death

Letting Go

Our white cat, Tiger, came to us in 2006 when his previous owner dropped him at our house. Joanne and I instantly saw the man was abusive. When he opened the cage in our foyer, Tiger ran as fast and far as possible. We later found him crouched behind the dryer.

         It took a long time to win his heart; he was so fearful. But, over time, he gradually warmed to us. I think he finally realized we would not injure him. In time, he became vocal and his personality opened like a flower. He learned to express his needs and his affection.

         For example, Joanne and I meet at our game table almost every day for a card game and have done so for years. In that ritual, I’ve pulled the piano bench up beside my chair for Tiger. He would jump up, watch us play a while, and then paw my arm as I tried to play; his searching eyes told me he needed attention. And, of course, I gave it to him.

         And, despite the feline reputation for indifference, Tiger was always attentive to us, mainly to Joanne, a diabetic. If her blood sugar fell or climbed too much, he would lay nearby, fixing his gaze on her. When I appeared, his laser stare told me, “Do something!”

         We became a society; three of God’s creatures leaning into each other within our one-acre corner of Tennessee. We learned the cross-species nuances of affection, reaching, retreating, intruding, and yielding. We stepped on his tail; he threw up on our floors. Through it all, we slowly began to understand the scripture, “Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast.”[1] We were effectively the hands of God for Tiger; we had to fulfill the Lord’s care for His creatures.

         We loved and enjoyed him for 13 years. But, these pet-and-people connections never end well. He was, after all, an elderly cat. So, after completing some kidney tests, about 1:00 p.m. on October 1, the vet told us the time had come. We said we’d bring Tiger to her clinic at 3:00.

         Over the next two hours, I watched Tiger interact with his environment, including us. But I knew what he didn’t—that the road to his future had washed out. As I petted him, prayed for him in this new journey, and wept in farewell to a friend, I wondered if that’s how God views us. He sees what we cannot, and He knows we can’t control what is coming. In the end, our weakness will drop us into His kindness.

         Throughout that last trip to the vet, and as we entered the “death chamber,” Tiger was docile, accepting, silent. As he lay on the table, his very full eyes locked on ours. Peacefully. He had moved beyond fear.

         Then we gathered him in his blanket and held him while the doctor administered the drug that would take Tiger from us. As the chemicals carried him from our shoreline, he pulled a corner of his blanket into his mouth and began to suck. He continued to suckle a breast we could not see. Until he stopped.

         In his death, Tiger made his final statement to our little family; go gently. Lay it down, let it go. Rest. Everything will be far better than you ever imagined.  


[1] Proverbs 10:12 (ESV)

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.

Touring Heaven

Imagine that you, a cop or teacher, could tour an active volcano. You would not experience its boiling and beautiful wonder as a geologist, but rather from your untrained perspective. And, in fact, your lack of education and expertise may enrich the whole experience.

That is the basic premise of Proof of Heaven, A Neurosurgeon’s Journey Into The Afterlife by Eben Alexander, M.D. (Simon & Schuster, 2012). This NDE (near-death experience) story is not at all like 90 Minutes in Heaven, Heaven is For Real, or any of the other Christian books on the afterlife. A secular materialist, not a Christian believer, wrote the book. I don’t believe it contains one scripture.

But I believed every line of it (“believed” as in gut resonance, not theological accuracy).

On November 10, 2008, a rare form of bacterial meningitis struck Dr. Eban Alexander, a Harvard trained neurosurgeon in Virginia. His “entire neocortex – the outer surface of the brain, the part that makes us human – was shut down.” For seven days, Alexander had zero brain activity. He was “brain dead,” kept alive only by a breathing machine. On the 7th day of his coma, his doctor recommended ending treatment.

As a medical drama, this story is a breathless, vivid, tense, and emotional page-turner. But, beyond that, the reader is mesmerized by Dr. Alexander’s very descriptive report of where he went and what he saw after his life on earth.

The Tour

Alexander offers rich details of the sights, sounds, thoughts, communication patterns, and other dimensions of his kaleidoscopic tour of, yes, Heaven.

For example…at some point in his coma, “something appeared in the darkness. Turning slowly, it radiated fine filaments of white-gold light, and as it did so the darkness around me began to splinter and break apart. Then I heard a new sound; a living sound, like the richest, most complex, most beautiful piece of music you’ve ever heard. Growing in volume as a pure white light descended…

“I was no longer looking at the slowly spinning light at all, but through it…I began to move up. Fast. There was a whooshing sound, and in a flash I went through the opening and found myself in a completely new world. The strangest, most beautiful world…brilliant, vibrant, ecstatic, stunning…

“A sound, huge and booming like a glorious chant, came down from above…the joy of these creatures, as they soared along, was such that they had to make this noise—that if the joy didn’t come out of them this way then they would simply not otherwise be able to contain it.

