What Do You Want?

By: Jake Johnson

As Thoreau told us over a century and a half ago, most men live lives of quiet desperation.

I will expand that and say that most men live as practical agnostics.

Sure, we know our worship songs. We read our Bibles. We pray. We may even have our systematic theology right. Our spiritual lives are organized and tidy, clean and white. God is nice, comfortable, and able to be explained with just a few impersonal attributes and a gospel track. YHWH, the One who appeared to Moses in a burning bush, called out to Samuel in the dark of night, and defeated death by dying has been put in a box by his believers, and the box has been pushed to the back of the closet — or perhaps beyond the blue to that far off place called heaven.

And there is a reason for this. I think, deep down, the reason is because we are genuinely scared of what might happen if we truly began to live with him. The comfortable ways of life that keep us safe and protect us from true intimacy, vulnerability, and love are all too important to us; better to hide behind a fig leave and wallow in our own sin, shame, and isolation than to be exposed in all our nakedness and come to be healed through intimacy with God, others, and ourselves. It is a holy grace to be exposed — for only when we are done with the hiding may we find the love and rest we were looking for all along.

To put it bluntly, the yeast of the Pharisees is alive and well — but plenty of us are not. Choked out by the American Dream. By religiosity. By doubts. By questions. By sin. By shame. The list goes on and on, but what we know is that despite Jesus’s offer of Life, we feel like we have one foot in the grave — and our heart is next. Of course, by “we” I mean “me.”

There is irony in it all. As N.T. Wright says in his book Simply Christian,

“Made for spirituality, we wallow in introspection. Made for joy, we settle for pleasure. Made for justice, we clamor for vengeance. Made for relationship, we insist on our own way. Made for beauty, we are satisfied with sentiment. But new creation has already begun. The sun has begun to rise. Christians are called to leave behind, in the tomb of Jesus Christ, all that belongs to the brokenness and incompleteness of the present world […] That, quite simply, is what it means to be Christian: to follow Jesus Christ into the new world, God’s new world, which he has thrown open before us.”

We must decide for ourselves what it is we are truly after. Just as Jesus asks the sick man sitting by the pool in Bethesda, “do you want to get well?,” I believe he asks us the same. In other words, “do you want to step in to true life? Do you want to be freed from the weight of your burdens? Do you want to be known, to be loved? Do you want your heart to be healed? Do you want to say ‘no’ to the cynicism and pessimism of this world, to have joy?”

The man in Bethesda had been sitting there for thirty-eight years. Thirty-eight years. No doubt there was a part of him who enjoyed the self-pity, the wallowing, and the begging. As long as he stayed sick, he had every excuse to slowly rot in his own pain. To choose death and darkness time and time again. So when Jesus asks him, in John 5:6, “Do you want to get well?,” I believe he meant it.

In another passage of Scripture, God addresses the prophet Jeremiah, who is tempted to give up on a life fueled by the Lord and instead settle for the mediocrity and predictability of the world around him. To become one of those countless men, as Thoreau says, who lives a life of quiet desperation.

“So, Jeremiah, if you’re worn out in this footrace with men,
what makes you think you can race against horses?”

— Jeremiah 12:5, The Message

In his book, Run with the Horses, Eugene Peterson meditates on this verse and offers his commentary:

“Life is difficult, Jeremiah. Are you going to quit at the first wave of opposition? Are you going to retreat when you find that there is more to life than finding three meals a day and a dry place to sleep at night? Are you going to run home the minute you find that the mass of men and women are more interested in keeping their feet warm than in living at risk to the glory of God? Are you going to live cautiously or courageously? I called you to live at your best, to pursue righteousness, to sustain a drive toward excellence.

It is easier to relax in the embracing arms of The Average. Easier, but not better. Easier, but not more significant. Easier, but not more fulfilling. I called you to a life of purpose far beyond what you think yourself capable of living and promised you adequate strength to fulfill your destiny. Now at the first sign of difficulty you are ready to quit. If you are fatigued by this run-of-the-mill crowd of apathetic mediocrities, what will you do when the real race starts, the race with the swift and determined horses of excellence? What is it you really want, Jeremiah? Do you want to shuffle along with this crowd, or run with the horses?

[…Jeremiah] weighed the options. He counted the cost. He tossed and turned in hesitation. The response when it came was not verbal but biographical. His life became his answer, ‘I’ll run with the horses.’”

As someone who is no stranger to apathy, I find it easy to shuffle along with the crowd. To settle for the haziness of spoon-fed religion and pragmatism. To accept the world and my life as it is, and not expect much from myself, much less from God. To refuse God’s offer to heal my heart and restore me to wholeness, all the while complaining about my pain, grief, and isolation. The life of quiet desperation, of pharisaic religiosity, and of shuffling with the crowd is a much easier choice than choosing to engage daily with the Wild and Free One. Easier, but certainly not better. Sustainable, but not life-giving. Predictable, but not joyful.

There is risk in opening up our hearts, in choosing to love and to be loved. But the reward far outweighs the cost. And when we finally do choose to step into God’s new world that is breaking in to the present, we will realize that the cost was always the death of all that keeps us separated from the love and life we were always made to live.

