Chapter 8

Foul on the Court

February 2006

 

After the night I met Joanna, life felt so different; to say I was happy would be an understatement. Rather, if the days leading up to my incident in the church parking lot were my rock bottom, then these days after hearing that God wanted me to marry Joanna were my cloud nine.

Even though I was excited to tell my family about Joanna, I was also nervous. I had driven 300 miles away from school to make myself more vulnerable than ever. My family and I have clashed with our religious differences before, and I wasn’t sure how my good news would be received.

My dad had fulfilled my request to round up the family. My siblings looked at me with eyes that displayed hope that the news wouldn’t take long to tell, my dad reserved in demeanor, and my mom excited yet nervous to hear what I wanted to say.

With everyone’s attention, I broke the news.

“God told me who I’m going to marry.”

“I knew it,” called out my younger brother. “Didn’t I tell you, Mom? I knew you were gonna say you got engaged.”

“No, I’m not engaged. In fact, I think that’s going to be a far ways away. God is going to direct me when I should take that next step with her, but it’s not now.”

“Is this the girl you just broke up with?” asked my mom, remembering how badly that relationship ended.

“No, it’s not. Actually, the girl is someone I went to Kilmer with.”

“Kilmer?” my mom asked, her eyes bulging from her skull. “What’s her name?”

“Joanna. I stopped in Buffalo Grove on the way here so we could finally see each other in person.”

“So you had never… met before?” my mom asked. “You’re going to marry a girl that you just met?”

“Right, but like I said, that’ll happen when God wants it to happen. I’m not jumping the gun on this one.”

“So, is that it? Can we go now?” my little brother asked, hoping to get away from his nutty brother.

“Yeah, is that it?” my big brother resonated.

“Yeah, I guess that’s it. I wanted to tell you all first. God told me that I need to tell everyone I know, no matter if they’d believe me or not.”

“Why does He want you to tell everyone?” my dad inquired.

“I don’t know, Dad. I don’t understand that part either. But I feel a heavy conviction that it’s what I’m supposed to be doing.”

My dad solemnly examined me, one arm resting on his well-nourished belly and his other hand stroking his soot-shaded beard as if he was a court juror contemplating the verdict.

 

*

Over the next several days, I tried telling anyone who might be a part of “everyone,” friends and extended family and even some strangers included. But they weren’t any less skeptical of my story. While there were a select few individuals who believed in what I had to say, the majority had less-than-enthusiastic reactions. There were some that were tolerant with what I was saying, verbally telling me that they believed me, but otherwise indicating that they wouldn’t be willing to put stock into it. Other particularly religious people labeled me as “misguided,” while some friends missed the point altogether and simply said, “If that’s what makes you happy, then go for it,” as if I was making a career choice. Others didn’t care one way or the other, feeling my story wasn’t worth their time to hear. Yet there were others who became angry, telling me that I needed to stop shoving my beliefs down their throat.

By the time I had told everyone around me, many of my relationships were broken at worst and strained at best. For those that didn’t just tell me to shut up and not contact them anymore, I was still just one of those close-minded religious guys that people generally like to avoid.

If I had had any reputation before, it was dragged through the mud now. I was frustrated and hurt that any respect I had earned from my loved ones was all-but-gone now.

 

*

Before I headed back towards St. Louis to return to college, my dad could tell I was feeling dejected, and so he sat down and patted me on the back.

“It’s not going well, is it?” he asked.

I bit my lip, and not even looking at him, shook my head. My dad knew the answer before he even asked; in fact, the Zion High School principal reached out to him after I emailed all of my former teachers with my story. I had created a buzz at my alma mater, and not in a good way: I received several emails back from teachers who I once had the respect of, emails all flowing with concern and a few dripping with anger.

“I did everything I thought I was supposed to be doing, but it feels so embarrassing,” I vented. “I don’t want people to think I’m some religious nut.”

“Nate,” my dad laughed, “you’re way past that point. You are a religious nut. But… maybe that’s not such a bad thing.”

“I guess what I mean is… I’m… I just don’t know. Did I make a wrong move?”

“Well,” he reasoned, “is it wrong to commit a foul in basketball?”

I looked up at him, flabbergasted by his comment. I didn’t understand what he was saying, nor was it helpful. He might as well have said, “When’s the next Leap Year supposed to happen?”

