Spiritual life

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

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

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.

 

 

 

 

Do Elections Matter?

I am so grateful for the quiet and gentle rhythms of my life; marriage, family, friends, Middle Tennessee, good books, good food, and the pulsating possibility of touching eternity in life’s peaceful moments and places.

But, for some reason, in presidential election years I often turn away from all of that and indulge things that are accusative, hopeless, and deceptive. I seem to step into some kind of vertigo. Why is that?

Maybe it springs from our yearning for moral order. We need for life to make sense. But that desire for clarity and justice can so often and quickly lead to a moralistic view of the world that is ironically immoral. I think that is the birthing room for politics.

Of course, politics can be fine and noble. At best, it’s the way civilizations turn conflict into compromise; it’s how honest differences, even hostilities, get zippered into some kind of consensus, policy, and forward movement.

But at it’s worst politics becomes religion; a snarling, irrational, primitive, unforgiving and brutal battle between the forces of good and evil. That’s when conversation stops, friendships fade, everyone runs to their own bunkers, and firing commences.

Why do we all get caught up in that? When Americans move into the final weeks of a Presidential campaign, that polarization rises to flood stage. We all begin to see other ideas, agendas, movements, and leaders as incarnations of evil.

Arthur Miller famously said, “An era can be said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted.”[1] Sadly, it seems that our political bankruptcy has become a yardstick for our era’s exhaustion. Everyone faces the choice of going down with the dying era or simply walking away into a new future.

A Radical Life

Here’s the truth, Sweetheart: Life on earth always cycles. Today is no better and no worse than it has ever been. The “current situation”—whatever and wherever and whenever and with whomever it is—always breaks down (regardless of who wins elections). The old is always here, and passing away. And the new is always here, and arriving.

Jesus said, “I make all things new.” When the illusions and and ruins of the age are fully and hideously exposed, the Kingdom of God’s brand new order, that newness of life, will just keep unfurling.

When Daniel’s “current situation” in Jerusalem fell apart and he ended up in Babylonian captivity, God’s Kingdom just kept coming. History is full of those stories.

That is where I choose to stand.

And, because it defies the “normalcy” of a bankrupt and futile era, to live that way is oddly countercultural.

A radical life carries no deep affection for, or alarm about, what is passing away. Rather, it continually brings the “all things new” into the present. To live radically is to see and live now according to the new that is arriving. A radical life sees the things we fear and the things we hope (the bases of elections) as mere sand pebbles rolled back and forth by the tides of the old and the new.

I’m glad we live in a democracy; I know that voting is a great freedom and responsibility. And I know that some elections are important. But they are never as important as they claim to be.

Every one of the perceived victories this year—that wall, strong military, civil rights for LGBTQ, higher minimum wage—or losses (same list) are microscopic compared to the global and historic magnificence of the now-and-still-coming Kingdom of God.

So, yes, vote. Volunteer. Donate. But keep politics in perspective. Radical living does not allow politics to trade illusions for real life and it does not give politics any authority over personal relationships.

And radicals, like Daniel, never get confused about the relative power of tides and sand pebbles.

[1] Arthur Miller, “The Year it Came Apart”New York Magazine, Vol. 8, No. 1 (30 December 1974 – 6 January 1975), p. 30

 

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.

The Taste of Silence

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

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

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

Vandekerckhove surrendered.

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

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

Just as Bieke found triumph through ALS.

What Do You See?

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

“All Things”

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

I think her perspectives are valid and valuable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do You Have an LSO?

Today’s aircraft carriers are small towns (Pop. 5000) that exist only for the purpose of moving their 4.5-acre airport and 80 jet fighters anywhere in the world. But there’s a huge problem. That airport is too small for what it must do. So fantastic (and frankly weird) machines must compensate.

First, a catapult rams a 50,000-pound jet from zero to 165-mph in 2 seconds in order to slingshot it into the air at sufficient speed for flight. Then, when the plane returns, another contrivance reverses the process; the plane’s tailhook snags an arresting cable that slams it to the deck. And this happens while the plane is flying 150 miles an hour and the runway is jumping up and down and rolling from side to side. No wonder the landing is called “a controlled crash.” It’s like a first baseman catching a line drive.

And that is why the flight deck of a modern aircraft carrier is considered the most dangerous working environment on earth. People can be, and have been, sucked through jet engines or sliced in half by the arresting cables.

While spending five days aboard the USS Nimitz in 2005, I saw why the Landing Signal Officer (LSO) is one of the most important jobs on the carrier. Every day, several times a day, he or she is responsible for the safety of a human life and a 40 million dollar piece of equipment. The pilot’s purpose, field of vision, and mental awareness are all so tightly focused that he or she cannot possibly perform the landing without the LSO.

Incredibly, the success of the aircraft carrier’s mission comes down to each pilot completely trusting another human being with his or her life. Survival means a total commitment to another person’s vision, perspective, instincts, wisdom, skill, and personal stability.

Who Cares?

In 1972 I ran into the blinding revelation that life is dangerous. Even though I was 25, married, and had a child, I was like a drunk monkey driving the Indy 500; someone was about to get killed. So I reached out to Glen Roachelle, the most stable and mature man I knew at that time (or today). I asked him, in essence, to be my LSO. But I used the word “pastor.”

