The Trees Dance Ballet

As I drive through the endless fields of West Texas, tumbleweeds roll out in front of me. For some reason, I swerve them as if they are some sort of living thing. I know that tumbleweeds are certainly not “alive,” but they behave as if they are. They move along the road as if they are heading somewhere, and I would hate to make them late to wherever they are going. I know that the tumbleweed wouldn’t be angry if I ran over him, but I swerve him, all the same, to avoid judgment in the world to come. I understand that the tumbleweed has no mind and no soul, but still, a part of me envies his endless sense of purpose. The tumbleweed rolls along the road, occasionally growing, and seems unconcerned about where he is going.

I personify the tumbleweed as I drive along and imagine Mr. Tumbleweed to be endlessly blissful. He participates as the first chair in the symphony around me. Rain or shine, Mr. Tumbleweed has decided to continue blowin’ in the wind. I think that Bob Dylan might have been right, and the “answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.” In a sense, I, too, am blowin’ in the wind. I am roaming in West Texas, my tumbleweed friend and me. Like the tumbleweed, I occasionally grow by picking up new ideas and desires along my road, but I do not pick my route. Instead, the metaphysical wind decides my road. I am free in this thought, and I imagine myself participating in the symphony of the world around me. I recognize that the Tumbleweed and I are in this symphony together. We are first and second chairs, and the wind is our conductor. I notice the trees around me and how they obey the wind’s commands. The trees dance ballet on this fine Texas afternoon, moving just as it was choreographed from the beginning of time. Experiencing this new perspective, I enjoy my drive in Texas. Me, the tumbleweeds, and the trees are all doing what we are supposed to do this afternoon. It feels right.

When I arrive in the town of Abilene, Texas. I notice the sun’s rays turn orange in my rearview mirror. I see the sun illuminating a sign downtown that says “Abilene Plumbing Supply Company (Est. 1928).” This must be my destination for the evening. I wonder, “Where does the tumbleweed rest for the night?” I’m sure he’s exactly where he needs to be. I feel grateful as I go down to write in my journal.

Participate in the symphony around you. The blackbirds migrate in schools for winter. The floating fuzz hovers in the elevator if you look carefully. The water drips over your hands in the shower. Splash it on your face. You are alive. Stop judging; you are alive. It seems that it has gone out of style to be happy. We would rather pretend to be concerned with appointments and obligations. Don’t pretend. Be honest. Live.

It took me an entire afternoon in West Texas to learn what the tumbleweed never forgets. Blow in the wind. Participate in the symphony. I’m glad I swerved the tumbleweeds. They are some excellent teachers. 

The Dude Abides

“Only the losers win because they’ve got nothing to prove. They’ll leave the world with nothing to lose.” – Jon Foreman

“The Dude abides.” – The Dude

Last Monday, I rented The Big Lebowski and watched it on my iPhone. It’s a movie that didn’t seem to make too much sense. The main character is a 40-year-old free spirit (or bum, depending on which term you prefer) who bowls, drives around, and has the occasional acid flashback. On top of that, he calls himself “The Dude.” Let’s just say this guy wasn’t really the hero that I and so many others are used to seeing on screen.

Nonetheless, we are expected to watch The Dude live for a few days. At least long enough to get to see his story. Everyone around The Dude is obsessed with money, status, and power, but The Dude doesn’t buy into it. It never goes into his philosophical reasoning for being the way he is, but it seems he just doesn’t give a shit about what he’s supposed to be. Instead, he likes bowling, White Russians, and laying down listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival on his rug in the living room. The Dude abides.

What struck me about The Big Lebowski is that The Dude was a Christ-like figure. First, he refuses to engage in violence; second, he is naturally on the victim’s side. The Dude just uses a few more F-bombs than the one he’s imitating. In one scene, The Dude’s friend, Smokey, steps over the line on his turn bowling. Next, The Dude’s bowling partner, Walter, confronts Smokey saying, “Smokey, mark a zero. You stepped over the line.” Smokey looks at him in protest, “I didn’t step over the line, man. Mark an eight.” This escalates, and eventually, Walter pulls out his gun on Smokey and says, “Has the whole world gone F’ing crazy?! Am I the only one who cares about the rules?”

The Dude says to Walter in the parking lot, “Why’d you do that to Smokey, man? He’s a pacifist like me, and he’s got like…emotional problems!” Walter says, “More emotional problems than being a pacifist?” 

