Editors Note: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”, or so goes the old adage. While this piece is about much more than music, focusing instead on that music’s fertile source and grappling with the power of art to change us, it’s important to us that you engage with the music that fills this story. To that end, each section of the story is titled by a song of John’s and paired with a lyric that captures the heart of what the writer is trying to convey and at the end of the piece we’ve curated a Spotify playlist where you can listen to all of the songs that inspired the piece. Happy listening!”
John Van Deusen’s Creative Excavation of the Heart
“The first step toward finding God–who is truth–is to discover the truth about myself; and if I have been in error, this first step to truth is the discovery of my error.”
– Thomas Merton
My friend John is a singer-songwriter from Anacortes, Washington. He formed the band The Lonely Forest in 2005 while he was still in high school. After four studio albums and sharing the stage with bands such as Portugal. The Man, Minus The Bear, The Joy Formidable and Two Door Cinema Club, they disbanded in 2014. Most of the links on their Wikipedia page are broken, but you can still find them listed next to James Blake as one of NPR’s Best New Artists of 2011. They played on Jimmy Kimmel once, but good luck trying to track down that long lost footage. The best live videos of the band were filmed at a Seattle radio station called KEXP. An image search will reveal that John has Frodo-from-the-Lord-of-the-Rings-level blue eyes.
These are things I learned from the Internet. I never met this John Van Deusen: lead singer of a quickly-rising band, Seattle Weekly’s “Best Male Vocalist” of 2011. The one that played Bonnaroo and went on a tour sponsored by Jägermeister. The one hiding weed from the cops in his van’s air vents. The one experimenting with pills or trying to hold together a new marriage while on the road. I met the John Van Deusen that came after all of that, after his ambition left him wanting. The one writing weird songs about Jesus and selling puzzles every day at a shop by his house to take care of his family. The one humbly calling home to ask if he could have a beer on a night off from tour. The one whose life and art were completely changed by encountering Jesus.
There’s a part of me that hesitates to put it so simply because it makes me feel uncomfortable. It feels too reductive, but I don’t think John would mind. John isn’t afraid of making me feel uncomfortable and John’s music has a depth that can accommodate such a simple, heartfelt statement – even as he questions its sincerity. The John Van Deusen I know and the one you find in his art, makes no attempt to fit his faith or life into a box. He is as comfortable with his devotion as he is with his doubt. He just wants to tell the truth.
“The Universal Sigh”
“Once was a time I was living to please myself.”
When you’ve been around the church or Christian culture for a long time, you get used to certain acceptable ways of talking about God. The version of me that John met on tour in 2018, was well-versed in this particular language and tired of speaking it so fluently. I needed new words. You might say I was deconstructing my faith, but even that word has long lost its sense of particular meaning. It has become something that obscures rather than illuminates our deeply personal experiences of God. Whatever you want to call it, I told John all about it when we first met while eating a forgettable burrito in San Francisco.
John listened intently and then humbly shared how Jesus had changed his life. Maybe you’ve heard this story arc before: John grew up in Christian home with loving parents, but he rebelled. He fell in love with music and after analyzing the beliefs of the Christian culture around him, rejected anything resembling a faith. As his band rose to greater prominence, John fell victim to drugs and alcohol until he finally reached the end of his rope and turned to Jesus resulting in a radical transformation. God saved his marriage and delivered him from addiction.
At the time, I had heard hundreds of stories like this, rock-n-roll conversions that pricked my youth-group-tuned ears and made me feel cynical. I didn’t need another one. In the Christian world of my early faith, this sort of story was our version of a fairy tale, where God defeats the devil and everyone lives happily ever after. Or maybe it was like our favorite rom-com, where Jesus wins his bride and we are meant to assume they live the rest of their lives in perfect harmony. It’s the story I was both deconstructing and desperately hoping to put back together again. I don’t know if John sensed me wrestling across the table from him in a dingy taqueria, but he left space for my doubts and more importantly, didn’t try to fix anything. This is when we first became friends.
