Friday Night Lights — Quite The Religious Experience

I recently confessed to battling a “Friday Night Lights” addiction. It started with a conversation I had with a friend. He told me he’d been tired lately because he was staying up at night binge watching all 76 episodes of the show Friday Night Lights on Netflix. He said as a result he was struggling to stay awake at work and was cranky toward his co-workers. I should have taken this as advice to avoid the show at all cost. But one of my character flaws is I’m prone to mysteriously turning good advice into bad ideas. So I went home that night and watched the first episode.

Some of you know the rest of this story. Over the past two months I’ve compulsively attempted to squeeze 5 years of Friday Night Lights into two months. I’ll save you the math. That’s a little over an episode a day. When you have two jobs, two kids, and one wife — boy I’m glad I didn’t say two there — that’s a tight squeeze. It hasn’t been easy. I’ve been tired at work and occasionally cranky. Who saw that coming?

Don’t go too far down the road of judging me, my friends, because I have great news. I’ve kicked the habit. I consider it minor details that I only kicked it after watching the last episode of the series last week, and then, with desperately shaking fingers, I frantically pounded “Friday Night Lights season 6” into google search, only to be told in no uncertain terms there is no such thing. The bottom line is I’m no longer staying up late at night saying yes as fast as I can when Netflix asks me if I want to watch the next episode.

Recovery has been hard, but last Sunday I took a giant step forward in my healing. I found forgiveness at church for my recent struggle. Even more than that, I actually left church thinking Friday Night Lights might have been a spiritual awakening God himself slapped upon me. You can’t imagine the relief in discovering hours of wasted time were actually appointed by God.

Hear me out.

Maybe I’m reading too much into it. Sure. But the pastor’s message was on identifying and seizing opportunities. In the grand scheme of things he was talking about taking advantage of the opportunities God presents us to share our faith and love with others. To make his point he used several examples of businesses that had taken advantage of opportunities and subsequently prospered. He got my attention when one of those examples was Netflix. Pastor, you don’t need to tell me how Netflix’s business life changed when they turned their backs on rent through the mail and focused on streaming. All of our lives changed!

To conclude his message, the pastor drove home the point that to take advantage of the opportunities God gives us to share our faith, we have to go where people are. We have to engage in culture. (Surely you don’t mean instead of lying in bed watching Netflix?) One of the church ministers expanded on this idea. He shared a story of getting his haircut earlier that week. He said he goes downtown to get his haircuts to get a dose of culture. (I’ll testify that there’s a difference in the downtown Richmond culture and that of rural Mechanicsville). He visits an old-fashioned barber shop where he’s the only person that looks like him. Over the years he’s bonded with the barber. They’ve shared stories about family — and stories about their faith.

That’s when Friday Night Lights really went all religious on me.

For those of you who’ve watched the series, whether over 5 years or a few days, bear with me as I summarize the series.

Coach Eric Taylor is a Texas high school football coach. He coaches the Dillon Panthers. Dillon has it going on. Big stadium, a supportive booster club that buys gifts for the team like a giant jumbotron. What high school doesn’t have a jumbotron? In today’s lingo, Dillon was full of privilege.

Coach Taylor was a hard nosed coach, he had a team of talented if sometimes out of hand teenage athletes. After two seasons he leads them to a state championship. It could have been the perfect end to the series, and saved me a lot of sleepless nights.

But the story then goes wide right. Politics in Dillon becomes bigger than the program and the kids, and the powers that be run coach Taylor out of town. Or at least to the other side of it. The Dillon East football program had been dead for years. The administration decides to bring it back to life and they higher coach Taylor. And coach Taylor is suddenly smack dab in the middle of a culture that looks and acts nothing like him.

Coach Taylor takes a special interest in Vince Howard. Vince is a black kid. His mom is on drugs and his dad is in prison. Vince is headed to juvenile detention, but the authorities tell him they’ll cut him a break if he’ll play on the East Dillon football team. His decision to take advantage of that opportunity changed his and coach Taylor’s lives forever.

There’s a powerful scene in the last episode of the series that really struck me after listening to Sunday’s sermon. East Dillon is set to play in the state championship game. Vince is now the team’s star quarterback. Coach Taylor gets wind that Vince’s dad, who is now out of prison, won’t be attending the game. Coach Taylor and Vince’s dad didn’t much care for each other, so I’m sure coach wrestled with how to handle that; he knew how badly Vince wanted his dad there.

So coach Taylor goes down to the local bar where he knows he’ll find Vince’s dad. He walks in and looks round. It’s clear by the stares from the patrons he’s looking around a place where he doesn’t belong. He spots Vince’s dad playing pool. He walks up to Vince’s dad. Their eyes — filled with anger — fix on each other. Coach Taylor then sets one ticket to the championship game on the pool table, looks at Vince’s dad and says, “A young man gets a chance like that maybe once in a lifetime.”

There was so much in both of their eyes in the wake of that exchange. In coach Taylor’s eyes, understanding that the man he was looking at was more than anything in that moment — a dad, just like him, who loved his child. (Coach Taylor had two daughters). Through all of their differences he found respect in that very common ground. In Vince’s dad’s eyes, there was appreciation for what it took for coach Taylor to embrace a culture that wasn’t his, and to put a coach’s love for another man’s son above those differences.

Vince’s dad went to that game. I won’t spoil it for you, but he was glad he did.

You know, one of coach Taylor’s popular sayings was: Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.

I thought about that saying as I listened to the minister wrap up the haircut story. What if we all did that. What if we went out into the world — like really into it — with our eyes cleared free of any prejudices or preconceived notions. What if we emptied our eyes but filled our hearts to overflowing with hope. Hope that we could share in each others’ stories in a loving and caring way.

Because aren’t our eyes always muddying the way of our hearts?

I can’t help but imagining it — clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.

It might not be a Texas high school football state championship — which make no mistake, is huge — but I think the victory might be just as sweet.

For more of my articles visit A Life of Gratitude or The Book of Dadverbs