“Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1) is the epigraph in Days of Grace: A Memoir by tennis great Arthur Ashe. Indeed, he endured much in his short life.
Ashe’s mother died when he was six. His father raised him on the grounds of a recreation park, which providentially had tennis courts. He spent childhood summers in the home of Dr. Walter Johnson who served up values and character along with tennis instruction.
Ashe was a student athlete at UCLA and coached tennis at West Point after graduation. As a professional, he won three of four Grand Slam tournaments: the U.S. Open, the Australian Open, and Wimbledon. In 1975, he was ranked #1 in the world. Yet he said, “I don’t want to be remembered for my tennis accomplishments.”
Life took a turn when he was diagnosed with heart disease. During bypass surgery, he contracted HIV from a transfusion. He officially retired from tennis in 1980 at age 36.
Yet he endured. Ashe helped develop: the ABC Cities program to promote tennis and academics; the Safe Passage Foundation for poor children; the Athletes Career Connection; the Black Tennis & Sports Foundation; 15-Love for those recovering from substance abuse; and the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS. He commented, “From what we get, we can make a living; what we give, however, makes a life,” he said. And what a life he made in his 49 years.
He could have been bitter about not growing old. Yet he said, “If I were to say, ‘God, why me?’ about the bad things, then I should have said, ‘God, why me?’ about the good things that happened in my life.” One of the best things that happened was his faith. He was raised in the Christian tradition, but trusted Christ only after observing the lives of his friends Bob Briner (TV producer) and Stan Smith (Ashe’s competitor in tennis). These men’s lives were consistent with their faith, and Ashe invited them to pray with him and help him in his faith in Christ.
Ashe’s accepting attitude is reflected in these sometimes difficult words: “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thes. 5:16-18). You can be thankful that disease and death have no final authority over you. To view health and earthly life as your standard of peace and reality is to obscure eternity. The Psalmist says, “Lord make me to know my end and what is the extent of my days; let me know how transient I am” (Psa. 39:4). By faith you’re passing through this life saying, “Thank you!” not “Why me?”