“Coincidence”

The Oxford dictionary describes a coincidence as “a remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent causal connection” When you and your friend are wearing the same color shirt without planning it, or when they’re in the same space as you are at a given time. But it’s generally kept to those trivial things. But what do we call a series of events, each one doesn’t seem likely in its time, that play themselves out over a series of years? There has to be a statute of limitations on when you start to think there is something beyond mere chance that seems to lead awkwardly from one event to the next. Maybe at some point you’ll start to wonder if maybe God has a hand in this. I don’t mean that what follows are stories of constant, wild twists and turns, but little, subtle tweaks that impact the rest of the story.

I have two stories, one about my sister and Jubilee. We’ll start with the Jubilee one, both because it’s the one most relevant to this place, and because it gives me an opportunity to explain what goes on at this thing.

About 7 years ago. I was an Atheist.  I’ll keep it short, but basically I’d been slighted by Christianity one too many times. My first memory of Christianity is an incredibly clique-y and gossip-ridden Lutheran church in St. Louis. The worst stage manager I ever worked under was a Christian, when I was first looking around here several years ago, I distinctly remember going to a Catholic church and when I was asked how long I’ve been going, I told him a few weeks, but I was unsure of God. I remember so distinctly this uneasy, nervous smile streaking across the guy’s face and he just looked for someone, anyone else to talk to. The catalyst came around 2010 during my first go around with the academic world. (I have two, I just finished in May.) I had befriended a group of Mormons. They were kind, relatively knowledgeable about their beliefs and I got the unknowingly mistaken impression that these were the kinds of Christians I had actually heard about. As I started to believe what they were teaching me, they began to circle the wagons. I was going to join but I wanted my family and stage crew to be a part of it, which did not go over well with the group. I was told, in a late conversation, that they were irrelevant. After which, I became more analytical, I amassed a swarm of counter-arguments to Mormonism and brought them into their class every Tuesday. To my great joy, I got one person to doubt their faith, and another seeker to look at a church up the road. I’d bring this mindset to Christianity in general soon enough. 

After my first day at Point Park, I’d met a girl out front of the theater. She was waiting for the shuttle to go into Downtown and the shuttles at the beginning of the semester, quite frankly, sucked. So, I took her into Downtown, and asked about what she does. She led the student Christian group on campus, known as the Body, now simply CCO at Point Park. Within a couple of minutes, she had invited me to the group, even though I had made clear that God and I were not really on speaking terms at the moment.

Regardless, I went for about three meetings, and took off. By the time I was invited by another member of the Body a year and a half later, I had been officially diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, and had realized that I wasn’t going to make it very far in theater because of it. (Fine motor skills were gone, I can’t create a scale model, I’m always at least a sixteenth to an eighth of an inch off the mark on a cut, it just wasn’t going to happen in the “real world”.)  So I was kind of floundering, looking for something to dedicate some aspect of my life to. All I really had was a deep-seated cynicism, which I haven’t really gotten rid of and a contempt for Christianity. So what I intended to do was kind of get into a Christian group really just to build my own arsenal and if I could bring some people out of the fold, all the better.

I wound up with the team at the Body once again and largely stayed on the outside. They split into small groups after the larger talk, and that’s where everything started to fail. In writing this I remember becoming close to the dream team of Daniel Snoke, Katherine Sikma and Michael Thornhill, and student leaders Taylor, Lydia and Jeremy. I got to know them not just as people I could get perspectives out of but as friends, more or less. They were and are great people, but when it was time to talk about how I can move further along on the road toward Christ, it didn’t get too far. Inevitably, they became fairly insistent about the Jubilee conference. While the insistence was annoying, they were really my closest friends at Point Park, so I saw them every day. In this time span I’d also wound up over a Duquesne with their group. So I never heard the end of it, and just agreed to go sometime before Thanksgiving just to shut them up.

It would soon transpire that I had a photography assignment the week of Jubilee. Which is in the middle of February. Even if you are from Pittsburgh and you like this town, you have to grant me that nothing happens on a snow-drenched February in Pittsburgh Market Square is dead, there sure as hell isn’t a marathon going on it’s just…boring. So it turns out Jubilee really my only potential target. That said, the first night was horrifying.