I am learning to continually ask myself this question, “what do I want?” Do I want the outlandish, beautiful, disturbing, true, and freeing Good News of Jesus, to live a life fueled by his love and Spirit? Or do I want to settle for sustainability and predictability, doubts and depression, isolation and apathy?

If any of us, especially myself, are to step into the wild and free intimacy and life offered to us in Jesus, we must repent from the quiet desperation that we cling to and embrace the unknown of a life with God. At the end of my life, I want this to be said of me, “His life became his answer, ‘I’ll run with the horses’” (Peterson, Run With the Horses).

By: Jake Johnson

The Hope Center

Three years ago, Luke Ayers told me that he had a vision. He told me that he needed to quit his lucrative business and had his eye on a center in chalk level Newnan…except he didn’t have the funds to buy it…and the building was occupied. I told him he was crazy. One year ago, the city of Newnan called him in for a meeting and handed him the keys for free. My jaw went down to the floor.

The first time Luke showed me the neighborhood, where God gave him a building, we were the only white people there. We had been taking care of a widow’s property all day. We still got weird looks as we walked by. Understandable. You could tell the community had seen white people come and go, most of them just trying to feel better “helping” black kids. It never lasts. We ended at his building and Luke told me the vision. There was a daycare there and he pointed to the playground. “We need a basketball court there.” he said. “Maybe if kids have a place to go we can keep them from the gangs early.” We peered down on the four way stop the building looked down on. It is the corner where the most dead bodies were dumped last year. No streetlights. A house diagonal had cars coming up to it and a guy got on his porch and stared with his arms crossed. “Well, we didn’t expect this to be easy.” Luke said. All of a sudden there was a man approaching in a yellow cut off and a doo rag. He knew the guy on his porch and the guy immediately relaxed. Whoever this guy was, he was a king on these streets. He passed by us and we asked how he was. Ten steps later, he turned around asking, “Ya’ll Christians?” We told him yes and he said “Yeah, I figured.” Maybe it had been Christians who had come and gone before? Either way, this man hadn’t met Luke before, a crazy Christian. Luke asked him about the building, not telling him that the city had already given it to him. He told us his name was Buster. Buster said “Is that the building for the kids?” We said it was. Then Luke asked him what it would be like if they made a basketball court out there? Busters eyes went wide, “That is what these young guys need! They get to hustling in the gangs early so we need to get them while they’re young. I’m talking 12 or 13. After that, it’s too late.” It seemed like he’d seen it play out that way before. Luke told him, “Here’s the deal Buster. I’m a powerful white dude.” Buster said, “Oh, color don’t matter.” He said, “Well to those folks behind us it does.” Buster said, “Damn straight.” Luke told him, “I need to be walking around with you because you’ve been here 50 years. They will say, oh that is just Buster’s crazy White friend.” Buster said, “If you get this approved, I’ll be the first one out here laying concrete. It’ll bring hope around here.” Buster walked away, then turned around and said, “My family is Christian. I’m not, I’ve got a drinking problem. I’m gonna quit though, I promise!” Luke said, “Before you do that, have a last drink with me.”

Luke kept his promise. It only took 30 days for him to get started. Buster kept his promise, he was the first one laying brick. Since then, the center has been full almost every day. Luke is a strong man. He has proven to be not just another rich white guy that leaves at will. He will be there until the end for these kids. The neighborhoods have been marked with oppression for years. The stuff that goes on in these streets is heavy on these kids. Few have a normal home. I was shocked at the stories. But there is one place these kids know where to find Mr. Luke. The Hope Center on the Corner of Pinson St.

Courage to Engage

By Jake Johnson

You were born into a battle.

The tears came as quickly as the words did.

I was listening to a podcast by John Eldredge, finishing up a set of squats at the gym. John was discussing the wounds we experience in life, and the offer of Jesus to father us through the pain. As I finished the set, an image flashed in my mind of a sixth grader curled up in the fetal position cutting himself. I was the sixth grader.

Tears swelled as soon as I saw the image of the blade, and I tightened my cheek muscles in an attempt to repent from the tears. Surprisingly, it was not my first time crying at the gym.

In unapologetic anger, I asked God, “Why? Why would you let an eleven year old cut himself?”

The answer was as immediate and abrupt as my tears.

You were born into a battle.

The tears dried, the podcast ended, and I went back to the squats. I heard no more from Jesus that day. But those six words were enough.

There are some days where all I want are answers. I read the books and the verses, I watch the lectures and the sermons, and I listen to the podcasts and the music. Searching for answers. Answers to my pain, to my brokenness, and to the deep and dark feelings of shame and mistrust that never fail to resurface despite hours of “soul care” and counseling. Answers to my doubts and questions. Answers to the tears. God knows I have tears. And, if I am being honest, rarely is it that I receive an answer. And more often than not, that pisses me off. But, on the occasion that I am able to engage the very pain and wounding I feel, I am met not by an answer but by God. As Frederick Buechner reminds us, “God does not give answers. He gives himself.”