In the movie, Walter can’t believe someone wouldn’t retaliate against someone for crossing the line. The theme comes up over and over again in the film.

An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. 

From the story of Cain and Abel to the story of The Big Lebowski, man has always found a way to make another his rival. Some call it jealousy, and others call it greed. These are both parts of how we screw it up with each other. Lately, I’ve been looking into a man’s theory named Rene Girard. This guy Girard, calls the human tendency to see his neighbor enjoying something, desire what his neighbor has, and compete with his neighbor for that object as Mimetic Theory. In Girard’s point of view, people don’t naturally desire much, but we copy the people around us. This is a massive problem because it leads to violence if unchecked because we are all competing over things we don’t really need in the first place. From the Egyptians to the folks in Salem, human civilizations have found refuge through one thing, and that is a common enemy. In the time of The Big Lebowski, it was Saddam Hussein. We all remember what happened to that guy. I was sure as Hell glad to be an American the day he died, and I wasn’t alone. 

The point is we’ve always loved to have a scapegoat. They are nice because it’s good for us to be on the same team and rack up some points for the good guys. Because we are the good guys…right? Oh shit.

Jesus came, and that was the first time we could look at ourselves in the story and have that “Oh shit” moment. The thing is, all those witches we killed in Salem didn’t stop the civil war from happening or any other instance of violence. They couldn’t because our solution for bringing order was not loving our neighbor but murdering him. The problem is that none of the people we sacrificed to shift our blame on could tell us that they were innocent, and if they could, we wouldn’t have believed it. Jesus was the first scapegoat we realized was innocent, which completely changed the course of history. Now, we can’t justify our violence and aren’t ignorant about where it comes from. Now, our only choice is to put the piece down in the bowling alley. Love each other or kill each other. The stakes are pretty high.

In the Big Lebowski, The Dude refuses to fight. The Dude refuses to let competition escalate to violence like everyone else. The Dude bowls because he likes it, and he’s not using it to raise his status. Let’s be honest; if he was trying to do that, Wall Street would be a better option. The movie does make me wonder, “Where is The Dude now? Is he ok?” How will he be successful in a world where he is destined to be misunderstood? The answer is he probably won’t be, but then again, he was never trying to be successful in the first place.

Regardless, The Dude abides. And he’s racking up some points for the good guys. Smokey, go ahead and put down an eight.

On Rivers and Memories : by Jake Johnson

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.” — Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It

“So I go back to a pew, preacher, and a choir singing ’bout God, brimstone and fire and the smell of Sunday chicken after church” — Kenny Chesney, “I Go Back”

“Get out my machete and battle with time once again.” — Jack Johnson, “Home”

Georgia has been good to me. My soul has found rest walking in her red clay, and I’ve met with the Divine in the shadows of oaks. I’ve whispered secrets to her trees, and I like to believe that, at times, they’ve returned the favor. The Georgia wind, with her scent of pine, has breathed life in me, and her rivers and lakes have refreshed my bones. I remember that time I hugged a tree along the Chattahoochee, because something within me ached to touch and be touched. The bark against my bare hands and arms, I felt a sensation that I hadn’t felt in months, and while I continue to touch and be touched by trees (especially in the Pacific Northwest), there is a certain magic and mystery that only comes with the skin of another being pressed against yours. Maybe I need trees and people. I remember having my first kiss just a few miles from the Alabama border, and being opened to a world of wonder and mystery and grace and terror that even to this day I have a hard time navigating, and maybe always will. And I remember those countless mornings I spent on a porch, listening to the songs and sermons of birds while I wrestled with an ancient and wrinkled text sitting on my lap, a text that continues to both haunt and whisper to me, or perhaps it is better to say that the Spirit I occasionally meet in that messy text continues to haunt and whisper to me.

Maybe there’s something going on here. Maybe there really is someone speaking through all of this, through all of the humdrum and boredom and loneliness that often pervades my life.

