Year: 2020

Five Years

At 8:32 a.m., on October 11, 2015, a slow Sunday morning at our home in Tennessee, my iPhone rang. The screen read LIBBY CHINN, our daughter-in-law.

         When I answered, I only heard an anguished moan. No discernable words or syllables. But I knew. Just as crowd sounds tell PGA tour golfers where their ball lies on the green, I knew Libby’s husband, our son Paul, was dead. Nothing else would have produced that sound.

         “We’re on the way.”

         As we drove the two miles, I called our closest friends, Glen and Roberta Roachelle. I do not remember any other words spoken during the short drive. Something in the simple severity of the moment made words inoperable and inappropriate.

         When we rounded the corner to Paul and Libby’s home, the police cars and an EMT vehicle confirmed what we knew. As we walked across the yard in the cool autumn air, a Sheriff’s deputy walked out the front door.

         I said, “We’re Paul’s parents. Is he dead?”

         “Yes.”

         The impeccable word. I needed clarity; no agency-speak, no “I regret to inform you…” With that word, solid ground formed under my feet.

         We went on into the house to our sweet and broken Libby. Soon, David Roachelle, a local law enforcement officer and one of Paul’s oldest and closest friends, arrived. Moments later, David’s parents, Glen and Roberta, walked in. They brought strength and love like the tide.

         I stepped outside to call our other two children, Eddie in Atlanta, and Amy, who lived nearby. Then I called my brothers; Vernon and Carl loved Paul like their own kids. In each call, I knew where the ball landed.

Message from Home

But I remember the day more for what happened a few hours later.

         After lunch, I went to my office to plan a funeral. As I worked, my cell phone beeped a new email. At 1:51 pm, I glanced at the screen to see PAUL HAS ARRIVED HOME. I froze in silent wonder.

         O, my great Lord, You are right here, as near as breath and heartbeat.

         The technology behind a location tracker app partially, but not fully, explains the message delivery. But the larger and inescapable truth was that God, the Eternal Father, the thoughtful Parent, let us know Paul got home just fine. That remains the most cherished message of my life.

         Five years later, I see more; I don’t see everything. And I don’t claim what I do see is right. You, especially if you’ve lost a child, may see further and better. But I do understand some things I didn’t fully realize earlier:

  1. Life never belongs to us. It comes as a force, a gift, from its Creator. It enters our space in the form of a spouse, child, friend, or—come on—a pet. Although that life may complement ours, we cannot own it any more than we can possess a hurricane or the northern lights.

  2. Just as Paul’s arrival in our lives was timely and blessed, so was his exit. His death was painful, but not catastrophic. It conformed to the pattern of every life. Everyone dies; it never comes at a good time.

  3. No life gets cut short. At 43, Paul’s heart attack didn’t steal anything; he had filled his days on earth. It was time to move on.

  4. Grief is proper. Until it isn’t. There’s “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” (Ecclesiastes 3:4) Each is appropriate in its time. And each becomes harsh and immoderate when that time has passed.

  5. By placing one foot in front of the other, the road yields. It reclines. The climb gets easier. Civilization couldn’t continue if it didn’t.

  6. Paul came from his true Father and simply passed through our lives on his great circle back to God. His life didn’t end; he just moved on out to a longer, higher, and richer orbit.

The Higher View

Finally, I’ve learned that everything reflects the glory of God. All miles and moments. Every win, every gain. Each loss and pain. In His Hands, they all—in equal measure—become gates to the high and wild country.

         Scientists say the universe stretches 47 billion light years in diameter and holds ten trillion galaxies. So, do you think the One Who created and sustains all that might hold something more resplendent for each life than just giving us a comfortable, painless, and self-designed existence during our brief time on earth?

From where he now sits, I can almost hear Paul answer that.

Ride the High Country

Almost every morning, Joanne and I start our day with good coffee, conversation, laughter, reading, and prayer. 


