This is a story of faith, chess, being 12 years old, Hebrews 11, and the greatest teacher in the world. Warning: this post is over 5000 words…more like a short story really. I think you will find it worth the effort if you give it a go. Be blessed,,,
On my way home one morning after my Tuesday morning group Bible study, I began to see a beautiful truth in the world. Maybe my thoughts were driven by the chapter we studied that morning, maybe it was by mere whim, and maybe the Lord was trying to say something to me, but nevertheless, a picture opened up to me that I just have to share.
We were systematically studying the book of Exodus, chapter by chapter; and that morning we discussed chapter 19 of Exodus. Each person in this particular Bible class is expected or at least encouraged to study the material and then to share their thoughts and revelation. The night before, as I studied the chapter, I chose to use my William McDonald Old Testament commentary to see what he had to say. There in the middle of Exodus 19 and 20 (if you are not familiar with these chapters, 19 is YHWH calling Moses to the top of Mt. Sinai to gain audience with His people and chapter 20 is the giving of the Ten Commandments), was a commentary on the different dispensations recorded in the Bible. Dispensations are, by definition, the different ways in which God deals with man. The two most obvious are the Dispensation of the Law recorded in the Old Testament and the Dispensation of Grace (sometimes called the “Church Age”) recorded in the New Testament. A good case can be made for many other dispensations as well, but that is not what this post is about. I encourage any Bible student to briefly read a Christian commentary concerning the dispensations because it is actually quite beautiful and can put our present time into a more clarifying light.
As our class evolved that morning, there seemed to be some tension in the class. Although one would think this a negative thing, on the contrary, in this class, love abounds and viewpoints are encouraged and embraced. But the issue that I brought up was that if we don’t see the different ways in which God deals with man and to whom God is addressing, we are tempted to superimpose what is recorded in Scripture falsely opon our present generation. This got some folks’ feathers ruffled. But I proceeded to explain that in one dispensation, God clearly restricts the diet but in the current dispensation, Jesus says all food is good to eat. In the Old Testament, God commands the destruction of the enemy and then Jesus tells us to love our enemies. In Ezra, God commands His people to “put away” foreign wives, but Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians not to do so! All that to say: God doesn’t change…but His methods DO change. I compared it to Play-Doh…I know, brilliant right?! If you take all the colors of clay and mix them together, they always end up dark grey. However, if you combine the colors without mixing them together, you can create colorful images. The same applies to Scripture: if you understand the different dispensations recorded in the Bible, then you see all the colors and the unity is breathtaking; however, many today will disregard the dispensational context as well as the intended audience and what you end up with is confusing. Either you end up with a muddled dark grey or you end up with a salad bar of Biblical understanding. It’s like a believer coming to the “salad bar” of Scripture and building a salad out of grace as the lettuce, add a little dietary restriction of cheese, sprinkle with the boiled egg of the Abrahamic blessing, and finish off with the ranch dressing of Pauline restriction of women speaking in church. Viola! A salad bar to fit my “cut and paste” version of Christianity! At this point some feathers were not only ruffled but a few had been plucked and were now either floating around the now still atmosphere or lying on the floor at the feet of the ones I had offended. They know I love them and I know they love me…most of the time anyway…
On the way home, I reflected upon what some others had said about God being in charge of the world’s destiny and His knowing full well what the final outcome would be. Someone pointed out that in the first utterances from God in Exodus 19, that the word “if” preceded the promise: “Now therefore, IF you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” I then pointed out that the “if” never happened; Israel never got it right! In fact, if you look up the definition of a failed relationship in the cosmic dictionary, the nation of Israel is right there next to the marriage of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton! Did God make a mistake? Did God, on purpose, set up a system in the Law that no one could keep? What’s really going on here, and why would God set up a system that doomed all to failure? As most mature Christians know, the answer is found in the New Covenant, and especially dealt with beautifully in the Books of Romans and Hebrews. As I dropped a friend from the class off at his home, I remembered my propensity for playing chess as a young man, and then the Lord showed me a great lesson by reflecting back on the game of chess and how it is played; in fact, He took me back to the state championship chess game that I played way back when Hall and Oats were still cool (if you don’t know who Hall and Oats were/are…ignorance is indeed bliss!).
