That’s how long my dad waited for me to gather my courage and try a standing back handspring one warm spring night when I was eleven. I had been taking gymnastics lessons on and off since the age of five, and now I was working towards the big skills. I was also terrified of breaking my neck or, worse, embarrassing myself.
My dad settled down onto his knees in the thick, stiff grass and held his arms out behind me, ready for the spot. I stood, long ponytail swishing down my back, and fidgeted, uncertainty and adrenaline coursing through my body.
“It’s okay, baby,” he said, over and over again. “Even if you don’t make it all the way through, I got you.”
I still remember the big yard in front of our brown stucco house, the “Strega Nona” house some of my friends from school called it. It’s not easy to forget, especially since my mother still lives in my hometown, just a few streets over from where I grew up. There was so much room to run and play and ride my bike in that yard, which I did every afternoon and weekend for as long as the sun was out. My long giraffe legs took me anywhere I wanted to go, but on that night they would not, for love or money, launch me up and backward into my father’s waiting arms.
The year was 1997, and almost twelve months earlier the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics Team had clinched the gold in Atlanta, less than one hour away from where I stood in our living room, eyes glued to the television and Kerri Strug’s miraculous final vault. When she stuck that landing, on one foot, I screamed like a banshee. In July of that year, just before the Summer Olympics began, our small town had shut down old Highway 27 and held a party on the street to celebrate the Games coming to Georgia. Casey Pollard, a high school heartthrob from a well-known family who had a whole bunch of beautiful boys, ran the torch through the center of town and everyone gathered on the sidewalks to cheer as he rounded the turn by the Methodist church and came into view. It was like the Games belonged to us as much as they did the athletes, and as an amateur gymnast with delusions of grandeur, I saw myself in the faces of the young women who wore those red, white, and blue leotards. Dominique Moceanu, in particular, was a hero to me. The floor routine where she flipped and bounced to the rhythm of “Devil Went Down to Georgia” made me feel seen, like she was telling every little girl watching that she could be exactly what Dominique was: a champion.
It was her face I pictured when I stood barefoot in the grass, paralyzed, as my dad patiently urged me to try.
“But what if I fall?” I asked over my left shoulder. The question a million babies have been asking their daddies since time began.
He scoffed and said, with a good-natured grin, “Then I’ll catch you.”
I knew it was true. Besides being trustworthy, my dad was also built like a superhero: tall, broad-shouldered, muscular. I could hang on his biceps—which he affectionately referred to as “The Rock” and “The Hammer”—until I was a young teenager. But while my body hummed with the anticipation of lift off, the signal from my brain which told my feet to just go for it already was getting lost somewhere along the way.
“We can try again another night if you want,” my dad said. It was a smart move on his part. He was appealing to my sense of pride. Like many parents, my dad knew the only thing more frustrating to his daughter than falling would be to go to bed that night having not tried at all.
“No,” I replied sternly as I whipped back around to my starting position. “I’m gonna do it.”
And then, finally, I did. I bent at the knees and pushed off with as much strength as my untrained prepubescent body could muster. With arms outstretched and back arched, I leaped up and then began the downward descent towards the grass. I felt my dad’s wide, calloused hands cradle my back and he pushed up gently as I flipped over. I landed squarely on my feet, arms still stretched up to the sky in victory.
I screamed like I had on that warm August day the summer before, and my dad hugged me so hard my feet left the ground. It was like winning my own gold medal.
For a whole hour, my father had sat in the itchy spring grass and waited. There was no worry on his part about whether I would manage to twist my already-over-five-feet frame into a pretzel and come out on the other side with no broken bones. He didn’t care if I gave up mid-flip and fell into a heap on his arms. That’s exactly why he was there. And if that’s what had happened, he still would have hugged me so hard my feet left the ground. For me, it was a question of worth as much as it was a question of skill. For my dad, it was simply an opportunity to be with his girl.
Practicing with a spotter gave me the confidence I needed to keep trying. Night after night, my dad settled onto that grass and held his arms out behind me. I got better and eventually moved on to round-off back handsprings, which didn’t require a spot because I could build up enough power by running to make it through the flip on my own. But my dad kept watching, ready to be called on. Or not.
