God

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

Who Are Those People in Your Life?

As for the saints who are in the earth, They are the majestic ones in whom is all my delight. Psalms 16:3

What would it take to really see the mysterious bundles of flesh and spirit in your spouse? Your kids? Or your parents, siblings, friends, or neighbors?

God chose to bring magnificent people into your life, just as He did into mine. I would like to know yours, but I’ll go first; let me tell you about mine. Because I did nothing to earn these friendships and do not deserve them, I can only stand in silent awe.

The Majestic Ones

Let me introduce you to some human treasures among my friends.

  • First, we stop at my lovely Joanne. Although she buried her parents, her son, and two sisters, and has endured serious illness and pain, her laughter thaws frozen rivers. She passionately loves her kids, grandkids, friends, and flowers. Her husband knows he only lives because God likes Joanne.

  • When diabetes took his leg, Dan settled into a wheelchair as regally as a naval captain commands his ship. His gentle Oklahoma drawl and easy humor convince listeners it’s all going to turn out fine. And, to see him at a formal event is to understand why civilization devised tuxedos.

  • Glen, a true force of nature, listens carefully, weighs the words and the spirit behind them, and then drops a plumb line down through the room. His view leaves nothing else to say. It’s time to repent or lawyer up. And, his Roberta loves every person, plant, and animal she ever touched… with her hand, eyes, or shadow.

  • Gerrit and Himmie speak and move in musical cadence, exuding southern charm. When our son died, they drove to our house. They brought no sermons or songs but stepped into the abyss with us.

  • Daoud and Robin walk through their very wide world like royalty. Yet, they taught us a timeless and life-altering lesson in vulnerability, humility, and kindness.

  • Doug, a prophet, spreads the love of God over the world, enjoys fine steaks and wines, fires a cannon on his ranch, and scares the hell out of religious people.

  • Steve and Beth welcome stray cats and people to their home. Like the Good Samaritan, they pull them to health and pay the bills to do it.

  • When Morris touches a keyboard, he rips a hole between Heaven and earth and ushers the outcasts into God’s living room.

  • Many years ago, Chris and Linda walked out of the church house and into the high call of serving their neighborhood and city. In that call, they flow with Muslims and Mormons as easily as they do with Methodists.

  • Beverly, a child psychologist, continues to work past retirement age because the children in her remote Georgia county would have no other advocate or helper if she quit.

The Truth About Friends

If I knew just one of those people, I’d be rich. But, I know many. I hope to introduce you to others—our kids and grandkids, my parents and brothers, and the vast sweep of artists, teachers, preachers, cops, outlaws, orphans, and outsiders who enrich my life.

            Through these and other majestic ones, I’ve learned some things about friendship:

  1. To cherish other humans means I must first recognize their Creator.

  2. Love and respect should be spoken. Plainly. Face-to-face. Heart-to-heart. Don’t let those you love wonder where they stand with you.

  3. I cannot change the terms, the temperature, or the territory of friendship. I can only accept (or reject) what was offered.

  4. Friendship builds a sanctuary, a sacred and safe place for heartsounds.  

  5. Real friends offer a wondrous mix of total acceptance for who you are and encouragement to be more than you are.

  6. People will disappoint you. Forgive them.

  7. When the time comes, release them to go on into their destiny, even if that release involves a funeral.

Finally, what is the proper response for such majestic ones? After all, we didn’t create them or invite them. God fashioned the moment, the intersection, and the eternal resonance between two hearts. Gratitude is the only proper deportment.

            But, according to the professor and author Richard Beck, “Gratitude implies a gift, which in turn implies a giver.” In other words, gifts do not tumble down from outer space.  Gratitude cannot exist by itself. It unavoidably assumes a Creator, the one who gives.  

            We are grateful for and we are grateful to.

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.

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.

 

The Latchstring of the Eternal

When I saw Tom Hanks’ film Cast Away back in 2000, I thought it was deeply dishonest. A man, Chuck Noland, spends four years on a Pacific island. Alone. A truly desperate situation. Yet, he never, not once, prays or even looks up in search for something higher. He builds a relationship with “Wilson,” a commercial product.

But, now I realize the movie was prophetic. Today, we all live in desperation, and yet we seek or recognize nothing beyond ourselves. Like Chuck Noland, we don’t lift our eyes. And, in our aching loneliness, we also build relationships with cold material objects.