I have come to realize that there are two great and powerful voices at play in each and everybody’s life. The first is the beauty, goodness, truth, and love of God that woos us and longs to restore us. Although mysterious and alluring, Jesus is on the move — and Creation prophesies the return of Eden. A lover’s kiss, a child’s laugh, a Colorado sunset, and the haunting of eternity tell us that we were made for more. The second voice is that of the dragon — the wounds that have shaped us, the words of harm that have been spoken to us, and the deep rooted shame, doubt, anger, and plethora of other emotions that have monopolized on our life. Truly, no one gets out of this life without scars. When faced with such dichotomous narratives, the choices we make and the voices we choose to listen to can and will have lasting impacts. There are, as I see it, three choices to make. We can choose to only see the first narrative and completely ignore/deny the second one, thereby living in a fantasy world of blind optimism that in no way addresses the pain and hurt of the world, and actually protects us from engaging in our own stories of pain and hurt by simply denying them. Or, at the very least, excusing them or saying that they are not too important. But eventually there comes a day when the blind optimism no longer provides the comfort and protection we thought it would, and our attempt to not engage with our stories of trauma, pain, etc. actually keeps us from receiving the very healing, hope, and forgiveness we need. The second option is to live in a world riddled with pessimism and cynicism, denying the beauty, truth, goodness, and love that are clearly at play. This is, of course, the safer option. As C.S. Lewis said, “to love is to be vulnerable.” By locking our hearts in a casket of pessimism, cynicism, and skepticism, we protect ourselves from vulnerability and intimacy, all the while slowly rotting our own hearts by making agreements with the Evil One. I must say that in my experience, most people fall in to one of these two categories.

But there is a third way. It involves recognizing and addressing the deep wounds we have endured and have inflicted, as well as the broken state of the world; but it also involves having eyes to see the mission of Jesus to restore and reconcile the Cosmos back to himself, and finding a role to play in that mission. The third way is the way of engagement — of engaging with our own stories and the stories of others. The stories of deep harm and hurt, anger and resentment, shame and regret. It is the way that leads to healing and restoration, to the life we were meant to live. It is having the courage to live as citizens of the Kingdom, advancing it in our own lives and colonizing the world with heaven. True healing comes by having the courage to enter into the pain and darkness with the Light of the world, and address it head on. Afterall, that’s exactly what happened on the cross. We are called to share in the suffering of Christ, and maybe a part of what this means is to enter into the stories of pain and sorrow in the lives of those around us, as well as our own. And when we have entered into that suffering — into the very wounds of pain and have seen the face of Darkness, we will find healing. But we will have scars.

To live in this third way, in the only way to true life, we must first reconcile the two opposing powers at work. We must not forget the beauty and love of God and all that he has done for us. But we also must not forget the Dragon — the one who longs to keep us from discovering freedom in Jesus, who longs to keep us from intimacy with God, others, and ourselves. We must acknowledge the presence of both, and realize that God’s will is not fully being done on earth (if it was, there would be no need to pray for his will to be done on earth as in heaven). There is a war going on for the heart of each and everyone of us, and God longs to meet us in the middle of the mess.

So, when the Enemy comes to steal your joy and your life, or when Evil is monopolizing on your family or community, don’t be afraid to enter in to it. But enter in to the pain with the Light of the world, knowing that the Grave will never have the final say. Darkness truly is losing in the world, but it takes courage to engage.

When it comes to your own story, I suggest finding a good counselor (or perhaps a wise friend or mentor) who will engage your heart with kindness and love. As Eldredge says, “you will never treat anyone else’s heart better than you treat your own”; only by taking the journey ourselves of restoration and healing can we help others take the same journey.

God knows we’ve all been wounded, but it helps me to know that so has he, too. As Philip Yancey says, “the surgery of life hurts. It helps me, though, to know that the surgeon himself, the Wounded Surgeon, has felt every stab of pain and every sorrow.” I have yet to find answers, but I have found God. And I have come to love the scars — they teach me that God heals the broken.

For more information regarding what it looks like to engage our own stories and of those around us, I’ll direct you to The Allender Center for a particular counseling theory that emphasizes story.

Frank (The Tennis Choronicles Part 1)

I was 10 years old when I first saw it for the first time. I’d seen it before, but not the way it’s meant to be seen. This time, I saw it. Flipping channels from The Weather Channel to ESPN, the satellite picture went clear. Marcos Baghdatis vs. Marat Safin. The back and forth, the freedom, the solitude, the equipment. I had been watching the weather channel, praying for a snow day in the 4th grade, when I had gotten bored from commercials. The snow day didn’t happen but who cares. I’d found something I had to try. There was no way I wouldn’t fall in love. I just knew it. But what next? 

“Dad!” I yelled after the conclusion of the match. 

“Can you take me to that wall at Pepplepocket Park?” He thought for a minute. Was he not going to take me? 

“I’ll tell you what..I’ll take you Saturday.”

Saturday? Saturday! I couldn’t wait and scavenged the garage for equipment in preparation for the weekend. I was dreaming. I picked up a 23’ Andre Agassi Junior racket. I shut my eyes and I was in Australia for the Open. The crowd screaming and Marat Safin across the net. The lights caused a surge of adrenaline to my young mind and soul. I was a warrior. But where was Bagdhatis..I guess I took his place in this dream. It was my dream after all.

