I didn’t cry when I got back in the car with my mother-in-law, but it was only because I didn’t want to miss my flight. Plus, when flying out of Atlanta, it’s always best to save your tears for the airport. It will break you. It’s a mashup of Mad Max’s terrordome, the Lord of the Flies and flights that run at ish time. As in “you’ll fly out at 4-ish,” or “Your plane isn’t here yet but should be soon-ish.”
But that day I wasn’t sad about the airport. Prior to getting in the car with my mother-in-law I had spent two hours inside an advertising agency trying to get a job. My wife and I lived outside of Boston in Arlington, Massachusetts but we wanted to move to Georgia. We’d had our first daughter, the snow was killing my Florida-born, Georgia-raised wife and it was time to move closer to family.
I couldn’t find a job though.
On my first flight down to have breakfast with a friend’s contact, the person I met with refused to accept a copy of my resume. The entire purpose of the trip was to meet this person and in our unexpectedly terse breakfast meeting he said, “I don’t know anyone in Atlanta in advertising and no, I don’t want a copy of your resume.”
That meeting was not particularly awesome but, he actually did know someone in Atlanta in advertising. His relative worked at an ad agency and over a period of weeks, I arranged a meeting with her.
I spent days and days putting together my portfolio, a copywriter’s toolkit to showcase the best work they’ve done. I was really proud of it and showed up bright and early at the meeting at the agency. This wasn’t an interview though. Nobody in Atlanta would see me for an interview. I spent that day driving around Atlanta with my mother-in-law who lived there, dropping off resumes and mini portfolios at any agency I could find.
So although I had flown down for the sole purpose of meeting this contact at an ad agency, this was not something formal or promising. I was desperate at this point and greatly appreciated the 20 casual minutes she gave me talking about what it was like to work in advertising in Atlanta.
On the way out, she walked me by someone’s office and said, “You should meet Mark.” Turns out Mark was an Atlanta advertising expert. He taught at the Portfolio Center, a two-year advertising master’s program. Mark invited me into his office and we ended up talking for an hour. He asked to see my portfolio, the one I had killed myself to put together. I thought inside, “Here comes my big break!”
By page two though, he was shaking his head in disappointment. I don’t remember if he finished looking at the entire thing or not because my head started to spin and I thought I was going to throw up. What I do remember is that he took out two other portfolios. A good one and a bad one. He showed me what a writer’s portfolio should look like and it was nothing like mine. I don’t think I was even close to his bad example at that point. Six years into my career and my portfolio was pitiful.
At that point, I just wanted to throw out a smoke bomb, slide out of my seat to the floor and crawl for the exit and my mother in law who was waiting patiently in the parking lot. But the moment wasn’t over. Mark called the admin in and asked for the box of portfolios from people who had submitted them to this agency. It was the size of a coffin for a pony. He then said, “Sit at an empty desk and go through these. See what you can learn.”
In the middle of an office I’d never been in, without cubicle walls, I sat at someone’s seat who was out to lunch and started to leaf through dozens of portfolios from people who were better than me. It was meant as a lesson, and Mark was incredibly kind to me that day, but the words I heard where probably not the words he intended. Flipping through those portfolios, here is the message I got.
“You’re not a real writer.”
“These people, these portfolios, these are real writers.”
“They’ve got it all together. You don’t. They went to graduate school for two years. You hacked together a portfolio in your kitchen and then flew a thousand miles for a 20 minute conversation? You’re not a real writer.”
That phrase, “real writer” is a curious one to me because I think it translates across so much more than just our careers. I think sometimes, if we’re not careful, we can start to hear it in our faith.
I’ve felt that in the last couple weeks as I’ve wrestled with the anxiety and opportunity of writing my next book. I feel stressed about it and tangled up with fear and worry and happiness and hope and a potpourri of emotions. And into that I hear the siren’s call that tells me,
“If you were a real Christian, you wouldn’t ever doubt.”
“If you were a real Christian, you wouldn’t feel this way.”
“If you were a real Christian, you wouldn’t keep making the same mistakes over and over again even though you try your hardest not to.”
Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever looked at another Christian and thought, “That person has it all together. They have it all figured out. They’d never feel like I do right now or stumble like me. That person is a real Christian. I’m some sort of counterfeit.”
I can’t imagine I am the only one who has ever wrestled with that. So for you and me, I want to remind of something.
Real Christians struggle with doubt.
Real Christians feel sad and even mourn.
Real Christians don’t have all the answers.
Real Christians make mistakes.
Real Christians need grace, constantly.
Above all, I think “Real Christian” is actually a fake term. It’s a phrase the devil constructed to keep us searching and striving and dying to achieve a label the Lord doesn’t even use.
What does He call us? What phrase or words does he give us instead of “Real Christian?”
And it turns out, those two words are enough.