Tacos & Tree Talk
- paradox is the norm, not the exception -
As I watched him, I knew those things didn’t matter. The storm stirring inside me, juxtaposed against Michael’s calm, said so.
After arriving stateside from our post-race travels, Daniel and I received word from Team USA’s Long Course Triathlon director. We had qualified to race with our age-group team during the 2015 World Championships in Motala, Sweden. We didn’t need to consider the opportunity; we signed on immediately.
Before diving back into training, we took three months out of the pool and let our bikes sit idle. It was a nice break, but somehow, my work absorbed all the hours I would have spent training. Our company was growing and for all seven days every week, if I didn’t have something planned, I’d gravitate to my laptop and return to emails and projects.
I needed a mid-week reprieve from my intense work and training schedule. Fortunately, one day after church, a guy named Michael asked if I’d be interested in meeting to talk about the Bible and building businesses. It seemed like an interesting combination of topics so I said I was in. Michael connected me with a group of entrepreneurs from different places around the city and we all started meeting for breakfast on Wednesdays.
It was early. The city streets were still empty. I locked up my bike in front of the Union League Club, tucked my helmet into my backpack, and unfolded my jeans. I zipped up my orange pullover and walked past the Club’s front revolving doors. I stepped into the alleyway where the service entrance was located and cracked the door. I studied the front entrance and spotted the doorman. As he turned and diverted his gaze, I swept into the Great Room and bee-lined to the elevator. I held the ‘Close’ button down before anyone could stop me.
The Union League Club wasn’t really my scene. The dress code was too strict. If the doorman stopped me wearing jeans and a hoody, he’d send me right to the “lost and found.” It was really just a pile of clothes from the 1980’s that Club members had left in the locker room (intentionally, I imagine). Then, I’d be forced to pull on a pair of old slacks. That happened to me once. I was caught wearing jeans and the pair of pants I was given to wear were ten years out of style and five sizes too large.
Once out of the elevator, I made my way down a short hallway filled with expensive paintings. I settled into a lavish, leather-backed chair surrounded by mahogany shelving and a massive stone fireplace. It was the kind of room that reminded me of political shows, or oil barons. It was where powerful senators, state leaders, and “old money” all sit to joke about the normal, inconsequential people of our world in a plume of cigar smoke.
As Nate – another Nate – poured me a cup of coffee, I shook Tim’s hand. I said hey to Michael, Matt, Hank, and we waited for Mike to show up. We met in the same room every week. Each of us needed those mornings. Being entrepreneurs, we all rode emotional roller coasters while developing our respective projects or products that were always more demanding than rewarding. Michael and I were both focused on nonprofits and technology while the others were in finance, real estate, media, and restaurants.
We had our own ritual. While we’d wait for Mike to walk in 20 minutes late, Michael would serve as our group’s shaman and kick off the conversation with a certain discussion topic. As we talked, the other Nate would ask some type of existential, thought-stirring question like, “How can there be evil in the world if God is good?” We’d all think on that for a few moments. You couldn’t tame Nate’s curiosity. I appreciated his questions but Tim, Hank, and I didn’t always know how to respond. Matt would then break the silence with some sarcastic comment. Michael would reel the conversation in and we’d listen intently again. Then, Mike would walk into the room and crack a joke. We’d laugh, welcome him, and move on to the next topic.
This morning was different, however. Michael started off by sharing he’d be moving back home to his parents’ house in the suburbs. He was out of cash and waiting for more funding to fuel his startup.
He said he planned to use his in-between time to work at McDonald’s and share God’s love with his new co-workers. He was looking forward to an easier pace of life with more time to meditate. That sounded pretty radical to us, but if anybody would choose that path and thrive, it was Michael.
Before leaving the Club that morning, I promised myself I’d visit Michael in the suburbs. I enjoyed talking with him. More so, I enjoyed listening as he responded to my questions with profound, God-given wisdom. I didn’t want that to change just because he wasn’t living in the city anymore.
Michael had been living in the suburbs for a few months when March rolled around. I decided to check in and see if he was interested in meeting up for tacos, which he was. We met at the tail-end of a particularly demanding stretch of life for me. I had been working for nearly three months without a full day off as Brian and I drove the company forward by brute force, hacking together everything from new marketing initiatives to product developments. We even started renting Airbnb’s in remote forest locations just to work outside the city on weekends.
I was keeping up my training schedule for the big race in Sweden, too. While I loved my breakneck pace, I also knew I needed to find some rest. Dinner with Michael seemed to be just what I needed. We ordered tacos and without much delay, I asked Michael what he was learning about rest and restoration through his time in the suburbs. I knew he wanted to find more peace outside the city, and without the hustle of managing his company’s product launches and coding sprints.
Michael started talking about trees. He’d sit on his parents’ patio in the mornings to listen to the sound of the wind rustling the leaves and to watch the bright red cardinals flying across the yard. It was soothing to him. Then he started to talk about something much more profound.
“I’m also learning about resurrection, or at least I’m supposed to be learning about resurrection,” Michael said, dragging a handful of tortilla chips through salsa.
“Like, dead things coming to life? That kind of resurrection?”
