of anything. :-D

I was raised amongst three groups of Christians, all of whom shared basic doctrines and some theological differences, but all of whom were unanimously committed to scripture as the sole, final, absolute, complete, sufficient source for every question of life. Any question more complex than how to get to Arby's could be answered directly, completely and unambiguously from scripture.

Did I mention that my denominational background is, "Damentalist?"

And did I explain that Damentalism is what's left after you take the fun out of fundamentalism?

My Damentalist elders would have had a scriptural answer to my question, "How could I know not to marry a girl in 10 days." They'd have pulled something out of the scriptures (no, not those other places) about many counselors making for safe plans and the Lord not being the author of confusion and haste making waste (some of them would occasionally confuse Ben Franklin with Solomon), and assure me (and themselves) that had I only been firmly grounded in scripture I'd not have made a Gordian Tangle of my life.

Here's the problem, though. The kid sitting next to me would spend 12 years engaged to some poor woman, marry her, and divorce in two years, and they've have found every bit as strong scriptural arguments against what he did. And some other joker would call responsibly on a young lady, court her for 6 months, be engaged for 12 months and 3 days, and marry her with her father's blessing and muddle his life, and they'd have every bit as strong scriptural arguments against what he did.

The common factor is that their understanding of scripture's perfect guidance is clearest after-the-fact. They're like gypsies gazing into their crystal ball pronouncing the future as dim, until the dust settles and the weeping's begun. And suddenly, their wisdom doesn't taste like honey in my mouth any more. I just wish it were sweet in my belly.

So, as I look at the possibility that wisdom is something we learn, more like riding a bicycle than being born again, it resonates well against my experience. You all obviously agree with that intuition, and I think scripture would support us together.


Have you thought about the tremendous burden and responsibility that puts on us all?

Hey! Being a Damentalist was easy. As long as I could not think of any scripture to stop me, or at least could plausibly explain it away, I could charge forward with my life like a rhonicerous on the scent of tasty daisies. I could examine the scriptures with an open heart, and whatever it they did not proscribe was fair game.

For example.

I could look at David snatching up Abigail and think 10 days was a LONGGGGG courtship. I could even be proud and thankful that I didn't have to collect the foreskins of 200 Cajuns as a dowry for Michal (and I didn't have to worry about the whole dying while trying thing, either. Those Cajuns can be mighty opinionated about their foreskins, I've heard.) I could even look at a handful of brothers maturing beyond the message of John the Baptist the very first time they heard Christ presented by Paul, and figure it was a wise thing to follow a man who brought a higher gospel.

The bible is full of stories of short courtships, immediate changes of doctrine, and droppings of everything to follow the leading of God.

Haste is commended by scripture over and over and over, if you're looking for that sort of thing. And my personality is always looking for a good reason to make haste. Always. Always. I'll even settle for silence on the subject that just lets me make my haste with a low-humming conscience. It doesn't strictly have to "quiet" for me.

But if the scripture is silent on some things, then I need to be cautious. I need to seek wisdom. I need to be sure I'm not being an idiot. Or simple. Or even a fool. If the scripture proscribes only those things that might show me to be evil, but leaves unmentioned some things that might show me to be simple or a fool, then I need to grow up.

It's a shame to have to learn that at 44, but I'm afraid I'll learn it again at 54, and again at 64. If the Lord is kind to burn this lesson into my memory through the fires of self-imposed experience, then maybe I'll only have to learn it this one last (major) time.

And I'll lay one more responsibility at my feet, and this one may fall at yours, too. As the church, as one of the three that agree on Earth (thank you, Missy!), I have a responsibility to those I see being foolish as I was foolish. I have a responsibility to turn my hard-earned wisdom into their narrow escape. And when I say responsibility, I mean that the church needs her holders of wisdom to step forward for those who need them. I mean that the Lord needs those who have received wisdom at His hands to pass it along to His sheep. I mean that He might hold us responsible for hiding our experiences from each other.

Perhaps the only purpose for my life is to serve as an example to others (http://despair.com/mis24x30prin.html) but I think maybe that's a pretty important thing.