You see, there are two traits that have always been a part of me. I don’t sing, I don’t like large crowds and for this instance, I really didn’t care about God. So naturally, I am in the front row, of a worship concert for this first hour. I begin taking pictures to not so much complete the assignment but to not look as out of place as I feel. I don’t remember what was said that night, and I didn’t go to any of the Late Night Ops (because why would I?).

I had gotten some pictures of the three speakers that night, and the rest of them were during worship. If you’ve been to a few of these, or indeed any evangelical worship, you know there are just so many you can take before it becomes uneventful. Therefore, I did not get enough pictures to really call it a completed project, so I had to come back the next day. This despite the fact that, after being surrounded by thousands of extroverted Christians in a high-energy environment, that was the last thing I wanted to do that weekend.

That is where everything started to feel like I’m not ultimately in control, and this would carry on into the next day. One of the first workshops that was available was called “Basics of Christianity: Finding yourself in God’s story”. This was not an apologetic dissertation, but was told in such a way that it sort of transcended (or more cynically, avoided) discussing the truth or un-truth of Scripture. The Saturday morning main gathering discussed the Fall of humanity, when Adam and Eve partook of the apple against God’s direct orders. So this is the part where everyone looks dour, morose and contemplative (much more my speed.)I don’t remember what was said, but I noticed I was more apt to listen. I love discussing the dark side of humanity, it’s the one side I truly believe in. Beyond that, I just took more pictures. There was some worship, but it was quieter and easier to deal with. By lunch however, my more sinister objective had just washed aside in favor of being with the team and getting pictures. I’m committed to this shit, may as well get what I can out of it.

However, the minute I can’t feel my natural cynical urges, as in I can’t “reach them”, for lack of a better phrase, is usually the moment when something is about to go wrong (think Banner trying to call Hulk in “Infinity War”). It happened with my old stage crew, the Mormons, and eventually it would happen with one entire side of my family. The acknowledgement of that fact however, does not bring them to bear again and so now I’m really out of my depth. Not only am I surrounded by extroverted Christians, but now my more natural lens is gone.

I wasn’t really feeling any of the major workshops, even though they had all been jammed into the double-header slots between the morning and evening gathering,  so I figured I’d just wander the bookstore and sponsor section taking pictures, as was my job. Daniel, however was not keen on that at all. I can’t say I remember the workshops I did wind up going to. All I remember from the first was this question about “what would you lose that would take away your reason to live”. For me, that is writing and that’s all I can say there.

At dinner, the team gathered in a room near the top of the Westin. After a brief explanation of a few housekeeping details, Daniel brought the guys out into the hall and asked about what they had taken from the conference. I had mentioned that if there was something here, I was missing it. My primary concerns were that A) I was in a large crowd of very happy people, while being myself a pessimistic, small group type, and B) if there was something I was supposed to be feeling, it wasn’t there. Jeremy’s advice more or less: stop thinking about where you are and what you think you’re supposed to be doing or feeling in a given moment. So with this, we head down to the convention center and wait for the third gathering, focusing on God’s redemption of the world through Christ’s resurrection.

In other words: This is going to be a loud, happy, optimistic and joyous party. Exactly where I don’t want to be.

So, with this all in mind. The show begins. I don’t remember about 3/4s of it. I take pictures, stay out of the mosh pit up front, and hope to whatever might be there that this place calms down soon. There was a talk from Tullian Tchjvidian, a one-time pastor of a megachurch in Ft. Lauderdale that has since undergone a catastrophic fall. What stuck from me is this: the atheists and the agnostics need to find something to do in order to give their lives some form of meaning. They feel they need some magnum opus with which they can “die happy” and without which they’re going to die as a footnote in someone else’s journey. Through Christ, the justification is already there. His point was, essentially, that God believes that people are worth sending his Son for, and Jesus believes that people are worth dying for. In that, the Christian finds its justification. That spoke more to the floundering I’d been going through, and frankly continued to go through for several more years. But it was staggering all the same. If there was to be a way where one could just act without concern for whether it would give their life value, that would be incredible. When, I believe it was Saleem Gubril of the Pittsburgh Promise, brought the CCO staff to the front, I cautiously met Michael Thornhill about halfway between where he was standing and where I was, and told him what was going through my head. He launched into a trademark impromptu homily that I wish I could remember but I could barely hear, but I was actually more comfortable in the crowd than I had ever been. Though I was still three rows back from the mosh pit that concluded the evening. Sunday is something I flat out do not remember. At all. I’d spend the rest of the day, and the three months afterward figuring out what the hell just hit me.