This morning, as we prayed for our family and friends, I felt a strong sense of Isaiah 30:18 (only a bare memory of it; I had to look it up). When I found it, I saw how it applies to me. Today. But, it may also help some others.


…The LORD longs to be gracious to you, And therefore He waits on high to have compassion on you. For the LORD is a God of justice; How blessed are all those who long for Him.  

So often, it seems, I jump into my day with a prayer that the Lord will show up in my world, help me succeed (or just hang on), rescue me, prosper me, bring justice for my concerns and issues, etc. Sadly, most of what I think or pray revolves around me. 


And so often, it seems the Lord doesn’t respond at all. To any of it. Instead, He just invites me/us to come up to His House. That’s where, “He waits on high to have compassion on you.” 


Ride the High Country is my all-time favorite western. But this morning, that title also gives voice to my heart. I want to ride up through His High Country.


May we all find the grace and space to turn our attention to Him—away from the swirl of coronavirus, cancer, conflict, politics, social media, etc. As we do, perhaps, in the words of an old song, “the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.”


And, yes, I do wish we could sit together…on the porch (mine or yours) in this beautiful and bracing autumn air. 

Why Do We Go?

Many years ago, Ian, a ruby-cheeked and curly-haired young man, joined the voyage of a five-masted schooner. The great sailing vessel carried over 3,000 tons of food, clothing, farm implements, books, liquor, and lumber.

         After one week at sea, at the end of a hard day, some crew members broke into the cargo of fine liquors and opened a case of scotch. After all, they were risking their lives to transport the stuff. Consuming one out of a hundred cases would surely be a reasonable gratuity for such perilous work. Soon they opened a dozen more cases.

         As the trip wore on, the crew’s clothes grew foul and began to fall apart. That’s when someone discovered vast stores of new clothes. The men discussed the need; their slurred voices reasoned they had destroyed their clothes in the grueling, cold, wet work. So, of course, it was only right to take a small portion of the trousers, shirts, jackets, raincoats, and headgear. No one would expect them to do the heavy work in tattered and inadequate clothing.

         Naturally, being sailors, the crew began grumbling about the food the first day. The meals were not only boring, they complained, but stale and maybe dangerous. This was serious; they wouldn’t live long on that slop. In desperation, the men broke through a partition to discover cases of the best cheeses, steaks, breads, jams, caviar, cakes, and other delicacies. One old sailor said it was better than the Queen Mary.

The Hangover

As the voyage rolled on, the accident rate increased. The sailors stumbled through the difficult and dangerous work. Some looked like they had suffered strokes. Food and drink stained their shirts. Sailors fell asleep on the rolling deck. One night, the pitching ship hurled two men into their ocean graves.

The cargo hold of food became a horror; its repulsive stench permeated every level of the ship. Rotten food and human bile turned the decks treacherous. The rats came. The sickbay remained full.

         Five weeks after the journey began, green hills and a great harbor came into view. When Ian climbed the mast and pulled binoculars to his eyes, he saw trucks and horse-drawn wagons; dozens of all sizes filling the roads leading to the dock.

Peering through his binoculars, the young man suddenly understoodthe enormous and elegant chain of business. Many workers harvested or manufactured the cargo, others loaded it into ships, sailors wrestled it through the sea, dock workers received it, and stores and sales teams sold it throughout the new land.

It never belonged to the crew. They were all thieves.

A Larger Dream

When we view the great sweep of life as personal territory, we enter a very confined and suffocating existence.

         But what if, like the crew of the schooner, “my” work really belongs to that great lineage of people I’ve never seen and will never know? What if I’m a steward of abundant provisions—received from and intended for places and people far beyond my own?

         Will I deliver it or devour it?

         Do you think it’s possible that the less you see your own interests, the more you see larger possibilities? Could losing sight of yourself be the first step into a large dream? Maybe that’s what Jesus meant when He said, “Whosoever saves his life shall lose it: and whosoever loses his life for my sake shall find it.”