“Right, and how the Bible’s story of resurrection plays out in our lives.” Michael paused to swallow his chips before continuing, “It’s a pretty relevant topic because our company has essentially died. We’re out of cash. We hibernated our website, and now we’re waiting for a new round of investment – a resurrection – to begin operating again.”
As Michael continued to talk about resurrection, he used the word “paradox” to describe how the foundational truths governing our lives show up in ways that feel very backward to us. He said our Creator, in His infinite knowledge, wrote a story with a script we never could have guessed.
“Give me an example of that, truth showing up backward,” I challenged more curiously than defensively. I set my pork taco down to focus on what Michael was saying.
“Well, it’s all throughout Jesus’ teachings and what we have recorded in scripture. Think about how Jesus said the poor will inherit the world, or how the first will be last and the last will be first,” Michael explained.
“More practically, think about how death gives way to life in trees.”
I laughed, “Trees? In what way?”
“Trees are actually dying as they lose their leaves. The tree has to conserve its energy for winter, so it kills its leaves by breaking down the chlorophyll in them. Then it sheds them to the ground. In the process of dying, the leaves change colors and we get something new and even more magnificent – a tree full of yellow, red, orange, even a whole season called ‘fall.’ Then, life ‘springs’ forth as the tree survives winter. There’s something beautifully backward about that. Death as the passage to life.”
Our tacos went down easy, but it would take me a while to fully digest Michael’s words.
Only the Author knows what will unfold in any given chapter of a story. In the same way, because I’m limited to my role as “Nate” in the Big Story of our world, my life’s most confusing moments only end up making sense over the long-term. After I’ve continued to live life forward, I can look backward and understand more in hindsight. I can re-read the script. Greater context affords clarity, and it helps me uncover the meaning underpinning frustrating experiences.
We’re characters, not authors, so we won’t always understand the “why” behind our experiences as we live them. But, if we realize that paradox is actually the norm and not the exception in the Big Story of our world, we’ll learn to study our confusing and ordinary moments more closely. We’ll begin to ask, “Why?” instead of, “Why me?”
Before eating tacos with Michael, I had never used the word paradox in a sentence, let alone considered how it may influence my life. Yet, the principle still applied. Here’s a quick example of what I mean.
Years before our dinner, I was turned down for an elite consulting job. I had prepared hours upon hours for the interview process and I had made it past 500 candidates to the final three. I even ranked highest on the business problems we were given to solve during the last of a four-part hiring process.
Then, somehow, they gave the job to the guy who bombed his last interviews. I remember hanging up the phone feeling shocked and confused. More accurately, I was pissed. But, years later, I came to appreciate that plot twist. That job would have taken me out of Chicago and I never would have found my call as an entrepreneur. What’s more, I’d never have met my wife.
Because I was infuriated in the moment, I didn’t look to the bigger storyline unfolding; I saw no purpose behind the rejection. Had I known that life often unfolds a little differently than we first expect, I’d have understood that rejection was actually a gift. That denial was a blessing. Now, that doesn’t make much sense on the surface, but over time, I found a more significant life with my wife and as an entrepreneur.
I put my taco back in my mouth and considered my options. If I agreed with Michael, what he was telling me would require a shift in my thinking. I didn’t find that very desirable. I wanted to keep my own storyline as the center of the world, with my own pursuits and ambitions as the focal point. I wanted to narrate and decide how my story developed, cherry-picking the elements of religion and Christianity that I found convenient.
But Michael told me that Jesus’ death and resurrection – the Gospel story – is actually the main story of our world. He said its truths are reflected in our daily lives. He said that if I looked for it, I’d see the Gospel story showing up in my life in ways I didn’t expect (as paradox).
Candidly, I thought Michael was nuts. He sounded pretty far out there. But, I considered the possibilities as he continued talking. I did believe that Jesus was a real, living person who walked this Earth. I also believed the historical evidence points to his death and subsequent resurrection. But did that translate to bigger things for my life? No. Not really. I wanted to live life as I wanted to now and worry about everything else when I died.
Ravi Zacharias is a Christian apologist who says there are four major questions in everyone’s life – origin, meaning, morality, and destiny. Everyone’s worldview – Atheist, Buddhist, Muslim, Agnostic, Jew – posits an answer to these four questions. Where did we come from? Why are we here? Am I a good person? Where am I going?
According to Ravi’s framework, I had been justifying my life by applying my worldview to two of these four questions – origin and destiny. I figured that if my faith told me how I got here (creation vs. evolution) and where I was going after (eternal life vs. annihilation), what does faith really have to do with how I live here on Earth? In other words, I had no choice but to accept the start and end dates of my life but I wanted to define the “dash” in-between.
It was my mental shortcut. It let me live in bliss. I could derive my own “meaning” and “morality,” as Mr. Zacharias would say, without some divine author directing me. I wanted to direct why I was living and to what end while defining if I was doing a good job of that. Truth doesn’t bend to our preferences, however. It permeates all corners of our lives whether we like it or not.
I loaded another tortilla chip with guacamole and kept thinking. As I did, Michael’s continued tree-talk broke through my neat dividing lines. He continued to talk about the greatest paradox of all time; full and eternal life was offered to everyone when Jesus died on a cross. Death was the passageway to a meaningful, moral life here on Earth.