Saturday came and I was in love. Tennis was the first thing I ever loved. And boy, was it sweet. The next steps came. Lessons, tournaments, more dreams. I was on a clear path to truly becoming something that I had felt since I accidentally flipped channels to the 2008 Australian Open. A tennis player. But like any person in the beginning stages of a relationship I had no idea of what was to come. Nobody told me the things to watch for, what to avoid, what to focus on. I had a vision of life where tennis was the center. And the ball was in my court. My falling in love that night in 2008, led to the story of a boy who experienced some of the best times of his life, but also the worst. I had good coaches and bad ones. I had the best time of my life at some tournaments and I felt the loneliest I ever felt at some. The worst coaches got me to believe that tennis was everything. They taught me to believe that results were everything. There were lonely nights outside of the tennis center in my car, there were nights when I had a friend by my side in that car and we dreamt of something more. My best friend Corrie and I, have been through hell and back again in this sport. We’ve gone through love, loss, loneliness, joy, fear, and pain. He was often the guy who I’d take long drives with to College Park and come back late at night. We reflected a lot as we had a lot of the same coaches. I want the next few blogs to be about these experiences I had. They truly shaped me.

I went through my first coaches rapidly. I couldn’t get enough of the game. I even damaged our garage in my childhood home by imagining I was Pete Sampras in the U.S. Open. It is still a sore subject today. My first coach was John Witkowski who taught me to love the game. But not love it for the results…he taught me that it was fun! That phase quickly passed and I desired to have more than just fun. I wanted to win. Maybe I could get a college scholarship?

That’s when I met coach Frank. 

I went for a tryout with Frank to get into his academy. He was a black man with dreadlocks and an accent. “Where are you from?” I asked him nervously. “The best country in the world! Ghana. And one day, I’m gonna win the lottery and go back!” I chuckled. I didn’t really believe him. Over the years, I developed a relationship with Frank and he was the first man I looked up to who loved God. Frank came up as a junior in Ghana and walked five miles to get to the courts, and five miles back. He played barefoot on the hot pavement as a kid. Tennis was his only chance to get out of his home country. There is a story of him playing in Wimbledon and getting sponsored by Wilson. The company wanted to sign him and all he had to do was put “Wilson” stencil on his racket. Frank refused. He told us how his positive outlook had gotten him there and how he had always put a smiley face stencil on his racket. And as the old saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I have fond memories of long practice sessions with Frank, him blasting Bob Marley from his boombox. The sunset in the distance and my soul merging with the court and my racket.

I learned so much from Frank and never really got to show him how much he meant to me. I left his academy to move on to what I thought would be an opportunity to train with better players. Eventually, Frank got tired of waiting to win the lottery and took his fate into his own hands. When I was 13, Frank moved back to Ghana to be a missionary. I went to his going away party and saw him for the first time in a year. He was shocked to see me and embraced me with a hug. “I never thought I would see you again!” he said. Maybe I had made an impact on him too? I cried for hours that night. And when I didn’t think I could cry anymore…a new wave hit. He was the first man who had shown me what it meant to truly live from a higher place. I tear up as I write this because Frank was that moving to me. He told me not to care what others thought. He gave me a binder of pictures of people in his home country without basic things and whenever I complained, we went over it. Bob Marley was his anthem and the mantra was one love. Frank loved tennis. But what really mattered was he loved me. I love Frank.

I recently googled the name “Frank Ofori” and found that he has just returned to tennis after 7 years. It made me smile. I know that there is a kid in Ghana right now, hitting with Frank as the sun goes down. Bob Marley on the radio and smiley face stencil on the racket. Whoever that kid was before, doesn’t matter. Whoever he is…Frank loves him. He loves everybody…just like his mentor.

Jesus.

The Upside Down

By: Jake Johnson

I used to go to the local Barnes & Noble quite often, each time being to do school work, but after about ten minutes in the Starbucks cafe I never failed to find myself thumbing through a book by Steinbeck or Hemingway. I’d go about an hour or two before work, meaning around 1 O’clock. The bookstore is normally filled with who you’d suspect to be there after lunch — stay at home moms having a book club, dental hygienists buying some time after their lunch break at Pita, and high school kids playing hookie and making out in the fantasy section. But there was one man who at first didn’t fit the scene, until, of course, I saw him nearly every time I went. He was a regular.

His name was Matt.

He shuffled into the building around 1:30 nearly every day, like clockwork. I never even had to look up from my computer or from my book to know it was him. If the sound of his nylon windbreaker didn’t give him away, the barista did. With a smile on her face, she had a large, iced water with his name on it as soon as he reached the counter. Those who were not regulars always muted their voices for the few seconds it took for him to walk past them, but those of us who knew him would give a slight nod or wave and go back to sipping our subpar coffees and reading our paperbacks. Starbucks is known for allowing those who are homeless into their building, but it is somewhat unusual in Newnan, Georgia. Unless, of course, the homeless man is Matt.

