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Five Years

At 8:32 a.m., on October 11, 2015, a slow Sunday morning at our home in Tennessee, my iPhone rang. The screen read LIBBY CHINN, our daughter-in-law.

         When I answered, I only heard an anguished moan. No discernable words or syllables. But I knew. Just as crowd sounds tell PGA tour golfers where their ball lies on the green, I knew Libby’s husband, our son Paul, was dead. Nothing else would have produced that sound.

         “We’re on the way.”

         As we drove the two miles, I called our closest friends, Glen and Roberta Roachelle. I do not remember any other words spoken during the short drive. Something in the simple severity of the moment made words inoperable and inappropriate.

         When we rounded the corner to Paul and Libby’s home, the police cars and an EMT vehicle confirmed what we knew. As we walked across the yard in the cool autumn air, a Sheriff’s deputy walked out the front door.

         I said, “We’re Paul’s parents. Is he dead?”

         “Yes.”

         The impeccable word. I needed clarity; no agency-speak, no “I regret to inform you…” With that word, solid ground formed under my feet.

         We went on into the house to our sweet and broken Libby. Soon, David Roachelle, a local law enforcement officer and one of Paul’s oldest and closest friends, arrived. Moments later, David’s parents, Glen and Roberta, walked in. They brought strength and love like the tide.

         I stepped outside to call our other two children, Eddie in Atlanta, and Amy, who lived nearby. Then I called my brothers; Vernon and Carl loved Paul like their own kids. In each call, I knew where the ball landed.

Message from Home

But I remember the day more for what happened a few hours later.

         After lunch, I went to my office to plan a funeral. As I worked, my cell phone beeped a new email. At 1:51 pm, I glanced at the screen to see PAUL HAS ARRIVED HOME. I froze in silent wonder.

         O, my great Lord, You are right here, as near as breath and heartbeat.

         The technology behind a location tracker app partially, but not fully, explains the message delivery. But the larger and inescapable truth was that God, the Eternal Father, the thoughtful Parent, let us know Paul got home just fine. That remains the most cherished message of my life.

         Five years later, I see more; I don’t see everything. And I don’t claim what I do see is right. You, especially if you’ve lost a child, may see further and better. But I do understand some things I didn’t fully realize earlier:

  1. Life never belongs to us. It comes as a force, a gift, from its Creator. It enters our space in the form of a spouse, child, friend, or—come on—a pet. Although that life may complement ours, we cannot own it any more than we can possess a hurricane or the northern lights.

  2. Just as Paul’s arrival in our lives was timely and blessed, so was his exit. His death was painful, but not catastrophic. It conformed to the pattern of every life. Everyone dies; it never comes at a good time.

  3. No life gets cut short. At 43, Paul’s heart attack didn’t steal anything; he had filled his days on earth. It was time to move on.

  4. Grief is proper. Until it isn’t. There’s “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” (Ecclesiastes 3:4) Each is appropriate in its time. And each becomes harsh and immoderate when that time has passed.

  5. By placing one foot in front of the other, the road yields. It reclines. The climb gets easier. Civilization couldn’t continue if it didn’t.

  6. Paul came from his true Father and simply passed through our lives on his great circle back to God. His life didn’t end; he just moved on out to a longer, higher, and richer orbit.

The Higher View

Finally, I’ve learned that everything reflects the glory of God. All miles and moments. Every win, every gain. Each loss and pain. In His Hands, they all—in equal measure—become gates to the high and wild country.

         Scientists say the universe stretches 47 billion light years in diameter and holds ten trillion galaxies. So, do you think the One Who created and sustains all that might hold something more resplendent for each life than just giving us a comfortable, painless, and self-designed existence during our brief time on earth?

From where he now sits, I can almost hear Paul answer that.

Harsh Answers

On the last day of our Kansas visit, one year ago today, I dropped by Mom’s nursing home room to tell her we were returning to Tennessee.

         Her relocation had not gone well. So she decided that was the time to let me have it. Of course, it was; she probably knew that was the last time we’d meet. As soon as I sat down, she asked me, her firstborn, “Why am I here?”

         And I heard myself reply, “Because your personal care needs have grown beyond what your family can provide.” I instantly hated the way those words felt in my mouth. Like marbles, too smooth. Accurate, but manipulative. They gave me power and protection, but granted her no space or grace. That’s when I heard Him whisper…just listen to her!

         She kept rolling; her eyes were like lasers. “Your daddy and I built our home; it’s right over there (she pointed east). It’s paid for; it’s mine. Why can’t I just go home?” I wanted to throw up; I could see she’d been suffocating under a blanket of dehumanizing logic: What happened to my life? Why am I held captive so near my home? Why am I spending $5,000 a month for this 340-square-foot box when my home costs me nothing?

