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) and New Eyes for a New World (Cool River Pub, 2011). Ed and his wife, Joanne, live in Middle Tennessee.

Joy Beyond the Walls of the World

Although we are multi-dimensional beings, most people only understand their body and personality. But the largest part, our spirit, our temple, is our least understood and most ignored dimension. Why is that? I think it goes something like this:

         A newborn baby only knows the breast. In time, other perceptions—voice, temperature, noise, pain, balance, motion, taste, smells, faces, language—awaken that young life. Soon, all five senses help integrate the child into her family and society.

         Sometime later, an awareness of the Holy arrives. 

         Perhaps it appears when the child first gazes into the night canopy of the cosmos. Later, the human heart hears a whispered invitation to step up to that holy realm. Now he or she will rise toward union with the Creator.

         But civilization seems to resist our response to the invitation. Well, of course it does. The foreheads of many cultural “experts”—like journalists, politicians, scientists, entertainers, and authors—appear permanently furrowed by darkness, cynicism, guilt, and fear; that’s why their voices scold and their touches injure. 

         Why do we even pay attention to them? Since we don’t know them personally; we have no idea what they know, believe, honor, embrace, or reject. So, why do we call them into our homes and invite them to open their thoughts?

         Psst, hey, you…the experts don’t know. Appearing on The View or The Five does not verify wisdom. 

Eucatastrophe

Many years ago, as I mowed several acres of grass with a tractor and bush hog, I suddenly realized my wallet had slipped out of my back pocket. Panic! My driver’s license, cash, and credit cards were gone. Probably chewed up by the bush hog. 

         For quite a long time, I walked slowly over the ground I’d already mowed, looking for shredded leather and paper. Nothing.

         As a last resort, I prayed. Earnestly. 

         Then I climbed back on the tractor to finish the mowing. A half hour later, when I saw a big rock in my path, I stopped the tractor and jumped down to move it. When I did, my right foot landed on my wallet! I will not live long enough to understand what happened. I hadn’t come near that spot earlier.  

         Aside from the joy of finding what was lost, that moment reaffirmed the creature’s connection with his Creator. I asked Him for my wallet. He wasn’t too busy. 

         J. R. R. Tolkien added the Greek prefix “Eu” (connoting “good”) to “catastrophe,” (from its rare meaning of “end of the story”) to coin the word, “eucatastrophe.” He defined it as “a sudden and favorable resolution of events,” or “Joy beyond the walls of the world…”[1]

         Think of the times when the shadow of loss darkened. Then, after standing face-to-face with “the end,” full joy suddenly invaded your life. Although you didn’t deserve it, pure delight rushed in from outside your familiar world. Finding my wallet was such a moment. 

The Audacity of Joy

Joy is not a response; it is a deliberate dance before Heaven and earth. Your whole being—body, soul, and spirit—chooses to celebrate. Audaciously. You don’t wait for circumstances to launch or approve your joy. You just do it; at noon or midnight, in full health or dying, and adorned by wealth or poverty. Be joyful. Hell or high water. 

            The Bible speaks of “Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame…”[2]

         Jesus knew He was destined for a barbaric death. But He also saw the eucatastrophe behind and beyond the end. His joy was not a response to the cross, but rather a bold declaration throughout the universe that He would win by crushing (not avoiding) the cross. As the author and perfecter of faith, Jesus pulled joy from somewhere beyond the walls of the world. Even in death.

         And as His sons and daughters, we can do that too.  Go ahead. Practice joy. Every day. Go past the borders of your experience to tap into the new and future world. Then bring its power and freshness back into your circumstances. You may find others are also waiting for the new world and its joy.


[1]  Verlyn Flieger & Douglas A. Anderson, Tolkien on Fairy-Stories (Glasgow: HarperCollins, UK edition, 2014)

[2] Hebrews 12:2 taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD (NAS): Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, copyright© 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

More Than A Story

In November 2001, Jason Chinn drove out of Saratoga Springs, New York, headed west. Hauling all his earthly possessions, he settled into a 28-hour drive to Colorado to marry his lovely Erin. When his old Toyota died east of Buffalo, he ditched it like a bag of snakes and jumped back on the road in a rented car. 

         As a man on a mission, he drove straight through to Colorado Springs. Eight states. No meals, motels, or roadside naps. Just bathrooms, burgers, and fuel. If you knew Erin, you’d understand. 

         I love my nephew’s story. It confirms our Jack and Mary Chinn family culture—we love our mates. We see them as God’s gift, not just to us as individuals, but to our unfurling estate. We know grand passion because we know grand purposes—marriage, family, nation, faith. It’s all threaded through our walk with God. 

