Everything Betwen

Life and Death and Everything Between

When I arrived back in the States from a missions trip to Mexico a week and a half ago, part of me wanted to stay disconnected from the world for a little while longer. So much pain, so much heartache … it hasn’t seemed to relent lately. I remember my friend Mark Royalty losing his father last year, so I was a bit shell-shocked when I re-connected to the information hub and discovered that his mom was right in the middle of a 3-month battle with terminal cancer.

Sunday was quickly fading away as I stepped into the shower at my host home in the Arizona desert. I began to wonder what it would be like to lose my parents. They’re perfectly healthy, and if they live to be one hundred I’ll have some 40+ years left with them, but that is not enough. I can’t imagine how my friend Mark must feel—losing his father while at the same time trying to be a father himself. Something about it just doesn’t seem right; it seems so off from the way things were designed to function. And I know that God didn’t create death; that He originally intended us to live forever in unbroken connection with Him, back before sin entered the scene and gave way to death.

A week later, Mark was speaking at a men’s conference in South Dakota when he received word that his mother had passed from this life into the next. She was only 64.

“She told Misty to help her fix her dress, because Jesus was coming and she wanted to look nice for Him. She had an eternal hope, you know,” he told me on the phone a few days later. There was a deep sadness in his voice. I’ve always known Mark to have a lot of fight in him, but at this point, he just seemed exhausted.

“She seemed fine when we saw her at Christmas,” he told me. “And then she went to the doctor in January, and we found out she had cancer. It was just 3 months, and when we saw her last weekend, I couldn’t have imagined she’d be gone within a week. But on Wednesday, they told us there was nothing they could do but make her comfortable, and she was gone by Saturday night. I got the call when I was driving home, and realized she had passed away right in the middle of my message.”

A thick tension hung in the air as Mark spoke of the events that had unfolded over the last few weeks. He was talking much quieter than normal, and I could nearly feel the weight of the burden he was carrying in his chest.

“I haven’t even had time to grieve,” he told me.

I didn’t know how to feel. A part of me wanted to drive to Kansas City and just sit in the room with him. No words, just sitting in silence and taking the pain head on. There’s something about getting down in the dirt and sharing in someone’s suffering that touches a much deeper place than words alone can. And then there was another part of me that wanted to get angry, that wanted to throw punches at the air and break things. There’s a kind of sadness that can only be expressed in anger; if you’ve ever experienced any sort of injustice, you know exactly what I mean.

This isn’t right! This isn’t how the world is supposed to function! And so you scream and yell, and you let the tears flow until things start to make sense again, until you feel the peace of God rush in and fill the void that the pain has left vacant on its exit.

I was in East Texas last week, at a ministry night with my friend Nic, who is a missionary to Brazil. That night, Nic peeled open his soul and gave us a front row seat to one of the most difficult seasons of his life. But it’s not one of those times in the past, one of those times that has long since healed. Instead, Nic talked about the pain he and his family were going through—while they were still right in the middle of it. It wasn’t clean and sanitized and appropriate for church. It wasn’t one of those stories where Jesus shows up and everyone lives happily ever after.

“As the leader of our ministry, my whole staff and family was looking to me for answers, and I had none,” Nic said. “I was more broken than I had ever been in my life. I still remember the night we got the news; Rachael and I didn’t know what the answers were, so I grabbed my guitar and we went out on our front porch and began to sing.”

As Mark and I talked, I thought back to Nic and Rachael on their front porch in Brazil, singing of the goodness of God on the worst night of their lives. And I wondered if I could do that, if I could survive the fallout of unspeakable pain and still tell God how good He is in the midst of it.

“You know, Mark,” I began. “My problems don’t seem so big anymore.” I laughed, knowing a new problem had been introduced into the equation, a problem we experience as a side affect to a broken world tossing our friends end over end, like a flimsy raft lost at sea. Just like my friends Nic and Mark, I was faced with the same choice of whether or not I still believed that God is good.

It seems so elementary, but it’s a question we must face when faced with pain.

When I hung up the phone, I thought of Gwen Royalty, asking her daughter to help her fix her dress, because Jesus was coming. Right there, in the midst of her pain, she saw Jesus. She’s with Him now, drinking deeply of the life that will never end, the life that can never be cut short by sin or death or cancer. Someday, I’ll get to meet her, and we’ll both look Jesus in the eyes, we’ll both hold out our arms to receive the life that He offers.

I still believe that God is good—that He’s good all the time, not just some of the time. I still believe that He shows up in the middle of our deepest pain, right when we’re wondering how life could go so wrong, how such terrible things could happen. He meets us at the intersection of death and life, at the crossroads of fear and trust. He meets us there, not with answers, but with Himself instead. And I know that no matter what happens in my life or the lives of my friends, He will always be there, holding out His life that’s stronger than death.

