Culture

Wisdom on a Cracker

“Laughter is carbonated holiness.”

Anne LaMott

Why do we love and remember great quotes?  

       The best ones serve truth, wisdom, humor, inspiration, encouragement, and other qualities in very short lines. Succinctness and lucidity are vital parts of their power. Despite their brevity, they leave nothing else to be said.

       For example, you can read voluminous books and watch infinite videos on the human condition, but the Apostle Paul captured the whole sweep of that territory in sixteen words, O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Romans 7:24, New King James Version). 

       As in many things, less is often more in quotes. The “less” stays with you. “More” wouldn’t have improved it or made it stick. Extraordinary quotes deliver wisdom on a cracker. 

       Former UN General Secretary Dag Hammarskjold understood that. He stated his whole reason for living in a prayer: “For all that has been, thanks. For all that will be, yes.” Twelve words as prayer, mission statement, and autobiography.

       Teilhard de Chardin caught lightning in a bottle when he wrote: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” 


       So did Richard Bach: “What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the Master calls a butterfly.”

       Teacher, author, and guru Ram Dass delivered a wonderful reminder about gentleness: “We’re all just walking each other home.” In the same sense, Philo of Alexandria wrote, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”

       Wendell Berry expressed another fine view of community: “Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you.”

       Ann Voskamp drove straight to the headwaters of a good life—humility: “Receiving God’s gifts is a gentle, simple movement of stooping lower.” 

       Goethe wrote with wonderful and concise clarity. For example: “Things which matter most should never be at the mercy of things which matter least.” And I often recall Goethe’s generous view of people: “Treat an individual as he is, and he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.”

       An old African Proverb captures a persistent and painful reality: “When bull elephants fight, the grass always loses.” 

       Sometimes a great line blows all the smoke away, leaving nothing but the plain and simple truth. P. J. O’Rourke was a master of that: “Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.”

       Likewise, Paul Batalden analyzed every person, family, marriage, organization, action, or policy with his simple statement: “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” Think of that the next time your golf ball hooks into the lake. You perfectly designed your swing to do that.

       Something in me changed when I heard my friend, pastor Dale Smith, say in his Sunday sermon,“Where did we ever get the idea that all problems are to be solved?” In a flash, I saw my view of problems: just fix (or kill) it, box it, and ship it far away. Since that day, I’ve tried to hold problems before God, seeking what He may say or do to me through it. 

       As he always did, Jim Rohn delivered true wisdom when he said: “You must get good at one of two things: sowing in the spring or begging in the fall.”

       The towering American philosopher Eric Hoffer wrote one of the great social realities in The True Believer (Harper & Row, 1951): “A man is likely to mind his own business when it is worth minding. When it is not, he takes his mind off his own meaningless affairs by minding other people’s business.”

       And that recalls James Q. Wilson’s summary of our times: “Once politics was about only a few things; today, it is about nearly everything.”

       But when those views ignite my cynicism, my friend and pastor Glen Roachelle reminds me to look past the visible and remember, “Sometimes we have to accept confusion and ambiguity while we wait for the contractions of history to give birth to a new era.” 

       Billy Graham laid nine simple words together in a momentous challenge: “Get to know people you’ve been taught to avoid.” 

       I once heard James Carville speak a very astute code for prudent living: “The best time to plant an oak tree was twenty-five years ago. The second-best time is today.” 

       And the truth of a line can sometimes ride in on laughter, as Former Senator and Presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy knew: Running for president is like coaching footballyou have to be smart enough to understand the game and dumb enough to think it is important.” 

       So did Pope John XXIII, when he told his Italian audience, “Italians come to ruin most generally in three ways: women, gambling, and farming. My family chose the slowest one.”

       You’ve just read 21 of my favorite quotes. If you want a few hundred more, go to my website’s STOUT WISDOM

       And, please, I’d love to hear your own favorite quotes. 

Renovation of the Heart

“We live from our heart.”