We played 10 shows on that tour and every night, John drew me in with his honest, captivating performances. One time he started a show by playing a video of Mister Rogers with his phone held up to the mic. He played a song called “Marathon Daze” about missing home and yelled “to be alone” at the top of his lungs. It scared me the first time I heard him scream while strumming his acoustic guitar. It’s electrifying. I can still remember the feeling every night when he played “Absentee Heartbeat”, a song about their miscarriage only to close his set with “All Shall Be Well”, a simple and heartfelt prayer based on the words of English mystic, Julian of Norwich. The juxtaposition was as breathtaking as it was heartbreaking. As an artist, I found that he explored the depths of the human experience with a rare freedom. In John’s music, much like the Psalms, nothing was unmentionable, nothing was minimized, but everything was brought to God’s attention.
That’s when I first learned about the “scary prayer.”
“Oh Sweetest Name”
“I’ve been changing, subtle as a cliff on a coastline. Maybe there is a god, she’s working on my insides”
By John’s definition, the scary prayer is “God, please do whatever you want in my life. I’m done being a tyrant over my own existence.” It’s the prayer that changed John’s life. He started praying it after the growing success of the Lonely Forest left him feeling empty and his marriage hanging by a thread. In his words, “it’s one thing to believe in Jesus and it’s another thing to realize your need of saving and forgiving.” To “jump all-in to that relationship and say, ‘Okay, God. I want you and I want to be made right with you’.”
The simplicity is what makes the prayer scary. What if God doesn’t “do” anything? What if the way God moves doesn’t look the way I thought? Can I really trust God to be present in the most mundane or hidden parts of my life?
In the years since we became friends, John hasn’t given me the answers to these questions; we mostly just tell stories together. He’s shared how his priorities began to shift after praying this way. Slowly, but surely, like “a cliff on a coastline.” About beginning to sense God’s presence in ways he hadn’t before. He found that praying the prayer didn’t eradicate his doubts or questions, but instead gave him more freedom to express and explore those things. In some ways, it made John more like himself. As John’s life began to change, he realized that trusting God meant trusting that God not only could, but would work through the way he was made.
“It’s that paradoxical thing where the more you surrender, the more liberated you are, or the more you allow God to take you over, the more truly yourself you become.” John told me this on a phone call, loosely paraphrasing a C.S. Lewis quote, and describing the way his life and art shifted after he began praying the scary prayer. As he put it later in our conversation, “the more I mature in my faith…it feels like the weirder I get.”
After quitting his band to save his marriage, John moved back to Anacortes and began working on a cycle of albums called (I Am) Origami. What makes these albums so special is the way that John’s deepest fears, doubts, questions, and failures live side by side with his most enraptured praise and devotion, sometimes in the same song. It’s what first captured me when I heard John play. Instead of dividing himself into sacred and secular, the acceptable and the rejected, he brought all of the pieces of his life to the same altar.
"If All is Nothing/Nothing Must End"
“I long to be undividedly yours.”
There’s a moment in Mere Christianity where C.S. Lewis compares the Christian life to renovating a house. At first the improvements seem to make sense, but suddenly God is doing things that don’t seem to be in your original plans, they might even hurt. This is because, as Lewis puts it, “you thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but he is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it himself.” This is the result of the scary prayer and when you listen to John’s music, you hear every hammer stroke in the renovation of a heart.
John possesses a deep sincerity that is as striking to me now as it was when we first became friends. When John talks about the heart behind his music and more importantly his life, the message is simple: “The essence of the Christian life is to glorify God…to have God’s love transform us.” What makes John’s art so remarkable or even radical is the way that he allows his listeners to witness that transformation in all of its complexity – from the icy depths of desolation to the snow-capped peaks of rapturous praise.