Maybe that’s why our American culture has become so claustrophobic. The walls and ceilings of our imagination keep moving closer. Our freedom to dream and explore has become cramped. Today, a need for help only drives us to Google or YouTube. We seem unable to grasp anything transcendent.

Groping in the Dark

Malachi Martin closed his novel, King of Kings, with an intimate portrait of Israel’s King David as he neared death. In his last days, we see the once-magnificent and fearsome king suffering “rigid and brittle fragileness” and weeping “quiet tears” in the night. Then, we see the dying David “groping for the latchstring in the door that opened out onto the eternal.”[1]

That phrase captures my own heart’s cry. That’s why I find myself in every conversation, meeting, meal, book, movie, sermon, or business transaction, reaching for that latchstring. I am not angry; I am just bored by every voice, tradition, system, idea, or issue littering the terrain around us.

But, I am overwhelmed by God; I care what He ordains and orders in His creation.

Let me meditate in His temple; I want to soak in His simplicities, silences, invisibilities, and abundances. Let me get lost in how He so masterfully conducts the whole orchestra of His cosmos, including seasons, expanses of land and water and space, the incomprehensible sweep of the universe, and, oh yes, those beautiful, complicated, gifted, crazy, devout, irritating, and deranged people whom He created as instruments for His magnificent and beautiful purposes.

Voices

I wonder if we may soon learn what the Apostle John meant when he wrote, “…We are of the earth, and we speak of earthly things, but he has come from heaven and is greater than anyone else.”[2]

I’m sick of “national conversations.” Those voices and opinions are distinctly and uniformly “of the earth.” We just keep recycling them. Forget it; I want to hear a sound from heaven, one that doesn’t sound anything like “earthly things.”

And, frankly, I have a concern about our cleverness in these human conversations. We’re too good at it; I’m too good at it. But, some terrible forces are gathering that simply will not respond to earthly voices. Siri and Alexa cannot tell us what to do. Fox News, The New York Times, Facebook, and other energy centers will be left stuttering. And religious leaders and media will sound just as foolish as all other cultural voices.

One Voice, One Word

Although John the Baptist came from a priestly lineage, nothing about him confirmed that culture. He didn’t wear what they wore, eat what they ate, drink what they drank, write what they wrote, or speak what they spoke. He was not conversant with the establishment. His message didn’t engage them at all.

That voice cut across all the exhausted words and embalmed concepts. He was not interested in dialogue, compromise, or reform. He said, “Repent.” That one word came from God, not from around here. And it rejected norms and traditions and slashed any hope of improvement or accommodation. “Repent” laid an ax at the root of every impotent thought, institution, or authority. The old was dead.

John the Baptist found the latchstring. When he pulled it, the King marched through the gate. He still marches and the territory of His Kingdom continues to increase. Isaiah said that increase will never stop.

Some see all that now. Those who don’t and those who do should lift their eyes. Don’t look down; don’t turn back. Keep looking to the horizon. As sure as the sunrise, something new is coming. And knowledge of the new is already spilling across the land. It will inexorably cover the earth as the waters cover the sea.

[1] Malachi Martin, King of Kings (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980)

[2] John 3:31, New Living Translation

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

 

Eyes of the Heart

“What do you see?” is the most haunting question of my life. It seems to continually hang suspended in midair just inches from my eyes. I don’t know if God cares what I feel or think. But He continually challenges me to see. Deeper. Clearer.

In Eyes of the Heart, a book about “contemplative photography,” author Christine Paintner calls readers to take the time to really see our world. “Slow down enough to see what is around you, notice the details of things—the many shades of flowers, the texture of tree bark, architectural details on houses, and even the patterns on manhole covers or gutters.”[1]

She keeps reminding us to be patient and wait to receive (not “take”) a photograph.

Then she applies the same kind of patience to being able to see people. “When the stranger arrives—that which is unexpected, strange, and mysterious—we are called to recognize the holy shimmering presence there. This means inviting strangers into our world without imposing our own agenda on them…staying open and curious to what we might discover when we don’t know what to expect, when we make the effort to see beneath the surfaces.”

Right there, she throws the floodlight on one of the biggest frauds of life: the human presumption of making judgments about other people. Look, I simply do not have the skill or enough information to be able to reject another person. I certainly don’t have the authority to reject anyone created and loved by God. Yet I do it regularly.