Yes, I know the cargo ship’s crew risked their lives, and some died on the voyage. But, if they desired any portion of the great payload they worked so hard to deliver, they had to pay retail like anyone else. No discounts. No refunds. And those who sold it had no interest in their stories of the sea.

         Life’s largest possibilities call us to live within a radical truth: We are not owners; we are trustees and managers of every arena of the life entrusted to us. Making life even more radical is the fact that we are delivering the great treasure to people we don’t know and may not like.

         Does it matter that their Creator likes them? Is that enough reason to go to sea? Those may be life’s biggest questions.  

Harsh Answers

On the last day of our Kansas visit, one year ago today, I dropped by Mom’s nursing home room to tell her we were returning to Tennessee.

         Her relocation had not gone well. So she decided that was the time to let me have it. Of course, it was; she probably knew that was the last time we’d meet. As soon as I sat down, she asked me, her firstborn, “Why am I here?”

         And I heard myself reply, “Because your personal care needs have grown beyond what your family can provide.” I instantly hated the way those words felt in my mouth. Like marbles, too smooth. Accurate, but manipulative. They gave me power and protection, but granted her no space or grace. That’s when I heard Him whisper…just listen to her!

         She kept rolling; her eyes were like lasers. “Your daddy and I built our home; it’s right over there (she pointed east). It’s paid for; it’s mine. Why can’t I just go home?” I wanted to throw up; I could see she’d been suffocating under a blanket of dehumanizing logic: What happened to my life? Why am I held captive so near my home? Why am I spending $5,000 a month for this 340-square-foot box when my home costs me nothing?

         “Mom, I wish you could go home, but you can’t take care of yourself.”

         “I know, Ed—” She broke, “But, my sons…DON’T WANT ME!”  

         There it was. I couldn’t imagine what it cost her to face it and to say it. Yet, I silently protested. Her three sons and daughters-in-law did want her. We deeply loved her; no one carried mommy stuff. Vernon and Betty had cared for her long and sacrificially from their home next door. And Carl and Deana had invited Mom to live with them in Colorado.

         But she was right. Our lives, homes, our ages, our patterns for living, could not absorb the disruption of a 96-year-old woman with serious health needs.

         Her wet and pleading eyes searched my face. I think she was looking for some spark of hope, some sign that the Christ lived in me. Then, dreading the moment, but feeling pressure to get on the road, I stood. “Mom, I love you so much. You’ve been a wonderful mother. But we have to go.”

         She wouldn’t let go that easy; she escorted me out of her room, down the hall, down the elevator, and right out the front door. As I approached the car, she started crying, but melted into my arms. After holding her a few minutes, I said, “Come on, Mom, we don’t live here. We have to go home.”

         “I know,” she wept, nodding and looking at the ground. In that moment, I watched her revert to that child of poverty and shame back in her native Missouri, scared and crying because the road had washed out, the water continued rising, and Daddy was gone. She had no path to a future.

         My last image of Mom frames her in the rearview mirror, as a nursing home employee lead her back inside.

         She died four months later.

         In the end, Mom was like a fearful citizen in an occupied country. She didn’t understand the noises from the street, or why strangers marched into her room day and night, or why those strangers barked orders at her. The conquering “soldiers” could not see Mary Chinn had lost her home, her privacy, her dignity. She had nothing else to lose; she just needed mercy.

          Oh, yes, “The poor plead for mercy, but the rich answer harshly.” (Proverbs 18:23) Harsh answers are the tools for enforcing the rules of the realm. They focus on the work to be done, not the ones for whom it is done.

         Gandhi said, “What you do for me, but without me, you do against me.” Older, weaker, sadder, sicker, poorer people understand that so well. They are the ones most in need of gentle answers. However, for now, they live with the harsh answers of a bloodless world that is passing away.

         But a new world is arriving. Now! Incredibly, its Creator heard all the harsh answers of the old regime during His time on earth. No wonder Isaiah wrote, “He will not cry out or raise his voice…a bruised reed He will not break, and a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish. He will bring justice to all who have been wronged.”

