To the new believers who rekindle my own ember of faith by their enthusiasm for the Lord and His Kingdom. I love being around your joy.
Her white-blonde hair catches the bright gymnasium light as she spins, like the first glimpse of a winter sunrise. Her blue eyes are half-closed and dreamy toward the brilliant chaos of the dance around her, but when she completes her spin and faces me, her eyes focus on mine without reserve and my already bumbling attempt at dancing gets even worse. I know if someone were to take my pulse, my heart would be racing. Racing with powerful emotions. Racing with longing . . . and even a little hope.
Her name is Beth, Beth Copeland. Every male in Valley View Christian High, freshman to senior, knows her name. She’s that one girl blessed with such amazing beauty as to be the automatic dream of the entire school, or at least most of it. Boys want to date her. Girls want to look like her. Teachers hope they might be featured in a magazine someday under the headline, “New Face of America Accredits Success to High School Teacher.”
And she is actually dancing with me.
I didn’t think she was in my league, of course. I am a lowly sophomore who barely made the football team earlier this school year. I weigh exactly 137 pounds, though that is a six-pound improvement from the start of the year. I am average in just about every way: height, IQ, abilities, you name it. I’ve never been in the limelight for being good or bad, unless you count a couple of school plays (never a lead) or my baptism (only half my church family cared to see it).
All that changed, though, when I caught a pass from Dillon Seewald on the last play of the season and scampered into our rival’s end zone with the winning touchdown. Suddenly I was a hero, someone the team wanted to hoist up and carry on their shoulders. My name became known by more than a handful of people at my school; it became a household name, really. Everyone heard about me, in this town and the next. A student Youtube video of my catch has even gone semi-viral, with all of 3,873 views last I checked. That day became the best one of my life, and in my mind’s eye that football game became simply The Game, capitalized.
I thought I had lived my fifteen minutes of fame to the fullest, and just a couple of minutes ago, you would have found me where you’d find any average, insecure sophomore at a winter ball: hanging out at the punch bowl with other sophomore and freshman boys while glancing over nervously at girls. But then Beth had walked up.
“Hi,” she had said.
“Hi,” a couple of the boys had replied. But then I realized she was talking to me.
“Beth,” I nearly choked on my punch. “Hi.”
“How’s it going, Kevin?”
“Good,” I nodded, but all the while I was wondering how Beth knew my name. I had never spoken to her before, of course. I wondered if she had been at The Game. Or maybe she’d seen the YouTube video. I realized I was still nodding and stopped abruptly.
“How are you?” I asked.
“I’m doing fine.” She shrugged. “You know, If I didn’t know better, I would think you guys thought the winter ball was all about drinking punch.”
“I, uh, haven’t really learned how,” I confessed. “How to dance, I mean.”
“It’s easy,” Beth said. “Look, you can’t be worse than Jeff.” she nodded at a known class clown dancing with uncoordinated abandon. His ill-fitting black jeans and clunky sneakers only added to his look.
“Want some punch?” one of the other boys suggested. His voice sounded kind of like a mouse learning how to talk.
“No, thank you. Too much sugar.”
“Oh, ha ha,” the boy said. Another added that he was on his sixth cup and didn’t care.
There was an awkward pause.
“Well, I guess I will go wait around for a guy to ask me to dance,” Beth said. “It’s funny how they still want guys to ask girls to dance.” She looked at me.
“Do you want to?”
“Want to what?”
“Dance,” I gulped. “You know, with me.”
And here we are. I part hands with Beth and twirl with the girl on my left. Then I am facing Beth again. We step close, then apart, then close again and twirl. I have to let go of her hands again at that point in the dance, but I don’t want to. Then the music fades out, and the dance is over, wayyy too quickly. I never thought minutes could pass like seconds.
Beth curtsies and claps, and I bow awkwardly. One of my hands makes it behind my back like I’ve seen in movies, but the other one just kind of hangs there. I join in the applause for the dance to cover up my embarrassment.