Fear not, my child, there’s only love at the end of the world.

The Royalty Family

The Royalty Family

Friends, the Royalty family is in need of our help. Mark’s mom did not have life insurance, which has left the family to deal with thousands of dollars in final expenses. If you are able, I would ask that you consider donating $10 to her memorial fund. If a thousand of us will do this, their expenses will be covered. Please contact me for more information. 

“Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. … There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” Acts 4:32, 34-35, ESV


Learning to Love

“We’ve learned to fly the air as birds, to swim the seas as fish, yet we haven’t learned to walk the earth as brothers and sisters.”


These words from Dr. King danced across my heart today.

Lately, I’ve become more aware than usual of the tension between my own brokenness and the reality that God has made me new. He has certainly done a work in my heart, not just a “work” but a full transplant, so that the core of who I am is good. The most accurate version of myself, you could call it my “true self”, wants desperately to love and do good, but that isn’t always my day-to-day experience. And the more I learn to love deeply, the more I see how shallow and fragile my love often is.

This morning, I stumbled across a profound verse from the Gospels.

I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them. ~Jesus, John 17:26

This took me by surprise. Wait a minute, Jesus Himself is going to live inside of me? The idea struck me so deeply, I had to put down my book and let it soak in. When I read the same verse later that afternoon, another mystery revealed itself. This verse talks not only about Jesus Himself living inside of us, but about the same love that God has for Jesus living inside of us as well.

So, why isn’t that always my experience?

The first portion of this verse says that Jesus has made God the Father known to us, and will continue to make Him known to us. This has already taken place; yet, Jesus is still continuing to do it. My heart has already been made good, but Jesus is still teaching me how to use it, instead of using my head all the time. I’ve learned how to love, but I’m still learning how to love. The Kingdom is “now,” but also “not yet.” It’s a tension, to be sure, but the tensions are where Grace meets us.

“…so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” As we read this prayer of the Apostle Paul, let us pause, let us pause right there and let that sink in, the reality that through faith, Christ Himself can dwell in the new hearts He gave us. And then, as we read on, let us take in the reality of being “rooted and established in love,” so that we can somehow possess the power to understand the depths of the love of Christ, a love which is so deep it cannot actually be understood with human logic or intellect. That Paul would have the audacity to pray that we might understand a love that cannot be understood only adds to the tension, so that we must conclude that there are two types of “knowing,” a knowing with our minds, and a knowing with our hearts.

Jesus has made the heart of the Father known to me, and He continues to do so, that the love of the Father might find a place in my heart, that Jesus Himself might dwell there. As I experience more and more of this love, it will become the root system that will establish my soul, so that I can grow in my understanding of the love of God and therefore live it out more consistently. I have been taught how to love; yet, I am still learning, and the more I learn about love, the more I realize I have barely scratched the surface. (Adapted from John 17:26, Ephesians 3:17-19, NIV)


Simple Gratitude

Over the past year, I had the opportunity to visit 30 states and 2 countries. I walked the streets of some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the nation, worshiped at a church in a third world country, and moved to an inner-city neighborhood, where I live amongst the poor and working class.

I experienced many different cultures, but my biggest takeaway was the reality that we’re not as different as we might think. When we strip away the facades, we all want essentially the same things in life. We long to be loved, to feel that our lives matter, for a sense of community, safety, and security. We also possess far more than we realize. We can get caught up in feeling sorry for the family who lives in a $25,000 house in my neighborhood when we see the million-dollar homes overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, but even in the poorest neighborhoods, most Americans have a roof over their heads, four walls, clean water, air conditioning, heat, beds, showers, clothes to wear, and indoor plumbing, while there are still countless people overseas who do not have these things, which are so simple to us that we tend to take them for granted.

I am in no way trying to minimize the struggle of the poor, who can experience great difficulty in acquiring the things mentioned above. I just want to point out that even the poorest people in America are typically far better off than those in many other countries. I forget the extract statistic, but the vast majority of Americans are in somewhere around the top 5-10% of the world population. That means that even our poorest citizens have access to more resources than 90% of the world population.

In a culture that propagates the illusion of the American Dream, it’s easy to lose sight of the simple things. It’s easy to get upset when your air conditioning goes out, not realizing that there are people who don’t even know what that is. It’s easy to get frustrated with road construction, forgetting that not everyone has a car and an expansive network of roads to drive on. It’s easy to end up thinking that we deserve more and better, when halfway across the world, someone is praying for the things we don’t even realize we’ve received.

Everyone Matters Concept

Black Lives Matter.

I have a lot of mixed feelings on the current events these days. I don’t just want to have an opinion; I want to know the truth, and to stand for justice—no matter how unpopular that may make me.