I needed to change the topic. I didn’t enjoy feeling that my lifestyle was on trial. Looking back, I realize that Michael wasn’t calling me out in the slightest, I simply felt convicted. So, I lobbed him a few easy questions about working at McDonald’s, living at home, and some lighter topics.
As I faded between my thoughts and Michael’s words, I noticed something different about him. You know how there are those scenes in movies where someone is talking, and you see their mouth moving, but you don’t hear the words? Only the thoughts in the protagonist’s head?
This was like that. “Why does he look so calm?” I asked myself. There was a peace about him I hadn’t seen before. He looked rested, he spoke vibrantly, and he had a certain tranquility about him. Maybe he only looked extra peaceful in contrast to my own worn-down spirit that day. I couldn’t help feeling, however, that between the two of us, Michael was the one who was truly living.
All of our society’s values and ideals screamed, “that can’t be!” How was it that in a time when Michael was broke, working at McDonald’s, and living with his parents, he seemed less anxious than I was? I was the one leading a growing company with plenty of access to cash and investors; I drove a car and he walked; I picked up our dinner tab; I was going to sleep in a nice downtown loft while he was headed to sleep in his childhood bedroom.
By all measures, I was the one who should have felt inner peace. At the same time, as I watched him, I knew those things didn’t matter. The storm stirring inside me, juxtaposed against Michael’s calm, said so.
At the end of the evening, I asked Michael if I could give him a lift home. He said he preferred to walk. It was a nice night and walking would give him some time alone. So we said goodbye and I started up my car.
As I drove onto the highway’s entrance ramp to head back into Chicago, my eye caught something that seemed out of place. As I was winding around the ramp’s curve, there was a wolf limping across the ramp. He looked back at me with piercing, blue eyes.
His coat was magnificent – a rich grey and white waving in the wind like a wheat field on the Kansas plains. There was something striking about him. He gave me the kind of feeling that makes you hold your breath before letting it out in the form of “woah.” He walked with a limp, raising his front right paw that glimmered with a bright red streak across his white fur.
I took my foot off the accelerator to make sure I was actually seeing what I thought I was seeing. As I slowed, he vanished down the bank of the ramp and I lost him.
“Uh, what?” I said out loud. Maybe I hadn’t seen anything?
No, I definitely saw a wolf. He was as real as the tacos I had just polished off.
Clearly, a wolf of that caliber was out of place on a city expressway. Not only was he out of place, he was hurt. A thought came to me: the wolf was a symbol, representing a man who had been lost in the world and he was trying to find his way back home. In his search, he began pursuing things that didn’t matter, pushing him further away from home until he was injured in the process.
It was a strange moment, but to be honest, writing about it is much stranger. Putting this into written word reinforces its reality. This kind of stuff doesn’t usually happen to me.
I asked myself again, “Was that an actual sign, or is this just in my head?”
Seconds later, I passed a massive green sign that stretched over the highway and read “Wolf Road.” Wouldn’t you know it? It wasn’t just undercooked flank steak in my tacos. I was being asked to put more time and thought into the importance of my conversation with Michael instead of dismissing it. I suppressed my rising instinct to chalk everything up to coincidence and I thought about why I worked so hard, and what I was giving up in the process. I played out the trajectory of my life. I thought about who I’d become if I continued in the same way for a few more years.
I considered how I’d just worked 90 days straight. I realized that in the process of gaining a career, a company, and to be honest, an identity I really liked as an “entrepreneur,” I was also giving up time with my family and friends.
Selfishly, I had been focusing on my own ambitions and I had forgotten about the relationships and characters who had played an influential role in my life. Close to a month had passed since I had called my mom just to say hello. I had no idea what was happening in my brother’s or sisters’ lives. I hadn’t stopped by the family house to catch up with my dad.
Those were things I could have done while keeping a busy schedule, but I was too caught up living another story. I wasn’t malicious; I was just consumed. I hadn’t looked me around until Michael clued me into the big picture. You see, neglect is what happens when characters mistake themselves for authors – they wrap themselves up too heavily in the sub-plot. We start to believe we’re the whole story, or that the world hinges on the story we’re living.
Well, maybe not you. I do that too often.
I decided to text my dad, “Hey Pops, want to get dinner next week?” Fast forward one week, we did get dinner. And do you know what? It’s one of the most memorable meals I’ve ever shared with someone. I can still recall what we talked about, at which table we sat, and what we ordered. For a short while, I felt a sense of calm return. I wasn’t trying to do more or go faster. I found meaning in simply sitting and sharing life with my dad. I knew he enjoyed being with me, too.
It’s nice to know you mean something to the people you love just because of who you are, not what you’ve accomplished.
If you believe there’s a Big Story that brings meaning to your life, but you’ve been a little too wrapped up in your own story lately, who could you ask out for tacos? If you don’t believe there’s a Big Story to our world, where do you look for meaning? What matters most in your life?
Want to read more? Why stop now? If you've enjoyed the blog series, check out the full book, Living Forward, Looking Backward on Amazon.com.