The Practical Theology of a Jason Isbell Show

In anticipation of Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s return to the Koka Booth Amphitheater in late June, here is my review from last fall’s set, with an added emphasis on Isbell and practical theology.

Switching back-and-forth between his favorite Telecaster and Gibson guitars on a buggy Friday evening in Cary, North Carolina, Jason Isbell and his 400 Unit band delivered a performance nothing short of revelatory. In-between the 100 decibel alluring guitar licks and Isbell’s Muscle Shoals, Alabama southern drawl blaring over the speakers, rapturous applause was all that could be heard from the Koka Booth Amphitheater crowd.

Isbell and the 400 Unit Band took the stage after the Milk Carton Kids’ opened with a quiet, acoustic 45-minute set. Isbell and the 400 Unit, often labeled as members of the Americana genre, are a five-piece band which leans on the slide guitar of Sadler Vaden. Smoke machines and overbearing light shows may be typical of the 21st century rock concerts, but Isbell’s 400 Unit does not follow suit. The only decoration on the stage is the band’s logo – an anchor and sparrow, in part inspired by Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather” – in stain glass form on the backdrop. The typical rock-and-roll conventions may be absent, but the deafening sound is still there. Isbell, as he noted throughout the concert, loves to rock.

Even the slow ballads that Isbell and the 400 Unit performed – like “Cover Me Up” and “Flagship” – become something of a spectacle in concert. Isbell’s lyrics are littered with references that have never been more personal until his voice ripped through the amphitheater. He sung about the desire for unending love in “If We Were Vampires,” of leaving home in “Speed Trap Town,” and of the fragility of life in “Elephant.” When Isbell sings about county fairs, high school football games, and endless highways he imagines the images are as clear in your mind as they are in his. His voice – which elicits the same sensation one gets when watching a purplish sunset or eating cookies fresh out of the oven – may be what the fans come for, but it is the lyrics that have the ability to move anyone to tears. Much like his lyrics, Isbell’s voice is unassuming and honest. It is practical and piercing. It is his vehicle for telling stories.

The divine was mentioned in passing throughout the concert. Isbell sings in “24 Frames”, “You thought God was an architect, now you know, he’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow. And everything you built was all for show and goes up in flames.” Later, during “Something More Than Free” Isbell sings the refrain, “Sunday morning I’m too tired to go to church, but I thank God for the work.” And in his latest tune “Maybe It’s Time” – performed by Bradley Cooper in “A Star is Born” – Isbell writes, “Nobody speaks to God these days. I’d like to think he’s looking down, laughing at our ways.” Passingly throughout the rest of his catalogue Isbell touches on his thoughts about God, however a constant theme does not occur.

Isbell does have a practical theology, though, which focuses on loving others as yourself and seeing potential in the world. After finishing “If We Were Vampires” on Friday evening – an award winning, gripping, tear-jerking love song – Isbell stripped his guitar, stepped to the microphone, and spoke, “Y’all take care of each other, you hear? Be good to one another.” Isbell preaches loving others – and his sermons are his songs.

This was evident when halfway through the concert Isbell and the band played “White Man’s World” which challenges the racial and gender inequalities built into the American psyche. Isbell sings, “There’s no such thing as someone else’s war. Your creature comforts aren’t the only thing worth fighting for. If you’re still breathing it’s not too late. We’re all carrying one big burden, sharing one fate.” “White Man’s World” elicited one of the strongest reactions from the crowd all night – a standing ovation from most.

The band followed it up with “Relatively Easy” off of Isbell’s solo record Southeastern. It seems the song is about people living a much more comfortable life than many around the world and not understanding their privilege. The chorus repeats, “Still compared to those a stone’s throw away from you, our lives have been relatively easy.” Isbell also performed “Cumberland Gap” which touches on the effect of strip mining and “Dress Blues” which challenges the purpose of war.

Isbell and his 400 Unit are extremely conscious of the world around them and the way the songs can enforce change. In an interview with NPR last year Isbell noted, “If we’re not talking about the things that we believe, then we’re not really using our voice to their full potential, and we’re not really making art.”[1] When Isbell was asked what influence he would like to have as a musician, he said he wants people to “see(ing) that something is possible” and that something is different for everyone.