After about two or three times of seeing him, we started to talk. Mainly about quantum physics and string theory (both of which I know nothing about), but I was glad we could talk. For a man living on the streets, he was educated. I guess that’s why he chose Barnes & Noble — he knew he could get a free water and access to to an entire book section dedicated to nerds who love science. But he knew psychology, too, which I was thankful for. A conversation is always interesting when both people are analyzing the other for possible mental disorders. Unfortunately, we never got too close, and I eventually stopped seeing him at Barnes & Noble. But then one day I saw him again.

It was a week or so before Christmas. I was driving by Barnes & Noble, looking for a place to park so I could go read some Thoreau with an iced coffee. And to my right, a smile grew on my face as I saw Matt walking out the store, wearing a fresh bathrobe with a pair of flip flops and aviators. A cigarette sat perched in his lips, which he promptly removed and flicked to the curb. He seemed like a new man — clearly showing off his bathrobe and aviators as his strutted along the sidewalk, doing a spin like he’s Michael Jackson. It all paired well with the song “Upside Down” by Jack Johnson I had playing through my Aux, of which reminded me of another homeless man, 2000 years ago, who did indeed turn the world upside down. And this Man, who died for his enemies, says that it is guys like Matt who are the greatest in His Kingdom.

I have not seen Matt since, and although I know from previous conversations that he is not a Christian, I pray that he may one day realize the love that his Creator has for him. What I do know about Matt is that he suffers from a rare and incurable illness, one that causes him to have large knots and bumps on his body. I wish that I could allow that sickness to do its worst to me — to take it all on myself and allow it to defeat me, so that he may no longer live in pain. And although I cannot, I know that, in one way or another, that is what happened on that Roman cross, albeit not just with sickness but with all Evil, Sin, and Death. As N.T. Wright says as a paraphrase to Albert Schweitzer, “Jesus […] was like a man convinced the wheel of history was going to turn in the opposite direction. He waited for this to happen, but it didn’t. Then he threw himself upon the wheel, and it crushed him — but it did indeed start to turn in the other direction” (Wright, Simply Good News). The world truly has been turned upside down, and God offers forgiveness to all, inviting all of us to join the party. Including guys like Matt. Especially guys like Matt.

Bearing Names

Wild bears do the twist to communicate through smelly footprints ...

By: Jake Johnson

“You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain…” — Exodus 20:7

I don’t remember too much from Sunday School, but from what I do remember from those years of flannel graphs and talking vegetables is that I shouldn’t kill, steal, cheat on my wife, or…cuss. Now, I know that sin is sin regardless, but like, c’mon guys. Is that what this verse really means? To be clear, I am not condoning foul language (especially language that defiles the name of God); afterall, the Bible clearly says that our words hold the power of life and death, can corrupt the whole body, and should be used to encourage and help others (Proverbs 18:21; James 3:6; Ephesians 4:29). I am just saying that there must be more going on in this verse. A lot more. As in, a Biblical theme that is present all the way from Genesis to Revelation.

There’s that peculiar saying in Genesis that human beings are created in the image of God, blessed with the task of being fruitful, multiplying, and creating more and more Goodness throughout the world. It’s a beautiful truth, and one that I try to remind myself whenever I am being annoyed or irritated by someone. They, just like me, are made in the image of the One true God, the creator of mountains and wine and dogs and mangoes. But being made in his image implies that we should look like him, and in case you haven’t realized it yet, this world does not look like a world in which we all reflect the image of God. If it did, well, it would look a heck of a lot like Genesis 2. But ever since Genesis 3, we as image bearers of God have often times instead bore the image of the animals we were called to subdue, as is evident in things like domestic violence, war, systemic racism and injustice, and the Holocaust. As Viktor Frankl says in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, “We have come to know Man as he really is. Afterall, man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.”

So what does it mean to bear God’s image? Or, as most English translations put it, to “not take the name of the LORD your God in vain” (Exodus 20:7)? Maybe a quick look at a conversation Jesus had about taxes would help us understand. April 15th is right around the corner, so it seems appropriate.