15 June, 2008

Flipping Life

In my previous post, I shared how I learned that one should not take ridiculous risks on a tennis court, if one hopes to win from time to time. Of course, if your hopes are more modest, then anything goes. :-)

It's not a brain-surgery-level leap to apply that to any number of areas of life. If one is not seeing eye-to-eye with a girlfriend, one could try to reverse the whole situation by marrying her. To a person who "flips" many life decisions that might even make sense. Such a man will experience some astounding successes, but "flipping" usually results in yet another defeat. Some of us have been there, or somewhere like it.

I lived the first 40+ years of my life flipping decisions most people could never make at all. Consequently, my life looks a lot like my tennis. People sitting in the grandstands are impressed at how well I'm playing tennis or living day-to-day, then are shocked to find out I lost 0-6, 0-6.

My life is very much like my tennis. I lose way too often to ascribe it all to luck.

The whole idea of playing the percentages, building a tennis point, or building a life one little part on top of another is refreshing and new to me. In a very real way it seems like a defeat to restrain myself from targeting an outright winner, but maybe I've suffered enough at my own hands to begin to do so. I'm afraid I'll end up accomplishing nothing if I don't take scary risks, but I've made a shambles so far by doing things the way that seemed right to me. I always want to be building something, but thus far I fail by building haphazardly, too quickly and with bad materials.

I won't belabor this point, because it's pretty obvious.

Instead, I'd like to ask a really tough question.

In church today, someone was talking about answers for life and said, "They're all in here," while pointing to his bible.

Are they?

Could I look in the bible and know that I should not marry after 10 days of courtship? Could I look at the bible and know that I should not follow a man who comes bringing a message of Christ more excellent than anything I'd ever heard before? Could I look at the bible and know whether I should spend 8 hours a week building the church and 4 hours a week building my children, or the other way around?

I think the answer is, "No." And I think the answer is "no" by the direct intent of God. He simply did not want us to be able to find those answers out of a book. I think He gave us judges and judgement and wise old men and women, and that we are to be very nearly as much to each other as the scripture is to us.

The bible will tell me that I must not start a family without marriage, that I should not follow a man away from God, and that I must work to build church and home, but it doesn't tell me how. I have been told for decades now that the bible tells me how to do each of these things, and I think that lie encouraged me to be more confident in my foolishness. I think that lie is an expensive generalization.

What do you think?

12 June, 2008

Flipping Tennis

Ah yes, now where was I?

And how do you work this "blogger" thingy?

I do vaguely remember a time when I used to post pretty frequently, so I'm sure it will all come back - just like falling off a bicycle.

A couple of you have followed my tennis ramblings over the years, and I thought I'd share a little bit of what's been happening lately. In a nutshell, I may have played the first decent tennis match of my life on Monday night. It felt almost like one of those science-fiction stories where the hero falls asleep and wakes up in a new world. I blinked, and found myself playing at a level I never knew existed. I still lost, but I think I'll make it back to that place again the next time I step out on court, and I'm looking forward to that moment in a brand new way.

It's kind of along story from 1972 when I first started hitting tennis balls until 2008 when I finally hit one right, so I'll skip forward to Aug 2007.

Last summer my forehand was tearing apart my right wrist. I was using a really twisty motion known as a "windshield wiper" to put topspin on the ball, and all that wrist motion plus all the power was doing bad things to me. I was pretty convinced I was doing life-long damage to it, but I was still winning so I couldn't stop playing. As the 3.5 doubles season came to an end, I decided something had to change, and before quitting tennis I figured I'd try modernizing my game. (Anyone who knows me, knows how anathema "modern" is to me, but I was desparte!) As is my wont, rather than changing my forehand, I changed everything. I went from the Eastern grip taught for the old wooden rackets to the Semi-Western grip that is so natural with the new carbon-fiber rackets. Before all was said and done, I'd changed my forehand, backhand, volley and serve, all in radical ways. There ain't nothin' else to change, or I'd have changed it.