Many of the tunes Isbell and the 400 Unit played were peppered with a longing for change, and a wistful yearn for comfort in a world of pain. These lyrics about longing and searching for this time when what we yearn for becomes possible – perhaps a world full of justice and mercy and truth and love – may be what draws listeners the most. Isbell taps into the part of humanity that is always hoping and searching. That piece inside of every human that recognizes fallenness and dreams of change. The hope for Christians – the coming kingdom – is never specifically mentioned by Isbell. He never sings of “thy kingdom come” or the time when “every knee will bow,” but his lyrics express the longing that everyone faces and the brokenness that everyone feels all too well. And that is a sermon that everyone needs to hear.

[1] Hight, Jewly. “Naming The Beast: Jason Isbell And Amanda Shires On Speaking Up In 2017.” NPR. December 18, 2017. Accessed October 15, 2018.


Regaining a Food Culture of ‘Thoughtful Eating’

Convenience is king. It may not be initially apparent, but that is because the art of convenience – being able to get what you want, when you want it, and as quickly as possible – has become so deeply embedded into the American psyche that it is hardly noticeable. With the rise of technology, the average American can now get their groceries and household necessities without ever stepping foot into a grocery store, much less coming within a thousand miles of where the food was physically grown. A few clicks, taps, and of course a Credit Card number, and “fresh” fruits and vegetables are brought out to your car at the local grocer or even delivered to your doorstop next to the morning paper. It’s in with the new – convenience, ease, and expediency – and out with the old – namely, any type of connectivity with the land. With this loss of connectivity to the land has gone any semblance of a genuine food culture. In turn, we have lost what Jennifer Ayers calls the process of “thoughtful eating.” Ayers defines thoughtful eating as the understanding that there is “no human fellowship without a table, no table without a kitchen, no kitchen without a garden, no garden without a viable ecosystem, no ecosystems without the forces productive of life, and no life without its sources to God” (Ayers, p. 59). Essentially, thoughtful eating is understanding that food does not just drop onto your plate out of thin air and instead arises from a complex web of occurrences from planting to transportation and many steps in-between (Ayers takes it all the way back to God). In this essay I will argue that the lack of connectivity to the land has directly led to a loss of thoughtful eating. First, I will examine Americans continued distancing from the land and how it has in turn created a lack of thoughtful eating, then move to the role education has played in creating this phenomenon, and conclude with theological emphases that can help reinvigorate a culture of thoughtful eating.

Americans are more distanced from their food than ever before both figuratively and literally. This, I argue, is the fundamental reason why thoughtful eating has gone to the wayside. In her chapter, “Called Home” in Animals, Vegetables, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver lays out the hard facts: in the modern U.S. city “virtually every unit of food consumed there moves into town in a refrigerated module from somewhere far away,” the average food item on a grocery shelf “has traveled farther than most families go on their annual vacation,” and the water is “pumped from a non-renewable source – a fossil aquifer that is dropping so fast, sometimes the ground crumbles” (Kingsolver, pp. 3-5). Two of the most basic ingredients of sustaining human life – food and water – are increasingly being imported from afar rather than being grown or obtained locally. And although this process is often labeled as convenient, it cannot be deemed healthy for humans, animals, or the environment. Food insecurity and food deserts are rampant, workers of the land are treated poorly in their labor conditions and in their pay, the earth is given no time to rest, and animals are treated with no dignity. Michael Northcutt sums it up best when he says that this distancing from the land along with the increase of the global and industrial food economy has had direct effects on the way people eat and think about how they eat (Northcutt, p. 214).

With Northcutt’s statement in mind, I will now turn to how this distancing from the land has changed the way Americans eat. Food, which at its best can “provide powerful pathways for sharing and sustaining beliefs, and for passing on and retelling memories, narratives, and traditions” has been individualized to a great degree (Northcutt, pp. 214-215). A once communal, deeply involved act of growing, preparing, and eating has now been relegated to “pre-prepared and pre-packaged food from a factory or fast food outlet,” consumed often times alone (Northcutt, p. 223). Northcutt argues that this individualized eating is indicative of the growing global, industrial food economy. The process of making food has become delegated to professionals and more and more people have detached the process of making food from their daily routines. The question becomes apparent: how can someone develop a genuine love for food, its origins, and its effects on the land and animals, when they have no attachment to it whatsoever? Further, if thoughtful eating is the process of understanding where food comes from – starting with the table and going all the way back to God – how is it possible to retain this in a day-and-age dominated by pre-packaged, ready-made, fast food? The lack of connectivity to the land has created a food culture that does not think about the consequences of eating and instead emphasizes convenience.