        From that first line of Renovation of the Heart (Navpress, 2002), the late Dallas Willard drills deep into our spiritual core and the need for spiritual formation through Christ. Clearly, this book rolls out of a well-lived life—studious, devotional, and humble. Willard obviously thought deep and long about character, personality, destiny, societies, and cultures. But mostly he thought about God.

       This book is so clear, gentle, and well organized. It’s like Willard discovered a big stack of unkempt theological firewood, then began to stack it neatly. Not too neatly, but just enough to help readers think as they read. Willard makes us full partners in arriving at discernments of truth. Now, what follows is not a review, but rather a rock skipping across the pond of this book.

       First, Willard understood how evil germinates in the human heart. That’s why too many people, including children, live along various fronts of “withdrawal and assault” from those who should care for them. That alienation and brutality eventually leads to the slaughter of millions from “enlightened” thinkers, leaders, and governments.

       Jesus, the eternal Son, is the largest figure in all of history because His life reversed the corruption that invaded all people in all times and places. We were designed to love and to be loved by God. When we refuse it—when we seek or find love in any other place, thing, idea, event, or person—we miss our purpose and end up imprisoned to sin. We all live under government. The only question is, who’s government—His or ours?

       While reading this book, I often thought of Paul Batalden’s great slice of wisdom: “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” When we live in anger, weariness, lust, fear, “assault and withdrawal,” and other human conditions, it is because we have perfectly designed our lives to get them. The only answer is to forsake our own way and seek the King and His Kingdom. 

        First, as a foundational issue, Willard sees six basic aspects in our lives:

1.    Thought (images, concepts, judgments, inferences)

2.    Feeling (sensation, emotion)[1]

3.    Choice (will, decision, character)

4.    Body (action, interaction with the physical world)

5.    Social context (personal and structural relations to others)

6.    Soul (the factor that integrates all the above to form one life)

       Willard doesn’t present those aspects as contradictory to the triad view of human life—body, soul, and spirit. He simply lays them out as the crucial zones of life.

       Sadly, most people do not even understand that construct. As a result, they are lost. And, as Willard explains, “Something that is lost is…not where it is supposed to be, and therefore it is not integrated into the life of the one to whom it belongs and to whom it is lost. Think of what it means when the keys to your house or car are lost. They are useless to you, no matter how much you need them and desire to have them and no matter what fine keys they may be. And when we are lost to God, we are not where we are supposed to be in his world and hence are not caught up into his life. The ultimately lost person is the person who cannot want God. Who cannot want God to be God… Wanting God to be God is very different from wanting God to help me.” 

Right there is the crisis point of all life. Who owns us? On that, Willard comes down the track like a freight train:

       “Christian spiritual formation rests on this indispensable foundation of death to self and cannot proceed except insofar as that foundation is being firmly laid and sustained…Covetousness is self-idolatry, for it makes my desires paramount. It means I would take what I want if I could.”

       And that is why, “What we call ‘civilization’ is a smoldering heap of violence constantly on the verge of bursting into flame.” 

 Transformation of the Mind and Body

Willard, author (The Divine Conspiracy and other books), professor, and director of the University of Southern California’s School of Philosophy, was a true scholar. So, he understandably cared about clear thinking. He writes, “Bluntly, to serve God well we must think straight; and crooked thinking, unintentional or not, always favors evil. And when the crooked thinking gets elevated into group orthodoxy, whether religious or secular, there is always, quite literally, ‘hell to pay.’ That is, hell will take its portion, as it has repeatedly done in the horrors of world history.” 

       And he also focuses on the transformation of the human body. “For good or for evil, the body lies right at the center of the spiritual life …our body is a good thing. God made it for good. That is why the way of Jesus Christ is so relentlessly incarnational. The body should be cherished and properly cared for, not as our master, however, but as a servant of God.