“We were riding along together on an intricately patterned surface, alive with indescribable and vivid colors – the wing of a butterfly. In fact, millions of butterflies were all around us – vast fluttering waves of them, dipping down into the greenery and coming up around us again…a river of life and color…we flew in lazy looped formations past blossoming flowers and buds on trees that opened as we flew near.”

The Message

Alexander’s tour of Heaven fills many pages and is surprisingly complete and satisfying. But then he moves into what he learned or received on the tour. Those observations include:

  • “The (false) assumption that we can somehow be separated from God is the root of every form of anxiety in the universe.”
  • “Nothing can tear us away from God, ever.”
  • “Physical life is characterized by defensiveness, whereas spiritual life is just the opposite.”
  • He summarizes all that he saw and heard with three statements:

    “You are loved and cherished, deeply, forever.”
    “You have nothing to fear.”
    “There is nothing you can do wrong.”

In a very moving scene, a few weeks after his recovery, Dr. Alexander goes to a church service with his wife. To his astonishment, what he sees in the structure and iconography of the sanctuary reminds him of what he saw in Heaven. It was then, in a gathering of God’s people, that Alexander realized, “I didn’t just believe in God; I knew God.” Then we see him hobbling to the altar to receive the Eucharist, tears streaming down his cheeks.

For me, the main value of this fine book lies in seeing a skeptic pulled into the too-good-to-be-true Love that is Larger. And, consistent with his astonishment, Alexander’s descriptions tumble out in powerful, clear, and fresh language. No clichés or religion-speak here.

You want a good book that will pull you out of your world and take you to another one? Do you want a renewed look at the great adventure of life – one that passes through and beyond the earth? If so, I recommend you dive into the very deep and clear pool in Proof of Heaven.

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

Life After Loss

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

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

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

 

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

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

The Taste of Silence

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

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

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

Vandekerckhove surrendered.

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

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

Just as Bieke found triumph through ALS.

What Do You See?

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

“All Things”

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

I think her perspectives are valid and valuable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul and the Mountain

Several years ago, knowing I would probably never hunt again, I decided to give my shotguns to my sons. So on Christmas morning, with all our family opening gifts in our living room, I went downstairs and gathered my .410, 20-gauge, and 12-gauge. When our son Paul saw me coming up the stairs he announced, “This is either going to be a very warm family moment or a profoundly tragic one.”

That line was classic Paul. His perspectives always bumped the scenes of life just slightly askew. Paul is the most asymmetrical person I’ve ever known. Built like a refrigerator, his large frame encased the delicate and curious heart of a child. Some people couldn’t get past the fridge. Paul knew that; you could see it in his eyes. But then his tilted humor, his gift for absurdity, went to work, pushing attention away from himself.

As laughter warmed the room, the real Paul would emerge. His voice had a magical and musical pitch; even at 43, you could hear a child’s excitement in his phrasing and intonations. Words just tumbled out of his mouth. As the velocity increased, his words began to dance with laughter, spinning faster and faster. Then it all became a waterfall… words and full laughter and sometimes tears cascading down over everything and everyone.

Paul loved Chinn people, places, stories, and legacies. So it was almost predictable that Paul and his sweet Libby chose the Chinn farm in Kansas for their 07-07-07 wedding. From the time they rode away, they seemed like a long and happily married couple. Like most couples, they had that private language of looks and sighs and shrugs. But theirs was very eloquent.

Paul just filled all his familial and friendship roles, especially as Libby’s husband, our son, and Eddie and Amy’s brother. But “uncle” is one of the most enduring images of his life. I will always see him fishing with Nathan or playing parlor games with his nieces. To hear the shrieks of laughter from that table would make anyone feel better about everything…from terrorism to termites.

Many years ago Paul taught us much about communicating with God. When Joanne or I stood over his crib, gazing at our beautiful baby, his face would light up and he would search our eyes and jabber…long “messages” and excited laughter with clapping hands. Then he would move into serious, seemingly very sober, babbling. I often wondered what mysteries that little boy spoke to his mom and dad. I don’t know, but I know he helped us to see that we didn’t need to pray in formal or religious language. Bubbling heartsounds are just fine.

Paul didn’t like religion, politics, bees, or cabbage. He loved reading, writing, the Denver Broncos (after the Redskins broke his heart one too many times), fantasy football, fishing, parlor games, gaming and movies. His knowledge of movies was encyclopedic and he was a fine (and prominently published) film critic.

To Paul, films were frequent channels of prayer. He loved and often read the Bible, but he also heard whispers from the other side in movies.

His favorite film was Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Paul was five when it came out. From his first viewing, and throughout his life, he was gripped with the story of Roy Neary, a good man captured by the image of a mountain.

As Roy followed the image inscribed on his heart, he met others who bore the same image. They were all drawn together around their search for the mountain. In the end, they all stood together on that mountain. And there, Roy stepped aboard the craft that would take him away from his wife and family and all that was familiar on his journey to another world.

