Sunday, July 1, 2007

Waiting for touchdowns.

Waiting for touchdowns.

For most of my life, I’ve been waiting for a football to land at my feet. When it does, I’ll hopefully be standing a few feet away from an NFL practice field. The offensive coordinator will see that the football has rolled near me and will yell out “hey kid, throw that back.”

I’ll reach down, pick it up and proceed to throw a perfect 90-yard spiral to a receiver running drills at the other end of the field. Practice will grind to a halt as they gather round to gaze at this diamond in the rough, this passerby that just might guide them all the way to the Super Bowl.

I’ve never played football. I played soccer growing up but despite David Beckham’s arrival to the US and the growing popularity of the sport, it still makes for a pretty weak metaphor. I don’t particularly want to play football, but I do want to be ready for the one defining moment in my life that will save me from being ordinary. The one touchdown event that will rescue me from, well me. So for years, I’ve had my head down looking for the football at my feet.

This is not a particularly fun way to go through life. For starters, if you look hard enough and squint your eyes, just about anything can look like a defining moment.

A year ago, I tried to force one out of Relevant Magazine. I was three or four months into an intimate relationship with Christ. I was dealing with issues that I think a lot of guys struggle with and I wanted to share what I had learned. I became obsessed with writing a book.

I emailed Cameron Strang, the founder and editor of Relevant Magazine. Relevant is kind of like the Rolling Stone magazine of the Christian world. Their stuff is well written, getting better designed by the day and they deal with things most Christian media shy away from. It should be noted that directly emailing the founder of the publication is a classic football moment. Why didn’t I email my friends and ask them if they knew anyone in publishing? Why didn’t I self publish the book first? Or even start by emailing an associate editor or someone lower down the food chain at Relevant? Because all those options felt like short passes and I was looking for the touchdown or nothing at all.

I ended up getting a little of both.

In the email, which was absurdly written, I told Cameron that I was:

A son of a successful preacher who had climbed the ranks to the executive board of the Southern Baptist Convention. An award-winning copywriter whose greatest sell had been pretending to be a Christian.

I went on to say:
“regardless of whether it gets officially published or if I sell it out of my trunk like MC Hammer, if God wants me to tell millions and millions of people that he loves them, I’ve got to trust it will happen.”

There’s a lot more nonsense where that came from, but you get the point.

That night Cameron wrote me back:
“You have an amazing story and we’d love to hear more about your book idea.”

Touchdown right?

Not really. After a few back and forth emails with their editorial director I stopped talking with Relevant. I wanted to write the book. I’ve wanted to write a book since the third grade when Mrs. Harris published (also known as laminated) a collection of poems I wrote. Maybe it was fear of success or just the regular kind of fear, but I just couldn’t do it.

I felt like a football made of granite had landed at my feet. I could see it. It looked exactly how I thought it would look. But it weighed a thousand pounds and I couldn’t pick it up.

It’s frustrating when these defining moments look like how we’ve always expected them to look, except for one detail. When we’re 90% sure that this is the right person to marry or the right job to take or the right time to publish a book. But that other 10% always seems to refuse to shut up.

I can try to minimize the 10% or maximize the 90% but I still end up trying to force a defining moment. And defining moments hate that. In the Relevant situation I simply wasn’t ready to write that book. I had basically carried around a backpack of lies and grossness for about 20 years.

Three months into my walk with God, at a point where I was at best beginning to recognize there even was a backpack, never mind emptying it, I demanded that God let me write the ultimate guide to getting rid of backpacks. It would be like writing a book on how to be a parent from the delivery room of my first child.

The other frustration is that by looking at for defining moments all the time I put incredible pressure on everyone that crosses my path. “Are you the person that’s going to radically change my life?” a quiet desperate voice inside me asks.

I am not exaggerating when I say everyone. Ask my 3-year old. When someone told me that being a father was a great way to understand God’s love for me, I starting expecting a life transforming lesson from my daughter L.E. For an entire weekend I was secretly mad at her because the things she was doing weren’t giving me a clear understanding of how God loved me.