Before any answers, we must quickly turn to the ways that education has enhanced this issue. Education, both secular and theological, is undoubtedly partially to blame for this problem. Education has moved from the realm of practicality to the realm of theory in most modern universities, in turn emphasizing the “presumption that education is a key to moving away from manual labor, and dirt” (Kingsolver, p. 9). Kingsolver notes that as more Americans walked away from the land (a product of the educational systems), our understanding of food production went with it (Kingsolver, p. 12). When defining the land and the jobs which are associated with it as lower and less important, food culture (in particular what Ayers calls “thoughtful eating”) disappears as well. This is because food culture arises “out of a place, a climate, a history, a temperament, a collective sense of belonging” and cannot be sold to people (Kingsolver, 17). If a love for the land dies, so too, will a desire to understand the processes in which the land produces. Theologically, there has been a lack of emphasis of humans as members of creation and on the Eucharist meal in many traditions (Ayers, pp. 71-72). Instead of membership, we have settled for dominion. Instead of meaningful Eucharist meals, we have turned to a superficial, ambiguous understanding of Eucharist as a token event done once in a while during Sunday services. As we turn to what ought to be happening, I argue that it must start with understanding humanity as a member in creation and Eucharist as “faithful feasting” (Northcutt, p. 266).

 Moving to the normative task, I argue that a reinvigoration of humans as members of creation is the one way to regain thoughtful eating. Ayers and Wendell Berry are both extremely important in developing this concept of membership. Ayers emphasizes that through Christ God has gifted us with a “radical gift of membership” that gives humans the “sacred obligation to continually seek, tend, and nurture the bonds of connectedness in God’s whole creation (Ayers, p. 71). Berry states that in order to live “we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation,” and when we do so with care, “it is a sacrament” (Ayers, pp. 69-70).  On the other hand, when done out of ignorance and greed, “it is a desecration” (Ayers, 69-70). To build off Ayers and Berry, if humanity sees itself as members of creation, the land and animals become brothers and sisters to us. The desire to take better care of the environment, to fight for animals’ rights, and to re-connect with the processes of food making will be invigorated. When properly oriented as a member (and not dominator) of creation, thoughtful eating becomes second nature (or perhaps it was natural all along).

Another way that theological education can help create thoughtful eating is through the sacrament of Eucharist. Although every scholar that I read on this topic approaches food culture in different ways, they each presented a renewed understanding of Eucharist as part of the solution. Fred Edie suggests that Eucharist is a key component in developing an ecological catechesis for Christians. Edie develops the idea of Eucharist as a “regular and discernibly robust ritual meal shared in community” but additionally a way to explore a “care for the land, sustainable agriculture, just practices of food distribution, and limited economies of sufficiency (Edie, pp. 10-11). Similarly, Northcutt suggests that there is “an urgent need to recover the full agrarian and social significance of Eucharist in Christian worship” (Northcutt, 224).  Northcutt believes that if Christians come to understand Eucharist as a truly holy meal of “faithful feasting” then all meals will become holy. If so, “all meals should be accompanied by prayerful recognition of the gifts of creation,” which, I argue, Ayers would understand as thoughtful eating (Northcutt, 266).

Christians should take seriously these recommendations for a multitude of reasons, but perhaps none more poignant than out of an understanding of the sovereignty of God. If Christians take seriously God as creator of the Heavens and the Earth and Jesus’ command to love thy neighbor (who can be seen as both the ground being tilled and the tiller), the desire to eat thoughtfully and live in membership with creation is a natural extension of those principles. As Edie points out, Christians have not done very well at this historically – specifically the ‘Christianized West’ which has “proven to be the most rapacious and least earth-friendly on the planet” (Edie, p. 1). Living sustainably does not mean living conveniently. Living sustainably does not mean living short-sightedly. Living sustainably means being thoughtful, humble, and aware of our effects on the world, and I argue that regaining a food culture of thoughtful eating is a great place to start. Theologically, through a better understanding of humans as members of creation and the Eucharist as a robust, communal, and fundamentally ecological meal, there will be a natural growing into a re-connection with the land and a more productive way of eating thoughtfully.

Sources (and for further reading)

Ayers, “Making Room at the Table” in Good Food

Berry, Anything.