         At last, Mom lives in that new world. A bruised reed has “slipped the surly bonds of earth,” soaring far beyond harsh answers. I think I’ll start practicing gentle answers. Here and now.

The Chinn Farmhouse

The Chinn Place

People often called the farms of my Kansas childhood “places,” as in “just past the cemetery you’ll come to the Johnson place.” Novelist Wallace Stegner wrote that such a place “is not a place until people have been born in it, have grown up in it, lived in it, died in it…over more than one generation.”

         Four generations of Chinns have owned (and seven have known) a place, a small farm in Kansas. Many were born and grew up on that land, and some died there. In another confirmation of place, when my cousin Karen was a child, she addressed a letter to our grandparents:

Grammie and Grampie
Coats, Kansas

         And the letter was delivered.

A Hidden Place

The Chinn farm, located just off the Coats-Sun City road, is hard to find. If you plug the address into a GPS system, you’ll never find the place. It’s hidden. The heart of the farm—the old house, barn, windmill, garage, chicken coop, shed, and silo—lies down in a hollow, concealed about a hundred feet below the main road.

         That farm is ground zero for Chinns. My soul’s architecture folds over the undulant contours of the land, the ancient hum of ancestral voices rising from the soil; massive dark thunderheads boiling out of the western horizon; a wedding on the lawn, and the scents of saddles, alfalfa, and machinery.

The Chinn Farmhouse

         The house is a hodgepodge of parts hauled in by wagon, drug by horses, or rolled on logs and nailed together. Two of the parts cost my widowed great-grandmother forty dollars. That’s the only construction cost I can find. Yet that house, through various repairs, improvements, and expansions, has been home to Chinns since 1897.

         The barn emerged from a similar organic pattern. When a horse killed my great-grandfather in 1900, his four young children had to grow up fast. In 1910, my thirteen-year-old future grandfather, his twin, and their eighteen-year-old brother built the barn. It has now stood as a working barn for more than a century.

A Fertile Place

The farm gave abundantly over the decades; it was a fruitful place. Grandpa farmed it for sixty years (1917-1977) and Grandma gave birth to twelve children between 1919 and 1936. The fertile land gave generously, but Chinns also poured their sweat and blood on the ground to uphold their end of the deal.

         Now, after 136 years of continuous family ownership, the old Chinn place is for sale. These days I find myself walking the ridge between the eras of Chinn ownership and the future, considering the mystery of land and identity.

         Land, the most visible dimension on earth, hides in plain sight. Many people walk, drive, or fly over it without even seeing it. But when humans stop, look, and listen; when they take it seriously, that partnership produces wonders. Grass, gardens, and crops, but also houses, highways, workplaces, cathedrals, airports, and cities climb out of the dirt.  

A Sense Of Place

We often hear people announce their need “for space,” usually away from sources of pain or the demands of maturity. But, more than space, we need a sense of place. Space is infinite, but place is specific. Space is romantic; place is real as a hammer. We tumble through space, but we stand on a place. Space brings vertigo and disorientation. Place brings experience, confidence, and (eventually) wisdom.

         That’s because a place forms an altar where pride and illusions die.

         From that altar my grandparents helplessly watched their two-year-old daughter die, struggled with the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, got kicked in the guts by a wheat harvest of a bushel and a half per acre, and sent three sons to World War II. They spent most of the 20th Century wrestling with Heaven and earth just to pull life from the ground.

            “Humus,” the Latin word for soil or ground, is also the root for “humility.” We don’t ever find our place in the world without humbling ourselves. Humility commits. To a woman, to a man. To promises, to a purpose. To a place.

         The same story has unfurled in many places; God and a family walked together through a place, a pinpoint on earth. Because weighty things happened there, we have a hardy sense of place. More than that, we were formed by a soaring sense of God.

The Chinn Place (photo by Ashley Chinn Matos)

Living With Killers

Have you noticed it’s difficult to find perspective when you face an armed robber, earthquake, or deadly virus? Trying to be philosophical in a hurricane reveals insanity.