The new strokes gave me more spin and more power, all with the added benefit of my wrist no longer feeling like it was splitting in half. But wait! There's more! For no additional cost, I also received more accuracy and a more reliable shot under pressure.

There was no downside.

I was prepared and empowered to take the world by storm!

I entered my first tournament in September, and beat one kid before losing to a couple of solid players. They were easy losses to understand, though. Under pressure, 35 years of habit proved hard to break. I was mingling my Eastern style into my Semi-Western performance, and those two flavors did not taste great together.

I kept grinding the new style into my body, creating muscle memory with every stroke. I practiced a lot and critiqued every swing, working to keep my style as purely simple as I physically could. I never reverted back to the old style under pressure. I'd lose with the new style rather than scrape by on the old even one more day. It was all going to pay off. The temptation to give up and fall back was strong each time I lost, but I resisted.

Come December, I entered my second tournament. I beat one flaky player, before losing to a couple of solid players. They were easy losses to understand, though. I still reverted to the old style sometimes, and I hadnot enough played under match pressure with the new style.

I played some more between January and May, and even started having some success. Usually, I was pulling off come-from-behind wins against decent players. The inexplicable thing was that I had vastly better strokes than the players I was beating, and I was losing to my equals. I was choking in every match, and my game was suffering horribly for it.

Choking has been the eternal theme of my tennis, and it was not going away without a fight. If I could get past the choke, I usually won any match I played. The opponent became an after-thought for me. More than anyone I feared the enemy stuck eternally between my ears, and I was searching out weapons with which to fight him.

The new strokes were very helpful in fighting the choke. The Semi-Western is twice as choke-resistant for me as the old Eastern style. Others have different experiences, but the Semi-Western fits me like a glove. And my new skills gave me confidence that helped me fight the choke.

But something was missing, and the choke was always one wrong thought away for me.

I entered the Lancaster Open on Memorial Day weekend, and beat one kid before losing to a couple solid players. They were easy losses to understand, though. Nah. Not really. The losses were getting harder to understand. I beat that first kid 6-0, 6-0, which was nice, because in the past I'd never been able to beat anyone effectively. So, things were looking good. Then I ran into Steve Gunderson. I lost to him 0-6, 0-6 and I simply shouldn't have. Yes, Steve should beat me. Yes, he's much better than me. But no. He's not THAT much better than me. He plays with the old Eastern style, and he uses it brilliantly, but my strokes should have matched up well against his, and obviously they did not.

My other loss that weekend was to Pete Mudre. He ate me alive with frankly inferior strokes. He put wicked slices in the middle of the court, and watched me fail to handle them. Should I have beaten him? Probably not. But losing 0-6, 1-6 was just not right. He was not that much better than me. Really.

I registered my lessons from Lancaster and went home and added an attacking game to my style repertoire. It was the right decision, and it completely failed me in my next match. I played a guy who wanted to beat me really badly, and I choked. It made him really happy. Not so much for me. It had been so long since I'd won a tennis match, I was beginning to wonder whether I deserved to hold a racket at all.

I talked all this over with a kind-hearted, long-listening friend, and we decided I needed to feel more released in my tennis. I was too uptight about each error because I took them as indicators of my commitment or some such. Instead, I needed to realize that tennis was just a great opportunity for me to learn about myself, so every mistake was just another clue into my mind.

Then I entered the Gahanna Open. I only entered one division this time (I think I'm going to just stay with the Open divisions for a while, and quit playing the over-35's) and was paired against the #4 seed. The guy was much better than me, and it showed in my 4-6, 1-6 loss. The 5 games I won in Gahanna were an improvement over Lancaster, and my mood after the match was improved. I'd "felt it" a little bit, and when I'd made mistakes I'd been able to relax and avoid choking. I'd lost because my opponent was better than the, and not because I played worse than I should have. It felt better than the drubbings I'd received of late, but it was a far cry from good.