In Luke 20, Jesus is approached by a spy sent by some religious leaders to try to get Jesus to say something that could get him arrested (Luke 20:20). When asked if Jews should pay taxes, Jesus “flips the coin” so to speak and asks whose face is on a Roman coin. And just like my boy Lincoln is on the penny, Caesar is on the denarius. In a fashion I imagine similar to supa hot fire, Jesus stuns the crowd with “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God” (v.25). The coin bears the image of Caesar, much like how we bear the image of God. The story changes pretty quick to a discussion about the Resurrection, but Paul picks up on this “bearing the name” language in Ephesians 5 when he says to “imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children. Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ” (Ephesians 5:1-2). Just a few verses before, Paul urges us to “not bring sorrow to God’s holy Spirit by the way [we] live” (Ephesians 4:30). It seems to me, then, that defiling the name of the Lord has much more to do with the rightness of our hearts and entire being than just in what we say. To fully imitate God means to love him and love others, directing our hearts to Life himself and being restored and reconciled back to the way we were meant to be. Of course it brings sorrow to God’s name when we fail to do this — as the Giver of all that is Good and True and Beautiful, he knows that our distortion and corruption of his design causes destruction in our own lives and others, even enough to cause a schism in a once-perfect world, bringing death and darkness into a world that was once full of Light and Life. And even more, our failure to bear his name causes us to reflect a distorted image of Himself into the world. Looking at the long and brutal history of the Church, it is no wonder why Gandhi said, “I like you Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Although not a Christian himself, he valued the teachings of Jesus and recognized how different Jesus is not just from Christians, but from all who have ever lived. This is because Jesus is the only One who bears God’s name perfectly, revealing to us the heart and very nature of God. As Paul writes in Colossians 1:15 and Hebrews 1:13,  Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” and “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being […].” If you want to know what God is like, look to Jesus. He is the only one who has never taken the name of the Lord in vain, for he Himself is the Lord, and his crucifixion is like a flag being staked on a hill, declaring the inauguration of God’s Kingdom. But his kingdom came and will one day be consummated not by brute force and violence, but by self-sacrificial love and the death of all that is not Life. It seems like a paradox, but on the cross Jesus not only bore the Image of God but also bore our own sins and burdens, the very sins and burdens in our lives that once held us captive to the Kingdom of Darkness. As Tim Mackie says, “Jesus became the human we were made to be, and through him we can become the humans we were made to be.” He declared himself king over his broken creation, reconciling the world back to himself and reversing the curse of entropy and death. Something beautiful happens when we begin to truly believe this, not the least being imitating more and more the Image we were made in.

In 2 Kings 17:15, the Israelites “rejected [God’s] decrees and the covenant he had made with their ancestors, and they despised all his warnings. They worshiped worthless idols, so they became worthless themselves. They followed the example of the nations around them, disobeying the LORD’s command not to imitate them.” We become like what we worship, and those who rest in the Goodness of the Lord and worship him reflect a more accurate image of him into the world. And hopefully, by bearing his image, we may help reveal to others the heart of God, so that they may discover for themselves the love of the One whose image they are made in.

*originally posted by Jake Johnson*

Stars in the Night Sky

As the world goes to a place it is all too familiar with, I stand with many questions. As a person born in 1997, I have not been conscious for the trenches our world has gone through in recent years. But now, as rocks from grenade fire fly overhead, it seems like our way of life is being threatened. But still, the mission remains the same. We are called not to live in fear but to live from the finished work of Christ.

For some reason, I have recently been awakened to the beauty of the stars in the sky above us. As I look to them in their brilliance, I am witnessing a miracle. A ball of fire, perfectly round, suspended in the sky, 5.88 trillion miles away from my perception. The same perception that processes the events of a worldwide pandemic, personal negative emotions, death, famine…but also love, joy, generosity, and peace. Our reality is not so different from the stars I watch from below. When a star dies you would think it would be horrible. It takes eons for a star to cool down once it dies. But in the darkness is when a star produces the most light. Before a star departs from the galaxy, it goes through a supernova. It produces enough light to shine as bright as an entire galaxy of stars.

Wow.

We aren’t so different. God chooses to use pain to allow the light to explode within us. Maybe it’s time for a supernova in our spirits. An awakening of who we are in Christ. So as we take things day by day in the midst of worldwide pandemic, we can feel the cold, wet darkness upon us. However, it only takes the faintest of lights to lead us out of the darkest of caves. If we would be brave enough to follow, I believe that Jesus is waiting for us to grab his hand and take our fear. Rumor has it, He holds a pretty powerful flashlight. So remember the words of God, “So do not fear, for I am with you; so do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” – Isaiah 41:10

A Kingdom of Kids

By: Jake Johnson

I sit on my porch, sipping a coffee at 2 in the afternoon with my journal and a pen in hand with no words on the page. It’s been weeks since I’ve undone the elastic band around the journal, or even thought about it for that matter. What was once a daily rhythm has become a chore, just like the pile of dishes sitting on the counter. My sip of coffee is interrupted by the humidity and pollen of Georgia, which are then interrupted by a blow of one of the four winds and the sight of a brown thrasher who is late for his lunch. My pessimism is met with a smile, and I am reminded of the Lord’s words that I am far more valuable than a bird. I look up from my coffee, and see the kids down the street playing in a sprinkler. A tear joins my smile, and I remember who Jesus says the Kingdom is for, and pray that I may one day be young enough to play in a sprinkler again.

Perhaps these moments are part of what Jesus means when he told the pharisees that “the Kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21). Perhaps, when Jesus said these words, he glanced over to the kids playing in the sprinkler.

I miss the summers of innocence. I miss the days when I could admire the beauty of a woman and not lust after her. I miss the days of nerf wars and popsicles, above-ground pools and bike rides. I miss the joy of child-like faith, when Jesus was my best friend and I gave and received love without fear. As Dan Allender puts it, “innocence is the ability to be in awe.” When the beauty of a woman, the color of the sunset, and the blow of the breeze no longer awaken awe within your heart, you have lost your innocence. God knows I have lost mine. I miss intimately knowing what Jesus meant when he said “the Kingdom of God is among you.” I miss Eden — afterall, it’s etched onto all of our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Or have we forgotten that Eden was once our home?

Somehow, this deep yearning within me to taste and feel the joy of the Lord and the Kingdom of God has been translated over the years as “a place in the clouds you go to when you die,” and it is no wonder countless people lose heart.

