Written by Jan Johnson

A Word from a Different Reality

Memories shared by Jan Johnson in Eternal Living (InterVarsity Press, 2013). Used by permission.

I couldn’t believe it. The keynote speaker was admitting to everyone that he had wanted to be the best of the five keynote speakers. Why was this strange man saying aloud things I had wished, probably everyone had wished, but never admitted to anyone? 

Then things got even stranger. He explained that he figured out that what he needed to do was pray for the other keynote speakers. So he prayed that each speaker would hear God well, communicate well and be received well.

This selfless, others-focused attitude went against everything I was learning in American Society of Journalists and Authors, an organization for which I had worked six years to earn the credentials to join. In that setting I was learning about how to promote myself. That couldn’t be wrong because the kind people in our local chapter helped me so much. So what was up with this guy on the platform? I was mystified and somewhat disturbed. He was definitely a word from a different reality.

Later I looked at my conference1 booklet and noticed he was presenting a workshop called, “How to Live One Day with Jesus.” I wondered if living just one day with Jesus would make me as odd as he was—but also, as obviously in sync with God as he was. Was it possible that God wanted something better for me than to be a so-called success?

Intrigued by This “Different Reality”

After that I began writing notes to Dallas asking where he was speaking next in our area. A few years later I showed up every night for his talks in Ojai, California. (A week before he died he recalled one of those evenings. As I walked in late, he said he’d thought, I know that woman with the silver streak in her hair.) He talked about the Kingdom and how we can live in the kingdom without anger and lust. He read Matthew 5:25 and said we could go to our accuser and ask, “What do you need from me?” I was so terrified I could scarcely breathe. This was a different reality. I felt like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid who kept looking back, seeing the lawman following them and saying, “So who is this guy anyway?”

I reviewed my notes for days and finally wrote Dallas asking if I could perchance have a look at the manuscript of the book he was writing. Shortly after that I held in my hand chapters from a book that would one day be called The Divine Conspiracy.

I tried putting this “living without contempt” approach into practice. I saw that sarcasm was not being cute; it is derived from two words: sarx (flesh) and chasma (pit or gulf).2 It creates a pit or tear or deep cut in someone’s flesh. Why would I do that ever again? I figured out that while irony was a beautiful thing, sarcasm was irony with a knife twisted through it. But I objected greatly to Dallas’s statement that nothing could be done with anger that couldn’t be done better without it.3 It would take years before I agreed with that, but I was so fascinated with the idea that I kept trying it out. Sure enough, I could “lay aside anger,” as Dallas liked to say, and still get things done.

Living in the Kingdom Here and Now

Soon I was not only practicing all kinds of spiritual disciplines, but also writing about and teaching them and helping directees use them in my work as a spiritual director. But I don’t think I got the idea that life in the Kingdom was a “different reality” until I interviewed him for Discipleship Journal in the later 90s.

I’d left my office frustrated beyond belief from trying to transition from my beloved Compuserve account to Microsoft Outlook. No matter how I configured Outlook, it didn’t work. I was in tears. I packed up my recording gear and headed to Casa Willard. My editor had instructed me to specifically ask this question: one: What does it mean to be “ravished” by the Kingdom of God?4 When I asked, Dallas spoke of the availability of the Kingdom of God right here and now.

Then he paused and drew a picture for me with words: “Let’s say I’m a plumber going to clean out someone’s sewer. You stay attentive to what you’re doing at the moment. You ask, How will I do this as Jesus would do this?” (I knew he did his family’s plumbing so this made sense to me.) Another pause.

“If you encounter difficulties with people you’re serving, or with the pipe or machinery, you never fight that battle alone.” (Now I could see myself in my front yard looking at a hole in the ground with a broken mainline water pipe, almost in tears.) “You invoke the presence of God. You expect to see something happen that is not a result of you!” Another pause.

“If you train yourself to thank God when these ‘coincidences’ happen, you’ll see them as patterns in your life. The crucial thing is to be attentive to God's hand, not to get locked into thinking: It's me and this pipe! Never do that.” Another pause.

“It’s never just me and the pipe.”

Then he gave me one of his intense looks and said, “It’s never just you and the pipe.” I repeated back: “It’s never just me and the pipe.”5 In my mind I continued, It’s never just me and Outlook.

Through the years I have continued to relive that moment: it’s never just me and my computer; it’s never just me and an impossible writing project; it’s never just me and this dinner I just burned; it’s never just me and the homeless person dying in my arms (where I volunteer). God never says, “Girl, you’re on your own on this one.” There is a Kingdom. It is available to me. I can walk in it at any moment. Do I want it? Will I embrace it?

Teaching the Kingdom

A few years after that, Keith Matthews invited me to lead some exercises in Dallas’s Fuller Seminary class, “Spirituality and Ministry.” In a conversation I had with Keith and Dallas, Dallas said he didn’t plan to teach about the disciplines anymore. I commented that I was enjoying teaching them. Between the two of them talking to me that day, I saw that teaching disciplines is futile without teaching about vision of life in the Kingdom of God. It sets people up for rigidity and guilt. We need to be constantly reminded about life in the Kingdom because it’s such a different reality that we forget it. Dallas said something like this to me: “Everything you teach must be infused with that vision of life in the Kingdom of God. We need to keep it in front of people.”