I don’t have all the facts. I don’t know everything about what happened in Ferguson, or New York, or Cleveland. I’ve read the stories, but that doesn’t mean I have all the information. But here’s what I know: racism is a real thing—even in 2014. And while it DOES go both ways, African-Americans are far more oppressed than white folks like myself.

I believe it is time for another Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King, Rosa Parks, and others made significant progress, but this isn’t just a “been there, done that” type of thing. There is room for much more improvement. This was true before the killings this summer, but now the nation is finally paying attention. May we move toward greater levels of understanding, equality, and inclusion. Not just because we have to, but because we genuinely love our brothers and sisters for who they ARE, regardless of race or social status.

The Apostle Paul says the love of Christ has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit. I see many Christians having cool encounters in church, but hurling insults at those who are different from them behind closed doors. But if we are truly filled with the Spirit, we will love one another when no one is watching. I have not achieved perfection in this, but I am on the path. I am learning, I am growing, and I am learning that the people I used to think were different than me actually aren’t that different at all.

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A Sudden End

I was drifting in and out of sleep beginning at 4:00 am one Saturday morning. When the clock struck 5:00, I don’t remember whether I was awake or asleep; I only remember jolting straight up in bed as six gunshots pierced the unusually quiet night air. I stumbled out of bed into the dimly lit hallway, down the grand staircase of the 333 House. All was quiet, aside from the creaking of the 100-year-old floor boards beneath my feet. Unable to tell if I was awake or dreaming, I made my way back upstairs to my room, where my roommate was still sound asleep.

As soon as I shut my door, I heard footsteps in the hallway. I opened the door to find my friend Tannon stumbling toward me, still half-asleep. “You alright?” he asked.

I nodded.

“Okay. I just called the cops.”

My heart sank. “So that actually happened?”

He nodded. “Yep.”

Within minutes, we could hear sirens in the distance, as the Harrisburg Bureau of Police filled 13th Street with nine cruisers. Tannon and I stood in the upstairs window, looking on, as the alley across the street from us was roped off with crime scene tape.

As Tannon made his way up to the third floor to check on the rest of the house’s residents, I walked downstairs to the living room and sat down in one of the leather chairs that was pointed toward the window. Red and blue lights danced through the drapes and against the walls and ceiling. The whole scene was surreal. I don’t remember what I was thinking at the time; I guess I couldn’t think of anything, all I could do was feel.

I crawled back into bed a half hour later, but I couldn’t sleep. When I got up at 8:00, the morning light revealed what had previously been hidden in the darkness. Evidence markers littered the alley, and the beat cops had been replaced with detectives in suits and ties. Though I still had no idea what had taken place aside from the six shots, in my heart I knew and grieved.

Life is so fragile. At any moment, it can come to a screeching end. But that wasn’t what humanity was originally destined for; we were created to live forever, in constant connection with our Creator. While the beauty of this is often cloaked by the terrifying moments of our lives, it still pushes its way through every now and then, just as the sun breaks forth across the sky to mark each new morning. Between the horizons, we experience a life that is fragile and terrifying and beautiful at the same time.

I drove halfway to Maryland that afternoon. I wasn’t far from Harrisburg, yet I was deep in the rugged back country of Rural Pennsylvania. I began hiking the Appalachian Trail, beneath a thick canopy of trees. Thunder rolled in the distance, but all else was silent. Though it was still early in September, a few leaves had already turned from green to gold and fallen from the sky to the earth below. I would bend down at random intervals, pick up one leaf at a time, and examine it as I walked. After a few minutes, I would set it back down and pick up another. I did this four times. Each leaf had its own unique features, but there was one that was different from the rest. This leaf was still mostly green, with a vein of gold shooting down the middle. As I stared at the leaf, I was hit with the realization that sometimes we fall before we reach our peak of beauty.

A few hours later, I returned to The Hill. As I was sitting at one of the local restaurants waiting for my meal to be prepared, I searched for news articles on the Internet, hoping to gain some clarity on what had happened that morning. The first entry I came to confirmed my fears.

When the police arrived, he was still clinging to life, but life was absent by the time the ambulance arrived at the hospital. Blood remained, spattered against the wall of the church building near where he had fallen.

Nathaniel Green was only 39. I never met him, but I know his life wasn’t supposed to end that way. Every person has a destiny far greater than having their lives taken from them. Sometimes we fall before we reach our peak of beauty.

The news article quoted one of my neighbors, who was in his kitchen cooking spaghetti when the shots were fired. “It really needs to stop,” he said. “It’s ridiculous.” His words were simple, yet they carried a certain weight to them; they carried the angst of the neighborhood. I have only lived here a month. I can’t even begin to say I understand what the lifelong residents of Allison Hill are going through, what they go through every day of their lives. But I can join in the grieving. I can hope and pray and believe that things will change, and with God’s help, I can stand up and do something about it. While I have no idea what that looks like, I think it begins with getting to know my neighbors. This is something I don’t have a very good track record in, whether I live in inner-city Harrisburg, or the suburbs of North Texas.

