My normal life began on February 19, 1986 at Mercy Hospital in Owensboro, Kentucky. I was born into a normal family, in normal health, with a not-so-normal name. However, I never felt abnormal with a name like Obbie. After all, there were two others in my family. It wasn’t really until the age of seven that I first felt like my life wasn’t normal. The week of Mother’s Day 1993, when most kids in class were busy making homemade cards to hand to their moms, I was instead making a card to place on a grave. A year later, I had a step-mom. Several years later, I had a step-mom whom I called “mom.” On its surface my life appeared normal, but even in my adolescent mind I knew that it wasn’t.
Despite car accidents and oncology waiting rooms, it was only years later that I began wishing for a normal life. A traumatic neck injury on a trampoline brought with it the news that I would never play football, the sport my father and grandfather had played in college. The sport that I loved. Walking out of the doctor’s office, I felt abnormal. The seizures I incurred from the accident made me feel like an invalid, every pill a constant reminder of my weakness and different-ness. On many occasions, not even Dad’s encouraging words could scrape me off the floor of self-pity. But as it always does, time went on, and my relentless teenage mind discovered new reasons to find excitement and hope.
After graduating from Apollo High School as Honor Graduate with a Presidential scholarship to the University of Kentucky, I left for college with high hopes of medical school or dental school – I hadn’t decided upon which career path to take. As providence would have it, God decided for me. Not only did I lose my entire scholarship after my first year in Lexington, I also failed as a pre-med/dental student. My graduation ceremony (which I missed) was more like the finish line to an exhausting, meandering marathon than another door of opportunity. Watching my classmates get accepted to various schools and programs was painful, especially while I watched covetously from back home. I’d left Apollo High School as the senior class president; I’d returned four years later as the second-string substitute teacher living with his parents. My once promising future was now looking more normal than it ever had…perhaps too normal.
In the years after college, the word “normal” became a subjective term. Professionally, I’d graduated from substitute teacher to temporary Ragu factory worker. But after serving overseas as a long-term missionary volunteer, things began to take off in a new direction. I met my wife on a blind date and began to attend seminary the following month. Eventually, just a year after our wedding, I took my first pastor job in a little country church in Bardstown, Kentucky. But the honeymoon didn’t last long. One week later, Kelly was diagnosed with cancer. After a season of ups, it seemed as if God had pulled me back down. The life He wanted for me, the life I had begun to seek after with my whole heart, was in fact never destined to be normal at all. Our parsonage in a rural country church wasn’t glamorous, and the pay was barely sufficient to support us both. And when we tried to have children and to begin a “normal” family, all we received was a heartbreaking miscarriage and years of infertility without children. In reality, my life was the exact opposite of normalcy. The scars down my neck and my wife’s chest were vivid reminders. And while I embraced the fact that our life would inevitably look different than most, I wasn’t resting in God’s sovereignty so much as adopting a fatalistic sense of doom. In my heart I still secretly wanted to be normal. And this was the spiritual salt that poured into my wounds each time I stood apart from “normal,” however I defined it.
The difference between someone who follows after Christ and someone who follows after the world is the direction of the fleeing. For so long I’d been trying to transcend “normal” when I should have been running away from it completely. In the end, it wasn’t cancer or seizures or insecurity or infertility that brought me to understand the danger of the normal life. Instead it was a single picture of my family – the one that God eventually gave me despite my faithlessness. With two African American children, my multi-ethnic family doesn’t appear “normal” to many people. But unlike the countless other times in my life that I felt like a cultural misfit, today I look at my family and I thank God for my peculiarity. For every time that someone at a restaurant asks us if we’re babysitting, or treats us like “heroes” simply because we love our babies, I’m reminded of a world that continues to invent its own idea of normal. And everyday I’m happy to reject it.
The difference between my old life and my new isn’t that I’ve finally achieved some sense of normalcy. In truth, I’ve never had a normal life. The difference today is that I don’t want one. For so long I was blind to God’s mercies, fixing on the barriers that kept me from a “normal” life. But through many seasons of suffering, I finally realized that my pursuit of the normal life was the barrier that kept me from God. By God’s grace, I finally see the so-called “normal life” for what it is: a lie. Every time that I looked upon someone else’s achievements and thought their “success” was the answer to my problems, I bought it. Every time that I looked upon someone’s kids and thought that a child could fulfill me, I believed it. Through years of hurt and isolation and confusion, I can see now that I was chasing something that didn’t exist.
With Christ or without, there is no normal life. It’s a myth. But in Christ, I rejoice in my abnormal life. I revel in it. My inadequacies are a grand stage for the greatness of my God; my weaknesses a platform for His strength. By God’s grace, Kelly and I endured cancer with one another and our faith grew. By God’s grace, we sought counseling early in our marriage to improve our communication and love for one another and we grew. By His grace, our house was flooded just months after our adoption and we learned to cling to him more. Being a Christian means I’ve been crucified to the world and no longer want anything from it – including its definition of “normal.” That means glorying in our suffering, not simply expecting it. When I crucified my desire for the “normal life,” my losses became gain for others. My experiences became stories to console and laughter to comfort. My insecurity became humility. Along each step of the way, a step-mom here, an adopted child there; a failed career here, a ministry calling there; cancer-stricken Mom here, a cancer-surviving wife there, God was connecting dots that led me away from my own need for success and toward a reverent awe of His grace. Today He is my heart’s desire, and I’m okay with being a little abnormal. After all, the normal life is for normal people.