         “Mom, I wish you could go home, but you can’t take care of yourself.”

         “I know, Ed—” She broke, “But, my sons…DON’T WANT ME!”  

         There it was. I couldn’t imagine what it cost her to face it and to say it. Yet, I silently protested. Her three sons and daughters-in-law did want her. We deeply loved her; no one carried mommy stuff. Vernon and Betty had cared for her long and sacrificially from their home next door. And Carl and Deana had invited Mom to live with them in Colorado.

         But she was right. Our lives, homes, our ages, our patterns for living, could not absorb the disruption of a 96-year-old woman with serious health needs.

         Her wet and pleading eyes searched my face. I think she was looking for some spark of hope, some sign that the Christ lived in me. Then, dreading the moment, but feeling pressure to get on the road, I stood. “Mom, I love you so much. You’ve been a wonderful mother. But we have to go.”

         She wouldn’t let go that easy; she escorted me out of her room, down the hall, down the elevator, and right out the front door. As I approached the car, she started crying, but melted into my arms. After holding her a few minutes, I said, “Come on, Mom, we don’t live here. We have to go home.”

         “I know,” she wept, nodding and looking at the ground. In that moment, I watched her revert to that child of poverty and shame back in her native Missouri, scared and crying because the road had washed out, the water continued rising, and Daddy was gone. She had no path to a future.

         My last image of Mom frames her in the rearview mirror, as a nursing home employee lead her back inside.

         She died four months later.

         In the end, Mom was like a fearful citizen in an occupied country. She didn’t understand the noises from the street, or why strangers marched into her room day and night, or why those strangers barked orders at her. The conquering “soldiers” could not see Mary Chinn had lost her home, her privacy, her dignity. She had nothing else to lose; she just needed mercy.

          Oh, yes, “The poor plead for mercy, but the rich answer harshly.” (Proverbs 18:23) Harsh answers are the tools for enforcing the rules of the realm. They focus on the work to be done, not the ones for whom it is done.

         Gandhi said, “What you do for me, but without me, you do against me.” Older, weaker, sadder, sicker, poorer people understand that so well. They are the ones most in need of gentle answers. However, for now, they live with the harsh answers of a bloodless world that is passing away.

         But a new world is arriving. Now! Incredibly, its Creator heard all the harsh answers of the old regime during His time on earth. No wonder Isaiah wrote, “He will not cry out or raise his voice…a bruised reed He will not break, and a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish. He will bring justice to all who have been wronged.”

         At last, Mom lives in that new world. A bruised reed has “slipped the surly bonds of earth,” soaring far beyond harsh answers. I think I’ll start practicing gentle answers. Here and now.

The Chinn Farmhouse

The Chinn Place

People often called the farms of my Kansas childhood “places,” as in “just past the cemetery you’ll come to the Johnson place.” Novelist Wallace Stegner wrote that such a place “is not a place until people have been born in it, have grown up in it, lived in it, died in it…over more than one generation.”

         Four generations of Chinns have owned (and seven have known) a place, a small farm in Kansas. Many were born and grew up on that land, and some died there. In another confirmation of place, when my cousin Karen was a child, she addressed a letter to our grandparents:

Grammie and Grampie
Coats, Kansas

         And the letter was delivered.

A Hidden Place

The Chinn farm, located just off the Coats-Sun City road, is hard to find. If you plug the address into a GPS system, you’ll never find the place. It’s hidden. The heart of the farm—the old house, barn, windmill, garage, chicken coop, shed, and silo—lies down in a hollow, concealed about a hundred feet below the main road.

         That farm is ground zero for Chinns. My soul’s architecture folds over the undulant contours of the land, the ancient hum of ancestral voices rising from the soil; massive dark thunderheads boiling out of the western horizon; a wedding on the lawn, and the scents of saddles, alfalfa, and machinery.

The Chinn Farmhouse

         The house is a hodgepodge of parts hauled in by wagon, drug by horses, or rolled on logs and nailed together. Two of the parts cost my widowed great-grandmother forty dollars. That’s the only construction cost I can find. Yet that house, through various repairs, improvements, and expansions, has been home to Chinns since 1897.

         The barn emerged from a similar organic pattern. When a horse killed my great-grandfather in 1900, his four young children had to grow up fast. In 1910, my thirteen-year-old future grandfather, his twin, and their eighteen-year-old brother built the barn. It has now stood as a working barn for more than a century.

