Ed Chinn

Ed Chinn has been published in The Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Atlanta-Journal Constitution, San Jose Mercury, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and other newspapers, magazines, and websites. He is the author of Footprints in the Sea (Cool River Pub, 2009). Ed and his wife, Joanne, live in Middle Tennessee.

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

The Woman Who Loved Storms

On the afternoon of May 7, 2002, a large tornado hit my home town, Pratt, Kansas. My brother Vernon, Pratt County Sheriff, immediately called our parents and told them to get to the hall bathroom and stay there. When he later dropped in to check on them, he found them standing at the sliding glass door, gazing at the beautiful terror of the storm.

       Mom was always ready to trade safety for the thrill of dazzling and dangerous spectacles. Her love of ominous Kansas weather forged one of the anchors of my life. She loved the very things which sent others diving into storm cellars or basements.

       Not only was she unafraid, but blizzards, thunderstorms, and even tornadoes brought pure squealing-with-delight joy to Mary Chinn. And she passed it on to her children. Mom’s exuberant enjoyment of storms was wonderfully infectious; we caught it the same way people catch colds.

       The great blizzards of my childhood served magical gifts to the Chinn boys. They kept us home from school, drew us outside to play in the snow, and gave us Mom’s “snow ice cream” (vanilla, sugar, and cream in a bowl of snow). Surely, we were the only children in the world who had ever tasted such a magnificent dessert. 

Beyond Burger King

I’m grateful for the great virtues and lessons that I learned or caught from Jack and Mary Chinn. But a love of storms may be the most valuable legacy handed down to me.

       Why?

       Because God loves storms. They reflect an essential part of His nature, and they also comprise the planet’s fleet of big transport trucks that haul temperature and moisture to places that need them. Furthermore, by learning to love what the Creator loves, we find new alignment with God.

       Mom loved and lived the words of the old hymn,

“O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder
Thy power throughout the universe displayed”[1]

       Mary Chinn would rather have known the “awesome wonder…of rolling thunder” than safety.

       But, in our consumer age, many people turn away from wonder in their reach for control. They prefer the words of an old Burger King ad: “Have it your way.” 

       A storm, however, is a powerful reminder that a great sweep of life lies beyond our control. We cannot choose the timing, the target, or the intensity of a storm. A tornado or hurricane is an enormous swirling billboard that announces, “You can’t have it your way.” 

Nature’s Theater

I’m forever grateful that I grew up beneath the large canopy of south-central Kansas sky. We had front row seats at the grand theater of nature. I slept in the backyard as often as possible; the night sky overwhelmed and charmed me. And few natural exhibitions can be as thrilling as a black thunderhead boiling up out of the western Kansas horizon.

       We grew up knowing that a storm might kill us, but it couldn’t destroy us. We knew life was a continuum; it would go on… somewhere! Nature held no threat over our real life. Knowing that released us from the fear of death, a fear which keeps many from living a full life.

       After living a very full 96 years, Mom died November 1. The weather forecast for the day of her funeral and burial called for 37 degrees and light wind. But, when we arrived at the cemetery, the temperature was 22, and snow came horizontally out of the north.

       I could almost hear her laughter in the wind.


[1] “How Great Thou Art,” Stuart K. Hine

Letting Go

Our white cat, Tiger, came to us in 2006 when his previous owner dropped him at our house. Joanne and I instantly saw the man was abusive. When he opened the cage in our foyer, Tiger ran as fast and far as possible. We later found him crouched behind the dryer.

         It took a long time to win his heart; he was so fearful. But, over time, he gradually warmed to us. I think he finally realized we would not injure him. In time, he became vocal and his personality opened like a flower. He learned to express his needs and his affection.

         For example, Joanne and I meet at our game table almost every day for a card game and have done so for years. In that ritual, I’ve pulled the piano bench up beside my chair for Tiger. He would jump up, watch us play a while, and then paw my arm as I tried to play; his searching eyes told me he needed attention. And, of course, I gave it to him.

         And, despite the feline reputation for indifference, Tiger was always attentive to us, mainly to Joanne, a diabetic. If her blood sugar fell or climbed too much, he would lay nearby, fixing his gaze on her. When I appeared, his laser stare told me, “Do something!”

