I was not built to play soccer. I am what doctors would refer to as “slow." I am not merely physically slow, but I also lack any instinct for the game. My reflexes were never honed by years of practice or drills as a child. I grew up in a place where soccer did not exist. That distant land was known as Indianapolis circa 1984.
God, as he is in the habit of doing, moved me far from that strange provincial town, into the wider world - in this case to South America - where they do, in fact, play soccer. So much soccer.
When I first moved to Argentina as a church planter, I knew enough about culture as a concept to realize that I had to make some fundamental changes in my behavior if I was going to fit in. For example, Argentines eat more beef per capita than we do in the States. So I had to level up my meat consumption skills from All-Star to Elite. These are the types of sacrifices missionaries often have to make for the Cross.
Slightly more trying was my adoption of mate (mah-tay) as my go-to beverage. Mate looks like grass clippings and, depending on how it is prepared, can be a delightful hot tea shared communally or taste like the dross from a weed eater. It didn’t matter. Whatever any specific iteration of mate tasted like, I drank it with gusto. It was part of fitting in.
A new name, a new person
Changing what I ate and drank was a minor inconvenience in comparison with soccer, however. I’m a lifelong baseball fan, but I chose to live and work in a Latin American country where no one played the game at all. Polo is more popular than baseball in Argentina. But if I wanted to have any relationship with Argentines, I needed to not only follow their futbol but to develop a passion for a game that I had spent much of my life mocking (because nothing was more Hoosier in the 1980s than making fun of soccer).
At first, trying to fit in just felt like adopting external behavioral changes, and unnatural ones at that. But in time, exposure to a new culture and a new way of seeing the world profoundly altered my heart and even my sense of self. I even had a new name to go along with it. Nate Dunlevy loved baseball and never wanted to leave the northwest side of Indy. Natán Doonlaby loved mate and played soccer (badly, so very badly) and was living as a stranger in a strange land.
On a visit to Uruguay, I looked up at the stars one night. They weren't my stars. Orion’s belt wasn't shining. The Big Dipper didn’t hang upside down above me, hung on a hook by God after dishing out a bowl of creation stew. I only recognized one constellation.
“How did I get here?” I thought.
I scanned the horizon. A cross dotted the South American sky, reminding me that I wasn’t home, but I wasn’t lost either.
I’ve always wondered if God made Adam out of a tree. We humans love to put down roots and stay past what sanity would dictate. Many of us dig deep into our soil as if to say, this is mine. This is me. I’d die before I’d leave.
But throughout the Bible, God pulls men and women from their homes and sends them to new lands. From Adam and Eve to Abram and Sarai, and from Jacob to Moses and Naomi to Daniel, the Almighty digs up the deep possessiveness that seeps so naturally from our feet to the soil, breaking up our roots and sending us marching on.
Peter calls Christians "foreigners" and "aliens," which is hard to imagine if you’ve never experienced it. We derive our identity and often even our names from places and tongues our fathers left behind long ago. It’s no surprise, then, that when God moves us on toward a new land, he gives us a new name along with our new address. The land isn’t ours. It belongs to God. So does our identity
Abraham; Israel; Peter; Paul. We think of those names as giants, as pillars.
But they weren’t names given from birth. Those men all grew up thinking of themselves as something else. A father, a leg-puller, a listener, a king. But that’s not what they ended up being. They were to become the father of many, a wrestler, a rock, a humble one.
“This is not your home,” God says. “And that is not your name.”
We don’t get to decide for ourselves who he made us to be. We can kick against the goads or take up passage on a voyage to Tarshish; but if the Potter says to the clay, “Play soccer,” the vessel that emerges from the potter’s wheel, will in fact, play soccer.
Badly. So very badly.