 

Lift the Chalice

To reject any human is like despising a gold chalice because it holds cheap wine. Most people are doing the best they can. But they pick up bad stuff – insults, injuries, false measurements, destructive ideologies – as they pass through life. All of that gathers like foul water sloshing around in the bottom of his or her personality. Do you think it may be possible that God can pour it out and clean them up in His own way and time? Is it possible that my only role is to bless and encourage?

And then the Lord God saith, “Is that your role toward Joanne?”

Why is it so easy to understand that a cup’s content has nothing to do with its value, but we reject people because they voted for Donald Trump? Or because they kneel toward Mecca to pray? Or because their cars display confederate flags or Climate Change bumper stickers?

Why is it so difficult we just make eye contact, smile, and stay “open and curious to what we might discover when we don’t know what to expect, when we make the effort to see beneath the surfaces?”

 

The Grace to See Beneath the Surface

Goethe famously said, “Treat an individual as he is, and he will remain as he is. But if you treat him as he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.” That line is one of the pillars of a good life, and I try to do it. But I am not good at it.

I do, however, know what that looks like in a person. Our dear friend, Roberta Roachelle, lives that more fully than anyone I know. When she looks at you and smiles, you suddenly realize that you’re loved, and life is far better than you ever dreamed. In more than a half-century, I’ve seen her unfailingly treat everyone as he or she ought to be. And I’ve watched people become what they “out to be and could be.”

My brother Vernon, the longtime (and recently retired) Sheriff of Pratt County, Kansas, often drove his inmates to the state penitentiary to begin serving their prison time. He had others who could do that, but he saw it as a chance to touch and encourage those headed into a dark place and time. He treated them, not as they were, but as they could be.

My point is not to promote Roberta or Vernon but rather to declare that anyone can do this! But it requires humility, patience, grace, and the time to focus the eyes of the heart.

Photographers may sit in one spot for hours. Waiting for sundown, dawn, cops, or snowfall, they are endlessly patient as they seek to find and focus the eyes of the heart. They carry no judgments; they only want to see.

What if we all did that toward the people we meet every day?

[1] Christine Valters Paintner, Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice. Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2013

The Day Love Arrived

Christmas 1954 marked ten years since my dad’s ship, the USS Princeton, was destroyed in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. That horrific explosion caused sea and sky to trade places. In the vortex of fire and water and hot metal falling from the sky, Dad ended up in a life raft. He was alive but more battle-scarred than anyone could have seen in those days.

My brother Vernon and I grew up in the shadow of the Princeton (Carl was born later). Jack Chinn, a young husband and father of two boys, was a good man caught in a death struggle with a psychological python. A doctor today would surely write “PTSD” on Dad’s chart. During that time, Dad began to wrestle with God, praying long and loudly in our little house. Dad and his God scared me, especially when his physical correction turned dark and violent.

In 1954, he and Mom bought a small farm at the edge of town. The morning after the closing, Dad hated the place. His prayers got longer, louder, and scarier. As a little boy, I slowly realized that my parents had spent all they had on that farm. In fact, I later learned, they only had $9.00 to spend for Christmas. So, they decided to skip gifts for each other and spend that meager amount on gifts for their sons.

Then, on Christmas morning, a pickup from a big lumber yard in town pulled into our driveway. The driver ran up on the porch and knocked. When Dad opened the door, the man handed him a small gift.

“Merry Christmas, Jack.”

Dad thanked the man and opened the box to find a beautiful pocketknife. Although the gift was merely business, he dropped into a dining room chair and began to sob. That was the first time I ever saw Dad cry. Then he looked up at Mom and said, “Now, you’re the only one who didn’t get a Christmas present.”

He couldn’t take it. That apparent injustice pushed his emotions up over the river banks in his heart.

What Mom, Vernon, and I saw that day was probably the collective force of stress. A rough financial period (which didn’t last very long), deep regrets about a major purchase, unrelenting turmoil over buddies who died in the Pacific, and a too-long-too-silent God finally blew him apart.

But the emotional scene in the dining room carried something entirely different to me. I saw the depth of Dad’s love for his family. My parents were always in love with each other, but before that day I hadn’t seen Dad’s love for me. Then, in a raw, spontaneous moment, on Christmas, his love flooded that little farmhouse.

That’s why 1954 remains my favorite childhood Christmas.

Looking back over six decades, I think that day probably caught the first sonar pings of faith for me. I came face-to-face with the magnificent love of my father and my Father.