And then Sunday, blessed Sunday, happened. I went out to play against my "measuring stick," Nate. Nate could beat any of the guys who beat me (except maybe Steve, but I'd enjoy watching that match.) When I am finally able to put real pressure on Nate, I'll be able to play anyone. Sunday was not that day. I failed to play even to my own level against Nate. It was awful. All my self-talk about "release" kept me mentally positive, and I was not exactly choking, but nothing I hit was going in.

After we were done, Nate tried to give me a pep talk. It was an uphill battle, and he was not making much progress until he said these fateful words, "You're trying to flip everything."

I was baffled.

Nate explained.

If my opponent hit a ball low and wide to my backhand, I was in a bad position. That's tennis 101. I had maybe a 20%/80% chance of winning that point. 20 times out of 100 I win the point, and 80 times out of 100 I lose it. Nate observed that I was trying to flip that percentage with one awesome shot. I was trying to flip my 20/80's into 80/20's, and that required that I hit something amazing.

I won't be falsely modest here. I can hit shots just like that. Really. From that ridiculous position, I often will hit a screaming cross-court winner that leaves my opponent gaping.

I won't be falsely proud here, either. Ten times as often as I hit that screaming winner, I hit the ball just wide, just long, just into the net, just within my opponent's reach, or just out of the tennis park. There happen to be a lot more ways to miss than there are to amaze.

Nate said, "When you're in a 20/80 position, fight for neutral. Don't look for an advantage. Hit for 40/60, and if that works, then hit the next shot for 50/50, and then start thinking about 60/40. Don't try to flip it. Fight for neutral"

The light hit me like an arc-welder in a mirror factory.

I can scorch the ball back right at my opponent, instead of trying for an amazing winner. The chances are he will still win the point, but my percentages are up to 40/60 instead of 20/80. My odds improve. The chances are his next shot will not be as wicked as the one I'm dealing with right now. And if he does put the ball away, oh well. Against quality opponents you're going to lose some points even though you never made a mistake.

The reams of history and understanding that flowed through my mind at that moment would torment you, my reader, far too much, but let me point out a couple things.
+ So, THIS is what it means to "build a point!" I always thought building a point was trying to hit an almost winner followed by a clean winner, but no. It's bigger than that.
+ All I earned with my shiny new strokes was entry into the "rookie" level of real tennis. The guys I'm playing now all have every stroke I'm just learning. And when I say, "have," I mean they can hit it in practice 9 times out of 10, and can hit it confidently under match pressure. I really am vastly better now than my old 3.5 hitting buddies, but that means squat at the 5.0 level where I'm trying to play.
+ With every stroke, I need to be adding 10% to my advantage. That means I should not be hitting just to stay even, but I should not be trying to add 45% to my advantage with one stroke, either.
+ But my opponent is doing the same thing!
+ Wow!
+ Tennis is really an arm-wrestling match, with both of us trying to push through for 5% at a time until our opponent falls too far behind to make it up. And then we play another point.

No wonder they're beating me!

For 35 years I've been stepping out there and trying to flip disadvantaged positions. When I fail at the improbable, my opponent gets the point. When I succeed, though, they don't try to flip the point. Instead, they fight for neutral and build until they have me at a disadvantage again. Then I try to flip it again. If I'm lucky, I flip 1 in 5 points. In tennis, you must win 55% of the points to have hold a comfortable lead in any given match. Winning 20% of points leads to brutally ugly scores.

My opponents have been working to neutralize my advantage without risking a "full flip" like I do.

And this realization led to another, and more important one.

No wonder I choke.

You can only miss important shots so many times before you begin to feel like a failure, and begin to doubt yourself. More often than not if I'm in the low percentage position in a point I'll miss a big shot trying to flip the point, and when I'm at the high percentage position my opponent will hit a neutralizing shot to get back to even. Once we're even again, it just means I have another opportunity to fall behind, which gives me another opportunity to miss. I keep putting myself in positions that lead to missing! Psychologically, I've been shooting myself in the foot for 35 years.