Now, I want to point out a couple things about this story. The first is that being surrounded by people who did not agree with me in the slightest was never a problem. So if you’re an agnostic or an atheist here and you think this is going to work, there’s a good chance you’re wrong. Second, I am not saying that Tullian’s talk was the one thing I needed; a life-raft that came to me, so I would forego the idea that God was an illusion just to feel safe. In especially the months leading up to Jubilee, I had imbibed rather heavily on Christian readings, conversations with the team, a couple of pastors and whatever I could gleam from the workshops and gatherings. But in the withdrawal that came after Jubilee, they all fit together too well. Was it because I had not jumped nearly as heavily into the works of other Atheists. No. It’s just that what I did read I found flawed or fatalistic, when I didn’t assume it had no moral ground to stand on and didn’t really offer anything. I did eventually return to Atheist readings, Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation, David Silverman’s “Fighting God”, “God is not Great” by Christopher Hitchens, the usual suspects. By then, however, many of them, especially Harris and Silverman’s works seemed to betray that Atheism is nothing more than the disbelief in a higher power. It has to rely on science. Science cannot teach morality, and cannot serve as a foundation for such.

More importantly, I want to point out the few tweaks here that seemed at first to be, as we’ve discussed, coincidence. Meeting someone outside the theater on my first day, and in doing so, becoming aware of the Body from the outset. Coming to the Body with a more insidious intent, the fact that Jubilee was really the only thing I had at the time, and the fact that it was impossible to really get enough unique material to complete the project and skip out on the rest of the conference.

Now for the second story. So, I’ve known this woman for about 13 years. Her name is Megan, and our friendship has gotten to the point where she is a part of our family. We introduce each other as brother and sister, mom refers to Meg as her daughter, that kind of thing. But about 9 years ago, we had finished high school and I’d promised to come see her once where she worked out at this camp called Jumonville and I thought that visit would be the last time I saw her.

We kept in touch, more or less, but nothing real close. A few years later, she was coming back from Ohio Northern University for the summer, and we were going to be with a friend of hers for a couple days. She got word that one of the friends, a former roommate was in the hospital with melanoma, an aggressive form of skin cancer. Within a few hours, we decided that, instead of seeing her that second day, we’d drive to Cleveland to see Amanda. Her ex wasn’t too keen on this, and I supposed wanted to be a sort of hero here, that didn’t happen. He’d eventually burn that bridge anyway calling her in a jealous rant at the hospital.

The day came, and we made the drive, I met her team from ONU, the family, etc. But stayed largely out of the conversation. We talked on the drive back and I told her we’d stick with her through the whole ordeal. Three days later, I’m at a McDonalds on Route 8, and get a call from Meg telling me that Amanda has passed away. I get to her house and stay with her for about an hour and we don’t really talk about it, I’m just there to be with her. The stage crew basically dissolves along the lines of with Eric and against him with the two of us on the outs. So now there’s really myself, her best friend Kim Kaplan, and a few other members of her circle. I’d drive her up to the memorial in Ashtabula, Ohio meet her ONU team again, become friends with them and drive back. And every week, from the time Amanda died, to when Meg returned to ONU, she had dinner with my family.

For the sake of time and because I don’t feel like giving you our entire story, I will tell you that what follows from there is a dramatic and twisted road involving a crazy family, this crazy ex-boyfriend of hers in Boston who dropped everything to join some wilderness camp, battles with mental illness (on both our sides) a college for learning disabilities in Vermont, the University of Denver, Colorado, and finally her job in Austin. We’ve been so close, every step of the way. She is a part of our family and she has stayed at my apartment or Mom’s house at various points when she did come to Pittsburgh. It is the longest, closest and best friendship I’ve ever had, and no there’s no relationship here, that’s a whole other rant.

