Contemplation

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. 

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.

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.

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

Eyes of the Heart

“What do you see?” is the most haunting question of my life. It seems to continually hang suspended in midair just inches from my eyes. I don’t know if God cares what I feel or think. But He continually challenges me to see. Deeper. Clearer.

In Eyes of the Heart, a book about “contemplative photography,” author Christine Paintner calls readers to take the time to really see our world. “Slow down enough to see what is around you, notice the details of things—the many shades of flowers, the texture of tree bark, architectural details on houses, and even the patterns on manhole covers or gutters.”[1]

She keeps reminding us to be patient and wait to receive (not “take”) a photograph.

Then she applies the same kind of patience to being able to see people. “When the stranger arrives—that which is unexpected, strange, and mysterious—we are called to recognize the holy shimmering presence there. This means inviting strangers into our world without imposing our own agenda on them…staying open and curious to what we might discover when we don’t know what to expect, when we make the effort to see beneath the surfaces.”

Right there, she throws the floodlight on one of the biggest frauds of life: the human presumption of making judgments about other people. Look, I simply do not have the skill or enough information to be able to reject another person. I certainly don’t have the authority to reject anyone created and loved by God. Yet I do it regularly.

 

Lift the Chalice

To reject any human is like despising a gold chalice because it holds cheap wine. Most people are doing the best they can. But they pick up bad stuff – insults, injuries, false measurements, destructive ideologies – as they pass through life. All of that gathers like foul water sloshing around in the bottom of his or her personality. Do you think it may be possible that God can pour it out and clean them up in His own way and time? Is it possible that my only role is to bless and encourage?

And then the Lord God saith, “Is that your role toward Joanne?”

Why is it so easy to understand that a cup’s content has nothing to do with its value, but we reject people because they voted for Donald Trump? Or because they kneel toward Mecca to pray? Or because their cars display confederate flags or Climate Change bumper stickers?

Why is it so difficult we just make eye contact, smile, and stay “open and curious to what we might discover when we don’t know what to expect, when we make the effort to see beneath the surfaces?”

 

The Grace to See Beneath the Surface

Goethe famously said, “Treat an individual as he is, and he will remain as he is. But if you treat him as he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.” That line is one of the pillars of a good life, and I try to do it. But I am not good at it.

I do, however, know what that looks like in a person. Our dear friend, Roberta Roachelle, lives that more fully than anyone I know. When she looks at you and smiles, you suddenly realize that you’re loved, and life is far better than you ever dreamed. In more than a half-century, I’ve seen her unfailingly treat everyone as he or she ought to be. And I’ve watched people become what they “out to be and could be.”

My brother Vernon, the longtime (and recently retired) Sheriff of Pratt County, Kansas, often drove his inmates to the state penitentiary to begin serving their prison time. He had others who could do that, but he saw it as a chance to touch and encourage those headed into a dark place and time. He treated them, not as they were, but as they could be.

My point is not to promote Roberta or Vernon but rather to declare that anyone can do this! But it requires humility, patience, grace, and the time to focus the eyes of the heart.

Photographers may sit in one spot for hours. Waiting for sundown, dawn, cops, or snowfall, they are endlessly patient as they seek to find and focus the eyes of the heart. They carry no judgments; they only want to see.

What if we all did that toward the people we meet every day?

[1] Christine Valters Paintner, Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice. Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2013

Up There

The sun is 400 times larger than the moon. Yet, in a solar eclipse, the moon blocks the light of the sun (like hiding the moon with your thumb). Furthermore, that eclipse only darkens a 70-mile-wide strip of earth (which, on August 21, was only across America). And just for a couple minutes.

So, why was it so important for me to travel 120 miles roundtrip for those two minutes?

Probably boredom. Not marital or mental, but weariness with the age. Let’s face it; we have long passed the point when anyone on the big stages can encourage, galvanize, inspire, or lift us. The best and the brightest are sometimes not very good and not very smart. They just talk a lot.

I’m not angered by the noise, just tired of it. This age is so mildewed, dull, dusty, claustrophobic. We seem exhausted; intellectually, culturally, and spiritually.