A Fertile Place

The farm gave abundantly over the decades; it was a fruitful place. Grandpa farmed it for sixty years (1917-1977) and Grandma gave birth to twelve children between 1919 and 1936. The fertile land gave generously, but Chinns also poured their sweat and blood on the ground to uphold their end of the deal.

         Now, after 136 years of continuous family ownership, the old Chinn place is for sale. These days I find myself walking the ridge between the eras of Chinn ownership and the future, considering the mystery of land and identity.

         Land, the most visible dimension on earth, hides in plain sight. Many people walk, drive, or fly over it without even seeing it. But when humans stop, look, and listen; when they take it seriously, that partnership produces wonders. Grass, gardens, and crops, but also houses, highways, workplaces, cathedrals, airports, and cities climb out of the dirt.  

A Sense Of Place

We often hear people announce their need “for space,” usually away from sources of pain or the demands of maturity. But, more than space, we need a sense of place. Space is infinite, but place is specific. Space is romantic; place is real as a hammer. We tumble through space, but we stand on a place. Space brings vertigo and disorientation. Place brings experience, confidence, and (eventually) wisdom.

         That’s because a place forms an altar where pride and illusions die.

         From that altar my grandparents helplessly watched their two-year-old daughter die, struggled with the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, got kicked in the guts by a wheat harvest of a bushel and a half per acre, and sent three sons to World War II. They spent most of the 20th Century wrestling with Heaven and earth just to pull life from the ground.

            “Humus,” the Latin word for soil or ground, is also the root for “humility.” We don’t ever find our place in the world without humbling ourselves. Humility commits. To a woman, to a man. To promises, to a purpose. To a place.

         The same story has unfurled in many places; God and a family walked together through a place, a pinpoint on earth. Because weighty things happened there, we have a hardy sense of place. More than that, we were formed by a soaring sense of God.

The Chinn Place (photo by Ashley Chinn Matos)

Storm Warning

My friends, Glen and Roberta Roachelle, once sat in a beachside restaurant as a storm moved in. Just as they took their first sip of coffee, a wave crashed over the seawall and against the windows. As diners laughed nervously, Glen told Roberta, “Let’s leave right now.”

When they stepped outside, a larger wave blew out the windows. Water and shards of glass filled the area where they had sat moments earlier.

The Gathering Storm

Storms are essential; they transport water, often across areas of drought, and redistribute temperatures between the poles and the equator. They cleanse the air and land, nourish crops, replenish aquifers, etc.

They also kill. Storm surge, wind, lightning, freezing, and flooding can wipe out human life, quickly and extensively. The Galveston, Texas hurricane of 1900 killed 8 – 10 thousand people. In 1970, a cyclone wiped out a half million people in East Pakistan.

A massive (and essential) storm is moving across our land. We see features of it every day; a culture of outrage, random violence, family and friends divided by politics, shocking increases of suicide and opioid usage, escalating vulgarity, and a general loss of decency and decorum.

Despite the transitory pain and disruption, I believe the storm will bring long-term transformation (as storms always do). That’s why I think focusing on Trump, immigration, Islam, sexual identity, or technological intrusions misses the larger picture. Comparatively, they are all mere data points for the massive storm.

Be There

Just as no one can control earthquakes, tornados, droughts, or hurricanes, humans have no power over the direction, intensity, or consequences of the storm pounding our country now. But, we might survive if we take precautions. Here are a few:

  • BE KIND

    Because our social environment is so combustible, words explode as matches dropped in dry leaves. I know conflict screams for engagement, but be careful! Think about it; getting combative over politics, Facebook, or Jesus is not going to change anyone’s mind. But, kindness often shifts the focus to the things that really matter.

  • STAY HOME

    In 2017, I heard an ER doctor tell a high school graduating class, “Trust me; nothing good happens after midnight. Please go home.” Remember, home is (or can be) a sanctuary. You don’t need a reason to go home; you need a reason to leave.

  • BE SUBVERSIVE

    We all live through an insane insistence that we conform to the dysfunction around us. But, the sane person must be subversive—a secret agent of lucidity and stability—in times of insanity. And to be sane today is to live and speak generously. Reach through the fog of politics to connect with people. Serve others. Stop, look, listen. Pray for one another. Give a damn.
  • KEEP YOUR EYE ON THE BALL

    Our cultural storm includes a tornadic swirl of nudges, suggestions, invitations, and demands. Ignore them. Good grief; you’re on home plate and the pitch is screaming toward you. The gnats don’t warrant your attention.