I remember the first time I was naked with a girl, and we both laughed afterwards when, playing through her Bluetooth speaker, a Casting Crowns song came on. She wanted to change it, but I felt that the irony of an early 2000’s worship song playing after two college kids just hooked up in a dorm room was the epitome of grace. Like, damn. There is something funny and profound and wonderful and sacred and maybe even slightly annoying about listening to a song talk about your sins being cast as far as the east is from the west, while you lie with nothing on but the covers, and she’s running late to band practice and you’re gonna miss work, and you know damn well that this is probably it, that nothing will ever become of your time together, but you’re just trying to drown out the flood of shame with another kiss. If I had a cigarette, I would’ve smoked it.

What if nothing and no one is ever actually lost? What if God is to be found in all those seemingly “godless” memories? What if I could look at my life in a non-dualistic way, and see the grace and love of God permeate throughout it all? To live in such a way that I am present to the reality of the One through whom all things are made? Brother Lawrence called it “practicing the presence of God,” and some today call it “embodiment.” Either way, it’s the same.

I remember being 13 years old, and spending the summer in my bedroom, because I discovered that thing that all thirteen year old boys discover, and suddenly having no desire to go ride my bike or run through the woods. And I remember being 14, a year later, and telling my dad I did not want to go see the Grand Canyon, and I had no excuse for it, but my pubescent body had an excuse, and dammit, I missed out on going to the Grand Canyon because my 14 year old self would rather masturbate than go look at the wonder and glory of a canyon carved by a river “from the basement of time,” to quote Maclean. I’ve still never seen that canyon, and now my dad and I are in different states and each have our own schedules, and I don’t know if it’ll ever happen, but there’s an ache within me to make up for that time lost, if time indeed was lost, if it is indeed possible to lose time.

And I remember high school freshman year, where I spent a total of four times hanging out with a friend, the same friend, Nick. Four times. One year. That was it, that was all my social interaction, and the rest of that time was spent playing video games or throwing a tomahawk at trees in my backyard, or doing that other thing, and man, I can still feel in my body all the social anxiety and discomfort and unease and loneliness and fear that I felt. I hate that my body knows those feelings so well. And each time I feel them again, it is not one feeling in one space of time but the culmination of years of the same feeling, and it hurts, oh God does it hurt.

But despite all this pain, and the ways in which I so easily internalize it all and condemn myself, I know that vulnerability is the way to go, that it is the only path of healing for myself and others. To paraphrase Andy Squyres, to be human is not a curse. Narrow is the road to life, and I think that is only because the road to life is the road of love, and all too often we’d rather condemn ourselves and others rather than live a life of endless compassion and mercy and grace and kindness to all, including ourselves. And shit, man, if vulnerability is the pathway to love, no wonder we all tend to much rather prefer the wider road.

I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Seattle, sipping on a latte with almond milk, while I watch the Emerald City’s prime attraction — rain. My eyes wander to the drops of water pooling in a puddle just outside the window, but my mind drifts to these guys I overhear, maybe a decade or two my senior, discussing Alan Jackson. I pause my music to eavesdrop, and these three guys in the back of this third wave coffee shop, grinding coffee beans and packing orders, are reminiscing on the summer of ’94. A summer which, at least for one of them, involved a lake and a girl and Alan Jackson’s “Chattahoochee. “

And they start singing the chorus, about how “way down yonder on the Chattahoochee // it gets hotter than a hoochie coochie,” and I wonder if they realize just how accurate that song is, that yes, Georgia is so damn very hot, and the Chattahoochee is the epitome of a redneck summer, and that walking through its sand really can add some years to your life because it makes you feel like a damn kid again. I wonder if they know that.

And of course, they don’t know that I’ve hugged a tree by the Chattahoochee before, or that I kissed a girl just a few miles from it, and that even though I don’t smoke, I really wish I would’ve had a cigarette when she ended things with me and told me that all I wanted was sex, because it took me months to work through the shame and condemnation I felt, and my asthma would’ve hated it but maybe a long drag would’ve been good for me.

And now I’m listening to Jack Johnson, listening to him sing about a girl and surfing and making banana pancakes and searching for wisdom and smoking weed with Willie Nelson. And I don’t really relate to much of that, but it doesn’t matter much anyways because it brings a peace and comfort that is hard to come by these days. And I start to think about growing up and growing old, and all these shameful yet real memories that sometimes haunt me and sometimes surprise me, and I imagine myself taking a nap on a fallen tree along the shore of the Puget Sound, just like I did last week, only this time I’m not 22 but 42 or 62, and maybe I’ve got a wife and some kids, or maybe I’m divorced, or maybe all I’ve got is a dog, but I’m allergic to dogs so maybe I don’t, but I’m laying there with my eyes closed and a smile on my face, thinking about all the time that has passed and all the time that has passed through me, and I’ve finally learned to be at peace with all the shit I’ve done or have yet to do, and then I’m taken back to the Chattahoochee, and now I’m 72 or 82, and eventually it’s all merged into one and God is all in all and I’m able to see the humble glory of God in both the humdrum and hustle and bustle that has been my life, and everything in between, and a river runs through it.

