Danger

The Woman Who Loved Storms

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

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

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

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

Beyond Burger King

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

       Why?

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

       Mom loved and lived the words of the old hymn,

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

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

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

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

Nature’s Theater

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

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

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

       I could almost hear her laughter in the wind.


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

The Voice in the Night

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

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

The Voice that Changed Everything

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

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

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


Above the Silos

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

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

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

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

Let’s Go Outside

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

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

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


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

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.”

The Monks of Tibhirine

Why would anyone choose to live in a place of mortal danger? And if and when that danger’s noose tightened into a choking death, why would anyone refuse to leave that place?

Those very serious questions crouched in the corner of my mind as I read John W. Kiser’s The Monks of Tibhirine (St. Martin’s Press, 2002). And, for me, this haunting true story of seven Trappist monks who died in Algeria twenty years ago fully answers those questions.

It all seems to come down to this: Trappist monks live according to “The Rule of St. Benedict” (from the 6th century). The rules cover normal life issues like prayer, study, work, etc. But one of the rules is the “Vow of Stability.” And that means joining a community and staying there. They stand; they are stable. You know, like a tree.

In classic Christian faith, everyone who follows God lives within His call to die. As Jesus said to His disciples, “…whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” In that sense, instability is an attempt to avoid death. No goofball religion here; The Monks of Tibhirine is an exceedingly mature look at Christian life.

Strangely perhaps, but his 14-year-old book is unusually relevant today, first because it portrays ordinary life among Muslims and Christians – normal relationships marked by mutual love and respect and support. Secondly, it describes life in the midst of terrorism. At the time and in the place of the story, Algeria was convulsed and destabilized by “violence done in the name of Islam.” Yet, to the author’s credit and wisdom, Islam was not the issue. Just as it really isn’t today. Most of life occurs at eye level, far away from the isms and ologies.

So what is the issue? I think Thomas Merton captured it when he spoke of monks (but it could be anyone submitted to the Lord) as “trees that exist in obscure silence, but by their presence purify the air.” By virtue of their created purpose, you might say (with small poetic license) that trees take a Vow of Stability. They stay. They stand. They purify. Just by being there.

For example, one of the monks, Brother Luc, a medical doctor, took care of everyone in the village of Tibhirine. No questions asked. Although he was elderly and ill, Luc treated up to 100 people a day. Every day. The monks were very poor, so he often had no medicine. But he still purified the atmosphere by his very presence.

The monks certainly knew the danger; they were not naïve. Nor did they have a desire to die. Kiser tells us that one monk, Célestin, “had a visceral terror of…a violent death. But his even greater fear was not to be there with his brothers when the time came.”

They frequently gathered (often with their Muslim neighbors) around the issue of leaving or staying; they prayed, discussed, and voted. But, “As each man expressed his view, the vow of stability kept returning as the touchstone of their thinking. Stability meant they were bound…to their neighbors and to one another.”

In the end, members of GIA, an Algerian terror group, broke into the monastery early in the morning of March 27, 1996 and kidnapped seven monks. After weeks of trying to use them to negotiate the release of terrorists, they murdered the monks on May 21, 1996. Their bodies have never been found.

Christian de Chergé, the abbot of the monastery, is the conscience of the book. A man of deep humility, he infused his time and place with a generous vision of faith and community. He also poured his life out in service in the place of his planting. Christian loved everyone and loved them unconditionally, knowing, as he said, “the love of Jesus did not wait for a response.”

Christian wrote a note of thanks to his executioner (before he knew the time, place or instrument of his death). His note perfectly captures the spirit of the book:

“In this Thank You – which says everything about my life – I certainly include…you, my friend of the last moment, who will not know what you are doing…Yes, for you, too, I wish this thank-you, this ‘A Dieu,’ whose image is in you also, that we may meet in heaven, like happy thieves, if it please God, our common Father. Insha Allah!”

NOTE: The story of The Monks of Tibhirine is also told in the movie, Of Gods and Men – the best movie about Christian faith ever made. Although not cited as source material in the credits, Xavier Beauvois, the producer, director, and writer called this book “our bible” for the production.

Do You Have an LSO?

Today’s aircraft carriers are small towns (Pop. 5000) that exist only for the purpose of moving their 4.5-acre airport and 80 jet fighters anywhere in the world. But there’s a huge problem. That airport is too small for what it must do. So fantastic (and frankly weird) machines must compensate.

First, a catapult rams a 50,000-pound jet from zero to 165-mph in 2 seconds in order to slingshot it into the air at sufficient speed for flight. Then, when the plane returns, another contrivance reverses the process; the plane’s tailhook snags an arresting cable that slams it to the deck. And this happens while the plane is flying 150 miles an hour and the runway is jumping up and down and rolling from side to side. No wonder the landing is called “a controlled crash.” It’s like a first baseman catching a line drive.