         We became a society; three of God’s creatures leaning into each other within our one-acre corner of Tennessee. We learned the cross-species nuances of affection, reaching, retreating, intruding, and yielding. We stepped on his tail; he threw up on our floors. Through it all, we slowly began to understand the scripture, “Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast.”[1] We were effectively the hands of God for Tiger; we had to fulfill the Lord’s care for His creatures.

         We loved and enjoyed him for 13 years. But, these pet-and-people connections never end well. He was, after all, an elderly cat. So, after completing some kidney tests, about 1:00 p.m. on October 1, the vet told us the time had come. We said we’d bring Tiger to her clinic at 3:00.

         Over the next two hours, I watched Tiger interact with his environment, including us. But I knew what he didn’t—that the road to his future had washed out. As I petted him, prayed for him in this new journey, and wept in farewell to a friend, I wondered if that’s how God views us. He sees what we cannot, and He knows we can’t control what is coming. In the end, our weakness will drop us into His kindness.

         Throughout that last trip to the vet, and as we entered the “death chamber,” Tiger was docile, accepting, silent. As he lay on the table, his very full eyes locked on ours. Peacefully. He had moved beyond fear.

         Then we gathered him in his blanket and held him while the doctor administered the drug that would take Tiger from us. As the chemicals carried him from our shoreline, he pulled a corner of his blanket into his mouth and began to suck. He continued to suckle a breast we could not see. Until he stopped.

         In his death, Tiger made his final statement to our little family; go gently. Lay it down, let it go. Rest. Everything will be far better than you ever imagined.  


[1] Proverbs 10:12 (ESV)

Who Are Those People in Your Life?

As for the saints who are in the earth, They are the majestic ones in whom is all my delight. Psalms 16:3

What would it take to really see the mysterious bundles of flesh and spirit in your spouse? Your kids? Or your parents, siblings, friends, or neighbors?

God chose to bring magnificent people into your life, just as He did into mine. I would like to know yours, but I’ll go first; let me tell you about mine. Because I did nothing to earn these friendships and do not deserve them, I can only stand in silent awe.

The Majestic Ones

Let me introduce you to some human treasures among my friends.

  • First, we stop at my lovely Joanne. Although she buried her parents, her son, and two sisters, and has endured serious illness and pain, her laughter thaws frozen rivers. She passionately loves her kids, grandkids, friends, and flowers. Her husband knows he only lives because God likes Joanne.

  • When diabetes took his leg, Dan settled into a wheelchair as regally as a naval captain commands his ship. His gentle Oklahoma drawl and easy humor convince listeners it’s all going to turn out fine. And, to see him at a formal event is to understand why civilization devised tuxedos.

  • Glen, a true force of nature, listens carefully, weighs the words and the spirit behind them, and then drops a plumb line down through the room. His view leaves nothing else to say. It’s time to repent or lawyer up. And, his Roberta loves every person, plant, and animal she ever touched… with her hand, eyes, or shadow.

  • Gerrit and Himmie speak and move in musical cadence, exuding southern charm. When our son died, they drove to our house. They brought no sermons or songs but stepped into the abyss with us.

  • Daoud and Robin walk through their very wide world like royalty. Yet, they taught us a timeless and life-altering lesson in vulnerability, humility, and kindness.

  • Doug, a prophet, spreads the love of God over the world, enjoys fine steaks and wines, fires a cannon on his ranch, and scares the hell out of religious people.

  • Steve and Beth welcome stray cats and people to their home. Like the Good Samaritan, they pull them to health and pay the bills to do it.

  • When Morris touches a keyboard, he rips a hole between Heaven and earth and ushers the outcasts into God’s living room.

  • Many years ago, Chris and Linda walked out of the church house and into the high call of serving their neighborhood and city. In that call, they flow with Muslims and Mormons as easily as they do with Methodists.

  • Beverly, a child psychologist, continues to work past retirement age because the children in her remote Georgia county would have no other advocate or helper if she quit.

The Truth About Friends

If I knew just one of those people, I’d be rich. But, I know many. I hope to introduce you to others—our kids and grandkids, my parents and brothers, and the vast sweep of artists, teachers, preachers, cops, outlaws, orphans, and outsiders who enrich my life.

            Through these and other majestic ones, I’ve learned some things about friendship:

  1. To cherish other humans means I must first recognize their Creator.

  2. Love and respect should be spoken. Plainly. Face-to-face. Heart-to-heart. Don’t let those you love wonder where they stand with you.

