Playing without Fear

I don’t know if we have many tennis fans who read this blog, but it was thrilling to see Emma Raducanu become the first ever qualifier to win a major tennis tournament after her victory at the US Open at the weekend. The 18 year old became the first British woman to win a grand slam tournament in 44 years and didn’t drop a set in either her qualifying matches or in the tournament itself as she defeated the Canadian Leylah Fernandez in Saturday’s final.

The final itself had its tense moments as Emma Raducanu required medical treatment on a bleeding leg sustained in a fiercely contested point as she scraped her leg on the surface of the court trying to return a shot. As her opponent complained about this medical delay, Emma stayed composed and eventually rounded off her victory with an ace.

The commentators were amazed at her composure on this global stage and asked her how she felt after her victory. They wondered how she managed to hold herself together to close out the match. They spoke of how she played without fear of the occasion and just settled into a really good rhythm from the start of the match.

Emma, in her reply, spoke about trusting in the process of how she had been trained over the years. You just have to play a point at a time and repeat the process that you have tried and tested so many times before. You can’t allow your mind to jump on ahead of you, just keep doing what you have been doing.

Her words echoed the sort of thing many brilliant sports stars have said in their autobiographies that I have read. Former Irish Rugby captain, Brian O’Driscoll, recalled scoring 3 tries against France back in 2000 as a 21 year old in Ireland’s first victory there in 28 years. He spoke about trusting himself and backing himself to have the speed to beat his opponents and feeding off the hostility of the home crowd. Former snooker world champion, Stephen Hendry, spoke of his golden years in the 1990’s when he was world champion 7 times. At that point in his career he knew he had an aura of invincibility and many players feared playing him because of his dominance. He kept himself at a bit of a distance from fellow professionals as he practiced hard and dedicated himself to be the best.

It’s hard to give of our best and be as good as we can be when we feel afraid. We maybe need a certain level of nervousness to get the adrenaline flowing but, if we think of the occasion, or the fact that many hundreds of thousands of people around the world are watching us, it maybe makes us go to pieces.

Emma Raducanu had to play each match in this tournament like she had learned to play since childhood. She had an abundance of talent, but she needed to stay on top of the mental side of her game to complete a remarkable achievement unheard of in elite sport. Most great champions talk about the challenge of closing out the key points in a game or a match. You can get yourself into a winning position and often that’s the point where things unravel. The enormity of the occasion hits you as you realise that the person opposite you is one of the greats of the world game. These thoughts deflect you from playing your own game and once your opponent spots some doubt or hesitation, they launch an attack of their own and gain their momentum.

The Bible speaks a lot about fear and how it prevents us from doing things. It also speaks of how perfect love drives out fear. (1 John 4 verse 18) . When Jesus appeared to the disciples in the middle of a storm after walking on water to rescue them the first thing he said was, “Take courage, it is I. Don’t be afraid.” (Matthew 14 verse 27).

I don’t know about you, but one of the things I find most challenging in the Christian life is to speak to others about my faith and why its important to me. I get scared of inviting people to church or to courses I think might help them, like the Alpha course. I get scared of offering to pray for people. What if it doesn’t go well? What if the outcome doesn’t turn out as we might hope? All of these doubts and fears can play havoc with our commission from Jesus to make disciples of all nations, or speak of what He has done for us. They make our confidence in his power to heal and transform lives waver.

I think in the ‘church without walls’, as we try to engage with a world in fear as we slowly reemerge from lockdown and restrictions, we have an important message to share. It’s a message of hope and encouragement. It tells people they are beloved of God and precious to Him. It speaks of the possibility of new starts and forgiveness and grace, even after times of failure in our lives. It offers the promise of life beyond death.

We might not be marvellous with the words. We might have made some mistakes along the way, but can we trust the process? It’s not about us, but the power of God at work within us through God’s Holy Spirit. Sometimes it’s about describing the peace you have found through prayer or reading the Bible or attending a service. Someone phoned me recently to speak about the peace she felt when the church blessed her children, maybe 15 years ago, at a time when she was going through incredible stress and turmoil.

Let’s open our hearts afresh to God, ask Him to use us, ask for His power to be at work through us and trust the process. Let’s seek to live for Him without fear.

Looking forward to speaking again soon.

Much love to everyone,

Jono.

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