Edie, “Ecological Catechesis for Holy Things” in Call to Worship

Kingsolver, “Called Home” in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

Northcutt, “Faithful Feasting” in A Moral Climate: The Ethics of Global Warming

‘The Impeded Stream’

When it is cold out – particularly on a morning where laziness is not just OK but expected – I often wake up and am unable to understand where I begin and my bed ends. In the moment when the mind stirs from slumber there is a certain comfort that envelops and inundates to the point that movement of the smallest degree becomes the utmost of adversaries. The ephemeral – yet desirably eternal – feeling of lying half-awake under the covers on a chilly morning, basking in the warmth of the moment, and hoping to never move a muscle, is the only way I know to describe my relationship to the writings of Wendell Berry.

Habitually when I am reading Berry’s words I wonder if the 84-year-old Kentuckian has been inside of my mind and put poetic language to my deepest convictions or instead if I have been inside of his so much that I cannot begin to separate the way I think, identify, and act without using his very language.

The comfort and contentment sprawled in bed on a chilly morning is truly the only way I find that I am able to communicate what certain pieces of art or their creators mean to me. The peace and interconnectedness between the spiritual and the physical that art can bring is so cavernous that words, images, or musical notes seem to lose all meaning and context and instead turn into an energy beaming from the soul.

Wendell Berry, and especially his writings on the necessity of a certain healthy criticalness and skepticism, has been the warm blanket that swathes me as I wake and pray to God.

As a boy I was always inquisitive – some would say to a fault. I wanted to know about the presidents, so I memorized them in order in first grade and recited it whenever mom and dad wanted to show me off. I loved Atlanta Braves baseball, so I watched them every night and threw a ball against the garage wall every day until someone corralled me in. I went to church every Wednesday and Sunday, so I read my Bible, prayed, and most importantly, wanted to know more.

For me, part of wanting to learn was asking questions. If I got to ask what John Quincy Adams did as president or question whether or not Bobby Cox should go to the bullpen in the eighth inning, I surely was going to wonder about things like heaven, hell, and everything in between.

It wouldn’t be much later that I would stumble across a poem – Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front – that would become the chorus of my intellectual (and thus theological) life. Nestled amongst a couple dozen get-off-my-lawn type poems in one of Berry’s many books of poetry was a page of writing that would not just change my life because of its words, but more importantly push me headfirst into a love for Berry’s writings. In this poem I read lines that made me feel alive intellectually like never before:

Every day do something that won’t compute…Praise ignorance. For what man has not encountered he has not destroyed…Ask the questions that have no answer…Be joyful though you have considered all of the facts…Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction. Practice resurrection.[1]

After picking up my jaw, I read it over, then again, and once more for good measure. Then I flipped a few pages and found The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer and discovered lines such as

‘Dance,’ they told me, and I stood still, and while they stood quiet in line at the gate of the Kingdom, I danced. ‘Pray,’ they said, and I laughed, covering myself in the earth’s brightnesses, and then stole off gray into the midst of a revel, and prayed like an orphan. When they said, ‘I know my Redeemer liveth,’ I told them, ‘He’s dead.’ And when they told me ‘God is dead,’ I answered, ‘He goes fishing every day in the Kentucky River. I see Him often.’[2]

Berry spoke to the contrarian within me. The child who asked when he was told to listen. The teenager who poured over books that congregations would prefer be banned. The young man who dreamed of a church that questions instead of nods.

The central tenant of my epistemology, which in turn reflects the way I form my theology, is the idea that critical thought and questioning is not just a part of but central to the Christian life. Nothing is off the table. When the father of the child Jesus heals cries out, “I believe; help my unbelief,” I take that verse to heart.[3] Some days my unbelief may deal with scripture, other days it could be metaphysical, and often it may be scientific – but my refrain that I pray is always that of the man crying out to Jesus. I find that when I come through bouts of unbelief, my belief in turn becomes stronger. Learning, for me, has always been about not just discovering information but processing how I felt about it, if it was applicable, and asking questions.

I find that what many people see as the solid ground that Jesus talks about in Matthew 27 – built on words like fundamental, inerrant, infallible – is often a sandy foundation that floats away when the slightest push or prod comes. Rather the bedrock of a solid foundation is built upon not just a healthy skepticism, but perhaps more clearly as Berry says, a willingness to “praise ignorance” and “be joyful though you have considered all of the facts.”[4]

In an essay entitled Poetry and Marriage Berry eloquently says, “The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”[5] This became a mantra of sort for the way I formed my theology. When I read the Bible, look at the world, and dream of a better future, I ask myself: Am I becoming complacent in the way I think and am I allowing myself to be influenced by people that are different than me? Am I allowing my stream – my way of life – to become disrupted? Because it is in those moments that beauty (singing) comes.