Love in the Afternoon

That’s why, in the early afternoon of August 21, Joanne and I (and our daughter Amy and her family) joined a diverse collection of 100 or more citizens in Woodbury, Tennessee’s Brown Spurlock Park. Children played, families ate together, and strangers engaged others in open and friendly conversations. Some fiddled around with colanders or boxes, trying to project the image onto white paper. Amateur photographers prepared for the shot that would make the cover of National Geographic. But, as totality approached, the chatter slowly hushed.

Everyone looked up.

Casey Chinn Photography

Then the atmosphere darkened, streetlights began to glow, birds stopped singing, and the temperature dropped. In that muffled moment, every face turned heavenward. I saw grins, and I saw wet faces. No one spoke. We were all gripped by a majestic display in the heavens.

That moment was as pure as any I can remember.

As we drove home, I wondered; what if…that same group of people had gathered in that same spot for any other reason – perhaps a concert, protest rally, political campaign, worship service, or company picnic? Would any of those gatherings have produced such speechless-and-spellbound concentration? Could any other event evoke such a sense of love and natural community among strangers?

No.

Only a convergence around something so gripping, so out of this world, so “up there,” would command such awe.

It seemed to me that the celestial phenomenon pulled all of us to attention. In that hallowed state, we all watched as the sun just went out, died, in the middle of the day.

And then the brilliance of sunlight, a diamond solitaire, peeked around the edge of the moon, a blinding, burning flash of pure light. And it just kept expanding and blazing into our space.

Up

A couple days later, as I continued processing the eclipse, I thought about the movie Cast Away. That story of an American businessman, played by Tom Hanks, stranded on a small island in the middle of the Pacific, has long struck me as one of the most dishonest movies I’ve ever seen. Hanks’ character found “salvation” totally within himself. He never, not once, not in four years, prayed, or even looked up. In the midst of infinite sea and sky, he found connection with…a volleyball? Please.

I don’t care if he was a raging atheist who poisoned puppies; a human could not spend four years alone, worried about sanity and survival, without ever searching the night sky and groaning, “Oh, God, help.”

But then I thought, maybe the movie was a heart’s cry, an artistic wail of lament over feeling adrift, “cast away,” from the Presence. Could that be a communal entreaty? Are we seeking release from our “total eclipse of the heart?”

If so, maybe the eclipse was – like a rainbow – a sign of an enduring truth: Look up here. Turn away from the screens, the noise, the glitter, the conflict. As you walk through the earth, keep looking through, up, around, and beyond the visible. No need to react to the tired or silly voices. Reject cynicism. Just keep walking, looking, and listening; live joyfully, expectantly, and straight ahead within that state the prophet Isaiah so beautifully described:

“Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.”[1]

[1] Isaiah 60:1, taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™

 

Speak to the Signature

In a recent Washington Post op-ed, a freelance journalist wrote that she would not (as was her custom) rent out parts of her Washington home to Inauguration participants this year. She explained that she just couldn’t bring the hate of Trump supporters into her neighborhood.

Of course, had Secretary Clinton won, others would have refused hospitality to her celebrants.

To live by the cold calculus of political punishment suggests serious personality deficits. How do mature adults refuse to engage and flow with people (like potential customers!) just because they hold different views? Good grief, a case can be made that anyone is an “extremist” or “hater.” But serious and productive adults don’t tolerate that silliness.

The Polarization Business

In their book, Common Ground, Bob Beckel and Cal Thomas contend that very strong interests are heavily invested in polarization. They write, “ . . . conflict sells, and if harmony broke out, newspaper sales would drop and ratings, especially on cable TV, would decline sharply.”[1]

We live in an age when powerful forces (media institutions, the political industry, social media marketers, etc.) need for you and me to hate each other; polarization is big business. But why do we buy? Why do we so passively allow them to attach their icy electrodes to our spines?

We would never tolerate polarization in our own bodies. Think about it; we all navigate the external world through our five senses. Our brain integrates the feedback we receive through the concert of our eyes, ears, tongue, nose, and fingers.

Wouldn’t it seem weird and dysfunctional to move through life according to one’s sense of smell? Yet that is what we do when we decide to live according to political purity.