And that is why the flight deck of a modern aircraft carrier is considered the most dangerous working environment on earth. People can be, and have been, sucked through jet engines or sliced in half by the arresting cables.

While spending five days aboard the USS Nimitz in 2005, I saw why the Landing Signal Officer (LSO) is one of the most important jobs on the carrier. Every day, several times a day, he or she is responsible for the safety of a human life and a 40 million dollar piece of equipment. The pilot’s purpose, field of vision, and mental awareness are all so tightly focused that he or she cannot possibly perform the landing without the LSO.

Incredibly, the success of the aircraft carrier’s mission comes down to each pilot completely trusting another human being with his or her life. Survival means a total commitment to another person’s vision, perspective, instincts, wisdom, skill, and personal stability.

Who Cares?

In 1972 I ran into the blinding revelation that life is dangerous. Even though I was 25, married, and had a child, I was like a drunk monkey driving the Indy 500; someone was about to get killed. So I reached out to Glen Roachelle, the most stable and mature man I knew at that time (or today). I asked him, in essence, to be my LSO. But I used the word “pastor.”

I believe that God cares for His creation and that His loving care is built into the whole package of life. The biblical words “pastor” and “shepherd” reveal the expanse of God’s care. That’s why the “LSO” is a fine metaphor of His provision of care. But we don’t get it. We think that needing an LSO is demeaning. We also demand that a “pastor” be an institutional CEO, Director of Sales and Marketing, TED talker, comedian, and funeral and wedding planner.

Totally wrong.

A pastor is simply one who “keeps watch for another”…you know, like an LSO keeps watch. It’s so simple: I can’t see myself clearly. I need objectivity. A pastor can see me with greater clarity and perspective. And he brings wisdom, skill, and maturity to the pastoral role.

I could tell many stories that illustrate real pastoral care. Very few involve Bible studies, prayer, or church gatherings. Most feature cars, kids, health, houses, and financial needs. Glen’s pastoral eye has nearly always seen my need for rest, a raise, or a doctor before I did.

We all need someone who can see who we really are and the vast sweep of our circumstance – someone who can see everything and actually give a damn for both the grand purpose and the individual lives at stake.

Like an LSO. He or she is the point of connecting the grand macro mission of the aircraft carrier with the micro safety and welfare of the individual pilot. The LSO not only sees everything, like where the plane and the deck are, but also instinctively knows where the deck will be when the jet touches it. You think that may be important?

You and I live and work in an extremely dangerous time and place. The casualties are high and so very visible. We all know the tragic stories of business, political, and spiritual leaders who suffered great pain, loss, shame, and even death. And they are simply the most visible. We’re all exposed and vulnerable.

Think about it; your purpose is too panoramic and your life is too important to not give it your very best. Perhaps that means you need someone to watch for you.

“Excuse Me, Barista, May I Live Here?”

Washington, DC, summer of 1994. From the muggy blanket of heat and city sounds and odors, I stepped into a new and magical cocoon of coffee aroma, cold air, quiet greens and charcoals, and Sinatra’s velvet crooning of “In the Wee Small Hours.”

They called the place “Starbucks.”

This was more than a store. I felt like I had slipped through a hidden door in the cosmos, passing from mess and madness into a fortress of peace and safety. Out there could never intrude in here. That very first Starbucks seemed to be a metaphor of how to live in a harsh and polarized environment.

In fact, when you read the 23rd Psalm it sounds like David wrote it in Starbucks – the place of quiet rest and sweet restoration. Fear and evil are locked outside. But inside a lavish table is spread in full view of a hostile world. And, honey, that cup of sublime goodness just overflows. Of course, I will dwell in this house forever! Duh.

This is not a mere coffee shop; it’s an alternate society, a counterculture, another government.

The Safe Place 

Everyone lives in the tension between yesterday and tomorrow. The old is exhausted and dying; the new has not fully arrived. We endure the death grip of yesterday while tasting the promises of tomorrow. That struggle is not unique to any time or people; it is always true.

The safe place is a zone, a domain within that struggle. And it’s usually located in the midst of turbulence or great loss. For example, we’ve all seen a dying person give up the fight to stay on earth. They simply embrace the next dimension of life (Secret: you don’t have to die in order to enter that place). And we’ve all seen people go through crucibles that brought him or her into a surprising zone of victory.

External conditions didn’t change at all. But they found a new way to live in the midst of it. And that new way did not spring from power, beauty, education, money, or control. At the point where they gave up their own strength, they slipped into the safe place that is always within and around us.

What Does the Place Look Like?

Imagine that you are sitting in a beautiful and restful suite with 10 to 12 other people. The room is elegantly designed, built, and furnished. The lines and light and colors and depth of quality call every occupant to higher thoughts and purposes.

