Atlanta, City of Dreams

Atlanta, City of Dreams May 24, 2010

In my middle childhood years, the city of Atlanta held a mythical fascination for me.  The reason?  Atlanta would be host of the 1996 Olympic Games.  Since I would be reaching the age of 20 in 1996, the Olympics in Atlanta would be the first Olympics in which I could reasonably hope to perform.  I still remember, shortly after the 1996 Games had been awarded to Atlanta, attending a junior national team camp at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, when I overheard two young boxers-in-training discussing the 1996 Olympics.

“Lamantra,” said one.  “They’re going to be in a city called Lamantra, or something.”

Lamantra?” quoth the other, his voice rising in skepticism.  At the Olympic Training Center, boxers were not known for their intellects.  “That sounds French!  That can’t be in America.”

Boxers did not need to know the name Atlanta.  They could dream of title bouts held in Las Vegas and broadcast on HBO.  Yet the Olympics are the sine qua non of the gymnastic life.  Gymnasts were just beginning to receive some amount of financial support, and the most successful gymnasts could sign endorsement deals, but that support and those deals were for and came from the Olympics.  Olympic success was the only meaningful barometer, at least for a gymnast with ambition, of gymnastic success.

Of course, I injured myself in February of 1996.  Perhaps I would not have made the Atlanta Olympics, in any case.  As it happened, after the injury I decided to go to China for a mission trip, at least partly so that I could be as far as possible away from Atlanta.  Thereafter the word Atlanta became, to my mind, a symbol of lost opportunity, a symbol of broken dreams.

A week ago today, I arrived in Atlanta with a moving truck full of the belongings I share with my wife and 20-month-old child.  The dreams are different, but they are dreams nonetheless.  Dreams of raising children in a place where they will be safe, cherished and provided for.  Dreams of a wife made happy by the love and support of her family.  We live 5 minutes from my wife’s sister, 10 from her mother and father, and close as well to many of her cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents and childhood friends.  I made this move not because of work, and not because of personal desire.  I made the move for my wife’s dreams, and for the dreams we have dreamed together for Sophia and any other children we are blessed to have.

Yet I cannot help but wonder: what of the other dreams I dreamt for Atlanta?  I don’t mean the Olympics exactly.  I mean the reason that I dreamt about the Olympics.  A part of my desire to compete in the Olympics was because I felt that it was God’s calling upon my life.  In pursuing this, I believed, I was pursuing the will of God down a dangerous and arduous road, a road that would require great effort and sacrifice.  Am I pursuing our new dreams for the same reason?

To be sure, there is a humble heroism, and a daily art of self-sacrifice, in being a good husband and being a good father.  But as we purchase furniture for thousands of dollars, and pay a mortgage that is more than 98% of the world could afford, and visit churches where the buildings are veritable palaces of wealth and privilege, I wonder…am I giving up the true dream of my youth, the deeper dream, of pursuing Christ amidst extraordinary sacrifice and self-denial?

I don’t believe that moving into the city — there has been quite an “urban flight” movement amongst evangelicals in recent years — would do much to salve my conscience.  Urban areas too can be areas of wealth and seclusion, and we are being naive if we think that spending a little time with poor people is all that is required.  I can practice “faithful presence” in the lovely suburbs of Atlanta.  But is that all that the life of Christ implies for me?  Jesus asked for followers, and he spelled out what it meant to follow him.  It meant that you would sacrifice the esteem of the world, sacrifice a life of convenience and self-indulgence.  Perhaps it is different now because we live in a Christian country?  I don’t think so.  America is largely secular — or, really, it is worse than that, it is secular with a patina of Christianity, allowing Americans to pursue lives of worldly comfort while calling themselves Christians.

I don’t believe that God requires anything more of me to be saved than to trust in the work He has accomplished in Christ.  Yet I do believe that the life of Christ, the Christ whom I love, is supposed to compel me, not for salvation but in order to be near to Jesus and walk in the steps that he walked, to live a life like his.  Christianity without the imitation of Christ becomes a hollow and desiccate thing, devoid of passion, filled with compromise and comfort.

So, I ask again.  What happened to my aspirations of living a Christ-like life?  How can I live a Christ-like life here, now, in Atlanta, the city of my childhood dreams?

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