A Better Way

When I wrote for a conservative journal several years ago, my editor once asked me to become more combative against “liberals.” And I heard myself say something I did not know until that moment: “God’s signature is written across every human heart; I’d rather speak to that signature.” And, to my great surprise, he said, “We sure need someone here who can do that.”

As a human, a creator, a collaborator, and a child of God, I would rather try to view people through God’s eyes than according to the schemes of cunning economic manipulations.

Over the years I’ve learned that those who are my opposites are never as bad or difficult as I imagine. In most cases, I simply (and unintentionally) fell into blind obedience to hidden and devious agendas. In doing so, I fulfilled an ancient warning:

Strangers devour his strength,

Yet he does not know it….[2]

Living in full engagement of others – regardless of how they vote or what they think, feel, or believe – is a far better way of life.

Higher Ground

In 2009, during a trip through Jordan, I met a Palestinian Muslim. Ibrahim and I spent many hours together in restaurants, busses, and walking together throughout the country. For the first few days we spoke to each other from deep inside our own caves. But then, like Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird, we each slowly stepped into the light.

One night Ibrahim told me about his son who had lived with a chronic illness all his life. Suddenly we were just two dads standing in the desert. Then he told me about the night Allah came to his house and healed his son. My eyes burned as we walked back and forth across our common real estate. We found a heart connection within the familial chords of care, that nugget of eternity that God places in everyone’s heart, and the too-good-to-be-true joy of Him coming to our homes.

In that moment, we were each lifted beyond our religious, political, ethnic, or national identities. We saw that unmistakable signature of God inscribed on the other’s heart. Suddenly we stood together on higher ground

Let me tell you another secret. Everyone whom you may regard as sinister, immoral, unjust, or racist also carries God’s signature. So, you have a choice. You can submit to the condemnations shouted by the investors in polarization. Or you can dig down below the rubble of injury, rejection, and loss to find His Signature. It is there, in everybody.

Then, if you speak to the signature you might call new life into existence, and you may create a path to higher ground.

[1] Cal Thomas and Bob Beckel, Common Ground (William Morrow; New York, NY; 2007) p. 69 & 81.

[2] Hosea 7:9, 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. (www.Lockman.org)

Life After Loss

Over the past 18 months I’ve been working in a laboratory of loss. Through our son Paul’s death, my participation in a study of education in American, my knee replacement surgery, post-surgical recovery and rehab, relocating, political realignments, and global immigration dynamics, I kept being drawn to the issue of loss.

Through all of that, I’ve come to see that loss is not to be feared or rejected. It is a normal and essential part of life’s cadence. If we regard losses properly, they can bring renewal for the next season of life. Here are some of the details:

  • Loss is not personal. Yes, I know that it sure feels personal. In the moment, it seems unique, even historic. But loss is rarely personal. The simple truth is that everyone dies, financial tides rise and fall, relationships get injured, trains go off the rails, etc. The old bumper sticker (sanitized), BAD STUFF HAPPENS, captures a simple, but large and inescapable truth.
  • Life requires that we deal with it. The species cannot continue if humans are immobilized by loss.
  • Loss (a.k.a. ruin, failure, death, destruction, etc.) is always painful and disruptive; it never comes at a good time. So we must learn to accept and navigate it.
  • Loss is short term. Most people tend to view the whole journey through the keyhole of the present moment. But almost nothing we see through the eyes of grief is accurate or helpful in the long term.
  • Loss is an illusion. It might lash, boil, invade, injure and steal from us; it may even leave us face down in the gutter. But it cannot destroy the core of our true identity. For that reason, we don’t have to fear it. Nothing significant is taken away by loss.
  • Loss is a myopic interpretation of a larger change. An old “Far Side” cartoon showed two men fishing on a lake as a large mushroom cloud boiled up over the horizon. One fisherman said to the other, “I’ll tell you what it means, it means screw the limit.” People inevitably view global realignments through the lens of their personal needs and desires.
  • Loss calls us to greater maturity. Living in a culture that encourages emotional indulgence, we tend to welcome grief and offer it a big easy chair. But maturity pushes the grieving out of bed, into the shower, and to the office. And it makes sure that he or she does that every day for the rest of his or her life.
  • Loss passes by. Glen Roachelle once said, “When you go through a storm, don’t become an expert on storms. Just get through it.” It comes. Endure it. Loss moves on; you should too.
  • Loss reveals a higher path. Crises always bring me to see that my “Edness” is insufficient. For me, I can only proceed by faith in God’s total reliability. I’m not assuming this is (or should be) your response, but I have to get up above the big muddy me and ascend into a higher and clearer view.
  • Loss is not The End. Although it appears to be apocalyptic, loss the usually just the end of a season or a way of thinking. What appears to be great loss can be a gate to a brand new future.
  • Life surpasses our earth existence. For me, where I live is not a big deal. Living in God is the real objective. From His place, I am able to more clearly see the vast sweep of the whole journey. And seeing loss from the high ground give a completely new perspective and releases people to accept and bless it.
  • What about loss on a national scale? It seems to me that conservatives tend to view every loss as an assault on our foundations and liberals tend to see losses as threats to progress. Both views are power grabs. In truth, when seen from the high ground, the losses brought by war, disease, economic tremors, social injustice, technology shifts, and even immigration crises are often servants of renewal and redemption.