Berry solved two major problems in my early intellectual life and these poems happen to highlight them most prominently. First, I wanted to think, but felt like I couldn’t. Or wasn’t allowed within Christianity. Berry says that thinking should never be spurned. In fact, it is the mind that is “baffled” that is truly thriving.

In the Mad Farmer Manifesto he praises the idea of “ask(ing) the questions that have no answers,” as well. This was the biggest problem for me once I adopted a mindset that was centered around critical thought. How can I ever find peace amidst a mind that is constantly criticizing, questioning, and burdened? How can I find a healthy balance between skepticism and incomprehension? Further, is there ever contentment there, or is it a life muddled with a sense of uncertainty?

Berry answers, “praise ignorance” and to “give your approval to all you cannot understand.”[6] He backs up his idea that “the impeded stream is the one that sings” by also noting that there is a type of ignorance that should be praised – it’s not born from a failure to think, but a willingness to let go at times. Further, Berry argues that it is in the moment when we “no longer know which way to go, [then] we have begun our real journey.”[7]

As I made my way through the scores of Berry’s writings what stuck out to me more than any of his breathtaking fiction or thought-provoking poetry was a tiny book both in size and length. The book – Blessed Are the Peacemakers – was what initially consoled me after the depressing response by many Americans to the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012. I wondered to myself how anyone could call themselves a Christian and not stand up for change? It was the first time in my life that I can remember wanting to draw a line between myself and “the other” within Christianity. On the first page of Blessed are the Peacemakers Berry writes,

Especially among Christians in positions of wealth and power, the idea of reading the Gospels and keeping Jesus’ commandments as stated therein has been replaced by a curious process of logic. According to this process, people first declare themselves to be followers of Christ, and then they assume that whatever they say or do merits the adjective ‘Christian.’[8]

But instead of Berry continuing his essay by bashing people who adhere to this process, he turns to the text. He goes on to list every place in the Gospels that Jesus speaks about strife, compassion, peacemaking, and forgiveness. He does not add any commentary. He just lists them. Berry allows the reader to look at the words and decide on their own what Jesus is advocating for. Berry calls for a renewed emphasis on re-reading the words of Jesus. He asks for the reader to think about how the words of Jesus affect the way we live. He is not afraid to look at the world around him and wonder if it couldn’t be a little better.

After going through the list of verses, Berry tackles what he calls “the burden of the gospel.” For every verse that makes perfect sense, there are also those that “sometimes raise the hardest of personal questions, sometimes bewildering, sometimes contradictory, sometimes apparently outrageous in their demands. This is the confession of an unconfident reader.”[9] And he ends his beautiful book by asking a question instead of answering it: “It is a question that those humans who want to answer will be living and working with for a long time. Meanwhile, may Heaven guard us from those who think they already have the answers.”[10]

It is for these reasons exactly – asking questions, being content in not knowing the answer, and shunning those who say they know it all – that Berry most readily affected my theology.

The best type of art, in my opinion, is that which reminds us of the fragility of life and inspires us to live more passionately in its stead. In Berry’s writings I find myself constantly broken yet immediately uplifted. I am reminded of my smallness, my incompleteness, and my inability to understand God’s ways. And then told that I am not alone. In Berry’s words I find pain and peace, ignorance and clarity, and doubt and trust. I find struggles and praises, sorrows and worship, and fear and hope.

[1] Wendell Berry, The Mad Farmer Poems (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2013), 18-19.

[2] Wendell Berry, The Mad Farmer Poems (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2013), 7-8.

[3] Mark 9:24, (NRSV).

[4] Ibid, 19.

[5] Wendell Berry, Standing By Words: Essays (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2011), 97.

[6] Wendell Berry, The Mad Farmer Poems (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2013), 7-8.

[7] Ibid, 93.

[8] Wendell Berry, Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Christs’ Teachings of Love, Compassion, and Forgiveness (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2009), 3.

[9] Ibid, 53.

