FARGO — The components of Rollie Johnson’s life are laid bare in his office at First Lutheran Church in downtown Fargo: pictures of family, a tattered Bible shorn together by deerskin, a small collection of Native American artifacts.
Most keepsakes and memories have been acquired from high on a mountaintop, or in a snow cave in subzero temperatures, or on a river trip in his self-made canoe; places he’s gone alone or, more often, brought others to, to experience God more intimately.
“When you can take people out of their ordinary and place them in creation, they can get quiet, and maybe hear God and experience real Christlike community like they don’t going to work or church,” Johnson says.
His love for nature began in childhood with “weird family vacations,” not unlike the Griswolds of the popular 1980s “National Lampoon’s Vacation” films.
“We even pulled a trailer behind, and my grandma was in there, too, just not dead on the roof!” he says.
Their adventures included backpacking to Isle Royale of the Great Lakes, a Western wagon train trip and a houseboat excursion to Mississippi. “And we always had a cabin or deer shack up north.”
On these fun, crazy journeys, Johnson discovered God present here and now — and he’s now sharing his adventure stories in devotional books.
“Around my late 20s, I was able to verbalize, to myself, ‘I think my purpose in life is to help bring people back to their creator and creation,’” he says.
As a lay pastor with a focus on youth, he’s followed through, with mission trips to Mexico and many other destinations, all with the goal of communing with the divine.
“People are terrified of quiet, of solitude, of nothingness. That’s why they move so fast and fill their calendars and turn on the radio or TV,” Johnson says. “But if you’re not quiet and still, you’re not going to hear God’s voice.”
Johnson calls ours an “age of anxiety,” something he’s faced personally, rather seriously. A laminated sign near his desk reads, “Even though I’m anxious, worried and afraid, I will trust God to see me through this,” reminding him of his struggles and purpose.
The antidote, he says, is prayer, meditation, reading, breathing, quieting.
“The church can help by leading people to quiet, to prayer, to the still, small voice of God,” he says, “but that’s not a popular recipe these days.”
It’s one of the reasons he began collecting in book form his adventure stories, written initially as weekly devotionals for his church staff, to help draw others to quiet and introduce, or reintroduce, them to God.
Marianna Malm, a mentor and former English teacher, was instrumental in the process, “sitting on his shoulders,” so to speak, with strong encouragement. Malm says she’s been touched personally by Johnson’s gifts of communicating and bringing people to God through his stories and adventures.
“We entrusted our daughter, Emily, on one of his initial mission trips to Mexico and quickly learned what an amazing influence Rollie has on young people,” Malm says. “When you read his books, you see the compassion he has for everyone.”
Later, their son, Seth, joined a winter adventure with Johnson in Wyoming, climbing the challenging Devil’s Tower, and “learned how to travel the unknown with a compass.” But Johnson’s inner compass is even more admirable, Malm says.
“He takes these truths we see as ordinary and puts them in practical and very meaningful terms,” she says.
Reaching the ‘unchurched’
Mary Jean Dehne, a colleague and friend, points to Johnson’s “unique capacity and skill in developing relationships with people” of all ages, who “feel they have a listening ear in Rollie that is genuine and transparent.”
“He empowers others to own and make decisions based on what God is telling them through prayer and quiet time,” she says.
Erik Hatch recalls, at age 14, the first winter trip he went on with Johnson to the Boundary Waters — a year hit with 100 inches of snow.
“It was my first time ever camping. I had the wrong snowshoes, the wrong gear and within minutes I looked like a yeti caught in the snow,” he says. But Johnson guided him through, “challenging me, pushing me, giving me experiences I wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
When Hatch’s mother died from cancer when he was 21, Johnson stepped in.
“He was a constant presence in that tumultuous time, allowing my faith to grow and me to ask questions,” Hatch says. “He became my mentor and father figure, one of the people I trust most in this world.”
Along with being astute in his direction, including discouraging him from opportunities that might have fed his ego more than his ministry, Hatch says, “Rollie has an obscene amount of energy. He brings laughs and life to everything he’s a part of.”
Despite the profuse gratitude and admiration friends use in describing him, Johnson likely would duck such praise.
“He’s very transparent in speaking about his weaknesses and sins,” Dehne says, “and I think that draws people into feeling that they are also cherished by our creator and savior, to come to the table as they are, not to pretend to be something perfect.”
Through his devotionals, Johnson hopes to reach “the unchurched and de-churched,” he says.
“People who’ve had a bad experience with church also tend to say there’s no God,” Johnson says. “This is my attempt to say God is here, present and real, but you don’t have to look inside a building to find him.”
The devotionals are purposefully “not churchy,” he says, but real encounters told through his unique gift of observation and paying attention.
“You’ll also find plenty of exciting adventures in the wilderness,” he says.
Malm says she’s proud of Johnson’s “graciousness” and accomplishments.
“His ability of putting his experience to words that people can take and read and come back to is a gift. I’m just glad I was able to be his cheerleader,” she says.
Both of Johnson’s devotional books, “Paying Attention: Finding God in the Ordinary” and the more recent release “Paying Attention II: God’s Extraordinary Movements in Our Ordinary World,” can be ordered through his website, www.rolliejohnson.com.
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Jan. 10, 2020.]