At the end of every semester, like clockwork I suppose, it happens.
Amidst the speeches, the tasseling (oh, the TASSELING!), the pomp and the circumstance.
Amidst the youthful expectancy, the Quixotic hubris, and the endless marimba ring screeching disturbingly from what appears to be the CIA blacksite of cellphone placement options…
(COME ON MAN! IT’S CLIPPED TO YOUR BELT! NO, NOW YOU’VE KNOCKED IT UNDER YOUR SEAT WITH ALL THE WILD FLAILING. PEOPLE ARE STARTING TO TURN AROUND, NO! DON’T STOP TO APOLOGIZE! THERE’S NO TIME, JUST CRUSH IT WITH YOUR HEEL!)
I have this recurring stress dream where who I am, what I do with a mandatory 40-hours of my week, and, not to mention, how I end up self-identifying to friends I haven’t seen since high school in line at Trader Joe’s is mostly determined by someone I used to know quite well, but have seemingly lost touch with over the years.
This former Me was well-intentioned, hopeful, passionate, and funny – if only in a somewhat desperate, over-compensating, uncomfortably chatty sort of way. He listened to Dave Matthews almost exclusively (HAVE YOU HEARD THIS LIVE BOOTLEG OF ANTS MARCHING FROM RED ROCKS!? THERE’S A 37 MINUTE DIDGERIDOO SOLO!). He wore only baggy carpenter jeans from American Eagle and couldn’t grow a mustache, and yet, years later, I’m stuck with decisions he made on my behalf about what a near-30-year-old he’s never met should be doing, professional speaking.
Don’t get me wrong, some decisions he made were quite astute (I can think of at least one that, while beginning with an almost wordless car-ride to and from a North Knoxville Carmike Cinemas, has panned out stunningly over 12 years later), but as far as predicting the scatterplot trajectory of my career aspiration, he’s come up a bit short.
(Psychology, really?! What, was Art History full? And don’t get me started on a Masters in Divinity, it’s almost like you were trying to be an unemployed punchline providing necessary context for the pre-college-scared-straight-speech delivered by someone’s dad on Dorm Move-In Day.)
Which leads me, heaving paper-bag-in-tow, to question why societal best practices are to place the future of who we are and what we do at the feet of blotchy-skinned-19-year-old versions of ourselves attempting to make it on time to a Sociology 110 class taught by a ponytailed PhD student we’re all forced to call “just Jeff”.
Growing up, I was taught the whole of a person’s identity could be boiled down to a handful of decisions:
- Which television character hairstyle should you attempt to badly appropriate for yourself?
(Oh, me? A horrifying cocktail of mid-90s Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Mark Paul Gosselaar, and Jeff Foxworthy, rat-tail and all.)
- What sport/instrument/club/video-game should you let define the totality of your personhood in middle school?
(I play SPORTS! Isn’t that obvious from the simple fact that ALL of my t-shirts say SPORT things on them like “Real Athletes wear unitards and play sousaphone. NO FEAR”?)
- And, because I grew up in East Tennessee, which denomination of the Christian faith should I pledge fealty?
(I hear they’re doing a lock-in down at the local Methodist church, but you have to sing the Doxology at 3:30am before you can eat pancakes in the Wesley annex, so…deal breaker?)
Even now, as a mostly fully grown adult, I’m consistently reminded that the truly interesting components of my development as a person have already taken place. They’re finished, behind me, decided, and now the only role left to decide upon is either to revel in their fruits or grimly bear their consequences.
It only gets worse when I appeal to the faith I chose to tether my life to oh so many years ago. As it is, almost solely, interested in pressing upon me the rightness of that original decision, even in the face of its growing dustiness on my existential bookshelf. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but a rather large majority of the Christian books, gatherings, abandoned bathroom pamphlets, worship conferences, sermons, and street-corner shouting matches populating the atmosphere around us, are primarily concerned with motivating you to initially decide to “accept Jesus”.
So much so, that were one to, say, teach on this faith professionally and NOT repeatedly invite people – who for all intents and purposes have already decided to “accept Jesus into their hearts” – to be saved, like every week, he or she is not what we in the biz call:
PREACHIN’ THAT GOSPEL
For the most part, my growing experience with Christianity in America is eerily similar to recently discovering a family member, who will remain nameless, repeatedly watching an infomercial for a product he had already purchased well over a year ago simply to soak in the good vibes of his fiscally responsible decision, like a warm bath:
“Eric, you don’t understand! There are, literally, THOUSANDS of toxins in our air and IT ELIMINATES ALL OF THEM! Just listen…”
The songs, sermons and invitations all underscore a popular misunderstanding about life and faith for many of the folks I’ve encountered over the course of my work:
that being, the prevailing belief that an initial decision to “become” a Christian is the salvation, redemption, following, and point or purpose of human existence.
Ultimately, beliefs like these end up reminding us, much like commencement ceremonies celebrating smarter, younger and better dressed versions of ourselves, that all the important developments have already been navigated by most of us in the room. And, this shared experience we’re all “enjoying” is merely endured on behalf of all the undecideds.
Which, brings me back to my stress dreams and, I would argue, the truth quietly whispering to all of us nodding off in front of the TV after work. A truth pushing us to keep deciding with every day, every hour, and every moment to continue becoming the person we always endeavored to when we were wearing a rather unflattering unisex gown in cavernous gymnasium.
Because, in its best self, the invitation of the Christian faith isn’t to make some sort of tearful, one-time decision as a way of covering your ___ were you to die soon afterwards. Instead, I would argue, it’s an offer to participate in the reconciliation, redemption, and resurrection of every single moment we have left, assuming of course, we survive the drive home.
Put simply: if your world isn’t bigger on the other side of whatever decision you made so many years ago; if it’s actually smaller, less generous, less patient, less welcoming, less open and less compassionate than it was when DMB endlessly soundtracked your ’01 Grand-Am, odds are you may have “decided” to do a great number of things, but obviously, never actually ended up following through.
So may we, the already-decided, spending Sunday after Sunday reveling in our good choices, repent of all the ways our decisions never actually led us out on to the waters of uncertainty and radical trust Jesus invited us to traverse in the first place. Or, of all the times they did, but the wind and the waves scared us back into the boat.
God forgive us.
God embrace us.
God, invite us again and again and again.