The Truth of Tahoe

The deep well that is the truth. I thirst for a drink out of this well. To draw near to its depths and to feel its nourishment. I know I will never reach the bottom of the well, but my desire is to draw near. 

I’ve traveled most of the Western United States this past year. I have been enamored by its beauty and complexity. All around the country, I see the simplicity of people. Yet, I know that Pride is the enemy. Bitterness is a snake with a tight grip. In each conversation, I see the same thing in people’s eyes. A desire to know the truth. 

What is that truth? 

I want to find out.

So far, I have learned that people aren’t who you expect them to be. The desires of my romantic mind are not often shared, and I can’t expect them to be. I will not let my Pride corrupt my soul. I will not let my shame spread like cancer because the world has had enough of that. I want to see the Running of the Bulls, speak with the Wall Street Banker, see the inner workings of Washington D.C., and share a drink with a fellow traveler at Midnight. Why is it that in traveling our beautiful country, I feel that most of what we see is a facade? But sitting on the shores of Lake Tahoe, I hear the whispers of God.

“The Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand.”

 I see the hints of eternity in the sparkles over the water. I feel that the beauty of Tahoe is a veil that will someday be lifted. A hint of something better that is still to come. I walk off the shores and go to a diner to grab a burger. As I walk up, I see an argument. A lady is telling a woman parking her bike to move away from the handicapped parking spot. My heart becomes angry. Why is it that we quarrel with each other over such small things? Why do we want to lord our power over people and project our shame? Can we not see that we are in paradise? But I am reminded that these feelings come from Pride and lead to bitterness if I am not careful. I silently forgive the woman in her car for her feelings of superiority. I wish she could see the paradise in front of her, but maybe it is not yet time. 

The following week, I shared a drink in Tulsa with two travelers. We spoke about Dostoevsky and love. We didn’t agree on every point, but I tried to check my Pride. I tried to listen to their ideas with humility. I asked them what they thought would bring the world back together. They unanimously agreed, 

“Conversations like these will bring the world together. Nobody has these conversations anymore.”

I see that familiar look in their eyes as they smoke a Malboro on the street corner. The desire to know the truth. We share this desire. I have learned to love the art of disagreement. Because I’ve never learned a lesson by looking at my own reflection. 

All over the country, I find myself searching for the truth. Unfortunately, the things that I know for sure are few. I know that shame is at the root of nearly every problem. I’ve learned that there are more people in a prison of their own making than our government could ever incarcerate. Money can make you a slave, but the love of money comes from a single source. Shame. If we keep lying to ourselves about our shame, we will build the walls to our prison cell and mistake it for a mansion. I am still looking for the love that Jesus showed and will admit that it is difficult to find it in Church. 

Last Sunday, I went to Church and listened to a Pastor in skinny jeans. He seemed to enjoy telling his sinful testimony as he highlighted that he slept with many women and was a millionaire before he was thirty. I’m sure it felt good to say to the congregation that he gave up his women and penthouse for his next successful venture. I tried to check my Pride but found it challenging to sit through. I have lost my appetite for the alter calls and hand raising. I have lost my desire to call an E minor the holy spirit. Instead, I find my spirit coming alive, looking out at the beauty of Tahoe. I see unity while sharing a Miller Light with strangers in Tulsa. 

God, let me drink from your well. Let me find you. I seek you, so let me see you.

The Stranger That is God by Jake Johnson

“All moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” — Frederick Buechner

“I’ve been to church, I’ve read the book, I know He’s here, but I don’t look.” — George Strait

It is the poet, not the pragmatic, who teaches us what it means to know God. To alter the words of G.K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy, I was damned by John Calvin, but I was almost saved by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Much of my friends lie among the pages of well-worn books, books that have seen just as much life as the stories they tell. They speak to me from their fictitious worlds, calling me further up and farther in to the life that I am often too numb to feel. As Josh Garrels reminds us, “there’s so much more to life than we’ve been told, it’s full of beauty that will unfold.” Perhaps the greatest danger of familiarity is forgetting the wonder of this journey of grace we call life. And yet, apathy seems to be the most common drug these days.

