The Biggest Small Town in America

When It Comes To Grace, Timing Is Everything.

Guest Contributor / 4.26.22

This article is by Melissa Dodson:

It’s not hard for me to recall the relatively unremarkable Oklahoma City of my childhood, well before the transformation it has undergone in recent decades. When I was young, my family would travel into downtown from the suburbs to eat at the Spaghetti Warehouse. But with a fairly desolate city center — office buildings deserted after the workday routine and almost no family-friendly activities to enjoy — we were left with very few excuses to stick around.

San Anderson captures the essence of the city at that time in Boom Town, a fascinating chronicle of OKC’s history, in which he attributes its small-time status to — among other things — its lack of a big-time sports franchise: “Oklahoma was provincial, amateur, terminally uncool,”[i] he explains. And with the inability to acquire a major-league sports team, “it could not make itself relevant on the larger American scene.”[ii]

Then, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, bringing about tragic losses and the displacement of families, businesses, and yes, even sports teams. Seeing an opportunity to help and support, but also spotting a chance to finally open the door to a high-profile NBA team, Oklahoma City offered to be the site of a temporary relocation for the New Orleans Hornets.

The NBA approved, which meant big changes for OKC. It meant action and energy downtown and surging publicity. It meant that some of the earth’s most famous humans would be coming to Oklahoma City, occupying its vacant hotels, and tasting its unexceptional food.

As if it were an audition, now was the time to welcome players, their powerful entourages, and thousands of fans to a place that was primed to impress. Spaghetti Warehouse would no longer cut it. Small would no longer suffice. If OKC wanted to be big, it needed to think big, look big, and act big. Because in the end, for this virtually unnoticed spot on the map, it could mean “validation: an outside chance to become a real place.”[iii]

Obviously Anderson is describing a location — an unheralded city — and its longing to feel legitimate. But do we not, as people, relate?

Do we not understand what it’s like to crave a sense of legitimacy? Do we not deeply desire to feel real, relevant, and known? Are we not, like OKC, concerned with self-presentation, eager to play the polished and ever-capable host — hoping to gain the approval of our guests and be counted as worthwhile?

Even as we sense God approaching, we so often attempt to spruce ourselves up before we invite him in. We would rather he not see our weaknesses, our not-so-pretty side. We’d all feel a lot more comfortable if we could finish up that latest bit of self-improvement before we open the door—like the frantic tidy-up before the guests arrive.

We seem to forget that, in his time on earth, of all the things that might have concerned Jesus, keeping up appearances wasn’t one of them. What a relief it must have been for the people of his day to understand how, with Christ, it was never about manufacturing or maintaining an image. The ability to welcome Jesus didn’t carry with it a prerequisite spiritual facelift.

This is clearly witnessed in Christ’s encounter with Zacchaeus.[iv] We know that Christ invited himself into Zacchaeus’ home and life, but if we pause a moment—before moving on to what resulted from their encounter — we discover that a key aspect of grace lies in the very timing of Christ’s invitation.

Scripture conveys to us how Christ desired contact before Zacchaeus repented. He did not wait for the fulfillment of any preconditions. Jesus wanted to be with the unjust tax collector before he promised to pay back those he’d exploited, before he was living justly. Christ called out to Zacchaeus while he was still in the tree.

The fact is we, as humans, tend to love a good before-and-after. My husband and I joke that we’re both in the renovation business: he, as a carpenter, remodels old spaces so they can function like new; I, as a family therapist, help people breathe new life into the status quo of their relational dynamics. Though for obvious reasons his end-of-day results are much more tangible than mine, we are both engaged in the tasks of progress-making, attempting to fulfill our clients’ hopes of achieving a noticeable difference.

Being drawn to the effects of dramatic change is surely just part of our nature. I must admit that when it comes to OKC, I’m thrilled that our downtown has morphed into a place where people of all ages want to visit and enjoy. And when it comes to Zacchaeus, I personally love knowing that he drastically altered the ways he related with other people — his heart so deeply affected that his behavior couldn’t remain the same.

But while our eyes become fixated on results — perennially awed by the after — God’s unearned grace shifts our focus to the before: before our projects are complete or our goals are met … before we measure up or straighten up … before we feel worthy. So often, when it comes to grace, timing is everything.

Though we are inclined to get busy proving ourselves, God’s presence in our lives assures us that we are loved and accepted while we’re still irrelevant and untransformed, while we’re still not good enough. While we were still sinners

Ultimately, just when we’re overwhelmed with a felt need to impress, it’s Christ’s own life which convinces us that he is a most undemanding guest: no paparazzi, no publicity, no powerful entourage. From the beginning of his life, when he entered the world as a helpless infant, until his final week, when he entered the city on the back of a donkey, his vulnerability puts us at ease.

We need not fear our ordinariness. We are freed, as Kempis would say, to “take delight in being unknown and unregarded.”[v] Welcoming Christ, we can set the table with nothing but our small-time status—our lack, our need—and he promises to meet us there. After all, we are not called to bare our strength, but our weakness; not called to be cool, but sincerely, simply contrite.

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