  3. I cannot change the terms, the temperature, or the territory of friendship. I can only accept (or reject) what was offered.

  4. Friendship builds a sanctuary, a sacred and safe place for heartsounds.  

  5. Real friends offer a wondrous mix of total acceptance for who you are and encouragement to be more than you are.

  6. People will disappoint you. Forgive them.

  7. When the time comes, release them to go on into their destiny, even if that release involves a funeral.

Finally, what is the proper response for such majestic ones? After all, we didn’t create them or invite them. God fashioned the moment, the intersection, and the eternal resonance between two hearts. Gratitude is the only proper deportment.

            But, according to the professor and author Richard Beck, “Gratitude implies a gift, which in turn implies a giver.” In other words, gifts do not tumble down from outer space.  Gratitude cannot exist by itself. It unavoidably assumes a Creator, the one who gives.  

            We are grateful for and we are grateful to.

Leave It Where You Found It

“In racing…your car goes where your eyes go. The driver who cannot tear his eyes away from the wall as he spins out of control will meet that wall; the driver who looks down the track as he feels his tires break free will regain control of his vehicle.”[1] 

         That is how Denny, the race car driver, explained the race in the splendid novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain. In other words, keep your eyes focused on the road ahead. If you look at the wall, you will hit the wall.

Let It Go

The introspective impulse of our age insists that we focus on the wall. It tells us to walk backward, always focused on the past. Appreciating the past is healthy; fixating on it can be deadly.  

         It really all comes down to a question: How important is your future?

         All the time and energy spent excavating the past, reacting to others, or getting angry represent an enormous waste. Could that drive could be better utilized in moving us forward in our own life’s purpose?

         Kimi Gray was a lifelong tenant of Washington, DC’s public housing. But she had an idea; what if tenants managed, even owned, their units? Could they begin to build equity? Would that translate into greater care for the property?

         As a lifelong Democrat, she pitched the idea to everyone she knew in her camp. When her passion failed to ignite anyone there, she dared to reach out to “the enemy.”

         President Reagan’s HUD Secretary, Jack Kemp, listened. After they talked, he introduced her to his boss. To make a long story short, Reagan signed a bill allowing tenant ownership of public housing. He then handed Kimi the keys to her own public housing unit. Her resident management corporation would administer the transfer of units to residents.

         A few days after that ceremony, I spent an afternoon with her. After talking of many things, I asked Kimi how she had been able to navigate all the personalities and polarities of “Washington” and do it so successfully for so long.

         Her voice, spoken from the language of her street, carried wisdom for everyone: “I always leave shit where I find it.”

         “What do you mean?”

         “Some folks gotta analyze it, play with it, or throw it on others. Not me; I see it, I keep walking. Leave it where you found it.”

         So simple, so intelligent. Keep walking. Leave it where you found it.

         Later, she told me about her encounter with a famous Washington power broker soon after the White House ceremony. After deriding the whole idea of resident empowerment, he said, “Kimi, don’t you know the Republicans are using you?”

         She replied, “But, I got the keys!” Her answer perfectly modeled her motto.

Ignore the Wall

We don’t have to engage, explain, or react to everything. We have no obligation to make sure everyone is happy. Our economy invests great energy and dollars to pushing people to do something. And, when we are continuously prodded by anger, outrage, bargains, and other provocations we tend to become reactive. We wait to be told when, where, how, and why to click, buy, be afraid, exhibit outrage, etc.

         But, to do that keeps your eye on the wall, not the track. We don’t have to live like that. Your life does not belong to marketers, politicians, news media, or any other power center. You can ignore the wall and keep your eyes on the prize.

         Just walk away. Leave it where you found it.


[1] Garth Stein, The Art of Racing in the Rain (New York: HarperCollins, 2008)

Why We Sleep

Dr. Matthew Walker’s book, Why We Sleep, Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams (Simon & Schuster, 2017), reveals that, besides being essential to health and life, sleep brings a magical level of creativity. Walker chronicles “some of the most revolutionary leaps forward in human progress” first rode into existence on dreams.

         For example, during the night of February 17, 1869, Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev dreamed the periodic table of elements. According to Walker, “The dream took hold of the swirling ingredients in his mind and, in a moment of creative brilliance, snapped them together in a divine grid…”

         Walker also describes Otto Loewi’s dream of two frogs’ hearts that ultimately revealed how nerve cells communicate using neurotransmitters. That discovery won the Nobel Prize. We also learn that “Yesterday” and “Let it Be” came to Paul McCartney in his sleep. Keith Richards has a similar story behind “Satisfaction.”