If it’s all about going off into the clouds somewhere, then it all seems quite boring. What about sex and romance, nature and adventure, friendship and food? What about hope, longing, joy, and restoration? What about life? What about front-yard sprinklers?

My sage, John Eldredge, once said, “I daresay we’ve heard a bit about original sin, but not nearly enough about original glory, which comes before sin and is deeper to our nature. We were crowned with glory and honor. Why does a woman long to be beautiful? Why does a man hope to be found brave? Because we remember, if only faintly, that we were once more than we are now.” John has a way of speaking to the heart with his poetic prose, and as I think about this quote in relation to the kids and the sprinkler, I believe that the kids were acting out of that original glory — the one that is deeper and truer to our nature than our sin and rebellion. They were playing out of innocence.

What I felt today on my porch was nothing short of a sudden beating in my heart for restoration, for the glory of the Lord to be restored in me. Recently, my head has become full of knowledge and my heart full of stones — but every now and again I am able to push through the religious fog of Churchianity and the cynicism of a secular world and have eyes to see and ears to hear. I just didn’t think the Kingdom would advance through a front-yard sprinkler.

But is this not the offer of Jesus? To restore us? To invite us to become citizens of the Kingdom, and then go out and co-labor alongside him, bringing God’s reign to the rest of the world? Jesus said that he came to heal the broken-hearted, and in case you haven’t realized it yet, we’re all broken-hearted. If we miss this, we miss everything. The saddest mistake of all is to miss Jesus for who he is — and to miss his mission. And so we fill our time with our drug of choice, whether it be alcohol or exercise or even church, to avoid the pain and ache of our hearts. To miss him for who he is and settle for the world as it is is to put to death the aching for eternity within us, that thumping and beating within our hearts for our true lives of intimacy and adventure, of abundant Goodness and joy. To once again quote my sage, “we abandon the most important journey of our lives when we abandon desire. We leave our hearts by the side of the road and head off in the direction of fitting in, getting by, being productive, what have you. Whatever we might gain – money, position, the approval of others, or just the absence of the discontent self – it’s not worth it.” There is a reason why video games and Netflix won’t satisfy, and why pornography and one-night stands always leave one feeling empty. There is a reason why the world is filled with many men with dead hearts and large 401ks, and why the stache of cheap romance novels never fills the void in the heart of the stay-at-home mom. It is because we were made for so much more than an alternative of what God has declared as good. Of course the video games won’t satisfy — we were made to swim the Caribbean and climb the Rockies. And the pornography, hook-ups, and cheap romance novels? We were made for a love that is as strong as death, not a lust that will suck the life out of you like a pack of Marlboros.

I miss the dreams we had as kids. When I was 12, all my friends and I wanted to change the world. At 20, often my greatest desire is for a drink. Or 12. But who wouldn’t want to down a couple of six-packs every week if the promise of Jesus is for a pew with our name on it up in the clouds?

Maybe the reason why so many of us have a hard time believing that Jesus came to restore is because it requires too much faith to believe. I mean to really believe it, down to the core of who we are. Down to our nephesh— our soul. Which, for those who like Hebrew, always refers to someone’s entire being. The very essence of an individual. We’ve been hurt too much, bruised and battered by the enemy and by a world that so often looks like hell. And we’ve contributed to this bruising and battering, choosing Death over Life time and time again and then picking up the shovel time and time again in search of healing. But we reap what we sow, and our constant search of healing in the painful and hurtful things of this world wound us even more. As God told Cain, our khata (sin) is crouching at our door, waiting to destroy us (Genesis 4:7). And so, we lose heart. We accept the world as it is, offering a cynical laugh at all those bright-eyed kids who actually think they can make a difference. We find battle in Fortnite, adventure in Netflix, and romance in screen-clicks. And for awhile, it may seem like we are winning. Afterall, in this world, the guy who wins is the one with the dead heart and a pocket full of Bens. But it is a good reminder to know that it is white, middle-class men who have one of the highest rates of suicide and depression in the United States. As Eldredge says, to lose heart is to lose everything.

Simon Weil said that the two things that pierce the human heart are beauty and affliction. I think we are all familiar with affliction, but I am probably not the only one who more often than not refuses to allow beauty to pierce my heart. But if I am to believe that Jesus was right in saying that the Kingdom is among us, that he has overcome this world, and that it will one day be fully renewed, then I must open my eyes to the beauty all around me that is prophesying the return of Eden. The innocent laugh of a child, the song of a bird, the patch of grass poking through a concrete slab — all of these are signposts pointing to the renewal of all things, beckoning us to once again believe in fairy tales and worship the One who death bows to. Maybe the reason why Jesus said for us to be like children is not because they are ignorant of the pain of this world, but because they allow the beauty and wonder of this world to pierce their hearts more than the pain. To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, it was in a Garden where hell rebelled against heaven, and it was in another Garden where heaven rebelled against hell. Christianity, then, is the ongoing rebellion on the side of heaven against hell, co-laboring with Christ to advance the work and power of the Kingdom of God. And in case you haven’t noticed it, most kids rebel against the cynicism and pessimism of this world. We would do well to be like them.

