For the better part of the spring semester of 2008 I had been setting aside the month of August as a sabbatical. Realizing working two jobs and taking a full load of graduate level classes was going to wear me down fast if I didn’t take a good long break, early on in the semester I devised taking a month off in August. In retrospect, it could have been much worse, as the fall semester would prove to be, but it was still thoroughly draining and left me rather mentally and spiritually out of sorts (which led to the aforementioned bad relational decision). In the aftermath of the breakup, I knew I needed to get out of Dallas at that point more than ever.
So come 3am or so on Friday morning August 1st, I embarked on what would prove to be my most ambitious road trip to date (remember at the beginning of this story how everything revolves around road trips?). The first couple of hours across east Texas proved tenuous and sleep beckoned me on numerous occasions. However once the sun came up I was all set. About 7 hours later I was just about half way there (if you’re doing the math that’s 9 hours in and somewhere in the gulf coast of Mississippi/Alabama). I had had a spiritual revelation that is another story entirely but I realized why I kept returning to Florida time after time. Mainly it was because the first time I came to Florida for the BI was when I really first started living for God and not primarily for myself. The life that I experienced in doing that was what I kept coming back for. It was that I was chasing.
All of this started my mental and spiritual renewal in motion, but didn’t help the fact that I hadn’t gotten enough sleep the night before and I was perpetually zoning and still only halfway to my destination. I remember stopping just outside Pensacola and wondering whether or not I would make it all the way there, or just cut my losses and get a hotel room somewhere around Tallahassee. By the time I got there though I got my 2nd wind and determined to make it all the way to Word of Life. Sure enough, several sermons and phone calls later I had journeyed across 1200 miles, 5 states and a time zone in just around 18hrs and change. I got out of the car at Word of Life camp dazed, having driven from several hours before sunrise until several hours after dark, but made it one piece nonetheless.
After greeting several people, I retired to my trailer for the night (George Theiss’ RV no less) and proceeded to sleep until I woke up. Which of course ended up being around 7am. So I did what I normally did and got up and went to Starbucks and did some reading. The week continued on much like this with the notable exception that I didn’t really have a plan, I just did my reading and followed where God would take me and paid special attention to the people He brought across my path during the week of camp that was going on. Todd and I had several groundbreaking conversations as I shared the revelations I had had during the drive down and the eventually the two of us and Matt ended up talking (and watching Hot Rod). All in all, ministry-wise there was more fruit in the week of camp I was around for than for the previous semester I had endured at seminary too busy to really reach out at all to those around me. I determined this would change as soon I as could help it.
In the meantime, I really had hoped the whole drive down that Ali would be at camp when I got there, but her plans had changed and she didn’t end up coming over that weekend. I think there was a miscommunication about me actually being there, but this turned out to be the only disappointing thing during the week I was at Word of Life. Fortunately, she did come over on Saturday morning for graduation and that was where we were finally reunited.
I remember it very distinctly, I knew she had gotten there but could quite find her in the HBPAC lobby, but finally we locked eyes shortly after she emerged from the ladies room. It didn’t take more than a moment for us to cut through the crowd and embrace. According to her, this was when she knew we were going to get married. I knew something from the way we hugged and although I don’t distinctly remember it, I pulled back and then looked at her with a twinkle in my eye and then hugged her close again. Ali noticed as well that I had bulked up quite a bit since we had seen each other last over 14 months prior (gym membership right across from campus goes a long way). I don’t remember much of what was said, but we made our way to our seats for graduation and once it was over we worked out lunch plans.