Like a bead of water holding the image of a mountain, what happened that day caught the elemental character and purpose of God. His Love is His Light, a dominion, invading the dark. I’ve long seen our family as among “those who sat in darkness saw a great light. And for those who lived in the shadow of death, a light has shined.” (Matthew 4:12)

That great Light of God came into the dark. And the Light won. Even Dad’s dark night of the soul was no match for what entered our home that day. That dawning Light slowly drove the darkness from his mind. And, for two little boys, that Light began swallowing the terrible shadow of the Princeton.

That Light was and is a jurisdictional issue. It carries authority and recognizes no boundaries. The darkness has no light and no dominion. As John described so elegantly: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5).

That simple verse is the best summary of Christmas ever written. I first saw it in action 63 years ago. I still see it every day.

God According to God

Gerald Schroeder, the author of God According to God (HarperOne, 2009) holds a Ph.D. in physics and earth sciences from MIT. He is also an Orthodox Jewish theologian (and lives and teaches in Jerusalem).

Furthermore, Schroeder clearly understands time, space, and matter as finite concepts floating in the sea of eternity. That’s probably why he sees no conflict at all between the Bible and science. To him, the Big Bang and Genesis 1:1 are just two, and quite accurate, descriptions of the same thing.

Although he is immensely knowledgeable, wise, and articulate, Schroeder is an humble man. As a writer, he never draws attention to himself or distracts his readers away from God and the universe. For him, God seems to be the plumb line, against which science is measured, not the other way around.

 

“A Very Special Planet”

In Chapter 3, The Unlikely Planet Earth (which is easily worth the price of the book), Schroeder delivers a grand and dazzling tour of the 47 billion light-years-wide universe. We catch a glimpse of 10 trillion galaxies in the universe, which he calculates into 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars!

And what if each of those stars, like our own solar system’s sun, holds a few planets – say 6 or 8 – in its orbit? Now, out of that brain-exploding number of planets, how many could possibly support life, as we know it?

How many could possibly have the right combination of temperature, water, tectonic plates, mountain ranges, dry land, right size and placement of other planets and moon, the right balance of gravity and centrifugal force, and other essential factors?

Just one.

Schroeder sums it up nicely: “…we reside on a very special planet at a very special location within a very special stellar system, formed at just the right position within the right kind of galaxy. The earth’s distance from the sun, for the right amount of warmth, and its mass and gravity, for the ability to retain a proper atmosphere, put us in the only habitable zone within the solar system.”

 

Something Out Of Nothing

Although he doesn’t quote it, Schroeder would surely agree with the Apostle Paul that God “gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist.” (Romans 4:17 NASB)

In other words, the reason anything exists is because God is Creator. His spoken word produces life; He causes nothing to become something. Indeed, Schroeder flatly announces, “Wisdom is parent, and matter is the offspring.” One of his core truths is that “the totality of the physical world, our bodies included, is made of the light of the creation.”

Naturally, he thinks Stephen Hawkings is, and Carl Sagan was, nuts. Both contributed to the intellectual goofiness of the materialist view of reality. Rather than seeing a God Who, by His spoken word, creates something out of nothing, they have promoted a view that “if we can’t see it, weigh it, touch it, it’s not there.”

Because Schroeder’s view of the universe is so vast and magnificent, his theology seems to reflect Romans 1:20: “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made…” (NASB)

 

The God Who is God

Schroeder’s view of and insights about God are refreshing. For example, he says that when Moses asked God for His Name in Exodus 3:13-14, “God said to Moses, ‘I will be that which I will be…” Schroeder carefully explains the history that produced the erroneous “I am Who I am.” This carries great significance; God can never be boxed or defined. He is the unpredictable, wholly sovereign, Creator and Lord of all.

To my surprise, he sees God’s view of the world in universal (not Jewish) terms. His view of Balaam as a gentile prophet, representing God’s whole world vs. Jewish view is beautiful.

But the most beautiful part of the book to me was his contemplation of God’s relational integrity. Think about it; God is the Supreme Creator of, and Presence in, the entire 47 billion light-year-wide universe. Yet, incredibly and unfathomably, He chooses to have an authentic relationship with humans.

For example (and it’s only one of many), in Exodus 32: 9-14, God decided that the whole Jewish people must be destroyed. But, Moses interceded for the people. And out of His friendship to Moses, God “changed His mind” about the planned destruction.

As I finished this magnificent book, I was painfully aware that I didn’t have the intellectual horsepower to really scale its heights or rappel into its depths. So, if you read it, please let me know what you see…and I missed!

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.

 

 

 

 

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