Culture

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)

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.

 

Storm Warning

My friends, Glen and Roberta Roachelle, once sat in a beachside restaurant as a storm moved in. Just as they took their first sip of coffee, a wave crashed over the seawall and against the windows. As diners laughed nervously, Glen told Roberta, “Let’s leave right now.”

When they stepped outside, a larger wave blew out the windows. Water and shards of glass filled the area where they had sat moments earlier.

The Gathering Storm

Storms are essential; they transport water, often across areas of drought, and redistribute temperatures between the poles and the equator. They cleanse the air and land, nourish crops, replenish aquifers, etc.

They also kill. Storm surge, wind, lightning, freezing, and flooding can wipe out human life, quickly and extensively. The Galveston, Texas hurricane of 1900 killed 8 – 10 thousand people. In 1970, a cyclone wiped out a half million people in East Pakistan.

A massive (and essential) storm is moving across our land. We see features of it every day; a culture of outrage, random violence, family and friends divided by politics, shocking increases of suicide and opioid usage, escalating vulgarity, and a general loss of decency and decorum.

Despite the transitory pain and disruption, I believe the storm will bring long-term transformation (as storms always do). That’s why I think focusing on Trump, immigration, Islam, sexual identity, or technological intrusions misses the larger picture. Comparatively, they are all mere data points for the massive storm.

Be There

Just as no one can control earthquakes, tornados, droughts, or hurricanes, humans have no power over the direction, intensity, or consequences of the storm pounding our country now. But, we might survive if we take precautions. Here are a few:

  • BE KIND

    Because our social environment is so combustible, words explode as matches dropped in dry leaves. I know conflict screams for engagement, but be careful! Think about it; getting combative over politics, Facebook, or Jesus is not going to change anyone’s mind. But, kindness often shifts the focus to the things that really matter.

  • STAY HOME

    In 2017, I heard an ER doctor tell a high school graduating class, “Trust me; nothing good happens after midnight. Please go home.” Remember, home is (or can be) a sanctuary. You don’t need a reason to go home; you need a reason to leave.

  • BE SUBVERSIVE

    We all live through an insane insistence that we conform to the dysfunction around us. But, the sane person must be subversive—a secret agent of lucidity and stability—in times of insanity. And to be sane today is to live and speak generously. Reach through the fog of politics to connect with people. Serve others. Stop, look, listen. Pray for one another. Give a damn.
  • KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE BALL

    Our cultural storm includes a tornadic swirl of nudges, suggestions, invitations, and demands. Ignore them. Good grief; you’re on home plate and the pitch is screaming toward you. The gnats don’t warrant your attention.

  • REMAIN INSIDE MORAL AND ETHICAL SAFETY

    We are living through a monumental collapse of those who ignored the classic standards of ethics and morality. We should not judge them, but the career destruction and humiliation should be all the warning we need to humble ourselves and increase our moral and ethical vigilance. Run to God’s safety and rest.
  • BE QUIET

    One line of the Miranda warning says, “Anything you say can and will be used against you…” What do we not understand about “can and will?” Stop talking! Pretending you’re mute can save your time, money, reputation, and perhaps your freedom. My brother Vernon, a longtime Kansas Sheriff says, “The right to be silent is one of our most precious freedoms, and so few use it.”

  • TRANSCEND REACTION

    Our culture invests great energies and dollars to goading people to react. And, when we are continuously prodded by anger, outrage, temptation, and other provocations, we tend to become reactive. We wait to be told when to click, buy, get mad, exhibit outrage, what to believe, etc. But, remember, you don’t have to explain anything or make everyone happy. Rise above reaction; live straight ahead.

Look; storms are inevitable. They serve the Creator’s purposes. But, they’re also dangerous. That’s why civilizations develop storm warnings. By taking mindful cautions, you can survive and continue in your life’s purpose. As Coach Dan Reeves said in an old pharmaceutical commercial, “It’s your future. Be there.”

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.™

 

The Shack: A Shovel In The Heart

The new movie, The Shack, based on the hit novel of the same name, tells the gripping story of great pain and shocking loss. But right there is where The Shack steps beyond another retelling of the human suffering story.

It does so by revealing loss as a doorway to life. As such, it challenges our definitions of “good.” In other words, it confronts our assumption that “good” is a synonym for my preferences and desires…you know, good equals painless.

The Shack is a shovel, thrown deep into your heart. For example, it makes us face the truth about personal judgments. To reach a verdict against any human – terrorist, deviant, killer, traitor, or even myself – is to presume against the Creator and only Judge of us all. Therefore, for me to judge anyone is an audacious (and dangerous) demand that I be crowned King.

Against the backdrop of those illusions, The Shack invites us to step into a much higher view: God is with us through all of life, including the painful and horrid moments. That perspective forces us to realize that life is a continuum; our earth life is a like a capsule of time and space floating in a sea of eternity. Whatever we lose here, we find there. Death is never “the end.”

Finally, for me, The Shack is a powerful reminder that Heaven often arrives in an earthly eruption of Hell. So when I insist that life please me and never bring any pain, I miss the portal that so often brings Heaven on earth.