I believe that God cares for His creation and that His loving care is built into the whole package of life. The biblical words “pastor” and “shepherd” reveal the expanse of God’s care. That’s why the “LSO” is a fine metaphor of His provision of care. But we don’t get it. We think that needing an LSO is demeaning. We also demand that a “pastor” be an institutional CEO, Director of Sales and Marketing, TED talker, comedian, and funeral and wedding planner.

Totally wrong.

A pastor is simply one who “keeps watch for another”…you know, like an LSO keeps watch. It’s so simple: I can’t see myself clearly. I need objectivity. A pastor can see me with greater clarity and perspective. And he brings wisdom, skill, and maturity to the pastoral role.

I could tell many stories that illustrate real pastoral care. Very few involve Bible studies, prayer, or church gatherings. Most feature cars, kids, health, houses, and financial needs. Glen’s pastoral eye has nearly always seen my need for rest, a raise, or a doctor before I did.

We all need someone who can see who we really are and the vast sweep of our circumstance – someone who can see everything and actually give a damn for both the grand purpose and the individual lives at stake.

Like an LSO. He or she is the point of connecting the grand macro mission of the aircraft carrier with the micro safety and welfare of the individual pilot. The LSO not only sees everything, like where the plane and the deck are, but also instinctively knows where the deck will be when the jet touches it. You think that may be important?

You and I live and work in an extremely dangerous time and place. The casualties are high and so very visible. We all know the tragic stories of business, political, and spiritual leaders who suffered great pain, loss, shame, and even death. And they are simply the most visible. We’re all exposed and vulnerable.

Think about it; your purpose is too panoramic and your life is too important to not give it your very best. Perhaps that means you need someone to watch for you.

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)

Is the Universe a Friendly Place?

In August of 1996, 10-year-old Taylor Touchstone went swimming with his family in a Florida panhandle creek. Minutes later the mildly autistic boy, known for having no sense of fear, vanished. His family members reacted immediately; they knew that the creek emptied into a vast and dangerous swamp.

A massive search quickly came together. Boats and helicopters with high-tech tracking systems, and more than 200 volunteers, covered the area. Everyone felt they were in a race with death. The swamp was home for alligators, rattlesnakes, and water moccasins. One year earlier four Army Rangers had died while training in the same swamp.

After covering a 36-square-mile area over three days, the search effort came to a sorrowful end. The boy was presumed dead.

But early in the morning of the fourth day, 14 miles away from where Taylor was last seen, a fisherman saw a child calmly bobbing in the water. He knew immediately who the boy was, pulled him into his boat, and full-throttled to the dock. The boy was naked, sunburned, hungry, thirsty, and had some minor cuts and bites. Beyond that he was fine.

Taylor has never provided details of his incredible journey; no one knows how he survived – or travelled 14 miles. But photos of alligators made him very excited and happy.

Albert Einstein once asked a crucial question: “Is the universe a friendly place?” The only possible answers, “yes” or “no,” are both true. In a mysterious and eternal reciprocity, the one who replies receives the full cargo of his or her answer.

The structure of the universe tends to give us what we ask. We eat what we speak. In other words, we are all farmers. We plant the seeds, and then live by the crop that comes up out of the soil. Plant a yes; reap a yes. Is the universe a friendly place? Answer wisely; you’ll live by your response.

Taylor Touchstone had no sense of fear; he trusted his environment. And apparently his environment gave him full support. That is so like children. Bright eyes, quick smiles, and eager to go. Except for those who live in dark and dangerous places, most children instinctively know the universe – at least their part of it – is safe and pleasant.

Several years ago my second cousin moved to Los Angeles. Jennifer, so young and excited, wanted to break into the entertainment industry. But, in an old story, she found the road more difficult than expected. At one point she ran out of money. She told me, “I literally had no money in my account and no gas in my car to make it to work.”

Her desperate need drove her to call her mom. When Dorothy heard her daughter’s voice, she said, “Oh, Jenn, I was just about to call you. Have you checked your bank account today?” She had not. So Dorothy told her that Jennifer’s grandmother awakened after a troubling dream. Concerned about Jennifer’s welfare, she began praying for her granddaughter. When morning came, she arranged for a cash gift to be deposited in Jennifer’s bank account.

Jennifer had been walking past ATMs every day; her cash was that near. When she told me that story, I wondered how often I walk on, by, or around strong support from the God of the universe – support that is just a few steps away.

Yes, I know that people die in swamps and some lose everything and end up living on the street. But I also know that joy, faith, and vulnerability help young people to greet the universe with joyful expectancy. And so often the universe responds with strong support.

When author and professor Dallas Willard was diagnosed with cancer, he said something quite profound, “I think that when I die it might be some time until I know it.” In other words, the membrane between this life and the next one is very thin. We are all moving through a much larger and friendlier terrain than we ever imagined – the vast universe of the Creator’s design and generosity.

The universe is friendly. You can enjoy the journey, especially if you travel through it like a child.

Scroll to Top