“The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.” – Lester Bangs, Almost Famous
A couple of years ago I wore a hard hat and operated a concrete grinder on a construction site. This came long after my work was published in ESPN the Magazine, after I got my MFA and after I had published several books, a few of which had won national awards. The hardest thing about this particular job is that it had me grinding concrete in the Fine Arts building at a local university – meaning that I had to watch a bunch of other guys in skinny jeans, chunky glasses and messenger bags living what I thought should have been my life, while I lived Will Hunting’s life at the beginning of Good Will Hunting.
One day a history professor (you’ll know them by their Dockers and uncool shirts) came up to the floor where we were working and threatened to shut us down because we were making too much noise. This was an uncool moment. I was covered in sweat and concrete dust. I tipped my hardhat at him and then tried not to get killed doing a job that I hated and that made me nervous, but that I knew was God’s provision for a time. I wanted to tell this guy about my books and my degree but that would have been dumb, contextually, because who cared? I wondered if I’d ever get to teach full time because, by that point, I was adjuncting (at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan) and absolutely loving every moment of it.
God was teaching me that sometimes you don’t get the good thing right away and, looking back, I realize that I often would have made shipwreck of my life if I’d gotten what I wanted exactly when I wanted it. In his mercy, God took football away from me in college after it had become a full-blown idol. As a young, rambunctious college kid, I thought football would be my way of communicating with the world. As it turns out, God replaced it with writing and a lovely lady (my wife, Kristin).
During the lean, up-and-down years of freelancing, my wife would encourage me by reminding me that we were pirates…and even though she was just being kind, I imagined myself a cross between the Johnny Depp character in Chocolat and Tristan in Legends of the Fall. On bad days I felt like Steve Zissou in The Life Aquatic – a little faded and a little past my prime. We didn’t have a full-time teaching job but we had freedom. We lived in France for a little while during those years. We wrote a ton. We adopted a couple of kids from Ukraine. We, as they say, won some and lost some.
One of the “wins” was an invitation to speak at Union University several years ago after the publication of my book Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion (Moody Press, with Kevin DeYoung). When I flew into town for the gig, Union’s own Tim Ellsworth picked me up at the airport. Over the years we stayed in touch sporadically, and it was Tim who let me know about the opening in journalism.
I don’t think of myself as “experienced,” but I guess that’s what all those years were – interviewing former heavyweight champ Tyrell Biggs on a street corner in Philly in the middle of the night, covering Mike Tyson’s last fight and even speaking at Union. It didn’t feel like much at the time, but God used all of it to prepare me to serve this community.
My vision for this position is to be a servant to my students and to (hopefully) show them what it looks like to love God and love my neighbor as a working writer. I want to strike a balance between showing them what’s possible, while at the same time striving for ultimate contentment and rest in Christ. I want to read and talk about cool things together. I want to enjoy them while we enjoy working on the craft together. I want to keep writing. I want to help raise up a new generation of talented writers who love the Lord and who are ready to compete at the highest level. I want this to be joyful, because it should be. It may not always be happy, or easy, but it should be joyful.
After my football injury in college, my favorite professor visited me in the hospital and asked, “Have you ever considered being a writer?” In the moment I wrote him off…determined that I would make a miraculous recovery, turn pro and “show” everyone. Many years later, I am a writer and a teacher, and am thankful to be both.