Beth steps to my side and slips a hand in my elbow as the dance caller instructs, “Lead your partner off the dance floor.”
“Do you want water?” I ask.
“Yes, I’m parched.” She says. She smiles, and I am glad I didn’t make a joke about punch.
I lead her toward a couple of orange Gatorade tubs labeled “water,” steering clear of the sugary punch but flashing a triumphant look at the boys gathered around it. All the while I am trying to work up the courage to ask her for a second dance.
“That was fun!” I say.
“Yes, it was. And I am sure your dancing will get better with practice.” She says it in such an offhand manner that I am left scrambling to consider it a compliment.
“Practice makes perfect,” I joke weakly.
“Well, better at least,” Beth replies lightly.
I start, stop, and hesitate. “Would you—”
We both turn at the familiar voice. “Oh hi, Dillon!” Beth replies, and she says it with more life in her voice than she ever had to me.
Dillon is a total stud in his perfectly fitted vest. Every inch of his 6’2” frame stands out, and his muscles ripple nicely under the rolled-back sleeves of his red dress shirt. His hair is combed up and back perfectly, and he is smart enough not to try the senior beard, so his face looks well kempt. He is a good guy on the inside, too, a picture-perfect high school quarterback.
“Looks like you were having a time of it out there,” Dillon says. I notice he omitted the word “good.”
Beth giggles. “Well,” she says giddily, “Kevin is better running with a football in his hands.”
She and Dillon laugh at the joke. I don’t find it that funny. At all.
“Come on, Kev, lighten up, man!” Dillon holds up his balled hand for a fist bump, but he holds it high enough to where I have to reach up. A fleeting fantasy crosses my mind of fist bumping his square jaw instead, but I laugh lamely and reach up for his fist with mine.
“Can I please have the next dance with you?” Dillon asks Beth.
“Sure,” Beth replies. And just like that, she has left my side and linked arms with Dillon.
“Don’t you still want water?” I say.
Beth shrugs dismissively. “No, I’m fine.”
“It’s okay, we can grab water before the next dance,” Dillon says kindly, and he guides her off toward the water.
I stand in the middle of the dance floor for a minute, heart sinking. I turn on my heels and walk back to the punch bowl. The split halves of my heart seem to bounce in each shoe. But who was I to think I’d ever have a shot with the prettiest girl in the school, anyway? Sure, I had my moment of fame during The Game, but now I realize that Dillon was in that game too. He was the one that drew off the defense toward him, buying time for the little sophomore no one thought to guard to get out into open field. He even faked to our 6’5” tight end for good measure before he threw it to me. I was a nobody that Dillon had made a somebody by his greatness.
“Dude, harsh,” one of the freshmen says to me. He is outweighed, though, by the jealous derision of the other boys as they grind me back down to where I belong with biting half-jokes and sarcasm. I ignore them, fill a cup with punch, and wander away. I think about crossing the dance floor to the cluster of chattering girls we boys had jokingly named the “magpies,” but my heart is just not in it. I feel a need to talk to someone. Someone who can help me out of my budding identity crisis. Someone who will truly listen. Someone adult, even.
I look around the chairs laid out for the parents of the students attending the dance. Very few parents have come, and I don’t know any of them. I don’t even know some of my friend’s parents, come to think of it. One older man catches my eye, though. He looks rough. His skin is weathered and three days’ worth of gray stubble isn’t enough to cover deep wrinkles and even a scar that runs across his left check. He wears a flannel and a pair of brown Carhartt’s that have small tears in the legs. My first thought is a cry for school security, but yet, the man’s countenance is inviting and kind—friendly even. It piques my interest, even disarms me, and I instinctively walk toward him. I am not completely sure why in the moment. Maybe I think it wil cheer me up to talk to someone who has had a rougher go at life than me.
There are two seats open next to the man. I don’t want to sit next to him, but sitting a seat away from him would put me next to Dorothy Dreyer. She is our PE teacher, but ironically, she’s one of those people who kind of takes up more than one chair. I sit in-between the two seats, hovering awkwardly above the crack. I glance once at the man, then look away. We stare out at the dance floor.