In all of these perspectives, The Shack is a surprising, powerful, and clear view of The Kingdom of God. That beautiful dominion of God invades our world (including our comfort zones, preferences, and myopia) and reveals a new and radiating increase of His authority.

And that new government brings peace, rest, and joy.

Hurricane Donald

I recently had to face my offensive harshness with telemarketers. For the first time I saw one as a fellow human who was struggling, stressed, and locked into a job he hated. And my glorious Edness had just made his load heavier. That epiphany broke something in me that needed breaking.

The sudden exposure (even in private) of a bad habit or hurtful way is one of the most humiliating and painful episodes in life. I fully understand the Apostle Paul’s harrowing question, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?

But, those moments are also essential and helpful. We all need those interruptions of cosmic kindness that disrupt our forward movement. They come to break, refine, and equip us with more grace.

The Beauty and Power of Disruption

Nations, cultures, and groups also need that refining force. Well, guess what. We have it; we are living through a powerful and historic disruption. It’s called “Trump.” But it has very little to do with policy or politics…or Trump. In fact, if he doesn’t already know it, he’ll soon learn that he’s caught in it too.

I think it’s dealing primarily with our arrogance and attitudinal sclerosis. In other words, it’s confronting our swagger and inflexibility. And it is applicable across the board. Like a hurricane, it is staggering across the land, bearing down on every person, group, relationship, event, and institution.

But why?

I believe it is because disruption brings newness into the present, “new” as the invading, explosive, and transformative power of the future. That new will—like a hurricane—rip and splinter old ways.

And that is for our good!

Have you noticed that most people seem to know our present national path is not healthy and not sustainable? So everyone claims to want change—but as a tool they can deploy to manage the future. It doesn’t work like that; real change invades. It’s not controllable by anyone or any agenda, and that’s the secret of its power and beauty.

From time to time, we all need to be so challenged, provoked, and terrified that body fluids leak through our clothes. That’s why and how we change. The great kindness of our Creator always has and always will tear up old ruts, comfort zones, and corruption in order to bring renewal. He will always cut across me; His purposes are too important to leave me (or you) intact.

Where did we ever get the idea that we and our tribe don’t need disruption? Why would anyone think that we get to create, educate, innovate, and negotiate only with those who feel exactly as we do about everything? That’s silly. Maturity requires the ability to work with different and difficult people.

Right here, it gets personal. I didn’t vote for Trump. He was the proverbial “bridge too far” for me. OK, so now what? Looks like I have decisions to make about adaptation, humility and learning new skills and rhythms.

I appreciated seeing the Tech titans—none of whom could be called Trump supporters—actually sit down and talk with the President-elect. For years some have lectured us on the need to sit down together, to “cross the aisle” to work with “the other side.” Oddly, so many of those voices never did that. But Tim Cook, Jeff Bezos, Sheryl Sandberg, Elon Musk and several others did. Furthermore, they agreed to keep meeting together with the new President.

Maybe they understand how the world works.

All Things New

Over the past year I have learned that loss always feels personal. But it never is.

Human instinct seems to always view loss from a close and immediate angle…it happened to me, took something from me, and now forever diminishes me and my future. But that is a distortion, like one cell in a drug addict’s body contorting in pain when he goes cold turkey. That cell cannot see the larger picture and purpose.

Much of what we’re seeing now is the contortion of individual cells. Too many bloggers, political elites, media voices, entertainers, and college students are only looking at Hurricane Donald from a very personal perspective.

To all of them I would say, “Close your eyes and take deep and long breaths. Humble yourself. Walk outside. Look up. Reconnect with the deeper rhythms of the universe. This is not personal any more than a hurricane is personal.”

Relax, trust, and prepare to live in a renewed and beautified landscape – one you didn’t design and one that lies far beyond the ramshackle real estate of your own habits and preferences.

The Hidden Life of Trees

I think the Apostle Paul gave a good basis for science when he wrote: “By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can’t see: eternal power, for instance, and the mystery of his divine being…” (Romans 1:20, The Message)

True science reveals hidden mysteries for those who have eyes to see.

And that brings me to an astounding new book, The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben (Greystone Books, 2016). Although I’ve always seen trees as “living things,” I had no idea of the sophistication or vigor of their life. Now I will never be able to see a tree or a forest the same way again. This book is a revelation; you see a design for health and wellness at, both, a tree and a forest perspective.

That pattern is deeply relevant to humans and society.

Wohlleben has methodically observed (and clearly explains) the intricate nature of trees and forests. To my great surprise, I learned that trees feel pain (even emitting ultrasonic “screams”), have some capacity for sight, require daily and seasonal periods of rest, possess memory, communicate with other trees, defend themselves when attacked, care for their young, build friendships with other trees, pass wisdom down to the next generation, fight to survive, and extend respect to the other members of their community.

They also ride bicycles and surfboards. Just kidding.

Wohlleben is a very visual writer. You see the patterns of plant and animal life – such as elk, wolf, beaver, aspen, willow and cottonwood populations in Yellowstone National Park – expanding and contracting over decades, almost as though dancing together. His skillful writing helps us to see electrical impulses racing up and down tree trunks, fungi burrowing through the subterranean soil in support of trees, and flirtatious tree scents swelling on the wind.