The percentages don't lie. If I'm as good as my opponent, at some point I'll be ahead in 50% of the points we play and behind in the other 50%. From that position, if I win 55% of points in which I'm ahead and win 15% of points in which I'm behind, I'll get my butt waxed in public. In a 180 point match, that puts the score at 63-117, or in tennis score terms, 0-6, 0-6, 0-6.

Let me put it another way. I have to be so much better than my opponent that I am ahead in more than 70% of all 180 points to win. I will only win when I'm playing an inferior opponent.

And THAT's exactly what's been happening in my tennis life. I win with difficulty against people who are worse than me, and lose to people who are at my level.

Hmmm. When intuition and statistics agree about a thing, one had best pay some attention to that thing.

So, I signed up for the Bexley Open, drew another #4 seed, and held my breath. I went out there determined to "fight for neutral." I'd literally not touched a racket since Nate breathed his advice out upon my game just the day before, so I had no idea what it would feel like to "fight for neutral," but I was gonna give it the old college-dropout try.

The match started at 0-3. It was not propitious. :-)

But I learned. I saw that I was not going to be able to attain a neutral position by hitting softly or down the center. The guy I was playing was a former college player. That means he had been killing tennis balls daily for 4 years and testing his skills against high level competition weekly while I was plinking around barely winning 3.5 doubles matches. He was ripping shots that I don't even dare to try, and generally kicking my butt easily. To reach neutral against this guy, I needed to hit hard and toward the safe edges of the court.

So I did.


The set ended at 2-6, and I was feeling the despair. I was broken twice, and that never feels good. Then again, I had nothing to lose, so I doubled my commitment to fighting for neutral and added to it a commitment to emphasize the word, "fight."

To start the second set, I broke him and held my serve to consolidate for a 2-0 lead.

I had never, ever, not even once been in the lead in any way against a seeded player in a tournament in my life, not even while down a set. Heck, I'd only once won more than 1 game in one single set against a seeded player! This was new territory for me.

Choke time.

Only I didn't choke.

My opponent had to work to win the next game, and then he had to work hard to break me back for 2-2. It hurt to be broken, but I'd made him earn it. I didn't give anything away, so I squared my chin and shoulders and went back to work.

I broke him again for 3-2. And consolidated by holding serve for the 4-2 lead!

I could not believe how I was playing. I was not surrendering points like I always do in pressure situations. I was playing like I belonged on this court with this guy who had years of experience under his belt, was 15 years younger than me, and taught tennis for a living at a local junior high school. I was making him sweat.

He held and broke me back for 4-4.

There was no longer a question of him deciding whether to bring out his A game. He was playing with every drop of tennis in his blood, and he was scraping out games. The two service games I held, I held at love. I was officially winning more points than him because I was making him scrap for every one of his service games.

But he did have all that experience, and there was a lot of tennis in his blood.

He held for the 5-4 lead.

At the changeover, I actually changed shirts. The pros do it when they want to feel ready for whatever comes, and it made sense, so I did it.

5 points later, the score was 30-40 - it was Match Point against me. If I lost the next point, I went home a 2-6, 4-6 loser. If I choked, I went home feeling like a sucker again. If I double-faulted, I felt like a moronic sucker. If I patty-caked the ball, and he killed it like he should, I felt like a sucker masquerading as a tennis player. And yes, all those thoughts squirmed into my mind past the locked doors of my subconscious. I shoved back down before I could serve.

I cast the krypton beam of "fight for neutral" all around my brain, and filled my mind with the determination to hit for 5% at a time. I served a good kicker to his backhand, and he sent back a mere 30% reply to the center of my court. I was up 70/30 in the point, and barely knew what to do. I fought off the urge to crack the ball somewhere, and went for 75/25 by hitting a reasonably tough shot to his backhand. I followed it in to the net, and he hit a neutralizing shot back to me. By attacking the net, though, I'd placed myself in position for just that shot. I stepped up and firmly punched the volley away.

Just like in the textbooks.

Just like I'd practiced when I added the attacking mojo to my game.

Just like a real tennis player would do.

That moment was the culmination of everything I've done in learning to play this game at this level.