“I see within me there are two selves, two selves” John sings in “The Universal Will to Become, Part One”. “I Am Origami” is marked by this division between who John has been and who he wants to be. “I regret all the times I’ve placed myself on a shrine and I’ve bowed down with my nose touching the ground.” Like the Apostle Paul, speaking about the ways he does what he does not want to do, John allows us to see that transformation does not come without surrender and that this requires honesty above all else.
But John’s excavation of his own heart doesn’t stop with his honest depictions of struggle, depression, or addiction. Instead, this close examination of himself leads to deeper worship and desire for God. In “Help Me Let Go”, he finds his own worship as well as the worship around him wanting, “bogged down in a cheap surrender.” This leads to a soaring chorus: “So help me let go and fall into your arms. I need to know that You are here amidst the storm.” “What difference would it make if I could hear, if I could see you?” John sings in “If All is Nothing / Nothing Must End”, an honest expression of doubt in the midst of depression. But this harrowing question helps reveal John’s deepest desire: “I long to be undividedly yours.”
It’s hard to describe how radical this still feels to me. When I look back at my own faith journey, so much of the pain and bewilderment that I felt came from the divisions I saw in myself and in the world. From within, I felt the two selves John describes, my own selfishness and fear, a desire for control. On a deeper level, I felt the way my questions and doubts separated me from the people around me who didn’t seem to struggle, people who seemed content in their faith. I can remember countless worship services where I hoped to find the words to connect my wilderness to God’s heart, the way David does in the Psalms. Instead, I often came away with a deeper sense of separation.
In John’s music, there is space for the embattled, searching heart, for the moments, like in Psalm 139, when “I make my bed in the depths”. John trusts God to work through the way he was made. This is one of the great gifts to be found in his music and something that has changed me through our friendship. The scary prayer of surrendering to a real and active God who knows all of us, holds all of us, and “is working on my insides” has changed the way I see the divisions in myself – my sorrows and joys, hopes, fears, and doubts. Rather than being places that separate me further from the God I want to know and love, when we bring all of ourselves to God, our doubts and fears can become windows to our deepest desires.
“With Every Power Wide Awake”
“Here I am with every power wide awake. Lifted hands, this selfish heart is yours to break.”
Again, I struggle to put it so simply. I don’t want to pretend that John made all of my questions go away, if anything I have more for being his friend. But while it may make me uncomfortable trying to express in a few words how knowing John and his music has changed me, I am less afraid of simplicity. Simplicity is not at odds with the complex questions of our world. They can enhance each other. John’s seemingly simple declarations of faith are not undermined by a fear of facing his innermost questions and doubts. Instead, the beauty of a song like “All Shall Be Well” is enriched by the way John has sought to tell his deepest and even darkest truths, regardless of how it makes him look or feel. John’s God is big enough for all of that and this is as striking to me now as the first time I ever heard him sing under the dim lights of a Hollywood club.
There is a concept that comes from the Dutch priest, Henri Nouwen, that I believe describes what John has accomplished in his art with particular clarity. In his book, “Life of the Beloved”, Nouwen describes a life of faith, filled with our own, deeply personal gifts and brokenness. In this life, the goal is to bring all of ourselves, the parts we want people to see and the parts we want to remain hidden, under the blessing of being God’s beloved. To use John’s words, “here I am with every power wide awake. Lifted hands, this selfish heart is yours to break.” When we bring our brokenness into the light of God’s loving gaze, to paraphrase Nouwen, it becomes a gift.
John’s album cycle, “I Am Origami” ends with the second part of “Universal Will the Become”, a song written for his young son. In “Part I”, John struggles with his two selves, one that is “prone to wield a knife” and the other that feels the pull “towards rising daylight.” But in “Part II”, John musters all he has learned in his wrestling to encourage his son: “Hold on my boy, there are beginnings in every form of ending.” I can’t think of a clearer expression of faith or of resurrection. In our friendship, John has given me this reminder countless times. This sort of trust is as present in his life as it is his music. In everything, “there is a whisper, it’s always insisting that you dance in worship.”
Photos by Matthew Wright