Sanctuary

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.”

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.

 

The Monks of Tibhirine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They called the place “Starbucks.”

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

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

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

The Safe Place 

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

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

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

What Does the Place Look Like?

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

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

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

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

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

New World in the Morning

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

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

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

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

When You Cannot See and Do Not Know

Imagine that you’re riding a high-speed train. From your seat you gaze out the window at the screaming blur of images.

But then you get up and walk to the rear of the train, where you stand on the platform. From there you can see a flowing river of steel tracks, a vast landscape of corn on both sides of the tracks, and a distant mountain range.

The view from the window presents raw information; the platform gives perspective.

That metaphor is not original with me. A journalist (who I cannot remember or find) wrote something similar many years ago to describe the difference between journalism and history. Journalists try to make sense of the blur; historians observe the wide panorama from the rear of the train.

High-tech is necessarily high speed, and speed favors raw information. As a result people, institutions, and nations are losing a sense of perspective.

Our turbulent times pull many toward the side windows. Watching the blur of colors and shapes, they try to report on What It All Means. But it’s futile. Speed makes the view unintelligible and meaningless.

Peter Marshall, the famous Washington, DC pastor and US Senate chaplain in the 1940s, told a story from the early days of ministry in his native Scotland.

Deeply troubled about his own calling and future, he went for a walk late one night. As he walked across unfamiliar ground, the fog closed in around him. But he kept walking. Then out of the dark he suddenly felt a gentle hand stopping him. He froze.

Falling to the ground, he saw that he was crouched at the edge of a deep rock quarry. One more step would have hurled him to his death. That moment became a reference point for his whole life.

We all have moments when we are blind; we cannot see the path ahead and do not know where we are. I think many of us stand at such a point now. So what should we do?

I don’t know.

But I know that some attitudes and actions are appropriate in any and every season:

  1. Stop
    When everything around you seems to demand sound and movement, resist it. Like Peter Marshall, just stop. That may be counterintuitive, but it’s always wise.
  2. Humble Yourself
    Pride is a thief. It steals leadership, integrity, and wisdom every day. “Humble yourself” is always appropriate. But it is crucial in navigating crises. Real confidence is never proud.
  3. Meditate
    This is the “walk to the back of the train” component. Turn away from the blur; withdraw into the sanctuary in your heart. Be alone with God. Step into the timeless dimension. See everything from that higher place. Stay there a long time before returning to your window seat.
  4. See
    We all want to know more stuff. But knowledge is overrated. The real issue is: what do you see? After you spend time meditating in the secret place, look with “new eyes” at your surroundings. Ignore your emotions; they are lying to you. View everything as objectively as possible.
  5. Live
    I wish I had more education. But, as a friend recently reminded me, life contains its own training. Get up every morning and walk fearlessly into your day. Report for duty. Do the mundane and the marvelous with the same attitude. Allow real life to convert your experiences into wisdom.
  6. Be Here…Now
    Most of life happens within a few feet of where you stand. Yes, planning is important. But, more often, we should just focus on right here, right now. This age tends to pull us all away from our life. It teaches us to focus on “out there” and “tomorrow.” That is often just a mirage. Ignore it.
  7. Build RelationshipsAnd most of life happens at face to face. What you think of lesbians, African-Americans, Republicans, alcoholics, or Muslims is abstract. The actual person sitting across the table is real and important. Build relationships with those in your path. Disregard the categories.

 

Here’s a secret: in times of convulsion and crisis, most of life stays the same. We still shower, get dressed, pay bills, eat some food, and clean the cat box. We do not need to move around or make noise in order to validate our worth.

That’s why, even in bad times, you can and should “Make it your goal to live a quiet life, minding your own business and working with your hands.” (1 Thessalonians 4:11)

Guess Who's Coming to Diner

The Audacity of Thought

In his last movie, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), Spencer Tracy confronted the problem (for that man, in that time) of his daughter’s plan to marry a black man.

To see the movie today is to be struck with Tracy’s full minute and thirty seconds of screen time… just thinking. He is alone, at night, on his own terrace, standing or walking with his hands folded behind his back. In long shots, we see his rugged face reflecting the mental grind of deliberation and judgment.

In its own way, the scene is shocking. As art, it suggests that thinking requires solitude and space. We need the freedom to just wander through the rooms of our sanctuary, processing – at our own pace – through problems and possibilities. We also need wide latitudes for considering our response (if any) to public issues and institutions. Like Kramer in Seinfeld, I may choose to not wear the ribbon.

The freedom to think, without pressure, is a crucial liberty. And we are surely losing it. Today our sanctuary is wired with alarms that bring official power storming into our private world. They seem to have full authority to confiscate computers, demand personal reading lists, ask why certain words were Googled, close lemonade stands and track mud throughout our realm.

In fact, the spirit of our times seems to despise the whole idea of sanctuary. We cannot be trusted to inhabit a personal “castle” of thought. Presumably, our need for protection from, oh, terrorism, child predators, economic risk, etc. is so severe and urgent that experts must think for us. We live in the cultural assumption that consequences are so awful that individuals can no longer have the luxury of free thought. That may be why we have criminalized so much. It takes very little to trip the alarms. Increasingly, the entrenched powers have the right to come down on anyone at anytime.

It also seems that today we are allowed to have a “position,” but not allowed to take our time getting there. We used to think our way into certain convictions. Today, we usually arrive at a particular view because it is announced by shrill voices or because a group (our own or a dominant one) prefers or demands it. So, like leaves, we get blown into a corner. But we can’t explain why or how we got there.

It seems that everything today must be…efficient. And efficiency requires automation, compliance and conformity. To stop and think is like praying in the post office. Chaos. The atmosphere explodes with sparks if anyone resists the undercurrents of the age.

And everything must be fast.

Need my funds immediately? OK, if I just give the details of my cash and credit life to the financial institutions, they will make it so easy and fast. Trust them; they’ve already thought through it for me. The smartest guys in the room will take care of everything.

We move so fast that we depend on manufactured or archived thoughts. That’s why we love quotes. Ben Franklin or Frederick Douglass did the hard work – the months or years of strolling through the thinking process. We just scream off the freeway long enough to grab a sack of their quotes at the drive-through window.

Increasingly, humans are cells in a mass mind. Thinking has moved from the individual to the collective. “Wiki” describes that new way of thinking; it is a collaboration of mostly anonymous contributors. Because anyone can create and change the content, and leave no fingerprints, individuals have been largely sheared away from the burden and responsibility for anything.

That may be why no one seems to give a damn. We know we can’t change anything, so we stop caring. “Whatever” is the default response of the age.

Joanne and I have been married, and joyfully, almost forty-eight years. But we found that the only way into that sanctuary was to live in counter-cultural love. We simply could not and cannot live by the reasons and rhythms of dominant culture. To do that would steal everything we have.

Maybe the same thing is true of thinking. What if some engaged in active resistance of the realm? What if some heroic or romantic individuals would return to the timeless audacities of thought by…

Stepping into the beauty of silence and meditation?

Presuming to take a long time just looking and listening?

Becoming curious again?

Embracing ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty?

Learning to seek out wise people for personal counsel?

Daring to give a damn?

The audacity of thought is looking beyond the visible until we see the unseen. No matter how long it takes or how many rules it breaks.

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