“Another dance is starting soon.”
I can tell in my peripheral vision that the man is trying to make eye contact with me. “I . . . it’s just not my night,” I mutter.
“Not mine either. The one night I have visitation with my daughter, it’s the school ball.”
“You could dance with her.”
“She’d be embarrassed.”
That is kind of what I am inwardly thinking. “Who is she?” I ask after a moment.
The man inclines his head in the direction I have studiously been avoiding looking toward. “The tall, slender girl there, with the blonde hair and turquoise dress? That’s my daughter. Beth is her name.”
Now I look the man in the eye. “Wow,” is all I can manage.
The corners of the man’s eyes wrinkle even more as he smiles. “Don’t look so surprised, buddy. As you can tell, she takes after her mother.” the man adds “in a lot of ways” under his breath, but I am too busy wondering if talking to Beth’s dad will boost my chances with her to notice. Probably not, since I never knew Beth’s dad was even a part of her life. I don’t figure Beth is too proud of him.
“She’s dancing with the school quarterback,” I say, trying to sound nonchalant.
“Yeah, I see that. And she was dancing with Valleyview’s hero a minute ago.”
I smirk ruefully. “You can see why it’s not my night.”
“Yeah, I know why you’d feel that way. I’ve had a lot of those nights,” Beth’s dad says, but then he smiles. “They’re not so bad anymore, though.”
“Well, do you know Jesus?”
“He saved me. He saved me from my selfish living.”
“I don’t see what that has to do with dancing,” I mutter.
“Everything, buddy, everything,” Beth’s dad replies. “Take me. Before Christ, I pursued girls because I thought they would fulfill me. I pursued sports because I thought it would give me meaning. I made money because I thought that’s what people did to satisfy their wants. When my dreams failed, I felt empty, meaningless, and unsatisfied. When I did catch my dreams, I was happy for a while, but still unsatisfied.”
I look at Beth. “Like, how?”
“Because everything in the world is broken, I guess. None of it is complete. Even if you get it, it still leaves you wanting.”
“Maybe you just never completely had your dream.”
Beth’s dad looks at me sharply. A flash of something—is it hurt or anger?—shows in his eyes, but then he softens. “That’s not true. I had Beth’s mom, once. I had a great job. I was a successful salesman; I had money. And then we were blessed with Beth, my starlight.”
The conversation has taken an abruptly personal turn so fast, that I grow uncomfortable with it. Curiosity overrules me, though, and the questions keep coming out my mouth before my better judgement stops them. “What happened?”
“I was left wanting.”
“They left you?”
“I left them first, in my heart, and I was too pathetic to do anything about it. My wife filed for divorce, and she won custody. She took my starlight with her. Jesus was nudging me all the while, trying to show me that I was building a house upon the sand, but the rains came before I realized it.”
“That’s rough,” I say after a bit.
Beth’s dad nods sadly. “It was for years, and for awhile I didn’t want anything to do with my family ever again. I picked up some bad habits, drinking and fighting primary among them. That’s how I got this scar.” He fingers the scar on his cheek. “All my selfish dreams ended in scars, really.”
“But why were they selfish? I mean, can’t our dreams be good?” I ask.
“Well, I used to think that dreams were kind of amoral, you know? But now I believe that if Jesus isn’t in our life, our dreams can’t be selfless or good, because we’ve lost sight of what really matters.”
“Which is . . .” my voice fades into a question mark.
“Building God’s kingdom, glorifying Him through it. Can’t you see it? Our own little kingdoms of fame, wealth, possessions, relationships, and stuff just kind of die with us.”
“Yeah, I guess,” I say.
“You don’t sound very convinced.” The man is still smiling.
“I just don’t see how I can stop dreaming. Like, I don’t want to give up.”
“Oh don’t get me wrong, I still have dreams. But they’re different now, you know? It’s hard to explain . . . I guess the way I’d put it is that my dreams no longer center on what I can do for me, but on what I can do for God.”