         But after disaster strikes, we should return as quickly as possible to the equilibrium of truth and wisdom. We’ve now met coronavirus, taken protective measures, and settled into new social patterns. So, where are we now? Who are we now? What do we see? Will we move on?

         This new virus takes me back to the tsunami that slammed into the coast of Sumatra on December 26, 2004, killing a quarter million people and leaving a half million homeless. That quick sweep of death and destruction brought human anguish into clear and global focus. Convulsive grief became the only proper way of the soul.

         Then, just days later, New York Times science writer William Broad delivered a magnificent perspective to his readers, “Powerful jolts like the one that sent killer waves racing across the Indian Ocean on Dec. 26 are inevitable side effects of the constant recycling of planetary crust, which produces a lush, habitable planet.”

         He also quoted University of California geochemist Dr. Donald DePaolo: “…the type of geological process that caused the earthquake and the tsunami is an essential characteristic of the earth. As far as we know, it doesn’t occur on any other planetary body and has something very directly to do with the fact that the earth is a habitable planet.”[1]

         Incredible; “essential characteristics” of the “lush, habitable planet” kill many who live on it. Think of it, we live across a vast and variegated terrain, comprising geological, spatial, chronological, emotional, and spiritual dimensions. Like a murmuration of sparrows, life rolls, billows, shrinks, and swirls across mysterious undulations of our Creator’s design.

Is the Coronavirus Evil?      

In August 2018, Christianity Today carried an interview with a molecular biologist. Dr. Anjanette Roberts, who had worked on the SARS virus at the National Institutes of Health, brought the same kind of stunning perspective to viruses.

         As a Christian believer, she knows viruses are not the result of Adam’s fall into sin. She explained, “Bacteria are absolutely essential to the life of everything on planet Earth. Bacteria are primary producers.” But right there lies a problem; bacteria can reproduce so rapidly they can double their population in 20 minutes. In the ecological balance, viruses keep that explosive growth in check. According to Dr. Roberts, if viruses did not control bacteria populations, “…there would be no environmental resources and no ecological space for other types of organisms to life on Earth.” [2]

         In March 2020, the same magazine returned to the same theme with Editor-in-chief Daniel Harrell’s article, “Is the Coronavirus Evil?”

         Harrell wrote,“…unless God’s creation defies every characteristic of biological reality, bacteria and viruses are not bitter fruits of the fall, but among the first fruits of good creation itself. If the science is right, there would be no life as we know it without them…Death itself is required for organic life to exist.”[3]

         So, the beautiful perfection of our ecosystem means we live with killers. Our planet is wild and dangerous. But that danger is precisely what makes earth a “habitable planet.” Water—which we cannot live without—brings death as quickly as life. The same is true of wind, shifting plates, and viruses.

         Perhaps we find a clue about our home planet in what the Psalmist David wrote about the planet’s Creator, “darkness and the light are both alike to thee.”

What Matters Most            

The awesome forces of fire, water, wind, disease, or migrating tectonic plates will always shake the order of built things. Societies take decades, sometimes centuries, to build great and essential places. And wild natural forces can knock them down in a few minutes.

         So we live with killers. OK; we need to deal with it, then get back to what matters! We’re all batters in the box; it’s no time to consider earaches, getting new tires, checking Netflix, or cleaning the gutters. Keep your eye on the ball.

         And hold to what matters most—family, faith, friendship, love, joy, humility, peace, generosity, and gratitude.

         This killer will pass. Others will take its place. But we will go on.


