When my son was in the fifth or sixth grade, he joined a soccer league. And although Todd was a talented athlete for his age, team sports were a little intimidating to him. The man who served for the next three years as Todd’s soccer coach was a businessman named Brian, a fantastic guy who really loved kids. Miraculously, he built hope and confidence into my otherwise-apprehensive son and actually sold Todd on the idea that he could be a terrific soccer player.
For three years I stood on the sidelines at almost every game. My wife, Lynne, my daughter, Shauna, and I cheered for Todd beside other parents who were rooting for their little guys, all of us engaging in the obnoxious hollering that families do at youth soccer matches. Afterward, we’d typically enjoy a few minutes of fellowship with other families that attended Willow.
One afternoon, Brian was in the center of the field after a long day, loading cones into his car so that he could head home. Just then, the Holy Spirit said, “Walk across the soccer field and help him, Hybels. Leave this safe little group, and go see if you can get to know Brian.” I can replay the scene in my mind as if it happened yesterday.
As I put one foot in front of the other and headed toward where Brian stood, I tried to prepare myself for whatever might unfold once I opened my mouth. Ought to be interesting. After introducing myself, we chatted about the kids on the team, about what line of work Brian was involved in, and eventually about my occupation. He wasn’t too thrilled to discover that I was a pastor, but as weeks went by, he continued to engage in brief conversations with me after games or practices.
Each time we talked, I would thank Brian for the meaningful impact he was having on my son. “I appreciate how much time you volunteer out of your busy schedule to coach these kids,” I would tell him. “I think what you are doing is noble and classy, Brian. I’ll always be grateful.”
On one day in particular, when we were nearing a holiday service at Willow, I was prompted by the Spirit to walk across that soccer field again, this time to see if Brian would like to attend the service. Mustering an additional ounce of courage with each step I took, I asked him if he would consider coming to Willow just once with me. His response instantly erased any hope of receptivity on his part. “Oh, man, Bill, I knew it would turn into this! I just knew someday it would land here. Look, I know plenty about Willow Creek — I get tied up in its traffic every week. The whole thing frustrates me. God is not part of my life, church is not part of my life, and I’d just as soon take this whole thing off of the agenda here.” (Hey, at least he was clear.)
“Okay, Brian,” I said, trying to relax him. “No pressure, I promise. I’m committed to respecting your wishes.” And each week the following year, I would walk step by step across that soccer field to help him pick up balls and cones. How small those steps felt! Was I helping at all?
“How’d things go this week?” I’d ask. And we would talk about business and the deals he was working on. Then he would ask me how my week had been. I suppose my no-pressure approach served its purpose: I no longer offended Brian with unsolicited invitations to church. But to me, the whole experience seemed like an exercise in spiritual water-treading. Eventually Todd cycled out of the soccer league, and I lost contact with Brian altogether. Frankly, I assumed I’d never see him again. But after several years had passed, the day came when Brian’s world was turned dramatically upside down. Business issues shifted. His family life tilted. In sobering and unexpected ways, pain and despair walked through the front door of his life and took up residence there. He picked up the phone and called me one afternoon to ask if he could come by to talk. “I don’t want to come to a service,” he clarified. “I just need to talk about a few things.”
After that initial meeting in my office, Brian and I would meet several times, but I’d sense only minuscule progress during the conversations. At some point, he stopped calling altogether. And although I wondered how he was managing in life and whether or not he’d ironed out his pain, I honored his desire to lead the pace of our relationship.
Months later, I was standing at the front of the auditorium preparing a group of new believers for their upcoming baptism experience. As I explained the meaning, purpose, and significance of water baptism, I looked to my left and saw Brian sitting there, right in the front row. He has no idea where he is! I thought. He’s in a baptism meeting, for crying out loud. How did he stumble into this one? I regained my composure long enough to finish my comments, being extraordinarily careful to complete my instructions in a way that wouldn’t screen out a guy like Brian for the rest of his life. There was no way he was ready for the baptism deal!
After the meeting, I approached Brian and asked him to walk with me to the parking lot. “I’ve got to get going,” I explained, “but let’s at least talk on the way out.” As soon as we had moved away from the crowds, I stopped and looked Brian right in the eyes. “What in the world were you doing in a baptism meeting?” His answer floored me.
“A couple of months ago, I snuck in during a service and sat in the back. You were giving a message on abandoning the self-improvement plan and getting on board with the grace plan instead. You talked about the need to open ourselves to God by accepting the work of his Son, Jesus Christ. And on that day, Bill, I gave my heart to Christ. So what I’m saying is, I was here tonight — believe it or not — because I want to be baptized.”
His face was beaming as mine fell slack-jawed. I couldn’t hide my astonishment. “You have got to be kidding me. Really. You have got to be kidding me!” I stood there staring at him with a dumbfounded look on my face for probably two full minutes.
Sometime after that conversation, I had the privilege of baptizing Brian at Willow Creek, the place where he still continues to serve, the place where he fell in love with a godly woman and was married, and the place where he and his wife now teach other couples how to experience the joy and elation of a Christ-centered marriage.
A few weeks before Christmas a couple of years ago, I was headed to my office with Todd, who was all grown up by then. We turned the corner in a stairwell, careening right into a large, muscular man. Instinctively, I took a step back as I looked up. It was Brian! And in a split second, a fifteen-year void between my son and his favorite childhood coach was filled. With the type of love that only Christ-followers can manifest, he threw his arms around Todd’s neck. “How great it is to see you!” Brian raved.
After a few moments of conversation, Brian headed down the steps. When he reached the first landing, he stopped and looked up at us. “Hey, Bill,” he said, “I just want to thank you for all those times you walked across the soccer field and opened yourself up. Really . . . thanks.” And with that, he turned to go.
Friends, that’s as good as it gets in my world. And my guess is that similar experiences would qualify for your life’s as-good-as-it-gets moments too. Knowing that the God of the universe has equipped you to bestow the greatest gift in this life on another human being, choose today to lead a life of impact — eternal impact.
Take a walk! See what he might do.
From Just Walk Across the Room: Simple Steps Pointing People to Faith by Bill Hybels
Copyright © 2006 by Bill Hybels, published by Zondervan, used with permission.