I truly believe that within every heart is a desire for eternity. I believe, despite how much a heart has become stone, that deep within every man, woman, and child is an overwhelming desire for restoration. They may not know what to call it, but they do know, regardless of how small or faint it may be, that there is an itch within them for something more. As a counseling student, I have talked to too many people for this not to be the case. And the beauty of the Gospel is that this longing for restoration is exactly what Jesus is calling us to. It is to redeem the glory of Genesis 1 and 2, leading us back to become the humans we were made to be and to live the lives we were made to live. He became sin and defeated it, disarming and shaming the spiritual authorities and powers that have held us captive (2 Corinthians 5:21; Colossians 2:15). He has inaugurated his Kingdom, and by doing so has turned the world upside down, beginning a process of restoring and reconciling the entire cosmos back to what it was meant to be. We’ve come along way from Eden, and it’s gonna take more than a cake walk to get us back. Maybe a good place to start is by dusting off the sprinkler.

I miss the summers of innocence, and I pray that you do, too. Your move, Chief.

Posted by Jake Johnson

Matters of the Heart

Some say love is a feeling. Some say it’s a choice. I’m not sure how others have experienced it, but for me it has been both. Preceded by choice, love can be a feeling. But I think it starts with a choice.

That choice can be hard. It can be daunting. To give yourself fully to another person, to tell a person how you feel and know that it could go south is one of the riskiest things in the world. Sometimes it works out, sometimes you are doomed from the start, and sometimes it doesn’t start at all. I’ve seen two types of people when it comes to love. People who have loved before and feel that nothing will ever match what they had before. And people who have never been fully available to love and so they bounce around from relationship to relationship.

Neither is how it was meant to be…I’m not sure it will ever be fully what it was meant to be.

I think the day we are able to sustain love towards another person is the day we realize that it will never be perfect. The only person who ever showed perfect love was murdered by those around him. And betrayed by one who was closest to him. If human’s did that to Jesus, how can we expect another person to be perfect. There isn’t a chance.

The Bible describes love. 4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.” – 1 Corinthians 13: 4-8

If you look at the definition of love, it is the formula to dealing with imperfect people. Instead of looking for perfection in people, why don’t we accept them. That does not mean to encourage destruction in others, but it does mean to not leave their side. Our view of love is always being shaped and molded by our surroundings. The gateway to healing a jaded view of love is to actually find a LOVING person who will help you through the healing process. A person who can deal with imperfection.

Something that I am learning is that LOVE INSPIRES MORE LOVE. If you have loved before and been hurt, I believe that you were made to love again. Like a fire before the creation of a forest. To end is to start again.

Why are Some Haircuts Noticed?

About once a month, I’ll go to Great Clips and get my haircut. They have this down to a science over there. They even have what I usually get in their system. But why does no one usually notice…and then why does everyone notice all at once? If it is the same haircut that I normally get, then it is weird that I can get 3 haircuts like that and no one says anything. Then on the 4th haircut people say, “Did you get a haircut?” Maybe the lady just nicked my sideburns a little…but maybe it was just about time people noticed?

I can’t explain why this is but it happens to me. And this is the way that I’ve noticed life goes. We go along, minding our business for a long time, sewing our seeds until one day…we reap the rewards. The great philosophers, businessmen, pastors, politicians, and intellectuals are proof. Why did Steve Jobs create Apple…was it because he was so special? Yes, he was no doubt a man with great ambition and drive. But he went many years as just Steve Jobs, that guy that many faintly remembered from high school. It wasn’t until the culmination of many things that lined up for him that he became a person of greatness. Just like a haircut. First, Steve worked at Atari and met the first guy he’d ever met who started his own business. This inspired him. Just like a 5 guard on the sides. Second, he met Steve Wozniak who was a computer engineering genius who needed someone with business sense. Just like a trim on the top. And just like that, his life would never be the same.

Phil Knight, founder of Nike, has the same kind of story. He was 24 and had graduated college. He pondered what his definition of success would be? Money, house, car, wife and kids? Maybe. But maybe it was more. Phil wondered if he could change the world. But all he could think about was a college presentation on how the shoe market was missing it’s opportunity in the Japanese manufacturing economy. Then it came to Phil! A world trip! That’s what he needed in order to figure out what he wanted to do. Phil spent 6 months in Hawaii with a friend. Until that friend got a girlfriend and Phil was out of money because he was a salesman who was terrible at selling. He thought about going home…but something inside him told him to keep going. Next stop, Japan, he thought! And so he went…and why not check out some shoe manufacturers while he was at it? So he did, like sitting in the lobby of his destiny, he made a connection with a Japanese manufacturer. And over the next 25 years, he would change the world.

Billy Joel and The Beatles had the same story. Billy Joel attempted suicide before he made it big and The Beatles were rejected many times before the world was ready for them. J.K. Rowling was on welfare before Harry Potter and Conor McGregor was a plumber. Most people don’t reach that level of fame or worldly success but I believe each person has a plan for their life. It’s a crazy thought to think that the best days are ahead. But it’s a necessary one. And with that thinking, when a day comes where chance presents itself, we will have the courage to open the door.