In the fall semester of 2015, I started a Master’s program in school counseling. Three months later, I hated it. I felt I was pursuing this path because it seemed like the logical next step in my career. My life has never followed a “logical next step” trajectory, and it felt dishonest to who I am as a person. I don’t say that to discount the wonderful work of counselors, just that it isn’t for me. I couldn’t see myself as a counselor ten years out, and that’s not a good start to a two-year program.
Three months is not long to decide to quit graduate school. You can imagine my embarrassment when family and friends asked how my first semester went, and only months after telling them I was going back to school, I was telling them I wouldn’t be returning for a second semester. When I cited that “my heart wasn’t in it,” I could see older adults give me that generational side-eye reserved for millennials perpetually “figuring it out.”
The first thing you should know about Kentucky before going there is that it is above Tennessee. Otherwise you will find yourself getting made fun of by people from Georgia.
There are a few other things you might want to know about Kentucky, but let me back up for a second. About a year ago I started writing and performing spoken word poetry. I have performed at several events in the DFW area, but one of my mentors and close friends recently set me up with a Disciple Now gig in Kentucky.
Now, I have never been to Kentucky, nor any of its adjacent states. I was worried that my lack of know-how would make me look more Texan than I like to admit (which is very little). So, I spent the week prior to my first touring gig reading up on Kentucky facts on the ever-reliable Wikipedia. Very professional of me, I know.
Did you know that two of the five Backstreet Boys came out of Kentucky? Did you know that the state butterfly is the viceroy butterfly and that the state squirrel is the gray squirrel? Did you know that states have state butterflies and state squirrels? Apparently so.
This is, truthfully, about all I gathered from my extensive research. Impressive, no? I have to admit something though: I was far more worried about something else.
To put it bluntly, I’m not sure who I am. Life has been changing around me very quickly lately. I can tell people what I’m doing with my life for the first time in ever, I can tell them what interests me (sometimes I can’t stop), but I find it impossible to tell people who I am as a person minus the labels one could attach to me.
I have gone through a spiritual drought recently, and unfortunately I chose to go through it privately. Somewhere along the way, I found it harder to talk to God, harder to know what he wants for my life, and harder to know the person who inhabits this body that he created. Just as Kentucky was a foreign land to me, I was a foreigner to myself.
I saw this trip as a great opportunity to find out who I am in a place where no one knows me. You can learn a lot about yourself when surrounded by people who are complete strangers, strangely enough. They have no preconception of you, no reason to love or hate you before you have the chance to prove yourself. A grand adventure was most assuredly in store.
Last Thursday I flew into Paducah, which boasts the largest airport on no side of the Mississippi. They don’t have an airport bookstore; they just give the People magazines away for free. One Kentuckian (Kentuckite?) asked me if they used a flashlight to land the plane. I replied, “No, but the pilot told us to shout if we saw the airport first.”
I learned that if I ever date a quilter, Paducah is the place to take her, where the Quilting Convention will weave romance as complementary as its patterns (I’m clearly not too keen on how quilting—or romance—works).
I found myself in a Comfort Inn on the first night where I could only confirm the existence of myself and a desk receptionist. It had all the makings of a horror movie, so I didn’t even get to feel like a rock star for one minute.
I also spent a good deal of time in the hotel on that first night worrying and doubting myself. I feared what I might learn about myself from this experience if people didn’t like me. It’s a pride thing, I know, but it has taken time for me to grasp that you can be egotistical in a negative way too.
Then Friday came. On the bill with me for the weekend was the Tim Johnson Band, a worship band out of Atlanta (yes, the very ones who picked on my locational ignorance) and Tim Bertram, a painter from the Quilting Capital of the World. These people—the two Tims, Bonnie, Crystal, Michael, and Chris—were so incredible that they deserve a book, not just a few lines in a blog post.
Joining us were 16 local churches in Kentucky as we all filled a fellowship center in Benton, world-famous for nothing. Or perhaps they are world-famous for kindness, which is a lot more than nothing actually.
Spoiler alert: I had one of the most incredible weekends of my life. I felt the worship in my bones for the first time in a long time, I connected with the powerful words of Tim Bertram, I poured my soul into some poems that really seemed to touch people’s hearts, and I made some wonderful new friends.
All weekend I was being asked about my life, about what makes me who I am. But I got so wrapped up in what God was doing in little Benton that I forgot to worry about who I was for just a moment. It’s a great feeling, letting God dwell in the place doubt inhabited just the day prior.
On the last night some teens asked for pictures with me, and some for autographs. I don’t know how to give autographs, so I wrote “thank you” like there’s no tomorrow and drew some pictures because words, oddly enough, don’t always cut it for me. Some teens even told me that I look like Justin Timberlake (I know, I need a moment too). It was all very surreal.
The Ben I thought I knew would’ve let all these great moments go straight to his ego. I would’ve filledmy holes of self-doubt and deprecation with momentary happiness and praise. But someone else—thankfully—came forward: The moments that filled my heart the most were those when teens told me I spoke to them where they are in life, that I helped them see things in a new light. The moments that meant the most ended up being those when I was laughing with Tim, Tim, and Tim’s band, and hanging out with kids and extremely caring adults (Pathway Baptist, here’s looking at you).
I was humbled, moved, and inspired.
As I spent time with the people around me, I watched the way they embodied Christ and I admired it. Love and humility seeped through their words when they talked about anything; it was nothing short of a miracle to a guy whose passion is his words, but stumbles over statements of faith in regular conversation.
Instead of figuring out who I was, I found out who I want to be. I realized that I wanted to be surrounded by people like this all of the time, because I want to be just like them. They emanate Christ through every word, interaction, and characteristic. The people of Kentucky (and Georgia) know who they are: They are sons and daughters of a God who loves them more than any self-doubt or sin could cripple them.
The people of Kentucky also know who I am: I am a son of a God who loves me more than any self-doubt or sin could cripple me. They saw and graciously pointed out that I possess a gift that can glorify God in spite of myself.
Remember how I said the Kentucky state squirrel is the gray squirrel? I had never seen a gray squirrel, but I did this weekend. One of the band members pointed it out, and I was glad he did. No one in the band thought it was a big deal, as if they expected it to be there. I guess sometimes you just need someone to show you what was there all along.