  • REMAIN INSIDE MORAL AND ETHICAL SAFETY

    We are living through a monumental collapse of those who ignored the classic standards of ethics and morality. We should not judge them, but the career destruction and humiliation should be all the warning we need to humble ourselves and increase our moral and ethical vigilance. Run to God’s safety and rest.
  • BE QUIET

    One line of the Miranda warning says, “Anything you say can and will be used against you…” What do we not understand about “can and will?” Stop talking! Pretending you’re mute can save your time, money, reputation, and perhaps your freedom. My brother Vernon, a longtime Kansas Sheriff says, “The right to be silent is one of our most precious freedoms, and so few use it.”

  • TRANSCEND REACTION

    Our culture invests great energies and dollars to goading people to react. And, when we are continuously prodded by anger, outrage, temptation, and other provocations, we tend to become reactive. We wait to be told when to click, buy, get mad, exhibit outrage, what to believe, etc. But, remember, you don’t have to explain anything or make everyone happy. Rise above reaction; live straight ahead.

Look; storms are inevitable. They serve the Creator’s purposes. But, they’re also dangerous. That’s why civilizations develop storm warnings. By taking mindful cautions, you can survive and continue in your life’s purpose. As Coach Dan Reeves said in an old pharmaceutical commercial, “It’s your future. Be there.”

The 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.

Going Home

Every society falls along the line between order and chaos. And we all know the names of the command centers along that line: patrol car, court, jail, prison, hospital, morgue, and mortuary.

 

Those who work in those command centers know that those places inevitably squeeze out one word: “home.” It is whispered or growled, laughed or sobbed; “Go on home, son.” “Can I go home now?” “Ma’am, please take your daughter home.” “Oh, Mama; Daddy just went home to be with the Lord.”

 

What and Where is Home?

Have you ever walked into a house, garden, maybe a hotel suite, or place of worship and felt an immediate sense of harmony, safety, and belonging? I think that is the image of our true Home inscribed on our heart. For as long as we live on earth we seek that image. And from time to time we catch a fleeting glimpse of it.

 

Home is that enclosure, that construction of solid, protective walls and roof, wherein we find peace and rest. As Dryden said, “Home is the sacred refuge of our life.” And “sacred” may be the key. A true home is a holy place; built, crowned, and furnished with the blessing of The One.

 

Although we enjoy rest within those walls, we also dwell carefully, lest the holy atmosphere – the “Heaven on earth” – depart. That’s why Joanne and I use caution about who or what – sounds, images, thoughts, attitudes, words – enter into our house. Because we see our home as an embassy of Heaven, it must reflect the spirit of the home country.

 

The Fragility of Civilization

A friend who spent time in prison told me that the worst part of incarceration is the prisoner’s loss of control over his or her environment. The levels of noise and light remain harsh and inescapable. So often, when I watch or listen to news, his description chills my spine and spirit. We often don’t know what a great treasure we hold until we lose it. And losing our safe place is one of the most severe losses in life.

 

Jay Nordlinger recently wrote, “Civilization requires constant, hard work. It does not run on auto-pilot.” I am concerned that the rootless, seething, mostly young, men and women caught so vividly in the televised conflicts do not carefully hold the great treasure that is America. And losing it would create a national prison; our safe places would vanish. Harsh light and sound would dominate.

 

So often, when I see people or scenes on the news (as in Las Vegas), I immediately wonder if he or she – that person right there! – has or ever knew a place called home. Did the thieves, murderers, and rapists that walk through courtrooms ever, one day in their lives, feel sheltered, needed, or loved? Do those rioting in streets, regardless of background or cause, know the peace and quiet of a safe place?

 

Please Go Home

A few months ago, I heard an Emergency Room doctor tell my granddaughter’s High School graduation audience, “Nothing good happens after midnight. Please go home.”

 

What a brilliant observation by one who lives and works on that line between order and chaos. So, why do so many spend so much time away from home at night? What sheared them off from the quiet safety of home?

 

One of many oddities of our time is that we only seem to value things that are somewhere else. We don’t sufficiently cherish spending time with others – spouse, children, parents, friends, relatives – who live within, or pass through, our house. We have little desire to dive into meals, crafts, projects, books, or music at home. We must, it seems, always go somewhere else in order to touch, spend, eat, drink.

 

One of our neighbors recently told us that she and her fiancée were beaten and knocked unconscious, in a bar the previous night. I so wanted to ask, “What was the downside of just being home?”

 

Scientists know that we can go as far into the microcosm as we can into the macrocosm. They are equally vast and mysterious. That may be why “going home” is one of the most beautiful phrases ever spoken or considered. Maybe we’re all called to explore the depths and layers of the incomprehensible safety and beauty of “home.”

 

And maybe it’s time to defy the centrifugal forces that spin us away from going home. Discovering the joy, gentleness, and quiet rest that awaits us there could be the most radical act any of us will ever attain in this life.

 

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