         It also reveals life in focus. How long since you knew that kind of single-mindedness; you know, the unrelenting, damn-the-torpedoes, “get-outta-my-way-Sheriff,” or pointing the car west and moving like a bullet?

The Real Story

Have you noticed we all now live in the grip of “the story?” As an editor, publisher, and writer, I understand and love that (it pays the bills). But I’m also concerned about it. 

         Over the past few decades, too many stories have become polluted by the big lie of ME! Insisting that our life experiences, whatever they are, dignify us, the personal story has turned into a tacky float in a long parade of human exhibitionism.

         Any story of enduring value connects us to a higher purpose and pulse. A circular drama that begins and ends in my navel is not only soul-deadening but eye-rolling dull. We need more than our vaccine philosophy, sexuality, religious opinions, political preferences, or self-promotion if we hope to tell a story that inspires others.

         Face it; people may want to hear your story, but they are looking for more than you in it. They want to see through you to the magnificent drama behind all of life. They all want to learn something about their own origins, purpose, and destiny. If they don’t connect with that in your tale, they move along. 

Can We Get Beyond the Templates?

Stories have formed personal, familial, tribal, even national identities for millennia. They pulled people around dinner tables, campfires, road trips, bars, and churches, and opened windows on life’s possibilities. 

         As a publisher and editor of many books, I’ve never heard the same story twice from those who lived it. They are all original. Yet every published, filmed, or staged story seems to conform to the templates formed by media empires. And too many original stories have been hammered into clichéd narratives about contemporary issues. 

         TV coverage of tornado stories, for example, seems to feature the Sunday morning church service following Tuesday’s tornado. Parishioners remind the reporter that the church is people, not this pile of bricks. As we watch a B-roll of teddy bears and hymnals in the weeds, uprooted trees, and splintered pews, the voice-over questions the very idea of a loving God. Not just a stale and tiring angle, but gouge-your-eyes-out-with-a-fork bor-ring.

         What would happen if they let those who survived the tornado tell their own story? Perhaps they would tell one that spins, pops, jumps, and surprises.  

Just Live!

Now, you do have a story. Everyone does. 

         But here’s a secret: living precedes story. A real story does not come by planning; it sneaks up on you. Jason Chinn did not storyboard his cross-country trip. Like him, we all stumble into great stories. 

         That’s because our life (body, soul, spirit) is a true mystery. Somewhat like a murmuration of starlings—it swells, shrinks, oozes, and balloons far beyond the boundaries of our physical self or even our consciousness. 

         Live that life! Live as The Message Bible interprets Romans 12:1— “Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering…”

         Do that, and who knows? Somewhere down the road, you may share what happened that night with a stranger on a plane. And he or she will cry like a rainstorm or laugh till a lung pops out. 

         When that happens, call me! 

Losing the Label

The old scientist told us he spent his early years studying beetles. 

But that all blew apart one summer when he retreated to his cabin, high in the mountains of Scotland, to work on his beetle collection (he didn’t explain how one does that). There, on a lazy summer afternoon, he spread his cases of beetle specimens on tables and sawhorses in the grassy clearing near his cabin. 

Then, as he bent over to work on a particular display, puffing his pipe, an eagle swooped down and shrieked; its enormous shadow darkened his field of sight. In that seismic moment, when he looked up at the majestic wingspan, he knocked his specimen cases to the ground. Beetles popped out of their spaces and were instantly “gone with the wind.”

He told us he never looked down again. He devoted the rest of his life to eagles.

My Eagle

I understand. I’ve been known as a “Christian” since one Sunday morning in my 12th year when I “accepted Jesus” in an emotionally intense service. Later, when our family drove down to my grandparents’ farm for lunch, my Grandma smiled, pulled me into her apron, and said, “Gonna be a little worker for Jesus, aren’t you?” 

But I did not want to work for Jesus. I wanted to be a boy. And I knew God didn’t need me. But, like a beetle pinned to velvet, over time I fell into squirming and then soul-deadening conformity with my religious culture.  

Then one day, without warning or permission, The Eagle dropped from the sky and screeched over my beetle boards. From that moment, I started losing my identity as a “Christian.”  

Why?

The Christian label implies the search is over, that it’s all been established and stuffed; Christianity has become the taxidermy of the Christ. That label also isolates Christians from those who are not. But the main problem is the exchange of institution over family. 

Is Christianity a Family?

When the Bible references the relationship between God and His people, it speaks the language of family—father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister. 

But while Christian culture uses those terms, family is simply not its first language. I mean, my dad never pleaded with me to become a Chinn. Nor did he ever explain the rules of being one. I never made a decision to accept Dad. 