Why We Don’t Sleep

Naturally, the driving question behind Why We Sleep is “Why do we not sleep?”

         At the most extreme, today many countries (including the US) officially authorize sleep deprivation as a form of torture against enemies. But, what about the ways “civilized” behavior keeps us from sleeping? How is modern life imposing poor health and even death through restricted sleep? Walker names the biggest culprits:

  • Constant light (including LED)
  • Temperature (our bodies need cool air for sleeping best)
  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol (“one of the most powerful suppressors of REM sleep”)
  • Work schedules (factory whistles and alarm clocks spike blood pressure)

        

Furthermore, US workplaces try to fight smoking, substance abuse, injurious practices, disease, etc. “But insufficient sleep—another harmful, potentially deadly factor—is commonly tolerated and even woefully encouraged.”

         Beyond those big 5, Walker links our inability to sleep with heart disease, dementia, diabetes, and cancer. Yet, he writes, “More than 65 percent of the US adult population fail to obtain the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep each night…”

         Making it all worse, too often, when we can’t sleep, we reach for the wrong fix, sleeping pills. They decrease the quality of sleep and increase the risk of poor health and early death.   

Return to Sanity

So, how do we go to sleep? Surprisingly or unsurprisingly, depending on your perspective, returning to what we’ve always known builds the best paths to sleep. We should:

  1. Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.
  2. Avoid alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine (especially in the afternoon and evening).
  3. Eat moderately.
  4. Make sure your medicines do not delay or disrupt sleep.
  5. Don’t nap after 3:00 p.m.
  6. Relax before going to bed.
  7. Make your bedroom cool, dark, and free of sound or light-emitting gadgets.

        

Why We Sleep weaves beautiful logic and rhythms into finding our way back to healthy sleep. And, of course, that goes far beyond those 7 points. In fact, as I read, I often thought of Psalm 127:3, “It is vain for you to rise up early, to retire late, to eat the bread of painful labors; For He gives to His beloved even in his sleep.” (NASB)  

         Unbelievably, western societies decided to work too long and too hard to obtain what is a gift from God.

         Sleep is one of the primary gauges on the dashboard of life. Why We Sleep presents a compelling case for keeping our eye on that panel, especially the dial that often clangs and flashes “SLEEP – SLEEP – SLEEP.”

NOTE: If you order this book from Amazon, be very careful. An almost-identically titled book, with similar cover design, and almost twice the price will pop up first if you search for Why We Sleep. It’s a scam. Make sure you get this book:

The Voice in the Night

Early in the morning of August 7, 1930, three African-American teenage boys—Abram Smith, Thomas Shipp, and James Cameron—were arrested in Marion, Indiana. They were charged with shooting Claude Deeter, and raping his girlfriend, both white, as they parked on a local lover’s lane. Throughout the day, the news flashed across (and beyond) Indiana.

         Deeter died that afternoon. By nightfall, thousands gathered at the Marion jail. They ordered Sheriff Jacob Campbell to release the young men to them. When he refused, men with sledgehammers tore the jail apart. They pulled Smith and Shipp from their cells and through the mob. The people beat both men with bricks, boards, and crowbars. Then two ropes sailed up into the night air, creating pulleys around large tree limbs. Minutes later, Smith and Shipp died at the end of the ropes.

The Voice that Changed Everything

A shocking photograph of that scene reveals a defiant and angry mob, individuals swaying to the music of murder and swaggering in their own righteousness. They appear caught in a wild pandemonium, a demonic possession they could not escape. Surely those swirling in that maelstrom will never know kindness or humility or empathy.

         Until they do. That terrible dark story somehow veered into a transcendent moment.

         After Shipp and Smith died, the mob returned to the jail, pulled James Cameron to the same tree, and placed a noose around his neck. But, suddenly, from out of the night sky, a voice rang out. It proclaimed Cameron’s innocence and ordered his release. The lynch mob fell silent. Many eyewitnesses believed they heard the voice of God. Cameron told me that, after the voice spoke, “Everything changed. Hands that handled me so roughly were suddenly so gentle.”[1]


Above the Silos

Most people view their god solely within a silo, a closed system, isolated from all other groups or structures. What happens in the silo stays in the silo.