Imitating Kingdom Behavior

I’ve tried to follow that advice, sneaking in the Kingdom wherever possible. But even more I’ve tried to live in it, following what he showed me about living in the kingdom. That first year in the class I watched as students didn’t seem to give him the respect he deserved. One asked me privately, “So does he even have a theology degree?” They seemed to smart off to him, but he not only didn’t take it personally, he didn’t even seem to notice. He answered their questions with great respect in a straightforward way. His choice to love others and his choice to do what God was urging him to do seemed to be untouched by others’ attitude toward him. He was living in the Kingdom and doing just fine, even if I was appalled.

One time on a break at the Fuller class, I leaned over and asked him, “So do you try not to be a good speaker?” I know that sounds appalling but I wasn’t being critical. This was an “ah ha” moment for me. I felt as if I finally “got” Dallas’s Kingdom approach. Prior to the class I’d listened to some very old cassette tapes of his teaching in which he sounded like a sonorous Southern Baptist preacher vaunting the truths of the faith. But listening to him teach that day in class, I could see how he had changed. He wasn’t trying to have flair, to impress anyone, or to convince anyone of anything. He understood my question--“So do you try not to be a good speaker?”—as genuine and immediately said, “Yes, Jan, I just go and talk to people, and let God deal with them.”

Dallas had learned to cast off all efforts at “impression management.” He didn’t try to be eloquent. He disliked PowerPoint and thought it distracted from the human-to-human interaction that occurs between the speaker and the spoken-to. In that sacred interaction, no pushing self forward is allowed. That led to my husband and spiritual director both saying to me as I go off to speak: “Just go and talk to people. You’ll be fine.” I don’t have to try hard to do or be anything. No song and dance is needed. I just need to be available to the Spirit. I need to love the people in front of me. And when I’m teaching and I find myself going “over the top,” I put my hands behind my back and feel myself ease back into the space of the Kingdom.

My husband and spiritual director also frequently tell me, “Keep your hands behind your back. You’ll be fine.” That came from how I automatically put my hands behind my back after being with Dallas each year at the Fuller class. When I wanted to control a situation, speak up when it was better to be silent, or wanted to impress people as a speaker, I could put my hands behind my back and it would change the atmosphere in my mind. I relaxed and pulled back. I’d picked this up from watching Dallas walk around Mater Dolorosa (where the class was held) for two weeks with his hands behind his back. Putting my hands behind my back puts me in a teachable, listening frame of mind. I no longer want to tell the world what I think they need to know.

Staying Out of the Way of the Kingdom

Several years later, I was in a setting with Dallas where the person presiding suggested that the students thank him for coming to teach. This “praise session” went on for two hours. After twenty minutes, he began to hang his head. He wouldn’t look up. After about forty minutes, he did look up and said to the group, “What if I backslide? What then?” The students didn’t know how to receive this; they decided he was kidding so they laughed. But I knew him well enough to know that he was angry, or at least truly frustrated. We talked of it later and he lamented that people were putting their trust in him, not in the Kingdom of God.

Some people chalk up his responses like this to his modesty or having grown up in an earlier era. Others have thought he had a self-esteem problem. But this misses the point. Yes, it’s appropriate to thank God for speaking to us through others and it’s OK if the person hears that. But lifting people up with gushing praise imitates our culture of celebrity and pushes out the Kingdom dynamic. When we receive much from a teacher or leader or friend, the Spirit is at work and we need to thank God, not lift others up. This is the wisdom of the 12-step phrase, “principles before personalities.” Our culture prefers the other: personalities above all else.

We do great harm when we mix that “personality ethos” with the ethos of the Kingdom. A week or so before Dallas died, I talked with him about a project that was planned that would focus on him personally. He told me that it would be wrong for people to write about him, praising him, because, he said, “Idealizing someone distracts people from the major truths the person taught." He went on to talk about great Christian leaders throughout church history whose friends lifted that person up. Their admiration, he said, obscured the important truths the person taught. This hit me hard. Then he gave me that look, as if to say, “Don’t let that happen!” Nothing must distract from the Kingdom of God. So even as I write this, I find myself praying that life in the Kingdom of God will not be obscured by my little observations. 

Living in the Kingdom Now

This vision of life in the Kingdom of God is, like Dallas, a word from a different reality. We get to lean into the Kingdom minute-by-minute, as we do our work, love family members, or pay close attention to whomever is standing in front of us. This divine conspiracy is a great adventure.

We don’t need to shore ourselves up; we really do have everything we need (Ps 23:2). We don’t need to impress each other; we are well-loved and much-delighted in. God really is enough.

 

FOOTNOTES

1. Renovaré Conference, 1991, Lake Avenue Church, Pasadena, California. 

2. American Heritage Dictionary 2nd College edition, s.v. “sarcasm” and W.E. Vine, Merrill F. Unger, William White, Vine's Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1985), pp. 242, 286. 

3. Dallas Willard The Divine Conspiracy (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1998), p. 151. 

4. Willard, pp. 305, 316, 372. 

5. Jan Johnson “Apprentice to the Master,” Discipleship Journal, Issue 107 Sept/Oct 1998, p. 26.