When I entered the 7th grade, I was blessed to have what I consider to be one of the best teachers to ever have taught school. Mr. Davis was awesome! Mr. Davis had Muscular Sclerosis. Mr. Davis made learning fun. He made everything into a game and learning came almost as an indirect result of playing. How he pulled this off, I haven’t a clue, but when you can hardly wait to get to school, something must be working! Mr. Davis was an eccentric man to be sure and his ability to make learning fun literally changed my life and the way I approached teaching and the rearing of my children as well. Without going into too much detail let me give you a quick spin around the block: he had a room dedicated to the Cincinnati Reds and this room was so unique and unprecedented that it was actually featured on “Wide World of Sports” (this was a TV show back before cable and therefore ESPN), we often broke into teams and competed for classroom glory in every subject (this would be politically incorrect today!), if we finished our work early we would often play games (one of these games featured us pitching a small inflatable ball into a garbage can that would be set past Mr. Davis’ wheelchair, and the object was to land the ball in the can without him hitting it like Mickey Mantle with his cane), and if we all made a “B” or higher on our tests as a whole, then we would buck the system and go outside to play…we were the envy of all the school. When confronted about his unorthodox approach, he would always point to how ridiculously high all his class would score on standardized tests; the proof was in the pudding to be sure! I loved Mr. Davis and I know he loved me as well. How often can we say that about our teachers in complete confidence? Anyway, this brings me to the story.
I was gifted by the Lord with intelligence; I didn’t earn it, I didn’t deserve it, I simply was born with a genetic disposition to think a little quicker than most. I am not puffed up about this gift; for as we all know, every blessing comes with a set of curses! Anyway, Mr. Davis figured this out in the second week of class. Out of the blue, Mr. Davis set a challenge before the entire 7th Grade class; the challenge: memorize the 11th chapter of Hebrews in one night and recite it the following day. The reward for completion of this task was a day off from school! As I flipped my Bible over to Hebrews 11, I was stunned by the mere length of the chapter; “What a ridiculously long chapter”, I thought to myself and chalked it up to a silly, if not impossible, challenge.
At that time in my life, I had discovered the joy of fishing. As a young boy, there were precious few things that lit my fire like catching a fish on the other end of a line; I mean, I literally daydreamed and fantasized about landing the “big one” and parading through the streets with my prize; with the theme song of “Rocky” playing in the background; I acknowledged the bows of the people to my greatness with a nod.
I had recently been granted permission to go by myself to fish in a pond we named “Frog Pond”. Because both my parents worked and I had a younger brother and sister, my parents rarely gave me permission to go anywhere by myself. But recently to appease my incessant begging and pleading and a few tears, they succumbed to my request. The only caveat was that someone had to be home with the younger siblings to facilitate my exit to Frog Pond. So the only occasion I had to fish was either when my parents were home or when my two younger siblings were at Granny and Pa’s. As I rode the bus home the day the challenge was presented to memorize an entire chapter in Hebrews, I waxed on the idea of actually having a day off from school: both my siblings would be at school and therefore, I would have the whole day to myself to fish!!! Praise God! That would be epic. By the time I stepped off of the bus with my brother and sister in tow, resolve had washed over my being; the stern face of a man readied to do battle was painted across my face and it was on!
That night I stayed up until midnight under my blanket with a flashlight, reading and memorizing Hebrews 11. I yawned, I cursed, I cried, I fought off doubt and worry, and ultimately I was able to recite the entire chapter and fell asleep. The next morning, I could only recite about 8 or 9 verses, so I had a panic attack and began to study the chapter again. I studied as I ate breakfast, I studied as I brushed my teeth, I studied on the bus, and I walked into the classroom with my Bible open to Hebrews 11. When the bell had rung, Mr. Davis got out of his wheelchair and labored his way around the room with his cane looking at each person and not saying a word. Some giggles erupted here and there because Mr. Davis was a talkative and fun man but right now he was either really serious or really faking this somber aura. He finished his survey of the class, looking each student in the eye and asked if there were anyone ready to meet the challenge and recite Hebrews 11. I was still “cramming” and closing my eyes to try to recite it in my head when I heard a couple of people accept the challenge. Only three raised their hand (I was not one of them) and accepted the invitation to come to the front of the class and give it a go. The first boy stumbled right out of the gate and was toast almost immediately; it was actually quite pitiful and I felt bad for him; however, you have to give him an “A” for effort because 90% of the class didn’t even try! The second boy got up and actually did an outstanding job with what he quoted; unfortunately, he left out a huge section in the middle. The next and seemingly last person to try was Debbie. Now Debbie was the smart one, the anointed one, the rich and intelligent girl whose dad owned the car dealership, the one everyone else expected to prevail in the challenge; but alas, even Debbie got buggered about three-quarters of the way through and couldn’t find her way back to where she had stumbled. All had failed, but now that I saw that people had at least tried, that gave me courage to attempt the impossible. Heck, if Debbie couldn’t do it then the pressure is off completely! I raised my hand and Mr. Davis smiled as I awkwardly shuffled to the front of the class with my head down (I was incredibly shy by the way…almost to the point of terror).
