Year: 2020

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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