“You don’t remember?” he seemed surprised. I shook my head again, looking no less confused.

“It was your first year playing basketball in junior high, and you had never been called for a foul all season. The entire year, you were such a timid player. You were so afraid of being the reason that your team lost that you would avoid playing aggressively, so as not to get called with a foul and give your opponent a chance at some free throws. Nevermind the fact that your passive defense was allowing your opponents easy shots at the basket anyway,” he laughed to himself. “The night I drove you to your final game of the season, I explained to you that if you commit a foul, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad player; even your favorite Chicago Bulls athletes regularly commit fouls. Would you classify NBA stars as passive or aggressive?”

“Aggressive.” Of course they were aggressive. What a stupid question.

“Right. They’re aggressive. But you know what? When you play aggressively, you’re going to get called for a foul every now and then. It’s just a part of what happens.”

I was starting to recall this conversation we had when I was in 5th grade.

“After we talked in the car that night, it was like it clicked for you. You realized you needed to be a bolder player. You realized you needed to play more aggressively. So, you said to me, ‘Dad, during this last game tonight, I’m gonna get fouled.’

“Well, during that last game, you were a different player. You were all over the ball; nobody could get near the basket without you getting a hand on the ball first. And then, the inevitable happened: the referee blew the whistle to stop play and he called a foul on you for a reaching violation.

“As the teams got set to start play again, you glanced over in my direction and shot me a mischievous smirk. You had committed the first foul of your basketball career. I smiled back at you, so proud of you for challenging your opponent. I knew you finally figured it out: if you were gonna be effective, you’d inadvertently commit fouls here and there. It’s the nature of the beast.”

I remembered that story now. Hearing it again renewed the pride that I had felt that day. But what did it have to do with me now?

“This prophecy that you’re telling people about now,” my dad continued, “it’s not going to go over well. When you play someone in basketball, they have one mission: to get that ball in the basket via the easiest route possible. But when you come at them, you frustrate their plans. Likewise, the people you’re telling this story to have one mission: to live their life via the easiest route possible. But when you come at them, you frustrate their plans.

“If God did indeed tell you to do this, then you need to do this. You need to be bold. But you also need to understand you’re going to upset people. You’re going to commit fouls. But if you’re not aggressive enough to commit fouls, then you’re not trying hard enough, are you? Follow your heart and trust God’s plan. If you’re gonna be effective, you’re gonna inadvertently commit fouls here and there. It’s the nature of the beast.

“But,” he set up the punch line, “when you do commit fouls, know that I’ll still be proudly smiling back at you.”

I nodded my head. He had made his point.

“Nathan,” he then tried to put his skepticism in perspective for me, “as I consider your story, I can’t say whether or not God spoke to you. He didn’t speak to me about this, so I can’t know. I won’t tell you that you’re right, and I won’t tell you that you’re wrong. But in time, your story will either prove to be one or the other. All I can do is wait and see.”

I appreciated his candidness. And he was right, too. God never commanded me to convince anyone that what I was saying would come to pass, but rather that I just needed to tell it to everyone. I did what I was told to do, and that was enough.

“Besides,” my dad added, “it’s not like what you’re saying is harmful. Nobody’s going to die if you’re wrong.”

“Well,” I swallowed hard, “there’s more to this story than just the idea that I’m going to marry a stranger, Dad. What benefit would it be for God if there was no risk?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked as his eyes drooped.

“If God promised me that I’m going to marry Joanna, then that means I’m going to marry Joanna. And nothing can stop that.”

My dad’s tolerant demeanor changed, not liking where this conversation was going.

“Not even death,” I added. “I believe God wants me to be fearless until I marry Joanna. God wants me to know that I can’t die until His promise comes true.”

My dad hated hearing this. He knew that I was often a wild child in high school, known for being quite the reckless teenager. And if I was dangerous before, how much more dangerous I’d be with this newfound belief.

“Nathan… you’re planning something, aren’t you? You’re going to act on this ‘invincibility’ belief, aren’t you?”

He knew me too well.

“Are you familiar with East St. Louis?” I asked.

“East St. Louis, the city just across the river from St. Louis? East St. Louis, debatably the most dangerous city in the country? That one?”

“Yes, that one.”

“Nathan… what about East St. Louis? What are you going to do?”

I smiled at my dad, who wasn’t returning the gesture.

“I think God wants me to reach out to them.”