I followed that point up by taking the next two and the game for a 5-5 tie.

Nothing could take that moment away from me. I played the percentages and made my attacking game the deciding factor at a critical juncture. I succeeded because I didn't choke, because I fought for neutral, and because I knew how to take the attack to my opponent safely. Just like real tennis.

I still cannot describe what that feels like.

For 35 years I've wondered, if I'd had the chance, could I have played real tennis with the big boys. For any number of reasons I've not tried, and when I finally did try, I failed miserably, and when I failed I wanted to quit. That volley put away 35 years of doubts and fears, and said to me that I'd grown up just a little bit. Finally.

I forced my opponent to weather a deuce during his service game, but he pulled through for the 6-5 lead.

This time, at the changeover I ate half an energy bar. It's the first time I've ever done that, and the first time I've ever wanted to do it. My opponent was suffering badly in the heat, and I was feeling as good as I've ever felt, but if I pulled off the next two games, I need the energy for that precious third set. I was hydrated and nourished and pumped.

And behind 15-40 very quickly.

My experienced and honorable opponent was cracking winners at the lines. I held firm. I served hard, and leveled at 40-40, then even pulled ahead for a game point. If I won the next point, we would go to the tiebreak and my chances looked good.

My next serve drew a 35% reply to the center of the court on my backhand side. I decided to go for my most beautiful shot, but I didn't decide it with enough conviction. I went for the inside out backhand. It's a shot I have, but not when I lack conviction. To take that shot felt to me like I was changing dance partners, and playing against the percentages. It was the right shot at the right time, but I didn't quite believe it.

I missed that shot, and probably the match, by 5 inches.

Back to deuce we went, and my opponent earned two more Match Points. I fought them off with an ace down the line (you should have seen his face) and a kicker out wide. On the sixth match point, I finally succumbed. In a heated exchange I put an inside out forehand just a couple feet long. It was a good shot, played for the percentages and played with conviction, that just happened to sail a little bit on me.

I lost, but I lost my first good match.

Looking back, I think my opponent knew somethiNg I had not figured out yet. Toward the end of a match, during clutch time, and after a hard fought battle to get to the moment of truth, you have to let fly with some calculated gambles. That's the moment to let the "wild things" off their leashes and see what you can do, if you're going to beat an equal opponent. I suspect in those last few games, after your body is fully dialed in and firing on all cylinders, you swinging with calculated abandon can shift things your way. It worked for my opponent, and he knows this game a lot better than I do.

If I had known that on Monday, I don't think my opponent could have stayed on his feet for the third set. The heat had about taken him out.

It's OK.

I'm signed up for the TennisFax Classic next week. We might just meet again.

07 June, 2008

The Most Important Day in Tennis, EVER (again)

Yes, on Sunday June 8th, Roger Federer will take his 4th straight shot at beating Rafael Nadal in Paris at the French Open, Roland Garros.

Never has staying home from church been so tempting.

For those of you in a little bit of doubt who these two player are, you should read these links. (Those of you who know, should DEFINITELY read these links.)

Roger Federer
Rafael Nadal

Anything can happen, but Rafa is the 4-1 favorite so far. If you watch the match, watch for Federer to try to win points by attacking from the backhand wing. Watch for Rafa to counter by hitting the ball straight at Federer's backhand. Should Federer pull ahead at any point, immediately start holding your breath because the 4 times Federer has held a lead against Rafa on clay this year, he's managed to give it back again. The reason for this is simple. As soon as Rafa's behind, he quits trying to pick on Federer's backhand. Instead, he tries to blow the ball right over the top of Federer's backhand.

Since Rafa's a lefty, their backhands will be down the line from each other, instead of across the court from one another, and the one who puts the ball into the other's backhand side the most effectively will win. The problem is that Rafa will win just by putting it over there. Federer will only win if he puts it to Rafa's backhand, and then follows up by putting another shot all the way over to his forehand.

It's almost not fair.

But all's fair in love, tennis, and the Uncyclopedia.

HT: http://tennisworld.typepad.com/tennisworld/index.html