         That’s why the scene in Marion that night was stunning in its utter simplicity: an angry and violent mob heard a great voice in the dark, and that voice turned rough hands into gentle ones. No temples, no leaders, no liturgies, and no religious assumptions or expectations.

         At its best, religion is a collective effort to obey God and transform His will into a “voltage” that can be used on earth. But, for the same reason, the religious impulse inevitably builds silos. And, that creates a problem; the God Who is God simply cannot fit inside a manufactured cylinder. So, belief systems work very hard to whittle the immeasurable, undefinable, inconceivable, and unruly God down to a deity we can measure, define, imagine, and control.

         That’s why the Christian, Islamic, Jewish, and all other silo deities are inadequate. They are all, ultimately and merely, human projections of their “God.” Look, as a Christian, I embrace the full sweep of Jesus as King of all created order. Still, I’ve long been uneasy about identifying myself as “Christian.” The moment I do, I step back into my Christian silo, thereby requiring outsiders to talk to me in my safe zone. It’s like a 7-year-old telling his new friend, “I’m sorry; Mommy won’t let me go outdoors, but if you accept her, you can join our family and then we can play in our house.”

Let’s Go Outside

I think many seekers of God yearn to play outside, to leave the cramped and cultic house and play with all the neighborhood kids under the vast canopy of God’s great sky. I often wonder if the great exodus from local churches simply represents those who want to rise above the noise and connect with the God Who is God?

         After all, His Voice—all by Itself, unplugged from enhancements and unbound by interpretations—changes everything and everyone. He didn’t need anyone in that Marian mob to do or say anything. And, He wasn’t waiting for the town’s holy people to humble themselves and pray. That God knew what to do.

            And, He still does. He’s not puzzled or distraught about uproars or mobs. Perhaps, if we get quiet, we might hear His Whispers for our times and places.         


[1] Cameron lived another 76 years. He founded and lead America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, wrote a book, and received an official apology from Indiana Governor Evan Bayh. This story is compiled from my interview of Cameron and research at America’s Black Holocaust Museum and Rare Historical Photos.

See You in 100 Years

More than just a good story, which it surely is, Logan Ward’s See You in 100 Years (Author Planet Press, 2013) calls readers into a deep meditation of what we gain and what we lose through “progress.”

       Here’s the story: In the spring of 2001, Logan and Heather Ward quit their jobs, sold (or stored) everything they owned, and, with their 2-year-old son, Luther, moved from New York City to a farm, with a 116-year-old house, in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

       More than that, they also “moved” back to 1900. That meant no cars, cell phones, or electric appliances, and no electricity, gas, or water service in the house. If it didn’t exist in 1900, they wouldn’t use it. They didn’t even accept rides in cars. If they could not get there by walking, bicycling, or by horse and buggy, they didn’t go. And they would live like that for one year.

       Part of the absorbing joy of this book is the way the reader must think through every detail of suddenly leaping backwards a full century; the long hours of hard work required just to remain alive, learning to work with some animals and kill others, living without weather forecasts or news, discovering the new patterns of farm life, and the knowledge that you cannot call anyone in case of emergencies.

       No wonder 1900’s life expectancy was 47 years for men and 49 for women.  

The Stamp of Time and Place

See You in 100 Years also reveals the way times and places mold people. So, we see good, liberal, non-religious, and artistic people quickly conform to traditional husband and wife roles. Ward admits that Heather fell into “the stereotypical chore load of the female… cooking, cleaning, laundry,” while he took care of “wood-splitting, water-pumping, livestock care.” He explains, “We do the jobs we’re inclined to do and that will be more efficient…with chores filling our days from dawn to dark, efficiency counts for a lot.”

       Well, maybe it always has! 

       And, then there is rain. As one who grew up in farm country, I understand why farming communities are inevitably religious. It all comes down to this: We must have rain and we can’t make it happen. Who you gonna call?

       During their sweltering, parched summer, the Logan family runs right into an ancient pattern; a black cloud covers the farm, the wind increases, the air cools, and a few big raindrops hit the dust, and then…nothing but the blazing sun. Over and over for weeks. He says it well, “For the first time ever, I understand the desperation that could drive people to dance for rain.”

       But, then…the rain arrives! “Heather breaks into sobs. I hug her and cry, too. Letting go is easy in the deluge.”