And although Jack Chinn died, he is still here. I see him every day in my mirror; I hear his voice every time I speak. In an astounding mystery, now I am him. In a very real sense, my brothers and I and our tribes now comprise his body in the earth. Over the years, Dad has been formed in each of us. He will be with us forever.

     Shouldn’t a relationship with God be at least as natural and familial as that?

      Look; I don’t have a Chinn “worldview.” My memories of Dad and the documents of his life—his war diary, letters, hometown newspaper articles, taped messages, etc. —do not form a grid through which I measure other people or perspectives. 

       Furthermore, if I must proclaim my parentage to everyone I meet— “Excuse me, sir; I’m Jack Chinn’s son. Could I share what my father said?”—the village will soon and correctly consider me nuts. 

High Flight

There’s nothing wrong with people choosing to become Christian (or Muslim, socialist, vegetarian, or Texan). But the cerebral or conventional approaches to faith are dead beetles compared to His life being birthed in us (Galatians 4:19).

You don’t have to groan, grovel, or grunt your way into the Lord’s family. We are all free to be fully human. You can soar up into a high-altitude life, confident in your paternity, and knowing you can live far above the claustrophobia of religion, politics, self-preservation, fear, and futility.        

      Settle it once and forever; like an eagle, you were created for the updrafts of grand adventures. Ironically, that life was best described 80 years ago, not by a theologian, but by a military pilot, John Gillespie Magee, Jr. Read his poem, High Flight, as a sketch of soaring in full confidence into the Presence of God:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hovering there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air . . .

Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

A Sunday Kind of Love

When my parents met, Mom melted into the full embrace of Jack Chinn’s courteous, gentle, and protective presence. Those qualities were not empty or misleading enticements. They revealed a true and complete man, one raised by good parents, not coyotes.

         Dad was a gentle warrior. In 1942, he joined the great American roar at enemies that threatened the world. But his boys never saw anything but care and kindness toward our mother. Dad never allowed Mom to enter a zone of danger, or even mild discomfort. 

         I thought of my parents when I recently heard (for the first time) an old song, “A Sunday Kind of Love.” Recorded by Dinah Washington, Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald, and others over the years, the lyrics spoke of needing strong arms to enfold, someone to care, and one who would show the way.

         So, what was a “Sunday kind of love?” 

         It was/is simply love at its best—sparkling clean, unhooked from the sweaty demands of labor, joining the community in worship, and moving in the rhythms of rest. That love cares enough to clean up, wise up, and show up; who knows, your future spouse may be sitting behind you. A Sunday kind of love made people giddy with possibilities.   

         That era was not perfect, but those “church people” knew and produced social stability. Let’s face it; one of society’s major purposes is to confirm men in their proper roles. When that does not happen, they careen into vicious cycles of unemployment, abandonment, drugs, alcohol, and kaleidoscopic violence. Aimless males will tear the place apart; ask any cop, judge, ER doctor, K-12 teacher, or prison guard.

         Look; that Sunday-Kind-of-Love societal pattern worked. And its highest validation came through the people it produced. There’s a reason we call them the “greatest generation.”

Two Roads

So, what happened? Did we forget the marvelous story of what creates a great generation? Or did we just change our minds about how to get there?

         The 20th century and the first two decades of the 21st have provided a clear look at the two roads that pass through western culture. 

         Millions traveled the old road, the one constructed over millennia with classic virtues. But it slowly fell out of favor and funding. And without proper maintenance, it dropped into disrepair. About the same time, new studies from universities, think tanks, and government agencies suggested new and cool materials that would take us… somewhere. Faster.

         So, we built the new road, a superhighway fabricated from that new stuff—bytes, clicks, and dopamine hits. And we created the gadgets to manage it. But it seems we missed some details; we didn’t think through the possibilities and inevitabilities. 

         Wendell Berry once made his commencement audience face stubborn facts: “The civil rights movement has not given us better communities. The women’s movement has not given us better marriages or better households. The environment movement has not changed our parasitic relationship to nature… we are left with theory and the bureaucracy and the meddling that come with theory.”[1]

         Berry did not degrade any of those movements, but he did warn that ideals and programmatic approaches carry consequences. 

         More than that, he disputed a materialist vision of society, one that insists humans can design a better way of life all by themselves. Just as doctors have to face the side effects, so do those who care about society, culture, and history. Berry effectively reminded his young audience they will never build better trees from lumber bought at Home Depot. 