[1] William J. Broad, “Deadly and Yet Necessary, Quakes Renew the Planet.” New York Times, January 11, 2005. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/11/science/deadly-and-yet-necessary-quakes-renew-the-planet.html?_r=0

[2] Rebecca Randall, “Why Zika, and Other Viruses, Don’t Disprove God’s Goodness.” Christianity Today, August 14, 2028. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/august-web-only/why-zika-and-other-viruses-dont-disprove-gods-goodness.html

[3] Daniel Harrell, “Is the Coronavirus Evil?” Christianity Today, March 17, 2020.   https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2020/march-web-only/coronavirus-evil-covid-19-disease-theology.html

When the Fog Lifts

Patty knew she was dying. When she and Fred met us in Palm Springs, Patty talked openly and with good humor about living with cancer, facing death, losing hair, and the weirdness of well-meaning friends.

         I can still hear her North Carolina drawl and laughter as she told us, “Look, I love our church friends, but they have worn us out, praying for me. So, most evenings we kill the lights in the front part of the house so they won’t drop in to pray some more.”

         Have you noticed that people caught in the grip of death often radiate a deeper serenity and confidence? It seems the further they walk across that bridge, the more their eyes adjust to the new light. Then they relax, breathe deeper, and settle into a profound measure of trust.  

         My father-in-law was certainly not a religious man. But when he suffered a massive stroke, he suddenly became confident and peaceful about death. He asked me to pray that he could go on. His new vantage point banished all fear.

Through the Fog

Some eyewitnesses of the great London smog in December 1952 said it was so dense they could not see their own shoes. So, think of death as a heavy fog or smog bank settling over a town. The sheer thickness of that gray floating mountain frightens many in its path; they don’t know what it brings.

         But those already swallowed by the fog know a secret—it’s harmless. And, although they may not see more than three feet in its darkness, they know they can walk all the way through it, three feet at a time. Death is probably like any other journey; you don’t complete it at once. Rather, just one step at a time.

         Our fearful imagination presents death as an overwhelming terrorist. But, that may be a simple fear of the unknown or of losing control. My own studies and meditation have convinced me that death arrives with the kind and gentle graces of an old friend.

         I think that’s true, even if death comes through great trauma. In his landmark book, How We Die, Dr. Sherwin Nuland described the violent murder of 9-year-old Katie Mason by an insane man. Her mother, who held Katie as she died from multiple knife wounds, spoke of the sweet release, warmth, and peace that flowed through daughter and mother as death carried Katie away.

         Dr. Nuland explained that the body’s endorphins “alter normal sensory awareness.” In fact, according to Nuland, “Endorphin elevation appears to be an innate physiological mechanism to protect mammals and perhaps other animals against the emotional and physical dangers of terror and pain.”[1]

         Could that “mechanism” be a gift from our Creator? That may be why those who are dying often seem to have more peace and poise than those who gather around them. I suspect the dying find themselves enclosed in a protective bubble, completely safe and peaceful as they pass through the fog of death. That certainly reflects what Katie Mason’s mom wrote.

Beyond Fear

The fear of death is worse than death. That fear, like fog, causes people to injure themselves. So much of human misery is self-inflicted. The worst traffic accidents in history—up to 300 vehicles—were caused by fog. Everyone could have remained safe had they just stopped and waited for it to clear.

         When I once mentioned a friend’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Pastor Glen Roachelle gently reminded me, “He doesn’t have dementia; his body does.” Those seven words threw a floodlight on the great lie behind the fear of death. We assume death means THE END of everything. But, that’s a little like thinking the moment we cross a national border, say from the US to Canada, we cease to exist.

         When the renowned professor and author Dallas Willard learned he faced imminent death from prostate cancer, he said, “I think that when I die, it might be some time before I know it.”[2] What a brilliant observation. The border we cross from this life to the next will probably hold no drama, no pain, no regret, and no shocking changes. Just the next step in a long and continually unfurling life.

         And we will probably look back in total amazement, wondering, “Why was I ever afraid of death?” Seeing so very clearly, perhaps we will, for the first time, understand 1 Corinthians 15:55:

         “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”


[1] Sherwin Nuland, How We Die (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994)

[2] John Ortberg, Dallas Willard, a Man from Another Time Zone, Christianity Today, May 8, 2013  https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/may-web-only/man-from-another-time-zone.html

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