       “Incarnation is not just an essential fact about Jesus: that ‘Christ is come in the flesh.’ Rather, he came in the flesh, a real human body, in order that he might bring redemption and deliverance to our bodies… This present life is to be caught up now in the eternal life of God. But of course ‘the life I now live in the flesh’ is inseparable from the mortal body I now have. So it too must become holy, must ‘come over’ to Christ’s side.”

Social Dimensions

The geniuine tragedy of human life sweeps in when damaged people get together. Toxic thinking, the centrality of feelings, corrupt choices, ignorance of the body, and disintegrating souls produce societies that abuse and destroy people. Especially children.

       “The spiritual malformation of children is the inevitable result. Their little souls, bodies, and minds cannot but absorb the reality of assault and withdrawal in the climate where their parents or other adults are constantly engaged in them. And of course they are soon in the line of fire themselves… in such a context you can almost see the children shrivel.

       “Their only hope of survival is to become hardened… Hardened, lonely little souls, ready for addiction, aggression, isolation, self-destructive behavior, and for some, even extreme violence, go out to mingle their madness with one another and nightmarish school grounds and ‘communities.’ They turn to their bodies for self-gratification and to control others, or for isolation and self-destruction.

       “The wonder is not that they sometimes destroy one another, but that the adults who produce them and live with them can, with apparent sincerity, ask ‘Why?’ Do they really not know? Can they really not see the poison in the social realm?”

       Willard also laments western society’s inept responses… “sickeningly shallow solutions to the human problem, such as ‘education’ or ‘diversity’ or ‘tolerance…’ they do not come close to the root of the human problem.”

The Covenant Community 

Finally, Willard turns to Romans 12:9-21 for a comprehensive list of what gatherings of covenant communities, local churches should look like:

1.    Letting love be completely real

2.    Abhorring what is evil 

3.    Clinging to what is good

4.    Being devoted to one another in family-like love 

5.    Outdoing one another in giving honor

6.    Serving the Lord with ardent spirit and all diligence

7.    Rejoicing in hope

8.    Being patient in troubles

9.    Being devoted constantly to prayer

10. Contributing to the needs of the saints

11. Pursuing (running after) hospitality

12. Blessing persecutors instead of cursing them 

13. Being joyful with those who are rejoicing and being sorrowful with those in sorrow

14. Living in harmony with one another

15. Not being haughty, but fitting in with the “lowly” in human terms

16. Not seeing yourself as wise

17. Never repaying evil for evil

18. Having due regard for what everyone takes to be right 

19. Being at peace with everyone, so far as it depends on you

20. Never taking revenge, but leaving that to whatever God may decide 

21. Providing for needy enemies

22. Not being overwhelmed by evil, but overwhelming evil with good

Willard says, “Just think for a moment what it would be like to be a part of a group of disciples in which this list was the conscious, shared intention, and where it was actually lived out…”

Transforming the Soul

This chapter, one of the book’s best, gets to the most crucial issue: the health of the human soul. He writes, “The soul is that aspect of your whole being that correlates, integrates, and enlivens everything going on the various dimensions of the self… And the person with the ‘well-kept heart,’ the soul will be itself properly ordered under God and in harmony with reality…. For such a person, the human spirit will be in correct relationship to God. With his assisting grace, it will bring the soul into subjection to God and the mind (thoughts, feelings) into subjection to the soul. The social context and the body will then come into subjection to thoughts and feelings that are in agreement with truth and with God’s intent and purposes for us.”

       One of the best paragraphs in the book: “… The Psalm 1 man delights in the law that God has given. Note, he delights in it (verse 2 ). He loves it, is thrilled by it, can’t keep his mind off of it. He thinks it is beautiful, strong, wise, an incredible gift of God’s mercy and grace. He therefore dwells upon it day and night, turning it over and over in his mind and speaking it to himself…The result is a flourishing life.”

       “… Our soul is like an inner stream of water, which gives strength, direction, and harmony to every other element of our life. When that stream is as it should be, we are constantly refreshed and exuberant in all we do, because our soul itself is then profusely rooted in the vastness of God and his Kingdom, including nature; and all else within us is enlivened and directed by that stream.” 