The night of the shooting, we were gathered in our living room. We had just finished watching a movie that showcased the raw power of God, on display of the streets of cities across the world, all because a few people were crazy enough to believe that they are who God says they are, that Jesus Himself lives inside of them.

Seeds of hope lingered in the room as the credits rolled. Within minutes, we begun to aggressively pray for our neighborhood. From there, we began to think of ways we could be more active in releasing the hope that swallows up death into the streets around our house. As I sit in a quiet coffeehouse in the suburbs, allowing these words to flow freely from my soul onto paper, a few of my friends from the house are knocking on doors and meeting our neighbors. And now, I think I will make my way into the city and join them.

For more on life in Allison Hill, click here to read my post “On the Hill.”

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On The Hill

I love living in the heart of Harrisburg, just over a mile from Downtown, the Susquehanna River, and the Pennsylvania State Capitol. One of my favorite things about city life is being in the heart of everything, taking in the beauty of the city without using my car for days at a time. I love the rich history of the Keystone State, and the East Coast as a whole, which is much different than my other home, located at the crossroads where the South meets the Midwest.

Harrisburg from across the river

Harrisburg from across the river

But not everyone sees the city through the same lens that I do. I’ve talked to a handful of people who have told me Harrisburg is in really bad shape, most notably due to a budget deficit of more than $1 billion, which is kind of a lot for a city of just under 50,000. And then there’s my neighborhood, Allison Hill, one of the poorest and most violent neighborhoods in the city, where condemned houses crumble, trash piles up in the streets, drug deals are commonplace, and it’s odd when you don’t hear arguments at 2:00 in the morning. In the past month of being here, I’ve witnessed knife fights, fist fights, gun fights, drug deals, and been asked “What the f*** are you doing here?” by one of my neighbors.

In spite of all of this, I absolutely love my city and neighborhood, and not just some future version of the community. While I’ve spent quite a bit of time walking the streets and dreaming of redemption making its way through the streets, my heart is filled with a growing fondness for the neighborhood in its current state—while it’s still a mess. And I think this is what Jesus calls us to, not to retreat into our quiet suburban homes and pretend the worst parts of our cities don’t exist, but to grow in our love for the entire city—the good, the bad, or the ugly.

Allison Hill

Allison Hill

Of course, I’m not saying everyone needs to move to the worst part of their cities, as I have. In fact, I wouldn’t recommend it for most. But I think we should at least care when there are parts of our cities that lie in ruins. I think it should bother us that there are children that fall asleep each night in fatherless homes, that there are single moms forced to spend each new day trying to figure out how they’re going to put food on the table three times before the sun sets. Not all of us receive the call to go, but we can all care, we can all pray, we can all hope and dream and grieve when tragedy strikes our city. Because we’re one city—and a division in social standing should never cause us to forget that.

As I was jogging the other day across the State Street Bridge, which connects Downtown to The Hill, a thought made its way into my mind. At the time, I was pondering how quickly the scenery changes, how quickly the beauty of the river front gives way to streets of crumbling houses littered with trash.

Life is fragile and terrifying and beautiful at the same time.

Little did I know how soon I would experience this full range of emotions.

Part Two of this entry, “A Sudden End,” is available here.


Adventures in Saying “Yes”

This past June, I was part of a missions team that made a trek across the Northwest in an old city bus, spreading the love of God in churches and on the streets of every city we visited. As we drove across Montana and into Idaho, I was talking to my friend, Cristina, and she was telling me about the things going on back home in Pennsylvania, where she and her husband, Tannon, had taken over the leadership of a large community house and missions base. We began talking about the possibility of me visiting for a few weeks and helping out with some things during the transition. An hour later, she looked at me and said, “You know, you could just move to Harrisburg.” This comment wasn’t unfamiliar. A year ago, when Tannon and Cristina moved to Harrisburg from Oklahoma, they had said the same thing.

My response was similar both times, a slight laugh. But this time, it was different. “You know,” I said. “I’m actually at the point in my life where packing up and moving across the country would make the most sense. But I don’t think that’s what I’m supposed to do.”

“Why don’t you pray about it?” Cristina countered.

“Sure,” I said, with no intention of actually doing so. “I’ll pray about it.”

A week or so later, we were driving through the night from Portland to Sacramento. We were on the final leg of the trip, and I was ready to return home to Texas, to life as usual. Tannon asked each of us to take a few minutes to ask God what He had for us in the next season of life, as we dispersed across the country to our individual states and cities.
Ten minutes later, I slid across the row of seats to Tannon and Cristina, who were sitting at the front of the bus. “I’m moving to Harrisburg,” I said casually, before laying down on my makeshift bed and sleeping through the night.

