img_0044.jpgLooking for Redemption

My wife, Sarah, and I said goodbye on Friday to our friends in Dillon, Texas.  Okay, they were just characters in a TV show that ran for five years, but we became surprisingly attached to the Dillon folks in “Friday Night Lights.”  In fact, over the course of a week, we watched every episode of the last three seasons!

A show like “Lights” engrosses a viewer when the creators attach enough real life situations combined with believable acting. Although Texas high school football provided an intriguing backdrop for the show, for Sarah and me it also showed a lot of the life situations we’ve seen in the lives of students we’ve worked with over the years.

Sarah’s been a public school teacher for over 25 years.  I’ve worked with Christian colleges for almost 30.  We’ve pretty much seen and heard it all.  Whether the kid came from a family of means or poverty, a single-parent (divorced, never married, or deceased) home, or had parents who seemingly successful careers or were incarcerated, one thing was always present – the search for meaning, identity, and redemption.

Although we thoroughly enjoyed the show, there were some disturbing elements one overriding theme kept emerging.  Care to guess what that theme might be?

What I saw in “Lights” more than anything else was the concept of redemption.

I’ll summarize it this way:  Every character in each of the five seasons of the show had its share of highs and lows, joys and sorrows, euphoria and pain.  Somehow, the writers found a way, even with the most despicable of characters, to allow them to make the most of a second or third or fourth or tenth chance.

I’m thinking most of the people I’m closest to resonate with the idea of redemption.  I know my church talks a lot about it.  I know I’m always a sucker for a happy ending in a movie or TV show.  But where does this desire for redemption come from?  I think it comes from the heart of God.

Here’s how “redemption” is defined in one word search I did:

Redemption is the improving of something: the act of saving something or somebody from a declined, dilapidated, or corrupted state and restoring it, him, or her to a better condition

No matter where we turn our eyes, someone we know, maybe even the one in the mirror, is in need of redemption.  Sometimes, even when it’s due to our own stupid choices, we just need to know that there’s a road back to a better place.

I’m convinced that’s why God had to send “his only begotten son” for us.  All the human effort in the world is never quite enough.  We need a Redeemer.

But we need redemption in our relationships with ourselves and with each other.  We need to know that our failures and shortcomings don’t have to define us.  We need to know that second chances aren’t just reserved for somebody else.  We need to know that anyone or anything has a shot at getting better.  We need to know that we might be the path to redemption that God could use to help restore “him or her to a better condition.”

A few months ago I uttered a phrase that may or may not be original.  I told someone that “We don’t hold grudges.  Grudges hold us.”

Similarly, my brother and I were discussing some who seem to carry a constant spirit of offense.  Jeffrey said “What a heavy thing to carry!”

Sometimes, in order for redemption to occur, we just need to let go of that which is holding us back from doing what’s best.

One of the best stories I’ve ever encountered came from former ESPN producer, Lisa Fenn.  It details the journey of two Cleveland area high school students who had experienced unimaginable pain and suffering, including significant physical impairment.  Their emotional trauma had taken an even greater toll, but Lisa wasn’t content to simply share their story.  She couldn’t just move on to the next assignment.

(For the full story, including a video, follow this link: )

Here’s an excerpt from Lisa… But Dartanyon and Leroy eased me in graciously. As we filmed over the course of five months, I tagged along to their classes, to their practices and on team bus rides. They taught me their lingo and poked fun when I tried to use it. They opened up about their struggles — Dartanyon with great eagerness, as I think he had waited his entire life for someone to want to know him, to truly see him. Leroy’s revelations emerged more reluctantly. He had been emotionally abandoned too many times before. But sharing his past began a type of therapy for him. Both began to believe that, perhaps, I genuinely cared.

I stayed because I would not be next on the list of people who walked out and over their trust.

And just a bit more from Fenn… Dartanyon later told me it was during that week of errands that he grew convinced God placed me into his life for reasons beyond television, that no one else would have taken the time and money to help him in those ways.

I stayed because my heart was too heavy for my legs to walk away.

Dark clouds hung over every turn of Dartanyon’s and Leroy’s lives, and I found myself pleading with the heavens to end this madness.

That summer, I feverishly edited “Carry On,” praying that just one viewer would be moved to help these boys in meaningful ways. But instead, following its August airings, hundreds emerged! Emails from Africa to England, from Idaho to Ipswich flooded my inbox, every viewer offering money and sharing personal accounts of how this extraordinary friendship shook their souls awake. Dartanyon and Leroy were no longer invisible. Their plights mattered to a world inspired. I curled up on my kitchen floor and wept.

Lisa Fenn left ESPN for other pursuits recently, but Rick Reilly shared the update with his millions of readers.  Reilly is quite often irreverent, but even he cannot escape the essential qualities of redemption.

In one of the closing scenes of “Friday Night Lights” coach Taylor looks at Vince, a young man who had come from a very tough background, and says “You may never know how proud I am of you.”   Vince responds “You changed my life, Coach!”

The need for redemption is all around us.  You and I can be the conduit of redemption that God would use to change the trajectory of someone’s life – perhaps even that of our own!