I had tried to memorize Hebrews by the words and failed, I had tried to memorize it by the first phrase in each verse and failed, I had tried to find key names in each verse to remember it and failed; it wasn’t until I associated the verse with the actual person being written about that I was able to put it all together. So as I stood before the class, instead of freaking out about the length of the chapter, I focused on telling the story of these famous men of faith. I glided through the recitation like I had written it! It flowed like a gently moving stream and the initial tendency to rush and get through it was suppressed and it just came out. The class was stunned. I was stunned. When I completed the recitation, the class was silent and I looked over at Mr. Davis to see the surprise on his face. He didn’t speak for what seemed to be a long while. Slowly a grin began to curl his lips; he looked down to his open Bible, and calmly spoke the verdict, “Well, that was a fine attempt indeed! However, in verse 14, you left out the word “the”, but besides that error…it was perfect!” The class looked at him, looked at me, looked at each other, then back to Mr. Davis as if to say, “Well, was that good enough?” And as if to answer the unspoken question, Mr. Davis apologized to me for not being “at liberty” to grant me the day off from school because “word-for-word” meant exactly what he had said. I was disappointed, but I felt somewhat like a martyr! After class, many of my classmates came up to me and patted me on the back expressing the unfairness of it all and complimenting me on the valiant attempt…I had become somewhat of a hero, and that eased the sting a bit!
After that day, Mr. Davis had adopted me as a bona fide teacher’s pet. I was among a few others in the class that he nurtured on an individual basis. I know in today’s world this is frowned upon and I totally understand why, but nevertheless, Mr. Davis became a mentor, a friend, and a father-figure to me. I always finished early when tests were taken. On one particular occasion, Mr. Davis saw me sitting in my chair quite bored because I had finished 30 minutes early on a science test. He caught my eye and motioned with his trademark stiff finger to come to his desk. As I sat down in front of him, he reached into one of his drawers and garnished a chess board. I will never forget that chess board, mainly, because the white and black squares were replaced with brown and white deer pelt. I loved the feel of the squares and it fascinated me. He then asked me if I knew how to play, and I responded by telling him that my dad had taught me the basics. The first game we played lasted all of about 1 minute as he pulled the ole’ “four move” on me! Those not familiar with chess would not understand this phrase, but suffice it to say, there is a way to defeat your opponent in four quick moves and every person who learns to play chess will be defeated exactly once in this fashion. For, to be humiliated in this manner leaves a lasting impression and you recognize the sequence any other time it is attempted. So this is how Mr. Davis introduced me to the game of chess.
Every day for the rest of the school year, Mr. Davis and I played chess at every opportunity. He was quite my superior, so why he never got bored with it always escaped me. I thought he was deriving enjoyment from my humiliation until one day he decided to give me some pointers and advice. This was the beginning of an incredible journey in my little life. I started getting better and better. He gave me a book on chess that outlined move-for-move some of the greatest chess matches in history and I studied it like a substitute Bible! I improved rapidly and the fruit of playing daily with Mr. Davis led to me being able to beat my dad, then able to beat my grandfather (he never forgave me for getting better than he…grandfather was proud of his chess prowess and rarely if ever had lost), and ultimately beating the mentor, Mr. Davis himself. I was not the only one that Mr. Davis mentored in the game of chess; my best friend Aaron also learned a lot from him (Aaron started out much better than me because his father played with him on a regular basis). Eventually, the chess game between either myself and Mr. Davis or Aaron and Mr. Davis, was replaced by matches played between Aaron and me. Mr. Davis was content by the end of the school year to simply watch us play and gloat in his brilliance of tutoring two little chess masters!