As I write this, I’m sitting in a coffee house on State Street, overlooking one of Harrisburg’s most beautiful cathedrals, just a few blocks from the Pennsylvania State Capitol. It’s September now, I’ve been here for almost a month, and I’ll be here for the next year of my life. I live a mile and a half away, in a large community house with somewhere north of a dozen people. The house in located in the Allison Hill neighborhood, which is widely known as one of the roughest neighborhoods in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

You know those awkward seasons of transition? This hasn’t been one of them. I’m still connected to Texas through my business, so it’s almost like I’m exploring for a year, only I’m staying in one place instead of traveling the country. The journey hasn’t been without challenges though. In the weeks before I left Texas, I began to feel really lonely. At first I thought it was God’s gentle way of releasing me from everything I’ve ever known, preparing my heart for living in community. But then I moved into a big house with a bunch of people and the feeling didn’t really go away. And that’s the worst type of loneliness, when you’re around people but still feel isolated.

I remember one night, I think it was last week. I was talking to two of the girls that live in the house—one an old friend, the other new—and while I don’t remember how the conversation went exactly, I remember telling them that I felt so alone, but that I didn’t feel like I could pull back the curtain and let people into my experience.

I’ve noticed that one of the ways my mind plays tricks on me is to get me closed off in my own little world, and then convince me that I’m just being needy if I drop the facade and let others know what’s really going on inside of me. But I’ve also noticed that when I push past the fear and open myself up, I often find another person looking me back in the eyes as they drop their own facade and share that they’ve been feeling the same way. And while this isn’t always how it goes, I’ve found that feeling alone is a common human experience, even when it looks like we’re surrounded by friends on the surface. There’s a hidden power in letting go of what someone will think of you and inviting them into what’s going on inside of you, even if it’s only for a moment. And I think we need this; I think we need to be honest about where we’re at more often, and perhaps then we wouldn’t struggle as much. Because the worst part of the struggle is not the struggle itself, it’s that feeling that you’re on your own, that you have to protect yourself, that no one else could possibly understand what’s going on inside of you.

In short, I’m embracing my newfound freedom to let people around me know when I’m not okay. I’m realizing that having needs and being needy are not the same thing, and sometimes you just need to take two minutes and let another person see your inner world before you return to conversation about the weather or good coffee. Letting down your walls feels terrifying at first, which is probably why we spend a lot of our time running from our own emotions, sticking to small talk and conversations about whether or not it will rain on Thursday.

I have heard it said that when you come to Jesus, when you taste of the springs of the water of life, it satisfies your thirst so that you never thirst again. And I think this is in the Bible somewhere, about a spring of eternal life that wells up inside of us. But in my day-to-day life, I’ve noticed that I thirst. In fact, I feel like I thirst more than I did before I found Jesus. The only difference is, I know where the water is. But the more I drink from the well that will never run dry, the more I thirst. The more I’m filled, the more I need. And I’m beginning to think that God designed me this way, that He didn’t create me to just come to Him once and get fixed once and for all, but that He created me to continually thirst for the life that He offers. Perhaps maturing in Christ is about becoming more dependent, not more independent. Perhaps God wants me to continually keep coming back to Him, only to find that He has already put everything I need inside of me. It’s crazy to think about that, that everything I need I already possess (2 Peter 1:3), but I often forget that, and I know I’m not alone This might be why, all throughout the Bible, God continually urges us people to remember—to remember who He is and what He has done, so we can remember who we are and all that God is inviting us into.

These are just a few of the things I am thinking about this afternoon. I may not know all of the correct Bible verses to describe these feelings, but I know that I thirst. I know that I need. I know that I need to be filled back up with Life each morning when I roll out of bed. I’m beginning to believe that everything God says about me is true, but I’m still on the journey. And I know that no matter what comes my way tomorrow, I don’t regret saying “yes.” I don’t regret jumping headfirst into this new adventure, and until God connects all of the dots, I will journey on.

So here I am for the next year of my life, a thousand miles from home—all because of a simple “yes.” Perhaps I’m a bit naive, but I want to capture this thing in me that says “yes” without hesitation when I feel God inviting me to something. I want to grab ahold of it and never let it go, no matter where I go in life or how much earthly success I achieve. I don’t want to only have adventures in saying “yes” when I’m young and carefree; I still want to be saying “yes” to the next divine invitation when I’m a hundred years old and still have a life ahead of me to live.

