I’m not exactly sure why, but it gets me every time.

Friday-night lights trumpet the weekly arrival of bubbly cheerleaders, glistening band instruments and enough adolescent testosterone and estrogen to fuel the Indy 500. It is an evening of glory and of fight songs, a place where pigskin flies and a thousand hopes per hour are realized and dashed.

For the most part, high school football games are predictable, but then suddenly, a familiar cadence rises from the marching band while the drill team rhythmically waves a sea of pom-poms in the air. Fans clap in metrical unison as a signal of anticipation and approval.

And then it happens. The football team runs out on the field led by a player carrying a large American flag.

Now I love my country as much as the next person, but I’m not generally known for my zealous patriotism. And most of my close friends would tell you that I’m not a sentimental woman, a crier who predictably weeps at movies or at Hallmark television commercials. Still, every single time I witness this grand entrance at a football game I find myself profoundly choked up. I have spent several years wondering why.

I got to thinking that perhaps my Pavlovian response is rooted in a profound sense of sadness over how September 11th changed the soul of this nation. But after much reflection I don’t think that’s it. Week after week as the flag-bearing team runs on to the field, I try to put a firm finger on why it nearly moves me to tears. And while I haven’t yet discovered the great “A-ha,” I do seem to be getting warmer. I suspect it has something to do with the American Dream.

A quick search of the worldwide web yields several definitions for “The American Dream,” most of which say essentially the same thing: “Americans’ hope for a better quality of life and a higher standard of living than their parents.” Wow. That leaves room for a lot of interpretation. Are we talking bigger houses and faster cars? Plastic surgery and more credit cards? Is the American Dream about escaping a third-world country and building a successful family business on American soil, or could it simply be the triumph of rising above the emotional and spiritual poverty in which one was raised?

No matter what the circumstances, everyone has an ideal that was formed by what they have lived through. And that’s not terribly surprising. Like it or not we all – to some degree – are pragmatists. Not only do we learn from our own mistakes; we have also learned from our parents’ mistakes, and are typically resolute in our determination not to repeat them. It’s a noble, but somewhat lofty ambition, to be sure.

But I’ve been intrigued of late by another ideal, one that seems to have been formed by a marriage of modern evangelicalism and good old American materialism – complete with Norman Rockwell as the officiant. You might call it “the good life.” If I were to draw a composite of “the good life,” it might look something like this: Dad puts in a good 8-to-5, and mom is busy shuttling kids to private schools, music lessons and sports practice. They have great insurance plans, bulging savings and retirement accounts, and at least one SUV. Dad coaches the soccer team and teaches Sunday school, while mom is the homeroom mother and volunteer-at-large for various church and community causes. They’re very well dressed with a beautifully furnished home, take exciting trips, and their kids are model citizens and high achievers. These folks are the poster children for what you, too, can have if you’ll just follow Jesus.

Trouble is, I’ve been a follower of Christ for nearly 25 years, and my life has never looked much like that—though I nearly died trying.

The American Dream found me at the tender age of 20, earnestly trying to carve out a better plot than the one from which I came. Call it Eden in suburbia, salvation in second chances, the promised land of 2.5 kids, a mortgage and the notion that I was going to do it “right.” I married in the fall of my 20th year, and we made quite a pair: two young, broken, newly regenerated know-it-alls with just enough information to be annoying and dangerous. To say we were idealistic and naïve would be putting it mildly.