In the late afternoon, as Alyssa and Atticus rested on the beach beneath an umbrella, I walked into the Pacific to cry. The waves were relentless. Consistently they battered against my chest and pushed me under and when I recovered they came again. Wave after wave after wave. As the tide knocked me about I prayed, “I’m not the person I expected to be. I’m not who I want to be. What’s wrong with me, God?” And the tide kept coming in and I kept trying to catch my breath.
Psalm 42 describes the deep calling out to deep and God’s breakers and waves crashing over the psalmist while he asks repeatedly, “Why are you downcast, oh my soul? Why so disturbed within me?”
Expectations are tricky. I should have learned that in high school when playing the piano didn’t make me the lothario I expected it would. Expectations are tricky because as each life change comes it suggests life will never be the same, for better or worse. But, life is never as picturesque or ruinous as expected. My particular temptation has always been that with each major life change, like moving to a new city, I would be made into a new, updated person.
February in the Chicago suburbs is rarely celebrated as the nicest place on Earth. Daytime feels like it’s only three hours long and the sun comes out just enough to melt the snow into treacherous clumps of ice speckled with gravel, dead leaves, and garbage that frostbitten fingers of pedestrians couldn’t hold on to earlier in the winter. This is when a campus pastor from my best friend’s church in San Diego hired me to be a campus worship pastor. Having watched the entirety of Fox’s The O.C. many times, I hastily said yes and developed pretty clear expectations for a new life in California. Lots of sunshine, hip music, and days spent at the beach.
Growing up, the expectation was that my life would be a John Mellencamp song—born in a small town, live in that small town, probably die in that small town—but with this opportunity I was going to be a new kind of person, a California kind of person.
A friend asked me if I planned on learning how to surf when I got to San Diego and I answered, “Of course! To the surferbro I’ll become a surferbro in order that I might win some.”
Entering into full time ministry carries with it the expectations of days spent reading the Bible, praying, and caring for souls. And in San Diego, the expectation was to do these primarily at the beach. And for the first year it was mostly that. There were some bumps, sure, but my new life in California was sunny as could be hoped. The congregation made me a part of their family, the church nearly doubled in size, and I went to the beach plenty. Life was good, expectations met. I was a new kind of person, the kind of California person who referred to highways as “The 101” or “The 5.” The kind of California person who wonders why people live anywhere else. And better than all of that was Alyssa. We met within the first month of my moving to San Diego and married a year later. My new life was complete. I had been made new.
A marriage book told me so.
Getting married filled me with all kinds of expectation because I had read a book about marriage once. I knew it was going to be tough work. But because I read that in a book I felt prepared. In premarital counseling we were counseled to learn how to fight well, to decide whose family we’d spend the holidays with, to talk about children.
On the advice of our counselor we tried having “practice fights.” We nailed it. Then we decided to spend Thanksgiving locally with her parents and travel to mine for Christmas. And we knew before getting engaged we wanted to adopt but decided we’d wait five years after marrying so we could get to know each other more. Having read that book about marriage and having aced premarital counseling, I knew exactly what to expect from marriage. The new married me would be devoted, gentle, selfless. And, sure, I knew I wouldn’t hit the mark all of the time but probably most of the time. New married me would be as sunny as new California me.
No one sees the wave that takes them under.
But expectations are tricky. The night we returned home from our honeymoon our campus pastor called and surprised us with the completely unexpected news that the lead pastor was releasing our campus to become an autonomous congregation. Except the lead pastor was doing no such thing. By the end of the week our congregation had no pastor.
We stayed on. But the first three years of our marriage were devoured by the events of this week. Any expectations about ministry, my new California life, or my new married life were shattered. Sunny California became a black hole. It ate my heart, soul, and mind. Ministry was no longer reading the Bible, praying, and caring for our souls. Ministry was about satisfying an insatiable vacuum.
In our premarital counseling we were told to learn how to fight well because fights were inevitable. But fighting well I did not do. After another twelve hours at the church I’d come home wounded and bruised and either end the night in a distant, sullen mood or snap at Alyssa. She’d ask me to do a simple household task like taking out the trash and I’d turn it into a ridiculous fight about a perceived slight against my character, “Are you saying I’m the kind of person who doesn’t take out the trash! What? You think I’m lazy? I’ve been at work all day long and you’re saying I’m lazy. Unbelievable. Sorry, I’m not a good enough husband for you.” Expectations be damned. Devotion, gentleness, selflessness be damned. Marriage book be damned.
At least we were on the same page about holidays with the folks and about waiting to adopt.
When Alyssa told me she was pregnant I was momentarily thrilled. Becoming a father would be like a do-over. I’d be a new kind of me, a new dad me. Supportive, strong, stable. That moment was fleeting. For the next nine months joy seem to grow in Alyssa and I atrophied. I was the luckiest man in the world with a loving and gracious wife, a healthy child on the way, and living in sunny California. Yet I couldn’t feel like I was supposed to or like I wanted. Eventually dread and anger gave way to a laminated kind of feeling. I couldn’t touch the world and the world couldn’t touch me. If I felt anything it was guilt for not feeling as I was supposed to. I began to expect that I would always be drowning like this.
Battered but not broken.
Expectations are tricky. Six years ago I moved to San Diego on my own. Today, I live in Liverpool with Alyssa and Atticus. And I don’t surf. With each new location and major life change I’ve expected to be made new. Moving to California I expected to become a certain kind of California person who says, “Dude, bro…” and surfs. I expected to be a perfect husband and a perfect father. I expected to be the best version of myself. I expected to be made new. And I was. It just didn’t happen as expected.
In the years since leaving California, I’ve looked back and seen each wave and breaker that swept over me, that overthrew me was, as the psalmist says, “the LORD [sending] his faithful love by day.” God has been making me into something better than my expectations of being the kind of person who says, “Dude, bro…” When each new place gives way to reality, the honeymoon ends, and the new baby fills his first diaper with a black tar, there is not a new, upgraded version of myself. The new me is the same me as before, refined by experiences and relationships—who can pray with the poet John Donne,
Batter my heart, three-person’d God; for, you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn and make me new.
Cover image by Shifaaz shamoon.