Imagine an awkward teen. I was probably more awkward than what you’re imagining. As an American military brat in an English school, I was constantly out of place. Raised as homeschooler, I never quite knew how to interact with jaded rural English teens who hated me before they met me. My classmates all came from rough backgrounds and didn’t expect to go anywhere in life. But as I was an awkward foreigner who stubbornly wore my faith on my sleeve, my peers delighted in bullying the outsider who didn’t talk like them, who didn’t think like them, and who would one day leave and go back to a country which they imagined to be just like all the Hollywood movies they saw.
I knew my peers had been getting the complete wrong idea about the United States from the movies they watched. But to cope with my awkwardness, I also absorbed all the same movies and I also got the complete wrong idea from those same movies. For me, movies were a drug, but they gave me what I needed to move through every brutal day of high school.
When I finally came back to the states, I arrived as an aspiring filmmaker. I indulged in dreams about getting to Hollywood by hook or by crook, and making it. It was all rather vague, but somehow I could make movies just like my idol Spielberg. I could sense rightly that storytelling was a part of my calling, so I imagined God would pave the way to my dreams. Like most of my generation, I had confused my dreams and my call. In the lack of good Christian teaching on the topic, I absorbed the cloudy dreams of Hollywood. And after huge success, I could then turn around and tip my hat to Jesus.
Years later, I could almost reach out and touch the clouds of my dreams. I passed through three security stops before my interview for a job with Steven Spielberg’s former assistant turned new producer. I laughed to myself when I saw the main entrance was through the monolithic gates from Jurassic Park. The security guards eyed me as they double-checked their listings for my name.
The waiting room displayed several Oscar statuettes close enough to touch. I was this close, and one day I would be able to grab it for real.
I’ll name my immediate boss Jennifer for the purposes of this essay. “Jennifer” took me from the main courtyard back to her offices, punching a few security codes along the way. She briefed me on what my internship would entail (mostly answering phones), and revealed that they were making a thriller called RedEye. She handed me the piles of paperwork that had to be filled out. “Well, your resume looks really good! We’re glad to have you!”
Months later, on my 24th birthday as it happened, Steven Spielberg came to the office next to me to discuss budget difficulties with War of the Worlds. Three hours before he entered the building, his core group of assistants scouted the place and planned his menu, his seating arrangement and his every move.
I was feet away from my idol. After Spielberg walked past, I heard the clinking of plates and chatter ‘meet and eat’ just behind the wall. And sitting there, listening to Spielberg talk, I knew I was close… so close. My hopes were soaring. Here was proof that I was doing my calling.
I was proud of how much I’d risked. When I’d left Virginia. I’d put everything I owned into my dust-brown, green ‘99 Civic, and driven cross-country on a shoestring and prayer. I’d emptied my bank account to afford the trip. The gravity of this place drew me in. Most film jobs were in LA and you had to be there to get them. Four years of studying film had not prepared me for Hollywood and I knew it, but I was optimistic I could make it work somehow.
My boss had said I could read whatever I wanted between calls. Mostly I’d been reading optioned screenplays from a nearby closet full of them. After reading the umpteenth quirky comedy about assassins, I decided to risk professional suicide. Normally, I did my daily bible reading at home to avoid any risk. But for 90% of the day the office was completely empty. All of the rest of the staff worked on set. So I could quickly and quietly read my bible at lunch, hidden below the desk. I wanted to tip my hat toward Jesus, but I’d learned since high school to move my faith from my sleeve into my pocket.
No one at DreamWorks would ever be the wiser. My timid brand of boldness very much impressed me, and after getting away with it for a couple of days, I decided to bring the bible actually onto the desk to read it!
Unexpectedly, my boss Jennifer chose that day to pop into the office. She saw my Bible and stopped right in her tracks.
She stood speechless for a moment before smiling. She talked about an interview she’d read where Denzel Washington had said the Bible was his favorite book to read. Denzel was really cool, she said. If he liked the Bible, what was so wrong with it? She wondered aloud how people could be so shallow to judge other people’s reading choices. She noted that after the success of Passion of the Christ that Christians had been coming out of the closet all over Hollywood. Maybe they were the next new hot thing?
But, after that day, my internship at DreamWorks was over. Jennifer never said why she ended my internship a month earlier than scheduled and she never contacted me about her promised renewal of the internship for 2005.
Yes, my internship would still look great on a resume, as Jennifer had assured me before I left.
I’d flown high enough to grab the clouds, but there was nothing to grab. It was just mist. Just vapor. And I came tumbling back to earth. I realized suddenly I was broke and sleeping on a friend’s sofa. I had mortgaged everything on this one shot at grabbing the clouds but my hands were empty.
For a month or two, I was frustrated with God. Why did He let me touch the clouds only to fall suddenly?
It was only slowly that I realized that God used this experience to reorganize my priorities. I hadn’t been chasing after God. I had been chasing after idols. Just like Indiana Jones, in Raiders of the Lost Ark I’d grabbed for the elevated, shiny idol and the moment I grabbed it the ground beneath began to shake and disassemble.
I’d been pursuing clouds. Yes, God gifted me as a storyteller, but I’d never stopped to ask what He wanted from me. Instead I had told Him what I wanted from Him. And He’d graciously taken me right to the shiny idol I thought I wanted. He’d let me try to grab it, and then he rescued me when I fell. Reading this, you’re of course not very surprised that I fell. But I was.
Yes, I’d often read where Jesus said you cannot serve two masters, but I sort of hoped he hadn’t meant it. I had really hoped that tacking on Jesus was discipleship.
God has since redirected my career path far from where I ever imagined it would go. Even now, I slip into attempting to serve two masters, but thinking back to how the dream didn’t work at DreamWorks is always a good corrective.
I still like to glance at the clouds every now and then, but a rock is a much better foundation to build on.