Now that we have Meg in Austin, we need to rewind to when my brother still lived in Pittsburgh, which is approximately 7 years ago. Back then we and everyone in the country were into an online game called World of Warcraft. And we had gathered this small team of about 5 or 6 people that were always on at the same time, every week. One of these team members was a guy named Mike Bascones. Jordan was originally going to the Art Institute up here in Pittsburgh, before the company that owns it came under federal investigation at about 10 of their campuses. Because he didn’t see much in the Art Institute, let alone Pittsburgh, Jordan discovered the Savannah College of Art and Design, aka SCAD with a campus in Atlanta, Georgia. He applied immediately, and probably because of a truly incredible pair of photographs was accepted rather quickly. When we told the team what was going on in our world, we learned that Mike lived in Atlanta. And this is important because Jordan and I are not good at setting up networks on our own. We don’t cultivate friendships, they just kind of happen to us. So he had someone in Atlanta to show him what was around, how to use the MARTA rail system, why you should never go south of the Five Points MARTA hub unless it’s to the airport, that kind of thing. And Mike has a gun range about 10 minutes from his house. So Jord becomes a fairly proficient shooter with Mike’s help while meeting and becoming a part of his regular crew.. So, Jordan has a conduit to this whole group. Jord would in a few years, photograph Mike’s wedding to this incredible woman named Jen.

But Mike and Jen both know that Norcross, Georgia is not a place to raise a child. It’s known as a rough part of town. Even though there was only one shooting near Jord’s complex and it missed him entirely…y’know “once” is more than sufficient. So they begin looking for places outside of Norcross, and maybe even outside of Georgia. They land on Austin, Texas. It was the most amazing thing and Jord, Mom and I all say that at some point we need to get the team together in one spot, most likely in Austin. It took us about three years to get to that point, but we did. Mom, who has been in the food and wine business for about 35-40 years, knew a chef in Austin as well. So we wound up having dinner with him, and the next day at Fogo de Chao in Downtown Austin with myself, my brother, my mom, Meg, Mike, Jen and a friend if Mike’s that we don’t remember because we only met him once. Mike and Jen, because of health issues on Mike’s side, would move back to Atlanta two years afterwards.

Now, I want to be clear, the catalyst for my relationship with Meg is the loss of a dear friend of hers. That’s not ideal. I don’t know if that has to be mentioned but it’s something I’ve thought about while reflecting on it. Would I take it back if it would chance that outcome,  I can’t say I would, because I don’t know what the last several years look like without her. There was a stretch of my life where she was my only real friend. That covered, think of the random twists that have played out on this road. A terrible circumstance with incredible timing leads us on a road trip to Cleveland. When the stage crew exploded, it became just us, I don’t know how most of them are doing, and I don’t care. On Jord’s side, a video game from years ago, gives him a contact in Atlanta, which gives him an almost pre-made base in his new home, and his friend just happened to find a place in the same city Meg lives.

I hope you haven’t been on a road quite as crazy as Meg and I have. But I would like to suggest that you think about, let’s call an abnormal run. What have you and someone else faced together? Is there someone that you thought you wouldn’t see after a certain point, who is brought back into your life to stay? Has there been this long, crazy ride where you’ve been in the right place at the right time more than once? If so, I’d like to say that if you think of them as coincidence. I would just submit to you that it’s God’s work.

I want to close on the odd paradox that tends to bring up though. It’s a weird axiom that people are quick to blame God for things that go wrong, but things that go well are just coincidences. You may say as an unbeliever or a skeptic “It would’ve happened anyway.” If not through the situation with Amanda, Meg and I would’ve gotten the same relationship just down a different road. Or the same thing would happen, that I’d have a friendship as close and as incredible as I have with Meg, just with someone else. And Jord would have his friend and his friend’s wife and we’d meet somewhere else, (Houston, for all I care.) A couple of problems with that. It’s such a cold view of something truly unique and beautiful. It implies, actually, that what happened isn’t unique and beautiful. And that’s the problem with the idea of coincidence. By it’s own definition, it’s not something to celebrate, it’s not something to enjoy. It’s a quirk. It wasn’t supposed to happen, it did, great. Move on.

The relationship, the story, the people, the places we’ve been, all of it is a gift from God. I’ll close by imploring you to think of what you saw as mere coincidence, and spend a bit of time ruminating on it as though it were a give from God. I submit to you that once you do that, and actually settle on the fact that it was a gift. You will find it easier to enjoy it, celebrate it, and be thankful for it and to do so to a far greater extent than you ever could be if you saw it as a mere glitch or worse, something that “would’ve just happened anyway”.

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