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The spiritual practice of resting in smallness

When I interviewed Switchfoot lead singer Jon Foreman and drummer Chad Butler the other day before one of their shows in Charlotte, North Carolina, they told me that their favorite thing about surfing is feeling small again in the ocean—leaving their problems on the shore, getting lost in the ocean’s infinite magnitude, and sometimes being humiliated by its waves.

This idea, feeling small, was one of the underlying things they communicated in their interview with Sports Spectrum.

Says Foreman in our interview: “To be able to stare back at the shore and remember how small you are and to gain that kind of perspective and see all of your problems down there on the shore, and realize, wow, this is a much bigger world than all the text messages I’ve been dealing with, the problems I’ve been having in the studio or on the road.”

What always amazes me is that God often speaks to me through the people I interview. Maybe He knows I isolate myself far too much working on projects, that I beat myself up when they don’t get finished, and that it’s hard to confide in anyone or abide in Him when I live on my own little island and performance-driven world. Often, it seems, He sends a lifeboat to rescue me, or at least to deliver a message through the people I interview.

This was the impact my interview with Switchfoot had on me. It made me think about a lot of things, especially this idea of smallness. I’m particularly drawn to this idea, I think, mostly because I don’t do it very well. In short, I expect too much of myself. Let me explain.

In the first book project I was a part of, The Jersey Effect, former Indianapolis Colts punter Hunter Smith says that the underlying mindset behind the depression he struggled with during his career with the Colts was the phrase, “It’s all up to me.” I confess that I identify with this phrase—on a daily basis. In fact, it might be one of darkness's primary weapons to make me feel worthless and rob me of peace and joy. Does it breach into depression? I don’t know.

Writing is such a personal profession that it’s easy to eat from the tree rooted in the phrase, “It’s all up to me.” And I think my ambition and workaholic nature has always contributed to this mindset. But, for whatever reason, it’s been especially difficult to shake this year.

I entered the New Year having said “yes” to about a million things and a few long-term projects. I knew that the coming spring and summer had the potential to be one of the busiest periods of my life. But I was determined to complete the projects, my ambition being the wind at my back.

One snowy evening in January, I remember daydreaming about a day during the summer when I’d be standing on the beach, drink in my hand, eyes closed, listening to the waves crashing before me, knowing that the projects in which I had invested my heart and soul would, at that point, be on display in the bookstore, or, at the very least, be on their way toward publication.

Then, I figured, I’d be able to breathe. Then, I’d be able to rest easy.

But writing doesn’t always work that way. Completing anything doesn’t always work that way, either. Meaning takes time. This, however, was the island I trapped myself on; the only thing that could take me mainland, into a world much bigger than the one I was living, was results.

I don’t want to sound too dramatic. One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about work and the creative process is the opportunity to enjoy, experience, and depend on God by surrendering your efforts to Him. For me, work is worship. But on the days where I struggled to even compose a sentence or focus my distracted mind, I often went to bed feeling worthless and incomplete; it was as if there was always more to do. The only solution was to crawl out of my bed, fix a midnight cup of coffee, sit at my desk, and get more done until I was satisfied. I always told coworkers and friends I would catch up on sleep when I was dead.

It was this lack of sleep, actually, that probably led to me being sick for all of July.

One day, one of my coworkers heard me coughing in the bathroom. Sharon is my mom away from home. She always tells me my hair is too long, and I tell her it’s not long enough. She is an amazing mother, grandmother, and she has been around since my boss took over Sports Spectrum a decade or so ago. She is incredibly wise, so I listen to just about everything she says, unless it’s about my hair.

“You need to get away,” she told me.

“My family is going to the beach next week,” I told her. “I’m hoping to join them for a couple days.”

“Stephen,” she told me. “You need to go for the whole week.”

She went on to explain to me how I had worked hard this year, how my job was to be faithful to the Lord even if it didn’t seem like my labor was fruitful. She told me the story of Moses and Joshua and how Moses miraculously led the Israelites out of Egypt but wasn’t the one who led them into the Promised Land.

“It’s not all up to you,” she told me, debunking the phrase that always seemed to taunt me. “It’s up to God. But you’re sick because you think it’s up to you.”

When I wrote this, I was at Kiawah Island in South Carolina for one week with my family. I didn’t stand on the shoreline as I had pictured—after all, my projects aren’t even close to being done—but I did lie on the shore for a while, marveling at the intricacies of the ocean, the layers and the foam, and the uniqueness of each wave. At one point, I closed my eyes and thought about how small I felt and how free it was to feel small.

And, though I feel like I have learned a lot this year about enjoying, experiencing and depending on God, that week in Kiawah Island, I learned how to rest in Him.

By Stephen Copeland

A version of this column was published in Sports Spectrum Magazine.

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