I’ve been at Sports Spectrum Magazine for five years. Those who are closest to me will tell you that a half-decade is a long time for me to be anywhere. My doctor says that I have chronic commitment issues or perhaps just a bad case of being a millennial. I was told that I should get a therapist, so I got three but couldn’t decide on one. I recently used the word “committed” in a conversation with my friend and he almost coughed up his drink. He then asked me to repeat what I said. And then he asked me again. And again. I asked him to stop asking me to repeat the dreaded word. Anyway, I’ve been at Sports Spectrum for five years. I guess you could say I’ve been committed. Also, for the record, I think it’s a beautiful word. In May of this year, however, I told my boss that June would be my final month working at the magazine. It was a difficult decision. But it was also an easy decision. I’m sure you’ve been there. Now, before I go any further, please understand that this essay is not meant to be an extravagant account about my professional transitions. I do not think that people care about such personal details in my life. However, I do think that most can relate to the feeling that they are not in the right place, that feeling of loneliness even when surrounded by people, that feeling of once feeling at home and alive in an environment and then feeling lost and confused, that feeling of being too different to belong. When I was hired by Sports Spectrum in 2011, I often told friends and family that I felt as if I had already landed at my dream job. I remember telling many that I thought I could probably work there the rest of my life. I meant it. I was not being facetious. I felt that my new job lined up perfectly with my faith and my purpose. I had an interesting mindset back then. I had just graduated from college with a degree in Journalism and Bible, and I thought that I had my Christian worldview figured out. I do not think that my arrogance was the college’s fault but was my own fault for thinking that I could figure out something that was so unfathomable as God or the Bible or faith. It pains me to say that I think I hurt a lot of people during that period of my life. I looked down on others who did not believe the same things that I did and was condescending toward some of the people that I loved the most. I had a very small view of God, a limited view of the Christian life, and a dualistic mentality. People were either right or wrong. They were either in or out. Saved or not saved. Luckily for me, I was a white, middle-class Republican who was right, in, and saved—you know, just like Jesus! Ahhh, the benefits of the elect. But then I started learning. Reading. Listening. Exploring. That’s what faith has become to me: a journey of discovery, of never arriving, of stepping deeper into the incomprehensible ways of the Mysterious Other. Those of you who have followed my work might have been able to tell that my back-page column in Sports Spectrum didn’t always fit with the rest of the magazine over the years. My column was called “Another Angle,” after all. Most of the content in our magazine was geared toward a mainline Protestant and evangelical audience. Needless to say, my column was not that. I never wrote to be intentionally provocative. Rather, it is impossible for me not to write about what I am learning, about what makes me feel alive. Once I wrote a column about a gay soccer player whose beliefs were moving and inspiring to me…but once it was printed, I was told that I couldn’t write something like that ever again. An understandable business move, I guess, since we received a plethora of letters, calls, and lost a number of subscribers. We even received a bigoted, low-grade book in the mail about homosexuality. I did not read it. I do enjoy reading people's opinions that are different than my own, just not when those opinions are filled with the undertones of hatred or exclusivity. Sounds too much like Mein Kampf. Another time I wrote a column about my personal re-exploration of Catholicism and a local long-snapper’s encouraging Catholic faith. I received a 2,000-word email littered with Bible verses, explaining to me that Catholics were not saved and that the Vatican is corrupt and that the pope is the anti-Christ or something like that. I read the email and thanked the reader for his thoughts. But I also told him that it seemed like he believed in a very small, formulaic god—and I use a lowercase “g” because I’m a journalist and accuracy is important to me. Now, the disagreements among subscribers did not frustrate me. I love tension. I believe tension is where true learning takes place. It is difficult to learn or to grow or to attain enlightenment whenever your life unfolds in an echo chamber—surrounded by people who reflect the same ideas and opinions as you. But as I continued to venture through my mid-twenties, which I unpack fully in my new book Quiet Dream, Violet Sky, my previous spiritual paradigm continued to crumble like the Republican party. This deconstruction phase was a dark and lonely time for me, as it usually is for people. On top of that, my employer became a nonprofit, which I knew would only restrict my creativity and narrow the list of topics I wanted to write about.
For the last couple of years, I’ve felt similarly to how a lot of pastors feel—alone, unable to raise questions or express doubts or truly share what they are learning, because it would not be accepted and would therefore affect attendance and would therefore dwindle the donor base. Thing is, my professional journey is only a relevant anecdote. I felt this sense of loneliness—of no longer belonging—in a number of social circles. Specifically at church. Sometimes among friends. Never really at the coffee shops or breweries. Over the last couple years, as I’ve journeyed further and further away from my previous spiritual paradigm and deeper into what some might call Christian mysticism—first and foremost inspired by the teachings of Jesus and secondly by authors like Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Brennan Manning, Richard Rohr and Rob Bell—I began to feel more alive in my spirituality than ever before but also more alone at my job.
If you are familiar with the phenomenon of spiral dynamics—which explains the natural evolution and expansion of human consciousness—most of my writings were shaded with green (equality, humanistic, personal growth, experience) but were printed for an audience that was primarily blue (authoritarian, loyal to truth or a sacred text). Neither is better than the other, by the way. Both can be very beneficial ways to live. And yet, even my green writings were watered down...because they had to be.
The point is that I didn't feel like I had the freedom to be myself creatively. That’s what ultimately led to my departure. Yes, there were some practical things as well. I needed more time to work on books, for example. But at the core of the transition was my spirituality. And that leads me to now. And to this blog. Forgive me for the length of this post, but I think it’s important for readers to know exactly what led to the birth of this pursuit so that they understand the background of this blog. I've begun this blog and am writing the book I mentioned earlier because I long for avenues to express myself in ways that are unashamedly me. Authenticity cannot be manufactured. Nor can it be disguised by a Christian nonprofit. To steal a personal mission statement from one of my spiritual mentors, Dave Hickman, who helped me begin this journey three years ago: “I am called to joyful vulnerability as Christ animates my being and my doing.” I hope this blog will be a vulnerable expression of my experiences in life, art, and spirituality. I hope it might pull you deeper into the mystery of divine union—Christ’s animation in you and through you. I’ll forever be thankful for my time at Sports Spectrum. It led to the launching of my career as an author and storyteller, where I come alongside people in the sports and entertainment industry and help them tell their stories and write their books, which I will still continue to do. Most importantly, it allowed me to participate in an admirable mission that has been around for over 30 years: to use sports as an avenue for storytelling, pointing readers toward something that is bigger than themselves. Who knows...I might write an occasional feature story for Sports Spectrum, even in this new phase. I believe wholeheartedly in its mission. This new pursuit, however, is a reminder to myself—and I hope that in someway it might be a reminder to you—that it is okay for consciousness to evolve, for beliefs to change, for learning to unfold. It is okay to move forward. It is okay to see something a new and different way. It is okay to go deeper into the journey, even if it’s lonely. It is okay to have an experience that cannot be named and cannot be described and cannot fit into an institution’s well-packaged theology. It is okay to be uncertain, to raise questions, to live on the fringes. Feeling dismembered from an institution does not mean you are wrong; it might actually mean that you are falling, under the divine’s natural laws of gravity, into mystery and grace and wonder and justice—into the unfathomable. For a long time I thought that there was something wrong with me, but I was actually being pulled deeper into the mystery of how loved I already am by God—into fullness and wholeness. Into growth. Into evolution. Into the freedom of becoming more and more awake. Into life.
By Stephen Copeland
This essay was first published on copelandwrites.com.