This past Christmas a story swept the internet about a football coach at a Christian high school in Texas who inspired his team’s fans to root for the opposition: a team from the local juvenile correctional facility. Among the thousands of emails that the coach received in response to his actions, one stood out to him. Trisha Sebastian mentioned her loss of faith, and coach Hogan got a message from God that he was meant to bring her back. They have a phone conversation which she records. Recently, Ira Glass, of This American Life, interviewed Trisha about the conversation and her impressions afterward. You can listen to the interview at thislife.org.
I was listening to the episode in the background while actually paying attention to something else and found that I had to put everything else down and listen closely. The interview is arresting. Listen to the whole thing to hear the clips from the radio conversation (the poignancy in the tone of voice during the interview is worth it), but I will put up part of the transcript from the second half of the episode, when Trisha is talking about her feelings about the conversation with Coach Hogan. It is worth the listen. For all the sincerity on both parts Trisha, a “lapsed catholic” who left the faith after her close friend died of cancer, yet who secretly wishes that she could find a way to return, and Coach Hogan, an articulate, confident Christian, cannot find a way to communicate with one another. Trisha left the conversation with the same questions she entered it with, and was disillusioned by the way, in her mind, Coach Hogan was trying to convince her of something rather than compassionately understand her.
Ira Glass (narrating): …When they finally do get off the phone they are both friendly, but they both also seem a little disappointed. Trisha and I sit down to talk about how she thinks it went:
Trisha: It was totally not what I expected. I was thinking, “Ok. Here is my chance to speak to a man who really believes in God and find out the answers to these burning questions I have.” You know, I have been struggling with this grief that I feel for my friends death and I thought that he would be able to counsel me and console me and what happened instead was that he basically brought out argument after argument saying that the theory of evolution is contradicted by a seventh graders textbook and…
I: Oh I see, he was trying to argue with you about the existence of God instead of trying to comfort you.
T: Yeah, I think that was it. There were times when I completely warmed up to him and then he says stuff like what he said earlier [in the recording] about Hitler and truth. One of the jokes my friends have is the minute you pull Hitler out in any argument you automatically lose. That completely turned me off towards him. And now I am still left with all these questions.
I: Is there any small part of you that thought he might be able to put the religious message in some way that would finally make sense to you.
I: You did hope that?
T: I really did hope that. Deep down, and I have said this to so many friends of mine, I really want to believe again.
I: So you did want him to bring you back to God.
T: Maybe. Possibly. Most likely.
I: But the way that he was doing it wasn’t a way that really talked to you?
T: No. No.
I: I wonder if the problem with that was just the way he was going about it and the arguments he was using, or I wonder if there is actually nothing that anybody could say to make you believe this thing that now you find yourself not believing.
T: I don’t know. If someone were to just tell me, “This is why Kelly died.” and they were able to relate it back to God, I would probably respond to that better.
I: And when you asked Coach Hogan this, what did he say?
T: We never got to that point. We never got to that point. I couldn’t get him there. I couldn’t ask him the questions I really wanted to ask.
I: But what if it is as simple for people who really believe in God, that God takes different people at different times and that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have some plans for you.
T: That makes more sense to me than anything he said in our conversation.
I: That’s very sad, because I actually don’t believe in God.
When I listen to the interview I found myself thinking about how easy it is, when you believe that what you believe is the truth, to make the mistake of thinking that all someone needs is to believe themselves is to read the textbook, so to speak. But that was not true in Trisha’s case. Yes, she needed truth. It is what she craved, in fact, but she needed truth with flesh on it. She needed compassion. She needed someone to understand her, understand her pain, understand the experiences she had that drove her away from the faith, and speak only after that was achieved. She needed someone to listen for a long time and then speak so that when he or she spoke their words would be like “an apple of gold in a setting of silver.”
If you love the truth, you will tell it, but it is also true that the telling often cannot be so simple as just saying the words. Sometimes you will have to tell it in the living. Doesn’t the fact of Jesus bend us toward this kind of love. Here is a God who did not shout from heaven, but was born as a baby. He gave us a book so that we might have it for all times, but he also gave us his body. He learned a language and a culture and made friends and gave himself up while he lived, and also while he died for people. The more that gospel gets into us the more we will live like he did. In this as in everything the gospel bends us towards one another in costly love. It is in that context of sacrifice and intimate knowledge that our words have their most powerful moment.