As fall falls upon us, for those who follow football there is daily speculation about the Heisman Trophy winner for 2012. Who will it be? A long favorite from Kansas State or Notre Dame, or perhaps an upstart freshman from Texas A & M?
I remember years ago reading the back page of Sports Illustrated, a column by Rick Reilly. He imagined a hot-shot quarterback at a major university rushing into the sports information director’s office, slamming the glossy guide to this year’s team on the desk, and screaming, “Are you trying to ruin my life!?” The offense was that the guide featured on its cover the quarterback in a classic stance, with the words, “Heisman Hopeful!”
Reilly spent the rest of the column remembering the long history of Heisman winners who did not make it to the next level. Their university-level skills were not sufficient for the caliber of play required in the NFL. Everything was faster and stronger, and even those who were judged to be the best of the best in the college game, were not able to take their game to the pros. And year-by-year, the Heisman winners were a case in point, viz. most did not succeed in the NFL.
It is hard to make transitions—hard in university athletics, hard in life. Years ago I begin wondering about that, seeing it played out in the lives of students I had loved. Not college quarterbacks or linebackers, but ordinary people living ordinary lives. Watching them come into their university years, beginning to embrace a deepening faith… and then slowly, slowly walking away over the next years. And because I had loved them, that pilgrimage away from what they had once loved, weighed upon me.
So much so that I eventually did a PhD on the formation of moral meaning in the years between adolescence and adulthood—and in the surprising graces of life, my dissertation committee offered me this possibility after I finished my written comprehensive exams: rather than write a traditional dissertation that will live its life on the university library’s shelves, why don’t you write a book?
I still had to follow the university guidelines in terms of formatting and all, but I took them up on their offer. When I finished, I sent it off to a friend, Jim Sire, long the senior editor of InterVarsity Press, as he had often encouraged my writing. Within a month I was on my way to being an author!
The book was written for Everyone, even with its focus on young adults and the challenge of the transition into the rest of life. I was most concerned about understanding why forming a coherent life is so difficult, under the conditions of modern and postmodern consciousness. So the first half of the book is all about that. The second half tells the stories of many people who kept on keeping on, deepening their faith, hope and love over the years, rather than discarding what they once believed to be true.
From the interviews I did, I begin to hear several habits of heart that marked people who kept at it. 1) In their university years they developed a worldview that could make sense of truth in a pluralizing, globalizing world. Because life only gets more complex, if we do not have reasons to believe that make sense of life and the world, we will not continue to believe. 2) In those same years they found a mentor who incarnated the convictions that the young person was beginning to call “mine.” We have to see words become flesh, to believe them, to understand them. 3) And over time they made choice upon choice to form a life with others, in community. Wherever they moved and lived, having a life together with people of kindred commitment kept their own loves alive. There were no exceptions.
The book began to be read by people all over. And over time more printings were done, eventually about 25 with a second edition after some years. Looking back on it, I am sure that I was only writing about something that was true; I did not discover anything. People who care about good pedagogy come to the same conclusion that I did. The Fellows Initiative is a good example. Wherever a Fellows program exists, it is built on the same vision. We need a worldview, a mentor, and a community, if we are to keep our commitments, if we are to deepen our loves—and of course we need the surprising grace of God.
A last note. As I have taken the book all over the world—all over America, and from Latin America to Europe to Africa to Asia –I have come to this conclusion: people who continue on, who keep at it for love’s sake, are always people who have faced sorrow and disappointment, evil and wrong, and made their way through. Not because they have “blinked,” closing their eyes at critical moments, but rather they have kept their eyes wide open to the wonders and wounds of the world, finding vocations and occupations that engage them in the complexity of life.
As I watched this, I begin to wonder, “So is it possible to honestly know the world, and still love it?” Over the last few summers I have spent weeks working on that question, and another book has been born. At this point it is only in my computer, and only a few friends have read it. But sometime soon it will make its way to a publisher, and I hope, out into the world.
Not surprisingly, the book is about vocation. But the question that runs its way through, from beginning to end, is this: can we know the world, and still love it? Most of the time it seems not. Most of the time we conclude that the more we know, the more disillusioned we are. The more we know, the more disinterested we are. To put it plainly: the more we know, the less we want to love—because it hurts too much, and so we protect our hearts from having to live with the implications of what we know. Stoics and cynics have spent millennia offering that response. My argument is that unless there has been an Incarnation, their answers to the question are very good ones.
But there has been an Incarnation. And so threaded through is this thesis: we are called to imitate the vocation of God, who knowing the worst about us and the world, still loves us. In and through our vocations, we are called to the same love—butchers, bakers, and candlestick-makers that we may be.
So a writing life has grown out of my life. As I have lived among people, learning from them as I have loved them, their longings have become mine, their questions have become mine– and the pages and paragraphs are my response. Whether Heisman hopefuls or not, the challenge is keep on keeping on. For those of us who don’t plan on spending our lives in the NFL, it is always one more try at forming habits of heart that deepen our loves for things that matter most.
(For more about The Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior, this link to Byron Borger of the Hearts and Minds Bookstore will tell all you wanted to know, and more: http://www.heartsandmindsbooks.com/reviews/book_of_the_decade/)