In the last six weeks of school, the announcement was made that the annual TSSAA school competition was quickly approaching. Every teacher was to pick one or two students in each representative subject to compete at the state level. Surprise, surprise, there was a category for chess! In the chess category however, two places would be filled by an elimination process; the chess competition was not grade against grade like the other categories but rather only two representative students from the entire middle-school. Aaron and I were at a disadvantage in that we were the “young-guns”, but because of the mentoring of Mr. Davis, Aaron and I completely obliterated the competition at our middle-school. In fact, Aaron actually pulled off the “four-move” on a guy that sent the poor chap into a fit of tears! We had two weeks to prepare for the district. Aaron and I dominated the district and between the two of us, we had a perfect record with no losses. Two weeks later, the state championship arrived. I remember the day after lunch that Mr. Davis sat Aaron and me down for a heart to heart and gave his best impression of a Vince Lombardi speech rife with testosterone and quotes about courage, focus and preparedness. That was the moment of clarity for me. I realized that Mr. Davis had been preparing both of us for this moment. Had Mr. Davis just come out and said, “Hey, I want to prepare a couple of students for the state championship chess competition…any volunteers?” then he would know that no one would be up for the task…brilliant! I think back at all the times he gradually and lovingly brought us along unbeknownst to us as to his grand scheme. But here we were on the precipice of greatness quite by no foreknowledge on our part. Just as a side-note here: doesn’t God do this with us throughout our lives? Doesn’t He know what he is doing with or without our knowledge of the road ahead? You betcha!
So now my story is coming full-circle. Here is how the championship went down. The competition is set up in two brackets, just like a basketball tournament. You win, you move to the next match; you lose, you go home. No double-elimination, only one game at a time and the outcome determines who stays and who sits to watch. No pressure here! Unfortunately, Aaron and I, in a blind draw, ended up on the same side of the bracket. We both played well and made it to the semi-final match. The problem was that the semi-final match was a match between the two of us…that sucked! I beat Aaron, but it was a hard fought match and came down to the final pieces on the board. Aaron was a gracious loser and wished me luck in the final match (by the way, Aaron beat me in the next game we played which so happened to be on the way back from the competition on the bus).
Our side of the bracket finished early and so I was able to watch two matches on the other side of the bracket. The guy I knew I would be playing was really, really, really good! He was in a wheelchair and despite of (or because of) the wheelchair, was mean as a snake on the chessboard. He showed no mercy and seemed to almost play around with his competitors like the way a cat plays with its prey before devouring it. He was so dominant; he seemed amused at the competition and really didn’t take the person across from him very seriously. The two games I watched him play made me extremely nervous because he was relentless; he beat his opponent down early and made them suffer until they either resigned or prolonged the inevitable “check-mate”. I had already begun to formulate a strategy for his aggressive play, but was unsure as to whether he would fall into my trap or spot it in a heartbeat. I realized I would have to sell him my ineptitude as a foe and put him into his comfort zone of overconfidence. This kid had won the state the previous two years, so he was accustomed to being the champion, and by the level of his play, he had every reason to assume that there were no real threats out there…especially from a younger player.
I must take a moment for my readers and explain at least the basics of competitive chess. Chess is a game of strategy…obviously. Each piece has its own abilities but is limited as to how they can move. For instance, a pawn can move only one space at a time (except it can move two spaces forward if it is its first move), a bishop can move only diagonally, a knight moves one space linearly and one space diagonally, etc. Each piece, based on their ability to move is assigned a value: a pawn is worth one point, a bishop three points, a rook five points, etc. The match is timed; so if you dilly-dally, the game will end if it is “timed-out” and the person with the most points wins. This, however, rarely happens; most games end with a move called “check-mate”. Check-mate is where the king has nowhere else to move and the game ends. The only other way to end a game is if the opponent knows he has no way out and resigns by tipping his king over. Also, one must realize that chess is a game of control.
One of the advantages that can be gained is control of the empty squares by having pieces in place that are in “striking distance” and therefore control that space. The most important part of chess by far is your ability to see ahead, the ability to predict moves well in advance. Some of the best players on the planet can see up-teen moves in advance. In playing a good opponent, you can predict with a little effort what the opponent is trying to do, plan for his next move, and make your own move accordingly. It is a battle, in essence, of the future! Taking a piece is not the real objective; the real objective is taking a piece 10 or so moves in the future. The game of chess is arguably the most challenging and rewarding games known to humans, but it can take a lifetime to compete on the upper levels for apparent reasons.