A Time of Testing 

Moving backward 100 years would inevitably become a crucible of testing. Sometimes excruciating, the tests measure every aspect of life: physical, mental, marital, financial, and communal.

       I’m sure it was unintentional, but the pace and intensity of bad language seems to serve as a thermometer for the heat of the testing. Ward and Heather’s profanities increase until they break. From that point, their language becomes clean and gentle.

       Perhaps the biggest test was 9/11/01, as these transplanted New Yorkers had no knowledge of the terrorist attacks of that day until neighbors began coming to their door. Logan admits the enormity of the attack made their experiment seem small and maybe silly. Neighbors invited them to their homes to use their phones and TVs.

       The way they work through their relationship to 911 (and the modern news business) throws a big yard light on modern life. Their choice is not a stunt, but a plumbline of sanity.

       Finally, as life on the land knocks them face down in the dirt, they come up grateful for every tomato, egg, cucumber, pint of goat’s milk, or drop of rain. Near the end of the book, Logan tells us, “I can’t contain my feelings of gratitude. For the first time since my boyhood, I offer silent prayers of thanks…”

       Obviously, I loved and do highly recommend this penetrating, moving, and funny book. It immersed me in another world and time, frequently pulled me out of bed or office, and threw me into sadness when it ended.

       As with many good books, I wanted to remain with those people and in that place a few pages and years longer.

Things Too Wonderful for Me

What do you see when you gaze into the rotting carcass of an animal? Something deeply revolting? Or do you see an ecosystem being sustained? Most people know those nasty necessities—worms, maggots, feces, viruses, roadkill—play essential and exquisite roles in sustaining our environment. But we still look or run away.

Of course, our recoil is instinctive. But it also reveals that the typical person’s view of life on earth may be absurdly immaculate and pitifully immature.

I think that may also describe our view of leadership. Having worked with many leaders, across several decades and a wide spectrum of fields, I’ve seen it over and over. Leaders just tend to be odd; inconsistent, irrational, unsettling. They often seem to dance to music no one else can hear.

But, history has a way of managing leadership eccentricity, a way that is often long, messy, and completely unacceptable to the pious, the impatient, and those who need to control things beyond their own jurisdiction or influence.

That’s probably why our “absurdly immaculate and pitifully immature” culture encourages the mocking or wrecking of what it doesn’t understand. Let’s face it; we created a monster when we invited pop culture to define fitness or candidates for leadership. The more we do that, the more we damage it…and our society.

Higher Ground

I didn’t vote for Donald Trump. But, whether I voted for him, like him, respect him—or not—I walk in a mission that leaves no room for speculation about him (or anyone else). Aside from praying for “all who are in authority,” (1 Timothy 2:2), I rarely think about the man. My life purpose demands my full attention. I have to keep my eye on the ball, regardless of who occupies leadership positions.

That’s why the hysterical fixation (positive and negative) with Trump is one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen. Look; we have elections; they produce change, incremental or cataclysmic. That’s called “process.” It works. So, to spend my time contemplating Trump’s fitness for (or the possibilities of removing him from) the presidency would indulge the most boring depths of silliness. Worse, it would admit that I have no purpose, no self-respect, no job, and no lawn to mow.

Many biblical passages proclaim the very high-altitude view that God reigns over all and that He chooses earthly rulers according to His will. One of those scriptures seems aimed at this age of Trump, telling us that God “…rules over the kingdoms of the world. He gives them to anyone he chooses—even to the lowliest of people.”[1]

Just as the Creator loves the ecological wonders of the putrid carcass and the magic of maggots, maybe He also chooses leaders according to His criteria, not ours. Do you think His ways really might surpass ours? Could be; that may be why there’s no biblical record of Him ever seeking human opinions of His processes, ecological or governmental.

Good grief, He’s the One Who appointed David as king. You know, David, one of history’s greatest leaders. And, the same guy that killed 200 Philistines, then circumcised them and presented the bloody remains to King Saul as part of his application to be Saul’s son-in-law. And some think Trump is creepy.

Could This Be the Time for Humility?

Robert Farrar Capon reminds his pure-minded readers that when the Bible speaks of seed falling into the soil, it does not mean religious or sanctified soil; it is foul and disgusting. Dirt is, well…dirty. In fact, Capon notes, some seeds first pass through birds and are then defecated onto the soil.[2]

The Psalmist wrote, “My heart is not proud, LORD, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.”[3] Have you ever heard someone try to command a conversation with no knowledge of the topic? Do you think that may also describe human comprehension of the micro world’s pathogens and parasites? Or, the majestic sweep of galaxies and light years?