The Web of Wellness

His visual and detailed perspective of trees and forests reveals a very complex web of wellness. That view of soil, water, fungi, birds, animals, disease, and other trees is just breathtaking. In fact, he gave me a new appreciation, even a sense of awe, of the interconnectedness of all life on earth. And, of course, that brings us to the relationship between trees and humans.

So often, when humans have imposed decisions on forests and other natural resources, they set off chains of disastrous repercussions. For example, he describes what happens to trees planted in cities. By sharing space with water lines, buried cable, and other subsurface objects and systems, and because the ground becomes so trafficked and hardened, city trees are just not as healthy as trees in the wild. They often die young.

Studies have also revealed the illness or death of trees because they were subjected to too much city light. “…at some point, lack of sleep exerted its revenge and the plants, which had seemed so full of life, died.” Yet, Wohlleben is practical and dispassionate about humans. He writes:

“…we use living things killed for our purposes. Does that make our behavior reprehensible? Not necessarily. After all, we are also part of Nature, and we are made in such a way that we can survive only with the help of organic substances from other species. We share this necessity with all other animals.”

Purifying Our Environment

Although unintentional, the book also suggests the Creator’s majestic administration of the planet. You see the cycles of life almost as tides, receding and then rising and rolling back in. Or you see them as starling murmurations… appearing, disappearing, pulsating, morphing. With all due respect for other views, I don’t know how anyone could read this book without seeing a Creator.

I often thought of Thomas Merton while reading The Hidden Life of Trees. In one of the best lines I read this year, he spoke of monks (could be anyone) as “trees that exist in obscure silence, but by their presence purify the air.”

Think of it; they purify the environment. Just by being there.

Could there be a message in this for us…is it possible that we – individuals and society – can be as healthy and as beneficial to our environment as trees are to theirs?

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)

Do Elections Matter?

I am so grateful for the quiet and gentle rhythms of my life; marriage, family, friends, Middle Tennessee, good books, good food, and the pulsating possibility of touching eternity in life’s peaceful moments and places.

But, for some reason, in presidential election years I often turn away from all of that and indulge things that are accusative, hopeless, and deceptive. I seem to step into some kind of vertigo. Why is that?

Maybe it springs from our yearning for moral order. We need for life to make sense. But that desire for clarity and justice can so often and quickly lead to a moralistic view of the world that is ironically immoral. I think that is the birthing room for politics.

Of course, politics can be fine and noble. At best, it’s the way civilizations turn conflict into compromise; it’s how honest differences, even hostilities, get zippered into some kind of consensus, policy, and forward movement.

But at it’s worst politics becomes religion; a snarling, irrational, primitive, unforgiving and brutal battle between the forces of good and evil. That’s when conversation stops, friendships fade, everyone runs to their own bunkers, and firing commences.

Why do we all get caught up in that? When Americans move into the final weeks of a Presidential campaign, that polarization rises to flood stage. We all begin to see other ideas, agendas, movements, and leaders as incarnations of evil.

Arthur Miller famously said, “An era can be said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted.”[1] Sadly, it seems that our political bankruptcy has become a yardstick for our era’s exhaustion. Everyone faces the choice of going down with the dying era or simply walking away into a new future.

A Radical Life

Here’s the truth, Sweetheart: Life on earth always cycles. Today is no better and no worse than it has ever been. The “current situation”—whatever and wherever and whenever and with whomever it is—always breaks down (regardless of who wins elections). The old is always here, and passing away. And the new is always here, and arriving.

Jesus said, “I make all things new.” When the illusions and and ruins of the age are fully and hideously exposed, the Kingdom of God’s brand new order, that newness of life, will just keep unfurling.

When Daniel’s “current situation” in Jerusalem fell apart and he ended up in Babylonian captivity, God’s Kingdom just kept coming. History is full of those stories.

That is where I choose to stand.

And, because it defies the “normalcy” of a bankrupt and futile era, to live that way is oddly countercultural.

A radical life carries no deep affection for, or alarm about, what is passing away. Rather, it continually brings the “all things new” into the present. To live radically is to see and live now according to the new that is arriving. A radical life sees the things we fear and the things we hope (the bases of elections) as mere sand pebbles rolled back and forth by the tides of the old and the new.

I’m glad we live in a democracy; I know that voting is a great freedom and responsibility. And I know that some elections are important. But they are never as important as they claim to be.

Every one of the perceived victories this year—that wall, strong military, civil rights for LGBTQ, higher minimum wage—or losses (same list) are microscopic compared to the global and historic magnificence of the now-and-still-coming Kingdom of God.

So, yes, vote. Volunteer. Donate. But keep politics in perspective. Radical living does not allow politics to trade illusions for real life and it does not give politics any authority over personal relationships.

And radicals, like Daniel, never get confused about the relative power of tides and sand pebbles.

[1] Arthur Miller, “The Year it Came Apart”New York Magazine, Vol. 8, No. 1 (30 December 1974 – 6 January 1975), p. 30

 

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