Childhood is made for discovery, and during those years I gorged myself on every interesting activity that came my way in the hopes of finding my thing. The thing that would set me apart. Gymnastics was a passion, a hot, searing burst of flame that flickered and died with the same quickness as it was lit. I still love the sport (and I can still do a round-off back handspring if I stretch for at least half an hour—impressive, I know) but it was a childhood fancy. We need such things because they help us find out who we are, who God made us to be, and I was lucky enough to have parents who encouraged my big, grandiose dreams. My earliest years were a time to explore and create. They were also a time to build trust. On those nights when he knelt in the grass, my dad—a carpenter and painter who spent his days making miracles with drywall—began to build something else entirely: a foundation for me to stand on. I didn’t know yet how much I would need reminders of that faithfulness, of that willingness to kneel, arms at the ready should I mess up or give up. I was just then beginning my long-term relationship with the fear of failure.
The faith of my growing-up years was textbook evangelical nineties: Carman and DC Talk concerts, women speaking in tongues down in the front row at church, Hallelujah parties on October 31st. My dad even coined the term “heavenly eggs” to replace “deviled” because, you know, it just sounded more holy. Everyone in our family still calls them that to this day, which I kind of love. But I never actually felt at home in that faith tradition.
Evangelicalism raised up lots of kids who got to their twenties and thirties wondering if the faith of their childhood was actually enough to sustain them through life. I wasn’t wounded by it the way so many of my peers were, but I suspect that was largely in part because my mother took the hit and we left our church before I started puberty. Growing up, I found more to love about God in my home than I ever did sitting in Sunday school. I had no difficulty seeing Him as a Father when my own dad was such a spectacular one. But the rules of our faith, the dogma of southern American Christianity, overshadowed the God who set those rules in motion. What I knew about God was that He loved me and had great expectations for my every move, and those two things were intertwined. They depended on each other, and as long as I met the latter I could rely on the former.
Performance was the way to my Father’s heart. Making all the right choices was how I would please God and please my dad. At eleven, the loving example I saw in our house seemed stable enough as long as I didn’t do anything to disturb the balance, as long as I got everything right. My efforts to succeed were always more than what they seemed on the surface. I had come to believe my value was in how well I captivated my audience, whoever they might be. Did they applaud at just the right moment? Did they see how much I cared about this character? Did they recognize the good girl in front of them and know she was worthy?
I can’t pretend to know what your faith experience has been like, but I know I’m not the only woman who spent her childhood trying to be everything all at once. I know I’m not the only woman who learned to love succeeding and think that meant loving Jesus. The fear of failure runs deep for me, for us, and it’s not the way this life was meant to be lived. We know that now. Our generation has discovered the emperor has no clothes, and Jesus’ love is not contingent upon our ability to meet His expectations. The cross, His love laid bare, is actually the very thing that proves this truth. And, still, we hold up our Bibles and point to those fruits of the Spirit, loudly proclaiming we still haven’t achieved what Jesus requires.
But do you want to know a secret?
All He requires, my friend, is you.
We are, quite literally, the groundwork of the masterpiece God has been building for millennia. God made Adam from dust and breathed Spirit into his body. We were crafted into the image of God, formed by His hands, and our existence is His delight. All that is asked of us is that we give ourselves back to God as gifts. The fruits of the Spirit, as they are commonly called, are actually just one fruit. When Jesus said He was the Vine and we were the branches, we misunderstood and thought the branches had to bear all different kinds of fruit at once. But who in the world has ever seen a branch like that? Peace, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control are all parts of one fruit. They are not separate and cannot be separated. They also cannot be forced out.
The branch either lives or it doesn’t. We either have life in Jesus or we don’t.
I still want to balk at the grace of such a gift, even while grasping for it with both hands, because the tenderness of a Holy Savior offering Himself up to be everything I’ve worked so hard to get is more than humbling. It’s also a little embarrassing. But, more than anything, it’s freeing.
And after decades of trying to find relief in achievement, of standing in the grass paralyzed with fear, the freedom of lifting off is more than welcome.