Environment

Living With Killers

Have you noticed it’s difficult to find perspective when you face an armed robber, earthquake, or deadly virus? Trying to be philosophical in a hurricane reveals insanity.

         But after disaster strikes, we should return as quickly as possible to the equilibrium of truth and wisdom. We’ve now met coronavirus, taken protective measures, and settled into new social patterns. So, where are we now? Who are we now? What do we see? Will we move on?

         This new virus takes me back to the tsunami that slammed into the coast of Sumatra on December 26, 2004, killing a quarter million people and leaving a half million homeless. That quick sweep of death and destruction brought human anguish into clear and global focus. Convulsive grief became the only proper way of the soul.

         Then, just days later, New York Times science writer William Broad delivered a magnificent perspective to his readers, “Powerful jolts like the one that sent killer waves racing across the Indian Ocean on Dec. 26 are inevitable side effects of the constant recycling of planetary crust, which produces a lush, habitable planet.”

         He also quoted University of California geochemist Dr. Donald DePaolo: “…the type of geological process that caused the earthquake and the tsunami is an essential characteristic of the earth. As far as we know, it doesn’t occur on any other planetary body and has something very directly to do with the fact that the earth is a habitable planet.”[1]

         Incredible; “essential characteristics” of the “lush, habitable planet” kill many who live on it. Think of it, we live across a vast and variegated terrain, comprising geological, spatial, chronological, emotional, and spiritual dimensions. Like a murmuration of sparrows, life rolls, billows, shrinks, and swirls across mysterious undulations of our Creator’s design.

Is the Coronavirus Evil?      

In August 2018, Christianity Today carried an interview with a molecular biologist. Dr. Anjanette Roberts, who had worked on the SARS virus at the National Institutes of Health, brought the same kind of stunning perspective to viruses.

         As a Christian believer, she knows viruses are not the result of Adam’s fall into sin. She explained, “Bacteria are absolutely essential to the life of everything on planet Earth. Bacteria are primary producers.” But right there lies a problem; bacteria can reproduce so rapidly they can double their population in 20 minutes. In the ecological balance, viruses keep that explosive growth in check. According to Dr. Roberts, if viruses did not control bacteria populations, “…there would be no environmental resources and no ecological space for other types of organisms to life on Earth.” [2]

         In March 2020, the same magazine returned to the same theme with Editor-in-chief Daniel Harrell’s article, “Is the Coronavirus Evil?”

         Harrell wrote,“…unless God’s creation defies every characteristic of biological reality, bacteria and viruses are not bitter fruits of the fall, but among the first fruits of good creation itself. If the science is right, there would be no life as we know it without them…Death itself is required for organic life to exist.”[3]

         So, the beautiful perfection of our ecosystem means we live with killers. Our planet is wild and dangerous. But that danger is precisely what makes earth a “habitable planet.” Water—which we cannot live without—brings death as quickly as life. The same is true of wind, shifting plates, and viruses.

         Perhaps we find a clue about our home planet in what the Psalmist David wrote about the planet’s Creator, “darkness and the light are both alike to thee.”

What Matters Most            

The awesome forces of fire, water, wind, disease, or migrating tectonic plates will always shake the order of built things. Societies take decades, sometimes centuries, to build great and essential places. And wild natural forces can knock them down in a few minutes.

         So we live with killers. OK; we need to deal with it, then get back to what matters! We’re all batters in the box; it’s no time to consider earaches, getting new tires, checking Netflix, or cleaning the gutters. Keep your eye on the ball.

         And hold to what matters most—family, faith, friendship, love, joy, humility, peace, generosity, and gratitude.

         This killer will pass. Others will take its place. But we will go on.


[1] William J. Broad, “Deadly and Yet Necessary, Quakes Renew the Planet.” New York Times, January 11, 2005. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/11/science/deadly-and-yet-necessary-quakes-renew-the-planet.html?_r=0

[2] Rebecca Randall, “Why Zika, and Other Viruses, Don’t Disprove God’s Goodness.” Christianity Today, August 14, 2028. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/august-web-only/why-zika-and-other-viruses-dont-disprove-gods-goodness.html

[3] Daniel Harrell, “Is the Coronavirus Evil?” Christianity Today, March 17, 2020.   https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2020/march-web-only/coronavirus-evil-covid-19-disease-theology.html

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

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.

 

Subversive Sabbath

A. J. Swoboda’s Subversive Sabbath: The Surprising Power of Rest in a Nonstop World (Brazos Press, 2018) is a double gin and tonic in the land of lemonade. Commanding. Bracing. Disruptive.

Like nothing else in all of creation, the Sabbath – a day of rest – reveals God’s love for His creation, including the people. God orders a day of rest because He rested and, as Swoboda says, “built it into the DNA of creation, and it is therefore something creation needs in order to flourish. Humans were made to rest…Sabbath is a scheduled weekly reminder that we are not what we do; rather, we are who we are loved by.”

This book is a well-written, balanced, and persuasive view of the Sabbath, as it applies to all of life. We vividly see the ramifications of keeping (and violating) the Sabbath – on community, health, worship, marriage, sex, children, the environment, technology, animals, and the economy. The book fully illustrates why a “Sabbathcentric” economy is more humane and ethical for everyone.

Christian Amnesia

But, despite the Sabbath’s beautiful patterns and the fact that “Remember the Sabbath” is one of the Ten Commandments, Swoboda reflects that the Sabbath “has largely been forgotten by the church, which has uncritically mimicked the rhythms of the industrial and success-obsessed West…Sabbath forgetfulness is driven, so often, in the name of doing stuff for God rather than being with God.”