[10] Ibid, 68; The question Berry asks is, “How must we live and work so as not to be estranged from God’s presence in His work and in all His creatures?”

dwelt among us

when will we wake up


the lord

in the garden

who sweats and prays for strength


when will we wake up


the son

in the wilderness

who sees past the material


when will we wake up


the baby

under the stars

who cries and screams


when will we wake up


the Christ

on the couch

who praises the anointer


when will we wake up


the logos

on the mount

who blesses the peacemakers


when will we wake up


the healer

at a pool, in a home, on the road

who corrects our blindness


when will we wake up


the king

at the table

who breaks the bread


when will we wake up


the mother father

on a knee

who calls for the children


when will we wake up


the man

in the river

who is blessed by the dove


when will we wake up


the shepherd

in the field

who never abandons her flock

Famous Flower of Manhattan

One of my favorite Avett songs deals with the natural tendency to want to hold on tightly to something meaningful and beautiful and stow it away for onseself. Scott Avett writes about finding a flower in the middle of New York City and wanting to take it home with him. To tear it from the bricks that it lay in and save it from city strife. Instead he leaves it there, realizes his selfish desire to uproot it, sees it flourish from afar, and notes how the flower is much prettier than here with me. 

It is a lovely tune with a great banjo part and it feels more like a story than a song most times that I listen to it. He gives another example about how people want to put bluebirds in cages, but then the world can’t hear them sing. I have always loved Famous Flower of Manhattan because the story Scott is telling is my own in many ways.

While Scott finds something he holds dear and wants to keep it for himself, so too am I notorious for finding something I love deeply whether it be a band or a movie or a place and become so passionate about it that I don’t want to share it with anyone else.

Sometimes I can’t help myself and I eventually force Place Beyond the Pines or Al’s Burger Shack onto everyone I come across, but a lot of deeper, more meaningful things than a movie or a good burger I struggle with presenting and want to pluck up, like Scott’s flower, and keep. So, when the time presents itself to speak on behalf of this thing that is so dear to me, I flail. I balk. I hesitate.

This happened recently to me when I stumbled across Bob Crawford at a local church and had the hardest time expressing to him what he meant to me. How is it possible to explain the peace Don Sutton’s voice calling an Atlanta Braves game on the radio brings to me? Or the deep resonation that Wendell Berry’s The Mad Farmer Liberation Front brings to my soul? David Foster Wallace touches on this when he writes, “How odd I can have all this inside me and to you it’s just words.”

This period of my life has really engulfed me into these types of feelings. I am graduating from UNC, which is home, and my family is moving out of the house I grew up in, which is home.

There is so much there to talk about. The friendships I have made, the moments I will forever remember, the walks home from campus, the wonderful teachers, the brilliant classes, the sprints to Franklin Street, how? How? How is it remotely possible to attempt to eloquently explain what these four years have meant?

The backyard baseball, the sprinkler in the front yard, the meals in the kitchen, the laughs in the dining room, the songs in the den, the games in the computer room, the thousands of days spent with my family in that house, how? How is it remotely possible to attempt to eloquently explain what that house has meant for 19 years?

My first inkling is to keep these things to myself. To withhold emotion. To contain the sorrow. To forbid reminiscing. To pluck the famous flower. These thoughts are too meaningful, too important for me to attempt to elucidate what is bubbling beneath the surface.

But instead, as graduation comes and the move begins, I will do my best to let the flower grow. To appreciate the place UNC and 1414 Deborah Circle will always have in my heart. To allow those places to forever remind me the space they have had in my life over the years, for good and bad. To yearn for the good ol’ days and fight for what is ahead. For we must practice resurrection.






the sign of a doer rests not in the mind

nor bound shelves or desirable degrees

social provocation or party destinations

checks cut or figured salaries

worn crucifixes or alter calls

the sign of a doer rests on the feet

grass stained and torn

blistered and cracked

dirty from toil

cut from strife

tired from pursuit

laced from posture

doers rest on bended knees

while others nod and clap

the weight of anticipation forces

itself on the silt-filled feet of doers

who have done what needed done

for kingdom come.

— 27 —


without ceasing

they said


there is

life to live

people to love

places to go

books to read

music to hear

flowers to smell

rivers to see

mountains to climb

the well





the days

with no numbers


the morning breaths

and enemies

the city fights

and bad harmonies

the unmade beds

and crying babies

the poisoned streams

and wet tent memories




May It Last

I write about the same things because I struggle with the same things. One of those lately has been the idea of creating and living and the purpose behind it. The concept that what we do and what we make should be because it’s what we want and not because it’s what’s expected or ingrained in us from upbringing.