As I write this, laying against a wall on a rooftop in Kurdistan, surrounded by the beauty of the Azmer and Goizha mountain ranges, I look inward as my heart is flooded with shame. Surrounded by mystery and wonder, I am blinded by my own self-righteousness. Kissed by the sun, I turn from the warmth she offers me. Hugged by the wind, I refuse to accept the kindness that flows from her. For I am broken and ashamed, and a piece of me wishes to stay that way. As the rich man said, “I’ve come up empty, man, I am desperate, and I never want to feel the warmth of summer come again” (“You Were There”, The Call). Like the Torah thumpers of Jesus’ day, my heart can be so set on preconceived notions and ideas of who God is supposed to love and what he is supposed to do that I miss the very One who wishes to soften my heart and show me what this whole “life” thing is about. For I must confess, I am far more bewildered and scandalized by a God who washes feet and freely forgives than I am of a God who smites his enemies (as long as, of course, his enemies are my enemies). And yet, if the synagogue addicts had the courage to see, maybe they would have have realized the Great I Am was in their midst. He just looked a hell of a lot different than what they expected.

But isn’t that how it always is? God showing up in the unexpected, in the least likely? Theologian Chris Green says that, “until we meet God as the stranger, we will never recognize the stranger as our brother.” Green’s idea isn’t new — Abraham met God in the form of strangers at the edge of Mamre, Jacob did some WWE with a stranger in the dark, and the three amigos thrown in the human bonfire were accompanied by a guy they recognized not (but surely never forgot). And then you’ve got all those times Jesus shows up, nonchalantly doing or saying something that makes heaven an earthly reality, and yet the fools around him still don’t get it. And, of course, there’s that mysterious verse in Hebrews that talks about entertaining angels in our midst (Hebrews 13:2). But perhaps the best example of meeting God as the stranger is that hike those two guys took to Emmaus. It was in their walking away from God that they walked right into him, in their doubting that they found faith.

Paul talks about the gospel being offensive, but I no longer think it is because of those it keeps out but rather those it invites in. There is nothing scandalous about a “fair” and “just” God, so long as he meets our standards for what “fairness” and “justice” mean (which often, in our minds, mean retribution and punishment). The world is used to this type of god — it’s what we see throughout human history in all the Pharaohs and Caesars who have risen and fallen. But a God who stands in solidarity with all the prodigals, who forgives and loves and dies, and gets back up because even the tree we nailed him to couldn’t drown out his love — that is a God whose co-suffering love is scandalous to the Jews and folly to the Romans (1 Corinthians 1:23). And before you think I’m being anti-Semitic by saying that, think about how often Christians have expected a militaristic messiah just like the Jews. The ways of Jesus are just as scandalous to 1st century Jews as they are to many 21st century Christians. In God we trust, right?

I saw God the other day, in the face of an Arab refugee, her eyes as brown as hazelnut and her hair as black as coffee. Her bare feet caked in the dry and rocky soil of northern Iraq, they were calloused and cracked, and if they could speak would likely tell me stories far greater than any I’ve read. How beautiful are the feet that bring good news. Whether she knows it or not, the Kingdom is for those who are like her.

One of my favorite stories in the gospels is of Jesus eating at Zacchaeus’s house, found in Luke 19. We are told that on that day salvation came to his house, and it seems clear that it wasn’t some “mechanistic” salvation but rather the salvific beauty of befriending Jesus. Of course, the religious people were scandalized that Jesus would dine and wine with such a “sinner,” and I bet he didn’t even perform the ceremonial hand washing before the meal. He’s reclining in the home of the Jewish equivalent of Saul Goodman from Better Call Saul, a morally compromised man who likely smokes a pack of Lucky Strikes a day just to keep the stress and guilt at bay. And as Jesus and Zac break bread, the wise-crack tax collector is flooded with grace, and he recycles that grace into making reparations for all those he’s ripped off in the past. Who knows, maybe he gave up smoking that day, too. Or not.