Swoboda’s chainsaw continues, “the worst thing that has happened to the Sabbath is religion. Religion is hostile to gifts. Religion hates free stuff. Religion squanders the good gifts of God by trying to earn them, which is why we will never really enjoy a sacred day of rest as long as we think our religion is all about earning.”

Is that why so many Christians, even pastors, so openly admit they habitually violate one of God’s ten commandments?

The author, who is also a pastor, shakes his head at “the nine commandments that, if I choose to break, I might lose my ministry over. But if I did not keep a Sabbath day, I would probably get a raise.” He quotes Barbara Brown Taylor, “We have made an idol of exhaustion. The only time we know we have done enough is when we’re running on empty and when the ones we love most are the ones we see least.”

The Power of No

Swoboda writes, “…every yes takes a little space out of our lives. Soon, after a thousand yeses, we find ourselves exhausted and marginless.” That’s why saying “no” is essential if we are to enjoy healthy margins in our lives. However, “Sabbath is not a culturally acceptable reason to say no.”

When Subversive Sabbath turns to Eugene Peterson for wisdom on how to say no, we learn that he “schedules times for prayer and meditation, dates with his wife, and even time to read books. And he schedules the Sabbath as well.” When someone asks him to do something on those dates and times, he just explains that the calendar will not permit it. Swoboda helpfully ads, “Not everything is everyone’s business.”

Stop!

The very thing that makes the Sabbath so essential in the totality of life is also what that makes us violate it: It is a reminder that we humans are not as crucial as we often believe. We really think we can help God run the world better. For example, we ignore the Sabbath principle of crop rotation. Instead, we gorge the land with chemicals and work it hard and continuously to get more out of it.

Climate change agnostics (like me) get a new view through Subversive Sabbath. For example, he quotes 2 Chronicles 36:21 about the period of Israel’s exile in Babylon: “The land enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested until the seventy years were completed in fulfillment of the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah.” [i]

          Swoboda explains: “When the Israelites were exiled, the land finally got what it needed: Sabbath rest. The land ‘enjoyed’ its newfound lease on life because it kept the Sabbath.” To not give the land a break is to abuse it. That and other biblical passages provide a convincing case against what happens when humans get better ideas on how to manage the earth.

That is why we humans should often just STOP! Don’t analyze, suggest, or do anything. Quit digging. Or, as Swoboda says, “Sometimes the best thing we can do for the healing of creation is nothing at all…Our culture says that healing can only come by doing. Scripture tells a different story. The world is healed by our stopping.”

And, that is a very subversive position.

[i] Scripture from the Holy Bible, New International Version, NIV. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. TM Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.Zondervan.com

 

The Hidden Life of Trees

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

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

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

That pattern is deeply relevant to humans and society.

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

They also ride bicycles and surfboards. Just kidding.

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

The Web of Wellness

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

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

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

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

Purifying Our Environment

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

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

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

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

Sandfish Lizard

The Sandfish and Me

The sandfish is a lizard that lives in the deserts of North Africa. Its name reflects its nature of diving into the sand and then pulling its legs close to its body to “swim” (like an eel) through sand. It does that in order to hide from predators or find cool relief from the heat.

As I watched a recent television feature about the sandfish, I was struck by how that lizard models conformity to God, Who “made from one, every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times, and the boundaries of their habitation.” (Acts 17:26, NASB)

Although the sandfish is not part of “mankind,” it is clearly content in, and adapted to, its assignment to a time and a place. It seems delighted to live in the Arabian Desert – and not in the Artic, the mountains, swamps, South Pacific islands, the tundra, or Tokyo.

Our Creator could have placed that sandfish – or me – in any time of history or any place on earth. But He designed both of us for specific times and places. So, why have I been unable to adapt to my own habitat as freely and fully as the sandfish? Why do I live in a continual critique of my “desert” and its problems?

Perhaps if I humble myself that little sand creature can teach me a vital truth: I am here and I cannot change anything about here. I am also God’s workmanship. He made me; I didn’t. So why do I struggle with all of that? I seem to live in continuous anxiety; I feel the need to change my place, my times, and myself. I imagine a need to live so “prophetically” that “sinners” will fall on the ground and writhe in repentance, or that my government will change or collapse.

Why do I live in an assumption that I must emulate people who lived in other times and other places? I seem strangely compelled to live in, maybe, the Congo (or in the first century). Anywhere but here, anytime but now. I seem to think that He cannot lead His creatures in the times and places that He chose. So I work very hard to be an excellent “witness” of Him.

But wait a minute; He said His yoke is easy and His burden is light. Perhaps living prophetically and excellently should be fun. I never think about the need to live as a Chinn or with green eyes. He chose all of that for me. He also chose and appointed me to go (into my time and place) and bear fruit (John 15:16). All of that is a natural process. Oak trees don’t grunt to push acorns through their branches.

Real life is a thousand miles from religious life. Our simple acts and real words bear fruit. Routinely. Effortlessly. Those ordinary human words and acts leave an eternal and living gift in our time and space. But the gift comes from God, not me. I am a mere conduit; I can’t do it and I can’t control it. He chose that for me. Just as He chose the Arabian deserts for the sandfish.

Could that be why Jesus told his disciples (and us) to take no thought for what they would eat, drink, or wear? Since all of that has already been chosen for us, we are free to live fully, joyfully, and without worry. Kind of like the sandfish.

For example, consider how most people relate to problems. We react, get depressed or angry, fixate, or self-destruct. Yet consider how the sandfish continually copes with a life and death issue of heat; it just dives five inches from the surface to where the temperature can be fifty degrees cooler. Do you think, if we have eyes to see, salvation may await us just inches away?

The same Mind that created the sandfish also created you and me.  So can we find the same freedom and delight in our Creator as that lizard?

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