There’s no value in my Christian faith, for instance, being my faith if I haven’t thought critically about it and pushed myself and asked questions and had concerns and thought deeply. The intent behind it shouldn’t be that my mom and dad made me go to church every Sunday and Wednesday, rather it should be from my own mind and my own heart and my own soul that I want to walk with Jesus and act accordingly.

But outside of religion, this is something that I wonder about and find myself struggling with constantly.

I love things like granddad hats and talking about my weird theology and wearing sandals with pants and my love for Wendell Berry certainly not because it’s cool or “in” or what will make people like me, but because it is something that I love and find joy in so much that I want to share it. Almost like I would not be me, without these things. I don’t know if that makes sense, but I find in our culture that it’s much more popular to be “in” and wear the right clothes and say the right things OR be “out” and do the opposite, leaving no room for this middle ground of just…feeling….and doing. Creating, because, it’s a weight on you that you can’t shake. Not because you want the likes on Instagram or claps after your soliloquy. But because without my work, my thoughts, my feelings, who am I? Compared to this idea of being a mosaic of what the world wants me to look and act like.

I love the Avett Brothers more than just about anything in this world. They mean more to me than I’m able to put into words, and that may sound foolish and hyperbolic, but it’s true.

For the past five summers I’ve been away from home for a significant amount of time and their melodies and lines have always been within me carrying me through the difficult days. Seth and Scott’s songwriting connects with me on a level that only scripture can surpass. I could write a book on this, but I’ll just stop there for the sake of brevity. Last night when I went to see the documentary that Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio directed, on the history of the Brothers and their recent album, I wasn’t expecting any insight on my whole purpose and creation fascination/dilemma.

But as the film winded down so beautifully it climaxed with a scene of the band recording their song “No Hard Feelings.” The tune, written by Seth Avett, is one of the most beautiful, introspective songs they have ever released, and and after the song is over, tears well up in Seth’s eyes. The folks around him applaud, hug him, and tell him ‘good job.’ But his brother Scott sits quietly, with a haze of bewilderment over him.

Outside the studio Scott explains what’s bugging him so much to Seth. It’s that Seth cracked open his heart, dug deep into his soul, and wrote something that mattered to him. It was a product of divorce, loneliness, confusion, and pain, and this wonderful diamond emerged from the dirt. And as Seth cries, finishing the song, singing “I have no enemies,” he is welcomed with applause and hugs. Scott’s not upset about the hugs and kisses, but upset with the fact that we have become so jaded and sterile to our thoughts and feelings on the outside that when we do let others in, they applaud. They say ‘bravo’ and pat us on the back for being real. Why isn’t it like that in the first place? Why don’t people understand that every song, every line that we write is because it is weighing on us. Not to sell records or pay the bills. This is what we have to do. If we weren’t doing this, we would be finding a way to do it.

It struck me. Sometimes, especially in college, you get so deep in the homework and reading that you forget why you’re doing it. You forget that it’s for more than a grade and there’s a deeper purpose behind it. It’s the same with post-college life, too, I know. The 9-5 and the commute and the kids and the chores pile up and it’s probably really easy to forget about who you are and what is weighing on you so hard that you just can’t shake it. It’s easy to begin to identify yourself with what the world says about you — your roles, your relationships, your collections — instead of your heart and passions. It would be a different world, sure enough, if instead of asking people about their hobbies we asked them about what makes them lie awake at night in awe and wonder or pain and sorrow.

Coincidentally, the best advice I have heard on how to live this out comes from the Avett’s themselves: Decide what to be and go be it.

And may it last.

Loving Our Global Brother and Sister

An excerpt from “As Yourself” Chapter II.

Lately I’ve been struggling with the competition between my desires to unplug and focus on the world around me with my desire to completely focus in to help fight the injustice and issues plaguing our society.

There’s part of me that hates getting constant notifications of what is wrong in the world. Some days it feels like that’s all I see when I scroll through my phone. Four dead in an attack, health care bill fails, Trump said something crazy. That can get really depressing, and sometimes I find myself in this daze of gloom because I can’t believe what’s happening around me. I feel so saturated by negativity that it’s hard to remain uplifting to those near me. It makes me want to throw my phone in a lake and lay in the grass. Just so I can forget about it all for a moment.