[1]  According to Willard, “a great part of the disaster of contemporary life lies in the fact that it is organized around feelings. People nearly always act on their feelings… the will is then left at the mercy of circumstances that evoke feelings.” 

Your Voice

Your voice, as distinct as a fingerprint, gives you the chief instrument you will use throughout your life to engage and perhaps change the world. It does so through formal language symbols, as well as grunts and groans, laughter, singing, sighing, crying, coughs, whistles, and whispers.

         That’s why your voice (oral, written, artistic, or praying) is one of the greatest treasures in your life. It allows you to send your unique message to your family, community, place of worship, nation, the world, history, and to God. How you use your voice is a very big deal. 

         My brother, Vernon, a retired Sheriff, says, “The right to remain silent is one of our most precious freedoms. Everyone should try it.” My friend Glen Roachelle once said something similar to me, “You don’t have to condemn anything. Just be silent.” I’ve found those twin words of counsel to be excellent guides for living.

The Creative Voice 

God spoke the whole universe into existence (see Psalm 33:6, Hebrews 11:3, other scriptures). That is how He creates. Because we humans are fashioned in His image, we too possess creative vocal power. Our words live. Like seeds, they create new life when they fall into receptive soil. 

         So, whether your message, your song, is delivered as a solo or as a member of the trio or choir, you can walk through the world releasing words that create, encourage, and bless. Think of it, when you speak a confident and smiling “Good morning” to your spouse and children, you just designed the environment of their whole day. And you can do that at the gym, your workplace, restaurants, and every other place in your daily path.   

         So, if you hold the historic power to create such fine results, why would you allow others to draft your voice into the army of their reactions? Just because others choose to speak for or against current events doesn’t mean I need to speak about them. My voice does not belong to our national echo chamber. 

         When I venture into Facebook or other sites in the public square, I don’t stand up for America, Trump, Biden, Christianity, or my mom. Why? Because wisdom says every “yes” is also a “no.” Therefore, if I take the time to speak or write about Dr Fauci, I have to say “no” to my own voice and vocation. Jesus said He only spoke what He heard His Father speak. That means He had to say “no” to many other people and purposes—even good ones.

Your Signature Sound

But it goes deeper than that. Your signature sound comes through life experiences that excavate deep caverns in your heart. When specific (and often painful) things hit you—the fatality car wreck, a promotion, the birth of your child, a miscarriage, that award, or bankruptcy—they dig new spaces in your life. Forever after, when air pushes up through the subterranean formations of your life (like the collapsed mineshaft of a longstanding dream), it creates vocal sounds unlike any other human on earth. 

         That’s why we usually know after one syllable or sigh if we can trust the one speaking—we hear a tone, a resonance, that delivers critically important reconnaissance. Just by the sound that came booming (or creeping) up out of his or her underground zone. After working with James Earl Jones in the 1990s, I learned the truth of his famous voice. It rumbles out of the bedrock integrity of his life.

Caring for Your Voice

A well-known singer explained to me the great care she must maintain over her vocal capacities. Specifically, she must prepare sufficiently, pace herself, get enough hydration and sleep, cool down after a performance, and find proper rest and recovery time. Like an athlete, she spends more time training and protecting than playing on the field. 

         When she told me that, I had to question if I value and respect my voice enough to focus on caring for it as she does. I also had to ask why I think I have the time and strength to criticize others, indulge controversy, or engage trivial matters.

         I know some people have a prophetic or activist gift. They speak out as they do because God created them that way. I salute them. But I also know the centrifuge of our times pull many others away from their creative purpose. It spins them out into the orbit of things they cannot possibly create, repair, or even influence.

         But, closer to home, we all have the great honor of dropping words into the human hearts we encounter each day. That is a very high and noble calling. Might be worth working in that realm for the new year coming up. 

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! 

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)

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.”

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