Early in the morning of October 11, 2015, Paul Chinn also stepped beyond a familiar and loving society of family and friends, into the eternal care of His Creator.

His death, from a heart attack, is deeply painful to all those left behind. But his departure also reminded us that he belonged to God before we ever knew him. And he now continues his life just beyond our senses and somewhere on that mountain that he saw and searched for. Paul Chinn now belongs fully and only to the One Who gave him life.

And he would not return to us if he could.

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.

Sailors

In the summer of 1992, while driving a dirt road in Pratt County, Kansas, my 70-year-old dad saw his own tractor, driverless, rolling across a field pulling a land leveler. He felt a chill; he knew his brother Harold had been driving the tractor and leveler rig up to his place near Pratt.

Dad soon saw Harold lying on the ground beside the road. Frantic, he stopped his pickup and ran to his brother. Harold was fully conscious, but Dad could clearly see that was going to be a real bad day.

Harold’s death was an earthquake in the Chinn family. Youngest son, playful and funny, and the spark of life in every family gathering, his death left a wide wound across our landscape. But it blew a deep and ragged hole right through Dad’s heart. He never recovered.

From that day it seemed that Dad’s strong mind began to melt. The distinct shapes of his personality began to droop and dissolve. His confidence tottered. He still went to his beloved shop, but he stopped repairing and making things. He just stood amidst his tools and cried; he didn’t know why.

Dad served on the aircraft carrier, USS Princeton, in World War 2. He was on board for every day of her 19-month existence. Her sinking on October 24, 1944, in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, was the central moment of his life. From that day Dad seemed to live in the shadow of the Princeton.

Dad and Mom made their last visit to our home in Northern Virginia in the spring of 1995. In preparing for their visit I wanted to find something that would engage Dad again, some spark that would animate his wonderful and vivid personality.

In 1995 the very colorful Admiral Arleigh Burke was one of the last living commanding officers from the Pacific theater of the war. And he had participated in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Two weeks before my parents’ visit, I learned that the 93-year-old Admiral lived in nearby Fairfax, Virginia. So I found a phone number for his home.

When Roberta “Bobbie” Burke answered the phone, I introduced myself and told her about Dad. I told her that Dad would be there in a couple weeks and asked if “the Admiral would be open to a visit from another sailor.” Bobbie immediately exclaimed, “Oh, yes, he would so love that! Please come.” She gave me their address and we agreed on a date and time.

When my parents arrived, I handed a new biography of Admiral Burke to Dad. He thanked me, scanned through it and told stories he recalled of “31-knot” Burke. Then I told him that we had an appointment with Admiral Burke the next day. Dad’s smile revealed his anxiety; he had never met an Admiral. Even after 50 years of civilian life he still thought like an enlisted man.

Dad asked too many questions about protocol and social courtesies as we drove from our house in Reston over to The Virginian apartments in Fairfax. He grew silent as we entered the building. Finally we stood at the door. I knocked. Very quickly, an elderly man, standing with a walker, opened the door and smiled. “Jack,” he barked and grabbed Dad’s hand. Dad relaxed; he heard an invitation to a safe place.

We spent two hours in the Burke living room. Bobbie gracefully vanished from the distinctly male gathering, as I’m sure she had often done in 72 years of marriage to a Navy man.

I watched in astonishment. A former Chief of Naval Operations, a major player in the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, an Admiral who had a class of destroyers named after him sat with an enlisted man, a Kansas railroader, a Sunday School teacher. But their eyes glistened at the same heartsounds of battle, loss, and heritage. And they burst into synchronous laughter at the same details and nuances of Navy culture.

I’ll never forget Dad’s face as Burke told him of watching Dad’s beloved Princeton, through his binoculars, explode and sink.

The 20th century had taken these two men to vastly different places, but as children of God they shared an enormous familial heritage. I saw them touch their shared bond as brothers. Class distinctions blew away like dust; they were sailors.

As we prepared to leave, Bobbie bid us farewell with a deep glowing sadness. Admiral Burke, with his walker, escorted us to the elevator; he clearly wanted to extend the moment as long as possible. He and Dad shook hands, “Come back anytime Jack.” They both knew they would never meet again.

Admiral Burke died 7 months later. Two thousand people attended his funeral; President Clinton delivered the eulogy. Burke’s tombstone at the Naval Academy Cemetery in Annapolis carries a one-word epitaph, “Sailor.”

Dad lived another 10 years. The slide that began with Harold’s death continued. But that incredible day was a clear announcement that human value has nothing to do with the illusions of rank, class, wealth, or productivity. Our value, our royalty, flows from the Fatherhood of God.

Far more than we realize, we are all His children. We have infinitely more in common than we have in conflict. May we all discover our shared family bond…even with those who may seem so different or so far away. They really aren’t.

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