But the reason why I find that story so fascinating is what it tells us about the nature of salvation. The text doesn’t give us some platonic, transactional take on Zacchaeus being “saved.” He didn’t say a sinner’s prayer, he didn’t raise his hand at the end of a service, and he didn’t fill out a connect card and drop it in the offering basket. But he certainly experienced salvation, which is to say he experienced healing. He experienced joy. He experienced transformation. He experienced resurrection. And maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t a “one and done” thing, but something in the making, something that had already happened, something that was happening, and something that would continue to happen. As Paul would later say, “we have been saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved.” There’s a lot to learn from this gospel passage, and looking at the relational nature of it, I can safely say that I think part of it is that the religious elite must recognize that true healing, true transformation (that is, salvation) cannot happen apart from encountering those we see as “others” — as “them.” If my faith makes me “too holy” to associate with those I’d rather throw stones at, it’s time I rethink what I believe. 

I’ve tried to leave Jesus. But I just can’t. He mystifies me as much as he disturbs me. He wakes me up to that which I am too numb to feel, speaking to me through the face of a refugee, the song of a bird, the smell of a shawarma, and the touch of a well-known hand. It is precisely in those moments that I find irony in the saying “to God be the glory.” While I believe in that statement, I think too many people believe that God’s glory must look like the glory and fame we see in the world, and so then God becomes a prideful, cosmic narcissist demanding the unwavering attention and allegiance of all, or else. Yes, I do believe that one day “every knee will bow and tongue confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10-11), but I don’t believe that will come through the use of the sword but rather through embracing the beauty and wonder of the enemy lover. For Jesus is the “radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being […]” (Hebrews 1:3). In other words, the glory of God looks like Jesus. A humble, homeless man from the wrong side of the railroad tracks, who laughs and cries and drinks and dines — that’s what the glory of God looks like. He’s found in the simple and mundane as much as in the complex and magnificent, in the “sacred” as much as the “secular.” Jesus says that the flowers are clothed in more majesty than Solomon ever was, and yet we still think that God’s glory should look more like an earthly king than an earthy gardener. For of course, in our world, who has time to garden? Certainly not those who have made a name for themselves, who matter, who grind. Who has time to play in the dirt, to patiently care for something so fragile as a flower? Certainly not the pragmatic, the doer, the go-getter. It is the poet, the artist, the dreamer, the stranger — who not only stops to smell the roses, but who plants them.

And maybe, by rejecting the rat race of cynical success and embracing the ways of the flowers, and the strangers who plant them, we can come to see each other — and God — in a whole new light. After all, the sum of the law and prophets is to simply love others as we wish to be loved. But it’s a narrow road, to love, and few ever find it.

Waves (a poem) : by Jake Johnson

I dreamt that we went surfing

along the Oregon coast.

Our lives, baptized

by those cold, Pacific waves.

On the shore, we ate plums


in sand.

Cannon Beach, maybe.

You laughed,

and I smiled.

And I don’t remember the color of your eyes but

I remember how I felt

when you looked at me:

whole, holy,

whatever the word is

for the feeling of transcendent


A wonder large enough

to break me, just like

those waves 


over our windburned faces and memories.

I think about you more

now than I did when

we were closer than the

length of Alaska

from each other.

And though I know you’ve

got your own

life to live and

loves to love,

I dream of surfing, and you next to me

on the Oregon coast.

Cannon Beach, maybe.

– Jake Johnson

Nature and Grace

The nuns taught us there are two ways through life,

The way of Nature and the way of Grace

You have to choose which one you’ll follow.

Grace doesn’t try to please itself.

Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked.

Accepts insults and injuries.

Nature only wants to please itself,

Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them.

To have its own way.

It finds reasons to be unhappy

When all the world is shining through it.

And love is smiling through all things.

  • Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life)

Which to choose, Grace or Nature? This question has been at the forefront of philosophical debate as far back as we can see. If one accepts Nature, the strong animal wins over the smaller one. Nature will sacrifice being good in order to be great. Nature yields no mercy on its victims because mercy is not in its definition. Power is the currency of Nature, and it is not afraid to use it. Nature wants to be loved because it is great.

The way of Grace is patient; It serves for the sake of serving. It gives for the sake of giving. It is the spiritual mother of the soul, while Nature is the wrathful Father. Grace is dead to itself, while Nature is dead to love. Grace accepts slander and torment. Grace knows that it is weaker physically but stronger spiritually.

