Haunted by a missed penalty

For a number of years now, a penalty miss by David Beckham has haunted me. This is not, you understand, because of my passion for the England football team. I’ve always hoped England do well rather than expected, so England’s turn-around in Euro 2004 from 1-0 up against France with a penalty to make it 2-0 to losing 2-1 was disappointing but not in itself a cause of any long-term agony. But an article that appeared in a newspaper a couple of days later has been.

It starts like this: “People always talk as if puberty were the hardest thing a person has to do: a change so complete that it requires a new mind, a new heart, a new personality. But this is to take a dismally physical view of life. The far bigger change takes place a little later and over a more prolonged period. It happens, roughly speaking, during your twenties. You can call it a coming to terms with personal inadequacy. It is life’s greatest adventure.”

Good but not great
The point made by the writer, Simon Barnes, was that a time comes when one has to realise who one really is, and the fantasy of what one dreamed of being must be set aside. Barnes illustrated this with the comparison between Beckham (missed penalty) and Zinedine Zidane (scored match-winning penalty). Beckham was “very good indeed”; Zidane was “great”. If you just want to be very good, then Beckham’s career has been a success. But he wanted to be great and he has not achieved that.

The margins are fine. Growing up as a Manchester United fan he dreamt of playing for United (he did so 265 times), scoring goals for them (61), winning the League, the FA Cup, the European Cup (he did all three of those in one season and got nine major medals with the club). He dreamt of playing for England and has done so 102 time, scoring 17 goals and leading them out as their captain. All those dreams fulfilled, dreams far beyond the reach of nearly everyone else on earth. But he had other dreams, even bigger ones. Winning the World Cup, or the European Championship. Being the greatest player of his generation. And it was that fine line that he was never able to cross. Zidane, however, did. The honour of being considered great is not Beckham’s, but it is Zidane’s. Beckham provided the crosses to help United win the Champions’ League; Zidane scored one of the great goals to win it for Real Madrid. Beckham dreamt of winning the World Cup but never got past the quarter-final; Zidane scored the goals that won it. The match against France, seen with four years’ hindsight, was a poetic moment that showed Beckham was destined to fail in the pursuit of his greatest dream – the dream of greatness.

He was 29 then; I was 24 and still dreaming. My reflection on being four years older (not much in the grand scheme of things, I know, but enough) is that Barnes was, to a large extent, correct. He says of himself, “I reluctantly came to terms with the fact that I was not a reincarnation of Blake, Basho and Gerard Manley Hopkins. I was not going to be Poet Laureate. Better, on the whole, to concentrate on who I was rather than who I wanted to be: an uneasy business for us all and one never fully realised by any person of spirit. But it is an essential process if you are going to get anything done. I wrote poetic match reports about Redhill’s progress in the Athenian League.” He has finished up a multi-award winning chief sportswriter for a national newspaper, so it isn’t all bad. But, as he says, he’s not the Poet Laureate.

Adjusting my dreams
As someone who is, by God's grace, fairly capable and realistic, it has taken a long time to find myself having to adjust my dreams. Up until this point I’ve either felt a) smart enough to know what I can’t achieve or b) young enough to believe I still have time to do it. I don’t know why being 28 has felt different (although this article may explain it) but it has. And the memory of that article has lingered. It's not that I haven't achieved anything, or that I won't in the future, but something is gnawing at me and I think it's what this article describes. Watching others of a similar age to me achieve great things highlights this. In my context, these are the people who have greater wisdom than I do, greater intimacy with the Holy Spirit, who are leading growing churches, writing books, having major influence.

Your contexts and dreams may be completely different but the principle is the same: a time comes when you realise that you won’t do all that you wanted to do. Choices that you made (relational, career, location, etc.) have had consequences that last much longer – forever even. Potential begins to be realised, or not. Who you are begins to feel rather more permanent than it used to.

Do something
At this time there will probably be a sense of mourning, for the dreams that are no longer to be fed but instead left to die. Beckham wept but life must also go on. As Barnes says, you must start doing things. And continue doing. And do them well. Because dreams can still be fulfilled. You shouldn’t just look for something that you can do, but something that you must do. Then give yourself fully to that. You may not be all that you once dreamt of being, but you have done more than someone who only dreamt and wept.

How God transforms this
But for me, there is more. I said Barnes was largely right because there is one factor he failed to consider. The God of Abraham. And of Sarah, Joseph, Moses, Naomi, Mary Magdalene, Paul… The God of the second chance and the eternal plan.

Life opportunities are, of course, not over by one’s late-20s but some of these guys were pensioners before God even called them. They all experienced the disintegration of their dreams but then found grace in God’s eyes to be used by Him for great significance. Talking of Abraham, Paul writes of God as the One “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17). In fact, God seems to prefer to use these type of people: “God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:28-29).

Why does God do this? So that He gets the glory, not us. And as He is the glorious One, that’s fine by me. How can we take hold of this? Faith: trusting in God. Paul explains this in Romans 4: “In hope [Abraham] believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah's womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what He had promised.” (Romans 4:18-21)

Hold on to God-given dreams
Sometimes God gives us dreams when we are young and then spends time forming our character so the dreams can be achieved. (Read the story of Joseph in Genesis 37-50 to see is a perfect example of this.) Those dreams are not to be given up on because they are from God. But you will have to give up on the idea of yourself as the sole agent of fulfilling what God wants. Apart from Him, you can do nothing. So Barnes is right that we need to "come to terms with personal inadequacy" but the Christian isn't finished there. We must then joyfully embrace God's adequacy.

Seek the will of God for your life – dreams not from an imperfect human but from the perfect, all-wise Lord. Humbly submit yourself to His will and His ability, and He will raise you up. Give yourself to His purposes, and find a greater significance than those who seek their own glory through their own efforts. Don’t be haunted by what might have been, rejoice in what is to come.