But then there’s the other side of me that wants to share every New Yorker article I read. I wake up in the morning reading the bad news but instead feel this inward pull to go and fix it. I see those notifications and I wonder what my role is in helping. I call it my Don Quixote complex — my mission to civilize. It’s when I feel like I can change the world, I can fix the system, I can affect the way others think and act.

I’ve felt this battle lately because of politics, but I’ve felt it for even longer when it comes to our role as neighbors to those who live thousands of miles away. It’s really easy for me to get caught up in what’s going on locally and even nationally and completely forget about those suffering elsewhere. And it’s even easier to do this in the day and age of Trump. There are so many things to get angry about that I use up all my anger on things around me and forget about the things plaguing the world as a whole.

It’s kind of the reverse of what I was talking about earlier. I can often get in this mindset of an almost hyper-local identity where I’m so focused on what’s happening around me that I forget there is more to this world than the ground I’m standing on.  

My favorite writer is Wendell Berry. He writes fiction, poetry, and essays, and is as an agrarian as much as he is a writer. Berry himself is very reserved and old-fashioned. He refuses to be videod and still uses a typewriter. When he was young Berry spent time in some of the world’s biggest cities from New York to Paris to Rome, but eventually resigned from his day-job and made home on a 125-acre farm in Henry County, Kentucky. He’s a critic of the industrialization in agriculture because it removes, in many ways, the human connection to the land. Later on when we talk about the earth as a neighbor, we will talk about Berry at a great extent. But what interests me about Berry in this context, his his assertion that he belongs to his place as much as he belongs to himself…



Change in Direction

Some personal news that I felt may be worth sharing as I head into my senior year at UNC.

  • I am giving up my sportswriting responsibilities. Surely there will be moments in the next year where I may do a little bit of writing on the side for extra money or writing for a publication because of something pressing, but I’m going to be stepping down from any positions I hold. I have greatly enjoyed my time with both The Daily Tar Heel and Sports Illustrated Campus Rush, and am very grateful for the opportunities that I have been given with those outlets. However, it seems pretty clear to me that pursuing a career in sportswriting is something that I am no longer interested in, which means I should probably start focusing a little harder on the things I want to do. And with that…
  • I have dropped my journalism major to a minor. In all honesty, once you decided you are done with something, you really want to be done with it. I have already fulfilled my journalism minor and that will be it for me at Carroll Hall, it appears. I have met many close friends and mentors in the J School and am lucky to have spent three years there, but instead I will be spending my time…
  • I am going to write a thesis. So my last year at UNC is going to be one of a lot of reading, writing, and researching. I am writing a thesis with Dr. Bart Ehrman. You have probably heard of Dr. Ehrman before, either because  a Christian at UNC told you he was an evil agnostic teacher of the Bible or because he is a New York Times best-selling author and writer of over 30 books. I hope it’s the latter. Dr. Ehrman is in no way an evil agnostic teacher, and is in fact, a really great man who does incredible amounts for the community and is extremely thoughtful and caring toward students. He is going to teach me a lot. He has very graciously decided to be my thesis advisor even though he is extremely busy, and I will spend next year writing on Jesus’ treatment of women in the canonical gospels and its reception in early Christianity.
  • I am interning at Chapel Hill Bible Church. Next year I will be interning with the Bible Church’s college ministry. I am lucky to call the Bible Church a home, and I am really excited to be a part of the leadership team, lead a life group, and grow as a member of the church. I don’t have a clear outline of exactly what my duties will look like, but I am really looking forward to being more involved at church and getting to be a friend to our entire college ministry. As I continue to think about what I want to be when I’m a grownup (haha), the idea of working in a church is one that comes up often. And as I get closer to applying for Divinity Schools, I really am pumped to get some first-hand experience in the work we do over at the Bible Church.
  • I am still attempting to write a book this summer. I have seven locations spanning from North Carolina to Washington State that I will be traveling to this summer over a five-week period. The Morehead-Cain has given me three wonderful opportunities in the last few summers, and this, to me, is the one I’m most excited about. I am pumped to start meeting incredible people living and working at loving places, and I’m praying that I can do their communities justice in my writing. Whether or not this ends up as some perfectly woven together book or not, I know that it is going to be a fruitful experience for me as a person and writer.  And I’m even more excited about 6,800 miles on the road!

I think that’s it! It’s been a busy year.

“Everyday do something that won’t compute. Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing. Take all that you have and be poor. Love someone who does not deserve it.” –