The movie, The Tree of Life shows the story of three young boys growing up in 1950s Texas. Their Father, played by Brad Pitt, demonstrates the ways of Nature. He let the Grace in him die when he chose the stability of working in a power plant over the passion of being a concert pianist. He teaches the boys that the world is brutal. That money and power are the only things that will move them along. He shows love by instilling discipline and competence in the boys. However, the Father fails to laugh with his sons; he struggles to celebrate their lives and demands from them until they are too fearful of him to love him.

On the other hand, the boy’s mother is the embodiment of Grace. You cannot always put your finger on what brings this Grace. It does not always make sense, but it is in her. She cannot control the boys like their Father can, but on the other hand, she does not try to. The mother lets the boys be as they are naturally, without care or restraint. She allows them to be children in the world. Grace does not try to explain the injustices and terrors of the world but believes, as Dostoevsky put it in, The Idiot, that, “The world will be saved by beauty.”

At the beginning of the movie, there is a quote from Job 38:4,7, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth … when the morning stars sang together?” This was God’s response to Job, as he wondered why God was taking everything he had. In the movie, the middle son is killed in the war. It show’s the tears of the mother and her questions to God.

“Where were you?” 

“Did you know?”

“Who are we to you?”

It also shows the whispers of the eldest son, who is now middle-aged and depressed, asking God reflectively,

“How did mother bear it?”

Then, the movie zooms into the cosmos at the beginning of the universe. The majestic space field in which God created the sun, the moon, and the stars. All things are made beautiful. God made the volcanoes of the earth. He made the ocean, and its jellyfish moved with Grace to its surface. He made meteor showers that light up the night sky in splendor. God created human beings and life itself with beauty.

But which do we choose? The beauty of Grace or the practicality of Nature. I feel that this is the central question of our time. My heart tells me that Grace is the only way. Loving for the sake of love is the remedy. The more we feed Grace, the more we can love, and the more we feed Nature, the more capacity we have for shame. 

As Dostoevsky states, “Above all, do not be so ashamed of yourself, for that is the root of it all.”

In the classic, The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky paints the picture of a depraved father, Fyodor Karamazov, trapped in a life of falsehood and lies. Fyodor makes a buffoon of himself to a beautiful Orthodox Monk named Father Zossima. Fyodor mockingly asks Zossima,

“What should I do to inherit eternal life?”

Father Zossima responds in sincerity, saying,

“Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him or around him and so loses all respect for himself for others. And having no respect he ceases to love, and in order to occupy and distract himself without love, he gives way to passions and coarse pleasures and sinks to bestiality in his vices, all from continual lying to other men and to himself.”

Later in the text, as Zossima lays out his thoughts on what hell is, the capacity for love remains at the center.

Fathers and teachers, I ponder, “What is hell?” I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love. Once in infinite existence, immeasurable in time and space, a spiritual creature was given on his coming to earth the power of saying, “I am, and I love.” Once, only once, there was given him a moment of active living love, and for that was earthly life given him, and with it times and seasons. And that happy creature rejected the priceless gift, prized it and loved it not, scorned it and remained callous.

Dostoevsky writes so eloquently of the different roads that man can traverse. However, man is damned to suffer without truth and love. In the Tree of Life, the Father’s wrath was brought on by shame. Shame was the root of it all, and after his son’s death, he was in agony, saying to God,

“I put my shame on him.”

As the movie continues, the Father’s powerplant downsized, and all of the strivings were for not. The Father sees the flaws in his ways and says,

 “I wanted to be loved because I was great. A Big man. Now I’m nothing. Look everywhere around us. Trees and birds, I lived in shame. I dishonored it all and didn’t notice the glory. I’m a foolish man.” 

On the other hand, the mother is quoted saying, 

“The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.”

This is the truth that I have come to. That when all is over, only love will be. The only worthwhile pursuit is love. To live in fullness is to say, I am and I love. Maybe love can be heard in the whistling of the wind or the crashing of the waves. Maybe love is found in the laughter of the babe or the sun shining through the canopy. Perhaps if we seek it in all things, we will hear its whispers and join it in its infinite happiness.

Maybe, the mother’s weeping will not be in vain, and one day, only tears of joy will remain.

“The world will be saved by Beauty.” – The Idiot

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.