Robin Williams

The Illusion of Success

The Illusion of Success

Previously entitled “Success Wasn’t What I Thought It Would Be: Thoughts in the Wake of Robin Williams’ Death”

Author’s Note: This is perhaps one of the rawest blog posts I’ve ever released. I let it sit for a day before posting, thinking I would re-read it and clean it up a bit. However, I decided not to do that. I decided not to re-read this before posting, because I know that if I do, I will probably change a lot of it. When it comes to topics of this nature, we just need to get over ourselves and let our hearts bleed — put all that we feel to words and let them free with no regrets. So here it is. Thanks for being a part of this experiment (which is really what this entire blog is, now that I stop and think about it). ~ Jared

I was driving along the Eastern Shore of Maryland when I first heard the news that Robin Williams had committed suicide. It didn’t seem real at first. Five days later, it still feels like a bad dream.

I saw a post online where a certain person was releasing a blanket rebuke for our caring more about movie stars we don’t know than the “real” people in our lives. And while I understood where this person was coming from, I don’t think that is what’s really going on here. There’s something deeper happening beneath the surface.

So what is happening? Why does Robin Williams death move us so deeply? Why do we care so much about someone we’ve never met, when there are people dying every day, all around us? I can’t claim to have any answers for these questions, but perhaps I can provide language to what I feel is going on below the surface.

I think the reason why Robin Williams’ untimely death effects us so deeply is because it brings to the surface the haunting question, “What about us?”

If someone as famous and successful and incredibly kind and caring as Robin Williams can suffer from terrible depression that results in them taking their own life, what will become of us? This may seem a bit out there for some, but it’s a question I keep asking myself. Because if it can happen to Robin Williams, it can happen to any of us.

I’ve achieved a relatively high amount of success in my life at a young age. I’ve had people stare me in the face and tell me they wish there life would come together like mine. I cringe when I hear these things. Oh, if only you knew. I’m not trying to devalue myself or hide my accomplishments to display a facade of false humility. The truth is, I really do love myself, and I feel pretty secure in who I am most times. But every time I conquer another mountain, every time I check off a long-awaited goal, it never really quite feels like I thought it would. The melody of success is sweet for a moment, but it quickly begins to fade. Yesterday’s ceiling quickly becomes today’s floor, as I’m pushed forward by a desire to accomplish more. I got what I wanted, but it wasn’t the music to my soul that I thought it would be. I may look successful from the outside, but inside, I tell myself something like, “Okay, I’ve done that now. What next?”

I can’t help but wonder if this is how Robin Williams felt at times.

We all wear the same flesh and blood. We all experience the same struggle. Our individual stories may be different, but when we take away our titles, houses, and cars, we’re all a bunch of broken people searching for something to fill our emptiness. I am a Christian, but as I journey on in my relationship with Jesus, I have found that He doesn’t totally fill my emptiness. Gone are the seemingly endless seasons of depression, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel hopeless at times; the moments where I feel whole and complete don’t overlap at every point.

This might be bad theology, but more than attempting to explain a theology, I’m sharing my experience. Your story may be that you continually feel satisfied in Jesus. Perhaps that is your reality, or perhaps it is merely an illusion. But even if you are one of those who could honestly say you feel whole and complete, you still brush up against the same broken world as the rest of us, you still bend, you still break, and you’ve still got the scars that tell the stories of a thousand broken dreams. The only difference is, you’ve learned how to dream again and never quit; you’ve learned how to cling tightly to hope and never let go.

I am learning these things, but I still have a long way to go. I have bigger dreams than those I am walking in right now, and overall, I feel like my moving toward those dreams is more about who I was created to be than my trying to find something to fill my emptiness. I’ve realized that I can’t wait until my life is pretty and perfect, until I feel whole and complete to pursue some things. Sometimes this is necessary, but there are other times when you need to go after a dream while you’re still bleeding from the last attempt. You’ve cleaned yourself up a bit, I’m sure, but you still feel an inner emptiness gnawing away at you, whether you are a person or faith or not. As I said, I don’t have a theology for this, but I have found that following Jesus is more about having a continually available connection to hope than it is never feeling brokenness again. I think sometimes we focus too much on our own personal happiness, when Jesus is looking at us and saying, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). The pain we experience today is only temporary, but that doesn’t mean we are to exempt ourselves from experiencing it.

It seems that I have gotten way off track from Robin Williams, but perhaps I have stumbled on to the reason why his death haunts us as much as it does. There are many things I see in his story that parallel my own, and that scares me. Not that I’m battling depression, more along the lines that I’m beginning to experience what it feels like to get things you thought you wanted and still fall asleep at night wondering if you’re loved at all. Perspective seems to evade us all more often than not, as we navigate our way through life and try to make sense of the stories that we were born into, the stories we’re currently living, and the stories we long to write in the future.