We met up with friends at Chili’s, and even though we hadn’t seen or been around each other in well over a year, everything flowed very naturally and some of her friends that we ran into in Chili’s assumed we were on a date (which had we eaten alone we pretty much would have been). After lunch, we hung out a bit more, but Ali parted ways briefly to hang out with her sister Sophia and her friend Spencer and in the meantime Matt, Todd and I had our really in depth talk alluded to earlier and then watched Hot Rod (there was a segue, I promise). Ali rejoined us toward the end of that to before saying goodbye, however, she ended up not actually leaving and later on we all ended up eating dinner at Wendy’s before Ali actually did leave to head back to Orlando. Todd, Matt, and I were going to go somewhere to church the next day and it ended up just working out for us to go over to Orlando and to go church with Ali, which would give us more time together and as an added bonus, Matt was able to spend time with a lady friend he was interested in.
The next day then we headed over to Orlando, making it just in time for church at Northland. Afterward, we had the most epic journey imaginable to meet up with Michael Dalton and his then girlfriend for lunch. We spent close to an hour driving around in wrong directions on I-4 and the 408. All of this could have been avoided had I left Michael tell Ali where we were going rather just try to follow his directions myself, not that I can’t follow directions, but he wasn’t entirely sure how to tell us how to get where we were meeting him from where we were coming from. So around Orlando we drove.
After lunch, which Melissa (Matt’s lady friend he was interested in) commented on how natural Ali was around me and couldn’t particularly believe that we hadn’t hung out in well over and even then, not for that much; we headed over to Ali’s house. Matt later told Melissa that there was someone I was interested in, which she rightly inferred was Ali, even though Ali didn’t particularly believe it, and I don’t particularly remember relaying to Matt. All this to say though, this is where things start picking up speed so to speak.
But back to Ali’s house. It was here that I finally met her parents, informally for sure, but I think in retrospect, everyone knew it was a meeting that would prove significant later. We left for a bit and went to church with Michael before returning for dinner and just hanging out some more before going back to Word of Life.
In saying goodbye to Ali in the driveway of her house, I really wanted to change my plans for going back to Tennessee and just come back to Orlando the next day, but after mentally wrestling with the idea, realized if I didn’t leave now, it wouldn’t be any easier the next day. I took Matt and Todd back to Word of Life and after getting some sleep, got up the next day and headed to Tennessee.
I had noticed some things in Ali’s heart that I was worried about, particularly after the paradigm shift I had had on the way to Florida and had been growing in during the week prior. The night before at church, the pastor had taught on parables, and so I decided whenever Ali called me after she got off work to talk while I was driving, I would tell her a parable to help her see her heart more clearly. It was going to have to do with Christ and his love for his body the church how we look for lovers elsewhere instead of in Him.
However, I was a bit too ambiguous and Ali interpreted it as me loving her and her looking for love in all the wrong places (namely Jack) in spite of how I had been showing love for her all along. The line that was the most memorable was “You’re what prince charming looks like in my life.” Ali was immediately disturbed she had been so transparent all of a sudden and upon thinking about this not going well, muted the phone and then threw up while I responded (actually this might have come later, but the chronology is not all that crucial since none of this was known to me until much later). This ended up being somewhere between Atlanta and Chattanooga and became for all intents and purposes, the point at which I realized that I was already actively loving Ali, much like Christ loved the church, and this was mainly why things with another girl wasn’t going to work. Even while dating someone else, I was already committed to loving Ali in a truly selfless way that she had recognized and I had too.
In the rest of the car ride home (we talked from somewhere south of Macon until I got back to Knoxville) we started exploring this new area, and I admitted I was open to pursuing something further. I realized we had already passed beyond the friendship barrier, which is why I felt like I was cheating on Ali while I was with Jill (because in a certain sense I was). And although I didn’t react quite as violently to the idea of losing Ali’s friendship (no chunks while I was driving), I didn’t want to give it up either and really felt like this was something to pursue, but in God’s timing rather than mine. We decided then to start talking more but just cautiously see where things went from here.
Every day I was in Knoxville, we talked for several hours on the phone after Ali got off work, and this heightened communication would continue for several more weeks until I decided to start thinking about things too much, which you’ll find out about in the next part of the story….