The music fades, and a dance ends. I stir restlessly. I hadn’t really set out to hear the life story of a total stranger, and somehow his words aren’t comforting. Or at least, they’re not what I want to hear, even though I had asked all the questions. I get to my feet. “Well, I should probably get back to the dance.”
“Yeah, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to get to talking so much.”
“It’s all good,” I say, even as I start walking away. “Goodbye.”
“Goodbye, buddy, take care.”
I walk into the men’s bathroom. I check myself in the mirror. A tuft of my hair is struggling to stand at attention against a heavy coating of hair gel, and I do my best to smooth it down by wetting my palm and pressing it to my head. My average face seems to tilt closer to the ugly side of things under the harsh bathroom lights. I pretend to be washing my hands when another boy comes by, but as soon as he’s in a stall, I stare at myself some more. I stare into my own eyes, wondering about myself, wondering about my dreams.
“Do they really matter?” I whisper. “Do I really matter?”
Staring at my own ordinary self, the odds don’t seem to be in my favor.
I imagine a scar running across my cheek. I shudder, because in the mirror it looks real. My fingers instinctively press my cheek, feeling for the scar tissue. There is none, of course. My skin is smooth, like a baby, really. I don’t even have stubble yet. Your whole life is still ahead of you, I think to myself.
I turn from the mirror with a sigh and wander back out into the gym. Another dance has started already to a lively party song, but I filter lifelessly through the glitz and lights and dancing teens. I hit the door out of the gym, and it swings open to let in a breath of fresh night air. The song and noise of the dance fades and then cuts off abruptly as the door closes behind me, and I am alone in the dark.
I look up.
The moon is hidden behind a cloud, but the cloud’s edges glow a brilliant silver. The sky is a dusky bluish-black, perforated by the twinkling light of a sprawl of stars. I remember a recent science lesson on the stars, how they hurtle along in perfect unity with their neighbors in one huge, awe-inspiring dance. I’m struck by how immense and beautiful it all is, and really, how tiny I am.
“I’m nothing,” I whisper.
It’s freeing, now that I have actually said it. It puts my own petty kingdom of self-worth into perspective. I committed myself to Christ, to the one who created everything, but I haven’t really been living for His glory, especially after The Game. The pursuit has left me empty and sick. Sick of trying to impress, only to be rejected. Sick of chasing, but never really obtaining. Soul sick, I think that is the name for it.
“Can you heal me?” I whisper.
I listen for a voice, either booming or still and small, but I don’t hear anything coming down from above. I guess I never really expect God to speak back to me anyway. But it still feels good to talk to Him again. It’s been so long.
“God, I’m back.”
It’s really the only thing I can think to say, but a thought sparks in my mind at the same moment. It’s about a verse I had read awhile—well really quite awhile—ago, something Jesus had said. I couldn’t quote it exactly, but I know Jesus had said for people to come to Him, and He would give them rest for their souls. Rest. That sounds good.
Like a rush I remember other words of scripture; I remember more about God. Christians are dearly beloved children of God. He will work all things together for good to those who love him, to those who are called according to His purposes. He is faithful, even when we are faithless. It’s like the rush or remembrance fans a smoldering ember deep inside me, an ember of faith that has been slowly burning out. Passion rises inside me, the same passion I felt when I was baptized. It’s passion to break away from an empty life and live differently. It’s passion to serve the One who gave Hs life for me so that I might truly live. It strikes me that this is probably what makes Beth’s dad so eager to share about Jesus in his life. There’s purpose in this passion.
“It’s true, this is what really matters.” My thoughts spill out my mouth. “I’m nothing, but I’m not worthless. I’ve been redeemed by a great price for a great purpose.” I smile, grin even. “Thank you, Lord, thank you!” I whisper earnestly.
And then, almost spontaneously, a line from the Lord’s prayer springs from my mouth, and I have to repeat it again, slower, to catch what I mean, to really pray it as a heartfelt prayer.
“Your Kingdom come,” I pray. “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”