If Robin Williams could gather us all around right now, I think he would tell us to know that success is not all that it seems. I think he would want us to know that it’s possible to be the most popular person in a room and feel totally alone. I think he would want us to know that these dark sides of our souls are a part of what it means to be human, that our brokenness isn’t something we have to hide or be ashamed of. I think he would want us to know that it’s okay to not be okay, even if we’re living the life we thought we wanted, that it’s okay to reach out for those that we love, to pull them close and ask them to remind us why we stay in the fight, why we keep pressing on when all hope seems lost. I think he would want us to know that it’s okay that we don’t understand all of this or what is going on inside of us, that it’s okay to struggle to make sense of this crazy world we’ve been dropped into. Most importantly, I think he would want us to know that there will be moments when we finally reach those mountaintops and see that the things we want most were there all along in the low and familiar places, that those were the things that matter the most, that we are to cling tightly to those things and never let then go.

In my own life, I have climbed many mountains, and I will climb many more in the years to come. But I will keep filed in the back of my mind to not put too much faith in what I may find on those mountaintops. I will remind myself to chase after things that are worth chasing, while at the same time sitting back and letting life surprise me with it’s timely mysteries that make Heaven feel a little closer to earth. In those moments, I may not always feel like the pieces of my life have fallen perfectly into place, but I will be reminded of how deeply I am loved, and that will be enough.

A Theology of Risk

A Theology of Risk

Words. They carry so much weight, so much meaning. But then, there are the times when words lose their value, often due to overuse, or even misuse. Risk is one of those words. In fact, when I searched for this word on the Internet, the first result was the Parker Brothers board game. And that’s what “risk” means for a lot of people—little more than a game.

Risk is the potential of losing something of value, weighed against the potential to gain something of value.

This is another definition that I found. And this is where I shall begin.

The power of risk is one of the most dangerous powers in the universe, in both a positive and negative sense of the word. Few things in life carry the power to make our hearts open and alive or closed and constrained on both sides of the same coin.

Risk itself communicates that each one of us have things that we value. We’re not always aware of this reality, especially when we make statements such as, “I have nothing to lose and everything to gain.” I think that most of the time when I make statements like this, I really mean, “I have a lot to lose, but the thought of what I could potentially gain washes the fear from my heart.”

When our hearts have been crushed one too many times, we tend to move through life tricking ourselves into believing that we value and love nothing. We train ourselves not to love, due to the potential of pain, but our hearts cannot keep themselves from finding things to hold on to, to taking risks and chances and a variety of other things.

And it’s crazy to think that God, the very author and initiator of love, chose to make Himself vulnerable to risk by creating humanity with free will. That He took the thing that He valued most and created in their hearts the capability to walk away from Him. The power to choose is foundational to the capacity to love, and this choice cannot happen apart from risk.

Risk: an act that carries the potential to make our hearts come fully alive, weighed against the reality that the same act could wound us in the worst way possible.

Clearly, there are different levels of risk, and my definition is taking things to one extreme of the spectrum, but I have found that even some of the “smaller” risks that I’ve taken have opened the door to great aliveness or great pain.

These realities terrify us far more often than most of us care to admit. One of the reasons for this is because humanity is hard-wired to crave feelings of aliveness. Which brings us to another reality: that it’s possible to live dead. Not the spiritual maxim of “dying to self”, but the action of living from somewhere else than the center of your heart, which is a type of death in every sense of the word.

I believe that we were created to risk—in ways both large and small—because we were created in the image of a God who took the ultimate risk when He created us the way He did—namely, with a free will. And the greatest enemy of risk is not “living dead”, as some might thing. Because when you’re dead, you know it. You may not have thoughts of “I’m dead”, but you will likely have thoughts that add up to something along the lines of, “I’m not living up to the full potential that I was created for; there must be more.”

Therefore, the great enemy of risk is not deadness, but something I refer to as pseudo risk. The term pseudo itself infers that something is not real, but it has the appearance of being real. Pseudo risk is action that carries the appearance of risk, but is not risk in its pure form. Before I begin to unpack what that means to me, let me first state that I believe the highest form of risk is emotional risk. There are essentially two forms of risk, physical risk and emotional risk. The first of these involves putting your life on the line; the latter, putting your heart on the line.

Emotional risk looks like pealing back the layers of your soul and sharing your deepest, most radical dreams, hopes, and ambitions with another, or perhaps walking across a crowded room to share the Gospel with someone. These may appear at first glance to be examples of both large and small emotional risk, but I am discovering that the risks we deem small are often more powerful and have more potential to damage us than the risks we deem big. For example, if I were to share the Gospel with someone and they completely shut me down, my first instinct is to tell myself something along the lines of “They aren’t rejecting me; they’re rejecting Jesus.” This may make me feel better, but it’s really just an attempt to detach my heart from the action of risk, which actually turns my risk into a pseudo risk. Ironically, this act of detachment can actually be what triggers the rejection. If I’m communicating the very thing that has made my heart come alive and turned my world upside down to another, but completely detach my heart from that communication, why would they want to open up their hearts and receive what I’m saying? In that instance, it’s actually quite possible that they aren’t rejecting Jesus at all, but simply my presentation of Him. If this cycle continues to repeat itself, it’s very possible that I’ll shut down to taking this risk altogether, or only take this risk in the form of a pseudo risk. Small risks can make a huge impact on our hearts, not to mention the hearts of others.