If I told her out loud my expectation for the weekend on Friday night I would have realized how ridiculous it was: “L.E., I know you’re only 3, but I’m struggling right now with believing that God loves me. If you could somehow show me that or explain that to me this weekend, that would be great.”

She didn’t though. As hard as I tried to tie her refusal to eat a piece of chicken for dinner to my own rebellion and the hurt God must have felt when I rebelled against his love, she was just a 3 year old. And I was just a dad looking for a shortcut to a defining moment.

I also miss some really amazing things God is doing all around me when I laser focus on defining moments.

Before our honeymoon, my future wife told me a girl she worked with still stayed in touch with a couple she had met on her honeymoon. They had become lifelong friends while at a resort in St. Lucia and still got together regularly.

Deep inside, I got the idea that if my wife and I didn’t make lifelong friends during our weeklong honeymoon in Jamaica we’d be missing a defining moment and the whole thing would be a complete failure.

The first day we were at the Sandals Resort I started to get really anxious because other couples were pairing off together to go snorkeling or play two on two volleyball. Jenny and I weren’t getting invited or doing a very good job of laying the groundwork for life changing friendships. In fact, most of the time we spent alone with just each other! Even with all the new things that Christian couples get to enjoy on honeymoons, there was a part of me thinking “Maybe that guy I played ping pong with is going to be my next best friend.”

Pathetic, but true.

There are a lot of things I believe in my head or my mouth but deep down inside I doubt. I know that I don’t get to define my own defining moments. I know that I’ll never be able to come up with a better defining moment than God. There’s not a thing I am going to do on this planet that will leave him surprised up in heaven thinking “wow, Jon really pulled that one out. I gotta tell you, Samson, I did not see that one coming.”

But I still think I might know what a good defining moment can be, which is why I feel blessed when the fog clears just long enough for me to see one God has orchestrated and marvel at how connected his creativity is.

In 1971, it just so happens that my dad’s roommate during his freshman year at the University of North Carolina was a man named Al Andrews. Al is the funniest person I’ve ever met. He explores life with the kind of unabashed wonder of a little kid stuck in an adult-sized world, like Tom Hanks in the movie Big. I love Al.

After college, it just so happens that Al moved to Colorado to study counseling with Larry Crabb, whom he would later coauthor a book with. After he finished with the program, it just so happens he decides to stick around and teach.

Calendar jump to my life. I graduated from Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. In addition to writing church prayer devotionals for a living I was self destructing on ecstasy and raves. I called my dad for help. He called Al. Al says he had a student named Gordon in Colorado. It just so happens Gordon is in Alabama now.

I called Gordon. Despite starting his working life in the Merchant Marines, it just so happens he’s recently opened up a counseling office. It just so happens that office is one mile away from where I live in Birmingham.

Fast forward a few more years. I drove from Atlanta to Birmingham to see Gordon because life was coming unraveled. He refused to placate my funk with soft-pedaled “it will be alright” counseling and suggested I see someone regularly in Atlanta.

It just so happens he had a friend named Jeff that specializes in my particular brand of failure. It just so happens that his office is ten minutes from where I work (a miracle in and of itself because everything in Atlanta is 43 minutes away from each other.) Jeff just so happened to live next door to Gordon in Colorado, where it just so happens they were both taking classes from a man named Al.

A man that 34 years earlier had just so happened to knock on a door in a freshman dorm and say, “Hi, I’m your new roommate” to an 18-year old that would just so happen to be my dad someday.

I don’t know
I used the phrase “it just so happens” 12 times in those last few paragraphs, which just so happens is really bad writing. But that’s not the point. The point is that’s one of the places where God lives in our lives, in those small actions or events that in retrospect have tremendous impact.

All too often I miss them, even when I take the time to look back on the seemingly unexplainable chapters. Even worse, I steal God’s glory and instead credit these moments to coincidence or ownerless ideas like “it was just meant to be.”