A Whole New Way

I’m not advocating going back to the old Sunday-Kind-of-Love road. We can’t and shouldn’t. That road was never designed to last. It was only a shadow of a whole new way of life which comes from the Designer of it all. And it brings everyone—male, female, young, old, rich, poor, impaired, whole, and from every tribe, tongue, and nation on earth—into safety, rest, and love at its best. 

         That new way is not traditional, nostalgic, romantic, American, or religious. It flows out from a higher domain, a realm led by a generous and magnificent King. That’s why Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Thy Kingdom Come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.” 

         But too often the futility of our times leads people to keep begging “the Big Guy upstairs” to bless our mess. And all the while He just invites us to follow Him out of our chaos and craziness, on up to the higher ground of His place, the realm of Love at its best. Everywhere, over everything, for everyone, and forever.


[1] Wendell Berry, Commencement Address (College of the Atlantic, Bar Harbor, Maine, 1989)

love in the time of COVID

A few days ago, Joanne asked if I could take a break to run over to Target with her. She needed help loading a large Christmas gift. 

         I was busy, but considering her clear and specific parameters for the job, I said, “Sure, I need a break. Let’s go.” I knew the trip would take 30 minutes max. 

         But as we entered the store, she said, “Oh, and I need to pick up a toy for Caleb and a few groceries.” That’s when my gears locked up. 

         She knew; “What’s wrong?”

         “Well, I accepted a very specific mission, but you just expanded it.” 

         “Oh, honey, I’m sorry.” 

         Then, in all my glorious Ed-ness, I found a somewhat graceful reason to leave, you know, to do more important things. But as I drove away, I’m pretty sure I heard my loving Lord speak, “O, you beautiful man, what the hell’s wrong with you?”

         After He and I conversed a while longer, it all started coming back to me, how Joanne brings her own gifts, skills, and ways to our marriage. Her dazzling riddles, allurements, and sparks of humor often pull me out of my personal bunker. The journey into Joanne sometimes drives me nuts… just before it enriches me. 

         And it does so because we’re not alike

         We came to our marriage from distant places, formed by wildly divergent stories, wired with contrasting brains, furnished with delightfully different bodies, and waltzing through our distinct yet mutual destinies. My thinking works like a bullet; hard, straight, and fast. She muses like a garden of butterflies; fluttering, hovering, and vanishing, sometimes to return to the thought, sometimes not. 

         I so need her butterflies.

         Think of all the gorgeous sounds, sunrises, colors, nuances, graces, and grottos you’ve discovered through your mate. Or once did. Have you lost vision for the marriage? If so, is it possible that the man or woman you first loved twenty, thirty, forty years ago could still be buried deep inside? Could their bundles of secrets and possibilities still be glistening below the surface? 

         Like so much of life, it comes down to what we see. How did we ever lose sight of God’s extravagant gift inside him or her? Did it slip from your vision when sex began to fade? If so, might that be childish and selfish? Do you think He may be waiting for you to dig deeper, down to your mate’s hidden caverns of beauty? 

         What about our community? And nation? Could the same issue apply?

        Maybe you and I need the stark differences our polar opposites bring. Lately, I’ve found myself wondering how, when, and why I ever decided I didn’t need those unlike me. When Joanne asked me to run over to Target, God was setting me up for a test. A test of love, which I failed. Does the pandemic also set all of us up for a test of love?

         My friend, Washington Post columnist Bill Raspberry, once told me, “Most thoughtful people believe both sides of issues.” Well, of course they do. Life is beautifully variegated and intricate—we embrace liberty and order, free and responsible speech, generosity and restraint, strong national borders and kindness to immigrants (especially the undocumented ones). 

         But polarizing forces demand that we pick a side, and then learn to hate everyone on the other side. That too is outrageously childish and selfish. As a conservative and as a Christian, I need my liberal and non-Christian friends, including all they know, feel, and carry.

         For most of the past decade, I’ve worked with left-of-center people. And I discovered my genuine need for their idealism, collaborative energy, sense of community, bold spirituality, and their willingness to do the hard work of building social capital for those on the margins. 

         I need each of them to take me beyond myself. 

         COVID-19 and every other issue (including trips to Target with Joanne) reveal what and who we love, serve, believe, hope, despise, cherish, and fear. Yes, the pandemic raises profound fears of economic damage, loss of freedom, constitutional issues, and death. Those are all valid!

         But love—of spouse, family, friends, community, and world—towers above all the other issues. Do I love them more than I love myself? Can I set my fears aside as I decide to place my life on the line for others? 

         Maybe that’s what Jesus meant when He told His disciples, “Love each other in the same way I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:12-13, NLT)

         Health care workers, law enforcement officers, military personnel, and teachers show us how to do that every day. Your spouse probably does too. 

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)
Scroll to Top