As I sat across from my opponent, I decided about 20 moves into the match, to start acting like a dope. The first moves in chess are about jockeying for control of the center of the board. Not a lot of action takes place early on, at least to the casual observer. And then the next phase ensues; the next phase is generally known as the exchanging of pieces. This part of the game is where the armies basically clash, like advancing troops eventually must start trading blows. Here is where I made my strategical move. I had started out with one of my favorite opening sequences called the Stonewall Attack; this attack is a very radical opening in that it breaks normal protocol. Normal protocol is to try to control the center of the board, kind of like getting the center square in tic-tac-toe. But the Stonewall leaves the center of the board open for the opponent and forces all action to one side, in this case the right side from my vantage point. The stonewall attack doesn’t look like an attack at all; it looks completely defensive in one aspect and looks silly in another aspect. Your opponent has to pay attention to not only their center attack, but also has to be aware of this unorthodox side attack; basically, it causes them to have to fight on two fronts instead of one. At some point, my opponent broke through my line of defense and began to destroy my back line. The back line is where a lot of powerful pieces are left until the end-game and protect the king. I pretended to be helpless and protested verbally about the lashing I was taking. I pretended to retreat and defend, but really what I was doing was preparing for just one move…that’s right…JUST ONE MOVE. From observing the board, everyone around watching just knew I was doomed. I was “bleeding” as they say and was losing all my powerful pieces systematically. My opponent was ripping me apart and the only saving grace for me was that I had my queen left. The queen is the most powerful piece on the board.
My opponent had one weak spot. He had one soft spot on his back row, and I had my eye on it. He was so busy beating the crap out of me, he never took the time to sure up his defense because up until the final move of the game…he didn’t need a defense! He could see victory and was three moves away in his eyes from checkmate! Two things happened that he perceived as victory, and that I perceived as his last two moves. He put me in check and I had to sacrifice my queen to protect my king. Everyone standing behind me let out an audible groan of disappointment. He was now one move from victory. However, in a move that caught everyone by surprise, I reached to the other side of the board, relishing the moment I might add, and slowly moved a lonely rook down the side of the board all the way to his back row where his king was not only exposed but trapped and said the sweetest words in chess…CHECK-MATE!!!!
The crowd around was stunned, even Mr. Davis didn’t see that coming, and my opponent was in absolute shock. He was so busy ripping me a new one and underestimating me and assuming I was not his equal (which in reality…I wasn’t) that he left himself exposed. You see, I let him get the upper hand, I let him get overconfident, I let him see me squirm, and I let him have his little victories in battle; but all I wanted was to make that one move to win the war. So on that day I walked away in victory much to the surprise of all who attended. I had used another person’s strength and used it against him. So who really gives a flying rat’s behind? What does this whole story have to do with playing chess with God? So glad you asked.
When we look around the world today and assess the situation, we see defeat in so many areas of life. We can’t comprehend God’s strategy and think in advance the way He does. We must truly remember what the Bible says about God knowing the end from the beginning and the beginning from the end. His ways are not our ways, and his thoughts are not our thoughts! He sees the next move of the enemy, predicts the enemy’s move, and has already planned His next move. Don’t you think Satan felt pride well up within himself when he convinced Adam and Eve to sin? Don’t you think Satan boasted about the train-wreck of the nation of Israel? Don’t you think that Satan and all his angels had an epic party when they nailed Christ to the cross and Jesus took his last breath? And even now, don’t you think Satan is laughing at the Church in its plethora of weaknesses? But you see, God knows what the future holds, He has already seen many moves down the line, and He has victory in His hands! Maybe you are a pawn or a bishop or a rook; we know there is a “cloud of witnesses” of people who have given up their time on the chessboard of life and are sitting on the sidelines cheering for the pieces still in play. Just like all those men and women of faith in Hebrews 11, they trusted God for the end-game, they walked in faith believing that God knew what he was doing, and they gave their lives looking forward to a hope that would not be seen in their own generation. Using the metaphor of a chess game, they willingly took one for the team and allowed God to use them to forward the grand plan of redemption. We must understand and accept and rejoice in the fact that God ultimately wins this cosmic game of chess and we all share in this victory! But we must also understand that the only reason God has to play the enemy is for the salvation of the ones He loves. He is right this minute in essence extracting sons of God from the wickedness of this world. I can assure you, this is no easy task and there are casualties of war. In fact, we must come to terms that He has asked us to help in this battle to be His representatives on the chessboard of our generation. So we need to live in victory and comprehend that our God is doing this for us and for the redemption of His creation. Don’t lose heart and don’t be blinded by the seeming massacre all around us. God has already made THAT ONE MOVE with the astounding victory of Jesus Christ! But Satan will not resign, he will not lie down, and he wants to take as many pieces from God as he can. So don’t lose heart in this battle, because we should all know it is foolish to be playing chess with God…