When I paved the inexplicable connections from Al Andrews in 1971 to me in 2005 with the phrase “it just so happens”, I was able to see how ridiculous it was for me to doubt God is the master of arranging those moments. Try it sometime with the story of how you met your spouse or someone special to you. I promise that if you’re honest, each time you attempt to write away the hand of God with “it just so happens” it will get harder and harder to think happenstance is controlling your world.

I can’t logically explain how intricate connections over a three-decade period ended up saving my life and my marriage. I could try, with six degrees of connectivity and how we’re all tied to each other on a global scale now because of the Internet, but it still wouldn’t make sense. I would still come back to thinking that one of the reasons God introduced my dad to Al Andrews in 1971 was because he knew that I’d desperately need to be sitting in Jeff’s office in 2005.

Situations like that make me feel like God knows what he’s doing. More than that though, they teach me it’s OK if I don’t know.

I used to think being a Christian meant you had all the answers. I’ve never really shared my faith because I’ve always been afraid it would turn into one of the moments on the show Politically Correct with Bill Maher. It always seemed like he would invite two brilliant people that hated God and one back-country hillbilly that loved God into a round table discussion about faith. The guy with the PhD in atheism and the woman that won a Pulitzer Prize in evolution would just go to town on a church secretary from Table Top, Arkansas. And I didn’t want that to happen.

I also didn’t want to misinterpret something from the Bible. I know there’s Greek and Hebrew involved in the Bible and that other than not getting into a frat and the phrase Oy Vey, I have very little experience with either. I’ve always worried about saying “I really liked how Isaiah said in rest and repentance is your salvation” only to have a real Christian reply “Well the original Hebrew for “rest” means “don’t ever quote this verse” so by doing so you’re really revealing how much of a sinner you are Jon.”

But the more I learn about God, the more I realize how much I don’t know and I’m beginning to think that might be one of God’s favorite things to hear me say.

Saying “I don’t know” takes the strength and pressure of arranging my life out of my hands. When I say “I don’t know,” I’m acting out of authenticity, not apathy. I’m not saying I don’t care. I’m admitting I don’t have logic or knowledge or formulas that justify my faith. I have faith despite the absence of those things not because of their arrival.

In the book Addiction and Grace, Gerald May describe the spiritual growth process as one that involves “far more relinquishment than acquisition.” I think he’s right and that by being honest with the Lord and others, I relinquish my mask of perfect son, perfect employee, perfect Christian author, etc.

I also relinquish the future, which was never really mine to begin with, but still something I have to give up. Daily.

I don’t know if this book will ever get published.
I don’t know why God has me working at AutoTrader right now.
I don’t know what hardships or joys will tackle me next summer.
I don’t know if my daughters will be popular in high school or if I’ll have to explain to them why it’s OK that they didn’t get invited to the Prom.

And that’s OK, because I know who does know and it’s in His hands, which are bigger and more creative than mine.

Nothing deflates a forced defining moment faster than the phrase “I don’t know.” A few months ago I had the opportunity to brainstorm a sermon series with Andy Stanley. Andy is Charles Stanley’s son and in my mind he ranks up there with Rick Warren and Bill Hybels. He’s written countless books, built a church of 15,000 people and is definitely one of my heroes. When I got the email invitation I almost threw up out of excitement.

At the end of the meeting, I was talking with him and the woman that had invited me. He asked me a little about my thoughts for the church, my background as a pastor’s son and my family. Then he threw a football at my feet, a question that I longed to turn into a defining moment:

“What do you want to write?”

In my mind I instantly envisioned me giving Andy a perfect answer that made him exclaim “Dear Lord, this boy is brilliant. How would you like a 5-book deal and a speaking gig at church here?” I thought about all the ways he could connect me and help me get started. I thought about being on a book tour with Donald Miller and maybe playing Frisbee with John Piper. I thought about kissing goodbye every bit of less than exciting advertising copy I’d ever written in my life and starting my trajectory to the moon.

And then out of my mouth I heard the phrase “I don’t know.”

Pop went the football. Stop went the mile a minute manipulative thoughts running in my head.

“To be honest with you, I don’t know. I’m trying to figure that out with God right now.” I finished the conversation and walked out of the office.

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