 

The losses suffered by individuals, families, business and industry, and nations mean old things are blowing away and new things are arriving. Life after loss is much like the land after a thunderstorm. The scent of rain and the purity of the air suggest new beginnings.

Let’s step into the new. We have more to gain than we ever lost.

The Taste of Silence

In 1988, Bieke Vandekerckhove was a 19-year-old university student in her native Belgium when she was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). Although the average life span after diagnoses is two to five years, she lived 27 years with it (she died four months ago).

Her only book, The Taste of Silence (English translation from Liturgical Press, 2015), is a beautiful, candid, sometimes searing, but deeply wise view of her journey into ALS. Like so many others in history, she found that vast and pure view in prison. For Bieke, that prison was her body.

What do you do when a lightning bolt explodes out of a clear sky, blowing your body, soul, and spirit apart? Do you collapse into a pile of smoking rubble? Escape into chemicals, fight to regain control, choose suicide? Or, surrender to the One Who “directs the steps of the godly” and “delights in every detail of their lives?” (Psalm 37:23 NLT).

Vandekerckhove surrendered.

In her submission, she tumbled into great silence. I understand that; it’s what happens when a painful loss pushes you beyond the walls of language. I could so identify with Bieke as, in the silence, she found profound gratitude, even for her diagnosis and for “the collapse of all my beliefs.” ALS took her beyond what she knew and preferred, and into the beauty of “not-knowing.” In that place beyond thought, she “discovered the art of waiting in the dark.”

In the dark, Bieke found “the God of the Bible, and not the god who is…bound by the contours of logic and morality.” She also discovered that God meets those who live real life. That is a place beyond information. As I read this book, I often thought of Hebrews 11:34, which speaks of those who “became powerful in battle.” They found success as it was forged in the heat of life, not through knowledge or credentials.

Just as Bieke found triumph through ALS.

What Do You See?

She learned that so much of life boils down to what we see. The deeper she went into the illness, she found that she suffered “more from an eye problem than from a muscle disorder.” Bieke seems genuinely grateful for the “great powers of suffering, death, and mourning” that “work a simplification in us that makes us see things differently. Perhaps making us really see for the first time.”

“All Things”

Although she was certainly Christian, Vandekerckhove’s journey through ALS gave her a great appreciation for Buddhism and other religions and perspectives. For that reason, I’m sure many Christians will reject this book.

I think her perspectives are valid and valuable.

She quotes the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon 7:24: “Wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things.”

God is so large and so pervasive throughout His creation that His word can push through anyone, anything, anytime, anywhere. He owns it all; any or all of it can carry His voice. Just as His voice once (at least once!) animated a donkey, so it “pervades and penetrates all things.”

It is not a stretch for me to believe that a woman, sliced and diced and pulverized by the beautiful and terrible mercy of God, saw evidence of Him everywhere.

I deeply appreciate The Taste of Silence. It carries a ring of truth on every page. And I am moved by, and grateful for, a young woman who dared to tell her harrowing but hallowed journey into the largeness of God.