If so, maybe the world of leadership is also too inscrutably wonderful for us. Maybe we should just walk away from the mob and return to our families, farms, businesses, and villages to take on the jobs that do fit our capacities.

[1] Daniel 4:17 taken from Tyndale House Publishers. 2004. Holy Bible: New Living Translation. Wheaton, Ill: Tyndale House Publishers.

[2] Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of the Kingdom. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1985

[3] Psalm 131:1 taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan House, 1984.

 

The Latchstring of the Eternal

When I saw Tom Hanks’ film Cast Away back in 2000, I thought it was deeply dishonest. A man, Chuck Noland, spends four years on a Pacific island. Alone. A truly desperate situation. Yet, he never, not once, prays or even looks up in search for something higher. He builds a relationship with “Wilson,” a commercial product.

But, now I realize the movie was prophetic. Today, we all live in desperation, and yet we seek or recognize nothing beyond ourselves. Like Chuck Noland, we don’t lift our eyes. And, in our aching loneliness, we also build relationships with cold material objects.

Maybe that’s why our American culture has become so claustrophobic. The walls and ceilings of our imagination keep moving closer. Our freedom to dream and explore has become cramped. Today, a need for help only drives us to Google or YouTube. We seem unable to grasp anything transcendent.

Groping in the Dark

Malachi Martin closed his novel, King of Kings, with an intimate portrait of Israel’s King David as he neared death. In his last days, we see the once-magnificent and fearsome king suffering “rigid and brittle fragileness” and weeping “quiet tears” in the night. Then, we see the dying David “groping for the latchstring in the door that opened out onto the eternal.”[1]

That phrase captures my own heart’s cry. That’s why I find myself in every conversation, meeting, meal, book, movie, sermon, or business transaction, reaching for that latchstring. I am not angry; I am just bored by every voice, tradition, system, idea, or issue littering the terrain around us.

But, I am overwhelmed by God; I care what He ordains and orders in His creation.

Let me meditate in His temple; I want to soak in His simplicities, silences, invisibilities, and abundances. Let me get lost in how He so masterfully conducts the whole orchestra of His cosmos, including seasons, expanses of land and water and space, the incomprehensible sweep of the universe, and, oh yes, those beautiful, complicated, gifted, crazy, devout, irritating, and deranged people whom He created as instruments for His magnificent and beautiful purposes.

Voices

I wonder if we may soon learn what the Apostle John meant when he wrote, “…We are of the earth, and we speak of earthly things, but he has come from heaven and is greater than anyone else.”[2]

I’m sick of “national conversations.” Those voices and opinions are distinctly and uniformly “of the earth.” We just keep recycling them. Forget it; I want to hear a sound from heaven, one that doesn’t sound anything like “earthly things.”

And, frankly, I have a concern about our cleverness in these human conversations. We’re too good at it; I’m too good at it. But, some terrible forces are gathering that simply will not respond to earthly voices. Siri and Alexa cannot tell us what to do. Fox News, The New York Times, Facebook, and other energy centers will be left stuttering. And religious leaders and media will sound just as foolish as all other cultural voices.

One Voice, One Word

Although John the Baptist came from a priestly lineage, nothing about him confirmed that culture. He didn’t wear what they wore, eat what they ate, drink what they drank, write what they wrote, or speak what they spoke. He was not conversant with the establishment. His message didn’t engage them at all.

That voice cut across all the exhausted words and embalmed concepts. He was not interested in dialogue, compromise, or reform. He said, “Repent.” That one word came from God, not from around here. And it rejected norms and traditions and slashed any hope of improvement or accommodation. “Repent” laid an ax at the root of every impotent thought, institution, or authority. The old was dead.

John the Baptist found the latchstring. When he pulled it, the King marched through the gate. He still marches and the territory of His Kingdom continues to increase. Isaiah said that increase will never stop.

Some see all that now. Those who don’t and those who do should lift their eyes. Don’t look down; don’t turn back. Keep looking to the horizon. As sure as the sunrise, something new is coming. And knowledge of the new is already spilling across the land. It will inexorably cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.

[1] Malachi Martin, King of Kings (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980)

[2] John 3:31, New Living Translation

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