Pseudo emotional risk is a tricky strategy to make us live for less than our lives were intended for. But there is a more obvious (yet still subtle) form of pseudo risk that often holds us back. This risk is physical risk. Physical risk looks like binge drinking through the night, hiking along the edge of a canyon with little footing, shooting Heroin or some other illicit drug, jumping out of an airplane at 10,000 feet, or swallowing an entire bottle of painkillers in a few gulps.

I know, I know, it may appear that I’ve gone a bit mad with these analogies, but hear me out, because there is a reason why I mixed adventurous activity with clearly destructive behavior. In the same way that an addict or an alcoholic will tell you, “I just wanted to feel something”, the same could be true about the adventure enthusiast who embarks on a dangerous hike or goes skydiving. I am in no way singling out all such activity as pseudo risk, though it is certainly a physical risk for sure. Instead, I am attempting to dig a little deeper than the surface level, to the hidden intentions behind our actions. In the same way that the drug addict wants to feel something without engaging their heart in the process of emotional risk, the skydiver can jump out of an airplane with the exact same intention, and actually be completely unaware that they are engaging in the same pseudo risk.

To reel back in proper perspective, not everyone who goes skydiving or engages in an adventure sport is operating in pseudo risk. I don’t know the thoughts and intentions of each person’s hearts; all I know is what I have seen in my own life and the clues that others give through their words. What I am instead attempting to unpack is the reality that we are sometimes more afraid of emotional risk than we are death. And in this case, I don’t mean death of heart, but physical death itself.

It’s crazy to think that we carry the capacity to put our lives on the brink of death, craving that feeling of aliveness, willing to risk our very selves to feel it again, while we at the same time run a hundred miles in the opposite direction of opening our hearts up to emotional risk. Pseudo risk offers a false form of aliveness, but it’s a fleeting one. True aliveness comes when we risk, when we open up our hearts to the potential of being healed or hurt. You can jump out of a plane without putting your heart on the line, but you can’t share your most reckless dreams or darkest secrets without doing this.

We were created to risk, because we were created in the image of a God who took the initial risk when He created us with the capability to walk away from Him, and continues to risk when He pursues us. Even saying “yes” to God is a risk in itself, because one must let go of everything they’ve held on to to receive the life that He offers. Theologically speaking, this is referred to as “losing your life to find it” (Matthew 10:39, 16:25), but it’s actually one of the greatest emotional risks we can take.

What do you need to risk today?


Finally Found Where I Belong

When the Burn Wagon headed to Boulder the other day, we thought we were only going to be there for the evening. But then, as we were headed out of town, our bus broke down alongside the road. We pulled into a parking lot, and the next three hours were spent hanging out in the Target parking lot. In short, this time of being stranded alongside the road led to two homeless men—one fresh out of jail—giving their hearts to Jesus. One of them was baptized with a bottle of water, and by midnight we had scattered across the city to the homes of strangers (to me, at least), who had laid down their agendas to take us in for the night. We arrived with nothing more than the clothes on our backs, but were quickly given blankets and pillows as we settled in for the evening.

The next day was a bit stressful, as 15+ hours of work on the bus were seemingly labored in vain by a few of the guys on our team. Still, the day was filled with pockets of grace. It didn’t seem that God was giving us any answers, but was instead inviting us to a deeper level of trust. Not so much trust in our bus being fixed, but trust in His goodness, which seemed to come cascading down the nearby foothills at the most random and seemingly ordinary times.

When night came, we gathered in the backyard of our new friends—whose history with us seemed to reach far deeper than 18 hours—for a night of worship. At one point, the guy who was singing began to play a song called Where I Belong. In that moment, God took me back several years prior, to a time when I was struggling to make sense of life. It was then—when I felt like I didn’t belong—that I first heard this song; it was then that this song became my anthem.

A lot of life has been lived between then and now. There are many things that have slipped through the cracks in my mind. This was one of them, until the other night in Boulder, when it began to make its way into my awareness.

I’ve finally found where I belong, and it doesn’t look like anything I expected; it wasn’t what I thought I was searching for. I would have settled for merely fitting in somewhere and not feeling hopeless all of the time, but I got something so much better instead—an invitation to a crazy adventure filled with reckless trust in the nature of the One who is leading me.

This adventure has been bursting with life in every way, though it has not been without pain. And if I had known that this is what it was going to look like, I’m not sure I would say “yes”. But oh, I’m so glad that I did. I’ve finally found where I belong—in the place of saying “yes” to the extravagant reckless love of the Father that seems to continually chase me down and overtake me.

Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever. ~ Psalm 23:6, NIV