To summarize that journey, she wrote that when she surrendered to the mystery, and thought she lost everything, “remarkably my grip loosened and I rediscovered everything in a new way. Life was everywhere, in the midst of death, even as life slipped away from me…Everything became a gift.”

In her book, she passes the gifts on to readers whom she does not know. I and many others are grateful that she did.

Finally, although I loved the book, I must be fair and tell you that (to me) this short book burned bright for 15 chapters, or about 85 pages. The final 60+ pages felt like wet firewood; they just wouldn’t burn. But, those 85 pages were more than enough.

When You Cannot See and Do Not Know

Imagine that you’re riding a high-speed train. From your seat you gaze out the window at the screaming blur of images.

But then you get up and walk to the rear of the train, where you stand on the platform. From there you can see a flowing river of steel tracks, a vast landscape of corn on both sides of the tracks, and a distant mountain range.

The view from the window presents raw information; the platform gives perspective.

That metaphor is not original with me. A journalist (who I cannot remember or find) wrote something similar many years ago to describe the difference between journalism and history. Journalists try to make sense of the blur; historians observe the wide panorama from the rear of the train.

High-tech is necessarily high speed, and speed favors raw information. As a result people, institutions, and nations are losing a sense of perspective.

Our turbulent times pull many toward the side windows. Watching the blur of colors and shapes, they try to report on What It All Means. But it’s futile. Speed makes the view unintelligible and meaningless.

Peter Marshall, the famous Washington, DC pastor and US Senate chaplain in the 1940s, told a story from the early days of ministry in his native Scotland.

Deeply troubled about his own calling and future, he went for a walk late one night. As he walked across unfamiliar ground, the fog closed in around him. But he kept walking. Then out of the dark he suddenly felt a gentle hand stopping him. He froze.

Falling to the ground, he saw that he was crouched at the edge of a deep rock quarry. One more step would have hurled him to his death. That moment became a reference point for his whole life.

We all have moments when we are blind; we cannot see the path ahead and do not know where we are. I think many of us stand at such a point now. So what should we do?

I don’t know.

But I know that some attitudes and actions are appropriate in any and every season:

  1. Stop
    When everything around you seems to demand sound and movement, resist it. Like Peter Marshall, just stop. That may be counterintuitive, but it’s always wise.
  2. Humble Yourself
    Pride is a thief. It steals leadership, integrity, and wisdom every day. “Humble yourself” is always appropriate. But it is crucial in navigating crises. Real confidence is never proud.
  3. Meditate
    This is the “walk to the back of the train” component. Turn away from the blur; withdraw into the sanctuary in your heart. Be alone with God. Step into the timeless dimension. See everything from that higher place. Stay there a long time before returning to your window seat.
  4. See
    We all want to know more stuff. But knowledge is overrated. The real issue is: what do you see? After you spend time meditating in the secret place, look with “new eyes” at your surroundings. Ignore your emotions; they are lying to you. View everything as objectively as possible.
  5. Live
    I wish I had more education. But, as a friend recently reminded me, life contains its own training. Get up every morning and walk fearlessly into your day. Report for duty. Do the mundane and the marvelous with the same attitude. Allow real life to convert your experiences into wisdom.
  6. Be Here…Now
    Most of life happens within a few feet of where you stand. Yes, planning is important. But, more often, we should just focus on right here, right now. This age tends to pull us all away from our life. It teaches us to focus on “out there” and “tomorrow.” That is often just a mirage. Ignore it.
  7. Build RelationshipsAnd most of life happens at face to face. What you think of lesbians, African-Americans, Republicans, alcoholics, or Muslims is abstract. The actual person sitting across the table is real and important. Build relationships with those in your path. Disregard the categories.

 

Here’s a secret: in times of convulsion and crisis, most of life stays the same. We still shower, get dressed, pay bills, eat some food, and clean the cat box. We do not need to move around or make noise in order to validate our worth.

That’s why, even in bad times, you can and should “Make it your goal to live a quiet life, minding your own business and working with your hands.” (1 Thessalonians 4:11)

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