The people in the room reflect integrity, confidence, grace, and good humor. Their speech is gentle, clear, calm and reasonable. They listen. Their laughter is full and deep and clean. No shrill tones and no combative, angry or mocking voices are heard in that room.

Vertigo may prevail outside. But spin anyone in this room and they will come up pointing to the North Star.

And everyone here is serious and focused. For example, as one man reads a document to the group, the sound of children playing outside grows louder. His eyes never leave the document; he continues to read as he steps to the open window and slowly closes it. The room becomes blessedly quiet. He continues to read as he returns to his seat.

No one went to the window to disparage or correct the children. These are mature people; they don’t react to distractions. They are passionate about, and focused on, a great purpose. They don’t have time to pick fights or borrow offenses from what is going on outside. Good grief; they know all those things will pass.

New World in the Morning

Look, I understand that we live in harsh and dangerous times. An age is passing away (as ages always do). It’s painful and frightening. And I’m not aloof from it; I’ve wept over the losses and hurled too many bad words at my life’s various media screens.

But, when I get still (with a fine cup of coffee!) inside the safe place, I remember that the global shaking and convulsions are the birth pangs of a brand new era. All that is worthless or dispensable will collapse into dust and blow away. All that is worthy and eternal will overcome and preside.

Just as a Starbucks in Washington once illustrated for me, we can all find a safe and delightful place right in the middle of transitional chaos.

Hey, I know; let’s meet there after work and talk about it.

Is the Universe a Friendly Place?

In August of 1996, 10-year-old Taylor Touchstone went swimming with his family in a Florida panhandle creek. Minutes later the mildly autistic boy, known for having no sense of fear, vanished. His family members reacted immediately; they knew that the creek emptied into a vast and dangerous swamp.

A massive search quickly came together. Boats and helicopters with high-tech tracking systems, and more than 200 volunteers, covered the area. Everyone felt they were in a race with death. The swamp was home for alligators, rattlesnakes, and water moccasins. One year earlier four Army Rangers had died while training in the same swamp.

After covering a 36-square-mile area over three days, the search effort came to a sorrowful end. The boy was presumed dead.

But early in the morning of the fourth day, 14 miles away from where Taylor was last seen, a fisherman saw a child calmly bobbing in the water. He knew immediately who the boy was, pulled him into his boat, and full-throttled to the dock. The boy was naked, sunburned, hungry, thirsty, and had some minor cuts and bites. Beyond that he was fine.

Taylor has never provided details of his incredible journey; no one knows how he survived – or travelled 14 miles. But photos of alligators made him very excited and happy.

Albert Einstein once asked a crucial question: “Is the universe a friendly place?” The only possible answers, “yes” or “no,” are both true. In a mysterious and eternal reciprocity, the one who replies receives the full cargo of his or her answer.

The structure of the universe tends to give us what we ask. We eat what we speak. In other words, we are all farmers. We plant the seeds, and then live by the crop that comes up out of the soil. Plant a yes; reap a yes. Is the universe a friendly place? Answer wisely; you’ll live by your response.

Taylor Touchstone had no sense of fear; he trusted his environment. And apparently his environment gave him full support. That is so like children. Bright eyes, quick smiles, and eager to go. Except for those who live in dark and dangerous places, most children instinctively know the universe – at least their part of it – is safe and pleasant.

Several years ago my second cousin moved to Los Angeles. Jennifer, so young and excited, wanted to break into the entertainment industry. But, in an old story, she found the road more difficult than expected. At one point she ran out of money. She told me, “I literally had no money in my account and no gas in my car to make it to work.”

Her desperate need drove her to call her mom. When Dorothy heard her daughter’s voice, she said, “Oh, Jenn, I was just about to call you. Have you checked your bank account today?” She had not. So Dorothy told her that Jennifer’s grandmother awakened after a troubling dream. Concerned about Jennifer’s welfare, she began praying for her granddaughter. When morning came, she arranged for a cash gift to be deposited in Jennifer’s bank account.

Jennifer had been walking past ATMs every day; her cash was that near. When she told me that story, I wondered how often I walk on, by, or around strong support from the God of the universe – support that is just a few steps away.

Yes, I know that people die in swamps and some lose everything and end up living on the street. But I also know that joy, faith, and vulnerability help young people to greet the universe with joyful expectancy. And so often the universe responds with strong support.

When author and professor Dallas Willard was diagnosed with cancer, he said something quite profound, “I think that when I die it might be some time until I know it.” In other words, the membrane between this life and the next one is very thin. We are all moving through a much larger and friendlier terrain than we ever imagined – the vast universe of the Creator’s design and generosity.

The universe is friendly. You can enjoy the journey, especially if you travel through it like a child.

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